A night out on the Travers River

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A night out on the Travers River

Angelus Hut 2001

I have spent the night at Angelus Hut, nestled next to the alpine Angelus Lake.  My requirement for the day is to get off the tops in marginal weather to one of the valley huts.  As the weather closes in the prospect of heading out via the exposed ridges to the north does not bode well as a safe prospect, nor do I feel cheered by the thought of tracking an unexplored mountain side creek as it descends through bluffs and crevices to the valley floor.  The only way out is the way I’ve come in.  It is a trade off between being familiar with the way and dealing with the treacherous descent over slimy boulders and flooded creeks.  It has taken me 5 hours to get up here so that is all I allot to getting down, aiming to get to the hut with nightfall.

I set off at about 1pm.  Half an hour from Lake Angelus I encounter a European tramper skirting up the mountainside.  She has come from Lakehead Hut and warns that conditions have deteriorated and the crossings are dangerous.  “I don’t think you can get through, you should turn back”.  I nod distantly and she comments resignedly, “you’re not turning back”.  “I’ll have a look, and come back if I can’t cross”, I reply with unheeding blitheness.

I ask about the creek crossing just below the waterfall that had so unnerved me five years before.  It is this she is talking about when she speaks of danger.  She continues towards the lake basin containing the hut.  I turn and watch her growing relief in being so close to shelter on such a harsh, unforgiving day.  Had she slipped while making the crossing she’d have been sent tumbling down the precipice and would have been dragged under the icy water.  I continue the descent with a sense of dread.

In half an hour I arrive at the waterfall.  The boulders on the fringe of the waterfall pool are now submerged under a churning stream of water.  On one side is the deepening pool beneath the unruly, sneering overflow and on the other is the leering funnel of water that slides between the largest rocks. The more I stare into the abyss the greater the loss of resolve.  There has to be a safer passage, I bargain.  I step back, my confidence crushed, feeling a unremitting turmoil.

There isn’t any path to follow but a faintly detectable route traces the course of previous cowards as they slinked a lower course through the bracken and scrub that clings to the edge of the creek.  The next possible crossing involves a beguiling leap of faith from the frayed grassy edge onto a bulbous submerged boulder and onto the other bank.  The doubts remain the same, about whether my footing will grip at the slimy surface offered by the barely above water shingle.  I find myself staring at the boulder, watching it ebb under the flow of the water.  Another countdown is aborted and I backed away.

The journey downriver becomes more precarious, involving the careful skirting of slick rocks at the side of the stream, progress assisted by handholds grabbed from tree roots and footholds stolen from fault lines in the abrasive rock.  Finally I arrive at a shute offering the narrow channel between the banks.  The launch pad for any leap is made up of loose clinging tussock grass sloping into the water below.

Easing out of my back pack I begin the rocking practice that had ended so disastrously with Jacinta’s backpack five years before.  The bag arcs high above the water and lands with a solid thud on the targeted embankment.  Walking sticks are similarly despatched, leaving me banished and gearless on the other side.

I recall the words of my yoga guru Burnie from the year previous when he had pushed me into doing headstands I could not hold.  So it was that with his incantation, “the only thing holding you back Tony, is fear” that I finally fling myself forward, landing lightly on the boulder before springing over to where I want to be.  The feeling of relief keeps at bay the claustrophobic mist. I strap on my equipment and rush from the scene.  The process has taken half an hour.

I thought I had overcome the main threat of the trip and that what would follow would be a familiar, grim trudge through a cloying dampness.  It would be hours before I would come to realise that my problems had only just begun and whatever battle I had overcome in the crossing of Hukere Creek would merge into a larger war in which light would be the main protagonist

I proceeded onward proceeding slowly in tricky conditions.  Keeping pace was the roar of the creek as it sped down the mountainside, spilling over its edges in most places and bursting through its banks in flatter regions.  The swamp land that had been a watery marsh the day before was now spilling outwards to stake its claim as a forest lake.  The track is two feet under water and the side paths spread out in ever widening concentric semi circles from its radius.  It is possible to thread a route over rotting tree trunks and along the sides of boulders marking the absolute zenith of the flats.  It all makes for slow going and tiredness dogs me in the form of shoulders protesting the weight of a sodden pack.  A heavy dullness begins to close in on all sides as the day edges towards late afternoon.  Perhaps I sense too late that there will be no dusk, that night will ravenously wolf down any lingering light.

Crossing the Travers River the day before had been a relatively straightforward matter.  During the descent from Angelus Hut I'm sure that a return crossing will be out of the question.  To this day I have no doubt that any attempt to breach the swollen river would have been in the realm of death wish.  But I can’t recall if the European tramper I had encountered previously that day had indeed brooked the waters.

Upon reaching the junction of the Cascade and Lakeside tracks I have a decision to make.  I could turn left and take the path I had traversed on three previous occasions or I could turn right and travel two kilometres down river to where a swingbridge looped a fragile parabolic arc over the snarling waters.  As I had examined the map earlier in the day it had seemed so straightforward.  The markings on the map suggested that on the other side of the river the Lakehead Track offered a benign walk through open river flats.  This presumed openness was essential as it would allow whatever light was available to seep into the dying silhouettes of the day.  It was a course that foreboded no danger.

Matters became complicated fifteen minutes away from the junction at a point where an unmarked creek oozed into the surging Travers River.  At this point my boots were dry and it seemed worth the extra care to keep them that way.  So when I came upon this bubbling brook severing the path deep under water I was reluctant to move forward.  As I peered into the swirling pools of the river to the left it was beginning to dawn on me that conditions had turned malign and even the simplest of tasks would have an threatening edge.

Deeper into the forest I plunge.  Ahead I make out the grey form of a rotting willow tree hunched over the creek like a decrepit fisherman.  One of its more solid branches forked solidly in the right direction and minutes ooze away as I assess the likelihood of this half formed timbered bridge.  Its jagged offshoots jutted out, threatening to snag and entrap.  There had to be an easier way.  Eventually a long grassy plain looked like it may provide the promised passage.  Backtracking I locate a small jutting island dissecting the creek’s flow and halving the channel.  Once the crossing had been completed I move swiftly through the sparse forest towards the established path, finally linking up the sodden track.

The swingbridge sways as it barely stretches over the flooded, brown, snapping dog of a river.  Its sagging middle suggests a dunking should not be discounted and the way it sways in the face of the rushing force beneath it suggests it could easily topple over, pitching a traveller into oblivion.  The only sound in this place was that of water demanding silence from any living being in its presence.  Unwatched and unloved I venture onto the overhang and edge forward with the prayerful steps of a monk, desperately trying to keep my weight centred on the thin line of this dangling wire.

Below me the water rushes by with a hypnotic speed that disorientates and disturbs.  It has the nauseating quality of being strapped head first to a skateboard.  If the floor beneath my feet is a living, moving thing then how do you judge your own motion?  My senses are completely discombobulated and the more I stumbled the more the suspended bridge hummed in tension as its taut wires rock.  I bounce beyond the epicentre and move towards the sanctuary of the wiry pylons holding the whole fanciful construction together.  Even after getting to the other side I still have to scramble over jutting rocks to get away from the fragile edifice.

This should have been the last of the hazards.  Already the light was threatening to let me down, emitting a weak pall that dims and blurs the outer edges and turns back from penetrating the path from anywhere but the immediate vicinity.  My stomach begins to tighten as my primal fears of being trapped in pitch black pours into view.  It can’t be happening again.

The folly of trying to keep my boots dry is ruthlessly exposed on the swamped track burbling along the river bank.  Dusk is rapidly ebbing away, refusing to hold the line, giving way to the dank, dark forces present in the form of steep mountain sides and the heavy, unceasing clouds.  The rain seems to sense the moment and continues to dump down on the miserable scene.  Treacherously the track turns away from the river and threads through the flooded bog.  The light has gone, shocking me with its loss.  Illuminous triangles lit the way through the strangled forest, the track perilously easy to lose in the identical trees and subtle turns and twisted variations.

Again the track emerges into an open area.  This should be the moment when I feel safe but my removal from the cloaking canopy of the forest reveals only that even in the best of areas blackness had gained ascendancy.  The skies continues to pelt down a heavy pestilence of chilled wind and a whipped spray of coarse rain.  The track leaks away offering up an array of half paths promising to give out in the depths of thick scrub or trick me over the cutting edge of the ever present river.

The first test comes quickly, the tunnelled roar of a flooded gorge, impatient waters draining hungrily from Peanter Peak towards the feeding grounds of the growing Travers.  The crossing may have been two steps, three steps, I don’t remember.  Once over I am confronted by a path going two ways, up towards the scrubby forest and down towards the river limits.  I venture downwards, prodding at the underbrush for an entrance obscuring the path.  Without a successful incursion my resolve quickly dies and chastened I scurry back to where I came from, thrashing at the rampant growth dominating the weak track.

Time has undone me and the journey threatens to unravel.  My mind races through the impossibilities of what is happening.  None of this makes sense if reading a map can be considered any guide at all.  The distance to be covered appears so small.  Obviously I had underestimated what was ahead of me but even so if I press on I could eat up the metres and edge blindly towards the hut.

Finding the track became the foremost task.  I move closer towards the waters and this time find something of a path, by no means definitely the track but my best option at this moment.  The threat of being betrayed by a wandering animal track gnaws away but standing still gets me nowhere

The track remains constant and in a moment of delusion I imagine being guided, not so much by any absent moonlight, but by a luminous glow  emanating from the air.  As long as the track sticks to the flats I  expect to move confidently towards sanctuary.  The sound of it has been approaching for some time, a wild roar of teeming water tumbling down the side of the mountain.   Clearwater Stream appeared daunting in it’s flooded, celebratory state as it turns over small boulders and shifts the plates of granite underneath its base.  But it is a negotiable crossing as long as I maintain steady footing and move surely across its swirling surface.  I plunge my boot into the depths, hit rock and then do the same with the other boot.  The technique involves keeping the boots grounded with small underwater steps and letting the momentum of the water push me across at roughly forty-five degrees.  Already the opposing bank beckons and soon I emerge from what I think will be the final watery obstacle of the trek.

In front of me a darker, cave-like forest reaches out and before I can decide the path heeds its call, foolishly stumbling forward into the darkesk pitch.  I feel as if my eyes have been taken away from me.  Easing the pack off my shoulders I drop it with a heavy squelch onto the sodden mulch of the forest floor.  Forlornly I snake my arms through the jumbled bags inside searching feelingly for my two dollar torch.  Since the previous year when I had been let down by weakening torch light when scrambling towards hut sanctuary I knew that it offered no guarantees.  I was not to be reassured.  I hit the switch and a dull orb oozed from the torch head.  I had been using the same batteries for a month and they have already showed signs of being at the end of their use in the hut a few nights previous.

The effect of introducing artificial light to the scene effectively drive away the light faeries that had previously offered to illuminate the forest in a ghostly afterglow.  As I stare into rim of cold unreflecting light jutting out of the torch head the darkness rises to cloak the air with the blackest film.  I  peer into a shapeless night.  It offers no clues about what is ahead or behind, rendering such terms redundant.  Training the flickering light over the ground ahead of me I begin to move forward with slow shuffling steps, as if threading my way across a high wire.  I  stand listening to the heavy sound of the leafy canopy bleeding thick droplets of rain onto a saturated, flowing ground.  Further away the river continues to tear at its bank, stripping away the roots and grass that bind it.  Above the wind gusts in strong waves pushing the clouds down and forever blocking out the moonlight I desperately need.

I try another tactic, that of feeling my way along the track through my feet and by using my walking sticks.  By thumping the sticks into the earth I feel out any cliff edges or potholes before I tumble into them.  If the ground gives out or becomes soft I spear at it in a random pattern, thumping into the soil in search of firm footing.  Previous traffic makes the track hard and unyielding where as paths untrodden have a spongy inconsistency which the walking sticks plunge straight through.

The process is not fool proof as there are many sections where the track scrambles over large rocks, sidle up gorges in the earth or veers around thick clumps of aging trees.  Where the path seems unlikely I prod about for better options until I teeter on precipices of doubt and uncertainty.  The process of backtracking is painstaking as it involves re-assessing what I had already rejected.

When the torch flickers away to nothing I forage once more in my bag for other substances of light.  This time I emerge with tiny candles and my lighter.  Once more I am betrayed as the candles are so shallow and the wicks so miserly that they struggle to give any light at all and at every point the wretched combination of howling wind and spitting rain threaten to extinguish the flame.  When I glance from the flickering bud out into the vastness of the dark the contrast leaves me blinded, groping nervously at the extremes.

I begin turning my mind to finding a sheltered place where I can sit out the night.  But the hut has to be out there somewhere, possibly around the next corner.  There is no way to judge time and I have no idea how far I had come.  What nags at me was the imprint of the map on my mind.  The distance between the swingbridge and the hut had appeared so straightforward, a quick jaunt across grasslands skirting between the river bank and the mountain hugging forest.  I had never done this section of track so there are no moments of familiarity, no benchmarks on which to judge progress.  The only gauge of distance is in the interaction of the river and the track.  I know how the river swung and veered in the course of the valley and since crossing Clearwater Stream the Travers River had sounded ominously close.  From the previous day’s crossing I know how the river moves fiercely along the right side of the valley before swinging to the left in front of the hut.  This suggests that the hut could loom in front of me at any moment.

Tap, tap, tap, I continue to shuffle forward until I'm halted by what appears to be a low hanging branch.  Holding up my lighter I flick the switch to bring up the image of a large, aged tree lying across the path.  Assuming this is an established impediment on the track I move the dim light around trying to locate the point at which people had previously clambered around the blockage.  There is nothing to indicate such a passage.  Below, the hill drops away severely into the burbling river that seems to be surging ever closer to the track.  Above the bush appears impenetrable, shambling, rotting trees crash askew upon a thick layer of porous mulch.  Turning off the lighter I stand in the darkness, listening to the sound of water cascading in all directions, in the river, across the earth and from the sky.

The path is as good as blocked.  Standing in the darkness the thought of sleeping in a flooded ditch, my body rigid with the onset of hypothermia keeps coming back to me.  Slowly the constant drip of water seeps through the layers of my clothing, moving always closer to my shuddering core.

A cracking sound rings out around me and from in front of me come the roar of movement as the fallen tree begins to slide into the river.  I stand still, not knowing which way to move, unsure of what is happening.  Somewhere below me the river swallows the debris with the speed of a crocodile grabbing a carcass from an embankment.  I remains where I am.

My lighter flickers lighting up the scene.  The tree blocking the path has disappeared.    I move swiftly through the area of the avalanche but when I have safely put it behind me I stopped and consider whether it is too dangerous to continue.  I need to find shelter and camp out for the night.  I scurry up the embankment, gouging deep footsteps in the mossy banks as I climb into the thin scrub of the escarpment.  There is no cover so I simply have to find a place where I can sit and shiver until morning light breaks through.

As I sat there with water dripping heavily from my clothing it suddenly seemed a miserable way to spend the night.  Almost in unison with my thoughts the rain begin to pelt even harder.  To keep moving suddenly seems the only way to stay warm, giving me something to concentrate on.  As I turn over the distance I have come it seems impossible that there  is much further to go.  Sure, my progress is painfully slow but if I persistthen surely the hut will emerge from this tunnelled darkness.  And so l continu to tap out my progress.

My eyes have become addicted to the glowing light of the lighter so that I can barely move without it.  The lighter won't last much longer if I leave it on.  It occurs to me that there is something else I could try.  Dumping my bag down with a heavy plash I plunge my arms into it with a frenzied fervour.  Quickly I emerge with what I hope to be my illuminous saviour.   Turning the lever I wait for the gas from my cooker to start leaking into the atmosphere.  When I consider that I have pumped out a sufficient amount of gas I flick the lighter and reeld back as the gas ignites in a puffy blaze before settling into a core of white heat.  Unfortunately the flame has an intensity that seems to suck light into it rather than radiate a peripheral glow.  The four feet in front are brilliantly lit and by contrast the surrounding countryside has never seemed more shrouded.

Far from discouraging me I begin to experiment with how best to utilise the blue jet of ethane.  Tipping the canister onto its side I hope to opene up the track immediately in front of me but this seems merely to endanger the flame as it becomes exposed to the spitting rain and an unsteady supply of fuel.  On several occasions the light flickers and dies.  The solution to this is to cover the gas head with my cap to protect it from the rain.  I begin to traipse along the track until my cap catches light under the heat of the flame and I am left desperately trying to extinguish the blaze coming from my headgear.  Placing the smouldering cap back on my head I resolve instead to use the gas torch light as a flame thrower, casting it in front of me with scything motions as if I am warding off an encroaching pack of nocturnal predators.

Now the roar of the gas canister dominates and the burbling river and cold, howling rain seems like secondary forces of nature.  I believe only in the sanctity of the flame as it lights up the track.  Because the range of the light is so limited it seems to encourage a rushing motion as I try to verify what's in front of me.  If only I believe in the light it will guide me over the barren earth.  I stumble in my zeal to move forward, as if momentum is all I need to ward off danger.  I feel invulnerable, the moment of deliverance at hand.

Striding ahead, I sweep the flame over a rocky step and swiftly place my feet on the granite face it reveals.  I move my leg out to commence the walk across the sloping boulder when I half trip, half stumble on a heavy link chain that is pegged into the rock.

I pull the chain taut and watch as the snake begins to stir, clinking stolidly on the rock below.  Running my hand underneath it I begin to follow it as it edges along the side of the sheer drop between the rock and river.  At the bottom of the rock I come across the other peg.  This is a blow, the chain ends with the path now no more that two metres from the river lapping hungrily at its bank.  Suddenly it seems darker that it had been before and I can barely move at all.  Groping at the peg I discover that there is another chain leading further on from it, though it seems pinned by undergrowth.  Tugging viciously at it I prise it away from the rock onto which it was tautly bound.  Only by holding it can I guarantee that I will not lose my footing.  The track is underwater, making it impossible to follow, impossible to distinguish from the rest of the flooded forest.

Hand over hand I move with the short, tight chain, willing it to take me further, take me out of this.  This close to the river the sounds like an immensely physical force.  I turn to old sparky, letting the gas canister roar.   By gaslight I move five, ten metres before being confronted by what I'd dreaded, the obstacle that cannot be overcome because it can't be seen or felt.  Glinting back at me is a flooded creek, the depth of which I cannot know without plunging into it.  I'm not doing that.

It's time to look for shelter.  I find a crevice with a hard bed of slate.  There's a partial canopy overhead without it being anything like waterproof.  It will do.  I haul my pack into the crevice and cloak my sleep bag around my body.  I'll wait out the night.

The rain returns in fat, mocking drops.  I locate my alarm clock.  It's nine thirty.  It will be 6am before there's any light.  The hut must be nearby.  I imagine the trampers inside, boiling water for a warming cup of coffee, peering out into the bleak night and shivering at the inhospitableness of it.  If I could just breach the swelling pond, unweighed with any equipped then I could establish contact, obtain a decent torch and return for my equipment.  Bitterly it occurs to me that all that is holding me back was my negligence in not packing a decent light.  Such incompetence deserves punishment, it leaves me something to dwell on in the long hours of the cold night.  It won't happen again.

It is now raining heavily.  Without a groundsheet or emergency blanket my sleeping bag becomes my overhead shelter.  I lay under the bag, huddled in an advanced foetal position, using my backpack as a makeshift mattress, clutching tightly to my sleeping bag lest any gap in my cocoon open up.  Closing my eyes I try to let my thoughts drift away but the constant tapping of raindrops on the nylon material of my bag and the lapping of the flood waters on the track just below my feet bring an uncomfortable edge to the long drawn out moments. I check the time, it's ten o'clock.

The subway roar of the water rushing by seems to be building, rising to a crescendo.  I imagine the track fully under water, sheered off by the river and carried away.   The rier laps at the base of the rock.  I work my shoulders further into the crevice, tucking my toes every further under my hamstrings.  My body is like a clenched fist, the muscles taut wires.

I check the clock once more, fully expected half the night to have elapsed.  It's eleven o’clock.  At least an hour has passed away since I last checked, that's progress.  The rain tumbles down, soaking heavily into the sleeping bag until the weight of it begins to bear down on me.

The shivering begins, coursing through my body in waves.  The sleeping bag is sodden and has lost any capacity for providing warmth.  The river begins to talk to me.  It is no more than a whispered invitation to join it, to come swimmingly into it’s embrace, its icy warmth.  These whispered thoughts ghost past tightly clenched eyes and dance seductively with a waning mind.

I wake with the nagging ache of a full bladder.  If my major problem is weighing up the inconvenience of getting out from under my sodden bag and enduring 30 seconds of cold rain then things must be looking up.  As 5am ticks over I'm poised for a soft light to pour into the valley.  I check every ten minutes like a sentinel.  By 5.30am I began to see the darkness.  The dimness adds to a growing realisation that I am no longer held hostage by sensory deprivation.

At a quarter to six I can take no more waiting and in the dimmest of light I begin to throw together my backpack and begin the cumbersome task of squelching my distended sleeping bag into the thin material of its containing pouch.  I stuff the bag into the top of the pack, sealing it in and clamping my jumbled gear down.

My body feels surprisingly good now that it's free of the confines of the last 12 hours.  The deep pool of stagnant creek water that had halted me so effectively the night before remains an intimidating scene.  But with even light to provide depth perception it's a manageable crossing, though a drenching one.  As the water swirls around my upper thighs I dig my walking sticks into the gravelly stones beneath and follow the hazy impression of the track. I emerge on the other side of the deep pond and begin to sludge along the muddy, submerged track.  It soon gives way to firm ground.

The hut is not more than ten minutes from where I camped.  Perhaps I could have left ten minutes earlier or moved ten minutes quicker in my descent.  Or packed extra torch batteries or studied the map for other options.  But nothing re-enforces the reasons why things are done than suffering the consequences when they are not.

It's enough to sit on the verandah bench, take off my heavy boots and re-order my pack with the sleeping bag at the base.  A South African tramper emerges from the hut and offers me a cup of tea and biscuits.  I feel an affinity to South Africans having come close to being one at the youngest age.  Their stoicism and toughness appeals to me but so too does their politeness, practicality and generosity.    He shrugs his shoulders when question his plans, responding that they will simply turn back if it is too difficult.

At the head of Lake Rotoiti I stop, retrieve my camera and take a final photo for the trip, displaying the lake in gloomy fog, a sharp contrast from the photo from three days previous when the same spot was bathed in brilliant sunshine.  At the DOC centre I report briefly to a bright faced worker about the state of the track, the colour of the water in the lake and the route I had taken.  I don't tell her about the previous night, I didn’t want to have to deal with any feigned concern or relive the essence of my stupidity.  I just want to put it behind me.

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