Arthurs Pass to West Coast 2010

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Arthurs Pass to West Coast 2010

Arriving at Carrington at 4pm I need to make a decision about pressing on to Harman Saddle.  There are gathering storm clouds on the peaks suggestive of high winds and I’m not inclined to push my luck.  Soon after a French couple arrives and claims the front room for their sleeping quarters.  I could have grabbed it myself but I’ve stayed many times in Carrington and have no need to be territorial.  Unfortunately my companion’s English is not so good, or they’re shy among strangers and it turns out to be a very quiet evening.  I fill the time by reading an account by Carrington’s relatives of recent efforts to research his life and reach the hut.  Only the first endeavour was achieved and it is touching to think that the walk is considered such a major undertaking by the neophyte tramper.  I’m intrigued to read of the bizarre adventure that cost Carrington his life, an unhinged attempt to float down the Waimakariri on a raft.  Reading the accounts of friends and relatives, it is not the first ambitious adventure the young man had attempted.  Carrington's is buried in the nearby town of Springfield and I’m tempted to stop by one day for a visit.

The evening passes uneventfully by an adequate fire and in the morning I’m out of the hut reasonably early for the familiar walk beyond upper Waimakariri and along the Taipoiti River.  Conditions are middling, mist on the tops but with bursts of sunshine through the patchwork clouds.  After crossing the mild stream I cast long glances towards the White River and the route to Barker Stream.  After an enforced comfort stop in the final band of trees that clutter the lower Taipoiti I pause and for the first time catch the glint of Barker Hut, the legendary climber’s hut that is perched precariously below the Marmaduke Dixon Glacier.  I’m surprised by how close it is and it is relatively easy to imagine the route required to reach it.  From here the ascent of White Col is also traceable and I’m struck by the achievability of these landmarks.  The temptation to change course and aim for the mountains is strong but the need for a long day’s walk after the wasted hours of the day before tug me away from the compact climb to Barker.  I need to be making more use of the daylight hours and this is better done by continuing with the Three Pass trip.

While I’m making these decisions I’m embarrassingly passed by the French couple who thankfully ignore me and continue towards Harman Pass.  Sheepishly I follow in their footsteps, complacently expecting to pass them in due course.  Despite being very familiar with the clamber through the gorge the couple remain fleeting spectres, sighted occasionally but never reeled in.  After several hours I finally arrived at the Ariel Tarns and encountered the typical chill winds that dog this austere location.  Of greater interest was discovering that there were several stone walls built here as shelters for camp sites.  Perhaps I’d have been able to camp here despite the strong winds that sweep over the pass.

Ariel Tarn

After lunch attention turned to the Whitehorn Glacier which becomes more stub like with each passing year.  Thankfully the boulder scramble to reach the ice is always good fun, the abrasive rocks providing good footing and dependable leaping.  Getting onto the ice was slightly trickier as the terminal is badly eroded and careful route finding is needed to avoid plunging through the thin surface.

Towards the top of the glacier there is a difficult stretch where one must choose where to leave the snow slope and begin the boulder scramble towards the pass.  Because of the icy conditions I chose to exit at the first opportunity and begin climbing the rocky slope.  Just as I was doing this a mid sized boulder dislodged from its moorings further up the slope and set off a chain for rock displacements.  From a distance I watched as a variety of rocks gained momentum and began crashing down onto the glacier.  I noted that their path crossed where I’d come from no more than ten minutes before.  While in no danger it was a useful reminder of the need to remain alert.

Arriving at Whitehorn Pass I had the good fortune to encounter clear conditions that provided excellent views of the glacier.  Often I have been to the pass only to find the crenulated blue ice obscured by mist like a curtain at a circus show.  Appreciating the rarity of the pristine views I lingered for a quarter of an hour.

With my usual photographic homage to glacier completed I commenced the exciting scree slide down the well formed route.  Progress was swift and after crossing over to the true right of the stream I committed to finding the best route on this side despite the lure of seemingly easy travel on the true left.  The stubborn approach paid off as there were several long channels etched lightly onto the steep scree slopes that allowed straightforward travel through what could have been testing country.\

The final section out of the Cronin Stream involves climbing into the scrub and dropping down into some deeply gorged side streams.  It involves a test of will after what is a tiring traverse.  The final push involves threading through a series of marshy tarns and from here it is possible to appreciate Browning Pass in the fading light.  No matter how often I view it the shock that this is considered a route never fails to diminish.  In the late afternoon haze the zig zags etched into the lower tussock are barely visible and the deeper truth of the daunting climb is unavoidable.

At present I don’t have this to worry about.  Park Morpeth Hut is nearby and at last I’m barging through the door and setting up for the evening.  Later in the night a possum gives the door a thorough scratching and this sets my imagination alight.  Morning brings more routine encounters, rousing myself against the icy chill and setting out while the valley is still swathed in shadows.  Unfortunately my navigation doesn’t go as well as hoped, deer trails lead to dead ends and require back tracking and bush bashing, all of which produces pedestrian progress.

Finally the zig zag trail is reached and for the sake of paying respects to past adventurers I stick with its meandering course through what feels like pointlessly long digressions through the tussock.  After four or five of these I decide the time has come to strike out up the face of the slope.  Within ten metres I realise that attempting to get decent footholds on the thin scree of the steep slope is unnerving and energy sapping.  Stubbornness does not get in the way of pragmatism and I happily give up the ground I’ve gained in order to continued on the tried and trusted track.  Before long I’ve come to appreciate the efficiency of the patient approach to gaining the pass.  Soon enough the direct climbing commences on upper reaches and it’s reassuring to have conserved my efforts until it's needed.  Humbling to be taught such a lesson by history’s wayfarers.

The final section requires good judgement, waiting until the last moment before moving from the boulders onto the broken rock and hefting up to the pass.  Of course the moment I arrive at the pass coincides with a formidably thick mist spilling off the lake and enveloping everything.  All that remains is the view down the Wilberforce River, always a charming view and in this case, the only one available.

Sidling by the lake I ponder that it would have made an excellent high level campsite.  Again the potential of a Harman Pass to Browning Pass leg presents itself, though it would mean an exhausting climb to finish the day.  Above the fog line it is clearly sunny and I can only ruminate on the pristine views that would have been available from dawn onwards.  I console myself with the reminder that I have been to Browning Lake on a picture perfect day, the surrounding mountains dusted with snow, and that this compensates for the momentary disappointment of having to walk through mist now.

The descent into the upper Arahura is through myriad bluffs that speckle the creek gorge running off Lake Browning.  There is a reliable, well marked track that provides safe passage as long as one respects it and doesn’t stray.  Too many people have been killed in this area for me to do anything other than stick closely to the trusted passage.  Once I’m past the slippery section overlooking the bluffs I’m able to survey the valley and pick my way down deeply eroded side streams until I’m boulder hopping and clambering around the occasional rock pool.

Just before the track enters back into the forest above Harman Hut I encounter a polytech group, two leaders and twelve kids, wending their way up to camp at Browning Lake.  They carry helmets and ice axes so I’m not sure what else they intend to do.  Perhaps they will have more luck with the views than I did and I wish them well before continuing on my way.

Harman Hut contains nostalgic memories for me, having spent two night here three years ago prior to steeling myself to approach Browning Pass.  I’d had the good fortune to spend an afternoon in the company of a motley group of travellers, all well experienced in the art of haphazard tramping and rambunctious story-telling.

The temptation to stay the night is strong, I’ve been walking for six hours and some of the terrain has required strenuous exertion and nerve draining fortitude.  Forward planning forces my hand.  I would like to keep open the option of pushing on to Cedar Flats Hut the following evening and in order to reach this I need to be further down the valley tonight.  After a half hour lunch break I push on, the accurately described Grassy Flats Hut in my sites.

The next stage is very interesting country, the pack track etched into the side of the steep hill perched above the Arahura Valley.  I suspect the Arahura is seldom visited and descriptions of the trail-end are vague at best.  I reach the track junction below Styx Saddle and photograph the sign for good-luck.  Perhaps it’s encouraging lie that the Grassy Flats are only an hour away prompts the need to capture proof.

Styx Saddle is an intriguing place.  It is almost completely flat and it is dominated by huge clumps of grass that swallow a tramper and make navigation an act of faith, weaving between the foliage and doing one’s level best to avoid the deeper parts of the swamp.  Light rain has commenced falling, or at least it feels like it.  I have all of my wet weather gear on as I’m familiar with the close contact that is  inevitable as progress is made through the grass.

After half an hour the saddle is left behind and a mild descent into the valley commences.  A large side stream provides much entertainment as I need to build up several stone steps in the fast flowing water before I have a bridge to the other side.  Quick stepping sees a clear crossing and I’m chuffed with how the afternoon has been proceeding.

The light is starting to fade when I emerge at the swampy flats.  Ahead is a thin trail of smoke that suggests that the hut is occupied.  It’s a mild blow but the thought of company is not as dreaded now that I know that my mouthguard is generally effective.  Finding the best line to cross the broad stream is more difficult and I have to back track before I’m satisfied with the safety margin.  Even after taking off my boots the stream is easy to negotiate on a forty five degree angle.  Though there is still several hundred metres to the hut I opt to walk in thongs, such is the swampy nature of the ground.

Grassy Flats is a modern hut, well designed with a large covered balcony and located in a spot that best captures the sun and keeps out of the way of storms.  Inside I meet an unlikely couple, a female American student and a male New Zealand adventurer.  He is in his late thirties, she is in her mid twenties.  They are obviously lovers and have been for some time.  Most of the discussion involves the two men, despite the charm of her accent I don’t feel inclined to speak to the American.

The conversation with the adventurer is instructive.  Although he is living the ideal life he holds down no current position and is jobbing as a freelance photographer.  He is here in this valley to obtain stock photography.  I’m here purely for the enjoyment.  He adventures on three continents and has been to Antarctica, guiding tourists.  I hold down a stable job and tramp for the pure love of it.  Suddenly the benefits of my life are starkly apparent.  Sure, he’s sleeping with a fetching America, fifteen years his junior but she won’t be staying, eventually she’ll long for stability, direction, certainty, and return to her carefully planned life.  He lives in Hokitika and scrimps a living.  I visit Hokitika and do very nicely.

The couple have walked in from the road so they have little to tell me regarding current adventures, while I’ve been on the road for over a week and have crossed the Southern Alps.  Somehow early in the evening my headlight stops working and I’m without light.  I’m sure that it is just that something has come loose and I attempt to work on it in the dim glow of their candles.  When they notice my plight they graciously cut the wax and hand me light.  After twenty minutes of tinkering I reassemble the light to working order and give back the candle.  Soon after I retire to bed and endure outbursts of lover’s talk but thankfully no physical expressions of the same.

In the morning the girl is the first to rise and I’m shamed into rousing myself to action.  I notice that her legs are painfully thin, she has little capacity to travel further up the valley and talk of them proceeding to Browning Lake is fanciful.  Despite a brief overnight clearing the fog hangs heavily over the mountains and there is little prospect of clearance.  I briefly amuse myself with photographing the hut weka before pushing on down valley.  When I pause to remove my boots for a stream crossing I wonder if my former companions have returned to bed.  It provides titillation in what will be a tiring day’s walking.

Though I’ve given consideration to aiming for Lake Kaniere and following it into Hokitika, this is not a traditional tramping route and it would deny me the easy pleasures of the hot springs located at Cedar Flats.  Despite being along a flat, well-defined trail the walkout to the road takes longer than I expect and it is mid afternoon before I arrive at the road.  For a while I find myself herding a mob of cattle in front of me, until finally they start to part and hold their ground, allowing me to get clear of them.  Though I’ve only been to this part of the world twice it feels very familiar.

Turning left onto the dirt road I pass the farming B&B, wave to a farmer and continue up the long path.  There are several vehicles parked at the gate that marks the first separation of property from park.  On the long zig-zag road I notice a tramper coming the other way but he takes the extraordinary step of clambering up the side of the hill in order to avoid me.  I’m not impressed, it’s as if he’s snubbed me.

My humour is not improved as I realise that the afternoon light is fading at a rapid rate and I have little chance of being near the hut by the time it is dark.  The walk to Cedar Flats is not getting any easier.  In years gone by it was well served by a pack track that allowed tourists and laden animals to reach the hot springs.  Tourists now seek out easier amusements than those provided by three hour walks to barren huts so the eroding track receives very little maintenance.  As much of the track is etched into the side of a steep mountain slope it is highly susceptible to land slide and treefall.  This year’s avalanche must have been a doozy as there is a hundred metre break in the trail that requires clambering over a series of scuttled trees.  The trees must have been here for a time as there is a reasonably established route for threading through the branches.  Time spent on monkey bars will not have been wasted when negotiating these sorts of tree-wrecks.

If there is only one major windfall the prospect of more makes for an edgy walk.  The light ebbs away rapidly and still the track continues.  The track climbs high and requires energy that I don’t have after a long walk in.  My mood is such that when I encounter a pair of sandals on the track I decide to claim them as my own, attributing them to the tramper I’d seen walking out.  It will lead to a highly embarrassing moment.

Eventually I must go to headlight and almost miss the turn to the river flats.  It is here that the route is at its most unnerving.  Somewhere ahead will be the re-entry point into the forest but locating it is going to require luck.  Fortunately my light is strong enough to pick up the orange triangle and I find myself in a water channel that requires nimble-footedness to avoid a thorough dousing.  Finally I encounter the track sign that provides directions to the hot springs and the hut.  I’m determined to visit the hot springs tonight but decide to first visit the hut.  The solar porch light from the hut can be spotted from a distance and I being the walk over the long, droopy swingbridge that crosses the low level Toaroha River.

There are two boys in residence, an Israeli and a European.  After I take off my boots I put on the sandals I’ve found on the track and it is not long before the European asks about them.  I must admit that I found them on the track and make an excuse about believing them to be from the walker I’d seen going out.  I know the etiquette is to enquire if anyone has misplaced the items and it is chastening to be caught out like this.

Not long after I make my escape outside stating I’m going to spend some time at the hot springs.  Night walking without a pack is unnerving.  I don’t need to be here and my mind begins to imagine ghostly scenarios.  I find myself spooked and the winding, narrow track doesn’t help.  There is too much Sleepy Hollows about it and by the time I reach Wren Creek I’m too nervous to continue.  The retreat is humiliating and I should have known better.  Early the following morning I make up for my foolishness and return to the springs.  The hot water is as refreshing as I remember it and I luxuriate in a languorous bath.

Returning to the hut I encounter the Israeli at the swingbridge and cede to him so that I’m able to use him as a photographic model as he is framed against the upper Toaroha.  He will be going to the hot springs before returning to the roadend where he has his car.  My plans for the day are to climb onto Jumble Top.  The Diedrich Range has been an ambition of mine for some time and I’d like to familiarise myself as much as I can before undertaking a crossing at some future time.

The track departs from Percy Creek, about five hundred metres down river from Cedar Flats Hut.  The track has been re-cut by one of the permalat crew.  The early going requires a scramble up a badly eroded creekbed face.  The route climbs steeply up the mountain face, pushing through overgrown tussock and involving lots of hand holds on tree routes.  I pause frequently to take stock and wonder if the re-cutting has been effective as it could have been.  Once the track levels out I’m better able to appreciate the work that has been done.  The coarse rata has been cut back to form a path that is two metres wide.  It terms of New Zealand trails this just about qualifies it as a highway.  It makes what is usually difficult terrain surprisingly easy.

As is usual with the Diedrich Range it is covered in low-lying cloud.  I pause at a knoll before the final approach to Jumbo Top and consider the conditions.  Even though there is the promise of clearing it’s apparent that not too much is going to change.  Having come this far I can now visualise the effort required to reach Gerhardt Biv.  The navigation in fog would require skill, boldness and accuracy but that is a challenge for another day.  Just as interestingly Yeats Hut can be seen on the adjacent ridge.  This region offers a multitude of tramping adventures and I put this one in the memory bank for another trip.

Without a pack the descent to Cedar Flats is reasonably easy going despite the steepness of the trail.  It is about lunch-time when I arrive which leaves several options for the afternoon.  There is about time to reach the road-end but going further would involve night walking.  The track is much more enjoyable in clearer light and the windfall is less intimidating when aware that it is coming up.  There are attractive camp-sites by the river but I know that sandflies would render the tranquil setting much less enjoyable.  I press on and arrive at a paddock that appears to constitute farmland.  I discreetly settle for a campsite out of sight of the river and nearby dirt roads.  I’m required to obtain water from the river and this involves navigating swampy ground and steep banks.  It is cold and raining by the time I return and conditions don’t improve overnight.

The farmland does look beautiful in the early morning mist and I’m not too fazed by having to pack in drizzling rain.  My aim is to reach the road end as quickly as possible in order to flag down a school bus.  I’m in sight when the bus stops, turns around and begins the trek back into town.  I know I’m condemned to a long walk, quite possibly all the way into Hokitika.  Despite the presence of a reasonable amount of traffic I’m ignored, arriving at Kokatahi by 1000hrs.  The rain is a constant but I remain in good spirits, enjoying the country scenes taking place around me.  A goat housed by the side of the road gives me some perspective about my trudging fate.

I’m well up the Kowhitirangi Road before a kindly farmer offers me a lift.  We chat about farming conditions, his son’s new career and the best sorts of cattle to run on the soft soil of the west coast.  The farmer drops me off at the vet and I walk the several blocks into town, arriving at the i-site in time to get the noon bus to Christchurch.  While I’m waiting for service the Israeli comes in and I have a quick chat with him about what he’s been up to since I saw him last.  He is off to see the glaciers next.

The last time I’d been in Hokitika I’d been mightily impressed by the range of books at the local newsagent.  Because I still had walking to undertake I hadn’t been able to buy as many as I would have liked but I’d resolved to come back and make amends.  After a rudimentary visit to the Tasman Sea I bee-lined to the newsagency and examined the current stock.  Unfortunately I didn’t have long before the bus was due to depart so I had to browse quickly and make my choices.  The owner tried to interest me in the story of Davey Gunn but I had eyes for other stories and stuck with my original choices.  It was a shame to be so pressed because the owner went to considerable efforts to source the books and had an excellent knowledge of their value.

The trip from the West Coast to Christchurch goes quickly, possibly because it is so scenic.  After days of walking it might be that the notion of covering so much ground so quickly is hard to adjust to.  A break at Greymouth allows me to book accommodation at the YMCA while another at Arthur’s Pass allows me to buy a pie and discover that the Melbourne Storm have been caught for systematic rorting of the salary cap.  It is still light when we arrive in Christchurch as with the sun turning the clouds pink the view from my balcony in winningly picturesque.

As I’ve got an afternoon flight to Auckland there is time to shop the following day and I’m excited to discover a hand written message from Frank Alack in an edition of his memoirs in one of the second hand bookstores.  It’s sad to think that this bookstore experienced considerable damage in the earthquake that hit several months later.

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