Ambition and complacency drive this trip. Planned for the heart of winter the centrepiece is a 13-hour trek linking the Matiri and Wangapeka Valleys. This involves following an unmarked alpine route, navigating by compass, relying on skill, firm snow and windless, benign conditions. This walk is seldom undertaken in summer, never in winter. It is such a dubious proposition I reverse my approach in the planning so that there is at least an outlet. This is a careful move, the first of many to cope with the atrocious conditions. Safe passage becomes the mantra and the primary achievement of the journey.
In the three weeks away I plan to spend a week in the Matiri, a week in the alpine Wangapeka and a week exploring the Cobb Valley and Sylvester range. I hope to be able to undertake climbs of Kakapo Peak, Mt Gibbs, Mt Arthur, Mt Luna and Mt Patriarch. To climb without specialist equipment significantly increases the danger and limits the chances of success. I am increasingly pushing my boundaries, though understandably, as this is my third winter visit to the park.
The early morning air is piercingly frosty and etches into my memory a moment of every out of doors encounter, the cab driver shaking my hand and welcoming me to his country, the hostel receptionist walking me to the door of my room, the dawn scramble to the bus stop. I have booked as far as Nelson where I intend to stay at the hostel in the centre of town. It is a place I never tire of returning to. I could push on to Motueka but Nelson offers more entertainment and more outlets for stocking up.
Driving out of Murchison I notice that the sides of the road are fringed with sleet and the plains rendered sunless by the looming mountains cast in frost. Arriving in the town by 3pm I have booked my room within five minutes later and waste little time getting to the camping store. Unfortunately only the glamour camping shop is open, (plenty of clothes for being seen in the outdoors) while the practical, equipment based shop is shut for the afternoon. I have bought gas in Motueka before however and am not unduly alarmed by this outcome.
The drive between Nelson and Motueka is always undertaken in dull rain, it adds excitement to the pre-trip build up. In Motueka I buy sunglasses, stamps, a lighter and 2 gas canisters. I call Errol the cab driver and we arrange to meet at the library in 5 minutes. If he does not recognise me he had least concedes that he probably took me to the same spot last year. The trip has pungency for he points out the house where a murder suicide has recently taken place between an eccentric German property developer and his wife. The developer had a penchant for getting rip-roaringly drunk and wandering his property discharging a musket. The wife has recently backed his application to have his gun licence extended, thus signing her own death warrant.
I have read that due to vandalism the phone at Flora car park is not working. I mention to Errol that I will not be able to contact him to book the return trip and ask that he pick me up in 9 days time at 9am. It is the old fashioned system of trust. If he does not come I will be stranded and if I bail out he will be greatly inconvenienced. With nothing more than a nod of the head I know that he will be here and that I will too.
Flora car park is pleasingly under a thin crust of snow on even a bright day. Ordinarily this may have led to a sense of trepidation but I have made one major change from the previous trip. The Scarpa boots I purchased three years before have been dusted off and for the last six weeks I have been wearing them in, even on occasion completing the tepid bay walk that serves as a prancing poseurs Mecca in the inner west. They are to provide three weeks of extremely comfortable blister free walking.
It is a pleasant sunny day, the alpine route to Mt Arthur is visible, leading to the inevitable contemplation about completing this leg of the trip first. Instead I maintain my initial plan to follow Flora Stream as far as Upper Junction and then turn right onto the track I abandoned the previous year when my enthusiasm for see the Tablelands under snow got the better of me. Much of the track is under a lighting coating of snow and this obscures a more treacherous layer of ice. Despite the pitfalls I make uneventful progress, pausing the once to photograph the wintery splendour of trees suffused with icicle chandeliers.
Upon reaching Gridiron Shelter I select the lower of the rest spots having eaten an orange the year before at the upper shelter. It is as musty and damp as I remember it and to even sit on the makeshift seating is to be set upon by rising damp. The route along the Takaka River is new to me but no worse than any of the other tracks in this part of the park. When rain and mist close in I am pleased not to be attempting to make my way towards Mt Arthur. Upon reaching Lower Junction I am faced with path divergences and an oddly named swing bridge. I pause and eat before deigning to cross a bridge marked “Danger”, and I keep a wary eye on the thundering churn emanating from below.
The track leaves Takaka River and begins to sidle onto the semblance of a ridge. It is difficult to get the lay of the land with heavy fog closing in. I gain impressions of forest, mountains and plains but little more. The sidetrack to Asbestos Hut looms and I gratefully diverge to the shelter. For once the rain starts just as I am in a position to get away from it.
I have wanted to come to this place for sometime now. The hut was home to the Chaffey’s for over 40 years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The story retains its allure. He was a miner eking his way in the scanty seams of the Kahurangi foothills, she was the abused wife in a town marriage. Together they fled to the mountains, ostensibly on the run and in hiding from a brute. While their reclusive existence may have initial been for the purposes of safety, life in the isolated hills obviously had a strong appeal for this couple and they established their home and this spot to which I have come.
The hut has been repaired and strengthened over the years but the remnants of its living era are scattered in the surrounds, the gardens and cultivated trees, the fireplace, the cooking utensils, the draughty floors. The rustic setting has great appeal and immediately the tone is set for my holiday. When I attempt to collect water from a nearby stream running over nearby rocks I discover a skin-like layer of ice coating the boulder, the water coursing downwards like the flow of blood in a sentient being.
Returning to the story of the Chaffey’s, he continues to mine the foothills, working on the nearby Asbestos mine, at other times fossicking and prospecting, occasionally walking into town to collect supplies which he carries on his back. She meanwhile maintains a proper Victorian household, greeting guests in her best outfit, offering tea from fine China, making gentile conversation. There is a flag system in place where visitors will warn of their impending visit by hoisting a petard on a nearby hill. Those dropping in unexpectedly are asked to wait while she makes herself presentable. It is patently absurd but also grand. Despite the incursion of roads and the semblance of development they maintain their life together, refusing overtures to return to society despite the passing of spousal threat or family disapproval. They marry at their homestead and continue to eke out their existence, the passing of years doing little to alter the rhythm of their lives. The asbestos mine comes and goes, no development takes hold in the area beyond that of the Cobb Dam. It intrudes little in their lives, being on the other side of the ridge.
Such lives should end in a way true to their values and when he collapses on the track one winter on the way back from town, dying where he falls there is something true in this finality. In her grief she attempts to burn down the hut to which I have come and when this fails and she is taken back to town life she swiftly ends her life. There is the tendency to sentimentalise such lives, to invest them with a pathos that may have been the antithesis of their reality. I read the responses to the Chaffey’s recorded in the hut book but I prefer to carry away only the original story. I sleep well and look forward to the following day’s journey.
Something goes wrong. I cannot motivate myself to get moving the following morning and it is close to noon before I can rouse myself from slumber. My listlessness will have consequences for I have not given myself a buffer to cover the unforeseen. Today I plan to follow the track to the Asbestos mine and then make my way to the ridgeline that will take me to the Cobb Reservoir.
The Asbestos Mine is another gouging in the earth, nothing spectacular to look at. The soft clay soil is heavily eroded and there are many paths leading away from the main course. I follow the route etched into the mountainside, high above the rambunctious river. I do not study the map, blithely pressing on despite a rising sense of confusion. I do not appear to be climbing to a ridgeline. Even when I reach a tarred road I do not pause to consider where I might be. Only when I reach the Powerhouse do I start to wonder about my exact location. I should be at the dam, not the Powerhouse. Study of the map indicates that I am 10km from where I should be. It is mid afternoon and there is no time to correct the error. It would take 4 hours to walk along the road to the dam and another 2 to reach Sylvester Hut. Contemplating my position I understand quickly that my performance has been woeful and that correction of my error will take a full day. Rather than add foolhardiness to stupidity I resolve to return to Asbestos Hut and strike out for the alpine hut the following day.
This decision takes the tension out of my folly and the day is retrieved as a day walk to the Powerhouse that I would not have otherwise seen. It also allows me to ramble about the ruins of the mine and continue to read about the adventures of the Chaffeys. There is almost an enjoyment in my error, a chagrin at how easily one can be led astray in even semi-wilderness. There is no one around to judge my mistake, the historic hut is all mine for one more night.
My second attempt to leave the hut starts much earlier in the day, though it is still far from the crack of dawn. The previous evening I scouted the tracks leaving the hut and discovered that the route climbing directly above heads towards the alpine ridge. Belatedly I mark the route onto my map and follow the drying ink. It is as well that there is a line on a map to follow for with the morning fog thick and recalcitrant there is precious little in the way of views. The climb is bracing but over quickly and pleasingly I top the ridge. The track winds through strange scrub, tufts of tussock masking the way that is occasionally indicated by toppled markers. Icy puddles add to the need to slip on and off the ghostly track.
My first moment of genuine confusion occurs when the path reaches a T intersection. Up until now I have believed that I have joined the route marked on the route and now I must reassess. There is at least a sign pointing out the significant landscapes of the area. Much of it I know for the splendours of the Peel Range are nearby, heavily dusted with snow where ice and deep drifts have not taken hold. I push into the bush, moving down the slope until I am able to see the Cobb Reservoir. It gives me the visual certitude to return to the backpack I have left at the sign and continue in a northeastern direction.
To reach the head of the dam I must follow the long ridge and then descend via switchbacks. It is time-consuming but otherwise uneventful, mist and scrub circumscribing any possible views. There is no water anywhere to drink and I resort to eating an orange to obtain liquid. When I reach the road parallel with the dam the sight of smoke oozing from the chimneys of nearby houses takes my eye. This desolate place is home to a few hardy souls living lives that are difficult to imagine. When I cross the outlet of the dam I notice that the water is heavily iced. The bleakness is more befitting of Siberia or Alaska and I am much taken by the austere beauty. Ten kilometres away is the Power station I visited yesterday. Signage suggests there is the semblance of a track tracing the flow of water but I can see no reason for following this course.
On the other side of the dam the road quickly climbs above the water. I write my name in the intentions book and consider my original plan of leaving a number of goods at this point to which I must return. In the end I decide against it for the rain is now falling heavily and I do not wish to rearrange my pack. Nor do I feel like abandoning any of my possessions. The book indicates that visitors are scarce and that it is unlikely that I will meet anyone these next few days.
The track is steep, rough and deeply gutted. Before I have advanced far patches of ice make their presence felt. As I continue to climb the dominance is reversed so that patches of road interrupt the covering of ice. I am forced to take extreme care, every step an expedition to establish a steady grip. Though I am wearing deeply grooved boots and stab hard into the ice with my walking poles it would not surprised me to fall flat on my face.
The going is slowed by the onset of snow, forcing me into wet weather gear, my hooded cape keeping the elements at bay. The storm intensifies, making a blizzard of conditions and the woods fill up with snow. I have no idea of how many miles I have to go, only that I must not be lulled to sleep. The old bushline hut has been removed and replaced with the Sylvester Hut. I suspect that some distance separates the positions of the two huts and knowing where the non-existent hut used to be is going to be of no use to me. I do not know where Sylvester may be in relation to the lakes bearing the same name. Do I press on beyond them to reach shelter or do I not?
By now I am wearing all the gear that I have available to me and I am still cold. The flakes dissolve in the creases of my clothing and leach the warmth from my protective layers. The icy track takes a hard left and climbs over undulating hills. My footprints bite into the hard snow and I feel the ice underneath crack and splinter.
With the snow blowing hard into my face I keep my hood tightly pulled down and concentrate on the frozen ground. There are no footprints, no signs of life, just wintry bleakness. Everything that could occur to make navigation more difficult occurs, the track undulates, the fog closes in and the snow intensifies. The passage of time cannot be estimated in these conditions. The track takes a hard right and I follow, keeping my eyes down.
The further I go the deeper the snow becomes so that if I am not careful I find myself plunging downwards with every step. Fortunately it is cold enough for my weight to be held and I am able to make decent progress. Fortunately the blizzard dissipates and I can see that I have come to the Sylvester Lakes. This is both a cause for reassurance and alarm. It provides me with a palpable sense of location but makes it clear that I have no idea where the hut might be. With my fingers and toes numb and my clothing coated in icicles this increase my unease. The direction of the hut is a complete mystery, has it been moved beyond the lakes or relocated it in the forest? Do I press on or retreat? It is time to think carefully.
I have never been in such bleak terrain. The large circular lake is almost completely frozen. On its edges there are fragments of icy plates that have broken up on the stony shore. In the distance I can make out the far bank, framed by a barren hill giving way to precipitous mountains and a veil of mist. To facilitate the thinking process I unload my pack and take photographs, pausing to take shelter out of the wind and examine the map. It tells me the site of the previous hut is tucked away about 700 metres away in the forest I have passed. It seems the most likely place to start the search for a replacement.
This does not stop me from continuing to circumnavigate the lake though I am disturbed by how quickly the track dissipates amidst the knolls, tussock and ponds. By now I have fully made my mind up to turn back. For now the blizzard has eased by the darkening of the lake waters suggests that it will quickly return. The track has softened considerably in the half hour and I find myself dropping into soft, wet snow, further saturating my much-abused boots. Glancing up as I walk slowly along the track I spy the vague shape of Sylvester Hut not fifty metres from where the track had made it right hand turn. I am chastened that I could have missed it but there is no sign, no sidetrack and in these conditions no view.
Within ten minutes I am taking refuge in the empty hut. There is a fireplace but no firewood. This is typical of the huts I will encounter on this trip. The notion of performing duties for the next person through appears to have been abandoned. It makes for unpleasant evenings in such conditions. The wood hut is no more than thirty metres from the hut but after stripping out of my cold clothing and donning the last of my dry apparel I cannot face going outside in the returning snow. Instead I slip outside to fill up the billy then scuttle back inside for a warming cuppa or three. Only upon entering my sleeping bag do I truly start to warm up.
It snows all night, beating down hard on the roof. The feeling of desolation it engenders suggests I could be the last man left on earth. Mornings seeps over the hills, exhausted light diffusing the night’s power. It remains cold and bleak. Finally rousing myself from the cloistered warmth of my sleeping bag I step outside and find my bedraggled backpack cover flung onto a nearby tussock patch. It has not been a night for abandoning possessions to the elements.
In planning my approach on the Sylvester Lakes I had toyed with the idea of traversing the Lockett Range through to Fenella Hut. It is an achievable ambition for I have studied descriptions of successful ventures. None of these have been in winter however and many have required an overnight camp. As a compromise I return to Lake Sylvester to take more photographs. I have not the slightest inclination to push beyond the first set of hills. In the prevailing conditions it scarcely seem possible. I return to Sylvester Hut and consider my next move. If I obey the schedule I will retrace my steps from the day before and reach the Cobb Reservoir. From there I will follow the well-trodden path to Fenella Hut via the Cobb River. It seems like the most pedestrian of options.
The weather clears and at last I see the mountains surrounding the lakes. The fields of tussock become flaxen under the coaxing of an emergent sun. The cloud lifts sufficiently to frame the mountains in a shocking sky blue. The vast spread of snow glistens, sparkling white, pure and pristine. It is easy to decide to stay. Excited by the transformed landscape I am overcome by an urge to become immersed in it. A circumnavigation of Sylvester Lake seems like a route that will take my high into the heart of the Lockett Range so I set off at a pace.
Before I have left sight of the hut I am stripping out of my wet weather jacket, my cold weather pullover, my sleeveless vest and my polythermal top. Unfortunately I have not brought my daypack with me so I am in a bit of quandary as to what to do with the redundant gear. I am much tempted to leave it where I stand but I have seen enough to be wary of the changeable weather. Instead I loop the arms around my waist and continue to climb following a gentle spur that leads above the lake. The rewards are quickly attained as I reach a vantage point from which to view the Diamond Lakes. I am surprised by the wild quality of the landscape, vast alpine lakes nestled underneath craggy mountains, spuming waterfalls bellowing into deeply gouged dark valleys. It is remote and magnificent, particularly the hidden treasure of Mt Snowden, at 1,859 metres the highest peak in the area and one of the tallest in the park. I check the map and it appears to promise and entry point into this world via a marked track through the dense forest. This supposed link between the alpine ridges offers a world of adventure which I do not have the time to explore. I can only imagine what might be entailed in venturing forth towards Lake Lillie, Diamond Lake and Mt Lockett. Instead I have a superb view of Lake Lockett and the immediate range and I am satisfied with this.
Sated I begin to climb again, passing clumps of mountain sheep, a cauliflower like alpine plant of a particularly rugged disposition. The ridge narrows so that I must clamber over rocky knolls and scramble down one side or another where the ledge becomes too vertiginous. From here I can view the full length of both Lake Sylvester’s and begin to appreciate the effort required to scale Iron Hill, gateway to the Lockett Range. I am pleased that I have settled for a relatively straightforward circumnavigation.
The descent is much more difficult that the climb. The rocks are so rough and abrasive that I don gloves to protect my hands. Covered in snow there is no way to identify the best route through the maze of rocks, boulders and bluffs. I employ my golden rule of not venturing in any direction unless I can see the entire route I am traversing. This gives me limited protection against being bluffed in though in new territory a nerve for exploration is essential in finding the best way through. The depth of the snow is the major impediment and there is no guarding against sinking crotch deep into the abyss. I sidle towards Iron Lake, rejecting in turn a snow slope that is too deep, a razor sharp inclining ridge and a rocky spur. Instead I navigate a channel between the snow slope and the ridge, stepping carefully to stay on the rocks that are visible above the snow.
There is no easy way down and eventually I settle for stepping down through a fissure in a large rock seam. This takes me through the boulders and deposits me just above the outlet of Iron Lake. By now my feet are saturated and I have no desire to cover more territory than I have to. Instead I push on towards a rock cluster overlooking the hidden lake and I stop here to eat an orange and rest. It is difficult to avoid sinking into the snowdrifts but it is the gaps between rocks that are the biggest concern for one could easily become wedge between the grippy boulders.
The tension of the last hour fades as I traverse the pendulous ground between the lakes. Overlooking the major Lake Sylvester I am able to photograph the cracks in the ice cap and imagine colder climates. With persistence I reach the track that fringes the southern half of the lake and make my way across familiar territory. During the afternoon the weather has generally deteriorated but in the last minutes of the day the sun breaks through the cloud cover and casts the hill above the hut in golden hues. This brief interlude gives me time to snap off one photograph of the burnished tussock held rigid by the frozen chill.
Putting down my camera I venture into the wood hut and locate enough dry wood to be usefully split into kindling for the first fire of the trip. I have enough of a roaring blaze to warm up a bath and wash away the accumulate grime of the early part of my trip. My night’s rest is much more relaxed than that previously experienced and for the first time I am able to rise early. There is no disguising the routine nature of what is a transition day. There are about 7 hours walking ahead of me and the sooner I get started the better.
The day is much more scenic than I have any right to. There are unexpected views of Mount Arthur that cast the range in a very attractive light. It is one of the major climbs planned for the trip and from here I can observe what will be required to reach the rounded top. With miles of forest between Sylvester Hut and the Arthur Range there is a pleasing contrast to the views to be had as I drop down to dam level.
Over the last two days the ice on the track to Sylvester has melted considerably, a baffling phenomenon considering the snow that has occurred, but making for far easier walking. In the planning stage I have given a lot of thought about reducing the distance walked by traversing the north western side of the Cobb Dam. In the end I abandon this idea and stick to the longer roadside. From here I can observe how difficult the untracked side would have been and I am silently thankful for taking the conservative approach. On the tarred road I am able to stride out confidently and make good time to Trilobite Hut where I take lunch. Having come this way the previous year I can dispense with stops for photographs and barely pause to take in the crumbling slat hut named Chaffey. The track to Fenella Hut is in its usual boggy state and it rains frequently. I realise the impossibility that would have been an alpine traverse in such conditions. There are general clear viewing conditions in the valley but the mist starts halfway up the mountain ranges and the peaks are entirely obscured. These are perfect transition conditions for I would not have seen anything anyway had I been in more scenic territory.
I have come a long way and the sight of the hut comes as a relief. Fenella is surprisingly deserted for a Friday afternoon though that’s not to say that there won’t be late arrivals. I haul my wet pack into the drying room and spread out my gear. Last year I ventured out immediately upon reaching the hut, climbing to the pass underneath Waingaro Peak. The weather had been clear then, I was bursting with curiosity and infused with energy. I am tired, it is late and dank fog lingers about the tops. Instead of any twilight japes I venture to the woodpile and split timber into manageable chunks. The early evening chill brings an urgency to the job and I labour under the light of my lamp. After the splinters have sheaved off I must forage in the snow or abandon dry wood to the elements.
The fire roars and my tub of water warms slowly. Invertebrates swim in the water, oblivious to the temperature change that will soon kill them. It takes less time than I thought. Dinner merges seamlessly with a drenching bath, the blazing logs holding the cold air at bay as I salve my limbs and torso. Refreshed and in dry clothes I settle down to stoke the conflagration and catch up on a year’s worth of trampers passing through the hut. The stories are as follows.
03/10/03 Rob & Rex, a 2 week trip passing through Roaring Lion – Ugly and Greys. “Wet, Track 3-wires under water”. A rugged untracked early spring journey that would require the utmost in resourcefulness to navigate, judge the topography and negotiate the rivers. It involves starting on the West Coast at Karamea, following the Karamea River to Greys Hut and then plunging into the lower Tasman Wilderness area to reach Roaring Lion Hut before climbing out of valley to reach the Kimbell Spur. It would involve a degree of discomfort that is foreign to your average human in these pampered times.
21/11/03 Vic Needham, Lancashire UK. “Go up to Mt Gibbs, Fantastic panorama”. This entry catches my eye as it outlines the trip I intend to take the following day. I hanker to see the Tasman Wilderness Area, if only to form a link to a place I’ll never go.
28/11/03 Johnny Hiscox. “Towards Waingaro, Pt 1503, Mt Benson to camp on Lake Lillie. Out via the Sylvester Lakes”. These are either the words of a self-confident mountain man with an intimate knowledge of the area or they boasts of a fool who does not appreciate the roughness of the area. I lead towards the former as there will be longs hours of daylight available to him in late Spring and the snow would generally have melted from the area. I have been to juncture between Waingaro and Point 1503 and contemplated doing the same trip. It is a journey that stirs the imagination for there is a long undulating spur linking impossibly narrow mountain peaks. It provides the right combination of the possible and the improbable.
29/11/03 Beryce Vincenzi, Nelson. To Round Lake & return via poled route. Missed poled route. Ended up spending night in the bush. Was glad to get back here on 1st December. Stayed to get over the bush bashing”. An unusual entry as most people like to cover over their bush travel mistakes. It pricks my interest for it replicates the route I have wanted to take for some time. She has made it to Round Lake okay, and then climbed out to Mt Gibbs. In venturing out of the basin underneath Xenicus Peak she has failed to locate the poled route sidling under the mountain. The route seems quite obvious once you have done it for the area is so steep and precarious that it is difficult to contemplate dropping into the forest without a track. As the area also contains numerous bluffs it would be extremely dangerous to force a route. Of course other people's errors always seem so obvious.
01/12/03 Ian Cox, DOC from Spey – Roaring Lion. “Gosh”. The route description is actually more cryptic than the one word comment. Roaring Lion indicates that a serious bush navigation trip has been undertaken which took the party by surprise. The Spey leads out of the Centre Mountain area and has no obvious connection to the Fenella Valley. Cox is claiming to either have come along the full course of the Aorere River from the Gouland Downs before tracking the Roaring Lion River to the Peel Range or he is alleging that he followed the Spey to the Aorere and then followed the Aorere to its source in the Domett Range. Both trips are highly improbable for anyone other than a highly skilled navigator. It would take two weeks as a minimum and there would be a constant danger of being stranded. It is unknown whether the trip could be taken safely in any conditions and the benefits of the trip, travelling through dense forest for the entirety, would be marginal.
20/12/03 Kevin, Petra (13) & Callum Bolitlo, Nelson. Passing through from Ruby Lake to Cobb Lake and Round Lake – will camp on the lake. Kids are awesome trampers on Tararua biscuit power & cheese.
People putting their children through these sorts of discomforts can be extremely dubious, compromising their children’s safety by putting them in situations that they are not equipped to handle. Then there are those who know what they are doing, taking their kids out of their safety zones and teaching them the invaluable skills of resourcefulness and independence. In summer conditions the trip over Benson is a manageable adventure, off the beaten track but through an area that allows a margin of error. To be able to have an achievement such as this to remember must be a wonderful asset for twice now I have not been able to force myself over the same journey. Of course I have been travelling in winter and I have not brought a tent so I would be extremely annoyed with myself if I did venture out.
21/12/03 Fay & Charlie Motueka. Camp on Benson Ridge. Along ridge back to Cobb Dam. “Nice cup of tea. Pretty summer flowers”. Seasoned trampers moving safely through challenging terrain with an understated certainty.
23/12/03 Gasistra, Motueka. Boulder Lake, Black Cow, Aorere Valley. The Dragons Teeth journey completed in prime conditions.
31/12/03 Sydney Uni Bushwalkers (3) Round Lake, Lake Aorere, Centre Mountain Gouland Range. This caught my eye for indicating that Australians had made a planned trip to the area, a bushwalking group at that and what’s more students. They were on my turf and swanning about as if it was a big lark. The trip they had planned was unprecedented going into the heart of the Tasman Wilderness area. The description above suggests they planned to reach the Peel Range, traverse the Domett Range before traversing the Gouland Range. The scope and ambition were breathtaking, beyond anything I had contemplated. If things went well for them the trip would take 5-7 days but if there were any navigating mishaps then they could be lost for weeks. The area has no huts, no bridges, no shelters, and no phone coverage. Perhaps they were forced to turn back after two days, there is no way to verify the success or otherwise for there are no hut books recording their travails.
02/01/04 Chris, Chas, Sam, Motueka. “Lonely Lake, Snowden, Ruby Lake, Trilobite”. Another highly contentious route for there is no obvious link between Mt Snowden and Ruby Lake. Whatever route they took would involve extremely exhausting bush bashing through 6 kilometres of dense, steep sided forest. Even if the trip went well it would involve 7-8 days. They would have to carry an enormous amount of gear, tents, crampons, ice axes, navigation equipment, mountain radio. The route made little sense and could not be admired.
03/01/04 Sydney University Bushwalking Club. “Too hot, dry & slow going via the Domett Range but fantastic scenery”. The ubiquitous students. Failure drips from every word. They had come in the wrong season, they had no idea of the ruggedness of the area, they had not taken into account that there would be no water available on the tops and they had persevered not at all. As they had only been out for two nights I seriously question whether they even made the Domett Range for the first night would have been spent perched above Island Lake. It’s possible that they could have made it to point 1661; some 3kms beyond Aorere Peak but really the Domett Range begins at point 1553 on the other side of the forest. They have had to retreat with their tails between their legs, the scope of their ambition way beyond their abilities.
08/01/04 Three from Golden Bay. “Came from Lonely Lake in low visibility and rain. 4 & ½ hours”. It suggests that the route is not so difficult that it can’t be negotiated in poor conditions, though as for that these locals are probably experienced navigators with a sound understanding of the topography of the area. They have made their way along the course of the Dragon’s Teeth and been untroubled by the last leg. There is nothing to suggest that I would find the same path as easy.
09/01/04 Gary and Ian Delrose Wellington. “Lonely Lake in 6 & ½ hours in mainly fine weather”. A more useful indication of the time it might take to complete this section. In summer there may well be a general path available to follow that would not be there in winter.
21/01/04 Tony Harrison. “Arrived via Lockett Range. Great trip & wonderful camping at Lakes. Moving through to Round Lake vicinity to camp (2 or 3 nights) then camp lake and tablelands”. The words of a self assured explorer taking his time moving through the area. Not attempting anything too ambitious but leaving open options.
21/01/04 Sydney University Bushwalking Club. “Lonely Lake, Mt Snowden via Kakapo Peak and Snowden Range. Day trip to Aorere Peak. Fabulous scenery”. The return of those pesky students though it appears to be a new group following on the work of the first failed expedition. If it is the duds from earlier in the month then they have rewritten their attempt on the Domett Range as a day trip to Aorere Peak. As to their claims about Kakapo and Snowden Peaks if true they have taken a full 3 weeks to get there.
23/01/04 Ken Brown, DOC Takaka. “Managed 11 goats from Lonely Lake yesterday. Heaps of sign”. Whether this goat management is a euphemism for shooting vermin or not, this is an interesting entry.
03/02/04 Tony Banks. “Got as far as Lonely Lake. Suggest anyone going take lower route and know where it is”. The name is familiar until I cast about for my notes from last year. The advice re the lower route could either apply to the route to Lonely Lake but may be about the route over the Dragon’s Teeth where it is commonly acknowledged that there are two routes, one of which is very difficult.
02/02/04 Rob Rix. Roaring Lion – Centre Mountain than either to Ugly to Greys or Roaring Lion & Marshall Range. Beautiful to Roaring Lion Hut”. This entry baffles me, simultaneously telling of a trip to be undertaken and one just completed. What’s more most of this trip description is of features not in the local area. It provides no explanation how the party came to have arrived in Fenella Hut.
17/03/04 Barry & Catherine Smith, Hamilton. “Round Lake circuit anti-clockwise. Tramping times. Fenella – Kakapo 3 hours”. At last an entry that is believable, the information about Kakapo also being useful for planning purposes.
21/03/03 Nine from Wellington. “Tried to climb Kakapo. Bailed due to high wind and incoming cloud”. A reminder that 50% of the time you don’t get to where you have planned to go. The other 50% of the time you do it far harder and in more time than you anticipated.
29/03/04 Peter Wilson “To Lonely Lake then out to Anatoki & Lockett Range. Unsure of snow conditions but will try it anyway”. The first entry expressing seasonal doubt though really March can be the most stable and sublime month of all for travelling. The heat has gone out of summer and winter is some months away. While the concern over snow may appear cautious he appears aware that the route he is considering will take him over peaks that may always have a covering of ice and snow.
08/04/04 Rhys Drummond + Nine. “A haven after a hard trip from the Roaring Lion. Blizzard on pass, snow 2 ft plus”. This indicates that the caution expressed by Wilson a week before is not unfounded. There is not an easy way out of the Roaring Lion. For much of its length you much fight the river, scrambling along dense banks. The River is best left at Breakfast Creek but the climb to Lake Henderson is arduous and only the beginning of your difficulties. There is no true pass taken to reach Fenella Hut but perhaps Drummond alludes to the gap between Point 1652 and Mt Cobb. Having come through here they’d have earned their stay at Fenella.
14/06/04 Erica Schoen, Nelson. “Heard what sounded like a child calling for help about halfway between Chaffey and bivvy but the shouts stopped before we were able to get close”. So they heard what they thought to be a child and they didn’t pursue the matter. Or did they deduce that it was goat and wake up to themselves? The best outcome would have been for them to go searching and become lost themselves. Then they could be the ones bleating in the wilderness.
13/07/04 Julia Wells, Wellington. Went for a walk on the tarn & Lake Cobb. Got 2/3rds up Xenicus before storms came”. This is written only two weeks before, the heart of winter. The landscape has been transformed, the tarn in which people go swimming during the warmer months is now a skating rink. Lake Cobb is also mostly under ice.
14/07/04 Helz, Wok & Abby age 5. “Tramped from Balloon Hut in the sun, weather looked dodgy but was okay. Got snowed on a little. Abby rides on Dad’s shoulders but tramped about 1km along the way. Off to Trilobite tonight. Might be back tomorrow to head over Bullock Track”. If I had children I’d take them tramping too so there is no point being critical. From past experience I know how difficult the section beneath Lake Peel can be. The thought of carrying a child on such an undulating track, respect has to be paid to the stoic nature of the venture. By the description of their trip to come they seem prepared to tough out days of poor weather and it’s this staying power that I most admire.
These are the most notable entries since my previous visit 11 months before. They provide inspiration and provocation and make my time next to the crackling fire a fantastic experience. Eventually I settle upon the last of the logs to be burned for the evening and let the blaze subside to glowing embers. The fire has made the hut eminently hospitable and despite the absence of others, humane and welcoming.
Waking early and appreciating the need to use most of the available daylight hours makes for an early getaway. There has been only one entry chronicling being stranded overnight and that is the route I have designs upon. I have been to Lake Cobb before but on that occasion was not able to cross at the outlet due to the high afternoon flow. I anticipate that after a cool night the flow out of the lake will be less and I will be able to ford dry. The walk from Fenella to Cobb Hut takes me over numerous frozen rocks and I must move slowly to avoid slipping or falling. Towards the basin at the far end of the lake patches of blue sky beckon causing an optimistic outlook on the day.
The traverse of the outlet involves balancing on fallen logs and partially submerged boulders. To tumble into the water may not be perilous but there are always hidden risks. The lake provides a picaresque setting, Xenicus Peak monstrously looming on the opposing bank. I skirt the bank following the soggy impression of a path. Where the forest juts out to the water I am forced inland and move quickly through the trees. Naturally the other end of the lake is swamp as this is where the water collects after gravitating from the surrounding slopes. I sidle through a maze of tussock outcrops, beating firmly at their dew-laden stems. There is a bright 8-sided sign at the fringe of the forest providing direction and from here I pick up the track.
Deer startle nearby and scurry lest I do them harm. They gather together and flee, moving gracefully through their terrain. Within moments all trace of them has vanished and I return to the business of climbing to the snowline. The snowline is problematic for the forest ends on the edge of a steep slope. The snow incline is so hard packed that I must kick hard to force each step. There are no tracks and the environment is as desolate as I’ve encountered. Round Lake is situated in a vast basin that seems to gather cold air. Everything is frozen, the landscape rendered anonymous by the chilly layer of icy snow. The banks of the lake seem made up of bluffs, boulders and sheer drops. To the left there appears to be a promising climb above the lake but the slope continues to steepen the higher it gets and the ridgeline seems unattainable.
For now I settle on reaching the lake, a precarious and unpleasant task for the snow varies in depth, hardness and base so that I often plunge through it, often twisting my knees and ankles in the process. Between the snow, gnarly alpine bushes and outcrops of rock there is little stable ground. I force myself to reach the lake, thought the lake is really just a slab of ice. Plates jut out at strange angles as if the pressure of expanding ice has forced them to buckle. In the middle of the lake is a granite boulder that sits like a stranded boat. The plates of ice lick at its flanks like waves on a bow.
I consider that my day trip is over for there is nowhere to go from here. Above me is a maze of bluffs, boulders and steep snow slopes. This is not an area to go climbing. Planning to walk around the edge of the lake I am driven away from the water by the promise of quicker going over the snow. Every second step however plunges me beneath the surface and it is extremely difficult to get any purchase when dangling in space.
I am climbing the face to the ridgeline skirting the major rock outcrops and attempting to find long runs of snow. This strategy ensures a convoluted process of step making and I wonder if I would not be better off moving through the alpine plants where I know the snow to be shallower. Then at least I would have less depth to extract myself from when breaking through.
Initially I tell myself I have starting climbing the face of the basin only to avail myself of a photo of the lake but having worked so hard to attain any height I feel bound to continue. I continue to work to the right, telling myself that it would be quicker to reach the long runs of rock where I could at least see what I am climbing on. The rocks are abrasive, which would assist climbing, but they are also covered in patches of ice. A fall would be disastrous so I turn upwards, working through snow channels in the rock. Where I can get purchase progress improves but many times the snow is deep, soft and steep. I am aware that it could give way, there are deep furrows in the snow where chunks have broken off to act as a warning.
The hard work starts to pay off and there are now long, hard slopes with which to work. They are hard packed and offer little support. I must ensure that I stick my walking poles so that I am stable when taking each step. I have taken to a zig zag course as this assists me stay on top of the snow, rather that be forced to plough through it as I do when climbing directly. I am totally absorbed in my work, becoming attuned to the environment through which I pass. I have a heightened awareness of the mist and snow rolling in on the tops. After my experience on the Sylvester Lakes I fear a blizzard and I scout for the quickest safe descent should I need to get off the face. The poor visibility ensures that I have only a rudimentary sense of where I am going though as Round Lake is listed at 1,298 metres and Mt Gibbs has a height of 1,542 metres I know that the climbing will be limited to 240 metres. Put like that it seems achievable.
By now I am high above the lake though this does not seem to bring the ridgeline any closer. Because there is no route, no tracks, no guiding landmarks everything takes time. It is early afternoon. As I have reached a plateau that seems to divide the upper and lower slopes I rest and take lunch. From here I can either turn back or I can plot my attempt on the ridgeline. Planning is complicated by the undeniable rise of a front that drives a flurry of flakes into the basin. Is it a passing shower or the precursor of fierce weather? Having been out for the best part of a week I have no access to weather forecasts and must make my own judgements. I tell myself that I need to be sensible and take a conservative approach.
I launch upwards, scuttling across the crusty snow like an exposed crab. After each section I assess the risks I have taken and what lies ahead. I have to know the consequences of a fall and where I will land if I slip down the hill. For the most part I will be safe for the slope is bluffed to the right and left but no more than rocky where I am. I have reached the end of slope and now I must climb. The snow is so deep it is impossible to move. As I stand thigh deep in frozen water the discomfort I have been experiencing for the last three hours crystallizes into a general feeling of numbness. I have come far further than I anticipated and now all that stands before me is a dense underlay of alpine scrub. I can see the ridgeline, though as the snow intensifies I can see less of it. I pull myself up, my feet dangling like extravagant earrings. Now all must do is scramble over the last bush and the ridgeline will be mine. The mist has closed in and I know not how far it is to Mt Gibbs. Perhaps the ridgeline has its own difficulties, though I suspect that it will provide a straightforward walk.
I stand in the centre of a blizzard and must make a decision. To my shock and surprise I decide to turn back, reasoning that the risk is too high, the gain too low. I could climb Mt Gibbs and see nothing. It is a crazy decision, irresponsible and unadventurous. The exertions of the climb have taken their toll and left me weak minded. Who turns back 10 metres from the top? In a move that can only act as a future goad I photograph the ridge, the only impediments a bush, a clump of snow and corrosive fear. The sky appears bright in the background, though that of course may be the luminous mist. And so I will not see the Tasman Wilderness Area or even its vague outline. I can tell myself that I will have to come again but who can truly say that I will pass this way again?
As I return to the broad slope the snow stops and there is a break in the sky. It occurs to me I can return to where I stood but I don’t. Instead I descend with rapidity, sliding where I had toiled so diligently. It is admittedly enjoyable but it brings home to me that I could have got off the mountain quickly at any time. The day can’t be salvaged. I work east where I can to overlook Lake Cobb and photograph what I imagine to be Waingaro Peak. Reviewing the map it is more like to be Mt Benson, no more than a rounded dome. I eat and wait for the sun to peak out from behind the thinning clouds. There are some striking ice sculptures to be seen by way of compensation, impermanent, ever changing artworks.
The return trip is relatively straightforward once I complete my circumnavigation of the basin and rejoin the cairns leading out of the forest. The tense part of the day I can relax and enjoy the charms of the forest, the frozen lake, the mountains and the isolation. Turning my mind to the hut I am aware that it his highly likely there will be visitors tonight, two or even three groups, say six to eight people. This knowledge leaves me feeling a little tentative though new company has always been a feature of these journeys.
From the rocky tarns on the large knoll dividing the lake from the valley I can see Fenella. There is movement at the front of the hut and a plume of smoke casts popish news from the chimney. By the time I have travelled the length of the knoll I have sighted two groups. I am alert to the extent of this intrusion, nimbly stepping past the swimming tarn and crossing the damp tussock plain.
Clusters of young women stand about on the veranda as I shuck out of my drenched gear. Inside the hut hums with conversation. When I open the door it is like lifting the lid on a bees hive. The fire is ablaze and the air is a fug. I say hello to 4, 5, 6 people and leave it at that. My gear has been moved to accommodate the “house full” conditions. I pack my gear then seek out the hut book. I join a group of 3 at the table. I meet a lovely Canadian woman whose book entry is about the joys of being one of 3 men with a group of fifteen women. I speak briefly to a young man who refers to Snowden. I ascertain that the Canadian is heading out tomorrow morning. I will be leaving far earlier than that. After refusing an offer of a Tim Tam I collect my pack and decamp to outside where I reattach my boots. It remains only to begin the lonely business of shifting camp to the cold and empty Cobb Hut. Really I should have moved my gear here early in the morning but I told myself that there was a small chance that the wonderful Fenella may be unutilised in the evening.
At Cobb there is no water, no fire, no cooking area, no window. But after my efforts that day I am drained and looking forward to no more than a night’s sleep. Once I have collected water from the river I crawl into bed and settle down to an evening’s reading. I wonder about the activities in the other hut but I know who will be sleeping comfortably tonight and who will be restless. The air temperature plummets overnight to a level I can scarcely believe. There have been warmer freezers. The chill is so penetrating I rise early to get moving. I discover my boots to be stiff with frozen moisture and a layer of ice has formed over the water in my billy.
Outside the skies are clear and a heavy frost coats the tussock stems. A year ago I failed on the trip I am undertaking today, the transition between the Cobb Valley and the Tablelands. The major challenge of the day is the late afternoon traverse of the Lake Peel basin. It is a precipitous snow choked area that must be negotiated carefully and I must leave enough time to do it safely. I retrace my steps along the Cobb Valley, pausing at neither Chaffey or Trilobite Huts. I wish only to spend a little time at Mytton Hut, the independently cared for hut perched just above the Cobb Reservoir. I spent two nights here last year, the second of which was the most memorable evening of the trip. It is here that I met a group of Motueka youngsters. I am keen to see what they have written in the hut book.
31/08/03 Jason, Ryan, Jed, Tessa & Nicola. “Left from Motueka 9pm. Trilobite was full of people so we came here, great night. Good little hut. Good nite? Wake & Bake & Food + Yum = Wake Bake & Eat Cake”. From their leader, Jason Campbell, came the following testimony. “Well, well, well, well. What a mission. Arrived her some time in the early morning and there was someone here. Poor fella. 5 teenagers bursting in at some ungodly hour of the morn. But she’s all good. Must have been a little snow yesterday as there is some on the fringe of the bushline. Sitting here on Sunday morn just relaxing and making pancakes. Yum. Time to head off soon. Once again thanks for the hut. Jason Campbell”. Reading this I am reminded of how fond of this group I am. Jason has made another entry in the interim. “Stumbled up here pissed as in the middle of the night. Raining and raining and raining and no firewood. The hut is way better than Trilobite Hut, nice & cosy”. It is all here, the spontaneity, the limited adventure, the nascent interest in the world. In time Jason will come to realize that there is genuine adventure to be had beyond the roadside huts and he will take his friends with him or forge ahead by himself. I take the time to write out this entry, extending my lunch another ten minutes and recollecting evenings past.
After applying a fresh set of band-aids to my feet I am ready to embark. It does not take long to reach the Lake Peel basin and I climb to a high point above it. From here I can look back on the Cobb Valley and it frustrates me to know that I could have easily reach Mt Gibbs today and had uninterrupted views. Instead I have retraced a course I am very familiar with. It seems like a waste of a precious commodity. I have to remind myself that I have not seen Lake Peel looking quite like this, the sun beaming back pure light from the lake surface. Above the ridgeline is cast with razor sharp definition.
The traverse returns me to a state of tension. The shaded snow yields not at all to my tread and my steps leave little impression. With no grip on which to rely I must work hard with my walking poles, punching them into the ice and put much of my weight onto my arms. It is a slow business but far quicker than the process of sliding to the base of the valley and climbing back to the track. Thankfully on the steepest section there are some old footsteps that at least allow me to get a moment’s balance on the broken edges. I watch the sun sinking beneath the horizon but tell myself that I need to go slowly if I want to progress at all.
It has taken me an hour to walk a kilometre but having reached the lake there will be no more difficulties. As I climb out of the basin I am accompanied by remarkably plump looking Keas. Even though they drop out of the sky to land near me they toy with my interest, playing their own games and paying me scant attention. When I retrieve my camera they become shy and in a burst of energy launch out over the valley and disappear into the mountains. Their cries linger for a moment and I am alone once more.
The hard work done the late afternoon walk to Balloon is a joy. From here I can see the peaks of Mt Arthur and contemplate the following day when I may attempt to reach the summit. The climb appears straightforward but there is no way to tell what conditions will be like on the tops. Even more doubtful is the possibility of a second day of perfect weather. The mountains are still bathed in light when I reach the hut so I linger to take in the view, even back tracking through mud to observe the alpine splendour.
Returning to the hut, there is time enough to wash the caked mud from my boots in the painfully cold water of the tank. Inside, Balloon Hut’s gas heater makes it a highly desirable destination and I soon have a tub of water heating above the appliance. While I wait I read the following entries in the hut book.
01/01/04 Dieter Kraft Secheim, Germany. “Had an awesome fifteen day tramp from Trilobite to Karamea Bend – Roaring Lion – Domett Range – Aorere Peak. Along the tops of the Peel Range back to this hut. Some pretty wild weather around including a huge lightning storm on 28th December, going the whole night. Wish all the following trampers a happy new year with the fantastic tramps they should have”. This fellow is the real deal having achieved what the students boasted about attempting. What’s more he did it as a solo tramper who is entirely comfortable with the country he moves through but also highly respectful. The story about the lightning storm brings out his sense of perspective of where he stands with the natural world and it is his joyous awe that is striking. It is an entry for the ages and offers a kernel of inspiration about attempting the same journey.
25/01/04 Sydney Uni Bushwalkers. “Nearing end of excellent 12 day trip starting at Boulder Lake and proceeding along the Douglas Range & Peel Range to here with side trips to Anatoki Peak, Mt Snowden, Aorere Peak, etc. Great country”. My first inclination is always to bag this group but they finally found a trip that was within their range, the standard Dragon’s Teeth route with a diversion along the Peel range rather than walking along the valley track. They make a well-trodden path seem harder than it is and the reference to the length of the trip merely highlights the leisurely pace at which they travel rather than the difficulty of the terrain.
05/02/04 “Woken by mountain bikers passing through during night. Otherwise magic rain”. The thought of a posse of cyclists wending their way through the summer dark, headlights wobbling all over the track fills me with delight. The audacity of the plan, the execution, the lairish yahooing as they pass the hut. If there must be law breaking than it should always be done with this much flair.
02/03/04 Jamie (18 months) “First ever hut tramp. We had a blast”.
02/03/04 Anonymous. “Little bastard screamed all night!”
09/04/04 Zach Andrews & Eugene Weir, Ashland Oregon. “Snow slog. Warm here. But my partner is mad so we hike into the night to Karamea Bend Hut”. Karamea Bend hut is 4-5 hours away with a few rock shelters along the way.
11/04/04 Dan Hillier/Dairee Pool Oxford UK/Wellington. “Eating and sexual experimentation. Hut to ourselves. Cold. No gas. Soon warmed ourselves with fun & games”. You’ve got to love the cheekiness.
13/05/04 Jim Boyd, Sharon Hawkin, Amanda Halstead. Amanda Field. “Shame about the mist, shame about the heating, shame about the 22 randy trainee DOC workers at Salisbury Hut. Otherwise awesome time”.
02/06/04 Lin 73, Glame 40. “Barrons Flat, Flanagan’s (ex-hut), 5hrs down Wilkinson track – Leslie – Cobb. Howling rain – Nice under a roof – Bleak – But no screaming babies or snow!” Relativity written with a Dickensonian metre.
28/06/04 Andy & Norima, Palmerston North & Switzerland. “Curse this wet forest. We hates it, it ruins our garments Gollum!”
And there you have the best entries for the year up until July at Balloon Hut. If there is a notion more wit here than elsewhere it may come down to the gas heaters providing a degree of comfort not experienced elsewhere. As I take my cleansing bath I certainly appreciate the warm water flowing down my back and the leisurely way I can dry off, standing before the flickering gas flame. It sets up the best evening’s sleep for the entire trip.
I awake early, well aware that a sense of urgency is required if I am to climb Mt Arthur. The previous year I had been delayed by a fierce blizzard that jeopardizes merely reaching the Arthur range. I will need good weather if I am to fulfil my ambition. Stepping out into the frosty air the omens appear prescient for the skies are clear and conditions to favour the fog that tends to creep into the valley and cast a pall over dawn. There is none of that and I delay not a moment, stopping not even to fill my water bottles.
Salisbury Hut is an hour and a half away and this is where I will stop for morning tea and a top up of water. On the track I pause only to inspect a cave system that had once served as the venue for a sermon from a visiting priest. What his audience of prospectors and miners made of his words of salvation goes unrecorded. The other matter of note is the much reduced presence of snow on the Tablelands. Two years ago we had slogged through a two foot drift, the year before I had made my way through slushy melt and now I walk over tussock fields. I am surprised as only a matter of days before I had accosted by sleet, ice and unbroken fields of snow. There is still a bracing chill in the air, a point emphasised when I am unable to turn on frozen taps at Salisbury Hut. I take liquid in the form of an orange and open up hut windows to clear the stench of a smoker’s presence.
Aware that there is no running water on the Arthur Range I cast about for a stream on the flats but there is nothing. Eventually I must settle for cracking the ice on a small tarn and filling my container with the cool, still waters. The slope to Gordon’s Pyramid is as barren as the Tablelands. This is a major surprise given that I had stepped through knee deep snow 12 months before. It makes for much easier going as do the calm, bright conditions. As I gain height views spread before me, the Tablelands, Peel Range and Kakapo Spur are presented at their most pristine, the colours a rich blend of forest green, tussocky gold and crystal purity.
Upon reaching Gordon’s Pyramid I stop for lunch, perched on a rock outcrop from where I can observe the vast wilderness of the park. From here the winding path of the Karamea River, the deep glacial carvings of distant ages and the crenulated ridges of the Herbert range can all be observed or at least imagined. A cool breeze gusts on the tops but it is a far cry from my previous trip when it had been necessary to huddle at the side of a boulder for refuge from the storm. The sun is high in the sky, it is time to move if I am to have the hours available to me that it will take to reach Mt Arthur.
At last I have reached the snowline and this allows for some striking photos to be taken. When I reach the crest of the ridge I am able to take in the sweep of Golden Bay and its network of towns. The water appears to be a washed out pale blue compared to the radiant glare bouncing off the snow so I turn my attention to the steady business of tramping over the rolling hills of the range as the route moves closer to the mountains. The lack of water is alleviated by scooping handfuls of melting snow into my flasks where I hope for the crystals will dissipate amidst my dwindling supplies of liquid.
The walk is all the more enjoyable for being able to see where I am going, a luxury not afforded in last year’s blizzard. There is no sense of repetition in re-tracing my steps in such contrasting atmospheric conditions. Ahead the massive bulk of Mt Arthur is defined sharply against the sapphire skies. I need to ascertain whether it presents a safe ascent without climbing equipment and whether there is time enough to get up there and back with daylight to spare.
The Horseshoe Basin remains the maze of knolls, boulders and sinkholes that I recall, a striking world of Karst and Limestone. Amongst the shaded gradations of the hill-side the snow is at it’s deepest and the slopes at their sheerest. A decision to slide to the base of one slope leaves me wet and frazzled as I shimmy out of control and am forced to scramble out of the chasm. It is hard work to reach the opposite side of the basin, requiring perseverance on steep, slippery slopes. Upon reaching the ridge I barely pause for the startling vistas of distant coastlines and nearby peaks. I store my pack behind a nearby rock cluster, wary of local residents such as Kea but mainly intruders taking the form of day walkers.
Before I have gone more than 200 metres I spy a couple of climbers returning from the mountain. They move with agility and surefootedness along the undulating trail and I curse that my pack is clearly in view from this side of the track. When our paths cross the conversation is day walker cursory. “Good walk?” I ask, deliberately downplaying the seriousness of the climb they are returning from. “Yeah”, replies the female of the party, a huge icepick hanging from her broad shoulders. “Going straight up and back are you?” she asks. “Yeah, just going up for a quick look”, neither committing to or denying the possibility of an attempted ascent. It is an encounter that leaves me questioning my intentions. How could I possibly countenance attempting a winter climb without the equipment required to arrest a fall. I make a mental note to turn back the moment my material shortcomings are exposed.
I tell myself I am out on a walk. There is a sign suggesting that a stream is nearby. I trudge over the crusty snow and arrive as a sinkhole. Apparently underneath the layers of snow there is running water. If I wait 3 months I would be able to have a drink. I return to the track and observe that the entire course of the ascent is visible from where I stand. Although the mountain is generally dome-like even from a distance it seems that the climb becomes technical in its final section to negotiate as steep face. I will walk to the point where the technical aspects of the climb commence.
There are poles marking the way and these provide a level of reassurance. If I can imagine standing next to a distant pole than I am right to continue. Soon enough I am standing beneath a series of poles that sidle over the huge outcrops of karst before swerving back on sheer slopes of snow. It stops me in my tracks and I take comfort in photographing the rest of the climb. I am about to turn back when it spy a sign on the plateau of a peak close by to Mt Arthur. If I can make it to this sign I will be satisfied, then I will turn back.
I lean into the slopes, aware that it would be difficult to arrest a fall on the hard snow. I study the run outs and take comfort in the fact that there are no ledges or bluffs below. To my surprise and delight I reach the sign. It is really a block of wood wired up to two poles but I am still pleased to reach a landmark. It signifies the point at which the track veers away to Ellis Basin Hut. Perhaps I should have brought my pack after all for Ellis Basin is now much closer than Mount Arthur Hut.
I study the ascent of the ridgeline that leads to the zenith of Mt Arthur. It involves traversing a precipitous snow slope that leads to a scramble over a rocky knoll before climbing almost vertically to the sharp line of the ridge. It occurs to me that I am no more than five minutes from the top of the mountain. What is to stop me making an attempt? I imagine watching myself stepping off and approaching the snow slope, measuring each step precisely, digging my poles in hard so that there is no chance of toppling over and being cast down the mountain like a rag doll. I see myself climbing hand over fist up over the knoll, using the deep steps in the snow as leverage. I experience the thrill of realising that the vertical wall of snow has the qualities of a ladder, a slight angle to lean into and deeply rutted grooves on which to step.
Dazed, I lift myself up onto the ridge and look up to realise that I need now merely walk to the apex of Mt Arthur. My five minutes has elapsed and my heart continues to beat hard. Conditions are perfect and the views have the clarity and texture that only a still, bright evening can bring. I take photographs in every direction, pausing to set up my tripod and utilise the timer. I have a sharp cut to my knee where I have torn the skin on the abrasive crystals but nothing can diminish the pleasure in being here.
In truth Mt Arthur and the Arthur range are a small part of the environment. The area of snow is limited to the nearby peaks and the distant ranges that seem to run forever. Beyond the mountains are the farmland, the towns, the bays and harbours. The world I have entered is fragile and the situation I find myself in is transitory. I linger but I cannot make time stand still as I want to. I must face up to the need to retreat from the tops and focus my attentions on reaching the hut before all the light dissipates from the hills.
If the ascent occurred in a rush of impressions, trance-like and effortless I am aware that descent must be painstaking, concerted and precise. This does not stop me bum sliding from the base of the ladder to the knoll nor does it prevent me pausing halfway across the perpendicular slope to take a photograph. In fact I deliberately slow my pace and draw out the experience. Under a gentler light the surrounding peaks take on a different character, the colour of the snow transforms from harsh white to cream. As the sun reaches the horizon the last of the light on the slopes throws the plant-life, the rocky slopes and the fields of snow into a golden hue. The ocean becomes absorbent rather than reflective and the last of the day’s glow appears to sink into its surface.
On about dusk I reach my pack. The temperature is dropping rapidly and my hands are frozen. I feel rushed and a little nervous about being caught out in the approaching dark. I put socks on my hands as I am too disorganised to search for gloves. I push myself to move fast but the track is badly eroded and it is too easy to twist my joints in the unstable ruts. I resist the urge to put on my headlamp figuring that its weak beam would add little to the silhouettes and shadows by which I guide myself. A plane passes overhead and I wonder if its occupants can see me. It breaks the aura of isolation and I turn my mind to the lights below, at first sketching out the shape of the coastal towns and then filling in the outline. Motueka and Nelson stretch out around the bay, though Picton remains out of view and I remind myself that it is 100 kilometres away and that there are miles of craggy coastline between here and the ferry port.
By now night has fallen and the trail presents as no more as a faint line in the rocky ground. When I come to a divergence in the track I have to admit that it is time to refer to the map and I can only do this by the light of my torch. This doesn’t present me wandering off the track and scrambling down the side of a steep incline that leads to the back of the hut. It is still a pleasant evening and there is no need to rush out of the cold. What I really need it a cool drink and I make my way to the outside tank. I turn on the tap but get no water, empty, running low, no the contents are frozen! If I want to eat tonight there is only one thing to do. I dig and scratch at the clump of snow gathered around the hut, trying to get the cleanest bits into my billy. I can’t help scooping in some grass and seeds however and I wonder if the melted ice is going to be drinkable. I boil the water, wait for it to cool then strain it to clear out the impurities. I boil the water again and drink this.
I am grateful for the warmth of the heater for I have many soaked items of clothing that need drying. I do miss the option of a bath however and it occurs to me how tired I am after the epic travails of the day. I decide I have earned a rest day before embarking on the rest of my journey. I am thinking of how I had struggled on my last trip when I came off this track and went straight onto the Wangapeka. The climb to Mytton Hut had been torturous on tired muscles and I struggled to push myself on. In the end I had dragged myself to the hut well after dusk and crawled into my sleeping bag. The next day became a lay day as blizzards swept the area. With this in mind I decided to have my lay day in town so that I could enjoy a few creature comforts. Decision made I drifted into a deep sleep dreaming of the luminous full moon peering in through the icy window.
The alarm crashes into my consciousness and I stir into action. Errol is due to pick me up at 9 o’clock and it is a point of honour to be there early. I am trusting him to be at the pick up point and he is trusting me. It gives an edge of uncertainty to the morning and I am well aware that I will be stranded if he fails to appear. The walk off the mountain allows me to complete the stoat trap trail that I have been following since Salisbury Hut. I have not seen a captured animal but whether this is a sign of effectiveness or failure is difficult to determine. I often think that if stoats had antlers the birds of New Zealand would have a better chance of survival. Hunters often tout their environmental credentials but really they’re just in it for the kill and they have just as much investment in pests thriving as in their destruction.
The hum of a car engine seeps into my consciousness though it takes a while for it to register that it is Errol, even when the car pulls up and a man looking like Errol gets out of the 4WD vehicle. On the way back I quiz him on the attractions of Motueka, where to hire crampons for future trips and the absence of a property boom on the West Coast. Errol wants to take me to a backpackers in the suburbs but I guide him to one that is on the main street. I have not the energy to be traipsing all over town in order to stock up. He drops me off and this time we don’t shake hands and I wonder if anything is wrong.