Owen Plateau – Wangapeka Valley – 2004


Owen Plateau – Wangapeka Valley – 2004

Morning brings a well-worn routine of packing and waiting.  The bus does not pass through Nelson until mid-morning so I have time to take coffee in a bakery and read the local news.  On the bus a Pom makes conversation with a West Coaster about what family reunion she has been to.  He is spending two weeks in New Zealand and a week on the South Island.  He is scooting down to the glaciers before heading onto Queenstown and Christchurch.  The spirit of adventure runs deep.

At Tapawera I expect to meet the old fella who took me in and out on my last visit but a younger man greets me.  He is a good driver and tells me about the couple who have built a flash residence on the outskirts of the Park, veterinary people who have brought some wealth to the area.  The driver offers to take me to Rolling Junction Hut and I get ungrateful and say I am going on to the Rolling River footbridge.  He repeats that he will take me to Rolling Junction Hut.  It saves me 15 minutes and I am grateful.  Outside the hut I divide my food into what I will need for the two days that I am at Granity and the bulk of my supplies that can stay underneath the bed at the hut.  It is 3 kilos that I don’t have to carry.

Walking along the road I encounter significant rock fall that would have left a vehicle blocked.  I feel somewhat embarrassed to have asked the driver to come down what would have been a dead end.  With last year’s experience in mind I know that what appears to be the toughest route to Granity Pass is really the easiest and that as effort is required I should just get stuck in.  At the planning stage I have given a lot of thought to attempting the approach to Culliford Hill, a difficult route on overgrown tracks passing through bluffed ridges and snow choked ascents.  My decision-making is dominated by thoughts of what would occur if something went wrong, when would another tramper be taking this route?  The answers made taking the conservative, well trodden path an act of good conscience.  The trip to Granity Hut goes smoothly, my movements precise and efficient.  The path has been cut so that even the gorse presents less of a problem that it usually does.  The weather has deteriorated over the last 24 hours and mist and cloud preclude the taking of photos.  I consider the option of scaling Billie’s Knob rather than taking the staircase but reject it for the same reasons I have turned back from Culliford’s Hill.  The main prize on this venture is Mt Owen and the small fry will not distract me.

Arriving at the hut in good time I am able to take in the dwindling supplies of burnable wood and spend an hour sawing, hacking and tugging at truculent branches amidst the struggling scrub of the nearby hillside.  My main focus is the much abused tree branch located at the end of the firewood chute, a small channel through the scrub where many before me have come looking for burning fuel.  If I can lob the truncated branch from its base I will have two days supply.  To get the branch however I must bide my time, patiently working through the stump with a sticky blade.  The moment I step outside the hut it begins to snow and the flakes settle on my jacket and dissipate as dampness.  I will not be denied.  When one arm tires I switch to the other and finally the block wavers and snaps, leaving me with a healthy, hut warming chunk.  I scramble inside and waste no time in getting my blaze started.  It makes all the difference in this isolated, inhospitable place.

All night the snow beats down on the roof and I huddle in the warmth of my reliable bag.  Morning beckons groggily, bleak and stiff.  It is not a climbing day.  With this in mind I set out on a walking tour to Sanctuary Basin.  As I progress however the sunlight strengthens and the brightness increases tenfold due to the snow.  I have neglected to bring my sunglasses and am blinded by the glare.  Pulling my hood over my head I tell myself that this will allow me to continue.  Conditions continue to improve and I want to go on but the glare is blinding and I can barely see out of the slits that my eyes have become.  With an intense sense of irritation I am forced to return to the hut and start again, this time packing my glasses and compass.

Conditions are fierce.  The snow is deep and a fog of febrile thickness makes the surrounding mountains nothing more than menacing shapes.  There is no semblance of a track, the markers I have seen before are buried.  I reach the ridge overlooking the amorphous mass that is Mt Owen and am confronted by a field of white.  The mist clears momentarily and I spot the cairn centring the field.  I trudge to the marker and contemplate my next step.  In better conditions than this last year I turned back for there appeared to be no way forward, the route to Mt Owen remained a mystery.  I take photos merely to demonstrate the nothingness that is there and the nothingness that isn’t.

For the hell of it I walk towards the strange karst world that I know to exist at the edge of the fog.  I am rewarded for my boldness by a clearing of the sky.  A bleak winter setting is revealed, a carpet of snow layered over the maze of boulders and karst.  To go any further I feel I must tap my staff 3 times and mutter an invocation.  Instead I use the process of deduction, being guided by what is blocked.  To my satisfaction I stumble upon a cairn and from here I sidle along a crystal path, squeezing between boulders and dropping into sinister looking holes, the ends of which are hidden by a coating of snow.  I have come to the start of the route to the top of Mt Owen and it is obvious that there is no safe passage through here without the necessary winter equipment.  On the top of a large boulder sits another cairn but already I am baulked by the risks required to reach it.  I decide I will settle for a photo of the winding ascent through the boulders but a fresh roll of fog thwarts even this.  I wait five, ten, fifteen minutes for the mist to break for a moment but instead it intensifies so that the cold air feels like it is stroking my face.

The hostility of conditions means that I have no desire to explore an area I have already examined.  Instead I return to the hut and turn my attention to wood gathering.  I am left with reduced supplies and my fire is rudimentary, though still strong enough to warm the snug six bed hut.  I cannot deny that the Mt Owen trip has been a failure, a loss of two days better spent elsewhere and I turn my attention to the challenges ahead.  Everything about this trip has been based on the possibility of traversing from the Wangapeka track to Lake Matiri.  It is a route that normally is only attempted in summer, as the hours required for the tramp are not available in winter.  I cannot explain why I would even contemplate such an undertaking or why I would not bring a tent if my driving ambition is to attempt what would best be done as a two day trip.  I will need a break in the weather if am to attempt any of the ascents I have my eye on, Mt Patriarch, Mt Luna, Point 1457.  Instead the weather worsens by the hour and my options diminish.

My escape from Granity Pass is uneventful.  The vastly increased flow of water through the dip in the dirt road forces me to plunge into icy waters, dampening boots and socks that have been much abused by numbing snows.  Conditions worsen.  Rain sweeps into the valley and the river swells.  I walk with my hood draped over my soaked forehead, feeling the solid heft of my weighty pack.  Ahead are decisions to be made about what approach I want to take for the rest of the trip.  My original plans were to traverse the Arthur Range utilising the alpine huts John Reid and Kiwi Saddle.  The feasibility of this has always been doubtful and at present it appears foolhardy.  Or am I just putting up obstacles for the convenience of taking the easy option?  The possibility that I am holding myself back from the achievable nags at me and is a complication to the reasoning process.

I pass the crossing point for the Gibbs Track that would take me to John Reid Hut.  The river is up, I tell myself and not for crossing.  Hours later I reach the footbridge linking the sides of the Wangapeka.  I drop my pack and investigate Kiwi Stream.  If I want to reach the track I must breach the wall of water.  There is just enough time to reach the hut though I know by the topography on the map that it would be an exhausting venture with numerous side streams to be challenged.  And I know that Kings Creek hut is 2 kilometres away.  The hut offers shelter, dryness, possibly heat.  I know that this front should not be trifled with.  At the back of my mind is the knowledge that it will probably worsen over the coming days.

The hut delivers on shelter and dryness.  I make a half-hearted attempt to extract tinder sticks from the woodpile but must settle for rot and mulch.  My fire of twigs cannot sustain itself and I quickly run out of fuel before the moisture is extracted from the larger logs.  For entertainment I turn to the hut book where I find the following entries.

05/03/03 Pakekoke TC. “End of 11 days from Lake Matiri.  Great scenery. Lake Matiri, McConchies, Hurricane, Stone, Kings”.  A successful autumn traverse of the Matiri range completed by a tramping group organised enough to travel slowly, at ease with the terrain.

20/04/03 Rex & Buck, Wellington. “Came in from Branch Creek.  We had some trouble with bump 1344. Sidled east & really suffered – should have gone west? Spent the night on bump 1457. Amazing! Came down the hill & landed directly in front of Cecil’s & saw pair of Blue Duck.  Happy”.  Stoicism in every laconic word.  Here they are attempting a route recognised in no guidebook.  Finding themselves struggling with impenetrable forest, following a ridge that will lead them deeper into trouble they have the sense to regroup, retrace and rethink, pausing for a memorably night on the heights before working their way through 4 kilometres of forest descent.  Pausing to wade across the river they retrieve the venture by spotting rare birds nearby the former abode of a familiar legend.  Delightful.

30/04/04 “5 wasp stings in 3 days.  I’m ready for a hot bath.  Inspected by a falcon on Luna ridge.  Saw where it had lunched on a bellbird – feathers scattered on the ridge.  Stoat by the rubbish bins.  4 stoat sightings in ½ hour”.  A naturalist more interested in the world around her than what she’s done.  The reference to stoats is alarming for the only way to deal with them is through systematic programs, either with poison baits or traps and there is no evidence that any of this work is being done in this particular valley.  It’s a huge national park though and it’s impossible to cover every area thoroughly.  One of the great pleasures in returning to the Mt Owen massif, particularly the approach along Granity ridge and Blue creek was the presence of birdsong, trills, bells, calls, melodic refrains.  A year before the forest had been dead and soundless.  There was evidence of pest eradication programs and these had been wonderfully effective in encouraging birds to move back into the area.

29/03/03 Einar, Germany.  “Admiration goes out to the family of 3 children & a father who did nearly the same track as us”.

This is followed by a counterpoint argument from Paula.  “Sorry, I don’t agree.  That guy had been stuck in Taipo Hut for 3 days with no food.  If it wasn’t for me & another girl they would have starved to death & nobody would have called for the rescue party to pick them up with the helicopter. The father risked his own life and the ones of his children.  He’s a fool”.  Here is the vexing issue of stupidity inflicted on children by adults.  Furthermore it is an example of the naivety of some of the locals.  While most foreign trampers come to the parks having undertaken much planning and preparation there is a breed of city bred or town bred local who thinks nothing of packing a few steaks into a bag, throwing in some cans of coke and then disappearing into a remote and rugged region.  They seem to believe that just because these areas are at their backdoor they have an intrinsic understanding of the demands of topography, weather and environment.  There never seems to be the level of criticism levelled at these idiots as there is at the occasional tragedy that befalls the overseas climber or tramper.

02/10/03  “Kiwi Stream too fast/deep.  Didn’t attempt to cross.  Beautiful day”.  I read this and felt vindicated for my decision not to take on the alpine waters.  I undertook only the most rudimentary of examinations for my concerns were more for conditions on the tops rather than the difficulties of traversing the valley flows.

25/11/03 “Warm & pleasant night in good company, including two freeloading internationals.  Quote from one re hut fees, ‘Money is one thing, honesty is another’”. Again, this is an attitude I have found to be more common among the locals, ‘I pay my taxes, why should I have to pay twice’.  They seem to believe that their presence in the national parks is cost neutral and therefore part of their entitlement.  As to people who can afford international flights but are too cheap to contribute to the tourist facilities that make their holidays possible it’s a shame they can’t keep their weak values confined to the borders of their own country.

12/12/03 Kay & Skelton & Fleet family, Auckland. Family member from Australia, Pauline King.  “Kings hut for plaque laying. Visit father’s hut. Raining and concrete laid”.

14/12/03 B.Muirhead Waimea TC. “Wanted to get to Kiwi Saddle Hut but Kiwi Stream too high to cross.  Could we please have a bridge DOC. Nice to meet Cecil King’s relatives.  Nice to see Cecil’s name in new hut”.  These entries bring a gladness to my heart and it is with great pleasure that I am able to visit the plaque the following day.  It reads as follow:

Cecil William King 1908-1982,

Here he lies where he longed to be

Home is the sailor,

Home from the sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

Remembered by his loving family


Having had the honour of staying in the hut a few months before the plaque had been put in place I could feel a connection to the area and to the spirit of others who had passed by before and after me.

16/01/04 Bill Da Costa.  “Fished yesterday until dark. Came back along river.  Went up south branch. Climbed to high point.  Lit fire to dry clothes.  Camped out on high point”.  A nice blend of inattentiveness and resourcefulness.  Conditions were obviously benign and he at least had some equipment with him.

13/04/04 Kira Hicks,11.  “Stay on the track.  Do not bushwhack. I stepped in a wasp nest and got 12 stings”.  Wise words and fair warning.

09/05/04 Phil Warne, Nelson.  “4 nights at Thor Hut on Leslie/Karamea waiting for the creek levels to drop!” Obviously a well prepared local but it offers a stark reminder as to why I have attempted the Leslie Karamea only once.  It would not have been the main rivers preventing his journey but the side streams that belt down from the huge, glacial-carved mountains.

I give up and worm into my bag, thinking about tomorrow and what it bring.  There is one recent entry that I take note of:

03/08/04 S.Jones & C.Abon.  Back to Motueka.  Couldn’t pass Cold Creek slip so therefore turned back.

There is no Cold Creek listed on the map but I know it when I come to it, a deep rut through which water funnels.  It is a Rubik’s cube of a crossing for I must work at an angle and move carefully.  Once more my poles give me the stability and confidence to brook the stream.  The rest of the morning proceeds straightforwardly, though it never ceases to rain.  I reach Stone Hut by lunch-time, keeping a close eye on the swelling river.  As Stone Hut is the launching pad for the Matiri Range the day’s required tramping is over.  I tell myself that weather conditions have improved and turn my attention to Mt Luna.

The track begins on the other side of a fork between the North Branch Wangapeka and Stone Creek.  I am close to the source of the Wangapeka and the crossing is a subdued affair.  I climb through the forest, carefully crossing the lively side braches where I have to.  I come to a massive tree branch linking two sides of a stream and make my way over the well trodden wooden bridge.  After an hour I arrive at an area of snow suffused tussock flats.  Coming out of the forest exposes me to the elements, a biting wind and slushy snow.  I make my way across the maze of tussock, clamber over the deep tufts of snow and re-enter the forest.  This time the climb is much steeper and I must clamber over moss-laden rocks and deep drifts.  I reach the base of Mt Luna, a remarkably bleak setting that has me donning balaclava, gloves and jacket.  Gazing through the mist, rain and snow I can make out the ridge running towards Mt Luna.  It is bitterly cold and my saturated boots offer no protection against the penetrating chill.  Mt Luna would be no more that 400 metres away from the basin in which I can stand but I can’t see it and I do not even consider attempting the climb.  I simply want to get out of the cold and even in attempting to take a few rudimentary photos I am driven back by blasts of wind.  It occurs to me that I had originally planned to traverse the alpine section between here and Kiwi Saddle Hut.  I would have had to turn back, a consolation and a validation to my judgements so far.  Thwarted by the mild discomfort of frozen boots ambitions of traversing the Matiri Range slip away.  The weather is continuing to worsen and shelter is the natural instinct rather than travel and exposure.

Usually I am disappointed by the moment I have to turn my back on the mountains and return to the forest but today it comes as a relief and I take enjoyment in the more benign conditions afforded by the protective cloak.  There is not much else to look forward to and I turn my mind to anticipating the evening’s fire.  In the end I have to settle for a miserable twig and newspaper blaze for the wood is so moisture laden that it merely hisses and steams.  Frustrated, I give up and seek solace in my sleeping bag.  The hut book contains tales of more successful journeys.

01/12/03 Gary & Sue Davies. “Last day of 8 day tramp from Mt Arthurs carpark.  Hasn’t changed much in 30 years except for the mud”.

29/12/03 James Morris, Motueka. “In from Hurricane over Matiri Range.  Drizzle and clag but okay for navigation.  8 and a ¼ hours”.  The precise time, the quiet pride in the navigational feat.  I am envious of the local’s competence, the basic common sense of choosing the height of summer for his attempt.

29/12/03 Victor, Czech Rep. “Lake Matiri, today Hurricane or camping between 1398 & 1393”.  The assured rationality of the foreigner, adapting ambitions to abilities and ensuring he has the equipment that will allow him to enjoy the venture even more than the one day specialist.

23/01/04 Sydney Uni Bushwalking Club.  “Moonstone lake was too far and too tough but I saw it from up top.  Plus mountains galore.  Lovely alpine flowers and a bird list of 19 species”.  The idiot students at it once more, at once boasting about traversing a range that does not have an exit and revealing a ridiculous conceit.  Moonstone Lake is easily accessible from the Karamea track.

03/02/04 Robinson, California. “So nice to be silent, content to just sit & listen to the stream as it tumbles down the valley, cascading down through ancient memories, connecting us to our mother. I’m home”.

Dan Hillier, Oxford. “It took a while to find Robinson from California but when I did I knew this was the best hunting I’d had for a long, long time.  I sat silently with a pack of sandwiches in the bush above the hut until he’d finished his prayers.  I shot him in the leg and he started up, looking for his mother and I quickly finished him off with a head shot.  I took a leisurely stroll down the hill, took a photo of myself holding the rifle in one hand and with one foot placed triumphantly on his head, the picture was perfect.  I heard his partner run into the bush, but I was finished here and moving on, humming a hit song”. Ah yes, when California meets Oxford.

18/02/04 Bev, Ryan, Jess, Cape Cod.  “Had to come back because the “creek” before the hut was not crossable.  No chance.  White water rafting quality though.  Karamea river hardly fordable as well.  It’s been raining for 24 hours now”.  I take a lot of notice of this entry for it has been raining for a long time now.  I must accept that I may not be able to get through.

24/02/04 Emily & Adam, Canada. “I loved it, creeks, floods, rain, rock slips – it was everything New Zealand has to offer.  Rough track, as it should be”.  Another contrast between Americans and Canadians and once more the Americans just don’t get it.  It allows me to feel a little more optimistic about the following day.

I reach Wangapeka Saddle early in the day, pausing briefly to peer at Nugget Knob and the ridge leading to and from it.  There’s no way you’d get me up there I think.  Even in perfect conditions it probably remains a venture that should not be attempted during winter.  I feel like I’ve got the whole trip wrong.

There is little respite from the rain and each side-stream is in its pomp, pumping the water from the mountains.  Thankfully the track is well maintained and I can move relatively fast.  For the most part I suffer no more than splashed boots but finally I come to the major side stream.  There used to be a bridge here but it has been removed.  Having crossed here before I can at least recognise that the normal ford is impossible.  The rocks that one usually step across are submerged and the water stream now thunders through a narrow shute.  I judge that it would be impossible to hold my footing in this chasm of white water.

Realising that I must either persevere or turn back I work my way upstream.  An protruding boulder forces me into the water and I plunge into the deep pools, sidle carefully to avoid the main channel.  It is important that I choose the point of crossing.  When I am satisfied with the runout I make my move.  Underneath the water I can feel my gaiters being torn away from my legs but there is nothing for it but to push on.  It is as well that I am by myself for the water’s roar would block all conversation.  Reaching an island of sorts I reattach my gaiters and begin the final scramble to the bank.  Here I must slither along a log and grasp at tenacious plants in order to advance along the incline.  Finally I rejoin the track and I realise that I am committed to pressing on for this crossing will only worsen and I have no intention of doing it again.

Before I have gone more than 200 metres I am forced to make another decision.  I can either attempt two fords of the Karamea River or take the high weather track.  For the uninitiated the high weather track may seem the obvious choice but in my experience these are usually poorly maintained bogs, usually more steep and difficult than anything encountered on the main track.  Despite these misgivings I start to climb for the nominated position for fording the Karamea is ridiculous, being at once deep, swirling, rock choked and intimidating.

The track is as preposterous as I imagined, clawing over greasy tree roots on slippery knolls.  Even more bizarrely the track returns to the riverbank, or at least close enough to it for me to abandon the high road and take my chances in the surging river.  It is a marginal ford, the water’s force sweeping through the channel in undulating waves that make it impossible to retain my footing or control my direction.  Instead I scoot at an angle aiming for a point downriver, working to avoid the submerged boulders and darker areas.  At last I crawl out of the water, bedraggled and relieved.

It begins to hail, pellets of buckshot dance on the grass and falls from the palm leaves.  Perhaps it is cold, in my drenched, numb state it is hard to tell.  The hut is not far ahead but on the other side of the river.  When I arrive at the ford I imagine I can hear the boulders grinding as they are pushed down river.  It is true warning signs as to whether it is safe to enter the water, the sound of rolling rocks.  I listen intently but my suspicions aren’t confirmed.  Perhaps the boulders are shifting slightly, smaller rocks are undoubted tumbling along the bed.  The second crossing is easier than the first for the runout is longer, the obstacles less dangerous, though I am aware that this may be a deceptive reassurance.  Last year I had crossed with my boots off and made a hash of it.  With conditions much worse I have a much easier time of it with my boots on.

From here it is a short walk to Helicopter Flat Hut.  I am glad to be here for I need to rest.  In the cold air my muscles begin to seize up.  I can’t get any warmth into my feet, the chill makes them raw to touch and I hobble lamely.  After half an hour I pack up and recommence my travels.  I go no more than a kilometre before I realise that something is wrong.  I am shivering involuntarily, the shudders leaving me shaky and a little disorientated.  There are 19 stream crossings between here and Taipo Hut.  My gloves are no help, wet, they have lost their insulation and my sausage fingers can barely grip my walking poles.  Before disorientation sets in I need to make a decision and I do so, turning back and stumbling back to the hut.  There is undeniable chagrin in retreat but I need to get out wet clothing and get some warmth into my body.

It does not take me long to dry off and pull on my one set of dry clothes.  Within minutes it begins to snow and this intensifies for the rest of the afternoon.  If these are the conditions in the forest valleys it does not bear thinking about what it might be like on the tops.  The surrounds are austere but beautiful, the forest grey, obscured by the ominous veil.  There is a fierce beauty to the conditions and it seems as if it will snow forever.  But it doesn’t.  In the morning it is still and crystal clear.  Another night without fire has passed and I need to get going.

The words of those who have passed through before me linger in my mind:

18/09/03 John & Paula, Dublin & Boston.  “Torrential downpours.  Couldn’t get across the creek 15 mins up track. Guess we won’t see the West Coast. Heading back. Hope we can get across the “ankle deep” Karamea upstream”.  There is a lot of impatience in this entry for only torrential downpours could cause the negligible stream to present an impediment.  Rains stop and alpine streams subside rapidly.  The far more substantial Karamea however will stay high for days after rain, not to mention some of the rabid dog streams between here and the saddle.  When I reach the stream I encounter a moderately tricky channel through which I must splash carefully.

28/09/03 Timo Robbel, Germany. “Planned only lunch stop here but the complete wet, snow in the morning, thunderstorm & heavy rain afterwards – No views but nice walk”.

06/12/03 Hamish Banks, Brisbane, Aust. Only just made it through rising waters. Hope the rain breaks by the morning – to Kings”.

17/12/03 Mylissa Rena-Wyatt Idaho, USA. “Came from the Crow.  Planned to stop but 11 people at Trevor Carter. No one here. Beautiful brown trout. Nearly 30kms, didn’t know I could do it”.

09/02/04 Rosemary Curry, Nova Scotia, Canada. “Was going to hit the Stone Hut but couldn’t resist an evening of sitting on the porch watching the dragon flies go by”.

28/02/04 Emily Johnson, Ottowa, Canada. “Today was anticipated to be an easy walk from Trevor Carter up the Lost Valley – it wasn’t so easy. Flooded creeks made for slow & sometimes tricky going.  The biggest challenge was once we were standing on the opposing bank from this hut wondering how we were going to find our way across.  I’d left my magic carpet at home so we had to ford it. It was a thrill to say the least – 2 kiwis & 2 Canadians linked arm in arm, fought our way across to warmth & safety. Love this little hut, love this walk – the rain won’t let me down!” A straightforward account of how to ford a flooded river.

27/03/04 Sylvia Watt, North Taeri. “Swollen creek beat us this morning but we beat the creek this afternoon. To Kings”.

The walk over the hill to the Taipo river is exciting for it climbs high above the slips, waterfalls and flats that dominate this part of the world.  Out of the sky comes the sound of blades chopping through the thick air and I glimpse a helicopter darting into the area near the Trevor Carter Hut.  Are there stranded trampers nearby, an emergency being played out, a body to be collected?  It strikes me that they are oblivious to my presence and that I am just as alone as I have always been on this trip.

The highlight of the day is reaching Brough’s Tabernacle Lookout.  This is the site of an old A frame shelter built in 1898 by Jonathon Brough, an old surveyor.  Here there a collection of rusted tools, the remnants of, not so much a person’s life, but the short time that they spent in this area.  Once over the swingbridge across the Taipo I am travelling through familiar territory though there is little inclination to explore further.  The walk to Taipo Hut tends to edge away from the river and travel through patches of forest that are sparser than those usually encountered.  I reach Taipo and make a quick judgement.  There is not time enough to reach Belltown Hut on the other side of the Wangapeka Saddle and I have no inclination to lie huddle in a frozen ball at the alpine bivvy that is Stag Flat Shelter.  So I will stay at Taipo and attempt to get a fire started.

It snows and rains for most of the afternoon but this does not stop me chopping wood for several hours until my forearms are swollen with fatigue.  I take logs and turn them into kindling, working diligently and methodically to continually halve the size of wood I am working with.  The smaller I can make the pieces of the wood the larger the surface area that will be exposed to fire.  This will help the damp wood dry out, drawing the moisture to the surface where hopefully it will be overwhelmed by heat.  It is a worthy goal but once more I am left with a kindling fire that cannot advance any further.  The wood oozes liquid, hisses vehemently but refuses to yield.  Even the thinner pieces blacken and singe without threatening to catch fire.  Yes, I think, I could have spent the day better, though even without a result there is a certain satisfaction in chopping wood.  To relieve the frustration I write a bitter entry in the log book criticising those who do not leave wood to dry for those who follow.  It is a further demonstration of the deterioration of society.

In going through the hut missives I am much cheered by an entry by Jason Campbell, who has undertaken a mission with a mate.  The gist of his thoughts is that it’s all good, shit happens, they have forgotten to pay their hut fees and its tougher than he thought it would be.  I have high hopes for the lad.

Another bleak morning emerges out of the dim light.  I am familiar with what needs to be done to achieve my objectives today.  Two years ago I had arranged to meet Bill on the track juncture between Taipo and Stag Flat Huts.  He left right on the designated meeting time as if to teach me a time table lesson and this meant that I spent some time searching the hut for him before resuming the ascent to the saddle.  There are no shennagins today, just a climb through the snow towards the tops.  Unfortunately my boots are saturated and no longer providing any insulation.  When they come in contact with snow it is as if I am walking through the ice with bare feet.  The numbness is excruciating and as every step involves pushing off with my toes I feel like I’ve been hobbled.  The climb is just as steep as I remember it, only now its icy.  The effort is not going to be rewarded with views as an incoming mist is moving much faster than I am.  When I reach the saddle the mist is not really apparent and the scenery is hemmed in only by the clearing cloud.  Without a companion, my feet frozen, an Antarctic wind blasting off the West Coast, I am compelled to move on.  It is a shame for there is much to explore on the tops above but one never sets a schedule in this landscape and in any case, I’d be retracing my steps.

I turn westward, towards the frozen tarn nestled underneath the saddle.  Beyond this is the sidle across the moraine choked outlet and the long descent through rainforest.  Rain and snow alternate appearances, the river rushes on, a constant companion.  An hour and a half off the saddle there is a shelter huddled in the bush and I go to investigate.  It is a porous shrine to mildew, mould and moss, a leaking, dripping last resort edifice to inefficiency.  Even the logbook is saturated.  There is an entry from Jason Campbell, even the novitiate can see that it is unsuitable.  What the break allows me to do is remove my shoes, dry out my socks and get some feeling back into my feet.  Surprisingly the ploy works and I am able to proceed in relative comfort.

The key to the walk to the West Coast is crossing the side streams, including a couple of life takers.  Upon reaching the major crossing, Tangent Creek, I am reminded of how I had parted company with Bill here to examine an alleged route directly down the Little Wanganui.  I had abandoned the ridiculous notion of splashing down a swirling river and rejoined the track, meeting up with Bill at the very end of the day.  The reason I ended up in front of him was because he had been so slow in breaching the Tangent, stopping, I believe, to remove his shoes and socks.  The rivers were low enough at the time to indulge one's whimsies but today the Tangent tumbled torrentially and I began to rock hop upstream looking for the best possible option.  I did not go far before encountering a wire bridge linking the two sides and I happily take the easy way over.  The oddest thing is the bridge does not look that new, there are no cuttings or debris, the usual detritus of these kinds of additions.  Why did Bill not take the bridge, or as I am to discover later, all the fools who have risked their lives attempting to get across.

Prepared for the tedious ascent of a gorge sidling knoll I enjoy the walk more than I think I will.  Admittedly the linking of the gorge banks is best done quickly but after this I skip lightly through the bogs and mud of the track as it leads towards Belltown Hut.  As I approach the hut a deluge commences and I scuttle inside, pausing only to hang up my wet weather gear.  Water cascades from the sky for the next two hour, the sound pounding like celebratory drums upon the roof.  I delight at my timing in reaching the hut.  When the rain ceases I venture outside to the woodpile where I commence work on halving and quartering the blocks I will use tonight.  The best innovation is bone-dry kindling sticks that come in plastic packets.  If only these had been in all the other hut where I have lain wet, cold and fireless!

The stay at Belltown Hut centres around the fireplace.  There is a clothes lines hanging above and bathing basins to be place over the fire vent.  I work with a surgeons diligence, halving and halving my wood so that I have a fair chance at establishing a sustainable flame.  It pays off spectacularly and I quickly have a roaring blaze that is so fierce it quickly dries out the wet wood I place on top of the fireplace.  My wash basin reaches bathing temperature in record time and the hut is so comfortably warm that even stripping out of my clothing is not unpleasant.  It is as warm a bath as I have had in a hut and after four rain-soaked, damp days one of the most satisfying and cleansing.  By the end of the evening most of my gear will be dry and the night clothes I pull down from the line are warm to touch and radiate on my skin.  Sitting by a fire one appreciates how humans have developed the practice of worship, for to huddle next to glowing embers, the crackle and hum of a slow grown log, is to fall into praise and appreciation of this elemental rite.  I take care to temper the blaze, modulating the heat, lengthening its use, preserving fuel for the next party through who will benefit by the extra stores I have prepared.  Finally, the night well advanced, I retreat to the bunks and seek warmth and solace from my sleeping bag.

As I have the morning to fill in before embarking to the west coast I review a year and a half of entries in the hut book.  They provide a microcosm of tramping experiences in the area.

11/01/03 Peter Lusk, Westport. “If anyone is thinking of following the track to Kekapo Hut, forget it.  There’s very little sign of it – markers are so few and very old.  I ended up going down the Kekapo River to Huia Junction, then up Hain over Rip & Tear Rakahi.  Kakapo Hut is still nice & dry, no rats but seldom visited.  Best solution is to take Kakapo & Herbert Saddle Tracks off the map & make the area part of Kahurangi Wilderness.  Saw a kaka and a pair of blue ducks just upstream of huia junction with Kakapo.  I came over Herbert Saddle, got to hut, which is very hard to find.  Followed ancient markers for about an hour but had to give up & go the river way”.

12/01/03 Richard Havercamp.  “Came down from Kiwi Saddle yesterday in the rain.  Similar comments to previous entry about the Kakapo track.  Up to Kiwi saddle there are a few old blazes and markers but not easy to find.  Route is okay though, provided you keep above the stream on the true left bank most of the way up.  There is a sign at the saddle”.

30/01/03 Josh Allen, Karamea & Matthew Searle, Motupiko “Attempting to do track in a day.  Arrived here 7.30pm. Hopefully will get to end of Wangapeka by dark”.  In all of the previous huts they have visited they have recorded their time of arrival.  They were always just off the pace.  This entry sees them about to embark on the last leg.  They will have completed the most difficult section by nightfall and will walk out in darkness.

07/02/03 Pat & Alina ChCh. “Possums ganged up on Alina last night”.

13/02/03 Lisa Cazero Padoua, Italy. “Stressful downhill, happy to be in nice hut and am sad that the “lonely” tramp is almost finished.

19/02/03 Stephen Keach, Winton. “A port in a storm on real heavy vertical west coast rain”.

19/02/03 Brooke Ray Smith, California. “All rivers flooded up to saddle. Maybe consider installing flood bridges like at eastern end of the track because I got swept into Tangent Creek & out into the Wanganui today. My pack saved my life.  Smith creek and McLarrie creek too high to ford.  I crossed on trees and waded.  Dangerous”.   To which the following entry has been appended – “Note, when rivers high don’t cross.  Wait it out or pay the price.  The entries to follow also take an unsympathetic view to the Californian’s impatience, demands for convenience and foolish behaviour.  My own entry responded to this, noting in baffled tones that there existed a swing bridge across the Tangent and there appears to have been a bridge for quite awhile.

05/03/03 Patricia Gosling, Sydney, Australia. “Really enjoyed this trail – a bit squelchy in parts but satisfyingly rugged – no more bridges etc, that way the hordes will stay away. Today is gorgeously sunny”.

13/04/03 Dave Grubb, Washington State. “Primeval forest – I feel like I’m in a kids book of dinosaurs. This is wilderness, not a city park”.

24/05/03 Ollie Garsell, Auckland. “After 10 days in the bush, 7 of which were spent in consistent rain we thank the almighty spirits which reside above for that which makes Aotearoa so green. Many thanks to rivers, we’ll see you again”.

31/05/03 Onandra Littlewood. “Walked in by torchlight – beautiful glowworms, awesome little hut.  Aslo saw 6-10 possums, 2 weka, 1 kiwi”.  A wonderful entry, observant, magical and serene.

19/09/03 Adrian Field, Christchurch.  “Took us 3 hours 10 mins to get here from Little Wanganui roadend using track across Paddy Gambles land with his permission as a flood route.  This only took 20 minutes instead of 1 ½ hours extra for the high level flood route – river was high.  Paddy is pretty sensitive about access but his heart is in the right place”.  This entry is instructive for the river is up and I will have difficulty using the standard track that crosses the river twice, both times unnecessarily.

06/10/03 Alphonso, Asheville, NC, USA.  “Awesome view from the saddle at 8am with a clear sky, bright warm sun and fog in the valleys.  Waved and made a fool out of myself to a passing rescue chopper”.  Frankly there are too many rescue choppers, pack it in, pack it out, humans included.

16/10/03 Brett Halverson, New Hampshire & Paul Kramer, Georgia USA.  “Got lost going from farmer’s property to the track.  He directed us to take a path through instead of the track so it took us a bit longer to get here but we made it”.  A different take on farmer’s instructions from the American boys.  Funny how the locals were provided with the correct way through.

DOC – “Possums have become raptors and discovered how to open door.  Have left a piece of wood there to jam before zzz.  They are little devils”.

23/10/03 Jeff Dzinowski. “11 hours from Johnson hut to here, but significantly longer going in.  (Camped out.) Very little track remains, but worth effort”.  Johnson Hut lies off the stand track and requires traversing Kiwi Saddle and following the Johnson River.

15/11/03 Woman from Holland. “Please something for Tangent Gorge.  Twice wet all over. 42kg and 1.6m against that current”.  Well, put on some weight or wait it out!

02/12/03 Dieter Kraft, Seeheim Germany. “Flora carpark, Karamea bend, Sandy Peak, Garibaldi’s Range, Herbert Range to Kakapo Hut, up to the Black Lakes/Scarlet Range & down to the Wangapeka Saddle.  Exciting trip via the ridges and tops in fascinating environment.  Going down from the Herbert range via source of kakapo is extremely rough, slow going.  Going up side stream from Kakapo  to the smaller one of the Black Lakes quite “straightforward” if rough in places.  Scarlet Range tops well worth a visit.  Another trip in paradise”.  Fearless, off the track tramping, highly resourceful and resilient, an exemplar of ambition and independence, one is merely tempted to follow.

03/12/03 Janet Houston, Mt Maungunui. “My 20 yr old 1 inch to the mile map of the first part of the track is more up to date than the more recent info I have.  It shows Belltown Hut!  Love the wekas – they seem to like playing under the boardwalking outside the hut.  Love the footprints in the concrete too.  This could only be the work of wekas!” Of course the first Belltown Hut was washed away in a flood as was the replacement hut built elsewhere.  It was then decided to return to the original site.  Though the current hut would appear to be protected from any future floods rivers change courses and exceptional circumstances occur to thwart the best of planning.

15/12/03 Phil & Joy Glosson Parawai TC.  “Tangent Creek in flood yesterday so had to camp the night on TL bank.  River normal in the morning.  Dropped more than a metre”.

15/12/03 John and Avril Lovejoy Poole, Dorset.  “Ditto but back in emergency hut.  Will return in fine weather”. The swingbridge must have gone in sometime between these entries and my arrival seven months later.  Camping in a tent by the river would have been by far the more pleasant evening than staying in the mould incubator that is the emergency hut.

10/01/04 John, Helen & 3 children, Blenheim. “No-one else in our class has to do this”, announce our children, especially now we’ve eaten the 2 onions, four apples, bacon, etc, ect”.

22/01/04 Vladimir & Renata, Prague Czech Republic. “We came here at midnight.  Glow worms shining at night in forest”. “After coming he’s asleep. Horrible man!” One of the more remarkable entries I’ve seen.

27/01/04 Gaz, Armagh, Ireland. “That leprechaun told me the Swedish nympho society were staying in this hut tonight. The little pecker drank all my Guinness too!”.

19/02/04 Dave Moore, Melbourne. “What a great little fire. I’m normally crap at lighting fires but this one took only 3 tries!” Sentiments I can concur with after three fruitless attempts to get a roaring fire up to hold winter wolves at bay.

04/03/04 Evan Innis, Edinburgh, Scotland.  “I am blistered, filthy and tired. Wouldn’t have missed it though!”

12/03/04 Jeremiah & Kevin, Idaho. “About hiking to Johnson Hut. There is no trail! The hut is in decent shape. From here the hike is difficult 9-11 hour tramp. From the Kiwi Saddle to Fugel Creek there is a decent marked 1 km section of trail – that’s it! Tramp at your own risk”.  For some reason the American boys loved to attempt the more obscure, dead end routes.

14/04/04 Bethany Buck Saint Paul, Sarah Davidson, Erika Hoppe, Eugene, Kaylea Foster Klanmath Falls.  Flora carpark, Salisbury, Karamea Bend, Crow, Thor, Taipo, Belltown. “God rested on the seventh day and so will we! Stunning to be sure”. Buxom, corn fed girls wending their way through the heart of the park.

16/05/04 Tom Basset Devon, Bryony Coupe Northampton Massachusetts. “We are useless Pommie/Yankee tourist who cannot light fires but we have succeeded in making this hut very smoky. No wait my hero has made a lovely hut fire. Lovely dawn, clear day so far. Off to Taipo”.  The deprecation has to come from the English half of the pairing.

05/06/04 Mr & Mrs Smith Scotland. “Smith creek is very dangerous to cross in wet weather. Might be worth thinking of putting bridge there to stop keen and eager trampers crazily putting their safety at risk.  Don’t think one more bridge to increase safety would attract the hordes”.  And this is where I came in.  Why do people venture into the wilderness and carry their infections with them.  Safety, risk, keen and eager.  The keen and eager tramper accepts responsibility for their own safety and makes judgements about the risk.  Every bridge greatly assists the mobility of the vermin that threaten to overrun the park.

It takes until late morning to write down all these entries, time during which steady rain falls.  By the time I am ready to continue the day has settled for gloomy, possibly clearing.  This should be a straightforward walk out but after a couple of hours I feel like I’ve underestimated how much walking is involved.  The river is a brown force that looks like it will extract a heavy toll from any attempted crossing.  The track remains the swamp land that I recall from the previous walk out.  All day I anticipate the hair raising scramble across a rock slip but this has been shaved of its boulders to greatly quicken what had previously seemed interminable.  Emboldened by the hut book entries I fully intend to take the most direct path, trespassing on the crochety farmers land.  Crossing the river is not an option.  Even the sidestreams require nimble feet though I enjoy one occasion where I skip across submerged boulders in order to keep my feet dry.  If I’d slipped considerably more would have been soaked.

At the last hurdle I cavil reasoning that I have time to take the high weather track which is supposed to be 4 kms long. There is no time estimation for the route.  This is highly unusual but I don’t realise the significance of the omission until it’s too late.  The route climbs steeply upwards requiring a burst of energy and drive.  Thankfully I have not walked far today and am able to meet the demands.  It occurs to me to return to the river and take the flat route but I figure that once I’ve reached the ridge the climbing will be over.  Instead the ridge undulates through greasy woodlands and I must negotiate tree routes, mud and numerous sharp climbs and descents.  It is the most difficult track of the entire walk and I am furious with the duplicity.  So furious that I attack the route with great vehemence, moving swiftly, drawing on all the fitness I have gained over the last three weeks.  It takes an hour and a half of sweat but at last I stand on a cleared knoll and look down on the West Coast, listening to the pounding surf, watching the school bus lumber down the long country road.  When I drop down to the road fifteen minutes later I discover that the phone box is further inland.  Further inland!  I’m outraged and write an explosive entry in the intentions book, criticising the difficulty of a route they encourage people to take.  Thankfully making contact with the bus is direct and I can attune my mind to the uninspiring diligence of walking to the local pub at Little Wanganui.

Halfway along the road I am stopped by the local owners of the backpackers.  They are a nice couple but I have my mind set on reaching Westport tonight and Christchurch tomorrow and I will not be tempted by their invocations to join them at their organic farm.  I feel a little sorry for them, particularly when I tell them that I have not seen another soul on the track and that the side streams have been vigorous enough to halt anyone’s progress.  Once I hit the main road I change out of my gaiters, walking poles and try to present respectably for entry to the pub.  There are others walking the same road to the same pub and there are residents in their front yard willing to have a yarn.  The pub is the epicentre of the community and everyone seems to drop in during the time that I am there.  I’m given a warm welcome and a friendly goodbye.  The van driver talks about his experiences living in Sydney and tears into the 160 hairpin turns with a formula one driver’s precision.  I want to vomit but thankfully I have not eaten much during the day and the feeling subsides once we approach the coastal flats.

I spend the evening washing myself and my clothing and in the morning discover the delights of a bus travelling directly to the main city.  Two years ago we’d travelled to Greymouth and then taken the train over Arthur’s Pass.  It had been a memorable trip but not one that I really wanted to repeat.  I am poured out of the bus in the mid afternoon and have a strange encounter in one of the nearby bookshops when I am recognised from the pub the night before.  As I wind down I’m busy formulating the next trip, it will be the best yet.

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