By Hannah, 07 October 2006
In general, I consider jet-boats the cockroaches of the New Zealand river-system. However, after twenty thrilling minutes into the lower branches of the Clark River I wanted to do the rest of the trip by jet-boat. I almost shed a tear as the jet boat turned for home, dousing us in smoking steam. Picking up my empty-yet-heavy pack (some sort of black-hole gravity definitely involved) I tried to feel ready for a maniacal bush bash. Amped even. Buggered already, even.
Fortunately, through extreme cunning, and by following the prints of a hefty crew of hunters, we greased along the riverbank instead of crashing into a Westland baptism. We set up camp after a solid twenty-minutes of tramping. There was a cold mist and a clear sky as we cooked our dinner, and lighting up the mountains of the Haast highway was a round Easter moon.
The moon was still out when Rob’s watch got us up the next morning. We were all packed up and walking by the time the first lazy birds woke up. We started out on pleasant, meandering flats (even for Benj - who had seventy chocolate bars in his pack - and was also hauling along sardines, blue cheese and raspberry licorice). The bush was, as promised, quite bushy. About lunchtime we happened on our first view of Mt Hooker, resplendent in enormous white robes above the other petty landscape.
At around 2 o’clock it would have been nice to camp on a pillow of yellow tussock, but we couldn’t stop thinking about that beautiful mountain. We had to decide whether to camp, head direct to Mark’s Flat via the gorge, or take the alternative way around Saddle Creek. We sat on the grass for a bit and debated the state of the nation. Finally, on the possibility that we might have to camp halfway, we headed up Saddle Creek.
At around 5 o’clock we were camped halfway up Saddle Creek. As the sun set, we watched a party head along the lip of the Solution Range to the spur to Mark’s flat, but we were all very stoic and only mentioned guided-missiles in passing. The pack with sixty-three chocolate bars in it required first-aid as sections of the frame had snapped in half. An emergency operation with plastic slip clips and tent pegs was performed, but the harness stayed in a coma. That night the mountain radio warned that the crisp Easter nights would shortly be exchanged for soggy autumn rains.
Early the next day, we emerged from a section of scrubby bush bashing onto the tussocked saddle above Mark’s Flat. Mt Hooker was all over, colouring the tarns and sprawling across half the sky. Rob’s digital camera swallowed about 5 million mega-bites. But this posed a dilemma. The Landsborough River was waiting in the opposite direction. Would the rain get to it first or would we?
We sat on the saddle for a bit and debated the state of the nation. Finally, on the basis that it was stupid to get to Mark’s Flat and not to go to Mark’s Flat, we went to Mark’s Flat. We were at the bivvy rock at eleven, which necessitated another state of the nation debate as it was a smidgen too early for lunch. After debating until we were hungry, we had an early lunch followed by more debate about staying on at the bivvy rock for dinner and breakfast. So far, so United Nations. Finally finally we decided that the trip had to go on. Mark’s Flat was lovely, but being stuck there might have meant murder over sardines. We put our packs back on and headed for Solution Range.
There are several spurs to choose to get onto the Solution Range (including back the way we came, but this option is always poison for a group with bureaucrats in it). We got a good opportunity to look at each spur as we crossed the Flat, but things went a bit mental when we entered the bush. Our choice started out alright, but then it got steep, scrubby and narrow all togther, and we had to shove our packs up through horizontal layers of prickly plants while digging our boots into dirt and spindly roots for purchase. To the left and the right were the broad backs of proper spurs, but ours refused to relent. It was a long and frustrating climb. At the top we were hot from our exertions, but the weather had turned windy and cool with a smattering of rain. Perfect for the descent on long greasy tussock to the bushline.
Ritchie still maintains we got our descent spot on vis a vis the guidebook. I maintain that we found rather a lot of bluffs, even if they were soft and mossy and good for slithering. We reached the bottom, newly born mossmen, in the grey light of evening. There was a strong hint of rain about as we crossed the Landsborough, which was relatively straightforward, but still a big river. We set up camp on the other side just as the rain released itself from the air and pissed down on our tents.
In the dark, Ritchie found a long-drop in a random spot of scrub, but no one listened to his excited blathering about it, putting it down to hallucinations from too much poo-talk. Benj crouched over a spluttering cooker while the rest of us mooched about in the downpour. It wasn’t until the next morning that we followed a marked trail through the beech and came upon the semi-permanent tent camp of Wilderness Rafting Co. I think it is absolutely crappy that a company can have a semi-permanent tent camp on the edge of a wilderness area, complete with picnic tables, chilly-bins and barbeques. And it is extra crappy that it exists and we didn’t manage to exploit it. However, it’s still there, and we tramped on. The rafting co help DOC with mohua recovery, which I’m sure is completely from the goodness of their hearts.
That morning, we headed downstream towards the foot of Broderick Pass. The rain in the night had transformed the Landsborough River into a rolling grey behemoth, with standing waves in six-lane rapids. As we got to Fraser Hut for lunch the sun came out, which dosed us all with a draught of instant laziness. We dried our tents and packs, our fleeces and dacks, our boots and socks, our books and maps, our cheese and snacks, and our fronts and backs. Then we got the fire going, cooked dinner and settled in for a comfortable night.
Except, Fraser Hut had mice. Not scuttle round the floor and eat crumbs mice or nibble round-holes-in-the-cheese mice. These were the mad mice of war. Benj left an offering of hummus on the bench, in the hope that they would return to their roofy heavens in peace. Not these mice. They wanted a go at the fifty-five chocolate bars - for entrée. By 10 o’clock only Ritchie was left in the hut as the mice ground their teeth on the hut-lining in thwarted fury. In retrospect, Benj could have fed them a few morsels of his hearty Hubbard’s fare, as this stuff is guaranteed to staunch the rawest appetite. But he was using the muesli to ward off a larger and fiercer marauder called Rob.
The approach to Broderick Pass started with a bush bash that managed to incorporate bush-lawyer, stinging nettle, and cutty-grass all in one patch. Farewell, farewell, West Coast. After that it was a long, warm slog towards the tops. We made the bushline in good time to the welcoming cry of a kea keen to eat our eye-balls. In the rocky basins of the upper stream we disturbed rock-wrens and a family of chamois, who swarmed up scree towards the safety of high bluffs. We reached the pass around 3 o’clock to find it cloaked in freezing mist. Only once we began descending the poled track on the Huxley side did we get a view across the beautiful sweep of the valley.
The couple at Broderick Hut had the pleasure of our whiffy company that night. They had only come up for an overnighter so all their laundry and food was fresh. It was a strange feeling to be half-way back to civilisation with six days still to go, but our plan was to skirt along its edge all the way back to the Haast road.
A chill wind was rustling in the beech the next day as we followed a steady track down to the Huxley Forks and then back up the southern branch to South Huxley Biv. At the biv we discovered there was hot sun out of the wind as we sheltered behind our packs for lunch. Ritchie flicked through the old hut book and treated us to some mountain-mule-spotting. And once again it was proven that there’s nothing like a bit of hot sun to drain the motivation out of the body and into the grass. I would like to think that it is this, and not urea, that is the cause of the long green grass around huts.
Rob was the only one immune to this factor, and he made extra sure of it by spending his lunch in the river for a wash, which was a little hard to argue against. In the head of the South Huxley valley, with small but perfectly formed campsites among the alpine scrub, Rob was still advocating charging over the pass and camping high. There was a good forecast, true. But it was also four o’clock, which as any bear will tell you, is well past elevenses. We didn’t even have a state of the nation debate about it.
Rob decided to vent his rage. I would like to recommend his method to all ragers. He decided to bash to the pass direct from our campsite. The direct route is not mentioned in the guidebook, but the missing text should read “from the tussock flats the route will be obvious - ascend four hundred metres of vertical scrub.” I shall spare you the gruesome details of his injuries, but needless to say, if speargrass was carnivorous it would definitely have approved.
The proper route, via tussock and steep rocks, was not nearly as treacherous, although I wouldn’t recommend it in slippery weather. Our good weather-window continued. On the pass we got to see Mt Cook and more Mt Hooker as well as lots of unidentifiable white lumps. Saying that, Ritchie probably identified them, but I’m sure it’s better for him to pretend he didn’t (otherwise we’d start picking on him and pulling his hair).
But, you will be pleased to hear, we did pick on him anyway, because he was carrying a 200 page guidebook, and then discovered that he was carrying a misprint without the two pages for where we were. The 100% visibility we were suffering made this less entertaining. We padded down soft snow on the other side, except for Benj, who found the only patch of hard ice while sliding on his bottom, and promptly injured himself trying to avoid sliding on his bottom over rocks.
The Ahuriri Valley is very a scenic sort of place, but it is also wide and flat and long, rather like its neighbour the Hunter, where I spent several unpleasant days playing hide and seek with cows in 2004. The cows were all gone from the Ahuriri, and, ostensibly, so are the four wheel drivers. You can still see their tread marks up and down the valley though, as you trudge along pretending to enjoy the soft sounds of grass growing and glaciers shrinking.
We spent a night in Hagen’s hut, squarely in the land of the sandfly, the opossum and the Readers Digest. It was a beautiful sunset over the high peaks, but the forecast had turned on us again. We woke up to drizzle. Halfway down the valley towards our next destination disaster struck. We met some Australians. Teem and Dave. They were pleasant and engaged us in conversation and made us cups of tea. Before we knew it, we were several hours behind and the pass to the Hunter valley still to come. And then, after four days of a happy oligarchy, where Benj, Ritchie and I successfully ganged up on Rob, we reverted to consensus decision making. Before we even got to the turn off out of the Ahuriri we had engaged in a number of state of the nation debates. Democracy may sound good in your report to the United Nations but if you need to get a job done call in the military dictatorship every time.
The story of the unnamed pass at the head of Little Canyon Creek is a depressing one. It is one of those passes that looks approachable from a distance, but the fine scree promised by the long view turns out to be blocks of talus. Each step requires a balancing effort. What looks like ten minutes takes sixty. And this is before the descent on the Hunter side, which is a mere 1200m. Night was approaching quicker than we were. We turned around three quarters of the way up and went out to the road-end hut to rejoin Benj. You may think he turned round early because he is wiser, but it is actually because he had brought mangy old boots. He had the fire going, but it was still a bit depressing. The only thing to look forward to was the mission hitch-hike to the car in Haast.
Sure enough, it was a long wait at the road-end for a ride out of the Ahuriri. We were in a half paralysed state whereby we could still torture ourselves with the idea of finishing the tramp on foot but couldn’t move our legs to do it. Still, the boys managed to entertain themselves for the larger part of the day - by throwing rocks at posts – small minds etc.
Predictably, the Australians were the first car to offer us a ride, with the day almost over. They crammed Ritchie and me and our packs in the car, and it was a Barina or something, so that would’ve stuffed the suspension right there, but they then proceeded to go at 100km an hour down the gravel road. Bang Clang Ting Scwang Piching BANG! “Hey Teem,” said Dave “d’you think you should slow down a beet?” “I’ll put one wheel up on the verge,” said Teem helpfully, and preceded to tip the sardine can on its side. This felt very unstable but the only thing to hang onto in the car was Dave’s jackaroo hat. We had about half an hour of this, as the Ahuriri access road is very long. The only thing containing my terror was a recent experience of taxis in India. I now need three buffalos, two trucks, and a haystack-carrying-cyclist before I will consider an overtaking manoeuvre dangerous.
Our next ride (from Wanaka) was in a smooth maroon Mercedes, of vintage era, driven by a fire-poi-twirling, organic-sprout-munching, patchouli-scent-wearing hippy-woman, on her way to a meditation convention. She planned to meditate for ten days at a retreat near Makarora. We pointed out that this was more than enough time to go for a dammed good tramp, but she said she preferred the aura of the outdoors to getting flora and fauna in her glitter-sandals. At Makarora she dropped us off, and we stood on the side of the road in the gathering gloom. Our car-fetching effort was given its final death knell by the food smells that began wafting across the road from the Makarora café. We gave up at 6 o’clock to go and eat food and sleep in a bed instead. Meanwhile, back at the Ahuriri road end, some little boys had to wait.
Overnight it rained down hard on the Haast Highway. The drumming rolled to a crescendo about 2am, and by morning everything was slick and new. We felt better about escaping our tramp, but there was still some hitch-hiking to be done, so we got on the side of the road first thing. A local with no back windows or seatbelts, circled round the empty road to come and pick us up. “Get in,” he said, “I’ll show you why you’re going nowhere today.” 100 metres further on a deluge of silver mud and bulldozer-sized rocks had piled over the road, covering the road bridge three metres deep, and fanning out towards the Dart river like a wedding dress.
To get to the end quickly, I’ll just say that three diggers and two bob-cats managed to clear the slip by four o’clock (this was SH6 after all) and we went and got the car, and drove back to the Ahuriri, road, which had also been washed out. Benj and Rob had been forced to walk from the road-end for several hours and were very unhappy about it. And they only needed a small state of the nation debate to decide if they should pile in the car and drive towards home, so we did.
 Like ombudsmen, this word is from the Scandinavian and is actually gender-neutral.