By Richard, 09 April 2010
Quentin, Hannah and I headed into the Victoria range just after Christmas. This is an interesting block of mountains north of Reefton that gets very low use. A shame, as they are fascinating and rugged country. As with every trip over the Christmas period - ever - the forecast was average. We started by cruising into Lake Stream and promptly sat out a day of rain which brought the lake right up to the biv.
From there we headed over to Top Waitahu biv. This is definitely a remote hut. 48 visits in 29 years, most of them flying in. The biv is in immaculate condition with a firebox and heaps of coal. Reasonably rough travel to get there through the head of Shaw Stream, it was quite slow going in the wet. We took the "low" route whereas most people seemed to take a higher route. Our route was poxy and we ended up in a big pile of greased hog boulders which were slow and slippery with man eating holes under us. Sidle high I reckon, keep above the trees.
Next day we climbed over Mt Ivess which is an impressive, steep hill. It even snowed on top!! From here the Sven Brabyn guidebook describes a route around the ridge line above the cirque before sidling a steep peak on ledges. To our eye the best route looked to be to just drop down, cross the cirque basin and climb direct to the ledges but we followed the book and got caught out. The ridge has some impassable steps in it and so we ended up making a steep and inferior descent down into the basin just to climb back up. Very annoying! We didn't really trust his descriptions after that! It was very slow travel all day and we were caught out again when we slowly sidled another cirque lake when we could later see a better, faster line down the ridge above the Lake. Then we made a blunder of our own by taking the ridge up rather than up a gully. The ridges there often have big bluffs in the middle of them and this was no exception. Quentin took the "aerial walkway" but that was a bit exposed for me so I ended up grovelling down a steep gut and back up the main gully. It is the kind of country where sure footing and viz is pretty important. It would be a bit hairy in slippery conditions.
We camped on the floor of a good hanging valley. It had been a long day and we had only traversed a tiny part of the main range so our plans for getting to the Buller Gorge were pretty much out the window. We decided to carry on North though, and as the forecast was for one more day of good weather we made it a big one. We also made the call to just sidle in and out of all the cirques as soon as we could find a way down as the ridge lines were predictable in their unpredictable bluffs and steps and that was slowing us down a lot. We got buzzed by some heli-hunters in one cirque and saw a Chamois in another. The travel got easier and easier until we had to work around the impressive bulk of Mt Crosscut. We wanted to be clear from any steep sidling before the bad weather arrived so we only stopped when it got dark at about 9.30 after 14.5hrs on the go.
The wind picked up overnight and as we dropped down to Wheel Creek hut in gathering cloud we were pretty sure the bad weather was going to hit us any moment. We had only been going a couple of hours but settled in for a pit day, waiting for the rain so we could rip into the huge piled of dry firewood. What we didn't know was that the Sou westerly had turned to a sou easterly and the day ended up being pretty good on the coast. I think I got a bit of sunburn from reading my book on a mattress outside! But after a long day the day before, and with some still damp gear, it was good to have a wash and dry out, though obviously we could have got further along the range if we'd known the weather would be that good!
We could have bailed down the Wheel Ck track to the Maruia, but instead, with more good weather we headed back west via Larry Saddle, Silcock Creek and then a climb back to the tops and descent to the Larry/Silcock Forks. These terminated at a gorge, so faced with a deep dark pool and steep cliffs we just jumped in and went for a bit of a swim to get past one rapid. Applying Tararua tactics to the South Island mountains!
The curse of the guidebook struck again. It describes an old pack track that is hard to find but is the key to the route down the river, but then doesn't say what side of the river it is on!?!?!?!?!? we deduced (guessed) it and found it, but so annoying. Especially as the river is pretty swift and gorgy, it's not like you can just casually cross back and forth looking for it. SPOILER ALERT: It's on the true left, just past the big slips. I loved the description of the track being "rough and hard to follow but easier than the river." Fair enough, but by "easier" he actually means the river flows through a full on gorge that looked impassable to me unless you had a boat!!
There were heaps of wasps through the gorge and while hanging off some trees on a rather precipitous bit one landed on my face and stung me under the eye which was quite annoying and a tad bit disconcerting. I got stung a few other times too, invariably on steep bits where the pack track had washed out. Eventually we hit an old mining site (Gerry Brownlee would be creaming his pants) and then there is a good track and easy enough road bash out to the highway. I hitched back to Reefton with a guy who looked like a gang member but had his family in the Holden enjoying some loud ACDC and high speeds. Still it did the job and made for an interesting finish to an interesting trip.
Richard Davies - scribe