By Richard, 02 May 2010
South Westland is many things. Steep, green, wet, bluffy, gorged, tangled, wild, bouldery…. The list goes on. But it is not always hot. After our trip in February this year though, I think I will associate South Westland with hot for quite some time. It was like Bikram yoga with less attractive companions.
The trip started on a Saturday afternoon at the Karangarua river bridge. It was humid, stiflingly humid. Our packs were heavy, that kind of crushing heavy you get on the big jobs. Crushing heat and humidity is not a great combination. Unless you want bad chaffage, in which case you're on to a winner.
We wombled our way up to Cassell Flat hut in good time and sweating a small buckets-worth. The Karangarua is real popular with Thar hunters so the hut was well stocked with food. We decided to “live off the land” and cooked up dinner based on hut food although we did have to use Ben’s tofu which was matching the rest of us in the sweat stakes. We generally lazed in the evening sun, read the Press which we had carried in and polished off the two bottles of wine we had carried in as well.
The Karangarua has an orange-triangle track all the way to the head, but it is rough going. The old DoC route guide talked of one slab that you had to cross with 70 metres of exposure! From Cassell Flat we could see the bluffs above the gorge and figured the track was up in there. We headed for it under an empty sky – we weren’t to see clouds for the next 5 days and the raincoats were being carried strictly for the exercise.
9am in the bush and it was roasting hot. I felt slightly ill from the dehydration. It wasn’t a good start. DoC suggested it was 6+hrs to Lame Duck hut, so after an hour and a half, and halfway there we figured there was some pretty slow travel coming. There was, although it wasn’t that bad. The track had been recut recently and was actually pretty good. The 70 metres of exposure was no longer there, and while some of the steep slabby guts required a bit of care they weren’t too bad in the dry. From the sections that had been denuded of vegetation by avalanches we got great views of Mt Burns over the Karangarua Saddle.
Lame Duck was a new hut and was also filled with food, so we had a cooked lunch and tried to drink a few litres of water and raro each. The Upper Karangarua was really nice, but up at the Troyte confluence I went to pull out my chocolate and found the whole top pocket of my pack looked like a fondue party gone wrong. I just zipped it up and kept walking.
Christmas Flat hut was a stunning spot tucked up under Karangarua Saddle and as we had made good time, we had the afternoon for swimming, sunbathing and reviewing the “literature.” Ben seemed particularly taken by a quite exotic angle that a camera-man had taken in a certain kind of magazine. Every time the hot, listless breeze blew, that page flapped open. The same mag had an interesting feature on Japanese food that opened my eyes to the way different cultures operate. In order to cool down – from the sun, not the mags - I ended up taking my pack for a swim as it was the only way to get the chocolate out, but the hot sun seared it dry in record time.
Surprise, surprise the next day was hot and we slogged up to Karangarua Saddle then sidled the snow and slabs under Mt Howitt to gain the ridge that divides the Douglas from the Karangarua. We climbed up to Howitt getting the “oh-my-god-that-is-freakin-
After a night soaking up the ambience of another classic New Zealand bivy rock we headed back over Douglas Pass and down into the infant Landsborough. Quentin and I had been into this mighty valley six times between us, but it was magic to drop into the head of it for the first time. Slightly disconcertingly, the turbid waters in the head were really pumping as the heat-wave melted the glaciers at double-speed. After travelling down the true right past the gigantic bluffs of Karangarua Saddle we had to cross back to the true left between Rubicon Torrent and Romping Water. This proved to be rather deeper than anticipated, and we all wondered how our plan would go of crossing what would be a big part of the river at Zora Canyon. The afternoon was wiled away scrambling and thrashing down the true left with the river roaring away throatily beside us. We wiled, and we wiled some more, aiming for the flats opposite Zora Creek. As the light faded from the sky, then from the ground, we waded some deep bits took some aerial but easy sidles along bluffs and finally found a flat terrace under the beech trees just after dark. No room for tents, but we were carrying them just for the exercise too, so we lay the sleeping bags on the ground and had a great night.
More fine, hot weather, more Landsborough. We tried to cross at Zora but after getting chest deep after 3 paces we flagged it away. We tried to cross again at Ford Flat, but it was deep and fast. Besides, we had a better idea…. Graham had come down with a chest infection that wasn’t getting any better, so he decided to take a commercial flight out from the rafting camp at Toe Toe Flat. We figured a chopper would be a quick way across the river….. Of course, first you have to get there, and the Landsborough is a very long river. It gets a lot easier below Zora though and the flat terraces were nice walking. Finally, 9hrs after leaving Zora Canyon we rocked into the rafting camp at Toe Toe Flat.
Living off the land is an important skill, so we practised it around the rafting camp.
James Scott arrived the next morning and Graham departed, a mountain radio proving a lot better than an EPIRB in this case. Before leaving, James Scott gave us all a 15 second flight across the river (not very pure, but certainly practical) and we headed for the Solution Range. I have been there a few times, but we still found a new route up on to it, probably not the best line out of the four I have used. I never get sick of gazing at Mt Hooker, so I did a fair bit of that as we headed North towards Mt Gow. We dropped straight off and down, down, down – on mostly good slopes – to the Otoko glacier lake. The Otoko has a reputation for bad weather, and even under this most glorious of highs it was filled with cloud so we descended into the Otoko in thick clag. It is marked as open round on the way down, so the luxuriant scrub was a surprise. It was a vigorous 80 minutes that felt like a World Cup final as we were massaged relentlessly. A super-grovel. We camped on an island in the mud and gravel-flats-that was-once-a-lake and used the tents for the first time on the trip.
The next day was fine, just for variety, and we found some deer trails in the head of the Otoko which we managed to follow all the way down through the scrub and then into the forest. Heaps of animals up there. After a short and pretty painless time we were standing on a grassy flat looking at two stags. “Must be Stag Flat”. Why yes, and a very fast time too, especially seeing we had a cooked brunch partway down the valley to use up some of the food we had saved. We opted for a half-day and laxed out in the heavily grazed grass and had time to devour The Great Gatsby and Guardian Weekly. Don’t go getting the wrong idea now…..
The lower Otoko was not quite as nice as some valleys so we scooted down it and then just jumped in that milky blue water to dodge the Onga Onga and Bastard grass and y’know it was such good travel that we just kept wandering down the river and round the corner to where it joined the Paringa. This was familiar territory to Quentin and I and we didn’t muck around, out to the highway and kept the thumb out for a lift back to Fox.
After a good night and a few beers with a guide at Porter Lodge we headed North and stopped for lunch at Ben’s sisters house in Hokitika where we consumed five freshly caught sharks between us, then it was back into the hills for our last night, bagging bivs up the Styx. Guess what! It rained, but we didn’t bother using the jackets, seemed silly to break a trend.
Richard Davies - scribe