The Perth Odyssey, Part 2

From Alexis:

Sorry about the long cliff-hanger. You probably thought the show had been decommissioned or gone bust.

When we left you were under the headwalls of the Perth valley in the wee hours of December 22nd, huddling behind a rock with wind howling over our heads, wet and chilled, sipping on lukewarm milo because we’d lost the cooker’s wind-shield to a squall, and another had snuffed out the flame before the water reached the boil.

We’d made a staged retreat from our shredded shelter; rushing around our campsite (which now had a rivulet running through it), picking up armfuls of gear that had been haphazardly thrown under the vestibules, and dumping them in the lee of our sheltering rock.

After the brew, I scratched around in search of a better shelter, moving quickly and instinctively among jumbled boulders. My eyes pried into the dark for larger boulders and dark patches that might indicate a hollow that we could crawl into.  My search soon turned up a damp little grotto formed by two rocks leaning against each other.  Crawling in, I was glad to see a pile of tahr droppings: it would do.

We spent the remainder of the night in this cramped cavern, sitting up in our packliners, Lydia and I side by side with Allan leaning back against our legs. We were too cold to sleep, but not dangerously so. We chatted and joked occasionally, and shivered the night away. 

At the first grainy grey light of dawn we’d had enough and jumped into action. We packed away our waterlogged gear in clumsy haste, stuffing our packs ad hoc, doing our best to tighten our laces with number fingers and shovelling back fistfuls of peanuts.

We were a haggard and miserable-looking bunch: bleared-eyed, tousled and a touch maniacal.

Black-backed gulls soared overhead among chords of rain, looking at once weirdly at home and perfectly out of place. We envied them their waterproof plumage and the ability to fly off to warm and dry climes whenever they fancy. Gazing up, Lydia nearly backed onto one of their nests with three spotted eggs in it.

Birds of the Apocalypse, Lydia calls them. Gulls are common in the mountains in bad weather. They fly inland for shelter from wild weather at sea. Sometimes there are flocks of hundreds of them in river flats. I saw one such gathering in the Young valley once. I like to think of them as conferences or summits that are held to discuss important and urgent matters of concern seabirds of Zealandia and its ocean environs.

The Canterbury-Westland Alps guidebook warns that the going can be “slow and scrubby at times” in the Perth, and gives a range of 7 to 10 hours from the head of the valley to Scone Hut. 7 when the river is low and travel is practicable along the river’s edge, 10 when it is running high.

It took us about 17hrs over the course of two days.  The river was high and wild for the first day, and we wasted a couple of hours doing battle with mixed scrub in a slippery boulder-field when a easier route exists higher-up, but I think it was mostly down to exhaustion that we were so slow. Bush-bashing (or whacking as the Aussies call it) requires feistiness and we were too drained to fight with much verve.

We heard Tarn Creek long before we reached it. Not that we were far from it, but we were doing 500m an hour when the going was good, and the bush was particularly fiendish before the junction. When we did finally see the ‘creek’, it was 5m away down a tangled and sheer bank, and it was more cataract than creek; foaming and roaring as it plunged over big boulders and spewed out into the Perth.  

None of us fancied chancing a crossing, so there was nothing for it but to wait. The rain had mercifully stopped and the sun was intermittently breaking through but there was no open ground nearby so we lay about in the dappled light, removing as many wet clothes as we could without getting too cold and hanging them up all over the surrounding trees. Lydia spent about an hour bent forward, hugging a bush that was partially in the sun. Allan dozed and read in his sunny posse by the river. I was suffering from debilitating chaffage you-know-where, and lay perfectly still with my knees bent up to avoid aggravating the situation. I admit to having pondered the possibility of calling a chopper if my problem got much worse, but rejected the idea partly on the basis that I would never live it down.

The creek did eventually drop enough for us to cross it. I stupidly dropped by pole climbing up the bank on the far side, and it was promptly gobbled by the torrent. Allan left his foldable Ray-Bans hanging on a tree at our rest spot.

We spent another two and a half hours sidling up to a terrace above Teichelmann Creek over an interminable series of side-creeks. It was in one of these side-creeks that we decided to check our position on Lydia’s iPhone and she discovered that all her electronics had drowned during the storm. The list of gear sacrificed to the Perth was growing long and expensive…A tent, an iPhone, a kindle, a powerbank, a trekking pole, Ray-Bans, a Nalgene, a hand-crafted wooden spoon, a windshield, a bunch of tent pegs.  Huey, the Guardians of the Perth, or whatever other foul-tempered gods it we were dealing with were not easily appeased…

When we did finally reach the terrace we were delighted to find some open travel and a network of well-worn deer tracks. We might have been travelling at 2-3km/hr but we felt like we were flying. Alas, the plateau ended and we plunged back into the thick bush down to Teichelmann Creek, which we reached after a short hour-long thrash. It was 8pm and we were still nearly 4km of rough travel to the hut, so we decided to call it a day. There wasn’t any rain forecast till midday the following day, so we pitched our battered tent, patched it up with pack-liners, and, after an uncommonly delicious dehy meal, crawled gratefully into our sodden pits.

We slept like the dead that night, emerging 9 hrs later on the other end of deep sleep with no sense of any time having passed. No stirrings, no dreams: nothing but the pitch-black blankness of perfect sleep.

The river had dropped significantly overnight, so that we could now wend our way over boulders along the bank.  We made good ground this way, occasionally wading in the shallows, ducking behind and under huge boulders, and shooting up into the bush where the riverbank was impassable. There were even a couple of river flats that we gratefully shambled over.

When at last the three-wire reared into view, we were almost taken aback by the sight of it. After days of perfect wilderness, the first sight of ‘civilization’ is always a bit startling. But of course we were also elated that we would soon be at the hut after a rough couple of days.

Scone Hut at last! The hut even had a bottle of pancake mix and 'maple flavoured' syrup. What more could you ask for?

Scone Hut at last! The hut even had a bottle of pancake mix and 'maple flavoured' syrup. What more could you ask for?

I must say I’ve never been happier to see at hut than Scone Hut. We ‘cha-hooed’ like a pack of excited baboons (which is basically what the ‘human animal’ is, when you get down to it) when at last we saw the hut.

Gear exploded out of packs, raining down in a 20m radius. Bodies slumped happily to the ground. We’d reached our home for the next two nights.

Scone Hut is situated immediately downstream of the Scone Creek confluence, in a clearing 50m away from the Perth. A small path leads down through lush grass to a sandy beach on the river’s edge. It’s a delightful place on a sunny day, and you’d never know that only 500m upstream the valley narrows dramatically, the gentle river assumes a menacing character and the bush turns to dense jungle.

Lydia looking glam in the sun by the Perth River. The braces are just for effect. After losing her kindle, she read Antics  and an old New Zealand Geographic cover to cover. Thanks OUTCers! 

Lydia looking glam in the sun by the Perth River. The braces are just for effect. After losing her kindle, she read Antics  and an old New Zealand Geographic cover to cover. Thanks OUTCers! 

We enjoyed a couple of night’s of R&R a Scone Hut before setting back out up the Scone early on Christmas day. A track goes as far as where the old swingbridge was. We’d read that it had been taken out by a storm. When we reached some recently slipped bluffs, and descended over a slurry of rock and trees splintered like matches to cross to the true right we weren’t sure if we were in the right place until we looked back across the river to see the mangled remains of the swingbridge hanging off the bluffs. This is why some old hats call this part of the Southern Alps ‘tiger country’. Everything is big; nothing is stable.

The mangled remains of the bridge over the Scone. Al and Lyd looking unimpressed. 

The mangled remains of the bridge over the Scone. Al and Lyd looking unimpressed. 

We stopped briefly by a beautiful icy tarn below Sealy Pass. Mist swirled around eerily and rocks spooked us as they crashed down off McKinnon Peak and echoed across the lake. The going looked easier on the true left, and I made start that way, but soon scurried back to the others after rockfall boomed out of the cloud above. The true right it was!

Our first glimpse of the upper Scone through parting clouds. McKinnon Peak in the top right. 

Our first glimpse of the upper Scone through parting clouds. McKinnon Peak in the top right. 

True to the theme of most passes on our traverse, Sealy Pass was shrouded in thick cloud, but this broke up as we descended towards the Neish Icefall and we caught glimpses of the Neish peaks now and them. We made short work of the descent to the lower Neish Glacier down a ramp Geoff Spearpoint had told Allan about. It’s an excellent route that links a series of snow patches under broken bluffs. The last section is a little delicate, involving either down-climbing a few meters of weetbix or the grovelling down a gully of loose scree.

Lydia beneath the Neish Icefall.

Lydia beneath the Neish Icefall.

Eating our lunch on a moraine hill where the Godley and Neish glaciers join, we were stunned to see that the Godley no longer calves into the terminal lake but is now about a kilometre away. The lake now has a braided delta of surprisingly fine sand that would make for good camping as long as it didn’t rain!

The day ended with a 700m climb up to the tops to the south-east of the Godley Lake to get past a short sections of cliffs and straight back down to Godley Hut.

We were amazed to come across a small fringe of lateral moraine that ran along the mountain side near the 1600m contour: this must have been the height of the glaciers during the last glacial maximum (14000-23000 years ago). The place must have looked like Patagonia, with vast glaciers studded with pinnacles of rock.

Godley Hut is a stunner of a hut. Built in 1934 and spruced up in 1955, it is packed charm and character and history. And it is, aptly for us, a Christmas green. We spent much of the next day lounging about on mattresses outside, watching high clouds scud past in the nor’west jet stream and drinking too much tea.

Godley Hut.

Godley Hut.

We set off down valley late in the afternoon to meet Lydia’s folks and brother, who were bringing in the food drop for the Godley to Mt Cook section, near Separation Stream. Allan and Lydia were particularly delighted to find that Ingrid and Michael-who had recently had knee surgery and was now limping along with the help of a single crutch had come too.  Another section had come to an end, and we were now a ‘short hop’ (6 days) from Mt Cook village…

But we’ll save that for the next post.  For now, it’s time for us to set off down the Waiau River to Lake Manapouri to kick off the final leg of our trip. One last two-week ‘hop’ through Fiordland and we’ll have completed the traverse. At least that’s the hope. See you in a couple of weeks!

A big shout out to Go Orange, who have provided us with awesome sea-kayaks for the Fiordland lakes. They are truly great folks.