Over two months have elapsed since we reached the South Coast of Te Wahipounamu/the South Island. Bourne out to sea on the swift waters of the Waitutu River on a perfect sunny day, we were spat out into the surf in our packrafts. We whooped and hugged, and plunged into the brackish surf but I, for one, was unable to take it in; to give the moment it’s due.
Perhaps it was the giddying pace of river travel-which in comparison to walking felt like flying. And the enthralment as we watched keenly for upcoming rapids and fallen trees that might require a spell of manic paddling or an ungainly ejection and portage. Whatever it was, we were thrilled to reach the coast, but the last few hundred meters were bittersweet.
I had been alternating between paddling with single-minded intent to reach the coast, and letting the river carry me as I tried to commit these last moments to memory. We wanted to savour the moment, but it was too much fun, too absorbing, for reflection. And suddenly the trees over the banks were stunted and windswept, and, around the next bend the sea sprung up on us.
I think we were a bit overwhelmed by the experience, to take it that our 4 month journey was truly as it’s end, and that within a couple of days we would be back in ‘civilization’. Back in the world where it seems to me that life is so much more complex, and finding happiness and purpose requires pulling off a fine balancing act.
The need to finish the blog has been looming over me since we finished back in late February, and I’ve made a few brief and abortive attempts at writing it, but it already feels like it belongs to another world and as time passes the task becomes more daunting. So I’m going to keep it as blow by blow as I’m capable of as I bring the blog up to the end of the trip over the next couple of days...
After reaching State Highway 6 at Pleasant Flat in the Lower Haast on the afternoon of the 18th January, hours before the first of two ‘weather bombs’ that we’d been receiving concerned messages about was due to explode, we decided that there was nothing for it but to take a few days off. We scattered for a couple of days to catch up with respective family, friends and squeezes, and a bolstered team regrouped Wanaka a few days later. Mark was back on the team after 6 weeks out with a knee injury, and our friend Cade was joining us through to the Matukituki.
For the purpose of joining the dots Al’s dad, David Brent dropped Al, Lydia and I back at Pleasant Flat so we could bike over Haast Pass to Makarora. We set out in perfect early morning conditions: the road was dry but the bush was cool and wet from recent rain. The ride felt like a cakewalk after a few days’s rest and with memory of biking over Arthur’s Pass from Otira still fresh in our minds. And what joy to sail down the eastern side to Makarora with a tailwind most of the way.
We bid our fantastic support crew farewell on the windswept banks of the Makarora under a darkening sky and stripped down to our gruts for a crossing. The Makarora was running lower than expected it might be after all the rain, and the crossing was plain-wading but well over the nethers.
We beat the rain to Kerin Forks Hut, and were immediately back at our opportunistic ways as we scoured the place for abandoned food despite our full packs. We spent a pleasant evening in the company of an interesting American who spends half of the year living in the Alaskan wilderness for work, and who was in New Zealand for fly-fishing. He sure knew how to travel in style: he was pack-rafting out to Makarora the next day.
Next day onwards to Top Forks Hut before sitting out another spell of driving rain. We spent a productive couple of days at Top Forks, beating cabin fever by cutting and chopping a large windblown mountain beech with blunt axe and bow saw. Lydia, Cade and I played some high-pressure games of bananagrams and we read and played cards the rest of the time to distract ourselves from boredom eating.
Deteriorating forecasts had been a constant feature of our traverse to date, and so they were to prove on this section too. The length of the trip helped keep our morale up over the first two months as we reasoned that we had time on our side and that even if we only managed a fraction of our smorgasbord of ambitions, the trip would be worth 10 years of weekend and holiday missions. We remained ever hopeful that the weather would improve-not because we felt it was our due but because it seemed to statistically improbable that our rotten luck would continue indefinitely (and so it proved eventually, though we still had another 3 weeks of cats and dogs and a howling Huey before us).
As the months wore on the weather did gradually sap our morale as we had to forgo a string of summit attempts and exciting routes in favour of ho hum alternatives. We became progressively more desperate, and as we neared our last two chances to get high: the Aspiring massif and the Olivine Ice Plateau, our frustration reached a pitch. I took to periodically yelling obscenities at Huey on high (the curmudgeonly god of weather) and the others would make a show of trying to restrain me, lest I bring on more bad luck.
A wishful plan to make a dash for a Volta-Therma traverse was downgraded to a Volta foray and eventually abandoned in favour of crossing over Rabbit Pass as the Anna Brent gave us updates of the forecast on the InReach. But in Top Forks hut she gave wind of a three day break the following week. We leaped and howled for joy and hugged and pretty much lost the plot for a good 10 minutes on hearing this: we were going to get a chance to cross the Olivines. We should have known better than to give in to our hopes: the forecast break was still a week away and the summer’s weather patterns had been had eluded the forecasters time and again, but such was our yearning for good news.
In the meantime, the forecast gave us something to look forward to and we were able to enjoy a stretch of easy travel through familiar but awesome (in the old sense) country. The route from Top Forks to Rabbit Pass goes through scenery of otherworldly dimensions and beauty. Dramatic swathes of cloud raced overhead, parting here and there to offer glimpses of fresh snow on high tussock flanks, glaciers and peaks and the fearsome banded cliffs that form the eastern aspects of the peaks thrust up by the Moonlight Fault-all lit up in electrifying light.
The Waterfall face was still a bit wet, so we took extra care with our footing and handholds, especially when the wind picked up and whipped about as we neared the top-out into the hanging valley head. The valley head boasts a wealth of good campsites but with so much choice nothing was quite right so we continued on to the head of the valley where the ground drops away suddenly to the East Matukituki flats 800m below. We enjoyed a rare clear evening on the tops, admiring the triangle of rock above the precarious hanging glacier on Pickelhaube and its unclimbed east face.
The next day was a pleasant day’s travel down the Matuk’, featuring a fine swimming hole and a fire cooked lunch at Ruth Flat under Fortress Fastness. We were tempted to stop the night under the ‘Mountain Tree’ (named after an eponymous poem by pioneering mountaineer Paul Powell) at Junction Flat but the westerly was already getting stroppy, and we wanted to make ground to maximize our chances of capitalizing on the promised ‘weather window’ but getting to Liverpool Hut the next night.
We spend the night in the Tititea Wilderness Education Center- the old Aspiring Station homestead until 1969- where there was a working bee weekend was under way. We had arrived unbidden, though Allan’s mother had some connection with someone in the trust that runs the center, and it took a while for the manager to warm to us but we ended up having a great evening and helping out with wood chopping and stacking for a few hours the next morning to earn our keep. The old hats were in awe of Lydia’s tractor driving skills (she’d recently driven an old Ferguson tractor down the country for her work with the Antarctic Heritage Trust), and were all very taken with her.
We met up with Anna Brent (Al’s mum) and Al- who’d gone ahead to meet her while we worked-at the Matukituki road and here our hopes were dashed. The proffered weather window that had made us so gay the last few days had shrunk to a single day of passable weather. Our planned route to the Olivines via the Arawhata and over Camp Oven Dome required at least three days of decent weather.
We bid Cade farewell in driving rain, and, turning into the rain, trudged up the road to Raspberry Flat.