Monday, June 11, 2018

Gold mining and winter tramping

Reefton, inland from Greymouth on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island, is an area with a long history of gold mining. There are a bunch of old mining ghost towns in the area, many with relics still intact due to the remoteness of the region making retrieving equipment too costly.

I headed off on a 3 day loop tramp along the Kirwan's Track, combining a walk through history and a visit to a Hut with a spectacular view. As usual, I timed my tramp to coincide with spectacular sunny weather.

New Zealand is renowned for it's changeable weather due to being a long narrow country with a central spine of mountains surrounded by ocean. Warm ocean fronts hitting these high mountains cause high precipitation, but also rain shadows. I'm no meteorologist, but I have found a weather app that seems to get the algorithm right more often than not. Apparently New Zealand farmers use this one too, and so far it has done an excellent job of steering me to parts of the country where I don't have to tramp in torrential rain for days on end. Whilst I have been tramping in the sun other parts of New Zealand have been closed down with huge weather fronts causing massive flooding, high snowfall, and numerous road closures. The Southern Lakes have had huge dumps of snow, and the ski fields are opening early this year. But meanwhile, I'm enjoying the sunshine....

The Kirwan's Track commences at Caplestone, once a goldfields town and now just a cow paddock and DOC carpark beside a river. The track follows an old route made by the goldminers to get to their mines, so it's benched and pretty easy going. There's a tunnel through rock to a swing bridge, which is pretty cool, but it's otherwise like many walks in New Zealand, through mossy beech and mixed podocarp forest, past pristine streams and mini waterfalls, as it climbs higher and higher to the treeline.

The final half a kilometre is the steepest of the day, through gnarly mountain beeches, to the snow covered tussocks and Kirwan's Hut. The Hut is insulated and double glazed, with a stove and a good supply of coal, so there's no chance of getting cold. I have now learnt how to get a coal fire going, with a little bit of advice from a fellow tramper...

The views from the Hut are spectacular. I can see the snow covered Alps all the way down the coast. Can you see Mounts Tasman and Cook side by side?

The sunset is also spectacular, the colour enhanced by an advancing cloud bank, which is forecast for the following day. I take the opportunity to take some photos of the Milky Way whilst the sky is clear.

The next morning I am woken early by John, the other tramper in the hut overnight, getting up extra early to head off before sunrise to finish the loop that day, before the rain. My weather app had not predicted rain, only cloud, and I only intended to walk 4 hours to Montgomerie Hut, so I declined John's offer of a cup of tea, and went back to sleep. By the time I do arise, the sun is up and the view is entirely clogged in by cloud. But it isn't actually raining...

The tramp heads down into the next river valley, and there are a few stops enroute to view old mining mementoes. There are old diggings, the remains of an aerial cableway, and an ore crushing stamper battery which was restored by DOC staff in 2009.

Montgomerie Hut is situated beside the river of the same name, at the end of a very muddy 4WD track. Complaints in the hut book of the muddiness of the track, and the conversation I had with a tramper I met yesterday, have me prepared for it being arduous and monotonous. Unlike John, who is completing the entire 30km in one day, I had planned to do this next section tomorrow, so I have a very leisurely afternoon, chopping wood for the wood stove, and listening to podcasts.

The next morning the promised rain arrives, in the guise of a gentle downpour and no wind. Just enough to put on the raincoat, but after an hour the weather has cleared and the coat goes back in the bag. The walk along the muddy 4WD track is easy, with all the puddles easy to avoid or navigate without too much trouble.

I contemplate the nature of people's experiences when tramping, and how these are tempered by the weather, individual expectations, and on how much country they need to cover in a day. Splitting up the tramp into two sections allows me to take my own sweet time (5 hours including a lunch break and a couple of detours) completing the 20.5km back to Caplestone carpark. I can enjoy the journey as I know I can make it back with lots of available daylight.

The track leaves the river at Gannons Bridge to climb back over to the river valley where I began the tramp. It's a steep swampy climb to what is the most ugly part of the walk, as the track follows old forestry roads through denuded pine forest plantations. Not all of New Zealand is drop dead gorgeous....

Then it's back down to the carpark, where I meet some fellow trampers just back from a return trip up to Kirwan's Hut. They, unfortunately, missed out on the epic views due to cloud cover, but they have little choice over timing when they can only get away on weekends. I'm so lucky to be able to schedule my tramps regardless of the weekday.

Now it's on down the west coast, to Hokitika for a few days before getting back into ski goddess mode for the winter....

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