Sunday, March 31, 2019

An absolute gem in Canterbury

I had been planning for quite a long time to walk the Mt Somers circuit, a quite popular tramp in mid Canterbury, less than 2 hours' drive from Christchurch. For a long time there had only been a path around the rear of the mountain, but in recent years a route had been formed across the southern face, making it into a loop track. Yes, one of those rarely seen occurrences in NZ!!

There is a track that climbs to the summit, but due to its steepness and the slippery scree required to negotiate, it's a long hard day just doing the summit climb. So I decided to find my own route around, then over the mountain and back to my car.

I parked at Sharplin Falls carpark, named after falls you can no longer visit after a landslide removed the track to them. There's a very nice river at the start of the walk, perfect for a quick post walk wash should I be so inclined..

The walk begins in lush beech forest, climbing steadily for a few hours until you gain the treeline. This just so happens to also be where Pinnacles Hut is sited, a popular spot for rock climbers tackling the nearby terrain. I stopped there for lunch, but it's a very cosy spot and well worth lingering at. I still had a few more hours of walking ahead to get to my destination.

Looking up towards the summit on my left, it was obscured by cloud, making the landscape rather gloomy. It's been a while since I looked at NZ scenery and was reminded of LOTR, mainly because I've become so accustomed to it.

Thankfully, by mid afternoon the clouds had burned off, the sun was shining and I am treated to glorious high country scenery.

Not far from Woolshed Creek Hut is a creek with numerous caves in it. Apparently it is possible to follow the creek up for an hour or so. I chose not to, deciding the water was perhaps a bit cold....

Woolshed Creek Hut is an extremely popular destination. There are school groups on outdoor education excursions camping, and lots of locals taking advantage of an easily accessible location. The walk in from the southern carpark only takes 2 hours. There's a few other souls walking the circuit, with one couple planning to take the same route as me the next day.

The next morning is sunny and clear, without a single cloud hanging around the peak. Mt Somers is known for being cloud enshrouded, which can make navigation across its featureless summit rather difficult. But not today, it's a cracker!

I head off early, to take advantage of the spectacular weather, as cloud can sweep in from the east at any time. There's an impressive swing bridge crossing a gorge and a nice waterfall to visit.

I continue along the circuit track until just before some bluffs known as the bus stop. There I leave the track to follow a ridgeline straight up.

The going isn't difficult, despite being trackless. It's open spinifex country, with a few swampy boggy areas that require some skirting around, and the climb is at a fairly gentle incline most of the way. There are a few features to take bearings off, and minimal speargrass to avoid. Best of all the sun is shining and the views across the Canterbury Plains are stupendous.

Following a second ridgeline, I make the summit. There I meet a couple of chaps who took a different route up from further along the southern face, camping overnight up high, and later a bunch of lads who took a third alternate route from near Pinnacles Hut. All of us intend to take the official route back down. Which turns out to be the gnarliest route of all!!

The official route is a slippery, rocky, scree and gravel strewn clamber. I am extremely happy I didn't have to climb up this way, as it is nothing short of diabolical. I am feeling the pain of the numerous day walkers I pass en route.

Back on the main track it is a two hour walk along numerous ridge lines making my way back to Sharplin Falls carpark. It has been a long hot day, with no water on the track from the summit, so I take advantage of that river, and go for a very refreshing, although brief, dip.

Then it's off to Methven to plan the next trip....

Monday, March 18, 2019

Packrafting 101

So I've been thinking of getting a watercraft for some time. Then I see a packraft for the first time and I immediately fall in love. Then I mull it over for a while, then I purchase one. But I'm yet to actually use one. I've never even had a trial run!!

When Arno sold me my packraft, he recommended I do a packrafting safety course, to gain some elementary skills in paddling safely, on rivers especially. I also got a discount off the course price. My packraft had not yet arrived, but I was able to use my newly purchased four piece carbon fibre paddle and personal flotation device (PFD).

There were six of us in the group. Two of us were doing just the two day safety course, the other four were continuing a further five days paddling the Hollyford Pyke circuit. This trip has become an iconic loop trip to do in a packraft, because 10 days of tramping in very wet conditions can be reduced to only 2 days of walking and 3 days of paddling. The Hollyford flows downstream through a lake to the sea, and then the Pyke flows the opposite direction back into the Hollyford only half a day's walk from the start of the track. There's some walking to be done from the coast to the Pyke headwaters, but that's the least difficult part of the otherwise rather wet and monotonous route that is better done by watercraft. It's on my list of future adventures....

Back in Te Anau we get introduced to all the gear, something I've already been through with Arno when I purchased my raft. Then we pack the van with the gear and head in to town for coffee at a local cafe where we meet Andy, our second instructor, and then drive out to the control gates to begin the practical bit.

The Waiau River begins at the outlet of Lake Te Anau, flows down into Lake Manapouri, and then out of Manapouri to discharge on the south coast. Since the building of the hydroelectric scheme at West Arm on Lake Manapouri, the flow of water out of both lakes is controlled, so the river between the two lakes is generally a Grade 1 with a few small rapids. Perfect for our first day.

First step was to do a car shuffle and blow up our packrafts. Being the first time it took a while to get the hang of inflating the large bags, twisting the top shut and then squeezing the trapped air into the raft. The rafts have one way valves for inflation, which makes the job pretty simple, and with practice, should take less than 5 minutes to have a fully inflated raft. Needless to say it took all of us a lot longer!!

Next, into wetsuits and a bit of swimming in the river to test our self rescue skills. It is an absolute given that at some stage when using a packraft you WILL end up in the drink so we needed to learn about safety, especially how to swim across a current and to keep our feet up at all times to prevent them getting caught on obstacles that could then pull us down and drown us. Both Arno and Andy took care to make us understand and respect a river environment, and to not underestimate how dangerous it could be.

Lucky for us it was a warm sunny day, so our time in the water wasn't too unpleasant, and soon we were allowed to start paddling our rafts and learn skills like reading the river for various features that could help or hinder us, paddling into and out of eddies, ferry gliding and a few different paddling strokes.

We stopped along the way for lunch and then continued our float down the Waiau, trying out our newly learnt skills as we encountered small rapids and negotiated our way through them. We finished up at Queens Reach where we deflated and rolled up our rafts and took the van back to Te Anau.

Day 2 we headed out to Gunns Camp on the Hollyford River, where we inflated the rafts again and donned our wetsuits. It was another glorious sunny day and the sandflies weren't that bad at all....

The Hollyford was definitely a step up from the placid Waiau River with much more gnarly Grade 2 rapids and quite a few overhanging tree trunks, otherwise known as strainers, which are to be avoided at all times. I, however, managed to overturn my raft and get trapped behind a log, but the water was thankfully not flowing strong enough for me to get into any serious trouble. I did, however, give both Andy and Arno a huge fright, and my paddling efforts got considerably more strenuous after that little episode!!!

By the end of Day 2 we had successfully paddled a small section of the river through numerous Grade 2 rapids, had scoped a few rapids that we had chosen to portage rather than run, and had all survived the day! The beauty of the packraft is that being so light, carrying it overland to avoid scary looking pieces of whitewater is hardly any effort at all. They are also extremely stable, and even when you hit rocks there is so much give in their inflatable hulls that you seem to bounce off easily and keep going.

I drove back to Te Anau with a new respect for the raw power of a wild river, and a bit of trepidation that I would soon be using one of these craft by myself. I still had to wait for my packraft to arrive from the US, where it is being custom made. So off on other adventures in the meantime....

(My apologies that there are no photographs. I had been hoping to get some photos sent me from others in the group, but that hasn't happened. Time to remedy that situation and get some waterproofing for my camera!)

Thursday, March 14, 2019

When the volunteer job comes with it's own hot pools!

In April last year I walked in to Welcome Flat Hut on the Copland Track with my friend Emma. We stayed two nights with the plan to walk up to the next hut further up the valley, but in the end just lazed away the day in the hot pools. Emma had done a gig there as a volunteer warden and I thought that sounded like a nice idea, so a few weeks later I sent in an application to volunteer during Spring 2018. I never heard back from them.

Then out of the blue last week I received an email asking if I, or anyone I knew, was available to volunteer for a week at short notice. I had nothing planned after the Hidden Lake tramp, so I replied I could do it, and then rang them from the top of the St Bathans Ranges to get the rest of the details.

I passed through Wanaka for a couple of days and then drove to Fox Glacier for the night before receiving a short orientation the next morning and then being driven to the carpark for the 6-7 hour walk in. I must be getting fit, because the walk only took me five hours....

At Welcome Flat I met the full time summer warden, Duncan, who finished my orientation and then walked out the next morning. I was relieving him for seven days, as Duncan works 10 days on, 5 off. There's a little overlap to cover orientation and time spent walking in and out. Someone still has to clean the hut on the changeover days.

The volunteer Hut warden's job isn't very onerous. There's a radio report to be made each morning back to Haast DOC office, informing them of hut numbers and what your plans for the day are, the hut needs to be swept clean and kitchen areas wiped down, and the two toilets need cleaning. Then at 4pm another radio call in, when the weather forecast is given, and I'm told the numbers booked at the hut for that evening. Then about 6pm I do a short hut talk regarding fire safety and hut etiquette to the walkers who have arrived, and check their booking slips.

Most huts in New Zealand work on a first in basis, except for The Great Walks Huts where bookings are mandatory. Then there are a handful of other huts which have become so popular that they were getting overcrowded. DOC's solution has been to institute a booking system to control the numbers, which stops these places being overused. It's actually a better solution than building bigger huts, at least for the environment, if not for the tourists!!

Welcome Flats is popular because of the hot pools, though I'm yet to be convinced that walking up a so so river valley for 5-6 hours each way is actually worth it. Most people only stay the one night, it really seems a lot of effort.....

Over the week I am there we are full on a few nights, mostly weekends, but some nights there are only a handful of people. One day the track gets closed due to high rainfall, a not uncommon occurrence on the west coast where torrential rain can quickly make side creeks far too dangerous to cross. I meet a wonderful mix of local Kiwis and international tourists, and even a very brave Swiss couple who took the mountaineering route over from Hooker Glacier. They said the route was terrifying, as the rock on the exposed moraine just kept moving under them!!! (Back in the 70s the Copland Track from Mt Cook to the west coast was a fairly easy tramp, but these days, as the glaciers have retreated, it is only for highly experienced, perhaps slightly crazy, mountaineers)...

The Hut Warden has their own private quarters down a path from the main hut. I have access to a gas hot water system so can have hot showers. But the gas califont decided to pack up after a couple of days! Thankfully there was also a wetback so I simply needed to stoke up the fire and turn the water system over so it used the wetback to warm my water. Coal is flown in by helicopter to service the hut and quarters, but dry wood is hard to come by, so we restrict fires in the main hut to cold rainy days to conserve meagre supplies.

On a fine sunny day I at last manage to walk further up the valley to Douglas Rock Hut, which sits just below the treeline surrounded by glaciers and waterfalls. Unfortunately I only had time for a hurried lunch before having to head back down to my warden duties that evening.

And often, late at night, when all the walkers were asleep, I'd go and sit in the hot pools and look up at the milky way. I really could have stayed there longer.....

But soon my time was over and I had to walk back out. I met Duncan en route and gave him a quick handover, then it was on to the carpark, Fox Glacier village for the night, then back to Wanaka to see Harry for an eye checkup.

Then off to Te Anau for a packrafting course!