Sunday, April 28, 2019

Adventure in the Catlins

Over the summer of 2017/18 I'd spent my time living in the Catlins, managing a small hostel and chilling out while recovering from my third lot of surgery on my left eye. I'd visited most of the tourist attractions in the area, but there were a couple of huts up in the forests inland that I was keen to visit.

My first hut was Tautuku Hut. It's only a couple of hours, if that, walk from the McLean Falls carpark, but it's not signposted and with the falls closed due to a landslide along the track, the access was actually blocked off. I ran into the DOC ranger as I drove down to the carpark and he told me to jump the fence as I wasn't planning on going to the falls anyway.

The hut itself is merely a tin shed near a river. There is no fireplace, you get water from the river, and there is no toilet. Permolat Southland has been given the go ahead to seek funding for improvements to the hut and track, so that is likely to change.

The track is a little muddy in places, but otherwise a pretty easy stroll up a hill, along a ridge, then down to the hut beside a small river. The forest is mixed podocarp, and there is lots of birdlife. There's a reason for this.

This section of forest sits behind the Lenz Reserve, a 550 hectare conservation area owned and managed by Forest and Bird. Extensive trapping, both within the reserve and in the forests around it, have made it a haven for wildlife. It is absolutely teeming with birds.

I spent a quiet night, but was woken early by a spectacular morning chorus. Something I used to look forward to every morning on the Bibbulmun Track is a distant memory in New Zealand. But not today. As I walk back through the forest I take a sound recording. My friend who works for DOC later counts more than 10 different bird calls. She is so thrilled she asks me to send her a copy! She also tells me about some other huts to go visit...

My second hut adventure starts with me taking what I think is a shortcut, up a dirt road that quickly deteriorates. I have nowhere to turn around so I stupidly keep going, and then get stuck. I have a low slung 2WD, not a big grunty 4x4, what was I thinking?

I have no signal on my phone, or my satellite beacon, so I initially start to self rescue, attempting to dig the car out with my hand trowel. This is slow, dirty work, but I make some headway, jacking the car up and placing branches in the deep wheelruts. Still I am stuck.

I walk a little way to see if I can improve the signal, but for some reason, even though I have direct line of sight to the sky, no messages get through. I find a spot in the pine trees and pitch my tent. I am fully prepared for a few nights out bush anyway, just not quite there!

The next morning my beacon decides to work, and I get a message through to a friend at Papatowai, who calls a friend in Owaka, who drives out with his mate in a 4x4 and they pull me out. I give them $50 for their effort and drive sheepishly on to Surat Bay, where Jack and Esther give me a warm welcome and a bed for the night. The next morning I enjoy my breakfast from my usual spot.

Then I head off for more adventures....

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Exploring Fiordland by foot and packraft

After my epic four day adventure I headed back to Wanaka for a few days to catch up with friends and plan some more trips. But first I popped in to see Andy (Arno's business partner) and purchased myself a drysuit. That's another 1.2kg to add to the weight, worth it if a trip involves a lot of paddling.

I took the packraft out onto Lake Wanaka and practised self rescue (pulling myself back in to the raft after deliberately self capsizing) a few times. It gave me a chance to test the integrity of the drysuit, and I stayed happily warm despite dunking myself numerous times in an alpine lake on an overcast, slightly windy day....

Then I saw a notice on a Facebook page that I follow looking for volunteers to do some track cutting and trap setting at Doubtful Sound over Easter, so I put my hand up for that adventure and headed back down to Te Anau to do some further exploring in Fiordland.

First I went on a paddle down the Eglinton River. This is the river valley that tourists drive along on their way from Te Anau to Milford Sound. There are a few lakes and pools by the road to stop at, but the river itself isn't on the tourist radar, yet there's a nice little gorge to paddle through.

I drove my car to the put in spot: a nondescript DOC campsite just off the road. There I inflated the raft, donned my drysuit and walked down to the river. Then it was an easy float through some braided river sections until the gorge itself.

The gorge is less than a kilometre long, and aside from one cheeky class 2 rapid right at the start of the gorge, it's a lovely glide between fern encrusted walls before emerging back into cattle country. I only took a few photos, and one video. I'm yet to get a waterproofed camera....

After a few more kilometres of braided river I arrived at the pullout point, packed up the gear and walked the short distance back to the road to hitch back to my car. Job done!

Another day I headed further up the Milford road, to hike Key Summit and Lake Marion. Key Summit is at the end of the Routeburn Track, one of The Great Walks, so very popular indeed. As it's only an hour from the roadend it's a very pleasant morning hike to take in some very spectacular views down the Hollyford Valley and also across to my afternoon's destination.

Lake Marion has been instagrammed to death. It's a beautiful glacial cirque lake that is easily accessible, although the track up to it does require appropriate footwear. There's a spectacular torrent of whitewater to visit via wooden walkways, but after there the quality of the track surface deteriorates exponentially. It's not a difficult walk by backcountry standards, but it's definitely a change from the well graded path on the other side of the valley!

The lake is gorgeous, of course....

I got back to the carpark, by which time the sun had well and truly dipped below the peaks. But I didn't have far to drive, just down the Hollyford Valley Road to Gunns Camp. I stayed two nights in my little tent, as I had a plan to be up bright and early the next day to go paddle Milford Sound. In my packraft!

I was on the water by 8am. It was a lovely sunny day, the water was glassy, and I had the entire place to myself before the tourist boats started up for the day.

There hadn't been rain for quite a few days (this is extremely unusual in west Fiordland, where annual rainfall tops 8 metres!) so many of the waterfalls weren't pumping quite as much as usual. I paddled along the southern side of the sound, increasingly being overtaken by the numerous cruise boats, who all gave me lots of room and didn't cause too much wash. All the same, it did get somewhat annoying having to keep altering direction to avoid any risk of capsizing.

I stopped in a small bay not all that far from the heads and had lunch. A bunch of scuba divers turned up on a dive break and visited the waterfall behind the beach, so I did too. The sandflies weren't too bad, although most of me was protected by my drysuit....

On the paddle back I crossed the sound to the northern side, in order to pass the big waterfalls on that side. Luckily there was only a light wind, and it was a westerly, so it wasn't too difficult a crossing, and again the tour boats gave me enough room. I wonder what all those tourists thought of that sole paddler in her inflatable craft....

Later in the afternoon the wind picked up, but since it was a westerly it simply helped blow me back down the sound to the boat ramp. I got back just before the sun went down, which it does early when surrounded by high peaks. I was glad to only be driving a few kilometres back to the Hollyford Valley after such a long day on the water.

The next morning it was nice to have a lie in and take my time drying all my gear and tent before packing up and driving back to Te Anau.  But first my packraft needed a name!

The following day I was heading down to Manapouri to take the boat across the lake to West Arm and down to Deep Cove to do some volunteer work with Permolat Southland. This is a small group of Southland based volunteers who help maintain backcountry huts and tracks that DOC no longer has the budget or inclination to continue doing. It's a spinoff of the very successful longer running west coast based Permolat group. Permolat, by the way, is the brand name of the aluminium blinds common back in the 70s. They make great track markers when cut into squares and nailed to a tree!

We were there on the invitation of the Deep Cove Outdoor Education Trust, which has a hostel there for school groups, as well as providing accommodation for the regular public. It's pretty busy over Easter with lots of boats being driven over Wilmott Pass to spend a few days fishing in Doubtful Sound. We, however are there to do work!

On our first day we split into two groups of 3. Wally, Stan and I cut a trapping track and installed 50 rat and stoat traps. These traps are loaded with a gas canister and should a critter be attracted by the chocolate smelling bait and stick its head into the trap, a gas powered needle goes through its brain and it is humanely dispatched for the local Wekas to feed on.

NZ had no land based mammals aside from bats before man arrived. Rats came with the Maori, deer and rabbits were introduced by European settlers for hunting, and possums for a fur trade. Stoats were introduced to try and control the rabbits, which failed dismally. All these mammals have impacted disastrously on habitat, as well as devastating native bird populations through both competition and predation. Because NZ birds evolved without any predators, even the ones that can fly frequently nest in ground crevices, where their young are vulnerable to attack. It is common to go tramping in NZ and not hear or see much birdlife. You really celebrate when the birds are there!

All over New Zealand traps are being set to catch these out of control predators. All levels of community are involved, from large government organisations like DOC, to hunters, trampers and even school children who manage local traplines. The job is so huge that anyone can get involved, with the full backing of government conservation groups.

In recent years there has been an increasing use of a nasty poison called 1080, which can be dropped by air in pellet form over inaccessible country, and is extremely effective at reducing predator numbers. It has caused a huge polarising debate in NZ, with anti 1080 protestors using the same illogic and tactics as antivaxers. Despite the science, the anti 1080 brigade spout the usual conspiracy theories, and recently have started threatening and attacking DOC workers. 1080 is also used extensively in Australia, to control feral foxes and cats, and although it is not a pleasant way to die, there is no alternative in NZ if there is any chance of preventing extinction of a huge amount of native birds.

Whilst we were setting our high tech traps, Alastair, Gavin and Ross headed off to cut an unused track behind the hostel up to a lake. They had a much harder job as the path was almost vertical and overgrown after not being used for many years. They didn't make it to the lake, as the rain began to set in mid afternoon making work with power tools somewhat difficult.

The next day the rain was really heavy so we decided to postpone track work until it eased. Whilst the others read books or helped with the new classroom being built, I inflated my packraft and went for a paddle!

Both Stan and Gavin are also packrafters, and their adventures crossing numerous alpine passes and waterways makes my meagre adventure up Titiroa seem like a walk in the park. I mine them for all sorts of information, and even manage to borrow Gavin's Moir's South (which is out of print and the best resource for backcountry tramping in Fiordland) and scan as many pages as possible. Neither of them had thought to bring their packrafts, so it is just me, out in the rain, paddling past some spectacular waterfalls. I need to go back and spend more time there....

The rain begins to settle late afternoon, too late to do any work, but the next morning we head off up the road to cut another track to a view point. The old track markers are almost impossible to find, so it takes us all day to cut less than a kilometre!

On the way back we visit another waterfall.

And as it's my birthday, the boys have made me a cake!

Finally it's time to drive back up Wilmott Pass to West Arm for the ferry back to Manapouri. Wally is keen to visit West Arm Hut, the first hut on the Dusky Track, mainly so he can tick it off on Hutbaggers! I will too!

We load all the gear back on the Real Journeys boat and head back to civilisation. I say farewell to my new friends and head off for further adventures...

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

My Epic First Packrafting Trip

So there I was in Methven, chilling out watching Netflix and waiting for the next good weather window before tackling another tramp in the Canterbury foothills when I got a text from Arno to let me know my packraft had finally arrived. It was now early April, and the weather would soon be turning cold, especially in Fiordland, so I ditched the upcoming tramp and drove down to Te Anau instead. Since this involved driving through Frankton in the outskirts of Queenstown, it was also an opportunity to stock up on cheap groceries at PaknSave!!

Once settled in Te Anau I eagerly drove out to Arno's place to pick up my new toy! Then straight down to the Waiau River to give it a try out!

It was another warm day and I had no intention of taking a swim, so I opted for wearing my wet weather shells over some warm thermals, which worked fine on a sunny day with no wind. I inflated the packraft and took it for a spin down the stretch of water we had floated down on our packrafting safety course. I practised getting into and out of eddies, did some ferry gliding and had a much faster run down to Queens Reach given I wasn't being instructed with a group.

At Queens Reach I let the raft dry in the sun, rolled it up and packed it and my gear into my old 44L backpack for the walk back along the river to my car. It gave me a good idea of how bulky the raft was, even though it packs incredibly small, and my first go at working out where to pack the split down paddle, PFD and helmet. It's going to be quite a chore managing my tramping gear as well as a packraft when your tramping pack is as small as mine is!!

The weight? Well I'm not actually sure how much everything weighs. The raft is about 2-2.5Kg, the PFD and paddle probably add another 1.5kg, give or take. It's incredibly light for a water craft, but it's still extra weight and bulk on a trip....

So, having had a trial run in my new raft, it was time to go on an expedition! In my case to go climb a mountain I'd been wanting to visit for some time, but you need a way to cross some water to get to it. Now I was set....

First step was to pack the raft and four days of food for a tramp into my Aarn backpack, drive down to Manapouri to leave the car in the long stay carpark, then hitch back to Te Anau and back to the control gates at the start of the Waiau River.

Next, inflate packraft, stowing most of my gear inside the raft before inflating, a very handy customisable feature of these rafts, but only useful if not planning on doing any serious portaging. My plan for the day was to float down the Waiau River to Lake Manapouri then paddle around the corner to a small DOC hut in Shallow Bay.

It took a while to sort out packing my gear into the dry bags and then closing up the Ti-zip (after lubricating it carefully) before inflating my raft and getting onto the water. It was an overcast day with a slight wind, and although I was only damp from the ingress of water from paddling along, by lunchtime I was feeling somewhat chilly.

I stopped in the sun on a river bend not far from the Rainbow Reach suspension bridge and waved at walkers on the Kepler Track. A bit of food and sun warmed me up for the final stretch down to the river mouth and then it was an easy paddle around the corner to the hut. I quickly changed into dry clothes and put my wet gear in the sun to dry, whilst collecting wood and getting the fire going in the hut.

Over the way you could see Moturau Hut, one of the Kepler Track huts, but it was quiet at Shallow Bay, apart from a couple of jet boats bringing tourists for a quick look around and toilet stop. A young American lad arrived just on dusk, so it was just us and the ducks...

The next morning dawned sunny and still. I got away early, before any wind could get up on the Lake, as I had a 6 km open lake crossing to paddle, from where I could hug the shoreline around into Hope Arm to get to my destination. It took a few hours, and the lake stayed glassy the whole way, so it was a very pleasant paddle in the sunny weather. I had timed this trip to coincide with good weather, but Fiordland is notoriously fickle so glorious weather is always a bonus.

I stopped for lunch in a small sandy cove half way up Hope Arm, then paddled the final leg to Hope Arm Hut at the head of the reach. It's the middle of "the roar", the annual one month deer hunting spree when stags are rutting for new mates and less careful about becoming venison! There's already some people in the hut, and there are a few others camping. I chat with a couple of locals here on a hunting trip, who offer me a beer and agree to watch my packraft whilst I go climb a mountain.

I am again a bit cold after a day of paddling. Water gets into the packraft mostly from dripping off the paddle. It runs down your arms, and pools in the raft, which is not self bailing. The raft has only a small amount of water in the bottom of it, but it's enough to give me a wet bum, since even good wet weather gear isn't all that waterproof. I realise I will need to get myself a drysuit if I am really going to enjoy this packrafting gig. Being cold in the NZ wilderness is potentially fatal, in fact more people die from hypothermia than accidents when out tramping...

The hut is toasty warm overnight, courtesy of a big bag of coal brought in by boat by my fellow hut companions, who are on a fishing trip. I cook up my second steak in two days, relishing the opportunity to bring heavy fresh food on a trip when you don't actually have to carry it on your back!! All my wet gear also gets dry.

The next morning I leave my raft and some gear with the hunters and head off to climb Titiroa. This is a stunning granite topped peak, which from a distance looks like it is snow covered all year around. This peak doesn't get much traffic, mainly because there isn't actually a track to it.

The first part is to follow the track behind Hope Arm Hut up and over into the next valley, to Garnock Burn and Snow White Clearing. Cool name hey? From here the burn is crossed and then it's a scramble upwards, avoiding bluffs as you go, until you reach the treeline. It took me 3 hours!

Once above the treeline you can see the granite topped ridge ahead. This is a very long scramble, avoiding the slippery scree fields and negotiating a few boulder hops, to the summit. The views are stupendous! You can see pretty well all the way to the Southern Ocean, and north over both Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau...

I arrived at the summit just as the sun was setting, the climb having taken me a full 9 hours from the hut. A French fellow in the hut last night was doing the return trip in one day, but I'd decided to bivy up high and make it an overnight trip. So I had more gear, and so took considerably longer. He was also much younger and fitter than me, and I was actually looking forward to staying up there for the evening and early morning light and colours.

I flew down the scree slopes trying to get as much distance from the summit before dark. The light was fading fast so I looked for a nice big rock to shelter under in my bivy bag and have something to eat. Somehow I had failed to pack my dehydrated evening meal, but since there was little water up on the ridge (there were tarns nearby but not close enough to make my way to in the dark), I made do with half a slab of chocolate instead!

The morning dawned to another spectacular day. A cold wind had come up early in the morning, making it a place not to linger once out of my warm sleeping bag. I headed down the ridge further, where I found a small stream to fill up my water supplies for the rest of the descent.

Making my way downhill through the untracked forest took me less time than the climb, but it was still hard going keeping an eye on my direction using GPS and a compass. I never rely solely on a GPS unit (I use a combination of my phone and my InReach to work out where I am), preferring to also use a compass and visual navigation to keep me on my toes and aware of my surroundings. The sound of the burn at the bottom made it easy enough, but there were still numerous drops and rocky bluffs to avoid.

Once over the burn it was simply a matter of picking up the track back to Hope Arm Hut. There I repacked my bags and inflated the packraft for the final paddle to Manapouri. One of the fishermen gave me a ride in his boat to George Bay portage track, a 10 minute shortcut across a narrow neck of land which would shave off a full hour of paddling around the peninsula. I now only had a short paddle across a small section of the lake to get back to my car. Luckily there was only a mild breeze, so I took the open water option rather than hugging the shoreline.

By late afternoon I was back in Te Anau drying out the packraft and contemplating my next adventure. I was damned proud of myself, as my first trip had been exactly why I'd purchased a packraft in the first place. Not every day do you float down a river, cross a lake, climb a mountain, then paddle back across a lake home again. Epic!!