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!!

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