Participants: Naomi Wells, Rose Pearson, Jan Sintenie, Sharon Hornblow, Emily Wilson, Nick Riordan
Dates: December 16th to 24th, 2012
Author: Nick Riordan
The trip began with a bang. The car doors that is, slamming shut on six bodies and packs all crammed into a wee Honda city. We drove our way down from Christchurch to Glenorchy in record time, only stopping for pies and coffee four times on account of the careful balance between space in our stomachs and bladders. It was the December holiday, and our aim was to wander up the Beansburn, Olivine, and Forgotten Rivers in search of the Forgotten River Hotel and a much awaited white Christmas on the Olivine Ice Plateau. It wasn’t till Tarras that we identified the petrol smell in the backseat as a half litre of meths leaking over our 4 kilos of Tararua Biscuit. Oh well. In the carpark near the Routeburn Track, we passed around Naomi’s pan of rhubarb crumble one last time, squeezed a few more dollops of custard into our mouths, hoisted our packs, and walked into the bush, or rather, the well articulated and marked path through the straight standing trees.
The night found us just as we arrived at the Rockburn Hut. A dark but dry little cement number that was situated amongst some of the largest beech trees I’d ever laid eyes on (one of which fell and crushed the hut the very next month in a raging Norwester). This would be our one and only night in a hut, so we made good use of it, cramming together round the table, with a bright fire and many a pot of tea, our appetite still satiated from Naomi’s crumble. There were six on this mission. Myself and an equally overeager Rose were deemed the mountain goats of the group as we were a’bounding (get it?) in energy. Jan and Sharon, recently betrothed and oft lost in each other’s eyes, made up the lovebird contingent, and Naomi and Emily were the slow but steady plodders (Emily’s note: ahem! We were the penguins, thank you very much.) making up the group’s rear guard. The mix of characters was not unlike Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Rings, but with far more pizzaz and far less burdened – at least by quests to throw golden trinkets into fiery holes. We were considerably more burdened by our tents/sleeping bags/food/etc.
The rain began to pitter patter on the roof before bed and was still misting the following morning as we made our way up the Dart River to the Beansburn. Having avoided wet feet and clothes for the greater part of the morning, we succumbed to the inevitable and made our first (but not last!) river crossing here, snaking arms through the divide between pack and back and plunging into a fast current that immediately announced its presence on the skin. It’s remarkable how icy water rising above your waist is more tolerable whilst holding someone else. Something about how misery loves company comes to mind….With the wetting of the underwear done and dusted we were free to frolic/squelch on upstream in search of the luxurious Beansburn Rock Biv. Unfortunately the rain, which had begun the previous evening as a light misting had developed into proper showers, engorging and antagonizing the sidestreams. We watched as they grew and grew and grew. When we were only a kilometre off from the biv we were stopped by a raging river descending precipitously down the hillside. Rose, undeterred by the ferocious fluid (possibly because we had forgotten one of our tents in Christchurch) promptly swung over the torrent with the aid of a small tree. Standing on the other side, I tried to imagine some of our less agile group members vaulting across, and how quickly they’d be swept down the hill when they hit the water (Emily’s note: I probably would have drowned). The indefatigable Rose was called back with promises that the soft, mossy swamp we’d passed a few hundred meters back would provide a delightfully soft sleep. The phrase, ‘like a water bed’ was conspicuously avoided. The rest of the afternoon was spent drying off, warming up, and The rest of the day was spent drying off, warming up, and hunting the voracious sandflies that invaded our tent.
That night the rain eased and by morning we were able to press on up to the head of the valley, where we would cross over Fauhn Pass and onto the Olivine Ledge. The ascent was 1500 (????) meters largely straight up, with the tough alpine grass being the only safehold keeping the less nimble from tumbling straight back down the ledge. Despite our intentions, we never made it to the Olivine River that night, having spent far too much time prancing through the mossy, boulder maze that Fiordland is best known for and searching for the elusive 700 m elevation line where the brush would became less thick. When we finally made it out onto gentler slopes and more open forest, light was fading and we were ready to sleep on the first flat spot of ground that came into view – a moist, muddy depression. But no sooner had I set my pack down when a call came out from the bush a few metres away saying, “hey guys, you’ll want to come over here.” Rose, a mountain goat to the core, had stumbled across a palatial rock biv just around the corner. A nice surprise to say the least.
The next day, we arose, brushed our teeth from various elevations around the biv (some more successfully than others), and set out for the Forgotten River hotel. That day we scooted down the Olivine River, up and over a outcropping/waterfall, and up the Forgotten River Gorge, which is home to some of the most stunningly beautiful scenery – jagged mountains rend the sky, the river gallops over the river rocks, and the wind setting the grasses and bushes to gossiping with each other. Plus, some deer were kind enough to leave their antlers and skull bits here as momentos of our visit. We spent some time bashing through some rather dense bushes before finally finding the Hidden River Hotel, a massive rock biv that fit our party and our party’s detritus handily. Watching the sun set over the valley below was contentment defined. The next day, our party split – Naomi, Sharon and Emily relaxing on the sunny slopes and swimming pools and cramponing glacial faces, and Rose, Jan, and I venturing onwards to the ice. Coincidentally, Jan, who was the leader of the ice expedition, had lost his sunglasses somewhere in the fray the day before. Undeterred, Jan fashioned a pair from bracken fern and a considerable length of strapping tape that he peeled from his heel. They looked (and felt) sharp. We donned our ice tools and sunglasses at the snowline, and, kitted up, skittered up onto the snow, crossing much of the plateau and locating a choice location to accomplish the trips primary objective: to have a cup of tea on the Olivine Ice Plateau. While I boiled the billy, Jan set to work fashioning a table and Rose revealed a floral print china tea cup she’d been carrying the past four days, which remarkably had made it over mountain pass and raging river unscathed (Emily’s note: wasn’t this revealed at the first hutt?). Taking in the stunning snow-clad scenery, while sipping tea through my meagre mustache and burgeoning beard, I felt a sense of accomplishment akin to space travel. Minus the aliens and hard vacuum, of course.
The party regrouped at the Forgotten River Rock Biv. We spent the evening drinking cups of tea and eating a kilogram of christmas cake, exceedingly smushed but delicious. Thanks Naomi! We left the next morning in rain, our socks, having been carefully dried out on sun-warmed rocks the previous day, were quickly wet again. This day was spent walking straight up a mountain, before shimmying around several others. We lunched at a mountaintop lake, which still had sheets of ice floating in it. Sharon and Rose became honorary Penguins that afternoon when they stripped down and jumped in, despite the air temperature being a cool 5 degrees. The Penguins abstained from swimming due to a lack of krill in said lake. Also an abundance of killer whales – Penguins hate killer whales. Some more shimmying got us up and over 4 Brothers’ Pass and into the Diorite River valley. We spent our final night of isolation there, eating Rose’s delicious dehydrated Indian dinner, chatting idly, staring over our tea cups as the darkness set in, and keeping an eye out for marauding keas. Such contentment.
The final leg of the journey lay before us: Lake Alabaster and the Pike and Hollyford rivers. We reached the lake by tea time, having decided to spend the night at the side of the lake to get the full sandfly experience (they had been remarkably light on the trip) and enjoy the sunset over Mt Tutoko. The next morning we set off ‘around’ the lake….or rather through it. Naomi’s fact finding skills had procured a trip report recommending a route via a sandspit along the shores of the lake that extended all the way along the shore and would thus save us the trouble of bashing our way through the lakeside scrub. Finding the sand spit proved challenging, in part due to the icy temperature of the lake, but also the size and number of eels which seemed equally drawn to the shallows. The number and size of the eels grew steadily as we pressed on, until it became clear that we had been lured into a trap. They had us surrounded. It was all over. But just when all seemed to be lost, the distant sound of a combustion engine hit our ears, and before we could say “Eat Emily First” (Emily’s note: I resent this sentiment) we were riding along in the Zodiac of the Lake Alabaster hermit and former CUTC captain, Bruce. Bruce was still wearing the CUTC captain’s outfit – rubber wellingtons, a raincoat, a tatty knitted merino sweater, a riotous beard, and some booty shorts made of a pair of cut-off jeans (booty ‘jhorts’… or, what might be more commonly called ‘stubbies’). We spent the rest of the morning casting a line into the shores in search of trout and exchanging stories from the area. Of particular interest were his insight into alpine eeling and the correlation between having captained the CUTC and a diminished desire for human contact.
With heavy hearts, but alarmingly light packs, we bid farewell to Bruce and continued walking. The end was now in sight (not literally of course), and we couldn’t help but annihilate our remaining meagre rations (mostly fuel-rich biscuit and some sweating, lukewarm cheese) for the final steps to our awaiting car…. wait a minute. The Honda city was nowhere to be seen! Oh no! Jan and I bolstered our meagre supplies (I had one muesli bar, a little toothpaste and some salt) with two tins of baked beans from nearby Gunn’s Camp and began an unexpected and hasty victory lap up Deadman’s Track, over Harris Saddle, and out the Routeburn Track to the cars. The ladies, in the meantime, left Nick and Jan to their victory lap and set out at 2 AM for their own victory lap. Emily, Sharon, and Naomi would rendezvous with Rose (only, however, having hit several of possums that had the great good fortune to be out on the roads at 2 AM. Ten points to Sharon for amazing possum-hitting skilz. She even managed a double-header at one point…) and they would put on their best “please pick us up and transport us and our packs and also Jan and Nick’s packs as well- we’re nice and fun-loving and all that good stuff” faces and hitchhiked to the rendezvous point in Queenstown. So perhaps the real life-lesson of this Fiordland adventure became, ‘always bring a credit card with you into the bush, because you never konw when one of your delinquent companions will have completely fucked up the car shuffle. and, back in ‘civilization’, no $$$ = picking burnt rice out of the rubbish bin’. (Thank you, Jan Sintiene, for showing us the true way of the mountain man. Credit card always in hand (or pack). But despite these wee bumps, we conclude with what some 21st century folk might call a Christmas miracle: despite a lack of cellphones, no way of communicating, no back-up plan for either parties, we all met each other by the lake within the space of 30 minutes, everything having gone as smoothly as it possibly could have. And thus successfully concluded what had been a delightful bush bash.