By Rosie Irving
Members: Rosie Irving and Lydia Kinsman
Otehake Hot Springs in Arthurs Pass – 3rd & 4th of August 2018
By the time we arrived at the Aickens Corner carpark from Christchurch, it was 12 noon on Friday and I instantly regretted having taken so long to get on the road in the morning. The hot pools were an estimated five-hour walk away but Lydia assured me this was an easy tramp and the length of time to walk in was most likely a generous DOC estimate which we could easily conquer, so we shouldn’t have any problems reaching the pools and setting up camp before sunset at 5.30pm. Nevertheless, we were reluctant to take the flood route, which would add an extra two hours to our journey, so despite warnings from numerous people about how dangerous the rivers could be if they were reasonably full at the time, we powered down to the Otira River banks to find a place to cross.
The river was flowing quite fast and looked reasonably deep. Given our level of clumsiness, we decided it would be a better idea to cross individually rather than linking together. This was mistake number one of the day. We got three-quarters of the way across when it started to get waist deep and particularly swift. Recognising this, Lydia decided to bail, turning around and I followed suit. However, I attempted to do this way too fast, lost my footing and got swept downstream. Having been taught during Duke of Edinburgh Bushcraft to pack float, I tried to maintain calm as I got swept down the rapids on my pack until I got flushed out to shallow water and was able to get myself back up. This is how I ended up completely soaked and minus my Powerade bottle in the first ten minutes of our tramp.
After dumping her pack and chasing me downstream, Lydia was significantly panicked, and I was optimistic we might give up and head home, giving us plenty of time to get ready for the UC Women in Engineering Wine and Cheese Night on Saturday as that was my priority for the weekend. However, Lydia had other plans and after reassessing where we could cross, we re-attempted only for me to get swept away for a second time. However third times a charm, and after picking a spot to cross that had an island to break up the river and deciding to link arms, we made it across just. Lesson one of the tramp: always link arms when river crossing, as even if there is a risk your friend is clumsy and will slip and make you both fall downstream, generally there is always more strength in crossing a river as a group.
After finally successfully crossing, I was both cold and wet, with a significantly heavier pack, fearing all my gear was going to be waterlogged. Thankfully during my Duke of Ed days, we were always taught to put all our gear into plastic bags, both to keep our gear dry and for safety reasons as this creates air pockets in your pack which become essential if you ever get swept down a river as I was lucky enough to experience. These plastic bags saved me twice that day, as aside from my sleeping bag which I forgot to put in a bag, the majority of my gear was dry. After changing into some dry clothes, we decided to motor on, having lost a full hour of valuable daylight to crossing the Otira River.
The first part of the trail follows a 4WD track, through gorse covered farmland. This part of the track was flat and easy, allowing us to make up for some of the time we lost during the river crossing. However, half an hour into walking, the second disaster struck. My shoulder strap snapped. Surely this was the final straw we needed to convince ourselves that this tramp was not a good idea and we should take the opportunity to turn back before we got any further. However, with a bit of Kiwi ingenuity, we scrounged around for something in our packs to ‘fix’ it, as we were determined to make it to the hot pools. Another one of the golden rules we learnt, while doing Duke of Ed, was to always carry string as you never know when this might come in handy. My piece of string had, in fact, come in handy four years ago when my shoulder snap had snapped on the final day of the Heaphy Track which brings us onto lesson number two: always remember to replace the emergency survival stuff you use in your tramping pack. We settled on using the string I used to tie my bedroll to fix my pack, which meant we had to strategically resecure my bedroll to my pack via another method.
After that slight hiccup, we continued following the track into the treeline. This provided a nice change in scenery as well as shelter from the moody weather. We crossed through several riverbeds, which were thankfully much less extreme than our earlier experience, before crossing back into the bush, which had thick fern covering the forest floor. As a heads up to anyone else planning to this trail in the future, it is important to keep an eye out for the orange trail markers as the fern covering can make it difficult to see the track in some sections.
The other problem with thick bush is that it lets less of the already disappearing daylight through. It started getting darker as we neared Lake Kaurapataka and the track became steeper and more technical as it sidled around the lake’s edge. Combine the race to get to the campsite while it was light with slippery tree roots, and it is little surprise we obtained one rolled ankle and the re-emergence of a stress fracture in this section of the trail.
It was crossing the waterfall where we had our third disaster of the day and completely lost the trail. By this time, it was quite dark and there was no way we could see the track unless we found a trail marker. Lesson number three is: do not leave starting a tramp too late as things like re-finding a trail become significantly more difficult in the dark. Trying not to stress about the current situation too much, we got our head torches out, which brings us to lesson number four: do not lend your headtorch to somebody on TWALK because you will never get it back. So, with the minimal light of one headtorch between us, we assessed the options we had. Option A was staying put, camp on a steep hillside and wait until the morning light so we could re-find the trail. Option B was trying to follow the waterfall down to the river and hope it opens out to somewhere that is more appropriate to camp at. Option B had a lot more risks. We had no idea if it was possible to get to the river from where we were without being bluffed out or whether the river would be crossable when we reached it.
We went for the latter option and began our scramble down the hillside. Just a note to readers: this option was potentially not our wisest and I am in no way recommending it if you were in a similar situation. Luckily, even with the minimal light, we did make it to the bottom without too many issues. However, when we reached the river, we could see it was swift-flowing although it was extremely difficult to determine its depth with a headtorch. Feeling significantly less confident, given my experiences with rivers earlier in the day, I was reluctant to cross if it was any deeper than my knees as we had no idea what hazards could be downstream if we got swept away in the dark. We decided that we would attempt crossing it and turn back if it got too deep. So, arms linked, we trudged through knee deep water and Lydia was fortunate enough to get through mainly dry. I, on the other hand, had decided to turn slipping over in rivers into a bit of habit and managed to soak myself while attempting to get out. Being once again cold and wet, I was keen to stop and set up camp. However, Lydia was determined it would be better to camp at the campsite by the hot pools, and fuelled by the smell of sulphur, decided we should keep wandering down the riverbank.
The problem with this is we had no idea how far we would get before we had to re-cross and if it would even be possible to do so. Eventually, we hit a point where we had to either scramble over large boulders, which dropped back into the riverbed or re-cross to the other side. With my reluctance to re-enter the water, we decided to scramble up the bank and set up camp for the night. Having limited options, we ended up pitching our tent, on a downhill angle, on top of what we later found out were two substantial tree roots. At least we could warm up by cooking a hot curry after a long day of disasters, or so we thought. This brings us onto lesson number five: don’t forget to replace your matches when you run out. With nothing to light the gas cooker with, we settled for cold curry as well as demolishing half our chocolate supply. With a less than ideal dinner and a partially wet sleeping bag, we went to sleep, hoping for a better day tomorrow.
In the morning, we woke up ambitious but with very different ambitions. I wanted to find the waterfall we came down and get out of the bush as quickly as possible, in the hopes of making the much-anticipated Wine and Cheese Night, while Lydia wanted to make it to the hot pools, believing it would be easier to find the trail from the campsite. We decided to go with her plan, so we could at least enjoy the hot pools we came to see. After crossing and wandering up the river, it took us about half an hour to reach the pools. We had to re-cross again to get to them, with this crossing proving to be another one to watch if it rains, with the water being waist deep.
At the campsite, there is a shovel you can use to dig out your pool with if need be. We celebrated finally making it to the pools with a cider, relaxing in the lukewarm water for the next half an hour. Re-crossing the river, we thought it would be easy to find DOC markers announcing the start of the trail however we soon realised we had been overly optimistic. For the next two hours, we tried to find the track without much success. Eventually, it was time for Plan B, which was to find the waterfall we came down and head back up it. Even this proved difficult to find, so eventually, we bush bashed our way up the hill and were lucky enough to stumble across an orange marker. Never have we been so relieved to see one of those tiny orange markers and be signalled we were back on track.
With little time to lose, if we wanted to be back in time for our event in Christchurch that night, we powered off. Somehow, we still managed to lose the trail several times, even during the daylight and had to backtrack a fair bit. By 2pm, we were almost back at my beloved car, with just a final river crossing standing in the way. This time, we definitely took our time scoping out the best place to cross and fortunately it paid off. We got back to my Toyota Corolla without losing any more possessions to the mighty Otira River. However, if you want a final tip, pack a spare pair of clothes for the car ride home. After crossing the Otira River, between us, Lydia and I had one pair of dry bottoms left and after drawing the short straw, I ended up driving home in my underwear. Also, if anyone was curious, we did indeed make it back in time for our Wine and Cheese night with the addition of a speeding ticket.
Just one last note, if you are considering doing this track, it is definitely worth checking the weather before you go as I would not recommend crossing the Otira and Otehake rivers if they are swollen.