Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Infinity Packrafting Loop

Happy times on the Hollyford

The Beginning

This adventure came about from dreams of exploring a wild fiordland coast line, several newly acquired packrafts and an amazing looking place called the 'Red Mountain'. All of these places seemed like most excellent places to visit and so after a bit of Internet research about people’s previous experiences and much google earth and topo-map studying we had a plan sketched out that we came to term “The Infinity Loop” based on it’s shape.


The Infinity Loop
So we had a trip and a group of keen individuals – Matt and La, Georgia, Chris and myself and Tim and Steph who would start with us then cut off a few days early.

Post Christmas a weather window opened that was okay, not brilliant, but good enough for us. A solid day of organising and equipment chaos then took place as we tried to whittle our gear down enough to have 8 – 9 days of food, room for packrafts, life jackets, paddles, tents, cookers and so on. Finally we decided we were ready as our packs were full to the brim and couldn’t fit any more stuff, so we headed off for Te Anau.

Over dinner in Te Anau we savoured our last fresh food in a while and then drove on down the Eglington Valley . A glimpse of  Mt Tutoko just before we dropped down into Gunns camp filled me with excitement about the adventure to come. We camped near the road end to the thunderous roar of the Moraine Creek rapids, and a peek at the rapids in the darkness made us all wonder about what the lower Hollyford might be like!


Down the Hollyford 

Trying to fit 8 days gear into packrafts at Hollyford road end 

Heading down the Hollyford in our convoy of packrafts
The morning was a pearly fine and it was very cool to finally be on the river with all our gear safely stowed inside. The Hollyford was a beautiful green blue, with beach forest thick on each side. Up above soared Mount Madeleine, and I could see the toe of a glacier in one of the valleys just above us. There was a fun little series of wave trains and then we spotted the take out for the Little Homer Rapid just past Hidden Falls Hut.

We pulled the boats out of the water and up the muddy bank. We found a still channel of water to float down and then a cleared track which apparently is used to winch up jet boats. Before long we were back down at the river. Georgia and I did a swap at that point so I could have a go in her single. It was great fun to be in the very manoeuvrable  one man boat and I enjoyed the little wave trains that followed.

The jet boat portage at Little Homer Rapids

Towards the end of the river there were a couple of slightly bigger rapids and as I was following Chris and Georgia down their boat suddenly disappeared into a large wave/hole and flipped! I quickly paddled to the side and saw that they were both okay and had made it to shore with all gear and boat. Not wanting to do the same the rest of us took a line that avoided the biggest wave and there were no more spills. Georgia was not particularly impressed with Chris steering her into the biggest hole on the rapid, but he claimed fault in the lack of spray deck on the boat. She was a bit chilled, but seemed to warm up pretty quick. I decided I got lucky being able to pick my own line in the single!

Even though it was a clear sunny day the river is often in shade and the water temperature is very low, so by the time we reached windy Lake Mckerrow Island Hut we were all a bit frozen. Fortunately the hut was in a warm sunny clearing and a good lunch helped. From Mckerrow Island Hut came a big paddle across Lake Mckerrow, into what was now a strong face wind. It was going to be a long day.
Sunny lunch at Mckerrow Island Hut
After a couple of hours paddling huddled in against the shore trying to avoid gusts the wind dropped and our progress increased somewhat, although it is never going to be rapid in a pack raft on still water. By the time we reached the part of the lake where it begins to narrow we were all feeling pretty tired. Tim and Steph decided to pull out and visit Jamestown, then walk the last stretch to the hut.

We put Georgia on a tow line (our double raft with Chris motor was a bit speedier) and set off down the final part of the river to the coast. We put our heads down and paddled and soon we rounded a corner and could spot the tin roof of Martin's Bay hut. After a solid 12 hours paddling we happily pulled the boats up onto the beach and headed inside away from the sandflies for a great dinner cook up and bed.


Sunset at Martin's Bay
Soup in the sunset - we were pretty happy to be there!

Walk to Big Bay

Heading around Long Reef Point
The next day the plan was to walk around the coast to Big Bay Hut and then on up to the head of the Pyke River up into the Red Hills. We started off round Long Reef point on a good track, then reached an intersection and decided to head on the beach track as the bush one looked very overgrown. Chris was out in front and as he dropped onto the beach we suddenly heard a loud barking sound and an angry seal lunged towards him. Chris roared back and the seal backed off, but as we tiptoed after him onto the beach we realised there were seals everywhere and we would have to weave amongst angry seals for miles to get along the shore! Suddenly the overgrown track above us didn't seem so overgrown.


Out on the rocky coast, faster than the bush.
Georgia on the coast
Our party making our way amongst the boulders... still kind of on the look out for seals
Back up we traipsed and spent the next hour smashing along a very muddy, flax covered trail which we lost several times. After an hour we neared the beach again and decided to brave the seals. Fortunately by now we were obviously past the colony and so we could now make better progress along the rocky shore. As we rounded the curve of Big Bay we caught a glimpse of Red Mountain in the hazy distance inland. Given we were planning on getting there today it looked very far away!


Red mountain looking very distant at this point
Steph striding out along the beach, the point in the background is the one you come around from Martin's Bay
We ate a late lunch at Big Bay Hut and then gladly deposited a bag of food supplies which we would collect on our way back from our first loop. Most of this came from my pack so I was pretty glad to be losing some of my weight! We were all feeling a bit tired from heavy packs, and the four hours to Pyke River seemed pretty long. Fortunately we entertained ourselves coming up with riddles about native birds. A few of the goodies being: "2 cars" (kaka), "omniscient and clever" (godwit), "cutlery invoice" (spoonbill) and "internal theft" (robin).

One of the Big Bay huts with Red Mountain in the background
When we finally reached the Pyke the sun was setting and we were all feeling quite tired. After a brief consultation with the maps we decided to head a further 45 minutes upstream and then pitch camp. The Red Hills would have to wait until tomorrow. We followed deer trails up river and then found a grassy clearing where we set up our tents and went for a quick and freezing dip in the river. 

The view up to Red Mountain was stunning in the setting sun and now it did look a lot closer. Tomorrow Tim and Steph would part ways with us, heading up towards the Red Mountain, then on down the Pyke. We would continue along the Red Hills and hoped we could make it down to the Cascade River by the following night.

Rock art on the way to the Pyke
Camp at the Pyke

Traverse of the Red Hills

The bush bash up from the Pyke to point 1166m was slow going, especially with our big packs. Chris's optimistic 2.5 hours soon stretched out to 4 hours, but eventually we emerged from the bush to a great view of Red Mountain and the sharp South-West Ridge of Aspiring looking like the Matterhorn in the far distance.

Fun times on the bush bash up to the tops
Above bush line
Matt examines Red Mountain just before the fog rolls in
Georgia goes for a paddle up there!
We had to reenter the bush along the spur for a bit and as we emerged back onto the Red Hills proper clouds rolled in that sadly would stay firmly in place for the rest of our time on the tops. Chris was out in front enjoying the navigation in the low visibility, and Georgia and I noted that the last 'Red Hills' we had been in during Godzone 2016 in Nelson had also looked like this - completely foggy!

We ate lunch on the spur and wondered what had become of Tim and Steph as we hadn't seen any sign of them since we started climbing. We traversed the tops for the rest of the afternoon, then dropped down to some tarns on the far side of the Red Hills. The terrain was beautiful, with soft mossy clearings, hundreds of clear tarns and clean beech forest groves. We all 'oohed and ahhed' about the idea of orienteering up there.
Fog rolled in and concealed the tops, but we could still spot the tarns.
Tarn on the Cascade end of the Red Hills
Some beautiful orienteering meadows that we wandered through - heli orienteering?
In the late evening we dropped down into the forest and down a remarkably clear spur into the Cascade River, right at the bottom of the top gorge. It was late and we were all feeling pretty tired after yet another big day, but so far we were managing to keep up with Chris and Georgia's general ambitious schedule.

The most unknown part of our trip now lay ahead. We didn't know too much about the Cascade River other than what we had found from looking at Google imagery and topo. The 'travel-ability' of the coast line from Barn Bay was also a bit unknown. The daylight brought light rain and the weather from here was meant to deteriorate so we were keen to get down the Cascade sooner rather than later. 
Nearly down in the Cascade, just before it got dark
We found a nice grassy spot to set up camp on the Cascade River Flats. Sometime in the middle of the night we heard the pitter of rain starting to fall on the tent. The weather change we had been expecting was on its way.

Packrafting the lower Cascade

It was exciting to inflate the rafts again and soon we were floating down the crystal clear Cascade River, watching the thick bush breeze by on either side. Suddenly our packrafts seemed so worthwhile again! The river was great fun with lots of wave trains and easy rapids. It wasn't long before we reached the gorge we thought we might need to portage. 

We made the call to continue on river because the going seemed pretty good. Just then the river dropped away, so we scouted from the side and made the call to pull the boats round the corner. The river became more bouldery and we would paddle short sections and then scout the next bit to see if we liked it or not.
Wet times on the Cascade, our GoPro was packed away so we didn't capture any whitewater
We were pretty cautious, but given our paddling experience and the remoteness of this river we all agreed this was the right way to be. There were heaps of easy chicken lines we could take and the gorge was beautiful despite the steady rain. 

About half way down the gorge I noticed a strong smell of petrol and immediatly worried about our fuel bottle. We pulled over and after a short rumage I unearthed an extremely dented fuel bottle which had been acting as my seat as we bumped over rocks in the river! Luckily it didn't seem like we had lost too much fuel and we were able to fix the leak and stow the bottle in a safer place.

Wet and chilly 'cracker lunch' on the Cascade
We passed a pair of blue ducks and spotted several deer amongst the pungas. The river started to level out as we left the gorge and the whitewater became more spread out. We stopped for a nibble in the rain, jumping around to keep ourselves warm. An hour more and we spotted a cow on the riverbank, we knew we had reached the Cascade farm. The wind had picked up by now, so when we pulled the boats up on a big S bend in the river we were all pretty cold.

We deflated the boats and got moving as quick as we could. We were aiming for the 4WD road which runs out to Barn Bay, but to get there we had to cross a swamp. The swamp tried to suck up Chris first as he teetered around flax bushes, jumping across deep muddy pools. We all followed and walked across some crazy weed water beds which didn't feel safe at all. We still had our lifejackets on to keep us warm, and decided that was just as well given the swamp condition.

After a while the swamp turned to forest and we climbed over fallen logs and tree routes. Suddenly we popped out onto the wide road. It felt weird to be on a road again. We walked along briskly, the evening growing darker and rainier by the minute. At one point as I wandered along by myself I felt like I was on the set of Jurassic Park, with the jungly bush all around me and rain pouring into puddles. I thought about the fat guy driving his car and getting ambushed by swarming dinosaurs.

The Jurassic Park like forest
Just as well the others ahead waited for me and I didn't get eaten. We were tired and wet when we finally reached the Hope River and a bach which we had heard about already... There was a small room at the bottom that was unlocked and available for use of passing wet trampers. We 'ummed and aahed' about whether this was the place to see out 2016, but given the time of day and weather we decided this would do.

We cooked up on the porch while the rain poured down outside and the mosquitoes buzzed around. Nevertheless we appreciated the roof over our heads. Gloom set in over the party when Chris couldn't find the block of cheese and decided it had been left on the side of the Cascade River. But at about 11 pm I went back into the bunk room, hunted around, located the missing cheese, the sticky puddings, cream and whiskey and suddenly our seeing in the New Year seemed a bit brighter.

Unfortunately it turned out the smelly wee room was a mosquito hive and no one slept well. By morning we were tired and well and truely bitten all over. 
The "Mosquito Hostel"

Barn Bay and the Coast

The wild coast
The rain was still falling, but the mosquitos had sucked enough blood, so we packed up and headed into the rain on the rough track to Barn Bay. The river was up, but tramping with packrafts at this point had it's advantages. We inflated a raft and ferried people and packs across the water.

Now we had reached the windswept, wild coast again. The bouldery beach swept out before us, piles of broken trees covered the shoreline. In places whole trees had been pushed into the sea by the obviously at times huge swollen river. In the light rain, with chaffing and tiredness from our previous days efforts, it felt a desolate place and all of us would retrospectively agree that this was the lowest point on our trip.

Pack raft deflating on the beach
It was supposed to be our 'short' day, but the journey along the bouldery beach was slow going. The waves crashed in at the shore and if you walked too slow the sandflies started feasting on any flesh available. But you couldn't really admire the setting because you had to watch your feet all the time so as not to miss a boulder step!

Boulders, boulders, boulders
There was lots of interesting rock and debris on the beach, it wasn't long before I started spotting some interesting buoys. I picked up a bright red and yellow one called Southern Explorer... then I heard Matt saying something up ahead. As I approached I saw he held a small bright yellow buoy and was saying "Emily" in a strange voice. Written on the buoy in black faded lettering - my name. I had found my memento of this wild coast and it was coming with me, whether there was space in my pack or not.

The group making slow but steady progress along the shoreline
Chris and Matt doing some dancing or rock surfing?
A break amongst the flax and sandflies, you can see my buoy on the ground beside me.
We reached Sandrock Bluff and scouted around to find the track over the steep bluff. We had read in our research about this place of a crazy venture 50 years ago to drive a bouldozer along the coast all the way to the Pyke. Legacy of this was a wide track over the bluff down to the other side. Our pace increased after the bluff as the coast became less rocky and more sandy.

The Steeples Rocks were our first sure sign we were close to Gorge River.  Next we spotted the distinctive head land and a small windmill. A little smoke rose from the house, so we guessed the Long Family were in. The Long's have been living at Gorge Creek, one of the remotest spots in New Zealand since the 1980's. We knew about them a little from the books they have written about bringing up their family at Gorge River, and were excited about the possibility to meet them.

The Steeples were a sure sign we were nearing Gorge River

Gorge River

Gorge River was quite large and deep. We decided our packraft ferrying technique was going to be useful yet again. We inflated the green packraft and set too shuttling our packs across the river. The surf pounded out on the beech and another time over we were glad we were carrying the rafts.

We were all safely across except Chris who was trying to load his very heavy pack onto the pack raft for a final shuttle. As he hefted his pack into the boat he slipped and fell in the river! We watched helplessly as he kicked around trying to get out. Fortunately he was in a large deep eddy, so after one lap of the eddy he climbed soggily out and got successfully into the boat with his pack.

Once on the other side we wandered over through the flaxes to find a very cute little DOC hut, nestled beside the Long's modest vege garden and hut. We were preparing cups of soup and dehy when Robert Long popped in and chatted with us, inviting us over for a cup of tea later on. We gladly accepted his invite and Lara located a packet of slightly squashed choc-mints to take with us.

Cute DOC hut at Gorge River
The Long's showed great hospitality when we came to visit and it was special to sit in their living room and talk about visitors they had met past and present and get a small glimpse into what life in this remote, wild place might be like. We watched Catherine's footage of the Fiordland Crested Pengiun which nest in numbers on these shores.

Misty view up the coast from Gorge River
Lara collects some drift wood
The rain eased in the night, so by morning it was reasonably dry and we made good progress along the beach. We came to recognise different grades of boulder - there was big boulders, small rounded boulders, medium size rocks, pebbles, and occasionally sand. We followed the dynamite trail created when the buldozer crew blew up a path along the shore to drive their machine. Going was better when the tide was out.

The bulldozer trail blasted by dynamite is the water channel

Continued boulder hopping south of Gorge River
Georgia teas off at the golf green
After 8 more hours of boulder hopping and beach travel we tiredly wandered up the last stretch of beach and back into Big Bay Hut. Our food supplies were hanging in the place where we left them, so it was time for a feast. Matt went out to see if he could catch a big fish he had spotted in the river on our way through while we all went for a skinny dip.
Tired people at Crayfish point... and a bit of crayfish!
Finally back at Big Bay

Pyke River

From Big Bay Hut we needed to retrace our steps four hours back along to the Pyke River. It was still drizzling and overcast in the morning and as Chris popped out to the toilet the rest of us started talking about how nice a hut day would be. He reentered the hut to sounds of Star Wars theme song and rebel forces initiating a rebellion: hut day! 

Luckily for Chris Georgia pointed out that there may be a large guided group coming through to the hut today so we should really move on. This was enough to convince us, so we donned our wet jackets and headed off back towards the Pyke. As previously this was the 'riddle' section of our tramp we decided to do a repeat. This time with a nautical theme. "A fruit, and the opposite of a smoothie," was my favourite. 

This got us through to the Pyke River and we inflated pack rafts. The Pyke is a more gentle flowing river than either the Cascade or Hollyford with the biggest hazards being tree snags. The track down the Pyke is rough, so we gleefully floated down river with a tail wind and current speeding us along. Waterfalls cascaded down around us and we could see the Olivine River Valley in the distance.

On the Pyke
Pyke River
Lake Wilmot
After paddling across Lake Wilmot it was a short paddle down to Olivine Hut. The Hut is in a neat spot, right on the intersection of the Pyke and Olivine River. We decided to spend our final night here, rather than paddle on down to the Lake Alabaster Hut on the Hollyford Track which would probably be full of people.

After 7 days in the bush it was strange thinking our journey was nearly over. We had started discussing all the yummy kinds of food we were looking forward to, and despite the fact that the trip had been tough and long, we all knew we would be sad for it to be over. We had a great evening in the hut, joking around, going for swims and rides in the old cable car which gets you across the Olivine River.

Our final day was a beautiful sunny one, with fantastic views of the snowy mountains rising out of thick beech forest. We bumped into "Sammy Stoat", another local 'bushman' who lives up the Pyke. After telling us he was expecting us after talking to Tim and Steph he asked after 'Bean Sprout' and said he had sent him an email. It seemed even in the bush people like to stay well connected.

Sunshine on the Pyke River
Admiring passing waterfalls
Waterfalls into the river
Enjoying the sun half way down Lake Alabaster
We arrived at Lake Alabaster Hut at lunchtime and had a gear explosion on the beach. We chatted with the hut warden, cooked up our final scraps and eased ourselves back into normal public interactions. We walked out along the gentle Hollyford Track, finally reaching the carpark at 5pm.

And so ended the infinity loop. It was just as well we didn't get sucked into making a right turn at the Hollyford River junction and heading back down the river into the figure 8 that we had created with our footprints and paddle splashes.
Matt got excited to carry a bit extra for the last few km
A great adventure to look back on, long and a bit unknown, tiring and rough, but worthwhile for its remoteness and wildness. A real highlight was getting to meet the Long Family and walking along that coastline. As much as ever it is often the people we are with that makes these trips, so to the "Sept-a-goners", thanks very much for sharing the adventure with me.
Emily admiring hidden falls

3 comments:

New DVD and Blu ray said...

Awesome!
It looks alot like Alaska does.
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Mark L said...

What a good adventure. We arrived at Big Bay Hut the day you left. The hut was immaculate. I appreciated that. Thank you!

Kate Lord said...

How great to read your trip report! We pack rafted the Hollyford-Pyke from the 10th of January so had seen your hut book entries. We spent 3 days sitting out the weather in the Olivine Hut and had spent a bit of time trying to trace out your route on the big too map there. Bruce was pretty excited to tell us about you all too. Daniel is compiling a pack rafting route website, perhaps you'd like to email him your report for the site? Dan@packraftingtrips.nz - www.packraftingtrips.nz