A solo traverse of the Kaherekoau Mountains, followed by the Dusky Track… (Dec 2020)
In classic tramping fashion I leave Dunedin hours later than intended and it is 17:30 by the time I arrive at Lake Hauroko. It is pouring rain. I briefly consider staying in my car and sleeping there rather than venturing out in my hand me down raincoat that is really just a coat at this point. But then I consider the boredom I would experience in the remaining five hours of daylight, park my car and prop my pack onto the boot before slipping the straps over my shoulders and taking its full weight. It doesn’t feel as heavy as I expected.
My plan is to walk all the way around Lake Hauroko, traversing the Kaherekoau Range before dropping into the Hauroko Burn and climbing up to the Princess Mountains to join the well known route that will take me back to my car.
But for now I have no idea about what lies ahead of me. The hills are nearly completely obscured by mist, which makes for an interesting feeling when combined with the almost complete lack of information I have been able to acquire regarding my route over the Kaherekoau Mountains. I walk along the edge of the lake, admiring the small terraced pools filled with native pondweed (Potamogeton sp.) and multicoloured rocks. Less than five minutes in and I can already feel the rain seeping through at my elbows.
The climb is short and sweet, quickly merging from tall dripping red beech (Fuscospora fusca) into breezy misty rātā (Metrosideros umbellata) infused forest. I emerge onto the lookout outcrop sooner than expected and briefly check the nonexistent view before finding a sheltered campsite just behind the main viewpoint. I set up my tent in the pouring rain and make dinner.
“Everything is wet.”
When I wake up it is still raining. So I decide to go back to sleep. After a few cycles of this I am eventually prompted to move by a brief glimpse of the view uphill which allows me to establish where I need to go. I pack up in the rain and head off along what initially seems like a deer trail but soon emerges to be a pink flagged route that takes me all the way to bushline and Oblong Hill. It is a lovely trail, with massive mossy cushions, gnarly beech trees and big sundews as I reach more open but still wet forest near bushline. By this time the clouds have almost entirely dissipated and I emerge onto the tops with spectacular views out to the South Coast, across Lake Hauroko and along the Kaherekoau Mountains.
It is reassuring to finally see the mountains I will be spending the next week or so traversing. They don’t look impossible but they do look interesting. I summit Oblong Hill and begin the descent into a forested saddle. The descent quickly turns into scrub swimming. A rather slow and unpleasant experience. Once I am ascending the other side of the saddle via a sparsely vegetated dry stream bed I can see where I went wrong on my descent. A line with much taller forest further right looks much more appealing.
As I reach the top of the next hill the first rain drops of the afternoon start to fall, perfectly timed with my diminishing motivation to continue walking. I have made it beyond my planned campsite for the second day of my trip and this justifies my finding a nice campsite within the next forested saddle. Camp is set up and I set out to find water. I have about half a litre left but I most definitely need more for dinner. I set out in the wind and rain to find more, however the stream marked on my map turns out to be dry at any reasonably close elevation.
I am getting saturated and am reluctant to drop further or bash along the slope. I head back to camp. In my desperation I begin shaking the Dracophyllum heads which have accumulated water, into my drink bottle with very small reward, and frequent bonus bugs. Soon however, I hit the jackpot. Old animal tracks through the swampy terrain on the top of the ridge on the way back to my tent have accumulated water, and by dipping my Nalgene lid into these hoof prints I can collect a small amount of water. I accumulate about three quarters of a litre in this manner before getting too cold and deciding it will suffice for dinner. It is amazing how difficult it can be to get water even during a rainstorm.
“More and more tempted to head out Dusky. Camping kinda sucks.”
3. White Christmas
The forest is glistening in the bright morning light. Birds are chirping and a kea (Nestor notabilis) alights on a nearby tree to watch me pack up my belongings. The sunshine gives me the false sense of a bluebird day ahead but as soon as I leave the cover of the forest I realise that this will not be the case.
It is a beautiful day, but I can see the storm clouds rolling in over the mountains from the west. And they look stormy indeed. But I have my pack on my back so I suppose I must make some attempt at progress. I follow the densely tussock covered windblown ridge with some small banks of snow, along to the true spine of the Kaherekoau Mountains. As I reach them, the snowflakes begin to fall anew. It is Christmas Day after all.
I traverse a narrow ridge [pictured above] through falling snowflakes and then climb up through a dense snowstorm. Thick snowflake filled clouds drift over the range, settling, then melting during each break. I spy the basin assigned as my third campsite and, already cold and wet, I decide to get there and set up camp. I have not even had lunch yet.
I descend into the basin through another bout of snowflakes and set up my tent on a small raised section within the almost entirely swampy basin. It is cold and I get into most of my layers and my sleeping bag. But soon the sun emerges and I am baking inside my tent. I peek out and admire the snow dusted landscape. Numerous snow-sun cycles later I decide to venture out and explore the botany. There is a small recent slip behind my tent which has a profusion of colour and I wander amongst the pale, recently upturned earth investigating the new colonisers and survivors, all in full flower.
An approaching snow cloud chases me back inside and I spend my day reading, writing, snacking and peering out of my tent at the changeable weather conditions. While peering out of my tent I realise I can see the ocean. It is a long day. Sometimes I wonder if I made the wrong decision to stop so early. Sometimes I wonder if the sun will stop melting the snow away. I consider all the alternative plans that could get me home safe. Eventually night comes and I can close my eyes and my mind.
4. Zweiter Weihnachtstag | Second Christmas Day
When I wake up I can see a few centimeters of snow just by peeking under my tent fly. There is a moment of gentle fear as I contemplate my situation if I were to be snowed in. But, like the day before, the sun soon melts away the snow before the next layer is deposited. And so it continues. Yesterday I had looked at the main ridge as the original route and decided that, while it looked fun, it didn’t look fun during a snowstorm while carrying a 30 odd kilogram pack. So during one of the brief sunny spells I examine the route behind my tent through a few bluffs to the top of a ridge that joins back up to the main Kaherekoau range.
I go back and forth on whether to pack up, until a few hours go by and I accept that this will be the weather for the day and it really is not that terrible. As soon as a snowy spell subsides I hurriedly pack up and start walking. I have just reached the base of the hill when a glance back alerts me to the next snow laden clouds moving up the valley towards me. I begin my navigation of the bluffs, remembering features from my assessment of the terrain a few hours earlier. This becomes vital as visibility drops to less than fifty meters and the snow starts to settle on the already wet and slippery snow tussock ledges and slopes.
Just as I reach the top of the ridge the cloud clears toward Lake Hauroko and the snow starts to melt. But the ridge is still obscured and I venture back into the clag to regain the main Kaherekoau range. I find a bit of a rocky overhang to shelter from the snow and have lunch, examining the map as I chew my hummus dipped wrap and carrot. As I am eating, the cloud clears and luckily so, as I notice that I have gone about fifty meters past a low saddle that is part of the main range — although I suspect I would have realised very quickly as the ridge started to drop suddenly towards Eel Creek.
It is nice to finally be making progress, and the intensity of the periodic snow flurries is insufficient to soak through my coat, leaving me dry and in relative comfort. The range is a glorious rounded ridge, zig zagging along Lake Hauroko with pale banners of scree flowing down the sides, contrasting with the muted brown of the snowgrass.
I climb past a high tarn, retained in a basin just below a summit by a raised ridge, then slide down some loose dirty scree to another saddle, where I am joined by three curious screeching kea (Nestor notabilis). They follow me up to the next summit, hopping across the cushiony ground behind me, peering at me curiously every time I pause. From here I opt for a scrambly route along the ridge, sidling a few big boulders and stepping along a few exposed ledges, confident in already having passed my planned campsite for that night.
The next bit of ridge I had planned to avoid, and rightly so. It is similar to the one I avoided at the start of my day, but perhaps steeper, and there is a very appealing gully to the left which provides me with a sure way to get back up onto the range the next day. For now I slide down one of the pale scree banners into the valley head below and hunt about for a dry spot for my tent, with ocean views, of course. Good weather should be on its way and I am ready for it.
“It seems too good to be true…Blue sky!?!”
My tent is crunchy with frost when I wake up to a clear blue sky above me. The good weather has finally arrived. Excited, I pack up my things, shake the ice off my tent fly and start the steep ascent back onto the range. There are massive boulders sunken deep into the ground, and I can hear creeks running far below my feet. I hop from rock to rock, avoiding the slippery snowgrass and the small shrubs trying to trip me up.
It is a relatively gentle climb until I get near the top, where the grade steepens and I am cautiously kicking the edge of my boots into the soggy ground, partially cleared of vegetation by snowbanks. Halfway up I find a tiny native forget-me-not (Myosotis lyallii var. lyallii), which I insist on photographing, perching awkwardly on the steep slope, beginning to slide down hill and having to readjust while pressing close to the ground to get a satisfactory image of the key features; leaf upper side, leaf under side, buds, habit and habitat.
Back on the tops, I join beaten down animal trails traversing along the highest part of the range, taking me into increasingly rugged country. The ridge to White Peak is really something, it has spectacular deep canyons running down the eastern slopes and deep incised notches on the ridgeline. Over a section of ridge ahead I can see the Impassable Knob (.1451 m), an impressive peak nicknamed as such due to the near vertical rock faces on all sides and knob like shape.
I continue traversing, reaching the point where I can see the saddle into the creek that will allow me to bypass the Impassable Knob. Rather than climb up the ridge, which doesn’t guarantee me passage into the creek, I sidle along, staying high to avoid small creeks with big washouts. The slippery sidle finishes with a slightly exposed rock slab traverse shuffle and then I reach the saddle. I feel tiny standing underneath the towering rock faces leading up to the Impassable Knob, and admire this new landscape that has appeared ahead of me.
I descend straight into the creek bed, avoiding the surrounding scrub by following the currently dry bouldery path heading straight down the valley. Once I reach bushline I duck into the beech forest on the true left, following slightly scratchy but relatively fast deer trails until I decide to cross to the true right, where there are more fast deer trails. I opt to cut across the valley to the northwest branch rather than going all the way down to the forks and this works well. I reach the other branch quickly, which is good since the sun is now low enough to leave me in the shade of the mountains surrounding me.
As I draw equal with the mapped clearing on the true right I cross and climb into it, realising quickly that it is a clearing because it is a swamp. This forces me to continue upstream, searching for a dry space to pitch my tent, a common theme of the trip. I reach bushline and climb up around a set of cascades where I finally find a tiny space of dry ground at the very top, wedged between some big rock slabs. It is immensely satisfying having walked from dawn to dusk.
6. The Descent
I wake up to another beautiful day, pack up and get going quickly, toying with the idea of maybe even getting into the Hauroko that day if I get down into the Russet Burn fast enough. I feel strangely sluggish, dragging my feet up the valley to its head, but simultaneously enjoying the ease of travel up the gentle but soggy valley. Perhaps there is a little sadness mixed in, but there are no more Kaherekoau Mountains to traverse, and I would rather like to get to a hut.
“Above this [my campsite] the valley is lovely and easy travel, lulling you into a false sense of happiness, security and hope before crushing your soul on the descent into the Russet Burn.”
I reach the saddle into the Russet Burn and admire the views. I can see along the Princess Mountains, End Peak, Sphinx Lake, Lake Hauroko, Russet Burn and the ridge I must cross to get into the Hauroko. There’s nothing to it but to get stuck into the descent. I check my map and decide that there are no real clues as to a best way down so I decide to follow my nose.
I duck under curtains of lichen adorning the beech trees at bushline and instantly hit a profusion of deer trails. Following deer trails down certainly seems like a good way to go. So I spend some time following them, taking whichever branch looks most worn and rather enjoying the shade and ease of travel. Until suddenly I find myself teetering on the edge of an almost vertical cliff and rather stuck in dense young growth. I drop my pack and investigate. It looks seriously suboptimal. But I am also very lazy, and the prospect of bashing back up through the dense bushes and looking for a different route with very few waypoints seems like an even worse option, so I decide to make it work.
I lower myself down a few trees, trialling the stability of roots as hand and foot holds and sidling along an exposed section before finding a very narrow wet ledge through flax and toetoe (Austroderia richardii), climbing some tipped trees and then sliding down into the creek. I deliberate. Maybe I can make this work with my pack. So I climb back up and get my pack. Unfortunately I have not yet eaten enough food to be able to lift my pack without momentum, so I am forced to drag it down and over the dense vegetation.
As soon as I reach the drop I realise that there is a very real risk of my pack pushing me down the at least ten meter drop into the creek below. So I employ my blue Kathmandu accessory biner, just as a back up. I clip my pack to a relatively sturdy tree root and lower it as far as the strap allows, propping it against a tree, then moving the biner safety attachment to a lower tree root and repeating the process until I have reached the bottom of the vertical section. I very carefully put my pack back on and concentrating immensely, navigate the narrow ledge until I can drop into the creek bed.
“Questionable decision making”
I have lunch. Relieved that my ordeal is over and I can continue with my descent. And for a short while that is the impression I get, until I reach another bluff. Only this time there are no trees to help me lower myself down, and the sheer face continues to my left, and to my right. Disheartened I trudge to the right, skirting the edge, hoping to come across a way down. I duck down to the edge a few times, each time getting shut down with no route in sight. I reach a dense layer of fallen debris lying over a steep exposed slope and decide to take a break. I haven’t lost any elevation in at least an hour.
I am frustrated and hot and exhausted. I cannot decide whether I should continue along, back track or head up onto the tops that I came from and abandon my original route. The arbitrary nature of the decision, and the lack of another perspective result in a moment of intense frustration where I pick up a stick and throw it at a tree. Which would usually be a good outlet, were it not for the confined space produced by the many tree trunks surrounding me, and the specific angle at which the broken stick rebounds back, directly into my lip.
Luckily the shock of an actual split and bleeding lip brings me some clarity. I sit down, gingerly eat some food and decide to head up to the tops. I pick up my pack and head uphill, but immediately encounter another bluff. I fill up my water bottles from the cascade flowing down it and decide that I will back track and check every bit of the bluff for a way down. So I methodically work my way along. Dropping my pack, ducking down to the edge or exploring a ledge and looking for the next spot with potential, then climbing back up to my pack and moving on.
Finally I find something that will go. I sidle across the semi vegetated bluff and slide down a few metres of not too vertical rock into the windfall and crown fern (Lomaria discolor) filled creek. I feel no relief, just renewed determination to get into the Russet Burn that day. I stay in the creek and work my way through stacked rotten wood and obscured ground, tripping and sliding all the way down into the Russet Burn itself.
The sun disappears behind the hills as I reach the burn, but I push on upstream to a clearing with river flats and camping, where I battle the sandflies during a quick dip then get tucked into my tent as quickly as possible with my dinner. I am still cautious of what the next day will bring, but luckily my mental and physical exhaustion win out and I am soon asleep.
“I’ve figured it out. Why no one does the Kaherekoaus…You couldn’t pay me to do that again…Uncountable shin bruises…Definitely not walking out the Princess Mountains…Tops of fingers shredded…”
I am eager to get to the Hauroko, but wary of the ridge separating me from it. I pack efficiently and escape the sandflies, walking upstream through the Russett Burn to the hint of a ridge that might just get me up and over into the Hauroko. I leave the river and begin the climb. It is steep and I soon encounter bluffs not entirely dissimilar to the previous day, but less continuous and easier to navigate on an uphill trajectory. I get myself into a bit of a situation where I am staring up a mossy chute from a narrow ledge halfway up a bluff system. There’s nothing for it but to head up, employing some bridging moves and plant pulling. I am most certainly not going back down. This is the last significant hurdle of the uphill and after some slogging I reach the flat topped ridge.
It is shrubby but open, and as soon as I begin the descent I am on well trodden deer trails. I am basically running and sliding down towards the stream between the small knoll and the main ridge which will lead me to the Hauroko. I slide somewhat more spectacularly, with my right leg still stuck in a tree root and end up performing my first ever splits, albeit involuntarily, and find myself struggling to dislodge my trapped leg as gravity continues to pull me downhill. I manage to roll sideways and return my hips to a more accustomed arrangement. I continue pacing it down the hill, along the stream, progressing rapidly towards the Hauroko Burn. Then I fall over, on an excellent deer trail, no less.
I fall on my face, which in itself is not ideal but not devastating. What is devastating however, is the impact of my still heavy pack against the back of my head. My face is shmushed forcefully into the ground, my nose taking the brunt of the impact and my lip, still sore from the day before, is split open again. I extract myself from the weight of my pack pinning me to the ground and sit up. There is blood everywhere. I gently press my hands against my face, wondering if anything is broken, wondering what the source of the pain and numbness is. Nothing is broken, as far as I can tell, except for my lip which is already swelling up.
This certainly puts a damper on my pace but soon I have reached the stream and washed the blood off and am even more determined to get to the Hauroko Burn as quickly as possible so I can get over it before the forecasted rain arrives. I rush down the slippery stream until it turns into a waterfall and I duck off to the true right to just head straight to where I suppose Hauroko Burn will be. I reach the flats and dodge deep swamps, vaguely following a small creek in the knowledge that it must flow into the Hauroko. I leave the swamps behind and begin to hear the rush of water.
I burst out onto the river bank, eager to see what my situation is. My situation is good. In fact, it is excellent. Hauroko Burn is basically a trickle, and I can see plenty of options for me to get across. I wade over to the other side and stroll towards Hauroko Burn hut at a good pace, wary and excited at the prospect of seeing people, hoping my bloody face isn’t in too much of a state.
Alas, there is no one at the hut and so continues my six day streak of no human contact. I get the fire going, if only to dry my no longer smelly clothes, and elaborately string up my tent inner involving the bunks, some string and my tent pole so I can eat, read and sleep in relative safety from the constant onslaught of sandflies.
*f denotes a photograph taken with the old Olympus OM30 film camera my mother gave me.