Aciphylla cushion in front of Pt 1430

Three days of consistently swampy terrain (November 2018).

The clouds roll in and the raindrops begin to fall. The car has terrible window wipers which actually reduce my ability to see the road and I turn up the speed to the super fast setting in the hope it will improve my visibility. It does. Enough. I pull up to the start of the track, park the car and tick off the things on my mental checklist; pack, food, ice axe, walking stick, raincoat, boots. Lock the car. Check all the doors.

It is not raining enough to warrant a raincoat, and it is hot. Five minutes in and I am already hoping for a river with a decent swimming hole. Instead I get mud. My boots have just received a new coating of Huberd’s Shoe Grease so I plough straight through. I turn off towards Rodgers Inlet, just five more hours. The track starts off nice enough, along a mossy ridge, and the sun even comes out. However, it all goes downhill from here. Not just literally. Soil moisture levels begin to increase and there are some complicated sections which involve swinging around on small bendy trees to avoid treacherous looking sludge. You know it’s serious when there is pond weed growing on the mud.

The tree graveyard

I reach a large expanse of swamp with young trees dotted throughout it. I cautiously hop from footprints to tree roots to logs to cross it, only to find my path blocked by what looks like the remnants of a cataclysmic flood event that has torn out hundreds of trees. I finally get a decent view to the tops, and it is obvious that I will have no use for my ice axe or crampons. Luckily I enjoy carrying unnecessarily heavy loads. I assume that the orange flagging tape is a detour rather than a trapping line and wander through the tree graveyard before reaching the Walker River. Surprisingly, bar the crossing, this section along the river turns out to be one of the driest parts of my trip.

The remainder of the track is swamp alternating with damp ground. Occasionally I am lulled into a false sense of security only to stop dead in my tracks one or two steps out from a section of mud suspiciously devoid of footprints. Luckily I have my walking stick and am able to cross narrow and unstable logs which span muddy stretches and by the time I reach the shore of Lake Monowai at Rodgers Inlet I still have dry feet, and have considerably improved my balancing abilities. The single pair of footprints I’ve been following display no such ability, and just before the hut I run into a young tourist in sneakers doing a day trip.

There are two huts at Rodger Inlet, one two-bunk hut which was previously used largely as cooking quarters, and a new (2009) six-bunk hut. Both huts are comfortable enough, however if you are looking for more luxury the new hut is the obvious choice. It has a water tank next to it and boasts a fireplace filled with rubbish, well set up drying racks and lines, an extra comfy looking velvet chair whose seat is broken right in the middle so your butt sinks through, and a pair of jeans which have split down the back seam. New hut: $5/night (adult 18+), $2.50 (11–17 years). Old hut: free.

Rodgers Inlet

It has taken four hours of walking and despite it being only 17:00 I feel it is unlikely anyone else will turn up on a Monday. I take the obligatory photos of the lake and the views and the huts, and then I decide to take a dip in the stream next to the hut rather than the sludgy shallow lake shore. I quickly submerge myself in the fast flowing icy water and jump out to walk back to the hut and the sandfly safe zone. I take a different route and discover a calm pool in one of the stream braids which has warmed up in the sun. Typical.

I rush inside, dry off and make a start on dinner. I soak my dehydrated vegetables (mushroom, zucchini and broccoli — all of which rehydrate extremely well) and then throw them in with my udon noodles and satay sauce. It’s delicious. After I’ve done the dishes and sorted my gear I get into my sleeping bag, and although it’s only 21:00 I am incredibly sleepy and drift off quickly.

I wake up shortly after 7:00 and am on my way by 7:30. Regrettably. I know it is not going to be an easy walk. DOC says 4 hours. The hut book says 2.5. We shall see. The map shows relentless elevation gain of 1000+m to the top of the ridge, and after some up and down, another 300m to the top of my first ‘mountain’; the 1578m tall Cleughearn Peak. The track lives up to my expectations. I’m struggling to motivate myself to keep moving especially with the heat. And just to add to the appeal, despite being on a ridge, the track is still swampy. Admittedly there are no longer potentially knee deep pools but it is still slippery and tiring. The beech forest is beautiful though, and I manage to spot some beautiful tiny native orchids.

The creeping forest orchid (Townsonia deflexa) is a tiny, difficult to spot, greenish plant up to 15 cm tall typically found in beech forest. It has two small leaves, and up to four flowers only a few millimetres in size which emerge between November and February and upon close inspection are actually quite beautiful. It is considered At Risk — Naturally Uncommon due to its scattered distribution.

Creeping Forest Orchid

Finally, I make it to the bushline. 3 hours. There are ancient looking orange markers to guide me along the only obvious way up the ridge, and to my relief, the majority of the open tussock ridge is still considerably wet underfoot. I continue along, trudging up and down each small peak along the ridge until I finally reach the saddle between Cleughearn Peak and Rocky Top. There is a bit of a moon landscape with granite boulders and sand, like on Mt Titiroa but at a smaller and less impressive scale.

I drop my pack and climb Cleughearn Peak. It is an easy walk and I am soon on my way past Rocky Top (1450m) towards the most peak-like formation of my trip, Pt. 1430m. It stands impressively overlooking what used to be mapped as the Devils Punchbowl, a beautiful dark triangular lake with an interesting river to one side that consists of many small tarns all linked together. The ridge has many small eroded sandy pockets and plentiful Speargrass (Aciphylla sp.) cushions, luckily small enough to walk over but not be spiked by. I drop down into a muddy pocket and can feel the moisture evaporating. I look up and it is an impressive sight. It looks like some sort of geothermal activity.

Steaming muddy flat along the ridge

I continue along the ridge and come across a narrow rocky section. I follow the obvious steps worn into the turf and find myself balancing on a small block, teetering over a vertical drop into a rocky gully [straight down the main scarp of a huge landslide it turns out]. I can see where I need to be, but it involves small hand holds and a rather large step up while swinging myself around over the gully and maintaining my balance with my pack trying to tip me backwards — all one handed as I refuse to leave my pole and it does not fit into my pack. I decide that today I do not feel like risking my life.

Instead I am forced to take a similarly difficult route which involves sidling underneath the rocky outcrop, then doing some grade 10 rock climbing with occasional moist grassy steps. I drop my pack as soon as I get back onto the ridge to check out the ‘Devils Staircase’ [Another feature no longer mapped on TopoMaps]. As soon as I round the first outcrop I spot a falcon perched on a large rock, with the stunning backdrop of Lake Monowai. I have left my camera with my pack. I head back, grab it, and spend about five minutes trying to sneak as close as possible to the falcon while taking a new picture for every metre or so of progress. It is watching me with what looks like a slightly offended expression and when I finally get too close it flies away.

The Kārearea/New Zealand Falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae) is an endemic bird capable of flying at speeds of over 100km/hour in order to catch its prey, which consists mainly of other birds. However, these stunning birds are considered threatened in New Zealand, the larger and paler Eastern form is classified as At Risk — Recovering, and the more intermediate Southern form is classified as Threatened — Nationally Vulnerable. Both are endangered by a number of threats ranging from habitat loss to predation by introduced pests. This bird is probably one of the more threatened southern falcons.

Kārearea

I check the descent, and it looks fine, albeit long and relentlessly steep. I grab my pack and begin. It seems to go on forever and while it is not too difficult I keep pausing so I can look up and take a break from concentrating on not sliding down on the large slippery tussocks. Finally, I reach the bottom and can start the ascent to Mt Cuthbert (1248m).

At the top I find the beautiful scented white Caltha (Caltha obtusa) flowering in a wet depression which leads to the summit [the Mt Cuthbert fault line], but I am keen to get to the hut, which I can see by this point, so I don’t stick around. The descent turns out to be even worse than that off Pt. 1430m. This time it is not just huge tussocks, but harakeke/flax (Phormium tenax) and inaka (Dracophyllum longifolium) scrub. I fight my way through it to reach the clear area before the beech forest, and on not finding an obvious way to head in I just wing it [In hindsight, sticking further left on the descent will ensure you stay near the scarp edge and avoid having to cross the swamp to reach the track]. I head straight down and eventually end up trapped on one side of a windfall covered swamp, looking straight at the clearing where I know the track runs through.

[I did not know this at the time, but this section of my walk actually followed along the top of the southern head scarp of what may be the largest landslide of its type on earth. It occurred about 12000–13000 years ago and was most likely triggered by a large earthquake. The volume of the gneiss and granodiorite rock slide was 27 cubic kilometres and it covered an area of 45 square kilometres up to 900 m in depth (Hancox & Perrin, 2009).]

I scratch my way around the swamp, narrowly avoiding a few deep cut stream channels hiding under bushes and make it to the wet grassy clearing, and up to the track. I find a marginally dry patch and take a break. One hour to go. It is getting late, and I am tired, but it looks like I should be able to make it to the hut by dark. I get a move on, although the last section turns out to be the hardest in terms of my motivation. I have countless breaks, I find snail shells and feathers, take photos and eat snacks. Finally I drop down to lake level and spot the hut. I power through the last bit and along the lake to the boardwalk. The hut is fancy and new, and even the toilet has boardwalk leading to it. There is a pair of older ladies, and a french couple who don’t talk all too much. I unpack, eat, and jump into my sleeping bag, falling asleep straight away. It’s been a 12+ hour day.

In the morning I am the first to get up and head off just as the others are getting started on breakfast. I need to pick up the three titty-less twats who attempted the Mt Titiroa traverse and I don’t want to keep them waiting. For their story, and Samuels excellent photos of one of the most stunning landscapes in New Zealand, click the following link:

Green Lake Hut

As soon as I reach the clearing where I rejoined the track yesterday (and the highest point of todays walk) I am off. It is swampy, but the gentle downhill is an absolute treat and I am sure I must be making excellent time. Gradually the forest becomes darker, and the track starts going down into gullys, then up onto ridges, then back down, and up. I maintain my speed for a while but then it gets boring. I reach a larger stream with an awkward log down a bank which allows a dry crossing, and as I sit down to lower myself onto the log a little female toutouwai/South Island robin (Petroica australis) hops over. She comes right up, and even appears to consider hopping onto my hand, but then changes her mind and spends some time inspecting me as I snap endless photos. Her mate is sitting across the stream watching us.

Female Toutouwai

She hops away and ambushes some sort of invertebrate in the leaf litter, then flies to a nearby tree. I make my crossing and glance back. The pair is snuggling on a tree branch. Shortly after, I reach the turn off to Rodgers Inlet. Not far now. I pick up the pace and in total it takes me four hours from Green Lake Hut to get back to the car. I sort my stuff, jump in and head to the Borland Nature Walk to pick up the boys.

To see the route click on the map below.

References:

Hancox, G.T. & Perrin, N. (2009) Green Lake Landslide and other giant and very large postglacial landslides in Fiordland, New Zealand. Quaternary Science Reviews, 28 (11–12), 1020–1036.

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