This trip was meant to be a track cutting mission in the Koropuku Valley. We have been planning to cut a track to the hut from the access gully off Big Tops because people have had trouble finding the hut sometimes. When we were contacted and told that the new Arthurs Pass Map was showing a track in the valley, we figured we’d better go and cut one in the earliest opportunity as SAR were a bit concerned with this inaccurate information.
So with a week’s annual leave we consulted the usual sites to check the past and present weather,and other conditions that could affect our plans. Unfortunately the Otehake swingbridge has recently been taken out. Formerly this trip was an all-weather one with being able to use the flood track up the true right of the Otira and the Morrison Footbridge. The Pass had had about 90 mm of rain on the Saturday so we didn’t rush off then, giving the Otira and the Otehake a chance to go down.
We drove to the Otira on Monday and linked up to test the water: it was mid-thigh and full of current. Frank wasn’t having a bar of it and so we backed off literally. We went up-river and same again. So it was Plan B…but what was the plan? A great forecast for the next 5 days but no snow travel gear and flooded rivers. We racked our brains going through the local bucket list but rejected any possibilities e.g. Dry Creek circuit, Back Basin Hide, etc. Frank suggested we drive into 7 Mile, stay at the Taipo Hut and explore the Rangi-Taipo track that Alan Jemison and Emma Richardson recently recut.
So off down the road we went and drove into the Taipo Valley only to find the first creek impossible to cross in the vehicle but along that road I did find some watercress for tonight’s dinner and future reference. So he suggested walking in to Hawdon Hut via an old flood track that we had recut on the true right about 12 years ago. After that, DoC had started using it as a trapping line and done a bit of maintenance so that had been a win-win for all of us.
The track was initially in good heart but the boggy sections had become overgrown with nasty coprosma – the type that knits together and blocks your progress. I was impressed with my track-work boots though. The gore-tex meant my feet were still nice and dry. We hopped across a fallen tree lying over a parallel side stream and I got a bit scratched as it was festooned in bush lawyer. At the confluence with the East Hawdon, it was time to bite the bullet and get the feet wet.
Upstream of the confluence our usual crossing place had developed a channel so we continued and found a good place where there was no concentration of current. DoC have put markers in, indicating a place to cross further up but as river conditions constantly change with abrading and deposition it’s not a good ford. We travelled via an old track which still had the orange triangles, also used as a trapping line and then rejoined the current track.
It was poignant to see the old hut-site with its stumps of burnt piles, the repository of so many pleasant memories including my first tramp. One exciting time for Frank was during the 1994 Arthurs Pass earthquake. Frank had been leading a trip to Trudge Col and over Mt Hunt into the Poulter but called it off due to whiteout conditions when they’d got to the col. They’d been in the Hawdon Hut when the earthquake had struck. Boulders had come bounding down the hill but missed the hut fortunately.
We carried on another 15 minutes to the new hut and were pleased to see it was unoccupied so there was no need for compromise or issues with people noisily playing cards etc. 3 large groups had stayed there in the weekend and left their trace: multiple sheets of crumpled soggy newspaper stuffed in the wood-box making the other kindling paper damp as well. I went out and foraged kindling and threw out the boughs of green beech placed in the woodshed which was obscuring the dry stuff. It’s behaviour like this that encourages my misanthropy. I got the fire going and did the catering. Tonight it was Thai Tuna Green Curry with watercress. Frank went out and chopped a fine pile of wood for us to stoke the fire with.
The next morning we set off at a leisurely pace and once again got onto our flood track after spurning the DoC quadbike trail downstream from the East Hawdon in favour of the former route through the matagouri. This more direct foot trail used to be easy to follow but it has now disappeared. Frank explored the flood track virtually right to the shelter while I dropped down to where there was a quad bike track through the boulders of a groyne. Some Operation Ark women were gathering and being briefed for a mohua/orange fronted parakeet protection mission at the road end.
We decided to go up the Poulter and reccie the head of Tawhana Stream. We’d done this on a previous occasion and sorted out a route over the deeply incised first stream down from the saddle. We’d also done a bit of cutting there and built a cairn. It’s a cherished hope of mine to complete the route round above the true right of Tawhana Stream into the Koropuku. We’d pushed a route through from the Koropuku but there was still one and a half kilometers of tiger country to be explored, including what looked like the crux. A handful of parties had done the route but there were plenty of caveats in the hut books, stating it was impossible and had never been effected. I had been told that a woman and her malamute had managed to go up the actual stream! Hmm, a jack russell, maybe.
We had a pleasant walk into Casey Hut, arriving there in the dark. Fortunately there was no one in the hut to disturb. In the morning, I got the woodstove going to fry up some falafels for my lunch at the Michin/Poulter hut. This was a great success. It was a sunny day so I stopped at Trust Poulter en route to wash my hair. We got to Worsley Biv and set off to find the start of the NZFS track up to Worsley Pass. Frank and I had come down it quite a few years ago and I’d sent him on ahead as I had to put my ice axe away as I was finding it no good on the steep track. We’d both found the track had disappeared and from that point, I’d carried on straight down and then got into a swampy area filled in with close growing manuka.
I’d got panicky about ending up entrapped in this featureless basin of vegetation then calmed down and got the map out. I realized if I sidled to the east using the angle of the steepening and flattened terrain as a handrail, I’d eventually come out to Enchanted Stream. So I’d done just that and travelled on an open terrace to the junction of the stream and the Poulter River. There Frank was waiting for me. He’d also lost the track and come down to the swampy area but pushed his way north directly to the river, then come downstream to wait at the confluence for me. He’d seen my movement in the vegetation at the bottom and realized I wasn’t going to travel in the same direction as he had and catch up with him. At the time, he’d encountered a few white permolats as he was travelling north through an extensive open boggy section but he’d concentrated on getting to the river rather than following them.
So I thought maybe I could replicate my line of travel I’d taken except this time in the opposite direction. Unfortunately we ended up on a small rise surrounded by hostile scrub so we went back down to Enchanted Stream again. Frank said he wasn’t keen to cast about wearing his heavy pack and suggested we instead base ourselves at Worsley Biv and go up to the pass in exploratory forays. He doubted we’d be able to find a dry, flat campsite on the pass or in the headwaters of Tawhana Stream. From my traverse in Fiordland, I found we could always find a place to camp but thought it unlikely I’d be able to persuade Frank to take full packs up to Worsley so I accepted we’d spend the evening instead finding the NZFS track and following it up to the Pass.
So I relied on his memory this time. We travelled along the true right of the Poulter upstream from Enchanted Stream then where it felt right, we climbed up a terrace and zig-zagged back and forth in unpleasant scrub. At a small stream Frank spotted a red faded permolat in the water so we followed a deer trail, then emerged into the open boggy area. He poked around and eventually came across a bit of permolat nailed to a tree, and then I found the next one and so on until they petered out. We skirted the swampy section as this was very thick with manuka and mucked about in very unpleasant thick coprosma, casting about for signs of a track then began the zig-zag up the hill looking for signs of the track.
Frank found a trail heading straight up and ventured that this was the track. We followed it and although there were no permolats he recognized an ancient 3 inch long blaze by the evidence of repeated feathered hackings. So we continued up and had a little look down as well. We didn’t have a lot of confidence in this being a track but there were enough of what could be interpreted as blazes to encourage our persistence. I came to a small bluff and the track sidled left to easier terrain. Because the track was reasonably undeviating in its relentless direction uphill it was followable even though it was quite faded.
As we found unequivocal signs such as the very occasional permolat, blazes and cut marks Frank put them in as waypoints on his GPS unit. At one stage we found a remnant of a permolat still nailed on a tree which indicated to Frank that the permolats had pretty much oxidized themselves out of existence. With all this cataloguing, it was pretty slow progress but was useful for the following day when we attempted to refollow the track. We got to the open scrubby section of the hill and Frank suggested we call it a day, saying he recalled the route being well marked with cairns and easy to follow at this stage. So we retraced our steps to the area where we’d first found the track.
From this point on we were unable to find any evidence of the track despite lots of forays in all directions from that point so we continued downhill to the swampy section and things got familiar. We managed to follow permolats to the end of the boggy section and found ourselves on a good trail though a short band of beech forest down to the Poulter River. Frank entered all the permolats in as waypoints still so we could do some cutting and marking on the way back up to the Pass the next day.
So the next morning we set off with cruise tape and loppers to clarify the track properly. Frank seemed to be keen to set a high time-consuming standard so I resigned myself to the focus being on this track rather than the exploratory trip I’d hoped for. Once again we cast about fruitlessly searching for signs of the track from the swamp. I persuaded Frank to travel up through a more open section rather than the dreaded dank coprosma and assured him he could cruise tape a line through the coprosma on the way back down. To get onto the line of the track he had to travel to the right and this did the trick. Things began to look tracklike, once again in the same section being reassured by the blazes and our memories from the day before.
We got up to the scrubby section and followed cairns further up the hill, trying to memorize the look of things for the descent. The cairns were pretty old and sometimes quite flat – just a spreadout cluster of stones rather than piles so we reformed them as we went. At the area where it made sense to Frank that the route then sidled, we found cairns that indicated this was so and followed them to a pretty stream which we crossed, following an incised foot trail round above the vertical bluffs of Chasm Stream. The track then left scrub and descended though beech forest with a damp close-knit understory of the usual unpleasant subcanopy. The foot trail was very hard to follow but luckily a big beech tree was still bearing a permolat to reassure us we were indeed on the right track.
The track emerged into the huge open boggy area of Worsley Pass. I looked into the distance and where I’d hoped to explore. It was 5pm and a chill head wind was blowing, with the sky clouding over, heralding a change in the weather. I knew Frank wasn’t keen so he came up with the figure that it would take us an hour to travel to where we’d left off our exploration last time. We’d need to cover about 2 km to get to the deeply incised stream we’d found a way across so we backed off, built cairns and opened up the track so it was unequivocally the entrance. Frank found a permolat marker that had been invaginated by the expanding tree then miraculously had been held in place by encroaching moss. He tucked it into an old blaze on the tree.
We worked on the track to the scrubline and then just focused on cryptic sections that would now be able to indicate the direction needed to go from there. Frank applied cruise tape as we went. We continued down the hill to where the track disappeared and this time I found a thin layer of dark moss growing in a cluster of manuka. This may have been evidence of a one-time track but if so, it was long gone. There were comments in the hutbook from 1988 saying the track had nearly disappeared and was hard to locate and follow. Well, I guess we’d done the first work on it since the permolats were nailed on the trees a very long time ago,
It was a bit disappointing not to have done the exploring so dear to my heart but on the other hand we’d achieved something and there had been an exploring element in rediscovering the track. I always console myself with the thought that the mountains etc. are still there for future trips. Perhaps not with Frank though as he seems loath to lug his big pack up and around this particular challenging terrain or take his chances on finding somewhere suitable to pitch a tent.
On the way back to the biv, we checked out our Poulter Gorge deer trail entrance. The cruise tape was no longer in evidence at the start. We found it discarded on the ground so we reinstated it and dragged a few windfalls off our little track. That evening was milder with the encroaching westerly change. We set off in the morning to Casey Hut for a long leisurely lunch after a chat with DoC workers who were doing hut checks. So we told them about the reinstatement of the ancient track to Worsley Pass. Unsurprisingly they had been unaware of its existence.