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.

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.

Wet times in the lower Cascade – beyond the Whitewater

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.

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.

Barn Bay and the 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.

The wild coast

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!

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


Rock surfing? Rock & Roll?

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.

The 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

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.

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.

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.

Packrafting down the Pyke river

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

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.

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