Endurance  The Big Mistake

My first big mission back in New Zealand was quite an education.

I’d finally returned to New Zealand after 8 years back in the United States where life had just seemed to happen. As my wife and I settled ourselves and two boys into snug little Te Anau and reconnected with old friends, we were immediately reminded why 8 years was way too long to be gone. The beauty and recreational opportunities surrounding us as well as the Southlander
hospitality and culture made this spot heaven for us.

My passion for the place came flooding back as I remembered all the great missions I’d had in the hills and valleys of Fiordland during my previous year here as head of the college Maths department nearly a decade ago. Most of those efforts had been confined to the tracks (there are heaps throughout the region) but in my time away I’d become quite an experienced adventure racer and was now confident navigating wild places by topo map. I was keen to get into some of the more remote areas.

I poured over maps, planning out potential routes that looked ideal on paper–ones that traversed rugged country, got above bushline, required a packraft (the one piece of adventure gear I’d managed to squeeze in my luggage), and didn’t require an overnight stay.

I also cast my net for a partner.  

This latter bit was the easy part and the next day I was sitting in my kitchen with Gerard a local conservation officer who had made a career out of spending time in the bush. I showed him my ideas. He nodded and then politely told me that I was wrong. My ‘long day’ efforts would actually take an experienced party several nights, and some of the routes I’d suggested took in terrain that was inaccessible due to steepness. I protested on both accounts–assuring him that if there was a track shown on the map I’d easily be able to manage 5-6k an hour, regardless of elevation gained, and that the faces in question had contour lines spaced far enough apart that I was positive they’d be little more than scrambles. Rather than argue with me, he unfolded his own map and showed me a possible trip he wanted to do.

It was a loop from the Milford road that headed up Mistake creek, sidled behind Consolation peak, cruised down Melita creek to Lake Gunn, and then paddled the lake and Eglington river back to where it started. It met all of my criteria except that it looked, to me, really short. I walked my fingers along the map talking out loud–”if we start hiking by 7 we’ll be here by 8:30 or 9, on the ridge by 10, down to the lake by noon or so… maybe a couple hours of paddling. OK, we should be able to be back at the car by around 1:30 or 2–home in time for a nap and to help with dinner!” The whole loop covered less than 20 k–I couldn’t imagine it taking any more than 6 or so hours if I got to set the pace, even though much of it was trackless.

“Well… maybe” offered Gerard. “But some of it might be trickier than than you think. I’m not sure if we’ll be able to negotiate the ridge either, it looks pretty steep.”

“Let’s just give it a go, I encouraged,” quickly, not wanting Gerard to talk himself out of his own suggestion. Over the two days between our kitchen meeting and agreed upon date I wondered to myself whether Gerard might have gotten a bit soft since I’d last seen him and whether I was going to have to be more selective of partners in the future.

Less than an hour into our hike the the following thursday morning I’d been soundly disabused of these musings. Gerard walked the rough track along the Eglington and then up mistake creek at a pace that I could hardly match. I’m fond of running tracks whenever possible, but this one proved un-runnable, winding over rocks and roots and fording creeks. At the Mistake Creek crossing I managed to stay dry by stradling and sliding across a slick log above a rushing torrent while Gerard opted to get wet and cross higher up where the rapids weren’t as fierce. It was an exciting proposition either way, made more so by Gerard’s retelling of the tragic drowning of a German girl that had taken place the previous summer. We made steady progress, but not nearly at the pace I’d assumed was inevitable.

Mistake Creek

My esteem for Gerard grew as we went, and not just because of his speed! His years in the bush had made him a veritable treasure trove of information of all sorts and I grilled him with questions. I learned about the conservation work DOC was doing in the region, about search and rescue, more tramping accidents, and the history, geology, and biodiversity of the mountains we were walking in.  

As the day wore on, the mountains of fiordland added to my lessons. The half kilometer ascent between Mistake creek and the treeline (through trackless bush) took nearly an hour, something I would never have believed without having had the experience myself.

Thick bush above Mistake Creek

The towering mountains around us also echoed what Gerard had relayed in his understated fashion about their steepness. Slopes that I’d have wagered heavily on for being straight-forward propositions based on the contour lines were impossibly vertical and covered in snow grass. Gerard’s question about the feasibility of finding a route around Consolation also proved to be a good one and although we did manage to find passage, there were several spots that were far from straight forward (and at least one that would have been downright scary in anything other than the perfect weather that we enjoyed). The alpine views around the peak were worth the efforts however–we had a birds eye view of Falls Creek and a spectacular vista of the bigger peaks of the Darran Mountains to the North.

Perfect Fiordland day

Descending into the Melita drainage we followed the creek down a series of spindly waterfalls and perfect pot-hole swimming pools. It was Idyllic. Eventually we reached flatter ground, boulder hopping down the creek itself for several kilometers to avoid the bush–an engaging task that resulted in a few slips and a couple of good bruises on my shins while Gerard managed unscathed

Eventually the river plummeted through a deep gorge, which Gerard called a ‘gut’. We were forced into the trees and picked our way down through old growth forest into steepening terrain. At one point we found remnants of an ancient DOC track, complete with faded pink markers, but try as we might were unable to follow it for very long.  

Gerard led the way as we continued descending on the true right of the creek which we could only hear, far below us. The Gut itself was less than 5 meters across but more than 30 deep. It was nearly invisible in the thick bush until we were on top of it–something we avoided being as occasional views of the other side showed that it’s edges were severely undercut. Spooky. Eventually we became pinched in as a secondary gut from a smaller creek came in from our right. This one was even narrower than the main one (only a couple of meters–I was almost tempted to jump it!) but still 10-20 meters deep. It was wild country. We backtracked up the smaller gut until a weakness at the base of a waterfall allowed us to scramble down vines and vegetation and up the other side before continuing towards the lake below.

After what seemed like a long time we reached the bottom, emerging out into the open as the main creek, it’s potential energy now spent wound it’s way out to the lake. Negotiating several piles of deadfall we reached the wide sandbar, and the waiting sandflies, at the mouth of the river.  

The mouth of Melita Creek

A quick breather before heading out into the wind

Not wanting to become a meal, we worked together to inflate the packraft, stow our gear in it’s center thwart, and cram a bit of food into our mouths. The wind was blowing hard and there was a big swell with whitecaps on the water, but it was coming out of the North and we were headed South so we weren’t worried. I hopped in the boat behind Gerad and off we went, making good time aided by the generous tail wind.  

As we headed into the Eglington outlet we scraped bottom. The great summer weather to this point meant water levels were low and in the first few hundred meters of the river we had to get out several times to carry the boat over shingle fans. Gerard’s legs were cramping painfully from sitting on his heels in the boat after hours on his feet and so with this and the low water we decided to pull the boat out at Cascade Creek Campground. I was wearing running shoes and so offered to run the 5K along the road back to the car while Gerard deflated the boat and shook out his legs.  

Half an hour later at half past five I picked him up and we were on our way back to Te Anau. We’d missed out on at least a couple of hours of paddling and even then didn’t make it home in time for a nap or to help with dinner. But I certainly did learn a lot, including that I don’t have to look for another partner.

Wilderlife