Us Kiwis are a pretty chilled out bunch. We’re not quick to blow our own trumpets, and understatement is the norm rather than the exception. So when it comes to descriptions for off-track routes through the hills, “a bit steep” or “interesting travel” can easily translate into a mini-epic. Guidebook writers in particular have a challenging job; overstating the difficulty can put people off, or set people up to fail on future trips. Understatement can do just the reverse, with folks getting in over their head. It’s all relative to the skill/experience of the reader, which if you wish to sell a few copies, is going to be a pretty wide range.
Like every other keen outdoors person, I’d been scouring maps looking for my next adventure. Packrafting was my travel mode of choice, with a 2-3 day trip crossing into the headwaters of a moderate river my aim. It’d been a really dry summer so far, which meant that I needed to be looking on the west coast. The coast has lots of steep valleys with whitewater that was well above my capabilities or desires, so that only left a few rivers to choose from within range of home.
The Okuru quickly stood out. With a moderate gradient and reasonable length, it looked like the river for me. A bit of research revealed an absence of river information on any of the whitewater kayaking sites, which usually means one of 3 things; It’s too steep/hard and hasn’t been done yet, It’s too remote/in a wilderness zone so heli flights aren’t an option or it’s too flat and easy, so no one has bothered… More scraps of info about jet boats and trout fishermen using the valley had me convinced that it was going to be pretty straightforward paddling.
But then how to get to the headwaters? Emily pass was the immediately obvious route. It was not too high and not too far from the Haast Pass highway, which would make transport logistics easier. But as they say, ‘the devil is in the details’. Pulling out my trusty copy of Moirs Guide North and the map, I began that familiar process of turning the description into a line on a map and a plan in my mind.
The description was mostly written in the opposite direction to our intended trip, so I had to reverse the route in my mind. Phrases like “a bit of a grovel”, “steep for 50m” and “travel is not brilliant” had me mentally preparing for a tough trip, but the little line I’d drawn on my map looked achievable, and the description seemed to match what was depicted.. It was clear that the crux was going to be the descent off Emily Pass, but I didn’t anticipate the other cruxes subtly hinted at within the well-respected book..
With one vehicle left where the Jackson’s Bay road crosses the Okuru, we returned to the delightfully named Roaring Swine Creek to begin our mission.
The first few hours went according to plan; the bush wasn’t that thick, we were able to follow an old track in places, and we kept pace with the Moirs Guide times.
Beyond the middle flats however, the trip’s adventure began…
As the valley steepened, the dry bed of a small tributary offered us a parallel, but faster alternative to following the main creek. We made quick time up the dry schist boulders, but as soon as we began our sidle back to the main creek, we got into thick, steep leatherwood. The grovel had begun.
Sean, my buddy for the trip had recently arrived from his home in the Yukon, Canada. As we chatted about his homeland, I’d learned that they don’t really have much undergrowth, let alone anything to compare with South Westland scrub. As a testament to his character, I didn’t hear a word of complaint, just the occaisonal sight of a grey helmet and rapidly whirring arms as he burrowed through the thick foliage.
Neither did he complain about sliced hands or a stick to the face when we began dragging ourselves up bluffy sections with handholds of cutty grass….
The Moirs description had forebodingly indicated the last 150m of vertical to the pass would take about 1.5hrs.. Following a waterfall, we divided our ascent between the exposed but easier travel along the bedrock/scrub interface, and the slow but safe thickets of steep scrub a meter or two away from the water.
To me, the description made it seem like a viable route the whole way up the true right, but here we were, clinging to the scrub, staring up at a 15m high, moss covered bluff. It was now 8pm… Thankfully, we were able to cross the creek and with a bit of teamwork, get ourselves up onto the other bank. It was getting a bit shady on side of the pass, but our relief grew with the light as the gradient eased off and we found ourselves in the boggy tussock clearings of Emily Pass.
The only view from here was more or less straight up; to the impossibly steep crags of ‘The Prop’ and confused terrain of ‘Rotten Ridge’. It was tricky to find a suitable spot to camp, but sleep came pretty easy, even on the bumpy ground.
When the alarm went at 6, neither of us really wanted to get up. Scrub bashing muscles which hadn’t been used in a while protested, and the low grey cloud was hardly inspiring. But get up we did, for a quick feed just as it started to rain. We confidently headed off, following the creek draining the pass, sure that the route would become obvious if we started in the right place. Perhaps that was true, but we never did find the ‘right place’.
Our first attempt was from the eastern side of the pass. The description had spoken about following close to the creek, crossing several times where it got too steep. But only a short distance below the pass “the” creek plunged straight into a canyon, and crossing it was out of the question. We persisted through the now familiarly thick scrub for a while, but the further we descended, the steeper it became on 3 sides and when we got bluffed out, we had to admit defeat.
Clearly my interpretation of the description was wrong, so armed with the knowledge of the ‘wrong’ route, we reluctantly turned to bash back up. As anyone who has travelled in thick bush on steep terrain knows, bashing uphill is many times more difficult. Not only is gravity not on your side, but the pointy parts of most plants also go downhill. It’s definitely going against the grain… It was a bit demoralising to arrive back near camp, scratched to bits and soaked through, after 2hrs of pointless travel.
Attempt 2: The bush higher up on the south-west end of the pass wasn’t quite as thick as the other side, and we were able to routefind lower than we’d been previously, but I still couldn’t reconcile the terrain in front of me with the description given.
We could see a small clearing maybe 100m away, about 30m lower, which would give us a great chance for a good look at the surrounding terrain. Wading across the leatherwood, on small ledges above the bluffs, we progressed painstakingly toward the clear. On our arrival, we could indeed see plenty; specifically that this was the end of the line, and that there were no other feasible lines on this side of the gully. We had a clear view of our original attempt, and I studied the lie of the land intently. Maybe it was just my optimistic determination to get to the Okuru, but I could swear I could ‘join the dots’ from our previous end-point, all the way to the valley floor.
When I told Sean what I thought, the look he gave me said it all… But what was the alternative? We still felt like we had plenty of daylight to make it all the way to the river, and the only other option would be a full retreat to our car. So off we went again, swimming, tunneling, swearing and grovelling our way back up to our campsite.
I took a look at my watch whilst quickly munching on soggy crackers and cheese; we’d clocked up a total of 5hrs of fruitless effort so far. And then it began to rain a little bit harder…
As we progressed past the original turn around point, each time we hoped to begin our descent, a bluff or dangerously steep gully blocked our way. So we’d climb a little as we sidled to the next ridge which always looked promising from afar. Again and yet again we were forced to climb and sidle. By now it was nearly 2pm and every minute of further progress would be 3 minutes of retreat. It all looked a bit grim and our hopes of paddling the Okuru looked to be slipping away… I climbed the nearest sturdy tree and peered into the cloudy murk, trying desperately to join the dots of the tree tops in a single, un-bluffed line to the valley floor. I just couldn’t be sure, so I stayed there, clinging to the tree for a good 5 minutes, simply hoping that a route would just magically present itself and prevent the certain, miserable retreat we’d have to make.
Sean had pretty much had enough, so when I suggested feebly that “the next spur looks like it could work” I could tell he wasn’t impressed.
“Ok then, we’ll give it 20 minutes, till 2pm, and if we aren’t certain of success, we’ll just give up, camp on Emily Pass again tonight and retreat to the car tomorrow”.
So we only had 20 minutes, and I was determined to make them count… Once we’d made it up and over to that spur, we began our steep descent. Each time I was about to make a move down, I mentally checked that it would be possible to reverse it if the unthinkable happened and we needed to retreat. But to my delight (and surprise) it kept working. We bypassed a few smaller bluffs on the steep hillside as the 20 minute deadline came and went. I didn’t acknowledge the deadline, as I was sure this was going to work… it just had to work…
And it did. After 7hrs of near constant effort, we’d finally reached the upper basin of Emily River, barely 500m away and 180m lower than where we had camped the night before.
Looking back up to the pass, I counted 3 distinct streams with waterfalls; all about the same size. I wonder which one the authors were referring to with their descriptions?
To be on flat, open ground was such a relief! On cue it stopped raining, then as we boulder hopped down the stream the sun even came out… Surely this was a sign? The half-hour day dream on a big flat rock was just magic. Warming chilled cores and drying sodden spirits, we felt like the rest of the day was going to be fine; on the map nothing looked anywhere near as nasty as we’d just been through.
So far so good… the sidle through to Ironstone spur was relatively uneventful, though the effort of getting off Emily pass had us tired and moving a little slower than we’d have liked. Finally on the crest of Ironstone spur at 7.30pm, we felt we had it in the bag. Only 320m of descent, down a “steep but open” spur. Maybe an hour?
Ironstone had other ideas… As we descended, the ridge crest was often a knife edge of steep, moss covered rock, forcing us to shimmy down very carefully, one leg either side. Bluffs and gendarmes repeatedly blocked the way, forcing us to sidle where we could, and use our short, puny throw-bag ropes as hand-lines to lower ourselves down where we couldn’t. The ‘open’ terrain began to resemble the stuff below Emily pass, and we soon found ourselves bluffed on one side, with incredibly steep and thick bush on the other whilst the minutes ticked by and the light began to fade.
There was no way we could navigate this terrain under head torch; ‘absieling’ one wrong bluff could lead us committed and stranded, so we had to get down before it got dark, or face a miserable night on a scrubby ledge with very little drinking water.
This is how accidents happen I found myself thinking, so I forced myself to focus and fight the urge to be hasty when route finding. One miserable night due to failing light was preferable to hideous few nights due to a fall from a bluff, a badly twisted ankle or worse.
It was now 9pm and dark enough under the canopy that we found ourselves struggling to see just how big the next bluff was. I figured we only had one chance to get around it before the light was gone: Do we try to bypass it on the left or the right?? Left was back toward the crest of the spur, and just as I was sure we were doomed to a night on the spur, a slightly less steep gully appeared. Our two throwbags tied together just reached, and we were able to ‘abseil’ old school style 15m down to the valley floor.
Not a minute too soon…. Like a pair of zombies, we stumbled down the boulders of Emily Creek to the confluence. 14.5hs after starting off, we reached our days destination.
The morning greeted us with cloudy skies, but it didn’t matter. We’d finally made it to the Okuru, and now we got the chance to transition into paddlers and let the water do the work from now on. Huge waterfalls lept off bluffs and out of canyons high on the on valley walls. The tops were guarded by impossibly steep ridges and more impossibly thick vegetation. It was a truly wild spot.
As I’d expected, the Okuru’s gentle gradient made for mostly easy paddling, with long sections of slow moving, flat water, with the occasional grade 2 rapid. The effect of the lack of rain this summer was obvious on the river banks; the water level was nearly a meter below what looked like ‘normal’ height. The first few rapids were pretty bony, and after one I realised there was quite a lot of water sloshing around in my boat. We pulled to the side to try a field repair on the 15cm gash in my floor. The Tyvek tape seemed to stick alright for a few more rapids, but soon I was back to sitting crotch deep in water. Thank goodness for drysuits!
The Okuru meandered through gravel braids, then through sections of single channel, with gorgeous forest overhanging huge boulders. Incredibly deep emerald pools and amazing water worn patterns on the rock mesmerised us as we floated along.
Further down, we encountered about 5 harder rapids, each requiring a specific line and maneuvering to avoid hazards, which put them into the easy grade 3 category. One rapid needed more water for a safe line, so we portaged it, but most we just scouted then ran, with only 1 flip between us for the day.
Because the day was going so well so far, it was inevitable that it was going to rain…
Soon after, an evil up valley wind began to blow. Squinting into the wind and rain as you paddle down a watery treadmill is never fun, especially when you know that you’ve got nearly 20km more river to cover.. Thankfully the rain and wind eased by the time we reached ‘the boil hole’, where we enjoyed our last rapids of the day.
The clouds and rain had kept the sea breeze from forming, but sure enough, once the sun was out we began plowing into a miserable headwind again.. When we stopped paddling for a moment to test the strength of the current vs the wind, it was obvious we were being blown ever so slowly back upstream. There was nothing to it but to grit the teeth and keep on paddling.
As the river’s course changed about 90 degrees, we got some respite from the headwind, and were able to float easily down the rest of the way to the Okuru bridge.
Only 8.5hrs today… What will we do with the rest of the evening??