A simple dead beech tree limb is transformed into a structure of dripping bronze before my eyes. The evening autumn sun strikes it just so to illuminate water droplets and brown leaves to make them appear gilt in metal, not simply crafted of living forest material. A piwakawaka dances from branch to branch in the metallic landscape, catching my eye.
What a beautiful way to begin a traverse of a mountain that heralds over the place I call home. We start by walking through the grand forest that clothes the banks of the Waiau River and then skirt along the lakeshore of Manapouri to reach the sheltered cove of Hope Arm. After a night in the familiar hut, we set off for the upper Garnock Burn and the intriguing Snow White Clearing. The morning’s misty cloud breaks as we reach the clearing and the cold, clear waters of the Garnock Burn are crossed in brilliant sunshine. Perfect conditions to begin our ascent of the slopes of the mountain.
Open beech forest is unrelenting in steepness but easy to travel through. After climbing a particularly vertical section, I pause for a rest with my pack off and my eyes to the tree tops. I am delighted to find unexpected comfort and ease in reclining this way. The blue sky through the green clumps of leaves is idyllic and the scene washes over me in a wave of nostalgia and peace. Five different forest bird species make an appearance in the short span of stopping here. What a place! It’s almost a shame to move on.
Soon, we reach the edge of the forest and a guardian wall of thick scrub. Pushing through, we emerge into an upper stream catchment and welcome open country. A little bit more climbing brings us to a flat spot at the edge of the forest with a view that demands spending the night. Lake Manapouri unfolds below with its characteristic islands contrasting with calm blue water. Mount Lyall towers beyond. This is what dreams are made of.
Ruru call in the night and stars gleam between dark branches as we sleep. As soon as I unzip the fly of the tent in the morning, I’m confronted with pink skies and a cloud inversion over the lake below. Quickly I scramble to get my camera gear and walk up to the sandy and rocky saddle for a 360-degree view. The deep orange light and vivid skies create a glorious scene to begin our summit day.
Rocky tors, balanced pyramids of stone, weathered shapes, and soft sand underfoot create an interesting climb to the summit. Once we haul ourselves and our tramping packs to the top, there’s nothing left to do but soak up the vastness. Southern Fiordland unfolds in shades of gold and blue to the horizon with a combination of soft and jagged forms. Titiroa itself reveals new corners, plateaus, ridges, and lakes than could be imagined from simply gazing at the mountain from below. The aspect it presents to the centres of Manapouri and Te Anau is only one element of its personality.
With time up our sleeves, we are keen to explore what we can of the mountain’s rock labyrinth. We descend to the glossy grey waters of the most prominent alpine lake visible from the summit and set up camp against a backdrop of stone that makes for a Flinstone-like appearance: green tent, blue sky, and pale rocks. Convincing ourselves that it will be worth it, although by no means warm, we take a dip in the icy water rippled by the wind. Pulling on dry clothes and two down jackets afterward, I feel refreshed.
Sunset comes on fast, as it always seems to at this time of year. I scramble as quick as I can to very near the summit of rockpile 1505 m that looks out over our small lake and Titiroa’s wonderland. Despite squeezing myself through gaps in rock, crawling through tunnels, and stepping out onto exposed boulders, I can’t quite reach the top of the rocky pyramid. Making due from where I stand, my eye catches Lake Rakatu far below, ensconced in forest but glimmering with the colour of reflected sunset.
After a night of cool wind lapping the tent, I emerge early under a sky of violet hues. Back up to the high point again, I wander amidst sculpted stones as the sky catches fire and the world awakens. From here, the highest stone of the rockpile I visited the night before looks like a person silhouetted against the dawn.
The sky’s colour peaks then dies away for a few moments before bursting forth anew when the sun crests a ridge of low mountains to the east. This is always my favourite part of sunrise in the mountains – finding myself and the landscape suddenly flooded in light.
I wait as the sun gathers in strength and lights the world above the cloud.
Then, it’s back down to seek shelter from the cold wind. I gather my supplies and tuck myself behind a large boulder in the sun to cook eight-grain vegan pancakes. Yes, that’s right, eight-grain. A recently adopted treat in the mountains as a spin-off idea to a friend who carried in an Edmonds’ “just add water” pancake mix jug, the eight-grain concoction is not as hard as you might think. Prep the dry ingredients at home, add the desired amount for the morning to any kind of shaker and add water. Voila! Berries and maple syrup optional. ????
Hours pass as we slowly pack and warm in the sun. Finally ready, we set off just before midday through a textured landscape of stone and wonderful herb fields. I have found my happy place where I feel most connected to my surroundings. Just a tiny touch of life in the Titiroa moonscape is all it takes to change the feel of the place.
A steep sidle, then scramble, brings us back to the ridge. Jagged rock piles must be negotiated as we move along over new ground toward the Borland catchment. After quite a bit of sidling through powdery granite sand, we reach the spur we’re looking for and travel down, down, down – quickly losing the height we fought so hard to gain only the day before.
The North Branch of the Borland River opens below us, providing a new landscape to tantalize. Soon though, we must enter the forest and thus lose the sweeping vista. However, I’m delighted as we enter to find it relatively open and consisting of my favourite gnarled silver beech adorned with thick textured coats of lichen. Following the fairytale forest down, we soon reach the tussock flats of the valley floor and get a glimpse of North Borland Hut.
Seen from far above glinting in the valley like a beacon, it is almost comical to reach the hut and find it nothing more than a corrugated iron box. Something on top of the hut is tied with a cable to a nearby small beech tree. We discuss whether the hut is holding the tree up or the other way around without conclusion. After splashing through the low river, we reach the hut and I take a peek inside to escape the sandflies. Dark and small and filled with a few curious oddities, the hut is nevertheless tight against sandflies.
A quick snack break inside shows us that we can’t stay as my tall tramping partner repeatedly knocks things over with a startling clack anytime he tries to move. A cheeky entry in the hut book and we’re off – committing ourselves to a late evening of walking.
Undulating terrain is unforgiving on tired legs but we pound out kilometers as quick as we can. We reach a clearing that gives a last view of Titiroa alight in sunset hue. It’s hard to believe we were up there only hours before. With a sigh we turn our backs on the view and plod into the forest again.
Crossing the Middle Branch of the Borland Burn on dark, we soon start searching for the rock biv marked on the map. If it’s nice, we think we’ll stay. After losing the track and a bit of headtorch hunting, we find the unmistakable bivvy rock made obvious by the dilapidated toilet around the back. We cannot believe how shallow the sleeping space is! We imagine one could only just slide in with a sleeping bag and pad to then have his nose pressed firmly against the ton-weight boulder above. No thank you!
We discuss our options and then decide it’s best to hightail it out of there and head for the carpark. Sure, we’ll get back to Te Anau at 10 pm but that’s not unreasonable. Pushing a quick pace, we’re rapt to find the track more level and in better shape than the previous section. Glow worms spotted left and right; I lose myself in the practice of night walking.