By Stefan Fairweather (December 2018)
We wandered down the wide, gravely Waimakariri valley, surrounded by snow capped mountains and a grey sky. By the time we reached the Bealey Hotel we had decided on a plan. I would call my wife Kate who would try to (and did) find a batch in Castle Hill and she would meet us there on Saturday night. We figured it was a two days walk to Castle Hill, and a full day would be needed to traverse from the Harper Valley to Mt Cheeseman and descend from Mt Cloudsley to our accommodation. From there Dennis suggested we walk a short way up SH 73 to Cave Stream then down Broken River to the Avoca Hut, a historic farming homestead maintained by DOC. Dennis had fished Broken River so knew it was relatively easy walking. From the homestead he was less confident – the topo map showed the river narrowing to a tight gorge before its confluence with the Waimakariri.
“I reckon we’d be able to packraft that,” I said. Dennis agreed. We celebrated our change of plans with a steak pie and an apple turnover from the Bealey Hotel, then in the late afternoon, walked down to Bealey Hut, a mere 5 minutes walk from the road end. We were greeted by a pair of friendly French backpackers who were also settling in for the night.
“It’s been 5 days since we had a shower – do you think we smell bad?” Dennis whispered to me self-consciously as the 4 of us sat around inside the cozy hut.
“No worse than your average French backpacker” I assured him.
We huffed and puffed our way up the seemingly endless Lagoon Saddle track the next morning. Brilliant red splashes of New Zealand mistletoe (Peraxilla tetrapetala) dotted the beech forests, and when we finally emerged onto the tussock-covered slopes of Mt Bruce, we were greeted with sublime views of the Alps at the head of the Waimakariri.
That night however, showers drove us to the tent as we camped beneath the cloud covered peaks of Mt Olympus and Mt Cockayne.
After what seemed a very short sleep, we ground our way up the 1100-metre ridge that took us to Mt Cheeseman, then on to the main ridge of the Craigieburn Ranges.
As the hours ticked by and the sweat poured off us, we repeatedly congratulated each other on our decision not to traverse the entire length of the Craigieburns.
If we hadn’t decided on it earlier, it would have become painfully clear by lunchtime as we sat on the ridge among breaking clouds, snow patches, and the occasional nervous deer skittering over low saddles, that it was madness to think we could have ever walked the ridge to Lake Lyndon in a day.
With phone reception available from our vantage point, I called Kate.
“I’ve got steak for dinner and a salted caramel cheesecake for dessert – how does that sound?” she asked rhetorically.
I would like to say this news of a luxurious dinner made Dennis and I race down the bone-rattling ridge from Mt Cloudsley, but 7 days of walking were taking their toll on our aching muscles, blistered feet and my sore lower back which I had wrenched while struggling up the rough Newton’s Saddle route 4 days earlier.
“I don’t remember hurting this much on the one day Coast to Coast,” I grumbled to Dennis.
That night in the relative bliss of a Castle Hill Holiday Home (complete with salted caramel cheesecake brought from Christchurch by Kate), Dennis and I loaded our packs with 4 more days of food and our packrafts.
The forecast for the next few days looked good, but this was the part of the trip we were most worried about.
The Broken River gorge from Avoca Homestead to the Waimakariri confluence looked relatively short, and as we crossed and recrossed Broken River multiple times the following day, we felt confident we would be able to paddle it. Still, there had been significant flooding only a few weeks before and questions remained. Would there be trees? Would we have to portage any parts? The further we got down the river that day, the more milky the waters became and the more challenging the crossings. This upset Dennis greatly.
“I can’t see any fish,” he moaned.
We had a peaceful sleep in the beautifully restored Avoca homestead then a short walk down to a beach at the head of the gorge.
We had both paddled the Waimakariri numerous times in our kayaks when training for the Coast to Coast, but this short 4 kilometres on a new river was an unknown element. Straight away we were into grade 2+ rapids, but the adrenalin – and the relative stability of our flat bottomed rafts – had us down to the two rivers’ confluence safely and quickly. Laughing and shaking hands on the shores of the Waimakariri, we looked down the twisting gorge in front of us – this was the home straight and familiar territory for us both.
Despite only running at 60 cumecs, the river was fast and we were past Gorge Bridge by mid-afternoon.
Our camp among the willow trees, whipped by a blustery Nor’wester, wasn’t the most inspiring of places. Given that we could now literally see home in the distance, the Port Hills an inky silhouette against the blazing yellow dusk sky, we decided to make a big push for Christchurch the following day.
At the crack of dawn on day 10, we launched into the crystal blue waters of the Waimakariri, its swift current pushing us downstream in an increasingly wide and meandering pattern.
High tide meant we were paddling with no assistance from the current through the Brooklands Lagoon, so we pulled out of the water and walked through part of the infamous Christchurch redzone, the perimeter garden plants an eerie reminder of the bustling suburb this used to be prior to the Canterbury earthquake in February 2011. From Spencer Park the route took us along the sweeping sandy beach. A few kilometres from the New Brighton Pier, I stopped Dennis and directed his gaze offshore.
“Look at that,” I whispered, more to myself, as a pod of Hector’s Dolphins leaped and somersaulted out of the water.
At 7 o’clock that night we reached the pier. It had taken us 10 days and 251 kilometres of hiking and paddling. We had ascended more than 5500 metres. I had lost 3 toenails and 3kg in weight. But here on the beach, our goal achieved, Dennis was smiling to himself.
“We finished,” he said.
Dennis called his wife Bev in Upper Hutt to tell her the good news, then shyly showed me what he had been carrying from Kumara – a small piece of quartz rock that he had found on the beach last February just before the start of the Coast to Coast.
“I carried it on race day,” he explained. “I was going to give it to Bev when I crossed the finish line of my last Coast to Coast. But I didn’t finish.” The smile didn’t leave his face. “But now I have finished it.”
“You were always going to finish,” I said. “There was never a doubt. You just needed a bit longer than one day.”
It was a trip that I had longed to do for years. It was a trip that Dennis had wanted to do with purpose. And now it was over. I knew there were many more miles left in Dennis – both horizontal and vertical, but no more Coast to Coasts. This one was the ultimate, for both of us.
Check out Part I of Dennis’ Last Coast to Coast, featured here on Wilderlife.
For more details about Dennis and Stefan’s adventure, check out northtosouthnz.com.