Our recent hut-bagging adventure turned into a camping trip as we waited around for the last side creek to go down.
On the second Sunday of July school holidays, my daughter and I set off up the Taipo River for a few days in our back country, hoping to add the historic Dillons Homestead Hut and the newer Dillons Hut to our list that day.
We’d left Christchurch on Friday afternoon, aiming for Nelson Lakes National Park, but relentless rain, a localised state of emergency in Westport and a myriad of road closures led to a change of plans.
After spending an uncomfortable night in our car in the Lake Daniells carpark and another night in the big and empty Waiuta Lodge, I’d been trying to find a relatively safe tramping destination where we could disappear for a few days. So here we were, heading up the Taipo River into the rugged back country of Arthurs Pass National Park. I’d had a rough few weeks at work and was aching to get deep into the bush and back to nature.
The forecasting indicated the worst of the wet weather was over, and while the track seemed to be a fairly straightforward wander up the side of the river, with only a few side creeks to cross, I had brought the tent and extra food in case things didn’t work out.
I hadn’t been to this part of Arthurs Pass before and didn’t know what to expect, so I decided to proceed up the unbridged valley track with a respectful degree of caution and stop or turn back if it started to feel unsafe.
As we set off from the car park, I joked with my daughter that I’d only bring my sleeping mat, since she didn’t want to carry hers. But at the last minute I squashed it into my pack and shouldered the additional weight, which turned out to be a very good call.
Blue sky was peeking through the clouds and piwakawaka flitting through the trees as we wandered up the first few kilometres of 4×4 track from the DOC car park off SH73, not far from Otira, to the start of the Taipo River track.
We could hear the Taipo roaring long before we saw its raging brownish-grey torrent, and stopped to stare wide-eyed at the uprooted trees and other detritus scattered across its banks.
The track had taken a hammering in the recent heavy weather event, with washed out sections, knotted ropes and waterfalls, and fresh slips of red earth and twisted trees. We couldn’t believe trees of this size had made it down the river and it was clear that 24-48 hours earlier, this area would have been impassable. For now, the river was receding but sections of the track were still underwater.
All that was left of a huge section of overhang was several tonnes of reddish brown earth and the twisted limbs of broken trees. At one point, we had no option but to bush-bash our way some 50 metres through a dense section of tutu weed, ferns and gorse as the track had disappeared under a treacherous grey flood. This sudden change of plans was a bit much for Emilie to deal with and her eyes filled with tears as I showed her the track covered in thigh-deep, swiftly flowing water. It took a couple of minutes of cuddles and calm reassurance before she agreed to follow me through the bush, squeezing her little body through the undergrowth, sliding over mossy rocks and clinging to clumps of ferns as she went.
We had stopped to pick the leaves and twigs from our hair when I checked my TopoMap to see we were just one kilometre from the hut. Excited and proud, we strode along the grassy path through patches of dense kanuka and gorse, busy planning how we’d spend the rest of the afternoon. I wanted to use my watercolours to capture some of the rugged scenery and Miss Seven wanted to play house in the historic homestead.
But our spirits sunk into our soggy boots when the mighty Seven Mile Creek stopped us in dead in our tracks – just 800m from Dillons Homestead and a little further from its neighbour, Dillons Hut.
Brimming full of water from the Kelly Ranges, the creek was an angry mess of grey and white water, intermixed with the occasional log and tangle of broken branches.
We wandered up and down the banks miserably, but it was clear there was no way we were crossing it today. Our ears were full of the roaring water and low thunk of rocks moving around and I stared pleadingly at the clump of trees where I imagined the hut to be, wishing someone would emerge to show us the way across.
But it was just us, two little humans dwarfed by towering mountains all around. Biting back my frustration, I turned to little Miss Seven who was staring at the creek with her big brown eyes filling with tears. “I don’t want to cross that one, Mummy!” she said.
“Don’t worry,” I told her, “It’s way too high for us to cross right now. It might go down during the night. Why don’t we find a nice place to pitch the tent and we can take off these wet boots and get comfy.”
Her lip wobbled even more. “But did you bring my sleeping mat?” Yes, of course I did.
“Okay Mummy! Let’s set up the tent and we can play Spot-It!” More like, let Mummy have a quick nip of gin from my hip flask to steel me for a long damp evening of card games, but I was glad to see her enthusiasm return so quickly.
Myself, I was mighty bummed out. It hurt to get so close yet not be able to succeed, and I tried not to wonder if a bigger, stronger or more experienced party could have made it across. I threw off my pack, took a swig of my oily gin and turned my attention to finding a sweet spot on the river terrace for our tent. There was a lot going on in my head, particularly the fear that the multi-day immersion into the wild that I was so desperately craving was not going to happen unless we got across that creek.
I’d limped towards the finish line after a huge few weeks at work, hanging out for some quality time outdoors with my daughter. We had spent the previous night at a DOC lodge, sheltering from the relentless rain and wind that was drenching the West Coast, changing our school holiday plans as the rivers rose and roads closed.
We’d settled on the Taipo track, which looked to have a lot of potential to get deep into the increasingly mountainous backcountry of Arthurs Pass National Park and visit the various huts dotted along the track.
Now here we were, batting away the sand flies with rugged mountains all around, a roaring river on one side and a raging creek ahead of us. On second thoughts, it really wasn’t so bad. Miss Seven was in top form and busy setting up our sleeping bags inside the tent while I stood around taking in the view.
The sun was kissing the bare tops of the Mt Barron and transforming the sky into a brilliant shade of pink and orange. Our little Blackdeer tent would be dry, safe and snug and I was confident of a warm night’s sleep inside my thermal liner, with my little hot water bottle of a daughter.
The next morning I convinced Emilie to jump into the bush again and we followed a deer trail to the top of the creek, hoping to find a wide, calm patch of water to cross, but alas, it only grew deeper and angrier as it spilled out of the narrow gorge between the Kelly and Bald ranges.
I even had a go at crossing the creek on my own, but only made it a few steps in before the force of the water nearby blew my legs from under me and I retreated, heart beating, to slump on the bank where Miss Seven was building rock castles.
Once my heart had settled, the cold, bitter aftertaste of fear took over. I had backed myself up until that point, but knew I had pushed it a little too far by venturing into the creek, even though a huge part of me just wanted to feel how strong it was, so I could justify my decision not to cross. I sat on the riverbank and shivered and felt sorry for myself, before getting dragged into making rock castles.
We spent the rest of the day playing by the river then camped a second night under the stars, playing cards, drawing, eating chocolate and snuggling together in our sleeping bags.
We never made it across the creek, but we saw whio/blue ducks, weka, pīwakawaka and deer. The next morning we paid our respects to the mighty Seven Mile Creek and turned around.
I’d made peace with myself and had my dose of nature, albeit without the huts I’d hoped to bag. Sometimes it’s important to stop and realise that the majority of pressure and expectation we place upon ourselves comes from us alone, and it’s okay when life doesn’t go to plan. It’s better to be safe than sorry, and just in case, always bring your tent.
Victoria and Emilie are walking the Te Araroa over the 21/22 summer season. They are raising funds and telling stories about the mental health benefits of time spent in the wild places of NZ, as well as the importance of protecting those areas for future generations to enjoy. To see all their stories, visit wilderlife.nz/adventures_with_emilie/
90% of the funds raised are donated evenly between the Mental Health Foundation, the FMC Mountain & Forest Charitable Trust with 10% going towards some of the expenses of walking the trail.
If you’d like to help them out, please donate via their give a little page.