WORDS AND PHOTOS, TARA MULVANY
The Olivine Ice Plateau had been on my mind for years. It was the first place that Lochie and I had ever talked about going together. He was just as excited about bush bashing in the upper Arawhata River as he was about the plateau itself, and I was drawn by the remoteness of a place rarely visited, yet one that felt so close to home.
This was an important piece of our planned route along the Southern Alps from Cape Farewell to Fiordland, a journey for which we had set aside more than 100 days. Food drops had been packed, our route was set, and a steady stream of new gear appeared on my doorstep every few days. Excitement levels were high and I expected it to be the best summer of my life, roaming through some of New Zealand’s most remote country with Lochie. But in the early hours of 2 September, the livestock ship he was working on sank in the East China Sea and Lochie disappeared. I believed, as did many, that there was a very real chance that Lochie and the crew had safely abandoned ship and were still alive.
During a time when I had planned to collate route information and walk in food drops, I was instead immersed in a desperate fight to continue to search for Lochie after the official search was called off. For two months we clung to hope and pushed forward with a huge private search effort, until eventually it reached a point where there was nothing more we could do.
Not long after, on 10 November, I walked away from Nelson Lakes with a heavy heart, bound for Fiordland, determined to complete our traverse and knowing without a doubt that this is what Lochie would have wanted me to do.
I was grateful to have been able to join two friends, Grace Fleming and Shannon Mast for the Toaroha to Mt Cook section, before continuing south on my own again. This is the story of the final leg of the adventure – a traverse of the Olivine Ice Plateau towards Red Mountain and down to the ocean at Big Bay.
Sunrise on Hochstetter Dome, upper Tasman Glacier
Shannon and Grace approaching Satan Saddle on the Garden of Allah Ice Plateau
Thursday, 28 January 2021
148 days since Lochie went missing
Dodging cow pats and puddles, I wandered along the 4WD track up the Matukituki Valley. Tears streamed down my face as I remembered the last time I was in this very place. It was with Lochie and his mum Lucy the week before he left. On a cold day in August we had ridden bikes up the valley and walked to Liverpool Hut for the night.
The contentment that I had felt then, only months before, was what I had hoped to feel for the rest of the summer. As the sun moved higher in the sky, I ducked into the shade of the forest, slowly moving upwards. Twigs crackled under my feet and my pack felt heavy with 12 days worth of food, but a dream weather window was opening up in front of me and I had reason to get moving.
By mid-afternoon I stood on Cascade Saddle, with the Snowdrift Range and Dart Glacier spanning the skyline. As I descended down into the valley, a dark band of cloud rolled over the mountains, and within minutes heavy rain started to fall. I walked into Dart Hut dripping wet and relieved to put my pack down for the day. That evening, I laid out my maps of the Olivine Ice Plateau and with a pencil translated Moir’s route descriptions on to contour lines and ridges. Other than a plan to approach from the Dart, and what felt like a lofty goal to traverse all the way to Red Mountain, I knew anything could happen and I had an open mind and knew all the escape options I would have to get down.
The following day, after boosting down the valley, I stood on the grassy banks of the Dart River, wishfully hoping to find a good place to cross. The river was deep, fast flowing and silty. I quickly deemed it uncrossable – uncrossable in a controlled sense at least, but I was prepared to swim; it was either that or give up. I pulled out my rain jacket and put it on, and repacked the top of my pack, rolling my pack liner and clipping the buckles firmly together. I double checked that my crampons and ice axe were firmly attached.
Just downstream of the boulder gardens of the gorge and not far from the mangled remains of the old swing bridge above Daleys Flat, I dropped my pack into the river, checking that it floated and then launched on top of it. A large boulder sat in the middle of the river and most of the flow rushed past on the far side. I kicked frantically and paddled with one arm, holding onto my pack with the other, and tucked into the eddy behind the boulder. The eddy carried me upstream to where the current was the strongest, setting me up perfectly for the main crossing. I charged the eddy line, kicking as hard as I could and holding an upstream angle, pretending I was in a whitewater kayak and leaning downstream. The current shot me downriver and a few moments later I washed up on the far bank. It had been exhilarating and I felt committed; there was no turning back.
By late afternoon I was high above the bush line, and the route towards Seal Col and Desperation Pass fell into view. The air was still and it seemed too good to be true. As the setting sun sank behind the hills and the light began to fade, I flicked on my head torch and organised my gear for an early getaway the next morning.
After what felt like a long night, I packed up in the darkness, and then scrambled up cold rock towards snowy slopes above. Everything was silent, apart from the crunching of my crampons on the frozen snow beneath my feet. It seemed to take an eternity for the sun to rise, creeping over the distant hills and sending diamonds of sunlight sparkling on snow crystals. Weaving between crevasses I cramponed higher, sidling towards Desperation Pass. Dropping down below Glacier Col, I climbed again to Possibility Col and the summit of Mt Gates. I sat on the summit in the sunshine, with the Forgotten River flats to the west and the upper Joe River to the east in full view.
A thin line was visible zig zagging through large crevasses on the Thunder Glacier heading towards Climax Col, but the snow was soft and I was now moving slowly, so I turned and scrambled down steep scree into Blockade Stream instead. It knew it would be a good place to hide from strong winds the following day; and anyway, I felt ready for a rest day.
I washed my clothes and laid them out on warm rocks in the sun to dry. Clouds whisked overhead and I was glad for the shelter of my snow grass campsite tucked between boulders. That night I couldn’t hide from the full moon, shining brightly through the thin fabric of my tent. It was the fifth full moon since Lochie’s disappearance.
Looking down into the Upper Williamson River from the Olivine Ice Plateau
I woke early, keen to get away in the darkness, but a thick fog filled the air, so I zipped my tent shut and went back to sleep until dawn. By then the sky had begun to clear. A steep snow slope peppered with rocks led me to the ice plateau, where an eerie and desolate world opened up in front of me. Skirting around a couple of crevasses, I dropped down onto the plateau and walked slowly towards Little Ark, an easy summit on route. I stood on the summit and spun around in a circle, scouting my route onwards and looking at where I’d come from.
Mt Aspiring dominated the skyline in the distance and the Andy Glacier fell into the Williamson River below. I followed the ridge, skipping between rock ledges and plugging steps into soft snow between. I set up camp on a wide terrace on the ridge, squeezed between two glaciers. Snow melt ran over warm rock and formed shallow puddles on rock ledges. I spent the afternoon lying in the sun, feeling tiny in this vast wilderness and grateful that I was there. I wished that Lochie was there with me.
Camping on Little Ark, Olivine Ice Plateau
The night was clear, and apart from two keas harassing me, all was silent. As the sun began to rise on the morning of 2 February, a thick inversion layer of cloud rolled in. I climbed and sidled Mt Gyrae, catching brief glimpses of the route ahead. I then dropped down onto the remnants of the Trinity Glacier, with its piles of moraine the only tell-tale sign of the glacier that had sat here until recent years.
I sat on the summit of Mt Temple for a few hours later that afternoon, as clouds cast shadows over a panorama stretching from the plateau all the way to Red Mountain. Rock wren bobbed up and down, their high-pitched calls peeping from between cracks. From Invitation Col, I threaded a line through bluffs down to the valley floor and camped among boulders, in an oasis of soft grasses beside Sealy Stream. Cicadas chirped as if celebrating with me how far I had come and cheering me onwards. The high pressure system was holding strong.
Upper Williamson River from the Olivine Ice Plateau
The next morning I ascended steep rock and tussock to Hurricane Col, en route to Red Mountain which lay illuminated in the morning sun. Following the ridge-line, I made my way towards Simonin Pass and stopped in the shade of a beech tree, my first tree in days and the last shade I would get until early evening. I climbed up jumbles of large red sandpaper-like rocks and sat on the summit and ate lollies, feeling both gratitude and relief, high up on a mountain I had looked at from the beach at Big Bay many times before. I stared into the sun, at the Tasman Sea and the sandy beach of the bay – the very place where Lochie and I had first met.
That night I camped beside a large tarn with perfect reflections of the mountains and sky, and dove in, emerging cleaner and happier after my swim. Soon after, a rumble and then a short and sharp earthquake shook the ground while the stars twinkled brightly overhead. The air was warm and calm . . . I could sense that civilisation was not far away. All of a sudden it felt like I didn’t have far to go.
The next morning I packed up early, well before the sun hit and walked away, following deer trails towards a wide spur that would lead the way to the Pyke River. It felt like a long way, slipping and sliding and ducking between tangles of supplejack vines. The wide open flat of the river was a welcome find and I ate cheese and crackers in the shade of a Rata tree.
Soon I came across my first track marker in over a week, marking the Pyke to Big Bay track, and I stepped forward into familiar terrain. As I walked closer to the bay, I could hear the rumble of the surf through the trees and eventually I popped out of the forest into the sunshine. I waded across the river close to the sea and thought of the time that Lochie had rowed my friends and me across the river in the darkness. I walked slowly up the grassy quad bike track towards the DOC hut, thinking about how we had talked non-stop as we walked down this very track together.
After dropping my pack beside the hut, I ran barefoot towards the surf and dove into the ocean, the salt water washing away my tears. I squinted into the sun. The ocean was warm and it felt good to be clean. I felt an unusual sense of calm in that moment. I spent that evening with Lochie’s friend Warrick and his mate Tom. I’d met Warrick years before when I was boulder hopping down the coast. It was nice to be in good company just after having spent so much time alone and I was grateful for the kindness I found in Warrick and Tom, as well as for the conversations shared. I didn’t walk back down the grassy track until 3.30am.
As I boulder hopped down the coast towards Martins Bay a few hours later, my pack finally felt light but my heart was still heavy. I was tired and I walked slowly, aware that I was walking towards town and my journey would soon be over. It was only midday by the time I reached the Martins Bay DOC hut, but I decided to stop for the day, to enjoy the beach and a place that felt like home. I walked barefoot out onto the beach at sunset and thought of the photos Lucy had shown me of Lochie throwing armloads of seaweed at her and of our friends the Braaksma’s kids in this very place. I wished I could rewind time.
Early the next morning I reluctantly walked away along the sandy path and into a forest of pungas. At Lake McKerrow pebbles crunched beneath my feet and I stopped to skim a stone across its perfectly smooth surface, watching the ripples slowly dissipate back into calm.
The summer had not been easy. La Niña had not shown up and often route finding had been difficult. Rivers had been hard to cross and nights had mostly been lonely and dark. My heart had been filled with an immeasurable level of sadness.
Now, more than ever, I had learnt in what felt like the most brutal way, how fragile life can be. I wish I could say that I found healing or a sense of calm in the wilderness, but that wasn’t the case. What I did find though, were beautiful places and cosy huts, quiet valleys, fern-filled forests and sparkling clear rivers, and a camaraderie only found on a great adventure. I learnt that it’s not about the adventure itself, but with whom we choose to share those adventures.
None of us know when our time will be up. Lochie lived life to the absolute fullest and I’m confident that he wouldn’t have lived differently if he knew how much time he had. I hope that this past summer, I carried Lochie’s adventurous spirit with me, and that all of us who knew and loved him will continue to do so for a long time to come.
Many thanks to Lucy Bellerby, Precision Helicopters in Hokitika, and Heli Services in Franz, for your assistance with food drops. Thank you to Colin and Jeni Bell, and FMC for your financial assistance through the Simon Bell Memorial Scholarship. And lastly, thank you Grace and Shannon for being such easy-going and entertaining companions for the section we shared. The trip would not have been the same without you.
We’re delighted to share another trip report from recent recipients of the FMC Expedition Scholarship. Applications close annually in mid-September. For more details on how to apply, please visit the FMC website at www.fmc.org.nz/scholarship.