By Thomas Hadley
Two tired ‘transalpinists’ called Tom are lying down in the tent for a summer night in Fiordland. Eyes closed, they are enveloped by the calm silence of remote mountains. Te Kākau a Maui, (Orion’s Belt) can be made out amid a slowly swirling smattering of stars above. At Ōmanui (McKinnon Pass), wispy clouds slide from one valley into the next. The snowfields beside the tent sparkle softly, rolling away into the void below. Stars, weary bodies, summer nights, stillness.
Then, “AAAGH, I’m so cold, I haven’t slept at all yet!” says Tom #1.
There’s a faint groan stifled by the sleeping bag containing Tom #2, followed by, “Me too . . . maybe summer sleeping bags were a bit of a mistake.”
“Yeah too right they were!”
It was at this point that we got out our silver foil survival bags, slithered into them, shuffled into a half-committed spooning position, then shivered the sleepless night away, wondering how we were going to spend the next five nights sleeping in the alpine.
I was based in Fiordland over summer working as a stoat trapper, but had a good window of time off that aligned with Tom Spencer’s break. We met in Dunedin, packed seven days of tucker, then sloshed our way across a rapidly rising Eglington River, beginning our remote Fiordland adventure with a crossing of Dore Pass in persistent cold rain. It felt great to be in the hills again, I thought, puffing to keep up with Tom’s cracking pace over the pass. We sloshed our way over a wind whipped notch in the ridge, watching distant peaks materialise and vanish again through the shifting clouds. We then descended through thriving beech forest, watching the leaves bouncing cheerily in the raindrops.
The next day was spent ‘absolutely hussing’ up the Milford track, tracing our way along the Clinton River. We entertained ourselves by exclaiming: “Bloody DOC not doing its job!” at every minuscule obstacle we encountered, such as puddles, small twigs, or misplaced rocks on the track. Great fun. We finished the day by hauling our way up the steep tussock above Ōmanui (McKinnon Pass). We dropped our swags at a nice flat bit of tussock and scampered through swirling clag, teetering along the narrow ridge for an evening climb of Mt Hart.
Scrambling up Mt Hart (Tom Spencer)
That evening on Mt Hart turned into our cold night of little sleep. However, the sun eventually crested a distant ridgetop spilling warmth back into our chilly bones. Anyone watching us emerge from our intergalactic cocoons of silver foil would’ve laughed. First a red nose emerged, followed by a bleary eyed face . . . then, like an alien creature being forced out of the womb, we flopped out of our sleeping bags, blinking at the incredible world around us.
That day was as good as they come. We cramponed along on incredibly firm snow, sidling around the snowy flanks of towering granite spires. As we looked down towards Lake Quill, we saw a perfect circle nestled among the snowy peaks. Looking back, clouds still poured silently over Ōmanui (McKinnon Pass) and Te Māuiui-kōhaka-o-Te-Ruru (Mt Elliot), standing high above the clouds. Te Māuiui-kōhaka-o-Te-Ruru was named after an energetic atua (demigod), tasked with helping to shape Fiordland’s landscape. After failing in his attempt to shape the area now known as Homer Saddle, he instead set to work shaping Ōmanui (McKinnon Pass). However, his work was compromised due to forgetting an important karakia. He worked long and hard, becoming Māuiui (tired), which forced him to rest his exhausted body sitting on the mountain now known as Te Māuiui-kōhaka-o-Te-Ruru (The Weariness of Te kōhaka-o-Te-Ruru).
However for us, exhaustion had not set in and we made rapid progress along the snow, then scrambling along the winding ridge tops. The rope was pulled out for a short abseil off the side of a ridge onto snow slopes, then for a tricky downclimb for which we lowered our packs. Mostly, we enjoyed fluid movement on warm granite for many happy hours, with views of craggy mountains lowering to the sea.
That evening, we were keen to make our way off the tops in order to camp somewhere lower down. We committed to dropping into the Light River, chasing the goal of getting as remote as possible. Our route into the Light was an exciting descent with one of my favourite modes of transport, precariously sidling along exposed bluffs by clinging onto small handfuls of snowgrass. Stunning! Soon, we’d jostled our way down the steep beech forest to a small mossy patch which made a much warmer campsite for the night.
Tom in the Light River (Tom Hadley)
The following day we travelled out to Sutherland Sound, stoked with the diversity of birdlife we saw and heard along the way. A kārearea screeched and swooped above us and the forest was alive with miromiro, riroriro, kākā and a furtive weka. Then, we were swimming out into a salty Tasman Sea, flanked by remote mountains wrapped in emerald cloaks of beech forest. We swam and lay in the sun for as long as we could, before heading from the sunny beach back into the Light.
That evening we had a soul-sapping sidle around the steep forest surrounding Lake Dale in search of a campsite, only to find nothing but boggy sludge on the far side, with further travel blocked by a deep river we named “The Ooze”. It was reminiscent of Tolkien’s Dead Marshes, where “The only green was the scum of livid weed on the dark greasy surfaces of the sullen waters. Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed up in the mists like ragged shadows of long forgotten summers.” After discussing unpleasant options such as swimming across with our packs, we discovered a tenuous rotten log which barely bridged the river. Safely across the deadly depths of The Ooze, we rejoiced on a small patch of ground where we made a fire and pitched the tent.
Beach cricket at Sutherland Sound (Tom Hadley)
The final days of our journey took us up a steep spur to golden subalpine. As we travelled along the tops, we noticed our fine spell of weather drawing to a close. An ominous lid of cloud was being pressed in from above, locking us into a confined space along with the less lofty peaks. Flecks of rain, almost imperceptible, began to dance around in a rising wind, occasionally colliding with our faces. Nonetheless, we talked ourselves into one last climb for the trip, an excursion up Mt Daniel which stands at the head of Staircase Creek. We brushed through tussock slopes, then negotiated a series of snowfields, which took us on a circuitous route to the summit ridge. We scrambled the last few metres on steely grey rocks, hardly stopping on the summit as clouds swirled and swelled in Staircase Creek below, plotting their next strike on the valley. That evening, we threaded our way through bright green Hoheria (ribbonwood), into the scrubby bush of Staircase Creek.
Climbing Mt Daniel with clouds accumulating (Tom Spencer)
The next morning, the rain had arrived and we breathed in the earthy, cool smell of wet forest as we shook ourselves out of our sleeping bags. Soon, we were packed up and brushing our way through swathes of sandpapery shield fern. The travel was slow but steady, as was the water seeping into our underpants and thermals through our jackets. We ticked away the hours by singing classic rainy tunes such as, “These are a few of my favourite things” by Mary Poppins, until finally, bedraggled and dishevelled, we burst out of the undergrowth onto the Milford Track!
After a quick look at the pumping Sutherland Falls, we skipped merrily down the Arthur to Boatshed Hut, looking forward to a few hours of serious tea drinking and crosswords before continuing to find a spot to camp. We made a great first impression on the hut warden – she walked in to be greeted by Tom, bending over, bare bum exposed as he tried to get his thermals off around his ankles. From there, we could only improve, right? I don’t think she was too chuffed to have two wet, smelly transalpinists sheltering in her hut. She made frequent hint-laden comments like, “Ooh if you wait too long, there’s an unbridged stream twenty minutes down the track that could get too high for you to cross.” Saying goodbye to the thought of hot tea and crosswords, we squelched back into our socks and sloshed our way down the Arthur to a spot we found to camp, near the river.
Rain in Staircase Creek (Tom Spencer)
On the final day of our adventure, we realised that we hadn’t planned how to get back across Deepwater Basin to Piopiotahi (Milford Sound), convinced that, “There’ll be a boat or something!” Fortunately, we managed to find a boat and soon were strolling along the waterfront in Piopiotahi wearing thermal bottoms and t-shirts (our only dry clothes), while tourists in expensive puffer jackets eyed us curiously over the rims of their KeepCups. Tom and I were stoked, we’d had an awesome seven day trip through the humbling and isolated reaches of Fiordland. However, like Te Kōhaka-o-Te-Ruru, our hard work in Fiordland had made us pretty tired, so we too sat down on our packs as sunlight came through the clouds for a well deserved rest.