“Fab Five” face freezing floods & footsore feet
Unfortunate Victims for the Trip
Day 1, 27 December – Lewis Pass to Ada Pass Hut 12km
A bus trip thru to Lewis Pass placed the team at the start of our trip on a very windy, cloudy afternoon. After been buffeted by the winds on the exposed roadside we quickly got into the bush line and dropped down a ridge to the Maruia River. A quick pace was set as this part of the St James Walkway passes thru Cannibal Gorge and no one wanted to linger. The Cannibal Gorge hut soon came into view and a brew up was in order. Then the rain started, the wet weather gear was donned and we were off destined for Ada Pass Hut. We passed numerous avalanche danger areas, which would be difficult to get over if the rain continued. The welcome sight of the hut appeared thru the glume as the rain reached monsoon proportions and the rivers started rising. The weather forecast from our nightly radio sched didn’t provide us with much encouragement (little did we know!!!!) The hut was occupied by a group of climbers who had been up on the slopes of Gloriana camping, until they saw that the weather was quickly deteriorating. They mentioned two young lads had left at 4pm to climb over an alternative 2000m pass into the Matakitaki after warning them not to.
Day 2 – Ada Pass Hut
The weather had turned nasty, the river was impassable and there was nothing else to do but sit around, tell a few woolly yarns, eat, sleep, or play cards. From time to time we got a view of the valley we were planning to scramble up with the impressive Gloriana peak displaying itself whenever the clouds cleared momentarily, an imposing sight. We thought about the two young lads hopefully sitting the storm out in a tent somewhere up on Gloriana and thanked our lucky stars we were warm & dry in the hut. The radio sched that night didn’t provide us with any encouraging news and we hunkered down for another wet night.
Day 3 – Ada Pass Hut into the West Matakitaki Valley – 1800m Pass, 800m climb, approx 15km
The day dawned very cloudy, with intermittent showers, I took one look out the door and went back to bed. By 7.30, Jud peered out the window and the conditions had improved sufficiently for us to agree that we should give it our best shoot and see what happens. We hurriedly packed our gear, and we were off with a hiss and a roar (must have been the dehy onions from the night before). The water level under the foot bridge across the Maruia was now a metre lower than the previous day with several large logs jammed on top of it. We followed a roaring stream that closely resembled a continuous series of rapids & waterfalls for the next 90 minutes before we broke thru the bush-line. We now had a good view of the valley ahead as well as the alternative higher route over the mountain on our right. Both looked rather daunting and we agreed that we should stick to the planned route and not take the shorter but higher route. Ahead lay a steep climb up a tussocked slope and then a formidable boulder slope that seemed to go on forever.
By the time we reached the Tarn just below the pass we were all ready for a good break and some lunch. The wind was very cold and gusty with some of us at times, struggling to stay on our feet. We quickly cooled down and decided that maybe a long break wasn’t the best idea after all. No one was too happy when I pointed to the path ahead, another 250m climb up the snow and thru a small gap in the mountains above us. The muttering continued as we gritted our teeth and got our now stiff muscles back up to working temperature as we stumbled our way up to the pass, a few quick photos and then ceremoniously named the pass “Pink Pants Pass” after John’s rather colourful attire.
A very steep descent saw us sliding down the rocky slopes to the tarns below. Now the fun began as we spied a long plunging river valley with a very uneven surface covered in tussock and the dreaded Espanol (speargrass). Too make matters worse it then started to rain and the mutterings progressively got more pronounced as we struggled to maintain our footing and attempted to avoided been impaled on the speargrass. We were hoping to reach Bobs hut before nightfall so we pushed on into the evening and finally broke out of the tussock onto the valley floor. Time for the radio sched and a brew, still raining and by now everyone is very tried, wet, cold and hungry. The weather forecast brought more bad news, more rain, and gale force winds on the tops with snow down to 1700m. Could it get any worse??? Time would tell!!!
Into the beech trees and finally we found a semblance of a track to follow, but not for long. We reached a clearing where a tent was pitched, in it were the two young lads who had spent the previous night camped on the slopes of Angelus where they had nearly been blown away. They gave us the bad news that the next stream (more like four waterfalls) was impassable. Nothing to do, but setup camp for the night in the middle of the track as it was now 9.15pm. A quick meal was prepared and we fell into bed for a rather uncomfortable nights slumber.
Day 4 – Bobs Hut, approx 3km
It rained all night and when we looked at the river the next morning it looked only marginally better. After a hasty breakfast we broke camp and teamed up with the two likely lads to wade across the four freezing tributaries from Faerie Queene. The crossing of the West Matakitaki was marginally easier and Bobs Hut offered welcomed respite from the freezing conditions. Obviously not a well used abode as the local rats & mice had taken up residence and weren’t going to vacate the premises without a fight. Unfortunately for Jud, her bed was the battleground and she spent a sleepless night battling the locals. A fine sideshow was provided by several cockroaches on a piece of burning firewood that lasted for several hours. Great entertainment as long as you weren’t the cockroaches struggling to stay out of the flames. Bill gave the winner a reprieve and he lived to roast another day.
Day 5, New Years Eve – Bobs Hut to East Matakitaki Valley, approx 27km
The day broke cloudy and cold but with only passing showers. We were hopeful for a reasonable day and started off with yet another river crossing. We reached the East Matakitaki Hut at midday with the only highlight of the morning being a 3 wire bridge crossing of the West Matakitaki. Intermittent showers during lunch had us pondering whether to proceed up the valley to the David Saddle. Snow on the surrounding mountains down to the bush line at 1300m had us concerned as to what lay ahead.
A fine spell had us back on the track, which unfortunately soon petered out and a 3-hour bush crash and constant icy river crossings commenced. The rain started soon after departing and by the time we had a glimpse up towards the David saddle we were freezing cold and feeling very wet and miserable. The view through the swirling clouds brought us no respite; too much snow on the steep slopes and the poor visibility confirmed our worst fears. It was decided that we weren’t equipped for what lay ahead and we quickly decided to return to the hut 3 hours downstream.
The going looked easier on the other side of the river and we crossed at the first opportunity. Unfortunately whilst crossing John had a good dunking and Fon’s walking stick decided it couldn’t hack the pace and disappeared down the frigid river. To add to our already sorry state, it then commenced to snow. Bill’s “it don’t get better than this” sideline was by now well and truly worn out and the Team had reached its low point of the trip. We stopped for a brew as we now had perfect conditions for hypothermia.
We finally staggered into the East Matakitaki hut where a fire was quickly lit and the radio setup for the nightly sched. The forecast was slightly better but a new route was required if we were to get to St Arnaud in the remaining time. New Years eve provided us with the excuse to break out our prized Port for pre-dinner drinks. Bad move, Master Chief Jud started giggling as the Port took effect and some good lighthearted repartee continued for some hours to come. Bill spent most of the evening trying to coax the fire to do more than produce smoke while John’s pancakes were delivered in a highly unusual state. The team went to bed in much better spirits but well before the New Year commenced.
Day 6 – East Matakitaki Hut to Downies Hut, approx 22km
We had decided that the best route to St Arnaud was down the Ma Matakitaki, now having seen the source of both of its East & West tributaries. Once again we travelled over familiar ground as we returned back down & then crossed over the East Matakitaki via a very loose 3 wire bridge that caused more than one team member’s blood pressure to go thru the roof. Then commenced the route march down 30kms of the Ma Matakitaki to our next available crossing into the D’Urville Valley. By the time we reached the derelict Downies Hut in the early evening we were all Matakitaki-ed out but as there was no water source available we continued on until we reached the river again. Sandflies rained supreme and a generous application of repellent was required before you could eat otherwise sandflies were the main course.
Day 7 – Downies Hut to Mole Saddle, 700m climb, approx 35km
A fine sunny morning provided the Team with a physiological boost and once John had attended to his strained Achilles tendon with some Cataflam we were off. We followed a well-defined track for the first time in days and made good progress despite the high temperatures. A late lunch stop saw us at the start of the Jameson’s Ridge track by mid afternoon and after a considerable climb we made the top of Mole saddle just in time for our radio sched. An extremely tough day, with most of us gaining a few blisters from the many kilometres covered and not helped by an uncomfortable night sleeping on very uneven ground cuddling clumps of tussock grass.
Day 8 – Mole Saddle to Sabine Hut, approx 22km
An overcast day started off with a four-hour boulder & bush-bash down Bull creek, which didn’t help our battered bodies. The demands of the trip were becoming very evident as the place slowed and the hobbling increased. An early crossing of the D’Urville was a mistake, as we then had to crash our way thru yet more bush & wade even deeper streams. When we finally dragged our wary carcasses into Sabine Hut we were grateful for the warm sunny conditions that permitted us to wash and relax before dark, ever mindful of the climb tomorrow morning. The highlight of the day was the opening of our food cache and having braised canned steak & onions for dinner.
Day 9 – Sabine Hut to Angelus Hut, 1300m climb, approx 15km
A brilliantly fine morning greeted us for the biggest climb of the trip. A lunch stop just above the bush-line on Mt Cedric gave us an absolutely awesome birds eye view of the mountains, valleys & lake. I sat spellbound absorbing the panoramic spectacle before me, it made you realise how insignificant we were compared to the beauty that surrounded us. We were all reluctant to leave but greater views beckoned higher up the mountain. Many kilometres to the south we could make out Gloriana Peak & the Faerie Queene topped with a solid covering of snow. A steady climb up the ridgeline gave us breath-taking views to the north & east and then finally we were down the other side into a wonderful natural amphitheatre with Angelus Hut on one side of a Lake Angelus.
Day 10 – Angelus Hut to St Arnaud via Roberts Ridge, approx 25km
Another fine morning saw us puffing our way up a steep slope above the hut by 7.15am. Spectacular views either side of the ridge made the trip down an unforgettable one that required a conscious effort to watch where you were placing your feet. Bushline hut provided magnificent views over the lake to St Arnaud but the trip from there quickly turned into a route march and we were very thankful when we finally collapsed beside the truck.
This had been a great team effort thru every weather condition imaginable but provided us with many memorable moments to be treasured for years to come. Card skills had been honed to a razor edge under torchlight, bush-crashing up wet, freezing mountains slopes and river crossings that left the legs numb and trembling.
Special thanks goes to all the members of our team and to the hard working organisers that provided us with the opportunity to partake in a unforgettable 10 days.
Scribe: Peter Waworis