There’s so much to this day it’s a bit hard to know where to start. Maybe it best to start at the end. And the end was a damp arrival at Freshwater Hut the day after this section of the track was supposed to be concluded. We had departed North Arm Hut at 0807 in a light rain. It had rained all night and was not too heavy along the coast but as we were about to discover it’s been heavy up in the hills. In the end the rain made for a 22 hour day, far longer than anyone was expecting.The drawn out day was not helped by my false start. We lingered after the main group left and did a double check of the hut to ensure nothing was left behind. That effort paid a two dollar dividend, found under a mattress. We then step into the light shower, walk up the track from the hut, turn left at the fibreglass toilets, descend into a creek, climb through the mud up onto a low spur and walk out along the side of the bay before the track swings west by north. Fifteen minutes in and I realise I have left this journal behind. I could suffer to leave various kit behind but I don’t like the idea of leaving the journal in the hut. Kavitha minds my pack as a do a slow jog back to the hut, and pick up the journal off the table where I left it. The cleaning team, waiting for their boat to arrive any moment now, are cleaning and sweeping but they have not yet realised this was left behind. They don’t seem at all surprised that I am back and remain focused on their tasks. By the time I return to Kavitha we are now thirty minutes behind the rest of the group so we press on as quickly as we can.
As we wind around this section of the track we can see the water through the trees and for a few moments we watch the boat arrive to pick up the cleaners. The tide is a long way out yet and the mud flats, covered in sea grass, keep the boat from the steps cut in the stone at the base of the hut. Someone didn’t read the tide tables. Maybe it was the chap setting out in the dingy from behind the boat. But even that made no sense. We turn away and push on through bush which is increasingly dense but on a track that can still be called a track. We finally catch up with the rest of the team as they wrangle a quickly rising stream. Some are in the water, some are picking their way up the far side. Negotiating up and down slippery banks is not everyone’s cup of tea. But they are all having a crack at everything thrown at them. We are a little concerned about this stream and I have a look at it as everyone moves off. It’s rising even in the time we are negotiating it. Turbulent and fast, it’s no real threat. Not right now. But if it rains any more it could be a painful little obstacle should we have to return this way.
The group strings out as we rise and descend through creeks that cut down out of the hills and as we wander around small coves that are part of the upper reaches of North Arm. In 1976 we arrived at the creek four hours in and found a brand new bridge spanning the river. But it has since been removed and all the heavy rain overnight up in the hills has swollen the river to a torrent that no one is prepared to try and cross. The decision to go forward or back is not an easy one but we decide to wait and see if the river will drop. Its 1200 and we wait on the back, watching and waiting to see what happens. We know we have a four hour walk back to North Arm. Another option is to camp overnight on the bank and wait until the river is manageable. The turn back option is discussed but not really considered since we are all keen to press on when we can, and if that means stopping overnight in the bush, well everyone seems okay with that. What is easy to agree is that we won’t risk any lives trying to cross that stream.
After a short while everyone decides the river is dropping, albeit oh so slowly. I watch a fern on a rock which was bowed low by the water washing over it. Soon its tips are free of the surface of the water even if it continues to be lashed about. After an hour the rock to which it is attached comes clear. But it’s a small fern and that water is still vigourous. We decide that a ‘go time/decision time” is four o’clock since it is supposed to be another four hours to Freshwater Hut from here. But should the rate of river drop not be sufficient by 4pm we will camp on the bank. With that prospect in mind we set about building a shelter on which we secured our foil thermal blankets. It was going to be a tight squeeze but it would have kept moderately bad weather off us. But at that time, as everyone watched the river level, some with apprehension, the main thing was to keep everyone busy. Building the shelter is an exercise that keeps the group busy, warm and intellectually engaged as they set about solving a problem. I’m impressed at everyone’s humour and willingness to chip in. There might be some worried faces but no one is too stressed out.
At 4pm we decide to wait until 5pm and at 5 we defer our decision until 6pm. That might sound indecisive but it was decision making based on the advice that the hut was four hours away. Arriving at 10pm it this latitude is not unreasonable. The last vestiges of light hang about until 9.30. Having said that, by 5pm I figure we should maximise our chances of getting over the creek by dropping a long log over it. We manage to cut, trim and drop a suitable log into the stream and its clearly something that we can rest/brace against if we need to. But it does not quite reach the other side so I suggest a lighter and longer pole as a hand hold. We find a suitable tree and after trimming it we stand it on its base and drop it… into trees above us After clearing the snag we manoeuvrer it into place, with the help of Dylan who crosses the stream against the first log and helps lodge the second onto the far bank. As he does so we quickly strip the shelter of its foil, pack our packs and start crossing. I’m impressed. Some fear the water but they head over regardless. It would be easy to say ‘no’ but they don’t and bat on anyway. It takes us thirty minutes to have the whole group cross. But we do so safely, albeit with boots full of water. The stream was down so that the deepest section was probably about thigh deep but we were able to avoid that and get over on rocks and in sections where the water washed around my knees. I am over at 6.30pm
We very quickly break into two groups and the first make their way along the river back on the far side and disappear into the bush. The group at the back empty water from their boots but I feel for Ian who, after emptying boots, a few short minutes later lands in a tributary and fills them up again. Actually, for a heart stopping moment, as one foot failed to touch the bottom, I thought he was going to be dragged into a large, dark, deep hole, pack and all. But somehow he hauled himself back out and we were off again, powered along by some appropriate expletives.
The track follows the river bank for about 150m, to the point where the bridge used to be. There is semblance of a clearing and I am transported back to 1976. I recall us all gathering on this side of the wire bridge. But there’s no real time for reminiscing and we turn sharp left and start up a gradual incline that soon turns steep to near vertical. We ascend into mist and increasing dark, not helped by the heavy tree canopy above us. We dog on for a couple of hours and eventually leave the ascent via tree roots behind. But the track never really flattens out and I am reminded of the ‘endless false crest’ that frustrated me in 1976. It has always been an enduring memory for me. This time around the slow move to the summit is accompanied by slow, cold, steady rain. As we near the top, or so I think, Barry leaves us since he is feeling cold and Ian’s pace is not enough to keep him warm. Finally we reach the top, though we were convinced we had summited half an hour earlier. I note the top is marked by a helicopter pad to the left of the track which I glimpse in the improved light now we are out from under that canopy. There are stacks of duckboard sections landed there. They should be on the track, since the ridge is marked by sunken duckboard. Perfectly useless in most places as we slowly negotiate around large pools of muddy water.
By the time we reach the top and start our way down I realise we are a long way off reaching the hut in four hours. The three of us (Ian and Kavitha are with me) switch our head torches on at 9pm as the rain starts to set in and as the track starts to drop into what quickly becomes a water scoured rocky channel. As we progress into the dark I become increasingly concerned for the further we drop, the greater the volume of water around our feet. The scrub is thick on either side of the track and there is no possibility of walking through it in any way. Soon we are climbing down sections of rock and small waterfalls and the volume of water is such that it is hard to hear any conversation over the sound of it. This track cum creek will eventually turn into Topeheti Creek and empty into Freshwater Creek far below us. Just as I pray for less water Ian announces the track cuts right into the bush. An instant answer to prayer.
By now we are in complete darkness and I wonder where everyone else is. I hope they are okay. We had arrived at the top of the ridge after four hours and forty minutes so the advice on the time to the hut was grossly in error. It’s after 11pm before I am convinced we are finally and decisively coming off the ridge and have left the stream under our feet behind. But over the next hour or so I can hear the sound of rushing water off to our right. It gets abruptly closer and I worry about a crossing in pitch darkness. Then just as abruptly it recedes and I imagine we are delivered from a crossing. And so on and so on for a couple of hours, teasing us with the prospect of being drenched, or stopped in our tracks. Eventually the track bottoms out, after a fashion – we continue to climb and descend muddy banks but eventually that sound of rushing water intersects us and we are confronted by a log jam through which water boils. We can’t see the bottom but in the brief time we watched it we could see the stream was rising. Clearly the rest of the gang had moved on through here so I quickly find a suitable sapling, cut a strong pole and climb down the bank into the water. The bottom is gravel not mud and it’s not so deep. Above my knees but very manageable. We all cross. Quickly.
The rain has not really stopped all night but it comes on strong now, and we are motivated to push on. So my boots remain full of water, a decision I am going to regret in my new boots, as a patch of soft skin starts to scour off my right big toe. From here we struggle through bog patch after bog patch after bog patch and even more bog patches. It’s tiring work that tests our patience. On and on. Carefully finding our way down root laced banks, climbing down into creeks not marked on my map (perfectly useless 1:25,000 good for artwork only) and out again. At 3am we cut right into the ferns to avoid a small lake that confronts us. We take a while to get back onto the track but for some perverse reason I advise Ian to walk back in the opposite direction to where he was walking. I had been using my compass to help make the turns off and back onto the track but once on the track I failed to look at it. Twenty minutes later Ian points out all the footprints in the mud going in the other direction and then we stop at a very distinctive creek bank we had just climbed out of. The error is confirmed and I check the compass – too late. I kick myself.
We turn around but by 3.30 Kavitha makes the right call and suggests we stop for a rest. We have been walking continuously since 6.30 the previous evening, through some of the worst ‘track’ I have ever seen, some of it as challenging as Kokoda. We need to move up the track a little way before we can find ground that is not bog and we settle under a small Rimu and a family of ferns at its feet. The Rimu has dropped a mat of needles at its base and this is a comfortable mattress as well as helping ensure water has not pooled there. We drop our packs and make bit of a wall to lean on, and drag out the foil we had used earlier. We lean against the packs, pressed up close to each other for warmth, though I am feeling quite cosy, and drag the foil over us. The rain has continued to pick up and it patters down on the foil, joined by the steady plop and whack of accumulated water that collects on the needles above us. It’s only a matter of seconds before Ian and Kavitha are snoring quiet but steady snores. I shift to remove a tree root out of my back and I turn slightly on my side to get comfortable. I am soon drifting off but not before being startled by the blood curdling screech of a kiwi, only a matter of meters away it feels. She carries on for a few minutes then stops. Have we unsettled her? I have no idea and drop off to sleep.
Before I know it Ian is asking what time it is. I look at my watch and advise him its five o’clock. We stir stiff but warm bodies (it’s surprising how warm it has gotten under that foil). But I am shivering as I put my pack on and am keen to get going. The forest has lost its darkness and we can see dim shapes of trees around us and the lightness of cloud though the canopy above us. We get walking after I double check my compass to ensure we are heading in the right direction. We climb down into two more creeks and once again negotiate endless bogs. After 45 minutes we find the track to Freshwater, or rather the junction of our track with that leading to Rocky Mountain. The track on the map bears absolutely no resemblance to reality but as long as we can see markers on the trees we are okay. Ian has done a remarkable job all night finding those markers and leading us around those bogs and getting us back on track each time. It’s been good leadership and I have appreciated it. The day quickly lightens and the trees and ferns and mud are fast painted in even as we walk. By the time we reach this junction our torches are off. The track now cuts down hill and soon we are moving though bush that I recall and which is reasonably familiar despite all those years. I know we are close to the hut and sure enough we spot the clear line of the roof ridge through the trees and are soon walking onto the hut site.
The rain has eased but continues to fall as we step onto the porch and start to climb out of our wet gear. We are greeted by Barry and Alison who are relieved to see us. They kindly stoke the fire and make us hot drinks. They arrived here at 0115 in the morning which is pretty good going. They are mostly all asleep. Soon Barry has the hut warmed up. We hang clothes, have a drink and seek out a bunk. But not before I hand an English trekker a note and ask him to give it to Rakiura Charters in Oban. If we are not at Freds Camp please collect us from Freshwater due to rain. Some of the stories from other trekkers passing through and who we briefly talked with before hitting the hay suggest the track to Masons Bay or Freshwater could be very water logged. Mind you Mason’s Bay is no longer an option given the time it took to get here – we are going to bed when we should have been walking out the door heading for Masons. If we cannot make Fred’s Camp there is at least a back-up plan.
The day has been a tough one but everyone has risen to the problem solving and pulled together as a very cohesive team. In some sections it’s clear that we have travelled at only 200-300m an hour. There are no injuries. But lots of good humour and high spirits that always emerge when something arduous has been overcome. Everyone will have remarkable stories to tell. Our overnight sojourn under the Rimu soon becomes known. Later in the day trekkers arrive from Masons bay. They’ve heard our story from walkers who left the hut as we arrived. It seems this group will pass into legend. Or folklore. Or stories too fanciful to be true. But they’re our stories and we are proud of them.
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