It’s Thursday night and I’m tired. My bed is the back seat of the Club van parked at the George Stream road end. Not a bad option if you are short in stature, short on time and good at sleeping.
Friday night and my bed is half a minaret pitched on a grassy flat about 20 minutes below Barratt’s Biv. Not a bad option if you have an alpine start planned. Faced with an unhelpful forecast and some challenging logistical arrangements, we are stubbornly sticking to our plan to climb Mt Manakau.
The forecast is for high winds and heavy rain. We figure if we get an early night we can do an alpine start and summit Manakau alpine style with light packs.
We spend a pleasant afternoon soaking up Friday’s sunshine, drinking cups of tea, exploring Barretts Biv and catching up with Laurayne who has driven up from Christchurch. This doesn’t feel like a fit trip, I think as we retire for the night.
Saturday night, and my bed is half a minaret pitched on a neat, flat gravel alcove beside George Stream. Not a bad option if your other choice is waiting for daylight while clinging to a scree slope in a gale.
The morning’s alpine start was not one of our finest. Our watch alarms did not wake us at 4am but my cell phone sure did. Laurayne had not slept well. We forced ourselves up and stumbled round in the dark trying to locate the correct gully from which to access Stace Saddle. After 45 minutes of feeling our way through thick scrub on steep slopes fringed by bluffs we retreated to the tents to wait for daylight. The obvious lesson here, is either a) forget to set your alarm; or b) use a route you have prepared earlier.
Over breakfast we decided to abandon our attempt on Manakau. Our motivation had drained away with our tea. The forecast was playing on our minds and we could see the clouds moving up on the tops which suggested the wind had already arrived. Then there was our responsibility to be out in time to pick up the other group.
Decision made, we wandered back out to the road end. We passed another climbing pair with a more up to date forecast. Apparently the rain was expected to hold off until tomorrow evening, c’est la vie. Laurayne headed back to Christchurch. Feeling a bit deflated Tony and I headed into Kaikoura in search of a pie and inspiration. We got the maps for the walk up George Stream to meet the other group. Not a bad option when the alternative is hanging round in Kaikoura for the best part of two days.
We arrived at the George Stream road end mid-afternoon and started walking. I was concerned that we might not get very far. The other group had various machetes, knifes, clippers, flame throwers, dynamite and garden gloves. They said they were expecting to do lots of bush bashing, including possible encounters with giant wild rose bushes. Tony and I did not share the other group’s masochistic tendencies. We decided that if we encountered briars we would retreat. Not a bad option given we had not come away to go gardening.
George Stream was a revelation. I had to remind myself that Halloween was still at least a month away. We passed several groups of hunters with deer heads for handbags and a possum trapper drenched in dried blood. Silently puzzling over why the possum trapper had not washed the blood off in the nearby river I neglected to pay full attention to the route advice kindly given.
All parties agreed on one thing, the route over to Jam Hut was a bit gnarly in places. Otherwise the recommendations could be best described as lacking in detail and consistency, with hindsight the same description could perhaps be applied to our decision making. No matter, the going was good, not a briar to be seen, so we kept going.
Initially we thought we would just head up the stream until we got sick of it, then set up camp, laze about in the sunshine and take photos. But we were enjoying our stroll so much and travel was so easy that at about 5pm we had some food and decided we would try to go all the way over George Saddle and surprise the other group at Jam Hut. According to our calculations we should get to the hut at about 9 or 10pm. Not a bad option if you’re full of joie de vivre.
We set off again soaking up the peaceful atmosphere and the beautiful bush. To my disappointment, no more blood stained travel advisors emerged from the twilight to proffer further instructions. Perhaps our maps would come in handy. Gradually the terrain became less open and more characterised by large boulders and narrow chutes then long, steep, slippery scree slopes – “slippery slips” that required scrambling using hands and feet for purchase. As the light started to fade we realised that the scree gully I was leading us up was too far to the right of George Saddle and definitely a bad option. Time to back track down the “slippery slips” and sidle left. This was tricky and I silently cursed myself for not stopping sooner when it became obvious nobody else had come this way. Not long before we had seen regular footprints and other signs of people travelling the same way as us. The obvious lesson here was to either a) set up camp before it gets dark; or b) consult your map. Bonus point for any party that does both. Bet it makes writing the trip report harder though.
After a bit of sidling we headed up again. We immediately made fresh acquaintance with more“slippery slips”. In the end we had to go right to gain the ridge. The ridge was made of abrasive rock and knife edge thin. The other side of the ridge was home to a tribe of ”slippery slips” huddled above a sheer drop. It was now dark but even by the light of our head torches we could see the exposure was considerable. We had previously been on the leeward side but once we crested the ridge we had the opportunity to experience the full force of the forecast wind. We crawled carefully into the wind along the jagged ridge to George Saddle. This is what it must be like to crawl across giant needles I thought, that possum hunter would be jealous if he could see my bloody fingers.
Pausing in the stiff breeze on the forlorn spot that marks the Saddle we peered over towards Jam Hut. The “slippery slips” that marked the descent looked like a bad option for a night time descent. The blood stained advisors and the hunters with the deer head handbags had not been exaggerating. The route did look a bit gnarly. Somewhere in the darkness there was a safe route off the Saddle. Retreating via our approach route lacked immediate appeal. Jelly bean time.
We decided to have a go at pitching the tent. In hindsight I’m not sure if this was because we had a secret hankering to try kite surfing on land or we were just thinking, it’s dark, cold and time to get into the fetal position. We gave kite surfing a good go and success would have been ours I’m sure if it had been a lot less windy, there had been something to anchor the pegs with and a flat patch. The billy lid however, proved something of a wind surfing prodigy and I had to leave Tony holding the wildly flapping tent while I sidled gingerly across to retrieve it. After nearly losing various other possessions, including the tent, sanity prevailed and we determined on a path of retreat back the way we had come, possibly skipping the crawl along the knife edge ridge that resembled giant needles.
With some difficulty, think trying to get toothpaste back into the tube, we managed to stuff the tent back into Tony’s pack. This was followed by all the other possessions that had come out. Teeth chattering in my case, we turned to inspect the collection of “slippery slips” heading down to George Stream. We decided they were doable if we wiggled on our bums ready to break if we started going into an uncontrolled slide. Tony gallantly offered to go first. As it turned out the “slippery slips’” bark was worse than their bite. We probably could have come up them rather than crawl along the knife edge ridge that resembled giant needles.
Soon we were able to abandon crawling in favour of swinging Tarzan like off clumps of vegetation as we completed a direct descent to George Stream. Back on familiar ground and full of adrenalin we made good progress until we eventually spotted a suitable flat camp site out of the wind. We enjoyed a pleasant, relaxing dinner of cheese and crackers with the mellow sound of a gently running stream providing soothing background music that rivalled one of Chopin’s Nocturnes.
Sunday and my bed for the night is variously the floor of the ferry, reclining chairs on the ferry and finally a few hours in my actual bed. Not bad options if you are short in stature, short on time and good at sleeping. It would be cheating to count the sleep I got at my desk on Monday morning.
Compared to Saturday, the day started off in a promising manner. After a leisurely breakfast we entertained ourselves making a WTMC sign for the other group then we headed back down George Stream and off to Kaikoura for a late lunch and to check out the rugby results.
Back at the road end we lazed round in the hot sun marvelling at the great weather but noticing the fast moving clouds up high which to our minds vindicated our decision not to head up Manakau. As the afternoon wore on, it gradually dawned on us that the other group might not make the pick up time. We had a ferry to catch and no cellphone coverage. We decided to leave a note for the group and head back to Picton for the ferry.
Back out on the main road we picked up messages to the effect that the other group would not be out till at least 6pm. With this information we were able rebook onto the last Interislander of the day. This was not a bad option in that Tony could still get to work on Monday and the other group could get back to Wellington with us. Logistics sorted we visited Kaikoura for a third time to stock up on crisps and get diesel for the van. Obtaining the crisps was easier than solving the riddle of the diesel cap but we eventually solved both problems to arrive back at the George Stream road end just as the other party emerged from a hard three days of gardening tired, dusty and covered in scratches.
What we thought we’d do: Mt Manakau, ALP1 F.
What we did: George Saddle in the dark: Grade 18 scree grovel with optional ridge traverse and kite surfing; 3 visits to Kaikoura.