A Tararuas weekend with a deep swift river and a terribly windy ridge

The idea

spencer and debbie
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Following the thrill and tranquillity of water-focussed South Island tramps at Christmas, I was keen for aquatic adventures closer to home. Spencer floated the appealing idea of a weekend pack float along the Waiohine river from Mid-Waiohine hut to Totara Flats. It sounded fun and challenging.

The planning

Meticulous research and preparation happened in the week before:

  • The weather forecast was ok but not perfect – drizzly and severe gales on the river day. We thought a bit of drizzle probably wouldn’t affect the river much and severe gales probably wouldn’t have much impact down at river level.
  • River level and flow rate were almost back to normal after heavy rain.
  • Gear was agreed upon – 4 and 5 mm wetsuits, with thermals underneath and wetsuit gloves, beanie, balaclava, laminated maps with emergency exit routes shown. Everything that needed to stay dry would go in plastic bags within drybags within a pack liner. We decided not to carry lifejackets and helmets because we weren’t tubing so wouldn’t be in the rapids. Our packs would give enough buoyancy.
  • Route intel was gathered – some fit guy Spencer found had pack floated it, avoiding rapids and using a lilo on the long pools; I’d heard Tony’s story of a 16 hour pack float towing a non-swimmer; a guidebook (TAG by Johnathon Kennett) gave a good description of the route as a 6-9 hour tubing trip for experienced tubers through one of the NI most beautiful and wild rivers.
  • Food was sorted – we’d take some dehy meals so we could have a hot lunch somewhere along the river and then a hot dinner at the end at Totara Flats. Lots of muesli bars in the top of our packs would keep us going.
  • Plan B was to stay at Totara Flats hut if needed on Sunday night and head out to the road end early Monday.
  • We had a PLB.

Our assessment was that we’d be spending about 12-14 hours max on the river. We’d be mostly walking along the river bank or in shallow water, crossing the river when the bank on one side ran out, skirting and portaging rapids and pack floating long pools.

The adventure

We left Holdsworth road end at 10am Saturday and took a well worn route over Mt Holdsworth and Isabelle to Mid-Waiohine hut, arriving at 4:45pm.

The hut was cosily nestled in the bush with the stunning Waiohine river nearby – an inviting shade of green with a still pool. I took the opportunity to swim to the other side of the river and test the water temperature; 14C registered on my watch. Over dinner we discussed the river (it hadn’t yet scared either of us), exit routes, expected travel time, and how to deal with the cold/hypothermia. We felt well-prepared and still only a wee bit nervous when we went to bed at 8:30pm.

The 5:30 alarm rang on Sunday morning. Breakfast and a scale of pfaffing appropriate for river travel followed. After several wardrobe changes, we were squeezed into our thermals and wetsuits and left the hut at 7:15. By 7:45 we’d crossed the swing bridge and entered the river.

The travel was just as we’d assessed for about the first 1.5 km, and took us the 1.5 hours we’d estimated. I was toasty warm in my 4/3 wetsuit, even in the gorge section where we’d had a longish swim. Spencer had put on all his layers over his wetsuit and was finding the swim sections cold but warmed up when we were out of the water and walking alongside the river. The river was a beautiful place to be. We were a bit surprised that the current did seem quite strong, the water level quite high, and there were more rapids than expected. We had a snack break and talked about our progress and the river – all was good, we were comfortable with the nature of the river and decided to continue for another 1.5 hours and then reassess.

The next 2 km was a game changer – the sun made an appearance a few times, but the drizzle and breeze arrived. After the junction with Isabelle Creek, the river started to get deeper and the current stronger. We were scouting about more for safe crossing points where the current was weaker and there weren’t rapids. There was more clambering along the river edge. At one point we pack floated in a small chute because we couldn’t get around it – which was fun and fortunately had no hidden rocks or eddies. Near the end of this section we couldn’t find a way to cross over the succession of rapids to get to the other bank. We backtracked to above the rapids and each swam across the river. I climbed onto a submerged rock, but as I struggled to get upright out of the water, the current caught the bottom of my pack and I was in the river heading to the rapids, failing to grab hold of the rounded passing rocks. Spencer somehow managed to lunge forward, grab my pack and haul me out of the current.

Spooked, we swam to the bank. I surveyed the rapids where I might have ended up. Once our heart-rates dropped we started snacking and reassessing. Our travel time had slowed, Spencer was not getting any warmer, the river was getting more serious. The chance was high that of one or both of us would end up in the rapids and injured. The spur above us was the last exit route before the serious gorge sections started. It would take us to midway between Flaxy Knob and point 1054 on High Ridge. From there we could travel up High Ridge to Powell Hut, or down (albeit with reputedly tricky navigation) to Totara Flats hut.

We both felt more at ease with leaving the river, rather than staying in it. I was disappointed that leaving the river would mean I wouldn’t get to enjoy the eerie and wild gorge sections down near Hector Forks. But I could always return on a sunnier day with full tubing kit for a relaxed yet thrilling river adventure.

We left the river about 12:15pm. Still in our wetsuits, Spencer lead us up a section of revegetating slip (before 1800590E, 5469885N) and onto the main SE tending spur. After about 200 m of altitude was gained, we were warm enough to take off our wetsuits, and make our packs several kg heavier! About 2:30, a bit later than we’d hoped, we reached High Ridge and scouted around for a foot pad to take us up the ridge. This seemed to be the default route because it offered certainty that we’d get to Powell Hut in good time before dark, but the high wind was going to be a problem when we got onto the exposed tops for the last 2 km.

I found some intermittent orange old can markers and lead us along a faint foot pad (with some minor detours) through the seriously swaying cloud forest for the next 1.5 hours until about 1180 m altitude. By this time we were both more than ready to put on our warmer and waterproof layers, committing fashion faux-pas, and have a late light lunch. I was feeling too Hobbit-like, too confined in the cloud forest and just wanted to get out on the tops and deal with the ever increasing wind! But we continued on the lee side of the ridge, up and down in the cloud forest for almost another hour.

The driving wind and rain were viciously overpowering from the moment we left the calm of the cloud forest, about 5pm. The next 2.5 hours was a torturous, chilling and harrowing struggle. Spencer took the lead, a black blur in the cloud up ahead. We stayed low and away from the foot pad to avoid being blown over the edge of the ridge. Unrelenting, the NW gale drove into our sides, pushing us over and down countless times. My arms got weaker every time they saved me from face planting rock or tussock when I was blown about. Occasional vegetable sheep gave welcome cushioning for my knees as I crawled and grovelled along on my side – sometimes the only way to keep moving to keep warm.  Rule 5 (Harden the * up) was the mantra that stopped me from stopping.

Spencer would wait, getting colder and worried, and we’d seek mutual reassurance that we were Ok and that we’d make it. He’d tell me we had to keep moving – not that we’d stopped. We’d link up and make some progress, but there were times when not even our combined efforts could counteract the wind and we’d end up down in the rocks.  Eventually we made it to the top of something high, marked with a cairn. We pressed on, getting really anxious about how cold and tired we were getting and wondering where on earth the intersection with the track to Powell was. We passed two snow poles and kept creeping upwards. Confounded, we stopped to check our location, huddling with backs to the wind to give our brains and body a reprieve. The more we searched the GPS, the less sense it made. The altimeter reading was way too high. I was convinced the track to Powell was on the crest of the ridge, a mere 10 m away. We clambered over there and sure enough, we found a well-travelled trench of a track. We took a bearing south towards Powell, exhausted but exultant to be on the track.

The ferocious wind and rain did not abate. We bum slid and crawled along the track most of the way to Powell, passing the signpost at the High Ridge junction. About 7:45pm we arrived at Powell hut. I have never been so relieved to get to the refuge of a hut. Spencer looked and acted troublingly cold, I was cold and totally drained of energy. On auto, we dealt to boiling water, getting into dry clothes and our sleeping bags. Our wet gear was strewn all about the hut, which we had to ourselves. Life slowly returned to a normal state of post-tramp weariness as we warmed up, ate our dehy dinner and deliberated on the day’s events and challenges.

We concluded that we’d made sound decisions to leave the river and head up to High Ridge. We acknowledged that fatigue and cold played with our heads and that checking near the edge of High Ridge for the Powell track at the more prominent points would have been wise. We were comfortable that despite this, we’d persevered and supported each other to keep moving to get to safety.

With my mind in over-drive, a mix of thankfulness and ‘what ifs’ whirling around, I slept fitfully during the windy, hut-shaking night. Early Monday morning we were greeted by the sunrise as we ate chocolate biscuits with coffee for breakfast, before zooming (albeit with sore and bruised knees) down the hill to the Holdsworth carpark and home to recuperate.

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