The Mokihinui River, near the south-west side of Kahurangi National Park, has a large catchment. Our new years’ walk along the river was inspired by recent plans of Meridian Energy to build an 85 metre dam, which would flood the river with an artificial 14 kilometre lake for the purposes of electricity export from the region. This would be at the expense of a unique landscape that can only be formed by a wild river, and of the flora and fauna that inhabits the region. A recent unofficial statement suggested that the current government is unlikely to allow this to occur, although Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee has since complained that his comment was taken out of context and he’s not interfering. The official commission doesn’t expect to reach a decision until February 2010, and nothing’s certain in the current climate. This is why we wanted to go out and see the Mokihinui River, because its future seems quite uncertain.
[Update 7th April 2010: The dam has been given approval, pending a likely appeal.] [Update 22nd May 2012: Meridian has now withdrawn its project from the Environment Court and will not proceed.]
Dates: 31st December, 2009 – 5th January 2010 (one day late)
Location: Mokihinui River, Mokihinui Forks Ecological Area and Lyell Range-Radiant Range Conservation Area (south-east of Kahurangi National Park).
People: Steve, Allen, Sue, Dmitry, Mark, Robert and me.
Huts visited: Mokihinui Forks Hut (0 nights).
Route: Start at Lyell, walk up the gold mining route to the head of the south branch of the Mokihinui River, follow the river to Mohihinui Forks Hut, then out along the route on the river’s true left to Seddonville.
[Download GPX] [LINZ Topographic Map in new window]
Day one, 31st December 2009
We’d stayed the night at the Lazy Cow Backpackers in Murchison, which incidentally is a very nice backpackers. They gave each of us a small paper bag of sweets that reminded me of the 20 cent mixtures I remember buying when at school. I never got around to eating mine, so threw it into my dry bag, which was handy at the time, to munch on later. After a drive down the road, we began our tramp at Lyell at around 8.30am, intending to sidle up the hillside to the north and end at the saddle at roughly NZTM252805 for that evening, possibly pressing on depending on how long it took to arrive there. Lyell is an old gold mining town, but today none of its original structures remain, and it’s entirely a sandfly-infested campground. From Lyell began a net of short walking tracks, eventually converging into a single track that sidles upwards to nowhere in particular, approximately northwards. The track is an old gold mining route, which the Department of Conservation now seems to be restoring as a well graded mountain bike track. It doesn’t really go nowhere, as it provides access both to the ridges nearer the top, and also to the head of the southern branch of the Mokihinui River, for which we were aiming. Still, it felt strange to see such a major effort being expended on this track on which we saw no other people, and which (as I said) didn’t really seem to go anywhere specific before petering out.
Being an old mining track, the route is an impressive engineering feat in places, given how parts of it have been cut into steep and sometimes bluffy hillside. As part of the restoration, particularly from 8 mile creek and onwards, relics of the mining era have been intentionally left beside the track (sometimes locked down) to help provide an historic experience for visitors to the area.
3 hours after leaving, we took an early lunch at what we thought might be the crossing point of 8 mile creek as marked on maps (though we later discovered a more likely candidate). This was shortly after a slip on the track that would likely prevent most bikes from getting past, and from then on the grade of the track took a step downwards. It’s still a good track, however, as tramping tracks go.
Some time after lunch, at around 1pm, we arrived a vacant DOC fly-camp full of covered supplies, probably to be occupied again by workers after the new year’s season was over. Walking through the camp it quickly became obvious why they’re here. Immediately around the corner, a large section of the hill-side had fallen away, roughly east of Mt Lyell (1092). There must be continuing plans to extend mountain bike access at least as far up as here, because DOC seems to be cutting a well graded track into the side of the slip. Such a track would keep the same gradient and I presume the relevant engineers believe it to be a workable idea, though we came away wondering if the slip could just take away the new track again in the future. Allen ran ahead and discovered that there is a thin route around the side at the moment, but markers still re-direct trampers upwards and over the top, via an ad-hoc route through the bush. After a short rest, this is what we followed and the sudden up-ness and softer ground made a nice change to everything up until then.
An hour or so later at about 4pm, we were high enough to have entered the vicinity of dracophyllum. About the same amount of time again later, we finally reached the saddle near the top, quietly marked by a couple of pink tags, and decided to camp having considered the chances of finding reasonable campsites further down. The nearby ground was spongy and leaked water as a tiny stream emerged from the ground, one of several that would converge into the Mokihinui River below, and this was to be our main source of water. We were pretty much at the high point of the entire trip at about 840 metres, however, and water certainly shouldn’t be an issue after this given we planned to walk the length of a major river. Between seven of us we set up three tents on the track, with Allen and Sue, Dmitry and Mark, and Robert and myself. Steve decided to bivy out in the open, wrapping his sleeping bag in a blue tarp and his pack liner. The weather was playing nicely and allowed us to cook up a brew, and dinner from fresh vegetables and pasta without and problems before bed. Robert and I celebrated the arrival of the year 2010 at 9pm, then fell asleep. Some time during the night, a forth tent had mysteriously materialised over Steve.
Day two, 1st January 2010
We were away shortly before 8am, and discovered that past the saddle on which we were camped, any remnants of a marked track quickly disintegrated. A photocopied description of the area that Steve had obtained indicated that we should be able to follow a bearing more or less north-west, however, which was consistent with the map, and then drop into the head of the south branch of the Mokihinui. With about an hour of careful sidling and eventual dropping down what became a rib, we eventually hit the very modest creek that was well smothered with fallen branches through which we needed to clamber. The occasional South Island Robins and Fantails followed us, as they do, taking advantage of our kicking up the insects that they enjoy. It was probably a good thing we hadn’t carried on the previous night, because apart from one possibility, there wasn’t much camping down here at all.
The creek became decidedly easier to walk along over the next 30 minutes as it opened up slightly, but still with regular obstacles that required some thought. The occasional footprint indicated that someone else had been this way in the past few days, but we never met them. We still weren’t moving as quickly as we’d hoped, which was a concern given the forecast was for some rain to be coming that night, and we’d hoped to be a long way along the river before that happened in case flooding became an issue. We stopped at 12pm’ish for lunch at a small side catchment coming down from Mt Montgomery (1332) to the east, and by now enough side creeks had come in to have built what was initially a tiny creek into a respectable waterway.
At 2.20pm, we reached the confluence with Granite Creek, which comes down to meet the Mokihinui from its true right. We spotted a giant DOC triangle marking the beginning of a route up the hill-side on the true left, and initially thinking it might be related to getting around some bluffy areas further along the river, we followed the markers. The track doesn’t follow all the way over the bluffs, but instead drops back down the the main river just on the south side of where Silver Creek comes down to meet the Mokihinui from its true left. It wasn’t immediately clear why this track led up above the river for that short stretch, but looking through the trees it appeared there could be some difficult-to-negotiate rapids in the main river.
We ceased for several minutes as we came back down to river level, because on the opposite side of the Mokihinui (the true right) there appeared to be another vacant worker camp with a massive stack of firewood, and a roughly marked track leading perpendicularly away from the river. If we’d contacted DOC beforehand we might have had more information about this track, but we weren’t sure so we didn’t follow it. It may be a route that veers around north-wards behind spot-height 383 on the true right, so as to get around some very bluffy areas on the main river. Without knowing exactly where it went, or for how long it’d stay on the true right, however, we elected not to follow it. By now, despite some very sunny weather to date, we were beginning to feel conscious about the coming rain, and not wanting to risk stranding ourselves on the true right of the Mokihinui River lest it come up too high for us to cross back. Instead we decided to try and remain on the true left, or at least within clear reach of it, and this would possibly mean we’d miss staying at Goat Creek Hut further down, located on the true right.
As might be expected, avoiding the most likely track around the limestone bluffs, which begin on both sides of the river at about NZTM 284877, did nothing to solve our problem of getting around these bluffs. Steve’s photocopied instructions implied that there should be a route somewhere up high on the true left of the river, though it was sketchy about any specifics. After a lot of messing around and clambering up some fairly steep slopes with the help of sturdy trees, we worked our way along an approximate route above the bluffs. It wasn’t a marked route so we were following our noses for a time, and it was also unclear when we should be heading down-wards — Steve’s photocopied instructions simply indicated we should continue to follow our noses down once we were past the bluffs, but even after we thought we were past the end, we couldn’t see any obvious way down for some time. We finally discovered an orange arrow marker nailed to a tree at NZTM 286885. It was a very old marker, and furthermore it was a dyslexic arrow that pointed left-wards, away from the river into a ditch (after which there was one further marker and apparently nothing else), rather than right-wards down the hill towards the river. This was really a set of markers intended for getting up the hill, but we found it easy enough to follow the other way. Within 20 minutes we stood back on the bed of the Mokihinui River, which was becoming increasingly impressive in its ability to channel water. By now it was 6pm, and we had around 3 hours until sunset.
There’s a wonderful geology along this stretch of the Mokihinui on the north side of the bluffs. Huge slabs of limestone rock line the banks, having been thrust upwards during past earthquakes. The river now surges over them eroding a smooth channel. Occasionally a giant house-sized monolith has toppled from the gorgey walls and slammed into the riverbed below, to be slowly eroded away by the water as centuries and millennia pass by. That’s what it looks like to my untrained eye, at least, though I may be very wrong. For practical purposes, the river walk in this region involves walking along the flat slabs above the river, generally okay except there’s often a covering of slippery slime for which obtaining friction is tricky. In the rain it could be treacherous, so it was a good thing for us that the rain hadn’t yet arrived.
We discovered another track marker leading away on the true right at roughly NZTM300900, but once again it wasn’t clear where it was heading. Despite following the first couple of markers into the bush, we lost it very quickly. It’s possible that it headed further back and eventually to Goat Creek Hut, although to get there it’d still have to cross a major side-stream (Stern Creek), or perhaps it was the returning marker of that other track we’d seen leaving to go around the bluffs on the true right much earlier in the day. We never found out for sure. By 7.45pm we were debating how much further we should go, given that it was forecast to be raining by the following day. Ideally, we really wanted to not just be on the true left of the Mokihinui River, but also past as many significant side creeks as possible. By the start of the day we’d intended to get at least as far as Goat Creek Hut, opposite Hennessy Creek, but we were still nowhere near it, and hadn’t even reached Owen Creek that entered on the true left about 3 km earlier.
We continued a little further and eventually established our camp-site for day 2 at NZTM303905, on a sizeable vegetated peninsula jutting into the true left of the Mokihinui. We named it dead goat island, after the discovery of two dead goats. As Steve noted, goats rarely drop dead spontaneously in such situations, so it seemed likely a hunter had shot and left them. We didn’t check.
And we chopped our vegetables and cooked our dinner on the campfire, then toasted marshmallows on a clear, calm and quiet night. High above us the occasional cloud slowly coasted through the sky. Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, twinkled violently. Some wild turbulence was brewing in the upper atmosphere, and it was soon to cross our path.
Day three, 2nd January 2010
The front must have finally arrived and rain began some time in the early morning, perhaps 3am, prompting a low key getaway at about 6.30am, without messing around. The main Mokihinui River was not flooded and we were still able to cross back and forth, but only in strategic and carefully decided places with aspects of caution. We spent more time carefully edging along the side of the river than we might otherwise have bothered with.
Our final crossing, from the true right to the true left, occurred an hour after we left and shortly after the entrance of Owen Creek into the main river. It was an awkward crossing which may have been more straightforward except that the surface under the increasingly swift current was almost entirely boulders, providing virtually no flat ground on which to stand. Technically the river was still not flooded, but we decided there and then to not cross that river again until it had gone down. This decision was the end of any hopes to visit Goat Creek Hut on the true right, but in many ways it was a relief because at least we were on the side we needed to be on to get out.
Mark waits for Sue and Allen to get through
the final crossing of the Mokihinui.
For two further hours we remained on the flats. There was one difficult clamber up a bank for which we needed to remove packs and pass them around to get up, but generally we spent the time bush-bashing through trees on the true left. It was 9.30am, 3 hours after we’d left that morning, when we finally reached Hennessy Creek. Given the way it was surging it could have been the end of the day already, but we were relieved to find a useful fallen tree that allowed us to walk or shuffle to an island of scrub half way over the creek’s mouth. Unfortunately the other side of this small island was another raging torrent, but it did enable us to sight a larger tree further up the stream, spanning the entire waterway, and we were saved!
Hopping and walking and shimmying over the mossy knee-friendly green carpet of this sturdy tree trunk that spanned the surging water below, we patted ourselves on the back and continued pushing through the river-bordering bush… for about ten minutes or so… and then we came to the enormously demoralising realisation that the Hennessy Creek we’d just crossed wasn’t Hennessy Creek at all. It was an un-named minor side stream that flowed into the Mokihinui River about 200 metres to the south of Hennessy Creek. The real Hennessy Creek really did spell the end of our day, and it was game over. Time to camp. Oh krud. Goat Creek Hut was now about 200 metres away behind the trees on the far side of the flooded Mokihinui River, yet completely out of reach. For all the time that we spent so close, we never saw Goat Creek Hut.
And so we waited. We even had a day up our sleeve in the original plan which had been set aside for lazing around in the sun. All the environment needed to do was to stop raining on us.
Having arrived at about 10am, Hennessy Creek, quite a thunderous and constant surge of water, was at its highest point that we saw (at least during the day) at around 3.30pm that afternoon. There were a few gauges we could use to measure this. For instance, I took several photos of the far side of the creek to help document the visible rocks, few as there were. A mid-sized horizontal overhanging tree dipped its branches into the creek, and completely stripped of leaves those branches were getting a severe walloping that also caused much turbulence in the water immediately past it. The “creek” happily forced its way over the trunk of this tree at its base which stuck out from the high side of the creek bed. My favourite measuring device was a couple of metres further down-stream, where a smaller tree that I mentally nick-named the Loopy Tree was looping furiously as its thin lower-most branches held an elastic pattern of becoming caught in the torrent’s surface. It was then launched erratically into the air before reaching its maximum extent and bouncing hard back to the surface of the turbulent water, only for the pattern to repeat over and over again.
From mid afternoon the rain would sometimes hold off for short whiles, giving us false hopes before beginning again and dashing them. The level dropped about 20 centimetres from its high point before finally settling on a constant state of flood that it most preferred. The top-most rocks of its true left bank were now visible on the far side, the water merely frequently lapped over the trunk of the horizontal tree rather than blasting over in a constant surge, and the Loopy Tree reduced from a frantic explosion of craziness to a hypnotic loopy pattern of an impressive radius.
We optimistically hoped this was a sign that the level would decay further overnight. Allen and Sue, banking on their past experiences, were smartly locking themselves down to half rations already at that point, but the rest of us had complete meals that evening, optimistically hoping things would improve by the following afternoon. With the size of the catchment and the sheer amount of rain that we later discovered was falling, not completely consistent with the forecasts we’d earlier seen, our optimism was unfounded. Robert and I did our best to keep water out of the tent, but with limited success. Some time that evening, Mark knocked on our tent door and asked if we’d seen Dmitry — it seemed he’d gone for a walk and not returned. It rained for the better part of the night.
Day four, 3rd January 2010
The rain continued. We discovered where Dmitry had been, though, and yes he had returned. Dmitry, who despised the idea of being so trapped, had been up river looking for possible places to cross, and he’d actually found something promising. On the morning of day four, everyone bar Allen and Sue went up the creek to check it out, and it was quite a cool concept. Despite the creek being in flood, Dmitry had discovered an underwater island that stretched about 30 metres down the middle of Hennessy Creek. From the true right bank at which we were stuck, we could reach the top end of this island relatively safely due to the shallowness of the water flowing over the gap. The water directly on the other side of the island was surging even more violently of course, since all that water in the river has to go somewhere. Due to the shape of things underneath, though, the surging water was gradually filtering over the top of the entire length of the island from the true left to the true right, taking the complete 30 metres to do so. By walking the length down the middle of the creek to the far end of this underwater island, we would then be at a point where the gap to the true left was now shallow, with the bulk of the water now surging on the true right side of the island behind us and from where we’d come. Dmitry in fact, who’s very well balanced on his feet, had already done this completely by himself the previous evening, and come back again. Looking at it collectively, however, we didn’t reach a positive consensus about everyone in the group being able to get through safely. The water was still reasonably swift over the length of the island, and so we decided to wait things out for longer.
I checked the level using my measures when we returned. There was no difference from yesterday’s settling point, with the mesmorising Loopy Tree in its comfortable circular pattern. As I stood and stared at Hennessy Creek, trying to picture a good landing space in case I might somehow construct a giant pogo stick from the available raw materials, one of the many South Island Robins fluttered past and landed on a low branch on the far side. It looked back and chirped, demanding to know why we weren’t on the far side of the creek, kicking up more insects to ease its foraging.
I went back to the tent, and that’s where both Robert and I spent most of the day enduring increasingly annoying back-aches from so much lying in a confined space, phasing in and out of consciousness. I spent some time browsing FMC Bulletin number 178, and came to realise just how much I take for granted all those moments when I have the freedom to mix a cup of chocolate chips, a cup of drinking chocolate, half a cup of strawberry jam, a litre of gooey raspberry ripple ice cream, 3 cups of couscous (to make the whole thing acceptably healthy), and then eat it. In fact, I couldn’t believe I’d never ever done such a thing, and it seemed absolutely wrong that I hadn’t taken the opportunity during any of the many times I’ve been able to. Thus I made a private resolution that I’d mix this recipe once we finally emerged from the mess we were in, but meanwhile I daydreamed that I was swimming in chocolate ice-cream mush. So thank you Warren Wheeler of the Palmerston North Tramping & Mountaineering Club, for your Mt Doom Chocolate Volcanic Cake that allegedly serves 12. Your submission inspired my imagination that evening, and took my mind to a distant land in which I wasn’t hungry, even though it sounded like pitiful-sized portions if dividing it between so many.
Strangely I didn’t feel much like eating any of my 2 day expired pita bread that day, and satisfied myself with a couple of slices of cheese. Robert and I went to sleep to the frequent claps of a thunderstorm, but I soon noticed inconsistencies. There were no lightning flashes through the tent, the thunder invariably originated from the same directions, and the volume wasn’t as variable as it should typically be as a storm passes over. It soon dawned that the ambient thunderous thuds were localised to the raging torrent within about 30 metres on two sides of us. We were surrounded on both sides with the echoes of heavy river boulders being driven down the flooded rivers and occasionally torn from the banks. I learned later that Allen had been concerned enough to rise during the dark and scope out potential alternative camp-sites lest we quickly need to evacuate our residence on the forested river rocks. The thuds continued throughout the rest of the night, as the Mokihinui continued its constant evolution as a wild river, eroding the environment around it in a way that only such an aquatic juggernaut can.
Day five, 4th January 2010
The rain had slowed, and even largely stopped by the morning of day 5, but the rivers on both sides remained high, with such large catchments and possibly with more rain occurring further up. We couldn’t tell for sure. Robert and I spent some time sitting on the rocks next to the bank of the Mokihinui, which we’d by now figured out how to reach through the trees, and were even able to dry a few things during intermittent sunshine. Some time around 8am, a helicopter came completely unexpectedly from the south, swooping low along the river and directly over us. It looped around over the river and down to the ground behind the trees on the opposite bank of the Mokihinui, almost exactly where Goat Creek Hut should have been. The helicopter sat for several seconds in its obscured position before suddenly lifting off and flying away further down the river, the fumes from its engine silently drifting down to where we stood.
We had no obvious explanation for this, and despite having tried to wave from our positions in our colourful polyprop, we had no idea if anyone in the helicopter had seen us to be able to note that we were stuck here. It occurred that perhaps the hut over the river had occupants, maybe even someone with a mountain radio, but there was no way to tell and if such people were there, they weren’t coming down to the main river where we could see them. Probably we should have found some brightly coloured pack liners or similar and anchored them out in the open, so that any future aircraft cruising along the river might realise someone was camped in the trees behind Hennessy Creek, just in case we were so late for there to be a Search and Rescue alert. We didn’t think of it at the time, however.
I went back to the tent, deciding to empty my miniature dry bag from the top of my pack, and try to dry out some of the items inside that had collected water. That means things like a wallet, cellphone, head torch, GPS, and all those things that absorb water really well when there’s a lot of it. Fortunately though, I discovered the two most absorbant things in my dry-sack were a spare cotton handkerchief, sopping wet, and a sticky mish-mash splodge of white goo. I couldn’t figure out what this was until I pulled it out and realised it was the 20 cent mixture of lollies I’d been given at the Lazy Cow Backpackers at Murchison. On another day I might have thrown it away (or at least not eaten it), but right now this was a treat! I managed to peel away the layers of paper gunk (well, most of them), and get at the sticky marshmallow. The splodge included at least a couple of jelly beans and a jet plane, and if I handled it carefully enough it was possible to un-twist the wrappers around the toffees. All in all, a good bonus meal.
With the rain receding but the rivers taking their time to go down, Allen took some initiative to start a campfire. Doing so with so much drenched wood isn’t an easy task, but Allen showed us a valuable trick, which is to find vertical wood. If the wood is standing up rather than lying on the ground, it won’t have absorbed anywhere near as much water, and thus becomes much easier to burn. So we spent late morning and early afternoon scouring the surrounding bush for dead wood that hadn’t settled on the ground. We soon had a large pile, and Allen had a good fire going that we could use to repeatedly boil water for perpetual brews, toast 3 day expired pita bread for a reasonable lunch (much nicer than raw pita bread), stand around to keep warm and pass the time, and (at least in one person’s case) dry out underpants.
By mid afternoon, Hennessy Creek was still up some way, but we decided we’d finally try Dmitry’s suggested crossing location. It took about 30 minutes to pack up, 15 minutes to walk up river, a few minutes of careful crossing in pairs and one group of three, an amount of trawling through a deep bog on the far side where I personally found myself thigh deep in mud having taken a wrong step, some extra time to scramble up a miniature bluff to the flats of the higher ground, and it worked. At 5pm we were across, with another 4 hours of daylight.
From here we took a bearing roughly north, walking over the flats inland from the river. The flats in this vicinity are a nice composition of greens, but there’s little camping as the area’s full of shallow sink-holes between the tree roots and swampy regions. We avoided some of it by sidling up the slope towards the west. As we followed our bearing through the shin-deep aquatic wonderland, we began to encounter ribbon-tied survey markers of some sort, with occasional blue ribbons that anchored specific points (perhaps for regular bird counts), and with pink ribbons leading trails between them. We spent some time trying to follow these ribbon trails on the pretext that they probably went approximately where we were trying to go, but were careful to maintain an appropriate north-ward bearing whilst doing so. At around 7.15pm, we emerged above the now impressively widened Mokihinui River, looking down over a giant flowing channel of water. The late evening sunshine waved goodbye to the land from somewhere above and behind us. At a distance below, a convoy of six Whio — New Zealand’s endangered and unusual Blue Duck — swam by in formation, occasionally diving underwater to feed as they saw fit to do so.
We soon dropped to the level of the river to look for a reasonable camp-site, and eventually settled on a grassed region slightly above the main river at NZTM324981, on the edge of the second of the Mokihinui River’s two giant meandering horseshoe-shaped bends in this region. As we were about to set up camp, however, we had a brief debate about whether we’d be better to continue. Eventually, keeping in mind that we didn’t know for certain whether more rain was coming, we decided to press on to Limestone Creek, or possibly even Mokihinui Forks Hut if it proved easy enough to reach. The creek was the main problem though. Steve’s photocopied notes indicated it was complex to cross, even on a dry day. With an hour of daylight remaining, we decided it may be easier to approach before any possible rain arrived, if we could make it in time. Thusly we packed up again, headed up the hill, and pushed through more bush and swamp until finally reaching the creek. It was not a go-er at all, being too late and too deep.
Limestone Creek is a very slow moving waterway, effectively a deep, dark and wide ditch full of water. At first glance, it could require swimming or pack-floating because there isn’t a bottom to walk on, and the steep and high sides would potentially make this even trickier. Furthermore, with the Mokihinui River still in some state of flood, back-wash from the main river was causing the creek to come up even higher. One option might have been to have sidled around above the top of the creek’s catchment earlier in the day, which to be fair Sue had actually proposed early on though we hadn’t done so. We walked to the mouth of the creek where it meets the Mokihinui, but couldn’t see any easy way through there, either. We discovered much later, from a local hunter, that there’s apparently a limestone shelf not far under the water near the mouth of the creek. Reportedly it’s straightforward to simply walk across for those who know where to go. We weren’t in the know at the time, though, and perhaps the state of flood meant this bridge was too far underwater to be usable regardless. Instead, we returned to a reasonable camp-site we’d spotted on the way down to the mouth, and set up camp, planning to hope it didn’t rain, then figure out this problem tomorrow.
It was dark by the time we set up camp on the evening of day five. We spent minimal time before going to bed. With the prospect of us being stuck for another day, I didn’t personally want to spend too much food at this point, so left my main de-hydrated meal. Instead, I traded half a slice of my 3-day-expired pita bread and cheese for some of Robert’s salami. The two of us had a hastily assembled sandwich for dinner, and went to sleep.
Day six, 5th January 2010
It didn’t rain overnight. We awoke at about 6.30am, and with prospects of going somewhere, Robert and I enthusiastically prepared and consumed last night’s dinner (in my case half of my remaining de-hy meal) while everyone else feasted on their regular breakfast cereal, or whatever came to hand. We were now officially a day late, having been due out yesterday, but not much could have been done about it.
There was still the problem of getting through Limestone Creek, and it didn’t appear to be any lower this morning than it had been the previous night. It wasn’t long before Steve had concocted a plan, however, having gone for a short mission up the river and discovered a fallen tree. The only catch was that the tree didn’t span the entire creek. Rather, it dipped down into the creek from the southern side (true right) towards the north, meeting the water about half way across. Beyond this point the trunk continued to sink underneath. Falling off would mean a swim or a pack-float, but hopefully this wouldn’t be necessary. On closer inspection it was clear that the tree had been sawn by someone specifically to make a bridge, but it either didn’t work as well as that person had hoped, or it’s since collapsed into the creek. It worked, however.
Steve was first to inch his way down the trunk, and with some effort he found a way to clamber over the underwater branches on the far side of where it met the water, eventually reaching the far bank below a miniature bluff. Over the next 15 minutes we all followed, and we were over. Although it wasn’t certain if we’d be out tonight given some notes about the state of the track ahead, this crossing had been the last major expected hurdle of the trip. Given how long we’d been stuck and how frustrated some of us had become, it was a nice relief to finally have it behind us. There was finally some light ahead, and with some sunshine in the sky there might even be something to look forward to.
During another 90 minutes of sidling through thick tangled bush, we saw several more robins and fantails, and also three baby goats huddled together under a tree without a mummy or daddy goat in sight. Eventually, in the middle of the bush, we began to stumble on ancient human-made remnants of structures such as slabs of rusty corrugated iron. I suspect we were at an old site of Mokihinui Forks Hut, because the LINZ map shows the hut about 100 metres from where it actually is (according to my GPS). Soon after, at 9am, we pushed through the trees to finally reach a hut. It’s a standard 6 bunk hut located under a giant Rimu tree, with a wonderful wide view of the forks of the north and south branch of the Mokihinui River below. We stopped for a break, and applied insect repellent which very suddenly became necessary. Browsing the book, we found that a group from the Nelson Tramping Club had been stranded at this hut during the floods, having already been two days overdue before finally managing to leave about the previous day. Perhaps this had been the point of the helicopter earlier on.
The remainder of the walk out to the road from Mokihinui Forks Hut is shown as tracked on our map, and parts of it are well tracked with Department of Conservation orange triangles and all. Realistically it should only be classed as a route, though. Signs at both ends warn that it’s for experienced trampers only, and there’s good reason for this. The route, which follows the historic gold miners’ track cut into the cliffs high above the true left of the Mokihinui River, crosses numerous slips. Three or four of these slips are especially awkward, and while completely crossable and reasonably safe with care, you should expect to be traversing some narrow paths around bluffs, using fixed wires for security in a couple of places, and so on. The western end of the track also includes numerous creek crossings, and one waterfall under which we all had to get wet. Some had quite strong currents and needed thought before leaping in, though the recent rain could possibly have made a few more full than they would have otherwise been.
A notice in the hut claims the route takes 6 hours, the sign at the far end claims the route takes 8 hours. With seven of us including occasional breaks, it took about 7.5 hours. The route isn’t well marked to begin with, and even the Nelson Tramping Club (which had unsuccessfully tried to get out twice) had stated in their entry that they’d had to bush-bash north of the hut for the lack of any obvious track. We soon discovered that with the current conditions we could head down to the river level in the long grasses, and follow an approximate direction north-ish, during which we somehow spent lots of time walking within a rather deep ditch, to where the south branch of the river meets the north and it swings around to the west towards the coast. We reached this point at 9.30am, and stood on the beach for a few minutes admiring the scenic surroundings, before taking the lead of a bright orange triangle that led up the hillside above some bluffs over the main river, prior to coming back down again over a few more flats.
At 11.15am, we reached Specimen Creek, coming into the Mokihinui from the true left. This creek is another waterway with a substantial catchment, and no doubt it could also have been problematic with significant rain, but at this time it was easily crossable. The marked route then heads up the hill-side, for the most part leaving the river well below, offering regular glimpses through the trees of an increasingly giant Mokihinui River below. It was compelling to consider just how much the river had changed from the tiny, barely significant tree-smothered creek we’d first stepped into four days earlier. The total catchment is massive and by comparison the river below was huge. For much of this time, we crossed slips — some old and overgrown, some appearing quite active. Several slips, as mentioned earlier, required careful thought and caution to negotiate safely, but all were eventually doable.
At half past twelve we stopped for lunch, and I felt disappointed at how much food I had left on what was now almost certain to be our last meal of the walk, given how I’d spent so much effort carefully budgeting just in case. It pays to be safe though, I suppose. All that remained was to get out, and apart from the regular slip or creek crossing, this last section just goes on and on, roughly 20 kilometres of long, straight walking (except for the slips and creeks) from Mokihinui Forks Hut to the end of the road. In places where trees opened up, I looked over the edge and tried to imagine what this gorge would be like should it be dammed, with a 14 kilometre lake to smother the wild river below. At 3.45pm, we walked past the top end of Rough and Tumble Creek, aptly named for its rapids and the excessive noise it generates as it hits the Mokihinui. With an artificial lake, this spectacular entrance that’s been carved and moulded over the millennia would be gone.
Much of the track along here is surrounded by a forest of young Rimu trees. One day — notwithstanding any decisions to fell them in the future — it will probably grow into something rather magnificent. As we left the main track and approached the road, we passed two crosses commemorating the deaths of David and James Russell, two gold prospectors (father and son) who died in a slip during the massive Murchison Earthquake in 1929.
After a substantial sit at the road in the vicinity of 5pm, we began our walk out to the small township of Seddonville, which isn’t a long way along the road. As we finally walked this stretch, Donna came driving up in a van to collect us, coincidentally having guessed that we might have arrived about now if we’d been walking all day. It was a nice relief.
Seddonville, the small township near the end of the Mokihinui River and whose population would probably all fit inside the Seddonville Pub, was on an evacuation alert during the early days of 2010, at about the same time we’d been penned behind Hennessy Creek. In the past few days, levels of the Mokihinui River that had been unprecedented for many years. Donna, also a day late out from her own trip further north in the Kahurangis, had already stayed a night in Seddonville and been assured by the locals that there was no way we could possibly be getting out that afternoon. I think they’d assumed we’d have aimed for Goat Creek Hut on the far side of the river, rather than camping 200 metres away in the rain for two nights.
The local hunters had ordered helicopters to bring out their mates, and on hearing about us, they’d even been trying to rig up a way of getting us out on the back of one of the other flights, wonderful people that they were. Ironically if we had stayed on the true right behind the large river to aim for Goat Creek Hut, we might have been spotted on the morning of day 5, perhaps even lifted out by the helicopter that buzzed over Robert and I to land in front of the hut and look in to see if anyone was home. This was not to be, however, but I think with so much uncertainty at the time we would have appreciated it a lot there and then, and happily divvied up any resulting expenses between us.
I’ve seen rivers in flood before, but this is the first time I’ve been stuck in such a way. Although no fun at the time, it was fulfilling and I think I’ll go into future experiences with more confidence about preparation and expectations around waiting for rivers to go down. It’s nice to reach the end of such experiences, though.
Edit 21-Jan-2009: I earlier mentioned allegations that Meridian paid the Department of Conservation to not make a submission, but have just noticed I had the wrong link, and can’t locate a reference. (That link refers to a different case that doesn’t involve the Mokihinui.) The Department of Conservation made a submission against the Mokihinui Dam proposal.