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Tramping the Wangapeka

Day 2 and 3

by Pamela Blalock


I should have been walking around in my hiking boots to break my feet back in more recently, but I haven't. ( I know, it's the boots that are supposed to get broken in, but in my case, the boots are much tougher than my feet, so it's my feet that give!) I did OK when using these boots last summer on the Kepler and Greenstone tramps, but by the end of the second week, I was quite happy to not to have to wear them for a while. I only suffered small blisters on my big toes - nothing on the heel or instep. But I definitely need to go see a cobbler and try to stretch them a bit in the toes. It seems the front of my foot is wide relative to my heel. If I get wide shoes, my heel flops around (and I get bad heel blisters), but with regular shoes, my little toe gets smushed. I actually have holes cut out in the sides of my cycling shoes, but this wouldn't be such a good idea in the boots, since it would let in water and rocks and other debris! I will admit that I started to think seriously about carving up the boots after a few days. But I'm getting way ahead of myself.

After breakfast, we cleaned up and gathered more firewood to restock what we'd tried to burn the night before. We then headed less than 5 minutes down the track to the old Cecil King Hut. We'd read that it was the more characterful place to stay, but I just couldn't make myself walk any further the night before. Well we should have. Cecil King had a gold claim nearby and originally built this hut in the 1930's from a single red beech tree he had cut down nearby. He planted several new ones to replace the source of his timber. Even after exhausting any hope of finding gold, Cecil spent his summers at the hut. After his death, his family spread his ashes nearby and donated the hut to DOC. After many requests from hikers, DOC made an effort to restore the hut and now keeps it open for use. We had a great time looking around and definitely felt disappointed that we had not spent the night.

The weather on the second day started out reasonably. After so many clothing changes due to overheating and on and off rain the day before, I decided to go for rainpants over shorts and rain jacket over short sleeve woolie top. This actually worked much better, as I was able to regulate the temperature better, and not overheat in my rain gear. The 2 1/2 hour walk to Stone Hut was quite pleasant - more nicely benched track through native bush. And the weather seemed to be improving, as it stopped raining 5 minutes after heading out in the morning.

As we got closer to Stone Hut, we heard a helicopter overhead. We weren't close enough to the hut to arrive before it landed and took off though. Presumably it was DOC just doing regular checking of the huts, because there was no indication at the hut that anyone had been there recently or had trouble.

It was a bit early for lunch, but given the shelter of the hut and the changeable weather, we decided to take our lunch break there anyway. This hut was much smaller than King's Creek, and more charming as a result. Just as we packed up our food, it started to drizzle again. Tempting as it was to sit around, we had 4 hours ahead of us to get to Helicopter Hut. We walked through several interesting areas, including an old slip from the 1929 Murchison earthquake. Here the footing got interesting! We then climbed the Wangapeka Saddle. There is a sign at the saddle, and the track heads back down hill, but otherwise you'd never know it's the top. Despite being over 1000 metres, it is still in the bush with no view. The descent down to the river was very gradual and pleasant, but just as I commented on how nice it was, we came to a massive slip, with a good scramble up and over to the other side. Not too long afterwards we reached Chime Creek. We spent a bit of time trying to figure how to get across. John was able to leap from rock to rock and got across with dry boots, but my confidence and short stride were not enough, so I got one really drenched boot. Once on the far side, I saw the sign for the 3 wire high water bridge up above! I'm not sure how we missed a sign on the other side!

We carried on down hill, but my wet feet were really getting cold. I had several pairs of socks, so we decided to stop to let me change into a dry pair. Of course, I had no idea at the time that we had reached the part of the track where keeping ones boots dry was just not possible. Our next obstacle was to cross the ankle deep (according to the guides) Karamea River. We spent a bit of time trying to find either a low spot or stepping stones and logs to get across. I finally decided to use my river shoes. Last year when we bought our boots, we also found these super light mesh sneakers, that seemed designed for walking through rivers. We used them for bike touring and tramping as our off the bike/trial shoes, but had also figured they'd be good for things like river crossings. While I changed shoes, John found a way across on a slippery moss covered log that I could never have even stayed upright standing still, let alone crossed. I found the shallowest section, rolled up my rain pants and waded through knee deep water. It was freezing. And while I was shivering and putting my boots back on, it started to snow to prove I wasn't imaging how chilly it was.

Then after all that trouble we came to another big stream without a bridge, and another, and another. We rechecked the route guides and one of them mentioned numerous crossings. I continued to try to find the driest way across, but as some point made another big splash. After what seemed like hours and hours we came to a big river crossing. At this stage my boots were pretty soaked, but John's were still relatively dry. It was also pouring with rain with the occasional bit of hail thrown in for fun. We knew there was a high water route to avoid crossing the knee high Karamea, but could not find any signs. After our experience at Chime Creek, with missing the sign, we spent a bit of time looking around. We finally gave up and decided to cross. I just waded in, keeping behind the large rocks, so the rushing river wouldn't wash me away, and managed to get across with water up to mid thigh. John took a slightly higher route and stayed out of the water most of the way, but ended up with his boots under water at some point. Not too much farther we found the high water route. We had not actually crossed the Karamea yet - that thigh deep thing was just a little side stream. I looked at the river which while not low wasn't moving that fast and didn't look that deep. The track description that said the high water route added 20 minutes, so I suggested just fording the river, since our boots were soaked at this point, but John said we'd have to do it twice, and seemed to prefer the high water route, so we started the scramble.

Well I'm not sure the folks who marked the high water route had actually done it in high water, because there were 5 raging torrents to cross, so it was certainly not drier than crossing the river! It also had several slips with wires to hang onto for safety, and other places where it just took guts and willpower. I did lots of hanging onto roots, rocks and trees, and pulling myself up and over stuff or letting myself down big drop-offs. This was not what I needed at the end of a long day. But we finally came off this part of the track and were back on the main route. Due to all the shoe changes and hunting for good ways across the stream, our 4 hour hike had taken much longer, and daylight was fading fast. But just as I was really starting to worry, John spotted the three wire bridge across Waters Creek, which led to the hut. OK, at least there was a bridge, but this was the scariest thing I've ever tried to cross. A few years ago, we realised why I could handle some high speed descents on the tandem with no problems and others totally freaked me out. It's exposure, not the speed or even height. I can handle a swing bridge 100 metres up, but this thing has no sides, and I had to look down to wedge my boot on that thin little wire. John had no trouble getting across, so I made him come back for my pack. I started across and got to the second set of braces, and backed up. I looked at the river below and tried to figure a way across, but I couldn't. So I tried again. I tried to avoid looking down and reign in my fear, but this was absolutely nerve-wracking. I finally got across and there was our hut a few hundred metres away. And ... there was smoke coming from the chimney!

We got in just as it was getting quite dark. We were soaked. It had been pouring for hours and we had walked through so many streams. My gloves were soaked from grabbing roots and trees and rocks as we scrambled over the high water track. We changed into dry clothes as quickly as we could, and hung our wet stuff up where we could. Our cabin mate was Kate Brown - apparently a relative of the unsinkable Molly Brown. You have to be pretty tough to hike a track like this on your own!

We actually were expecting to meet her at some point. When talking with the shuttle folks in Karamea they'd told us she had started from Karamea on Monday, so we would cross paths. We shared experiences of our day and what to expect on the next leg. I suggested not bothering with the high water section, and she told us we'd have to walk across a waterfall. We had a pleasant evening chatting away and listening to the rain and hail fall throughout the night. The next morning when we woke, it was still pouring and the river was much closer than it had been the night before, and it was roaring by. The high water track would be essential!

My right knee was a bit stiffer than the night before. This happened last summer when we hiked, but it had taken much longer to get so sore. I was a bit worried about how much hard stuff we had ahead of us with a sore knee. I was also freezing. While Kate had done a great job building and stoking the fire, it just never got warm in the hut and none of our stuff had dried. So I waited as long as possible and put my wet gear back on. I had to keep my dry stuff for the huts and walk in the wet stuff. I would warm up once moving, but at this stage, I needed to get moving. John helped collect and chop fire wood, and I started slowly heading up the track. In thinking about it, it was probably not a smart idea to go out alone. I came to quite a deep stream crossing, but I just walked through, keeping behind the big rocks to avoid being caught by current. My knee was loosening up a bit, and since I was no longer wasting time trying to keep dry, progress seemed good. But then I came to a 30 metre wide raging torrent. I could not see anyway across, and going up didn't seem very possible either. It looked quite easy to get swept away in the current while crossing. At this point, I realised how stupid it was to be out here alone, so I started back to meet up with John, and to keep warm.

We met up shortly after he had crossed the first big stream and I told him I'd come to one that I just couldn't get across. I turned around again, and we headed back to check it out together. It was still hammering down with rain, but since we were together again, I was feeling better. We got back to my turn around point and spent a little time trying to find a way across. We talked about our options and finally decided that even if we got across this one, the next one could be worse, and then what about the one after that and all the others after that. We talked about our food supply - we had packed a couple of extra meals, and the track description which basically said the remainder of the route was harder with many more creek crossings - which today would be more like raging river crossings. We decided to head back for shelter and wait it out. We got back to Helicopter flat, started the fire, got into dry clothes and made soup to warm back up. I crawled into my sleeping bag and read an entire National Geographic. The rain continued to hammer down, with those occasional bursts of hail. John chopped more wood to keep warm - not that the fire was doing much but the chopping generated heat for him. We quickly decided that we should just retreat and take the devil we knew (what we had hiked in on) versus the one we didn't (what was described at more difficult with lots of stream crossings). Of course then I began to worry about how bad conditions would be going back the way we came as well, since the river was getting closer and closer to the hut. The raging torrents we had crossed the day before would be even worse, and there was that bloody scary 3 wire bridge!

Boredom and worry competed with each other for the rest of the day. I had only brought along a National Geographic. I hadn't planned on needing a days worth of reading material. The fire did start to warm the area right around it (it would be a stretch to say tit warmed the hut) after about 8 hours.

I didn't sleep well that night. I had wide-awake nightmares about that 3 wire bridge, and the rain hammered off the tin roof all night. The next morning it was still coming down, but the river hadn't actually risen much more overnight. But what did happen was hail and snow had covered the ground. It was just a light dusting, but if we were feeling chilly, there was a good reason. We didn't rush out the door, but we knew we had a long day ahead of us, and did try to get moving. We were cleaning up the hut, and I cleaned the ashes out of the stove to carry out to the ash can. As I was walking out, my back suddenly seized up and I doubled over in pain. I managed to get back to the hut, but I was in agony. I've never had such a sudden rush of pain before. I stretched for a while, but then I really wasn't sure how we were going to get out of this, especially how I'd make it across the wire if the spasm came back. Amazingly the weight of the pack seemed to help. And then it stopped raining. We headed over toward the 3 wire and I saw the ford. It looked knee deep - which was amazingly low given all the rain for the last 40 or so hours. I looked at John and announced my intentions to ford the stream rather than take the wire. He was dubious, but I had a lot more confidence in my ability to fight the current than my fight with gravity and fear on that wire. It was knee deep for 2/3 of the way across, and suddenly I found myself at mid thigh, and the current was strong, but I stayed calm and managed to slowly get to the far bank. John headed for the bridge. We were back together in a couple of minutes. And amazingly I wasn't frozen solid, despite being pretty wet. The sun actually won the battle with the clouds, and my rainpaints actually dried pretty quickly - in between dunkings in various streams.

Day 1