Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Barry Armour Memorial trip to Liebig Hut

Who was Barry Armour and where is Liebig Hut? Barry Armour was a lecturer at the School of Engineering at the University of Western Australia. He passed away in 1998 and left a bequest of $49,000 for Liebig Hut. His association with Liebig is unknown but I suspect he was there at some stage and was rather fond of it. 
I had this email from Paul McCormick in January 2017: 
“Your email regarding Barry Armour has been passed on to me as I am probably the only person left at UWA that was here at the same time as Barry.  When I joined UWA in 1975, Barry was a Lecturer in Civil Engineering. His role was to teach Surveying to 2nd year Civil Engineering students.  I’m afraid I don’t remember anything of Barry’s background.  I assume that he was from Perth, but I don’t really remember.  What I remember is that Barry was the most liked person on staff.  Basically, he was a very nice person and always very interesting to talk to morning tea.  Every summer he went off on an adventure, hiking or mountain climbing somewhere in the world, presumably, NZ was his favourite place.  He came back with many stories of his adventures.  A single person so he had no restrictions on where he went. During the year, I often saw Barry hiking around Perth water, a scenic 10 km route around the Swan river in the heart of Perth. His work uniform, always shorts and long socks, summer and winter, reflected his outdoor character.”
Liebig was originally built in 1965 by the NZ forest service. It was used as a base for wild animal control – deer, thar and chamois and the vegetation was in decline. Later the hut was damaged by an avalanche and it was due to be removed when the bequest became available. Barry’s bequest was quite specific. It was to be used exclusively for the Liebig Hut thereby guaranteeing its future. It was moved and rebuilt 100m away in 1999 by Doug Henderson. 
I first became aware of all this on my Mesopotamia to Mt Cook trip in December 2016. Reece and I stayed at Liebig on our way down the Murchison valley. I read the account in the hut and I intrigued by the story. On further research, I later discovered that Geoff and Beryl Wayatt knew Barry well and they were able to fill in some of the missing detail. We decided a memorial plaque would be a fitting acknowledgement.
In January 2019, Gavin and I drove up to Mt Cook and parked at the Tasman Lakes car park. The day was overcast and warm as we launched our packrafts at the Tasman Lakes Glacier Explorers wharf. The paddle up the 5-kilometre windstill lake was straightforward. There were no icebergs that day but just after our trip, there was massive subsidence of the lower Tasman Glacier, which filled up the lake with numerous icebergs and produced a tsunami.
We pulled out several kilometres up the lake and climbed up the moraine wall on the TL. Here we ambled along for a while before dropping onto flats bordering the Murchison River. Then it was an easy walk to the alluvial plain of the Murchison Valley. To my left, I could see the main divide from Mt Cook to Tasman, elemental and austere. The amount of ice loss was a graphic indictment of Climate Change. I pointed out the East Ridge of Aoraki to Gavin and both of us were incredulous that I had once climbed this. I noted the Murchison River was huge, much bigger than my previous trip here in 2016. We would definitely need the packrafts to cross that and we would need to find a section of the river safe for a ferry glide.

Once we reached the alluvial plain it was a pleasant perambulation up the TR of the Murchison River on the ochre-coloured moss and sparse, sere tussock. The Murchison thundered past on our right, angry and sullen – a river of tears from the dying Murchison Glacier up ahead. Several times we tried to cross where it braided but it looked too dangerous and forbidding. Even to packraft across was not a possibility because of the lack of a safe run out. Ahead we could see the moraine walls of the terminal Murchison before the lake. I was scanning the terrain at the base of the Liebig Range for the hut without success. This was not surprising, as the hut is painted green.

We decided on plan B, which was to make for the Steffan Memorial Hut and packraft across Murchison Lake the next day and walk down to Liebig. Climbing up into the moraine on the left, we saw the grey hut set among an expanse of large grey rocks. It’s a delightful 4-bunk hut built and maintained by the South Canterbury branch of the NZDA. No one was there so we settled in. They have a solar PV panel on the north wall and solar lighting, which was a bonus. Below us was the end of the Murchison Lake with the odd iceberg. Beyond rose the grey flanks of the Liebig Range with huge moraine walls, a tribute to the massive glacial retreat in recent times.

Next morning we walked down to the lakeshore and launched. The sky was partially clear with ragged clouds presaging an oncoming wind. Indeed the lake surface was now ruffled but never a problem as we padded up the lake to the ice cliffs. We stopped for a snack before paddling back to land on the TL of the start of the river. Then it was an easy 1.5 km walk down to Liebig Hut. On the way, we saw some Scarlet Pimpernel, an exotic species and Craspedia lanata, yellow alpine flowers that seem well adapted to this day valley in the rain shadow of the Southern Alps.

Liebig was how I remembered it – a basic 6-bunk and comfortable hut. It is surrounded by low green bush and tawny tussock with a backdrop of the spectacular Malte Brun Range to the west. The sky was an azure blue and the powerful light gave everything a vibrant, archetypical appearance like the dawn of creation. The silence was profound though later a helicopter landed on the top of the Liebigs with a cargo of tourons. I put up the plaque and we had some lunch. Then we spent the rest of the day lying in the shade as it was too hot inside. In the afternoon, I went off for a swim nearby. There were some colourful alpine flowers and the blackberries of Coriaria angustissima.

We left early next morning retracing our route to the Murchison Lake and paddling across to Steffan Hut. Then it was a march down the TR across the alluvial plains to the Tasman moraine. The sky was a deep blue with Aoraki etched across it, the Caroline Face divided from the East Face by the East Ridge. Gavin pondered this in silence. It was a still day and no wind. Occasionally, a hare would leap up and tear away at great speed.

We arrived at the Tasman moraine and I thought it might be faster if we could get to the head of the lake and paddle down instead of walking down the moraine wall back the way we had come. There were a few levels to descent towards the Tasman Glacier down steep loose rocks and gravel. On a terrace far below, a blue tarn beckoned surrounded by sparse tussock so we made for it. There was the vast panorama of the dying Tasman Glacier, a landscape poised in a moment of decline between a glorious past and an apocalyptic future. It reproached us like an elegiac lament of a broken narrative for what we had done. 
We reached the small lake and sat in the shade of a large rock for our lunch. I noticed the radiance of the surrounding harebells and gentians, the warm sun, the silence and it beckoned like a renewal of life and hope. We had a brief swim and then Gavin went to see if we could reach the lakeshore. Alas, this did not work as an ice cliff barred the way down. Then, it was a weary plod up the loose rocks back to the flats bordering the Murchison. When these ran out we were forced up to the lateral moraine wall where an ancient, eroded track meandered along towards the outlet of the river on our left. 

At one stage, we were startled by a chamois – a magnificent animal, poised right in front of us on the ridge, its russet pelage shimmering in the bright light. It was there one minute and gone in a flash leaving us stunned and bewildered. Sometime later, we scrambled down the steep walls to the outlet of the Murchison. The lake was calm as we launched and paddled the 1.5 km across to the other side. In silence, we packed up and walked along the track back to the car. Around the corner was a conga line of parasol bearing Chinese as a helicopter passed overhead – the incongruity left us shocked and confounded like the apparition of the chamois but for a different reason. 

Monday, July 29, 2019

A Winter Trip in Southwestland - a journey into a dark space

“There is no light without darkness
There is no love without tears
There is no longing without desire
There is joy without suffering”

Winter is not the best time of the year to travel the remote rivers and forests of Southwestland. The days are short, the air temperature is low and the bush never seems to dry out as the northern sun loses it’s energy and heat. After weeks of unsettled weather, the forecast looked very promising. But where to in the mountains? After some discussion with Belinda, we decided to start at Martyrs, paddle down the Cascade to the Tasman Sea, walk to Gorge River, travel up the Gorge and Jerry Rivers, cross Pyke Saddle to the Durward, then paddle the Pyke to Alabaster and walk out to the Lower Hollyford. Belinda very generously offered to drop Gavin and me off at Martyrs and a week later to pick us up in the Lower Hollyford.

We started at Martyrs Homestead. The Cascade river was wide and deep and there were no rapids of any consequence. The banks are on farmland until past the oxbows where flax and forest take over. On and on we paddled late in the day as the shadows lengthened and the forest grew darker. Then we glided out onto the lagoon just on dark and landed on the slipway by the airstrip. An icy cloak hung over the dew-damp grass as we checked out the cribs for a bed for the night. We eventually found an old one, unlocked with 4 bunks inside so we settled in for a comfortable night there.  

Next morning, we checked the lagoon to decide our best approach for the first leg south on the coast.  Offshore was a sand spit with the Tasman waves thundering in with unfettered fury - no place for a packraft but inside the lagoon was placid and windstill. We set off and paddled 0.5 km to the south side of the bay.  Here was a hut or boatshed surrounded by piles of driftwood. After folding up our packrafts, we set off for Iota Bluff.  The day was sunny, the boulders slow going on wet, greasy rocks.  Thankfully, the tide was ebbing and we were able to get around the steep bluffs on our way to Barn Bay. The day brightened under an azure sky as the sun climbed higher but it was still slow going on the slippery boulders. 

Six hours later, we reached Barn Bay. At the old airstrip, we set up our camp in the Brown’s house verandah.  We had a pleasant night there and set off on foot next morning for Gorge River. The beaches further south are mainly boulder ones until past Sandrock Bluff and they were easier on smaller, drier rocks. We climbed up the old track at Sandrock and descended to the sandy beaches further south.  Then it was a steady pace past Browne Island and Cutter Rocks for the final run to Gorge River.  The Gorge Islands hove into view - we were close. 

Arriving at the river, Gavin inflated his packraft while I tied my 30m cord onto it. Once across, I pulled it back, clambered in and quickly crossed over. Then we strode up the bank, past Catherine and Robert’s house to the bright green DOC hut.  It was only early afternoon as the sun scintillated off blue sea reaching out to distant orange clouds on the far horizon. We lit the fire and made a brew.  Darkness descended at 5.15 pm.  The rats in the walls and ceiling were having a party, squealing and dancing around – happy rats! There was a knock on the door as Catherine and Robert dropped by and invited us in to their place after our dinner. We spent a pleasant evening with them until my eyelids drooped, my concentration waned and I slid back to our hut.

We had planned on a rest day at Gorge River and so it happened. Gavin went off to explore the pool at the Gorge and our route into the Gorge River Valley. I boiled up a pot of water on the firebox and had a shower in the toilet. We gathered some driftwood from the beach and chopped it up with the axe for firewood. I put up a clothesline in the Southerly wind to dry off some damp clothes. Then walking back to the hut, I noticed something unusual – my clothesline had some wet clothing that did not belong to either of us. I stopped and stared at this apparition, mystified. Then something caught my eye as I turned to meet Marcus, a young German chap who had snuck into the hut between my brief forays outside. He introduced himself and told me how he had swum across the river. 

That night we were all invited to a lovely dinner at Catherine and Robert’s place. How refreshing to meet these lovely people again so in-tune with nature, unpretentious and humble. It was a transcendental experience as we quietly shared stories in this place so far from the nearest habitation, with a restless surf pounding on darkened shores. 

We left just after daybreak. A short paddle across the first and second pools, landed us on a boulder beach at the start of Gorge River. From there it was a slow walk up slippery boulders on both sides of the river with frequent fording to find the easiest travel. There were frequent showers and it was cool. We were able to use the river banks mostly, which was just as well as the bush was wet, dank and inimical. By lunchtime, we had reached the junction with the Jerry.  The weather remained the same - cold and showery with snow down into the bush. We came to a gorge and climbed up a steep bluff on the TL to bypass it. It was now late in the day and where the valley widened, there was an island. Just upstream was a flat mossy place where we set up camp. 

It was a cold night and a subdued luminescence lit up the tent. I guessed the sky was clear and when I got up during the night, the moon was full in a diamond-studded firmament. Next morning, it took some motivation to scrabble out of the tent and fire up the stove. A few hours later we passed the Low Creek junction and somehow missed the Saddle Creek, our turnoff.  We noticed this soon enough so adjusted our course to the amorphous, inchoate Pyke Saddle. A sharp ascent of a forested slope brought us to a swampy, mossy, lugubrious rainforest plateau through which we slowly made our way to an ill-defined, formless waypoint marked “Pyke Saddle” on our GPS. On and on we plodded through this Gothic, acerbic terrain. Where, oh where is this accursed saddle? On and on we struggled through this miasma of rotten vegetation and wet coprosma. Then Gavin told we had passed it, which may have lifted our spirits, marginally. 

The next waypoint was a creek draining into McKenzie stream.  The land fell away gently to the SW and some time later we arrived on the bank of a small stream. The forest was still unpleasant with dripping wet bush, which soaked us. We found the odd deer trail but generally they were poorly marked. In the evening, we found a mossy patch on the stream bank and decided to camp. In no time it was dark and freezing so we quickly retired to warm up.

It took little persuasion next day to leave this dismal place. We followed the stream to the McKenzie, which shortly after joined the Durward Creek. The stream was now much larger and also descending more steeply.  We forded this to find easier terrain, often finding old, dry watercourse where the creek had changed direction. Travel in the forested banks was slow and wet. Eventually, we reached level ground and walked out through tussock flats to the Pyke River. The river level was low and several rapids were evident so we walked down 0.5 kilometres before launching our rafts. 

From the Pyke Crossing, it was better paddling though we still had to walk around some more rapids and sandbars. The river was about a metre lower than last time. Later in the day, we arrived at Lake Wilmot, just as the light was fading. We decided to stop at Alcatraz where Bruce Reay, a hunter, lives. So we powered across the 2 km long lake, arriving at the outlet on dark. Then it was down the Pyke, following the right hand bank beneath the umbraceous trees, looking for the tell tale rock that marks the track up to Alcatraz.

Then there is was, right in front of me. “ I can see some cut branches” from Gavin. I see a dim light high up in the dark forest. “Bruce, it’s me, Stanley” I yell out and then there is Bruce bounding down the track lantern in hand. “ Come on up” he says, grabbing my pack.  Once I stop paddling, I’m frozen, shaking in the freezing air. In the hut, its warmer and a fire is blazing in the makeshift tin-covered fireplace.  He trusts a hot cup of coffee into my hands. I’m in heaven. 

Bruce is one of nature’s true gentlemen – kind and egregious. He lives a lonely life out here in the wilds of Northern Fiordland, trapping possums for a living. He lives at Alcatraz – a hut under an overhanging rock that he built just south of Lake Wilmot. We chatted, shared stories, had a meal and a pleasant night in the bivvy.

We were having breakfast, when a helicopter flew overhead quite low. Bruce got a message on his Sat Phone. Then 10 minutes later, a helicopter swoops in with a few deer on a strop underneath and lands on a gravel bar in the river. The pilot drops off something to Bruce. A quick chat and they are away. There is frost on the pungas and the sun has not risen yet. The heli quickly fades away and we’re left wondering if it really happened as a deafening silence pervades this frigid, winter’s morning on the Pyke.

We thank Bruce and then we’re off. Nearing the Olivine Hut, we take the left hand branch as he advises, where we do a short walk around. A quick look at the old hut and we’re off again. Just north of Lake Alabaster, we stop and check out the old hut by the airstrip. It’s like a coffin, wet inside with holes in the roof. The door has a sign, which reads  “With the cost of ammo, don’t expect a warning shot”.  It had seen better days – days when planes landed and deer recovery was in full swing.

Lake Alabaster is placid and windstill. The reflections of the forested mountains in the water, are mesmerizing.  Mt Madeline towers above the foothills at the end of the lake. I remember the lovely picture of it in my lounge. A few hours later we reach the hut which is empty.  It’s too late to carry on the Hidden Falls hut. I light the fire and we have a pleasant evening there.

We’re away in the dark next morning for the 6-hour walk out to the road end.  I’m feeling strangely lethargic possibly from a virus infection that I’ve had on this trip. Belinda meets us 1 hour from the road end with some food. Then we’re driving to Te Anau. It feels surreal. Did it really happen or was I dreaming?






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Saturday, April 13, 2019

A Mountain Packraftineering Traverse of the Merrie Range

Last Christmas Belinda and tried this trip only to be turned back from lake 1100m by strong winds and a weather front. Our approach was from the Hauroko Burn to Lake Roe and then via lake 1200m around peak 1566m. Gavin had been previously to the lake from the South Branch of the Florence ascending a series of hanging valleys so I was keen to try this approach.
On 5th April Belinda and I rendezvoused with Gavin at Borland Lodge where we left his van. Then we took my X-trail over the Borland Saddle to the Grebe where Belinda dropped us off. She was planning on packrafting Shallow Lake and then doing the same at Island and Green Lakes. The forecast was for 4-5 days of good weather.
We dropped down to the valley floor and crossed an open boggy flat to the start of the Florence. The whole valley is really a swamp with pernicious tramping through thick bush and wet flats. Thankfully, Gavin knew the way as we set off up the Florence. About 7 km up the valley one climbs up to a saddle south of knoll 512m to avoid a small gorge. It’s a bit of grovel but on the saddle much more pleasant. Here we found a good campsite next to a huge tree. The day was overcast and cool. That night a deer was roaring near us.

We got up late at around 8.00 am, as it was only getting light then. We set off across the broad saddle and then on the other side started dropping down towards the Florence,  through much more pleasant, open forest. The sun was shining and reached us as we came out onto the riverbank. After a short while we ran up against a rock face on the TR so waded across the river and travelled up the other side to the junction of the South and North branches. Here there was a large open clearing covered in sphagnum moss, low Coprosma bushes, which led us easily into the South Branch. The valley is pinched here so we climbed up the TL past it to a more gentle country. After about 2 km, we started an easy ascent to Lake 650m. We noticed lots of different Coprosma berries – red, pink and white.

The forest was easy to travel and quite open with deer trails. It did not take us long to reach the first lake, which was exquisite in its surroundings with the sun shining from a cerulean blue sky. We stopped for lunch and then tramped along the TL to the head of the lake. From here an easy ascent took us around hill 894 to another hanging valley covered in golden, tawny tussock and copses of mountain beech. Down below us, a hind and her fawn ran into the bush. At the head of this basin was a ring of high cliffs with a series of waterfalls from the higher lake at 1040m. We walked around to the start of the torrent and found a remarkable lead on the TL of this “ A stairway to heaven”. The ascent was straightforward to a ridge above the lake at 1100m where we decided to camp.

Our campsite was Arcadian with a spectacular view of the next lake and a cataract falling from lake 1100m. It was absolutely calm, the sun warming us, the only sound a distant susurration of falling water. Gavin got the Copper Hotel up while I made a hot drink. High above us was peak 1566m that B and I had sidled around at Christmas. Gavin assured me that it was an easy circumnavigation around to the lake below us to the next level.

Another clear sunny day greeted us the next morning. An ephemeral, red alpenglow crept across the surrounding peaks as we prepared to leave. An easy tramp around the lake took us to the tussock slope leading to lake 1100m. Here we launched our packrafts at the stream outlet and paddled up the still waters to a gully near the head. The lake was windstill with unblemished reflections of the surrounding peaks.

We landed easily, rolled up the packrafts and started up easy rocky slopes towards the ridge crest about 400m above. We moved swiftly with smooth, measured steps up the slopes away from the grey break cold into the warm, life-affirming world of sunlight and hope. From the stony saddle, we looked into a hanging valley to the NE with several tarns and shadowed ranges beyond. This was our Rubicon; no touring back once we descended into the valley ahead of us; no plan B. “Columbus had no plan B when he set out for the New World in 1492” I reassured Gavin. He did not reply. We cruised down and then left to reach steep tussock slopes dropping into the North Branch of the Florence. Then the slopes dropped away into vertical bluffs but hidden terraces led us down to the scrub line. The final push to the valley floor was little fun through tall tangled scrub down near-vertical slopes and cliffs.

(Photo by Gavin)

Once clear of this it was an easy walk up the valley to more bluffs. I vacillated about camping below these but the sites were not appealing so we climbed about 150m up open tussock slopes to camp on top of hill 1057m in a spectacular location. I was whacked so glad to stop. The view of our next pass looked straightforward. During the night the wind got up and persisted until dawn.
We knew the next day’s travel would be long and uncertain so got ready in the false dawn and away early. It was an easy 300m climb to the next pass. Down below us a small lake scintillated in the rising sun. The descent was fine all the way to Lake St Patrick. By now we were both “scrub-a-phobic” so after carefully studying the map decided to head left 1000m to avoid a band of scrub leading down beside the stream in the valley that we were following. This proved an excellent paragon, a clear descent.

It was cool with a northerly wind blowing down Lake St Patrick, so we decided it would be faster just to walk around this rather than a paddle. Ahead we could see the next pass to the west of Mt Watson, which looked easy enough. We stopped for lunch at the head of the lake and then it was a 2 km plod through waist-high tussock to the start of the next climb. The climb thankfully was an easy 150m climb to a hanging valley with a small lake. At the entrance was a huge white boulder that had recently fallen from the cliffs above that we thought might be white granite. It was quite striking. The wind eased off as we closed on the boulder slopes leading to the pass above. Clouds were filling the sky so we can sense a cold front approaching. From the pass, there was a rocky/tussock descent into the Diamond Creek, which we followed to the bush line. Here we sidled right and up to camp beside a small tarn on the shoulder below peak 1063m.

A tumult of swirling greys now filled the sky, lowering onto the peaks to the west and north like a funeral shroud. We quickly got the Copper Hotel pitched and dinner ready before the drizzle started. It lightly rained all night and stopped at dawn. We sidled further right until overlooking knoll 763. Gavin had loaded waypoints to this and further along the ridge down to the Spey. The bush was soaking wet as we spent 4 hours bush-bashing down to the Spey. We were soaked and our packs mud-splattered as we finally reached the Wilmot Pass road. Just then a Real Journeys bus stopped and the driver kindly offered us a ride to West Arm. Then he stared at me and said “ it’s Dr Mulvany” which had me nonplussed, as I did not recognise him. Once at West Arm, we boarded the ferry to Manapouri. The Real Journey’s lady took one look at Gavin and me and said: "You'll have to clean yourselves up". But how? We decided it prudent to stay outside so clomped up to the top deck for the trip across the lake where Belinda picked us up.

Acknowledgements: Thanks Gavin for a great trip. Thanks to Belinda for dropping us off and picking us up at Manapouri.