Just over a year ago Gavin and I crossed from the Matukituki Valley over the Waipara face to the Waipara and Arawhata Rivers, which swiftly carried us in our frail packrafts all the way to Neils Beach on the Tasman Sea. It was a transcendental experience in mysterious, primordial country. Then I remembered previous journeys that I’d done in another epoch in the equally enigmatic Olivine/Arawhata country. These thoughts gyrated around the dark recesses of my mind at night, until the idea took hold of another great journey. With trepidation, I let it germinate until one day I plucked up the courage to ask my friend Gavin if he was keen to go. Surprisingly, he was sanguine and enthusiastic about this proposal. Could we do it, two retirees, alone in those fierce gorges hauling our boats, struggling against insurmountable odds? As a guide once said to me - you will never know if you can do it unless you try.
With these niggling doubts, I left at 5.00 am on 25th February 2019 and drove to Arrowtown to meet Gavin. Then we drove over to Neils Beach, south of Haast and leaving his van there, we drove back to Gilbert van Reenan’s place near Wanaka. After a pleasant drink and conservation, Gilbert dropped us off at Raspberry Flat in the West Matukituki Valley where there must have been over 200 vehicles parked. Then it was an easy walk up the valley to Pearl Flat where we camped late in the day.
We knew a wet day was due on 27th so decided it would be prudent to try to make it all the way over the saddle in one day to the Arawhata Bivvy Rock. We were up before dawn and on daylight started up the steep track to Liverpool Hut. We climbed slowly with heavy packs containing our packrafts, essential for descending the lower Arawhata River. After 2 hours, we were climbing up a spur above the bush line with views of the hut on a spur way over to our left. There were many trampers milling around it and we were glad that we did not try to make it there the previous night. We dropped off the spur and walked over to the hut.
DOC have rebuilt the hut since I was last here and done a splendid job. However, it was crowded with a polyglot crowd of foreign tourists – 24, in fact, spent the night here in a 10-bunk hut with not a Kiwi in sight. This situation is due to social media and Instagram, the curse of our time and the ruination of many of our iconic places.
After a brief stop we headed up the valley and after some diversions reached the lateral moraine wall that leads up to the start of the Arawhata Saddle proper. A vigorous, cold wind blowing across the wall made for unpleasant travel and I was worried about some cloud drifting over the mountains. However, the closer to the saddle start we got the less the wind. There are 3 bands of cliffs and the first was easily crossed on the left. Then we moved right and bypassed the second one to the left of a prominent waterfall. The third band was all rock and a ramp led well over to the right up to a gully, which we climbed to snowfields above the saddle. Here we found the best route was to climb some spurs to around 1800m that took us up to easier ground and the saddle below.
The descent was easy at first as we sidled hard right until brought up against a cliff. We descended the crest of this down to a rocky gully that took us down to the scrub and tussock. We reached the creek at the bush line and then it was a slow descent for about 2 km to the Arawhata Bivvy Rock far below. This took us about 2 hours to reach as we boulder hopped along the tortuous steeply falling creek bed. Gavin had a big grin on his face as we rounded a corner and there was the giant rock just a short distance away. It was a scrub bash around its base to the commodious bivvy. It had been a long 12-hour day from Pearl Flat.
The Arawhata bivvy rock is the largest rock in the upper Arawhata Valley and provides secure dry accommodation in any weather. It is large enough for us to pitch our tent inside. We settled in and cooked a meal and then crashed as we were both whacked.
On 27th we awoke to a rainy day, which had been predicted. Rain was slanting down from a grey sky and it was nice to be sitting inside looking out. This might seem prosaic to the uninitiated but for me sitting on the rock wall, cup of Mocha in hand, it was a rhapsodic delight. However, going to the great outdoors loo in thick scrub was another thing! Down valley Twin Falls was in spate, a rainbow at its base contrasting with the olive green forest and grey rock walls. It was 24 years since I was last here on another expedition with good friends to the Snowdrift Range. Then we were the 49th party since 1983 when the “hut book” was put in. Now we were the 112 party. The previous party was Alan Brent, Nina Dickendroff and James Thornton on 29/12/2018. The “hut book” is in a metal container bolted to the roof of the bivvy rock. Some epic accidents were recorded here, the most interesting one being on 7/11/86 by Jim Bougher. Jim crossed over the Arawhata saddle by himself in wet snow and badly sprained his ankle. He could hardly walk so spent a week here resting up and hoping his ankle would improve enough to head back over to the Matukituki. He described the keas as “dangerous” and “just to crawl to river for fear of kea attack on gear”. “They even attack your gear a few feet away while you sleep.” Jim left a week later and made it back over the mountains in what must have been a major trial. Another accident records someone falling on a bluff and fracturing ribs and leg and being helicoptered out.
Next day, the rain had stopped and we prepared to leave for the down valley. What followed was a tortuous, punishing day of ineluctable, inimical scrub and huge boulders down to Mid-Flat. There was no easy way through the scrub down to the Upper Flats and the bush was dank and cold as we pushed through it. Life improved as the sun reached us, warming us after the wet scrub. At the lower end of the Upper Flats, we crossed over to the true left, scrambling over big boulders with quite a few diversions into the tangled scrub. It is only about 3 km down to mid-Flats but it took us all day. We even did an abseil off a huge boulder lower down, too weary to bash upwards in the scrub yet again. Reaching the lower end of the flat we pitched camp on a nice flat piece of gravel with an ineffable view of Mt Ionia above the Mercer Glacier.
A heavy dew greeted us the next morning as we arose in the early hours. Then we were off into the bush picking up deer trails that led us easily down to Williamson Flat. The sun was resplendent in an azure sky as we tramped across the tawny, tussock flat and crossed the Arawhata River and then the Joe River. At the head of the Joe River, I could see the East Ridge of Destiny that David Waugh and I descended many years ago when we traversed the Olivine Ice Plateau. We stopped for lunch near the bush edge in the next section of the Arawhata leading down to McArthur Flat. I noticed lots of orange and ice-blue coprosma snowberries among the tussock.
Huge moss-covered boulders line the banks of the next section of the Arawhata. We made our way down the TL clambering up and down these with diversions into the scrub where it was impossible. The river thundered past among these rocks, glacier-blue and violent. Lower down the river sliced through a narrow canyon and here we climbed a long way over a knob through some bad windfall to descend back to river level past the gorge and onto McArthur Flat. We found a lovely campsite on a back-clearing that evening. A rose-tinted alpen-glow warmed the Olivine peaks in the westering sun and then a cold dew settled over us like an icy shroud.
Another fine day greeted us the next morning as we tramped off across the flats to the nearby Williamson River. I was expecting trouble here as on my previous visit David and I failed to cross it three times and eventually found the natural rock bridge far up in its headwaters. It was flowing swift and deep as I studied its mien. Nothing had changed here so I suggested that we packraft across where it joined the Arawhata. This went well and we were soon safely across and packing up the rafts. Ahead lay the 10-Hour Gorge, a fearsome place indeed. House size moss-covered boulders line its banks some requiring rock-climbing skills to negotiate. With our very heavy packs, it was especially difficult with our poor balance. It is an oppressive place where nature rules with a generosity of violent torrents with unfettered fury among enormous rocks fallen from the heights far above us. In places, I stood and wondered of unnameable intuitions where this would all end as we dove towards an inexorable void. But then a narrow ledge would suddenly appear, a swift passage through an ineluctable difficulty.
We eventually reached Halfway Creek where we sat and rested for a while on a small clearing. The river now less violent swept around to the right but beyond this, we knew it plunged on in a series of cavernous cataracts. Then we faced the greatest difficulties to date- the boulders were no longer possible as we were pushed up into the scrubby forest. Here the bush clung to steep wet slopes as we tried to sidle along. On and on we struggled, Gavin leading until he fell off a small cliff luckily onto his pack, which cushioned his fall. Then I took over and in an unexplained surge of energy, smashed my way up through inchoate bush, which seemed to engulf the totality of our insignificance. At some point, we made it back to river level and looked back to a fearsome series of cataracts. Then we were at the blue pool and made better time for a while. I waded up to my waist to get around a huge rock to be pushed up into yet more forest. Here we stumbled on Arawhata Bill’s old bivvy rock. On my previous visit, there were some of his possessions in it but now there was nothing left. Although we could see flat land ahead we seemed to be imprisoned by a band of cliffs below us. Then I remembered the rope that I brought with us so we used this as a hand line to descend the wet slippery slabs back to the river level.
An evening chill had settled as we walked down the tussock flats in our drenched clothes, from our earlier wade. We found a nice campsite under the trees. The first order was dry clothes and out of our soaking cold boots, then the “Copper Hotel” was pitched and dinner prepared. Soon the light was fading as we headed off to our sleeping bags.
Another fine day greeted us and we had a more relaxed start. After a short walk, we launched our packrafts. The valley opened out into wide flats as the mountain walls receded on either side. It was a beautifully clear day under an azure sky gliding along on the powder blue waters. I was keen to have lunch after we passed the Waipara River junction about 14 km away. On reaching this we nearly came to grief as we swept around a turn into a channel that has a logjam. Only quick, furious paddles into the bank saved the day. Somewhere further on, we landed on a grassy bank on the TL and had lunch. Then it was on to Jubilee flat running the odd grade 2 rapid and walking around some masses of strainers in the river from collapsing banks nearby. A trio of jet boats raced past with young guys wearing Viking helmets. At Callery Flat, we landed at the now deserted DOC campsite on the TR just down from the hut on the TL bank. This was a delightful place with a clearing up a bank and surrounded by tree ferns. It was only early afternoon so we had plenty of time to wash and do some laundry.
On our last day, a mist hung over the river as we paddled off. The river now had many channels and we tried to pick the ones with the most water. It did a lot of meandering from one side of the valley to another until we could see the McLean double summits ahead. Then the Arawhata Bridge hove into view as we passed the Jackson River junction. Last year we walked around the rapid under the bridge but this time we ran it and powered across huge boils and eddies. Then it was another 7 km or so the Neils Beach. We could hear the surf well before we could see it and then it was a sandy beach as we stepped ashore. A short walk took us to Gavin’s van and journey end.
Acknowledgements: First to Gavin for your confidence in my judgement and great company on a unique journey in Southwestland. Thanks to Gilbert van Reenan for your hospitality and taking us into the West Matukituki to the start of our adventure.