Files from the vault

The 'vault' is actually a cd that i just rediscovered with a bunch of pics, videos, and stories of my exploits from 2006 to early 2007 when i was living in New Zealand.  It was during this time that i truly married the concepts of serious adventure and serious endurance.  I somehow survived.  Here is my first big adventure:

File #1:  A very long day

South coast of New Zealand
A Very Long Day

I absolutely love maps.  I can, to my wife’s occasional displeasure, spend hours scouring a detailed topo map and planning possible adventures.  It’s particularly easy to be overly ambitious when doing so too; I always imagine the best case scenario and determine what is realistic based on this optimism. 

Being a new father, I have less play time than ever and have become even more concerned with maximizing my outdoor value.  My latest idea was to catch a Jet Boat across Lake Hauroko to Teal Bay hut, pack-raft down the Wairaurahiri River, and run out the South Coast track to the Bluecliffs car park.  A week before the trip, while considering the estimated timeline, I figured (using optimism of course) that the river would take 4 hours and the run another 4.  The boat would reach the hut at around 10:30, which would put me at the car around dark.  This sounded perfect, except that the wasted morning light weighed on my conscience.

I decided with excitement to cancel the boat ride and instead run the Teal Bay route to get to the start of the river.  This revised plan would include running a 20 kilometre trail that, according to the DOC was ‘lightly cut through bush and scrub, 27 kilometres of class II white-water along the ‘longest waterfall in New Zealand’, and finally 33 more kilometres of running to the car.  It was a proposed 90 kilometre day and since I hoped to finish in about 10-12 hours, I told my wife I’d be home for a late dinner.

Mark Crouchley, age 16
My only partner was Mark, a 16 year old student of mine. It was a big risk for both of us, but as no one else could be talked into going, it would have to do. As it turned out he was the perfect choice - fit, naïve enough to accompany me, and with a penchant for suffering typical of a seasoned ultra-endurance athlete. 

high above lake Hauroko

We left the car at about 8:30 AM, running through the bush towards the shores of the lake and the start of the Teal Bay route.  In our packs we had our boats, paddles, river clothes, life-jackets, food, water and first aid kit; we were carrying about 10 kilograms each. 

The route was marked by orange triangles on trees and, despite often lacking a trail, was surprisingly easy to follow.  Three and a half hours into our journey we had run and walked our way to the high point of this first leg and were rewarded with brilliant views of the lake 500 meters below. Less than an hour later we had descended steeply to the lake and paused briefly at Teal Bay hut for food and to sign the log book.  It had taken us 4 hours and 20 minutes to travel the 18 km – more than the three we had estimated, but a fair bit less than the 9 hours that signposts indicate.

A two kilometre jog put us on rocky beach at the very southern end of the lake, right where the current starts to become purposeful.  We unloaded the boats, blew them up, tied on our gear, and shoved out into the river.  It was 2 PM – 5 hours before absolute darkness.   But we had a strong north wind behind us and were happy to be off our feet. 

Mark on the river
The Wairaurahiri has an average gradient of nearly 7 meters per kilometre. Although it was very fast, it was far too tame for Mark, even though this was only his second time in a pack-raft.  The main hazards were strong eddy lines, sweepers, an occasional log jam, and the two jet boats full of passengers on their way back upstream.  We reached the end of the river at a quarter to six and spent the next half an hour drying out and packing up inside the hut to escape the swarming sand flies. 

Near the end of the river

By this time we were fairly exhausted – having been on the go for about 10 hours straight.  It was nearly dark and we pulled out our head torches only to discover that mine was completely dead.  In an attempt to buoy our morale, we reasoned that the track would be straightforward and we could still make 8 km an hour, despite sharing the light.  Furthermore, our timing was looking to be perfect for the low-tide shortcut near Port Craig which would cut out about half an hour.  We were wrong on every count.

The track was like a tunnel – wide as a single lane road, flanked by 2 metre high walls of earth, and domed by trees.  Although it was nearly a full moon, no natural light got through.  We felt like we were underground, an experience that was reinforced by the abundance of glow-worms inhabiting the undercut banks on either side of the path.  Our world shrank to the cone of soft white LED light coming from the torch.  It was surreal.  We ran when we could but were mostly reduced to a forced march. Although it was wide, the mud was so deep it sucked off my shoes on more than one occasion.  It took us just under 3 hours to get to the Port Craig school house, half way to the car park.

at the port Craig schoolhouse

We ducked into the school house for a brief rest at around 9:30.  The hut was super warm - there were two Italian trampers who had just turned in and the fire was still going.  When we told them we were just passing through they thought we were joking.  When they found out where we had begun our day they thought we were mad.  When they asked if such an adventure was the typical way Kiwis celebrated Easter, we just nodded and pressed on. 

The low tide short-cut looked promising at first.  We ran by moonlight across flat hard sand for about a kilometre before coming to a spot where the coast jutted out and the way was blocked by slick black rocks.  Picking our way through these took either lots of time or lots of coordination and we had none of the latter by now.  As we pressed on we hit more rocks and less sand but were too stubborn (or too optimistic) to turn back.  Our tide information was probably wrong too – we had to skirt around a few sections of cliff by wading through the cold sea with water up to our waists.

This should be on the map, right?  Viaduct near midnight.

After two hours on the beach we decided that we must have passed the spot where the ‘short-cut’ route rejoined the main track.  Picking a break in the cliffs, we clawed our way into the bush, inching up the bluffs with our remaining strength. A couple hundred meters and half an hour later we were completely lost in the dense undergrowth.  We decided this would be as good a time as any to consult the GPS. 

We’d travelled less than 4 kilometres in the last 2 hours and left the beach too early. On our descent back to the bluffs I managed to fall 6 meters down a broken escarpment, landing on my back.  Luckily the bush softened the landing and although my hip was badly bruised, I couldn’t really differentiate this new pain from all the other aches I’d accumulated throughout the day.

Back at the car.  I still have the jacket and tights!

Back on the sand, we found the correct exit only 50 meters from where we’d made our botched ascent.  It climbed hundreds of brutal stairs to the top of the cliffs, where the track continued in a straightforward manner to the car park, another 12 kilometres away.  It was 2:35 AM when we un-shouldered our loads – 18 hours and five minutes after we began – a very long day.

I was home for an early breakfast. It was a week before I looked at another map.  

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