Files from the Vault #3 - Greenstone/Caples route

After my trip down the Lochy River (Adventure Feb/Mar and file #2 from the vault), I knew I was going to have to wind it in a bit. My wife, Tammy, had made it clear that she was not interested in supporting any further adventures carrying such a level of risk. Rather than argue the point, I acquiesced and started planning missions along the major thorough-fares of tramping – the “great walks”.

My first outing came on a rainy Sunday, two week-ends later. Staying close to my home in Te Anau, my twin brother, Jason (visiting from the USA for 8 weeks), and I ran 24 km up the Kepler track carrying pack-rafts and made a possible first descent of the Iris burn. We encountered heaps of fun class II and III rapids, staying in the river for over 95% of its length. More importantly, we actually got home within two hours of our planned return time which meant that I was once again back in Tammy’s (relatively) good graces. 

looking fresh at the start
An adventure, even a proposed one, always exists in two versions – the one you tell to the loved ones whose blessings you wish to receive, and the one you tell to the friends you’re trying to impress. It’s not so much that one is true and the other isn’t, but rather that they focus on different details. My next trip was to be a one day blitz of the Greenstone-Caples tracks, leaving from the Divide and attempting to pack-raft down the length of the Greenstone River. Explaining the plan to Tammy, I mentioned the popularity of the tracks (we’d encounter other people), a distance comparable to the Kepler track (which I’d run six months earlier in less than 8 hours), and the river’s benign gradient (averaged over its entire length, of course). Discussing it with my brother, however, I assured him that the river was a huge unknown with at least one long gorge, the track had several significant climbs, the weather was going to be shit and running the Kepler was one of the hardest things I’d ever done – even without the 8 kg packs we’d be carrying.

Jason and I arrived at the Divide just before first light. The steady drizzle and cold morning temperature found us questioning our decision—leaving the women, our warm beds and our morning cups of coffee back in Te Anau. Putting on brave faces for each other and donning every article of clothing in our packs, we jogged off towards Howden Hut. Within the hour we were skirting the shores of Lake McKeller, attempting to keep our feet dry—a futile effort against the calf deep muck (although wet feet are inevitable when tramping in New Zealand--especially in light-weight running shoes--for some reason I always believe I can stay dry). We reached McKeller Hut at 8:30am, soaked from our toes to our temples and freezing. 

We ducked inside and slipped into Neoprene pants and socks while a pair of surprised trampers prepared breakfast. Although we’d hoped to start paddling just below the hut, a quick look from the swing-bridge revealed a very shallow river. We shouldered our packs and set off on foot, keeping to the track for a couple of kilometres before heading across a broad field of tussock for another look at the river before it veered sharply to the other side of the valley.  Although it still looked bleak, the unpleasant alternative of more running persuaded us to give it a go. We unpacked and inflated our rafts and pushed off into the shin deep water.

near the put in of the river
The paddling exceeded our low expectations. Requiring less than ten centimetres of clearance for our rafts, we found most of the waterway navigable and only resorted to walking on one or two occasions. The river meandered back and forth, changing character often—there were open, braided sections followed by narrow, deep channels through the tussock where the banks were up to two meters high. The riffles, sweepers and log jams kept us thoroughly engaged and we even forgot about the inclement weather.

on our first portage
The river gradually widened and deepened as we descended. A couple of hours found us at a narrow gorge promising some excitement, and we eddied out for a look downstream. The walls of the gorge climbed nearly 15 meters and boulders split the river, dropping it a metre or more through gaps between smaller rocks on either side before it disappeared around a bend. The channel on the true left was too small for our rafts, while the view of the river on the right was obscured. The steep nature of the gorge made scouting further downstream impossible. Portaging was our only option – a tricky business involving a series of traverses on very narrow rock ledges making a zigzagging ascent. Opting not to break down the rafts for lack of space to do so, we began scrambling from one semi-stable perch to the next and were grateful for our 15 years of rock climbing experience and the measly 2 kg weight of the rafts. When we finally reached the top of the bluffs we saw that the gorge ended only 100 metres downstream and the right passage was big enough to run. Next time we’d skip the sketchy portage and stay on the water.

in the gorge
The remaining river was easy but interesting. We made good time despite the blustery headwind and stinging rain. Midday found us surprised to see the gently sloping walls of the valley close abruptly into a sheer-sided slot less than five meters across. A bridge spanned the chasm at the top of the walls—the landmark indicating we’d reached the start of the Greenstone Gorge. Eddying out on opposite sides of the river, we headed up through the bush for the bridge. One look downstream had my heart pounding; I saw the rock faces below squeezing tighter and the water plunging between emerald green pools as far as I could see. It was spectacular! As I waited for Jason, I quickly considered running it—it was a daunting prospect: there would be no opportunity for escape and losing a boat would mean swimming through unknown rapids below. Still seeing no sign of Jason, I ran to the nearby hut in search of more information on the river ahead. 

Ten minutes later I returned with good news. According to a rather large man, whom I’d rationalized was a hut warden or someone equally knowledgeable, the gorge opened up enough to allow escape after about 500 metres. He also confidently told me the water wasn’t particularly high and we should have no problem rafting right through. The toughest would be the first cascade leading right under the bridge—a section that looked runnable.  Having had no luck getting up the bluffs, Jason had already ferried across the river and was ready to go. We geared up and pushed across the eddy line into the main current, full of excitement.

The first rapid was great fun, and went on for about 10 metres. It took us beneath the bridge and into the jaws of the gorge. The sides of the canyon closed in above, sheltering us from the rain and creating the feeling of being in a subterranean cave. It was surreal. The pool we’d entered was so deep that the surface of the water showed no sign of movement, even though the next rapid was only metres downstream. Jason and I couldn’t believe our good fortune – we’d never expected to find such a sanctuary. We were only half a kilometre from a hut on a popular tramping track and we might as well have been on the moon.

We paddled on, squeezing our rafts through a tiny passage into another ‘chamber’.  The next few rapids were much like the first with short drops between still pools. We felt a mix of awe and trepidation as we proceeded at the mercy of our surroundings but entranced by the beauty. Then Jason flipped his boat during a one metre drop into a small pool. Not quite as still as the others, this pool had enough current to draw him downstream over a couple of small dips and then out of sight. I pushed off the wall and paddled towards the spot where Jason had started his swim, thinking I could learn from him and take a line slightly more to the left. It seemed to work and I landed upright at the bottom of the drop. Before I could react, however, I was sucked backwards by the re-circulating water until the rear tube of my raft went under the falls. I flipped over backwards, bashing my lower legs against the rocks. 

The next 10 seconds seemed endless and have the paradoxical qualities of being etched vividly in my mind and being difficult adequately explain. Now out of my raft, I saw the chute when it was still a few meters ahead, the water pouring through a half-meter wide hole between boulders. I positioned myself well, floating behind the raft with my feet out in front of me. The raft stuck in the opening of the chute and the water tried to drag me underneath.  I squeezed and pushed the raft and we popped through together.  I then lost contact with everything as the force of the 2 metre falls pushed me deep underwater.  I was probably under for 5 seconds. (Now ordinarily five seconds isn’t really very long - in fact, unless you’re an exceptionally fast reader, you’ve probably spent more than that reading this sentence. When, however, you’re unexpectedly put into an environment where that almost-always-taken-for-granted element of oxygen is no longer available, time has a habit of stretching out a bit.  Five seconds felt more like fifty).  I came up sputtering and saw Jason standing mid-river on a pile of rocks and swam for its safety. 

I was pretty shaken - the rock pile felt less like a haven and more like a very temporary hiding place in the middle of enemy territory. Luckily, the gorge did indeed begin to open up and after nervously running a few more rapids we started to regain our confidence. Jason led the way, emboldened by the whole experience rather than chastened by it. I followed, crashing down through class II and III rock gardens until, after an hour, we reached the confluence with the Caples River.

packing up for the long run back.  It is still raining....
We left the river just downstream from the junction and, after climbing up a steep bank, found ourselves on a good track. It was 5:30 pm and still raining. We quickly packed up our boats and headed off at a slow jog upriver. Despite initially heading off on the wrong track, we made good time and were at the mid-Caples hut by 7 pm.  We’d eaten the last of our food during the run and were hoping to find the hut occupied by generous trampers, but it was disappointingly empty. We’d been on the go for so long that our bodies were losing the ability to regulate temperature, so we pressed on without a rest. This breakdown of the body’s thermostat is a funny side effect of ultra-endurance activity. I like to think of it as a back-slide down the evolutionary ladder; a return to a more primitive, cold-blooded, survival state. During the hour and a half it took to reach the upper-Caples hut I passed the time by imagining myself as a hungry evolving reptile.

We reached the hut which was delightedly full of people, but no one offered us any food and we were too shy to ask. One of the couples that we’d seen in Mckeller hut over 12 hours ago was settled in and assumed that we’d be staying for the night since it was nearly dark. They thought we were crazy when we told them we’d be pressing on. Nearly all of the 15 inhabitants pretty much ignored us after this; perhaps it was now evident how little we had in common. One man, however, seemed impressed by our ambition and offered us a hot drink. We took him up on it and made a strong cup of coffee to share and a flask for the road. We poured in as much sugar as manners would allow and even added a bit of salt, hoping it would help with the cramping that was threatening to be a problem.

It was nearly 9 pm by the time we left the hut to start the climb over Mckeller saddle.  We’d been warned about one stream possibly requiring fording due to the constant rain. We ended up wading through more than a dozen, not to mention all the bogs.  Darkness had brought colder temperatures to an already cold day and we were freezing and exhausted. We reached the high-point around midnight and I was thankful to be heading down. Ten minutes later, clumsily descending a treacherous waterfall over slick tree roots, I wished for the opposite. Making matters worse, my head-torch was missing its strap so I had to resort to holding the light in my mouth during tricky sections – a difficult task that led to an aching jaw. 

looking less than fresh at the end
We finally reached relatively flat ground and shortly thereafter hit the junction with the Greenstone track. Even though we were still over 10 kilometres from the car park, the familiar territory lifted our spirits. We knew we’d made it. We started running again (though not very fast) and amazingly started warming up. The relatively easy gradient down to the Divide was almost fun. We were back at the car by 2:30 in the morning, 19 and ½ hours after we’d begun. 

One of the conditions of my calling something a ‘one-day’ adventure is that it doesn’t interfere with family time the next day. By the time I’d showered (as required in a note left by Tammy on the kitchen table) and gotten into bed, it was well after 4 am.  The ‘morning’ began early as my one-year-old was up by 6:30. I dragged myself out from under the covers, blood-shot eyes, blisters, swollen knees and all, and started making the coffee. Over breakfast I told Tammy one version of our adventure, and after breakfast I started planning the next one.   


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