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Fell-walking the hard way

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April 2018 Issue

Ray Salisbury runs into rush-hour traffic in the Richmond Range, while his friends find solace on the lofty heights of Mt Fell

There’s the beaten path; there’s off the beaten path; then there’s no path at all.

That neatly describes the summer expedition my friends and I undertook into the wilds of Mt Richmond Forest Park.

At least, that was our intention.

It is a lazy afternoon when we fill the gas tank and head west along SH6. The sky over Nelson is hungover, but the clouds are clearing. The satellite suburbs of Stoke, Richmond and Hope slide past until we turn south, over the hill into Aniseed Valley. A convoy of SUVs clogs up the car park – probably a contingent of mountain-bikers.

The first hour is easy walking along a logging road beside Hackett Creek, broken by a couple of washouts which have temporary deviations. We press on past gorse, blackberry and tea-tree toward the Richmond Ranges proper.

Crossing to the true right, we reach a signed junction. Deciding to bypass Hackett Hut, we follow a direct route up the Browning Stream. “We’re doing this the hard way,” I muse, rock-hopping across the Hackett to keep my boots dry. My suspicions are confirmed when washouts on the high-level route force us into the creek, crisscrossing several times and clambering up a rock step. A nicely-graded spur track takes us through tea-tree, lancewood, tanekaha and beech forest, up to a clearing where Browning Hut is resplendent in its fresh red-and-green paintwork. I boil the billy while the others dry wet socks in the sun.

The eight bunks fill up with late arrivals – two are Te Araroa Trail thru-hikers on their journey south, the other two are local hunters.

In the morning, we climb a moderately steep trail to gain Totara Saddle, at the giddy height of 680m.

Decision time: do we follow the TA Trail to a crowded Rocks Hut? Or be faithful to the original Pelorus Track, albeit with warnings of landslides and tree fall? We chose the latter for the more challenging terrain.

“We’re doing this the hard way,” I mutter, as we drop off the broad saddle and settle into a tedious sidle above Roebuck Creek. We re-fill our drink bottles when crossing tiny waterways, fighting the summer humidity while optimising our pack weight. A pleasant ground trail traverses the valley wall, lined with red beech and pockets of podocarp.

As the morning wears on, Millie begins feeling nauseous, and with sleep deprivation, needs frequent rest stops. Our progress then slows to a crawl, doubling the track time.

Hours have passed when we crest the ridge and see before us Conical Knob and our intended route up the infamous Fixed Wire Traverse to the familiar profile of Mt Fell. Just looking at this impossible ridgeline sends shivers down my spine.

After six hours on the go, Jim and I descend a steep, rocky spur, then cross a swingbridge to gain a sizeable clearing and Roebuck Hut, a tidy six-bunker, squatting on a shelf above the Pelorus River. A long time later, Malcolm and Millie burst through the door. We all make a bee-line for the river, enjoying a dip in the aquamarine pool. Washing suncream off our sweaty faces, we delight in our pristine surroundings. There are no other hikers here, as the TA route was diverted from this idyllic corner of New Zealand. We are now off the beaten path, just for one night.

The next day we re-cross the Pelorus, then traverse a second bridge over Roebuck Creek. After gaining a bit of altitude, the track begins its torturous sidle, in and out of gullies. It’s not too gnarly or strenuous, but we must negotiate half a dozen fallen trees.

Fantails follow us through a forest of mixed podocarp and beech, and so do the wasps which are drawn to the sap from the black-barked trees. As I stroll along, I lament the lack of birdlife in this valley.

A long, dangling bridge brings us to Middy Hut, an identical NZ Forest Service cabin painted in reddish-brown. Everybody heads for the river, and, despite the voracious swarm of sandflies,   we dive in.

In residence are a trio of 60-year-olds, one of whom I recognise as a fellow teacher from Nelson. Retired early, Pete is walking the South Island section of the Te Araroa Trail. The visitor book indicates that 90 per cent of hut occupants were TA hikers during the summer season. Claiming the available bunks, our party soon falls asleep. Through the night, the ever-present river roils without relief, a background to our restless dreams.

Unfortunately, Millie is still sick, so we make the difficult decision to split up. I volunteer to return with Millie down the valley to the main road at Pelorus Bridge.

 

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Trampers depart Browning Hut for Totara Saddle. Photo: Ray Salisbury

At daybreak, Jim and Malcolm depart. They are pumped for the challenge ahead: a gruelling 12km of sub-alpine travel with 1400m of altitude gain. Compared to us,  they are going ‘the hard way’.

Millie and I enjoy a well-deserved sleep-in, and it’s not until 11am that we shut the hut door and set off through a glade of totara. A few fantails flutter; a  thousand wasps hum.

An hour passes and then we drop to a spectacular swingbridge spanning a side-stream, gleaming emerald green. We have no schedule to keep, snapping photos and enjoying rest-stops. A couple of hours elapse before we descend a steep section of track to a bridge which wobbles when we walk across. Below, the Pelorus has cut a corrugated canyon through granite, turning left, then right, slowly flowing on its journey toward the Sounds.

Soon we arrive at Captain Creek Hut, another Forest Service SF70 design. Nobody is home, but the visitor book is replete with sorry tales of trampers facing the dreaded namu (sand fly) at their first South Island hut.

Meanwhile, far above, Malcolm and Jim are halfway up Mt Fell. They had left Middy Hut before 7am, mindful of the steep climb and unknown territory ahead. The route is well-marked through open forest, but there is no ground trail. They surprise several goats. Onwards and upwards they climb, topping out at Pt900 after two hours’ hard yakka. From there, the track follows an easy ridge for a couple of kilometres. Approaching Conical Knob, the track becomes steeper and rockier. This outlier peak is bush-covered so only offers obstructed views.

From Conical Knob, they drop onto a flat ridge, soon arriving at a water station erected in 1962 by Nelson Tramping Club. It’s a tin box attached to a tree with an ingeniously-sloped lid, pitted with small holes which let in water but shut out leaves.

 

Roebuck Hut is a six bunker on a shelf above the Pelorus River. Photo: Ray Salisbury

Pressing on, the formidable face of Pt1496 looms ahead; its vertical ramparts look impassable. The approach steepens, morphing into a razor-sharp ridge. Eventually, they reach a precarious ledge leading off to the right, complete with a chain attached to the side. Ignoring the gaping void below, they follow another chain up a 50m gut – not for the faint of heart. Jim has recently completed a Grand Traverse of Aoraki/Mt Cook, so the exposure doesn’t bother him. (In wet or windy conditions, these chains may prove useful. Experienced tramping parties should have no difficulty with the technical aspects of this traverse.)

Topping out above the chains, the intrepid duo eats lunch on top of the hill, covered in carpet grass. It has taken them five hours to reach what is known locally as ‘North Peak’. On this clear day, the views are magical. To the north-east are the Marlborough Sounds; Mts Starveall and Rintoul are prominent; further west, the Arthur Range is etched across the horizon; over the valley is Dun Mountain, devoid of vegetation; southwards lie the imposing peaks of Mts Fell and Richmond.

They push on towards the foreshortened, colossal face of Mt Fell, through short patches of stunted beech. More rock scrambles ensue before they are on the face. Although not particularly technical, having two hands free helps.

With bursting lungs and aching thighs, Malcolm requires frequent rests to catch his breath. Topping out on Mt Fell (1602m), our ‘fell-walkers’ are relieved to find that the descent proves less challenging. They race down a wide ridge to Mt Fell Hut, which was recently renovated by Nelson Tramping Club. It has taken Jim and Malcolm eight hours of rigorous and rewarding effort. Malcolm is exhausted; in contrast, Jim seems full of energy and looks a little bored, whiling away the rest of the afternoon reading the hut literature. This diminutive mountaineer lets his walking do the talking.

Friday arrives – the penultimate day of our summer tramp. In the Pelorus Valley, Millie and I climb a pleasant trail which offers glorious glimpses of the green river, sparkling as it meanders downstream. Beautiful beech forest is peppered with rimu, their unique cone-shaped tops towering over a carpet of crown ferns. Fantails are ever-friendly, and a startled goat vanishes into the foliage.

On the mountain heights above, Malcolm and Jim are speeding along the tussock plateau toward a col on Johnston Peak. Here, they drop packs and begin searching for the Lockheed Electra that crashed here in May 1942 on a commercial flight, with the loss of five lives. Johnston Peak was named after the pilot Keith Johnston, while Mt Fell was named after one of the passengers, Pamela Fell, a keen tramper.

They stumble across the unmistakable machinery of the undercarriage. Various pieces of wreckage are strewn down the slope: steel tube framing, pieces of aluminium and a wing. Further down are the two radial engines. The main fuselage appears to have disintegrated. This is not a grave site since the bodies were carried out in a long, arduous journey. One cannot help feeling a sense of awe, considering the horror that was unleashed on this mountain all those years ago.

Higher up the slope, the other wing is located, crumpled and twisted. Finally, the memorial plaque is discovered, fixed to a small, overhanging bluff dripping with water. Here, a piece of the nose-cone is lodged in the rock. Chilling, but fascinating.

 

Crossing the Pelorus River swingbridge. Photo: Ray Salisbury

Back on the backpacker highway, Millie and I are consuming lunch at a popular picnic spot, just an hour from the road-end. The Pelorus is greener than green when we down packs and dive into Emerald Pool, the mother of all swimming holes. There’s nothing as refreshing as a wash in the wilderness.

From the track head, we proceed along a gravelled road that cuts through pine plantations to reach a bridge across the Tinline River. With a spare day up our sleeves, we decide to camp here, among the dying pinus radiata.

A thousand metres above, the men are engaged in a traverse along the rocky tors of Johnston Peak – a fun, straightforward scramble to the 1647m summit. Heading westward, they clamber up scree and loose rock. Malcolm’s legs are still feeling the fatigue of the previous day’s climb. Topping out beside a broken down trig station, they admire the marvellous, 360-degree panorama. At 1760m, Mt Richmond is the second highest in its namesake range, with the slightly higher Red Hill (1791m) many kilometres distant.

Descending from the summit, a poled route follows the ridge over broken, jagged rock which often moves, making for unsteady walking. A rich medley of subalpine flora features vegetable sheep and penwiper plants.

Jim and Malcolm finally reach the safety of Richmond Saddle Hut, nicely tucked into a clearing. They kill time reading left-over magazines and sunbathing on a large rock slab. Again, they have a hut to themselves.

For five glorious days, we have been blessed with wall-to-wall blue skies, but now the weather is breaking as overnight showers fall.

Millie and I emerge from our nylon cocoons and stretch our bodies back into shape. We stow our soggy tents into wet packs for the laborious walk along the historic Maungatapu Road. My ancestors used this very route in 1853 when it was a faint Maori trail over the hill into Nelson. Instead of sailing directly from Wellington, the Salisbury brothers opted to reach their destination the hard way, utilising Maori waka, then bush-whacking up the Pelorus River, over the Bryant Range and down the Maitai River.

Millie knocks on the door of a house. Helen Bryant appears and willingly drives two weary walkers the final few clicks to SH6, where we sip coffee inside the Pelorus Bridge Café – a touch of luxury at the end of our epic journey. At midday, I wave down my wife, who is driving through to the Wairau Valley to meet us.

Once we arrive there, we are reunited with Jim and Malcolm, fresh from their traverse over Mt Richmond. We feel the irresistible pull of home,   hot food and showers.

In retrospect, our mixed memories of the Pelorus Track are marked by contrasts: fantails flying through the forest; sandflies swarming over exposed flesh; crowded cabins on the Te Araroa route; empty huts in the high hills. Most vivid of all is the restless river, emerald-green, snaking its way to the sea.

While Millie and my adventure along the Pelorus River was more mild than wild, by climbing over Mt Fell, Jim and Malcolm definitely did it ‘the hard way’.