On a traverse of the Murchison Mountains, Carl Walrond discovers the story of a 1955 Canterbury Museum expedition in search of takahe and uranium
Karl and I motored up South Fiord, passing Forward Peak. Steve, the water taxi operator, pointed out some bailout options: the valleys of the Gorge and Tutu burns which would take us down to the lakeshore. Our plan was to traverse the unnamed main range of the Murchison Mountains. from Mt Irene we would head south to Robin Saddle, on to Te Au Saddle, Macpherson Pass and finally to Fowler Pass before joining the Kepler Track at Hanging Valley Shelter. We’d then walk down to Brod Bay where Steve would be waiting.
Steve told us few people tried the traverse we intended. To pass through the western Murchison Mountains, a ‘special takahe area’, we had obtained an entry permit from DOC and the last group who had tried – some Americans – had real difficulty with bluffs and, strangely for Fiordland, finding water.
At the drop-off at the mouth of Esk Burn, he pointed us in the right direction up McKenzie Burn. Unfortunately, my eye picked up an orange marker further to the right and this well-cut track took us up a sidestream before we realised our error and backtracked to the main river. It was an elementary mistake from a couple of chumps who had been too long in the city.
We soon came to McKenzie Burn Hut, its NZFS hut book dating back to the 1970s. We continued upriver, the track rather indistinct before it crossed the McKenzie Burn where some old footings provided the only evidence of a former swingbridge. Surprisingly, we met a party of four who were retracing a 1955 Canterbury Museum expedition. Ross Philipson and his sons from Wellington, and Cathy Lewsley from Te Anau. Ross, the son of botanist William Philipson, had only learnt that a creek was named for his father after his death. Ross’s sons asked if they could visit the creek. A chopper had dropped them off at the head of the burn that carried their name and they had tried for Robin Saddle Hut, but the bluffs and poor visibility had seen them detour to Te Au Hut.
Shortly after our encounter, we took another side track and headed briefly for the upper Mckenzie. The steep climb told us we were wrong. Double chumps. The many tracks (they also serve as trap lines) in these mountains fooled us. In remote areas you usually only expect one well-marked track – if that. From then on, we had compasses around our necks and repeatedly checked the topo map. Taking detours had the advantage that we were late passing a tarn and heard kiwi calling.
At Te Au Hut the next morning, rain set in. The hut had an interesting collection of pulp fiction from a different era. The blurb from the cover of the novel Goddess of Love read ‘gay, beautiful beyond belief, she cut the card that spelt death’. A black weka was poking around.
We headed into the rain and at the first bridge, Karl slipped and dislocated his shoulder. He lay on it face down and it soon popped back in, fortunately no worse for wear but he was stepping a little more circumspectly. We passed lakes and mossy bogs. Wisely Falls drained the lake of the same name to our right. We had by this time learned not to get side tracked. After crossing the river, the track climbed steadily. The tops churned in cloud and rain.
A gully full of windfall preceded Esk Saddle, where we pitched the fly and got some coffee on, swapped wet jackets for dry, and ate. As we took down the fly the weather began to break. We climbed through copses of scrub and tussock, a brief pinch up a waterfall required care. Moirs Guide reckoned 2.5 hours from Esk Saddle south along the range to Robin Saddle Hut. That seemed optimistic in this country where distances are not the main determinant of travel times. I later read a quote from a member of the Canterbury Museum expedition published in the New Zealand Geographer in 1955: ‘The traveller is constantly skirting bogs, banks and bluffs and climbing up and down irregularities of terrain, with many detours made for tangles of trees and bushes within the forest itself. Put simply it takes longer to traverse country in Fiordland.’
As clouds lifted, we searched for a way through the bluffs that created an amphitheatre around the lake below Robin Saddle. We clung onto tussock, descended a gut and then skirted a bench and a few small bluffs among scrub before arriving at Robin Saddle Hut; a square hut built in 1962. The last entry in the hut book was by a solo tramper who had spent 10 days here in January 2014 – two days of her choosing and the balance hunkered down in a nor’west storm.
Entries went back to 1985 with references to ‘tark nests’ and the ‘Irene benches’. The latter were readily visible clearings off to the south-west where the Canterbury Museum Expedition had camped – also dubbed the ‘far faraway fields’. Their base camp was sited on the only ‘near flat and grassy area in the locality’. It proved to be wet and springy. In choosing a site sheltered from the exposed tops, yet clear of the bush and above sandfly level, they bagged a sphagnum moss bog.
From camp, the expedition planned to send out small groups in search of takahe, surveying, sampling and collecting. One group of four made it to Nancy Sound and did the only surveying of the entire trip. Even by Fiordland standards, they were unlucky as they got two fine days in three weeks.
The two geologists, Collins and Coombs, who lectured me some 40 years later at Otago, had Geiger counters and collected specimens. R.H. Wheeler, who wrote an account of the trip, noted ‘small increases in the count, indicating some possibility of radioactive ores in the area’. No deposits were found and Wheeler later wrote: ‘Whether a uranium find would be a worthwhile economic proposition is problematical, so inaccessible is the country.’ And at a locale referred to as Garnet Tarn, not seen on any map today but probably one of the tarns around Te Au Saddle, they found garnets – gemstones – in abundance ‘as large as walnuts’. Other features named such as Coronation Peak survived, but disappointingly others like Lake Shangri-La (the tarn immediately to the peak’s west) did not.
At the Garnet Tarn camp, seven waterfalls were counted but an hour later there were 25, ‘their roar continued for a day and a night, their accompaniment the drumming of the tent and the curses of the sodden cooks endeavouring to maintain a fire on the saturated ground which was covered by running water ankle-deep.’
Flat peaty terrain was soft to lie on but ‘it proved uncomfortably cold when a very heavy shower gave rise to a four-inch deep surface flow of water’. Almost all camps were on this sort of ground. Most men had air mattresses sleeping above the surface flood but those less fortunate ‘lay in water as the beech twig flooring of the tent became submerged, or drifted away’. In another downpour at base camp, which lasted 24 hours, a billy was filled and the makeshift rain gauge overflowed after 30cm of rain overnight. At this time ‘the scientific spirit was at a low ebb’.
The expedition was of its era – extending the forefront of knowledge. And Fiordland was very much a frontier then with ‘yet to be explored’ or ‘unexplored’ written over the few blank spaces left on maps. The main thrust of the expedition was to find the western extent of the takahe, and although no birds were observed, droppings were and the party concluded that any country westward was probably too rugged for the birds. Ernest Adams, the Canterbury baking magnate, filmed parts of the trip. Upon return to Wellington, I viewed some of his footage of amphibious aircraft landing on Lake Te Au and chaps with pipes in old packs wearing flannel shirts poking about alpine tarns.
In the Robin Saddle Hut book, there was an entry from Michael Abbott, who in 1989 took 130 days to traverse the Southern Alps south to north (Mick now contributes to the Out There column in Wilderness). Another was helicopter pilot Dick Deaker who set down his Hughes 500 five years earlier. ‘I spent many a stormy night in this hut 1965-66-67,’ he wrote in the hut book. ‘Average day shooting was 6-12 deer. Takahe on terrace to the south of here then (under saddle to the Camelot)’.
The following day we decided to climb Mt Irene. Notes in the hut book suggested it was do-able: stay around 1250m above the bluffs and then follow the western ridge. But Irene resembled a rotten layer cake. At a point where we would have to drop to a basin before climbing, we decided against it – sure we could do it but it seemed like a four-hour jaunt just to return to where we stood. Instead, we skirted around to the eastern side where a remnant glacier was fast disappearing. Karl climbed a knob from where he could see Mt Aspiring while I languished in the sun before packing snow into a bottle which I wrapped in a down jacket. Back at the hut we had single malt slushies.
Afterwards, we had a swim, or rather an immersion, in a pool fed by the stream which drains the lake immediately outside the hut, and then languished on the sun-warmed rock. We got the rusted slasher into good humour on some dead standing beech, and a small fire on the rock kept us company. Two kea were curious about the flames.
Our evening, which had been shaping up so well, had a thorn in its side. Our mountain radio wasn’t transmitting. We agreed that the best option was to head for Junction Burn Hut to maximise our chances of seeing a boatie. Our bail out option had been a boat pick-up somewhere on the shores of South Fiord. But that was tomorrow’s problem. For now, we soaked it up. My question to Karl was how many had sat on this rock drinking single malt accompanied by fire-intrigued kea while the moon set over the Museum Range?
In the morning, I set up the aerial in perfect configuration. We played around with batteries but it was a no go. We would head for the lake – and would have a spare day there in which we could strip the radio down. It was an easy morning to Esk Saddle with its outlook onto the gin clear waters of the upper Woodrow Burn – named after Frank Woodrow, a Canadian stoat trapper of the 1950s. In the valley, we crossed a flat and came to a deep pool. In we jumped to involuntary gasps. Much refreshed we started the long down-valley slog.
At the turn-off to Lake Wisely, we thought of heading up to Lake Wisely Hut – maybe there was a mountain radio or DOC ranger there? However, a lack of daylight and the climb known as ‘Killer Hill’ saw us scuttle downriver. A few evil gorges, one with a traverse above a slip, and massive windfalls, illustrated that few walked this track. The stoat poisoners – all contractors now – flew in.
Sodden ground sapped our legs and a biv momentarily raised spirits with its solar panel and aerial, but the radio wasn’t there. It even had a squeegee for the floor instead of a broom.
Apart from windfall, the final three hours through forest were not bad. On the left, Junction Burn came in from the west. This drains Lake Bloxham where Dick Deaker was once trapped in a small tent. He had just arrived when the skies opened. There was no question of returning to the hut with the river up. In a wet sleeping bag he softened raw rice in a billy – it was ‘72 hours of sheer bloody hell’.
And there was the hut. I thought it empty, exclaiming “there’s someone here” to the bemused young American sea kayaker as I swung open the door. He had a PLB with a GPS function which could send text messages. He texted his mother in the States who emailed Steve.
In the morning, we stripped the radio and, blowing through the transistors, got it working. Canterbury Mountain Radio informed us the boat would be there in an hour. We cooked up some lunch and coffee. Karl shouted “our boat’s here”. I threw the coffee out. It was a boat but not ours. It turned out to be the annual hut clean-up by DOC, accompanied by the local boaties club.
“This isn’t Brod Bay,” Steve said when he finally arrived.
Circumstance had conspired to take us down the Woodrow Burn, and while I may have hoped for it to have been otherwise I was long enough in the tooth to know that in Fiordland you take what you get, and just sometimes, what you get is sublime. A night on the Musuem Range – or near enough to it.