Dec 6 day 97 Lake Middleton to free camp, south of Ahuriri River 7:00-6:30 30 km (plus 7 km off trail to hike around river to bridge).
Today I was once again a walker of rivers, unfortunately not a forder of rivers which made for a long day’s work. I woke with a vague sense of dread. The descriptions of the day’s trail were not promising, making it sound as if navigation up on the saddle and down the East Branch of the Ahuriri would be difficult with no real trail to follow and markers few and far between (I was remembering the difficulty around Coal River last week) And there was a ford at the end of the day– the largest unbridged river on the trail. And it was cold and wet, some rain falling as I headed up the road to the trail head. The hike initially was uneventful, the mist cleared and the trail was a 4 wheel drive road so the grade was easy. Then it turned up into the pass, following up a roaring stream through a huge beech forest. It was magical and my bad temper lifted immediately. Just before the trail broke out of the woods above bushline, I stopped by the stream at a big rock, got out the Jetboil and made oatmeal and coffee, then just relaxed, taking in the beauty of the place. The rest of the ascent was steeper and rockier, but good, and before noon I was over the saddle and on my way down a well-marked and easy to follow trail. The river was beautiful and so was the day. After a bit, the trail stopped crossing the stream and climbed a ridge where a large flat plateau opened out, a space worthy to be the set of a Sergio Leone film. This area is high desert– a lot of water is flowing through it, but the soil is thin and rocky. The bogs have masses of moss and springy grass, and the edges of the streams have some bushes and of course spear grass, but on on the plain the vegetation is crispy and thin except just now the dandelions are blooming by the millions. They are different from the ones I know, the leaves are small, thick and have no lobes. Instead, they spread out touching the ground so there is no wind desiccation. They get maximum sun and hoard moisture, waiting for the beginning of December to thrust up a single bloom on a two inch stalk. It was all yellow today. Late in the afternoon, the valley I was descending broke out into the main river valley. It was all broad flat plain except for a pine plantation on one side. It took a good hour just to cross the wide flat space (I was slowed a good bit by dodging rabbit holes– they are everywhere here). When I got to the river, my plan was to ford and camp just on the other side– a good 30 km day– but, around 4:00, I arrived to discover a high and fast running river. To the west I could see a range of snow capped mountains melting fast in the day’s hot sun. The river was milky green, so full of glacier melt that I could not see the bottom. I made several tentative forays into it, trying to get a good foothold and then cross, but each time I’d get about 1/4 the way across and the bottom would drop out, making it impossible to cross in the current. The TA paperwork says that when the river is too high to ford you should head downstream 5 km and cross by a bridge. So off I went, first in the rocky river bed, then up an a small ridge but making good time. I was still in a good mood. Then the Ahuriri did what all rivers here do– it swung over to my side and crashed hard against a cliff, making walking impossible. There was a high ridge above (about 100 meters nearly straight up) that formed a flat plateau with a lot of pine trees. I had no choice but to climb up there, weave in and out of trees, sticker bushes, pasture land, climbing numerous barbed wire fences, fording dozens of streams, finally getting to the road that led to the bridge. It was 6:00 before I crossed, too late to try to get back to where I originally planned to camp, so I walked up the road a couple of clicks until I found a stream and a flat place for my tent. Going to sleep well tonight.