By David Ellis
I remember telling a friend we were heading into Ivory Lake a week before we started our journey, his eyes lit up and he uttered the words “the Mecca of New Zealand tramping”. I had no idea until our return what he meant but I now have a greater understanding why few people make the journey to this remote and spectacular corner of Westland, the answer is easy, reserve six long days and pray for fine weather.
Ivory Lake sits at the headwaters of the Waitaha River. It is one of the many large West Coast river’s you cross when you head down the picturesque State Highway 6, a highway hemmed in by two natural sentinels the Tasman Sea on one side and the Southern Alps on the other. The river is about 23 km long from road end to Ivory Lake. In the scheme of things, this half marathon distance looks very short on a map and even shorter as the “crows fly” but be warned taking it for granted is a folly. Always be suspicious of a trip when the friendliest route guide description you can find is labelled arduous.
From road end, you travel over a flat river valley to the start of the impressive Morgan Gorge. After climbing above this you descend to Kiwi Flat and the first hut. It’s a good 3 hours with heavy packs and as progress is straight forward you start to wonder if the Waitaha’s reputation is ill-founded. The stunning view from the swing bridge looking into the top side of the gorge, the beautiful river flats and the blue ducks keeping a wary eye on you are only temporary reprieves.
From the Kiwi Flat hut, the old Forest Service track becomes a lot more difficult to follow. From here it weaves its way up the valley beside the Waitaha Gorge. Thankfully these days the track is well maintained by a group of enthusiastic volunteers from the Permolat group. Even with their hard work, some very large exposed slips make forward progress challenging. If you are lucky between 6-9 hours later you will arrive at the romantically named Moonbeam Hut. In total it took Ben, Jane and I a long 13 hour day to carry our heavy loads of food and equipment through its door.
I have always found a long first day curbs any thoughts of ambition and grandeur. Day two was fully occupied recovering from day one. We took the time to firm up our plans for the next six days finally deciding the long-held dream of climbing Mt Evans via the County River should be dropped in favour of Ivory Lake. We keep our ice axes, crampons and helmets as the idea of doing some mountaineering sightseeing at “the Mecca” sounds a worthy alternative to our delayed Mt Evans ambition.
On our third day we continued up the Waitaha River on a well marked track. After crossing the main river via a spectacular swing bridge the track climbed straight up a steep 400 metre spur. On reaching the top we descended on equally steep ground down to regain the Waitaha River at Chainman Creek. It seemed a pointless exercise until you realise you have just cleared Waitaha’s third gorge, the Windhover Gorge. It’s an energetic two hours of effort to gain 800 metres of horizontal ground.
From here things get truly interesting as the track fizzles out and you are left with character building bush-bashing through thick almost impenetrable sub alpine scrub. The guide books upgrade this sections description from arduous to horrendous. The river climbs steeply and you end up sidling around massive house size boulders and enormous white water rapids. Doing this is preferable than delving into dense scrub but on some impassable riverbank sections you cannot avoid this. After 13 hours you arrive in a place you can only call heaven – open snow grass flats with the Upper Waitaha Hut amongst them. Crossing the river is relatively easy. It is the first time you have to ford the Waitaha River and even though you are getting close to its source it’s still a force to be treated with respect.
Four hours on Day 4 takes us through some of the most spectacular tramping country we have ever experienced. True to form the upper valley has another steep gorge but luckily this time it’s easily bypassed by tussock ledges. The Waitaha by this stage has become Stag Creek and Stag Creek has the honour of leading you into a spectacular ravine where the Ivory Lake Creek cascades over a series of vertically stacked rock blocks. The affect is stunning, like one of those giant old fashioned ruffled curtains in a theatre. Above the waterfalls is a giant rock buttress and on top of this Ivory Lake Hut perches.
We arrive early afternoon to a hut overlooking an iceberg filled lake. The hut was originally built as part of a glaciation survey in the 1960’s – one of the first surveys in the world to graphically show the effect of global warming. Above the hut is an amphitheatre of mountain walls and in the far distance there are the remnants of the very large glacier that 60 years before filled the lake to the very edge of the hut. The clouds clear up and the sun shines through. With an air of optimism we plan for an early morning start to get a view of Mt Evans from the top of Park Dome. Unbeknown to us in the darkness of the night the weather turns.
Ivory Lake was part of a glacial retreat survey in the 1960’s and 70’s. The hut was built as part of this project and it was inhabited for long periods of time while the scientists maintained their survey. Despite its very isolated location the hut is renowned for its luxurious accommodation and comfortable layout.
Above photos: Ivory Lake Hut
Day 5 greats us with thick pea soup drizzle. We make the decision we don’t have spare time to wait for a clearance. In heavy rain we descend to the Upper Waitaha hut. The weather closes in and heavy rain increases to extra heavy rain. A moat forms around the hut and even the resident weka struggles to find dry ground under its foundations. We measure 105mm of rainfall over the next 28 hours – in one particular hour we measure 25mm.
Day 6 turns out bleaker; it has rained in the night so the Waitaha River is flowing too high for us to cross safely. We wait out a day listening to the thunder and the wind gusts buffering our hut. We stand at the louvre window watching the snow grass shimmer in the wind shaking it like a wild animal shakes its pelt. The memory of porridge without milk powder and tea with second hand tea bags still lingers – Yukk!!! We are confused as our long term weather forecast didn’t have this storm coming in so early. Somewhere in the back of my mind was a warning from our close friend Rhys saying whatever we do we must be out of the valley by the end of day 7. Occasionally we take trips outside to check out our rain gauge billy, our river bank marker and our blue duck neighbours swimming happily in the flooded Waitaha. We can hear their piercing whistle over the rain drumming down on huts corrugated tin roof. We measure another 50mm in our gauge before the rain eases late afternoon.
Day 7 turns out cloudy with no rain – there is fresh snow down to the tussocks. It feels very cold and in my books it’s the southerly clearance we need to make a clean break the thought of making some homeward progress. We had packed a few days extra but beyond eight or nine we are pushing it. The prospect of retracing our steps all the way back down the valley is daunting. The crossing is not hazardous but it is very deep and at one stage the water is chest height. A real concern is my camera has been totally submerged in the river and its looking like one of those snow flake glitter dome toys – no more photo’s for 5 days. We are frozen and it takes us a long time to warm up and regain full movement in our limbs on the opposite side of the river bank. Within an hour from the hut patches of blue sky fizzle out and ominous black clouds start pouring in from the west. What has happened to our southerly clearance, the weather pattern isn’t following the usual sequence? We scuttle along with a sense of urgency trying to remember all our good leads through the carpet of sub alpine scrub. Rain threatens but luckily it holds off to a drizzle until we get past the Chainman Creek spur and across the Waitaha swing bridge. In the gloom we come across a Blue Duck family – both parents and their five young ducklings. It’s a rare and uplifting sight. The rain in the last 45 minutes to Moonbeam Hut is torrential. It’s so heavy it dims the light making dusk arrive hours before its time. At the hut we meet up again with the only two people we have seen since Kiwi Flats, Warren and Len. Like us they are very thankful for an extremely well placed refuge.
It’s hard to describe what happened next except to say Rhys’ words came true. During the next 48 hours we measured over a 1,000mm of rainfall. One metre of rain!!!! Everything around is just a sheet water. 50 metres below us we could hear the main Waitaha raging. On the second morning I watched as the waterfall on the other side of the valley converted into a giant landside of mud, vegetation and debris. It took the rest of the day before it flowed white again.
We lay in our bunks looking longingly at our dwindling food supply. We cut one days food into three and kept something aside for breakfast and lunch for our final days walk to the road end. Three should be enough as no storm of this ferocity can last that long? Days 8 and 9 it did. Day 10 turned fine but the rivers still raged. Our Achilles heel to freedom was the tributary below the Hut, the now well named Moonbeam Torrent. The Waitaha was dropping fast but for some unknown reason the Moonbeam Torrent just kept raging.
Day 11 had us all out of bed very early only to discover fording it was still impossible. Day 11 was a new low for food intake we had a couple of biscuits and few lollies to suck. For breakfast we boiled up an old musty packet of porridge one of us had found in the cupboard. It tasted like mouldy cardboard. This and some rancid milk powder was the only food we found in the hut. We decided the rancid milk should be left in reserve. We drank copious amounts of warm smokey water as our tea had run out long before we had arrived at Moonbeam and without a moment’s hesitation accepted a pasta sachet from Len and dehydrated vegetables and fish from Warren for the evening meal.
Day 12 had us back down at the Moonbeam Torrent for an early start. The river was running lower but more importantly the waters clear. The crossing turned out easier than expected. We bid farewell to our two hut mates and headed off in cloudless skies to the road end.
It wasn’t until we returned to civilisation 5 days overdue that we realised the text informing our contact person the details of our trip had not been received. With nobody knowing our exact plans we had created some unnecessary worry amongst our family and friends. We had carried a personal locator beacon with us but had decided hunger and inconvenience were not life threatening enough reasons to activate a rescue.
We had a quiet road trip back to Christchurch made quieter by the lack of traffic due to the Wanganui road bridge being washed away during the flood. As we witnessed a spectacular sunset over the Tasman Sea it was hard to believe the effort we had made for an 18 hour stay at “the Mecca”.
Waitaha Valley Trip
Members of the party: Jane Ellis, Ben Ellis, David Ellis with some very thankful food assistance from Warren Farrelly and Len Doel.
Date: 25thDecember 2012 to 5thJanuary 2013
At present DOC do not maintain the tracks and huts in the Upper Waitaha. The area was originally developed and managed by the New Zealand Forest Service and is now being maintained by the volunteer organisation Permolat. If you would like to assist Permolat via donations or better still on the ground assistance you can contact them via the website; http://remotehuts.co.nz/.