This trip had all of the ingredients of a damn good adventure recipe. We packrafted and scrambled our way from Te Anau Downs to Bradshaw Sound, climbing the tallest hunk of choss in Fiordland outside the Darrans en route. Fiordland tried to beat us down with a relentless scrub-bash, near-vertical tussock climbing, one particularly muddy swamp and a cliffed-out-at-dark camp on a bed of moss in the forest. It also delivered stunningly tranquil rivers, easy tops travel and so many wildflowers. It felt like the perfect adventure concoction to make ourselves office-ready for the New Year. We finished this 4 night mission with battered and bruised bodies but happy souls.
Our journey started at dawn on New Year’s Eve, inflating packrafts at Te Anau Downs with our sights set on a seaplane pick-up at Bradshaw Sound in a few days’ time. Our double packraft was precariously balanced and somewhat overloaded as we set off across the lake, with big backpacks jammed between our legs.
As the wind picked up, making it to Junction Burn Hut quickly became a far-fetched prospect. Would it even be possible in these conditions? Not long after we started, we found ourselves sitting on a pile of rocks by Doubtful Island like drowned rats, pondering our options. Our plan A trip started to seem doubtful indeed. 30 km of lake paddling in strong winds sounded intimidatingly slow and potentially dangerous. Should we bail? Would we ever make it? I’d say we were 50/50 about whether to bail or press on, eventually deciding we’d push on for another 30 minutes and see how we felt. Spirits were low but we stayed in the zone, taking it one paddle stroke at a time, and finally we were turning the corner into the South West Arm of Middle Fiord. It took us 7.5 hours to packraft 30 km to Junction Burn Hut, which was a very welcome sight.
It was an easy decision to stay put and spend New Year’s Eve in the hut instead of trudging on into the bush to camp in the rain. We enjoyed an evening of yarns and good banter with two families who had arrived by boat.
The next morning after the rain subsided we set off into the forest, clambering over rotten logs, through fern gardens and across alpine tussocklands to Esk Saddle. There was a section of near-vertical tussock climbing at some point, which seems to be a compulsory ingredient in most off-track Fiordland adventures. We spotted five deer and one kea. The animal count was on!
It took us close to 12 hours from Junction Burn Hut to Robin Saddle Hut, which is actually quite a long way below the saddle, 300m elevation loss through rocky, scrambly terrain. And that’s where we rested our heads on the first night of 2022. What a magical spot, tucked away in a high alpine basin surrounded by epic peaks.
I’ve always been addicted to backcountry hut books, especially the few that go back a couple of decades. I find it tricky to articulate the richness that other people’s tales add to my own adventures but it feels significant. In fact, devouring the Robin Saddle Hut book was a primary motivation for this whole journey! It’s the only hut book in Fiordland that tells the tales of many high traverses over the past three decades. This small, rattly wee hut has had a lot of great company over the years.
35 years of stories fill the pages of the old lined notebook, which had its first entry in 1984 and is still not even a quarter full. It has proudly hosted 53 parties in 20 years, with an average of 2.5 parties per year.
A hut book is a tapestry of stories, everybody’s narratives intersecting and becoming somehow intertwined. I think hut books help me form a deeper connection to the places I love and also to the niche community of hardy people who frequent these areas.
We didn’t have much time up our sleeves on this trip but it was impossible to resist the temptation to climb Mt Irene, the highest hunk of rock in Fiordland outside of the Darrans.
We returned to Robin Saddle Hut for a second night and again, I became enthralled by the stories of trampers who’d wandered these hills before us. I felt guilty and simultaneously stoked that I could enjoy the place in bluebird conditions. Many before us had spent several days hunkering down in storms, some even spent 8 consecutive days without getting even one glimpse of Mount Irene towering above!
The thing I love most about Fiordland is the crazy contrasts, the joy of feeling so free and high on mountains, and yet often feeling so vulnerable and close to defeat. One hour you’ll be in an absolute sufferfest, the next you’ll be in a pocket of total serenity. Our fourth day was exactly that.
We started by pressing snooze on our alarm at Robin Saddle Hut, bodies weary after our Mt Irene scramble the previous day. I struggled to pull myself away from the hut book, whose epic tales had solidified my hankering to do a full traverse of Fiordland.
In 1992 Stephen Alderson wrote: “Staggered in last night feeling very sore and drained. Climbed over range from Cozette. Peeled off on steep snow and slid 10 metres coming to a very sudden stop in a schrund. Pulled muscles in my back badly. Thank goodness for a bed to lay on! Violent Nor’wester outside – hut shaking wildly last night. This hut saved my life!”
Thirty years later Mark Jones arrived on day 17 of his Fiordland traverse. “Has rained incessantly since midnight and the hut has shuddered and rattled all night and day. So satisfying to be resting up here, repairing gear and skin and letting my legs come good for the next leg.”
By the time we said our goodbyes to Robin Saddle Hut, the pressure was starting to build with 22.5 hours until pick-up by seaplane at Shoal Cove. It seemed impossible to guess how fast travel would be. Could we make it? Within two hours, the only thing I was confident about was that we’d definitely have to walk until dark to have any shot at it.
Soon the reality of the scrub sank in and a traverse of Fiordland quickly turned into a terrible idea. “If I ever tell you I want to traverse Fiordland, remind me of today,” I said to Quinn as we bashed our way through (and often on top of) a never-ending sea of thick, head-high scrub. I wondered why I was wearing shorts and no gaiters and did some quick maths in my head on progress so far…. less than 500m per hour.
Oh Fiordland, where tramping is a full-body workout and it’s not unusual to finish an off-track mission with sore arm muscles but rested legs! Some rock fields brought us a little respite and we watched a stag dash off into the scrub. I felt jealous watching, momentarily slumped over a rock. They make it look so easy. I wiped more sweat off my forehead and started to break the sections of travel down into smaller chunks in my head. Soon we’d be at the clearing, then the saddle, then the valley floor and finally, Hidden Lake. I was excited for dinner.
Finally, adversity gave way to an open tussock field. Fiordland is a good tease.“You’re free,” she whispered in the wind, as we plonked ourselves down in a clearing, feeling demoralised and beaten. Nowhere near finished for the day, we couldn’t resist the temptation of a shoes-off lunch break and a dehy meal. Onwards!
Soon we were hauling ourselves up an exposed tussock slope hoping we wouldn’t have to down climb anything. “Their characters could do with another teaspoon of tenacity, this will do it,” whispered Fiordland. Visibility was getting worse, with wisps of cloud swirling around the tops threatening our ability to choose the most logical route. We both felt such a sense of relief when we made it off the saddle. Our sights were set firmly on reaching the valley floor by Hidden Lake, which was all downhill from here. But it wasn’t exactly speedy travel. We embraced some new terrain, rock-hopping and creek-bashing down the valley, racing daylight hours but feeling optimistic we’d make it to Hidden Lake before dark.
I daydreamed about well-formed deer trails and open forest. Surely Fiordland owed us some respite? We’d proven our tenacity and were still laughing. Travel felt efficient for chunks, and we were totally in the zone as we scrambled our way downstream, racing the clock.
We were sure we had it in the bag until we found ourselves totally cliffed out in the dark, merely 80m from the valley floor near Hidden Lake, in the middle of some mellow contour lines on our TOPO map.
Is it even a Fiordland adventure without at least one cliffed-out-at-dark-admit-total-defeat moss bed camp?
What a day! Our bodies were feeling weary but souls full. I felt like I’d been delivered exactly what I’d been craving for several months – a bloody good adventure, dancing that line of challenge and discomfort but still beautiful and cruisy enough to finish the mission feeling rejuvenated.
Left with just a glimmer of hope in our route, I turned my Inreach on and flicked my mum a message. She loves these insights into my adventures and is an amazing adventure PR, providing good weather updates and other adventure logistics from the comforts of home.
Sometimes when I’m on these trips I wish I could catch a minute and send it to friends or family in a bubble. How would my mum understand from looking at the TOPO map that we were 76m away from the river but totally cliffed out? I didn’t understand either…the TOPO lines were mellow! But Fiordland has a knack for hiding cliff bands in the forest.
The next morning we managed to scout a route down, feeling such a sense of relief when we made it, bums sliding, slowly lowering ourselves down a weakness in the cliff, clinging onto bits of fern.
We had 6.5 hours until our proposed pick-up time from Shoal Cove. After the adventure of the last 24 hours I wondered what Fiordland had in store for us. Great deer tracks? Dreamy paddling? Ongaonga portages? Whio? After a brief encounter with a mud pit, we felt relieved to discover some trapping lines to follow down the Cozette. Finally, some respite!
After realising we’d left the packraft inflation bag behind at Lake Te Anau, we had to chuckle.
The water was magical and calm and we slumped on a rock by Bedivere Falls, alternating turns blowing up a double packraft by mouth!
The upper Camelot wasn’t as dreamy as we’d hoped. I think we’d both been hoping for a glorious float right to the coast, without having to take one more step. It was stunning but definitely not all paddleable. Easy floating was interspersed with some portaging, and fun little rapids that we had to negotiate carefully, with big backpacks precariously placed between our legs and without internal storage in our packraft.
After portaging the odd bigger rapid and shallow rock garden, we had a clear run further down. The lower Camelot is absolute magic, with crystal clear pools full of trout. I think our final tally was about 12 trout! Add that to 17 deer and it had been a good trip for the animal tally.
Kylie had packed two cold beers for us (legend!) and soon we were zooming past the rugged country we’d just traversed.
10 minutes after landing on Lake Te Anau, we were pulling into my driveway and walking inside to find my flatmate had anticipated hungry tummies and had made an epic pizza feast for us. To be plonked in the living room after such an intense 24 hours was a speedy transition and it took me a few days to decompress – and about another week to start planning the next mission.