Thursday, 2 June 2011

Mt Fyffe and Kowhai Valley - lost in the dark

Lost in the dark. Literally. Click for more foggy photos
With Matt and Ramin we decided to go for a walk on Mt Fyffe, the mountain near Kaikoura. However, the weather was pretty shitty and we couldn't see a damn thing through the fog, so the plan was to follow a gravel road up to a hat at 1100 metres and turn back. Once there, we found an alternative way down - much more interesting (and steeper) path leading to the valley, from where there would have been another way to the carpark. The path down was very steep and a great fun to descend - we ran most of it at neck-breaking speed and it only took us one hour to reach the valley (which takes three hours according to the official signs). They valley, that's where the problems started and we got ourselves into a bloody mess.

A sign said it was only 1h 30 to the carpark and that we were supposed to follow the river. So we did. We had about two hours of daylight left and it seemed an easy enough plan. There was no track, though, just the rough riverbed. When it got completely dark and we were still in the riverbed, it was clear that we were going the wrong way. There was no telling where we were exactly - there were no signs, we had no map and we weren't even sure on which side of the valley the carpark was. So we kept going, following the logic that the river must end up on the beach sooner or later. We kept walking for hours, crossing the gelid and knee-deep river at least a dozen times, yet the end of the valley was nowhere to be seen. At first I thought we didn't have any source of light and that we'd have to spend the night out there, which would have been pretty bad considering the wet clothes and shoes, but then Matt drew out his mobile with a flashlight that kept us going for a long while. I can't imagine crossing the river in total darkness.

View Mt Fyffe - Lost in the dark, 25km walk in a larger map

Eventually we got out of the valley and the riverbed became very wide, but still easy to follow. We even found lots of tyre and bulldozer tracks, which was really encouraging until we realized it's just a higgledy piggledy of tracks leading nowhere. The torch got us enough light to see a few metres ahead, but that was all. Then the light ran out. And it started to rain.

It was my turn to shed some light on the way using my mobile's flash. Not as good as Matt's torch, but better than nothing. When the mountains on the right hand side ended, we saw lights far ahead of us and thought that must be the city and the direction to take. Then we got very close to a light that seemed like a house or a farm, but there was a thick bush between us and the source. Since the city was really, really far, we took a chance and started pushing our way through the bush. That was the stupidest idea ever. After five minutes of struggling with vines, threes and high grass we couldn't hear the river anymore and didn't know which way we were going. It was safer to stick to the river, so we turned back and for a while we were unable to find the way back. That was some scary shit, let me tell you. Stranded in the valley next to a river is one thing, but lost in a bush quite another pair of shoes. Luckily, we managed to find our way out and then diligently followed the river for another couple of kilometres. I guess we would have walked downstream until total exhaustion or until daylight, if it weren't for Ramin, bless the guy. He was the only one to notice the river when we were driving towards the car park and was constantly trying to turn left, away from the river, to get back on the right track, but in the dark it was just too difficult, until he saw an opening in the trees and persuaded us to try if there was a road. For a moment I thought it was really unwise to make the same mistake twice, but we still ventured into the bush (this time on the other side of the valley) and after a few metres we really ended up on a road! You can't imagine the relief we felt at that moment. By that time even my mobile was dead and the last source of light we had left was my camera's LCD, which was far from sufficient, and the battery was running low as well. On the road we could easily walk without risking to break a leg on the rocks and we could walk much faster. We continued downstream, but after a kilometer or two the road ended back in the water. Rather disappointing, let me tell you.

Reluctant to go back into the riverbed, we turned back and just kept walking in the other direction. It didn't seem to make much sense walk back upstream, but it was the best option we had. And indeed, after a while, we saw a farm not too far ahead and a few minutes later we felt tarmac under our feet. With a shout of relief we kept on walking until we reached a crossroads telling us exactly where we were. We drover through there earlier that day, yeah baby!

At that point I experienced the second scariest moment of our misadventure. We were talking all the time and were trying to be loud in case there were any people around, but the only living beings we met since that morning were a bunch of cows. Cows we must have woken up, because they started mooing as we were approaching, and they were pretty loud. There must have been hundreds of them. They were about a mile away and after a few moments they feel silent and we forgot about them... until we were about five metres from them. All of a sudden a deafening roar or hundreds of mooing cows rose to the skies right next to us, and hundreds of black shapes with shining eyes were watching us from less than five metres. We didn't even know if they were behind a fence and even after I took a picture with the flash and confirmed there was indeed a fence, we had no idea if they wouldn't just crash it run over us. That was a really freaky moment, maybe even more dramatic than the forest.

After the cows we kept on walking and saw a car approaching. That was a big relief until the car got close, we tried to stop it to get help, and it just drove past without even slowing down. Here goes the famous kiwi helpfulness... Ok, we can't blame a lone driver for not stopping to three strangers on a country road in the middle of the night, he or she obviously had no idea what we had just been through, but on the other hand, it was pretty disappointing. Luckily we already knew where we were and it was just a matter of walking back to the car, another five or six kilometres. By that time we were all pretty tired and the last stretch of road was just a monotonous race to the carpark. We were all relieved to have found a way out of the mess were anxious to finally be able to sit down on the soft seats of Matt's Mitsubishi. When we did, an hour and a half lafter, at exactly 23:30, after 11 hours of walking, we were very happy people.

I got back to the hostel at midnight, put all my things to dry, washed a pile of stones from my shoes, had a long and relaxing shower and went to bed, just to find out I couldn't sleep. Partly because my legs were aching too much, partly because a guy in the dorm was snoring, and partly because I still felt the adrenaline. The rest is pretty random - in the morning Matt and Ramin picked me up and have me a very level gaze when I asked if they still wanted to go for a walk to the seal colony, as originally planned. Surprisingly enough, we skipped the seals and drove straight to Blenheim, all genuinely tired, with aching legs and brains on standby. For the next two days, walking without painful grimaces was a bit of a struggle. We had walked 25 kilometres that day (and night) - not much, but given the circumstances...

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