Paths Less Followed

Greg French revisits the South Island of New Zealand

Ric and Janet were getting excited about two South Island tramping destinations that the internet seemed to have overlooked: the Garnock Burn in Fiordland and the headwaters of the Aparima and Wairaki rivers in the nearby Takitimu Conservation Area. “There’s information on the backcountry huts, but nothing at all about the fishing. Do you want to come with us for a two-week explore, beginning mid-January? It’ll be just like the old days.” The old days: when the not knowing used to be as exhilarating as the actual fishing. Rain on the way We arrived in Christchurch at 5:00 am, and while waiting for our checked baggage, Janet couldn’t resist checking Fiordland’s weather. “Three fine days, then rain.” I didn’t enjoy the sudden sense of urgency, but too late now. We picked up our car, bought some groceries, and raced down south. The number of campervans and hire cars on the main road rendered the drive slow and tedious, and I began to fret that rampant tourism would be the death of NZ. (How quickly things change: less than a year later, in our Covid-19 world, I worry that dwindling tourism will be the death of NZ.) It was almost 5:00 pm by the time we got to Manapouri. The sensible thing would have been to rent a room or cabin for the night, but we were bursting with anticipation so Janet phoned a water-taxi service. “There’s a bloke who’ll take us across the Waiau right away, in a dinghy,” she relayed excitedly. Within ten minutes we were on the Pearl Harbour dock talking to the coxswain, a man as rugged and mystical as the surrounding forest. “How long have you been doing this job?” Ric asked. “A hundred years.” He wasn’t as old as he looked, then. “The lake’s lower than I expected,” I said. “You’ve had it dry, like Australia?” “Wettest year on record.” He pointed to the ground floor of a visitor centre. “A couple of weeks ago you’d have needed an aqualung to have a coffee in there. They’re renovating, but it’ll be flooded again by the end of the week. Anyhow, I’ll take you upstream to the lake outlet — it’ll save you half an hour’s walk.” As we pulled up on a narrow beach, Ric commented on the eerie quiet. “DoC and their industrial use of 1080,” the old man spat. “When they aerial spread it, the birds disappear.” “I was thinking more about the lack of cicadas,” Ric elaborated. “Poison kills them too, though if I’m honest, cicadas never really make much of an appearance down here until mid-February.” Janet struck a conciliatory tone. “DoC reckons that if they keep poisoning, NZ will be possum and rodent free by 2050.” “Getting rid of the rodents would be a real bugger for fishermen like you, but I don’t think you’ve got much to worry about. You’ll see. Anyway, it takes two hours to tramp to the Back Valley Hut, so you’ll get there before dark. Enjoy.” MICE Moments after stepping into the forest we saw our first mouse. Another one appeared on the track 50 metres after that. And so it went. Mice everywhere. Jumping, hopping, flitting. Decidedly bold, disarmingly cute. We were aware that it had been a mast year — a year in which the mass flowering of beech trees precipitates a mouse plague — because for months now boastful mates had been sending photos of huge mouse-eating fish. But the seeds had come and gone, and I had assumed that the mouse population would have crashed. Wrong! The mossy forest floor was pockmarked with literally thousands of mouse holes. And when we stopped to investigate, a dozen little faces seemed to appear from nowhere. They looked fat and lazy, almost indifferent. “Beeched as,” Ric noted. Halfway along the track we saw several ‘little owls’ hunting mice in broad daylight, and a ferret too. Extraordinary. By the time we reached the Back Valley glade, the air was filled with the sound of native moreporks. The hut itself was just 150 metres from the Garnock Burn, and we had it to ourselves. That is, if you didn’t count the mice, sandflies and mosquitoes. We considered pitching our tent, but having had no sleep for 36 hours, we were too tired to be bothered. Garnock Burn Next morning Ric quickly wokked up some bacon and eggs before we raced off upstream. The water flowed sluggishly over firm, white sand and wasn’t too tea-coloured, making wading and polaroiding a cinch. But where were the fish? A kilometre later, when we were in danger of running out of enthusiasm, Ric spotted the first brown trout. It was a mere three-pounder, and safely ensconced in a logjam, but it filled us with a renewed sense of purpose. Another kilometre upstream we spotted a trout so broad across the shoulders that it looked like a catfish. It too was surrounded by logs, and seemingly oblivious to everything — probably sleeping off last night’s surfeit of mice — but we had a wonderful time drifting all manner of different flies over its head and past its mouth. We found several more ten-pounders that afternoon, and the fact that they were all ‘beeched as’ didn’t really bother us at all. Not quite knowing why the fish wouldn’t eat our offerings was spellbinding. Rakatu and Manapouri The following day we walked for an hour to Lake Rakatu, also tea-coloured. Occasionally a small trout would leap for a dragonfly, but the water teemed with aggressive little redfin, making trout fishing tedious. So we returned to the Back Valley Hut, then walked for another 1.5 hours to the Hope Arm of Lake Manapouri. This bay is accessible by boat, and serviced with a large public hut, but we had the place to ourselves. The white-sand flats seemed perfect for wade polaroiding, but heavy skies reduced visibility to zero. We ended up 100 metres off shore, prospecting the lip with nymphs and small wets. Still, it was nice to finally land a few trout, even if they weren’t monsters. Next afternoon we walked for three hours back to Pearl Harbour. Janet phoned ahead, and we were met at the Waiau landing by a different boatman, as ancient and vibrant as the first. We commented on all the mice, and he confirmed that it was the biggest mouse year in living memory. “It used to be that we’d have a mast year every four or five years. Now every year is a mast year, and every fourth or fifth year is mega-mast. Climate change, if you ask me.” “Climate breakdown I reckon,” I said. “We Aussies know all about it. You’ve heard about our bushfires?” “You’re smoking and we’re in the same room.” He got out his phone and showed us some week-old photos. The smoke coming over the Divide behind Manapouri was not merely a haze, but a dense plume. “The extra dust particles in the air probably help account for our unprecedented rainfall.” He pointed to the Kepler Mountains, now partially obscured by ominous black clouds. “Those storms will reach here tomorrow, and in a few days — as they move east — all hell is going to break loose.” Aparima backcountry We drove east, away from the impending rain, and parked on the pasture at the end of the Aparima Road. A farmer had just got out of his ute to close the gate, and Janet asked if anyone was likely to be using the Aparima Hut. “Not fishermen, only Europeans walking The Trail,” he said cryptically as he hopped back into his vehicle and drove off. Our 6 km tramp took less than two hours, most of it through beech forest. There were plenty of mice, but they seemed besieged by starvation. Some were feasting on the carcasses of their compatriots, and on the attendant blowflies. The new Aparima Hut was occupied, but nearby, the old hut lay idle. We settled in, and watched more young walkers arrive. All spoke accented English. All carried walking poles. All went straight inside and stayed there. Eventually we ventured over and introduced ourselves. They were hiking the Te Araroa Trail, which traverses NZ, and even though they typically walked 20 to 40 km every day, the trip took months to complete. Everyone was interesting and fun. Next morning Ric, Janet and I headed up the tussocky Waterloo valley, bursting with anticipation. The burn looked like it should give up plenty of 3 lb rainbows. All we found was a single 10 lb brown, but that was good enough, especially since it had the good grace to rise lazily and inhale an Adams. The following day we headed up the heavily forested Aparima, all the way to the Spence Burn, and this time we struck gold. Every 700 metres or so we found a mouse-fattened v rising freely to mayflies and sedges. Aparima arapaima, Ric called them. What a joy! Back at the huts, we regailed a solitary Kiwi tramper with stories of our success. He was happy for us, though he confessed to being a bit overwhelmed by all the tourists in the backcountry, especially users of the Te Araroa Trail. It was supposed to be for locals, he said, but had become a magnet for international tourists. “I blame the internet. The lonely backcountry huts that my family have used for generations are now always full to brimming.” He just wished the government had thought things through and provided alternative facilities. We told him how we planned to tramp 8 hours through the forest to the Waikari Hut, then skirt along the fringes of the Takitimu Conservation Area back to our car. “Big rain on the way tomorrow,” he warned. “River crossings will become impossible. If I were you I’d get up early in the morning and go back down the Aparima River Track.” This, I decided, was exactly how I like to receive my information. Rain We enjoyed a day’s grace at the Mavora Lakes (also on the Te Araroa Trail) and then tried to outrun the weather by retreating north, taking care to avoid the busy main highway. At Omarama, we asked the local publican how the Ahuriri was fishing. “Who cares?” he lamented. “You can’t get so much as a kilometre of water to yourself anymore.” “Surely there must be somewhere you can find a pool or two to yourself,” I scoffed. “Tomorrow, yes. But only because a nor’wester is coming in ahead of the rain and the wind’ll be gusting downstream well over 100 kilometres per hour.” “Paths less followed,” Ric and Janet reminded me. So we drove to the end of the road and set ourselves up in the Ahuriri Base Hut. The wind was even worse than the publican predicted, and we were forced to fish down and across with black Woolly Buggers, bracing ourselves against every gust, swearing every time our backcasts got tangled in matagouri. But the trout were keen — rainbows and browns — and we fished hard until the rain came and the water turned to mud. Twelve hours after the rain stopped, we attempted to drive out, but ended up bogged to the axles in the middle of the widest fan. The rain had turned the previously firm cobbles and silt into a seemingly bottomless jelly. Just when we’d lost all hope of being able to extricate ourselves, two locals from Hawea drove up in a big 4WD — a retired dad and his adult daughter, out for a day’s mountain biking. Dad had every gadget imaginable for unbogging vehicles, and proved himself adept at using them. As we worked, dad and daughter chatted amiably about the unprecedented rain and the hundreds of people being evacuated from the Milford Track. We were free in no time. But we kept chatting for another hour. About the usual stuff: mice and poison, climate and tourism. Dad wouldn’t accept our offer of a carton of beer — “We’re friends now,” he explained — but he did make a counter-offer. “There’s always a spare room at my place. Next time you cross The Ditch why don’t you borrow my boat, scoot up the lake and go tramping up the Hunter valley. There’s big rainbows up there.” Serendipity trumps the internet every time.

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