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19 Days in Fiordland

Traverse of central Fiordland, from Manapouri powerhouse to Milford Sound. Fantastic weather, hardly any sandflies, heaps of wildlife, loads of deer trails and Moir’s Guide (1995 – the old edition) helped us to achieve our goal in 19 days instead of a planned 25. Thanks to Vern Thompson of Te Anau for our food drop to Hankinson Hut, and to Matt for his excellent company and skills. Our lightweight gear proved superb, but food can still be improved!

From Manapouri we traversed North, criss-crossing the main divide. We crossed 12 saddles, all involving difficult climbing and descent of 500-900 meters. River travel involved Cozette, Irene and Large Burn, following riverbank deer trails, while we enjoyed superb views from days of tops travel.

A great trip! Our days were long, between 8 and 14 hours, but our light packs and footwear made it easy to cruise along, fueled on butter!

Day 1 – 13 hours
Ferry across Lake Manapouri, up Mica Burn, traverse of Mt George. Lumpy camp in head of Oonah Burn.

2km along the Deep Cove road, we headed up Mica Burn. Fording to true right, a high deer trail took us to open flats then easy climb to the tops. Sidling Mt George we found the remains of prospectors huts, where the famous Berndt Luft took shelter on his solo tops traverse of Fiordland. Super views to Doubtful sound. After a tiring traverse we camped in Oonah-Elizabeth Stream saddle.

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Day 2 – 9 hours
Descent into Awe Burn. Lovely camp in headwaters.

Woken by Kea at 5.30am after a breezy night, tired from a big first day. Sidle scrubby guts around “keyhole lake” at the head of Oonah Burn. Probably just as easy to drop to the lake and climb out! 800m descent into Awe Burn. Deer trails heavy at the top, more difficult to follow lower down. Bluffed near the bottom we swing right, finally dropping down a 20m cliff to the river. Wandering upstream we camp on lovely flats, but only after wasting an hour at my suggestion, looking further upstream. Moral – never turn down an ideal camp.

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Day 3 – 11 hours
Lake Annie, over tops to Anehu Stream. Dodgy camp on creek delta in Elaine stream.

Moir’s Guide describes a good route to Lake Annie outlet via rock rib, knoll then steep cleft with strong deer trail at the top. A “short swim may be required” which I avoided with a sketchy climb. Matt plunged in, almost getting blown into the lake! The sun emerged to dry him on the rocky shore. Steep climb on a short snow slope (hard on the toes in running shoes) led to fantastic views. Rock wrens squeaked cork-on-glass, while flowering Spaniard and daisies contrast against grey rock.

Long and hot descent past tarns into Anehu stream took us to huge boggy flats. The seemingly endless (3 hour), difficult descent of Anehu stream was made possible only thanks to good deer trails – our first real lesson in how important it is to stick to the trail. Moir’s route past the waterfall at the bottom allowed us to drop to Elaine stream, where tiredness made us choose a dangerous campsite. Without realising, we camped in a delta, thinking we had crossed the main stream. A potentially disastrous error!

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Day 4 – 11 hours
Descent of Elaine Stream to Camelot River. Riverbank camp above Tuaraki creek.

Heavy rain fell overnight. Setting off we soon realised our error- a deep and swollen creek a mere 100m away. How crucial to carefully check the area around a camp! Luckily we found a safe ford but were forced to remain on the true right of Elaine Stream. Getting around lake Norma was difficult but we made good progress and arrived at Camelot River (which becomes Cozette Burn). The sun came out at Bedivere falls after which deer trails soon led us to a deep crossing of Tuaraki Creek.

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Day 5 – 13 hours
To head of Cozette Burn and over saddle to high flats overlooking Irene River

Easy travel to Hidden Lake, where Canada Geese and ducks enjoyed the swampy flats. Deer trails made the stiff climb towards Te Au saddle easier. Topping a couple of knolls, a steep climb up scree herbfields, we sidled the head basin to arrive at Irene Saddle. Massive 1859m Mt Irene stood proud across the steep sided valley, where we could see the next pass we had to cross to access Large Burn. Hunger made me grumpy and scared at the steep, bluffed descent to the fine flat plateau below. Moir’s is too vague here – a steep but easy descent to the flat is made by traversing well left, below the cliffs of point 1484, until the way down becomes obvious.

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A clear, starry night with Mt Irene framed in the fly and kakariki flying high. Most impressive area and worth another visit to when exploring the Murchison Mountains.

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Day 6 – 8 hours
Drop into Irene River then climb out again. High camp on Irene-Large Burn saddle.

A steep 500m descent to Irene River. Deer trails climb high above the river but we lost them on steep descent back to river. Easy travel to shingle flats then a 700m climb to a good campsite at bushline. Misty clouds part allowing a super view of Large Burn, a perfect glacial valley. Marvelling at our luck with the weather, we spy Tarawa tarn and yesterday’s pass.

Day 7 – 8 hours
Move into position below Lake McKinnon for traverse to Stillwater River

Cloudless, hot day. Sidling left from the saddle we found good trails for the sharp 300m drop to very easy travel along Large Burn. Lake McKinnon shone brown in the sun, with big eels and little bluffs to sidle before a stunning wander along the shores. Short bouldery outlet, before back to easy travel. Camp on the high riverbank at the 90 degree bend in the river.

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Day 8 – 13 hours
Climb to ridge overlooking Kiwi flat. Traverse over top of Mt Donald. Drop into Twin Falls Creek to camp in headwater flats.

It seemed impossible from below to follow the Moir’s Guide route description, but it did help us on this 5 1/2 hour, 900m climb. Approaching the valley wall a new large creek is not shown on the map. Crossing the creek, the first 200m are almost vertical but the subsequent knob distinct, allowing a view of the “steep sided and ended” spur.

Moir’s makes it sound like you need to travel 300m along when instead you must gain 300m in height! Hearing a creek to the right we sidled, then Matt cunningly spotted the second creek flowing underground and we climbed to the top. After rain these creeks would be difficult to distinguish from others, but looking at the map the route obviously heads towards a small cirque below point 1305. Here you must head north instead of needlessly working anti-clockwise as we did!

Approaching Mt Donald we enjoyed views of Caswell Sound, Lake Marchant and Southwest arm of Te Anau. Climbing higher we entered thick mist and difficult travel on strangely carved rock outcrops, made easier by snow patches. The weather deteriorated as we descended on compass bearing towards Lake Wapiti.

The saddle from the western basin into Twin Falls Creek is distinct. Deer trails took us through thick scrub to bushline but descent into Twin Falls was difficult. Moir’s is inaccurate here. We tried moving left from the creek and looking for grassy slopes, but these do not exist. Instead we muddled a way across the bottom of a steep bluff, onto a slip (previously a grassy slope?) and then long drops to the river.

Once at the bottom travel became easy and we camped on then first flats we came to.

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Day 9 – 8 hours
Down Twin Falls Creek, up Stillwater to top forks.

Twin Falls creek is easy and enjoyable. 2 hours took us to the Stillwater, after travel in the riverbed then deer highway that begins on the true left at the start of the gorge.

The Stillwater is easy going but not after rain! Side guts, reminiscent of the Seaforth, would fill up in a flood, requiring many dodgy swims. We camped at the top forks in a clearing in the fern after searching in vain for Moir’s “extremely pleasant campsite” which is foolishly on the wrong side of the river if it floods! Showers overnight.

Day 10 – 11 hours
Out of Stillwater to ridge top, traverse to Henry Saddle, on track to Thompson Hut

A long day with short breaks took us to civilisation at Thompson Hut. From Stillwater forks a short climb then creek travel took us to a view of the saddle, where we started the climb too late and ended too far right of the saddle. Travel along the ridge is at times sharp and difficult, as was our descent in 100m visibility on compass bearing to Henry saddle.

What a shock the boggy track was after pleasant deer trails! Interesting, old boardwalk made of axe-hewn yellow silver pine crossed some deeper bogs. Steady, wind blown Norwest rain made us glad of our timing!

Day 11 – 2 ½ hours to Hankinson Hut to collect food drop

Raiding the cupboards and our food drop box (thanks to Vern Thompson of Te Anau) we rested and Matt worried about his boots, open from toe to heel.

Day 12 – 5 hours
Hankinson hut to campsite at Lake Sutherland

Back up the track, Matts boot tied up with spectra cord, we turned off above the lovely Wapiti Falls and shortly arrived at Lake Sutherland. Travel is on numerous deer trails, mostly 100m in from the river to avoid swampy patches. Matt stumbled on a huge cast antler. Vern later told us he had found an antler from the previous year in the same spot!

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Day 13 – 13 hours
Traverse of tops from Wapiti River western head to Glaisnock River via Edith Saddle

Pushing through thickets around the head of the lake, we follow good trails up the creek. Climbing on the true right of waterfalls, to open clearings in the head cirque, we follow a good route up a small NW pointing ridge obvious on the map, to the Edith-Wapiti saddle.

Climbing 300m we reach twin tarns and foolishly climb to the main ridge thinking we could traverse overtop of peak 1560. Instead the route is through giant rounded rocks to the east, onto a plateau, then a steep but easy climb up a gut to sidle below 1560. At point 1470 we argued about the best descent route while enjoying superb views – the most expansive of the trip. Peak 1560 is actually a distinctive double peak, which we were to see time and again over the next week.

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I favoured a direct descent to Edith saddle but followed Matt’s safer way descending north, then cutting back to the wapiti-infested cirque. We should have dropped into the bush to sidle to the saddle, instead following an annoying and long sidle through scrub. At last deer highways took us from Edith saddle into the Glaisnock, where we grumpily searched for the rock bivvy – incorrectly marked on the 260 topomap! Not finding it we camp in a well-drained spot while heavy rain fell overnight.

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Day 14 – 6 hours
Glaisnock Forks to Taheke Creek lower flats

Tired from our huge day, we stumble through deer infested Glaisnock River. Big patches of shield fern and deep deer ruts are annoying. We find the bivvy rock where Moir’s says it will be, but are glad we didn’t sleep in its damp lumpiness.

A steep, strong deer trail leads up the true right of Taheke creek to a hunters camp on the flats. Here we rest, wash clothes, swim in the creek, and sunbathe!

Day 15 – 13 ½ hours
Ascend Taheke Creek to Wild Natives Saddle. Traverse to Worsley Saddle. Descend to Bernard Burn.

2 hours of easy travel took us to Taheke saddle, a scenic spot with attractive tarn. Misty clouds soon burn off to a sunny day. Moir’s route is fun – after sidling around the Wild Natives cirque and pushing through thick ribbonwood and fern, we climb a strong deer trail up the central of three gullies.

The ridge offers spectacular views of Wild Natives River, Worsley Saddle and Bernard Burn. From the saddle we descend directly and steeply, then drop for 2 hours on the true left, over mossy boulders and steep bush to Lake Bernard. There are no trails around the lake, only a couple heading straight up, forcing us to sidle unpleasantly and slowly on the western shore.

Climbing higher in an effort to pick up trails, we are foolishly travelling about 50m apart when mossy boulders start to appear. Pressing on, we are soon stuck in bush-covered moraine. I get grumpy and decide we should get out by heading straight down. Bad move! The boulders grew from TV to fridge to car and finally to house size, covered in moss, giant beech trees, fuchsia and vines. Cavernous holes dropped below. I completely lost my cool and descended swearing and cursing my stupidity at entering this horror, instead of backtracking to find another way. Even Matt had a tantrum at the bottom. Looking back we should have stayed closer together and halted as soon as moraine began. Even better would have been to plan a way of approaching the lake, such as a higher sidle from the start.

After 2 hours we reached the lake outlet, trickling deep under the giant boulders, and happily regained deer trails on the true right taking us to an exhausted camp.

Day 16 – 11 hours
Climb out of Bernard burn to Robb Saddle. Descend to Dark River and camp in headwaters.

We climb over the last remnants of moraine to the steep tributary of Bernard Burn. Excellent deer trails lead us to the hanging valley, where we climb, swinging right, up a ribbonwood and fern streambed. Deer trails continue right to the bush line and onwards, sidling across the tops to Robb saddle.

Barrier Peak is perfectly framed in a symmetrical hanging valley, and once out of the breeze we cook on a hot, calm day. Crossing the flats and bogs we battle through dense scrub to begin the 500m descent. Deer trails wind right strongly at first, but peter out into feeding areas. Instead we climb onto a fresh slip, exposed white granite. This lets us drop 200m before it gets too steep, forcing us to sidle right into an older, fern covered slip. Working our way down we emerge onto Dark River.

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Easy travel takes us upstream as evening falls. Huge washouts at the junctions of Starvation Creek and North branch Dark River convince us to carry on for another hour, following a deer superhighway to a pleasant camp above the gorge.


Day 17 – 8 hours
Cross Dark-Light saddle to high riverbank camp in Light river

Moir’s guide rates the Dark-Light saddle as an “extremely difficult descent… through unseen and unknown cliffs and bluffs”. We nervously climb the steep Dark riverbed with some very difficult climbs around giant boulders, cascades and dangerously loose rock fall.

The creek dries out and we climb out for a hot climb over snowgrass to the saddle. Massive peaks loom over us as we peer at the descent route. Obviously the route lies leftish, so we begin to drop towards a flattish patch of scrub and obvious rock rib mentioned in Moir’s guide. On a 70-degree snowgrass slope we get onto a strong deer trail, which sidles below the scrub patch and ends up beside the rib. Losing the trail on top of a bluff we cross to the right, easily following numerous trails. Soon these join, and a deer highway leads straight downhill along an easy spur to flats at the bottom. 4hrs up and 2 ½ hours down made this one of our easiest crossings!

The Light River is infested with deer. Little undergrowth slows our travel, only confusion on which of a myriad of deer trails to follow. Big slips fill the upper reaches with sand and debris while open flats afford a good view of our descent route from the saddle.

With the instinctual habits of animals, we decide to camp on the flats and upon climbing the high riverbank (the Light river would be diabolical in a flood) we find the remains of an old hunters camp.

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Day 18 – 11 hours
Cross Staircase Creek Saddle via Lake Dale and direct route to saddle up creek bed.

Fast travel on the true right of the Light River soon gets us halfway down the gorge. We triangulate our position then head across easy slopes to meet Lake Dale. After a slow sidle and wade round to the outlet, we follow the ridge north then drop into the gorge below. We have walked off the map, me having left the Milford topo behind!

Moir’s description is imprecise but serves to steer us in the right direction. The Light River is easy travel on gravel flats until we meet a mighty cascade, climbed on true left. More flats, then another cascade again climbed on true left, on a deer trail through dense scrub.

The valley begins to curve southeast as we enter the cirque, but the route description seems ever more vague. Deciding to follow the river all the way instead of climbing a potentially incorrect bush covered ridge, we carry on up dry gravel creek beds and into scrub.

Fun rock climbing up the steep gut sees us gaining height fast. Some tricky climbing moves take us to the Staircase creek saddle in no time, although this direct route would be very, very difficult when wet and slippery.

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Happily we contemplate the end of a superb trip, before dropping into Staircase creek through lush, deer-free herb fields and thick scrub to a dry camp before the boggy flats.

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Day 19 – 6 hours
Descend Staircase Creek Saddle then scout pace to catch boat to Milford. Hitch to Te Anau.

Light rain falls as a front moves through. Crossing the flats covered in cutty grass and ribbonwood, we sidle our way down beside the creek. Spotting a couple of orange permalat helps initially, but a bluff forces us into the creek. We descend the rapids directly, with some difficult and unpleasant sidles around steep sections. The fuchsia, fern and ribbonwood gets thicker as we carry on on the true right, finally emerging at Sutherland Falls.

Enlightening tourists about lightweight tramping, we realise we might miss the last boat so run at scout pace – walk 60 steps then run 60 to reach Sandfly point just in time.

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Comments

Comment from terry
Time: February 21, 2009, 12:36 pm

I am now convinced you two are absolutely crazy but have a fantastic time terry

Comment from richard thomson
Time: August 4, 2009, 2:16 pm

Great trip! I helped Robin McNeill put the most recent Moir’s South together and ever since I’ve wanted to do a big Fiordland tramp like this. Some cracker photos here too.

Comment from Maarten & Irene
Time: September 1, 2009, 8:51 pm

Stumbled across your website after googling Puysegur Point (after South with Marcus Lush on TV) and the both of us are absolutely in awe of the bush trips you have done. Sitting here on a Tuesday night reading your trip reports and wishing/dreaming of doing similar wilderness trips. Off track and away from the trodden masses is definitely a soul replenisher!! Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. Have saved your website to Favourites and will devour every experience! Many thanks. M&I (M so dreams of finding antlers like that ON an animal!!!)

Comment from Honora Renwick
Time: April 1, 2010, 8:27 pm

Really enjoyed reading about your traverse. Janet and I followed a similar route put together by Robin McNeill in 1996. We got as far as Taheke Ck before a medivac for Janet’s abcessed shin. From that point on your route is different. Good to see you doing it lightweight with light footwear. I’ve bookmarked your site too.

Comment from Bryan Dudley
Time: August 19, 2010, 10:41 am

Hi

Your trips prove that it is possibe to do almost any NZ trip using lightweight gear.
I have met a few ultralighters in the hills, Honora being one,but most trampers still cling to the myth that it is not possible to enter the hills without a tonne of gear.
Do you mind if I make a mention of your website on my site http://www.tramplight.co.nz
Regards Bryan Dudley

Comment from Thomas Johnson
Time: October 4, 2010, 11:09 pm

Awesome, awesome looking trip. Read through your article following along on the topo maps, a great read – cheers!

Comment from Greg Jarvis
Time: April 18, 2011, 10:55 pm

I was looking for a really good photo of the Awe Burn after having spent 10 days deer shooting in the area and came across your article. I see you think the tracks are not well defined at the front of the valley but this is where we largely spent most of our time. If you have other photos of the valley further back along with any other comments on the Awe Burn I’d be interested in your comments.

Cheers

Greg

Comment from mike dawsib
Time: August 23, 2011, 12:51 am

Hey.

did you see the camelot river. Was there much water in it?? What time of the year were you there, and do you think there is whitewater that is good for a kayak expedition?

Did you cross any other larger rivers<

Cheers.

mike

Comment from Robin McNeill
Time: August 7, 2012, 3:17 pm

Great trip! I’m jealous. May I suggest that the latest 2007 Moir South rather than the older 1995 edition could have been a sound investment and saved you just a little grief!? 🙂

It’s funny how different parties find their own, unique difficulties in Fiordland- I remember Stillwater-Henry Saddle being a breeze, even in the rotten weather we had, yet you had no problem with other areas we had had some ‘fun’ in. This is true for other parties as well. That’s the joy of Fiordland, I guess.

Comment from Josh
Time: October 12, 2012, 8:17 pm

I can’t believe you guys actually did this! So epic, I can’t even think of a meaningful comment to make. Seriously inspiring stuff.

Kia Ora,

Josh.

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