On my most recent days off, I went on a two-day hike up the Moeraki River track, one of a number of hut-to-hut trails on this part of the West Coast. I picked this trail over the Haast-Paringa Cattle Track (which shares the first two kilometers of trail) because it looked agreeably flat on the topo map, and also because I could leave my car at one place and not have to worry about getting shuttled back and forth between two different trailheads. In retrospect, I think the Cattle Track might actually have been the easier tramp, even though it goes up to about 600 meters above sea level. The track from the car park to the Moeraki River turnoff was fine, but as soon as I actually got onto the Moeraki track, the trail got bad in a hurry. As in, I have hiked on animal trails that were easier to follow than this track. My theory is that the DOC cut out a six-foot-wide swath for the trail about five or six years ago, and have basically left it alone since. It was pretty well-blazed in most places – which was good, because other than the blazes, there is very little indication of which way the trail actually goes. Plus, there are a lot of un-bridged creeks to cross, and numerous tree falls and flood damage to skirt round. And because this is the West Coast, the trail was extremely muddy. So muddy that in some places, you aren’t just getting mud on your boot and trousers. It’s so muddy that when you take a step, you sink up to your knee, and then have an argument with the mud over who gets to keep your boot. Overall, the hiking was much more technical than I had expected from an established (if little-used) tramping track. It was the sort of hiking where you are continually looking for trail blazes, and constantly watching where you put your feet.
|The Moeraki River track|
So, the trail itself sort of sucked – but the area it went through was fantastic. There were lots of birds, some of whom were openly curious about me – I don’t think they see people back in there very often. A pair of fantails were checking me out, and later a whole brood of tom tits got very close and gave me a once-over. I also saw the Blue Ducks on the river. The name for Blue Ducks in Maori is whio, and now I know why – it is exactly the noise they make. Their call is like what you would get by crossbreeding a mallard with a car alarm. The first whio I spotted was alarm calling, but not leaving – I suspect the bird may have had a nest or chicks in the area, so I didn’t stay very long to look at him. The whio have enough trouble raising their chicks as it is, as their eggs are often eaten by stoat, one of New Zealand’s many bird-eating invasive species.
Along the first part of the track, the Moeraki River runs along a boulder-filled channel, and the trail follows the river along the top of the gorge. Shortly before the gorge leveled out, I found a great lunch spot, where a dried-out tributary stream enters into the Moeraki. I was able to walk along the old creek, and get on top of some of the big boulders on the edge of the river. Just past the dried creek, the river mellowed out, becoming slower and flatter, and the trail started following the river more closely. Occasionally, the trail was so close that it had actually eroded away, and I had to divert into the forest for a few yards. There were good views of Mount Collins on the other side of the river, and the Moeraki River itself was beautiful. Only in Alaska have I seen water that clear. Amazing how awesome a river can look when its entire watershed is contained within a wilderness area. One side effect of the water clarity s that it’s hard to be sure how deep a stream is by looking at it – a few of the streams I had to ford were approaching thigh-deep, and I never quite knew in advance how deep I would go with each step.
Further along, the Moeraki River trail entered the Horseshoe Flats. These are a series of boggy meadow areas strung along a wide spot in the Moeraki valley. There was less mud here, but the grass growing in the meadows was so tall that it completely obscured where the trail was – it was hard enough just figuring out where to put my foot without landing in a bog, or tripping over a tussock. Some of the meadows had trail blazes –little orange triangles attached to metal poles, but in some of the meadows, I think the metal poles have fallen over or been washed out by floods. So, occasionally, figuring out where the trail continues on the other side of the meadow was a combination of logical , and scanning the meadow verges with binoculars. There were maybe half-a-dozen of these clearings strung out over three or four kilometers. From the clearings, I could see back towards the Moeraki valley headwall, with Mount Eureka to the southern side. Eureka still had snow on it – we had a cold snap over the weekend, and most of the taller summits are still sprinkled with termination dust. (Yes, January is in the middle of summer in this hemisphere, and yes, the weather here is weird.)
|The trail through Horseshoe Flats|
I got to Horseshoe Flats Hut at about 4:15pm, and although I had originally wanted to go further into the valley to a second hut near the Moeraki headwall, I had had enough trouble getting this far along the trail, that I decided to stay at the Horseshoe Flats hut, instead. I had noticed earlier that whatever was growing in the Horseshoe Flats meadows included a plant I’ll call Allergy Grass. Unfortunately, the Horseshoe Flats hut was built in a clearing of the stuff. So I spent most of the evening on the riverbank near the hut (which was beautiful) to get away from the stuff. My allergies weren’t bad in the hut itself (I had decided that in a worst-case scenario I would drag out of the hut mattresses down to the river and sleep there), but I still had a pretty bad sinus headache for most of my stay. Otherwise, the hut was lovely –six bunks, a skylight, a wood fireplace, a few tables, and a stack of 1990s hunting magazines.
According to the hut register, the most recent group to come out to the hut was on January 2 – I had been the only tramper on the route in over two weeks. If you average out the entries in the hut log, the Moeraki River track has a visitation rate of less than five people a month. It certainly added to the feeling of isolation – not only was the area remote, but this was a remote-ness that had successfully kept human presence in the valley to a bare minimum. Plenty of places are remote; the tourists find them anyway, the locals set up coffee stands, and the eco-tourism industry continues apace. Westland, for the moment, is big enough to have whole watersheds that have yet to be ‘discovered’ by mainstream tourism.
The next morning I left the hut in a hurry and went back to the riverbank to eat my breakfast. I started walking back around 7am, at which point the dew was still liberally covering all of the grass in the meadows. This was a good thing insofar as it seemed keep the pollen from the Allergy Grass in check, but I also ended up drenched with dew inside of ten minutes. That was basically the theme for the next three hours of hiking. I got back to the awesome rocks by the river, ate a long lunch, and stripped down to my base layer so I could attempt to dry out my trousers and socks. It kind of worked. Then five minutes after I started walking again, I had to cross another thigh-deep stream, which quickly undid most of the previous hour’s sunbathing, at least as far as my socks were concerned.
I got back to Haast around 3:30pm or so, very thankful that I had such a great hike, and that I had non-raining weather for the entire time. I estimate it took about five and a half hours of walking (i.e. not counting breaks) to get from the trailhead to the hut, which vaguely correlated with the DOC’s six-hour estimate. Vaguely being the operative word. Is it some sort of international hiking convention that land management agencies are incapable of accurately gauging the mileage of trails on their land? I ran across estimated travel time signs in three places, and their time lengths between various segments of the trail never seemed to be in agreement with each other.