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Spence & Telford Valleys

Updated: Oct 29, 2018

I was ready to get out and do something. My girlfriend at the time had suggested a trip to the Takitimu mountains and I thought it sounded like a great idea, she had been on the route before and showed me all the maps. Easy I thought, looking at the contour lines, it should be a good trip.

My girlfriend had work so I had to find some other party members for the trip. In the end I managed to enlist Calli, a girl from Texas, and Ingeborg (I still don’t know how to say it), from Norway. We set off a little later than I would have liked on the 15th, bound for the Takitimu Conservation Area. We arrived at 3:30pm, after nearly being blown off the road several times. I made the executive decision that I could not be bothered walking in the waning hours further than the first hut, so we set that as our destination. The Aparima River track winded up the river and was relatively easy (and boring). After an hour and a half we got to the Aparima Huts. Inside the hut we found an American couple, much to Calli’s delight. We started to prepare dinner, which consisted of pasta, carrots, peas and what I like to call Backcountry Pasta Sauce™. The sauce is just a mix of potato flakes and tomato soup mixture. I think it tasted fine, though it did look a bit like pink slime. Halfway through dinner some through-walkers doing the Te Araroa Trail showed up and made for good company. I did my rehearsed TA speal about giving back to the country and surprisingly they were all for it. The conversation quickly drifted to food as it always does with TA walkers. Remembering that I had a beaten up chocolate bar in my bag I go inside to fetch it. They inhale it with a sense of sheer ecstasy on a level I have never seen before. We had a good laugh and they shed a few tears of joy. It began to get cold outside so everyone shifted off to their respective beds for the night.

We managed to be out of the hut by 9ish. The plan was to walk up to Spence Hut and then up onto the ridge and over to Upper Waitaki Hut. The walk began innocent enough. The track up to the junction with the Aparima Forks Hut track was easy going through bush with a little bit of up and down. Just past the junction the track dropped steeply down to the Aparima river and we linked up to cross over. The track from here is classed as a route by DOC. It was fairly well defined through the forest, the only difficulties being a bit of windfall on the track. It took four and a half hours to get to Spence Hut, which is a small 2 bunk biv at the joining of two streams. Little did we know how we would come to appreciate it later. It was 1:30pm when we set off up the stream towards Upper Waitaki Hut.

Following the stream up we quickly became enveloped in a canyon, with walls several metres high. Each cascade became larger as we went upstream until we eventually came to a roadblock. A torrent of water flowed over a wall of rocks too high to scramble over. We had to backtrack a minute or so until we could find a point to clamber out of the canyon, hoisting ourselves up using whatever we could find. The forest on the side of the canyon was criss-crossed by animal tracks, which we followed, crashing through the bush using the sound of the roaring stream as our guide. We stayed high and after about an hour of bushbashing we emerged out of the bushline. Grey clouds were flowing across the sky high above. A bad omen.

Between the edge of the bushline and the open alpine tussock lands lay an area of dense prickly scrub through which we had to plough a path. Finely we were out into open country. Ingeborg and I are both experienced with mountainous terrain and we made good time over the tussock land. Calli however is more experienced with the deserts of Utah, the mountains of NZ being a totally foreign setting for her. Therefore progress was slow. As we chugged up hill the frequent stops started to chill the faster two of us to the bones. As the rain began to come down we started to layer up.

Mistake one

This should have been when we stopped and reconsidered, rather than plowing on. With Calli being a bit slower off-track and the weather packing in it was a bad decision to keep going over the tops. It can be hard in a situation like this because it is painful to turn around and go back on all that hard work up hill. However I have no doubt in my mind now that we should have turned back to Spence Hut.

We eventually made it up and over the ridge. My navigation was off so instead of going over the low saddle we ended up climbing up a significant portion of Mt Spence. As we crept over the top the wind buffeted us, almost blowing us away. We huddle under a rise to catch our breath before finishing our unfortunate and unplanned sally forth into the Telford Valley. We descended down a creek, slipping and sliding down its slopes. The rain poured, dripping down our faces.

We had to grasp tussock to clamber down the cascading slopes of the creek. In the distance we could see the treeline and with it was the hope of a hut. Our smaller creek joined others and slowly became a small river. It was a slow walk to the bushline. The only thing that kept our legs moving was the spark of hope that was the idea of a fire and a warm meal. Unfortunately this dream was altogether shattered when we reached our ‘destination’. The next 2 hours was soul destroying. With my pack on I launched myself on a spirited but totally hopeless search through the bush for this hut. I climbed all the way through the trees, I followed the animal tracks, I hugged the trees, I sniffed the ground. It was all in vain. Darkness was descending as we decided to move downstream. In the bleak twilight, in the miserable rain, we decided to set up camp in the one person tent that Calli had brought.

“Oh I forgot the pegs and poles” — Calli

My mind raced, searching for solutions. Need to set up camp. Need to get dry. Need to get shelter. We laid out the tent fly and started to jerry rig it with tramping poles. We stripped off our wet layers and for a few moments I stood under the rain in the failing light, feeling the water impact on my bare skin. A shiver convulsed through me and we carefully work our way inside our ramshackle shelter. Our dinner consisted of two carrots. That was perhaps one of the longest nights of my life. I listened to the rain on the tent and felt the cold water seep into my sleeping bag by my feet. I was worried that the river would rise and we would get stuck. Thunder boomed overhead. The only solace was that three people in a one person tent is quite cosy. After 2 hours I remembered the survival blanket in the first aid kit. It added a shred of comfort to a night otherwise devoid of anything of the sort.

In the morning we set our sights on one last ditch attempt to salvage the trip. “Bull Basin” connects the Telford Valley to the Wairaki. The only problem with this plan was that we didn’t exactly know where we were. We use a creek as a path up the valley side. Just like the day before, the creek worked its way into a canyon. We backtracked and pulled ourselves up through the bush. Eventually we decided this was in vain. This was crushing to do but the right thing to do.

Mistake two

Looking for Bull Basin was a mistake. We took a chance when we really didn’t have any chances to give.

We went back to the campsite and started up a billy boiling for some porridge. I had brought an entire bag of brown sugar by mistake and by jones I did not regret it. I think I had more brown sugar than oats. It was here that we sat and had a full and frank discussion about whether to set off our Personal Locator Beacon and get a helicopter in. Ingeborg and I advocated to head back to Spence Hut. Calli was feeling in a bad way. The day of failure had not installed great trust in her of my navigational ability. I honestly said that the helicopter looked very appealing but that it would be wrong to use the PLB. We could still walk out, so we should, we would if we didn’t have the PLB. Eventually we convinced her to walk back to Spence.

I was thankful as the sun shone down on us, it filled us with new hope. For the first time in what seemed like forever we had things going for us. We had time on our side and nice weather.

With frequent stops we steadily made our way back. With the benefit of retrospect and clear weather we passed over the low saddle this time and dropped into the familiar territory of the Spence Valley. We had learnt from our mistakes and the trip back to the hut was easier than the way up. We avoided dropping down to the creek and instead followed it through the bush all the way to the hut.

“I’ve never been so happy to see a hut” - Ingeborg

We laid out all our wet gear in the remaining sun to dry out a little before the sun finally dropped below the horizon. Ingeborg started dinner and I dabbled with the idea of a fire. However the big open fire inside the hut was great at letting cold air down the chimney and smoke into the hut. But we were thankful for the hut. So so thankful. Safe to say we fell asleep quickly that night.

We started out early the next day. I just about cried when we walked on the marked track (‘route’). It went exactly where we wanted to go. No navigation needed. What a relief. The rivers were up from the rain in the hills but they weren’t impassable. After 4 and a bit hours we reached Aparima Hut. There was a couple there who had had their own misadventure and we happily shared our miseries. They told us that there was a 4WD track to the carpark that cut an hour off the track time. This sounded like a good idea for us. Soon we were at the car. Soon we had made it.

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