Olivine adventures  Chasing Gold in the Arawhata, part 1

The seed was planted for this trip a couple of years ago, when my sister and I were was told that there was a glacier in the Olivine Ranges named after our late grandfather, John Findlay.

This trip was made possible with support from a FMC Youth Expedition Scholarship, with funds that came from the FMC Mountain and Forest Trust and the Maerewhenua Trust.  Sam West tells the tale, with photographs from all of the team. 

A small man, with an appetite for big adventures, we knew that John had been a lifelong tramper and climber, however we never appreciated the extent of his exploits until we began to do a little digging. Fortunately this was relatively easy as John had always been a disciplined writer, taking great pains to record his trips, and his climbing journals had been kept within the family.

John Findlay in the 1930s (Photographer unknown)

We discovered that John and his companions undertook trips that would be daunting in this day and age, and when viewed through the lens of time are sporting to say the least. Details emerged of two month epics, moving from Glenorchy to the Hollyford, through the Skippers Range into the Pike and then deep into the Olivines, before finishing down the Arawhata, all nonchalantly recorded in a leather bound journal.

Map of the Olivines from John’s journal (NZAC)

Tramping in the John’s formative years would have been exercise in suffering, and the only guarantees being difficulty and discomfort in every sense. Rudimental maps and forecasts, flax ropes, woollen clothing and waist-high wooden ice axes the hallmarks of an era where all you needed was all you had; your wits and the gear on your back. Tales of sharing campsites with Arawhata Bill and shooting Kea for dinner added to the legend of our grandfather that at times seemed more fiction than fact. Growing up we heard from Mum how John was a staunch gram counter; cutting the handle off his toothbrush and trimming straps off his pack, and we made mental notes to do the same at any chance.

John ascending steep tussock slope (unknown)

In our minds, the golden nugget in the story of John’s life was the Findlay Glacier. No one from the family had returned to the glacier on foot since John’s two month traverse in the 1930’s, something that motivated us to make what felt more like a pilgrimage than a tramping trip. A quick check on a topo-map offered a brief reality check; the glacier was deep in the Olivine Ranges, 40km up the Arawhata Valley and guarded from all both sides by thick West Coast forest and steep, broken ground. A year of dreaming, planning and preparing ensued, culminating on a clear morning in early April 2018, when we found ourselves with four good friends, standing on the banks of the Arawhata River. Heads swirling under the influence of a cocktail of trepidation, anticipation and elation, bursting packs were loaded into jet boats, sandflies were swatted and we were off. The pilgrimage had begun.

Johns Ice Axe came along for the start of the trip (J Bayly)

The plan for our trip had been firmed up a few months prior. Restricted by time and with a slightly lower tolerance for prolonged suffering and uncertainty than John, we opted for a smash and grab type mission to the Findlay Glacier rather than the traditional expedition approach. John had been an avid jet boater later in his life, so we thought it would fitting to begin the trip by jet boating up the Arawhata.

“Reckless II” probably the first fiberglass boat to make it to 10 Hour Gorge in a long time (S West)

For just over an hour we sat in silence, our ears filled with the growl of the engine, eyes by the swirling river and the Olivine and Waipara ranges that stretched up from each side. As quickly as it had started, it was over. Deposited on the true left of the river, we shouldered packs over our life jackets and walked across the flats to the derelict hut at the end of Collins Creek. We stashed food and pack rafts for the return trip down the river, enjoying our last moments on level ground. Our nervous pre-departure state was disrupted when a large bumble bee flew down the top of my gaitor, complete with golden pollen.

Will sorting himself out before we slipped into the bush (J Bayly)

The next phase of our plan had us following the true left of Collins Creek up towards the main spine of the Olivine Range, where the upper reaches of the creek flowed along a sedate valley floor that promised good camping under the watchful eye of Alfred Peak. In theory it would be a straight-forward run up the vague ridge between Collins Creek and the side stream.

Some of the friendlier bush we encountered (J Bayly)

In practice we made good progress for the first 40 meters, then proceeded to don climbing helmets and “get mongrel” for the next five hours. Packs were snagged, ankles twisted and knees tweaked as we made our way slowly upwards.Some sections were steep and slippery enough that we entertained the idea of using our ice axes for purchase in the forest floor detritus. After reaching the 750m contour we traversed back towards the creek, aiming to intercept an old slip face in the hope that travel would be easier. What followed was two hours of the most heinous full body combat Leatherwood and Holly bush bash any of us had ever had the misfortune of taking part in.

Descending the slip on true left of Collins Creek in search of a campsite (J Bayly)

Once on the slip face we fanned out to avoid kicking rocks onto each other and made good progress, before unenthusiastically slipping back into the scrub line in the hope of traversing along the 950m contour towards our planned campsite. We were promptly bluffed out, and in fading light and thickening cloud made the painful decision to head back down the slip face in the hope of finding a plan-b campsite before dark. Salvation came in the form of sloping platform barely big enough for three tents, covered in baby-head size rocks. We ate and caught the 7.30pm sched on
the mountain radio, the forecast sounded interesting to say the least. Shaun had packed a multi purpose gold pan/bowl, and had a quick search for his own gold in the stream near our tents.
Sleep came quickly despite the uneven ground and the sporadic screech of Haast Tokoeka in the nearby bush.

We woke up to pitter patter of rain on the tent fly, and quickly rallied for the day ahead. Not interested in getting bluffed out again, we followed the slip down towards Collins Creek and traversed the last of the bush. The rain set in as we wrangled our way through sub-alpine scrub, stopping briefly to demolish salami, cheese and dinosaur lollies. Once out of the scrub we made good progress along the tussock covered slopes, traversing beneath the outlines of house-sized schist boulders enveloped in mist. As we edged onto the flat area we had hoped to camp on, a surprised Chamios scampered out from a rock biv it had been sheltering in.

Lunch break in the pouring rain on day two (J Bayly)

By this point it was raining heavily and forecasted to get worse, so we decided to call it a day at the prime hour of 2.30pm. We holed up, flung food between tents and revelled in the luxury of dry socks and warm sleeping bags. A flash of lightning was followed instantly by a booming thunder clap that reverberated deep in our chests, not the most comforting experience when in a tent above the bushline.

Will doing a night time weather check from his tent: still raining (S West)

In part two of the story, we’ll follow the team higher into the hills and into the adventures beyond the bushline.  This trip was made possible with support from a FMC Youth Expedition Scholarship, with funds that came from the FMC Mountain and Forest Trust and the Maerewhenua Trust.  Sam West tells the tale, with photographs from all of the team. 

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