Part I  Dennis’ Last Coast to Coast

After becoming good friends 10 years ago while training for the Kathmandu Coast to Coast Race, Stefan and Dennis embark on their own wilderness traverse — a 10-day, 250 km west-east crossing of the South Island. In Part I of their epic, they trek through difficult conditions and reassess the future of their trip.

By Stefan Fairweather (December 2018)

Thick cloud swirled up the valley like a wave pushing up an estuary at high tide.  A light rain fell and for the briefest of moments we were in an eerie landscape of soft white, disorientating in its uniformity, the spartan warratahs leading up to Harman Pass no longer visible.  But as quick as the cloud had engulfed us, it dissipated giving Dennis and I views to the pass ahead. It was the second high crossing in as many days, and the second day of rather dubious weather – cloud, rain and variable visibility. 

We were day 4 into an anticipated 10-day, 250-kilometre west-east crossing of the South Island, a real wilderness-style coast to coast adventure.  The idea had been mine for the last couple of years.  Dennis had leapt on board earlier in the year after failing to complete his sixth and final one-day Coast to Coast multi-sport race.  The Kathmandu Coast to Coast Race is a gruelling one (or two) day race combining road cycling, mountain running and white water kayaking from Kumara Junction on the West Coast to New Brighton Beach in Christchurch on the East Coast. Dennis and I had met each other in Arthur’s Pass 10 years earlier training for the race and had become good friends.  Whereas I had hung up my Coast to Coast boots after completing one race, Dennis declared his goal was to do ‘5 Coast to Coasts when in my fifties and one when I’m 60’.  However on his final race, aged 60, he had disappointingly missed the cutoff time while paddling the 67-kilometre kayak leg and was consequently pulled off the course.

“I really want to do this walk you’re planning” he told me over the phone in March last year.  “I want to finish the Coast to Coast.”

“It’d be great to have you.” Dennis is a formidable man in the mountains; he had successfully climbed Mt Cook 9 times via 7 different routes as well as a number of other prominent peaks in the Southern Alps.  

“Are you sure you’ll be okay with it?” I had enquired.  “It’s a lot of horizontal and not much vertical – no swinging off ropes or other things you climbers like to do.”  

Dennis assured me he would be fine with it.  “Maybe we’ll see some trout?” He sounded hopeful.  He was a keen fisherman.

The route I had anticipated took us from the rugged Tasman Coast at Kumara Junction up along the West Coast Wilderness Cycle Trail to the Arahura River.  From there we would cross Newton’s Saddle into the Taipo catchment, over Harman’s Pass to Carrington Hut and down the Waimakariri to Bealey Hut at the start of the Lagoon Saddle Track.  After crossing Lagoon Saddle I chartered a course down the Harper River, up a spur onto the Craigieburn Range beneath Mt Cheeseman and along the ridges to Lake Lyndon.  From there we would walk over Porters Pass via the Coach Stream route in the Korowai/Torlesse Tussocklands Park, then up the Kowhai River to Mt Torlesse and a traverse of the Torlesse Range to the Waimakariri River.  Finally we would put in our packrafts and paddle 90 kilometres to the Pacific Coast and walk down the beach to New Brighton.

“It’s not set in concrete – let’s see how we get on,” I had explained.  We both agreed some of the high ridge traverses looked ambitious with respect to distance and time.  And of course we would be at the mercy of the weather.

The first day two days had been fast along the cycle trail.  Good weather and easy surfaces had seen us make quick inroads into the forested valleys of the West Coast. To Dennis’ great delight, we had even seen some brown trout in the canals adjacent to the cycleway.  Day 2 came with the delights of ice cream and soft drink at Cowboy Paradise, an accommodation provider half way along the cycle trail, in the late afternoon. 

Shortly beyond that, we entered the West Coast bush proper, the wide benched track of the lower Arahura hinting at a history of horse traffic and a bygone era. 

But the good times didn’t last and from the Arahura Hut the following morning we grovelled over the rugged Newton’s Saddle, sliding down the steep tussock of the Dunn’s Creek side, eventually reaching Dunn’s Creek Hut after a challenging 9-hour day, mostly in rain. Drenched and tired, we lit a fire and dried out our gear.

“Just think” I said to Dennis that night over dinner, “we’re taking 10 days to do what we have both done previously in one day.”

“It’s a lot slower without road bikes” he pointed out.

And it was considerably slower the next day too.  We had thought we could get to Carrington Hut in 9 or 10 hours.  But in a pattern that was to become familiar, the trails were rougher than we had anticipated, and we slower than we thought we thought we would be. 

After a late lunch at Julia Hut, we headed off at 2pm in bright sunny weather, and 7.5 hours later stumbled into Carrington Hut, tired and hungry after a long 13 hour day. 

The weather had closed in on the pass but had cleared once we dropped through the Taipoiti Gorge to the White River. Still somewhat exhausted and licking our wounds from the previous day, we put our heads together and pondered the remaining route over breakfast the following morning.

“I think a full traverse of the Craigieburn Range might be optimistic” suggested Dennis.  “We’re just not as fit as we think we are.”

I agreed – but for different reasons.  “We’re fit” I chided, “I just think the distances we’re trying to do in a day are too far.”

“Well, how do you feel about traversing the Torlesse Range?” he enquired.

It looked a long way on the map, especially if we weren’t going to traverse to Lake Lyndon in a day as planned.  We would need to reconsider that part of the trip too.

Check out Part II of “Dennis’ Last Coast to Coast,” featured here on Wilderlife.

For more details about Dennis and Stefan’s adventure, check out northtosouthnz.com.

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