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Got it all ready at 3 am. At 6:30 I was up, had some eggs, and at the bus at 7. At 8 I was on the road. (oh and this is an epic tale, you may want to take it in smaller bites). Snakeskin Saddle – here we come!

Got to where 7 leaves highway 1 thanks to a farmer returning home after a night on the town. Then went with a mother and her son towards Hanmer Springs. I enjoyed the warbles of a native bird while waiting for a last ride into lewis pass. Cars were far and few between but I snagged a nice fellow off to see his folks and maybe get into the bush to get some meat to bring home for make saucies. He also had a friendly puppy who was a joy to pet and be licked by. We discussed the bush and a certain spiky grass (which I later met in person). He dropped me off, in parting giving me his advice on where would be best to cross the Boyle river.

I had to fiord the Boyle River, just outside Lewis Pass, to begin the trip.I started off – HOW! – up and down the bank of the Boyle I went, still a bit green on crossing rivers I was cautious about wading in. I ultimately found a wonderfully easy spot, not much past my knees. I did however have to then cross other fingers of the Boyle and the Doubtful itself before gaining the track on the south bank. I stumbled across the river bed for a while before seeing the orange triangles which eventually led onto the bank itself and through tussock grass.


The Doubtful Valley, matted grass and stunted trees with haunting scrags here abundantI was entering the valley of the Doubtful River. Around me and ahead rose 1500-1700 meter peaks. The clouds were building, but for the moment blue patches floated around and the tops appeared now and again. Rather tame they seemed, almost rounded; but I only saw the lower peaks and not the Mountain summits themselves due to the narrow valley. In shifting cloudy daylight I passed through low shrub like trees. Stretching their scraggly, twisted, arms into the space around them, they were made all the more mildly sinister by the grey green moss dripping down their every branch. This moss, that I call ‘old man’s beard’, looks like nothing more than large tufts of wool that have been savagely torn off and now hang forlornly as the clouds lower. It was very beautiful really, but the feeling was darker, as the trees were stunted and low over the tall grasses which themselves were bent with the damp wet of rains and melted snows.

The Doubtful Valley, matted grass and stunted trees

I came to a first stream, passed through, then met some mud that I shouldn’t even bother mentioning, as more was to come. Ahead of me the landscape was dominated by grass before the approaching bush. I left the Doubtful’s side, admiring the round polished rocks on the bank and the bush leaning over the opposite bank, and climbed onto a terrace above. Winding through, and very happy to be again in the bush, I suddenly came upon a wall of ferns. The bush went on in all directions but there off to the side of the track stood a wall of ferns, tumbling down over each other in the magnificent order that ferns tend to posses, not just a slope with many ferns but a wall. Just past this I entered the bush I love the most. A silvery wonder that hangs with a certain ethereal moss, everything almost-shrouded in mist and yet you can see forever. The trees have long trunks eteched with moss and lichens while below branches litter the ground among small crawling plants but no shrubs. Here and there dead trunks lean against their younger brothers. The light filtering down through clouds and branches, leaves and dangling moss, diffuses and helps define the ethereal nature of green grey silvers.

I would see fleeting green continuations of the bush rising onto the opposite side of the valley through the bush which surrounded me. Now and then a clearing would appear and I could see more clearly. At one many things joined together. Tussock grasses spread in a golden color that is not golden when it’s cloudy; and yet still the plant puts forth such an aura of warmth. Through the grass a stream tumbled down the left slope, onto a soft bed of mossy stones to finally settle in a fine pool of healthy browns and many greens. Somewhere this pool drained into the Doubtfull, which boarded the clearing, but looking there the gaze was drawn to the cascade of rocks steeply descending in perpetual stillness. A long rock slide and the erosion slowly bring them to the valley floor. The jumping-splashing, fooling-laughing, white wash spray of water that chortled on, through, and down the rocks to meet its mother.

The old Doubtful BivyThrough the bush a bit more, clouds showing blue and sometimes a bit of sun. I came upon Doubtful bivy; a quaint little thing with a chimney sticking out, neatly nestled at the edge of a clearing looking up valley at the peaks beyond. I went a bit further to the where my journey would cross the Doubtful to head up Devilskin stream. But first I sat me down on some grass as the sun was shining and I thought it prudent to fill up in the sun and at a warmer altitude before I began my ascent. While eating I became surrounded by tens or hundreds of small flies which took little interest in my food and didn’t really attack me, but I think some of the ones that landed on my hands did try and suck on something after roaming around for a while… oh well I enjoyed my favorite peanut butter and banana.

DSCF2920Fording the stream I quickly gained altitude. up and up into darker bush with more moss I ascended. Very steep in places I was getting a good work out. After a time the path leveled somewhat and I began to follow the contours more closely as I traversed up valley. I was far up from Doubtful stream but crossed many feeder streams. Each of which was a complete joy and marvel in itself. Lush marvels supporting a more supple, moist green moss, and passing water over trunks and sticks so as to polish them. I was always captivated and had to pause at each. Sometimes a stream would leave enough of an opening to allow one to look across the valley but very seldom. I got a glimpse back at the doubtful river valley one last time near the third such stream, while across the valley the clouds had lowered to obscure the mountain tops.

I tramped along, occasionally plunging upwards and staring at roots soon to become footholds, and hugging the earth to my right as the slopes fell away to the left. Those roots were often red in a most magnificent way, a bright poisonous red I would say, very vibrant and earthy in the surrounding dark earth – not at all foreign.

The path of a landslide allows a view of the surrounding foothills and a better understandin of the surrounding steepness.

The slopes would startle me now and again with what appeared to be lovely purple quartz rocks. On touching one however I found a soft sack of something which I didn’t trust to touch again – a very disconcerting fungi.  The slopes became steeper yet, though I continued to traverse more than climb (for which I was thankful), and soon I crossed some avalanche/rockslide paths covered in ferns and small trees. Here I truly saw across the valley, to the rockslides mirrored there, but could not see down to Snakeskin Stream – I don’t think I saw it at all… I guess I saw a bit of it when I went up the saddle and there it truly was just a tiny little stream. In one of these paths I found a tiny patch of snow preserved under a fern.

I approached the end of the valley and moved up out of the brush. Here I found swaths of grasses, the stream, and poles marking a general route to the saddle. Snow was to be found in patches, and could be avoided with care.

the end of the brush, into the tussok for the last climb to the saddle

But all slopes were sopping wet! The grass would often sink underfoot and water would seep up to engulf my foot. The grass wasn’t all tussock, but also that pesky spiky plant I spoke of – and I had a bad habit of stepping right into it as also kept snow at bay and so harbored dry spots. Moving towards the saddle I saw the bivy on the left and made straight for it. This meant taking a steeper and slightly more snowy route, but once in the biv I could warm up. I’ll say it again – don’t wear keens on snow.

Don't wear keens in snow, though the snow was only patchy, the whole slope was sopping - gushing - wet

Devils Den biv was sweet. and I loved the location! right on the saddle it was surround by peaks – ones I could finally see – and you could look down to the valleys on either side as well. I considered continuing on to Nina hut, I had the time, but I really wanted some snow and so decided to stay at the biv. I removed my things: sleeping bag, dry socks, puffy jacket, sheep skin and set up a cozy little space. I then did a bit of yoga to get the warmth flowing and heating up the biv a bit. I visited the toilet briefly – and decided the best part of the biv was using the john with the door open and gazing up at the peaks above. I grabbed my pen and postcard material to make a sketch of that ridge. Trying to keep my hands warm and shelter the paper from a slight drizzle I tried my best to capture it all: the cornice with its small avalanche, the jagged ridge – Devils Den Rampart is its appropriate name, the various snow covered slopes, and partially obscured rocks and cliff faces, along with the scrub lined slope on which I stood, I even threw the john in.

the snow started to fall not long after I reached the biv, and soon a small wet dusty covered all.

I somehow knew I would have company and was rather surprised, but pleased, to find the biv empty. But just as dark was descending, and I just after finished some more yoga to warm up after my drawing, a pair arrived from Nina Valley. They were surprised to find someone as well but glad that the biv wasn’t already full with three! conveniently they actually brought a double sleeping bag which they shared and so no one had to brave the cold floor. They cooked some noodles and I enjoyed my spaghetti and meat sauce. We warmed the biv nicely, while outside temperatures plummeted; clouds lowering and rain slowly changing to snow. I lit a candle and read Letters from High Latitudes, a collection of letters from an Englishman’s journey to Iceland and up into the arctic to Spitzbergen. We spoke a bit: the two were from christchurch, him doing a PhD at the uni, in the morning they hoped to cross sylvia tops (a ridge rising to 1600m). Soon we all slept, and my sheep skin kept my back warm, er actually way too toasty.

<Pause>

With morning there was more wind and ice on the windows. I regretted having no hot tea or oatmeal, musli is good food but the warmth is always nice. I should a brought my jetboil instead of the whisper light (which needs so many more accessories). Outside the ground was far less patchy as several centimetres had fallen and blown all around. I took a few photographs before freezing my finger in the wind and so put it all away, packed up and headed down through the snow. This time I wore my boots, and the ground was far less slushy. None the less I still managed to step into a small stream, but wet boots are the norm in NZ tramping and I expected to be thoroughly soaked by the end of the day. The wind abated as I descended below the saddle and I said my last farewells to the rampart above and silently wised my companions of the night before good luck as they ascended the opposite ridge above me.

at Devils Den Biv the morning come nice and white, time for real shoes now.

I love the snow, honestly It’s what I came down here to New Zealand for in many ways.  And I am sorry I didn’t bring my skis down to the island to enjoy it better. But if I can just get into a bit of mountaineering I shall have my fix. I was nervous of stepping in more water on the tussock below the saddle, but walking into the shelter of the trees all my worries vanished and I sunk into the wonder of falling snow.

A slightly thicker dusting of snow than in most of the Bush, thanks to the higher altitude and proximity to the bush's edge.

The bush, that ethereal bush I tried to explain earlier, is so enhanced by a dusting of snow. The place become quieter, yet more noise is present, a slight drip dripping of the warm snow slipping off leaves to lightly plunk on others. The light changes but remains serene. ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills’ at once I saw no daffodils. Instead the snow was fading, turned to rain, and while above eternal slumber rested her soft face, below the vale was struggling to stay awake and shed the drops that fell from high. On this border I was sad and reflected how fortunate I was to have stayed on high at Devils Den Biv so as to be met at the morn by a dusting of powder.

Crazy moss, a lichen likely, with maroon red drops peeling off it as well . both clinging to trees and to rocks.Crazy moss, a lichen likely, with maroon red drops peeling off it as well Steeply down the path descended, the clouds moving up, the rain coming as a drizzle. Again I began to see red roots, and also now on many rocks a peculiar sort of lichen was to be seen. Stiff as dried flowers with undulating – almost serrated – edges they clung to trees and rocks. Large, measuring almost a hands breadth out from their perch, they fold along – up/down – the trees and rocks for tens of centimeters in places. But on their surfaces many red and purple dots of a poisonous shade arranged themselves in an orderly pattern. An amazing artwork of nature were these lichens: both the patterning of dots and the forms of the lichens themselves.

After a particularly steep bit where the stream was roaring off to the left I recalled that the guide said the path veered from the stream to avoid a hidden waterfall. Determined to visit the fall itself I left my pack on the trail and descended a bit of scree to reach the stream itself. I then carefully hopped from rock to rock up Blind stream, and whoa there was a waterfall. I closed the last distance, carefully crossing a slippery log to cross banks, and drank in the majesty of that cascade. Some 10-25 meters it fell unhindered to a shallow pool, while around to my right the stream descended in a staircase of wider falls to empty into the same basin. I thought it far more beautiful than St Nectan’s Kiev in Cornwall.

a Secret water fall between the saddle and Nina Hut, You have to guess at a side trail and veer off the main path.

The place was cozy as solid rock stretched up around and under the falls and a small beach of stones was dry for (me!) to stand on and enjoy it all. The wider falls roared, the taller shlooshed, between them rivulets streamed, and on the cliff face drip dripping through moss tumbled fat juicy drops refracting the light as crystals as they fell. I sang a bit at the falls, inspired by the energy of the place, moving my voice and rhythms with the movements of the various water features. I saddled back up and made my way though the now rainy bush.

DSCF2975Soon I came to Nina hut, where I poked my head in to find the fire still warm and the place really very lovely. A great place to spend cold nights with good friends I’m sure. The trail from there got muddier and I no longer really tried to avoid it. I tried not to blatantly step in the deep bits, but anything below ankle height I slogged right into! The track at this point wandered away from Blind stream, bypassing its meeting point with the Nina river, and moved closer to the Nina valley side. I crossed some more beautiful streams and after a while on the relative flats I noticed some boulders off to the right through the trees. I figured I might as well check them out.

 

The First massive Boulder glipsed, though taken from closer than the path

The first was massive itself: 7-12 m high and covered in moss. It had a roughly rectangular shape and a slight overhang on two sides. Absent of moss it would have made for some wonderful bouldering. Farther into the bush, towards the valley rim, were more boulders which I decided to explore. I scried a faint track and followed it, perhaps it was from animals, I doubt it was from stream erosion, and if it did really exist it could have had human origins. I soon lost it, or was too captivated by the spearhead of a rock that thrust it’s way up into the tree tops to care.  I scrambled up where a second large boulder was leaning on this massive triangle and found myself in a moss courtyard of paradise. (I know there’s so much moss, I’m sorry but I do love it!) To the north, from where I had come rose the sloped rear part of that steep pyramid of a rock, to the west a squatter but equally massive boulder formed a wall while to the south and east numerous boulders left little passages to the outside world and held back some of the forest. The floor would require much study to fully determine as it was completely covered in moss. It supported me at any rate and was probably an assortment of boulders, logs, and rotten plant matter. I found at last a true mat of moss, a carpet (true it had some undulations) that I would eagerly have slept on in dryer conditions. I did lie down, and stared up at the thin foliage spreading from a few large trees in and outside the courtyard. I enjoyed watching drops fall down, especially when the larger ones tried to bombard me and landed with a satisfying thoush in the moss by my side. The moss is so forgiving that you sink in and on rising I could see the form of my body remembered by the moss, my I would love to sleep there…

 

the distant Megalith of a boulder rising to the tree tops and the light

There were more boulders farther up the slope and what looked like the cliff face that once produced them. I scrambled my way there, careful not to fall through the rotten layers of vegetation. Indeed there were cliffs, and a very dirty but fun looking trad route I wouldn’t have minded cleaning and attempting had I the gear and an eager partner. I made my way back down, again following the natural trails. I noticed a neat cave like opening at the base of one of the boulders and, after throwing some sticks in to clear out any animals, went in to check it out. I could see right through to light at the other end. But realized the smaller rocks between the light and me were supporting the boulders; it would really suck if they decided that now was the time to fail and let the boulder come down to crush me. So I decided not to wriggle through and walked around and then up on top of the boulder instead. There many little saplings were integrating the boulder into the bush, continuing the succession, of fallen leaves to moss to grass to shrubs, that has been going for hundreds of years. From top I looked down into the courtyard, at my little blue backpack throwing off the green of it all; I looked up and saw the front face of that massive spear illuminated by sunlight streaming through the thin foliage. Moss turned yellow, but not quite. So tall and majestic that some little sapling on the boulder’s peak reached as high as its 300 year old neighboring giant of a tree.

I reluctantly gathered my pack, again noticing the slightly unstable nature of the courtyard’s center and then gingerly made my way out and down. I paused and leaning on a rock to tie my shoe I noticed minute little fungi, looking like forest spirits of princess mononoke with white tilted heads, perched on both sides of a rock. They made a little forest of their own, on the face towards me looking like little spots, while on the other face which sloped away I saw their tiny trunks supporting moist mushrooms of pearly white which reflected a sticky quality of light to the eyes.

 

The etherial Beauty of New Zealand bush in a light mist.

I wasn’t entirely sure where the track was, but didn’t mind so much. picking my own way through the bush meant that I appreciated all it’s aspects all the more (and I got to go by more lush moss!!!). Once I came to a slight precipice which flattened out in a series of pools. It was a muddy place with more strong brown colors than green and more silent than other places in the bush. A depression it was that collected the water, a marsh? no the water was clearer and all felt more ordered and beautiful, I’ll call it a sump because of how the water slumps into it and the ‘u’ reminds me of the wonderful mud. I also ran into some thick spiky bushes that I had to go around, but I did find the track again.

Soon I came to the swinging bridge that has recently been erected (though the nina was rather low farther upstream and would have been no problem to ford). Was a really cool and interesting spot. the river narrows and rushes with great depth past 4m high walls on either side. Probably some cool cliff jumping opportunities there. Further on was another swimming hole where I stopped for my favorite lunch and some more enjoyment of the dripping sounds. I thought about swimming but didn’t feel like changing or over – analyzing the current’s strength.

The spooky dark dead feeling place - a crossroadsThe path was rather flat and went slowly down hill, occasionally jumping up a side valley for a bit to cross a stream (beautiful sights themselves), and always coming across more mud. Sometimes people had placed twigs and sticks which provided some extra surface tension but mostly you just slogged through it and washed off at the next stream. I came to a very eerie place where again the trees were gnarled and scraggly. The same moss hung from their branches but seemed dirty rather than old and sage like. The ground was of mud, water, rotted-white lichens and overlapping roots. There a cross-roads was and I walked on.

So it was full circle, I was back at the Boyle river, and here the level was low, but a bridge had been installed so I used it. I took out my comb to straighten my hair without looking too Guido, though in the rain this was pointless. Slow traffic coming through that pass. I learned from my ride earlier that only 30,000 people live on the entire west coast of the south island.

Waiting for the next ride

But I didn’t wait long, and she was headed all the way to Christchurch. We talked of life on the coast, the health system, education, and other small things. I again marveled at the marvelous set of foothills that lead up to Hanmer Springs. Boulder has foothills which merge seamlessly with the peaks behind. Here there are 3 sets with lovely lush valleys between and then the shorter mountains begin. oh and my ride pointed out a rock formation which is very clearly a frog! I marveled at all the river rocks entombed neatly in the cut sides of the road – lined up and deposited long ago by rivers from mountains like those I had just left. And the water forces could be seen in swollen drainages, hillsides that had slid, and reservoirs where children would normally swing under a tree. In Christchurch it was raining more than it had been in the bush. I cooked up the last of my pasta sauce and had a good hot meal before settling down for another early sleep.

 

Here ends an epic. I hope for your sakes that those which come after this don’t go on so long. though If there are any editors out there that want to try and make something of all this jumble, let me know!

 

And now again the gallery, with some extras thrown in.

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