SK Valleys attempt (30 Sept- 1 Oct).
A recent initiate to the Wellington Big Sunday run group, I was inspired by Chris Martin & Tim Sutton’s recent SK valleys mission write-ups and motivated to launch my own solo mission. The SK traverse is a 74 km north-south traverse of the Tararua mountain range following the main valleys systems, starting near Eketahuna at Putara Road entrance, formerly Schorman Road and finishing in Kaitoke. Chris had planted a few seeds in my mind about pushing the boundaries of my running limits and recently generated a bit of online discussion about self-reliance, sensible decision making, general bush-craft and mountain safety when trail running. I understood this would be challenging course not simply because of overall distance and logistics but also due to the variety of terrain and navigation required. It’s certainly no bimble in the park.
Suitably emboldened, after waiting for daylight saving and impatient for a reasonable weather window, I found myself getting dropped off on Friday night by my long suffering missus and daughter at the Putara Road end. She wasn’t that keen driving to the back of Eketahuna, on a gravel road, in fading light, after a hard day at the office with month end. The things you do for love, God bless her. Not having previously explored the northern section of the Tararuas, I’d taken a reccie-run up to Roaring Stag the weekend before and had a bit of look around with Caroline O’Neill. This was valuable reconnaissance knowing I’d be travelling this section after dark. So after a quick photo- op with my daughter Emily, I was away.
Once under the tree canopy, the daylight didn’t hold and within about 20 minutes was reaching for the head-torch and getting warmed up. The temperature was dropping and felt pretty strange hitting pockets or mist that diffused the torch beam and affected my depth perception. The track was pretty boggy in sections and it wasn’t always easy selecting footfalls under torchlight. The light reflecting off apparent surface water was often ankle deep mud. I enjoyed a few moments in darkness tuning into the bush and listening in to the surroundings. There was zero ambient light and with the torch switched off you literally couldn’t see a hand in front of your face. Felt pretty comfortable on this section, recognising waypoints under torch light and was only startled from my reverie by a large possum crashing across the trail. You don’t see many possums in Liverpool and even a grown man gets scared, alone in the dark with sudden unexpected rusting in the bushes. Just as I was considering changing out my torch batteries, I caught a whiff or wood-smoke; saw the candle-light winking through the bush and grateful knowing someone else had the fire going for arrival at a warm hut. It was a pretty comfortable 1 hr 30 min run, approx. 7km, arriving at Roaring Stag hut at 9pm. I was pleased as this only took me 20 minutes longer in the dark from the previous weekend. It’s a pretty comfortable hut and I shared a restful night with a father & his 2 kids while I pondered what I knew would be the most challenging river section in the morning.
The hut was probably too comfortable and by the time I’d slept in, chin-wagged over cups of tea and generally faffed about, I wasn’t ready on the trail until 8am facing the river section.
After a recent bad experience with river crossings, I wasn’t at all keen on Tim’s reports of getting frozen, swimming icy cold rivers and knew bush bashing would be slow going. So my initial plan was to hug the river’s edge for approx. 1.5km before traversing cross-country, aiming for the highpoint and then drop down the headland towards the apex of the Ruamahanga river bend and then pick up the trail across-stream. I had also considered detouring along Cattle ridge but that seemed like adding a lot of unnecessary elevation and navigation. The river stones were pretty slick wet and greasy, not inspiring for sure footed boulder-hopping and before too long was I concerned about getting bluffed in. So, clambered the bank and into the uncharted bush. It’s not often you get to experience dense native bush like this and probably for good reason. After about 40 minutes of bush- bashing, I reconsidered and thought “the river can’t be that bad’’ and headed back to inspect the cliffs and bluffs enclosing a large river bend. These looked pretty promising and was bouldering along the waterline to traverse around. Unfortunately the water bottle on the front of my hip belt was getting in the way and threatening to tip me back off the rock face into the water. I was reminiscent of Tim chasing his drink bottle downstream if it fell out but was more immediately worried of falling in to the deep river. Deciding that wasn’t an option, I climbed up the 12m cliff face to return to bush-bashing.
I have to be honest and wouldn’t have had the confidence to navigate this section without GPS but once I relaxed and mentally adjusted to the surroundings, it was a case of picking my line, not fighting the bush and concentrated on navigating. GPS was on the money and I exited to the river exactly where I thought I should be using a large slip washout to descend towards the river.
Despite reading the contour markers, I hadn’t countered on the significant bluff down to the river’s edge. Fortunately, I found a washout choked with loose boulder rocks and toi-toi and managed to clamber down this. Then scoped out a likely spot for the final nervous, waist deep river crossing. On reaching the far bank, was delighted to immediately see a large orange trail marker and felt home free. My relief was short lived as the route-finding was difficult. Although there were sporadic orange trail markers there wasn’t a strong discernible trail to follow easily. It was very overgrown, lots of washout and tree fall and its obvious this region is not well-travelled. I found, like Chris’ report, the physical trail markers were not consistent with my GPS route. The orange trail marker were leading me up a valley to what looked like a large slip area, so I decided again to trust the GPS and navigate my GPS route. Looks a doddle on paper but this meant more bush-bashing with my hands and shins getting a good seeing to from the bush-lawyer. Eventually, crossing a final slip section could see I was approaching Cow saddle.
This was a real high for me, mentally feeling this was the crux of the route. Right on cue, the sun radiantly broke through the clouds at this point to give me an extra lift.
I guess the universe has way of evening things out to bring you back down the earth, literally in this case. Over the saddle, I was ready to start motoring down some fairly technical root sections and felt good to be descending to the Waingawa valley. The constant drizzle made the tree roots rather slippy and although usually a sure footed, confident descender, I took a whipper with both heels simultaneously sliding out underneath me, landing hard on my tail-bone. After thinking “I don’t want to do that again”, I manged the perfect he exact same manoeuvre 2 minutes later. Needless to say, this made my descending somewhat tentative with a bruised coccyx and was relieved to reach the Cow Creek hut for a restorative cup of tea and some hot food. Arrived approx. 12.40pm so a startling 4hr 40 for this 6km section. Yet again, probably spent far too long at the Cow Creek hut putting on dry gear, having a warm-up, feeding and repacking my kit but I was a little shaken after the fall so was probably wise to sort myself out and get re-focused.
Didn’t have a further problem descending the Waingawa river track and was relieved to have some beautiful bush clad running sections interspersed with stream crossings and undulations, with great views down the river valley and definitely felt all systems go. I think I surprised the two trampers at Mitre flats huts with my whooping as I arrived at 3.15 pm, approx. 2 hours for this section. Yet again, I probably spent too long here having a chin-wag, being tempted by the toasty warm hut before pushing on. On leaving the hut, I should’ve been paying more attention to my route checking. From my map memory, I misjudged the correct swing bridge for what I thought to be the route over to Barra track. So I ended up following an incorrect river bed, crossing and re-crossing the river and generally crashing about for about 20 minutes before I re-orientated myself. Back on track, I started bombing it along and skirting around the edge of Baldy. This was probably the most satisfy running section for me, energy levels felt good, nutrition & hydration in check, mentally positive, legs felt great, but a sore arse. I even managed to get cell signal along some high point of the ridge to fire of a safety update. Unfortunately the rain started coming in and was starting to regret all the burnt daylight stopping at huts.
At around 5pm, anticipating the approach to Atiwhakatu hut, was considering my goal for the day of Totara flats hut and calculating my remaining daylight. I was concerned about navigating at night in heavy rain when tired and hungry and what that might do to morale. Doing a mental inventory and gear check before darkness fell, I discovered the small dry bag bungeed on the outside of my pack with a spare dry beanie, merino top and neoprene gloves had fallen off somewhere on the trail. Probably psychological, but this made my hands really cold knowing that now I had no gloves.
Arriving at Atiwhakatu hut at 6.50pm, I knew this was crunch time. Minus my detour, was approx 2hr 45 for this section and was anticipating at least 2-3 hours to Totara flat in the dark. The hut was mobbed with family parties on school holidays and looked pretty warm and inviting. I knew it would be hard to leave after putting on warm dry kit and eating my curry & rice for dinner. After my second up of tea, friendly conversation and the rain drumming hard on the roof, I decided to stay the night realising my SK was getting out of reach.
Thinking on, this was probably a wise choice since the rain was pretty steady throughout the night and the river was pretty swollen in the morning. Stopping at Atiwhakatu meant I would have had pretty decent mileage to cover to Kaitoke the next day in marginal weather. My tail bone was killing me and was annoyed with myself for losing essential kit. Everyone at the hut was bailing out to the road end due to the weather, so I gratefully accepted the kind offer of a ride back to Wellington from 3 Nelson lads, Julian, Tim & Chris and also saving the missus a drive out to Holdsworth.
In summary, mission failure but plenty of lessons learned. Saturday was probably my longest day out to date for 11 hours on a trail run. Discretion is the better part of valour and the Tararuas will always be there waiting for SK valleys part 2. The key learning points for me where: this route is a mission, you have to be pretty fit and mission orientated, I was probably too casual thinking I had plenty of time. Don’t burn daylight faffing about at huts, sort out your housekeeping and nutrition and move on quickly. If going solo, check your gear and mental inventory. Concentrate on navigation and route markers. I was surprised on this run how I didn’t manage to indulge in my usual mindless or contemplative states I usually enjoy while running. I was concentrating on navigating and got lost the moment I thought I was on safe ground. And finally back yourself, don’t be too hard on yourself for minor errors and mistakes, improvise, adapt and overcome.
This morning, I was thinking I really didn’t feel to desire to revisit the Ruamahanga river or Cow Creek saddle, however on writing this, feel I’ve unfinished business, who’s keen?