Saturday, January 3, 2009

Up the Rakaia Valley

The owner of 50,000 acre Mt Algidus station, an English businessman by way of Scottish scotch and Aussie wine, invited us to sleep in his fishing hut by the Titan Stream, and good thing. It rained all night. “Smiley”, who wasn’t at all, had been skeptical when we’d told him our plans upon first meeting him. He’d driven up when we were looking to cache food in his wool shed.

As he pulled up, I had quickly introduced ourselves to him, his wife, and his station manager, Malcolm. And I’d come prepared.

“Do you drink beer, Malcolm?”

“I drink anything,” he replied.

“Here, take this six pack then. I don’t like beer much,” I bribed him.

I really had wanted to leave the food at their station house. But Smiley’d have none of that. He didn’t think we’d ever cross the river, raft or not.

Smiley'd had a bad experience crossing the Wilberforce River in the station’s ute, an old Toyota 4x4 flatbed.

“Thirty-one people have died in that river,” he claimed. “There’s even a book written about Mt Algidus Station: The River Rules Your Life.”

“We’ve come all the way from Alaska to do this trip,” I blurted breathlessly, “where we do this sort of thing all the time. We just came from Patagonia and I have written a book on it.” I spit all this out an attempt to convince him, but it just spilled off Smiley, who, Peggy observed, was a bit like the actor Anthony Hopkins, like water off a duck’s back.

He eyed us suspiciously then. Now that we’d made it, he hefted the raft, and offered us a lift across the station jeep trail to the hut. We accepted and learned that he had over 3500 sheep and a thousand cattle. He said there was no money in wool and that he sold the lambs at six months, “Directly to the butcher.”

We got an early start and walked over 20 miles, all in the rain. Most of it was on station two-track, flat jeep trails used to monitor sheep, cattle and deer. The deer were kept behind tall fences, the cattle were scarce, and the sheep ubiquitous. We saw a fence full of angora goats, with their black kids, white-capped adults, and mottled jumping juveniles.

The cold, incessant rain kept us moving. We’d stop only after 2-4 hours of walking at a time, when our energy stores ran low. We shoved Cadbury chocolate, biscuits, and flavored tuna in our pie holes.

Our route followed the north bank of the Rakaia, an enormous braided river that seemed to drain most of the east-central Southern Alps. No bridges crossed it, but there was another station, Manuka Point, that filled the Rakia’s wide U-shaped valley.

Grassy flats filled the spaces between cobbles low down but as we trudged higher, the track passed through the tall matagouri scrub. This native plant has small leaves and dense branches, a result of co-evolution with the now extinct moa. Moas included a dozen or so species of herbivorous birds, one growing to nine feet tall. They went extinct one thousand years or so ago, when the Polynesians arrived and found the naïve giant, flightless birds tasty and easy to kill.

Eventually we moved higher above the matagouri into a landscape of boulders and rocks on a flat bottomed valley, where gusts of wind blew down valley. Jungle-like forest grew upwards on the steep hill sides until tree line where rock, snow, and ultimately a few glaciers took over. Waterfalls striped every mountain.

The milky white Rakia bounced between its steep bounding mountains, splitting into braids that then coalesced. We’d like to have crossed, where the walking looked easier, but the water was too fast, deep, and cold to wade, and we were too cold and wet to stop and blow up the boat. Instead we climbed into the steep thick brush and bushwacked.

“I must really love you to suffer like this for you,” she said as we climbed up the soaking wet hill. But she smiled and climbed quickly in her sky blue rain coat and new trekking poles.

Peggy led upwards in wind and rain, following a deer trail through ferns, rosette swords, divaricating shrubs, and others with 4-square leaves. It all struck us as very Hawaiian looking – yet with glaciers just above.

“This is great bushwacking,” she called out over the wind and roar of the Rakaia. “It’s not slippery, not pokey, not sharp. It’s solid and firm and gives a good grip.”

A good thing, too, as we were on a steep, vegetated cliff face directly over rapids a 100 feet below. It wasn’t so dense as to force us to clamber but thick enough that we wouldn’t rag doll down should we slip.

Nearing six thirty we needed a hut, but couldn’t see one.

“Maybe it’s washed away, or burned down. Let’s just go camp between those trees.”

As we pulled up, there we saw a stove pipe and white building side tucked in a copse of mountain beech.

“There! The hut!”

“Now you can dry your map.” Peggy was happier for me than for her as I had been searching for huts all day without knowing where they might be. The map had no protection so had been stowed in my pocket where it got soaked.

It was nice to get out of the rain.


  1. That's my dad you're talking about in regards to Mt Algidus Station. Similar to Anthony Hopkins? I'm very amused!

    1. Sorry son, i used to muster Algidus years ago when we ran wethers all the way up the Rakaia and Wilberforce, preferred it back then when it was owned by New Zealanders, not foreigners, i have heard your father is not welcoming to kiwi's, maybe you lot should sell out and go back to your own country, i for one have had enough of your sort buying our historical stations and think you know all about them.

  2. I have only just chanced upon this web-page and your blog.

    You sound as if you are a very intrepid couple - more power to you and you have visited, from my experience, one of the most magnificent places on earth.

    One of these days I hope to do something similar in 'your Aklaskan neck of the woods'.

    Aussie Ray
    Melbourne, Victoria


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