Friday, February 5, 2010

Landsborough: Mountain and Wilderness

The Landsborough may be the wildest multiday whitewater run on the South Island, but I don’t know, there may be something wilder in Fiordland.

I do know The Landsborough’s thirty mile length is fully boxed in by glaciated mountains on three sides, including the Southern Alps' craggy divide, and a canyon on the fourth.

Last year I’d run the north West Coast’s Karamea River solo after walking into its tropical feeling headwaters with Peggy and Jazz, as a substitute.

But the Landsborough’s been what looks best for a packrafter to explore.

Every packrafter I’ve ever talked to who knew anything about NZ has wanted to do the Landsborough, remote and wild. No sheep, no cattle, no 4x4 tracks. Helos aren’t allowed above Mckerrow Creek, 20 miles up. There’s no map-marked trail as such into its wild heart -- only a single, shabby, old hut and two bivs, one a “rock biv”.

With glaciated mountains and beech forests the Landsborough Valley pulls like a magnet for an Alaskan wilderness packrafter. And after three trips and four rivers Erik Tomsen was ready.

“I like the idea of a source-to-sea trip,” he said.

“I don’t think we have enough time to set the shuttle, do the hike from the headwaters, and then run the river to the ocean before your girlfriend comes in on the thirtieth. But Gavin says its pretty easy in through Brodrick Pass, over by Mt Cook. He’s been up there before. And that way we can run the river the commercial groups do, maybe a little higher”

Thirty-year old Gavin Mulvay is the real deal. A scrappy, fit, classic Kiwi adventurer, he’s a third generation mountaineer: his grandfather was a Mt. Cook Guide, his grandmother the first to climb all NZ peaks over 10,000 feet in a single season. He’s also an innovator and a tinkerer. Before he’d started packrafting, he had created several versions of an “alpine bike”, used for riding downhill but shaved of all weight. And as I write this he’s working on making another kite for skiing in Antarctica.

Gav’s alpine bikes sport hard tails with small diameter rear wheels and larger diameter front ones. They have no seats, no derailleurs, no chains, nor cranks. He stands on the foot pegs and coasts down shingle scree ridges and twisty sheep trails. He even has a modified baby-backpack for carrying these fly-weight downhill bikes up the mountains he rides. He and a friend once climbed to the alpine divide near Mt. Cook and rode down a steep glacier’s morning crust with special bladed wheels. Watching his video and I held my breath as they swooshed past cracks and crags.

Before the alpine bikes there’d been little motor bikes he’d take on long off-road mountain journeys; a split board snowshoe/snowboard; and this past winter while he over-wintered at NZ’z Scott Base in Antarctica working as their engineer, he and an electrician friend built a series of snow-caves to occupy their time.

The first snow cave was a sleeping shelter where he tested his latest soda can alcohol stove creation. Next he and his friend carved out a “lounge” big enough to hold 25+ people. It was wired with light switches and a central, vertical pillar hollowed out for a fluorescent tube light. They hosted a party there with Americans visiting from McMurdo and the Kiwis from Scott. The last room they made featured a movie screen and projector where they showed “Happy Feet.” Featured on NZ TV when they auctioned off their caves on NZ’s version of E-Bay called Trade-me, collecting $2,000 for charity.

Gavin had answered my post on the forum, saying he’d like to try out one of the Alpacka Rafts I’d brought over. He sent pix from his own latest adventure with his girlfriend down the multi-day Clarence using “Warehouse” rafts. The Warehouse is sort of like a NZ K-Mart and the rafts are about what you’d expect at K-Mart. Knowing how fragile they’d be, he wrapped the boast in blue tarps for protection.

Like Erik, Gavin was game for the Landsborough, too, even if it was his first Alpacka trip. All the big Class IV rapids are portageable, according to the guidebook. Hearing his stories on the seven hour drive to the Haast River to set the shuttle and looking him over he seemed fit and experienced, with a good sense of humor and wit.

We left Christchurch at 5:30 PM and by 4:30 AM we’d set the shuttle at the take-out along the Haast and driven Gav’s 4x4 to the Monument Hut near Lake Ohau. The outlook was for a week of great weather.

From the Hut a series of orange marked tracks, complete with huts and swing-bridges leads across open flats, through shady beech woods, past long waterfalls, and beautiful snow capped walls and peaks to Brodrick Pass on the Alpine Divide.

We made good time and reached the Brodrick Hut early, reading hunting and adventure magazines until the sunlight faded. DOC (Department of Conservation) had left brochures and other information on birds of interest: the whitewater Blue Duck; the smallish, peregrine-like NZ Falcon; the Kea, an alpine parrot; and the intriguing Rock Wren.

The Rock Wren is a small, primitive songbird with essentially no tail. An alpine bird, it lives high in the mountains, gleaning talus for small insects. It mostly hops, rarely flies, spending much of its time bobbing like a Dipper. Apparently it spends winters beneath the snow, feeding in the sub-nivean space among bushes, grass and boulders.

Above tree-line in New Zealand’s mountains live geckos, parrots, and wrens, as well as a number of flower from families usually associated with low altitudes and latitudes.

Climbing up to the pass, we looked up to the screech of a Kea, the parrot soaring high over glaciers. On the other side of the pass I found three rock wrens and videoed their rock hopping and dipping (see below). Apparently they are very tame, like many NZ birds (most notably the NZ Bush Robin), and can be tempted closer with offers of feathers for their nests. I had no feathers and they were not interested in toilet paper.

Moir’s Guide describes the route down to the Landsborough from Brodrick Pass as it gets use but is un-marked on topo maps. We found the multiple, towering cairns where the route leaves the creek-bed and climbs to the steep, forested arête dropping into to the valley floor.

The narrow trail twists and turns on a forested ridge only a few meters wide, following orange metal plates nailed to fat, twisted beech trees. For me it was the most amazing trail I have hiked in NZ. There’s enough trail to make it good going, but not so much as to make it boring. It’s no wonder New Zealand produces some of the best navigators in adventure racing: they have a great place practice. At one point we came across an old, metal plate nailed to a tree and punched with holes: a name and the year 1941.

By late afternoon we were down to the Fraser hut, a ratty, tin shack appropriately enough filled with Aussie porn. The light and views were spectacular and the hot sun and wind kept all the sandflies (endemic NZ black-flies) away until the sun dropped and they came out for their last vicious meal before bed: thankfully they don’t bite at night. That’s the time reserved for mosquitoes.

In the morning we followed the stoat (European weasel) trapper’s track up valley. The stoats and bush-tailed possums are two nest predators of native birds that DOC targets for pest control. The possums are exotics from Australia and they poison them by dropping green-colored baits laced with “1080” from airplanes.

“The best way is to drop it in winter,” said Gav, “when they are hungry. It doesn’t take much 1080 to kill a possum. The deer hunters all spread mis-information about the poison. It doesn’t kill birds at the level found in the pellets – tea has as much of the same poison. It doesn’t make the water toxic. It doesn’t kill deer. Hunters just like to complain. If there was something more effective, Doc says, they’d use it.”

The stoats were a different matter: they couldn’t be poisoned. Every 100 yards it seems there was another two-foot long, low, box trap with what looked like a leg hold trap inside, and baited with a chicken egg. A small hole was cut in the mesh on one end, just big enough for a lithe little weasel to sneak in.

I wondered at all the expense NZ goes to control their pests. From helicopter hunting and poison baiting to building and maintaining all these box traps, to eradicating rats from entire islands.

“All these huts were built for the deer hunters after WWII when the boys were away shooting Nazis and the deer reached plague numbers. But serious deer control got started when Tim Wallis and others started using helicopters to hunt them in the seventies and eighties. He got rich doing that -- introducing helicopters as working tools in NZ. As the meat prices climbed and the deer numbers dropped, Tim saw the future coming and started live-catching the deer with Kiwis jumping from helos to wrestle them to the ground! Later they developed pilot-fired net guns. Using the deer caprtured, Tim started farming deer to satisfy the European meat and the Asian medicinal products demand, getting even richer. He went to Russia and taught them how to raise deer and one city built a statue of him.” Today, fields and fences with sheep, cattle, and deer make up a large part of the countryside.

Gavin was an endless fountain of Kiwi lore, exactly the kind of companion you want on a trip to a foreign land. He shared his food as well as his knowledge and expressed daily gratitude for the “flash” paddle and boat I lent him.

About the time the morning fog burned off we’d hiked as far as we wanted, a good four hours above the hut, inflated our rafts and hopped in. The first bend revealed a meaty Class III rapid. Gavin flipped midway down and as I floated alongside him, making sure I was there to help, I grinned and watched him successfully self-rescue, climbing back into the boat and paddling to shore.

“Good job! You passed the first test!”

“I figured when you were smiling like that I wasn’t in any real danger -- it gave me confidence!”

This was the burliest rapid of the day, but there were many more Class III and miles and miles of Class II. The fast-paced current through endless rock gardens; water the color of a precious stone; the mountain scenery; it all combined to offer up what must be one of the best days of packrafting I have ever enjoyed, especially on a big river. The experience and Gavin reminded me of Jim Baughman in 1988, when he ordered a Sherpa Packraft from Fairbanks, had it delivered to Eagle, then used it as we paddled a high water Charlie River in the Interior. Like Alaska, New Zealand really is a packraft paradise.

We spent another night at the Fraser Hut and left at 9 AM for the final 25 km paddle to the Haast River. Below the hut the river enters a canyon that frames stunning views of the mountains behind and dishes up big, juicy drops and waves.

At the water level that day we enjoyed running every drop. Even the crux “Hellfire” while challenging was not terrifying. There were three big rapids that we needed to scout and several others that we scouted anyway. Everything, even at higher water would be portageable.

All in all, the low water Landsborough by way of Broderick offers great intermediate trekking (unmapped routes) and great intermediate boating (NZ Class III/IV). It is yet another world-class New Zealand packrafting route. Upstream of where we’d put-in, there’s another canyon, just downstream of Zora Creek, called “What the f*ck am I doing here?” with what the guidebook ( says are six waterfall drops. Sounds like an expert run, as does the trek in over Karangarua Saddle (

Midway down the final canyon, I twisted my boat around and said, “You know Erik, I thought that it couldn’t get any better than the Sabine -- and then we did the Taipo. And now this. It just seems like it gets better and better.”

“Yea, that ‘s the thing about New Zealand paddling. Each river just seems better than the last.”


  1. Crikey!
    What a damned fine way to spend a winter.

  2. Big mountains and big river. Fantastic trip you are having there. Great video as always – thanks for that.


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