Taramakau/Otehake Confluence to Upper Deception Hut
The morning sunlight was late to reach us, and when it finally did we got moving for a potentially long day. Super Mario and Princess Peach used a cairn motif on decorating their tent last night.
Just kidding, they were trying to keep the stakes in place.
I walk back along the spots we were considering last night while I brush my teeth; the water has receded at least three inches on the bank and looks much clearer now, and it’s apparent the two spots we thought were deep are in fact still very deep. Interesting. Nothing like imminent darkness to add a little spice.
We start off on river cobbles, which is tedious going- not as stable as talus, so shifting underfoot with each step, but large enough to aggress the bottoms of my feet, which have started to feel battered from the combination of rough terrain and wet, compressed shoes.
The river cobbles lead to a bush-whacking bank squeeze, and climbing over some downed logs to get back to a dry channel. The dry channel leads eventually to a 4 wheel drive track that offers easy walking through a massive field of gorse. There are a few nice campsites scattered through here, and one is at the faint turnoff for a lake that I will later learn boasts hot springs and the writer’s ‘favorite campsite in NZ.’ Some crystal clear streams flow across the road, and several of the peaks around the valley are jagged and rocky and spectacular, with snowfields melting into thundering waterfalls.
Prana and I follow the 4wd road until it reaches a sign announcing the divergence of the Flood Track, the 4K section that the ‘tough as guts’ warning was for. Mario, Peach, and Mouse are all sitting there, looking a bit worn down. I’ve finally perked up a bit, and so Prana and I head on, saving our break for later. Super Mario in particular has been less than lively, so we entertain ourselves by taking a piece of notebook paper and drawing a question mark in a box on one side, and a spotted cap mushroom with ‘1 UP’ below it on the other, and leaving it in a branch-lined square on the trail.
So far, it appears that this section is in rough shape, but that the warning was a bit overwrought. There are lots of trees down, and few visible orange triangles, so it’s a scavenger hunt from one to the next, with quick tread in between the blowdowns. Then we hit the incline.
The trail snakes up a vertical bank, wiggles around, then returns to the river to start climbing again in a few yards. We dutifully follow a second time, then when it repeats its random superfluous tripling of necessary distance, we decide to walk in the river bed. In half a k the river swings hard against a steep bank wall in front of us, and we return to the skipped portion of trail, properly chastised by the forces of nature. We climb. One positive aspect of this is the views.
This time, the trail does not just shimmy and descend. This time, the trail keeps climbing. And it climbs on a steep hillside angle, with crumbling tread through massive tangles of blowdowns. Blowdowns on the horizontal are one thing. Blowdowns on the vertical plane are something else entirely.
Well, damn. Well played, trail. Well played.
The huge trees present technical climbing obstacles, and balance beam walkways. It is a pendulum of wish between praying the branches will give as we push upward through them, and praying the branches will not give as we walk across them over gaping holes from land slides. The funny thing is, since I knew it was going to be bad, I’m actually having fun. We do so much up and down, that if one could see the trail through the trees from a distance, I can only assume it would like an EKG pattern. At least there are no wasps, I send up a bubble of gratitude, which would make squeezing around the trees incredibly unpleasant.
After several hours we cross our first stream, where we can fill our water bottles. Not long after we lose the trail completely in a boggy jungle, and while trying to look out for the orange arrows rather than my footing, I slip and rack the length of my shin down a sharp broken off piece of tree. Aarrggh! Pain shoots through my leg and frustration through my mind. Prana stumbles across the trail and we follow it out and down to a flat grassy nook above the river, where we stop for an early lunch, more for the mental break than actually needing the food.
The other three catch up in short order, and agree to the idea of taking a mental lunch break, which is indeed a great relief. Shortly after, the trail dips down to river level for a teasing moment before swinging up again. I long to walk in the flat riverbed, but I learned my lesson last time- we climb away and see Mouse march onto the flats.
The wasps have reappeared, and we climb steep, lose the trail, skid down, find the trail, climb up, and eventually descend to a giant orange triangle in the middle of a small grove of beech trees. Mouse is already there- apparently the river level went this time. She is also completely covered, head to toe, in gorse branches and prickles. She looks like she came through a war zone. “The trail disappeared, so I just pushed through the gorse to get here,” she fills us in. “You won the race!” I tease her. “I guess, but I think it was not worth it!”
We follow bits of trail that disappear, then backtrack until we find the next bit, cross a weird depression of perfect rows of tiny gorselets, and finally arrive at the Morrison footbridge, 4 hours after our start. A sign greets us as we take off our packs, outlining all the things that could go wrong in the upcoming section, the Deception river. Really, it’s not much worse or different than any other section of trail has been, but to see it all written out in lawyer speak is a little more disconcerting. At the end it demands in caps lock: “IF IN DOUBT DO NOT CONTINUE.” Well, I wasn’t in doubt until reading this sign.
We haven’t seen a trace of Mario or Peach and don’t know if they went high or low earlier. As we are debating how long to wait, Jay comes limping across the Morrison footbridge. He had attempted the flood track, but after 20 miserable minutes turned back and walked the road. “I can’t decide if I should continue. I thought I’d hitch but after five minutes with no luck I changed my mind. Will you make up my mind for me?” We each individually offer the thought that with as bad as he is limping, we would go to a doctor or at least rest a few days. A family of three crosses the bridge as if on cue, and he asks them if they are going to Greymouth. They are, and are happy to give him a ride. “Thanks for making up my mind,” he says to us.
We decide enough time has elapsed that Peach and Mario could as likely be ahead, so we turn our feet onto the Deception Track. The first several kilometers are a gloriously easy cruise, and the first crossing is only thigh deep, but surprisingly pushy. Mario and Peach finally appear in the distance behind us.
Most of the Deception Valley is a wide path of talus and scree, and we walk along all the rock debris. The most famous adventure race in New Zealand is occurring in two days, and this track is a running leg of that race, so there are far more trail markers than would normally be. The second crossing is deeper and pushier than the first, and at a
third crossing we are forced to choose between following the race markers or the orange arrows. We choose the arrows. The DoC markers beckon up into the trees, and a well trodden path leads through peaceful forest, right to the edge of a 30 foot cliff. With a deep blue pool at the bottom. And a tied off climbing rope for a handline. Hot damn!
The agile and adroit Prana goes first, and then we each hold the rope for the next person down. Then we continue splashing and scrabbling upstream, walking in pools, crossing tributaries. At one point we try to cross at a race marker, but it’s deeper and swifter than any of us want, and so backtrack and continue working our way up the side.
The valley flattens a bit, offering flatter walking and even intermittent sand, a relief as my feet are getting pummeled today. I enter a mindless rhythm of small careful steps always gaining some degree of uphilland the river snakes around the bend, only revealing small sections of itself at a time. In one spot, a massive waterfall pumps in from the right side of the creek; in another spot the ground between pale yellow beech trees is covered with white-silver moss. Prana crosses at a chute Mouse and I don’t choose to attempt, and we search upstream for a shallower ford.
Some time passes, and I come upon Prana sitting on a beautiful driftwood log, overlooking the creek and valley, waiting to take a break with me. I sit down and tears well up- since crossing the river in two different places I have been battling the negative self-talk soundtrack that asks without pausing for breath: ‘why can’t you go faster? why can’t you cross where it’s deeper? why can’t you keep up with him? why does he hike with you when you only hold him back?’ I know it is neither a true nor useful spiral, but that doesn’t mean I have ever found the mute button when this soundtrack plays.
We stay on the left side through ever more primordial debris, the tributaries that we climb through becoming steeper and steeper, until they are outright waterfalls. “Less than one k to the hut!” Prana announces. I spy a three tier hanging cataract up on the wall of the gorge, and suddenly Prana is waiting at the last crossing to the hut. It’s a visually intimidating spot above a high pourover, but Prana wades out to demonstrate it’s not nearly as strong as it looks. Mario and Peach, who have been strangely absent most of the day, appear quickly, and Mouse right behind them. We all gather at the Upper Deception Hut.
There we learn that Mario and Peach actually had to backtrack and take a different route twice today! Pretty impressive that they pushed hard and still made up that much time on such a tough day. Our goal for the day is the Goat Pass Hut, one hour further up the Deception drainage. It’s 7:00. I am very tired but motivated. Mario, Peach, and Mouse all decide to stay at this hut; Prana and I, facing our most recurring dilemma on this trail, waffle, and finally decide to stay as well. We are certain we can make it in the light, and that the next cabin will be much better, but we only have one more day as a full crew, and in the end we decide to stay. There is one tentable spot, which Mario and Peach graciously concede to us. We pitch in the rapidly chilling air, and boil up a giant pot of couscous with miso soup, topped off with a full bar of chocolate, confident that we earned it today.