Michael Abbott

Over the tops

On 26 April, 1989, Michael Abbott stepped into the surf off Farewell Spit, completing the first full-length traverse of the South Island. In 130 days the 29-year-old architect had walked 1600km, crossed the Main Divide 32 times and climbed 58,000 vertical metres — equivalent to seven ascents of Mt Everest.

Written by       Photographed by Michael Abbott

The idea came to me during a stint of taxi driving in Syd­ney. A rock-climbing holiday in Victoria had petered out through lack of cash, and I had taken the cab job to boost a sagging bank balance. But petrol fumes and traffic lights soon had me dreaming of the un­spoilt mountains and forests of New Zealand’s South Island. And why climb only one? Why not traverse the whole of the Main Divide?

I had read Graeme Dingle and Jill Tremain’s book Two Against the Alps several times. Their winter traverse of the Southern Alps had several notable gaps where they had chosen to travel by jet boat, canoe and car. Suppose I were to attempt the first complete traverse from the South Coast to Farewell Spit, and do it alone, and on foot?

I flew back to Christchurch brim­ming with enthusiasm. Two months later I was a bedraggled figure emerg­ing from the Fiordland undergrowth, admitting defeat after only two weeks in the bush.

The following months were spent forgetting the failure, until in August 1988 I was caught in a blizzard on the south face of Mount Douglas, at the head of the Fox Glacier. A violent storm had thrashed the South Island, forcing me and my partner to spend the night in a crevasse. Further north, 600 stranded skiers bedded down in the Mount Hutt cafeteria.

As a result, I spent the next month in hospital with my hands and feet in the air, watching my fingers get shorter. That forced internment made me face the fact that to pull off a solo traverse I would need far more care­ful planning and determination than I had previously imagined.

Once my fingernails had stopped dropping off and an exposed finger bone had been chopped back I began my preparations for a second attempt in earnest. Endless lists of equip­ment and food were made and re­made. Food drops were organised. Letters to three potential sponsors, Fairydown, Alp Sports and MSR Stoves were sent… and each re­sponded enthusiastically.

By November I was totally com­mitted to doing the traverse, and spent day after day going to the mar­ket, buying vegetables and dehydrat­ing them. I packed up 140 variations of five basic meals and cluttered the kitchen making 10 kilograms of just­add-water-and-spread paste from 60 kilograms of the real thing.

On December 17 I set out from Dunedin, following my route from the previous year via Tuatapere, Te Waewae Bay, Port Craig and the Waitutu River, and from there plung­ing deeper into the untracked wil­derness of Fiordland.

Two weeks and a lonely Christ­mas later I turned up at Lake Mana­pouri — the point at which I had abandoned my 1988 attempt. My food drop to West Arm was delivered on cue, and then I was off by myself on new ground. For the next three weeks I was to see only one person, and then only for ten minutes ­Frank McPeake from Te Anau. I had arranged with Frank to meet me in his boat with more food.

I wallowed my way through the swamps near Lake Te Anau then stumbled up the gorge to Lake Wap­iti. Hanging on grimly to the vertical scrub, I fought the 32 kilograms in my pack that wanted to drag me down to the lake below. A wide band of rock could only be passed by tip­toeing with my feet on slimy foot­holds on a ledge 60 centimetres under water.

I reached the last bluff, only to see a vertical sheet of rock totally block­ing the way. I had two options: turn back and spend six hours the next day slogging around the full circum­ference of the lake, or take a dip.

I sealed up my pack and readied myself for the uninviting water. There was no place to ease myself in, so I held my nose and jumped. After struggling up to the surface I started blindly flailing my arms before set­tling down to a feeble sort of breaststroke. This was great for keep­ing my pack dry but hopeless if I wanted to breathe. I rolled over on to my back and while my legs thrashed about I pulled myself along the rocky wall.

Twenty metres around I stood up on a ledge and looked for an escape. There was a southerly blowing and my hands lost their feeling. Rock I could have scrambled around ten minutes before was now impassable. Too numb to think, I took to the water again, dragging and kicking myself around another 60 metres of bluffs before I could finish my bath.

Out at last, I charged the hill and ran haphazardly about in the tussock basin, looking for a camp spot and trying to get warm. After struggling to pitch my tent I tangled the twenty metres of radio aerial, burnt my meal and got my dry clothes and sleeping bag wet.

Several days and mountain passes later, I checked my spare food. Every meal was damp from the swim — the pasta was limp and the crackers gluggy. If mould were to set in my stomach would be grumbling, so I took a rest day and redried fifteen days’ food. I laid out every meal and biscuit on ‘stuff sacs’ and newspa­pers, then kept shuffling each pile from one sunlit clearing to the next while the sun moved around behind the trees.

Four days further on the weather changed for the worse. Sitting in my wet sleeping bag inside my wet tent I waited for the storm to end. In the murky half-light of evening I ate that night’s one-billy wonder, then sorted out the next day’s meals by filling up a food tube with 80 grams of dried hummous (Lebanese chick pea and tahini dip) and adding water. This would be spread on the daily ration of eight crackers per lunch, two lunches per day. Ron Kingston, the mountain radio operator, said it was meant to keep raining, then snow. After that he reckoned the Meteorological Office had stopped wonder­ing.

Unimpressed with that news, I lay down and listened to the flicking of thousands of sandflies caught be­tween the inner and outer shells of my tent. Feeling isolated and lonely, I changed channels on the radio and eavesdropped on other people’s conversations for company. When I  unzipped the mesh door to put the billy out another swarm of sandflies found their way in. It was a point of honour to squash every one. This was my tent, for me alone.

When I woke up I took my drier clothes off and wriggled into my wet long johns. I unzipped the tent and stepped back into Fiordland and the welcoming hordes of insects. After slipping on yesterday’s saturated socks and boots I packed quickly, then set off into the undergrowth for more of the same.

The bush never allowed me to ease into the day. Thirty metres from my camp I was struggling through dense entanglements. It could have been yesterday or the day before. I could only focus on the next footstep and where I hoped to be for lunch. I gave up admiring the bush and tus­sock or being in awe of the clouds that swirled and thundered around me. Instead, I spent the days lurch­ing down to the valley floors, going from one spur to another and grab­bing at anything to break my fall.

Sometimes I missed, and would rest wedged between trees and boulders until I felt motivated enough to con­tinue surfing the vegetated compost heap.

There were three hours of sun­light left when, worn out, I made it on to the saddle. I had to finish the hardest section today — now! The thought of another night out or even another hour alone seemed too much to bear. Eating all my biscuits and remaining dried bananas, I flung myself down the creek, grabbing at anything with my perished garden­ing gloves.

I turned a bend and saw the thin white streak of the Sutherland Falls fourth highest in the world. All that registered was the knowledge that a track led to the base, and that track meant people and a rest. A plane turned full circle above me and I felt optimistic. Minutes later I was lost in an everlasting pile of boulders and ferns, making little progress with even less patience. I swore and inched my way away from the gorge, fending off the new growth. After nearly wrenching my ankle from my body I broke out on to a cleared shingle gut that ran several hundred metres down the river proper.

I boulder-hopped down the stream with music snippets singing in my head crystal clear: Frankie goes to Hollywood and welcomes me to the Pleasuredome.

Finally, after bashing through thick ferns and scrub, I came across a path you could drive a golf cart on. After 22 passes and 37 days I was walking the Milford Track.

Thirty minutes later I was slumped in a hot shower at Quinton Hut and being passed a succession of fresh salad sandwiches by my friend Drew McDougall, who was spending the summer guiding. After three days of feasting, fixing and forgetting I headed over the McKinnon Pass and made for the telephone at Cascade and my food drop at The Divide.

During the next section I had the luxury of huts and tracks well main­tained by the Department of Conser­vation. It was a welcome relief from living day after day in a tent. My gear could be spread about without wor­rying about it being rained on or attacked by keas, and I could lie down on a mattress without checking for roots and rocks underneath.

After following the Routeburn and Dart Tracks I crossed over into the Matukituki in a thunderstorm. The ease of travel gave me time to think. My moods swung hourly as I pon­dered the merits of doing this trip alone. There had been no one around who was as focused on the traverse as I was, but also I had found in the past that it was easier for two people to opt out than for one. Each person would transfer the decision-making to the other, until nothing could be decided except to forget the whole issue and go home.

Besides, I wanted to know how I would respond to the isolation. With no one to spur me on, I wondered if I would have enough drive to com­plete more than 60 passes of mainly untracked travel.

I got to Siberia Stream Hut, hop­ing there would be something worth eating on the shelves. Instead, I was greeted by five recently retired folk from Wanaka who had flown in for a few days in the bush, complete with champagne and marinated steaks. They generously shared their din­ner with me while we swapped sto­ries and talked about routes into and  out of the Landsborough.

In the morning they headed down the valley to be picked up by jet boat at Kerin Forks while I headed over the steep-walled Siberia Saddle and literally dropped into the Ngatau,  sliding over a small bluff and swing­ing ape-like down to the next ledge.

Standing in the rain on the Haast Road I waved down the bus which had my next supply of food and fuel, then headed up the Landsborough Valley.

The Landsborough is a mean, grey river which boils its way down to the Tasman having collected its silty water from the many glaciers that feed it along its 60-kilometre flow.

I followed the river for 18 kilo­metres before I located one of the few stretches where it would be possible to ford it. I then waited till morning, hoping the river would drop over­night (when the glaciers that feed it stop melting).

I ventured into the murk before 8 a.m., probing the way ahead with my ski poles. The current began to bite and the channel deepen. A solid mass of water crashed against my thighs. The noise was deafening. I was caught up in a step-by-step struggle as I fought to keep my footing and make my way across.

The rolling water mesmerised me. It made me believe I was already out of control and that the wave around my legs had already swept me away. I moved sideways like a crab until gradually I began to take control. The noise and fear slowly subsided and I stumbled out on to the opposite bank.

It took several further days to boulder-hop my way up to the nar­row gut of sloppy silt where the Landsborough joins the moraine of the McKerrow Glacier. Rapidly re­ceding glaciers had changed a hundred-foot sidle for ‘Mr Explorer Douglas’ last century into a 250-metre boot-swallowing slog for me as I slid and scuffed my dying boots up the shingle river on to Douglas Pass.

As I came over a crest a slight movement made me look to the right. Two startled thar were huffing and snorting at my unexpected entrance. They bounded off for a short dis­tance, then stopped to stare at me again, perhaps in the hope that, like a bad dream, I would disappear.

I mock shot them as a shrieking party of keas came tearing up the valley to hassle. On spotting my bright clothes they turned on me. The thar finally escaped the scene down a spur to the left. I followed them and soon reached the calm of the flats 500 metres below.

During the evening a neighbourly weka came visiting and insistently pecked away at my orange aerial and any other toys I had left lying about. I felt like a troll in the mouth of my cave, guarding my possessions from the persistent intruder.

From the Harper’s Rock Bivvy I looked down on to glacier-fed Douglas Lake, complete with ice­ bergs. It had grown 1000 metres longer since the last maps were printed eight years ago. Steep, im­passable bluffs on both sides would now force me back up Douglas Pass to traverse Gladiator, a 2300m peak, before being able to pick my way down to the Karangarua.

I raced the deteriorating nor’wester over the Copland and down the Hooker Valley to Mount Cook Village. The following fortnight brought a succession of friends com­ing to see me, interspersed with two attempts on Mount Cook which were foiled by large, impassable crevasses.

The next section concerned me, and I spent several helpful afternoons at Park Headquarters discussing routes into and out of the Godley. After some indecision I set off again with a heavy pack and a new pair of boots to do business with more gla­ciers, wondering how long the settled weather could last.

When I crossed into the headwa­ters of Lake Tekapo a nor’west sky and bad weather were brewing. Ron on the radio was pessimistic, so I looked forward to a rest. Four days later, having watched a barrage of fronts and the first snow showers for the year buffet the hut, I began to grow impatient. I had read every­thing in the hut, including two-year-old classified advertisements, and, trying to save food, I was eating a daily ration of 250 grams of weevil-infested porridge which I had dis­covered in the hut.

By the seventh day I was forced to decide between going down the val­ley for food or committing myself to Terra Nova Pass. I set off into the mist with a forecast of a 24-hour window of clear southerlies, and sidled high above the Godley Glacier lakes, ex­tremely wary of the loose rocks carved up by the endless grinding and erosion of the glacier.

The route was dangerous — the last person in the valley had disap­peared there several weeks before. I found a gut that led through an ugly wall of compacted shingle, then picked my way over loose boulders perched on ice around the lip of the lake. Finally the glacier proper be­gan. I slipped on my Walkman and trudged up the moraine.

Just before the permanent ice there was a flat, silty bed, and I decided to stop and camp. Snow began falling as I fumbled with my tent. My hands got colder and my pack turned white. I tried to shut out memories of the blizzard I had been in last year and willed myself to be thorough and relax.

Once inside I put on all my clothes, with dry next to my skin and wet to the outside. I put my boots in my sleeping bag so they wouldn’t freeze, then hopped in as well and listened to the snow falling on the tent roof. With both hats and several pairs of dry gloves on, I was feeling okay.

After a while it stopped snowing, so I fished my cooker out and got ready to light it. As I unzipped the outer fly I was swallowed up in a flurry of snow. Rather than stop snowing it had snowed enough to cover the tent! While more snow came down I tried to cook my freeze-dried food without burning my tent down.

The radio worked, and though the forecast promised more changeable weather, at least it didn’t declare outright war. I pushed at the tent walls regularly to let the unsettling sound of snow begin again. Tired from the concentration of the day and the gritty, silty water that had ruined my meal, I eventually rolled over and tried to sleep.

Shortly before dawn I opened the fly. It had stopped snowing, but my torch revealed a sheet of white every­where. Eating what I could, I nerv­ously packed my gear and stepped outside on to the glacier. Using my ski pole as a probe I stepped and jumped my way up the minefield of crevasses, grateful that the snow had settled only 15 centimetres deep at the most.

As I crossed over Terra Nova Pass into the Rangitata watershed I felt relieved. Then I looked down and saw a massive crevasse stretching across the upper glacier. Warily, I inched my way around, stepping over one bottomless crevasse only to be leered at by a bigger gap ahead. Even­tually, after probing my way around more crevasses and crossing over a ridge, I found a snow-filled gut and happily slid down to the valley floor below.

Later that night I radioed a size­able shopping list for my parents to bring, then passed the night sleeping badly — too swamped between the extremes of the last week and the thought of seeing people again. In the morning I blearily made my way down the river to Erewhon Station.

The reunion with my family was great, but heading off again was aw­ful. I felt trapped in a walking prison. As I headed back up the valley I let myself wonder why. Why anything? was all I could reply. The best rem­edy for such thoughts was long days.

I crossed Butler Saddle and headed down the Rakaia and into the Mathias. Two days later, having dealt with Unknown Col and Whitehorn Pass, I was racing the rain again.

With a good level of aggression I forded the Waimakariri River, then cruised out to the road at Klondike Corner and a wet Easter break.

I stayed at Arthur’s Pass for a week, not wanting to move out but know­ing that I had to. When I finally got under way I walked every day for the next four weeks. I crossed over the tops in Arthur’s Pass National Park, then, in the shorter autumnal days, linked up tracks and huts into the Hurunui and out to the Boyle. I fol­lowed the Saint James Walkway around to Ada Pass, then crossed through metre-deep drifts of fresh snow into the Matakitaki and on to Lake Rotorua. I climbed over Mount Owen in a rain storm, then followed the Wangapeka and Karamea until the rain finally decided to leave me.

In the late afternoon sun I waded through the snowgrass to Boulder Lake and made camp. I opened the but book and for the next half hour filled in the names of all the valleys and passes I had been through. Under a star-packed sky I thanked the radio operators for their help and passed on messages to others. Finally `IB37′ was over-and-out and I bedded down for the last time in the bush.

My thoughts turned to the trip. At times I had wished the South Island was circular so I wouldn’t have to finish and I wouldn’t have to stop. Each day, once I was on the move, I would realise this was the best thing I had ever done. Every step had been able to take my breath away, whether it was patches of delicate moss and fern or the song of bell birds or the view from the crest of a pass, with mountain after mountain rolling back into the distance.

Next morning as I crossed the paddocks of Puponga Farm at Fare­well Spit I broke into a trot. With a huge grin on my face I stood on the sand dunes and looked out to sea.

This is it! This is it! This is it! I had visualised this moment so often on my trip, and in more and more detail as I had got closer. And now it was happening.

I scampered down the sand dunes, tore off my boots and ran into the sea. whooping and jumping.

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