A FAMILY IN THE WILD SOUTH WEST
(published in Hutt Valley Tramping 1978)
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Our pilot manoeuvred the little float-plane straight into the clouds that covered the rocky mountain range heaving towards us. “We are now crossing a saddle into Long Sound,” he explained calmly. We plunged through the clouds and saw the fiord ahead of us. It is surrounded by steep rocky walls and looks like a long lake since it narrows considerably before bending into Preservation Inlet, the southernmost fiord of Fiordland. That “Narrow Bend” - as it is appropriately called - acts like a huge funnel for tides and gales and we have seen sea spray as high as multi-storey buildings spewing through that gap. However, the water of the fiord was spreading calmly below, as we circled over the golden crescent of Kisbee Bay, our destination. Just like a boat our plane pulled up to the sandy beach and it was hardly any trouble for our little party, consisting of Barbara, 10 years old, Ursula, 8 years old, my wife Halina and myself, to go ashore. We also unloaded seven packs, including a folded-up double-seater kayak. Soon we were alone in this isolated countryside. It was very quiet - apart from some bird-calls in the forest behind the beach, the sea was gently lapping the sand - and the sandflies had discovered us in no time. We did not expect that our adventure would last fourteen instead of the eight days we had planned.
Why had we come to this deserted spot, hardly ever recommended for a family holiday?
We had to take our holiday during the peak season and yet wanted some solitude. Barbara and Ursula had become quite used to easy tramping, but they could not carry the heavy packs necessary for a prolonged stay in the wilderness. We considered flying into an uninhabited area and found that Fiordland - which has always fascinated us anyway - is well served by Mount Cook Airlines. Discussing our plans with an experienced Fiordland tramper, he suggested Kisbee Bay. Despite its remoteness, going there is not too great a risk for a single family. The Puysegur Lighthouse settlement is only a day’s tramp south of it.
We realised that we would have to plan our trip carefully. A mistake or an omission in selecting the gear may prove very unpleasant and both the weather as well as the sandflies can be atrocious.
The sandflies forced us to put insect repellent on, immediately after our landfall. But then everybody rushed off excitedly, leaving the baggage where we had dropped it. In vain had been all my instructions, that we must stay together at all times, that we had to have our whistles with us at all times, particularly as long as we did not know the area well enough! We had read about Kisbee Bay before. It is a highly interesting historic site, since until the beginning of this century there had been a settlement called Cromarty. From here miners set out to the Wilson River where gold-bearing quartz had been found. Cromarty had a school, a hotel, a saw-mill, and a regular boat service. Some posts of the old jetty are still left. What would we find in the forest which by now has covered the remnants of former human activity?
The bush near the beach was not very dense, although it was secondary growth. In the centre of the bay, a path of flat stones led into the bush for a short distance. In this vicinity we found much broken glass and pottery. Unfortunately, we were unable to find a single intact bottle anywhere in Cromarty, despite all our searching during those two weeks. A fireplace with rubbish around it was obviously quite a recent one. When I crossed the stream at the Southern end of the beach and penetrated the dense growth on the ledge above the shore, I was suddenly confronted with a monster. It was a rust-covered huge steam-engine. In its vicinity were various other rusty items, more broken glass and pottery and some bricks. That was all we could find of the former settlement. We decided to set up camp on a small clearing adorned with the purple bells of digitalis, next to a widespread rhododendron tree. According to the information we had, this must have been close to the former hotel.
We had two tents which we pitched with the entrances facing each other. They both had tent-flies, but I also protected their entrances and the space in between them by erecting a structure of saplings which I covered with a large plastic sheet, tying it thoroughly to the stems. Another structure covered with plastic protected our fireplace. Both our tents could be shut tightly which turned out to be a real blessing. Because of the humid mild weather during most of our stay in Kisbee Bay, we were continuously surrounded by thousands of sandflies and the tents were the only places where we could relax. Nevertheless, many sandflies managed to intrude during the day, particularly when we had to move things in and out. Every night before going to sleep we sprayed our tents with fly killer and every second day we brushed more than a handful of dead sandflies out of each tent! The space between the tents and the tent-flies was always black with these insects which at dawn made a noise like moderate rain.
In the morning we had to completely dress in the tent and to apply ample insect repellent before venturing outside. When the weather was not too warm, we had our parkas on, with the hoods covering our hair. Because of their incredible numbers, the sandflies found the smallest speck of unprotected skin and even penetrated our hair in no time. We were fascinated by their obsession for self-destruction. They got into our mouths and noses, they scalded themselves to death in our hot tea, they buried themselves in our porridge and drowned themselves in our insect repellent. While this may sound horrifying and utterly hopeless, the situation can change drastically, when the weather turns sunny and dry, particularly when a dry wind comes up. Unfortunately we only had two really fine days in Preservation Inlet. The situation is also quite bearable in the bush away from the beach, particularly if one keeps moving. On our trips we were usually quite lightly-clad.
Apart from setting up camp, we had to erect an antenna for our transceiver. The only sheltered place with enough space for the long side aerials was a clearing perhaps two hundred metres north of our camp.
It was in connection with the daily scheduled radio call, that we discovered an unexpected hazard. As I have mentioned, each of us had his own whistle, so that we could call each other over a distance in the bush. On one of our first evenings in Cromarty, I had walked over to the antenna without my family having noticed it. Halina and the girls started looking for me, but could only hear me whistle. Since it was very difficult to locate the origin of the whistling, their search was quite unsuccessful. Little wonder, because they were following a bird! Ever since, we called that bird, whose real name we never found out, “Daddy in Distress”.
Halina was most impressed with the abundance of birds in Kisbee Bay. I remember the bellbirds best; they were calling almost incessantly. We also saw tuis and noticed some oyster-catchers. Many waxeyes and fantails were watching us with great curiosity, sometimes from a very close distance. Some characteristic croaks we attributed to kakas. At times we even heard a lone kea. During the nights, of course, there were the rather ubiquitous calls from the morepork.
We never went to Long Island or Steep-to Island, both off Kisbee Bay. But Cemetery Island, a little island at the Northern end of the bay, is easily accessible. Here William Docherty was buried in 1896. He was one of the explorers and diggers that devoted their lives to Fiordland, never to leave it again. It is said, that for his funeral a procession of boats took him across to the island. However, at low tide you can walk across to the grave which is not difficult to find. It has now even been provided with a tombstone to remind the occasional visitor of the man who has become a symbol for many other pioneers of that time.
On our first trip inland we wanted to explore the little lake tucked away in a twin-peaked hill, called Revolver Hill. This is essentially a large promontory separating Kisbee Bay in the West from Revolver Bay in the East. During the last ice-age this hill must have been an island dividing the glacier that flowed from the south-eastern escarpment and scoured the plain between the two bays.
Apart from studying the maps, I had also had a good look at the aerial photos from which these maps are partially made. I could distinctly see a stream which flowed down from a lake in a southerly direction, then turned west and flowed into Kisbee Bay, separating the beach from what had once been called “Ward Terrace”, the northernmost part of Cormarty. We called it “Ward Stream”. I doubt whether Ward Terrace had ever gone beyond the planning stage, judging by the tall massive beech trees that still grow there.
I anticipated no navigational problems. We would just follow Ward Stream until we got to the lake. Since this was our first excursion deep into the forest, we were most excited about what we saw. To our amazement the forest was not as difficult to penetrate as we had thought and yet it was lush primeval rain forest with all its picturesque traits. The children had to put quite an effort into climbing over huge decaying tree trunks overgrown with mosses and lichens, to find their way through the tangles of supplejack thickets, to dodge boggy patches and to plunge down into the stream over steep banks. Perhaps it was already here that we started to tease Ursula about her frequent exclamation “Totara, Oh!” Small specimens of this conifer abounded, just tall enough for Ursula to hold on to them. However, her contact with the prickly branches never lasted long - due to the painful identification of this botanical species.
We were on our way far too long before starting the climb up what we believed was Revolver Hill and then we were climbing far too long without seeing any sign of the lake. At long last I checked our altitude and direction. The altitude was about right, but the compass behaved strangely. The needle would not stay where I tried to keep it. Finally I had to turn almost 180o round, looking very puzzled. Either we had discovered an enormous deposit of iron ore upsetting our compass or the stream had fooled us. It looked as if we were not on the way to the lake but ascending the escarpment in the southeast of Cromarty. On our way back we solved the puzzle. Not far from the sea another stream running down from the escarpment combined with Ward Stream. That unmapped stream was completely obscured by the bush for an observer from the air and was therefore neither visible on the aerial photograph nor, of course, on the map. Apart from that, Ward Stream was at the fork completely hidden beneath a maze of fallen trees. We had been taught a lesson. From now on I never travelled without frequently checking the compass.
The second time we were more successful. However, following Ward Stream, we discovered how flat the terrain between Kisbee and Revolver Bay was. Where the stream reaches the plain, the water almost stagnates in a large swamp. Now we knew why all the streams and streamlets here showed the colour of light beer. They move very slowly occasionally forming small pools in which organic material decays and dissolves. We had to retreat from that swampy area and resort to steeper terrain. Sidling the hill we soon heard our stream, this time quite distinctly, since we were entering the gully which cuts deeply into the southern side of the twin peak. The gorge itself is quite overgrown so that we had to keep well above it. Still, the canyons of the side-streams were often several metres deep with vertical walls.
Again we discovered the limitations of maps merely based on aerial photographs. On our map it looked as if the lake lay beneath a saddle separating the summit of Revolver Hill from another peak lower down on an otherwise featureless ridge. In reality it was a succession of increasingly higher peaks leading up to the summit.
It was a pity that the weather was dull. But even so the lake was charming in its bush setting. The water was clear, its surface slightly rippled by the wind. Of course, there was no beach nor any clearing next to the water. We succeeded in taking a few photos balancing on a mossy tree trunk that projected horizontally out over the water. Soon a fire was licking our billy and we enjoyed our midday meal.
We wondered whether we were still able to find the old wooden tracks of the tramway which had gone East from Cromarty and then must have turned South climbing up to the plateau behind the settlement. We had no clue about its exact starting point, so we set off approximately in the middle of the Bay and went in a south-easterly direction to intercept it. We had not been walking far when I, being slightly ahead of my family, was surprised by a sudden weightlessness followed by a nasty wet feeling right up to my hips. Judging by the smell, I must have come across an ancient cesspool. After that rather unpromising start we proceeded more cautiously. Soon we reached a region of taller trees and here we could see further ahead. After a while of searching we noticed some moss growing in two strangely parallel rows. When we pulled the moss off its support we uncovered what looked like wooden rails. I was almost convinced that we had found at least part or a branch of the tramway, because we could follow it for several hundred metres and the distance between the mossy rails stayed always the same. Then the track disappeared and despite a lengthy search we could not find out where it continued.
So we climbed up to the plateau and bore southwest. We had not gone far when we noticed again two parallel trails of moss. This time we were quite certain that we were following the old tramway track, because some of the sleepers were quite recognisable and occasionally the track had been cut into sloping ground. It looked as if we might be able to follow it as far as the Wilson River, but on the flat, boggy ground of the plateau it became increasingly overgrown. When we turned back to retrace the track to its origin, we were disappointed again. Not far from Cromarty it vanished in a steep gully. It had probably long been washed off the hillside or buried by landslides. Descending to the sea without significantly changing our direction, we emerged at the southern end of the Bay, not far from our camp.
South of Kisbee Bay, there had been Te Oneroa, a settlement similar to Cromarty. Te Oneroa’s gold mine was located in the rocky hills behind it. Since the southern shore of Kisbee Bay is steep and heavily forested, we decided to paddle with our kayak straight across the bay. It was a calm sunny morning. Our kayak seats two adults and I could take both children in on the front seat. We all had life-jackets.
Only after about half-an-hour we arrived at the shore from where we would start tramping. It was a gravel beach, as we had already found out through our binoculars and it was sheltered behind a rocky cliff which in windy weather was always lashed by heavy seas. I told the children not to panic, even if it should take me very long to return and then I hurriedly paddled back to get Halina and our packs.
Kisbee Bay and the Bay of Te Oneroa are separated by a rocky promontory. Between this elevation and the coastal hills there is a low-lying saddle. This is covered with dense rain forest, but it is the shortest connection between the two bays. The saddle turned out to be flat and quite boggy, So we tried to reach the hillside of the promontory. It took us more than an hour to bash through the bush until - climbing down a steep hillside - we glimpsed some blue water between the trees. Then we pushed through a zone of dense very tall grass and crossed a thin belt of coastal forest, before stepping out onto the gravel shore of Te Oneroa.
A beautiful summer sky with some white clouds was spreading over the glittering sea. A light breeze rippled the water, in the background sat green islands and groups of islets. There was not a sign of human activity, no boat, no settlement, as far as we could see. The shore consisted of big round boulders of various colours. We followed it south and spotted a small A-framed hut in the distance. This was a comparatively new Park Board Hut and it contained two bedsteads and a table. The seaward windows reached right to the floor and made the hut look very bright. The last entry in the logbook was two years old. We lit a fire in the fireplace near the hut and enjoyed our lunch in the sun, without being much molested by sandflies. Apart from a few pieces of broken glass, we did not find any traces of the old settlement. Our map showed a track leading from the hut to the coast in a south-easterly direction and along the shore to the park boundary. As we expected, we did not find any sign of a track either.
When we arrived back at Kisbee Bay, low tide had changed the appearance of the place so remarkably, that for a moment I believed we had failed to find our way back to the boat. Besides, the sea looked quite unfriendly. Big waves were rolling across the water and it was not easy to get us all back home safely. Usually I would fit the spray-cover over the boat under such conditions. This I could not do with the two children on the front seat and later on because of the unwieldy packs. I took Barbara and Ursula into the boat first, but warned Halina that I might be unable to undertake a second trip. She prepared to return on foot. However, all went well. Halina had just reached a little cove after having climbed over a bluff, when she saw me coming back. Soon I had her in the boat as well and we performed another balancing act riding the waves back to Cromarty.
One peaceful sunny morning I undertook my third attempt to catch a fish and failed again miserably. Who said that fish were plentiful in this area? However, it was very relaxing to sit in the boat, away from the sandflies, and to enjoy the beautiful scenery. The children were building sand castles on the beach and Halina had retreated to the tent. On that pleasant day we decided to leave Cromarty as soon as we could get a float-plane in. We had more or less explored the area and the mainly unpleasant weather as well as the sandflies were not exactly making it a swimming and sunbathing holiday.
The booking of the float-plane was confirmed the night after the Canterbury Mountain Radio people had heard our request. However, we were a little worried about the weather forecast transmitted to us on that same night.
Indeed, the day of our planned departure dawned grey and miserable with gales and rain showers. Nevertheless, we got up early and packed, knowing that our chances were poor. This was to be the first of five and a half waiting days.
While waiting to escape from our isolation we wondered whether our expedition had been worth the efforts, the time and money, and the hardships. When we are asked, we answer cautiously: “It was an experience!” We certainly do not regret it. We have become more confident about living in the wilderness and value the satisfaction of always having been in control of the situation. The children learned more and matured at a faster rate than in normal life. They found out that they could not always entirely rely on us, that they were part of a small isolated human community where each had his or her tasks and responsibilities. We enjoyed the feeling of remoteness and were fascinated by the beauty of the countryside. However, I would have wished for better weather which would also have alleviated the sandfly problem.
When we found that we only had food for two days left, I re-established radio contact with the Mountain Radio in Invercargill. The operator was surprised to find us still in Cromarty. He told us that a helicopter could fly us out even under such adverse weather conditions as we were experiencing, but when we heard about the costs of such a helicopter flight, we felt we should stick it out a little longer. The next day was a beautiful sunny day. In the morning we were contacted again from Invercargill and heard that a plane attempting to get us out had turned back because of high winds.
We were disappointed, but also surprised because in our sheltered position we had not realised the force of the gale. Invercargill also promised to enquire whether or not any boats fishing in our area were returning to Bluff. While I was still busy with the radio, we saw a boat approaching. It remained at a distance from the beach and the men aboard seemed to observe us. We did not make any signs, but after a while a dinghy was launched and a man and a youngster rowed ashore. Our visitors nearly apologised for disturbing us, but said they felt we needed some help. They must have overhead our radio conversations. I accompanied them back to the fishing boat, where the skipper contacted other boats by radio. He learnt that apart from two boats which had sailed back to Bluff earlier this morning, none were returning in the immediate future.
I did not come back to shore empty—handed. The fishermen gave us two bags of frozen fish and a loaf of bread and told us they would check in two days whether we were still there. We were very grateful and moved by this simple and straightforward helpfulness.
This windy day was also sunny and very warm and thus turned out to become our best beach day in Cromarty.
When we got the message that we would have the opportunity to share a helicopter with someone who wanted to fly some gear into a place not far from Kisbee Bay, we did not want to take any more risks and agreed to this deal.
That flight by helicopter was probably the most exciting one I have ever experienced. Fiordland was bathed in sunshine. We glided over densely packed tree-tops, over ridges and precipices, passed snow and ice, looked into lakes and tarns, swept over torrents and waterfalls - always close enough to gather unforgettable impressions.
Now back in civilisation, people are sometimes mystified when we tell them where we have been. “Preservation Inlet? Been to Australia, eh?”
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