Fiordland: Track Clearing & Gertrude Saddle

This past weekend I visited Fiordland and had the exhausting but incredibly rewarding opportunity to complete three hiking trips over the course of two days. The Otago University Tramping Club is a student run group which organizes tramping (hiking) and climbing trips. This weekend there were several Tramping Club trips to Fiordland, totaling about 60 students. We drove out Friday evening, and made it into Cascade Creek Campsite at midnight. I set up my tent in the fog, but woke up to clear skies and chilly winds in the bottom of the fiord.

Cascade Creek Campsite

Our first tramp was conducting trail maintenance on Hollyford track. We took machetes, hand saws, and clippers to cut back ferns and fallen trees blocking the path. In some places the trees with trail markers had fallen down, so we had to search for the track among the overgrowth and mark new trees for the trail.

A few minutes along the track is a highly questionable bridge made simply of three cables. These bridges are gradually being replaced for safety concerns, but in no hurry. Some river crossings consist of only two cables, one to walk on and one to hold above your head, so we actually had a fairly safe bridge.

Our tramp leader, Rowan, works for DOC (Department of Conservation) and told interesting stories about conservation methods in New Zealand, particularly about the war on stoats. Another trip member, Aiden, had taken two gap years to train as an arborist. About 2 hours into our hike we met Max. This shirtless guy wearing sandals (we were all in boots) came running up behind us waving at Rowan. Max had graduated from the University of Otago a few years ago, and was working full time in the conservation field. Max stayed with our group for the rest of the weekend, and proved to be an invaluable hiking partner and all around cool guy.

Track clearing on Hollyford Track

After a full day on Hollyford Track, our group drove out to the Gertrude Saddle trailhead. We started hiking at sunny 7pm but as we ascended to the saddle, mist rolled over us and the sun began to set. At the trailhead I realized that my rented backpack had a broken back; the main back brace was cleanly snapped in half rendering the pack useless. Luckily Rowan lent me his spare day pack, but I had to ditch some gear (spare socks, a few layers, and my extra water bottle) at the van and awkwardly strap my tent onto the small pack.

Heading up to Gertrude Saddle

Crossing the basin was flat and easy enough, but at the back of the fiord we essentially climbed a track along a waterfall. The water is so pure in the mountains of Fiordland, and there are no local mammals to transmit disease, that we drank directly from these alpine streams. At first it felt weird drinking directly from a stream, but hydration is key to maintaining myself on the trail. Thick, rolling layers of fog had slicked the sheer rock face, even making the steel climbing cables slippery to hold onto. At the top of this waterfall is Black Lake, which we skirted around in the fading light.

Skirting the slopes of Black Lake

Next we navigated up a treacherous boulder slope in the near dark, still thick in the mist. Visibility dropped to about 6 meters, so we made loud whooping calls to the other groups camped at the saddle. Navigation by whoop-o-location brought us to the Gertrude Saddle camp at 9pm, where three other University groups had set up earlier in the day. I promptly found a lovely spot to pitch my tent, out of the wind and with only a few boulders. Once inside my tent I ate 8 kit-kats to recover some energy, then went off to help with dinner.

We almost lost Aiden, who had gone to collect water without a radio. After about 10 minutes of waiting for him to get back, Max set out whooping into the darkness. A big problem with whoop-o-location are echos bouncing off alpine cliffs. Aiden followed the whoops right to the foot of a cliff on the opposite side of Black Lake, realized his mistake, and retraced his path back to the saddle.

Now provisioned with cooking water, we made veggie pesto pasta and instant cheesecake for dessert. After dinner Aiden, Cameron (out other group leader), and I squeezed into my tent and hunkered down for the night. I set my alarm to wake us up for our morning hike to Barrier Knob, then promptly fell into the deep sleep one only gets while camping.

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