Styx River Track

The day dawned beautifully fine, (as it has done for some time, a fact I’ve taken perverse pleasure in telling the rest of the country being inundated with record midsummer rainfall!!) and my tramping buddy and I made a pretty casual start to our 2 day tramp up the Styx River into the headwaters of the Arahura River in the ranges behind Lake Kaniere, staying at the Mudflats Hut.Although reasonably open to start withthe valley gets steep sided and closes in quite quickly so that the track is forced to stay pretty much on the very rocky and boulder-strewn banks of the river. It wasn’t far before we discovered this fact where a side-stream tumbled down a deep gorge to the river and the track disappeared leaving wading along the base of a cliff as the only option to reaching the track some 150m distant. (The track is intermittently marked with orange triangles nailed to trees.) The wading wasn’t an issue and was quite refreshing, although my buddy issued dire warnings if she got her bum wet!! Whimp!
Having reached the track we were somewhat spoiled as it was flat, well defined, properly formed and progress was easy. Some way on the track ran onto river bed, in this case a dried-up side wash and for the next kilometre or so it was a matter of rock-hopping (which wasn’t too difficult because of the size and shape of the boulders.)They are very ‘slabby’ (many in the area collect stones from the Styx for their gardens, making walls and paving paths.) We took a wee break and admired the views, the gin-clear water, and the variety of colours in the rocks caused by the different minerals they are comprised of. We commented on how little bird song there was- some would put this down to the application of 1080 for possum (our most hated introduced Australian animal) eradication but as this is a recognised and sign-posted whio (blue duck) protection area I doubt that the poison would have been used within cooey of here.
To get back to the track we had to detour about 150m up the dry boulder fall of a tributary which was clearly capable of being a raging torrent given the size of the boulders that were brought down. It would not be a good idea to be in the headwaters if it started raining because the only way out would be horrendously hard detours involving bush-bashing and torrent wading to cross these wild tributaries in steep-sided gorges.(Fortunately we’ve had a long period without rain, and the long-term forecast promised more of the same!) Again the track was well-formed looking very much like an old farm track that had been cut to give access to grass flats further up-river. I haven’t checked the history on this yet but must do so.
As I have indicated the valley closes in and the walls of it are very steep forcing the river through impressive rapids and the track across difficult traverses such as this one.Take care to attend to the track (it emerges between the fern and that small upright tree at the top requiring a BIG first ‘step’ down that requires faith in the strength of exposed roots!)and not the impressive rapids!!By now I had established that the track notes published by DOC were only good as far as they went and weren’t descriptive of the problems that had been caused by the extensive erosion that’s happened over recent months/years. BIG rock-falls and slips, wash-outs above the river and poorly signed detours, although not all of the ‘off-track’ track was bad. We took a break after about 4 hours for lunch inside the bush where it was cool and peaceful and I commented on the fact that if we became isolated in the hills we’d have enough food to last a week at least! (Monica packed the lunches!)
Of course the New Zealand bush is a delight to walk through and there is always something to catch the eye if you are able to lift your view from the track, but in some places it was impossible to do so. We had some VERY uncomplimentary things to say about whoever it was who planned the detours! A couple of them were, quite frankly almost unsafe, and had there been any rain recently I suspect almost impassable for anybody who was in the least uncertain on their feet. Still, we managed them as well as a few more horrible rock and tree-falls. Oh! for well-formed walking tracks- you can see I am a person who appreciates his creature comforts.At about 6 hours we came across another impressive tributary rock fall and it was here that things turned for the worse. I’d picked my way across and was back on the track when there was an urgent call from behind and I turned to see Mon sitting with her right foot wedged at an awkward angle between two rocks. One immediately fears the worse but the first view showed no actual crazy angles or blood so we carefully eased her foot out and had a closer look. It was pretty obvious that whatever was wrong was enough that she wasn’t going anywhere further this day! We made her comfortable with all the gear close to hand, exchanged a few positive words (like “It’s likely to be at least 4 hours before anything happens”! -cheered her up no end!!) and I set off  for the car-park and then out to find cell-phone coverage.
I made good time and discovered that the difficult and scary bits were a piece of cake without a bloody great pack on the back. Hot, sweaty and not a little stuffed I was chuffed to have reached the car after 2½ hours and then drove about 5kms before getting a signal, rang emergency services and gave them as much detail as I could. (The lady on the other end was clearly not sitting on a beach in Mumbai because she had some knowledge of the area we were in, and was also very positive, supportive and a pleasure to talk to.) After establishing the police didn’t need to talk to me (in New Zealand Search & Rescue operations are all coordinated by the NZ Police) I made my way back to the car-park to await the chopper.
It seemed a long time but in truth I am just SO impressed with how prompt the response was. I had harboured some thoughts that because it was still the holiday period for many, and a weekend Sunday for all, there may have been some delay but after about 35-40 minutes I heard the great sound of the Rescue Helicopter coming over the hills from Greymouth.
I held a handkerchief up to show wind direction, (thought that’s be an OK idea,) they touched down on the flat I’d indicated, and one of the crew approached with his laptop. He looked familiar, but there was something different… Aha! that’s it- “Gidday, Stu!!” (He was the husband of a teaching colleague but he’d removed his moustache since I last saw him!) We consulted the electronic map and established which the probable tributary was where they’d find Monica, [Mon now has a way-point in the SAR database named after her] discussed her situation (on the east/real left side, about 150m from the river, and that because of the situation that a winch recovery would be needed) and they were off. I checked my watch and smugly registered the time that they lifted off- Monica told me later they arrived over her spot exactly 4 hours after I had left her!
Which brings me to the most important point of this post- New Zealand Rescue Services are OUT-BLOODY-STANDING!!! When they arrived overhead they quickly dropped the recovery-man (in this case a delightful, attractive blonde called Dianne) who went about her job of splinting Monica’s ankle, gathering up our gear and helping Mon into a more accessible area near the middle of the rock-bed so that pilot Angus and winch-man Stu could do their lift job without danger of snagging trees or worse. Half an hour later they were on the ground at the car-park again, off-loaded the packsand were away to Grey Base Hospital, some 50-60kms away.
It was established that while nothing was broken Monica had severe lateral strains and would be some 6 weeks in recovery- nice start to the year!
A nice wee footnote to the story is that when the policeman who was co-ordinating things met Monica at A&E he asked her for her address “so I can send you the bill!” then, seeing Monica’s look of shock-horror quietly assured her, “joking…joking!” Nice touch.

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3 thoughts on “Styx River Track

  1. Mon Hulme says:

    Typical that you ommitted to mention that the pub just happened to be your next stop following the emergency call and prior to your hankerchief windsock stroke of genius!!

    I concur the emergency services in NZ are BLOODY OUTSTANDING!!

    Looking forward to the next jaunt – best not make it the same track!!

    Mon

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