Tramper's instinct proves more reliable than GPS in high country, writes Martin Johnston.
Navigating from a hand-held GPS rather than scanning the landscape for signs can lead unwary trampers astray in southern alpine valleys.
Up the creek, to be precise. A steep, milky, torrent of a creek. One that probably should have been crossed on flatter ground had we simply been sensing our way and watching for the occasional little pile of rocks made by previous travellers to this part of the Otago Southern Alps. That's the time-honoured mode of navigation.
In the spirit of safety, however, I had copied map points from a guide book into my tramper's GPS. I assured my three companions that the huge boulder, with its overhanging edge, which we would sleep under was "just up there".
But it wasn't. It was probably in the boulder field across the roaring, glacier-fed creek at our feet. So we scouted up the bank for 100m, looking for a safe crossing.
"You wouldn't want to fall over in that," Derek warned as I considered slithering down 2m of steep rock to a jumping point to rock-hop over the foaming stream. Derek is a calm chap, not given to exaggeration.
At length, Ken, a reliable route-finder, who doesn't own a GPS, nor even a decent tent, found a ford. One-by-one, we gingerly splashed, jumped or vaulted on aluminium poles across the stream - and soon found our house-size bivvy boulder. Sure enough, there was a little rock pile - a cairn - out in front, pointing the way for the non-electronic traveller.
The map grid reference in the guidebook was out by about 100m. Well, that's my theory. No great harm done. Although we had wasted an hour - time we had planned to use for an afternoon side-trip to the reputedly beautiful Lake Nerine nestled high in the mountains above us. We never got there because the weather packed up the next day and we opted to heed warnings about slipping on steep, wet snowgrass.
Once we had reached our boulder-cum-roof, we were happy mostly to laze in the sun, gazing down the Rock Burn on day two of our seven-day adventure on the Five Passes trip in the Aspiring and Fiordland national parks.
The trip starts on the Routeburn Track, beyond the head of Queenstown's Lake Wakatipu. We followed the Routeburn for a few hundred metres then turned right up a side-track through tall beeches towards Sugarloaf Pass, the first of five.
Halfway up we stopped at a clear, cascading creek and encountered a low-flying, squawking kaka flourishing its red underwing feathers, then two of the parrots zoomed back the other way. We saw five on another day, and several kea and robins and heard numerous bellbirds.
A very different sound after the kaka call was a gunshot, fired by a Conservation Department worker we met soon after. He had been shooting down branches in the name of science - to count beech seeds to predict predator impacts on native birds.
I felt fit and springy ascending the grassy saddle, but the steep forest track down, with a 17kg pack on my back, pummelled my legs to limpness. I wanted to camp at the first grassy flat we came to as we followed the Rock Burn upstream, but my companions made me wait until the third.
We sheltered from the northwesterly gale behind a thick patch of beech, where the storm dumped a brief bout of heavy rain on our tents overnight. The wind had turned to the south and eased by morning, accounting for the cold, and the sky was clearing.
We packed up and swung into our up-valley routine. An hour later we reached Theatre Flat, the most picturesque camping spot in the upper Rock Burn - a large grassy area with several stands of beech, rocky mountains on every horizon, and a swing to play on. Someone had kindly tied an old climbing rope to a tree branch and threaded on a red wooden seat. It looked out of place, but worked nicely.
It was another cold night under the rock overhang, so we zipped down early and tight into our sleeping bags. Drizzly mist had settled in when I poked my face out of my hood at dawn. The GPS was useful in navigating off the pass to the bush-edge, where the traditional marker was a scrap of faded orange plastic tape tied to a branch of mountain beech. We plunged down the lightly marked forest trail, often picking our way down tree roots, to Hidden Falls Creek, a tributary of the Hollyford River. There we met two Germans - one of whom carried a bagged-up guitar - and a woman from Gore. They were among 12 trampers we passed during our trip.
The trail led us upstream through dense, damp Fiordland forest, out on to the foot of huge rock screes, where the stream disappeared beneath boulders, and eventually to Cow Saddle.
From our saddle campsite, we spied our highest point of the trip, the 1546m Fiery Col - "pass" four - and wondered how to get there. The rocky mountainsides looked too steep and the guide notes were slight. The route sorted itself out as we scrambled closer to the col next morning over rock and several patches of snow.
Afternoon heat consumed us as we descended from the rocky gap and we drank deeply at a cool creek before sidling around tussock slopes to Olivine Ledge.
The ledge is an unusual feature, a gently sloping tussock shelf, 100m wide, perched on the mountainside between a jagged ridge above and the Olivine River far below. We ploughed through its waist-high grasses and shrubs before turning right for the late-afternoon ascent to Fohn Lakes, where we camped for two nights.
The lakes are scenic gems. Serrated peaks of around 1800m wearing patches of snow walled in half of the 500m-wide larger lake. On our "rest" day we headed up one of the peaks, although Mike and I quit before the summit, leaving the steeper scrambling to Ken and Derek.
Day six took us over Fohn Saddle, down steep tussock to Beans Burn, a delightful, sparkling river with clear, turquoise pools and breathtaking rocky ridges in view whenever we could spare a look up through a gap in the bush. From our river-flat camp, glacier-covered Sarpedon and Cosmos Peaks filled the up-valley view.
A short bush track next morning took us to the Dart River, where we soon heard the roar of the tourist jetboats and could view the chunky west peak of Mt Earnslaw/Pikirakatahi. By mid-afternoon we had scrambled along the edge of the Dart and over the bush track past peaceful Lake Sylvan.
We brewed up beside the Routeburn, turned off the GPS and waited for the bus back to Queenstown, awed again by the lush valleys and jagged peaks of this grand region.
NEED TO KNOW: FIVE PASSES TRIP
• A moderately difficult tramping journey in Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks
• Distance, about 55km
• 5-7 days
• No huts
• No track for much of the trip, but well marked in some places
• Buses available from Queenstown to start of trip at eastern entrance to Routeburn Track