On day 5 we got up at 5am to make an early start, mainly because we wanted all the walking time we could get. The next hut, Olivine, was too far away for a normal day's walk, and most people camp out halfway along the loop, but having no tents we had to try for the hut, or stay out in a homemade bivvy (which was a feasible proposition, just not as nice as a hut). Bill's party had taken 14 hours to get from Olivine to Big Bay, so we set off with some idea of what lay ahead, and it all looked so easy on the map. If only we'd known.
The track started off with a reasonably simple trudge through thick forest – in which we managed to get lost, rather worryingly – and across a swing bridge, and then we struck out due east, heading towards the Pyke River. After about 10km of bashing through the bush we reached the Pyke, and here the fun started. After crossing the river, which was quite braided at this point and only just above knee deep, we hit the track, only to find it went through flax quagmire, not the most pleasant walking in the world. After wading through knee-deep water, by which time our boots were well and truly soaked, we decided that walking in the river itself might be a good idea, seeing as it hadn't been raining that much recently.
This turned out to be a good idea. While the track passed through goodness only knows what, we simply stuck to the river, crossing it in a zigzag fashion and sticking to the insides of corners where there was plenty of silt to walk on. The added bonus of river-hopping was the astounding view as we waltzed through the deep blue water (which was pretty damn cold, but refreshing nonetheless after the bush); looking down the valley we could see the Skippers Range rising up ahead on the right, with the Little Red Hill Range on the left, and occasional glimpses of the mighty Darran Range in the distance. It seemed that the stories of a living hell had to be wrong; this was beautiful tramping.
Before long we reached Lake Wilmot, where we stopped for a late lunch. The lake was pure beauty, and apart from some confusion with regard to the map – the one I was using was a 1988 revision, since which the whole area has been flooded a number of times, changing the area considerably – we'd managed really well. After lunch, full of Ryvita and confidence, we picked up the track along the eastern shore of the lake, making great progress to the southern end of the lake by about 3pm. And that's when things started to go wrong.
We lost the track pretty quickly, which wasn't that surprising as we'd been following our noses, there being no markers at all along the lake track. The problem was that we'd seen two different versions of the route on various maps; the one on mine said to go straight on after the lake, sticking to the east side of the valley, but the more modern map had shown a different track, crossing along the southern shore of the lake to the western side of the valley, before following the river down (which flows out of the southwestern tip of the lake).
We tossed a mental coin and went for the more modern option, crossing the southern shore to the river; we figured that having come this far down the river, we could probably continue to follow it all the way down. Whoops: bad choice.
When a river flows out of a lake, it's going fast and deep. As we reached the southwestern tip of the lake, it became painfully obvious that we weren't going to be able to follow the river any more, even if we stuck to the banks, so we decided to try to follow the river bank a few metres in from the water, through the bush.
This was when it really began to fall apart; I have never experienced the likes of hardcore Kiwi river-flat bush, and I hope I never do again. Imagine the thickest thicket, and double it; our progress was by inches, there was no respite, and the only tracks we found were made by deer. It's not just a case of slow progress either; by far the worst aspect of bush-bashing is the pain involved, and here we discovered the source of Gary and Bill's bloodied legs – bush bastards like hook grass and bush lawyer, which take absolutely no prisoners.
Going Nowhere Slowly
It took us about an hour of bush-bashing to realise that it was hopeless; we were getting nowhere, and were in considerable pain to boot. We turned right around, smashed our way back to the lake – what a gorgeous sight after that hell! – and threaded back to the southeastern corner of the lake, where we nursed our pride and tried to save the day by finding the track. The relief when we found the first marker deep in the considerably easier bush was huge, and we followed the markers through beech forest until we hit the Barrier River; we constantly lost the track, but after our experiences with the river bush, we were determined to keep to the path now that we had it in our sights, so if we lost the markers we'd turn back and try again. Cries of 'marker!' from whoever was leading were like manna from heaven.
The Barrier River posed no problems, being only knee deep, and the next stage was relatively easy, passing through the river flats where Davey Gunn, a legendary figure in the area and original proprietor of Gunn's Camp, used to run his cattle. After crossing the Diorite Stream, from which we could see some beautiful waterfalls tumbling off the Little Red Hill Range near the source of the Diorite, we hit more bush, which the map said was the last stretch before the hut. If only it was that simple; the track wound round and round, seemingly going on forever, and we kept stumbling on parts that had been completely washed out. What do you do when a track disappears into the river? You get inventive, but when the sun's already ducked below the mountains and the hut has got to be close, it's soul destroying.
How we made it, I don't know; I was on autopilot as my legs followed the rutted track, even though I couldn't see the ground through the bush. I now understand what it's like to have a huge beer belly, when your feet become old friends that you never see any more, but eventually we got to the Olivine River, where a strange contraption awaited us: a cage bridge. This involved getting into a cage, one at a time, and winding your way over the river, a painful and tiring experience after the 14.5 hours we'd been walking... but at last we could see the hut, and boy, it looked cosy.
That night we slept like the dead, after cooking a hasty meal and passing on all our tips onto the two Kiwi women whom we met in the hut, and who were doing the Pyke the other way around. We got plenty of tips off them for the ensuing trip back to Alabaster, but we were so exhausted that most of it went over our heads, and when we woke up late on day 6, life was starting to return to normal after the struggles of the day before.