Day 7, Wednesday 8th, saw an early start of 6am, and more beautiful weather, with strong sunlight and a gentle breeze to take the sting out of the ultraviolet. On paper the route looked pretty easy; follow the river for no more than about 10km, before hitting the northern tip of Lake Alabaster, from where it was plain sailing if you just walked in the lake, according to the Kiwis. How could we go wrong? One word: washout.
We lost the track relatively early on, when we came upon a dry river that crossed our path. We crossed that easily enough, but soon after we hit the bush again, we realised we hadn't seen a marker for a while. Never mind, we thought, we'd stick to the river bank, where we assumed the path would have been if the river hadn't washed the markers away. That was our mistake; the track actually headed inland, but we missed it, and the rest, as they say, is history. Bush bashing our way through reasonably thick bush – not as thick as around Lake Wilmot, but thick enough – we eventually came out at the river again, rather lost, but heading in the right sort of direction. That's where Rick decided he needed to get out of the grass.
Poor old Rick; he suffered badly from hay fever, and we'd walked through a field full of pollen-heavy grass almost first thing in the morning. He'd gone in front, and had looked like he'd got an exhaust pipe fitted, the way he stirred up the pollen from the grass heads, and now he was swelling up all over in a fearsome rash.
He needed a break from the bush, and there was the river, all shallow and silted, so we decided to walk down the river again. It had been such a success before, so why not again? It all went swimmingly for about 3km, and that's when we tried to cross the river back to the eastern bank, but by this time it wasn't such a friendly, shallow trickle, it had got its act together.
It's vital to take river crossings very seriously. The biggest cause of death in areas like the Pyke is drowning – indeed, Davey Gunn drowned in the Hollyford, and he would have known the dangers better than anyone – and as we tried to cross the river, now waist deep, it became increasingly obvious that if one of us was to lose his foothold, we'd be swept away. We aborted the attempt, and after a couple of further tries, we realised we would have to tramp back to our original crossing place, and resume the bush bashing.
The whole river episode had been a waste of time and effort, but we looked at it philosophically; braver and more stupid trampers might have pushed on and tried the crossing, and they might have drowned. We, on the other hand, were suffering, but very much alive1.
The Black Swamp
One good thing about the river escapade, though, was that it enabled us to pinpoint out position on the map; we were just north of a river that flowed across the track, and we reasoned that if we could get to the river, we could walk up and down it relatively unhindered and find the markers. We soon found the river, and Rick headed west towards the Pyke, while I headed east. I must have walked for a good half a kilometre through waist-deep, brown water, not seeing or caring what lay in the muddy creek; I was just glad that this wasn't northern Australia, or I'd have been chomped up by a crocodile in no time at all. By the time I returned, soaked to the skin with boots full of goodness knows what, I discovered that Rick had found the track, and had been calling me for ages. That's another nasty aspect of the bush; it eats all sound. However, we were so glad to have found the track again, I didn't care.
Actually, finding the track turned out to be a mixed blessing. The next obstacle was the one with the most emotive name on the map: the Black Swamp. We'd heard stories about the Black Swamp, and every one of them proved correct. It stank of rotting vegetation; it was, indeed, a very black, swampy area, dotted with odd tussocks of vegetation with strange grassy growths appearing out of the top; and it was waist deep in gooey, quicksand-like mud, as both Rick and I found out as we waded through it. We had started out by trying to hop from clump to clump, but this turned out to be pretty hopeless with the combination of heavy backpack and unstable vegetation, and by the end of the swamp, which can only have been about 200m wide, we were filthy, soaked, and, frankly, having a ball. When you're already muddy, you might as well wallow in it.
After the Black Swamp we miraculously managed to keep to the markers, despite large numbers of washouts. I had decided to wear my waterproof over-trousers to keep out the hook grass, as my legs were too sore to cope otherwise, and progress was generally good, although the bush we bashed through was monotonous, dark and pretty soul destroying. As we emerged onto the beach at the northern tip of Lake Alabaster, I sank onto the ground and just collapsed into lunch; we'd taken the best part of seven hours to get from the hut to the lake, a very long time for such a short distance.
The view, though, was like no other. It was quite dreamy sitting at the end of the lake and looking south towards Mt Madeline and the Darran Mountains (the highest peaks in the region), especially after the darkness of the bush. From here on the walk was as near to perfect as you can get; we skirted the eastern shore of the lake, walking in the water which only came up to our knees, and making full use of the beaches when they arrived. The map reading was pretty easy too, as the western shore had a number of obvious features, and the relief of being able to gauge our progress after the numbing frustration of the bush was huge. We arrived at the Alabaster Hut just in time for tea, and for a wonderfully warm swim in the sun-heated lake.
1 It's a serious point, this. I later read in the paper about a German who died on the Tasman Glacier when he fell off a moraine wall while taking a photograph; I'd spent Christmas Eve on the Tasman Glacier, and I'd climbed plenty of moraine... it makes you wonder.