Monday, 20 March 2017

Tramping Skills: River crossing

The New Zealand disease...

In Colonial times drowning was referred to as the New Zealand disease because so many people died trying to cross rivers etc. It is hardly surprising given the number of beaches, lakes, rivers and streams in this country.

Drowning remains a major cause of fatalities amongst kiwi trampers to this day.

Contemplating a crossing of the Otira River

Because of our profusion of water you need to be able to assess a body of water and have the skill and experience to pick safe crossing points.

Here are some tips I have learnt over the years about what to look for when you approach a water body and how to decide how, when and where you will cross.

To cross or not to cross?

The most fundamental question you need to ask yourself is Do I need to cross this? This seems obvious yet I'm sure some people have never stopped and thought about why they are crossing some water body. As soon as you enter a river you can potentially find yourself in trouble so asking yourself why you cross is important.

How and where will I cross...?
If there is any possible way to avoid entering a river, stream or lake you should take advantage of it. Is there a bridge nearby you could use, can you reach your location without crossing water or is there an alternate route that avoids water crossings. These are all questions you should ask yourself.

Nice...can be crossed easily at this point!

Every river crossing is dangerous: regardless of the amount of aids, training and experience you have. Even veterans with 40+ years of experience have been swept away by rivers so never assume you are immune. Take every crossing seriously.

Crossable with care as part of a group (...why...there is a bridge 100 meters up-river!)

Cross these rivers? Don't even think about it!

As the Mountain Safety Council (MSC) say... "If there are any doubts about the safety of crossing, don't cross - it isn't worth the risk"

Approaching a river

Develop your own process for assessing rivers, streams and creeks when you are out tramping. If you have a mindful process you are much more likely to use it every time you arrive at a river or stream.

Always stop and assess any body of water- never jump in without stopping and formulation a plan to get you safely to the other side. I will often stop for a drink or snack at a river crossing point. This means I am rested before attempting to cross and gives me time to really eye up the river I'm thinking of crossing.

Brew up before crossing a river

Never attempt to cross a river that is swollen, discoloured, where you cannot see the river bed or if there are debris floating in it. These are all signs of a flooding, dangerous river.

A discoloured Alfred River...

If you approach a river and hear a low rumbling do not cross. the water is moving rocks along the stream bed, these can easily injure you.

Look for a safe place to both enter and exit the river. Avoid steep or undercut banks, debris piles and areas with dense vegetation as these will be difficult places to enter and exit. 

Not a safe exit point, too much debris to negotiate
Be careful of marked fords- rivers are changeable beast and what was once easy going may now be a certain death trap. An example is the ford over the mouth of the Travers River in Nelson Lakes NP. The ford is marked, yet if you follow the marked path you are led straight into a swift waist deep channel.

The Travers River ford- deep channel near far bank!

If you go 30 meters downriver it is only knee deep right across the river. It is always worth the effort to explore alternate crossing point before you commit.

The MSC have more information about assessing possible river crossing points on their website.

Cross as a group or solo?

You can cross a river by yourself or as a group. The MSC do not recommend crossing a river solo. The reason for this is that a single person does not have as much stability as two or more. A group is heavier and has more points of contact with the bed of the water course. Even having two makes your chances of successfully crossing much higher.

Obviously there will be times when you must cross rivers singly but you should do everything in your power to avoid doing so.

Group crossing

If you are part of a group you should cross using the mutual support method.

Using the mutual support method

Follow these rules when using the mutual support method:

  • Choose a crossing leader before entering the water. They control the crossing- all group members listen close for instructions.
  • Choosing a crossing point is a group decision- discuss your options.
  • Strongest person to be at upstream end of group
  • Upstream person slightly forward of next, you want a shallow incline to the group
  • Second strongest person at downstream end of group
  • Hands grasp neighbours pack-straps/clothing around their body
  • Group should be parallel to the flow of water, this will minimise the force of the water
  • Maximum river depth no more than thigh deep. The only exception would be in very slow moving waist deep water. If it is deeper than the thigh DO NOT CROSS regardless of the group size!
  • Take small shuffling steps all the way across the water.
  • The group moves as one unit- all the way across.
  • Move diagonally downstream with the flow of the water. Don't fight the river flow- conserve energy!
  • Pack straps loosened and sternum strap undone
  • Can be used by 2-5 people, if more than 5 then you need a second group
  • Suitable for even and uneven river beds, your neighbours stop you falling into too deep of a hole.
  • Always wear footwear as rivers can be slippery.

Nicely done- group using the mutual support method

Crossing solo

If you must cross solo use the solo supported method. Grab a pole at least your height, use this as an extra leg to give you more stability. Shuffle your way across the river maintaining two points of contact at all times.

Solo supported using a pole...
...and in deeper water!

You should really angle this pole across your body with the upstream end planted on the bed of the river.

Solo supported method, pole anchored on river-bed

Walking poles can be used in ankle to knee deep water but are not long enough for anything over knee depth.

Crossing using trekking poles for support

If you have the option of crossing as a group or solo ALWAYS cross using the group method.

General river crossing technique:

Take care to remember these points when crossing any body of water:

Having decided on your crossing point make sure all gear is secured inside your pack. Loose items on the exterior can be lost or drag you under once waterlogged.

NO! Stow that shite in the pack....

New Zealand's steep terrain and large watersheds mean that rivers can rise and fall quickly. Watch for the first signs of impending floods: discolouration and floating debris. Do not camp to close to riverbanks if there is rain forecast for the watershed you are in, floods of up to 10 metres have been recorded before.

Equally, if a river is too high to cross find shelter and wait. It is highly likely that the water level will be much lower after a couple of hours of fine weather. Comprise a striking haiku as you wait... to my ears
is the rain droplets falling
in the inky night...

Undo any sternum straps and loosen but do not remove your waist belt. Sternum straps are a possible choking hazard as the buoyancy of your pack can force them up towards your neck. The waist belt will help with stability if you fall into the water.

Sternum straps as a choking hazard...

Avoid wearing loose clothing that could gather weight from the water. Remove it and stow it until you reach the other side. I'm thinking about fleece trousers and wet weather pants here.

Always wear your footwear. Rivers can be slippery and they also conceal sharp rocks etc. on their beds. I know you like dry boots but safety comes first.

Wet feet but safely across the river!

Dont skip from stone to stone or walk along logs. You are far more likely to end up in the river doing this and may injure yourself. I have seen numerous people take a full immersion bath just because they wanted to keep their boots dry.

Bad crossing technique: don't do this...

...don't do this...

...and do not do this!

Use a plastic pack liner or water proof dry bag to keep your pack contents dry. Make sure you will still have dry warm clothing and a sleeping bag for the end of the day.

Standard MSC pack liner bag

Pack showing my plastic pack liner

What if I fall mid stream?

Good question. Every tramper is going to experience the buttock clenching shock of going adrift in a river at some time, I certainly have.

In 1998 I was part of an Army group crossing a swollen river in the Kaimaniwa Mountains. Three of us got swept downstream for about half a kilometre. I am not ashamed to say it frightened the be-Jesus out of me as I am not a good swimmer at the best of times. We were lucky and all managed to reach the river banks but not everyone has such luck.

If you do fall use your packs natural buoyancy to keep you afloat. Get onto your back, face downstream and use you arms in a sculling motion to work your way to the river side.

Sculling to safety after a river mishap, photo from MSC website

Once there carefully remove your pack and slowly work both it and yourself up the bank to safety.

If you do not have a waist belt or it is undone use the older MSC advice as it is equally effective:

Pushing straps to stabilise pack

Lean back on back and face downstream
Push down on the bottom of your pack straps to keep your pack on your back
Keep your legs in a running position and head diagonally towards the bank
Remove pack only if you lose control of it/or it pushes you under. In that case grasp it to your chest and use it as a pack float instead.

Once you are safely out of the water you need to get dry and warm as quickly as possible. Hypothermia is a real risk after a total immersion on even the warmest, sunny day. If required you should stop, erect some shelter, get into your sleeping bag and get some warm food/drinks into you. If you are part of a group you can also light a fire to warm you and dry out clothing.

Regrouping and drying off after river crossing

For more information on river crossing technique see the MSC website.

Practice makes perfect, but....!

Even with mastery of crossing methods and a lifetime of experience people still have problems from time to time. Learning about rivers and how to cross them really is a lifelong learning experience. Hey, I have been tramping for over 25 years and I am still learning new things every time I cross a river.

The best advice I can give you is to take a NOOA, NOLS or MSC sponsored river safety course. These will teach you the basic skills you need to survive in New Zealand rivers. This knowledge will be enhanced with the experience you gain every time you cross another body of water.

Be safe out there!

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Where's Waldo...more importantly where is Jon

Jon...where have you been?

You would have noticed that there has not been a lot of posts added to my site recently, there is a reason for that.

In December my family and I found out that my mother had terminal cancer and only had a short time left to live. I decided to shelve all tramping plans so I had time to be with her and to support my father and siblings.

We originally thought we might have as much as six months with her. Unfortunately it was a lot more aggressive and she passed away on the 4th of February. She was 70 years and 8 days old. 

My mother was supportive of my tramping although, as mothers are, she was worried I would have an accident every time I went out. I had strict instructions to call her as soon as I got home so she knew I was fine. I used to call her and say it was St Peter calling about her son. She always laughed, she had the same slightly dark sense of humour I have.

My mother Suzanne

Sue the cricket international....


I'm keen to get back out in the outdoors as it has always been a very peaceful place for me. I will be pursing a more modest tramping program for the rest of Summer and Autumn than I originally planned. Keep an eye out for some new posts shortly.

Love you mum.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Plans for the 2016/17 tramping season

That time of year again, planning for my summer tramping excursions.

Tramping planning for Summer 2016/2017

I have a large list of possible tramping locations pinned to the wall next to my desk at work, I like to peruse it when I need some "down" time. I have some exciting locations planned for tramping trips over the next couple of months.

This year is about getting stuff done!

Day Tramps

View from Mt Grey, October 2016


  • Avalanche Peak via Scotts track, Arthurs Pass NP (Dec 2016:There is still ice and snow up there and I'm not a mountaineer) 
  • Hope Halfway Hut visit (Completed October 2016 )
  • Woolshed Hill, Arthurs Pass NP 
  • Up the Taipo River to Dillons Hut and Dillons Homestead, Arthur's Pass NP,  hut baggin (Road...I shall say no more!)
  • Mt Grey Track, Canterbury foothills (completed November 2016)
  • St Arnaud Range Track (completed in late November 2016)
  • Speargrass Track to Speargrass hut (completed late November 2016)
Speargrass Slip, November 2016

Overnight Tramps

  • Lake Rotoiti Circuit, Travers Valley, I'm doing a recce of Nelson Lakes NP as I'm planning to walk the Travers-Sabine Circuit in April 2017. I have tramped in the area before but only a really long time ago. (Completed November 2016)

View from Coldwater Hut jetty
  • Lucretia Biv route, Lewis Pass SR,
  • Sudden Valley, Arthur's Pass NP,  This route is reliant on dry conditions to be viable as you have to cross Sudden Valley Stream a number of times.
  • Nina Hut, Lewis Pass Scenic Reserve (Completed December 2016)
  • Wharfedale Track, Lees Valley to Whafedale Hut, Mt Oxford FP. I have previously walked the other end of this track back in 2013, so I'm connecting the dots really.
  • The Travers-Sabine Circuit, Nelson Lakes NP. (5-6 Days) This will be completely reliant on time/leave/finances in 2017. The body is keen...the pocket book empty!
  • The Abel Tasman Coastal Track, 3-4 Days, April-May 2017 (Planned to walk this in September 2016 but bad weather caused a cancellation of my plans 2 weeks out...I'm keen as mustard to do it....)
Jon in the Nina Valley, December 2016

The Te Araroa Trail

I'm section hiking the Te Araroa Trail over the next couple of years so one of my main  foci's will always be tramping sections of the tracks.

Over Summer I hope to complete:

  • Harper Pass Track, SH73 to Lewis Pass, Otira River ford to Windy Point, NOBO, (4-6 Days) (Set for 20-26th February 2016)
  • Richmond to Anakiwa via the Pelorous River Track, NOBO, (4-5 days) (March 2017)
  • Migha-Deception track, SH73 to Bealey River,  SOBO (2-3 Days) (if time allows in 2017)

After walking the Queen Charlotte Track in February 2016 I have completed 300 km's or 10% of the Te Araroa Trail.

On the QCT February 2016

Monday, 12 December 2016

Nina Hut: Lewis Pass Scenic Reserve 9-10 December 2016

A return to the Nina Valley

I have wanted to get back up the Nina Valley for some time now, the last time I was in the area was back in 2013, nearly 3 years ago. With a slightly dodgy weather forecast I was sceptical but decided to try to get up to Nina Hut and stay for the night anyway.

I headed up early on Friday to try to avoid the worst of the heavy traffic now using Lewis Pass and arrived at the NZDA Palmer Lodge around 9 in the morning. This is a moderately safe place to leave your car, and the closest parking area to the Nina Valley Track. 

The red beast parked next to Palmer Lodge

Here is a shot through the window of Palmer Lodge, it looks perfectly comfortable in an olde time rustic kind of way. This is what your average kiwi 'Bach" or holiday home looked like until the massive explosion in house prices 15 years ago. Utilitarian but serviceable....

The interior of Palmer Lodge

Heading to the Lewis River swing bridge

The Nina Valley track starts from the Lewis River swing bridge, it is across SH7 and 100 meters up the road from Palmer Lodge. Take care crossing the road as there is a lot of fast traffic on this road since the Kaikoura earthquakes.

Crossing SH7 to the start of the Nina Valley Track

Well sign posted track entrance...

Lewis River swing bridge, gateway to the Nina Valley

 On the Nina Valley Track

The Nina Valley track gives you access to various locations up this valley including Nina Hut, Lucretia Stream, the Devils Den route, and Mt Boscawen. Generally it is a good track but it can be very muddy if there has been any significant rain.

Be aware that you need to cross eight side streams to get to the hut, a problem if heavy rain is coming as 3-4 of them could flood enough to trap you up valley.

Nina Valley Track network
On the far side of Lewis River are a couple of information boards and an intentions book, check this book to see how many people are visiting the hut. Nina Hut is a 10 bunker, a flick through the hut book showed multiple occasions when there were  up to 20 people staying there....

If it is busy take a tent or go somewhere else...I suggest Lake Daniels Hut over Lewis Pass or Cannibal Creek Hut the first hut on the St James Walkway.

DOC track map on the true right of the Lewis River bridge
There is a board about the DOC/Hurunui College/Forest and Bird joint kiwi/kaka/whio recovery program in the valley, they run a very successful pest trapping program. The number of native birds in the valley has increased significantly including nearly 20 introduced kiwi.

Damn fine work!
Huranui College information board

Close up detail of the college information

To start, the track runs along an old river terrace through nice beech forest, it is well marked and easy to follow.

Nice beech forest to start, Nina Valley Track

Jon enroute to Nina Hut

View down the Lewis River from the river terraces

Mature red beech tree grove
About 15 minutes down the track you climb up and over an ancient rock slip, now clothed in forest. There are patches of moss covered "Goblin" forest in this area. It then descends to an old swamp, this is by far the wettest and muddiest section of the track...if it has been raining expect to get dirty...

Climbing over the rock slip

Goblin forest on the slip

Start of the mud slog, Nina Valley track

More of the muddy Nina Track

Nearing the end of the old swamp, Nina Valley

Height 1532 from the Nina Track
Past the mud you head back into beech forest, Red Beech in this case, the rest of the track is either forest or open river flats. You get a few glimpse of the Nina River but mostly you are several hundred meters away from it as you head to the Nina River swing bridge.

Red beech trees, Nina track

First of eight stream crossings, Nina Track

Nina River from the track

Climbing up to the Nina River swing bridge
There is a bridge over the Nina Valley about an hour into the journey, while the bridge itself is impressive the deep emerald green river pools are spectacular. The rest of the journey to Nina Hut is on the opposite or 'true right" side of the Nina River.

Jon at the swing bridge

I'm going here....!

Nina River swing-bridge

The Nina River Gorge

Beautiful, icy cold Nina River

On the true right of the Nina swing bridge
The track from here to the hut sidles the side of the Sylvia Tops ridge, it is about 1.5 to 2 hours to the hut from the bridge. Most of this track look familiar but there are many places where the track has been re routed away from the river. This is to avoid the eroding river bank but some areas look like attempts to avoid the legendary mud.

Rerouted track section on the true right of the Nina
Here is one of pests DOC and Hurunui College are trapping: a mangy looking stout!

Stout and the box that caught him...
There is a track from the swing bridge to Lucretia Stream, it goes up the true left side on the Nina River. Lots of good camping on the river flats about 30 minutes up that track.

Track marker poles on the true left of the Nina River

Open beech forest,  Nina Valley

View up valley to the Duchess

Crossing the river flats near the Nina river

Back into the bush, Nina Track
Below is a photo of one of the re routed track sections, this one is long, it must go for about a kilometer and is about 100 meters further away from the river than it used to be. The old track had  a lot of river bank erosion along it, I imagine that is why it has been re routed. 

Start of long re routed section of the Nina Track
I stopped for a snack about 45 minutes up valley and enjoyed my favourite tramping snack; a box of raisins...yum! I like a sweet/savoury snack mix so I favour raisins/steak bars/snickers/salted peanuts/M&M's and cheese sticks, I'm not big on muesli bars (they taste like sawdust to me).

Snack time: raisins!

Side stream on the Nina Track

End of the long re routed section of the track

Nina River from the sidle track

Nice small waterfall near the Nina Track

Another of the side streams

Cascade just above the stream crossing

Rest spot two: about 2 hours along the Nina Track
This likely looking fellow swooped down to check me out when I stopped for a drink and boot adjustment. You often have companionable New Zealand Wrens visit you in New Zealand beech forest they are after the bugs you disturb as you walk along.

Native New Zealand Wren

The last stream crossing, climb to the hut starts now..
Nina Hut sits on a spur line 3/4 of the way up the valley, it was an inspired spot as it is so sunny. 

The last kilometre to the hut is a gentle climb to the flat area the hut occupies and is characterised by moss draped 'Goblin forest".

Climbing the spur Nina Hut sits on

Last rise before Nina Hut

Walking along the spur top towards Nina Hut
I finally reached the hut after 2.5 hours which was good progress given the muddy state of the track.

Nina Hut

The veranda, wood storage and water tap, Nina Hut

Mt Boscawen from Nina Hut

Some wood in the Nina Hut wood shed...noice!

Tracks to Devils-Den Route and Upper Nina Bivy
First order of business, as always, was a brew of tea. This is always the first thing I do when I get to a hut, good old tea revives on both hot and cold days.

While the water was boiling I did a few hut chores...

Brewin' up in the hut...

Boiling water for my first brew...

Jon doing some hut cleaning

View from the Nina Hut kitchen window

Oh...that looks good!
I'm using hut tickets this year, I never got around to buying a DOC Hut pass, though I have had one for the last three years. For $90 dollars for FMC members it is a real bargain.. the only huts it doesn't cover are Great Walk and huts on the booking system. 

DOC hut ticket for the night

Lunch time: Tea, snack bar and....

...tuna crackers!
I ended up having the hut to myself which is unusual for this hut as it gets a lot of use. I imagine the sketchy rain forecast put a lot of people off - it was supposed to rain that night but in the event it was fine, dry and warm. I took my usual position, up against a wall so that I can lean against it as I read my book.

My cosy posy for the night

Cut up fire prep, DOC gear box (the big blue thing...) and axe!

View south from the veranda

Nina Hut from the hut clearing
You can see how sunny the hut clearing is, the old Nina Hut was on the true left of the Nina River just before Duchess Stream so it was cold, damp and miserable for much of the year. This is so much better.

View east towards SH7...

...and north towards Duchess Stream

The water tank at Nina Hut
I spent the afternoon around the hut cutting up all of the firewood, drinking tea, reading and generally loafing about...

Storm clouds coming in from the West Coast!

Plenty of space for tents in the Nina Hut clearing

Dinner preparation, Nina Hut

Mood lighting to help set the scene...

Dining/Bunk area: Nina Hut

Dinner: Tomato, Chicken Alfredo with olives and mango cordial!
There was a bit of wind over night, especially around 1 am....I could hear the gusts coming up the valley like a freight train something like:


All I can say is  I'm glad I was in a hut in a valley and not in a tent on the tops.

Day Two: Back to civilisation

 I was up and moving at around 0530 in the morning, I was keen to get away from the hut in case a threatened rain storm rolled in and trapped me there. After some quick porridge, I packed up and headed away from the hut at about 0615.

Sunrise from Nina Hut

Farewell Nina Hut....
 It was light enough that I could see the track unaided, I used my head torch for crossing the side streams as it was still a bit dark for me to see the bottom of them. Travel down valley was quick, it is just about all downhill on the way out of Nina Valley.

Crossing one of the side streams

On the track heading towards SH7
 By the time I reached the river flats an hour down valley it was light enough to put my torch away. I stopped for a 5 minute break on the edge of the flats and then got under way once again.

Start of the true right river flats, Nina Track

Storm clouds at the head of Nina Valley

In the bush closing in on the Nina swing bridge...

..and back at the Nina swing bridge, 1 hour to go...

 I stopped for another break on the far side of the Nina swing bridge, just enough time for a drink, adjustment of gear and a "comfort" stop. As I was sitting here I got to thinking about the possibility of pack rafting down the Nina River, it seems to me it would bear some investigation....

Last rest stop near the Nina swing bridge

Rapids downstream of Nina swing bridge
The area below is a small river flat 10 minutes from the swing-bridge and is marked on the maps as Nina River camp ground...basic because there are not even any toilets here...

I have seen trout fishers camped in the area before but the sand-flies must be murder.

Crossing the small river terrace downstream of the Nina bridge

The last stream crossing for this trip
The track was a lot drier than the previous day, these old swamps drain really fast so it was more a case of avoidance of mud than mud wallowing.

Back into the swampy mud bath

Climbing the last small spur on this trip...

...and down the other side.
I spotted this magnificent Tui in a tree near the Lewis River, here he is about 4 feet away from me. When I took a photo of him higher in the tree and the flash went off he flew CLOSER to see what I was doing. Not strong survival skills buddy!

Tui searching for grubs near the Lewis river

Lewis River and view of SH7

Lewis swing-bridge is just around that bend in the Lewis River

Crossing the Lewis river swing bridge

On the Lewis River swing bridge at the end of the track
Now that is a awesome sight: end of the track and my car not a smashed or smouldering ruin....!

NZDA Palmer Lodge on SH7

Another fine tramp in the Lewis Pass area, this really is my favourite tramping spot, even though it has State highway 7 running through it it has a really remote feeling about it. 

Next time I am up the Nina will be for a visit to Upper Nina Biv or Lucretia Biv. I also have a longer term plan to do a multi day tramp from Windy Point to the Nina crossing the intervening saddles; a distance of about 25 kilometres over 3 days.

I would like to say a big thank you to DOC, Forest and Bird and Hurunui College, the bird recovery program you are working on is fantastic, the local forest is alive with bird song. I personally saw 4 Bell Birds, a Wren, a Kaka and a Tui and heard several kiwi during the night. 

Keep up the good work!

Access: Nina Valley Track can be accessed from SH7 - Lewis Pass. Park at the NZDA Palmer Lodge and travel 70 meters up the  river side of the road to the track entrance

Track Times: It is 1-1.5 hours to the Nina Swingbridge, then another 1.5-2 hours to Nina Hut. Total tramping time is 6 hours over two days

Hut Details: Nina Hut (10 bunks, standard, watertank)

Miscellaneous: Some un-bridged side streams, some flooding possible.