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Many Adventures of a Nomadic Poet A young poet with Asperger's makes travel his passion, and away he goes...

NZ Wilderness Misadventure

NEW ZEALAND | Wednesday, 10 October 2018 | Views [464] | Comments [1]

New Zealand is such a gorgeous place, and that's part of why it's my favourite country. I love tramping (hiking, to you folk from the rest of the world) and I've done many fabulous walks both in NZ and elsewhere. My favourite walk in all of NZ is the Rees-Dart Track. Yesterday I started my latest adventure, and I nearly didn't make it out alive last night. It was a combination of bad luck and some bad, brainless decisions on my part. 

1,772 geocaches I've found in more than a dozen countries but I'd never been the first to find (FTF) a cache. Four caches that have been there for nearly three years, yet have never been found, caught my eye. On my radar in the Eyre Mountains were four different huts: Cromel Base Hut, Cromel Branch Hut, Upper Cromel Hut, and Irthing Hut. Some experienced trampers take part in "hut bagging" where they try to visit and/or stay at as many of the huts as possible around NZ. There are more than 950 huts dotted round the country. On this particular track, Cromel Base Hut is the most accessible and then Cromel Branch Hut is further away and there's a fork in the trail there leading to the other two, so my plan was to get there on the first night, and then do a day trip to either Upper Cromel Hut or Irthing Hut (or perhaps both) and stay the second night at Branch Hut, coming out on the third day. Most certainly, this isn't Milford Track. There are no hut wardens, solar-powered lighting, or regular weather updates from the Dept. of Conservation (DOC). This track is really only frequented by hunters and before I realized there are geocaches out here, I'd never even heard of this place. 

A Dutch backpacker heading to Te Anau would drop me at the nearest point to the start of the track, and there's a sign stating "private property." The owner pulled up in his ute and seemed a bit annoyed but was understanding when I explained how the DOC map shows the start of the track from the end of the road. He asked if I informed someone of my intentions and then gave me instructions to get to Cromel Base Hut. He said there's no chance of reaching Cromel Branch Hut this evening but I walked on. Reaching Cromel Base Hut at 6 PM, I recorded my first ever "FTF" geocache. What a euphoric moment!

The DOC sign stated that Cromel Branch Hut is another 5 1/2 hours ahead but the times on the DOC signs are often overestimated. For a few minutes I comtemplated staying at the hut or carrying on, as staying here last night would have meant a really long slog today. I'm a rather fast walker and I'm fit. With my eye on what daylight I had left, I walked as fast as I could, confident I'd reach the hut. I couldn't be more wrong: I ran out of daylight and even with my head torch I had trouble spotting the orange triangles that mark the track. I started to turn back toward Cromel Base Hut but it was too late. I was two hours away and lost! I was seriously lost! Perhaps most fortunately, I had some mobile coverage. At this point I felt I had to do the unthinkable: on many occasions I've had to call an emergency hotline (911 [US], 000 [Australia], 111 [New Zealand]) for others due to being passed out after drinking too much, being in car accidents, having seizures, etc. but I never thought I'd find myself having to call emergency for myself. The operator told me to stay calm and stay in one spot but I had completely lost my bearings. My option now was the only one: get out my sleeping bag, wrap my pack liner around it, get in, stay warm, and wait for daylight. They were unsure if they were going to send a helicopter or have a team walk in, but I just lay there asking myself "how can this happen to me?" 

Last night I barely slept at all, and my dreams were flashbacks of my life; all of my various accomplishments as well as events that have taken place, people I've met, etc. It was very windy last night and I kept an ear open for a chopper but I likely wouldn't have heard it due to the wind. I woke up this morning with a chip on my shoulder, telling myself "Chris Farrell, you got yourself in this situation, now you Chris Farrell have to get out of it." The general rule is the further down you go, the better your chances are of finding water, and the further up you go, the better your chances are of finding a mobile signal. My instincts told me to go uphill, and less than five minutes up the hill my phone beeped. A police officer from the Lumsden police station left a message and I called him back. Even if they sent an airlift in, I'd have to pay $2,500 per hour of flying time and then get reimbursed through my travel insurance. They didn't send a chopper last night because they took into account my fitness level and the fact that I'm an experienced tramper with no adverse medical conditions. Had I had a heart condition, diabetes, a broken ankle, etc. they would have sent in a chopper straight away. Since I was under a canopy I was thinking they're unlikely to see me, so I had a creative idea. Juliett, my drone, is with me, and I thought I could fly her through a clearing and try to get the pilot's attention that way. However, as I was on the phone with the officer I spotted the orange triangles indicating the track and I explained I should be alright especially since the sun was rising. I informed the officer that I'm going to get back to Cromel Base Hut, stay the night, and walk out tomorrow. I would have called him regardless to let him know I was alright. Safe and relieved, I walked relentlessly for two hours and after having no water for about 16 hours, a cup of water from a stream never tasted better! Back at Cromel Base Hut, I was safe and sound...and content and peaceful. The first thing I did was make a coffee, and I sure needed one. I had the hut all to myself and I lit the fire, made a few cups of coffee, did some reading about Norway, and enjoyed a sweet and sour lamb camping meal as I sat warm by the fire. I've never had a day in my life where I hadn't seen another human being, so I wondered if today would be the first time. 

After sitting by the fire for nearly three hours I decided to have a rest, and then I heard a vehicle coming in the direction of the hut. As it approached closer I thought maybe they were hunters. When I jumped up out of bed I greeted them at the door and it turned out it was a police officer named Dave and the owner of the farm. Although they initially figured I was going to be alright, they decided that because conditions deteriorated rapidly, they were going bring me out today. My plan was to stay the night at the hut and then walk out tomorrow, and either way I could have called both Dave and Craig (the farm owner) to let them know I made it out OK. Heading back toward Craig's home it was a chilly and not-so-comfortable ride on the back of an ATV as I was getting soaked and had to keep both hands firmly gripped on the side bars. For a few minutes I had no feeling in my fingers but I felt there's nothing I can do at this point. Back at Craig's home, his wife Hannah offered me a coffee whilst Dave Leach, whom I spoke to this morning, was there. How did this happen to me? I feel terrible how I got so many people involved and inconvenienced so many people. The 111 operator and Dave both said I did the right thing by calling, as it's better to call and later say I'm OK than to not do so at all. Hell, I'm 34 years old and a very experienced and dedicated traveller, not some 19-year old who's going overseas for the first time and doesn't have a bloody clue about tramping in New Zealand. This situation is my own damn fault and nobody else's. This situation could have been far worse: there could have been no mobile coverage whatsoever and had I been stranded out there today I would have ended up with hypothermia and heavy snow wouldn't have allowed a helicopter to fly in. 

After saying thank you and cheers several times to Dave, Craig, and Hannah, Dave Leach offered me a lift to Kingston where he was going to call Elie to pick me up. Fish & chips from the cafe in Kingston never tasted better, and I shouted Dave a coffee for being so helpful. "I'm disappointed in you, bro" said Elie, and I said "understandable." Elie took time to speak to several of my friends, and give the police information about me. A team in Invercargill even somehow found my Fearless Journey page! Elie took time that he could have spent with his girlfriend or doing other things to look after me due to my own stupidity. I should add that it was a combination of bad luck and bad decisions. I realize in this situation that I scared many people. My aunt passed away only a week ago and I wouldn't want to lose my life now. Dave told me to always be prepared in these situations. Hell, I want to go to Stewart Island next week and do a 10-day walk along the Northwest Circuit. How am I ready for that when I get lost due to a brainless decision on a 3-day trip?

As a helpful tip for going deep into the wilderness, before I undertake my next trek on a relatively unknown track, I'm going to invest in a personal locator beacon (PLB). They're not cheap (about $500) but can be activated even in areas with no mobile coverage. Even the fittest tramper can break an ankle, fall and hit their head, or whatever. PLBs are also helpful in the event you find another tramper who is injured. New Zealand is the most difficult country in the world to forecast the weather and it's highly advisable to have extra clothing. Hannah even said snow wasn't on the forecast. It went from sunny and gorgeous to a half a metre of snow in only about 18 hours.

This was yesterday...

...and this was today. 

All of the usual precautions apply: even on popular tracks, inform either a DOC office or a friend of your plans, always carry extra food, and if conditions deteriorate or if it's going to get dark, be prepared to stay at a hut for an extra night. Bring an extra book or a solar-powered charger for your phone and be prepared to wait it out. There are much worse things that can happen than sitting by the fire in a warm hut whilst there's a blizzard outside. 

I hope something like this never happens to me again. I've had two near-death experiences this year and, like they say, the third time's the charm. For now I must give shout-outs to Dave Leach and other members of the NZ Police for being in contact with me and then driving me to Kingston, Craig the property owner for driving out in his ATV in horrible conditions to come and get me, his wife Hannah for making me a hot coffee when I was safe, and Elie for driving 100 km roundtrip to pick me up and speaking to me firmly and constructively like a good friend should do. 

My next story about the wilderness will definitely be a better one as I'm going to Stewart Island in less than a week, and I've learned my lesson to always be prepared for the worst and hope for the best. 



what are you doing getting lost Chris ,take care . I don't think you will get lost on Stewart island, wish I was doing that walk.watch out for the bugs. cheers gordon.

  gordon frederick Oct 12, 2018 8:01 AM

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