Chris wrote to me last week to say that with so many Loopers travelling to NZ it won't be long before one of them dies in the wilderness and I thought yes that's true and hopefully it won't be Andy because although he's not an FP writer, his contributions to the board are often worthwhile, and so it would be a shame to lose him. My next immediate thought was that it's unusual for Chris to be so astute - but you know, every so often, he says something that makes sense which surprises me.
Now nothing annoys me more than someone sensationalising danger. I remember meeting a guy while camped out with Ronan, who told us that he was going deep into the bush to reach a lake and was carrying an emergency beacon because it was pretty rough out here and why weren't we carrying them? Because we fucking live here - Ronan said.
And it's true, I feel much more at risk in a city than I do in the bush. In the city I run the risk of getting mugged, beaten up, shot and/or accosted by groups of sexually excited women - it happens all the time. That doesn't happen in the bush very often. In the bush the worst that can happen to you is you topple over a cliff, break all your bones and die a slow and agonising death. Or else you drown, or catch hypothermia. How often does that happen? I'm not sure to be honest, but in NZ I'd guess half a dozen times each year. Certainly a bunch of people drown in NZ every year, mainly while trying to cross rivers, often Germans actually.
So this is it: Der Sexyloopers' Survival Guide zu NZ Wilderness.
1. Your first essential skill is the ability to light a fire. If you can't do that you're going to have problems when you're wet, stuck and cold. Which will happen. I get stuck somewhere outside, the wrong side of a flooded river, in heavy rain, pretty much every season. But it's not a problem now because I can build a shelter, a fire and fairly quickly get warm if not dry. I haven't always been able to do that by the way, and once had a very bad experience up the W River, on my first trip to NZ, trapped the wrong side of a raging river, in wet clothes, on dark, with a wet sleeping bag, no dry clothes and no fire… in November (which is Spring and therefore cold, especially in the mountains and at night). I spent that particular night very unhappily wrapped in an emergency blanket.
There have been other interesting nights, for example up the N Branch C River when a friend and I were forced to make a swim just before darkness to a bigger island, one that wasn't under water. We left our fire behind and couldn't light another, and I spent another very cold and wet night, this time camped up a tree.
Anyway, that was a long time ago now, and fortunately, lighting fires has not been a problem since, although there have been moments. The “trick” I learned to lighting a fire in a rainforest is to find standing dead wood. Fallen wood rots quickly in these places and is extremely difficult if not impossible to light. You can sometimes burn it if the fire is well established, but you need to build a bloody good fire first. So look for dead trees that are still standing and knock them over. You may have to remove bark and dry the pieces as best you can while building the fire. And you will need to build a big fire if it's wet because you'll be using the fire to dry your reserve wood as well as keep you warm - so collect lots of it.
To get the fire going arrange it in a boy-scout pyramid, and once established, I find positioning logs end on end lengthwise builds a longer lasting, less maintenance fire. You can burn large logs this way. Lumps that will burn for hours. Carrying small sections of rubber, plastic or even firelighters/fire starters makes a hell of a lot of sense. The last thing you want to be doing in the dark is looking for kinderling. You want to be getting warm, building camp, preparing a meal, taking the piss out of Chris. I carry a first aid kit with me, even on day trips. In that day kit is a firelighter and couple of lighters wrapped in a plastic bag.
2. River Crossing. If you're going to spend time fishing NZ wilderness you're going to have to learn to cross rivers. Every book I've read on the subject tells you to shuffle across the river one foot at a time, carefully keeping your body side-on to the current. That's wonderful, but in NZ you're going to have problems, because shuffling across the river infers that the current is not so strong as to bowl you over. Which sounds great but that's doesn't include many of the rivers I know. Much more likely is you can't stand against the flow and any attempt to “shuffle” will see you swimming. So what you have to do, is judge a place where you can run across. God help you if you fuck up. Incidentally, if you miss your mark, go feet first and try to stay calm. If you're not a swimmer I'd recommend learning before this happens. I have been washed down rivers. It's interesting. If this is not you then stay out of the gorges and stick to smaller regularly tramped rivers.
If there's more than one of you, a good technique can be to link arms and cross together. Put the strongest crosser upstream. Three or four people linked in this way can cross some amazing water.
If there is another trick to crossing rivers, it's this: confidence. Confidence of course in part comes from experience.
Check out this article on River Crossings.
3. Being prepared is critical. That means fleece, polyprops, maps, raincoat, warm hat, spare food, good boots, having your sleeping bag wrapped in a waterproof sack. A bivvy bag is worth carrying, I think, especially if you're not packing a tent. Check out the NZ section for more info.
4. There is no 4. This is Sexyloops.
6. I've been lost a few times in NZ, sometimes only for a few hours, but once for more than a day - climbing out of the M River on the West Coast. That particular day I was making my way up a slope to a plateau from what turned out to be the wrong streambed. Many years before the mountain had given way during an earthquake (killing a father and son actually) leaving rocks the size of minibuses interspersed with dense brush. I'd drop down between them with no idea as to how far I'd fall nor where I'd land, or if I'd get out again, climb the next rock, and repeat, all the while unsure as to whether the cliff that loomed above me was scalable. Fortunately it was and I found a track the next morning having scaled the cliff just on nightfall. Breaking a leg there would not have been good.
Climbing out of gorges is difficult. Climbing back in is very dangerous. Often you end up descending towards a cliff face and the closer you get the more likely the ground you're descending will give way. Many times I've been within a hand's grasp of a catastrophic fall and have had to grab roots to pull myself back higher again. It's much safer to stay with the river and make difficult crossings rather than risk a fall - that's not just my opinion by the way, but also that of my friends who do this. If you're not a confident river crosser stay out of the gorges.
So six is learn the skills required to navigate difficult terrain. NZ is not like Europe for example, the bush is far denser, the moment you leave the river it's extremely difficult to find your way around, and it doesn't help that the shadows are in the opposite direction! Find out about the location you intend to fish, ask the Department of Conservation for advice as well as tackle and tramping shops, buy a decent map and let someone know your intentions so they know where to look if it all goes wrong - and importantly, let them know when you are out of the wilderness or if you change plans.
Oh yeah, and enjoy learning this stuff, it's half of what NZ fishing is all about.
07.07.08 - check out the POD!