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Kea Conservation Trust Summer Survey - 2013

The start of the Wangapeka Track. A mere 6 hours jaunt up to Kiwi Saddle Hut.

Another year, another Kea Conservation Trust summer survey. Having enjoyed the previous two, watching and occasionally catching Kea in the Hawdon Valley near Arthur's Pass it was a given that Andy would go on the survey for the third year in a row. However, this time the location would be different due to the Kea Conservation Trust having completed the survey work they were after in the Hawdon. The 2013 survey would be in the Wangapeka catchment in the Kahurangi National Park at the top of the South Island near Nelson.

The Wangapeka is much more rugged terrain than the Hawdon and the location didn't have some of the luxury amenities of the previous two surveys. Unlike the Hawdon where Kidson Lodge served as a fantastic base camp to return to for each 2-day survey point, in the Wangapeka the base camp was a good 5 hour one-way tramp from the start of the survey points. As a result, much more food had to be carried in to survey base at Kiwi Saddle Hut. This meant that before even starting to walk, packs were considerably heavier than had been required for the Hawdon and there would be no luxuries like showers or taking a short drive into town to check the internet.

Anyway, Andy flew into Nelson Airport where he was met by a young local, Tom Goodman, who was also taking part in the survey and knew the location well. If truth be told, Andy was a bit nervous about heading into the Wangapeka, knowing that the pack weight would be heavier and the walking would be much harder than he was used to. However, Tom was a very reassuring presence. Tom had walked the track up to Kiwi Saddle Hut a number of times, knew the country well and assured Andy that it wouldn't be as tough as he thought. The entrance to the Wangapeka track is about 80 km from Nelson, a good hour long drive which was negotiated easily. A significant ford across the Dart River was easily passable with a low water level. It is useful to note that the trip was in the middle of one of the driest New Zealand summers ever.

After a stop for provisions at a Department of Conservation hut just before the start of the Wangapeka Track, it was time to start. It was a nice warm day and the start of the track was relatively easy, despite the 23kg pack weight. For the first 11km of the track, following the main Wangapeka Track, the surface is well formed and the incline is slow and steady. The main concern over the first section was that the terrain was mainly riverside grassland and thus there was a real risk of getting sun burnt. The other hazard was the multitude of wasps which seemed to spill around every tree which was passed. Introduced wasps have found a perfect food source for themselves from the sap of New Zealand trees, directly competing with native birds such as the Kaka. Some of the largest wasp nests in the world have been found in New Zealand at the top of the South Island and so their prevelance can represent a real hazard for the unwary. It was hard to find anywhere to sit down and rest or take in the view without being in the vicinity of wasps. Over this first section, progress was good - only being slowed by a huge landslip which had come down the side of the valley and nearly blocked the Wangapeka River. Clambering over the slip was relatively easy and on the upstream side of it, the river had formed a wide lake beside which a number of other trampers had decided to stop for lunch. The incline steadily increased, but was still relatively modest before the Kiwi Saddle Track turn-off was reached after about 3 hours.

After this point, the track became much more difficult as it sidled up from the valley floor at 500m to Kiwi Saddle at about 1,100m. The track here was less well formed and less well trodden, but was still fairly good. In a couple of patches, the track was saturated with water which made progress slow and higher up the track, trees had fallen on the track at several locations slowing progress still further. At one point, Andy nearly slipped off the track completely whilst attempting to straddle across one particular tree which had blocked the track - but which had been there for some time and had become quite slippery in the meantime. The track regularly crossed the territories of South Island Robins which follow trampers looking for insects which are stirred up by their footfall; providing Andy and Tom with company as they completed the ascent.

At the start of major (and often minor) tracks in New Zealand, the Department of Conservation usually provide signage to tell how how far away various destinations are and how long it should take to get there. According to their signage on the Wangapeka, the tramp up to Kiwi Saddle is 17.8km and should take 6 hours. Normally, you can take a bit of time off the time they suggest it should take as they err on the conservative side of timing, as they should. However, in this instance the tramp to the hut took 7 hours. Partly due to the track condition, but also due to Andy not being in ideal fitness for it.

Kiwi Saddle Hut is a small 6 bunk backcountry hut nestled in a saddle between a couple of mountains - Mount Patriarch and Mount Luna - and served as a backcountry base for the first part of the survey. Given the hut only has 6 bunks and there were 8 people taking part in the survey, Andy set up his tent on a patch of soft, flat ground close to the hut and set up there. For the most part, it turned out to be a fairly comfortable location - and one that he'd get to see plenty of over the next week.

Andy was up at Kiwi Saddle for the next four nights, during which there would be at least 8 survey opportunities - given that the Kea survey periods happen at dawn and dusk each day. However, only 2 of these survey times were able to be completed as the rains set in and the survey team was stuck in the hut for the majority of the survey time. This meant that a lot of games of cards were played, and fortunately someone had thought ahead and had brought along the card version of Monopoly. This ensured that cabin fever was staved off.

So, the two survey periods ended up as being very last minute decisions when the survey team leader, Corey Mosen, decided that the weather had cleared up sufficiently to get a survey in. Both times this happened in the morning. By which, I mean the decision to go to a survey point was made at about 3am to allow the survey teams to set out at about 4am to get to their designated survey points by 6am. The survey points tended to be another hour walk uphill from Kiwi Saddle towards either Mount Patriarch or Mount Luna. Both times, Andy went to survey points on Mount Luna and was able to see some glorious sunrises above Mount Patriarch. In terms of counting or catching Kea, however, the surveys were largely unsuccessful. One Kea landed at Andy's survey point on the first survey occasion but did not seem that interested by the surveyers, their array of equipment or the array of Kea calls that they surveyors played in their general direction.

And that was largely it. One Kea, a lot of rain and a large number of card games. One night, the rain was so heavy and the ground was so saturated that Andy's tent felt more like a water bed than a tent, but the hardy tent stayed dry inside, which was the most important thing!

The walk back downhill was largely uneventful, though the heavy rains had caused the slip on the Wangapeka to become even more treacherous than it had been and Andy ended up knee deep in sodden mud a couple of times whilst traversing the slip.

The drive back to Nelson also proved to be more difficult as the level of the Dart River had increased significantly, making it much harder to cross. However, Tom's car just about crossed it and headed back towards Nelson before clonking out after a few kilometres. After a bit of car diagonosis, Andy decided that it was due to river water getting on the battery terminals, and after this dried out, the car started as normal. Back in Nelson, Tom and his family were kind enough to let Andy stay at their house overnight before his plane back to Wellington the next day.

And that was the KCT summer survey for another year. A bit of a damp squib, but lovely landscape and fantastic company! Thanks in particular to Tom and his family for a perfect demonstration of that famed Southern Hospitality!

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A number of views from the top of Mount Luna in Kahurangi National Park

Top Left:
The sun attempting to break through the clouds with layers of mist settling in the valleys.

Top Right: The sun starting to rise behind Mount Patriarch (right hand side of photo)

Right: Shortly after top right photo, the sun continuing to rise behind Mount Patriarch (centre)

Bottom Left: Looking away towards the South-East from the Survey Point. Far below is the track taken up to Kiwi Saddle. 

Bottom Right: The sun pokes out above Mount Patriarch.
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