January 7, 2018
Words: Tom Powell
New Zealand is a country full of incredible places, but in the height of summer it can be a struggle to get away from the hoards of selfie sticks and iPads. Many trails are well trodden, laden with banana skins and with piles of tissue stuffed behind every rock. I prefer places that are much more remote.
I was in Queenstown on a last-minute work trip and had the weekend to plan a mission, but all the big tracks were fully booked. Booking is something I’ve never been good at, so I had to find another option. I’d been hanging with some friends who spend most winters there and know the area well, so when I said I was looking for something fun to do they mentioned a lake they’d heard about, deep in the mountains, that went by the name of Lake Unknown. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to explore a lake with a trail and a name like that?
Access was possible by crossing a few braided rivers, and then a climb of around 700 vertical meters through thick, uninviting bush. It looked feasible (on the map, anyway) and we all seemed keen to take it on.
Weather conditions looked pretty good for the first day, but a low pressure system was due to come in from the west, so we knew we’d have to get in and out pretty quickly. We filled our packs with Back Country meals and a bottle of Canadian club and left town. On the way, we called the local merino station to ask about the river height and access, and it sounded like it would be passable. So after ploughing our beaten two-wheel drive station wagon through numerous levees we packed up at a trailhead and walked out towards the river.
"Weather conditions looked pretty good for the first day, but a low pressure system was due to come in from the west, so we knew we’d have to get in and out pretty quickly."
We had to walk for a while before escaping the crowds. Jet boats were doing their thing, and the inflatable kayaks were out in full force. The rivers looked strong, so finding crossing points was difficult. We couldn’t have crossed solo so we linked arms and started the slow wade out. As we made our way through the first river, the flow was feeling pretty strong, but by the forth or fifth waist-deep braid we were more worried about being hit by a jet-powered watercraft full of screaming tourists than losing our footing. Reaching the other bank was a relief. We could see the plateau and the waterfall running from our destination way above us.
With the first leg of the mission done, our spirits were high. The bush was dappled and ferny and we had plenty of daylight left, so with the help of a GPS we had a rough direction to follow through the thickening trees. It wasn’t long before the elevation had us using every available hand and foothold, scrambling over mossy rocks and under fallen trees. We knew we had to keep going up, only deviating when we hit unpassable bluffs or bush too thick to force through.
The higher we got, the more hostile and spiky the plant life became – soon we all looked like we’d been locked up with a family of angry cats. We were now practically climbing, and after a couple of hours of this and just glimpses of the promised view through the tree line, we took a hard right to find an opening that looked out over a vertical cliff drop. The only sign of any human life for the rest of the trip was a small pile of rocks. The vistas were epic but the waterfall was still a long way off, so there was little time to relax if we were going to get there with the guide of daylight.
It took around fives hours to make it out of the trees, and with no sign of a lake or the waterfall, a traverse across a rocky ledge was called for. Lake Unknown is really unknown for a reason. But after three or four more hills, and at least 100 feet below a big set off cliffs, there it was.
Howling frigid winds from the north, gusting over the water, meant camping was going to be difficult. It was so windy, we couldn’t even hear our own voices.
We scrambled for our layers and the whiskey before making several attempts to set up camp. It took a while to secure a spot amongst the grass tufts with ballooning tents and our judgement blurred by whiskey, so as soon as it felt sturdy enough, all four of us squeezed into a two-man dome. We settled in, amongst our drying socks, with a few Back Country meals and old pizza.
I don’t think any of us slept that night. We definitely stopped talking for nearly an hour, but the cabin fever really hit after we’d finished playing shadow puppets and the low pressure system moved in. We’d known it was on the way, but it felt so much worse inside, holding up the north facing wall, and outside, stumbling around in base layers and head torches, looking for boulders to weigh down our pegs. It felt like hours before we saw the first sign of light; the thick cloud surrounding us didn’t help. We broke down the camp as soon as it was light enough, as quickly as possible in the wind. We stuffed everything into dry bags and quietly started our descent.
"Lake Unknown is really unknown for a reason. But after three or four more hills, and at least 100 feet below a big set off cliffs, there it was."
We didn’t say much; we all knew how hard it was going to be. We were now in survival ‘this needs to be over now’ mode, looking for the best way back through the dense and spiked bush. It was like navigating a maze you couldn’t see, vaguely trying to pick lines that wouldn’t take us over cliffs or through too many spikey bushes. There was no way to stay dry, even under our shells, but the merino kept us warm and the rain kept the blood off our legs and hands. After a three-hour descent we were back at the riverbed, but our happiness was short-lived. We then saw what had been on all of our minds: the height of the river after the rain.
There was no real way to wade through the river. It was wider and stronger than the previous day and we were all tired and cold. We’d noticed a spot the previous day, when passing an inflatable kayak school, where a couple of Funyak rafts were tied up. We realised we could either camp there another day or take our chances with one of the rafts. We didn’t have any bourbon left and we’d been obsessing about food for a couple of hours, so we decided to shoot the river on the raft. After making a loose plan of attack, we piled on to the kayak.
Happy to be on land, we ploughed through the last few rapids in our station wagon. We then drove back to Queenstown, still wearing our soggy base layers, and put in a phone order at the local burger place. We’d made it!
NB: No Funyaks were harmed in the making of this story and Dartriver Funyaks were notified.
Many thanks for the loan of the Funyak – and we hope you enjoyed the beers.
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