Still plenty of gold to be found here in the form of buttercups!
Piano Flat is a riverside campground, surrounded by forest, farmland and mountains in the far north of Southland. It got its quirky name from a colourful character called Harry Selig, who was known back in the 1800's as Piano Harry, seeing as he played piano in the local orchestra, entertaining the early settlers and miners in the area. Harry was the first person to discover gold there, and it was originally named 'Piano Harry's Flat' in his honour, before being shortened to the name we know it as today. Technically it's in the middle of nowhere, but you're not so far away from civilisation as to feel horribly isolated, with the little town of Waikaia just a short drive away. As soon as we arrived it wasn't hard to see why so many people love to come here - this place is HUGE. Despite its popularity it's the perfect place for those seeking peace and quiet, there's just so much room! There is plenty to do here, from swimming and kayaking to cycling, hiking, horse riding, trout fishing and even 4-wheel driving. Being a Dept of Conservation campground it is a low-cost place to stay and is one of the few DOC grounds which also accept dogs. Today however we had a Minnie-free day as we were planning on a long hike. We thought we had done our research fully prior to leaving; however we had no idea how long our leisurely hike was going to turn out to be!
We jumped out of the van and immediately realised the one, most important thing we had forgotten - insect repellent. Unfortunately Piano Flat is also notorious for its sandflies! As they immediately began attacking our arms and legs we thanked our lucky stars we weren't staying the night. There was only one thing we could do to try and keep them somewhat at bay and that was to keep moving. There are several walks available, from half-hour rambles through the 10,500 hectares of beech forest, to a four-hour, 12 km loop and a seven-hour 15km hike to the Titan Rocks. We decided we would take the middle of the road option and opted for the four-hour loop along the Waikaia River. Tramping is one of my very favourite pastimes and I was really looking forward to a good, long birthday hike. There was just one major challenge I had to get out of the way first and it came at the very start of our walk.
The Swing Bridge of Doom. At least, if you're me...
As some of you may recall, I have a phobia of heights - a HUGE phobia. I literally freeze and am unable to move, which usually leaves me with no choice but to turn back. Swing bridges come very much under that phobia and from the photos I had seen this one was a big one. However, this particular route had been my choice. I had steeled myself prior to the trip and told myself that no way was I going to miss out on doing this walk! All I had to do was get that bridge over with, waddle calmly across the boardwalk and then I could relax for the rest of the trip. It would be just fine. And then we saw the bridge, stretching across the entire width of the river. I had known from the photos that it was long - what I didn't realise was how NARROW and rickety it was. My visions of a gently wobbling boardwalk were dashed as I surveyed what was basically a glorified tightrope made of chainlink. There was room only to put one foot in front of the other, baby step style and I knew before I even ascended the equally rickety steps that there was no way in hell I was going to be able to set foot on that bridge.
Fortunately, for once, Gareth felt the same. Normally he likes nothing better than scaling, balancing and leaping over things but having tentatively tested the bridge he had to admit he didn't like it either. My lip started to tremble in defeat. I could not let this bloody bridge get the better of me! It would put the cobblers on the whole day. There was only one thing for it. We were going to have to cross the river. And so we took off our shoes, waded into the current and wobbled and slid our way across on the slippery rocks, with the sandflies mercilessly munching on us all the while. At last we reached the other side. Success! I looked around in total happiness as we found ourselves standing in an enormous field of golden buttercups, surrounded by mountains on one side and the river on the other. It took us another good ten minutes to scramble over to where the bridge officially ended and then we were finally on track.
We did it!
After our unexpected detour, the track itself was a breeze! Despite searching the Internet for more information, we couldn't really find too many details about it, but four hours sounded like a good walk to us so we just followed the trail merrily and to start with we were making good time. After a couple of hours we stopped for a spot of lunch down at the river and were amazed to see a large antler, shed by a red deer at the water's edge. We were just about to leave when we saw a figure crossing the river, apparently coming towards us. What were they doing, alone all the way out here in the middle of nowhere? Unlike most walking tracks, we hadn't seen another soul on the path all day. 'It's Valentin!' Gareth suddenly said in recognition, and indeed it was! We hadn't seen him or his girlfriend Sandra since our wedding almost three weeks before, having left the campground after the reception. It was a lovely surprise as we weren't expecting to see them again, yet here he was, a couple of hours' drive away, out in the middle of the bush! 'I saw a huge trout, swimming down this way!' he grinned, fishing rod in hand as always. 'If I'm lucky, maybe I can catch it. Sandra is walking the track somewhere, you'll probably see her!'
A riverside picnic in the middle of nowhere.
This was the last place we expected to bump into our old friend!
We had a brief chat before leaving Valentin to his fishing and continued on our way. But we didn't see Sandra. As before, we didn't see another soul and the further we went, the harder the track was becoming to find. In fact it wasn't so much of a track as an obstacle course. It became almost impossible to even put one foot in front of the other without having to move something, climb over something or edge our way gingerly along cliff edges and over worryingly large chasms. It really was quite hazardous in places and made me very conscious that, should an accident have befallen either Gareth or I, it would have been a very long, solitary and nervewracking walk back to get help. Still, we did our best to keep smiling and for the most part we enjoyed the challenge. As the four-hour mark drew up however, we couldn't believe it. 'Four hours already? But the sign still says 6km to go! We're barely halfway!' we said in disbelief. Thanks to the quality of the track - or lack of it, the going was incredibly slow. The one thing we did know, was that we were supposed to follow the river's edge for the first part of the trip, then return back the way we came but on the opposite side of the river, along the road.
The 'track' becomes a tad more challenging!
And that was when the track came abruptly to an end and we saw the second swing bridge. What second swing bridge? Exactly - none of the literature we had read anywhere had mentioned anything about a second bridge. We had thought the first bridge was rickety enough, but it wasn't a patch on this one! Again it stretched across the river, but this one was attached by a steel wire wound worryingly loosely around a tree - and not even a very large tree at that. The bridge itself was in a far worse state of repair, being covered in rust and to top it off, the HAZARD sign warning only one person to cross at a time had obviously been broken long ago and nobody had been or thought to replace it. Piano Flat may have been a popular campground but it was very obvious that very few people ever used this track.
Another dodgy swing bridge? Oh hell no!
Crossing the river on foot was not an option this time!
I didn't even have to voice my concerns this time. 'No way am I getting on that - no way', said Gareth, and set about finding us an alternative route across the river. This time however it was far less straightforward. The water was a lot deeper, the rocks were a lot bigger (as were the gaps between them) and the current was a lot stronger. We must have spent a good half hour trying to find a safe place to cross but to no avail. 'It's no good', Gareth sighed. 'We're just going to have to go all the way back to where we saw Valentin and cross there. We saw him do it, so we must be able to'. So back we went, feeling thoroughly disheartened and dishevelled as we hauled ourselves once again through branches and over and under tree trunks and limbs. Despite sounding less than idyllic, it wasn't all bad though. A delightful South Island robin had made our acquaintance and stopped for a while to say hello, before following us happily through the bush, feasting on all the insects we were disturbing and sending up from the ground for him. Gareth also had the most enormous and beautiful dragonfly come and settle on his hand whilst taking photos! And complaining aside, it felt wonderful to be out in the bush just doing something; filthy dirty, drenched in sweat but thoroughly exhilerated.
This dear little South Island Robin was super friendly!
An hour and a half later, we finally arrived back where we had left Valentin fishing. He had gone, and instead some fresh deer tracks were at the place he had crossed. Darn, we missed the deer again! Getting across the river was quite time consuming, but at least here it wasn't dangerous and at last we were able to climb up the steep bank and follow our noses to the track which would lead us home. Already it had taken us a good two hours longer than planned and we were exhausted, but in a good way. After what seemed like an age, we emerged from the bush and out onto the road, where Sandra was sitting in her van, waiting for Valentin who had gone to retrieve a fishing lure he had left behind down at the river. We chatted briefly before saying our goodbyes and heading wearily along the road back towards the campground. There was only 3km to go but to us it felt endless as we trudged along. 'God I stink!' Gareth remarked, sniffing the air in disdain as we wandered along. 'You stink? I stink!' I replied, wiping my sweaty brow for the 100th time.
Testing the water. We did get VERY wet...
At last! The road back home
It was around then we heard a vehicle approaching behind us. It was Valentin and Sandra! 'Would you like a ride back?' they smiled. Gareth and I looked at each other. I could see Gareth was keen but - 'We smell!' I said pitifully, not wanting to cram our sweaty, stinky bodies into the confines of their van. 'It's OK, we smell too!' laughed Sandra. 'We haven't been able to get to a shower for a week. We wash in the river but - you know, it's not the same', she shrugged her shoulders, smiling. And so we gratefully climbed in and trundled our way back down the last 3km of gravel road. As we passed through the tiny settlement of Riversdale on the way home, Gareth almost shot into the back of the van as I braked suddenly at the sight of a bottle store! But it was my birthday, and boy had we earned it. It wasn't quite the leisurely ramble either of us had anticipated. But it was a brilliant day and despite everything we had an absolute blast.
A very happy Southern Man with a box of well-earned beers!
Incidentally, just a few days ago I happened to come across a brochure on Southland walks. It describes the four-hour Waikaia River loop as being 'Challenging, for advanced trampers only. Track is of poor quality in places'. Really? No sh*t. They also mentioned the second swing bridge at the end of the track, which is the only way you can get across the river. If only the Department of Conservation had thought to put such information on THEIR website too! But one thing is for sure; we will go back to Piano Flat again in the near future and this time we will stay. As long as we remember the insect repellent!