Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Gertrude Saddle

I knew of another location where we might find the, so far elusive, rock wren which failed to materialize at the Rock Garden beside the Homer Tunnel. The Gertrude Saddle is at the head of a short & spectacular valley enclosed on three sides by sheer near vertical mountains & is just before the Homer Tunnel.

The walk over the saddle is for experienced alpine trampers only, the route is not easy to follow as there are only a few markers posts above the bush line and it’s especially difficult towards the end where there are huge boulders to get over and around & steep rock slabs to climb with the aid of steel cables. The attraction at the top of the saddle are the Black Lake & on a clear day, Milford Sound can be seen.

But I was going to be OK, I only wanted to walk to the bottom of the saddle at the top of the valley. It was here that there was another population of rock wrens & I was hoping I might be able to spot one or two. David decided after yesterday’s walk to Key Summit he’d take a break this time, his knees were still complaining, so we parked in the carpark and I left him for the next three hours, scouting around in the bush surrounding the gravel park for birds & waiting for me to return.

The first section of the track nearly had me beat, clambering up a rocky & dry river bed following sparsely placed locator poles, I thought if this was how it was going to be all the way it would wear me out, especially carrying my heavy camera (which I always have nestled in the crook of my arm). But it soon broke out onto a flat area and then passed into a short section of bush.

Once out of the bush I had a clear view of the valley ahead of me and the sheer size & scale of the mountains surrounding it. This walk was by far my most enjoyed walk while in Milford (and such a pity David wasn’t there to share it), the scenery was once again jaw droppingly spectacular!

The track followed along the edge of a dry boulder strewn riverbed. Though not a river at all but obviously a snow melt water course with the odd avalanche thrown in for good measure by the look of the washouts here and there. There was a track to follow with marker posts but it was dug narrow & deep with lots of twists & turns around the rocks in the spongy undergrowth and very hard to walk in.

I kept an eye on a lone walker ahead of me which made it easier to know where the track was heading and also gave me scale in my photos. I passed quite a number of groups returning down the valley, some had been to the top and others had turned around at the head of the valley where the sheer cliffs rose. By now the clouds had settled in over the saddle so even if I was to climb to the top I wouldn’t get to see much.

After awhile I was back into the open again, more scree than boulders and getting closer to where I could see another large “rock garden” where the wrens were located. I knew I was getting closer, as like the Homer Tunnel area, there were plenty of predator trap boxes laid.

I scanned the rocks below the saddle (which is to the left of the valley head) to see if I could locate where the track went and spotted a couple of “tiny dots” people trying to get up the rock slabs. I’ve blown this up so you see them (look for the red at the right hand base of the rock face). I also spotted another couple of groups making there way back down.

The track was getting more difficult now, more a mass of rocks that you had to manoeuvre around or over and as the sun had long dropped behind the range & the cloud was rolling in I decided I shouldn't leave it too long before I returned to the carpark.

Looking back down the valley towards the carpark.  Rock cairns help pinpoint the track.
But not before I found a rock to sit on while I searched with my binoculars for about 20 minutes looking for a rock wren.  But not a rock wren in sight once again, all I found were bloody chaffinches! Chaffinches? What the heck are they doing living in an alpine rock garden. I've heard that sometimes you have to wait for over an hour before spotting rock wren, if I had come earlier & David wasn't waiting for me, I probably would have stayed for at least that long. But it wasn't to be.

I called David up on the walkie-talkie to say I was on my back down (we use them to keep in touch on walks in the open-  they don’t transmit in the bush so well) & probably about an hour away and just as I stepped back onto the track I spotted…....….no not a wren (wish it was) but the last of the Mt Cook Lily (actually a giant buttercup) in flower. I’d been hoping I would see some when we were in the mountains but it is getting very late in the season and so far I’d only seen clumps of dried & dying leaves and collapsed stems. Small consolation but at least I didn’t leave empty handed.



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