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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 8 (November 1, 1937)

Forgotten River and the Olivine Ice Plateau

Forgotten River and the Olivine Ice Plateau

The two gorges of the Olivine River have stood through countless ages untraversed by the foot of man, and have now no intention of submitting easily to such indignity. Deep down in that river bed are piled in awful confusion huge masses of jagged rock, wrenched and torn from the mountains above and hurled down long years ago into the narrow gut through which the river forces its way, completely lost at times, and at times gushing out again in a turmoil of whirling spray and seething foam, with here and there a stretch of deep, green, swift-flowing water—a desolate and terrible place. Yet, as the bright sunshine of early morning lies just beyond the blackness of the night, so beyond these Gorges of the Damned lies the beautiful Valley of Forgotten River; its grassy flats gaily decked with flowers, and the river, so terrible when confined, meandering quietly and peacefully through it.

Towards evening on a day in February of this year, as the setting sun was tinting with pink and gold the tall snow peaks which towered about them, two men came at last to rest in this lovely valley, and dropped to earth their weary packs. Fading daylight saw them snugly bedded in their tiny tent, sleeping the sleep that can only be slept “out there,” while the glowing embers of their fire died with the dying day. Many a mile had they traversed since leaving Dunedin long weeks before—weary weeks of toil and hardship, exposure, cold and wet. They had come from Queenstown and the head of Lake Wakatipu, making their base originally at Paradise. They had tried the western tributaries of the Dart one by one in unsuccessful attempts to cross the rugged barrier of mountains which stood between them and the unknown land beyond, but always, forced at last to admit defeat, they had returned to Paradise to replenish supplies and renew the attack once more. At last after anxious days amid the avalanches and crevasses of the Margaret Glacier—long days of heavy ploughing through unending fields of deep, soft snow—days when step by step, an inch at a time, they slowly and carefully belayed themselves down the steep descents on the western side—at last, tired, sore, and hungry, they had forced their way through the narrow belt of bush, and had found themselves in the river valley they called Forgotten. Theirs were the first human feet to tread that land, theirs the first human eyes to see its beauty.

And a beautiful land it is. There is good reason, too, for its having remained completely unknown for so long. It is the real “hidden valley” of romance. Three thousand feet of forbidding rock, sheer in many places, hem it in on every side. The exit of the river itself being made through the terrible gorges called “The Damned.” Within these circling walls all is pleasant and beautiful. The floor of the valley is flat and grassy, with flowers, white and gold, growing wild upon it. For perhaps five miles this meadow stretches to where, sloping upwards, it gives place to pale-leafed ribbon-wood, and then to the dark beech forest. Above this sombre belt rise grim and dark the rocky buttresses of the valley wall, guarding with a jealous eye the loveliness of their forgotten gem; while still beyond and reaching ever higher stand, tall and stately, the pure white mountain tops draped in their eternal snow.

For several days the two men wandered in this strange and fascinating place, but longer they could not stay for their destination was still further on. At its source, Forgotten River issues from a huge circ of rock, up which the little party found its way one early morning, to stand at sunrise upon the pure white surface of the Olivine Ice Plateau. Flat, smooth, and unblemished by even so much as a windruffle, this remarkable plateau stretches for some five or six miles in length and three or four in width. It lies high above the surrounding country, but, higher still, the great snow peaks tower round it, closing it in on every side and dwarfing its great expanse until it seems but a tiny basin tucked away among the feet of the giants above. Proud and arrogant they stood that brilliant summer morning. Climax, Destiny and Arc, the long ridge of Intervention, Gable, Blockade and Passchendaele its glistening ice-falls streaming from its sides, the pure white slopes of Pic d'Argent beside the black and frowning crags of Darkness and the Furies. Breathless awhile the two men waited on the brink of that lake of white, and gazed at the sunlit mountain tops whose outlines, now grown familiar, had so often held their gaze before, as through the long days of the past two months they had toiled slowly towards them. Here at last they stood right in their very midst.

As the sun, mounting ever higher, struck across the level of the plateau, two small black specks moved slowly page 16 over its smooth whiteness, crossed the rugged head of the Andy Glacier and then—climbed and climbed in a mountaineering paradise. Looking southward from the tops of these tall monarchs they could see the road upon which they had journeyed and the peaks they had climbed on the way. Somnus, Momus and Nerius, Nox, Chaos and the black head of Poseidon, with the red face of little Fiery glowing against the white of the snow beyond. Closer still lay Irvine and Mallory with the Bride-burn Peaks behind them; Possibility Col, by means of which, from the Margaret Glacier, they had crossed the formidable Dart Barrier Range; and, reaching down below it, the perilous descent into Forgotten River. Away to the south-west they could see the way they would return, through the dread Gorges of the Damned, down the Olivine River and the Pyke to the Hollyford, and so away to the far horizon where stood Christina, Barrier and Crosscut, almost on the shores of Milford Sound. To the north, range upon range of snow-capped peaks lay stretched out before them in endless array. From Eros and Ionia, Cloud-maker, Moonraker and Skyscraper, to distant Aspiring, tall and slender, standing head and shoulders high above its neighbours, while, low upon the skyline and yellow with the distance, the giants of the Mt. Cook group could be just distinguished.

A view from the Merki Glacier.

A view from the Merki Glacier.

A triumphant time was that for those two men, and long they stood and gazed, but at last, contented now that their goal was attained, they made their slow way down from those dizzy heights, down from the plateau of ice, and into the garden of the valley below, passed among its flowers, and plunged into the dark bush beyond, to emerge again long days later on the road which leads from the Upper Hollyford to civilisation and the busy world again.