Southern trampers hunker down

STAFF REPORTERS
Last updated 05:00 10/01/2013
Downpour
BARRY HARCOURT/Fairfax NZ

GOOD SOAKING: This British couple were caught out in a downpour while out for a stroll in Te Anau yesterday.

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Roads were closed, trampers stranded and rivers flooded as wild weather pounded much of the south yesterday.

Nearly 90 trampers were stranded on the Milford Track when rising floodwaters and torrential rain forced the closure of the track for the second time in just over a week, while Department of Conservation rangers assisted trampers to safely traverse the alpine section of the Kepler Track with strong winds buffeting the high country.

About 250 trampers were holed up in DOC freedom walkers' huts and Ultimate Hikes' lodges on the Routeburn Track yesterday.

The NZ Transport Agency was forced to stop cars from going further than Cascade Creek on the Milford Rd.

DOC Te Anau visitor assets manager Annie Wallace said the rain in the Clinton Valley had been extremely intense with the river level rising from near normal to above the flood threshold within five hours.

The Clinton River burst its bank and trampers turned back to the Clinton Hut because of waist-deep flooding, she said.

The Kepler Track remained open but a DOC ranger from the Luxmore Hut accompanied trampers across the alpine section of the track.

"The ranger made sure everyone crossed the Luxmore Saddle safely and was prepared to carry on," Ms Wallace said.

Winds of 120 to 150 kilometres per hour were forecast in Fiordland by the MetService yesterday.

An assessment of track conditions would be made this morning but it was expected operations for independent walkers could resume as usual from then, she said.

NZTA Southland state highway operations manager Peter Robinson said yesterday the agency extended access restrictions on the Milford Road because of the heavy rain.

"The amount of rain that fell meant we decided to close the road as far back as Cascade Creek because of flooding issues," he said.

"We had initially closed it for the day between the Homer Tunnel and Murrell's Bridge."

The agency spoke to trampers returning off the tracks along the Milford Road and left laminated notes on parked cars warning drivers not to go past Cascade Creek towards the Homer Tunnel, Mr Robinson said.

The heavy rain had the potential to cause further rockfalls in the area and wash away parts of the road, he said.

The road between the Homer Tunnel and Murrell's Bridge has been closed from 7pm to 7am since the end of November because of concerns of rockfalls.

The agency would inspect the road this morning and make a decision whether to reopen it for traffic.

Environment Southland senior hydrologist Chris Jenkins said the council would monitor Southland's rivers as levels rose further up the country.

"It is raining heavily up country ... at the headwaters of the Oreti, Mataura and Aparima rivers," he said.

Rivers were expected to rise in the region, he said.

Further north, Shotover Jet, Dart River Jet and Skippers Canyon Jet operations were suspended as operators kept an eye on conditions. Some flood-prone roads were also closed.

Wanaka and Arrowtown pools were closed after a young girl received a small electric shock when the Wanaka pool was struck by lightning.

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Trampers and climbers were advised to hunker down on tracks around the Wakatipu and Wanaka.

DOC Wakatipu programme manager Richard Kennett, of Glenorchy, said trampers were advised to stay put until today, particularly in the Dart Valley, so as not to put themselves at risk of washouts and rising river levels.

About 10 trampers walked out from Daley's Flat Hut yesterday morning and the rest, about 10, stayed at the Dart Hut.

The Queenstown Lakes District Council said it was watching lake levels, with Lake Wakatipu expected to peak this morning.

- The Southland Times

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