Following is information that will serve you as a rough guide to tramping some of New Zealand's classic alpine country in Westland.
My job during 1983 and 1984 was to clear tracks for the New Zealand Forest Service, in the Westland Conservancy, New Zealand. Our NZFS teams of four cleared tracks, repaired huts, and serviced wire swingbridges. I was in the hut-and-bridge crew for a summer, then transferred to the track crew.
During our work we tramped some of the most exciting, remote, rugged and least-visited terrain in New Zealand; including the Styx, Arahura, Kakapotahi, Mikonui, Mungo, Tuke, Hokitika, Whitcombe, Toaroha, and Taipo valleys. This is challenging country, in a heavy rainfall area. Rapid Creek, in the Hokitika Valley, held the New Zealand record for rainfall: 21 inches in 24 hours! (I doubt that this record has been broken). No wonder the new swingbridge NZFS erected across Rapid Creek in 1982 completely disappeared during a flood a few months after it was built.
The Westland Starter Trip
Let's establish something before we start: This area is remote and rugged. Tracks may be overgrown, and huts and bridges non-existant, since I was last there during the 1980s. DOC's policy is generally to keep everything maintained, but check before you plan your trip.
This area must not be underestimated. Having hunted and tramped remote parts of Fiordland, and remote parts of the Paparoa Range, among other areas, I believe I have experienced the roughest that New Zealand's mountains has to offer. You will not find rougher than in this Westland area. The upper Whitcombe Valley for example is rough. Stay on the tracks, do your homework properly, and you'll be safe enough. If the weather is fine you should enjoy the trip very much.
Now let's get down to tramping.
Assuming the tracks and huts have been maintained, here is a starter tramping trip. Be sure to take topographical maps and to ask DOC if all bridges and huts are still in operation. Two vehicles would be ideal for this trip as two tramping parties could pass each other along the route and then use each other's vehicles at the end of the trip.
The trip starts at the Toaroha River, and ends in the Hokitika Valley. You can start at either end, of course.
Tramp from your car to Cedar Flat Hut, about two hours. Enjoy the hot springs in the Toaroha riverbed, about five minutes upstream from Cedar Flat Hut. Next day tramp to Top Toaroha Hut, about 3.5 hours up the Toaroha valley. You will pass side tracks up to Yates Hut, Adventure Ridge Bivvy, Crystal Bivvy and to Mullins Hut. Near top Toaroha Hut there's an old Internal Affairs hut overgrown, up a dry side creek on the true left of the Toaroha River, about five minutes downstream from Top Toaroha Hut. Worth a look at.
Next day, from Top Toaroha Hut, tramp over Toaroha Saddle to Poet Hut in the Mungo Valley. Or you could go up the Mungo River to Park Stream and stay in the Park Stream Hut, then down to Poet next day. If you are very adventurous and have done your research you may like to try a side-visit to Sir Robert Hut, a high altitude, seldom-visited hut in Sir Robert Stream. The track to Sir Robert starts near the junction of the Toaroha Saddle Track with the track linking Poet Hut to Park Stream Hut. Don't try to exit from Sir Robert Stream via Steadman Saddle. I have done it, and I unoffically re-named it "Deadman Saddle." You can use Steadman Saddle if you feel like some serious rock climbing, but I recommend you go back down the track and maybe sidle around through the tussock to Bluff Hut or, to be safest, simply go completely down to the main track system then climb back up to Bluff Hut via that the main track system. There is a permanent ice field (1984) beside Sir Robert Hut.
Another seldom-visited hut in this area is Frisco Hut, on the bushline downstreanm from Poet. What a view from Frisco's loo! From Frisco, if you are a toughened, adventurous, experienced, careful tramper you may like to try for Serpentine Hut; the end of the line for travel down the Hokitika valley on that track system. Serpentine is an old Internal Affairs hut built during the 1930s or '40s, which we rebuilt from the ground up during December 1983. We enjoyed a delicious opossum casserole here one evening, after exterminating a marauding opossum in the hut on the previous night.
Back to Poet Hut. Leave Poet Hut, go downstream to the Bluff Swingbridge, cross it, then follow the track up (and it goes straight up!). You'll come to Bluff Hut, a hut with a superb view sited on a bluff, among deep crevices in the rock. From Poet to Bluff, takes about three hours.
Next stage is from Bluff up the open alpine Hokitika Valley to Frews Saddle, then down to Frews Bivvy, then down to Frews huts. If you tramp this part of the Hokitika Valley during summer you'll marvel at the vast spreads of Mount Cook lilies. As you descend from Frews Bivvy to Frews huts, while in the sub-alpine zone, look carefully for a pile of old moss-covered, axe-split boards on the left of the track. These boards are among the mountain nei nei trees. This pile of boards is the remains of one of the government survey huts built in this area during the 1890s when the government was considering building a road over Whitcombe Pass. Look at the track under your feet. In fact the track is itself a well-constructed "road," as are the tracks up and down stream from Frews huts. These tracks were constructed by the 1890s survey crew.
From Bluff Hut to Frews huts is about five hours.
From Frews Hut you can walk to the road in about four hours, crossing Collier Gorge Swingbridge and then the flying fox near Rapid Creek as you go.
Or, if you want to side-track for a few days or so, you can tramp upstream and explore the Whitcombe Valley. From Frews huts tramp up to Price's Flat huts. From Frews huts to Prices Flat huts is about four hours. Along the way you'll pass Cropp Bridge across the Whitcombe near Vincent Creek. The Cropp Bridge gives access to Cropp Hut.
The main track in the Whitcombe Valley follows the true right bank, from Collier Gorge Bridge to Neave Hut. Downstream from Collier Gorge Bridge the track follows the true left bank then crosses to the true right via a flying fox five minutes downstream from Rapid Creek Hut. You stay on the true right downstream from the flying fox until you meet the road.
When we overhauled the Vincent Creek Bridge on the Whitcombe Track on a sunny summer day in 1983, Vincent Creek water level was 16 feet below the bridge. Normal. Yet there were numerous pieces of driftwood in the bridge wires indicating that a flood had flowed over the bridge. These streams rise quickly and often drop just as quickly. The key to survival with all mountain streams is, Never try to cross anything that looks the slightest bit risky, and always be prepared to turn around and tramp back to the nearest hut, and there wait out the rain.
Near Prices huts there is a bridge, downstream a half mile, that gives access to Price's Basin and its hut, and to Price's Stream. Note: This is not a good access route to Price's Tops and Price's Basin Hut. Note: the usual route to Prices Basin Hut and tops is via a side creek in the Whitcombe 15 minutes downstream from Wilkinson Hut, on the true left. This side creek is marked with a cairn. You climb up the side creek to the tops then work your way along the tops to Price's Basin Hut. It was from this hut in 1948 that government hunter Max Curtis shot the record for red deer numbers: In one day Max shot 101 deer, using an open-sights .303.
Old Price's Hut is on Prices Flat beside the river; the newer hut is nearby up on the terrace above. A track behind the hut gives access to the Cataract Tops above the hut. There once was a NZFS hut up on Cataract Tops, during the 1970s, but it was blown off the mountain during a storm. Fortunately nobody was in the hut when it blew. This area is where the late G.G. Atkinson hunted during the 1930s and 1940s, and where he bagged some huge stags. His book Red Stags Calling may be available to you. A public library can obtain it for you. Worth a read if you're going into this area.
Near the newer Prices Flat Hut, a bridge spans Cataract Creek, and gives access to the track up the valley to Wilkinson Hut, and then upstream farther to Neave Hut and Whitcombe Saddle. If you make it to Wilkinson Hut be sure to use the swingbridge upstream from the hut, to access the hut from the track side, unless the river is very low — which isn't often.
As you travel the Whitcombe Valley you may hear booms and rumbles. This is ice falling from the Evans Glacier on Mount Evans near Wilkinson Hut. On quiet days you may hear these booms and rumbles from Hokitika. Beside the track between Wilkinson and Neave huts, you'll find a large rock bivvy, with a plaque in it dedicated to a young climber who perished nearby on Mount Evans.
Neave Hut sits about an hour upstream from Wilkinson Hut and is at the end of the valley.
From Neave Hut you can cross the Whitcombe Saddle into Canterbury and the Rakaia Valley, or return to the road in the Hokitika Valley.