Children splash in the gentle, lapping surf. It’s a hot sunny day, clear blue sky, the sea inviting - but the water is chill and no-one braves a swim. A golden retriever stands hopeful – stick in mouth; people laze in the sun; a child with a spade busy digging. A moat for a sand-castle? A new irrigation scheme? What do kids from these water-hungry planes build when they go to the beach?
And a sole tramper - boots, hi-viz and gaiters. 80l pack crammed full with a fortnight’s supplies - heavy. Ice-axe tucked neatly in its straps. Feeling, looking somewhat out of place.
Waikuku Beach, on the southern bank of the Ashley River at its mouth. The end of the suburban bus route north from Christchurch.
The Port Hills fires are almost over to the south, firefighters still dampening down hot spots. A barely-visible smoke-haze blots out the port hills, the ranges inland. I turn my back to the sea and stomp over low dunes into the endless haze of flat planes – pack heavy, hard boots sinking deep into soft sand. A stand of venerable pines forms a backdrop to the beach, carpark beneath them, terminating against the southern stopbank of the Ashley River. A signpost marks the start of the Rakahuri Trail, running upriver along the southern bank to Rangiora. Walking easily inland along the gravelled top of the stopbank. Wetlands form the Ashley river-mouth to our north: tall reedbeds, waterweed-coated pools, leng-legged wading birds strutting on mudflats - contrast with small fenced rectangles, the low-maintenance, bare-grass back-gardens of seaside baches to the south.
Soon wetlands are replaced by a tangle of old-man willow. Gardens grow to lifestyle blocks, become dairy paddocks. Dog walkers, pairs of women intense in walking-conversation ... left behind us. A couple of young lads wheelie motorbikes through the narrow chichane-gate designed to keep motorbikes off the stopbank; pass the no-motorbikes sign; high spirited and unashamed. I’m soon alone.
At times the trail drops to willow-shaded floodplain, more often sits high – sunbaked gravel atop the stopbank. Takes us under the many-arched concrete span of the SH1 bridge, beneath the kerthump, kerthump, kerthump of tyres on expansion joints. Willows part around the highway, give our first glimpse of the Ashley riverbed – a broad expanse of dry shingle channels. Irrigators pump arcs of water onto lush green dairy-paddocks – truncated rainbows sparkle in their haze.
Later. Paddocks again shrink, become dry and unkempt. Lifestyle blocks replace dairy farms, alpacas, ponys, goats graze the dry grass.
A signpost sends us north off the stopbank, along a brief abutment and down onto river flats. A mountianbike track weaves through willows, later through young pines and broom – ends at a mowed grassy picnic area beside the railbridge. Upriver, the willows have been cleared. Native plantings line the track – ribbonwoods and cabbage trees rustle in the slight breeze. Dark waxy broadleaf cool the hot day.
At the Rangiora roadbridge, the Ashley is still dry. I walk across its broad stony bed, rather than compete wth traffic on the concrete bridge. A 4WD track runs inland up the northern bank – easy travel winding thorough tall willows. 2km upriver the Makerikeri joins from the north, dry dust bed contrasting with the shingle of the Ashley. We head north upriver, following motorbike tracks through weeds and dry mud. Emerge into a large gravel quarry that occupies the riverbed below the road. Cross and jump the rear gate into the Rangiora Leigh campground.
The owner is friendly and beats herself down to half of the advertised price for a room without me saying anything more that ‘yes’ to the question of whether I’d like the cheapest option they have. Facilities are tidy and clean, I cook in the large kitchen, chat to long-term residents who fill the majority of the park. A prison guard, a builder – signwritten trucks offering all trades. Caravans and busses sport verandas, fenced gardens. Five years now since the earthquake - settled in to stay. The luxury of a shower – warm water soothing aching shoulders – just half a day! Sleep comes quickly.
Waikuku Beach to SH1 bridge. 4WD track (Rakahuri Trail). 1hr
Back down the Makerikeri. A lone heron watches an isolated pool of muddy water. Hoping for ... what?
On the Ashley riverbed the riverside 4WD track leaves firm river banks, meanders out onto the soft gravel riverbed: branches, fragments, becomes – like the dry river – a twisting network of vague, interconnecting braids. Soft loose stones underfoot. Heat-baked, reflecting bright sunlight. Slow, tiring travel. The smoke-haze is still there: the surely-now-closer ranges remain invisible, beyond our sight. We travel on an endless plane, seeming never to progress.
6km upriver. A good 4WD track leads onto the northern bank just before the Okuku. Willow and poplar have been planted in meter-deep holes, evenly spaced across the gravel river flats. Why?
We make fast progress along the firm road surface; realise too late that it has turned not up the Okuku but into farmland to its east. Retrace our steps back to the Ashley, push on to find the true bed of the Okuku river 500m beyond.
A good 4WD track heads up the Okuku, alternates between soft gravel riverbed and good firm banks. The river is small, but flowing. We pass under a road bridge. A camp on the western shore sports a couch, picnic table, swinging chair, private-no-access-will-be-filmed-will-be-prosecuted sign. Willows demarcate the river banks; in between them a wide bed of gravel flats, gravel channels. Frequent tracks enter from farmland on either side, accessing the gravel quarries that are the riverbed. Later: pylons, the Grey River joining from the north-east. The 4WD tracks depart with hte Grey, and we’re left to nose our way up faint ATV tracks on the western bank of the Okuku. We criss-cross the creek as the valley narrows. High mud cliffs form on either side, flanking the broad gravel bed. Glimpses of hills ahead: here forested, here denuded. A cocky on an ATV stops to chat – seeks lost cattle – bemused by my presence on this unexciting route. The track becomes faint after Mt Lowry Station, crossings slippery on algae-coated rocks – deepen, feet finally wet. 1.5km from the park boundary a road drops onto river flats on our right; a cairn marks a dry sidecreek leading to the it, just as the main river gorges out.
The dirt road enters pines. Signs adorn fancelines on either side. “Dogs shot”. “People prosecuted”. Etc. On riverbanks kanuka replaces willow – black-clad with fungus, dry, hot. Air sticky with sickly-sweet honeydew. The endless drone of wasps, bees. Bellbirds, somewhere – haunting.
The turnoff to Pinchgut Hut is signposted in the normal green and yellow. 2.5 DOC hours to the hut. A small carpark with a car and a 4WD; pig-hunters packing to leave. “Seen nothing.” Cross the now youthful stream – narrow bed cut through black rock; meander through mould-blackened kanuka. A bowhunter and his Chinese mate pass in the other direction. I stand aside, offer conversation, fail. Yelp at the sting of a wasp under my collar. Continue rapidly on.
Tall black beech forest replaces low black manuka, still sweet with honeydew, droning with wasps. The track is good, a narrow bench sidling near the river; dropping to the valley floor to cross Whare Creek; climbing steeply beyond through beech. Clothing drenched in this muggy, sticky air. Dreams of reaching Bob’s Biv for the night recede with every meter climbed, energy gone. Pinchgut Hut – not a step more.
Finally the climb ends. A sidling descent, a junction with an old, overgrown 4WD track – descending steeply to small flats on the valley floor: Pinchgut Hut – at last. The hut is of lockwood construction, tall-roofed, airy – sleeping nine on two platforms and a single bed. Gets lots of use, but little cleaning. The hut-book drivel fails even to amuse. Front-country hut, abusable by all. Or maybe I’m just tired.
Drizzle dampens the forest, mutes cicedas and birdsong. The silent forest.
We hop across the small river at Pinchgut. Beyond: a signpost for Bob’s Camp Biv, the arrow pointing straight up – accurately. A good cut track climbs steeply up the beech-clad valleyside. Still in welcome shade at this morning hour, wasps cruise lazily above the forest floor, their sound the steady drone of a distant bagpipe. We soon emerge onto the main spur, into the first of a series of interconnected grassy clearings - a tumbledown fenceline speaks of past farming. Low, young beech has replaced the tall mature trees of the lower valleyside – hot, dappled shade. Wasps become busier in the warm light – their steady low drone now the frenetic, angry whine of the raceway on race day. Our track sidles onto the northern face, follows it to the bushedge, emerging into stark bright heat of dry grassy faces. A poled route climbs steeply up the face, regaining the ridgeline, continues to climb – in and out of young beech - gains another 400m under a baking sun. To the north ranges dominate the horizon, interlocking spurs climbing to high bare peaks, separated from our lone, outlying ridge by a sea of cloud - the Lees Valley. Beech forest laps onto our ridgetop from the south, replaces dry grass. Clearings of thick turpentine scrub alternate with low forest - the screech of cicedas announcing each clearing long before we emerge into its harsh light. Relenteless, high pitched with an unchanging cheeeeeeee...; others pick out a steady, regular beat - ch...ch..ch...; tenors - a slow, deep rattle.
At the trig we’re 700m above the hut, though it feels like we’ve climbed twice that – hot: clothing drenched, dripping. We descend through more turpentine to a saddle – the track a carved canyon through the volatile scrub. Climb gently beyond to a tongue of beech, junction, signpost: “Bob’s Camp Biv". The biv lies on a saddle 100m below the main ridgeline – cooler, shaded in tall beech forest. An unusual structure – a single arch of curved iron – two bunks, table inside. Simple design – but unsuited to guttering. Water is from the head of a creek a few hundred meters away to the east – if you’re lucky. An iron chimney backs an outdoors fireplace opposite the front door – well built: cooking grate, a blackened iron bar from which to swing a billy.
A welcome sweet coffee, and half of my lunch later – and I’m almost back in the land of the living. The 100m climb back to the ridgeline seems easier than the earlier, tired descent. We swing south at the signpost, crossing flat tops under open black beech. The well-cut track skirts the eastern side of a large clearing. The ‘missing link track’ supposedly starts on its southern side, but we find no sign of it. Instead, we cut briefly though the beech and follow the edge of the clearing south-east; swinging south and descending with it, cutting through a tongue of beech to a second, scrubby clearing beyond. A spur begins to form, dropping SSW. On the far bushedge a piece of orange tape marks the start of the cut track – ‘The Missing Link’. Re-opened by Canterbury Tramping Club, I’m expecting a rough taped route through thick forest; find instead a broad, well-cut track. We descend steeply though black wasp-busy beech, skittling down unrelenting steep slopes of forested scree. A small terrace 30m above the river offers hope of campspots – the river itself a tight V at the base of the valley. The Garry is small and clear, flanked by tall, yellow flowers which I fail to recognise.
50m upriver a piece of tape marks the start of the track up the far side. The midday sun bakes the north-facing slope. The ascent is steep, loose at first. Every tree blackened with mould, thin white hairs glistening with honeydew, wasps everywhere. We spot three nests on the ascent, entrances busy, angry highways. Unfit, fourteen day pack on my back, there’s little hope I could run from a swarm on this steep slope – just keep moving Pom, and don’t look like a threat.
Gradient lessens, becomes flat, finally. We emerge onto the broad Blowhard Track 20m east of the trig. I wring the moisture from my clothes, try to drink - first water, then rehydration fluid. Sit, recover. Thankfully the black beech and wasps end with the climb. Trees here dry, bare. Fantails flit in the dappled light, chirp half-heartedly, investigate, inquisitive.
The Blowhard track is used by mountainbikers, maintained off a 4-wheeler: broad, gentle, flat easy surface. But I’m buggered. One kilometer, 100m more of gentle ascent takes me to the bushedge – open, rocky clear tops beyond, dotted with low beech and kanuka. To the east the smoke-haze has finally cleared - the Port Hills a low step on the horizon beyond a flat plane of white cloud. The track ascends slowly over three more peaks, staircase to Mt Richardson. A gaggle of schoolkids pass in the opposite direction – fresh, chirpy, energetic. I force myself to keep walking, stride out, look fit & fresh ... until they’re passed. Flop down for another breather.
Just before the final summit the track hits an old roadbed. A signpost points left to the top: ‘Mt Richardson’. But we swing instead north. Drop easily to a saddle where series of pools are churned muddy by ATVs. The tinkle of water draws me upstream to where a trickle drops from marshy moss into a small pool. 100m beyond, a small gravel flat beside the track offers space enough for a tent. I drop the heavy, sweat-saturated pack off my back, rest, then pitch my tent. Water bottles and billy are filled from the small trickle, clothes rinsed and hung to dry. Not trusting the marshy-water I boil it, leave to cool, refill my bottles. Cook and eat tea in the dry, hot shade of kanuka scrub – tent baking beyond on its clay-pan flat under the relentless afternoon sun.
Energy finally returning, I explore. This flat saddle, small streams, large clearing beyond, easy walk from the roadend screams out ‘bivvy spot’. I explore. The track emerges into a large tussock-and-scrub clearing 200m beyond my camp. I follow the southern bushedge up to where the flat ridgeline backed by beech forest promises shaded soft campspots. A faint trail leads back south into the bush, something white catching the sun in the otherwise dark forest. I explore.
A tidy 3-sided biv sits 50m back into the bush. Framed up with a lattice of beech poles, lined with tough white plastic sheets. An iron-backed stone fireplace sits outside, pans ready on the grill. Returning to my baking camp crammed between track and scrub, I break down my tent, collect drying clothes from nearby bushes, cram it all into my pack and relocate to the luxury of this tidy, shaded camp.
Cloud moves in as the daylight fades, dampens the forest under a misty blanket. But clears early; stars bright through the branches when I wake during the night.
I wake to clear blue skies and follow a rough trodden track north across the large clearing before picking up and old 4WD track dropping into the Lees. The cloud of the previous evening has settled into the valley, and whilst we walk in sunshine the valley below is hidden beneath a white blanket. The track is clear, descending through beech forest to emerge onto a grassy spur. A brief gotcha as the overgrown farm track cuts back south off the spur and zigzags down into the valley – error thankfully soon spotted. The track more-or-less follows the legal roadline – diverging in places by up to 20m but sticking close. The surveyed road could be cut & marked without too many problems ... but it would be nicer if the cocky just accepted open access along the formed track, given how close it all is.
Dropping south off the spur into a gully of scrub and gorse, we descend into cloud. Lush grassy paddocks saturate boots as no rain could do. Nervously sticking to the legal roadline across these fertile paddocks, we drop to the fenceline, follow it down to the Ashley riverbed – back safe and worry-free on its broad expanse of public land.
It is four kilometers upstream along the Ashley to the roadbridge – but an easy walk. Broad stony flats of short grass flank the shingle riverbed, all within the broad band of crown land, making for simple, comfortable travel. The mist brightens but never quite lifts. White clay cliffs loom as cloud briefly parts, hidden again as the curtains close again. Soon the single span of the Lees Valley Road bridge appears ahead, black against the grey stone of the riverbed. A convoy of cars pass, twenty-or-so in all, trailing clouds of dust which mingle with clouds of ... clouds. I wave cheerily – to no response.
Five hundred meters back west along the road a gate bears a familiar green-and-yellow signpost, marking the start of the track up to Youngmans and Tarn Huts. We follow the farm track north, across an endless plane of dry grass towards an ever-receding horizon of white mist. A pole-shed looms, passes, vanishes. Mist, thinning, reveals yellow-dry hills beneath a blue sky. Magpies quarrel over ... what? A deer fence stretches across the valley, locked gate blocking our path. A 200m diversion takes us to a stile by the creek, 200m back to the track ... why?
The farm track winds its way up the west bank of the Ashley as it finally leaves the flats of the Lees Valley and enters the ranges. The sun burns off the last of the mist and soon we swelter amongst dry-baked brown grass and hard white gravel. Native scrub appears the faces – matagouri, of course, but its dull palette varied by oleria, coprosma, dark waxy broadleaf. Patches of dead broom now white and brittle, sprayed back last year – but native scrub untouched, allowed to repopulate these once-cleared-farmed faces.
A DOC signpost beyond the Lillburn shows 2hrs to Tarn Hut, 3hrs to Youngman. I’m tired, stomach cramped and uncomfortable, but push on with the plan to sidle upstream to Youngman before climbing to Tarn – who wants to walk all day up a gentle benched farm track, after all? I’m dimly aware that something seems wrong with those times - Tarn and Youngman are the same distance away, and Tarn involves a 700m climb whereas the map shows a flat valley track to Youngman. But with a ‘she’ll be right’ I push on with the plan.
A vague poled trail wanders over rough-pastured terraces, entering patchy kanuka forest, later ceding to beech. The track - now good, well cut, a well benched line across beech-forested slopes. Well before I expect it we’re at Tent Gully, congratulating NZFS on such a wonderful track. Then, at a small gut, the track turns and climbs - gains 100m scrambling up the loose slip-cum-creekbed. ‘Would have followed the main river if I’d known’, I mutter. We sidle briefly before starting again to climb. ‘Well, we’ve climbed this far - we might as well push on’. I climb on. 200 meters now above the river in patchy low scrub, track finally sidles again. Only to climb some more onto hot sun-dried faces – rock and dry grass. ‘Bloody hell!’. I’m regularly stopping, doubled over to pant and rest.
Finally the sidle track starts to descend to Youngman Stream, dropping back out of the sun into the shade of bush on the faces below. The walkwire over the Ashley is long gone, but I hop across from rock to rock to the triangle on the far bank, follow the cut track 100m upstream through the trees.
Youngman Hut sits against a riverside ribbon of beech, at the base of an open grassy face. Flat dirt campspots dot the 20-or-so meters of open tall beech forest between the hut and river. The hut is tidy, freshly painted: 6 bunks and wood stove. A swim in cool, shallow pools, a feed and a rest – before I’ll even consider the 700m climb up the spur opposite to Tarn Hut.
The climb from Youngman is, as the map suggests, relentless. But manageable. Unlike the sidle track earlier with its near-vertical scrambles, the gradient is such that I’m able to maintain a steady, slow pace. Beech forest provides shade for the first 200m, becomes scattered, ends. Baking sun - yet again - but a faint, cooling breeze. Energy again ebbs, fades as we exit the scrub onto faces of tall rolling tussock. Exhausted from the long day, long climb: 150m vertical meters of tussock hopping seems cruel, if not unusual. Poles suggest a route through the untracked tussock, until finally on the summit a cairn announces the climb is at an end. I sit, breathe, take in the views. Back south to the dry yellow-farmed flats of the Lees Valley. Upriver the Ashley glistens - a thin shiny ribbon in a grey rocky bed. Climbing slowly, shrinking, between faces of dark beech, until it finally disappears into unbroken forest at the valley head.
Poles stride SW across broad tussock tops. We follow more slowly, descending gently south along the range. More tussock hopping. More views. The Puketeraki Range dominates the western skyline – rising from tussock tops in the south to high peaks of barren rock and scree further north. Tomorrow ...
From atop a last, brief descent, the saddle to which we’ve been dropping comes into view. A broad tussock flat – small, dark clear tarn to its western side. Tarn hut sits on the far shore – tidy under its clean new paint job. A slight crest behind the hut shelters it from the west, beech forest lapping over from the slopes beyond. Firewood aplenty for this high subalpine hut.
Dark depth makes tarn water cold for my evening swim, but welcomely so. Rapidly chilling dusk air; the warmth of clean skin against clean dry clothes. A luxury only truly appreciated after a day such as this.
The night brings a sky so clear and black it is devoid of light or colour; stars so clear, so focussed they do not even flicker – do not spread their light into the intervening void.
Morning: crisp skies – blue, fading to white at the horizon. The hint of a frost on the crisp dry grass. The Canterbury plains stretch out below – an endless white blanket of cloud.
An easy climb on moss, rock and tussock takes us to the summit of pt1334, south of Tarn Hut. Scrubby, wind-flattened beech laps onto the tops from the west – its tight-packed aerofoil form a seemingly impenetrable barrier. But we nose around, find a break, push through to tall-standing forest beyond. Mature beech towers over a soft mossy carpet. Black fungus-coated trunks not yet fragrant in the cold morning air. Easy, fast travel. For a while.
200m down the face, the luxury ends. Tight-packed pole beech; trunks a foot or two apart. The sickly sweet smell of honeydew returns, wasps awake and begin their daily cruise. We bash our way down. The spur is well defined – with some cutting would make a great track ... with some cutting.
On the valley floor: the Lillburn River is slow, dark, sluggish. Tannin-dark between lichen-blackened rocks – that rotten leaf, vegetated taste.
Up the face beyond – more of the same - to the summit of the Puketarai Range. Wonderful stretches of open mature beech, tall trunks rising above a clean forest floor – rare. Wind or snow damage more common, forest periodically flattened, periodically regrowing. Sections of recent fall – scrambles over rotting downed trunks. Sections of tight, scrubby young growth in bright-lit clearings. Sections of tall densely packed pole beech, reaching skyward in the race to form the next canopy. Finally, the bushedge, bright light and tussock beyond. An easy, unhindered plod up gentle slopes towards the summit of the range: low tussock and hebe; a buffet of snowberries laid out to further slow our ascent.
The summit at pt1645 brings yet more views. The Nigger – Poulter valley stretches away from us – broad and flat - flanked by bush-clad ranges, cut by slips, beneath bare rocky ridgelines. The broad shingle bed of the Nigger emerges from a tight side-valley, the still-vast valley floor beyond left dry, punctuated only by overgrown morraine and tarns.
We swing briefly SW along the Puketeraki Range, round the head of a creek, take the next spur west – drop towards the very politely named Nigger Bush. Learning from yeterday’s exhaustion – do not seek out the remains of Nigger Bush Biv, but instead push directly down the spur towards the Esk-Nigger forks.
Beech forest brings a welcome change: dry, light curtains of green-grey lichen drape the trunks. Black fungus, sickly-sweet honeydew, wasps: all left behind – for good this time. Easy, open travel in wonderful clean beech takes us NW down from pt1360, scrub only appearing as we near the clearings above the Esk. I should say ‘clearings’, as things are not quite what the map suggests. Beech forest ends at an expanse of kanuka swamp – tall, tight packed scrub on a marshy soft floor. But we cut round to its northern side, and drop easily through dry open kanuka bordering the forest to reach cattle-grazed grassy flats by the river below.
Once in the Esk, we head briefly downstream to the forks with the Nigger – through deep canyons carved through mud and scree. Cross 3 times to avoid bluffs: twice shallow, easy, dry footed; the third at the forks deep and fast – fill your boots. Sandflies attack, postpone smoko, and we push on up the steep zigzag track from the forks to Nigger Huts on farmed terraces 100m above.
Nigger Huts are owned by White Station, but the larger, newer of the two screams ‘NZFS’. A box-standard 8-bunk hut to which a large side-porch has been added. The smaller, older hut, the typical musterers’ deal: galvanised iron curling & battered, wooden door leaning on rather than hung from its frame. Small 4-paned wooden window, open fire on one end wall. Bunks hung with sagging sacking: torn, dusty & brittle above a dirt floor. A full orchestra of birdsong comes from the bush behind – not the occasional chirp of robin, warbler, fantail that has accompanied our day – but the full melody of bellbird, tui, who knows what else. I should really learn my birds.
Again food and drink are my saviour. Noodles, hot chocolate, soup, water restore some energy – but fail to motivate me for the 8km march up farm tracks to the beginning of the Arthur’s Pass National Park at Lochinvar Hut. But I don wrung-out wet socks, water-heavy boots and head on up dry-grass terraces in the broad Nigger Valley – the river in its tight gorge to our right rising slowly to meet us.
Eight kilometers on (and I’ve been counting), I spy a hut by a tongue of beech to the south and climb to it, only to find it in ruins. More careful map-reading locates Lochinvar Hut on the next beech tongue to the west. A lovely sheltered spot on a small circular flat protected by beech-topped banks on three sides. Except it’s 30+ degrees, humidity near saturation, and even a slight breeze would be a luxury. Below the hut the sidecreek is dry, but poking around upstream finds first still pools, then flowing water. Relief – as it is a good kilometer walk down to the main river, and my feet have been trashed by an 8km route march on hard gravel roads in soaking wet boots. The hut cupboard contains a tin of spaghetti and sausages with a this-decade-looking Watties logo on it, and a bare-silver tin simply stamped ‘Canada’. The former makes a fine entree whilst the latter, as suspected, turns out to contain tinned salmon which, no questions of antiquity asked, makes a delicious dish of creamy salmon and mushroom pasta. Luxury! I finally, finally sleep the whole night. And not a single dream about work.
I waver between the ‘safe’ known river-route through the McArthur Gorge and the 1000m surely-scrubby climb to uncertain tops above Ranger Biv. The thought of another day of wet feet followed by weary hot road-walking finally decides me, and I skip Lake Grace and head upvalley towards Bull Creek Hut. We pass the point where the Nigger drops into the broad valley bed from its tight side-valley to our north. Above the Nigger the main valley is dry, a confusion of morraine. No pattern to the ridges is discernable, small marshy tarns filling to hollows in between: The Mounds of Misery. Melodramatic? Yeah. But makes sense.
The 4WD track skirts past, hugging the beech-clad valleyside towards Bull Creek Hut. The upper Poulter opens up below us. The flat former-valley floor of the Nigger still visible as terraces on the valleysides – cut deep by the Poulter, new riverbed 150m below. Downstream the broad shingle bed narrows to a tight beech-clad V as it leaves the broad post-glacial valley and cuts a gorged course through the high Poulter Range to join the West Poulter beyond. Continuing upstream, the track clings to the terraces of the old valleyfloor for as long as it can before giving up and descending to the Poulter flats below in a series of zigzags. Upriver the grey shingle flats are flanked by steep faces of dark, solid beech forest, rising up to that stark line across the valleyside where all trees cease and dry yellow tussock commences. Peaks above are steep, jagged, and rocky. Yet scree basins cling below the rocky ridgeline, offering the promise of safe passage. My heart lifts for the first time on this trip; I feel myself relax and begin to enjoy: country that feels just ‘right’.
The 4WD track struggles to cross the debris-field of Bull Creek: a few speculative tyre tracks venture onto the flats, but none emerge from the far side. I hop across its deep-scoured channels and follow stony flats up the far bank. Bull Creek Hut is 200m upriver set at the back of the flats against the beech-clad slopes. The Internal Affairs builders skimped on space: 4 bunks along two walls, the feet of each interleaved giving little more than a foot between each bunk. An open fire occupies the whole eastern entire wall letting out as much heat as it generates; the consensus from the hut book - “Cold!”.
Beef soup spoon-thick with mash potato. The luxuries of tramping.
I follow the now-disused 4wd track to its end 1km upriver. Cross braided channels amidst broad shingle beds to the far western bank: those wet feet I came this way to avoid. Locate the next main side-creek upriver and climb the spur beyond. Simple as that. And it is: 600 vertical meters of open bush – unbelievable. Broad well-worn deer trails lead through the last few meters of scrubby beech out to the herbfields above. The gradient does not let up until ten meters from the summit, but despite the 900m climb it has been the easiest ascent yet.
The West Poulter beyond is a mirror of the valley we’ve just left. A broad shingle riverbed sweeps to the west beneath faces of beech; narrowing as it ascends to an arrow-head point beyond which beech covers all. Steep faces at its head scarred with scree and bluffs. Ridgelines are grey rock and scree – high, well clear of the tussockline far below. High up hollows filled with snow and ice appear for the first time.
The ridgeline over pt1740, however, looks as rocky and jagged as it did from below: a tricky scramble on bare rock to the summit. I opt instead to sidle its western face to pt1640. From here on the ridgeline looks fine, but a good terrace appears beyond the col and I continue to sidle the western face instead on a mixture of tussock and stable lichen-red scree. Going is good, though climbs and falls probably gain as much altitude as we would if we’d climbed to the summit. We skittle across a final loose scree face, pass below pt1666 to its west, and angle down steep tussock slopes to reach the saddle above Ranger Biv.
Ranger Biv is hidden in a tiny V of a valley dropping south from the saddle - is a delight. A two bunk biv with beds arranged as an L; unbelievable - an open fire on the eastern wall – the only one I’ve ever seen in these small alpine biv’s. Maintained and restored by Frank & Honara – to whom I forever seem to be offering thanks. A small stream flows two feet from the piles, handy water but a worry in floods. A small green tarn fills the clearing below. A truly wonderful spot, and I pore over maps counting, recounting kilometers trying to convince myself I can stop here for the night. But the sums keep giving the same answer, and I must move on.
The track down from the biv is well marked, well cut down the narrow spur south of the biv, emerging at the head of gravel flats on the northern side of Fenwick Creek. Two kilometers down the sidecreek, another crossing of the Poulter (more wet feet), leaves me on the main valley floor on a good ATV track up grassy flats on the western bank. Trust Poluter Hut is an easy 3km stroll upriver, the turnoff signalled only by a “No Mountainbikes beyond this point” sign. A standard, unmodified NZFS 6-bunker, except that for some reason someone forgot to install the mantelpiece. Catching sun all day, its 40 degrees inside, 40% sandflies outside - some you just can’t win. Darkness comes far more slowly than seems fair. A DOC ranger passes by, having been upvalley to deal with a family of cross-breeding parakeets. I get the impression from the way he says ‘deal with’ that the parakeets weren’t going to be happy with the outcome.
I’m feeling pretty rough in the morning – continued gutache still lingering from that night on Mt Richardson, never allowing me energy. The easy walk up the shingle Poulter flat requires far more energy, balance & coordination than seems right. New Poulter Hut sits half-hidden by scrub at the head of flats on the north side of the river: tidy and sandfly-proof. I’d convinced myself from earlier hut book entries that Poulter was a staff hut, and as such settled for the sandfly-ridden Trust Poulter the night before. But instead find a tidy, modern public hut sleeping plenty. Which was lucky as a tramping club, two fisherman, a kiwi tramper and a German backpacker had all been resident the previous night – maybe the company of sandflies wasn’t such a bad choice after all, they at least all went to bed at dark. I stop for a yarn with one of the fishermen, eyeing the skeletal remains of yesterday’s catch still laid-out on the table – sadly, picked clean. The tramping club, having acquired the German packpacker, headed over Trudge Col to Hawden Hut this morning, and planned on crossing Tarn Pass the next day; which leaves the alternative route of Worsley Pass and the Otehake for me to explore in peace.
Broad shingle river flats continue to Worsley Biv, beyond which the Poulter emerges from a narrow side-valley to the north. The head of the main valley is blocked by a 300m face of near vertical scrub and cliffs. Ominous cloud spills over from the west, curtains of light rain sweeping across the valleyhead. A dark, narrow canyon slices into its centre, into which the creek draining Worsley Pass tumbles, down a series of falls. Worsley Biv is a classic A-frame – platform bunk across one wall, table on the other. The hut book speaks of past adventures, almost no two the same: a true trampers’ hut. The book records that Honara & Frank have been busy again, clearing and marking the track up to Worsley Pass. The track starts 300m up the Poulter from the Enchanted Stream confluence, and is well marked with tape. Low kanuka-bog scrub gives way to the drier subalpine variety as we climb the spur between the Pass and Enchanted Stream. Emerging finally onto more open faces, we turn and sidle easy faces towards the pass, cutting above the deep defile draining its marshy flats, onto which we soon drop.
A plane of soft moss-bog, marshy rolling tussock and rushbeds awaits us; all sign of the track ends at its start. Low cloud blots out the peaks above, a spirit-level-flat grey ceiling 250m above our heads. I’d planned on investigating a possible route up Chasm Creek, over the 1591m pass at its head and down the scree gully directly to Otehake Hut beyond. A ‘good cantidate’ on the map, but by no means a cert. Worsley Hut book entries seem to favour a route over pt1315 instead, a good-looking sidle up tussock faces onto a broad ridgeline with a steep wooded descent to the Otehake-Koropuku confluence beyond, 2.5km downriver of the hut along an official DOC track. With the could-base at around 1250m that seems a more certain option – less time stumbling around in the mist on map & compass seeking out routes through bluffs and nosing down scree chutes in the hope they have an exit below.
All of which shows how easily, with a bit of encouragement, I can read it all wrong.
A slow, tiring wallow takes us across the marshy flats of the Worsley Pass. Stumbling through knee high tussock hummocks separated by knee deep marsh; with a ‘stuff this’, cutting to the solid stony creekbed, to crawl through the head high divaracating scrub which colonises the solid ground beside it. There appears to be no ‘easy’ route across the saddle – I think I tried them all!
Finally we reach the spur west of Chasm Creek – only 1km away – and climb onto solid ground. Good clear animal tracks climb the spur through initial low scrub out onto open tussock faces, towards the ceiling of cloud above. We enter cloud and loose visibility at what I judge to be 1250m, climb another ‘feels about’ 50m though the clag then swing along what should be good gentle terraces on the 1300m contour. As luck would have it – they are. Glimpses of bluffs dropping to steep wooded faces of the Tawhana appear through the mist below, but up here in the clouds travel is easy and fast, sidling in and out of small side creeks above the valley. An impressively worn, old overgrown deer-trail forms along the face, so well travelled that I mistake it for an old pack track ... until it leads to nowhere. The ridgeline to our left drops to meets us and we find ourselves balanced on a narrow spur dropping north through the cloud.
At pt1315 the faces to the west are as steep as they look on the map. Surely there’s a way down onto those nice wooded spurs the map shows, but from here all I can see are crumbling-rock faces dropping into the mist. I push on north along the ridgeline.
The map shows an uninterrupted spur dropping to the Koropuku / Otehake forks, but reality turns out to be a little different. Deep fault-line fissures cut through the ridgeline, rubble-filled - easily crossed, but testament to the forces to which this land is subjected. The smooth ridgeline turns out to be a series of rocky outcrops, bluffed steps dropping north towards the forks below. It takes time and patience to nose through each in the mist, poking in here, retreating, trying again there to find a good route down. We finally hit the scrubline at the base of our 3rd or 4th bluff, find ourselves forced onto the spur east of the slip shown on the map, dropping not to the forks with the Otehake but the Tawhana a kilometer to the east. After a brief swim though tangled scrub, good bush opens up below dropping to the forks: the wrong forks. Two options present themselves – follow this seemingly good route north to the Tawhana / Koropuku forks, and head up to Big Tops Hut 2km beyond, or seek out a route to our intended spur ‘just 150m away’ to the west and continue to Otehake.
Heuristic trap sprung, we stick to plan A and look at closing that short gap. Small scrub-filled basins top the crumbling rock gullies that separate us from our intended spur, dropping west. Bashing through scrub down into each, scrambling out onto the next small spurlet we make slow progress round the face. Sheer bluffs tower above, bases lowering as we swing south, forcing us to descend further and further. With each gully, each scramble down through tight scrub we loose height, come closer to the heads of those rocky chutes below, good bush always visible ahead, ‘just another gully away’. I’m supremely aware of the trap I’m setting for myself, the instinctive dread of a hard battling climb back up through that tight scrub onto mist-clagged tops above, the pressure I will feel to push the boundaries just that bit more to avoid that retreat. Just one more gully turns out to be more like five – guts fragmented by intermediate spurs dropping to nothing, good bush a mere illusion of a few trees on a narrow, crumbling ridgeline. But luck stays on my side, and the series of scrubby basins connect without the need to risk more than skin on brittle scrub; steep faces a fight through dense, supporting scrub rather than an exposed scramble across loose, dangerous rock.
I climb into beech forest atop the last small spur; haul myself up by roots and branches to stand on its soft, mossy floor; squat down on the broad deer track leading down into forest below; breathe easy. At some point we’ve dropped out of the mist, with the result that it’s now raining. That steady, easy west-coast rain, enough to ensure that everything is wet, but no more. Not those violent heavy downpours that bring creeks up meters in minutes - exhaust themselves in an hour, or two. But that steady, settled rain; not a drop wasted; could last for hours or days.
A soggy lunch-stop later I drop down the spur, though beautiful open west-coast forest. Briefly. The spur soon divides, one branch dropping NW to the forks, the other due west ending 500m further upriver. The track seems closer to the westerly spur, less of a climb out of the river, so I swing down that – and regret it. The face – for that’s what it soon becomes – is steep, scrubby and slippery – descent slow and painful to the river. Which we find in a 20m deep slot gorge.
Scrambling to-and-fro through scrub atop the bluffs to seek out a good vantage, I spot a good scrub-covered old slip climbing out of the far side of the gorge – but it’s always easier to look across a gorge than top see what’s down below you. We sidle downriver looking always for a descent – finally find a route down, thankful for thick, strong scrub. The river is low, the crossing easy, but the climb up the far side, anything but. Scrub provides great hand-holds, good leverage for a climb, but at the same time works against you, snagging pack, hooking on ice-axe, tugging you back down. I finally crest the gorge, crawl up another 50m through a tangle of old windfallen giants, young viney regrowth, amidst which I stumble upon a sole, lost orange triangle. No sign of the track remains, long-overcome by windfall and regrowth – but this is it, we’re on it, the official DOC track up the Otehake.
That two and a half kilometers of supposed track takes most of the remaining daylight, all my remaining energy, and more. I eventually abandon the track and splash up the river – now emerged from its gorge. Stuff coming back down this way tomorrow!
Otehake Hut, when I finally reach it, is a beautiful sight. Warm, dry on a terrace above the river. Illuminated by shafts of sunlight that try to peek through the lightening cloud. Someone has even left packets of beef stew. I sit by the fire listening to the rain come and go on the roof, the flicker of a candle lighting this page as I write. Paradise at the end of a long, hard day.
The rain is gone by morning – clear skies, clear tops. The track sidles gently through mossy, open forest to the first major sidecreek, where the tight riverbed opens to riverstone flats and bush ends once and for all. Above the forks, the Otehake emerges from a brief, tight gorge. DOC have been kind enough to use their last triangle to mark the climb up onto terraces above on the western bank, leaving us to figure out our own way back down to the river 50m upstream. The rocks of the riverbed are now more small boulders, the river low enough today to cross easily shin deep – if you choose your spot. We make good steady progress upriver, crossing frequently through the remaining kilometer of bare-rock and scree gorge. The main riverbed leads up the western side of the valley to falls draining Lake Sally; the branch draining the Taruahuna Pass flowing underground on this day. We climb to grassed-over scree terraces between the two riverbeds, follow them upvalley until cairns indicate a climb to higher scree flats. A bare scree face looms over the head of the valley; we climb its western side sidling the flanks of the western valleyside, onto terraces 100m above the Taruahuna Pass itself.
Beyond the pass the Edwards descends gently to broad, dry grassy flats. A dark band of low scrub on the valleysides is brief; uninterrupted grey scree reaching to rocks crowning the ridgelines. Opposite us sheer faces of scree, steep grass descend from Tarn Col. The tarn becomes visible as we climb, perched precariously atop the near-vertical face, but the ascent route to reach it never obvious. I keep expecting to see the distant, coloured stick-figures of the tramping club making their crossing, showing me the route - but they never appear.
Just before coming level with the Taruahuna Pass we swing NW and climb steep scree faces through a band of bluffs to reach grassy terraces above at 1400m. The creek draining this side of Lake Mavis Pass is impassible: a series of bluffs and waterfalls, but two good terraces cross the northern face. The lower, grassy, on which we stand terminates at bluffs in the creek; the upper of grey scree connects into the head basin below the pass. The trick is to know when to climb from the lower to the upper. We get it wrong, climb too soon, end up blocked by a steep ravine; forced to descend again back to the lower terrace. A lone chamois has been watching our progress from the lower flats; darts away as we descend - disappearing into the maze of sheer bluffs that line the creek, to emerge trotting easily onto tussock faces opposite, above.
When we find it, a series of cairns mark the actual route from the grassy terrace to the scree terrace above; climbing steeply just beyond the sheer rocky chasm that blocked us. We sidle the broad scree terrace into the valley head; a simple ascent from there to the small unnamed tarn - ‘Lake Anti-Mavis’? Short-grass flats around the lake make for good camping spots, the valley sheltered to the north, south and west; but we push on to its larger companion across the pass. The lower of the two routes between here and Mavis is along the broad scree ridgeline north of both lakes – 1800m and flat-topped, and probably the easier route for those headed east. But the ascent from Anti-Mavis to the ridgeline is up 150m of loose fine scree. Instead we climb SW up the remainder of the valley- good stable rock-scree all the way to the 1900m pass just north of pt1978.
Lake Mavis sits blue and tranquil below us, perched in a ring of tussock in its scree-flanked basin high above Goat Pass. Tussock faces climb from Goat Pass to the range beyond: Mt Temple and the Temple Col route to the Arthur’s Pass invisible in cloud. An exhillerating scree run takes us 300m down to the lake: more tussock flats but badly exposed to winds the west. A swirling wind picks up as I sit, eat and contemplate where to camp. Cloud lowers on the rages opposite, starts to form, swirl, fade on the peaks we’ve just crossed. Small sheltered spots exist just in the lee of the dam wall – enough for my small tent at least. But, an interrupted night in the damp of the cloud, buffeted by wind? Tough map and compass work in the morning to navigate blind off these tops? ... maybe not. We pack up and drop instead to Goat Pass Hut ... after all, how busy can it really be?
Following the stony ridgeline north of the lake soon takes us to pt1520 overlooking Goat Pass. The hut is large, obvious, luxurious looking perched on the escarpment on the northern side of the pass. A ruler-straight white line runs south though the dry gold-yellow tussock and hebe flats of the pass: boardwalks. Uh-oh!
Beyond pt1520 small cairns lead to the top of a steep but usable scree gut which drops all the way to the pass far below. Descent is easy and fast, I’m just glad I don’t have to climb it. The scree ends 100m from the boardwalks – a simple walk across tussock onto the paved highway the last two minutes to the hut.
Two Czechs are in residence when I arrive: Te Araroans returned to fill in this bit of the trail that they’d missed due to bad weather. We sit chat - share tea and conversation. I question, explore, fail yet again, to get an answer as to why someone so motivated and independent to walk self-supported for three months would do so on a pre-prepared itinary like Te Araroa. They are not, they confirm, the bus-tour type: like their independence, freedom – prefer to make their own way than to follow an itinary. But offer no answers as to why then they choose a pre-organised walk such as this. I remain as mystified as ever. Talk instead of conservation in our nations: species, priorities, approaches.
The hut starts to fill; the Czechs make themselves scarce. An American couple – more Te Araroans – make good company: conversation ranges widely. Other nationalities arrive; the hut fills; groups start to mark out their territories. Conversation ceases to be between groups, but within them. I leaf through the hut book: only a couple of years old – but nearly full already. It makes uninspiring reading – page after page of “TA NoBo” and “TA SoBo”. Come on you guys – do something different.
The first tier of bunks fill, then the second. A group of bickering Dutch-kiwis arrive, dishevelled and blooded - walking the Goat Pass route – start on the third tier of bunks. The oldest struggles to cling to the ladder and unroll his sleeping bag, announces loudly to all present that he snores and none of us will sleep this night. A straw added; the camel’s back silently breaks. I kindly offer him my bunk, pack my bag and leave.
The boardwalks end at Goat Pass Hut: the 2.5km to Deception a rough tramping track. The track descends north, steeply down a bouldery dry creekbed into the broad head of the Deception Valley below. Rich greens of tall podocarp forest and scrub contrast with the yellow tussock of the pass. It’s quite a scramble down many of the rocks, and I begin to understand the disheveled, blooded appearence of the Dutch arrivals. Once on the floor of the Deception, travel is a little easier. A rough track alternates from bank to bank, cutting though the last of the low scrub to enter the tall podocarp forest below. Rata, flowering red, soon dominate the forest: magnificent colour proving completely unphotographable. Ten-or-so creek crossings later, feet still dry, we encounter Upper Deception Hut just as the last light of day fades. Crowded in on all sides by the forest the hut is dark and damp. The design identical to that of Otehake, but rotting, forlorn and forsaken by most. I spread out my gear on a bunk, stretch out on a mattress on the floor to read as dinner cooks on the bench – appreciate the space, solitude and silence.
Below Deception Hut the riverbank tracks soon end and we are left to plod our way down the shingle flats of the Deception. Poles mark the route down the flat riverbed. I ponder over which user group (Coast-to-coast runners or Te Araroans) DOC believe to be incapable of following a broad riverbed open surrounded on both sides by steep forested slopes without poles to guide them, but am left puzzled on both points. I mean – every flood the poles must get washed away and need replacing ... really?
Red flowering rata continues to accompany us as we head downriver, adding deep red tones to the dark green of the valley. We soon meet the first runners of the day, a couple more soon after. Then the Te Araroans. Fit parties striding energetically upvalley, comfortable with their light loads – aiming for Klondyke or beyond. Later, slower plodders – heads down, working stoically upriver towards Goat Pass Hut. A couple scrambling high above a rocky bluff to avoid a river crossing – concentrating, fail to return a wave. A group of girls cheerfully chatting, inquire how far to the hut. 30 through walkers in all – a busy day on Te Araroa.
The valley has followed a straight line due north for most of the morning, finally swings west towards the Otira. Grassy flats appear beside the shingle riverbed, kanuka forest – patchy at first, thickening - starts to colonise them. We cross the creek one final time to the northern bank, find a cut track winding through tall kanuka, regenerating podocarp. Exit onto the broad Otira valley at the Morrisons swingbridge.
A photographer stands mid-span on the broad bridge, heads away as I cross to the state highway beyond. The sole car in the carpark points towards Greymouth – no ride to Otira. I sit down for some lunch, procrastinate. A Fulton Hogan ute pulls in from the west, kayaks on the roof, bikes in the tray: bingo. The occupants have just come back from the Lake Kaniere triathalon – outdoor sorts: know much of the country I’ve traversed. We’re soon chatting comfortably about trips past and future, cruising south on smooth ashphalt, the 8km to Otira Hotel all-too-short for what we have to say.
Otira Hotel has changed hands since I last visited. The cafe expanded into the former dairy, the former bar crammed with antiques and oddities – now more a crowded exhibition hall than drinking establishment. Upstairs in the hotel, the changes continue – rooms decked out with antique four poster beds; polished antique sideboards you’d not dare put your morning coffee cup on. One room remains un-renovated, and to the relief of all I’m put in that one. They clearly have experience with wet, dirty trampers fresh from the hills. The plumbing, perhaps antique enough for their tastes, is just as I remember it.
The room rate may have quadrupled since my last visit in 2007, but the menu remains the same. Burgers, fish or a fried breakfast – whitebait sandwich being the only new addition. Last time I had the nerve, or desperation, to ask the owners if I could just pay to have whatever they were having for tea, instead of what was on the menu. But they were having burgers and chips. Ten years on, and my craving for fresh vegetables again has to be satisfied with a couple of lettuce leaves and sliced beetroot atop a defrosted meat pattie. Some you win, some not.
The next morning sees me back at the Kelly Creek road bridge, just up the Otira from the Morrison’s footbridge. The signpost to the campsite and tracks has disappeared since my last visit, but the 4WD track on the north branch of Kelly Creek still leads to the gravel-pit / campground: a sole motor home – steam rising from its vent into cold morning air - and a longdrop. A tidy cut track gives hope, heading upstream through mature forest for 300m to the first sidecreek. A signpost points up a good cut track to Caroll’s Hut, and to the riverbed for us. Broad, stable gravel flats, no crossings – it’s not all bad.
After a kilometer or so, a DOC triangle on the north bank marks the starts of the bypass track shown on maps, climbing straight and high up the steep valleyside. I look at the flat riverbed, the steep track, choose the riverbed: why not? 200m later I find out – the river narrows to a gorge, boulders choke its bed, the hint of waterfalls upstream. A piece of flagging tape on the northern bank marks the start of an older NZFS track: a brief steep climb up a loose gravel gut, sidling over a small spur to be joined by the new flash DOC track as it descends from somewhere far above. Why not, indeed.
Back on the valley floor, above the gorge, the nature of the river has changed. The wide, open river flats are narrower; rounded river rocks replace easy gravel; you can see – feel- the valley climb. We ascend. Small river rocks grow to become clean white boulders; tall podocarp forest diminishes to low bush. Red-flowering rata appears again, patchy at first on the faces above, becoming dominant as we near the saddle – a band of red reaching to the cloudline. A gang of kea loiter on the face above: “Keaaaaa!”. Suddenly, the rocky river bed is gone: the creek tumbles between deep pools over black-stained rocks; shaded, confined between banks of overhanging dark bush. Pool crossings reach over my shorts, the scrambles out of them hard and slippery. It finally dawns on me that I’ve missed the start of a track somewhere.
A short scramble through vine-tangled bush up the northern bank leads to a broad, recently cut DOC track: easy, fast, dry. Low bush alternates with clearings of tall tussock. Both trees and tussock are three meters tall, but the track-cutters have clearly been instructed to cut only the bush sections. We stumble between mounds of tussock that reach well over our heads, occasionally clambering onto one to sight the DOC marker on the far side of the clearing, before dropping back into the maze and stumbling on. Back to the bush, where the broad cut track resumes.
The gentle saddle with Hunts Creek is barely perceptable, but the roar of the river dropping to the Taipo far below lets us know things have changed. The valleyside steepens, the track sidling – climbing and descending – but mainly climbing. Glimpses through the trees reveal broad bushy flats above the Hunts Creek gorge, a triangular tussock clearing on terraces on the southern bank - surely the site of Hunts Creek Hut. We emerge, finally, onto the base of a large scree face of lichen-clad rock and stop climbing. The track has formed a well-worn platform in the stable scree, descending gently towards the large clearing in the valley-head. Crossing a brief tongue of bush we emerge into another clearing of tall tussock, to the welcome sight of Hunts Creek Hut. Hunts Creek is a small, tidy four-bunker – well looked after. A brand-new woodburner takes pride of place – minature size suiting the small hut - “The Little Cracker”. The hut book makes a great reading – every visitor doing something interesting, adventurous, different. It’s good to be off Te Araroa.
More tussock-hopping takes us across the broad clearing to where a pole on the far side marks the start of the track to the upper valley. A good cut and marked track leads through the remainig low scrub, terminating at another huge boulderfield. Cairns lead us confidently upriver, climbing towards the flats of the upper valley above; become intermittent, half-built, half-hearted efforts; disappear. The boulders end, scrub takles over. We push our way to the riverbed – continue upriver.
The scrub recedes to the faces, ends. A magnificient alpine valley floor stretches beyond – dissapearing into the cloudy distance. Tussock flats, beneath constant-angled tussock faces - disappearing into grey cloud above. Scree fans, lichen-clad, dribble from the cloud-line above, like custard down the side of pudding. The river, now narrow and winding, lost in the tussock plain.
In places, good deer trails provide easy travel upstream, splinter, fade and leave you to pick your way though tall rolling tussock over uneven, pitted ground. A band of morrain crosses the otherwise flat valley floor, the river - a narrow V - forcing its way though. Beyond the morraine, a lichen-coated scree fan climbs to a large rocky basin high on the western valleyside. We climb: into the cloud. The basin is vast – the surrounding walls appear briefly through the mist, vanish. But geography for once agrees with the map: a good gut of scree and grass ascends from the rear, south-west corner of the basin, leading directly to the pass into Dry Creek.
Dry Creek descends from the pass - a steep V of scree disappearing into mist. The ground is stable – a careful plod, rather than exhilerating run. Grassy terraces appear for a while, ease travel; end abruptly - focing us back into the V of the gully, back into the bouldery riverbed. We emerge from the cloud: a tussock basin appears below: two head-creeks join, flowing gently over its grassy flats before disappearing, tumbling over the lip. Beyond: the steep, narrow V resumes, dropping to the narrow white ribbon of the Taipo over a kilometer below.
Descending initially between tussock faces, the gut soon enters the scrub layer – travel confined to the riverbed. Gradient is steep and unchanging. Clambering down the boulder-bed of the river: rocks football-size, table-sized, loose. Though not dry, the creek is small, occupying only a small part of the gut - there’s plenty of room to pick our way carefully down the dry rocks. But rocks are loose: twice, meter cubed sections of riverbed start to move as I clamber down them: rocks shift, resettle – far sooner than my heartbeat. Knees trembling, I move on even more cautiosly – the careful descent seems to go on forever.
A DOC triangle 20m from the Taipo marks the Taipo Valley track, and we turn with gratitude off loose boulder beds. The track: a broad tunnel through lush, dark moss-covered forest – a former pack track, cut blasted, benched into the hillside. A few climbs have been added round old slips-sites, but it’s still a fast, easy walk up the remaining 6km of valley to Julia Huts.
The historic hut is the first we encounter – tucked beside the track in tall, dark bush. Four bunks cut from pole-timber, hand-sawn timber slabs for the floor, open fireplace in the far wall: it’s a beautiful historic building, well cared for and restored. New Julia lies barely 100m beyond in a large, light clearing. Large, spacious – a comfortable but not out-of-place modern hut. Eight bunks form a C round the rear of the room. A large table and cook-bench surrounded by windows and light at the front, woodburner and hearth in one corner. High, trussed roof adding to the open, spacious feel.
Hut book comments indicate most people visit the hot pools whilst they’re here. The joy of soaking their feet after a long day of tramping seems the moist common reaction. If I was going to clamber down the river to the pools I’d intend on soaking more than just my feet, but each to their own. But I forgo the walk to the pools, wash instead under the tap in drizzle-turning-to-rain: dinner is far more important.
Two passes tommorrow with a high 1800m sidle between them. Add to that the hut book comments of needing at least five hours to descent the 5km from the first pass (really?). And, to go with it, the worst forecast so far. So I guess we’ll just wake up in the morning and see what Huey brings. Sounds like a hut day: maybe I’ll get to go the hot pools after all.
Rain clears at 2pm. Too late to try the pass now.
But at least I understand all the comments about “soaking feet” in the hot pools: somewhat small.
Freight-train wind-gusts barrel down the valley, slamming into the hut wall; in between each gust: silence, total calm. I dream of earthquakes.
Above Popes Pass, patches of snow glisten in morning sun, cloud clinging to the higher slopes of Mt Harman. A good broad cut track leads from Julia Hut up the east branch towards Harman Pass. Crossing the bridge, we leave it, follow instead a rough overgrown track dropping down the far bank back to the forks. Tall native bush, fringes tangled with lush west coast vegetation: fern and flax eagerly filling the gap left by the once-track. Our roughly marked route drops to the main river flats, swings up the western branch of the Taipo towards Pope Pass, ending a few hundred meters later at the creek - its terminus marked by a small lichen-covered cairn.
I head upriver in cold morning shade: rock hopping, climbing steadily, warming. The creek again bluffs out to gorged bouldery falls. I spy the line of the track ten meters up on the true right face, scramble up to join it: overgrown, waist deep in fern and flax, little more than a break in the trees marked occasionally with sun-bleached tape. But we’re soon back in the riverbed again, above the falls, climbing. Low, tangled west-coast scrub has replaced the tall forest below.
The start of a third track is marked by a cairn - well cut and marked it climbs to the open boulderfield above. Half an hour of hopping and scrambling over the old, lichened boulders takes us a kilometer or so further upriver to where field ends at a wall of scrub. Another half hour is required to cover the 80m back to the river. Thick intertwined scrub grows over a field of car-sized boulders; hides deep holes, shin-scraping stumps. Vegetation too thick, too brittle to push through; terrain too rocky, too broken to crawl beneath; canopy almost strong enough to walk over, almost ... until it gives and you plummet back into the tangled rocky darkness below.
The creek has dried out since we last saw it – its bed now bare: clean, white rocks shining under the morning sun. Occasional side creeks trickle into small pools, allow us to fill water bottles, then vanish beneath the rocky creek-bed. Scrub is left behind as we climb into the head basin. Tussock-fields bracket the river, hiding a boulderfield beneath - we soon abandon the ‘flats’ and drop back into the white, dry riverbed. It seems like a long 2.5km up the valley flats to the forks below Pope Pass. The tussock flats finally cede to fans of loose scree, but that proves as slow travel as the rocky tussock the preceded it.
A sheer rock bluff dominates the western fork of the valley, the creek cutting down its centre in a single, narrow fall. We climb the true left of the creek on good stable scree, cutting back to the creek above the falls. The great Taipo is now little more than a trickle, the valley a mere scree gut climbing steeply to the pass: choked with rock, ice - old avalanche debris. The barren rocky saddle of Pope Pass is clearly visible at its head - cloud whipping urgently through from the Canterbury side, only to disappate as soon as it clears the summit.
To the west scree faces descend from the still cloud-covered peak of Mt Harman. We climb the best looking of them, 150m short of the pass itself, to emerge onto the snowfield-terrace above at 1700m. Sidling ice-crusted snow beneath south-eastern face of Mt Harman, this provides fast easy travel, climbing steadily to the ice-coated scree crest at 1800m.
The world is laid out far below us. Lake Browning: deep blue, perched on its high plateau above the Wilberforce Valley. Half a kilometer beneath it, grey-rock river flats stretch endlessly down valley; beech-forested slopes scarred with scree slips, transition abruptly to tussock faces above, beneath high ranges of rock and ice above. Standing again atop the main divide, we look undeniably east - back to the Canterbury high country we left days ago in the Poulter and Esk. Turning towards our destination to the west, we see a different world. Those same rocky ridgelines transition not to tussock but scrub, running unbroken for 1000m down to the Arahura Valley floor. At the limit of our vision, dark green forest creeps into the lower valley- not the dry, light beech, but dark, lush west-coast podocarp clinging to the gorged valley face.
Those freight-train gusts have lessened but not disappeared. Each gust raises a white wave on Lake Browning, drives it across to crash silently on the north-eastern shore. Slams into us a minute or so later as we watch far above; threaten to take us off our feet. Hunch us down, braced on ice-axe driven into the ice-bonded scree.
The descent to Lake Browning is slow on ice-rimed rock and scree, but the route itself is straight forward. We drop down a broad scree ridge towards the lake itself, cutting finally down tussock gullies to the outlet of the lake, finding a still quiet spot for lunch by the forks. Wind gusts roar around us, flattening tussock, raising spray on the lake, but here at the forks we sit in still, calm air.
Crossing the lake outlet we join the old Browning Pass pack-track as it makes its benched descent down the valleyside to the Arahura river flats below. A couple of kilometers of riverbed rock-hopping follow before the track picks up again on the true left bank, climbing to terraces above where it soon finds Harman Hut - more floating than sitting in its boggy basin. One set of gear is present on a bunk, but its owner absent, so we sit alone for a welcome warmer of hot soup and hot chocolate.
Leaving Harman Hut the pack-track is broad and well maintained. We zigzag down into a gorge, clamber a boulder on aluminium ladders to reach a long swingbridge spanning the deep slot of the river. Beyond, the track stretches out down-valley, cut into the hillside on a carefully surveyed constant ascent. We sidle the face through scrubby low bush, swing into sidecreek draining the Styx Saddle, arrive at its broad, boggy tussock summit without breaking from the surveyor’s defined steady slope. Far down the valley the horizon is blue: the Tasman, our destination, in sight at last.
Back in low bush the track descends steadily towards Grassy Flat, progress punctuated every 100m by stoat traps. 27 traps later we reach the clearing, cross the thankfully low river, and stroll across grassy flats to Grassy Flat Hut.
A tramper stands on the deck, laying out freshly washed clothes to dry in the hot sun. Naked. I drop pack, call a ‘Hello’, and return to the creek to fill my bottle. By the time I return he is, thankfully, clothed. A Czech tourist, taking initiative to get off the beaten trail to walk the Three Passes Route - the trip recommended to him by a German with whom he had hitched a lift. He called into Arthur’s Pass visitor’s centre who printed off a now-ragged A4 topomap for him, and headed off up the Waimak. I ask how he went in the morning’s ice and wind, but Browning Pass was the easiest of the three. The icy ascent of the Whitehorn Glacier the most challenging, in trainers. He was surprised at how poorly marked the track over Harman and Whitehorn was, how poorly maintained. Routes, I explain, not tracks – I wonder if the Visitor Centre explained the difference.
The good benched track continues down the Styx Valley – crossing the river just below the hut – easy travel under clear blue skies. Three kilometers downstream an old wooden sign points left across the river: Mid Styx Hut, 40 mins. The river is knee deep and moderately swift – an OK crossing, but clearly one to avoid after rain. Nosing down the far bank we pick up the track to Mid Styx just beyond the next sidecreek. A brief, steep climb takes us through tall, dark forest onto a sloping terrace 200m above. Mid Styx Hut sits to the rear of a small clearing surrounded by tall trees. The door is open upon our arrival: bed, bench covered in possum and rat droppings. Floor a mess of chewed paper and plastic. Tidy hut, pack rubbish, move on.
The track west from Mid Styx meanders across the plateau, becomes vague as it drops to Tyndall Creek, vanishes. We scramble down the steep tangled slope and drop into the creekbed. Flat and open at first, it bcomes tighter as we descend, ongaonga blocking travel on the banks. A full hour from the hut we reach the forks with the Styx. White water sparkles in sunlight, dropping between deep pools, squeezing between boulders. A blue duck paddles unconcerned in the torrent. I choose the boulder-hugging approach to river crossing – clamber through waist deep pools, boulders bracing me against the flow. Thnakfully no-one is around to watch.
Back on the northern bank, we pick up the Styx track – broad, benched and easy. The Czech has passed by during my detour, prints of trainers fresh in the mud. The benched pack track becomes an old dray road, through cuttings, over causeways – running flat down the steep valleyside. Tall dark podocarp, overhanging the track gives way to grassy flats, cow pats, tyre tracks. The trail becomes a farm track, muddy and churned by cattle. In the distance a road bridge glints in the sun. The Southern Alps lie behind us.
Dorothy Falls Road climbs north from the small gravel carpark. A steady 1.5km climb - cutting from side to side of the road to seek shade. At the saddle a yellow sign marks the Lake Kaniere Track. Campervans, minibusses crowd the carpark so I push on into fern-forest seeking a quiet spot for lunch. The track climbs in gentle zigzags – gravel surfaced for bikes – sidles the northern face of Mt Upright to a wooden viewing platform. We pass couples, families, a large straggling school group – but have the platform to ourselves. The climb is rewarded by our first look at Lake Kaniere: mirror flat reflecting low hills to the north, tranquil in its green bush-covered basin.
The track descends to the lakeshore – no sign remaining of Lawyer’s Delight Hut. More a sidle track than lakeshore track we climb and fall over spurs and bluffs - occasional glimpses of the water through the trees. The valleyside is steep, tall bush dropping right to the water's edge, tangled undergrowth of fern and lawyer competing with fallen trees to make camping impossible. Two small streams form flat gravel fans out into the lake. Small beaches back onto flats of fern trees and grass. We stop at the second creek, pitch the tent on a small patch of grass behind the beach. The lake is warm – surprisingly so. A quick dip for a wash becomes a leisurely swim in pool-hot water. Later, I lie in my tent waiting for sleep, listen to the lap of small waves on fine gravel, relax.
By morning the gentle wind has gone, the lake a steamy mirror of the faces above. The track finally gives up its sidling, runs flat and easy along the lake shore to the picnic area at Sunny Bight. A kilometer of road takes us to the bridge at the lake outflow, and the start of the Kaniere Water Race track.
The West Coast Cycleway is being routed along this old track, much improvement work carried out to ease the ride. A broad, hard surface of bright white gravel cuts through the forest beside the old water race. Each small creek has been bridged, each dip filled with embankments – so that the cyclists can cruise by with ease. I’m surprised to find the race clean, maintained. Signs from TrustPower indicate that it is still in use for hydro power – though at present it is bone dry. Half an hour later a Fulton Hogan portaloo marks the end of the new trail. Beyond, a damp litter of leaves cover the narrow dirt track as it winds along the valleyside, shaded beneath the tall canopy. The new water race gives up on its old route, enters a modern tunnel in the hillside. The track persists for a while beside the old overgrown cutting, before that too fades, lost into the shifting hillside.
We emerge from forest onto a 4WD track. The water race emerges from its tunnel, runs straight, narrow through a new concrete bed, through silt traps to the head of the new hydro scheme. We drop to Kennedy Creek through weedy regenerating scrub, pause frequently – as always – for handfulls of blackberries.
Ten kilometers of road walking now separate us from the coast. Kaniere township lies half-way. A shop attendant serves me sandwiches and fizzy drink – reluctantly, inconvenienced. At a small picnic area by the road bridge, feast day commences.
I stroll at last down the Hokitika main street, busy with tourists and festival goers. Push through the last row of buildings to the beach. Eat an icecream as I take the compulsory photo of my pack leant against the driftwood ‘Hokitika’ sign. Seek out that feeling of peace, joy and elation I felt upon arriving at Little Wanganui the year before. Find it missing.
Yes: mission accomplished – a good route between east and west coasts. A fortnight of walking, during which work and house-building worries were forgotten, during which I managed just to live. Two weeks fitter, two weeks wiser ... maybe. But that sense of arrival, of having reached somewhere special? Not that. For that, I think, a walk must end amidst remote tranquil beauty - a place it feels like an achievement to reach, not the busy hustle of a west-coast town. I ponder whether the Te Araroans feel the same, reaching Bluff at the end of their far longer walk:
“Well I guess that’s that then.”