Having crossed the Rakaia River and wandered its long tedious flats before, we chose to leave our car at the Toaroha carpark and hire a chopper to take us to the Rakaia River where Lauper Stream empties into it. That also took away the hassles of being dropped off and picked up, now masters of our own destiny! Although the chopper was 45 minutes late (which would prove significant later in the day), Fletcher from Anderson Helicopters was great company and also offered to take a photo of the two of us before we began our adventure, also dropping us on the true right of the stream as is the recommended side to start climbing towards Whitcombe Pass. The weather was ideal, cloudy, not too hot and no rain. The forecast for the next 7 days was excellent, a nice change from some of our past tramps at this time of year, remembering a couple of years ago when we were stuck at Price Hut for 3 days attempting a similar adventure, only to be thwarted by the constant rain.
The climb to Whitcombe Pass was steady but fairly uneventful. A little bush bashing but most of the route was relatively straight forward, after around three and a half hours we stood on the top of Whitcombe Pass where a very large cairn has been carefully constructed. It was photo time of course. As we didn’t actually start tramping until 11.18am, the plan was to get as far down the valley toward Neave Hut as possible then tent for the night. That seemed simple enough except as we progressed down the head of the valley, it became apparent there were not going to be any tent sites. The boulders were the size of small houses and scrub went right to the river’s edge. We checked the GPS and saw we were 3.6km from Neave Hut, (as the crow flies) with a couple of hours of light left. Should be no problem! Well famous last words as it turned into a bit of a nightmare. The scrub was so thick and progress required a lot of bush bashing through it, barely making 1km/hour at one stage. Darkness descended and we were still going. Realizing this was madness trying to scout around a roaring river in pitch black conditions we came across a postage stamp sized rocky area beside the river. Not quite big enough for the tent but would suffice. Feeling fairly stuffed at this stage after nine and a half hours, it was to bed quickly and worry about the route tomorrow.
Although we didn’t get a lot of sleep at least it was a rest and we could see in the morning. To our delight we found we had camped right beside a marker-the first marker heading towards Neave Hut. We didn’t bother with breakfast, broke camp and headed for the hut where we would sort breakfast. It took over an hour to get there as the going is difficult at every step, still a welcome sight early in the morning. Be aware there is a cut track not long before the hut which you need to find otherwise you could spend another half an hour following the river to the hut. After breakfast we headed for Price Hut, where about an hour later I snapped my treasured walking pole, damn! We called in to Wilkinson Hut on the way. It is only a half hour round trip diversion and well worth the effort. A nice hut, although hunters frequent it as a chopper can land there. Not so at Neave Hut though!
It was another nine hour day by the time we rolled into Price Hut. The going doesn’t really get any easier and we found it was hard on gear although I managed to repair my pole here which lasted the rest of the trip, still it will need replacing. Oh well, another excuse to go looking at outdoor shops, what a shame. Others have obviously found the same as I came across a good quality self-inflating sleeping mat the day before. Just too much extra weight to carry it back though, so left it where it lay.
After two big days with full packs we decided Frew Hut would do us the third day, then take a relaxing afternoon. It took just over five hours to get there as there are many large slips to cross, none being easy. You have to pick your route across carefully at times. The only person at Frew Hut was a possum hunter who claims he lives there. He was somewhat eccentric to say the least and totally ignorant of others in the hut, that being us! The next morning he was up at 5.30am banging and crashing without the slightest care in the world. Actually it turned out to be useful as we rose early and were on the track at first light heading up towards Frew Saddle. The track is long but not difficult. Towards the end there is a long section in the river, split by a short diversion around some bluffs. You get a bit sick of the wet and slippery rocks which take great care but finally you leave the river for a steepish but safe climb to the saddle and Frew Biv. This is a really nice wee two bunk biv with a stream running close by for water. Time for a soup and lunch. After lunch just as we were heading towards the other side for the descent a Kea landed on a rock only a few metres away, posing and inviting a photo opportunity, which I took up of course. We saw a number of Keas on this trip which is a positive outlook to their numbers. Looking down on the head waters of the Hokitika River was quite spectacular. Mathias Pass was obvious to the right and not far up towards the top of the valley, except we were heading down the valley towards Bluff Hut. We weren’t sure we would get there that day and always planned the possibility of tenting. After a relatively steep and slippery descent to the valley floor we met a couple of DOC workers who had been dropped off at Bluff Hut by helicopter. They assured us it had only taken them three hours to get to the base of the ascent to Frew Saddle, hence we decided to go for it. There are some sparsely spaced poles down the valley but basically you just make your own way down, mostly sticking to the true left. Eventually you pick up the track markers but even those are sparse in their frequency. The DOC man did highlight this and said they would address the issue. So maybe if you are heading that way the lack of markers may have been addressed. After nine hours Bluff Hut was a welcome and impressive sight. It is a fairly new hut with no expense spared. It even has a nice deck with the most magnificent view over the valleys below. An absolute must to stay here. We wished we could have stayed an extra night just to soak up the atmosphere. This hut is at least two days hard tramping from any direction but access is often by helicopter going by the number of entries by hunters.
The descent from Bluff Hut into the Mungo Valley is very steep and at times great care is needed not to slip. If wet this route must be treacherous! However, the track is well marked and easy to follow. Once on the valley floor we headed for Poet Hut, which required some ups and downs and some quite long sections boulder hoping along the river edge. As it is the shady side of the river, the boulders were green and extremely slippery. Again great care was needed as to where each foot was placed.
After about four and half hours we arrived at Poet Hut. A small four bunk hut which is in a nice clearing but sadly, had no sun and didn’t look like it would ever get much at this time of year. We decided it was time for another recovery day, so Poet Hut it was for the night. The hut has an open fire which as we discovered can become very smoky. To counteract the smoke you need to open the louvre windows slightly which gave airflow and prevented the smoke suffocating us. For those planning a trip up Homeward Ridge to Sir Robert Hut there is some very detailed descriptions of the route you must take to avoid the dangers access to this hut can provide. There is definitely a swing bridge across the Mungo River as I have read some information saying there isn’t and apparently some maps do not show the bridge. I have seen it and it does exist!
The next morning was another perfect deep blue West Coast sky for our ascent of Toaroha Saddle. After a short tramp up the Mungo River, the track heads straight up. In dry conditions this was a relatively easy track with good foot holds and great views as you climb rapidly. It didn’t seem to take long before we topped out and saw Toaroha Biv before us. Another nice spot for a bite to eat. There was no water near the biv so if you are planning to stay there, be aware a bit of water scouting will be required.
After leaving the biv, we headed down the valley. The first section is in long grass with wicked holes you can’t see for each step. This is not a section to rush! The track then heads into the river for a time then climbs out and around bluffs. Before very long you spot Top Toaroha Hut. However, it is a bit of a tease at it takes another 45 minute at least to get there. It was a good place for lunch and a bit of a rest. We headed down the valley with the intention of camping somewhere before Cedar Flats Hut. After another nine hour day it was time to setup camp. Fortunately there were a number of places we could setup the tent, unlike the Whitcombe Valley! The next morning was to be our last day, heading towards Cedar Flats Hut then out to the car park.
We arrived to an empty Cedar Flats Hut, which we were surprised at. The hut is something of a barn, not one we would enjoy staying at. However, the hot springs are nearby for those wanting to soak their old bones. We didn’t bother going to see them as we hadn’t heard a single positive word about their quality and would just waste another hour. It was going to be a long enough day as it was. After leaving the hut the track heads along the river bed for some distance. At one stage we missed the exit marker which was difficult to spot if you didn’t know it was there. Had to check the GPS and realized we had to back track a little. It wasn’t much of a time delay, just frustrating being so close to the car.
Finally we arrived at the car park, hoping our car was ok as it sat there for 7 days. Fortunately all was good. However the possum hunter I referred to earlier said his car was vandalized at the Hokitika Gorge car park and this was not an uncommon occurrence, so if leaving a car there, be aware.
All in all, a great tramp with many and varied experiences, leaving two tired bodies that still needed to drive all the way to Oamaru and Dunedin that day. No rest for the wicked!