4 days off and rain forecast spreading quite far east so Frank suggested this circuit and while we were in the Hapuku we could check out the newly formed Lake Barratt. Neither of us had been over Gable and Gable End so that was another incentive. This trip had a total of 2700m height gain to help maintain our fitness.
We drove to Kaikoura and on the way with our time management being poor I suggested we walk in to Fyffe Hut in the dark rather than to Kowhai Hut. We plodded up the 4WD track, carrying our 4 day packs and arrived at the hut in under 2 hours. The hut had an occupant so we apologized as we entered but got no acknowledgment of this or our greeting. Taciturn man was ensconced in his sleeping bag, listening to music with his gear all packed up for a morning getaway. We left him in peace as we cooked dinner. During the night a carpet of cloud below was lit up by the moon and later on disappeared to reveal islands of light, including the NCIT accommodation.
Our hutmate woke at 6am, quickly packed up his bag, stashed his pack under the toilet building and went off to summit Mt Fyffe. An hour later I rose and lit the fire to take the chill off the room. An unsuccessful attempt was evident by a prior occupant. It was actually warmer outside so I opened the door but enjoyed using the warmth of the stove to heat up my morning cereal – a successful combination of amaranth and buckwheat flakes with oat bran soaked overnight with dried fruits then thickened by coconut powder, egg white powder and finally topped with a creamy dressing of milk. It was very rich and sustaining.
We packed up and I retrieved cut wood hidden in the long grass (native ribbonwood!) and swept the hut then we left to make our way up to the summit. The pines seemed to have grown taller since we were last here some years ago. Just before the summit we heard the sound of a helicopter. I surmised one had landed on the summit and disgorged passengers, possibly MTB'ers. It had taken me an hour from the hut to arrive at the trig where a couple and a pilot were enjoying the view. Frank was not far behind having got discouraged at taking an hour to walk 400m up the hill, not realizing it was actually 500m.
We lingered for 40 minutes, enjoying the views. The 4WD road continued for a wee way further. I saw a piece of glass glistening in the scree and realized it was a crystal so collected it. We travelled along the gently undulating ridge although Frank’s knee didn’t appreciate a steep down climb from Gable. At Gable End we stopped for lunch amid tussocks in the lee then descended to Kowhai Saddle on reasonable scree. I was amazed to see MTB tire tracks on very steep slopes from Gable End. There was evidence of massive ablation of slopes from the earthquakes in 2016. I hoped this wouldn’t make our descent into the Hapuku problematic.
A sign at Kowhai Saddle informed us it was 2 hours’ travel to reach either Kowhai and Hapuku Huts. The start of the track in the tall tussock was indistinct. We reached a small flat section of fine scree where a post was planted and continued down this excellent scree to a gully that would take us to the head waters of the Hapuku. On our right were a few standards in tussock that we spurned, preferring the scree. Once we hit a trickle of water we stopped for a good drink. The day had started off cloudless but the sky now was a pearly layer of cloud. We travelled down the stream and sidled on scree on the true right at the water’s edge which led to a short track, bypassing a more gorged and steeper section of the river. Then we were back travelling alongside the river until large orange triangles indicated a track on the true left which took us all the way to opposite Hapuku Hut. Along the way there was one section where earthquake debris had taken out the track so we climbed up to a couple of parallel leaders of Hall’s totara and straddled the larger one to emerge in a clearing of debris flow that had wiped out the track for a further 30 metres. I decided that on our return we could spend some time indicating the way to go for folks going up and down valley in this section. At a stream crossing I noticed a small cannonball-like very dense rock. We put it aside as Frank elected to carry it out for his rock collection. The rest of the track was straightforward to follow, well marked with evidence of recent track work.
We boulder-hopped across the river, keeping our boots dry. Travel from Kowhai Saddle to the hut had taken us 1 ¾ hours. Driftwood on the bank indicated no need for people to forage here for firewood. The clearing surrounding the hut had been enlarged so there was plenty of cut fuel for the fire box. The hut was empty and we set to gathering and sawing wood. I lit the fire for a cozy evening and to warm up water for a freshen up so I could sleep more comfortably. An hour after the sun had set we were joined by 2 congenial Canadian civil engineers. The hut was quite warm by this stage. In fact too warm but they were keen to dry their boots out a bit for the morning. They were heading out the way we had come in.
The hut was good at retaining heat so we all had a hot night. It rained a minute amount around midnight – almost unnoticeable. The lads left and Frank and I prepared for a day trip to Lake Barratt. The lake formed where earthquakes had triggered landslides that buried the historic totara slab Barratt’s Hut and Barratt’s Bivvy which was its replacement as people were no longer allowed to stay in the former. We travelled 35 minutes’ down valley to a signposted junction and took a track through gloomy forest to a steep drop-off from the terrace, We figured out a good way down and found ourselves back on the original track at the true left side of this small area of devastation, getting down to the Hapuku after a few metres of travel.
We crossed and cut across an extensive flat open mossy area where people had camped at some stage and were now in the northern branch of the Hapuku. There was massive infill of the broad valley by earthquake debris. We trudged along boulders, finding silty sections and old channels where water had flowed to be the quickest routes up valley. We had to choose our numerous crossings carefully as the steep gradient meant the murky water was flowing strongly though not deep. A couple of young hunters stopped for a chinwag. They had camped on Mt Stace and seen goats and 2 chamois but none were in range. The valley was full of animal tracks, no doubt due to hunting pressure being reduced post-quake.
We passed Stace’s Saddle and turned the corner for the final approach to the lake. Here it steepened with high walls of debris incised by the river. The rocks were very stable and easy to walk on. We topped the rise and descended a little to reach the shore of the lake for lunch. Frank walked along the edge to reach where Barrats Hut used to be. The lake was a pale aquamarine colour and had buoys floating in it. I eyed up one stranded among the rocks but Frank said it was marking a previous level. I thought it would have made a good track marker.
There were steel poles hammered into the debris at higher levels for some type of survey. The shade crept on to our lunch spot as we were past the zenith and I started to chill so repositioned myself higher up the slope and then went over the lip back down by where an outlet stream began for a drink. Frank didn’t follow so I returned to the lake and coo-eed until I saw him high up investigating the hydrology of the massive debris flow. He said he now realized what had happened at Taruahuna Col where the flow had come down one side of the valley and forced its way up the other side. I thought this was old stuff that was self-evident but didn’t voice my thoughts.
We retraced our steps back into the tributary where the Hapuku Hut sits. Not far from the hut I noticed a family of 5 white goats high up on a slip. It was a scene from Heidi with them tripping around looking for plants to nibble on. We returned to the hut for another cozy night. I shifted any cut logs into the shelter of the porch to dry for future occupants.
In the morning we crossed the river and went back on the track to take us over Kowhai Saddle and down the Kowhai River back to where we’d started. With the warm wind the track was less greasy. We collected the round rock ball which our hut mates had picked up to examine. Frank had removed Tibetan prayer flags from the Mt Fyffe summit as it reminded him of car yard bunting. We used this to mark the route where the track had been obscured by windfall and devastation from the earthquake and spent quite a bit of time making cairns.
We had lunch in the lee of the saddle and then began a more challenging descent down the Kowhai. There were track markers but the track was through overgrown low scrub which hid places to place your feet so we stuck to the riverbed. After a while of groveling down boulders Frank began to suspect we may have missed a track. He asked me if this was the case but I didn’t have a map to see if there was a track. His map showed no track but we soon spotted a track marker on the true left. We must have missed the start when I deviated on to some easy scree on the true right.
We followed the track through forest. People had taken the trouble to cut a route where it had disappeared due to the earthquakes. We came into the very wide open riverbed and climbed up to where Frank’s GPS told us where the hut was and had a snack and boiled the billy there for afternoon tea. Then we carried on with my eyes peeled for signs of a track though the walking was easy. Frank announced there was no track in the valley but I eventually saw track markers on the true left. He said it was the track leading people to the Spaniard Spur track but it continued down valley on the other side of the river from where we were.
The river twisted and turned so we kept our eyes out for short cuts in the loops. Sometimes they were marked by cairns and sometimes not but they started in predictable locations. Not long after passing the river gauge we came to a very wide 4WD track and followed this. It disappeared, cut off by river flooding and then resumed. A couple of carefree tourists were drifting along it slowly, enjoying the evening but we hurried by as we had a long way to drive back to Christchurch for work the next morning. A foot track\ deviated from the 4WD track though a quad bike had travelled along it until it was hemmed in by the ever present broom in the valley. This track took us back to the start of our circuit as dusk approached. It had been good to return to the valleys behind Kaikoura and enjoy the view from Mt Fyffe and the new lake.