“I think that’s our track.”
Two bluffs rose imposingly above the road along Lake Hawea and a line was visible zigzagging up the steep face between them before disappearing into the cloud. No gentle warm up here! From the car park up to Breast Hill is a climb of 1200m in about 6km. We settled into low gear and began steadily plodding upwards, soon stripping down to base layers. 300m up, at the top of the first face, we met two descending trampers who unbeknownst to us would be the last people we saw for 72 hours.
We crunched along the frosty narrow ridge, ever climbing through the cloud, until at last emerging above the inversion layer. A whole new world lay unveiled before us. To the west an unbroken chain of majestic snowy peaks filled the horizon. On the cloud below us danced a brocken spectre, and above us the ridge climbed even higher before meeting with the gloriously blue sky.
A brief detour to investigate the well-insulated but fireless Pakituhi Hut before swinging northward to Breast Hill. The snow started in earnest now, often being knee deep, but fresh boot prints to the summit made the going fairly easy. The snow was extremely light and fluffy so our crampons and ice axes remained superfluous weight on our packs. Oh well, better to be prepared.
Several kilometres of untrodden snow lay between us and our bed for the night, Stodys Hut. Occasionally when stumbling through a deep patch I almost wished I was wearing longs. We were still plodding along the tops when the sun sank below the mountains and the horizon was painted with pastel pink and purple. The last light was fading as we dropped down the track to Stodys Hut. In what was to become a nightly ritual, the very first task was to gather plenty of wood for a roaring fire.
At first light we were off again, dropping 500m straight down to the Timaru River, where the valley was white with frost. We followed the track downstream for 3km through bush and across grassy terraces until being spat out on the gravel river flats. From here on we were venturing into untracked terrain. Let the adventure begin! Immediately we were faced with the first of countless stream crossings; only shin deep but icy. Once the feet were numb it was quite pleasant splashing down the river bed as it gradually became more confined. After an hour and a half it was time to turn up the side stream leading toward Moonlight & Roses Hut. On modern topo maps this creek is unnamed, but historically it was called Deer Spur Creek (in conflict with the current naming of the neighbouring stream). The next two hours of stream bashing were freezing but fun! The first hour was spent almost constantly wading across or through the stream before reaching the more open flats halfway up the valley. With hoar frost on the banks and icicles hanging from wet boulders it was a beautiful, albeit chilly, place. Thankfully there was not too much ice coating the rocks to make the going treacherous.
Upon reaching the point where Moir’s Guide said to leave the stream a steep, slightly sketchy scramble up a frozen scree bank took us onto easy deer trails up the spur. Emerging above the bushline the stand of trees we were heading for was visible, although Moonlight & Roses Hut was tucked well out of sight. A few hundred metres of traversing around the slope soon had us stomping through the snow to the door. Moonlight & Roses is owned by Dingle Burn Station but is open for public use, although according to the hut book there are fewer than 10 visits per year (and the hut book goes back to the early 1980’s!). Firewood was in abundance so we had fun gathering more than enough to keep the fire blazing well into the night. I propped my feet up on the hearth to thaw them out, only to discover later that I managed to scorch holes in my socks - while wearing them!
Overnight the temperature inside the hut dropped below -3°C so frozen boots had to be thawed by the fire in the morning before putting them on. A stiff 300m climb through snow up to the saddle was a tough way to start the day but the view from the top was an excellent reward, and we spent a good quarter of an hour sitting in the sun soaking up the scenery. Dingle Peak loomed large above us with an alluring ridgeline. That will have to wait for another time when snow conditions are more favourable. Descending into Junction Creek (called Deer Spur Creek on the topo maps) we were soon in the shade and as we ploughed down through deep snow I once again found myself wishing that I was wearing longs. The route down the stream was surprisingly easy and we barely got our feet wet crisscrossing the creek. However we had to be very cautious as there was ice coating the rocks along the stream. At one point we sidled high to avoid a waterfall but a poor judgement call saw us tentatively clawing our way down a frozen shingle slide. Not the smartest decision of the weekend. The sun was still shining when we popped out onto the bottom river flat so despite being merely minutes away from Junction Hut we stopped to boil the billy and have a picnic.
Being more accessible and more frequented, the firewood supply at Junction Hut was a lot more scarce than the previous nights. Nevertheless we managed to source enough wood for two nights (although we were only staying for one). The temperature profile inside the hut that night was quite steep: 25°C where we sat in front of the fireplace, 8°C a metre back, and 0°C and the far end of the hut. The hut book had many comments about resident mice so it was no surprise to hear rustling in the corner by my pack. A bold wee mouse kept coming out to investigate so we set a couple of traps under the bunks. Sure enough, half an hour later the population decreased by one and we were not bothered for the rest of the night.
Our last morning was very relaxed as we didn’t have far to go. An hour of brisk walking down the Timaru River track, with a few swift crossings, saw us to the road bridge. From here it was a gentle 6km stroll along the gravel road to complete the loop.