Frank came up with this choice after a very careful perusal of the weather maps which showed a rain shadow area in the Canterbury Foothills particularly in the Hakatere area. We’ve done a few traverses of ranges from the headwaters of the South branch of the Ashburton into the Potts and Cameron River valleys and vice versa in the past and still hadn’t done this particular traverse from near Cameron Hut to upstream of Top Hut. Most people do the traverse via Spean Stream as had we previously but we chose a route half a km to the west via little saddles just west of Points 1616 and 1722.
We had 3 days to do the trip so Frank packed leisurely on Saturday morning. We were ready to leave after 1p.m.and arrived at the road end a couple of hours after that. There was another car there and a check on a scrap of paper where the intentions book normally sits showed that we would be sharing the hut with two other people.
There had been recent rain in the valley with frequent soggy patches along the track. The CMC volunteers had done a lot of work in forming tracks where the river had nibbled away at the bank. We were particularly grateful for this because in the past we’d had to ford the river twice to avoid pushing through matagouri and the river was still up a bit.
About an hour after we left the car I suggested we stop for a second lunch on an attractive terrace close to the river. Someone had camped here at some stage with an old fire scar and shifted boulders. Unfortunately very large 8mm long black ants came to join the picnic and I got bitten above my watch strap by one. I flicked any I could find away and surprisingly, none came back.
We carried on and eventually Frank climbed onto a terrace to ascend a low spur. Just as well as I couldn’t see any track markers indicating leaving the river bed. There was a good track though I did feel a bit indignant at having to climb 120m when in days gone by we had climbed a lot less.
After we dropped back to the river valley again, it opened up and we could see the moraine jumbles beyond, where the hut lay. The Arrowsmith summits were unfortunately obscured by a low cloud base. Frank counseled me that we needed to travel well on the true right of the valley as lesser mortals have headed up the central valley and spent the night among boulders, failing to find the hut.
The correct route wasn’t easy to follow at times. I would chance it on higher tussock terraces only to spot cairns down in the river bed. Frank pronounced that these were put here by low IQ types and actually knocked one off a large boulder but I found a continuation of them which led us to a standard marker. Eventually he announced that the actual track was up on a higher terrace so I said I would join him when he’d found the track. I had my doubts.
He climbed steeply through tussock and after a few minutes I decided to venture along the line of cairns at the edge of the river bank. Then there was a strip of cruise tape tied to a bush so I held a strip of it and brandished it aloft but Frank’s eyesight and hearing wasn’t acute enough to get the message so he carried on along the terrace and I followed cairns up a dry valley past another standard. Time was getting along and I thought I’d rather get to the hut then have a debacle floundering in scrub where Frank had gone. However I thought I’d better have a look and did spot him and yelled and waved to no avail as he couldn’t see me.
I carried on further up the dry valley and then left my pack to climb up to a small spur where I could spot him making his way along the terrace. We both carried on along our respective routes until they intersected just before the hut. Frank said he’d been on the old track and it was much easier though he hadn’t been on mine so there you go. The track then led to the hut over a low moraine but Frank was sure that there was an older track a bit further west though we never found any sign of it when I suggested we use that the following morning.
I wasn’t keen on arriving at the hut towards dusk at 9.05pm, thinking we’d disturb the sleep of the earlier party or even worse, if they were a couple, interrupting something else. Frank raked his pole along the corrugated iron wall of the hut to warn of our approach but to my immense relief the door was locked which meant the hut was unoccupied. I entered and there was gear strewn about the place and shortly after we saw their headlights as they came back from the direction of the Carriageway, seeing the hut solar lights.
I got cracking with boiling the billy for a drink and preparing dinner which fortunately was a very quick dehydrated meal with instant mashed spud. The lads arrived and were very friendly and apologized for leaving all their gear around the place but I reassured them it was no problem as there was plenty of space. They were two brothers who were on their first overnighter. They’d come up the valley earlier in the day while it was still raining and got quite soaked in their cotton hoodies and jeans so had snoozed in their bags then had dinner before venturing out to explore with the rain stopped after 6pm.
They had crampons and were keen to explore on the Cameron Glacier the next morning. We had a good chat and went to bed around 11pm. The sky was clear but that meant a bit of a frost so I wasn’t the warmest in my 1 season + bag but I had my parka pulled over the foot of my sleeping bag and in the night got up and sacrificed a layer of pillow i.e. a permaloft jacket to warm me up some more to good effect.
The brothers got up early and were away without breakfast to explore. I got up closer to 8 am as our next day would be shorter. It was glorious and we had a fantastic view of the peaks covered in light snow. Frank lingered in the sun, reading his newspaper and warming his shoulders but I was keen to get going as I thought we’d be in for a hot day. However the cirrus arrived along with the returning brothers and the sky soon clouded over considerably, making things cooler.
We discussed the route, both deciding it was a no-brainer to travel up a consolidated gully alongside a well-defined spur that culminates in Pt 1616. Frank said on a previous recce many years before he and I had gone up this very gully. We retraced our steps from the day before and for a few metres were on a very subtle track that he said was the old one that led to the terrace. However we then struck out to gentle tussocked slopes and traversed them, rising gradually to cross a scree to get to the vegetated edge of the gully. Frank informed me that he intended to travel quite slowly as there was no point in getting to Top Hut early to spend a long evening there. He didn’t like the hut much – maybe because it is accessed by vehicles. It is lined with silver building paper over a lattice of wire but has a draughty door and windows.
To my delight there was a very well benched route across to the gully. I then used the vegetated parts of the gully as much as I could as it’s a lot easier than walking on scree. Frank stuck to the gully scree so was slower though we were both moving at a nice slow pace. He managed to bypass a stinky old dead tahr though. There was a stream in the gully nearly all the way up to the top. Just short of the top while there was still water I suggested we stop for lunch. We found a sheltered spot and there was a bit of sunlight around still.
At the top of the gully 50m above our lunch spot we saw a cairn and the route to the next small saddle was formed as another good benched trail in the scree. We then sidled on more mixed terrain i.e. rocks and small ribs of vegetation to the final cairned saddle. Here a fine textured scree led down into the South branch of the Ashburton. I kept an eye out for tahr but saw no more on the slopes, dead or alive.
Frank was wearing trail shoes with ineffective sock gaiters so he eschewed the finer scree to ensure he didn’t get scree in his shoes. We descended to the top of a small spur and then parted ways, I choose the true left side of this spur where a pretty stream flowed after dropping down through fine silty slopes. He went on the right side and had better travel because he got further down the hill than I did before we met again in the middle. I then went in front and found good leads, avoiding tussock and thought I spied a Bull Tahr across the valley.
But there was some strange unaccountable leads of devastated vegetation resembling avalanche damage but obviously not as there was none further up the hill. There were abundant cowpats around but not in all the patches we saw. Could it have been caused by a herd of tahr? I subsequently asked hunters and they said tahr poo looks like cowpats! Herds of tahr were mentioned in the Cameron Hut book. We followed these leads until I came to tire marks indicating we had reached a 4WD track going down valley. Frank said we’d crossed this track some minutes before but I hadn’t noticed it.
We followed the 4WD track to the river then crossed it to the true right which we managed to stay on all the way to the hut though occasionally we left the river bed and took to the dreaded mix of tussock and speargrass briefly. Frank led us round the shingle fan from Stumpy Stream and then followed vehicle tracks across the fan which took us to the grassy field where Top Hut lay tucked beneath a small terrace. Unfortunately there was a 4WD parked nearby with the driver(s) having gone for a hunt up Stumpy Stream but we had the empty hut all to ourselves.
The cupboards were well-stocked so I could embellish our beef curry with their basmati rice supply and there was fresh butter as well – so recent occupants - though no entry in the hut book since October. There was a bit of rubbish in the fireplace contributing to the sense of mank. I was keen to burn this so after fetching water from a small seep 70m down valley coming from the low terrace, I began foraging down at the riverbed as there were mainly big chucks of eucalyptus in the woodshed. I found a small dead twiggy matagouri that had been killed by the overrunning river and returned with my booty. Going out again, I heard an exultant whoop and saw 2 people running down a scree which terminated close to the hut. It must have been the people who had left their 4WD vehicle by Stumpy Stream.
I foraged for dead and dry speargrass flower spikes as these are full of resin and make good kindling and then noticed another 4WD racing up to collect the two hunters who had come off the scree. They turned out to be two young women, one bearing a rifle. The other occupants looked mean and feral but after dropping the women off at their vehicle and a good chinwag, they all came back to the hut and the ferals dropped off some timber for burning. Maybe they’d taken pity on me and my fruitless foraging.
Shortly after this I struck the jackpot on a small raised area in the stream bed where 2 large matagouri had been marooned by receding water. I dragged 2 monster stumps to the 4WD track and luckily Frank arrived to transport them to the hut. Then I had another load to drag. Firewood supply sorted. I assembled the doings after twisting off manageable lengths to fit in the fireplace. Occasionally very light spitting would spill over from the main ranges up valley and the wind started to pick up.
We had the curry and then I cooked a rice pudding using my medium grain rice which was a real success with the embellishment of dairy whitener, maple syrup and butter.
After cooking dinner, I started the fire with the speargrass flower stalks and it gave an impressive flame then put the matagouri on. We kept the fire going well into the evening but you could only feel the warmth if you sat close. Frank needed to be encouraged to move closer. There were enough embers to start burning the massive chunks of eucalyptus. I settled in bed and woke up later a bit cold even with 2 big logs burning away in the fireplace. Strangely, when I get cold I sweat and that makes me even colder…
The wind gusted during the night and Frank said there was a brief downpour but I was pretty oblivious to it all with my earplugs. He rose at 6am, dressed and went down to check the river level which was unaffected. I woke soon after but then slept till 7.40am then realized he was up so got up myself. He had been unable to sleep in with the wind gusts.
It was a sparkling day and the NW blew us down the valley towards the Wild Man Hut. We dropped in to have a look and fill our water bottles for the 300m climb up to the low saddle from which we would travel over an extensive plateau where a 4WD road wound around the northern side of the Pyramid. Some low-life had been in the day before and availed themself of some of the food supply. A trophy of half a dozen egg shells were left by the stream and a dreadful comment in the hut book about having a feed on the fat c—ts food and then f—cking off. Could it have been the ferals of the day before? A lone tomato was about to turn so I relieved the pantry of this, hoping someone else would get the blame!
We continued up to the saddle, following an old fenceline which eventually petered out. I took a shortcut to the plateau but there was another little hill to ascend first before we reached it. Eventually we could see the 4WD road in the distance but first we had to find a sheltered spot for lunch with that delicious ripe tomato to go with my cheese and crackers. We found a good place sitting among tussocks with a big rock as my table just uphill of a lovely swale which had the only vegetation suitable for supporting ungulates I could see on that recently re-fenced plateau.
We continued after lunch along the winding 4WD track which rose gently just before we entered the wide catchment basin of Big Gully. The road crossed the stream twice and then zigzagged down a broad spur to finally cross the stream in a flat attractive area with ribbonwoods. As I waited for Frank who was taking in the view and photos, an NZ falcon kek-kek-keked and rose repeatedly circling, to suddenly dive-bomb into the thick bush. Frank caught up and then we carried on and the bird decided to dive-bomb him, getting within 3m of his head despite his holding his walking stick aloft to deter this. We could see a lone walker far down on the river flats heading out.
The road went our way for a while but then we diverged, sidling on ever-flattening slopes to travel along the western then northern sides of a large paddock, taking care not to disturb sheep who were the first stock we’d seen. We smelled a large dead cattle beast before we saw it, right at the gate. Just before a very big water storage pond we dropped down to the valley floor via a reasonably open but quite steep slope that we’d spied shortly after we’d left the car three days before. Frank took it slowly because the steep ground made his feet very sore.
It had taken us 5 and a half hours to come out this way. We were sure it would have only taken us 4 hours to go the usual way down from the saddle on the Wild Man Brothers range via untracked terrain but I’d always wanted to go out that way for a change and a nice change it was.