North Opuha Conservation Area


Looking for an easy trip in the rainshadow of the main divide? When DoC notified us that this area had been created with its own little hut, I was quick to make a note on my copy of Freshmap.


Recently we scratched our heads for a few hours trying to come up with a suitable trip for the weather forecast. After Frank threatened yet another ascent of Castle Hill from Porters Pass, I pleaded we do this one instead as foul weather and rising river levels aren’t an issue in this area.


We drove all the way in to just short of the bridge that crosses the North Opuha River, leading to Fox Peak ski field. I had suggested we do a circuit, going in via the 7km easement which is a 4WD track and going out via the North Opuha River. Freshmap’s cadastrals had shown the river allowing legal access in its entire bed with the true left bank being regarded as crown land.


The 4WD track was extremely wide to an industrial degree, churned up by a large truck and endless bovine hooves. Their calling cards were prolific as well so we favoured the untrampled edges and wove our way through the surrounding small matagouri bushes, celmisia and tussock when we could to avoid the morass of well-mixed mud and shit. A grove of conifers in the head of the distant North Opuha signaled the presence of yet another musterers hut. Recent starts to installation of deer fences indicated an acceleration of factory farming. DoC states the easement is being reviewed.


Hmmm…I wonder what shareholders we NZ taxpayers are propping up in here with our subsidized diesel, roading and other utilities for this non-profit making industry that generates ground beef only fit for hamburgers? And DoC has just announced the rental will go back to peppercorn rates. Instead of being based on scenic and other use (tourism and forestry) values, the rent will be based on income derived from pastoralism. As this type of land has failed to provide profit since the halcyon days of Samuel Butler where you could rely on doubling your capital by burning virgin scrub to provide sweet fresh grass in the spring, the rents are pathetic. Nice to know we are subsidizing the likes of Shania Twain, eh? Well, I didn’t vote for this lot. But I digress…


We left the cattle behind. The easement allows for a pedestrian drifting of 10 metres but this was no longer required. The road dropped down to the valley floor, and shortly after climbed to a gentle saddle. Here we were confused with red markers on both branches of the 4WD tracks where they joined. We managed to get it wrong by dropping directly down the northern face of the tussock saddle. We were now off-route. The terrain was easy enough but it was swampy, heralded by large red tussocks with sneaky deep narrow creeks lying in wait to christen Frank’s trekking shoes. Thankfully I was wearing my Ion Mask Hi-Tecs which are waterproof.


We sidled round the foot of the gentle tussock slopes and rejoined the 4WD track we had abandoned at the saddle. This led us round the edge of a flat, partially swampy basin made attractive with a line of naked, glowing willows alongside the central draining stream which is the headwaters of the Orari River. The tiny hut came into view, snuggled against the hills leading to the Ben McLeod range. It’s green! And it has a deck! Best of all, a chimney. The door stated it was the Spurs Hut and was built in 1896. Yeah right, perhaps the stone chimney was but everything else looked more recent. Extensively refurbished, I’d say and nicely done with batts poked into every gap. 


DoC mattresses had been placed on slatted bunks, replacing the canvas or chicken wire horrors often found in musterers’ huts. And the woodstove was a beauty, one of those with a glass door. Better than TV. Fine hunting magazines, Readers Digests etc. and a hutbook made for great bedtime reading, including one occupant bemoaning the disappeared porn. Well, we brought our own firestarters anyway. The hutbook grizzled that people had been leaving food in the wooden pull-out bins and mice had done their best to convert this into a mélange of mousedirt, urine and confetti.


Fortunately the mice were currently extinct round here and the bins contained Kaweka packs, tinned tuna, succulent dried fruit, Back Country Cuisine and many other quality treats. Well, we couldn’t leave it in case the mice came back so set to, deciding to extend our stay as the weather showed no sign of deteriorating. A range of abandoned, partially full gas canisters assisted us in our resolve.


We set off the next morning to check out the head of the Phantom over a low saddle on the edge of the basin, north-east of the hut. A musterers’ hut made for a worthwhile lunch-stop destination and turn-around point. A 4WD meandered down the valley which was attractive enough and varied so as not to become tedious. What was the long, narrow forest marked on the map as exotic? My money was on willows and I was right. Where the river cut in against low rocky bluffs on the true right, we were forced to cross after I tried to imitate a mountain goat and then chickened out. I’ve tried this too many times, scaring myself silly inching on crumbly exposed terrain. Frank just bit the bullet and crossed the river. I followed suit but fortunately kept the socks dry, by crossing on tippy toes.


Coming down off a soggy edged terrace, I recognized a plant as marjoram. I’ve never seen this plant naturalized here and was intrigued. It continued all the way down to the hut in masses. The large hut was attractively set on a terrace. We climbed up the stony staircase of the adjoining stream. There were 2 separated neighborhoods of drums set into the banks to serve as dog kennels. A sign on the door said it was the Phantom Hut. Phantom River, Walker Spur? Was someone else a fan of the “ghost-who-walks” from the comics?


Alas, this hut was mouse infested, right through the pantry. There was a 40 year old green painted tin of dehydrated fish in cheese sauce. Fascinating, I never knew such things existed in those days. It was bone-dry and unsampled. I wandered down to the sunny stream to get water and picked some healthy looking marjoram unaffected by the frost. Lunch for me was 2 minute noodles with a generous tin of tuna, gobbled down hastily with an appreciated brew of tea outside on the stoop. Frank stuck to his bone serving formula of tinned salmon and a chuck of cheese. Reading material was an ancient magazine promoting implements to enable direct drilling after poisoning the land with paraquat, I kid you not. The fireplace was boarded up, the mattresses were concave, kapok, lumpy nasties but there was a great poem addressed to the grumpy old grand-dad that used to take his grandchildren up there in the big truck. I guess that was Mr Beattie.


It was time to go. We’d worked out it was better to cross the stream at the hut and gently descend from short tussocked, sloping shoulders to the river. I tiptoed across the river a couple of times and discovered it was possible by a small series of contortions to get along the true right without having to climb up the hill. Frank wasn’t having any truck with this silliness and retraced his steps. We ascended the saddle and then noticed the “no trespassing sign”. I hope this was meant for hunters only. No doubt, the old man NW’er was doing its best to destroy this sign, aided by the southerly buster.


As we crossed the final river, we collected large willow branches to replace the wood we’d used. Another evening in the hut with a lovely pasta/dehydrated vege meal sexed up by Kaweka tomato soup with a merciful amount of chili and lashings of coriander. Frank spent a bit of time sawing the willows up into serviceable lengths for the fire. These were placed in a magnificent woodbasket that would have done justice in an antique shop. I came out and gave a hand to snap up the small stuff and tidy up the deck.


We stayed warm enough but woke up to ice frozen in the water bottles and billies inside the hut. This was a good reason for a little fire to warm the place up. We tidied up, carrying out a bit of rubbish as is our wont. This time we gained the saddle using the track on the east side, crossing to the west and then descending until the track ended in swampy large tussocks. Not a place for MTB’s but it looked as if they could use a track at the foot of the slopes on the other side where we had originally come up valley from, walking into the hut. We transected several deep streams alongside an old fenceline, finding tussocks to use as stepping stones and keep our feet dry until the terrain lifted as we approached the true left bank of the N. Opuha.


The bank provided a variety of terrains, tussock and bouldery grass. It was pleasant walking. A colony of black-backed gulls gradually rose at our approach, concern like a virus, wheeling and calling. Then another. We left the riverbank and were shepherded by gates and fences up onto a terrace even though the riverbank looked good going in places and far more interesting below. Then there was the bridge to tell us the car wasn’t far way. We lunched at Fairlie, in the sun at a table outside a bakery and took a red line home via Cave to Pleasant Point and SH1. Nor’westers threatened as promised on the horizon of the main divide. We intend to go back sometime when heading north from the Lindis from our southern sojourns but will go in via the river.