Stour, Manuka Hut Circuit
Manuka Hut is a lovely old 6 bunk musterers’ hut sited on a sunny terrace above the west branch of the Stour. It sits at the northern end of the Manuka Range. Both branches of the Stour originate in a high basin formed by alluvial run off from the Mt Somers Range abutting into the western flank of the Manuka Range. This attractive feature has also formed a broad saddle and the east branch drains from the southern end of this basin and joins its western branch at the southern end of the Manuka Range. The Stour Valley is a spectacular example of terrain first carved by glaciers and then gently modified by successively scouring levels of alluvial action. The whole Lake Heron basin lies as the foreground to the rugged and precipitous Arrowsmiths. This hut and environs are too attractive to be visited only once.
Frank and I first went in there on a club trip with the CTC when the Clent Hills were still under pastoral lease. We scampered up to Quaker Saddle in the snow while others went for a leisurely stroll to Double Hut. Double Hut, like Manuka Hut is also sandwiched between a long narrow remnant of a once higher range possibly ground lower by glaciations and the main Mt Somers and Taylors Range. This hut is frequented by peak baggers seeking an ascent of Mt Taylor (2333m), one of the higher Canterbury Foothill mountains. Sir Ed is rumoured to have announced his climb on the hut wall in 1951. Of course, we now have hut books…
Many permutations of trips later we were back to stay in Manuka Hut and explore the eastern branch of the Stour. Studying the map showed us a possible gorge/chokepoint and plenty of scrub. The symbols also indicate groves of native trees. Do they mean the deciduous ribbonwoods which clad the lower slopes around this part of Canterbury?
So we drove to the Lake Emily car park which is only negotiable by 4WD as it gets boggy and greasy in parts due to swampy areas draining west of Lake Emily. There was another vehicle there – a ute which had the look of being a vehicle of rural origin. Probably hunters, as this is the roar. We sauntered off, admiring the vista of Lake Emily with its black swans and little diving NZ Scaup. DoC has created a foot track to travel up subtle terracing and over the gentle but scrubby toe of Emily Hill. I was thinking this would be a lovely introductory tramp for someone till I had to sidle through matagouri as the track has been formed right through the middle of a patch of scrub. I moved slowly to minimize scratching or even worse, losing my footing and falling into a matagouri bush. Frank soon caught me up from his photography. I noted a foot trail continuing along the toe of the spur, possibly formed by sheep admiring the view and worth exploring sometime.
We descended into the west branch of the Stour and walked up a gently rising 4WD which forms part of Te Araroa to Manuka Hut. I noted fresh sawdust on the track before we leapt across the stream. Last time we were here Frank had constructed a latch using number 8 wire but it was now unlatched. The tongue of the door is unreliable and requires closing mindfully so he’d created this latch as a back up. I opened the door and my eyes fell on white bread, tomato sauce and plenty of Speights. Damn, hunters in residence who would likely be on the piss and playing cards late into the night. We were over being hostage to these whims so I suggested we walk a bit further on to Double Hut. Surely we couldn’t have a worse evening than this. Frank asked how far away the hut was as he didn’t have that map. I calculated it would be 2 hours at the most and it was only around 3pm so after a snack in the sunshine we set off. Not far from crossing the stream there was a sign telling us it was only 1 ½ hours away to Double Hut.
We skirted the ephemeral Lake Manuka which had indeed dried up so was only hosting paradise ducks which graze rather than dabble. We wondered if they were the remainders of the 18 grown-up ducklings we’d seen there last November. The 4WD track rose and fell over the shingly outlet of Finger Stream and hugged the foot of the hillside as it passed east of Seagull Lake. It now should be renamed Paradise Lake judging by the resident waterfowl. We left the red topped waratahs of the trail and headed more directly to Double Hut in the distance. I began collecting dead bits of matagouri from the streambed of the south branch of the Swin. Firewood is a bit lean around there otherwise and naughty persons have been known to cut green wood. I soon wished I hadn’t bothered as my onerous bundle poking into my thighs was carted quite a distance across the flat shingle and then into more undulating scrub.
3 big poplars alongside the hut had been felled all at once so I needn’t have carried my contribution to the woodpile. No doubt the poplars will be burned at a profligate rate by the front country low-lifes who can reach a hut only 1 ½ hours walk from the Lake Heron road end. The door was unbolted. Through the window I could see a sleeping bag spread out on the bunk. Not good. However when we had a good look, things seemed promising. No evidence of a boozing session on the agenda and a small amount of gear with good quality Fairydown bags and packs. The ancient non-repiercable gas cooker looked a bit of a concern though. I’ve only seen hunters with this type of cooker.
We didn’t have long to speculate. 2 lithe Timaruvians a bit younger than us came in. They’d had a tiring day out with no success in seeing animals. I lit the assembled fire, bringing the necessary billies to the boil and cooking rice to accompany our BCC. We had a good natter and established commonalities of interests, issues (access from farmers) and destinations. The fire was mediocre as the cut poplar was still a bit green and I was trying not to pile it on too much but the rest of the occupants got a bit cold. I was very warmly insulated in down garments. The 2 hunters were in bed by 9.30 pm and I followed after I’d stoked the fire with a pile of poplar that Frank had finally sawn up with his bow saw. He didn’t contemplate cutting anymore for reasons stated above. And if people couldn’t do anything with the blunt axe with its loose head to the long green poplar stakes under the bunk, there was plenty of dead matagouri towards the river bed.
We passed a cozy night. Indeed, I had to remove my hat and scarf. The hunters were up cooking their breakfast by 7.30 am. Frank joined us soon after for coffee. The hunters set off to try their luck and we packed, tidied things up and I gathered kindling to replace what I’d burnt the previous evening. Frank was dragging the chain and despite my lighting a small fire to burn the rubbish one hunter had tossed in the ashes, I was pretty cold in the gloomy hut so announced I would wait for him in the sunshine where it had reached the river bed.
Once I got to the broad river bed I stopped in the most open section by a collection of dead matagouri trapped in the shingle and lit a bit for a fire. My feet and hands were quite chilled but soon I warmed up and had to start taking things off. There was plenty of fuel but after about 20 minutes, I started to wonder if Frank had somehow got past me and further towards Manuka Hut so I left my pack behind and retraced my steps to the hut. It was empty so I hastened back to the fire where Frank was waiting for me. He had followed the waratahs probably to make a track on his GPS, taking the official route lower down the shingle fan. In the open section, not being able to see me he had looked around and seen the smoke from my spent fire.
We carried on to Manuka Hut enjoying a lovely sunny morning. By the time we arrived, I was keen for lunch. The hunters had once again left the door closed but unlatched and gone out, this time leaving their rifles. I speculated they had got drunk and sworn to become vegans. It wasn’t long before I spotted one of them, a young solid man of bucolic appearance, labouring under the hindquarters of a big red hind. The other hunter didn’t look quite as robust and had a smaller set to carry. We congratulated them and they introduced themselves. They said they’d been coming back in the approaching dusk after a fruitless hunt and spotted a big stag and his harem of about 10 hinds.
In trying to shoot the stag a bit of a massacre must have ensued because they discovered in the morning they had shot only hinds so had butchered meat from the 3 that were now dead. They had the hut saw to make the job easier. In actual fact they’d ended up sharing the hut with 2 more hunters who’d had to get up early for a stalk so all were in bed by 8.30 pm without the anticipated session on the beer and white rum/L&P they’d lugged in. I queried whether they’d be leaving some beer behind to make their load lighter so was offered some which we declined. We left them to work out how to carry all that meat, booze and the rest of their gear back out. They had walked in via the longer MTB route in the dark on the Friday night and Frank told them it would only take a couple of hours to walk back to the car with their heavier loads. Yeah, right.
We headed off up the valley, hoping to see some of the surviving hinds or the big one but we don’t have a hunter’s eye. We kept our boots dry as the stream was easy to boulder hop. Soon we crossed its shingly head and traversed the broad saddle. After crossing a stream, heiraceum suddenly gave way to thick celmisia. We negotiated gullies and stream beds with groves of chest-high matagouri and began to sidle above the increasingly scrubby hillsides. We got a view of a more open streambed where the east branch of the Stour runs but the map showed a solid band of scrub and we still had the gorgy section to negotiate. Where a gully became particularly incised we had a bit of a reccie. It looked best to drop down to the side stream via the arête formed by the edge of a slip, cross and gain height above the scrubby flanks of the main valley. Close to the side stream I noticed an animal trail crossing the arête. A large rock sat where it crossed and on this lay another small flat rock. I said this looked like a cairn. Someone else had gone this way too.
We dropped down to the sidestream and crossed it a little further upstream to negotiate the dense line of matagouri. Fortunately there was a coprosma propinqua and large fern providing a break in the line though footing was a bit tenuous. It wouldn’t be nice to fall into the matagouri here either but we carefully got out the other side, stomping on a spaniard in the process. I spied further cairns at strategic points, well constructed and placed. At a junction of the animal trail, I suggested checking out the lower trail and was encouraged by further cairns through the scrub down to the actual east branch. It looked as though we were in for some travel along the river. “Do you think we’ll be able to keep our boots dry?”. “Probably not. Even at the first crossing I don’t see how we could”. But we did and they stayed dry all the way down to the junction with the west branch despite having to cross the attractive stream at times to avoid steep scrubby side walls. There was still the odd but not necessary cairn spotted as we travelled down. 
 After leaving Manuka Hut it had taken 2 hours and 25 minutes to get to the junction which made the route feasible as a very attractive, albeit prickly but direct alternative to the retired 4WD MTB track which runs up the west branch. I recommend doing a scenic circuit by coming in from the Stour Bridge roadend, travelling along the Manuka Range which gives spectacular vistas of the formerly glaciated basin and Arrowsmith Range, and after a night in the lovely Manuka Hut then returning to the Stour via the east branch. From the junction of the branches there is a very attractive bypass route over a low (700m a.s.l) saddle back to the bridge.