Mt Alexander (Kaikoura)
This is an eye-catching isolated protuberance seen from Kaikoura Township. It also looks impressive on the map as it is formed by 2 very long limestone ridges cumulating in twin summits. People may have heard of the Mt Alexander repeater station in the early days of broadcasting TV transmissions. It is nearby, on our route to the summit.
Other features make this a very worthwhile day trip. There is a stand of podocarp forest which is a scientific reserve containing the southernmost stand of tawa. We also couldn’t help noticing there are a helluva lot of non-domesticated animals around the area i.e. game. We ran into 3 lots of wild goats and a herd of 10 bachelor stags on the way to the actual summit. The landscape here is quite lunar with only small ground-hugging scree plants – some of which looked completely new to my eye.
Frank studied the map and planned our strategy. One way in was via a new track system DoC have established from the coastline, namely Okiwi and Half Moon Bays via old 4WD tracks which have been linked up. One branch of this leads to the Seaward Valley. Another possibility is via Jacobs Ladder and Sullivans Knob then dropping 500m down to a saddle linking this range with Mt Alexander. However the saddle sits on pastoral land which, not making any money for the hill country farmer, is now being used as a source of revenue by hosting up-market guests. Some of these would be hunting around the DoC land we presumed so we didn’t want to be encountering either them or their irate hosts.
Thankfully in the end he decided we would do it as a day trip via the scientific reserve. We drove into the Puhi Puhi Valley and a DoC campsite there. We’d been up this valley about 20 years ago when we’d climbed Te Ao Whekere pretty much directly from Puhi Puhi Peaks station. The campsite was very small and very popular with several little tents and a couple of big groups. One looked like hunters and the other was a group of very chilled out Maori. Ironically the hunters were Pakeha playing Maori music. There was plenty of booze of the tables and the evening had barely begun so even though there was a nice vibe going on, I thought it best that we didn’t stick around to see how the evening would progress with the drinking.
I suggested to Frank we have a look a bit down valley of the official site. He made his usual pessimistic prognostications which I mentally discount and we set off. After 100m from the turn-off, passing a bull he explored down a broad 4WD track heading resolutely to the river. At the terminus, it was very wide, very flat with the requisite soft overlay of vegetation and even a little bank for me to cook our evening meal on. I found lumps of hay and used this to make myself a comfortable seat while I sat mermaid-style on the ground to cook on a convenient natural platform.
Frank suggested we rig a fly above our tent so we mucked around with various knots, hitches and a pole. This was a real success as there was much less condensation than usual. We had a comfortable night, breakfasted and packed up to explore up the next eastern valley where the mainly podocarp forest lies. Frank parked the car just before the saddle between Irongate and the Rakautara Streams and we parted the thick fringe of the forest edge to enter reasonably open, mainly beech forest. There was the odd bit of cruise tape here which was encouraging. Frank seemed to have an attraction for thickets of supplejack. I managed to find less convoluted alternatives and waited for him to finish his basket weaving. As expected after about 100m height gain the terrain flattened and the trees got very mighty and unhuggable in their dimensions. We noted totara, matai, kahikatea and a huge hinau, that one because it was labeled thus.
We carried on up via the highest lying ground and suddenly noted an old 4WD very overgrown, then a cable and eventually we came onto a 4WD track but we knew there was the continuing zag further up so pushed our way through prickly shield ferns and grassy clearings to the upper track. Once there we followed this track along to the ridge. It was a hot day and I was overdressed with my long johns. Frank was going a good pace and I stuck to his heels but was pretty tired when we reached the ridge by an old former quarry. Here he paused for quite some time and I regretted not sitting down for a proper rest.
We hopped over the fence to the discrete and sheltered side of the ridge where a 4WD track wound its way. There were some sheep about, thankfully not lambing though. We toiled along past the transmitter station to a vista of the head of Limestone Stream. It all looked very pretty and easy going country down there. As we had lunch, we looked across east to the outcrops of Sullivan’s Knob etc.
After an hour we set off for the summit, passing a mix of goats and sheep and dropping down to cross a greasy stagnant stream. Then we left the 4WD track to sidle on easy tussocked slopes riven with sheep trails directly to the saddle where the 2 ridges meet. The summit was SW of here via gentle slopes. I spotted 2 deer looking down at us. When we got to the top, I was a bit disappointed to see we would need to lose a bit of our height gain to cross a fascinating terrain feature of a low saddle marked by a murky puddle where the 2 deer now stood watching us from the other side of an ancient fence.
As we admired them, one being very red in colour, we saw 7 other young stags lead off in a line across the broad gully heading north away from us! They paused to stare at us and then the boss stag led them on out of view followed by an eighth straggler who wondered where the hell they’d all gone. It seemed as though they mostly were bearing velvet but I knew we could get home and confirmed what they were on the enlarged photos Frank was taking. We crossed the saddle, and the fence and I made wistful noises about drinking from this dubious stand of water. Frank very kindly offered to share his water though. He is more of a camel than I.
We came to remnant scraps of trig but it wasn’t the highest ground so we continued for a few more metres and found the prostrate lumber of a larger trig. Not far away a couple of white goats with big wide sets of horns kept an eye on us as they moved off from the summit south along the ridge. I’m sure they know the difference between a tramper and a hunter. For a start we were glowing with optical whiteners. Frank took quite a few shots including Te Ao Whekere, pointing out our direct route and where we’d camped south of the summit in a southerly snowstorm in our resilient Spectrum domes. I do remember one of the guys commandeering my MSR to boil up-rice for all of us. At the time, I thought this very heroic of him to brave the elements and still do. It was also a good lesson how great MSR’s are in strong winds though he was smart enough to run it in a bit of a dip between the rocks.
Well, our day was very sunny with hardly any wind. I decided to return a new way dropping down south and skirting around to the 4WD track. Frank didn’t object and followed on. We crossed a shallow tussocky gully and the greasy stream to get on to the track. It seemed to go on and on – about 4km in fact. No wonder I was feeling so tired but I think that hoof up the last stretch of hill to the quarry had tuckered me out. Frank’s been doing leg strengthening exercises and he reckons they’d paid off plus he didn’t have his usual handicap of 100+% more pack weight.
We retraced our steps and crossed the fence to drop down to the podocarp forested plateau through very tall prickly shield ferns. On the plateau there were little cages shielding tawa seedlings which looked like small bamboo plants. I’d noticed these at the DoC campground the evening before when we’d gone for a 10 minute circuit and mentioned them to Frank. There were also many giant black funnels to catch seed I figured. Frank had the GPS but followed a cruise taped route until he decided to deviate towards the car. This time we didn’t encounter groves of supplejack enroute and emerged only metres away from where we’d gone in.
It was now 5pm and another beautiful golden evening beckoned us to camp but as rain was forecast in the early hours of the morning we decided to have an evening meal in Kaikoura then head home. But first Frank suggested we drive down to the boundary of the reserve. At the next bend in the road he spotted the DoC carpark for where the track to the bays starts. Well, these public tracks were good news for us because this area is often the best option in a poor weather forecast. We’ll keep that in mind. It was certainly an area producing unexpected delights.