How many had we stared at the map wondering how to get to see Seldom Inn? It looked as though permission was required from Esk Head Station and this is tricky because we decide where we’re going at the last minute these days after a final check of the weather forecast. Eventually Frank worked out there’s an easement up the Seaward River from Maori Gully that takes you into conservation land. From here on it is straightforward enough to cross the Puketaraki Range and make a nice circuit of the head of the Esk. This would give us a chance to visit 3 more new huts as well that have been on our wish list for a long time.
We had 3 days up our sleeve. The weather forecast showed a NW pattern with possible rain on the first day and 2 lovely days after that. It looked feasible to cross over the Puketerakis quickly as there was some partial shelter from this wind until the crest of the ridge. We studied the contour lines to find parallel patterns denoting an absence of bluffs for the descent from the ridge and Frank pointed out smooth-going from a saddle down from the cross-over point into the head of the Esk. He worked out going over Black Rock from Cattle Creek Hut would make a pleasant leg of the circuit. I was looking forward to spending more time on the Puketerakis as we have done many trips at various points of this range and this would fill in a gap between what we’d done and stuff done on the Dampier-Crossley Ranges further north.
We drove to Maori Gully in the Hurunui, having estimated it would take about 8 hours to do the trip into Esk Biv. Shortly after we set off I was delighted to spot watercress and a fragrant shrub smothered in tiny pink flowers with leaves like a cross between bush lawyer and juvenile lancewood (New Zealand jasmine). Travel up the Seaward was pleasant with multiple crossings initially and passage of 3 very short gorges. In between there were broad matagouried flats with the occasional pig about. We arrived at the farmed section and used the 4WD tracks for a bit until we left them at the junction of the Hut Branch and the Seaward River proper.
Now we were surrounded by beech forest in the conservation area. We stopped for a second break and quickly moved on as a stench enveloped us. I guess it was a dead pig but we didn’t go to investigate. We studied the possible routes up the hill to the ridgeline and decided to enter the bush to gain the ridge via a gentler gradient. This turned out to be an unrecommended relentless shoving through regen until the main ridge where things got very open and pretty with moss underfoot. After a scrambly bit up an outcrop with fine scree leads, we carried on up to the bushline where Frank needed a good snack, drink and cool off before the final 300m to point 1591.
The open section was easy-going with leads of old pig-rootings through the tussock and a smooth spur to shelter among the outcrops at the ridge-line. Time was ticking by and it had taken an hour longer than we’d hoped with our leisurely approach and the irksome regen. We dropped down the ridge towards our exit saddle and descended to the Esk. This valley was initially broad and verdant. Frank stopped and pointed to something in a group of hebes. It was a recently dead little chamois with horns like a kid. Maybe it died of fright when it saw us but Frank reckoned it was a little swollen already with one fly in attendance.
This valley was full of flappers and a very big boar ran off. Frank said the biv was on the true right so we spent a bit of time constructing a jump-off point in the stream to enable us to keep our boots from getting sodden again. We ascended to a hummocky rise and at some stage Frank got a bigger scale of the GPS image that showed the hut was actually on the true left so we crossed on a convenient bridge of boulders and carried down on a very strong trail possibly made by pack horses and augmented by the population of poaka!
By now the light was fading but the trail was easy to follow and we dropped down a little peninsula through higher scrub to the white dogbox profile of Esk Biv. I was glad to have a Back Country Cuisine dinner for our late arrival. One bunk had disappeared at some stage so Frank gentlemanly suggested I sleep on the taut remaining one which had been renovated a decade ago. As it was way too short for Frank this made sense to me and I offered him my mattress to mitigate his having to sleep on the floor. We unpacked and made ourselves at home. The fire hadn’t been used for a very long time and when reading the hut book it looked as though the biv was occasionally visited but not often slept in. The hut book only went back to 1988. Quite a few hut baggers had been there with the exception of Paul Kilgour but Quentin Duthie and Robert Porte were among well-known names.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny. We decamped outside to have our breakfast. I lamented not picking mint growing near the hut to have with our roast lamb dinner. We set off via the packhorse trail envisaging it taking us above the stream to bypass scrub but in actual fact it continued down the stream though we did a little climb of about 10m over a tiny saddle to avoid a spectacular 1 metre wide gorge. We continuously crossed the stream to take advantage of flats though beech forest then bouldery wide open sections. I took to a terrace upstream of the hut where we stopped to enjoy the vista from a wide plateau of tussock. The stream had been mustered free of cattle the week before.
We decided not to adventure along the top of this escarpment but to drop down to the fields of yellow heiraceum for the final 5 minutes to Anderson Hut which sits opposite where the 4WD track ends. This was a very old NZFS hut with beech pole framing and a concrete floor. The bunks were canvas and didn’t look that great to me but there was plenty of newspaper there to compensate for dips if one wished. I brought the 2 barstools outside in the sun for lunch but in the end we sat on the edge of a more breezy terrace in the sun.
Now we were in sheep country so we pushed a few downvalley along the 4WD track until they took to the flanks. We dropped down off the terrace to the river itself, had a drink in a side stream then skirted round to Grant Stream following a 4WD track going upvalley to Cattle Creek Hut via a low saddle and occasional beech forest. The hut was very attractively situated at the edge of the forest in a green clearing. It was built by the packie attached to the NZFS workers after 1946 and is used by horse trekkers. This means it’s been cared for with a recent addition of a verandah. Not so good as it meant the hut was in shade evening and morning and a bit cooler than it could have been. The open fire was a beauty though we didn’t bother testing it until the morning.
There were comfortable bunks and mattresses and a choice of 4 frypans for my fried noodle-based meal. Strangely enough all chairs were missing. Maybe there was a secret stash but no matter, Frank sat on an ammo case and I swayed about on a little wooden box. We got up a bit earlier for the long day out and enjoyed a modest fire to take the chill off the morning. Mice had been in evidence. We left the place as spotless as we’d found it and Frank collated broken glass, plates and other rubbish. Previous occupants had neglected to take out their beer cans etc. as usual.
This time although travel alongside the stream looked reasonable, the packhorse trail sidled over a low saddle to the head of the valley. Here we diverged from the trail to climb directly over Black Rock via a good broad spur devoid of bluffs or scree. We gained the ridge and at Black Rock admired the view which included the summits of Turnbull and Crossley which we’d previously climbed some years before. Then we dropped down in the lee in tussocks on warm silt to enjoy our lunch before heading down the ridge to sidle Whatno and travel along a level spur following the pig sign-infested packhorse trail that leads down steeply to a saddle at the head of the Hut Branch.
From here on we were back on a 4WD track in beech forest. After an hour we got to the Seldom Inn for a snack with the sandflies on the porch. It was too hot to linger inside. The hut had 4 bunks and was in good order with light-infused extensions. Pig hunters had left the scene 2 days before, having had some success. This isn’t surprising as I’ve never encountered so many pigs or their calling cards. The hut sits at the edge of the forest so we carried on emerging into open terrain and resuming our sheep mustering until we needed to drop down from the terrace back into the Seaward again. This section only took 40 minutes which is just as well as the day was progressing…
Unfortunately there was a bit of a head wind at times down the Seaward but it still took us less time to get down the valley than it had to come up it. We arrived at the watercress where I picked a bit to take home, always appreciating greens and the fragrant shrub was also passed then it was back at the car for the drive home and work the next morning after a late supper of Kaweka meals.