2016 – Whitcombe Pass – Beautiful and Brutal

Moa Hunters on this trip:  Chris, Richard, Adam, Magnus, Logan, Paul

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Crossing the main divide 150 years ago proved to be difficult and perilous for surveyors John Whitcombe and Jakob Lauper.  Their goal was to map an East – West route, suitable for constructing a road link between Christchurch and the West Coast.  Starting their journey in the upper reaches of the Rakaia, they struggled through increasingly challenging terrain for three weeks, until they finally reached the Tasman Sea on the West Coast.

It was there that Whitcombe tragically lost his life when the explorers attempted to cross the flood swollen Taramakau River.  Their makeshift raft capsized and the men were swept out to sea.  Lauper, the stronger swimmer made it to shore.  Whitcombe succumbed to the pounding waves of the Tasman sea.

Well aware of the history of Whitcombe Pass, The Moa Hunters knew this was going to be a tough trip.  We had read enough of Lauper and Whitcombe’s account of the route to know it would be challenging.  Just as the two explorers before us had underestimated the crossing, we did not anticipate just how brutally tough it would be…

The Trip:

Day 1:  4WD to the headwaters of the Rakaia. Walk to Evans Hut (2hrs / 3km)
Day 2:  Evans Hut to Neave Hut (13hrs / 19km)
Day 3:  Neave Hut to Price Flat Hut (8hrs / 10km)
Day 4:  Price Flat Hut to Frew Hut (6hrs / 8km)
Day 5:  Frew Hut to Road End (7hrs / 16km)

Topomap of our Route

topomap snip whitcombe pass

Google Map of our Route

whitcombe pass altitude profile

Day 1

Friday 26th February – Evans Hut

Our day started early.  By 6:30am the Moa Hunters had converged on Adam’s house in Rolleston and we were busily loading packs into two utes.  Yet again, Paul had worked his organisational magic and convinced Alan (his father), and two-metre Peter (a work colleague), to drive us to the upper reaches of the Rakaia.  According to Paul, the two hadn’t taken much convincing.  Alan fancied a bit of fishing, and two-metre Peter had his rifle stowed in the ute.  His plan was to bring back some venison for the freezer.

From Rolleston the two utes drove out to Mt Hutt township and up Blackford Road, which becomes Double Hill Run Road at the point the seal ends.  Along the way we met up with George, a good mate of two-metre Peter’s.  Under a hot February sun, we now had a three vehicle convoy.

Just testing
Big country

From the meeting point it was a long but not entirely unpleasant drive along 40km of unsealed road, to a junction at Glenfalloch Station.  The scenery around us was barren and beautiful.  At the junction we turned right onto the short track to the edge of the Rakaia where we stopped.  Across the river we could see dust clouds being whipped up and blown down the valley by the increasingly boisterous nor’westerly wind.  An ominous sign.

Moa Men prepped and ready for battle
Moa Men prepped and ready for battle

Fortunately on our side of the river we were relatively sheltered, making it a perfect spot for a cooked breakfast.  Cooking gear was quickly assembled, and before long bacon, liver, kidneys, hash browns and mushrooms were sizzling.  Alan broke out his Thermette and brewed a welcome cuppa to chase down our hearty breakfast.

The next challenge was crossing the Rakaia.  It was agreed Alan’s ute had the least ground clearance and he should go in first.  A good choice because Alan knew what he was doing…  He drove out slowly and confidently forded the deepest channel, showing the way for the rest of us.  For those of us not used to 4WDing, there were a few sphincter-tightening seat clutching moments when the utes nosed into deep water.  But the crossings were made without incident.

Once on the other side we found a 4WD track which lead to Manuka Point Station, an impressive hunters lodge complete with grass airstrip.  Out of the lodge strode a familiar figure to Adam.  Dave Reese, a Rolleston local and hunter guide, greeted us as we pulled up to a stop.  He suggested we could drive as far as Totara Point, and from there walk to Evans Hut, about 5km farther on the same side of the river.  Our original plan was to walk from Totara Point, crossing back over the Rakaia to the Reischek Hut, quite a bit farther up the valley.  But Dave’s suggestion of staying dry and not walking as far held a lot of appeal.

Following Dave’s directions we drove the 4WD track until it petered out at Totara Point.  An attempt was made to drive further, but we quickly reached terrain too difficult for the utes to navigate.  The Moa Hunters piled out, said our goodbyes to Alan, two-metre Peter and George, and struck out into the savage nor’wester.

Stunning surroundings
Stunning surroundings

Apart from the wind, the first kilometre was easy walking.  The valley here is open and flat, with grassy areas providing islands of smooth walking among the rockier terrain.  The wind was wild.  At times we walked into a strange quiet lull, with no breeze at all.  Those moments were short lived, as the gale would soon howl down the valley again, buffeting us backwards, whipping sand into our legs and dust into our faces.  Not pleasant at all.

The relatively flat riverbed walking inevitably came to an end.  Ahead of us the river’s course took it hard up against a steep bluff:  Duncan’s Face.  We had two options at our disposal:  Crossing the river twice to skirt around the bluff, or some bush bashing over the bluff.  The river looked deep, swift and cold, so we chose the uphill route, which looked steep, scratchy and nasty.

IMG_1509
Battling the bush

We began picking our way through the stunted vegetation, looking for an easy route up the bluff.  We knew that others would have done the same before us and were on the lookout for obvious tracks.  Unfortunately not many people walk the Whitcombe, so any previously walked track would be far from obvious.  We never really found a track as such.  Occasionally we found ourselves on what were probably deer tracks, which disappeared as fast as they appeared.

Through the eye of a needle...
Through the eye of a needle…

As we picked our way through the scrub, we could see that we had not one, but two bluffs to find a route over.  We climbed higher and spotted a marker pole.  Maybe there was a track!  We made our way to the pole and scanned the next ridge for another.  The poles were few and far between with very little in the way of formed track between them.

We eventually found ourselves over the last ridge with clear inviting gravel riverbed in sight below us.  With no reason to still be up in the bush, we hunted forward and back for an easy route down.  But found nothing.  Feeling frustrated and completely over battling awkward terrain and scratchy bush, we decided to go down regardless.  So we began smashing our way down through thick bush, tall trees, flax, and every other awkward obstacle you care to imagine.

One of many crossings
One of many crossings

After a grovelly and generally unpleasant descent, we finally burst out of the bush into the windswept Rakaia valley.  From there we had a blustery 1km walk to Evans Hut, which we reached at 2pm.

Nestled snugly in a sheltered clearing at the base of tall peaks flanking Cattle stream, Evans hut was built and is maintained by the NZ Deerstalkers Association.  We immediately liked it.  While the modern DOC huts are comfortable and well designed, old huts like Evans are full of character.  Sitting inside you can’t help but feel a sense of history emanating from the old timbers and time-worn furniture.

Light footed with heavy packs off.
Light footed with heavy packs off.

As it was still early in the day, we agreed a wander up the valley past Lauper creek and up towards the Lyell Glacier would be worth a nudge.  Even without backpacks on, the strongest wind gusts howling down the valley buffeted us backwards.  Apart from mother nature’s best attempts to blow us back to Christchurch, the walk up to Lauper Biv was on the whole fairly easy.  Only a couple of boulder strewn fans proved to be challenging, briefly forcing us off the riverbed and up into the bush.

Lauper Biv. (Spelled wrong on the door!)
Lauper Biv. (Spelled wrong on the door!)

After two hours we had reached Lauper Biv.  Sheltering on the leeward side, we enjoyed a very pleasant break lying on the soft grass in the warm afternoon sun.  Given it was now after 4pm, we abandoned any thought of walking further up the Rakaia, and agreed to head back to Evans Hut.  The walk back being slightly downhill and wind assisted, with a generous tailwind, took us just an hour and a half.

Back at Evans hut Paul immediately began preparations for dinner.  As has become something of a tradition on recent Moa Hunts, our first meal on the track was decadent steak fry-up.  This years steak was not as tender as previous cuts, but equally tasty thanks to the special marinade Paul has been perfecting over the years.  Chris put together a stodgy apple uncrumble and custard for dessert, which landed nicely on top of the beef already in our stomachs.

Logan tucks into the marinated steak
Logan tucks into the marinated steak

Day 2

Saturday 28th February – Evans Hut to Neave Hut
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A damp start to the day

Knowing the day ahead of us had the potential to be a fairly big one, we dragged our creaky carcasses out of our sleeping bags fairly early.  By 8:20am the Moa Hunters had wolfed down a hearty porridge breakfast, washed up, warmed up, thrust bags of gear back into backpacks and cleaned the hut.  Outside, wind blown drizzle was falling fairly steadily.  But on a brighter note, above us the cloud appeared to be breaking up.

Having already walked the route to Lauper Biv, we knew what was ahead and made good progress.  It didn’t take long to leave the drizzle behind and before long we were treated to a spectacular rainbow ahead of us.  One end of it seemed just a few hundred metres away to our right at the foot of the hills flanking the valley.  We all secretly fought the urge to drop our packs and make a dash for it to lay claim to the pot of gold.

Headed for the pot of gold
Headed for the pot of gold

We reached Lauper Biv at 10:30 and from there turned into the Lauper valley and uncharted territory.  The terrain quickly become more challenging.  Crossing the stream to avoid an inconvenient bluff happened frequently.  Where a bluff couldn’t be avoided, we were forced to skirt high up the valley side, usually through scrubby bush riddled with nasty spear grass and scratchy matagouri.

There is no marked route between Lauper Biv and Neave Hut.  We did spot the occasional cairn at river crossings, and over one bluff, a couple of track markers.  But being an infrequently walked route, there are no obvious tracks, no tried and tested well worn paths to follow.

Ascending the Lauper
Ascending the Lauper

Wherever possible we stuck to the riverbed where walking was easiest, boulder hopping where that became necessary.  However, the higher we got, the larger the boulders became, the tighter the valley got, and progress grew steadily more difficult.  Longer periods were spent picking our way through scrub above the river.  When we dropped back down, tricky river crossings were often necessary to avoid bush bashing.

By mid afternoon we hit what were probably some of the gnarliest section leading up to the pass.  Progress was slow and the amount of energy expended to travel short distances was high.

Some scrub bashing
Some scrub bashing

However, with increased altitude came some reprieve.  The higher we climbed, the more the bush thinned, and the more stunted it became.  About two and a half kilometres from Lauper Biv, where a significant tributary stream joins the Lauper on the true right, the valley flattens considerably.  After a careful crossing, we found ourselves moving into more open country, strewn with shattered sharp edged rock and rubble. Only scrubby low grass and beds of moss cling to what passes for soil in this windswept hostile terrain.

Numerous tricky crossings
Numerous tricky crossings

The gradient also eased and we made much faster and more consistent progress.  By 4pm we found ourselves at a large cairn that marked the top of Whitcombe Pass.  We were happy to be there, but any elation was tempered by the knowledge that the hardest part of the day was yet to come.  All accounts we had read prior to the trip described the descent down the Whitcombe as being particularly arduous.

It was quite a bit later than we had anticipated and a cold wind was blowing over Whitcombe Pass, chilling us rapidly as we congregated at the cairn.  The temperature was not conducive to socialising….  We took a few quick photographs before continuing on.

Heading down from the saddle, the Whitcombe stream rapidly swells to a significant river.  At least six glacial melt tributaries feed into it over the course of the first kilometre.

One of the few cairns on the route
One of the few cairns on the route
Tarns below Whitcombe pass
Tarns below Whitcombe pass
Barren and exposed landscape
Barren and exposed landscape
Whitcombe Pass
Whitcombe Pass

It is important to cross to the true right of the Whitcombe at the earliest opportunity, before it becomes too swift and deep.  Failure to do so will result in an undesirable slog back up the valley to find a safe place to cross.

As we left the pass, it was agreed we would split into two groups:  Adam, Richard, Paul and Logan in the advance party, with Magnus and Chris following behind.  This seemed practical as it meant the faster moving group would get to the hut first and could get food preparation underway.  By the time Chris and Magnus arrived, dinner would be all but ready.

In hindsight, this was not a great decision…

Inhospitable terrain
Inhospitable terrain

Heading down from the pass, the terrain was much the same as we had seen on the eastern climb.

Crossing to the true right.
Crossing to the true right.

Large rocks punctuated the rubble which filled the shallow valley. Low tussock and patches of hardy grass clung to whatever soil they could find.

The advance party, including Adam, Paul Richard and Logan took an early opportunity to cross to the true right of the Whitcombe.  From that point we knew we would not cross the Whitcombe again until just before Collier Gorge, two days later.

The five kilometres between Whitcombe Pass and Neave Hut were as tough as any we had encountered in the ten years of Moa Hunting.  With nearly eight hours walking under our belts already, every few hundred metres we gained was hard won.

Fatigue combined with difficult terrain proved challenging.  Whether we were in the riverbed, or bush bashing above it, the going was tough.  Pushing through bush in our modern tramping gear, we often commented on the toughness of the early explorers who struggled through this country with their heavy equipment, hobnail boots, little food and inadequate clothing.  They were truly amazing.

At times the dense bush forced us to crawl, resorting to an exhausting push and shove through thick scratchy brush that showered dead leaves and twigs down our collars. Other times we were grunting our way through waist high bush, heaving it aside to get a glimpse of the uneven ground below and a good place for the next footstep.

More time crashing through vegetation
More time crashing through vegetation

As we dropped altitude, the bush grew more dense on either side of the Whitcombe.  We were now on the West Coast and the vegetation was looking more like the sub-tropical rain-forest, interspersed with ferns.

Shortly before 7:30pm the advance party arrived at the Gateway – a kink in the Whitcombe river where it bends sharply around a very large and hard rocky knob.  We skirted around the edge of the river, wading at times as it diverted around the knob, thankful that this significant landmark signaled we were near the hut, but also very aware that daylight was beginning to fade.

Just on 8pm our advance party arrived at the Neave hut, pretty much buggered.

Light is fading as the first group arrive at Neave hut
Light is fading as the first group arrive at Neave hut

Quick thinking Paul suggested that unless a couple of us went back up the river to find Chris and Magnus, their chances of making it to the hut were slim.  We all agreed.  With the light fading rapidly and a couple of tricky bush bashing diversions between them and the hut, they would need guidance to avoid camping out overnight.

Richard’s recently repaired ankle was far from 100%, and Logan was all but spent, so Adam and Paul grabbed some scroggin, headlights and a warm layer of clothing.  They left the hut at a good pace without heavy backpacks, heading back up the Whitcombe in search of Chris and Magnus.

In hindsight we realised this was a very badly planned rescue mission:  There was no agreement as to how long Adam and Paul would search for Magnus and Chris before returning to the hut.  The Personal Locator Beacon was forgotten completely, left at the hut in a pack.  Not much use in there!!  So Adam and Paul charged up the valley, leaving Logan and Richard getting more and more worried about everyone with every minute that passed.

Fortunately Magnus and Chris were both fine, but had been delayed by traveling too far down the true left of the Whitcombe.  They had been forced to make a costly backtrack to locate a safe crossing, piling close to an hour onto their journey.

It would be an understatement to say Adam and Paul were pleased to spot them ahead, after 40 minutes of increasing worry.  That relief probably paled into insignificance to that which Logan and Richard felt an hour later when the four weary Moa Hunters finally stumbled into Neave Hut, well after dark.  The Whitcombe is unforgiving country, and Richard and Logan had understandably begun to think the worst…

Knackered Moa Men inside Neave Hut
Knackered Moa Men inside Neave Hut

However, an hour or so later, we had all eaten a hearty curry and were feeling somewhat better about the day.  It had been truly epic.  Over thirteen hours on the track is hard work any day.  And on this day we had rock hopped, bush bashed, waded and crawled through some of the toughest terrain we had ever encountered.

Day 3

Sunday 29th February – Neave Hut to Price Flat Hut

We all awoke from a good nights sleep feeling slightly less than refreshed.  Tired muscles and lingering fatigue clung to our sad and generally old carcasses (Logan excepted!).  A not unexpected legacy of our previous days exertions.

However, hot porridge and a more than leisurely start to the day left us feeling somewhat  more energised, and almost ready to tackle the track. And for a change, that is exactly what we would be tackling:  a formed track leading us away from Neave Hut to Prices Flat which would be our next accommodation.

Following a period of general fart-arsing about, cleaning the hut, and some more concerted fart-arsing about, we stood with packs on ready to start the days walk at just after 10:00am.

A traditional photo between a Welsh flag and the Neave hut...
A traditional photo between the Welsh flag and Neave hut…

The track away from Neave hut is quite flat, sticking fairly close to the true right of the Whitcombe as it descends towards an expansive flat created by its

Marvellously gnarled old trunk
Marvellously gnarled old trunk

confluence with the Wilkinson River which joins on the true left.

We reached the confluence at 11:30am and took the opportunity to drop bags where the track dropped into the riverbed.  We hadn’t been walking for long, but the legacy of our exertions the previous day weren’t far below the surface.  We felt fatigued far more quickly than normal, and energy levels were lower than usual.  Dropping packs was a welcome relief.

Even partially obscured by cloud, the sheer cliffs at the head of the Wilkinson valley were an awesome sight. Sliced by a dramatic waterfall, they hold back the vast Bracken snowfield, allowing only the Wilksonson glacier to grind past their southern flank.

We willed the cloud to break up completely, but never got a clear view of the cliffs and glacier.  Rather, as the cloud shifted, we got jigsaw puzzle of views, which put together would have made a completed scene.

Massive buttress cliffs soar into the clouds
Massive buttress cliffs soar into the clouds
Willing the clouds to break
Willing the clouds to break

The group consensus was to push on a bit longer and have lunch farther up the track.  Just in case the cloud sneakily cleared, we regularly glanced over our shoulders, hoping to trick the weather and see the cliffs in their full splendour.  Unfortunately our cunning tricks tricks didn’t fool the clouds.

By 12:30pm we had reached a perfect spot for lunch.  It was either Crack creek or Bond creek – whichever of the two has the aluminium ladder.  Chris took one look at the surroundings and declared it was the ideal location for cooking a chocolate cake.  We looked about and couldn’t disagree.  It was definitely cake country.

Chris set about preparing the cake while the rest of us lazily got on with lunch.  The sun shone pleasantly and we all felt very relaxed, a million miles from anyone and anywhere.

Lining the billy...
Lining the billy…
In goes the cake mix...
In goes the cake mix…

With regular expert adjustments to the burner under the cake, it was cooked to perfection in just over an hour.  “Perfection” being a relative term…  It may not have won a beauty award at the Lincoln Farmer’s Market, but without doubt it was one of the best cakes ever cooked on a tramping trip.  Topped with marmalade and chocolate icing, the cake went down rather well, and rather quickly.

An hour or so on the burner...
An hour or so on the burner…
Success!
Success!

From our lunch spot the track climbed slowly but steadily to some 50 metres above the Whitcombe river, then descended sharply down a steep face back to the river.  Chains attached to the rocks by DOC assisted us as we picked our way down.

Up the ladder, full of cake
Up the ladder, full of cake

In the dry conditions we were enjoying, the chains were hardly necessary, but on a miserable wet day they would certainly provide a welcome handhold.

Two large slips are shown on the topomap for this route.  However, there are many that are not shown at all.  We soon learned these were challenging to traverse.  At 5:30 we came across a significant and very recent slip which took some time to navigate.  The steep drop combined with loose rock and rubble encouraged extra care.  We chose to start high and remain high.  Dropping to the bottom of the slip as we traversed it would have been an easy option, but climbing back up to the track again would have been nasty.  Our decision turned out to be a good one.  We picked a path on the high side of a very large boulder and were able to scamper up to the track on the other side of the slip without too much trouble.

Traversing a large slip
Traversing a large slip

Beyond the slips, the track remained high, skirting along the hillside some 50 metres above the Whitcombe.  While the terrain across the river was steep, the bush clad hillside to our right in contrast sloped much more gently.

We were very pleased to arrive at the Cataract creek footbridge by 6.30pm, as this marked the end of our day, with Price Flat hut just a stones throw away on the other side.  It had been a long day on the back of a very long day, and we were all still feeling quite fatigued.

Moa Men repairing their battered carcasses
Moa Men repairing their battered carcasses

Fortunately Chris still had enough energy and enthusiasm to whip up some naan bread.  This was a tasty addition to the mince and pasta dish, which may have raised an eyebrow or two in India, but not where we were.  Knowing that food is essential for muscle recovery and repair, we wisely made a cheesecake for dessert.

Day 4

Monday 1st March – Price Flat Hut to Frew Hut

We all slept soundly and woke up early, feeling considerably more refreshed than the previous morning, which had been somewhat of a struggle.

Posing outside Price Flat hut
Posing outside Price Flat hut

Chris was strutting, triumphant, having successfully producing yoghurt on a tramping trip.  Previous efforts in Stewart Island had produced flavoured milk.  A larger longer burning candle turned out to be the key.  Keeping the mixture warmer for longer produced a nicely set product that was most definitely yoghurt.

Slopped on top of a rich bircher muesli, the yoghurt made a very nice change of pace from the traditional porridge brekkie.  Those in the group still aged below thirty and endowed with a voracious appetite, even ventured to add leftover cheesecake to their helping.

Shortly after 9 we had taken out traditional Moa Men outside the hut photo, and were wandering off down the track.

We stopped briefly to admire the wonderfully restored slab hut at the far end of the flat.  It is a lovely example of an old construction technique used by early setters in Australia and New Zealand.

Price Flat slab hut
Price Flat slab hut

Beyond the Price Flat footbridge that leads to the Steadman Brow access route, the track enters a long section of steep and particularly unstable hillside.

Chris decided that in this area there were two kinds of track:  Track that has fallen into the river, and track that is falling into the river.

And it was true.  Short sections of slightly stable track were interspersed by quite long sections with no track at all.

Track falling in the river, and track that's fallen in the river...
Track falling in the river, and track that’s fallen in the river…

We picked away across roughly two kilometres of this fairly awkward terrain, negotiating a number of tricky river crossings along the way, including one through a small waterfall, just to keep things interesting.

Wet willy in the waterfall
Wet willy in the waterfall

Beyond Hopeful creek, the valley opens out and we gratefully walked out into a flat forested section which required a lot less care to walk.  We enjoyed the rich damp smell of the west coast forest.  Twisted trees, covered with moss and lichen, rose above the fern dominated understorey.  Sunlight that found its way through the branches above created a dappled colour effect.

Beautiful west coast bush
Beautiful west coast bush

The pleasant walking conditions continued for the next half hour or so, until we broke out of the bush onto the log strewn rocky bed of Vincent Creek.  Evidence of recent heavy rain was everywhere.  Uprooted trees, branches and debris littered the ground, and the banks of the creek were deeply scoured out.

We made our way up the bed of the creek to a large rock which anchored a swing-bridge that spans the creek.  The lack of track at the far bank was slightly interesting.  Before the latest flood, we assumed it had followed the bank of the creek down towards the Whitcombe.  But now that bank was gone, swept away by a raging Vincent Creek.  So we were once again forced to go bush bashing in search of the track.  As it turned out, we didn’t have to go far to locate it and continue on our merry way.

Vincent creek
Vincent creek
Magnus hovering above Vincent creek
Magnus hovering above Vincent creek
Hunting for a washed out track...
Hunting for a washed out track…

Beyond the Vincent creek bridge is the even more impressive Cropp foot-bridge which stretches across the Whitcombe.  We stopped to take photos but had no need to cross it.

Cropp foot bridge
Cropp foot bridge

Less than an hour later we were basking in the warm afternoon sunshine at Frew hut. The lazy afternoon felt well earned after the rigours of our first couple of days on the track.

Mighty Moa Men inside Frew hut
Mighty Moa Men inside Frew hut

Day 5

Tuesday 2nd March – Frew Hut to Road End

Like so many huts in the South Island, Frew hut is situated to take full advantage of the surrounding scenery.  We were fortunate to arrive during a spell of lovely weather and enjoyed spectacular views up the Whitcombe on a crisp clear blue sky morning.  Watching the dawn sun slowly spreading its glow across the surrounding mountains certainly takes brushing your teeth after breakfast to a whole new level.

A brilliant blue sky morning at Frew hut.
A brilliant blue sky morning at Frew hut.

In true Moa Hunter fashion we broke no speed records that morning.  It wasn’t until after 9am that we assembled outside the hut for some posed photos before hitting the track.

Magnificent Moa Men
Magnificent Moa Men

Our day on the track started with a nice section of open riverbed – a mix of fine sand tracts flanked by lichen covered rocks.

Wise Moa Men
Wise Moa Men

After little more than an hour walking we arrived at a swing-bridge which would take us across to the true left of the Whitcombe.  The bridge starts high, with chains and a ladder in place to assist with the climb up damp and fairly slippery moss covered rocks.

Magnus climbs to the swingbridge
Magnus climbs to the swingbridge

Adam quickly learned just how slippery the rocks were.  Attempting to pivot his body sideways to swing under the suspension cable, his foot slipped.  Sliding sideways, protruding bolts raked down his thigh leaving behind some nasty looking gashes.  Fortunately the wounds weren’t deep, but they did look spectacular, weeping claret down his leg.  Paul expertly patched Adam’s leg up with some stick on stitches and plenty of tape and bandage, and we were on our way again.

From the bridge the track stays in the bush above the river through Collier gorge.  Shortly before midday we emerged from the gorge into a more open section of track.  Very large boulders lay strewn all about in the riverbed and the sun continued to shine down on us.  We were definitely enjoying the West Coast weather more than the howling nor’wester that had pummeled us on the Eastern side of the main divide.

Walking down the side of the river towards Rapid Creek, we watched a helicopter fly overhead several times.

Each time it passed there was a large net containing kayak’s dangling below it.  We all agreed that the kayaking group were heading into gorgeous weather and that the timing of their trip down the river would be stunning.  Little did we know that one of those kayakers would lose his life on that trip, drowned in a terrible tragedy that ended a young life far too soon.  West Coast rivers are unforgiving, even in beautiful seemingly benign conditions.

The confluence of the Whitcombe and Hokitika rivers
The confluence of the Whitcombe and Hokitika rivers

We stopped short of Rapid creek for a bite of lunch, just past the confluence of the Hokitika river and the Whitcombe.  Despite the Hokitika looking like the younger brother of the larger Whitcombe, from this point the river is called the Hokitika.

Eating lunch in that place was extremely pleasant.  Under a clear blue sky with barely a breath of wind wafting up the valley, we munched through the last of our rations, enjoying the solitude and beautiful west coast scenery.

With lunch finished, we had just one challenging obstacle left to negotiate – Rapid Creek.  Even in dry conditions, it is a fairly swift little waterway with the water level reaching up to the thighs at times.  It is easy to see how this can quickly become impassable when it rains.

Magnus crosses Rapid creek
Magnus crosses Rapid creek

After carefully picking our way across, we continued down the Hokitika to the cableway which would take us over to the true right of the river and the final section of the walk out.

Crossing the cableway was not a new experience for the Moa Hunters who did the Whitcombe – Toaroha trip in 2013.  But that doesn’t make it any less fun!  We all enjoyed our ride across the river in the little cablecar.

Chris in the cableway engine room
Chris in the cableway engine room
I... can.... fly....!
I… can…. fly….!

Beyond the cablecar, the terrain becomes fairly benign as it leaves the steeper mountainous country and heads for the more open flats of Kowhitirangi. Walking was easy and we made brisk progress, reaching the 4WD track that joins the Whitcombe Valley road shortly after 3pm.  An hour later we were at the carpark and the official start of the Whitcombe track.

The beginning of the end
The beginning of the end

After a couple of quick photos, we continued up the road for another 45 minutes, when a familiar ute rounded a corner ahead of us.  Paul’s father Alan, superbly organised as always, handed out sandwiches and fired up his Thermette to brew up a cuppa.

Journey over...
Journey over…

Our crossing from East to West was complete.  We had done the Whitcombe Pass route.  It was a very satisfying feeling.  The trip was certainly one of the most challenging we have undertaken, and certainly not one that anyone should take lightly.  But as always, the spectacular New Zealand scenery was more than enough reward for our efforts.

2013 – Whitcombe Toaroha Circuit – Finally a win on the West Coast

Moa Hunters on this trip:  Paul, Magnus, Adam, Lewis, Richard, Chris

The trip

Day 1:  Hokitika Gorge to Frew hut
Day 2:  Frew hut to Bluff hut
Day 3:  Bluff hut to Mungo hut
Day 4:  Mungo hut to Top Toaroha hut
Day 5:  Top Toaroha hut to Road end

For this adventure, the Toaroha – Whitcombe circuit, six Moa Hunters converged on Hokitika from all four corners of the country.  Chris and Lewis came from Dunedin and Wellington respectively and joined the Christchurch crew for a Thursday evening road trip to Hokitika.  Richard had flights booked from Auckland to Hokitika via Christchurch, scheduled to arrive 9.30am Friday.

Our route on topomap.co.nz

Our route on Google Maps

Above is an altitude profile of this route.  Click to enlarge.  Note:  The horizontal scale divisions are roughly 1km.  The transition from green to brown does not accurately represent the bushline.  The horizontal scale to vertical scale is not 1:1

Day 1

Friday 22nd February – Hokitika Gorge to Frew Hut

Inside our cosy motel unit in Hokitika, the now ritual Moa Hunter enormous and extremely delicious breakfast of bacon, eggs, hash browns and mushrooms was expertly fried up.  We did feel a little guilty that the room would likely smell strongly of that delicious fry up for some days to come.  But it was worth it.

The breakfast of champions!
The breakfast of champions!

Looking out the window, we could see the day had dawned quite foggy in Hokitika.  A text from Richard confirmed our fears that this might be a problem.  His connecting flight from Christchurch had been delayed until Hokitika airport cleared.  Bugger.  Later that morning, worse news.  Another text from Richard informed us that the flight had finally been cancelled.

Luckily he had sweet talked his way into sharing a ride with two West Coasters in a hire car.  He would arrive in Hokitika just before lunchtime.

While not catastrophic, the delay meant we would have to walk fairly briskly to make the Frew hut before dark.

So, after whiling away an hour or two on a now brilliantly sun-drenched Hokitika beach and in a nearby park, Richard was collected and we were all finally together and ready to start the Moa Hunt proper.

Shortly before 1pm we were standing at the head of the Whitcombe track.  The DOC sign listed Frew hut a mere 7 hours walk away.  On the bright side, the weather looked great and the day didn’t involve any big climbs.

The start of the Whitcombe Track
The start of the Whitcombe Track

The initial section was an easy mix of grassy flats and rock hopping.  By 2.30pm we had reached the cableway over the Hokitika River.  One by one we were hand winched over the cold looking but strikingly sky blue water of the river in the little cablecar.  Quite a fun diversion from walking.

From the cableway, the track fairly lazily follows the relatively open flats on the true left of the Whitcombe River, until it rounds a bluff and leads into the much steeper terrain that forms Collier Gorge.  It turned out that the Gorge was a bit of a bastard.

Magnus on the cableway
Magnus on the cableway

Following the track as it cut its way through the tall trees and ferns, we suddenly hit what appeared to be a dead end.  Behind us everything seemed well formed and well walked, but in front there appeared to be no obvious path.  We quickly fanned out, pushing deeper into dense tangled vegetation looking for signs of the missing track.  Looped fern roots grabbed and snagged our legs and packs making progress awkward and frustrating.

After half an hour of fruitless and fairly exhausting bush bashing, we all agreed this was no way to proceed, and backtracked.  Walking back along the track we each found a way down to the river and from there rock hopped our way up the gorge until we met the track again some way further upstream.  From our riverbed vantage point it was clear the reason the track had disappeared was the bank it was on had been scoured away by the river during recent heavy rains.

The Collier gorge track continued on the true left of the Whitcombe river snaking incessantly up and down through the short bush on the steep slope. As mentioned earlier it’s a bit of a bastard. Nevertheless, not long after 5pm we had reached a swing bridge across the Whitcombe, signaling the end of the gorge and the start of more open terrain.

A stop to catch our breath and nibble a few peanuts was rapidly cut short by the incredible swarms of sand-flies. Note: at the end of a long warm summers day, on the West Coast of NZ, next to a river, while lower than 500m, do not stop for longer than 2 minutes, no matter how tired you are, or how beautiful the spot, you will get eaten alive.

Less than an hour later we reached the large and relatively modern 10 bunk Frew hut, which meant we had completed the 7 hour section in just over 5 hours. We tip-toed in quietly as it appeared the hut might already be occupied by someone already tucked up for the night – however it was just a sleeping bag and gear left by a local possum hunter who had left his kit behind.

Moa Hunters lurking outside the Frew Hut
Moa Hunters lurking outside the Frew Hut

On paper, the day’s walk was an easy one. But the extra hour spent battling the bush through Collier Gorge had turned it into a long and difficult one.  Conscious we had to make good time, we had pushed the pace a bit and only taken short breaks along the way.

Upon reaching the hut, it would be fair to say we were all pretty damn tired.  Naturally we all blamed Richard for being late. Richard had been gracious enough to compensate for his late arrival by carrying an extra 1.5kgs of fruit cake that had been added to the trips food cache by Magnus’s good friend Johanna from Kowhitirangi. The fruit cake and steak that Paul had marinated and frozen 2 weeks prior were scoffed with great appreciation at the end of a good first day.

Day 2

Saturday 23nd February – Frew Hut to Bluff Hut

Frew hut is nestled in against the base of a hill where Frew creek flows into the Whitcombe River.  We awoke there to an overcast day, but the cloud cover wasn’t threatening and we were all looking forward to a big day on the trail.

After downing a traditional Moa Hunter porridge breakfast, complete with the remnants of the fruit cake as a tasty condiment, we tidied the hut and were on the track by 8.30am.  Not our earliest start, but not the latest either!

Since being deluged by rain in January, the West Coast had been in the grip of a “drought”.  By their standards the land was parched, with barely any rain for a month or so.  The effect of the drought was obvious on the track.  Our previous experiences on the West Coast were of greasy rocks, slippery roots and generally demanding conditions.  Well not so in 2013.  Most places were quite dry and finding reliable footing was easy.

Hot work heading up the the Frew Saddle
Hot work heading up the the Frew Saddle

Consequently, we made pretty good progress on the first section of the track, which sidles along above Frew creek on the true right.  The first 4km of the track gains altitude steadily, but not viciously.  From the first footbridge the slope is increasing, and at the second, the track gets decidedly steeper as it follows the creek up a deep valley.

By 12.30pm the sun was shining brightly and we were just getting our noses out of the bushline, close to the final grunt which would take us to Frew Saddle and a well earned lunch break.  The final ascent is a poled route through snowgrass, tussocks and our favourite grass of all, Spaniard (spear) grass.

Just below the saddle sits the Frew Biv, with a cheerful red door.  Wired to the ground, it has two bunks and looks like a handy shelter to spend the night in if you got caught on the tops.

Friendly Frew Biv
Friendly Frew Biv

The saddle itself has fantastic views back down the Frew valley we had walked up, and in the other direction across the Hokitika river to Mount Tancred.  We had a nice long lunch, after the 1200m climb, taking in the splendid vista.  While we enjoyed the view, it was obvious to all that the track down to the Hokitika river looked brutally steep.

And it was.  Not only was the way down steep, it was also fiendishly difficult to stay on the regularly walked paths as they were overgrown with tussock.  This meant frequent wandering off the beaten trail, regular plunging into erosion holes hidden by tussock and painful encounters with Spaniard grass.

Seriously steep...
Seriously steep…

With the 200 vertical metre descent behind us we headed off in fairly murky conditions down the Hokitika river.  Low cloud became mist, which wasn’t unpleasant, but did limit our enjoyment of the view a little.

The track follows the river for a bit over 3km where it leaves the riverbed.  This marks the start of a fairly long sidle which climbs gently, but rapidly leaves the river which drops away below as it flows down the valley.  Plenty of awkward roots and the ever present spaniard grass made this section a little more demanding than the earlier rock hop.

The final kilometre to Bluff hut is less of a sidle and follows a now very open track through sparse vegetation until the hut itself comes into view, perched impressively on a large rocky bluff with huge views in all directions.  No surprises there really.  But what a magic setting for a hut! And high enough to be above the sand-flys. Another bonus for Bluff hut is the location of the privy, whose open door faces unnervingly, directly across a gorge in the Hokitika river.

With an arrival time of 5.30pm, it had been a good solid days walk again, but we were all feeling in slightly better nick than the night before. A good number of generous stops during the day had kept our energy levels higher and allowed us to enjoy the day immensely.

Alpine gangster
Alpine gangster

Sitting on the deck in the late afternoon sun, we enjoyed the company of a troop of cheeky Kea that had swooped in to investigate the new arrivals.  We were intrigued at their fearlessness as they hopped up and pecked at our boots and clothes, assessing them for vandalism opportunities.  This would definitely not be a hut to leave items outside overnight!

Nestor notabilis
Nestor notabilis

Day 3

Sunday 23nd February – Bluff Hut to Mungo Hut

Sunday dawned beautifully sunny, with perfect views in all directions.  We were ready to hit the trail a little earlier than usual at 8am.  On such a lovely morning it was very tempting to just sit in the sun and soak it all in.  But the Upper Mungo and its fabled hot springs was calling us.  After the obligatory group photo outside the hut, we hefted our packs onto our backs and set off.

Mighty Bluff Hut
Mighty Bluff Hut

Fellow trampers with similarly dodgy knees will know that steep downhill sections with a heavy pack are no fun.  Especially first thing in the morning when the old joints are a bit cold.  Unfortunately that is how Day 3 started for the Moa Hunters.

View from the swingbridge
View from the Bluff swing bridge

After just a few minutes of easy walking, the track plummeted straight down a very steep hillside to the Bluff swing bridge some 500 vertical metres below where it spans the Hokitika river.  Fortunately the way down wasn’t too slippery and there were plenty of available branches to use as handholds / brakes.  Needless to say we made it down the 500 metres significantly quicker than we would have going up it!   (We did  note in the Hut visitors book that a group of over 60’s had come up that way. Hats off to them…  impressive effort!)

From the swing bridge the track winds along on the true right of the Mungo River, dipping in and out of gullies where small streams come down and cut across the track.  Cutting between two fairly high peaks, this section is fairly shaded and probably quite wet under normal conditions.

Our pace along the fairly easy 2.5 km stretch to Poet hut was perfect, and we arrived right on 12.30pm.  Lunchtime!  Like Bluff before it, Poet is in a magic setting.  Nestled in a grassy clearing protected by surrounding trees, and just a stones throw from the river, it is an idyllic spot.  Lunch was eaten sunning ourselves in front of the hut, enjoying the pleasant day.  Again it would have been very easy to have stayed longer, but still the Mungo called us on.

Idyllic Poet Hut
Idyllic Poet Hut

Continuing from Poet hut, the track was much as before, skirting along the hillside further and further into deepest darkest Mungo.  Once past the junction of the track that drops from Top Toaroha hut, the track climbs steadily, before dropping again quite steeply into the Mungo riverbed.  What goes up must come down!

Dropping steeply to the Mungo
Dropping steeply to the Mungo

From here we clambered up the true right of the Mungo before crossing where the river cuts in against some bluffs. Then continued up the true left, regularly inhaling promising sulphurous smells in the air, no doubt venting from hidden hot springs along the river. The directions we had found online referred to the best hot springs being both above and below the confluence of the Brunswick Creek, on the true left of the Mungo, so we soldiered on.

Luckily it didn’t take us long to locate the fabled springs. We found them about 100m below the Brunswick and approximate 300m upstream from a large slip on the true left of the Mungo. From our experience the easiest way to find them is to walk along the river bed close to the edge of the bush, the best spring was found flowing out beside a large rock, right on the bush edge. The spring left tell-tale yellow-white sulphur deposit on the rocks. We also noted large mats of rubbery green algae growing in the hot sand and on the rocks. Without thinking it over too much, we downed packs and started an attempt to dig ourselves a bath where it flowed out of the bush.

We quickly discovered that keeping any of the hot water contained was going to be very difficult.  It just soaked away into the coarse sand.  Even our tarpaulin looked an unlikely solution.

Fortunately Lewis found the answer.  He wandered down to the rivers edge and discovered that the hot water which was disappearing into the sand higher up the bank where we were digging was re-emerging next to the river.  The perfect spot to make a bath.  Hot and cold water readily available!

Digging out hot bath was hot work
Digging out hot bath was hot work

Half an hour later we had dug out a large bath area, walled it with rocks, and were blissfully soaking our weary carcasses in the hot rejuvinating waters of the Mungo…  New Zealand’s (allegedly) most remote hot springs had been found again.  Mission accomplished.

For the third time that day we were tempted to stay in one place longer than was wise. Reluctantly we left our hot bath and headed up the Mungo towards the confluence of with the Brunwick

Brunswick Stream can be difficult to cross, even in good weather, but we were fortunate. The lack of any real rainfall for weeks meant it was running relatively low. While still swift, the deepest point wasn’t much above knee height and not especially dodgy to cross.

A second much smaller hot pool was found a few tens of meters above the Bruswick, we were glad we had put the time and effort into the civil engineering works to develop the lower pools.

Soon after the Brunswick it is necessary to cross the Mungo again then Park Stream and storm the final climb up to Mungo hut.

That last push turned out to be fairly steep and something of a late afternoon grunt, but we made the hut by 6pm where we were more than happy to dump our packs and set about preparing a mighty Moa Hunter meal.

Remote Mungo Hut
Remote Mungo Hut

Day 4

Monday 24th February – Mungo Hut to Top Toaroha Hut
Goodbye Mungo
Goodbye Mungo

From the Mungo hut we had a few options.  The boldest involved heading straight up Park stream into a difficult looking rocky fan, picking the correct gut and climbing out between Mt Bannatyne and Mt Chamberlain.

From the pleasant grassy doorstep of the Mungo Hut, it was difficult to assess exactly how difficult that route would be.  At best it would be tricky. At worst, treacherous and fraught with hazards for a group of six, on what appeared to be a loose and frost shattered rocky slope.

Somewhat tempted as we were, in the end and after some debate, we opted for the more conservative option of backtracking down the Mungo and climbing to the Toaroha saddle and up to the Top Toaroha hut.

Saying a last goodbye to the awesome Mungo hut, we set off down the steep slope back to the Mungo River.  Paul asked if anyone had signed the visitors book.  No.  We hadn’t….

Paul, a well-balanced Moa Hunter
Paul, a well-balanced Moa Hunter

Mungo hut is visited by a half a dozen groups per year at best.  It was unthinkable to leave without adding our names to that list.  Richard volunteered to run back up to the hut.  The rest of us headed on down, carrying his pack for him as we went.

Regrouping at the river we filed off back to the start of the climb to Toaroha Saddle.  And some climb it was.  While never excessively steep, it never let up either.

For the first time in many days we passed some other travellers heading down the track.  We said some hello’s and swapped a few tips about the tracks ahead.

Conditions were good and the track well and recently maintained.  We made pretty good progress up through the varying bush towards the saddle, stopping part way up for a bite of lunch.

The last few hundred metres to the top are in open country with splendid views of the surrounding ranges, until the biv and its surrounding tarns is reached.

Approaching Toaroha Saddle
Approaching Toaroha Saddle

At the top we dropped packs and ploppped onto the grassy saddle to enjoy the views.  Paul, with a sly smile on his face, reached into his pack and produced a pack of toffee pops chocolate biscuits.  Wow!  After a hard climb of 600 vertical metres, they were an unexpected treat.  We polished them off in short order! Paul is a great guy.

Magnus on Toaroha Saddle
Magnus on Toaroha Saddle

From the saddle, the track follows the Toaroha river down a valley until it reaches the relative flats where the Toaroha hut is situated.  We made a simple mistake and charged down the river following the orange DOC markers, enjoying the relative ease of downhill rock hopping river bed travel.  What we didn’t pay attention to was where the track actually went.

Soon enough we were entering awkward and seemingly untravelled sections of the river, filled with very large boulders, difficult drops and unlikely looking squeezes.

We stopped.  It didn’t seem right.

Richard...  stopped!
Richard… stopped!

Finally, Magnus noticed a bright orange DOC track marker well above us on the true right of the stream we were standing in.  Some way behind us we had missed a marker where the track left the river.  Backtracking we found the deviation and followed the trail along a much higher route well above the steeply descending and increasingly narrow stream below.

Lewis descends the chain
Lewis descends the chain

From there the track followed much easier terrain for a while, before dropping fairly steeply in parts.  In some of those places DOC have attached chains for handholds to help travellers down some particularly gnarly sections.

Finally the track opened out into the boggy flats which precede Top Toaroha hut. We wandered across them feeling like we were greeting an old friend, having stayed at this hut on our previous attempt at the circuit in 2012.

As is becoming a bit of a Moa Hunt custom, Chris excelled himself in the cooking department again and produced a superb loaf of bread.  A day spent carrying the raising dough in a billy was well worth the effort.  Well the rest of us thought so anyway!

Another superb Chris Creation.
Another superb Chris creation. (He could do with a shave though)

Day 5

Monday 24th February – Top Toaroha Hut to Road End

For our final day on the track we were up and organised in record time.  With a fairly long but not overly arduous day ahead of us, followed by a drive back to Christchurch, we didn’t want to muck about.  By 8.05am we were on the track.  Not exactly the break of dawn, but not bad for a bunch of creaky old Moa Hunters.

Our Top Toaroha pose
A Moa Hunter Top Toaroha pose

Having walked the stretch of track between Top Toaroha hut and Cedar Flat huts previously, we thought knew what to expect.  And this time round conditions would be noticeably easier due to the dry track conditions.

An unexpected hurdle was locating the track out from the hut.  We had frequently come across weather damage along the circuit, caused by the torrential rains in January.  Large scars on the landscape carved by what would normally be small creeks had cut massive washouts down hillsides, scouring them deep and wide, leaving debris and rocks strewn everywhere.

Departing Top Toaroha
Departing Top Toaroha

The grassy track we had previously followed ten minutes out from the hut was gone.  In its place was a very wide stretch of battle scarred riverbed, mostly shingle, but littered with large rocks, broken branches and logs.  It was almost unrecognisable from three years previous.

After a frustrating ten minutes search, we located the track right at the bottom end of the bush on the opposite bank.  To find it, follow the bushline down the slope until you locate the DOC marker.  Perhaps by now a few more cairns have been left by other trampers.

Following the true right of the Toaroha river down the valley, the track was generally relatively easy going and we made good time to the turnoff to Crystal Biv.  We continued on a little farther before calling a break.  Knowing it was going to be a long day, like hobbits, we stopped beside the river for “second breakfast” at 11.30am.  Sitting in the sun was more than pleasant.

Lunch by the river.  Mostly sandfly free.
Second breakfast by the river. Mostly sandfly free.

Beyond our lunch stop, the track was very much more of the same until at 1.30pm we reached the open grassy flats where the Cedar Flats huts are located.

The "new" Cedar Flat hut
The “new” Cedar Flat hut

The newest of the two huts there had undergone something of a transformation.  Now ‘L’ shaped, it had twice as many bunks as before and a separate kitchen area.  Obviously the popularity of the hot pools here warranted a bit of investment in the facilities since our previous visit in 2010.  We settled in for a third breakfast.  Or was it a second lunch?

Cedar Flat swing bridge crosses the Toaroha
Cedar Flat swing bridge crosses the Toaroha

Keen to get home, we blasted down the last section of riverbed and track.  By 5.30pm we had emerged from the bush and were walking across grassy meadow towards the Kokatahi river.  As on our last trip, we would cross the river, nip across some farmland and phone to be picked up.

As we approached the river, we were greeted by a German couple looking wet and slightly flustered.  They appeared to have dressed rapidly and recently after a likely skinny dipping session.  Good on them!  After advising them that walking off into the Toaroha valley with their scant supplies and poor footwear was ill advised that late in the day, we said goodbye and forded the river.

No, it isn't milking time, ladies....
No, it isn’t milking time, ladies….

When we reached the opposite bank, two problems arose.  Mobile phone reception was almost non-existent, and the sandflies had found us.  Not wanting to hang around and be eaten alive, we marched across the farm and out onto Lake Arthur road.  There after quite a walk, we finally found both reliable mobile phone reception and the phone number for our transport.  A few mouthfuls of wild blackberries later, we were picked up by the lovely Johanna and whisked back to her house.

Road End
Road End

We all agreed the trip was one of the best, if not the best Moa Hunt yet.  Every day was tough, but rewarding.  The weather had been magic, the scenery stunning, (the company reasonably tolerable) and we had finally pulled it off.  New Zealand’s most remote hot pools had been ticked off the list!