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Trip Report – Matukituki-Waipara-Arawhata Mountaineering & Packrafting Trip

By: Stanley Mulvany

Source: Southland Section Newsletter (April 2018)

I could see a razor-sharp spur dropping down the face from the ridge and on the west side of it, steep snow grass slopes led to a tussock terrace 300m below. This was what I’d seen on Google Earth. I peered at it for a long time assessing our ability in down climbing such a steep face with our big packs. We went on for a little while as Moirs and Danilo’s description suggested climbing higher to find a route down the face, further along. However, I remained sceptical and doubled back and told Gavin we should try the spur instead. Then I cautiously started down the face with Gavin following. The utmost care was required. The slightest error would end very badly.

This summer we did a tramping-packrafting trip up the Wilkin, over Pearson Saddle and down the Waiatoto River to the coast. Since then we were keen to do another trip in Southwestland and decided on the Arawhata. But where to start? After studying the map, I decided the most practical route would be up the West Matukituki Valley to Matukituki Saddle, down the Waipara Face of Lake Bonar and out the Waipara and Arawhata rivers to Neil’s Beach. However, the Waipara face was relatively unknown and there had been few crossings of it. This was the first crossing with packrafts to my knowledge.

We started on 6th March at Raspberry Flat in the West Matukituki when Gilbert dropped us off. That evening we camped at Shovel flat. Next morning a thick blanket of cloud hung over the valley as we set out. After some hours we reached the waterfall at the head of the valley. Then we climbed above it into the Gut. I’ve been up the “Waterfall Route” many times so we followed this up. It was pretty straightforward until we reached the head of the gut where water ran down the slabs. I started up the wet rock only to discover it had slime on it and was very greasy and slippery. It needed the utmost care in climbing with our very heavy packs. We eventually reached the hanging valley above.

Above us we could see Hector Col. Matukituki Saddle lies about 500m to the South West along the ridge but it was far from obvious to us. On reaching the ridge, Mt Aspiring was visible over the slopes of Mt Bevan and appeared very bare of snow and ice. On the other side of the ridge was a huge drop with vertical eroded slopes. We struck the ridge to the east of point 1602m and we climbed towards it over small rock and tussock steps. Below was Bonar Lake that in the 1940’s did not exist because an icefall filled the head of the valley.

I could see a sharp spur dropping down the face just before point 1602m and we eventually decided to work our way down this to a terrace at 1300m. From here we went west across easy slopes. Eventually, this became more convoluted, riven with steep gullies and scrub. We could see a route down near some steep streams and headed down instead of going for the big creek draining under Waipara Saddle. At first relatively easy, this deteriorated as we entered more dense scrub. At about 1000m we found a small terrace with a good campsite so decided to stop as it was late in the day and we were whacked

We awoke before dawn and I got a hot drink ready while Gavin packed. We got away quickly as we were anxious to get off the face. The slope heeled over and became very steep and was covered in near impenetrable scrub. We kept to the spurs but inevitably we had to cross gullies as we tried to work our way leftwards. Sometimes we ended up on top of vertical buttresses and cliffs and had to backtrack to another line. It was a struggle all the way down to the lake. Around the lake were some idyllic campsites. The day was brilliantly fine and warm, the sun blazing out of a blue sky and the lake iridescent and exquisite. Below the lake were the Cabin Pass Rapids. We boulder hopped along on the TL and after about 1.5 km we reached some clearings. At one stage Gavin fell into a hole between boulders and sprained his right knee. Once we crossed the river, it was easy going all the way to Binnacle Creek where we found an Arcadian campsite among trees on its banks. We set up camp here and dried off our wet gear.

The next day we made our way past the Companion Ladder Rapids to some flats and stopped at the Third Mate Creek for lunch. Here we met 3 Japanese climbers coming up the valley looking for Mt Aspiring. They did not seem to be aware of the difficulties ahead. Below us we could see Apparition Spur. We made our way down the TR and struck some difficult climbing. The spur at the end had a 10m vertical drop and we paddled around this down a rapid close to the cliff. Just down from the corner was a bush-covered island in the river and here we set up camp in a lovely glade for the night. We were both whacked again!

I was not sure how far we would get next day but there was an expectation of easier terrain past the dogleg. This proved ephemeral when we got there. At the end of the flats, we again entered more difficult country – a combination of river boulders and bush bashing on the TR as the river was now too big to ford. There was some truly aboriginal forest here, a peripatetic wander up and over bluffs and tangled gullies. There were many “dear God will this ever end” moments. Charlie Douglas had said the Waipara was one of the most difficult west coast valleys and I’d concur with this appraisal. On our left, the Waipara thundered down interminable cataracts interspersed with huge boulders.

That evening we stopped in the forest at a flattish spot just big enough for our tent. I was done in again and ready to stop. We built up a platform with some fern leaves at one end and pitched the tent on this. Gavin went off and found water nearby. It was very pleasant with the sunlight streaming in among the tree ferns under which we were camped. And there were no sandflies!

Our GPS indicated it would be about a kilometre to our put-in so off we went, next morning. The going was hard and at one point, a foothold gave way under Gavin as he was crossing a steep slope and he fell down between boulders. He cried out in agony and I thought he’d broken his leg. However, after a few minutes, he was able to weight bear, so we limped onwards. Somewhere to my right was the roar of Gorge Rapids. The GPS showed flatter country ahead. Approaching Saddle Creek we came up against a huge buttress around which the river swirled. It was too dangerous to packraft, so we climbed over it and then had an awful struggle through tightly packed regeneration bush into a dank, lugubrious forest on a steep bouldery slope. However, once across Saddle Creek it was easier going and a kilometre on, we finally found our put-in. From here it was an easy paddle down a few rapids to the Arawhata River.

The Arawhata is a giant river that drains the Olivine, Marion neves and Snowdrift Range. And it has power as I swept into it from the Waipara. It was an easy paddle to Jubilee Flat where we had intended to camp but just down from the hut, we spotted a blue rope in the trees on the TR bank, so pulled in for a look. Here among the trees were a large tarp, table and chairs in a most delightful place, so we stopped there. The next day we continued on past Callery and Quail Flats. Rounding a bend, the Arawhata Bridge came into view. Then it was an easy paddle another 6-7 km to Neil’s Beach. There the forest stopped, the river ran into the Tasman Sea and a gentle surf broke on the bar. It was a still day – low cloud hung over the coast and the only sound was from the distant surf. We landed, did the high fives and traipsed/limped along the beach to the settlement.

Posted: 14/05/18

Posted By: Narina Sutherland