Trip Report – The Great Journey (Part 1) – Arthurs Pass to Erewhon
By: Stanley Mulvany
This year I set out to traverse of the Southern Alps of New Zealand. I was in no rush and had no fixed schedule. I would only go when the weather was favourable and pick off various sections in no particular order. To the purist this might seem haphazard but for me it made eminent sense and much more fun than slogging it out in filthy weather as one continuous journey.
My preparation was fortuitous in that I spent over 4 weeks in Nepal from mid-November on an earthquake survey with my good friend, Bryan Scott. Following this in the New Year, I joined some friends from the SSNZAC for a trip up the Wanganui River to Smyth Hut, then over the Bracken Snowfields and Katzenbach Ridge to Seddon Col North to Ivory Lake and the Waitaha. Then at the end of January, Simon Marwick and I did a traverse of Poseidon Creek over to Lake Liz and down the Transit River to climb over the mountains to Anita Bay and sail back to Milford with Belinda, a fabulous trip.
I woke at dawn to a still and overcast day. The sandflies were active as I had a quick breakfast and then I was off. It took me 3 hours to reach Carrington Hut and by then it was sunny and hot, as the sun had burned off the low cloud. I crossed the White River and found an easy route up the boulder bed of the Taipoiti River to Harman Pass. Harman Pass was unremarkable and off to the left I could see Whitehorn Pass, which at 1753 meters had a permanent snowfield leading up to it. This was a slog across boulder fields then up glacial snow to the pass. There was a great view here of the Cronin Glacier on Mt Rosamond to the right of the pass and down to Cronin Creek. The route follows down benches on the true left for a long way before dropping into the creek. At 1000m the route crosses to the true right and shortly after enters the bush with a few ups and down across side creeks to Park Morpeth Hut. I had been on the go for 12 hours and was relieved to reach the hut. It was empty. It was built in the 1931 by the CMC (Canterbury Mountaineering Club) as a memorial to 2 young climbers, James Park and John Morpeth who lost their lives, drowning in the Burnett River, a tributary of the Wilberforce River nearby. The hut though old was comfortable and had a mountain radio.
The next day I crossed Browning Pass and went down the Arahura Valley, then over Styx Saddle to Grassy Flat Hut, thankfully empty. Here I read in the hut book that Robert Porte, an old climbing friend was a day ahead of me. I arrived at 5pm, a 10.5 hour day. It was good to stop at last. So far the good weather had lasted but for how long.
On 15th February it was cloudy on the tops as I set off for the crossing of Lathrop Saddle to the Crawford. A short walk down the TL of the Styx brought me to the track to Browning Range Bivouac. It was a steep climb up through the forest to the hut. It was right on top of a knoll at 1100m and it took me the recommended 2-hours to reach it. Just before it was a sign that read, “If you’re just about buggered, you’re just about there”. This was most encouraging! The bivi was tiny with only room for 2 and too small to stand upright in unless you were a hobbit or leprechaun. After a brief stop I pushed on up to the bushline over Lathrop Saddle at 1572m and down to the Top Crawford Hut. I had this nice 4-bunk hut all to myself. I had a dip in the river, washed some clothes, lit the tiny pot bellied stove and made lots of hot drinks. I decided life was not too bad after this. I noticed Robert was still a day ahead of me.
I had a restless night as I was worried about the weather and wondered if I should have pushed on the day before. I was aware Farquharson Creek down the valley was impassable after rain. It was cloudy but it felt like rain was no far off. I had breakfast in the dark and left at first light. There was good travel along the riverbed for a while and then I headed up a track into the bush. I got to Crawford Junction by 9.15am. It had taken me 3 hours. I set off to the cableway, a bit up Kokatahi Creek. This was a bit tricky to operate solo as the cage did not reach the platform and I had to hold the wire and climb down to it, carefully load my pack into it, then jump in and run into the middle of the creek. On the floor was a metal lever and by applying this to the thick cable, I could winch the cage to the other side. The track was now on the TL of the Kokatahi River and I slowly gained height. Then it started to drizzle and it became a real slog. It was good to reach the Top Kokatahi Hut.
On 17th I awoke to teaming rain, which I had slept through thanks to my earplugs. It was not really cold as is typical in northerly fronts. I noted the barometric pressure on my Suunto watch had dropped a lot overnight. I had a wash outside and a shave and felt much better. I was relieved to be here, knowing the difficult river crossings were behind me and I had only Zit Saddle to cross to the Toharoa.
Next day, it was still overcast with the odd hint of blue coming through and the rain had stopped. Even though the barometric pressure was still quite low, I decided to try to cross Zit Saddle. The route crossed the ridgeline north of Zit Saddle at 1540m in mist. From here it was a steep descent and I had some difficulty in locating the route markers. Once out of the cloud, I could see the orange Adventure Bivi on a tussock clearing far below me over to the right. I carried on past it to Cedar Flats hut on the valley floor where I finally caught up with Robert.
We spent the next day there and then walked out to the road end. I got a lift in to Hokitika and stayed with David Waugh, one of my old climbing mates. David said he would join me for the next section to Erewhon.
On 23rd February Belinda drove David and me to the Hokitika Gorge. It was an overcast day as we plodded off up the river. Near Rapid Hut we crossed on the cableway reaching the hut in 2 hours from the road end. After lunch we set off fording Rapid Creek, which was fast flowing, and tricky, then boulder hopped along to the Whitcombe River. Then it was up a track into the bush to reach the swing bridge above Colliers Gorge, which we crossed. Shortly after our trip, a young kayaker was drowned just here. From high on the bridge, the river is just a mass of white water in a tight gorge. It was an easy walk to Frew Hut. We arrived at 3.30pm in cloudy skies with some sun breaks. Soon after we arrived 5 North Island trampers arrived from Frew Saddle. They were very chatty and good company.
The following day we reached the Wilkinson Hut. The track had many ups and downs and the tree roots were very slippery. It took us 5.5 hours to reach the hut and we were both pretty tired by the effort. There we met Eigill Walhberg, who is a DOC worker and out for a stroll for a few days. The hut was small with 4 bunks and one needed to be a contortionist to use the top one was. Eigill showed me a Blue Duck that likely had been killed by a stoat that he found nearby.
On 25th we had a lazy start and it took us 2.5 hours to reach Neave Hut where we spent the day. Up ahead was the Whitcombe Pass from Canterbury to the West Coast was known to and crossed by Maori in pre-European times but Harper saddle further north was an easier route, more frequently used. Europeans, John Whitcombe and Jakob Lauper first crossed the Whitcombe Saddle in 1863. It is a tale of epic hardship, arduous travel and starvation. On the West Coast, Whitcombe drowned in theTaramakau River. There is a television documentary on it “First Crossings” by Jamie Fitzgerald and Kevin Biggar that I’d seen previously and first kindled my interest. I noted in the hut book an entry by them when they flew in to make the film, several years back.
On 26th we woke to a cloudy day that promised fine weather with the odd patch of blue showing through. Off we went and several hours later we crossed the Whitcombe saddle to the Lauper Creek and the Rakaia valley beyond. We went straight out into the Rakaia Valley hoping to cross to Reisch Hut but the river was huge and malevolent so we walked up the valley through a gale force wind to the Ramsey Lake and crossed at the outlet where it was deep but slow moving. We then carried on up to the Lyall River that David said would be easy to ford but one look altered our plans. We then walked down river past Meins Knob where there was a swing bridge and used this to cross to the TR. Then it was down to Reischek Hut.
This is a lovely 6-bunk Hut built by the NZDA in 1963 and open to all. It is in the lee of a bush spur and protected from the Northwesterlies. The rain came on later. We spent a comfortable night here. The following day it was still very windy with fast moving clouds on the Divide peaks so we decided to stay put. We picked up the forecast on the mountain radio, which promised an improvement later that day. It’s an awesome place in the Upper Rakaia with the golden stony flats and scrub covered grey mountains and glacier shrouded Lauper Peak.
The 28th dawned fine and the wind had dropped. We strode up the flats to Miens Knob and climbed the track to the top of the hill. There were great views of Mt Whitcombe, Ramsey and the Lyall Glaciers. Then it was an easy climb up the ridge and sidle high up to the Butler Saddle at 1870m. On the far side was a 500m descent on scree to the stream draining into the Lawrence. Then it was down the Lawrence to the Lawrence Bivouac, and on to the Hermitage musters hut further down the valley. On arrival we found the hut locked so camped outside in David’s tiny tent. Next day we reached Erewhon and got a lift organized back to Hokitika.
Two days later on 2nd March, Belinda dropped me off at the entrance to the Toharoa Valley. I was about to close the loop! It took me 3 hours to walk back to Cedar Flats. After a brief spell for lunch I set off up the unmaintained track to Squall Peak and Jumble peak both covered in cloud. Beyond it I dropped to a saddle at 1550m. Here the map suggested I drop off to the west down to Gerhardt’s Spur. Then the fun started. Down I went in clag and rain on a compass bearing seeking the elusive spur. I ran into cliffs on the right and moving, left the land dropped away very steeply. It wasvery confusing so I climbed up to the saddle again to re-orientate myself and had another go. This time I got lower down to 1400m on easy ground but again ran into cliffs in every direction. Then I noticed an old deer trail so I decide to follow it. Deer know a thing or two from my past experience. Eventually I found the elusive spur to the most wonderful 2-man bivi in the whole world. In comparison to every other hut I’d been to on this trip, this was infrequently visited.
On 3rd March I started at 8.00am as B was picking me up at noon and I figured 4 hours would be ample. The track along this huge spur was fairly indistinct but I made good time to the 800m level. Here the ridge blends into a face and the indistinct track disappeared completely. I spent ages trying to locate it from the last permolat marker without success. Stupidly I did not take a proper compass bearing and guessed where I was (incorrectly) and ploughed on down towards distant farmland I could see through the trees. This was a bad mistake! The terrain was steep and I blundered into a maze of deeply riven gullies choked with windfall, ferns, waterfalls, supple jack and lawyer. I tried to sidle out but it was not possible so kept on down. One bright spot was an open slip of about 100m that I carefully down climbed. I ended up in a greasy, slippery creek and fell head first down a small waterfall getting totally drenched in the process with my leg jammed between 2 logs (sigh!). It was not much fun!! Finally I spotted a major creek down below me and reached it. A short distance along it joined another large creek on the left and entered farmland. I was saved!! Another hour on farm tracks and road took me to the car park at the Hokitika Gorge, 3 hours late for my pickup by Belinda.
On 19th April I set off from St Arnaud to complete the journey down to Otira but that’s another story.
Posted By: Narina Sutherland