It really can snow at any time of the year (December 2019).
Day 1. Dunedin — Mingha Bivvy.
I have an incredible run of luck hitching to Arthurs Pass from Dunedin. It takes a mere six hours to get to the track start, and that includes some sight seeing at the Moeraki Boulders and a banana smoothie in Timaru. There looks to be more snow and more water around than would be ideal, and rather than risk a snowy pass or flooded river I decide to change my plans and start at the Mingha river. I am already starting a day late because I couldn’t motivate myself to get packed and leave.
I put on my gaiters which have certainly seen better days, hoist my 25kg pack onto my back, tuck todays map under my hip strap, sling my camera bag across my chest, grab my faithful silver beech (Lophozonia menziesii) walking pole and cross the first river of the trip, the Bealey.
My pack is obviously too heavy for me, so the easy walk over river flats and through beech forest is interspersed with many, many breaks. I stop to watch a pair of robins (Petroica australis) chatter loudly, eat a snack, fill my bottle, photograph native orchids and sundews, watch a weka (Gallirallus australis) which gifts me a pair of Oakleys, briefly chat to some trail runners, and finally to watch a Whio family with two young ones just starting to get good at navigating the rapids downstream of the bivvy.
Whio (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) are an endemic species of duck inhabiting fast flowing rivers in New Zealand. Their survival and breeding success is threatened by a number of introduced mammals such as stoats, cats, dogs and ferrets. As such they are considered to be Nationally Vulnerable and there are significant conservation efforts underway to ensure their survival and success. Spotting Whio in the wild is rather difficult if you’re looking for them — they typically spot you first and the male will begin his distinctive calls. “Males whistle and females growl. What’s new?” — Random DOC Whio manual that I found in a bivvy.
Day 2. Mingha Bivvy — Otehake Hut.
It is a bit gloomy when I get up. The mountains look about as inviting as I feel enthusiastic. I pack up and head off along the track, grateful for the flat track, and less grateful for the icy river crossing just before the short climb to Goat Pass. It feels like very slow progress, but it is a pretty walk and the cloud even starts to clear a little, giving me views up to Temple Col; one of the routes I had initially [optimistically] considered. I glance up at where I imagine the route to Lake Mavis goes as I cross the long flat swampy pass on boardwalk. Suddenly two colourful dots appear out of the mist and I notice a very obvious zig zagging route which I presume must lead to Lake Mavis. This means that I no longer have a good excuse not to go up. I decide to drop down to Goat Pass Hut and have a snack while I read through the trip intentions of the many groups that have gone to Lake Mavis [it is a very popular weekend trip] and try to convince myself to at least attempt to get into the Otehake Valley.
The climb drags on, and the lake is farther away than I anticipated. But I am now in the mountains and the clouds have almost cleared, so despite my physical exhaustion I am able to admire the spectacular landscapes surrounding me. I have lunch overlooking Lake Mavis, surrounded by deliciously scented Caltha obtusa (White Caltha) flowers that carpet the seepages recently exposed by snowmelt.
From the lake it is continuous almost bare scree to the top of the ridge. I opt out of trying to climb Mt Oates (2041 m) on account of the heat and my unwillingness to keep going uphill. I hear Kea (Nestor notabilis) calling on the tops somewhere. I start the rather steep descent to Taruahuna Pass, traversing snow slopes for about half an hour in the burning sun. That also happens to be how long it takes for my thighs and the backs of my knees to burn, although I don’t notice until the next day. Luckily the snow is soft enough in the baking hot sun that I can traverse it comfortably.
I spot a Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) as I reach the bottom of the snow slope but it ducks down below some bluffs. There is a small gorgeous tarn once I get down the steep bit, native buttercups (Ranunculus sericophyllus) with oversized flowers in proportion to their tiny rosetted foliage are scattered amongst the stones. The cairns I had been following to the top of the ridge have now disappeared and I am on my own. I guess that sidling left will take me down towards Taruahuna Pass, and the route looks like it will go. I literally cross paths with the Chamois again before it scampers up in the direction of Mt Franklin to the north.
I have sidled part way around the basin when ahead of me I see the terrain drop off. I tentatively walk to the edge to see if I can get down, but I can’t. I decide to head uphill and luckily I happen across a cairned route down through the bluffs. From there the navigation is easy, although the terrain certainly isn’t once you reach the huge boulderfield that is Taruahuna Pass — and the bones of Falling Mountain (1901 m).
Falling Mountain is an incredibly impressive pile of rocks. It was first climbed in December 1930, just over a year after the 7.1 magnitude earthquake which caused about half of it to collapse and slide onto and over Taruahuna Pass and about 5 km down the West Otehake Valley. ClimbNZ says “Beware of major rockfall problems across the entire northwest face”, which is funny seeing as it does just look like a giant scree slope.
It is an incredible landscape. One of the most impressive I have seen. And as I descend the neverending boulderfields leading me down into the Otehake there is another spectacular view unlike anything I have seen before.
I cross a tiny creek which bursts out of the boulders, then quickly transforms into a series of wild rapids that I am glad I do not have to cross. Cairns lead me onto the strange landslide that fills the middle of the valley but appears to flow upstream and has no obvious source — although it must have also come from Falling Mountain. I soon lose the vaguely cairned route, sprain my ankle fairly badly and end up on the edge of a tall gravel slip face with no choice but to turn around and head back upstream to find a route. Luckily I happen to walk a perfect diagonal back to where the official track restarts and heads up the hill to bypass the gorge. Hopefully this will be straight forward. The light seems to be fading a little and it has been a long day so I am definitely worried that I won’t make it to the hut.
After a bit of sidling I enter some of the mossiest beech forest I have ever seen in my life. As I begin the descent back into the Otehake the forest changes with celery pine (Phylloclades alpinus) and Pokaka (Elaeocarpus hookerianus) juveniles mixed in to the beech and more variable and dense undergrowth. A pair of riflemen squeak [very] loudly at me while a have a short break and when I continue onwards I pop out onto a sloping river terrace scattered with beech trees. From here it is less than two kilometers to the hut. I am going to make it!
Upon arrival at the hut I realise that the Otehake Valley is actually quite remote. The hut book is older than me and no one else has been to the hut in about a month. The place reminds me of Bobs Hut in the Matakitaki. Remote and a bit lonely but gorgeous and peaceful. See my first solo summer trip blog for the full story:
Counting down the days
11 days of my own company while exploring the wilderness between Lewis Pass and St Arnaud (December 2017).
Day 3. Otehake Hut— Kiwi Hut.
The next morning I head off early, hoping to get to Kiwi Hut and the Te Araroa trail, and maybe to pop into the Otehake hot pools on the way. I see many of the elegant slender forest orchids (Adenochilus gracilis) along the path, but it takes a nice patch of good light to convince me to drop my pack and go get some photos.
The track drags on forever. Endless beech forest until finally I am spat out onto a river bank. I check my map, confused about where I am as the track technically does not go any where near the river until the hot pools. And I know I am definitely not at the hot pools yet. I wander up Whaiti stream thinking I might intersect the track but it soon turns into a very steep gorge, so I cross and find the track where it goes up a steep bank and back into the forest.
Again, I emerge onto the riverbank. This time I am close to the hot pools, but I cannot see any sign of a track or indication that there are hot pools. The river is also too fast and deep for me to cross on my own, so I reason that there must be a better crossing further downstream where the trail must also be. I seem to have missed the track while looking for any sign of the hot pool trail, but I figure that I can’t go wrong if I just pop up over the bluff and back down to the riverbank. That works out fine but my attempt to cross the Otehake to the hot pools doesn’t. I brave about one third of the distance before turning around and heading back to the safety of the true left. I gaze sadly at the river for a little while but the hundreds of enthusiastic sandflies dispel any thoughts of a second attempt and encourage me to keep walking.
The Otehake hot pools are part of an ever-changing river system. Over the years the ratings vary from 1/10 to 10/10, and descriptions vary accordingly from “a trickle” to “room for 6 people or more in two pools”. There is at least one shovel provided so you can customise your hot pool experience to be boiling hot or luke warm and there is camping on the island next to the trickle/pools. Care is definitely needed for river crossings but it is possible to follow the Otehake river gorge up to the hot pools and avoid the marked track or “blood route” [the one I missed completely] if the river is low enough.
If you want to know more from someone who has actually made it to the hot pools, check out Sam’s blog below:
R & R on the Otehake
What better way to enjoy Arthur’s Pass than with a bit of rest and relaxation up the Otehake River?
I decide to just follow the riverbank as it looks passable, but when I reach the bluffs I realise I have missed the track turn off. So I go back a bit and figure I will intersect the track if I head straight up the hill. I don’t. So I go back down and head back upstream further, but still no luck. I am rather unhappy. So I turn back to my initial strategy. Perhaps I just didn’t go high enough to intersect the track, so I decide to head straight up to the top of the ridge in the knowledge that I will certainly intersect the track at some point along the way.
I do. I just don’t realise it.
Instead I crawl up the near vertical slopes, sinking into the rotten remains of old windfall while trying to navigate bluffs, occasionally following deer trails and trying to use handholds that are suboptimal as they also serve as a tasty snack for the usual breed of foot [hoof?] traffic. I eventually reach the top of the ridge, rather confused about the location of the track I must have crossed at some point during my climb. The ridge is glowing golden in the late afternoon sunlight and the walk down is gorgeous and actually quite easy. Young stands of Rimu Dacrydium cuppressinum) scatter its top, cutty grass (Gahnia sp.) appears sporadically in patches that cause me to alter my path slightly but finally I glimpse the inky Lake Kaurapataka through the trees. It looks like the kind of lake where a Taniwha would live.
I admire the lake for a very brief moment before I head off at a pace that even I am surprised I can muster after such a physical and mental ordeal. There is a sense of dread as I head down the track to the Otehake River, worried I will not be able to get across — again. When I reach the river it is indeed rushing by in a terrifying and impassable torrent, so I head upstream, simultaneously looking for a campsite. Luckily there is a shallow wide section that is actually quite manageable for me to cross on my own and after a snack I venture across the Otehake for the first time.
I am immediately greeted by a chirpy robin before I tear myself away from many perfect campsites in a slightly desperate attempt to escape the 1080 zone of the Otehake and find shelter in a hut that night. Luckily the true right is relatively easy to get along and after pausing to watch a lone Whio feeding on some invisible snacks I finally reach the river flats of the Taramakau. I think to myself how lucky I am, how the worst is over and how I will actually make it to the hut.
I was mistaken. The hardest part of my day was still to come. Seeing as the Taramakau is crossed by the Te Araroa further downstream from my location I had assumed it would be easy to cross, especially further upstream. This was not so.
I walk towards the Taramakau with the intention to cross and join the Te Araroa, then walk to Kiwi Hut. I cannot cross the Taramakau when I reach it, but it looks like I have a good chance of finding a spot to cross in one of the braided sections further upstream, and the hut is in that direction anyway. Again and again I check potential crossing sites, but each one is too fast for me to get across safely on my own. Even the braided sections still have at least one impassable braid. Light is fading and after about 2 km of scanning the river for a spot the combination of frustration and desperation get to me and I decide to cross.
I follow exposed boulders trying to remain on their sheltered side, and once I pass this section I lean forward into my pole, slowly stepping into the current to maintain my balance, checking my footing is bomber after every move. There are many moments where I feel my balance being thrown off and I have to push my whole weight forwards in an attempt to stop the water from just taking me along, my thighs straining against the weight of the water. Perhaps my heavy pack is an advantage for once. At halfway I am terrified but determined to make it and I dig in my heels quite literally to make it across. On the other side, slightly damp and still feeling the effects of being terrified for so long, I make my way back downstream to Kiwi Hut. I know I should not have crossed that river.
There is one hunter there. He offers me tea with stevia, “so it’s not bad for you”. He spots a hind (Cervus elaphus) out in the big clearing outside the hut, and we watch her graze peacefully in the dusk while we eat dinner.
Day 4. Kiwi Hut — Locke Stream Hut.
After yesterday I have a slow start. There are clouds hanging around the tops but there is a warm breeze and I don’t have a plan for the day. I will just walk until I feel like stopping. Walking up the Taramakau is basically your typical valley walk. Except better. There are no awkward bluffs to climb over and the forest is actually really interesting with many tall native cedars (Libocedrus bidwillii) and Kaikōmako (Pennantia corymbosa) in full flower making a nice change from the monotony of beech forest. There are hundreds of little cinnabar moths (Tyria jacobaeae) flitting about, and although they are introduced they are gorgeous with their black and red stripes. I encounter a Weka family with a young one who scatters in panic as I pass by, while the parents stand by idly; the young one will learn soon enough not to be so terrified of passers by.
I cross the Taramakau, now significantly smaller and no problem, and head through mature cedar stands, one more small clearing and patch of forest before I pop out in front of Locke Stream (№4) Hut, AKA “Rat Stream Nest” as the door proclaims. I sit down to enjoy the sun and have a snack. I look around, admiring the view and decide that this is the type of place I would like to wake up at on Christmas Day. So I stay. Luckily there is plenty to do. I go for a dip, eat lunch, chat to the Te Araroa walkers who pass through, and clean the hut.
The latter is definitely the most time consuming. It is genuinely disgusting. The hut book is littered with notes and even the hut wall says “Warning, Rattus rattus in the hood”. While the recent 1080 drop has ensured there is no more Rattus rattus about, their mess is still there. There is poop all over the floor, in the furrows of the gorgeous original wood felled from the surrounding forest, on the bunks and the shelves. The smell has permeated everything and even half a sunny breezy day with the windows and doors open does little to alleviate the stench. I wash the benches and tables with hot water and soap, and do what I can in terms of sweeping — although the furrowed wood keeps capturing the poop pieces. It becomes almost habitable.
Locke Stream (№4) Hut was built as part of the Goverments 1939 ‘Fitness Programme’ on the Taramakau-Harper Pass route. It was initially built using locally felled trees such as Libocedrus bidwillii (Pahautea) and the floorboards and beams are still the original timber giving the hut a unique character. It has had serious rat problems in the past but a recent 1080 drop (December 2019) has removed most rats, with just a few mice scampering about at night. It is still avoided by most Te Araroa walkers but a good clean would certainly make it much more attractive.
Day 5. Locke Stream Hut — Hurunui Hut.
After a rest day I am ready to put in a bit more effort. I actually feel like spending my entire day walking. I am not quite sure where I will go yet, with my options consisting of staying on the Te Araroa and crossing Harper Pass, or heading off track into the Trent or along the Nelson Tops. I decide to decide when I get to Harper Pass. I have been warned that there are a few slips along the track, but it really is not very bad at all. The weather isn’t excellent, but I’m glad because honestly I am looking for any excuse not to go off track. I enjoy the freedom to choose where I go each day and I do not mind choosing the easy option.
So I begin the ascent to Harper Pass. I feel rested and the climb feels good. I stop to admire the Taramakau, then walk through spectacular tall shrubland with Dr Seuss trees (Dracophyllum traversii), scented tree daisies/mountain holly (Olearia ilicifolia) and lancewood tree daisies (Olearia lacunosa). All often occur scattered but grow into a continuous canopy here. Suddenly the canopy ends and I pop out into a broad braided stream bed before climbing up to the pass itself. I stop, slip, slop, slap, and snack. Decision time. The weather looks a little murky — so I keep to the track. The sun comes out.
I soon reach Harper Pass Bivvy, stop for a quick inspection then continue on my way. A young German TA walker warns me about a slip coming up and as I round the corner after her I come across it. It’s a small chute of loose gravel and wouldn’t have caused me any issues going up, but down is a different story. Because there is nothing to hold on to or brace against, and the sharp drop at the top is too high for me to step down I end up having to just step off into the chute, scraping the backs of my thighs on the gravelly rock as I slide down.
I both intentionally and unintentionally skip sections of the track while following the river and finally arrive at Cameron Hut, my chosen lunch location. I pull a stump outside to sit on while admiring the view and start eating. I look back towards the pass and see rain coming down. I feel pleased about my decision not to go over the tops. Although soon the rain hits me too. I drag my stump back inside and finish lunch while looking at the map. I decide to go to Hurunui Hut for the night.
I head off into the rain, skip the swingbridge by following the river and pop back up onto the track just in time to reach Hurunui №3 Hut. The rain has already started seeping through the sleeves of my free hand-me-down raincoat so I take it off and hang it up while having a rather long break in the hut. It is a gorgeous hut, dark but cosy, especially with the rain pattering on the roof. It takes me a long time to tear myself away, my only motivation being the hot pools.
I do enjoy walking in the rain. It is peaceful with my hood up, and the quiet interspersed only by the chirping of birds when the rain eases is a different type of quiet to the dry type. The clouds have dropped down further and are snaking down into the valley. The track heads up and I follow it, hating every uphill step as I feel it is unnecessary, and as I have almost reached the river again I come across the hot pools. This is my first solo wilderness hot pool experience. Millions of aggressive sandflies, rain, almost too hot water and some sort of dangerous bacteria that might kill me if it gets into my nose. It is glorious.
Austrosimulion spp. (Sandflies). We have at least 18 species of sandfly in New Zealand and no doubt you have encountered them. There is a general feeling of strong hate towards sandflies but we are actually much more of an intruder to New Zealand than they are. In fact Māori legend tells that Hine-nui-te-po (the goddess of the underworld) deemed fiordland too beautiful for human modification so she released copious quantities of sandflies as a deterrent.
I score myself hundreds of sandfly bites as I try to get my damp clothes onto my damp body but finally I am safely on my way to Hurunui Hut. From here the walk is uneventful bar a pair of falcons just before the hut who fly about and call loudly as I pass by. It is further that I expected to get to the hut, and after a never ending 4WD track through tall red beech (Fuscospora fusca) forest with a non existent understory I reach the hut. There is a Swiss fisherman leaning over the porch smoking, another is stoking the fire. I hang up my damp gear and make food. They have large pieces of some unidentifiable cut of beef that they skewer and cook in the fireplace, followed by espresso coffees made in some sort of fancy portable espresso maker. I offer them some of my Whittakers gingernut and caramelised white chocolate which we all agree is fitting for the occasion. It is Christmas day.
Day 6. Hurunui Hut — Hope Kiwi Lodge.
I head off after looking for my two remaining (somewhat stale) wraps, which it seems the Swiss fishermen have accidentally taken, and deciding to take an alternative route to the Te Araroa by visiting Three Mile Hut. After crossing a swampy paddock full of cows and creeks I pass a standing tree graveyard before being led through what feels like hours of even more barren red beech forest.
I reach the lake, moody with low clouds hanging around. From here on the trail is shared by horseriders, and is in a bit of a state. My motivation begins to fade as the beech forest feels like it will never end, but I finally reach the intersection and turn off onto the Three Mile Route. I stop not long after turning onto it for a snack. While I sit there a small (and adorable) mouse ventures out right in front of me, sorting through leaf litter and almost capsizing multiple times as the twigs and leaves move beneath its rotund little body. Mice have been a constant theme of this trip. Every person (and I mean every single person) has mentioned the mouse plague.
I head uphill, the beech forest gradually becoming shorter and more stunted. Parakeets chatter loudly and I stop several times to try and spot the colour of their crowns with no luck. I navigate through several boggy clearings, poking my stick into any suspicious looking ground to test its stability. The walk feels much longer than I expected but luckily it is interesting. I finally descend through tall red beech and end up at Three Mile Stream. From there it is an easy walk along the stream, a few crossings and suddenly I spot an orange triangle pointing sideways. Soon enough I spot the hut and pop in to have lunch. It is a lovely hut, with three rooms including two seperate bedrooms so the boys and girls can be kept apart. It seems to be visited almost exclusively by hunters and I am surprised that next to no Te Araroa walkers venture off the beaten path for a little detour.
The steep start to the track to Hope Kiwi Lodge is a shock to my system after the comfortable lunch sitting on the dining room bed mattress. I pass strange gravel stream beds which appear out of nowhere under the forest canopy, and disappear just as quickly. After reaching the top, I follow gently undulating terrain interspersed with bogs.
This leads me over to a small burbling creek and as I climb a small rise to reach the final descent to the lodge I glance back into one of the many small clearings and spot a pair of Wapiti (Cervus elaphus nelsoni). There is a moment of indecision before they scatter into the forest. The descent is fast, and followed by a long flat walk through tall red beech, a reoccurring theme of the trip. I probably still have time to keep going to St Jacobs Hut, but when I pop into the lodge I am convinced to stay. It is huge and there are friendly people. I have made it just in time to claim a prime bed before the hordes of Te Araroa walkers turn up. The lawn could do with a trim (December 2019).
Day 7. Hope Kiwi Lodge — Lake Man Bivvy.
I leave early because why not. Perhaps I am already sick of so many people and all the chatter and bustle of company. The walk up the Hope is lovely and I stop to have a snack at St Jacobs Hut. I read generally good comments about the route to Lake Man Bivvy, with the exception of one lady who had an absolute mare and advised people not to attempt it unless equipped with a map or GPS. I would hope that the majority of people carry some sort of navigational tool… I cross the Hope easily and head across the flats to the start of the short trail through the beech to Pussy Stream. The terraces are covered in small holes that I suspect may be the result of some very busy kiwis. The rare kind.
After a short bit of flat forest I start heading up Pussy Stream. It is a rather funny name. You’ll know what I mean if you get it. It is easy and I really just follow the stream until it splits into two very small creeks with a narrow ridge in between that has basically split in half. There is a very steep and somewhat slippery ascent before I reach the ridge that forms the rest of my path to the tops. The ridge is crazy narrow, one of the narrowest and steepest forested ridges I have traversed as part of an actual track, or ever. Gradually the forest changes and more alpine species start appearing in the undergrowth just before I pop out above the bushline into scrub.
It starts off steep, dense and scratchy but soon turns into a slightly awkward traverse of tussock slopes until I reach the saddle, where red tussock (Chionochloa rubra) dominates the rather soggy slopes and the odd tarn dots the landscape. I finally get a view of tomorrows maybe goal, Mt Lakeman and Lake Man. We’ll see what the weather does.
Chionochloa rubra is one of our most striking tussock grasses. It often covers huge swathes of land, giving it a red glow. It prefers damp or swampy areas and often gives a fair warning of what the ground will be like underfoot. Māori used to wrap the leaves around their legs to protect themselves from speargrass and stuff them into their sandals to keep their feet warm — the tussock, not the speargrass.
A short and steep descent through beech forest takes me to Lake Man Bivvy. It has recently been done up and looks very tidy. It even has a very fancy seat that can be tilted up to make more space. Unfortunately the corner of the door is looking a bit worse for wear and even when I’ve propped the door shut because the inside lock is broken there is a still a fat mouse sized hole in the corner.
I go for a short wander to the creek, read my book and have an entree of plain mash with rock salt which seems like the most delicious thing ever. It starts to drizzle and the clouds sink lower. I read and have a nap on the top bunk but decide it is too small to sleep in so I move downstairs. Eventually I decide it must be about dinner time, so I make dinner and a cup of tea and sit in my sleeping bag, hat and gloves. I think about the names: Lake Man, Lake Man Bivvy and Mt Lakeman. To join or not to join them. It is rather cold, and I do wonder if it is just me or if I am just poorly equipped.
Day 8. Lake Man Bivvy — Doubtful Hut.
The answer is neither. I look out the window when I get up and see what looks like snow down to 1300m. I wipe the condensation off the window and nothing changes. It has snowed!
I have rarely gotten ready so fast. I am out the door, dressed, daypacked and with two muesli bars for breakfast in my hand. I don’t need to motivate myself to get going today. I head off across the swamp behind the bivvy, through a bit of beech and up into some scrub which proves quite difficult and painful to get through and I can definitely see that there is a better way. I just can’t get there. So I bash upwards, eventually reaching tussock and from there I steadily work my way up to Lake Man, enjoying the steep rocky section around the creek just before I pop up into the basin.
It is beautiful, and incredibly cold. There is a dusting of snow covering everything and even more further up, which is where I am headed. I spot an enticing snow slope that could feasibly lead to the summit so I head straight up to it. It is fairly steep, but definitely doable with one ice axe, so I head up to the top of the ridge just as it starts snowing again. As soon as I reach the top I am buffeted by gusts of wind so strong I immediately drop back down and crouch under some rocks. I check my map to see which direction to go in order to summit Mt Lakeman then pop back up to the ridge to check out my route. I peer along it and am confronted with a fairly narrow ridge that would be fun on a typical summer day, just not today. As I’m crouched on the ridge a patch of blue sky blows over, illuminating the icy ridge and I quickly pull my camera out, snap a photo and tuck it away.
I decide I have to drop down and I find a steep and narrow route that takes me down and then back up onto the very relaxed ridge leading to the summit, over slippery icy snowgrass and rocks. The main ridge I reach is nice and broad, although the snowgrass is still slippery. I reach the top, sit down and admire the view. I start to relax, already able to see that the route down will be much easier than my route up.
I wander back down, following fresh hare prints through the snow, impressed by their presence so soon after a snowfall. I stop to admire tiny yellow buttercups as the melted snow exposes their flowers, pausing near the lake outlet, somewhat reluctant to leave at this perfect moment in time. There is a feeling of content as I descend back to the bivvy. This time I find a less scratchy route into the beech forest and even come across some cairns.
I pack up my things, do my best to return the hut to the near pristine condition in which I found it and start heading down into the Doubtful River. I am only a few steps away from the bivvy when I step into a surprise knee deep pit of mud. Not a great start but luckily I can wash my leg in the stream straight away. The track is fairly steep but despite my pace I am still wearing a jumper by the time I reach the valley floor although I can feel the air gradually warming up.
I am relieved to reach the valley floor. The track winds along and through the beech forests on the terraces, although there are many different coloured DOC markers that leave me rather confused. Lime green, orange, I don’t think it makes a difference which I choose and there are no signs. I bump into an older chap who is heading in to Doubtless Hut for a day trip. He must be in his 70’s at least and he is accordingly equipped. I am impressed and inspired.
I reach Doubtful Hut, it looks like it has recently been painted and I have high hopes — until I open the door. The floor has deteriorated and now has a large pothole that collects dirt and dust and is impossible to clean. The tiny corner bench is not that useful and there is no hut book. Additionally, someone has let their dog sleep on one of the mattresses and it is now covered in muddy pawprints, and the door does not shut from the inside or seal, which is particularly bad at this particular location where there are millions of sandflies who have most certainly figured out that the closed door is no barrier to their hunger.
Because there is still plenty of daylight I drag the filthy mattress outside, flip it over and lie down to read a Wilderness magazine and my book. I soon get sick of making multi kills and decide to set up my tent fly over the mattress, which turns out to be a most fantastic idea: ultimate comfort combined with ultimate protection. The old guy pops by on his way back out and we have a brief chat before he continues on. I finally find a summarised version of the Fun Scale.
The Fun Scale (From Wilderness Magazine Aug ‘19). TYPE 1: enjoyable at the time and pleasant to reminisce about. e.g. fair weather tramping, a day on the slopes, beers at the swimming hole. TYPE 2: Awful at the time but AMAZING in retrospect. e.g. ultras, epics, the Dusky, nav fails. TYPE 3: PTSD-worthy misery that will give you flashbacks for decades. Often ends in a heli-evac or a mention on the 10 O’clock news. e.g. unplanned night out, polar expedition, ‘127 hours’ type mishaps.
I consider sleeping outside on the mattress but there are slightly menacing clouds and at this point I have given up on the forecast I wrote down over a week ago. It hasn’t been very useful or accurate. I move inside but leave my tent fly set up on the single bed. This way I am able to eat dinner, read and sleep in peace.
Day 9. Doubtful Hut — Nina Hut.
Today is the day. I have had The Devils Rampart on my bucket list since I first saw the name on a map. The name is just so enticing! I head off and battle my way up the never ending track on the true left of Devilskin Stream until I finally pop out into the Hoheria sp. (Ribbonwood) dotted tussockland. It is gorgeous, but marred by the large patches of rooted up speargrasses, patches up to three metres across reduced to dead vegetation and dirt, the chewed bases of plants barely visible below ground level.
I can see the bivvy and it is not far from the bushline. I drop my backpack inside and after lunch I head out of the very [VERY] mouldy interior to climb up The Devils Rampart. It is very windy but sunny and there is proof of the windy nature of the place as I pass the door-less toilet, just one plank remains, propped inside. I head up, sidling under the huge bluff system to navigate my way through a series of smaller bluffs and ledges before climbing up a steep slope to the summit. The views are panoramic, and while not quite as exhilarating as those on Mt Lakeman the day before, they are much more expansive.
I head down the way I came up, keen to get to Nina Hut now that I have ticked off the final big thing on my trip list. I feel like I have accomplished what I set out to do and now I can relax and just enjoy the nature and peace. I pick up my pack and stomp down along the swampy, deeply incised trail to the forest. Here the trail steepens, taking me down some of the steepest sections of trail I have walked, before sidling along in the direction of Nina Hut. I lose the track a few times, but oddly enough only realise upon finding the track again.
Finally it drops down a small damp gut before flattening out. I start seeing stoat traps and seed traps, the trees thin and I pop out at Nina Hut. I count nine pairs of shoes on the porch as I approach, knowing the hut has 10 bunks I am not hopeful of a spare mattress, especially once I see how packed the hut is. I pop my head in to enquire and find one spare mattress.
The Hurunui College Nina Valley Restoration Group is an amazing initiative taking place in the Nina Valley since 2008. The college runs extensive trapping networks consisting of 240 stoat traps and 40 possum traps throughout the valley and has facilitated the release of additional Roroa/Great spotted kiwi (Apteryx haastii) in the area to bolster numbers and restore a viable breeding population. The students also monitor kiwi and whio, and study the biology of the area. The project is a combination of efforts of DOC (Department of Conservation), Lincoln University and the restoration group, and ties into further efforts by other community groups working nearby.
Day 10. Nina Hut — Nina Hut.
I hang about while the two families get ready and leave, most of them heading over Devilskin Saddle, but one Father and son heading back out to the car. I read, clean the hut and eat food. The day starts to get hot, a pair of people walk past but don’t pop in to the hut and just continue up to the saddle (I presume).
At about midday I pack my daybag and head off down the track on my way to Nina Bivvy. I run into a father and daughter also heading up to the saddle and we chat for a while before continuing on our way. It takes me another five minutes to realise I have actually gone the wrong way. For some reason I thought the turn off was further down river from the hut not at the hut. I check my map to assess my mistake then bushbash straight down into the river bed. I follow the river up, herding a large gaggle of Californian geese ahead of me until I find orange markers.
I pass the old Nina Hut site and continue along mossy and occasionally boggy beech forest. There are occasional swampy clearings with nice views and very treacherous terrain, pretty native orchids around the damp margins, a great thundering waterfall I manage to glimpse through the trees and a gorgeous stream with moss covered rocks. I make my way over some unnecessary slips while staring down at the easily walkable river bed and after not encountering the walkwire on my map I reach the tiny bivvy. It has been done up about a year ago but still isn’t completed, it is still missing mattresses and edging around the fireplace (December 2019).
I head back after a short break, this time following the river until the track leaves it for good — definitely a good decision. Then back through the boggy clearings and mossy beech forest, and across the river to Nina Hut via the actual track, after a quick dip in the river.
When I emerge I can hear people in the hut, and one is Jamie. I am both excited to see him and very excited to see what food he has brought with him for our dinner. He does not disappoint. It is a pasta salad with smoked salmon, cherry tomatoes and a mayo based sauce. It is amazing. I eat almost twice as much as him. We chat with the other couple in the hut and eventually everyone heads to bed. It is dark and about 22:00 when we hear people approach, with loud voices and yelling. No one is impressed. The door opens and a guy yells [and I really mean ‘YELLS’] “hello!!!”, then mumbles something about taking his boots off and shuts the door. No one enters the hut until much later when they have finished cooking dinner and drinking their wine outside.
Day 11. Nina Hut — SH7.
It is a relaxed morning, Jamie and I head off fairly early, eager to get on the road. We admire where the river has eroded the track on one of the terraces and go for a dip in one of the many enticing swimming holes. It is fast and easy going and soon we can hear the highway. We cross the bridge and pop out onto the road, stuff the gear into the car and get in. I open the Wdom Chocolate milk [highly recommend — it is extra delicious] that I preemptively stashed in the car and we are off, ready for the next adventure.