A weekend trip up the Huxley North Branch to show Tobias some of the less well known but still stunning New Zealand wilderness (May 2018).
I’ve been practising contortion all night just trying to find a comfortable position on the almost but not quite leant back enough seat. As I peer out of my sleeping bag the light is bathing the snowy mountains in a red glow. It takes some effort to slip out of my sleeping bag and put on cold clothes and once I step out of the car there is a brisk wind that instantly raises goosebumps and makes me shiver to the point I can barely tie my laces.
We pack up and make it about 200 m down the 4WD track before I stop dead in my tracks. I have forgotten my headlamp. I run back through the icy morning air and retrieve it from the car, then run back. I am bundled up in my woolly oceania gold jumper, hunting and fishing beanie that is about three sizes too big for me and ice ninja gloves. I am still cold.
It takes us just under two hours to get to Monument Hut. It is perched up on a small mound out of reach of the Hopkins, in a clearing that has been crudely cleared of beech. It looks like there is a group of Norwegians heading up to Huxley Forks for five days. Tobias and I joke about what they could possibly be doing there for five days. I’m obviously thinking of a sauna and the classic european nudity and to be honest I’m a little worried about what we might find.
We reach snow once on the Huxley river flats and wander past icy swamps and ponds, I test the ice, and even find one pond that I manage to walk across, although the ice cracks beneath my feet in a highly disconcerting manner. We reach the high water route and abide by the instruction to only take it in such conditions.
I make the reasonable assumption that we now have to cross the river. I proceed to remove my boots and socks while Tobias goes ahead. I carefully hop across the riverbed to the water’s edge and begin to make my way across the first braid. The stones are small and the water is icy and it causes excruciating pain. I bail and limp to the nearest edge where I nurse my feet on soft moss waiting for them to regain any semblance of feeling. I’ve left Tobias standing on the other side for almost five minutes by the time I make it over and seat myself on a snow covered log to put my boots back on.
Soon we spot the Huxley Forks Huts. On the other side of the river. We cross and this time I don’t bother removing my boots. The pain and effort are just not worth it. We’ve long left the warmth of the sunshine, Boanerges blocking the rays from this part of the valley, and the wind kicks up as the clouds close in again. We have lunch at Huxley Forks Hut, I retrieve my puffer jacket and zip my legs up in it.
Huxley Forks Hut was built in 1955 for deer cullers and is a six bunk hut with a closed fireplace. It has been renovated and is located in what seems to be the coldest location in the entire Huxley valley and stopping for even 10 minutes will put a chill in your very bones. It costs $5 (adult) or $2.50 (11–17 years). There is another ‘officers hut’ next to the main hut which sleeps three but has no heating. For more information visit: https://www.wildernessmag.co.nz/trip/huxley-forks-hut-ruataniwha-conservation-park/
The hut is freezing. I am tempted to light the fire and stay here. But I’m too scared to mention it to Tobias because I am supposed to be hard core. Instead I hesitantly fill in the hut book with our intentions to go on to Brodrick Hut. We’ve made it here in good time, only 2.5 hours, so we should be able to make it before it gets too dark. I check for others. The Norwegians have morphed into a group of three from Christchurch.
Following the recommendation of DOC, we head along the river and avoid the track through beech. The latest information tells us it should take 3:15 hours to Brodrick Hut due to landslides. Sure enough the first landslide is just around the corner. I instinctively head along its base until I reach a deep pool. I look around. And back. And across the river. Nothing to it really — just gotta go straight through. It’s deep but not too deep, if you know what I mean, and there is not much current. Certainly better than going above the entire landslide. I realise we’ve been lucky in avoiding getting knocked out by the rocks and ice flying off the edge of the landslide.
The snow gets deeper and it looks like it’s going to snow again. I’m following Tobias and step on top of a snowy rock, exactly in his footprint, but somehow I place my foot differently, and in typical fashion I plunge forwards face first, bashing my shin on a rock and ending up on my stomach in snow with my pack trapping me to the ground. I look up to see if Tobias has noticed but he’s ploughing ahead. I laugh at my clumsiness and enjoy the momentary reprieve from walking. Finally, Tobias glances behind and I can see his confusion as he fails to identify me in the landscape. Eventually he spots my pack and when I sit up he asks if I’m okay. I say yes. My shin really hurts.
We sidle around some gravel flutes which consist of steep loose gravel and quite a large drop to the river, then head up into the snow. Luckily there are tracks which prevent Tobias from ploughing further into deepening snow which hides dense scrub. We re-join the marked trail. It’s not too much further before we reach the final climb through beech forest to the hut and we’ve crushed it in two hours despite the snow.
The hut is completely full. Of stuff. I clear some space to dump my pack and check the hut book. The Norwegians turned Christchurch blokes have once again morphed, this time into a Norwegian and a couple of Poms out hunting. At least there are free bunks. After we clear the stuff anyway. We get to work collecting firewood and I cut down a tree, a feat I am a little too proud of. Not my biggest tree, but it was the biggest dead one around. I unpack and snuggle up in my sleeping bag with my book while Tobias tries to burn wet wood without much success.
Luckily his dinner preparation is much more successful. Pesto pasta with bacon. Followed by Natural Confectionary dinosaurs. It is well dark by this point and there is still no sign of the hunters. I’m a little worried; while leading a two-person search and rescue mission the next morning sounds exciting, it would also be suboptimal. Suddenly the door opens and a soaked, completely camouflaged hunter pops his head in. I greet him enthusiastically and his surprise at company is evident. The Norwegian has hurt his leg falling through a hole in the snow but is almost at the hut. There is a hive of activity as the fire is cranked up and even more shit is spread all through the hut. I stay safely tucked away in my sleeping bag.
The guys are great. The Norwegian is a guide, and the Poms are the guided, and they reckon New Zealand is the best hunting they’ve ever done. They have shot two tahr so far on this trip and they’ve already booked flights back for next year. The banter is on par with the wood burner and we all share stories and recommendations and a common admiration of the beauty of the Huxley for a few hours before I turn away to fall asleep.
Himalayan tahr/thar (Hemitragus jehmlahicus) are a pest species in New Zealand. Surprisingly, they originate from the Himalayan mountains. They are a type of mountain goat generally found in alpine areas, feeding in grassland areas and destructive to a number of native plant species not adapted to intensive mammalian grazing. They are majestic animals and in summer their coats often get bleached blonde streaks, bulls have large manes around their neck and can have impressive horns which are sought after by hunters for trophies. Although considered a pest in New Zealand, tahr are considered ‘near threatened’ on the IUCN red list.
It is no longer raining wet snow when I wake up, but it is not sunny either. No one else is up yet and although the hunters intend to head out, at least down valley, it looks like they will not be getting up early. Tobias however, does get up and makes tea, then heads outside to admire the views. I hide in my warm sleeping bag. Once I get up I’ve committed to leave the warmth and I am not ready for that. Finally, the temptation of exploring the valley wins out. I head barefoot through the snow to where there is a view from the shelf the hut sits on. It is magnificent.
Tobias and I head up along the poled route towards Brodrick Saddle — please note I have now put shoes on. [This route is not marked on Topomaps but is marked regularly with poles, markers and cairns, although these are sometimes difficult to spot in deep snow. You can’t go too far off the route though, just spot the poles further up the slope towards the pass.] It is a slog. The snow is deep and we lose the trail a bit as we begin to head uphill. I plough ahead. My shin is excruciatingly painful as the snow crust is at just the right height to hit the bruise every step I take. It doesn’t help that the snow ranges from just above my gaiters to just below my shorts and every step I take I leave a red bloody mark where each knee hits the snow. It is slow going but eventually we reach the goal pole. Time to head back.
Brodrick pass is named after Tom Brodrick (and Lewis Sladden) who crossed it in March 1980. It is straightforward but somewhat exposed (grade 1 from both directions) and takes about 3–4 hours up from Brodrick Hut and 5–6 hours up from Creswicke flat and leads you over the main divide of the Southern Alps, as well as providing access to Mt Strauchon and Mt Mackenzie.
We turn around and follow the track back, reaching the hut just as the hunters are heading off.
They’ve left me half a block of butter, an onion, a small jar of crushed garlic, and about two kilos of tahr. I shove everything into my pack with no hesitation. It is most definitely heavier. In fact, my already miserable balancing abilities are further reduced. It is slow going but despite leaving at least five minutes after the hunters we catch them at the bottom of the hill.
We make it back to Huxley Forks in under two hours and have lunch there. We decide to skip the river crossing that was completely unnecessary and follow the true left. It proves to be a much, much better route. It is probably now that I begin to notice that my achilles tendons are a bit sore. Over a small hill and out, into the Hopkins. I spend ages trying to spot as many mistletoes in the beech forest as I can. There are rare red and yellow mistletoes (Peraxilla tetrapetala and Alepis flavida respectively).
It becomes cold and it is definitely starting to get dark as we reach Monument Hut. I’m now struggling to walk. I layer up and put my headlamp on. It is freezing cold and I concentrate on walking in a way that causes me the least pain. Gate 4. Gate 3. My Achilles are fucked. Each step is utter pain by this point. We make it to gate 2, then finally there is the straight stretch and the tall macrocarpa trees at the carpark. I am ecstatic.
I change into clean warm clothes, grab the chocolate and dinosaurs and crank the heating up to 32 degrees. Even that doesn’t seem warm enough. I grab my sleeping bag and settle in for the long drive back.