Jaz about to descend into the Ellis Basin

My first proper venture into Kahurangi National Park with Jaz (June 2021).

4.2 km | 1:06 | 365 m | MT ARTHUR HUT

The trip kicks off with a glorious stroll in drizzle and clag from Flora carpark. Neinei (Dracophyllum traversii), tawhai (Lophozonia menziesii) and tawhai rauriki (Fuscospora cliffortioides) dominate the low forest almost exclusively and the leaf litter is a thick carpet of golden neinei leaves. AS we gain height, pāhautea (Libocedrus bidwillii) enters the mix, with trees of all ages and seedlings and saplings. Then we enter karst country. There are sinkholes dropping down from the very edge of the track and some areas of exposed bedrock with eroded grooves running along the top of the rock. Weka (Gallirallus australis) occasionally emerge among the undergrowth, decidedly unbothered by our presence. Two day trippers almost catch up to us but this motivates me to up the pace and we arrive at the hut well before them despite our multiday tramping packs.

Upon arrival I get stuck into establishing some firewood karma. Perplexingly, a previous visitor has chopped up a log but left it lying in the rain. Jaz is fire man and gets the hut so hot that we dress down to our t-shirts. The hut is very cute and has much more personality than most. I suppose it has nice views too… At least when it isn’t within a cloud. The potato crisps that remained uneaten from the drive get eaten while we dip into the first chapters of “Nothing venture nothing win” by Edmund Hillary. Then we top the afternoon off with a nap and hey! It is 5pm and dusk. Dinner is Jaz’s excellent homemade bolognese dehy followed by an early night. Last nights leaky tent experience really left something to be desired, mainly, sleep.

12.15 km | 5:31 | 1139 m | ELLIS HUT

We take the morning slowly, the weather has finally cleared with spots of fog still clinging to some of the foothills. At almost sunrise, Jaz, the hut weka and myself pop up behind the hut onto a conveniently placed rocky outcrop to get a view and we are not disappointed. We can see all around us; Mt Arthur, Gordons Pyramid, Lodestone, Nelson, Tasman Bay… All bathed in the golden early morning light.

Sunrise from above Mt Arthur Hut

We breakfast, clean, and head on our way. The kakaha (Astelia nervosa) is amazing, its bright silver foliage striking and prominent among the tussock (Chionochloa sp.) and Dracophyllum sp. reds and oranges, interspersed by various deep green shrubs. We reenter karst and the clag moves in. Luckily it is intermittent and we are able to admire the karst country through small breaks in the cloud. It is a striking landscape.

Karst is a type of landscape formed when limestone is eroded. Limestone is a soft rock which erodes as rainwater seeps into it or flows over it, resulting in fluted rock formations, caves, underground streams and sinkholes. There are many cave systems in the Mt Arthur area; the explored length of the Ellis Basin system is 29 km, and the Nettlebed cave has a total depth of 889 m.

Jaz on the Mt Arthur route

We pop up to Mt Arthur and enjoy the very slightly scrambly ascent. Then we head over Winter Peak and down past incomprehensible sink-hole features and smaller, more comprehensible sink-holes. I spot a native forget-me-not (Myosotis sp.) and spend some uncomfortable minutes lying on very sharp karst scree taking photos of the tiny plant. It is quite important to get good photos of the hairs on the underside of the leaf in order to identify it, so a bit of awkward contortion is required. The descent into the Ellis Basin is sufficiently snowy, but not enough for an ice axe and we skid down until the path clears of snow and steepens dramatically.

Jaz descending into the Ellis Valley

The trail drops, sidles, and then becomes overgrown with scratchy shrubs. I find heaps of Druce’s forget-me-not (Myosotis drucei) on a rocky patch, even the odd flowering plant, and then we follow the increasingly vague route through tall tussock and scattered shrubs, trying not to lose a leg in the many small holes, drop offs and creeks bordering the trail. The Ellis Valley is spectacular. Orangey-golden with big rock strata faces and karsty mountains overlooking it. Ellis hut is tucked into the edge of the beech forest, and even luxuriates in sunshine for a few hours of the short winter day. We follow our routine of firewood collecting and fire starting. It is damp and cold and despite the fire we know that won’t change drastically.

“THE MOUSE IS DEAD THE MOUSE IS DEAD!” — some very excited (and obviously successful) Dutch guys who stayed in Ellis Hut.

25.74 km | 12:54 | 2491 m | SALISBURY LODGE

We start the day with Tim Tams and an icy cold hut. There is a lot of faff until we finally depart into the very icy morning and are thrown into the cold and the climb. The frozen scrub is brutal, numbing and spikey on my bare legs, but luckily even my slow plod gets us out of the scrub zone fairly quickly and the hill doesn’t seem anywhere near as long as it did yesterday.

The Ellis Valley in shadow

In the basin just below the ridge, the snow has hardened a bit but not quite enough for an axe. Some care is required in order to not slide back down but the sun is at the top so we push on and finally stop for a snack in the warm-ish sunshine. We follow our tracks back along the ridge, between the numerous sinkholes and back up to Winter Peak where we are joined by a very legit gentleman carrying an old Macpac pack and axe. He’s a bit deaf so we never do find out what he’s up to. He traverses Winter Peak then finds a lunch spot overlooking the hordes of very basic day trippers climbing Mt Arthur. Jaz and I join them and summit Mt Arthur again for no particular reason then head back down to the turnoff to have lunch.

Back down the track from yesterday we go. Me in particular. I plop down after losing traction on a rock, twist my left ankle, bruise my right wrist and sit there, nauseous and in pain. It takes me a while to recover and my hand and wrist are extremely sore. We go on. The pain ebbs then resurges. It is not great but probably okay [my hand is not broken, but is still bruised a month later]. We reach the turnoff to Salisbury Lodge, our hut for the night, and delve into the karst basin below Mt Arthur which is wild and intimidating. The track is most welcome, leading us through the maze of sinkholes and across half a metre wide ridges between neighbouring depressions.

We ascend an unnecessary hill before dropping to the base of Gordons Pyramid, and are forced to re-ascend the majority of the elevation we just gained and then lost, in order to climb to the top. From here we can see tonights goal, as well as the massive depressions along the potholes track and their mosaic of forest and grassland. The tree line is gnarled tawhai (Lophozonia menziesii), scattered along a ridge of pale sandy gravel that reminds me of Mt Titiroa, also a highly recommendable trip.

The stunted forest merges into taller tawhai (Fuscospora fusca) and is filled with tūī (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae)song and fluttering. Kakaha (Astelia fragrans) emerges with a vengeance too, covering the entire forest floor. Then the terrain becomes a maze. But with a track to follow that’s okay. We dip into small depressions and sidle massive forested holes, minding our feet so as not to twist an ankle on the gnarled roots seeking hold in the creased karst formations.

The pothole track detour takes us through big open clearings encompassing massive sinkholes devoid of beech, but surrounded, and filled, by excellent tussock (Chionochloa rubra), hunangāmoho (Chionochloa conspicua) and Hebe (Veronica sp.). It is dusk when we see the hut, breathing out big plumes of moisture and treading over the mornings frost still populating shaded patches along the track. We trudge up the overgrown, muddy trail to the hut, during which I step in an ankle deep hole of mud and have to exert myself to remove my foot, in the process pushing Jaz (directly behind me) into a knee deep mud hole. He is not enthused. But we are only minutes from the lodge.

The lodge is indeed a lodge. With ample firewood (which to my great disappointment I am unable to chop due to my damaged hand), a massive bunk room, a tap and fancy composting toilets with lights. We are not alone tonight but the stars are out and the weka are screeching.

43.46 km | 19:27 | 3307 m | ASBESTOS COTTAGE

After a breakfast of Mi Goreng the lodge is thoroughly cleaned and both parties depart our respective ways. I point out which weka is the male to Jaz (the fatter and lighter coloured one), based on who was on top during the brief intercourse I had unwillingly observed earlier.

The Tablelands do not disappoint. Tongues of gnarled beech protrude into the tussock expanses and every now and then we pass through the relatively sparse, lichen covered forest before emerging back into the misty tall tussocklands dripping with moisture.

Excellent signage on the Tablelands

We pop to Bishops Cave, or arch, and spot some quite unhappy, partially trodden on native forget-me-not (Myosotis sp.) [please take care if you wander around caves and bluffs so as not to step on our native flora, as it is often endangered], as well as an enormous purple pouch fungus. Soon after we find another massive pouch fungus, this one orange-yellow. It isn’t far to Balloon Hut, and the edge of the Tableland, and after a short break watching the mist closing in and settling on our route we start the climb to Lake Peel. During brief clearances we admire sheets of mist rolling over the hills, slipping off the edges of the massive limestone bluffs lining the Leslie River valley.

The Leslie River valley

Approaching Lake Peel we sidle through shrubby boulderfields inhabited by weka, then huddle on some rocks overlooking Deep Creek to have lunch just as the first few raindrops begin to fall. Back on the trail I walk straight past some lovely native forget-me-not (Myosotis sp.) clumps and Jaz pulls me back to admire them and gloat. Then the rain becomes a bit more persistent and the views cease for the remainder of the day.

The ridge above Cobb Reservoir is lovely even without the views. As botanists we really only need to be able to see a few metres either side of us to be sufficiently entertained. We admire tall tussock, various types of beech, regenerating mānuka (Leptospermum scoparium) forest, and the remnants of a tutu (Coriaria sarmentosa) field that has died back for winter. At the junction with the track down to the Cobb Reservoir we run into Annie and Mary from Salisbury Lodge. Out of the 400 m of overlapping track we somehow timed it exactly the same despite our different route choices.

We catch up on their day then continue along Cobb Ridge. There is excellent caged pirirangi (Peraxilla tetrapetala) and a very disappointing wetland, and a very good wetland. Eventually we reach the final, brutal climb to pt. 1154 m. Luckily the random unmaintained track mentioned in a Wilderness magazine is very well marked and we follow it down to Asbestos Cottage. My pack strap breaks as I hurtle down the damp slippery track, but it is fixable — after a trip to Twin Needle. Once at the cottage, Jaz sorts out a temporary fix with one of the handy reusable zip ties I carry on my pack for just such an occasion.

Asbestos Cottage is an asbestos mine of historic information. There are old letters and newspaper clippings and photos of its quite bizarre history. Old implements adorn the walls and details of the restoration/rebuild are documented. We incredulously contemplate the idea of spending almost 40 years here. Needless to say, we decide that we will continue onwards the following day.

Asbestos Cottage was built in 1897 and inhabited by Henry and Annie Chaffey from 1914 until 1951. Annie left her two sons and an abusive husband in Canterbury, and Henry left work as a rural contractor and they moved into the cottage, living a largely self sufficient lifestyle. Henry worked in the nearby asbestos mine and regularly went to Motueka and Takaka for supplies, however Annie left the cottage only once for a medical emergency. After 20 years, Annies first husband died and the couple was married at the cottage. After Henrys death in 1951, Annie moved back to Timaru, but soon took her own life.

56.24 km | 23:21 | 3798 m | UPPER GRIDIRON HUT

Asbestos Cottage

We don’t have too far to go so it is a slow morning. The sun is shining and the birds are chirping and singing. Perhaps it wouldn’t even be so bad to live here for 40 odd years… But eventually we set off. The forest is growing on ultramafic rock and is very interesting, with big pōkākā (Elaeocarpus hookerianus) and medium rātā (Metrosideros umbellata) and medium pāhautea (Libocedrus bidwillii). “This is interesting forest” seems to be the most used sentence during the whole trip. But it is all so interesting! And different!

We reach the “Broken Bridge”, which is not broken, to our relief. And from there it is gentle undulating track. We are making far too much progress so we focus on finding many pouch fungi and slicing them open in the hope that it will help someone else identify them for us. Today we see purple pouches with and without stalks, although the latter seem more like a puffball, white puffballs, the blue-green ones that might be hallucinogenic, and my personal favourite, a clear jelly covered dark red kidney bean shaped pouch fungus with an intricate network of spores and layers on the inside.

We carry our packs up to Growlers Rock Shelter for lunch, certainly expecting a bit more rock in the “Rock Shelter”. Really it is just a slightly overhanging rock face with a corrugated iron and wood roof. It is nice. But not that exciting. Lower Gridiron Shelter ends up being much more exciting with ladders and bunks and platforms wedged into the massive rocks. But we continue onwards with the promise of Upper Gridiron Hut.

It does not disappoint. A tiny hut slotted under a rock overhang, with the rock forming one part of the roof, complete with an indoor and outdoor fire, plus a hanging bench. I explore up along a big limestone bluff above the hut, following its base. It is exceptional. I even find a few trodden native forget-me-nots (Myosotis sp.) in the drip line of one of the big overhangs. There are stunted rātā (Metrosideros umbellata) far above me hanging onto the rock faces precariously, and perhaps somewhat threateningly.

63.53 km | 24:49 | 4078 m | HOME

It is still dark when we wake up. But that is because we are kind of in a cave. Today there is less faff and we get into breakfast, finishing off the Mi Goreng. The hut weka engages in some rock climbing antics as we breakfast on the swinging bench outside the hut, and we watch in trepidation and amusement as he clambers around on the 45 degree slope. He proceeds to follow me to the toilet, but the intrusion doesn’t stop there. First a beak emerges through a corner hole, then an eye. I shoo him away.

Weka | Gallirallus australis

Weka are a notorious ground-dwelling bird that will steal your possessions if you let them. They are omnivores that primarily feed on invertebrates and fruit. Despite their apparent abundance in certain places, weka have gone extinct in many areas on the mainland, and are threatened primarily by large predators and climatic conditions such as drought. There is only one remaining natural population on the North Island. In areas where populations are territorial, weka will mate for life.

We tidy up rigorously and are on our way. It’s all 4WD track from here, but definitely on the better end of the spectrum, winding along above the forest green water of Flora stream, the banks dripping with Lancewood tree daisy (Olearia lacunosa).

Pouch fungus

We wander through lovely beech forest with some sparsely forested rocky ridges that look fun to follow along, until suddenly we emerge at Flora Hut. It is an interesting design with two small bunk rooms with a fireplace each, connected by a wood shed in the middle. From here it is a short stroll to the saddle and then we are thrown into the packed Flora Carpark complete with cellphone reception and hungry wekas.

To see our full route click here.

The Tableland