A few years back I read about the Five Passes in a book called "Classic Tramping in New Zealand". At the time I thought that the route was well beyond my physical and navigational capabilities and I wondered if I'd ever be able to manage a trip of that scale. People were taking anywhere between five and ten days to complete the circuit and many had been tent bound for days waiting for inclement weather to pass. This is on top of the fact that there are no huts or even a track for most of the trip. However, it does make its way through one of the most stunning parts of New Zealand and is an absolute must on the tramping bucket list so we couldn't help but give it a good nudge.
We had two weeks off over the summer holidays so after gently persuading the family that we should most definitely have Christmas at my sister's house (conveniently located on the road to Glenorchy) we were ready to go bright and early on Boxing Day. The weather forecast, after looking questionable all week leading up to leaving, miraculously cleared giving us five clear days ahead. Our packing was on the fast and light side of things so no rain for at least the first five days was going to make things much more comfortable. We had ample food for six days which we could stretch to seven or eight if needed but we really weren't sure how long it was going to take heading in. Our combined pack weight came in at 24kg (6kg of this was food) which might be a bit shocking for the traditionalists out there but with all of those passes to climb, a whole five would you believe, we weren't keen on carrying a single item we didn't really need.
The drive up to the top of the lake takes about 45min - 1hr from Queenstown depending on tourist traffic and which side of the road they've chosen to drive on that day. Once you reach Glenorchy just follow the signs for the start of the Routeburn and either park at the Routeburn Shelter if you want to start by climbing Sugarloaf or turn off to the Lake Sylvan car park a few kilometres earlier if you want to copy our route. The traditional passes which are completed in either clockwise or anticlockwise (the way we went) direction are as follows:
Sugarloaf Pass (1154m)
Fohn Saddle (1506m)
Fiery Col (1546m)
Cow Saddle (1025m)
Park Pass (1176m)
Most parties start by heading up the Dart and returning through Theatre Flats and I'd suggest that this makes navigation easier on Fohn Saddle and saves your legs a tricky descent down the steeper, more difficult Hidden Falls Creek side of Park Pass. Also, if you want to loop right back to your car you'll end up climbing Sugarloaf twice or you can connect the Routeburn Shelter car park to the Lake Sylvan car park by walking or hitching if you only want to tackle it once.
Nine years earlier, on my first foray into the world of tramping with the Otago University PE School, I had climbed Sugarloaf after three days mucking around up the north branch of the Routeburn. The trip triggered in me what has become a lifelong passion for the outdoors but I had no desire to climb that hill twice more so we parked at Lake Sylvan car park instead. This first day was to be by far the biggest with our intended goal the Rock Biv just before Fohn Saddle (roughly 20 - 25km, we didn't GPS this route to save our batteries). Starting on the Lake Sylvan - Rockburn Track is like walking onto a well maintained highway and you should appreciate each and every step as you won't see another path like this for days. The views around the lake are a pretty spectacular introduction to the wilderness in this part of the country and we lapped up the sunshine as we made our way to the shelter on the banks of the Dart river.
It was here that we ran into two fit looking women with big packs who announced that they were training for Godzone and heading in the same direction as us. They had arrived the night before and climbed Sugarloaf before camping on the far side with the intention of also reaching the rock biv that evening. We would spend the next four days running into these two as they charged through rivers and bush with the ease of seasoned professionals carrying extra gear just for the added training benefits. They would catch back up to us later in the day but in the meantime we forded the river easily in front of the shelter and strolled across the grassy flats of the Dart River. There isn't so much of a track here but the terrain is easy to negotiate until you head back into the trees. We followed a mixture of trapping lines and walking track often high into the bush before regaining the river near the confluence with the Beans Burn.
We were just rounding the corner of the river, basking in the quiet tranquility of nature when we ran smack bang into 40 tourists in inflatable rafts on the opposite bank. This, coupled with the somewhat incessant drone of jet boats shooting up the Dart River every five minutes was an eloquent example of how different people's experiences of this area can be. This part of the Beans burn was also easy to cross in the wide, shallow section just before the two rivers meet. On the far side you can pick up a track which leads through the bush and down to the bridge. The track then climbs steeply (for just a little longer than you probably want it to) before dropping back down to an open grassy flat beside the river. We had our first break here at 4.5hrs and enjoyed some lunch seasoned with sand fly and a side of sand fly.
The track doesn't exactly exist past this point but we found orange markers and an easy to follow route for at least the next 4 hours. It wasn't until just before the clearing south of the rock biv that the way completely disappears near the river. From here you can either try your luck down in the water or crawl along a trapping track that stays on a ledge above the river and spits you out just over a kilometre from the campsite. It's easy going from here but after 10 hours on our feet it still felt like a long way to the monolith down below point 1078. You can stay in the rock biv but we opted to pitch our tent next to the girls who had already set up camp half an hour earlier. Although the way is mostly easy to follow you'll still need a good appreciation for route finding up to here and it's a really long way. Some people choose to get dropped off at the Beans Burn by jet boat or split this section into two days.
In honour of our new fast and light philosophy it was freeze dried cuisine for dinner - this was a bit of a shock to the system as our previous few trips had involved elaborate risottos and mulled wine. We had a good chat with our new acquaintances who as it turn out are not just adventure racers but really quite good ones with a tonne of entertaining stories about doing epic things in epic places. After feeling newly inspired about life in general if not a little humbled by my own mediocre expeditions, we turned in for the night in our brand new tent (it's a similar feeling to putting new socks on I believe, both comforting and deeply satisfying as if all is right with the world).
Day two dawned upon some pretty tired bodies but our enthusiasm was heightened by the idea that today would actually involve the climbing of some of the aforementioned five passes. We crossed over the river beside the rock biv and continued up stream for an hour following a mixture of human and game trails and at times just bulldozing straight through the undergrowth. The route up to Fohn Saddle is marked by rock cairns beginning in the stream bed directly below the saddle. We climbed straight up through the tussock to a point just above the 1300m contour. From here we began to sidle to the west before picking up the cairns and working our way around to the saddle. The Pass itself is easy to negotiate and if you want to head to Fohn Lakes stay high and head north east before you begin dropping over the other side where you'll find yourself beneath the bluffs.
We popped up onto the tops to have a look at the Lakes but continued down from the saddle to meet the river which drops out of Fohn Lake. The two girls had left a little earlier and made it across to the lakes and then out down the river from there - apparently it's a little technical to begin with and definitely steeper than our more leisurely path directly beneath the saddle. We were experiencing a scorcher of a day so upon gaining the river we took a long break to swim and consume large amounts of Salami and Camembert. We followed the river down mostly on the north side and eventually picked up a bit of a track as it gorged dramatically on the way out to the Olivine Ledge. Follow the spur on the true right of the river until you reach the shelf which marks your path to Fiery Col. This is open swampy terrain and easy to move quickly through with cairns still placed sporadically throughout. Cross the bigger river (starts south of point 1517 heading NW) at around 1130m where rock cairns mark both sides of the gorge.
The legs weren't fully recovered from the previous day so we decided to camp just below Fiery Col rather than crossing it and having to find somewhere to pitch a tent on the other side. We found a cracker little spot with a double waterfall and perfectly sized tent platform to relax in the afternoon sun. It was 7 hours total for the day and plenty of time to get some washing done before bedtime. After sleeping for near on 12 hours we were up reasonably early and straight into the climb to Fiery Col. Having already gained some height the previous day it only took 45 mins to find the top of the Col between the large boulders. On the far side it was decidedly rockier with a few patches of snow but easy to pick your way down with nice steady to walk on scree.
We just spotted the girls again in the distance as we began our descent. They had camped a little higher up the river than us the night before but close enough that we were both harassed awake in the morning by the same cheeky Kea. Again the cairns are plentiful as you pick your way down and around towards Cow Saddle. The route stays high on the spur dropping down beside some more (there's a lot on this trip) majestic looking waterfalls. Once on the flats there is some easy walking over to Cow Saddle which although boggy in places has many spots that would be fine to tent despite what we had read before getting there. A distinct track works its way along the west side of Hidden Falls Creek before crossing the river and entering the bush on the other side. There is a great campsite in the clearing one river prior to where you turn to go up to Park Pass if you're thinking of stopping around here. We made our way a few hundred metres past the creek immediately below Park Pass to where the track begins to head up the spur to the south of it.
This is an awesomely steep route and definitely gets the heart rate up as you practice step ups over and over again. While it's still track-like I'm glad I was going up rather than down as there are some fun tree ladders every few metres that would make the going slow if you're not super sure footed. We were almost at the top of the bush line when we ran into the first new people we had seen in three days. A family heading in the opposite direction who had walked up from Theatre Flat that morning and were looking at camping somewhere in Hidden Falls. After exchanging all of the appropriate pleasantries we managed the last of the climb out onto the tussock. We didn't actually find the track again from here and just took a straight line to the top of the Pass instead.
There had been plans earlier in the week to make the side trip around to Lake Nerine but it was a bit too tempting to head back to Queenstown for beer and pizza so naturally we dropped into the valley and headed towards Theatre Flat. The route down off the Pass was actually much more well defined than what we picked our way through further down. It wasn't until we hit the bush again that we started to pick up the old orange triangles again. My feet were pretty sore but we had hours of daylight left so we stopped for an early dinner and a break before tackling the last few clearings and point 908 which is a bigger climb than it looks on the map. When we finally arrived at Theatre Flat we were overwhelmed with groups camped everywhere and low and behold our adventure buddies set up right beside the track out. They had been a bit faster than our 11 hours and still had days of walking planned whereas we were definitely going to be out the next day.
Now that we were down off the tops we experienced the full force of the sand flies as we tried to make coffee and talk without swallowing too many of them. There was a good amount of story swapping and some bewilderment at how many glowing flames were out in the clearing with the total fire ban in place. In the morning the girls were already gone, the last we saw of them for the trip, and we packed the tent up quickly to escape the blood sucking swarms. Now that we were on a proper track the speed picked up significantly all the way to the turn off to Sugarloaf. This last pass is a short but sharp ascent onto a wide open saddle which drops steadily on the far side to the Routeburn Track. The number of people we began to encounter increased proportionately to our proximity with the Routeburn and unfortunately none of them looked quite as disgusting as we now felt. I distinctly smelt perfume on one girl wandering past.
It was 5.5 hours from Theatre Flat out to the Routeburn Car Park and then another hour along the road back to Lake Sylvan Car Park.
Day One: 10 hours 45 mins Lake Sylvan to Rock Biv
Day Two: 7 hours Rock Biv to Fiery Col via Fohn Saddle
Day Three: 11 hours 30 mins Fiery Col to Theatre Flat via Cow Saddle and Park Pass
Day Four: 6.5 hours Theatre Flat to Lake Sylvan Car Park via Sugarloaf
After being pushed west of Arthur's Pass due to bad weather on the other side of the divide, I was looking for a good overnighter before heading back to Christchurch at the end of a week of tramping in the area. I had initially planned on spending the week by myself but Instagram intervened and I ended up driving out towards Lake Brunner with a girl I had just met online and who my husband was convinced was probably going to be a 40 year old man. One of the hardest things I've found in the last few years is finding like minded women who genuinely enjoy the outdoors (and can carry a pack), so meeting up with Leila was a bit of a novelty after spending most of my tramping trips with a bunch of rowdy guys!
We met in Arthurs Pass mid morning and were at the start of the track before lunchtime. There is plenty of parking and public toilets at the end of Cashmere Bay Road in Te Kinga and we left the car here amongst a few camper vans and a growing swarm of sand flies. The track heads more or less straight up the mountain and once we made it passed the more well worn portion leading to the lookout things got decidedly more interesting. I had read a story the night before about a couple getting lost on the descent from the summit after they started to lose light and at the time had been a bit bemused at how they managed this. I think we lost the track three or four times as we were diverted around fallen trees through dense west coast bush and I began to feel a little more sympathetic towards their situation. The track is essentially well marked but it pays to take your time locating it again when you hit these obstacles and maybe don't get distracted talking!
The climb is just over 1000m of elevation in a reasonably short distance making the incline a whole lot of type two fun. As a day walk with a light pack this wouldn't present too much of a problem for most people but with tents and all of our other camping gear my legs were definitely feeling it after an hour. DOC suggests four hours to the summit and this is a pretty fair estimate especially if you're staying the night or know you'll need to take breaks on the way up. With no water at the top, we were hoping that we would find some on the way otherwise the old freeze dried cuisine wasn't going to go down too well. Luckily the track did eventually pass close to Jays Creek about 2/3 of the way up (see map below) and we were able to fill up everything we had before continuing on.
Once at 1196m the summit itself is still a good distance away and facing a pretty bracing wind we decided to turn back to find a flattish sheltered spot to pitch the tents. As it turned out this was probably the biggest challenge of the day - after I turned the wrong way trying to get to the Lake in the first place that is. I had a reasonably small one man tent but Leila's was a good deal bigger so some serious scouting had to be undertaken to find the all important level sleeping platform without a tonne of rocks scattered through it. We eventually located two passable (my door opened straight into a substantial flax bush) spots and set up camp for the night.
Apparently the 30th of August is still very much winter and once the sun was gone even the freeze dried stuff was looking super appealing in all its hand warming glory. Despite being not so subtly stalked by a persistent Weka all evening it was hard not to enjoy the view of lights reflecting on the dark lake and the mountains surrounding us on all sides. On a totally clear night this would be a pretty great spot for star gazing and spotting "the pot" (that's a kiwi astrological term). Unfortunately there wasn't much of a sunrise which is probably for the best since I'd brought three spare batteries for my camera and forgotten my memory card. The trip back down to the car wasn't a lot quicker than the climb up since the track is reasonably steep the whole way so you can't get much of a stride on until near the end.
Total time: 6.5 hours return
Tent sites: questionable
New Instagram friends that weren't serial killers: One (well so far so good)
There are so many walks, tramps and climbs in Arthurs Pass that I should really stop being surprised when I find another corner that I'm yet to discover. Sitting on the Otira side of the park, Carroll Hut was the perfect option for a solo overnight mission at the beginning of September. There had been plenty of snow falling in the weeks prior so I was surprised to drive over Porters and find the snow line sitting well above 1300m. The upside was that I could leave my crampons and ice axe in the car and take more chocolate instead. On the west coast side of Otira, take a hard left immediately after the first bridge onto a gravel 4WD track which leads to the car park at the start of the track. If your car has low clearance it might pay to park on the far side of the road and walk the short distance instead as some heavy machinery had been gouging holes in the access way.
You will get attacked by sand flies as soon as you exit your vehicle - don't say I didn't warn you! Thankfully my gear was all sorted but I still managed to lose some blood just trying to yank my gaiters on before hightailing it to the start of the track. Typically for the area, the track heads straight into a steep but steady climb up an often quite rocky trail. If you've been up Avalanche Peak, which most visitors to the area generally start with, then you'll have a good idea of the quad burn to come. Whilst there are no steep drop offs, some fallen trees and a good bit of mud require some scrambling, climbing and semi-controlled sliding in places. I had a pretty good sweat on after fifteen minutes and appreciated the sparsely placed horizontal sections of track that allowed me to catch my breath and actually take my pack off at one point during the ascent.
DOC suggests 2-3 hours to the hut but this is dependent on if you're just up for a day trip or staying overnight and carrying the requisite gear. I took less than two with a 13kg pack and a couple of five minute breaks but the incline was definitely challenging. Once you break out of the bush and gain the tussock the track winds around towards a waterfall high above Kelly Creek. From here you pop up and over the bluffs and find the hut sitting on a small plateau near the saddle. A tidy little 10 bunker with fantastic views from the loo, Carroll Hut made for the perfect lunch stop before I began along the range to the south-west. You could easily base yourself at the hut and climb Kellys Hill, an impressive looking summit at 1408m for an alternative day trip or overnight excursion.
I left my intentions in the hut book and set out towards Kellys Saddle where I planned to find the route heading along to the tarns where I was going to camp that night. When I got to where I could see the map showing the way I turned and walked along the ridge in the direction of point 1385. Unfortunately there was no sign of either a route marker or a track up on the top which struck me as a bit strange. It was a clear day and I was pretty confident of my bearings so I followed the map along where I thought the track would have been (more on this later) until I arrived above the four alpine lakes I had been searching for. The tarns are nestled in a valley of tussock and rock which was incredibly picturesque but offered the challenge of finding a flattish spot for my tent.
I ended up right beside the edge of one of the tarns on the stony bank where someone had already flattened out a bit of a tent site (I'd recommend an inflatable mat). Getting tent pegs in wasn't easy though so I was glad for my tiny Macpac Sololight which doesn't take much to set up. It was from here that I finally found the aforementioned track, not where the map had it but further north and lower down from the ridge. I know what you're thinking but I used the GPS on my Map Toaster App to mark the actual track on the way back just to make sure I wasn't having a navigation fail.
I went to bed early since it was bloody freezing and got dark around 6pm. I woke a couple of times in the night feeling a bit cold and when the sun finally came up the tarn was frozen over along with my tent. The process of de-icing it took a couple of hours so it wasn't until mid-morning before I was packed and ready to find out where the track went. Marker poles that were sometimes difficult to spot in the bright sunlight led back past the tarns before sweeping around the side of the ridge and coming back up from the north side of Kelly Saddle (see map below). Although the gradient was easier it was actually further than I had walked the previous day and took about the same amount of time (1 hour each way).
This would be a great trip to try if you have a moderate level of fitness and want to experience tramping up on the tops without the worry of having to find water. To find the route from the hut just keep following the original track the whole way over the saddle as it turns and heads to the tarns a few hundred metres past where current topo maps place it. I'd be pretty keen on a swim in the summer months so maybe pack a towel as well.
TIme up to hut - 1hr 55m
Hut to Tarns - 1hr
Tarns back to car park - 2hrs 40min
One of the real challenges of working in the field I do is that every now and then I have to head off somewhere incredible to manage a photo shoot. It's a hard job but I suppose someone has to do it. As we were trying to shoot a summer campaign in the middle of winter we decided to head as far north as possible and find somewhere with great hiking, expansive views and a genuine feeling of adventure. This is how I found myself on a Sunday afternoon climbing into the tiny vintage looking Great Barrier Air Plane with a camera crew, a couple of models and not much idea about the island we were heading to. Home to a little over 900 people the Barrier was once home to significant Kauri forests which were logged extensively by early Europeans. The coast is a mixture of rugged cliffs and beautiful long beaches which see plenty of visiting boats in the summer months. You can reach the island either by ferry or plane if you're not the private yacht owning type.
The flight out to the Barrier is a very scenic albeit low altitude way to travel and took around 30 minutes from Auckland airport. There's a certain sardine like quality to the seating system on the plane and anyone with thighs bigger than the average size 8 model may require a Beyonce worthy shimmy to make it down the aisle. We landed on the west coast and were met by the rest of the crew who had flown over on a separate charter and aboard the ferry earlier in the day. The Claris Store is conveniently located about 20 seconds down the road from the aerodrome and we headed in to collect some important supplies (chocolate) before getting down to business.
Our accommodation for the week was across three very different holiday homes on various parts of Blind Bay Road. The crowning jewel of which was a 19th Century homestead down on the shores of the bay itself. Electricity was in short supply but it made up for this with buckets of charm and some sweet views out across the water - oh and a camo painted Defender, because every epic adventure needs one of those. After unpacking and double checking that the weather still looked awful for the next 48hrs, we made the painful choice to stick with our plan to go hiking the next day. We had a lot of content to cover in four days including multiple locations around the island so we got the wet weather gear out and informed the makeup artist she would be needing waterproof mascara.
There are heaps of amazing tracks criss-crossing the island and around 60% of it is actually a designated nature reserve. The terrain is impressively rugged with steep ridge lines jutting out over dense forests and dramatic cliffs making up large parts of the shoreline. We drove north from Blind Bay on Aotea Road to the start of Palmers Track just NE of Mt Hobson. This is a very achievable overnight trip for anyone with a good level of fitness but it's a smidgen on the steep side with an innumerable number of steps leading to the summit and eventually onto the hut. After parking up and getting the models sorted with brand new rain jackets, one of them managed to promptly tear a hole in theirs on the back of the Defender (to be fair it was about the third incident with the same piece of jagged metal sticking out of the back door - probably should have done something about it earlier).
***At the start of the track DOC has placed a cleaning station to treat your boots in an effort to reduce the spread of Kauri dieback disease. Please make sure you take the time to use this and help protect the Kauri population on the island.
From the start of the track it's a short 10 minute walk into Windy Canyon Lookout. If you're visiting the island for a shorter time this would be worth a quick detour off the main road to see. Unfortunately the heavy rain and dense cloud was obscuring the best of the views for us but I've since googled it and the vista is indeed quite good. From here the track climbs steadily up to Mt Hobson for about another 3km. Don't let the short distance fool you, there are a lot of stairs and they're not all that much fun in the rain with a heavy pack. Thankfully the view from the summit is more than worth the effort - or so I've been told, it was a total white out when we got there too! After realising the very limited potential for photography we trudged on to the hut to dry out and warm up.
Mt Heale Hut is pretty luxurious as far as backcountry accommodation goes. Solar powered lights, gas cookers and two well appointed rooms for catching some zzz's make for a pretty comfortable stay all around. We had a pretty awesome dinner cooked by one of the locals who was catering for us (I know super rough) that she had thoughtfully vacuum sealed in pouches of delicious goodness for us to carry. We had a good night with cards, music and way too much junk food before snuggling down in more or less the entire Macpac Sleeping Bag range. I unfortunately woke at about 3am with crippling nausea and couldn't get back to sleep. With no explanation for it but also no signs of actually hurling I cranked into day two of walking with no breakfast and amazingly a pack that seemed to have gained a couple of kilos overnight. The weather was toying with us as we headed back up to the summit in the hopes of catching that beautiful 360 degree view in the morning light. Alas, visibility was at about five metres and I had to pull out the survival blanket to keep the models warm in their summer outfits.
Hope was officially given up on after about half an hour and we continued on back down the track to make the most of the overcast but not fully raining morning. It's always interesting retracing your steps when you couldn't see where you were going on the way in. As we dropped lower we started to see glimpses of the coast and eventually even some legitimate blue sky. The stairs had also magically reduced in length over the course of the night, taking significantly less time to descend than they did to haul ourselves up the previous afternoon. The crew managed to get some shots in and even fly the drone for a few minutes before the weather totally packed in again. With most of our gear now wet and covered in mud, we made it back to the vehicles having totally failed at getting summery looking photography but otherwise in good spirits.
Our times were notably slow due to the photographers insistence on doing his job but whatever, not everyone is cut out for demolishing DOC track times. Speaking of which the DOC stats for this little excursion are fairly accurate at 3hrs one way. I'd reduce that considerably if you're in for a day trip and not carrying much gear but those steps are hell on the quads with a fully laden pack and slippery in the wet. Awesome way to see the island and plenty of ways you can add to this overnight trip by linking up with other tracks.
Bob’s Camp Bivouac, just off the back of Mt Thomas, is the perfect overnight trip when the weather is looking a little iffy in the main divide or you are pressed for time; as was the case when I visited. Being unable to leave Christchurch until 1pm on a Saturday this wee bivvy was the ideal location for a quick overnight trip to get away from the city.
The drive to the start of the track at the Wooded Gully camping area takes just over 1 hour from Christchurch via Rangiora or Oxford. Once parked up and ready to go you have a few options of route to reach Bob’s Camp Biv. I chose to take the ridge track but you could just as easily take the more popular wooded gully track up to the top of the ridge (if you do take the wooded gully track turn west once you intersect the ridge track in order to reach the track heading to Bob’s Camp Biv).
From here the track is above the bushline for a while giving stunning views in all directions before dropping down towards the intersection with the Whare route. The Whare route leads down to the popular, and much larger, Pinchgut Hut. I had been following plenty of footsteps in the snow up until this point which abruptly stopped when I turned west onto Bob’s Camp route. The route itself is well marked and easy to follow, with just the odd bit of windfall when I went through. The route drops down towards a small saddle before climbing gently up towards an area of open tops just above the biv site.
The biv itself is located about 10 minutes from here in beech forest near a small stream. The hut is a cosy two-bunk affair that used to be located in Upper Salmon Creek before being relocated to its current site. There is a good camping area at the Biv so don’t be put off by the small size if you’re happy to tent it up. Water is available from the nearby stream (this may run dry at the height of summer). There is also a large outdoor fireplace that appears to get regular use (although I couldn’t find an axe when I visited). One of the great things about this area is that it is dog friendly so I was joined by my furry friend for the trip.
Time: 2h 45m - 5 h one-way depending on your fitness
Distance: Just under 10km with about 1000m ascent into the biv.
The foothills around Canterbury are ideal for those weekends when a day mission with a light pack is about all you have motivation for. They offer sweeping views from the mountains in the west all the way out to the ocean in the east and provide a variety of different challenge levels depending on how much you want to impress your friends/partner/pet hamster. Another massive bonus is that most tracks are dog friendly so you can take your K9 companion along to drag you to the summit. We have just invested in a Ruffwear pack for Izzy to carry her own water in so we were pretty keen to go try it out and play in some of the recently fallen snow. There was also the late addition of a friend's husky to dog-sit so it was in everyone's best interest to tire them both out.
Mt Richardson is just over an hour from Christchurch and at just over 1000m is perfect for anyone with a moderate fitness level. Head north from the city and drive out towards Oxford along Tram Road. Turn right onto High Street/Ashley Gorge Road once you reach the township and follow this to Glentui. Turn left onto Glentui Bush Road and drive until you reach the car park for Mt Thomas Conservation Area. DOC puts the climb at 3 hours and although it's relatively straight forward and easy to follow the track it can be steep and slippery so this is a fair guide for your average group. The return trip should be much quicker but be prepared to be slowed down by mud if it has rained recently. We ended up hitting snow after the first hour due to the storm that had just been through but in general you won't find this too often even in winter.
For a bit of variation you can continue on from the summit on Blowhard Track and connect back up via the Bypass Track which will take you back to the car park in similar time to the up and back Richardson Track. A bigger loop takes you further along the ridge from the Bypass but drops you out at Bald Hills Road with a few kilometres between you and your car and not too many options for hitchhiking. For more details on the track and our trip report click on the video below.
If this is your first foray into the foothills and you enjoy this little jaunt out of the city then Mt Thomas is another good option to look at for your next trip. It's slightly further north but a similar height and level of difficulty.
DOC Time: 5 hours
Our TIme: 3.5 hours
Track: Super muddy - take your trekking poles!
Bonus Points: The cafes in Oxford close their kitchens early so be warned!
One of the hard things about hiking in New Zealand is there are plenty of places you're not allowed to take your dog. That can lead to all sorts of feelings of guilt, betrayal and separation anxiety which are no fun for anyone. Cue the Hakatere Conservation Area. The Te Araroa Trail runs straight through it and at only 90 minutes drive from Christchurch it's perfect for finding overnighters that are K9 friendly. Head south to Mt Somers before turning inland towards Lake Clearwater, turn right onto Hakatere/Heron Road and drive 3-4kms until just before the bridge where there's a small car park at the side of the road. You can also access Mystery Lake from Lake Clearwater and if you want to walk in and out the same way I'd recommend starting from the Lake instead. We planned to complete the loop from the lake, over the saddle to Boundary Creek Hut and out past the west side of Dog Hill so parking here made more sense.
As work commitments meant not leaving town until 1pm and stopping for fuel and lunch on the way, we didn't actually get on the track until three in the afternoon. For some stupid reason both of us were confident in walking 16km from the car to Mystery Lake in the less than three hours of daylight we still had left - more on this shortly. The track begins by crossing the wide open grasslands of what used to be a high country station and the gradient is only very gradually uphill all the way to Paddle Hill Creek. There was plenty of water here at the end of April so I imagine it's running all year round. The heat was well and truly getting to our four legged companion at this stage so we had to rest up and let her cool off in the stream as we watched the sun dip even lower in the sky.
Once we were underway again we had to pick up the pace as we hadn't really planned on looking for a tent site in the dark. Again the track is relatively easy to follow here but it would be an interesting challenge in the dark or with snow on the ground so keep this in mind when planning your trip. You follow the Te Araroa Trail until the junction with Mystery Lake Track. These junctions are well sign posted with track distances and times which are pretty accurate for the average hiker. DOC suggests 5 hours into Mystery Lake from the road end and we took just under 3 at a pace that may as well have been jogging. The last section of track has a few short hills and then you pop out at the East end of the Lake. The low lying areas are quite swampy but there are some ideal tent sites just to the sides of the track about 50m from the lake edge. It was basically dark when we arrived so we didn't spend too long choosing somewhere to set up camp for the night.
It was a crystal clear night which always means two things - breathtaking starry skies and bloody freezing! I made the most of practicing my night photography, downed a re-hydrated gourmet feast and tried to make the dog a bed out of something that wasn't my sleeping bag before retiring for the night. Staying right next to a lake with a Labrador was a fatal mistake and she was soaking wet by the time we got her in the tent which in turn made my sleeping bag soaking wet. I didn't get a lot of sleep in the end and as I write this a semi-new four season sleeping bag may have replaced my trusty but somewhat tired three-season version. In the morning we climbed up the hill with a hot cup of coffee to catch the sun as it rose and thaw out a little.
Once the tent was packed away we headed east and up over the hill behind the lake. This links up with the Potts Hut Track after about a kilometre and takes an easy climb up to the top of the saddle. If you are coming up from the Boundary Creek side then you're in for a bit of a gut buster, give yourself plenty of time and take lots of water in summer. After dropping down and taking a slight detour to the hut we stopped for lunch and some shade by the river. The hut had been full of hunters overnight and a couple were still there when we arrived. Having to keep the two dogs apart we didn't hang around too long and hit the track again heading for the car early in the afternoon. The way back to the car from here is essentially a four wheel drive track although you would need good clearance to make it through. DOC puts the walk out at 5 hours and we shaved a good amount of time off that due to not really stopping the whole way. We were back at the car just after two with one seriously tired dog and a strong desire for fast food.
All in all a cool little circuit with beautiful sweeping views and a stunning campsite. Easy hiking but long distances so give yourself plenty of time on both days.
I've been thinking for a while of heading off on a solo mission and overcoming a few fears that have been lingering in the back of mind. I wanted to climb something that would be physically challenging but also make me practice my route finding skills without having someone else to rely on. Mt Cassidy was a pretty perfect option for this. At 1850m the summit towers over Arthurs Pass Village and boasts sweeping views across the valley to Mt Rolleston, Avalanche Peak and Mt Philistine. With a steep track leading to only just above the bush line, I was going to get plenty of navigation practice and lots of rock scrambling.
I left Christchurch at 6.30am and headed out to Mum and Dad's for an early morning beacon pick up before making my way inland to Arthurs. It was already 9.30am by the time I parked up amongst all the tourists at the beginning of the Devil's Punchbowl track. The weather forecast was promising rain later in the afternoon so I was already eyeing the cloud cover a bit warily as I headed off on Con's Track just on the far side of the first bridge (if you cross a second bridge you've missed the turnoff - it's a bit overgrown and easy to miss coming from the car park).
If you've ever climbed the popular Avalanche Peak Route you'll be familiar with the part walking part climbing nature of the tracks in this part of the park. Unfortunately having been the first person on the track in a while I was eating spider webs every two metres and had to walk with my trekking pole held out like a light saber most of the way up. While there was nothing too challenging or exposed to worry about the heart rate was definitely up by the time I cleared the tree line an hour later. A warning sign reminding me that this was a mountaineering route was super comforting as I took in the bluffs immediately above me and the sparsely placed poles disappearing into the distance.
I made my way up past the first few poles before taking a wrong turn and having to back track to find where the route began traversing around to the north-east. After making my way across a few smaller scree slopes three poles indicated the start of the climb up to the main ridge. This slope is reasonably steep and I had to stay off the shifting rock to make any real progress up it. Head slightly to the right when you reach a fork about half way up - there are plenty of rock cairns but I found most of them on the way down rather than on the way up.
Once you pop over the top onto the main ridge the going gets a lot easier with a large boulder field making for some rock hopping goodness. Continue heading straight from the scree slope and you'll run into the first of several more rock cairns heading to the top of the ridge. Follow these to point 1810 and then onto the summit itself. I made good progress across the top and made it to 1810 by 12.45pm just as the clouds were really starting to close in and totally obscure the ridge in front of me. I had made it through all the parts of the climb that had made me nervous so decided to call it a day and head back down while I could still see the way.
The return trip was a lot more straight forward now that I had the route figured out and I made it back to the bluffs by 1.45pm. The cloud had raced down the valley and covered all of the surrounding peaks making me feel better about bailing on the top. I was back at the car an hour later with a different group of tourists looking a lot less sweaty and disheveled than myself. A cheeky iced chocolate at the village and it was back to Christchurch again. While I wouldn't normally go adventuring by myself (I'm pretty social by nature) it was pretty awesome getting to test out everything I've learnt in the past couple of years and practice keeping a cool head. I'll be honest, I cried twice and phoned my husband three times but I also kept going when I was genuinely scared because I knew I was totally capable of crushing this mountain. Now I just need to go back a smash out that last 500m!
About two hours south of Christchurch and directly inland from Hinds lies the Mt Peel Conservation Area. Popular with families for the variety of day walks around the forest park, the mountain is a great introduction to day hiking in Canterbury and like all of the foothills boasts beautiful views across the Plains all the way to the coast. We were taking a couple of friends out for the day to give them a break from farm life after making the transition back from living in London and even the threat of a 30 degree day wasn't deterring any of us.
You may need a map to guide you to Blandswood Road as the area is not well sign posted from the Arundel-Rakaia Gorge Road. Turn right straight after crossing the Rangitata and follow the river back towards the hills. There are two carparks and a formidable long drop at the beginning of a gravel road which leads to the track proper. We took Deer Spur track to the summit which was a steep but well-maintained path initially winding through some really gorgeous native bush.
The track then breaks through the tree line and out on to an open ridge line and up to the trig. The last section caused a bit of puffing towards the end but we were cracking into lunch after only 98 minutes with a good number of stops along the way. Having conquered the easy track we set out for a slightly more adventurous descent down the overgrown south ridge. If you're in shorts prepare to have your legs scratched up a bit negotiating this path as it obviously sees a lot less traffic than the Deer Spur side. All of us managed to slip over on the loose gravel early on the way down so take a walking pole if you're like me and are balance challenged on even relatively flat ground. Once back in the bush the track gets wider and easier to walk along as you near the car park again. Just before the end we deviated straight into the creek - just get wet feet rather than trying fruitlessly to rock hop along here - you will fall and embarrass yourself.
Total time - a leisurely 3 hours return
Family friendly but a good level of fitness will make the trip more enjoyable.
The Crow Valley is the perfect weekend excursion into Arthur's Pass for those with limited time on their hands but wanting epic views and an awesome hut to spend the night. At only 4 hours walk from the road at Klondyke Corner, the 10 bunk hut is well situated high up the valley below Mt Rolleston at the end of an easy to follow route directly up the river. Half of our group had the luxury of a three day weekend and headed in on the Friday with more food than they would need for a week. The rest of us were parked on the Arthur's side of the river at a friendly 11am after having a few false starts leaving home that morning (the bacon was definitely worth gong back for). The sun was already out in full force as we began to pick our way up the main river bed towards the junction with the Crow Valley. There's enough water along the whole track that you can get away with a cup over a water bottle all the way to the hut.
If you're heading in on a properly hot day then there are a few spots that would be perfect for a swim in both the Waimak and the Crow if you're brave enough. As we turned north we came across the track hugging the bottom of the spur and made our way around and through the forest. From here the track disappears in places but follow your nose and you'll find a few well placed rock cairns to help you navigate up the valley. We had plenty of time up our sleeves so it was a leisurely wander up until we hit snow and the last part of the track to the hut. This is the only section that gets a little bit steep and slippery in places but it's still pretty easy going. A slip just below the hut didn't bother me too much on the way in but a few stray boulders had me running on the return trip out the next day. This would be a great place not to hang around for too long.
While we had been walking in, the first half of our group had spent the day up the top of the valley practicing basic snow skills in the basin below Rome Ridge. This is where the Avalanche Peak route drops down and joins the Crow Valley from a scree slope just a little further to the north. This is an expert route but one I'd love to come back and have a go at with a bit more gear or less snow in summer. Our two groups converged on the hut late in the afternoon where a smorgasbord of culinary delights were presented as the challenge for the weekend was cooking gourmet hut food. Carrying in the non-stick fry pan turned out to be rather futile when we realised it was no longer very non-stick. Alas the pancakes were a huge fail but the sushi, tuna and wraps were bloody good.
It was a full night with two other groups in the hut so a couple of the boys opted to sleep on the well appointed deck while the rest of us squeezed in on the bunks. Not that the sleeping conditions mattered in the end as a chorus of snoring kept most of us awake half the night and had me questioning why I choose to go away with boys at all.
The trip back out to Klondyke Corner was pretty quick as much of the snow from the previous days had managed to melt leaving the track relatively clear the whole way. This is an easy 3-4 hours depending on how much time you want to dedicate to relaxing next to the river along the way. Once back at the car we made a slight detour via the Bealey Pub and later the Sheffield Pie Shop before heading back to Christchurch and real life again.
In New Zealand we don't go hiking, walking or frolicking in the wilderness - we tramp.