Most tramping trips don't begin with handing over your car keys to a complete stranger you just found wandering out of the bush in his undies. Thankfully Phil turned out to be a stand up guy and drove our car back to the other end of the track for us - also conveniently saving him a 12km mountain bike back to his own vehicle. The Cass Saddle to Lagoon Saddle track is an enjoyable and highly accessible 2-3 day walk in the Craigieburn and Black Ranges. The only issue being the considerable distance between the two track ends. We had driven to the Bealey Hut end beside the Arthur's Pass Wilderness Lodge and left Jeremy's single speed bike in the trees so he could retrieve the car the following day. Unfortunately, we were running pretty late leaving Christchurch after our puppy sitter fell through and we had left it to the last minute to purchase hut tickets. This put us at the Cass river end a little after 2pm negotiating a car swap and ready to hit the trail.
The first few kilometres are easy going along a 4wd track and then up the open river bed. Although there is a well worn path in places it is unnecessary to stick to it until after you pass the two major slips on the true right of the river. Large orange arrows direct you to where the track leaves the river in favour of the much cooler forest. A well maintained path allows for easy walking all the way to the Cass Saddle Hut. Doc suggests 4 hours for this leg of the journey but we arrived comfortably in 2.5. The hut itself is a cozy 3 bunker with a generous fire and separate receiving room for the loud sleepers.
From here we made our way out onto the open tussock of the saddle and our highest point for the day. In the colder months the area is an avalanche zone but there was nothing but rock and shingle above us as we ploughed along the track. Once across the saddle, one can look down at the Hamilton Hut away in the distance and smile because it's still two hours away. It could be worse though, and the four tourists we encountered heading in the opposite direction on our descent proved as much. The first two looked a little worse for wear and the second pair were barely moving up the slope. We gave them a friendly hello as we barrelled back down onto the flat of the valley. Once again we found ourselves following the river and before long it opened up to see the Hamilton sitting on a little rise in an open grassy field.
The 20 bunk hut has a beautiful big stone fireplace in the centre and generous living and cooking areas. We were delighted to find some evening reading material by way of a few issues of Wilderness magazine and settled in to watch the sun drop very slowly in the sky. Dinner consisted of noodles and Outdoor Gourmet Company Wild Mushroom and Lamb Risotto (I highly recommend). With no one else in the hut we had a tranquil sleep and awoke around 8am ready for the stroll out to the road end. Not being in any sort of hurry we took our time over breakfast and were just shouldering our pleasantly light packs before 9.30am.
From the hut, the track winds a little further downstream and then across a wire bridge. We dropped our packs here and wandered up to Mirror Tarn, a 10 minute side trip that circles a small green pond - this may look better in the photo than it did in real life. The trip on to West Harper Hut took exactly 2 hours and we were glad for the mattresses back at the Hamilton once we peeked inside. The fire would be fantastic in winter but the old canvas bunks have definitely seen better days. After taking on some more fuel we kept trekking towards the Lagoon Saddle Shelter with an eye on the weather. Metservice had promised rain all weekend and we were waiting for it to eventuate.
With the exception of a German tourist walking the Te Araroa Trail, we were all alone wandering back towards the Bealey. It was another 2 hours to the Shelter, a tidy one bunk A-frame, and a further 1 hour 50 minutes to the track end. The rain caught us just as we disappeared back into the bush down the final spur. Thankfully our car was in fact waiting for us with keys included and we didn't have to track Phil down or try to walk back to Christchurch.
Cass Road End to Hamilton Hut - 5 hours
Hamilton Hut to Bealey Hut - 5 hours 50 minutes
Hamilton Hut is serviced and requires 3 standard hut tickets or 1 serviced hut ticket per person.
In New Zealand we don't go hiking, walking or frolicking in the wilderness - we tramp.