Saturday, January 16, 2021

Wet feet: hundreds of river crossings, bogs galore, and a lake

 I spent a couple of days pottering around the Peninsula, Port Hills and Lyttleton, including a half day trip out to Quail Island in Lyttleton Harbour. There are some spectacular spots in this area, so close to Christchurch, and infinitely more pretty. I really don't like Christchurch at all, but I could contemplate living in nearby Lyttleton, connected by a tunnel through the hills so only a 15-20 minute drive to the CBD. I also did a little retail therapy, buying a few bits and pieces for tramping and packrafting.

With another lovely weather window ahead I drove to North Canterbury, and up the Hurunui to Lake Taylor, where I camped a night and packed my backpack for a five day trip. It's a long drive in, and I spied a bunch of kayakers and packrafters running the river. Many were portaging a Grade 3 rapid so I had a chat with them and learnt they were part of Canterbury Whitewater Club and they regularly run the Hurunui. Some were coming to the packrafting meetup.

It was blowing a strong norwester down the Lake, but I found a sheltered spot to camp behind a stand of flax near the shoreline, and filled up my 70L pack for a tramping and paddling circuit I had devised. I was glad for the extra day as it took quite some time.

The next morning I drove back down river to the Jollie Brook swing bridge, parked the car and set off. Once over the swingbridge I walked up to the confluence with the Jollie Brook where I had to make my first route decision of the trip. I planned to stay at Gabriel Hut and had two options: continue up the Hurunui Valley for 3-4 hours, or walk up the Jollie Brook and then over a saddle to Gabriel, which would take much longer. I chose the latter.

The walk up the Jollie Brook was gorgeous. It was a sunny day with a gentle breeze and the continuous need to cross the small river to continue upstream kept me cool and enjoying the scenery.

At the confluence with the Coldstream I stopped for lunch and contemplated whether I would have enough time to do a detour up to the hut to bag it. The trip time estimations on the DOC literature and signage were extremely inconsistent across the board, so I didn't know if it was half an hour, or an hour one way to the hut. I decided to give it a miss, particularly as my pack was heavy and I was taking longer than the DOC estimations, but I'd enjoyed the walk up the valley so much I was perfectly happy to do it again some other time.

From the Coldstream confluence the track to Jollie Brook Hut was poorly marked. River crossings continued, and marker poles were obscured by high grass. After climbing up over a moraine wall the track back down from the top wasn't that obvious at first, but it would have been hard to actually get lost given you just needed to follow the river.

Jollie Brook Hut was in a pearler of a location, and quite a tidy wee hut, but it was too early to stop and I wanted to be much closer to the Lake for the following day's paddle, so off up river on a gentle gradient to a low saddle, and then a steady descent to Gabriel Hut.

Gabriel Hut is a rustic oldie, with water collected from a nearby stream. Nothing quite like the old huts for character, especially when the weather is warm and you don't actually need a fire!

The next morning I headed off early, down the track to the head of Lake Sumner. Over to my left was the Lake outlet, the head of the Hurunui. Unfortunately I wouldn't be paddling that on my own. 

Since the predominant wind up here is a norwester, I needed to get on the lake early to paddle up it before the breeze kicked in. I was only going a few kilometres to Marion Bay, just after Evangeline Stream enters the lake, and there was a track to walk if I needed it. It only took 1.5 hours, in glassy conditions, and I was well off the water drying everything along the stony beach before the first wisps of wind began stirring up the lake.

From Marion Bay the track climbs up a ridge and skirts Lake Marion before joining the Te Araroa trail at Kiwi Saddle. The improvement in track quality was obvious, I was now on a regularly used trail, maintained by both higher usage and probably more attention by DOC as a result.

The descent off the saddle is steep in bits and then it was a long walk down the grassy valley to Hope Kiwi Lodge. I met one TA walker heading to Hurunui Hut, and another who had walked from Boyle Village that morning and was done for the day. Because I knew I would be staying in huts used by TA walkers I had brought my bivy bag and air mattress, but I was the second person to arrive at the 16 berth hut so my bunk was secured. 

Not long after my arrival a couple of DOC workers drove in and proceeded to mow the lawns around the hut and the track back up the valley I had just walked down. They were actually in to work on the nearby swing bridge, but were keen to do other maintenance as well. I told them about the poor track markings along the Jollie Brook, and it turned out they had only recently cleared the lower section to Cold Stream, hence why the noticeable difference. I also mentioned the inconsistent signage...

Slowly the hut filled up, mostly with TA walkers back on the trail after a few days' rest in Hamner Springs. Most of them knew each other, or had heard of each other, and they swapped stories of their travails in the Richmond Ranges. It seems the Richmond Ranges are more memorable than the Waiau Pass section....

The only other group not walking the TA were a threesome who had walked from 3 Mile Stream Hut that day. As I was planning to walk that route the next day I asked them for information about the track. It turned out they had missed the turnoff to the track over the low saddle to Hope Kiwi, instead descending steeply to Lake Sumner and then walking the TA trail back over Kiwi Saddle to the hut. What should have been an easy 3 hour walk morphed into a much longer harder day. The boys were exhausted!

I was last to leave the next morning as usual, with the TA walkers all planning to walk past Hurunui Hut to the next one along the trail. I headed up the trail to 3 Mile Stream and was immediately back on a narrower, less maintained track through beautiful mossy beech forest. It was well marked and the track very easy to follow, though there were numerous sections of alpine bog to wade through, which reminded me a little of my tramp in the Takitimus. It is absolutely glorious forest to walk through, much wetter than the drier beech forest nearer the lake, and the wasp population seemed to be much lower as well.

Wasps are a major problem over late summer and early Autumn in the north of the South Island. They feed off the honeydew produced by a sap eating insect on beech trees and create monster nests. Should you disturb a nest of these introduced European wasps then you could be stung relentlessly. Some people have had anaphylactic reactions to wasp stings, so the recommendation is to bring antihistamines if tramping at this time of year. There is some wasp poisoning going on, which is making inroads, but the problem is huge.

There is a steep descent to 3 Mile Stream where I met the track heading down the valley. There is a big orange triangle marking the trailhead for the trail I had just taken, and a DOC sign right in front of me which totally fails to point out the trailhead, so I was not surprised the fellas missed the turnoff. As they also had no maps they didn't even know how much more they were undertaking when they realised they had missed the track and decided not to turn back.

Just over the river was Three Mile Stream Hut, another beautiful hut in a pearler location. Definitely a nice spot to hang out, but I merely lunched on the river flats below it, then headed on.

The day was warming up. My trail for the afternoon involved walking up the river valley to a saddle, walking through lots more mossy bogs and around some tarns, then descending to McMillan Stream and following that down to the Hurunui above Lake Sumner.

The going was pretty easy, but the hot weather made it tiring work. Luckily I was in the beech forest most of the time, and the multiple river crossings gave me an opportunity to dump the pack and go for a full body immersion! You need a hot day for me to go jump in an ice cold NZ stream, even fully clothed I didn't linger long!!

The final section of the track sidled beside river meadows full of cows, calves and a few big bulls making some slightly aggressive behaviour towards each other. I had to walk across this meadow to get to the Hurunui swing bridge, but the bulls took no notice of me and the calves and their mothers scampered out of my way.

I crossed the swing bridge then climbed the final kilometre or 2 to Hurunui Hut. The river upstream of the lake is braided, and looked a bit too bony to float down, so I planned to walk back the next day to the Lake. It had been a long 9.5 hour tramping day for me, but one of the most enjoyable scenery wise.

There was no-one in the hut when I arrived at 6:30pm, but later five TA walkers dribbled in, having walked all the way from Windy Point. They were concerned about getting through the next two passes before forecasted heavy rain would make the rivers impassable, so were planning very long 30km plus days. I was quietly smug about enjoying my easy trip planning around good weather windows, and not stuck on a timetable of torture (which is what the TA trail seems to me from a distance). Of course if the girls had left Hamner one day earlier, like all the others I met the night before, they wouldn't be in their current predicament.....

The TA walkers all left before me, of course, and I ambled back down the Hurunui to Lake Sumner. At Home Bay I met a couple of sea kayakers who were camped across the lake having paddled there from Loch Katrine. They were planning on walking to the hot springs, then paddling back to their campsite. Me? I'm inflating my packraft and paddling right down the lake to the other side, to spend a second night in Gabriel Hut.

The paddle along the shoreline was easy going. I passed a fisherman in a tinny, and a group of teenagers camped at the mouth of the canal joining Loch Katrine to Lake Sumner. On around the point I saw no-one else, and there was not a ripple on the lake to disturb the reflections. Only my paddle strokes.

I landed at the beach where the trail up to Gabriel Hut begins, and took my time drying all my gear. I went for a wander down to where the Hurunui outlet is. It's green and wide, and probably totally fine to float down, but I don't know the river, and I'm all by myself, so I packed up my gear into my backpack and schlepped up the hill to the hut for a second night.

It's early afternoon, so I got out my book and laid in the grass reading, until I was stung by a pesky wasp. So much for a relaxing afternoon siesta, I retired to the hut and read in my bunk instead. Later, a couple on an overnight hunting trip turned up, but opted to camp in their tent so they wouldn't disturb me with their nocturnal activities. Very thoughtful of them.

The next morning was shaping up to be another hot one so I hoofed off early down the track, which is mostly in the river valley with little shade. I scoped the river as I went, which is mostly pretty docile except for a gorge I can't see into, but is avoidable. After Sisters Stream swing bridge the river gets gnarlier, and the track is much rougher, it presumably gets much less foot traffic and requires a little bushbashing to get through some sections. At last I reached and crossed the Jollie Brook and then it's a short amble back to the car.

I drove back down the Hurunui and turned north through Lewis Pass. I stopped at Maruia Pass Hot Springs and treated myself to a night of luxury. Hang the expense!

The next day I continued north to Murchison, where I will be based for a few days doing a packrafting skills and safety course on the mighty Buller River. That's next....

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