Saturday, March 20, 2021

Four Days with Freddie

As a result of my aborted trip up the St James, I returned to Hanmer Springs and booked to walk the Four Peaks Track. This is a private 4 day walk on Four Peaks Station, inland from Geraldine, staying in some genuine old shepherds' and musterers' huts that have been restored, with a few mod cons for us pampered paying guests. Packs are transported between huts, and each hut has a lean to kitchen with gas hobs, pots and pans, crockery and cutlery. Each hut site has a detached bathroom with gas califont shower and flushing toilet and the huts all have either a stove or an open fire.

I had first heard about this track reading a brochure in the backpackers in Geraldine a couple of years ago. There is a mountain bike option but that sticks to 4WD tracks and is nowhere near as scenic as the walker's trail.

Jo and Steve McAtamney own Four Peaks Station, where they run sheep, cattle and deer. The walking track is Jo's baby, but they don't advertise much and it isn't a production line of regular departures every day. When I had enquired, Jo had given me specific dates that I could come, and with my 2 days' tramp canned I was able to drive down to near Fairlie, stock up on food, and arrive Monday evening.

There were 3 others on the trip. Dorothy-Jean and John from Auckland, and Dave Pringle from Christchurch. Dave grew up in Geraldine, with a view of the Four Peaks Skyline throughout his childhood. His grandfather and father had worked on some of the old stations and he had always wanted to walk there. Given he was almost 83, and officially the oldest person to ever walk the track, he'd been waiting a long time! He wasn't even sure he would make it..

Dave and I shared one of the station huts the first night, DJ and John the other. Everyone seemed nice and friendly so it promised to be a good crew.

DAY 1 Station Huts to Pleasant Gully Hut 16.5 km

After a good night's sleep we were up and ready for Jo to drive us in the jeep up a station track for about 15 minutes to our start for the day. We began with a climb up a 4WD track to Choubra Pass, so named for the farm of that name which was purchased by the current owners and added to Four Peaks Station. It was called Choubra Farm after a hospital in Egypt in which the previous owner had been nursed during WW2. 

After Choubra Pass the road descended to Gooseberry Creek and past an old dilapidated hut that is on the neighbouring property. Then the road began to climb again, and passed an aptly named Bullfrog Rock.

The walking track left the 4WD track and sidled through tussock, in and out of a few streams and over a slip. The homemade sign posts get knocked around a bit by the cattle so it was sometimes hard to work out the route. After a while there was a long climb up along a deer fence, and then the track descended down a steep ridge to a stream below. The track skirted high above a cliff and made its way down and across the river to Halfway Hut.

The hut hadn't been restored but there was a chair or three so I sat out in the sun and ate my lunch. Then I joined the old Clayton Pack Track, apparently the original road through to the Mackenzie from Geraldine before the route through Fairlie was established. It's fenced on both sides so I wondered whether it's still a paper road between two properties...

After a short wander along this track I climbed back over the fence and sidled through tussock, gradually climbing, soon steeply climbing, up a ridge to McDonald Saddle. There I met DJ and John, who had stuck to the 4WD track all day. Dave was a way behind them, also deciding to keep with the less arduous option.

Soon I had left them behind again, as the descent into Pleasant Gully saw me going at a faster pace, arriving at the hut first. I claimed one of the smaller rooms in the adjunct hut, leaving the main hut for DJ and John to sleep in. Dave got the other room, which was smaller than mine. Getting there first has privileges!

Dave arrived last, feeling pretty knackered and decided he needed a pick me up. Out came the single malt whisky and I joined him in a small nip.

We had our showers then cooked and ate dinner around the outside table, the evening being quite warm and wind free. I'd brought a bottle of red wine to share and we all got on well, which was a bonus, but we were all off to bed early after a big first day.

DAY 2 Pleasant Gully Hut to Sutherland Hut 15km

After breakfast we left our bags to be transported to the next hut and got underway. I'm usually a bit slow getting going first thing, so I left last. The route headed along a track beside a stream before crossing it, climbing down a dodgy staircase, and climbing up a beautiful fern shrouded hill to come out on a saddle. 

I overtook David on this climb, and caught up with DJ and John at the top. That was when the three of us started following a farm track, chatting away, and not noticing for quite a long time, as we descended this track, that we were going the wrong way! When we could see the night before's hut at the bottom of the hill we at last realised our mistake and had to climb all the way back up again. Being more tramping fit, I surged on ahead, returning to the saddle where the signs taking us sidling around the next hill were pretty obvious! I was annoyed with myself, as I had blindly followed DJ and John's lead, even though I hadn't seen any route markers. It reinforces my view that solo travel actually has its safety advantages, especially as it pertains to route finding. If the group simply follows the leader, then they all get lost together!!

The track wound around the hills, at a reasonably gentle gradient, until it joined the 4WD track at what is called Hour Mark. I can assure you it took me a lot longer than an hour, especially given the unintended detour!

In the middle of the track was an insulated bag. Inside was a thermos of hot water, mugs, tea and coffee, and fresh blueberry muffins! There was a nice seat nearby, where I savoured my morning tea, before continuing on for the big climb of the day.

The track climbed relentlessly up to Fiery Pass (1284m). It was a slow and steady slog, and I was glad to not be carrying a heavily laden backpack. The views were stupendous, and to add to the experience, there were binoculars available to get even better views.

I stopped for lunch at Fiery Pass and had a little lie down. But it was a tad windy so it wasn't a long break. Then came the descent, easy enough down the road, but a long way as it zig zagged down to Eyre Stream and the Mowbray River. The vegetation on the western side of the Peaks was noticeably drier, more tussock, not so many ferns and shrubbery.

Once across Mowbray River it was a 15-20min rock scramble downriver to the charming Sutherland's Hut. This is reputed to be the oldest surviving hut in NZ, having been lovingly restored by Jo's husband Steve, and it's interior lined and insulated. I was again first to the hut, so took a bunk in the main hut, leaving the two outbuildings available for the others to choose from. 

Our bags were there, along with a lovely note from Jo suggesting we check out the "river fridge" for a treat. Down at the river Jo had left some bottles of beer and bubbly cooling in the stream, for us to savour after a long day in the hills. Such wonderful hospitality!

The wind was picking up all afternoon, and a low cloud bank was making its way down the valley. I anxiously kept an eye out for the others, who arrived just before it began to rain. The kitchen area outside was protected from the elements, but we ate inside the main hut, and lit the fire that Jo had set for us. More of that high country hospitality.

We had another lovely evening chatting in front of the fire, and reading the numerous historical documents about the hut, and the pictures of its restoration. David told us about the walks he does with the Goldfields Cavalcade, a yearly event offering walking, running, cycling, horse trekking and wagon trails. It finishes with a big procession through the host town, where everyone dresses up, and the horses always go last - for obvious reasons! We drank a bit more red wine, and perhaps a little more whisky...

DAY 3 Sutherland Hut to Devils Creek Hut 9km 

Guess who was again last to leave? That'd be me!

The trail headed back up the Mowbray River and then continued to follow it upstream from where we had crossed the day before. We walked through a grove of poplar trees and then walked up the river bed until beginning the climb to Jumpover Saddle (1151m). We saw one of the young shepherds with his dogs herding some sheep; just like they did it in Sutherland's day!

The climb up to Jumpover Saddle was a fun bit of climbing, through tussock, with some good natured signs to keep you motivated, or not! There was the short and steep The Snort,

a longer, zig zagging The Grunt,

and the final steep push to the top, The Buster!!

I had overtaken the others on the climb up, but waited for them at the seat there, and had an early lunch. The clouds were shrouding the top of Devil's Peak (1537m) and I was keen to make the climb up there, but was hoping for the clouds to clear. The young shepherd drove past with our packs, and replenished the water supply left for us on the saddle. He expected the clouds would clear, but couldn't guarantee it.

None of the others wanted to join me for the climb to the peak so I left them to begin the descent to Devils Creek whilst I headed up into the mist. 

It was a classic ridge climb, with quite a bit of scree, and a few rocky scrambles. The clouds did indeed clear as I made my way up to the Peak. The views to the east were still obscured by clouds, but the Southern Alps were there in all their glory.

There was also a cute little wooden man, with a box of lollies under his arm!!

Back down from Devils Peak I followed the 4WD track all the way down to a river, which I crossed, and continued along the track to meet up with David who had walked out to meet me, worried I would take the wrong track. There is a 3 day option which bypasses Devils Creek Hut, which I knew to ignore, but it was nice to have the others concerned about my welfare. I walked the final bit to the hut with David, who always had a funny anecdote, or some interesting detail about the flora and fauna to share, of which he was highly knowledgeable, having spent his career in that field.

Devils Creek Hut is another rustic oldie, with a cute caravan parked outside the hut which DJ and John had claimed. I shared the spacious hut with David, and we all were again pleasantly surprised to see more evidence of the wonderful hospitality of our hosts. They had left us a bag of fresh vegetables from their garden, a much appreciated addition to our evening meals.

Because I wasn't carrying my backpack each day, just a light daypack with my lunch and wet weather gear, I had packed a small chilly bin with real food for cooking each evening. A nice change from dehydrated meals. I could also pack a bottle of wine, because I wasn't having to schlepp it up and over those passes!! I take my hat off to those trampers who do carry in heavy luxury food and alcohol to huts, I'm far too practical for that!!

We finished off my wine, and David's whisky, which he mixed up into a delicious hot toddy with Lemon Raro. There's a great tip!!

Day 4 Devils Creek Hut to Four Peaks Station Huts 12km

As usual I was last to leave, but I soon caught up with the others, and we walked the rest of the way together as a group of four. The final day was a meander along farm tracks back to the main station homestead, where we had spent the first night, and left our cars.

Back at the cars David was doing something a little strange. And then suddenly we met Four Peaks Freddie! This colourful character marches in the parade at the Cavalcade each year, named after the Four Peaks that David could see as a young lad from his home in Geraldine. So Four Peaks Freddie at last got to walk the Four Peaks Track!!

And it was an absolute pleasure to have his company for four days. I hope I'm still tramping at 83!

This is now the third private walking track I've tramped this year. All have been different. The Four Peaks Track is the most arduous, with some decent climbs and descents each day, with expansive views to reward you for the effort. The opportunity to stay in genuine historic huts and to learn about the rich pastoral history of the region is what sets this walk apart from the others. What really makes this walk such a memorable experience is the outstanding high country hospitality provided by Jo and Steve and their staff.

And getting to walk with Four Peaks Freddie....