Friday, March 12, 2021

Big Country: tramping a loop near Molesworth

I'd been doing a little research on tramping opportunities in the high country of the Marlborough Region. South of Blenheim and inland of Kaikoura are a number of mountain ranges not part of the main southern alps, and because they aren't well serviced by roads, are less visited. 

Molesworth Station is a cattle farm that is owned by the crown, but leased to Landcorp which manages the farming, and only over the summer months is there access through this high country station along a dirt road that links Hanmer Springs with Blenheim. There are a number of tramping options, including an east-west route between the Inland Kaikouras and Lake Tennyson, and the Molesworth Leatham Circuit. For obvious reasons, I chose the circuit.

To walk this route I needed to get an activity permit to walk up the Saxton Valley, which is the boundary between Molesworth and privately owned Muller Station. Apparently you can only walk upstream, to avoid pushing stock out of the valley. I emailed the DOC office at Renwick, and after a followup phone call my permit came through.

Day 1 Road end to Saxton Hut 1 hr 15 minutes 
The drive from Hanmer into Molesworth was spectacular. The road winds up and up to Jollie Pass and then opens out into the massive river valleys that punctuate this part of the country. It's hard to believe you are at 800m ASL.

Acheron River

The road follows the Clarence downstream to its confluence with the Acheron, the usual starting point for rafting trips down the Clarence to the sea. This is a classic multiday packrafting trip, something I hope to do one day...

I checked out the old cob Acheron Accommodation House before heading further north up the Acheron Road. Big country, dry and wild. Quite overwhelming with some very evocative place names. 

The road left the river flats to climb over Isolation Saddle to cross Isolation Flat. The Saxton is towards the end of Isolation Flat, and I parked my car near the bridge, having dropped my pack at the trailhead, which is across the bridge and up a terrace above the river. It's a 4WD track the entire way to the hut, with a couple of river crossings along the way.

The only cattle I saw for six days

Confluence with Boundary stream, Saxton Hut on terrace above

The weather was a little windy, but not unpleasant, and it didn't take long to get to the hut, up on a terrace at the confluence of an unnamed stream that various people reference as Boundary Stream. The hut was warm and well insulated, and although there's a wood stove, there's no available wood in this treeless valley. The wind built up over the afternoon but I was snug inside. The views up and down the valley were spectacular. The hut book had some good intel for me, with more accurate trip times than the signs, so I was hoping the days wouldn't be quite as long as the published trip information suggested.

Saxton Hut

tomorrow's route

View back downstream

Day 2 Saxton Hut to Top Gordon Hut 18.5 km, 6 hours 15 minutes
I crossed back over the Saxton river to rejoin the 4WD track which followed terraces above the riverbed. At one point I foolishly decided to head cross country to avoid a big detour away from the river, but the detour avoided some boggy land. I didn't, but it wasn't too bad as the weather had been dry, though there were lots of holes that could easily sprain an ankle if you weren't careful. 

Bye bye Saxton, see you in a few days

easy walking!

Team Stream confluence with Saxton river

I rejoined the 4WD track not far from Team Hut, which was on the opposite bank from the track. Close to the hut were a group of hunters shooting Canadian Geese, which are a huge pest in these river valleys as they are quite aggressive towards other birds, and they make an awful mess. The geese, not the hunters...

Team Hut

The track stopped at Team Hut, but I continued on, initially staying on true left and picking the easiest route on terraces above the river. When a terrace would look like it was going to bluff out I would cross to flat terraces on the other side of the river. They were easy crossings, knee to mid thigh at the deepest spots, some just a few centimetres deep, with very little oomph in the current to knock you off your feet. As I got further up the valley the river narrowed, with a few small gorges that required climbing up and over to avoid. Much of the tussock has been replaced by an invasive flatweed called hieracium, which stock don't eat. It makes for very easy travel...

yes, my feet are wet!

Bluffs ahead, time to climb over

No way through, so up and over

Looking further up the Saxton valley

Nursery web spider (on left) guarding her brood

After 4 hours I stopped for lunch at what I reckoned would be the last river crossing before the climb up to Saxton Saddle. Although this route is unmarked, there was a fence with a gate in it, and a sole waratah with the signature orange plastic pipe top just inside the gate. So I went through the gate and followed the fence line up for some time, gaining altitude pretty quickly. There are usually animal tracks next to fences so it's a good option to follow these tracks rather than the tough work required to push through the tussock and nasty spiky Spaniards. 

About halfway up, looking back down the Saxton valley

After gaining some height I began sidling up to the left, following tracks if possible, and then suddenly I was on the saddle. A big DOC sign and orange triangle made it pretty easy to see where I had to go. This sign marked the exit point off the saddle, following the extremely picturesque Gordon Stream as it cascaded over boulders on it's way down the valley to meet the Leatham. As there was no track I needed to make my own way down, through some boggy areas and then picking my way through tussock and across scree until arriving on the river bed. From there a few cairns indicated the way along a very faint footpad, crossing and recrossing the stream until I reached the treeline, from where the track was marked with orange topped waratahs and triangles. The descent through the forest was fairly steep at times but at last I arrived at the sign to Top Gordon Hut, which was down a side track and on a sunny terrace on the other side of the stream. The feet got wet one final time for the day. 

top of Saxton Saddle

Heading down into the Gordon valley

Scree sidle and first track marker as reach bush line

Not long after I got there a couple of hunters turned up. One with a gun, the other with a bow. The advantage of the bow is it's lighter, and silent. And you have to get much closer to your prey before you shoot, a great way to avoid accidentally shooting your mate, and it gives the animals a fighting chance. They went hunting late afternoon, getting back after dark and courteously cooking their dinner outside, as I had already gone to bed. No possum visitors overnight!!

Day 3 Top Gordon Hut to Top Leatham Hut 12.9km, 5 hrs 35 minutes
The boys had prewarned me that they would be getting up at 5am to go hunting. I got up at 6:30 but took my time getting away as it wasn't going to be a long day. With poor weather forecast for a couple of days time I had entertained the idea of combining two days into one, and climbing over Severn Saddle, but changed my mind even before I set off. Which turned out to be a wise decision as the walk wasn't exactly an easy stroll. 

It was a beautiful sunny day, with no clouds or wind, but that didn't prevent me getting frozen feet after crossing that first stream next to the hut! It was a beautiful walk through forest all the way to Bottom Gordon Hut with some impressive waterfalls along the way. There was a little bit of walking along the river bed but mostly there was a track to follow. Just before the hut is a swing bridge across the Leatham river, which brings you out onto a 4wd track and the hut. There was only one car there (my hunters) and no-one else had written in the intentions book so I knew the next hut would be empty. Once I had written  in the hut book I kept going as there were quite a lot of wasps about in the lower valley and I didn't fancy getting stung.

Note the wilding pines😕

Crossing the swing bridge over the Gordon just before the hut

Bottom Gordon Hut, lots of wasps around

It was a little tricky to follow the Leatham track heading upstream, but with river levels low it was easy enough to just walk along the river bed. Easy enough from a navigation point of view, but hard work over boulders and rocks. I knew the track crossed to the true right after a few kilometres so I just kept going till I spied the big orange triangle, crossed the river and headed up a track into pine forest. This was much easier going and I made good time. I stopped for lunch in a grassy clearing where a stream crossed the track. 

Not that much later I crossed the river a final time for a gnarly sidle on the true left high above the river on a heavily eroded track where holding onto the vegetation seemed the safest option. There was a final climb  up a steep hill to look out on a fantastic glacial cirque with a big waterfall cascading to the valley floor. I could also see upriver to the saddle I would have to climb the following day. 

My route tomorrow

Glacial cirque behind Top Leatham Hut

Down the meadow and across a boggy area was the hut. Which had insect screens! Which meant I could open the windows for a few hours, and not get eaten alive by sandflies. I put the boots and socks out in the sun to try and get them dry, and had another cosy night in another lovely hut. Forewarned from the last hut, I put a bucket of water up against the door overnight to prevent any possums getting in. One had a good go, given the thumps and noises he was making on the verandah, though he buggered off after I got up and shooed him away.

Another stunning hut, this one had insect screens

Day 4 Top Leatham to Severn Hut 13.6 km, 6.5 hours
I had managed to get a blister on one of my heels. For most of my tramping over the last few months I had been wearing trail shoes, but for this tramp I was wearing my well worn in boots. Which had never ever given me blisters until now. I covered the blister with a Compeed and then put back on the same socks I had been wearing for the last 3 days. In retrospect I probably should have changed into new ones.


Scrumptious lunch wraps

I crossed a magnificent stream just after the hut where I filled my water bladder for the day.

Then there was a long walk through forest, slowly ascending towards the ridge I would need to climb. There were lots of wilding pines - I pulled out a few small ones along the way - and loads of speargrass to avoid, though I still got a bit scratched. The speargrass fronds were architecturally quite beautiful, just painful if you walked into them! The track was well marked, except for one section where it wasn't obvious that you had to walk up the stream bed but I saw the next marker soon enough. 

Why wouldn't you go tramping on a day like this?

Speargrass up close

Wilding pines and speargrass!


Beautiful glacial remnants up valley

follow that stream up and you'll find the next triangle

Then began a steep climb through beech forest, gaining altitude quickly but it was hard work. I stopped for a snack just before the tree line, and had a short sit down. It felt like my blister was getting worse, and that maybe I had one on the other heel as well. There would definitely be new socks tomorrow!! 

Once out of the trees the track climbed a narrow ridge and then there was a scree sidle up to the saddle. Such a stunning day. 

Just out of the trees and looking back down the Leatham valley

Across to my right...

Up to the right...

The ridge climb

Over to the left....

Further up the ridge, saddle coming into view on left

I've climbed all that way...

Saddle getting closer....

Damn it's a long way!

Scree sidle, following the waratahs


Almost at the saddle

Made it! How's that grin!!

At the saddle I was absolutely floored by the glacial remnants at the head of the Severn. As good as anywhere in the southern alps. 

Like just WOW! Glacial terraces at the head of Severn Valley

Severn Saddle, minus my mug

Looking down the Severn Valley

Bluffs above me as I sidle high

From the saddle the descent was a lot of fun. It was a glorious scree slide but staying fairly high and sidling as well to stay above a big waterfall and come down a grassy spur further downstream. The descent took less than an hour, the ascent 2 and a half!! 

Staying high to avoid tiger territory bottom right of picture

Walking down tussock ridges to valley floor

The afternoon's tramp

Once down on the Severn River valley floor I had lunch and a little lie down in the sun, and then it was a long slow trip downstream. There were not many animal tracks and lots of dried up boggy areas with their ankle spraining bombs! I crisscrossed the river a few times, which was quite shallow, though my feet still got wet. I took a few high terraces to avoid the harder ground on the river bed as my feet were feeling quite sore. Also I was feeling pretty hot. Where was that hut? 

Damn fine tramping thighs.....

Severn Saddle is notch upper right

Heading downstream, where's the water?

Ah there it is

I made my way across one final stream where I saw a couple of cairns and then through some matagouri and at last there was the hut! But I had to wade through shoulder high red tussock to get to it. It was bathing in sunshine, but no insect screens on this one. In keeping with the fact that there is no forest, there was also no wood heater, not a problem in this heat! There was also no water tank, which worried me as the hut was some way above the main river, and my feet were sore. Once I'd got those boots and socks off, a quick look around revealed a stream nearby down a steep grassy slope. 

Severn Hut

My blister was much bigger and needed popping, and then it was a bit of a job removing the smaller Compeed to put a much bigger one on. My boots and socks went out on the deck to try and get dryer before tomorrow. Down at the creek I had a refreshing wash, filled up my water supplies, and even washed  my tramping t-shirt. It was so warm on the hut verandah in the sun that my clothes dried quickly, but it was just too hot for me so I retired back inside with my post tramp cup of tea. 

I used my Inreach to get an updated weather forecast as I was expecting the weather to break after four brilliant sunny days. It is New Zealand after all! The forecast wasn't great, but at least it wasn't forecast to be windy, just low cloud and a small amount of rain.

Tomorrow's route, to peak on right

The sky was still blue at 5pm but some clouds were coming across from the west.  I went to bed early, planning to leave soon after first light to beat the storm.

Day 5 Severn Hut to Saxton Hut 11km, 5.5 hours 
I woke up to go to the loo around 4am and the sky was clear with no wind. Relieved, I changed my alarm to 5:30 and went back to bed. It was still clear at 5:30 but then clouds began to come over and it was completely overcast by daybreak. I got away at 7:40, a little later than planned, with my first chore being to top up my water supply before the big climb up the ridge.

There is no track from the hut, so it was back through the red tussocks surrounding the hut to the base of the ridge immediately behind it. There was a bit of wind, but not too strong, or cold yet. I put on my jacket for wind protection and began the climb.

Base of ridge climb, can you see the hut?

It was a long slow climb straight up, following the ridge all the way to Pt 1764. In places the ridgeline was quite narrow, with scree drop-offs on either side. The wind picked up, quite gusty at times, so I put my waterproof gloves on. That was when I discovered I had lost my polypro glove liners, probably when I stopped for lunch yesterday. Nevermind, they were only cheap, and easily replaced, and the waterproof gloves did the trick, even without liners.

All the way along that ridge, it's steeper than it looks

And up

too windy for hats

An alpine plant called vegetable sheep

Up some more

Can't see the hut anymore....

As I got higher it became too windy to wear my Akubra so that got stowed, and once the rain set in, just drizzle, nothing heavy, I put the hood up on my jacket which kept me comfortable. Since I was getting pretty warm climbing, the wind protection offered by the jacket and gloves stopped me getting cold, and wearing shorts on my lower body stopped me overheating. Although I had waterproof over trousers with me, it just wasn't wet or cold enough to need them.

More vegetable sheep

Final view of the Severn Valley

It took two hours to get to Pt 1764. Unfortunately there were no views to be had on the tops as the weather had clagged in. And it was somewhat unpleasant so I didn't linger. In my haste I followed the ridge to the left instead of the right but noticed soon enough on checking on my map, so sidled back across. It was a quick, steep scree slide down to the stream below. The visibility improved with the descent, I could actually see where I was going!

Pt 1764
I began following this ridge to the left before I realised my mistake and
sidled back across and down to the right

From there it was a matter of finding the best way down the valley. Initially I followed footpads next to the stream, but as I got lower down, the valley opened up more and there were decent terraces to walk on, making for easier travel. There were lots of river crossings, at first an easy rock hop, but as the stream got larger with the descent down valley, the inevitable wading eventuated. By which time the boots were wet anyway, as the drizzle didn't let up all morning. But at least it wasn't pouring!

There were some gorges to bypass, but always good animal tracks to follow the whole way. I saw one or two rock cairns but nothing to hang your hat on. Enough to feel secure that you were on a good line but as if you could get lost when you had the stream to follow. The pictures I took for this section are all blurred, sorry.

I didn't stop for lunch, just quick pee and snack stops out of the wind. At last I could see the hut in the distance, at which stage I was on a terrace on the other side of the river. I made my way back down to the stream, found a spot to cross and then followed another track until I found a way up a scree slope to the terrace on which the hut stood. It was then a short stroll down to a nice warm dry hut, where I could get all my wet clothes off and dry out.

It was only 1:30, so I enjoyed a late lunch and a lazy afternoon reading in the hut. Late afternoon the weather cleared and a couple walked in from the road end for an overnighter, so I had company for the second time on my trip. The sunset was quite spectacular.

Day 6 Saxton Hut to road end 1 hour

I had a leisurely start the next morning for the short walk out. The previous day's weather had mostly cleared with some lovely rainbows. By lunchtime it was another stellar day. 

Once back at the car I continued north along Acheron Road to Molesworth Cob Cottage, and walked up the hill behind the cottage to check out the historic homestead. DOC rangers were working on the cottage, and one of them, Ray, gave me his card and was keen to get my feedback on the circuit I had just completed, asking me about the condition of the huts and track. I was able to give him a big thumbs up, because the trip had surprised me with its majesty and variety, and the comfort of all the huts along the way.

Acheron Cob Cottage

Molesworth Station Homestead and outbuildings

From the hut books it's clear that few trampers do this circuit, with most entries being hunters. It's a pity, as it's a stunner, and despite the route being mostly unmarked, it's not out of the realm for any moderately experienced tramper.

After Molesworth Cottage I headed back south, planning to camp at Acheron campsite. But in the end I continued on, all the way to Hanmer for a hot shower and a chance to do some laundry. 

Gorge on the Acheron

Where to next?

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