Whilst dog sitting in Timaru I had, of course, been planning more tramping adventures. I'd not only found a loop to tramp, but also a bunch of old huts to visit. Some were on private land, so I had rung the station owners to ask permission to visit them. Both private huts were very close to the route I was taking, but it's still courtesy to ask permission first.
Day 1 Mesopotamia to Sanatorium Hut ruins 6 hours
I drove up Rangitata Gorge Road to Mesopotamia Station. I met the station manager of Ben McLeod Station herding sheep down the road and he suggested the safest place to park being behind the hangar at Mesopotamia, rather than at the carpark at Bush Stream. So that's where I parked, but I didn't leave a note on my car, and the other cars there belonged to people who were using the helicopter service to fly up to hunting blocks.
A howling norwester was blowing down the river, luckily in the direction I needed to go. It took me about an hour to walk back down the road to Forest Creek. Quite a few cars passed me, but no-one stopped to offer me a lift.
Once at Forest Creek I climbed over the fence and walked up the true left to be in the lee of the wind, which was now an unpleasant gusty side wind. Once up the valley a little I was out of the wind and the long walk up the river began. It was a wide shingle riverbed, with only a small stream, so easy going most of the way, though I don't really enjoy riverbed travel all that much. The small rocks and stones are hard on your feet and the uneven surfaces aren't great on ageing hips.
I made my way across to the true right after lunch and found the 4WD track so followed that until it petered out. I met a couple coming back down the valley having done my loop in the opposite direction. I didn't tell them about the wind they would encounter walking back up to Bush Stream where they had left their vehicle! No point giving people bad news they can't do anything about...
The first hut on my hutbagging list was Stone Hut, a private hut belonging to Ben McLeod Station, which was uphill on a terrace so I left my pack at the bottom and walked up to check it out unencumbered. Built in the 1860s to the same plan as Sullivan's Hut, it hasn't been restored to quite the extent, but it definitely looks quite similar.
The 4WD track petered out just beyond Stone Hut so I found my own way up the river. The turnoff to head uphill came up but I wanted to bag another hut, which was a couple of km further up the river. This bit was cool as it went through a gorge, but with not much water in the river at the moment there was lots of dry gravel to walk on.
The ruins of Sanatorium Hut sit up on a grassy terrace above the creek and made a perfect bivy spot. Rather than bringing my tent I had opted just to bring my bivy bag, saving me about 800g. Which I then negated by bringing my 500g camping chair! Once set up within the stone ruins I had a very comfortable night.
I was up at daybreak and headed back downriver to the start of the track up to Bullock Bow Saddle. The day was clear, and forecast to be wind free.
The track was intermittently marked with orange triangles and poles, but thankfully someone had tied pink tape on trees to mark the route through the forest more clearly. I came out into one of many tussock clearings and couldn't find any more markers so I used the GPS on my phone and traversed across to where I thought Felt Hut would be. This is another private hut, belonging to Mesopotamia Station.
Someone had marked the entrance through the trees with some bags wrapped around tree branches. I left my pack there and walked down to visit the hut which was in a small clearing above Felt Stream.
Back at my pack I could see a pole higher up the hill so I tussock bashed up to that and then followed the trail sidling high before it dropped down below some matagouri. Looking back I reckon it would have been easier just following along the tree line near Felt Hut.
Soon the trail climbed up quite steeply through marshy land and Spaniards to join an old 4WD track. This was then followed all the way to the saddle but it was pretty brutal straight uphill. When the track took a right hand turn it traversed the slope so a little respite was had, but the uphill slog was wearing. I arrived on the saddle just after 12:30, so I stopped for lunch. Some pretty awesome views across to the Two Thunb Ranges...
The 4WD track continued over the saddle and then began to descend, quite steeply, into a hilly valley dotted with pretty tarns. When the track veered west to eventually join the TA a few kms north of Royal Hut I left it and struck south, following some ridges up to sidle around a big hill. Below were some quite substantial tarns, one of which had what looked to be a kayak or SUP sitting on its shore!
I decided to stay high rather than heading down to the tarns, which probably was not the best decision as the sidle became quite hairy with unstable scree which was super slippery and I fell over a couple of times. At last I scrambled up onto a grassy terrace and followed a line south to come over to Camp Stream south of Royal Hut and the Te Araroa. Up ahead I could see Richmond Hut but it was still a slow and tedious tussock hop to get there.
Richmond Hut is an historic hut, and somehow manages to not be marked on quite a few maps. It's got real character and even though the hut was no longer in the sun when I arrived, the evening was quite warm with a fantastic clear sky overnight to enjoy the splendour of the Milky Way.
The route down the valley to Royal Hut has no track, so it was more tussock hopping. Named because members of the British Royal family once visited it, it has none of the character of its neighbour upstream.
From Royal Hut I joined the Te Araroa, heading north. It's well marked, and even when it isn't there's generally a well defined footpad to follow.
The walk to Stone Hut took me a little over two hours, the track sidling above the river as it passes through a number of gorges. Just before the hut I disturbed a herd of tahr who had come down to the river for a drink.
Stone Hut has slightly more character than Royal Hut. There's not a lot of stonework left, as it got flattened by an avalanche and had to be rebuilt. I had a lazy afternoon sitting in the sun and reading and later that afternoon a couple walking the TA northbound turned up.
Rene and Anna left early, as they were keen to get to the Rangitata that day, even cross it if they had enough daylight. I had a more leisurely start. It was a spectacular walk through tussock land, climbing most of way, with a couple of creek crossings. There were some steep ridges to climb and a final push up a scree path to the saddle.
The descent from the saddle was long, and quite steep at times. I arrived at the hut for a late lunch, then, after a bracing wash in the nearby stream, I pulled a mattress out onto the grass and had an afternoon snooze in the sun. I really enjoy not making every day a mission. Chilling in the outdoors and absorbing the views and the experience is something I see many hikers struggle to do. Sure I could have walked out and back to my car, but the weather was superb, and I had enough time and food to stay another night.
Late afternoon Renee and Billy turned up, also walking the TA Nobo. I was expecting them, as Rene and Anna had told me they were a day behind them, having stopped at Royal Hut the night before. They were walking at a more leisurely pace than the other two and were great company.
Renee and Billy left early, as they had an 11am shuttle pick up to take them to Geraldine. I left at 8:15. The track followed a very steep ridge to come down to the river, crossed it, and then climbed up and over to avoid some river bends. It would have been fine to follow the river as levels were low, but up and over looked to be quicker.
A bit of scrub bashing was required on the other side to gain the river bed and then there were multiple river crossings to make my way down the valley. And a very beautiful waterfall...
I then picked up a 4WD track and then a farm track past a newly built dam on Mesopotamia Station. Back at the hangar where my car was parked I met the station owners, who were really friendly, but suggested next time I leave a note on my car. They had seen the car parked there and were worried that they might have left a hunting group out somewhere, as the station runs a helicopter service. I apologised.....
Then I drove back to Geraldine, and after a nice hot shower I caught up with Renee and Billy for a beer and dinner. Nothing tastes better than a big plate of lamb shanks after a few days in the wilderness. Especially when you get to enjoy it with new friends.
With rain forecast for the next few days I decided to head east and away from the rain. That's next...