The Skippers Canyon Road, just north of Queenstown, comes with a formidable reputation for being narrow, windy and exposed, and you are not allowed to take a hire car on it. I had been meaning to head up there to do some tramping, but had been put off a little by the hype. However, my friend Jude, who lives in Arrowtown and has been up Skippers many times, reassured me that the road is perfectly easy to drive in my wee Subaru. So with a 3 day weather window just before Anzac Day, I headed off.
Day 1 Skippers Cemetery to Dynamo Hut
I got up early and drove through to Arrowtown and onto the Skippers Canyon Road. It is a spectacularly scenic drive, but sadly you can't just stop willy nilly to take photos, though I suspect some people do. Yes it's narrow but there are oodles of places where vehicles can pass (and probably stop for a photo op!) I passed 5-6 vehicles coming the other way, it was never a problem, and the dirt road was in good condition.
Once across the very picturesque swing bridge the road is quite narrow and a bit dodgy in places, and doesn't have many spots to pass another vehicle. Since I didn't meet another car on that short section it was fine. After having a quick look at the old schoolhouse and using the loo, I parked at the cemetery and headed off a bit before 11 am, just after a group of 3 dirt bikers.
The track followed a 4wd track, past the ruins of an old hotel and then when it hit the river it was time to get the feet wet. The track followed the river, sometimes in it, but mostly sidling above or next to it. I passed a nice waterfall and climbed up next to an old hydro dam and then the going was less steep. The track continued to follow the river upstream with wide swathes of dry land on each side as the valley opened up. There were still numerous river crossings though. Dry feet definitely not an option!!
I stopped for lunch and two day walkers with a dog passed me. I continued to where the track heads up Skippers left branch. The dirt bikers I'd seen back at the cemetery were there, having walked up to Dynamo Hut and return.
Turning up the left branch I followed the narrow river valley, past spectacular cascades, water carved rocks and small pockets of beech forest. Even more numerous river crossings!! I met the couple of day trippers on their way out just before the final climb up onto tussock terraces with the hut perched well above the crashing river below.
I arrived about 2 pm. It's a nice hut with a wooden floor, built from remains of the old hydroelectricity plant which was built nearby, to supply electricity to the Bullendale mine over the hill back in the 1860s. This plant was the first industrial hydroelectric plant in NZ, and possibly the world!!
Nearby I spied a new hut, that looked like a church! I went to investigate, and found that this new building housed what remains of this historic plant, along with some information panels. The building had only recently been finished, preserving what is a very cool piece of history.
I thought I would have the hut to myself but around 4:30 three Queenstown locals with 2 dogs and a rifle turned up. They often come in here to go hunting and knew the area well. We spent the evening chatting, and Aston suggested going over the saddle from Archie's Hut tomorrow rather than going the long way around. He hadn't done the route, but was aware that it was easily doable, just not too sure what route to take down the other side. It certainly looked doable on the topo map.
Day 2 Dynamo Hut to Bullendale Hut
I was up and away by 8:45am. It wasn't far to Red Hut, reached by crossing the river within a charming pocket of beech forest and climbing up to the terrace on the other side. The hut is a bit more basic than Dynamo Hut, much more rustic, but it looks comfortable enough. On the table was a map with the route over the saddle and down into the right branch of Skippers Creek marked on it, so I took a picture for future reference.
Back across the creek to where I'd left my pack, I took my shoes and socks off and wrung the socks out and tried to mop up some water from the boots, before heading up more tussock terraces to the water race. I followed the water race up to a series of waterfalls which the track sidled above before climbing steeply up into Aurum Basin. Then up more tussock terraces until suddenly there was Archie's Hut in front of me, arriving there at 11. It's a very basic 2 bunker, but adequate.
I decided to give the route a go, but I didn't get far as clouds were gathering and the wind was gusting. There had already been some light drizzle and I decided I didn't feel up to a dodgy climb and descent on potentially wet snow grass, so I turned around and headed back to Dynamo Hut. Although the sun came out again the wind continued to intensify, with gusts almost blowing me off my feet. In the valley!! I was glad of my decision to turn around as the wind would have been much stronger higher up.
The track to Bullendale doesn't follow immediately up the riverbed from the junction with the left branch (though you can if river levels are low) but heads up a track a bit further downstream at Ah Sing's Willow. It climbs brutally up and down a few times before doing a long traverse and then dropping down steeply back to the river. Not made easy by bikes causing track erosion.
Then there are multiple crossings and walking up in the river itself until arriving at Bullendale Historic Site. It started drizzling again just as I got there, but I still had to do the hard grunt up the hill from the river to the hut, with the rain getting heavier but not drenching. I arrived at 3:30. No one else was there and I was pretty sure I would be unlikely to see anyone due to the weather.
It continued drizzling on and off, so I checked the forecast on my Inreach, which suggested light rain overnight, clearing in the morning. Rainfall totals weren't much, so I figured the river level wouldn't rise much and my walk out wouldn't be affected.
Day 3 Bullendale Hut to Skippers, plus Crystal Hut sidetrip
I was warm enough in the hut and though it rained a bit overnight the roof only leaked along the roof cap so I and all my gear stayed dry. It was clear in the morning but wet, and the temperature continued to drop. When I went to the toilet first thing there was no frost, however later I noticed that the wet grass had frozen. It was only then that I noticed that the surrounding peaks were covered in snow!
I headed back down the steep hill to the river, and went to check out the other hut on a high terrace above the river. It's used by the current mining claimants, but it's open and is available to use.
I shouldered the pack and headed down river. A few people had noted in the hut book that following the river all the way was a possibility, so I did just that. All was going well until I hit a gorge where the river went under a rock and the scramble around was a bit too dodgy for me so I headed up and around through the bushes instead. That got me a bit further downstream until the next cascade under a rock and I couldn't see that it was going to get any better. So up I went, with lots of wee goat tracks to follow, to join the tramping track and return back to the carpark that way.
There was an icy wind blowing so I wore my jacket all day, and once back at the car I had lunch, ditched the big backpack and headed up to Crystal Hut. You follow a benched track, possibly an old water race, the entire way. It's a grand hut, with an old wood stove, some decent wood to burn, a wet back and shower. No loo though!!
I took off my shoes, and that's when I realised I had left my insoles at Bullendale Hut. No wonder my shoes felt so roomy!!After checking out the displays in the old schoolhouse I drove back along the Skippers Rd, and over the Crown Range home.