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A cure for the itch

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January 2019 Issue

Exploring the rugged mountains and valleys of Mt Aspiring National Park in pursuit of the perfect lakeside getaway. By Erik Nilsson

The water levels were well above the tops of my tyres as we forded the usually small streams along the road leading to Raspberry Creek car park. It had been raining hard for the past few days over Mt Aspiring National Park and in the greyish haze of early morning, I couldn’t help but wonder if these river crossings were an indicator of what the hills held in store.

This trip had been a long time coming. Ever since I’d purchased my copy of Moir’s Guide North, several years ago. The back cover image of Lochnagar Hut, a small tin hut nestled against the backdrop of steep jagged mountains and a beautiful alpine lake, had been quietly gnawing away. Now, with two friends, I was off to satisfy the curiosity-fuelled itch and explore the region I’d only read about.

My worries during the drive proved unwarranted. And, with the crisp morning air filling our lungs, we found ourselves flanked by giants, amongst streams and boulders and scraggly wildflowers. As waterfalls tumbled from the peaks, we travelled easily along the grassy flats of the Matukituki River West Branch.

Aspiring Hut was soon reached and we enjoyed the morning sun whilst regathering strength for the climb to Cascade Saddle.

We plunged into the airy beech forest that marks the start of the steep ascent and within minutes were huffing and puffing, hauling ourselves up roots and climbing muddy steps. By the time we reached the treeline, it was midday and the morning sun was now a blazing ball of fury. Sweat-drenched and warm, we soon forgot our discomfort as the valley opened up beneath us. The poled route became steeper, but we were gaining height quickly and it seemed with each passing minute that the views of the valley became ever more dramatic.

We rested for lunch at The Pylon from where the Cascade Basin, an alpine wonderland, opened before us.

The walk along the tops, in constant view of Mt Aspiring/Tititea, reached its dramatic culmination at Cascade Saddle. We stood on the airy rim with vertical cliffs dropping hundreds of metres to the valley floor. Just to the west, was the Dart Glacier’s sea of ice and frozen rock. We stood silent, letting the scenery do the talking.

The descent into the upper Dart Valley was straightforward and still feeling high on our surroundings, we made our way down the scree-and-boulder slopes towards the flat, moraine-strewn river.

There was still a way to go and we quickened our pace to keep warm until two hours later, Dart Hut hove into view. Besides the hut warden, we were the only ones staying at the 32-bunk hut.

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Crystal-glass reflections at Lochnagar. Photo: Erik Nilsson

Early next morning, while it was still dark, we packed and began the climb towards Rees Saddle, where the real adventure was about to begin: a venture, off the beaten path into a land devoid of tracks or markers.

From the saddle, we dropped into Snowy Creek, avoiding bands of bluffs on the way. The place was still and silent, broken only by the gusting wind tugging at our jackets and the steady rippling of the creek as it danced and trickled its way downstream.

About 1500m from the head of the valley, we veered due east to climb a steep but straightforward spur to the high point of the trip, Pt1950.

From here, the east-lying mountains were a maze of rugged peaks. There was also a view of the upcoming crux of the trip: the sidle between Pt2000 and Pt1865, above Pine Creek.

We meandered through rocky bluffs, until halfway through to the crux, we picked up a faint goat trail that led us safely across the mountainsides.

From the razorback ridge between Tyndall and Snowy creeks, there were sweeping views of the emerald blue Lochnagar, stretched out below.

The end was now close at hand and we headed down easy scree slopes.

Then, a mere 500m from Lochnagar Hut, our progress came to a sudden halt. The most draconic dracophyllum scrub I’d ever encountered lay between us and the hut. We later discovered there is a trail following a spur east of the lake outlet, but for us our final hour of the day’s hike was spent smashing, crawling, jumping and rolling our way to the hut.

As our packs finally fell from our tired shoulders, the serenity of the scene washed over us. The lake water was clear, calm and cold.

Lochnagar Hut is the perfect lakeside getaway. Photo: Erik Nilsson

Lochnagar Hut is privately-owned by Branches Station and its rusty tin walls, roughly-hewn bunks and compact dirt floor are a far cry from Dart Hut’s exuberant luxuries.

The following morning, we again found ourselves in dense scrub. This time, however, there was a good trail down Lake Creek to the Shotover

River where an overgrown 4WD track led north to Tummel Burn Hut. It was a relief to not fight for progress, though the final two kilometres before the hut were untracked bushland.

By then, we deemed ourselves apt scrub-whackers, and compared to the previous day’s dracophyllum-induced nightmare, this section felt like a breeze. We arrived at the hut in the early afternoon and spent a relaxed evening tending an open fire and recalling past adventures.

We woke to rain and heavy grey clouds covering the tops where our route lay. At the bush edge, directly outside the hut, was a sign reading ‘Track’. We dived in and began climbing.

The well-defined track soon became well-defined scrub. As the terrain grew steeper, so the bush bashing intensified and within minutes we were head-deep in brambles, vines, thorns and mud: at times, nearly impenetrable. When we reached the treeline, we were bloodied and bruised, having covered just 800m in two hours.

Following this, we walked through tall snowgrass, with the wind and pelting rain blasting us sideways. We kept moving to stay warm, towards Shotover Saddle, not even stopping for lunch.

Finally, there was the final push to the head of Tyndall Creek and Shotover Saddle. On the Matukituki side, the wind dropped away, the clouds parted and, with a sigh of relief, we picked our way down the slope to the valley floor.

Tiny trampers dwarfed on the Cascade Saddle. Photo: Erik Nilsson
Distance
63.4km
Total Ascent
5152m
Grade
Difficult
Time
4+ days. Raspberry Creek Car Park to Dart Hut, 7-9hr; To Pt1950, 3.5-4.5hr; To Lochnagar Hut, 4-5hr; To Tummel Burn Hut, 5-7hr; To Shotover Saddle, 5-7hr; To car park, 2-3hr
Accom.
Dart Hut ($15, 32 bunks), Lochnagar Hut (free – private, four bunks), Tummel Burn Hut (free – private, three bunks)
Access
From Raspberry Creek car park. Permission required to cross Branches Station: 03 441 8421
Map
CA11, CA10, CB10

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Lochangar Hut via Cascade Saddle (gpx, 31 KB)

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