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A hard little number

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May 2020 Issue

A traverse of the Diedrichs Range takes in steep country and classic bivs from a bygone era.

It’s not every day you come across a six-bunk hut just minutes after leaving your car.

The sign on the khaki-coloured, Forest Service-era hut read ‘Frew Hut’. But we were miles from Frew Saddle in the Hokitika River and the country around us was farmland, not the backcountry.

As we trudged past the hut down the farm road, the landowner arrived and he explained how he got the hut when DOC replaced it for a newer model a few years ago.

After giving us some directions, we carried on to Diedrichs Creek and found the start of Gerhardt Spur Track. By the time we began the ascent, it was already 3pm. I looked at the map. Between us and Gerhardt Spur Biv, our destination for the night, were 55 contour lines. It was going to be a long afternoon.

Slowly, my partner and I ground our way up the ridge. The track had been cut just six months earlier and was in relatively good shape, but windfall and a bit of overgrowth slowed our progress. Just on dark, we finally broke out above the bushline into the first clearing and then pushed through the final overgrown sections to the hut at 1255m. All in all, it was an 1100m climb.

Gerhardt Spur Biv is a classic West Coast bivvy: super cute with just enough room for two. It’s a tight fit but a big step up from a tent. The original biv was located further down the ridge, but had been badly damaged by wind and is now abandoned. According to the Remote Huts website, the biv was built in 1972. ‘It was the second of the high-stud B142 designs that were constructed around this time. These models were taller than their predecessors, with room to stand at a slight hunch (for some).’ The hut has no loo and water must be collected from small tarns nearby.

When it comes to New Zealand’s 950 huts and extensive track network, trampers have the old deer hunters to thank. Many huts and tracks are a hand-me-down from the deer culling days and the assets in the Diedrichs Range are a great example.

There are in excess of 50 huts in the backcountry behind Hokitika, making it the ‘backcountry hut capital’ of New Zealand. The majority are ex-Forest Service huts, which sleep four to six people, and small two-person bivvys. Largely for this reason, Hokitika’s backcountry is the domain of trampers and hunters wanting a quiet, off-the-beaten-track experience. It was certainly the reason we were now at Gerhardt Spur.

In the first of the golden morning light, we saw the place properly for the first time.

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Early morning at the two-person Gerhardt Spur Bivouac. Photo: Neil Silverwood

The western end of Diedrichs Range – the Hokitika end – is extremely rugged. Alpine streams tumble down steep, scree-covered valley walls.

Above the hut, Gerhart Spur offers one of the easy routes, acting as a low angle ramp that winds its way through the chaotic landscape on either side. There are terrific views of the meandering lower Hokitika River, Hokitika township and to the Tasman Sea beyond.

While access up to Jumble Top is a relaxed affair, everything changes when you reach the gnarly Jumble Top Ridge and head south. Unfortunately, just as we reached the tops, cloud came in and obscured the route through the most difficult section. The first obstacle was a rocky, jagged dome-like hill. The main ridge going up into the cloud looked steep and crumbly, so we sidled up the eastern side using small shrubs and tussock for hand holds. Everything was wet from the mist and the climb was becoming more exposed. Just five metres before the top, we decided to back off.

The only other option we could see on the map was to drop down a side creek for 400m and climb back up a spur which would take us around the obstacle. This diversion cost us a couple of hours. Next time, I vowed to carry a rope, and tackle the exposed hill head on. In fine conditions it would also likely be easier to pick out the safest route.

Once back on the main ridge, and just south of Pt1610, the travel eased off and we followed broad friendly tops. In an exposed spot just off the main ridge, we stumbled across the remains of the old Jumble Top Biv. The hut was rusty and completely flattened. According to Remote Huts, it was built in 1957 but within 10 years it had been destroyed by heavy snow loading. It was a shame, there are few huts (if any) at this elevation in the Hokitika catchment and the biv would have made a fantastic base for exploration of the surrounding tops.

Crossing the Toaroha River at the Jumble Creek confluence. Photo: Neil Silverwood

Beyond the rusty biv, we crossed Marcus Creek and traversed the tops above Mullins Basin. It’s a surreal landscape – a massive area of low-angle tops with exposed schist outcrops intersected by rock canyons; even in heavy cloud it was impressive. After descending 600m through a mix of terrain and vegetation cover, we followed a broad dracophyllum ridge to the soft tussock-covered clearing toward Mullins Basin.

Here, Mullins Hut was a welcome sight. The hut is basic and though it is ‘no-frills’ at its best, it felt like a palace after Gerhardt Spur Biv. Mullins Hut has four bunks and two tables, no fire and no internal lining. Someone had left a couple of folding camp chairs and we found one can of DB Export Gold which we divided two ways to the last drop.

Mullins Basin receives few visitors and the beer was probably left by the only other visitors in the past year – a party of hunters. The hut logbook has the NZ Forest Service emblem on the front and dates back to 1984, a span of 34 years, and less than half the book has been filled in. Its limited use is not surprising as there are just so many other options for trampers in the catchment.

It’s amazing how accurate modern-day weather forecasts can be. Before setting out, rain was forecast for our third day, beginning early morning and easing in the afternoon. By 7am on the forecast morning, it had started drizzling and by 8am it had started to pour. Within an hour, all of the small streams and waterfalls on the tops became raging torrents. Imagining the state of the Toaroha River crossing two hours down our intended route, we decided to have a well-earned rest day for our tired legs and knees.

The weather changes quickly in the hills and the next morning the sun was out and the waterways were down to a crossable level. It had been a clear night after the storm and the rain and dew was frozen on the tussock. At the first crossing of the day, Mullins Creek, we heard the distinct piercing cry of whio and then spotted a pair feeding in fizzy, white rapids.

The Hokitika catchment is a blue duck stronghold with pairs in almost every valley and significant tributary.

Beyond the upper Mullins Basin, the creek drops away to the Toaroha. The track is overgrown with cutty grass. It travels briefly through some low scrubby bush before dropping steeply into the Toaroha catchment. Progress involves a mixture of walking, holding onto roots and, on occasion, straight out bum sliding. It’s a steep but honest route.

The track from Mullins Basin ends just downriver of the Mullins Creek/Toaroha River confluence with the Toaroha Track on the true right of the Toaroha. Large, rusty bolts protruding from nearby schist boulders suggested there may have once been a swingbridge here.

The river was still up from the recent rain and the crossing looked formidable. However, after scouting the way, we found a place 50m downriver which involved short jumps between boulders and an easy, knee-deep crossing through the final pool.

The Toaroha is a beautiful river; sapphire-coloured water tumbles between boulders into deep blue pools. On the beech-forested hills above, Mullins Creek cascades down and we could just make out the stunning open tops. Looking around at the mountains, and thinking of whio, it shocked me that this whole area is classified as stewardship land – the lowest status land in the DOC estate. To my mind, the Hokitika catchment and the massive area to the south, which stretches into a UNESCO World Heritage Area, is worthy of national park status.

The remains of Jumble Top Biv, built in the 1950s but destroyed by snow loading in the 1960s. Photo: Neil Silverwood

Although well-maintained, The Toaroha Track is a little rough and involves a lot of ups and downs but compared to the Mullins Basin Track, it’s easy travel. After 90-minutes we reached the final swingbridge leading to Cedar Flat Hut on the true left. We stayed on the true right and crashed through the bush to the Wren Creek hot pools, although it was a little hairy getting down into the creek from there and the best way is to take the track from the hut.

The small pool on the true left of the creek is one of the best hot pools in Westland. It’s large enough for about four people and has a ‘singles’ pool above. It’s the perfect temperature and the ideal cure for tired bodies and is much less popular than the Welcome Flat hot pools in the upper Copland River – you’re almost guaranteed to have the spot to yourself.

After a soak, we followed the well-cut track to the swingbridge and Cedar Flat. This is a neat spot that should be on every tramper’s list. There are two huts – a historic unlined tin hut with two bunks and a large open fireplace and a modern, comparatively luxurious, 12-bunker.
It was still early when we arrived, and we debated heading out to the road end but decided an extra night in the backcountry was preferable.

There were six trampers in the main hut that night, so we roughed it in the old one. Thumbing through the hut books, Cedar Flat is fast becoming a popular destination. Just two nights before we arrived, there were 30 people sharing the huts. The appeal is three-fold: a cruisy track in, the hot pools nearby and the hut is a jumping-off point for a range of longer circuits such as the Toaroha-Mungo-Whitcombe traverse.

Early the next morning we strolled down the historic Toaroha Track and made it out in time for lunch at Hokitika’s most popular chippy.

Our traverse from the Hokitika River to the Toaroha, via the Diedrichs Range, won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s a hard little number. But for those with strong knees looking for a fresh trip through incredible, but difficult terrain, it might be just the ticket.

The acid test is whether you would do it again. Now that my knees have recovered, and memories of the steep uphills and clag have softened, I’d head there in a second. How can you turn your back on a classic route in the backcountry hut capital of New Zealand?

Distance
27.7km
Total Ascent
2336m
Grade
Difficult
Time
Hokitika Gorge to Gerhardt Spur Biv, 6hr; To Mullins Hut, 4-8hr; To Cedar Flats Hut, 4hr; to Middlebranch Road end, 4-5hr
Accom.
Gerhardt Spur Biv (free, two bunks), Mullins Hut (free, four bunks), Cedar Flat Huts ($5, 12 bunks; free two bunks)
Access
From Hokitika Gorge car park
Map
BV18, BV19

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