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July 2013 Issue
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A mountain mix of up and down

View from the slopes of Mt Owen. Photo: Sonja Kamphuis
Granity Pass Hut (12 bunks)
Tapawera is 15km off SH6 from Kohatu. From Tapawera take the signed Wangapeka River Road. The track begins at Courthouse Flat where there is a DOC campsite

Mt Owen, Kahurangi National Park

Like many people, I think that long weekends are made for one thing: getting into the hills. The view of the snow on the Arthur Range west of Nelson was tantalising. Scanning the horizon, wanting somewhere reasonably close to home, our sights drifted south.

Mt Owen, the hulking limestone giant of Kahurangi National Park, became our Queens Birthday weekend mission.

We drove under stunning clear skies, trying to recall Mt Owen’s cameo in the Lord of the Rings movies. It was of course Dimrill Dale; the mountain’s bleached moonscape the perfect backdrop to the fellowship escaping Moria.

Loading up our rather heavy packs at Courthouse Flat, we set off, choosing the ridge track which climbs above Granity Creek for the ascent. No warm up, just straight up. After a pleasant couple of hours we reached a clearing above the bushline and Billies Saddle before heading back into the beech forest and down a steep descent known as Staircase.

On reaching the valley, the track followed the dry Blue Creek, the vegetation changing yet again. Neinei, spear grass and subalpine plants giving the scene an almost ancient feel. Having trekked and climbed all over the world, one of the things I love about tramping in New Zealand is that it is reasonably common to have the track to yourself. Alone in the bush, just your footsteps and the birdsong.

Our quiet nature commune ended on reaching the Granity Pass Hut. But given the wintery night approaching we were glad of the warmth of a few extra bodies. The hut was built in 2008 and has a great veranda, double glazing and water tanks but no fireplace. We need our extra layers and down jackets to stay warm. Night fell with a blanket of stars, boding well for the next morning’s ascent.

Next day, as we fuelled up on porridge and tea, a couple of hardy souls left the hut. They were out of view by the time we followed, up Ghost Valley toward the snow. We reached the cluster of tarns that the DOC information sheet notes as the last water source – when they aren’t frozen over. Above the tarns the route wove through glaciated karst, strange rock towers, water-worn crevasses visible in places through the snow. The cairns began to disappear, seldom seen where the snow was too deep.

As the track steepened, we met the two guys from the hut. They had decided to turn back, not having the right gear for the snowy conditions. We decided to keep going, keeping an eye on clouds that were starting to blow over.

The lack of visible cairns and the possibility of hidden crevasses made the going slow. Eventually we reached the summit and views of snow-capped peaks in all directions. The wind had got up so, after a brief photo stop, we began retracing our steps, stopping to put on crampons to make the descent quicker and give confidence over a couple of exposed slopes.

By the time we reached the tarns and marshy basin the wind was an icy blast on our backs. We made it back to the hut and had a late lunch before settling in for the remainder of the day. No other keen trampers had made it to Granity that day so we were rewarded with a cosy Sunday sleep-in without snorers or noisy plastic bags.

The day dawned clear, the clouds from the previous evening had disappeared in the night. Despite having eaten nearly all our food, our packs didn’t seem much lighter on the walk back to the car.

As the weather was perfect we decided on a quick side trip up Billies Knob from the top of Staircase. The steep scramble rewarded us with incredible views of mounts Patriarch and Arthur and Tasman Bay in the distance – a glorious panorama.

We headed back to Courthouse Flat via the steep drop to the Blue Creek Track. The gentle walk once we reached the creek was just what our weary limbs needed.

– Sonja Kamphuis