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October 2021 Issue
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Back to the Waimak

Barker Hut under the shady ramparts of Mt Harper. Photo: RAY SALISBURY / LIGHTHOUSE CREATIVE
Bealey Bridge to Carrington Hut, 4-5hr; Carrington Hut to Barker Hut, 4-6hr; Carrington Hut to Waimakariri Falls Hut, 3-4hr; Carrington Hut to Crow Hut; 3-4hr; Crow Hut to Klondyke Corner: 3-4hr
Carrington Hut (36 bunks), Barker Hut (10 bunks), Waimakariri Falls Hut (six bunks), Crow Hut (10 bunks)
From Bealey Bridge, 10km from Arthur’s Pass village
BV20 Otira

To mark Wilderness magazine’s 30th anniversary, current and past editors and contributors scoured the archives for the 30 best trips we’ve published over the decades. This story, original published in September 2013, was included. You can find all 30 of the greatest Wilderness trips in the October 2021 issue.

Ray Salisbury embarks on a door-to-door hut-bagging mission at Arthur’s Pass and gets caught up in an adventure race

Grant has just run his first marathon during the weekend. His coach has enquired as to how he’ll relax over the subsequent week. He assures him he will suspend all training; instead, he will go for a good tramp to ‘warm down’ – yeah right.

The tramp Grant has in mind is a hard five days’ boulder-bashing into the Waimakariri headwaters, deep in the heart of Arthur’s Pass National Park; not quite the gentle ‘warm down’ you would expect from an exhausted athlete. But Grant is not quite the archetypal tramper you would expect to meet in the hills; with his full-body tattoos, goatee and rudimentary South-Auckland sense-of-humour – eh, bro?

This is to be his annual birthday treat; a week off work in the wilderness with a mate. I set the itinerary, Grant sets the pace, And it’s a blistering pace from Bealey Bridge along O’Malleys Track to the wide open spread of Turkey Flat. We are walking into a warming breeze, chasing a rabbit across the scrub-covered fan. I manage to maintain sight of Grant as he gallops off to bag Anti-Crow Hut, burrowed into a tussock bench above the river flats.

The author relaxes at Waimakariri Falls Hut. Photo:  RAY SALISBURY / LIGHTHOUSE CREATIVE

The author relaxes at Waimakariri Falls Hut. Photo: RAY SALISBURY / LIGHTHOUSE CREATIVE

Author Mark Pickering reckons that bashing up the Waimak is as interesting as ‘picking your boss’s nose’. It certainly has become a rite of passage for generations of Cantabrians. But we find our own motivation when we pass an American duo, putting on their boots after a crossing. Determined to stay ahead of these newbies, who are probably half our age, we continue the brutal pace over the braided gravel expanse. Long story short, we manage to keep to the track time of four hours, despite our detour to Anti Crow Hut.

The 36 bunks at Carrington Hut are empty, reminding me of former days when the Canterbury Mountaineering Club filled this cabin on perennial long weekend trips. It was controversial when the Park Board replaced the club’s memorial hut with this Lockwood lodge, which is seldom full in these days of individualism. The original hut at Camp Corner was built by CMC to commemorate Gerald Carrington who suggested a shelter be built here. Alas, in 1926 Gerald drowned further down the Waimak River in a rafting tragedy before his dream was realised.

Next morning, we stash our tent and spare food, and leave late. A pleasant day beckons, but we’re not confident of clear weather, with a storm battering Westland, a stone’s throw over The Divide. An easy path through beech forest soon sees us riverside, splashing through shallow pools, passing a boulder pile at the foot of a massive landslide. We look up. Overhead, the Americans are winching each other, inch by painstaking inch, across the White River using the vintage Clough Cableway: they are still hell-bent on keeping their feet dry.

Upstream, we ford the White River, shin-deep, to the opposite bank where the Taipo-iti rock-fall tumbles into the valley, carving dual channels through the thick mantle of forest. Half an hour up-valley, we are maintaining a decent stride past Kilmarnock Falls, which disappear into a free-fall, lost from sight.

At some stage I lose my drink bottle and revert to ancient ways, stooping over a stream, cupping my hand full of water to rehydrate. Then I hit the wall. My energy is flagging and my enthusiasm is waning; I am probably low in blood sugar, so Grant fixes me up with jellybeans.

As most of the old track was devastated in the 1994 earthquake, we resign ourselves to rock-hopping for several hours. We arrive at a four-metre-high square boulder where the White River dissolves into the Black Gorge. A solitary rock cairn marks an ill-defined path through tussock and over steep scree slides; a few sporadic poles mark this sidle until we cross Cahill Creek. We can see Barker Hut, mocking us from its mountain perch more than 300m above.

I am still struggling, but Budget-brand barley sugars are produced from Grant’s first aid kit. So, upward and onward we go. More cairns lead us up to an un-crossable chasm – the bridge has long gone, destroyed in an avalanche. We are able to traverse under bluffs to a narrow scree chute, where we cautiously bum-slide down to a cold crossing. Sloshing in wet boots, we clamber up steep grassy slopes to follow the original cairned route. But our brief respite, rollicking along the snow-grass, is abruptly ended when we have to heave our weary selves up rock slabs and gullies, ’til at long last, the hut.

Painted in pinkish-red, Barker Hut is positioned on an exposed rocky knoll, encircled in a jaw-dropping alpine setting which features the notable peaks of Mt Harper and Mt Murchison, the highest in the park at 2408m. Alternating between these giants is the precipitous White Col, Kahutea Col and the glistening Marmaduke Dixon Glacier.

Nevile Barker lost his life in the battle for Cassino during the Second World War; his family bequested money for this memorial hut, which was built in 1945 by his fellow club members who hauled construction materials in from the road over three arduous days.

I collapse into a bunk, but my indefatigable friend vanishes out the door, fully equipped for a ‘proper’ expedition to Kahutea Col. I watch Grant as he becomes a distant speck on the snowfields. A guidebook rates this as ‘hard / mountaineering’, but this toughened ex-addict is not easily deterred. At about 8pm he arrives back, ecstatic at his exploratory epic: he has negotiated the crevassed glacier, reached the saddle and was only a vertical 60m from the summit of Murchison.

We snuggle into our comfy world of down and polarfleece, thankful for the double-glazed windows; knowing the hut has been securely bolted to steel girders since its refurbishment in 1980. The radio crackles with a promising forecast, a kea cries, and we fall asleep.

 Whio in a lonely stretch of the upper Waimakariri River. Photo:  RAY SALISBURY / LIGHTHOUSE CREATIVE

Whio in a lonely stretch of the upper Waimakariri River. Photo: RAY SALISBURY / LIGHTHOUSE CREATIVE

Up early, bright and bushy-tailed, I search for the elusive rock wren. I can hear them twitter amongst the granite slabs around the alpine tarn adjacent to the hut. Over the edge, I gaze northwards toward the distant bulk of Mts Rolleston and Armstrong. We pack and head in that direction, retreating to our gear stash at Carrington Hut, an excellent base camp and refuge from sandflies.

By early afternoon we are photographing blue duck in the upper reaches of the Waimak River. A pair of whio are gracefully ferry-gliding in swift, turquoise water; the male whistling a warning to ward us off; our cameras are clicking overtime. This is a delightful piece of real estate, sandwiched between the snowy ramparts of Carrington Peak and Mt Lancelot.

Reaching an impasse, where the Waimak thunders 50m into a constricted defile, we are forced out of the riverbed. A short hand-over-hand scramble gets us up onto an easy sidle track along an intermediary basin, before another slot canyon impedes our progress. Thankfully, some ingenious soul has installed a small swingbridge across the yawning abyss, though one must literally climb down ladder rungs onto the bridge itself. A final climb accesses the top basin, a meadow of snow-grass littered with erratic rock outcrops … and the hut.

Situated a stone’s throw from a gash where the stream plunges 80m into the lower valley, this tiny abode has sheltered hikers since 1960. Waimakariri Falls Hut might have six bunks, but there is barely enough space for the two of us. No table, no chair, no fireplace, no rain-tank, but no complaints from us. Another red shed constructed by the CMC, this one boasts a solar-powered light.

The diminutive Waimakariri Falls Hut has sheltered climbers since 1960; Waimakariri Col is at the head of this valley. Photo:  RAY SALISBURY / LIGHTHOUSE CREATIVE

The diminutive Waimakariri Falls Hut has sheltered climbers since 1960; Waimakariri Col is at the head of this valley. Photo: RAY SALISBURY / LIGHTHOUSE CREATIVE

At dusk we watch the sky soften into pastel reds above White Col, framed by the darkened hulk of Mt Murchison; with purple storm-clouds billowing over Harman Pass from the Coast – it is a joy to be in this mountain sanctuary on a quiet night such as this. We savour the precious respite from motorised cacophony; the incessant rattle of human chatter, including our own.

Our penultimate day sees us return to our base hut, gather our gear, and stroll back to the Waimak. Within two hours we’d turned a half-circle under Mt Stewart, and entered the Crow Valley. Named after the orange-wattled kokako which was spotted here in 1865, this valley is closer to the road-end, and hence more popular. Indeed, the dinky old club shanty I remember has now been superseded with a tidy 10-bunker. And, as expected, Crow Hut is not vacant. We swap stories with members of a tramping club before Grant gets restless, fits trainers onto his feet and vanishes up-valley for a run.

On our final day, we crane our necks heavenward to see a helicopter hovering over the ridge. It is ferrying marshalls to their strategic positions for the annual Avalanche Peak Challenge. Today, 160 competitors leave the Arthur’s Pass village, ascend the steep track up Avalanche Peak, traverse a ridge, drop down a scree, follow the Crow out to the Waimakariri, duck under the Bealey Bridge and finish at the historic hotel. The fastest runners completed the 25km course in less than 2.5hr.

Needless to say, we take a smidgen longer to return to civilisation. As runners stream past they cajole us on, mistaking us for fellow competitors. And so the requisite gravel bash down the Waimak is made lots more exciting than ‘picking the boss’s nose’.

Back in the village, Grant tucks into his after-tramp meat-pie-and-Coke ritual, while my thoughts stray back to the Waimak where providence has provided an alpine playground for us; where the kea call and whio whistle; where wren frolic amongst rocks and mountains rise with heraldic splendour; where the problems of this troubled world are put into perspective as the stars arc across the southern sky.

Note: River levels need to be low enough to ford the White River. Do not use Waimakariri Falls Hut during heavy snow loading as it lies in a known avalanche path