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April 2012 Issue
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All carrot, no stick

Walker Pass is an easy crossing of the Main Divide. Photo: Raymond Salisbury
SH73 to Edwards Hut (16 bunks), 4-5hr; Edwards Hut to Otehake Hut (6 bunks), 6-8hr; Otehake Hut to Hawdon Hut (20 bunks), 9-10hr; Hawdon Hut to East Hawdon Biv 2 bunks), 2-3hr; Biv to Hawdon Shelter, 2hr
Start from a large layby, 6km south of Arthur’s Pass village. A 22km car shuttle is required.
BV20, BV21
Raymond Salisbury conjures up a new twist on an old classic in Arthur’s Pass National Park

I was visiting the long-drop at Woolshed Creek Hut when he arrived, his twin trekking poles swinging in a determined rhythm. “Raymond!” He recognised me, but without my glasses on I was slow to realise our random reunion. It was Dion Pont on another solo hut-bagging mission around the back side of Mount Somers. Much to his chagrin, I had beaten him here two days earlier. This piece of serendipity saw us collaborate together on a New Year’s trip. We agreed to rendezvous the following day to walk the classic Edwards–Hawdon circuit. While Dion had already done this tramp, the carrot I dangled was the lure of adding a couple more remote huts to his collection.

On New Year’s Day I drove across the green spread of the Canterbury Plains, heading directly for the distinctive Torlesse Gap on the western skyline.

At midday Dion arrives at Arthur’s Pass and we place our vehicles at each valley road-end. We wrestle unwilling packs onto our backs and ford the ankle-deep Bealey River. We make excellent progress along the flattened stones of the Mingha – the annual Coast to Coast race route – before crossing it, shin-deep, to the confluence of the Edwards River.

Twenty minutes into our adventure, we have lost the trail. The ‘large and obvious’ markers have long gone. Not to worry; a bit of bush-bashing locates the green and yellow DOC sign marking the forest track. Dion erects a cairn on the eroded river bank for future wayfarers to follow.

A delightful trail through mature beech takes us over a small bluff above the gorge. Back down on the river flats, we note three recent landslides have filled the valley with rubble. The resulting gravel bash is hardly pleasant.

Skipping over the Edwards East Branch, an orange marker beckons us onto a second sidle track – this bypasses a series of serious waterfalls. Three steep, grunty climbs knock the stuffing out of us, as we sweat profusely under a blazing summer sun. “We must be doing this tramp the hard way”, I muse, wondering if the Hawdon Valley made for easier travel.

The tarn at Walker Pass reflects the Blackball Ridge. Photo: Raymond Salisbury

After about three hours on the go, we begin our descent to the upper valley. A chain helps us clamber down a vertical rock step – no place for small children here. However, the lost altitude has to be regained, step after sputtering step. Then, at last: hope. A distant mirage on faraway fields of tussock, Edwards Hut is resplendent in its red coat. As we approach, twin radio masts betray its location in the scrub. The timber-panelled lockwood lodge was built here in 1969 at an altitude of 1000m. We are glad of its shelter.

5.10am. Billies rattle and benches wobble. I am awakened by a sharp jolt, as a trio of tremors remind me of the 1929 earthquake that toppled Falling Mountain, further up this valley. It measures 6.9 on the Richter scale and damages the village at Arthur’s Pass. All becomes still, the dawn chorus louder than ever, the hut enveloped in morning mist which mutes the ochre colours into sombre shades of melancholy. We wait. I count the little blue squares on the topo map. From the tiny black box of Edwards Hut, it’s a long, long way to the next black box – Otehake Hut.

By mid-morning, hints of blue sky assure us of dry weather, so we head higher up-valley, past a string of picturesque tarns, beneath towering rock walls. Travel is cruisey to the foot of Taruahuna Pass where an obvious indentation in the featureless pile of rock debris proves to be the ground trail up onto the Main Divide. We thrash around at the base of the climb, and scree allows us some yardage. Soon we are peering down the Otehake into Westland.

Descending from the pass proves relatively straightforward, albeit jarring on one’s toe-nails. We boulder-hop and scree-slide to the bottom. I gaze up at Falling Mountain and recall this morning’s earthquake. How insignificant we humans are under the menacing wall of cracked, dry rock which looms high overhead. Hmmm… no place to hang around. A few intermittent rock cairns provide meagre comfort as we drop down the debris into the Otehake, a lively, bubbling cascade tumbling over freshly-fallen boulders.

We are about to enter an ominious-looking shingle gorge. It doesn’t look easy so I consult our guidebook while Dion suddenly spots marker poles high on the true left. Sure enough, a rough trail leads us above the gorge, crashing through stunted scrub. A marked route then takes us through bush onto a stony plateau. Splashing downriver, we pick up a final forest track to the forks. Here, Otehake Hut has stood since 1963, a fresh coat of paint making it an inviting haven.

Dion opens the visitor book, which dates back to 1991. We note a high number of folk, mainly foreigners, had missed the turn-off to Tarn Col, ending up here demoralised. Many others had struggled up the overgrown track from the hot pools; a few had arrived down the East Otehake by swimming through deep pools. Very few, only the most seasoned, veteran trampers, had fought their way over Worsley Pass – the hard way.

Dusk morphs into darkness and while I photograph the candle-lit hut I spot another, different light source in the dark forest, jiggling like demented glow worms. It’s the headlamps of a pair of Frenchmen, dead on their feet after walking more than 13 hours from SH73. “Bonjour!” I welcome them.

On our third day, I peer through louvered windows at ridges rising into a mantle of thick mist. Forecast rain is falling, birds are silent – nothing to sing about on this day. Only the river is awake, driven by the relentless pull of gravity.

Otahake Hut squats in a clearing above the river. Photo: Raymond Salisbury

Otahake Hut squats in a clearing above the river. Photo: Raymond Salisbury

It’s noon when our French companions head out the door. I have given them my map and some advice. One is wearing sneakers, with an orange survival bag wrapped over his pack, held together with a bungy cord – a sort of foreign backpacker, number-eight wire approach. “Au revoir!”

By mid-afternoon, cabin fever has us on our feet. We discover the hut’s ping pong set, but the tiny bats and miniature net require more skill than we possess. We get inventive. The hut’s old door is put to good use as a table; the four ancient hardback novels above the fireplace double as a net. My plastic sandals and the coal shovel are employed as efficient bats. Then it’s game on.

We occupy ourselves further by planning future adventures while poring over the old Park Map framed on the wall. Soon the shadows of nightfall have engulfed our little hut. A kiwi calls. We fall asleep.

After the drowsy cosiness of inactivity, we emerge from our cocoons. I wash in the river and notice the rain has abated. The Main Divide receives about 8000mm of rain each year and we’ve had our share. I feel somewhat lethargic at the thought of re-climbing to Taruahuna Pass. However, now we know the way, the return journey is speedy. After two sweaty hours we arrive at the green DOC signpost at the base of Tarn Col, our destination.

Low cloud clings to the jagged peaks like a shroud and a cold wind blows up the Otehake Valley. Dion has climbed this route on a previous expedition, so he confidently leads up a narrow gut, diverting to the left. When the marker poles run out, the tussock slope steepens. Not having a head for heights, I fight off vertigo, forcing myself to focus. Grasping the snow tussock for hand-holds, I hurl myself upward, my boots searching for tiny ledges which might hold my weight. Fall is a four-lettered word I banish from my conscious mind as I refuse to look at the void below. I believe we are off-route, and guess that we’re doing this the hard way. A seeming eternity ends when we scramble over the lip, breathless.

We are now sitting on a grassy plateau where a large green tarn fills the basin below Falling Mountain. I clean my fingernails of dirt, then eat lunch, feeling subdued.

The gully draining Tarn Col has a reasonable marked route down into the east branch of the Otehake. But hidden stones in the long grass make this straightforward descent an ankle-twisting nightmare. At the bottom, we ford the river to find a plethora of cairns and a campsite. Mental fatigue is taking its toll and I need to rest. But the lure of blue sky above Walker Pass, plus the promise of a soft mattress at Hawdon Hut, gives me the motivation to keep going.

The author fords the Edwards River en route to Taruahuna Pass

The author fords the Edwards River en route to Taruahuna Pass

We set off up the stream. Round the corner, a poled track leads to a postcard-perfect tarn. Crystal clear waters reflect the sun-drenched, barren bulk of Blackball Ridge. Beyond that it’s a clear day in Canterbury. This is a magical place of wild beauty, worth all the effort to get here.

Walker Pass proves to be one of the easiest ways to cross the Main Divide. Though steep, a wide path takes us down beside Twin Falls Stream. We hit the Hawdon River flats and arrive at the comfortable new hut, its chimney smoking and children playing cards inside. A family are roasting marshmellows around a campfire. Two teenage girls wish me a happy birthday and gift a bar of chocolate – a generous gesture for which I am grateful. Today’s door-to-door mission has lasted nearly nine hours, so I hit the pit.

It’s our last day. Hawdon hotel empties its occupants – some venture up-river to view the remarkable duplicated cataracts of Twin Falls; most walk down-river to the comforts of civilisation. Dion and I decide to stage a different exit. I had duped Dion into doing this trip with the bonus of bagging huts. And so it is that I find myself following him up the tumbling torrent of the East Hawdon Stream. Boulder-hopping along the river bank, or cutting across cairned terraces. It takes us two hours to claim our prize – the 2007 bivouac near the valley head, squatting proudly on a shelf above the river. The log book features entries from more prominent hut-baggers than us. Their names frequent most of the remote huts in these parts … Frank, Honora, Emma, Nick, Quentin, Mark, to name a few.

Returning to the main valley, we set our backs to the wind and our hearts toward home. Far ahead, the open spaces of the Waimakariri River taunt us, deceptively distant. We trudge along through tall tussock, fields of dandelions and past scattered matagouri. You know the feeling you get when you’re near journey’s end, weary from days of continuous travel; you want it to finish. You’re crying out for a hot shower or a cold beer. Days of perspiration have dried on your clothes; your chin is prickly from a week without shaving; your stomach has shrivelled from strict pasta rations; but the rough living has awoken something deeper in your soul. You emerge from the hills with the smug satisfaction of having lived the hard way.

Mindlessly wandering along, not paying attention to my surroundings, trapped inside the spaces in my head, I stumble toward the exit. Our summer tramp is over. Done. El finito. My camera is full and my mate has added two new huts to his burgeoning collection. Amazingly, my feet are still dry.