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Cinematic Circuit

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February 2020 Issue

The Gillespie Pass circuit has several extra special add-ons to make for an exceptional week-long expedition into the heart of Mt Aspiring National Park

The Gillespie Pass Circuit takes in the Young and Wilkin river valleys and crosses the 1600m-high Gillespie Pass – reached after a stiff 1000m climb.

It’s a trip not to be underestimated, but the huts on the route are large and comfortable – just like those of the Routeburn Track at the other end of the park. But unlike the Routeburn, there’s way less foot traffic.

The journey begins and ends at the satellite village of Makarora, north of Wanaka. Most parties cruise up the Wilkin River on a jet-boat, avoiding the tedious slog along cattle flats. At journey’s end, if the Makarora cannot be forded an exit can be made via the Blue Pools Track to SH6. As both track ends are relatively close together, a brief road-walk or hitch-hike completes the circuit.

Snow can often slow progress and flooded rivers might require extra time, food and patience.

Highlights of the circuit include a side-trip to Crucible Lake, chasing the diminutive rock wren on Gillespie Pass, and viewing the stunning mountain grandeur of Mt Aspiring National Park. Perhaps the most worthwhile detour is an extra three days’exploring further up the Wilkin River, overnighting at Top Forks Hut. From this base, trampers can visit three alpine lakes or the foot of the infamous Rabbit Pass.

1 Makarora
It all starts at the small settlement of Makarora, a one-stop hub boasting great accommodation, food and supplies. Here you can book a jet boat, which is a fool-proof way of ensuring your trip starts smoothly, despite the weather.

2 Trackhead, Wilkin River
This tedious slog along cattle flats begins with a deep crossing of the Makarora River. If it’s not safe to cross, you may need to use the jet boat,
or begin at Blue Pools.

3 Kerin Forks Hut
The jet boat voyage ends on the open river flats near Kerin Forks Hut (10 bunks). However, this cabin is marooned on the opposite bank to the track, so, depending on your plans, it might be wise to push on up-river.

4 Jumboland
The original cattle-rustler on these extensive flats lost his horse here and ever since it’s been known as Jumboland in the animal’s memory and those heading here will require low river levels. Here, the upper Wilkin surges glacial green, cutting through gravel terraces, large landslides require bush-bashing to bypass and steep feeder streams can be impassable. Trunks of dead trees are white ghosts sticking up from the river flat like a graveyard. At every turn, the distant roar from a hundred waterfalls fills your ears.

5 Top Forks Huts
These are actually two adjoining buildings; the 1968 deer-culler hut and the newer version built by the Park Board in 1978. Outside, watch the alpenglow on the summit cone of Mt Pollux – truly a spectacle. Listen for avalanches careering off mountain slopes. In Roman mythology, Castor and Pollux were the twin sons of Zeus. In this valley, these are the highest 2500m-plus peaks. Allow two nights here, so you can view the notorious Waterfall Face of Rabbit Pass, or visit the lakes.

6 Lucidus Lake
Ford the Wilkin, then clamber up a rooted track onto a high plateau. The Disappearing Tarn is seasonal. Pass by the melancholic, moody waters of Lake Diana. Across an alpine meadow, follow the North Branch to reach the outlet at Lucidus Lake, an inland sea trapped by moraine below the towering peaks of Castor, Apollo and Mercury. In 1891, surveyor Charlie Douglas carried a copy of Homer as he explored this area and he named these landmarks with Greek Olympic deities or their Romanised titles.

7 Lake Castalia
It takes 3-4hr to reach this remote jewel, some 8km from the huts. The track to the lake branches off the Lake Lucidus Track just beyond the boardwalk. Two stream crossings are followed by a climb through alpine vegetation to a tussock terrace. Scramble over loose rock to the outlet stream.

8 Siberia Hut
Back on the Gillespie Pass Circuit, the trail to Kerin Forks is well-built and significantly easier to negotiate. A wide path utilises switch-backs to negotiate a bluff, then gently descends onto luxurious grassy flats beside Siberia Stream. It’s a couple of hours walk to Siberia Hut, a small dot on the swept ochre skirts of the mountains. You must pre-book your bunk to stay at this serviced accommodation. Enjoy an invigorating dip in a triple-tiered waterfall, hidden around the corner, a couple of minutes away.

9 Crucible Lake
This delightful detour involves a calf-deep crossing of Siberia Stream, then an abrupt climb to a hanging valley and a moraine wall which dams Crucible Lake, an aptly-named cirque cluttered with icebergs. At the bushline, a profusion of red and yellow flowers grow in a natural rock garden. Above, the brazen, blackened ramparts of Mt Alba preside over this monochrome masterpiece of symmetry. A single silver thread of falling water drains the Axius Glacier. Jagged summits of sheer schist stab into the sky in a natural amphitheatre of black rock, white ice, and teal-blue meltwater.

10 Gillespie Pass
You’ll want good weather to safely cross Gillespie Pass. The track gradually zigzags up a forested spur, then drops into an alpine basin. By the bubbling brook of Gillespie Stream, there’s excellent camping in a grassy clearing. Climb out into open tussock terrain, where you may need to kick steps in the snow (in winter, you’ll need ice tools and the experience to use them). Hop along the weathered schist slabs until reaching the flat ridge-top. Here, Mt Awful (2192m) dominates the basin. Amongst the nooks and crevices, you may find the elusive rock wren, New Zealand’s only truly alpine bird. Look out for kea overhead.

11 Young Hut
The steep descent into the Young Valley can be knee-wrenching, but it’s mercifully short. Boulder-hopping and route-finding are easier along the lush valley floor of the Young River. The track now plummets into the forest to reach the latest incarnation of Young Hut.

12 Young Forks Campsite
It takes a couple of tough hours to reach the forks, where the south and north branches of the Young River meet. Upstream in the North Branch is a 2km-long lake formed by a landslide in 2007. Voracious sandflies are a nuisance at the large campsite and cooking shelter. Downstream, the old track has fallen into the Young River, which impedes progress.

13 Blue-Young Link Track
Scout for a suitable crossing of the Makarora River, at the Young River mouth. If this is not possible, tramp 7km north to the bridge at Blue Pools to access SH6.

Total Ascent
Makarora to Kerin Forks Hut, 4-5hr; To Siberia Hut, 2-3hr; To Young Hut, 6-8hr; To Makarora, 6-8hr. Allow extra days to explore Top Forks Hut and Crucible Lake
Kerin Forks Hut ($15, 10 bunks), Siberia Hut ($20, 20 bunks), Young Hut ($15, 20 bunks)
From Makarora, north of Wanaka

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