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November 2011 Issue
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Euro-style to Tarn Col

At Tarn Col with Mt Franklin beyond. Photo: Nick Groves
Hawdon Shelter via Mt White bridge off SH73. Or at the layby 6km south of Arthur’s Pass village
BV21, BV20

Tarn Col, Arthur’s Pass National Park

When it comes to wet boots there is a cultural abyss between Kiwis and the rest of the world. Most visitors to these shores will go to great, and sometimes risky, lengths to avoid the sensation of water squelching around extremities that are unaccustomed to such treatment back home. Even after more than two decades traipsing around the New Zealand backcountry I try to limit this esoteric pleasure to the summer months, juggling trips accordingly. Marie-Luce admits a preference for dry footwear, so perhaps it was getting a little late in the year to suggest two days of river crossings up the Hawdon and down the Edwards, with some splashing about in the East Otehake as the meat in the sandwich.

“It’s been a dry autumn, so I expect the rivers to be pretty low,” were my words of comfort, although spoken with little conviction.

The moderate tramp over Walker Pass and Tarn Col is a pleasantly relaxed affair with sections of well-marked tracks, two excellent huts and the aforementioned rivers. As both Hawdon and Edward huts are situated only a few hours from the road-end and near the bushline, this trip is often undertaken over three days with a night at each hut. Alternatively, a camp in, or above, the East Otehake breaks the tramp into two, roughly equal 6-7 hour days.

An afternoon stroll up the gravel-strewn valley of the Hawdon is a cruisy enough entry into the mountains, especially with a mid-afternoon brew provided by a friend relaxing at the new Hawdon Hut. With plans to camp on Tarn Col, we left Bob to his book and set off up to the gentle saddle named Walker Pass. While crossing and re-crossing the small creek that flows from a tarn nestled in bush at the pass, and thinking that the track through this sub-alpine scrub has become very overgrown since my last visit almost 10 years previously, I noticed a rather obvious bright orange pole sticking out of the thick dracophyllum up the hillside. A new track now leads through the scrub above, but as the creek was running low, we boulder hopped anyhow.

Having only left the road end at midday, the prospect of a late arrival on windswept Tarn Col no longer appealed, especially when an ideal grassy terrace presented itself by the East Otehake. The flexibility allowed when carrying a tent is worth the extra few kilos and we soon had a good fire going as the temperature plunged and myriad stars filled the sky.

Next morning it took less than two hours to reach the elongated tarn that occupies the broad saddle above, and as the overnight clouds had dispersed to reveal a perfectly clear autumn day, this was a place to linger and savour rather than hurry through.

With a setting moon over the shoulder of Mt Oates to the west and Mt Franklin dominating the skyline to the north, there were still enough photo opportunities to eat up an hour or so.  New marker poles lead down from Tarn Col to the boulder-strewn Taruahuna Pass below, although this track looked steep to descend so I stuck to the old way down easy scree to the south.

A new track through scrub avoids crossing and recrossing the river, making for easier, but less interesting travel down valley to Edwards Hut. Stopping for lunch, I informed Marie-Luce that “it was all downhill from here” and made a mental note to update my (only recently revised) guidebook sometime in the future.

The east branch of the Edwards River was running low. “How are the boots?” I enquired with mock concern, and was informed that, unlike mine, hers remained dry after some acrobatic boulder leaping earlier in the day. “Never mind, you’ve still got the Bealey to cross before the road, no chance there,” I replied encouragingly.

We had arranged a 5pm pick-up at the highway and scurried quickly down to the valley below to where Paul was awaiting our return on the far bank of the Bealey. Marie-Luce ploughed through the water in great haste, I thought she was just keen to see our friend, but, of course, she had ulterior motives. Upon reaching the road I checked, and sure enough, her socks were still bone dry after two days on this ‘wet boot trip’.

Never indeed trust a guidebook writer, but I have plans to show her a nice little West Coast valley next time.