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January 2011 Issue
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Great Walks you’ve (probably) never heard of

Shaun Barrett descends to Te Werahi Beach, Cape Reinga Coastal Walkway

We all know the Great Walks – those nine tramps (including one river journey) that hold a special place in the pantheon of wonderful outdoor journeys found in this country. But sometimes they get a little crowded and more out-of-the-way locations tug at your tramping boots. Just you, good friends and fine experiences. Here are five such walks.

1 Cape Reinga Coastal Walkway, Northland

Cape Reinga: the famous lighthouse, mainland New Zealand’s most northerly point, the place where – according to Maori legend – spirits depart these shores for their ancestral home of Hawaiiki-A-Nui. Not a tramping destination. Right?

Not quite. Contrary to popular opinion, Cape Reinga is actually a smidgen further south than the nearby Surville Cliffs. Yes, the cape is a famous stepping-off point. But not just for departing souls: it’s a great destination for embarking soles. It’s part of what I consider to be perhaps the finest coastal tramp in the country, outside of Stewart Island and the Heaphy Track.

The Cape Reinga Coastal Walkway is one of the longest walkways in the country, and also forms the starting point for Te Araroa – the New Zealand trail – which spans the length of the entire country to Bluff. Trampers can enjoy a weekend excursion along the most scenic portion of the walkway, beginning at Tapotupotu Bay and ending at the magnificent Te Paki sand dunes.

As there are no huts, trampers need to carry a tent or fly. During summer, take plenty of water too, a filter or plenty of fuel for boiling questionable water, as some of the streams can become unreliable.

The tramp begins from a campsite at the delightfully sandy, pohutukawa-fringed Tapotupotu Bay, east of Cape Reinga. At the beach’s western end, the track climbs above coastal cliffs, passing an old pa site and with views to Spirits Bay and the Surville Cliffs.

After a steep descent to Sandy Bay, the track climbs solidly up a spur to Cape Reinga itself. Some 200,000 people visit the cape and lighthouse each year, but most never venture beyond the sealed path.

The lighthouse offers views of the merging Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean, often a place of cross currents and turbulence over the off-shore reefs known as the Columbia Banks. Northward lie the Three Kings Islands. Westward lies the route out towards Cape Maria van Diemen.

Departing the cape, the well-benched walkway descends to the long sweep of Te Werahi Beach, and once across the Te Werahi Stream, climbs grassy slopes to reach colourful dunes. Poles lead over the flanks of Herangi Hill, a place of surreal colours and curious sand-blasted rock. Fine views expand of Cape Maria van Diemen and Motuopoa Island, the only remaining island of what was once, 2-5 million years ago, a small archipelago before drifting sands created the present tombolo.

Another highlight of the tramp is the landscapes of Cape Maria van Diemen, accessible on a side trip from the main track. Here, I once spent a sublime evening when the sun slipped behind Motuopoa Island, the sea lapped coastal rocks, and the breeze ruffled the native sandbinding plants pingao and spinifex. Coastal scenery rarely betters this cape.

The main walkway begins to swing south, traversing a broad ledge above the cliffs of Maungatiketike and Pitokuku points before descending towards Twilight Beach, which offers pleasant camping at the southern end (although water is limited).

Beyond Twilight Beach, the track traverses a plateau flanked by coastal cliffs until the firm walking on the sand of Ninety Mile Beach down to Te Paki Stream.

It’s an hour’s stroll upstream to the Te Paki road end, but you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to explore the surrounding dunes. Te Paki is perhaps the most exquisite area of dunes in New Zealand; although parts of Stewart Island could lay claim to that boast, too. Covering some 2000ha, and rolling inland as far as four kilometres, the dunes here are extensive and immense.

Among this terrain, where the sand ripples like an archetypical desert, you finish a tramp utterly unlike any other in New Zealand.

– Shaun Barnett  

Wild File

  • Access About 3km shy of Cape Reinga, turn onto Tapotupotu Road. Park at the end. Local operators will drop you off and relocate your car to Te Paki.
  • Grade Easy
  • Time Tapotupotu Bay Camping Area to Cape Reinga, 2-2.5hr; Cape Reinga to Herangi Hill, 2hr; Side-trip to Cape Maria Van Diemen 90min return; Herangi Hill to Twilight Beach, 1.5hr; Twilight Beach to Te Paki Stream road end 4-5hr
  • Alternative routes Beginning from Kapowairua at Spirits Bay adds a further 8hr to the trip.

2 Rough Creek – Lake Christabel – Nina Valley, Lewis Pass

Summer and the Hurunui Valley from the Crawford Range, where a more extended trip could finish, 

The Lewis to Lake Sumner country south-west of Lewis Pass offers some of the finest tramping in New Zealand. Gorgeous beech forests, tramping tops, clear green rivers, and lush grass flats inhabited by South Island robins, kea, kakariki, kaka and other bush birds.

This trip begins on the Lewis Road at Rough Creek near Maruia Springs and will take about three days through to the road again at the Nina Valley entrance opposite Palmers Lodge. Various add-ons could continue to Lake Sumner itself, taking the best part of a week.

The maintained track up Rough Creek is relatively easy, leading out of the beech forest into a tussock basin. Poles lead across the tops where there is a chance of seeing rock wren.

Follow the poled route down into the bush again, arriving at Lake Christabel Hut about six hours from the road. The lake is about 30 minutes down the track and there are nice spots to camp near the lake’s head. The lake has an underground outlet, and consequently is a haven for native fish. The area is a tranquil place of big red and silver beech trees, where parakeets and kaka may be heard.

The second day involves crossing from Lake Christabel to the Nina, and because much is off established tracks, it’s trickier, but not overly challenging.

There are two options. On the first, follow the track leading towards the Robinson River then, from the saddle above the Robinson, sidle around the north-west slopes of Mt Boscawen to the saddle at 1452m and descend a bouldery streambed into the upper Nina. On the second, climb directly up to the tops south of Lake Christabel Hut through reasonably open untracked bush that is steep, then a bit bluffy and scrubby at the bushline. Sidle through a saddle into the basin south of 1648m, cross to the true left and follow a rib down into the upper Nina.

Travel down the upper Nina to the two bunk Upper Nina Bivouac isn’t too difficult. There is also good camping nearby. The Nina Valley and tops surrounding it were traditionally favoured by hunters and the early huts in the valley were built by deer stalkers.  

The third day is an amble down the Nina Valley, one of my all time favourite places. DOC recently built a new 10 bunk hut in the Nina. It is perched about 70m above the river on a knoll amongst a parkland of moss glades and beech trees and is well worth the detour. It’s a wonderful spot, and a good track leads out to the road from here.

There are pools and rocky gorges in the lower Nina where a bridge spans the river, and trout can be seen in the clear water. More parklands of mountain beech lead to another bridge and the Lewis Pass Highway.

Those wanting to head on to Lake Sumner from the Nina can cross Devilskin Saddle to the Doubtful River then follow the route across the Doubtful Range at Lake Man to the Hope River then cross Kiwi Saddle to the Lake. There are huts and marked routes all the way and the idyllic country around the northern side of the lake and through Three Mile Stream make this another very attractive option.  

– Geoff Spearpoint

Wild File

  • Access Both the start and finish of the trip are directly accessed from SH 7 through Lewis Pass, Rough Creek on the western side and the Nina to the east.
  • Grade Moderate with some off track skills required.
  • Accommodation DOC huts exist along the route, but a light tent would allow more flexibility.  
  • Time Three days
  • Map Topo50 BT23, BT22, BU22, BU23.

3 St James Walkway to Nelson Lakes and back, Lewis Pass

The West Matakitaki Valley from a 2000m col on the Spenser Range

Here is a multi-day tramp on well formed tracks with a good helping of harder untracked route-finding over rugged tops.

Tucked away in this magnificent region, which is easily accessed from Christchurch, is the massive Spenser Range, dividing the Maruia and Matakitaki Valleys with peaks over 2300m.

Beginning at the attractive road-side tarn on Lewis Pass, the tracked access leads into the Maruia Valley on the St James Walkway. The first day is easy and you will make Ada Pass Hut in under six hours. You could travel further up, into the high basins, and camp on the tarn-speckled basin above Ada Pass at 1600m. (This basin and the described route over the range is not the Three Tarn Pass farther to the west. It brings you up over the Spenser Range at 2000m just south and west of Gloriana Peak.)

Above the tarns is a much larger lake which, though attractive, does not offer much in the way of camping. The route then climbs from the head of the lake ascending a steepish couloir (ice axe, and perhaps crampons, required all year) to the range crest and a loose, rocky descent to a small feeder stream of the West Matakitaki where the main valley track is picked up.

You are now in a remote corner of Nelson Lakes National Park.

It’s then easy bush travel down to Bobs Hut sited in a large clearing with grand views. Your third day could be an easy one, if you choose, by ambling down to the Matakitaki forks and up the East Branch to East Matakitaki Hut, one of my all time favourite mountain huts with a magnificent setting by the river. An afternoon could be spent exploring the upper valley before another comfy night in the hut.

The next day, though, is payback time. Just one kilometre downstream of the hut, a small feeder stream enters the Matakitaki on the true left (east), on the true left of this stream broad bush faces and later tussock and scree give access to the tops west of Mt Una. There are potentially two crossings to the extreme head of the Christopher River from here, both at around 1950-2000m, and with steep couloirs which may have ice or snow in them at any season.

The route I chose was immediately east of spot height 2073m. Mt Una could readily be climbed from here. The descent was steep for the first 100m and then levelled out into a large talus or snow-filled basin and a seemingly interminable descent to the lower, and easier, bush-filled valley.

Once in the bush good travel can be made out to the Ada Valley and Christopher Hut. To complete the trip you have just a moderate track-day back out over Ada Pass and down the Maruia to Lewis Pass.

If you have an extra day you could continue on around the St James Walkway to the Boyle River Camp and cover the whole region in one trip. The basic route should take five days, but an extra day or two could be added for peak bagging or exploring anywhere along the route of this memorable ‘hidden’ Great Walk.

– Pat Barrett

Wild file

  • Access From the Lewis Pass Highway summit car park, where the St James Walkway begins, and return to the same place or to the Boyle River Outdoor Lodge at the southern end of the St James Walkway
  • Grade Hard
  • Accommodation Huts on the St James Walkway, Matakitaki Valley and numerous riverside and tops camps
  • Time 4-6 days
  • Map Topo50 BT23, BT24, BS23, BU23 

4 Te Hoe-Whirinaki Loop, Whirinaki Forest Park

Crossing a bridge amongst thick forest on the way to Upper Te Hoe Hut

Whirinaki Forest Park was established in 1984 and it is steeped in Maori history. Many pa, settlement and old garden sites remain in the forest as reminders of the area’s long history of occupation by Ngati Whare and their ancestors.  

This trip provides a fabulous circuit through the forest, with good tracks and comfortable huts as well as stunning forest and birdlife. It requires a pick-up and drop-off as it begins and ends at different spots.  Local operators provide an affordable and friendly service.

Start at the remote Okahu Valley Road, and follow gentle benched tracks for most of the day to head past Skips and Rogers huts to Mangakahika Hut.

The low saddles and flat streams are confusing, but the track is so well formed that there is no real possibility of going wrong. You may hear whio (blue duck) in sections of the streams along here and in summer look for the red flowers of native mistletoe amongst the beech. Mangakahika Hut sits in a clearing and if you look carefully at dusk you may see bats flitting around the edge of the clearing. At night kiwi often call. It’s a fine place to finish an excellent day in the hills.  

The second day brings slightly rougher travel and a few more hills. A stiff, but short, climb takes you into the remote and rough Te Hoe catchment. Central Te Hoe is a spacious, uninspiring hut, but there is a real feeling of remoteness here, especially if the mist is wreathing the hills. Central Te Hoe is a good spot for lunch before you head for the Upper Te Hoe Hut. Large bluffs drop into the Te Hoe River and it is fierce-looking country, but a quite remarkable track has been blasted out of the rock.  

The track zigzags easily through the bluffs and then sidles its way up the Te Hoe. Eventually, the benching ends and orange triangles lead over the ridge, before the benched track is regained to wind down through beautiful beech forest to the Upper Te Hoe Hut, a spectacular place to spend the night.

The third day is the hardest. A good track climbs steadily up the hill behind the hut, onto bushed ridges that are some of the highest in the park before descending into the headwaters of the Whirinaki River. Here is rough travel, as large storms a few years ago brought down a lot of trees. The windfalls can be frustrating to negotiate, but for all that, the Upper Whirinaki is a beautiful river, and whio enjoy it too. Once you reach Upper Whirinaki Hut (another great place to stay) it is all plain sailing and the track gets better and better as you head down the valley, which is renowned for its magnificent podocarp forest. It is these trees that made the area a conservation battleground until logging was stopped in the mid-1980s.  

Having a pre-arranged pick-up you can throw your boots in the back of the car well pleased with a very pleasant walk through some of the best forest in the North Island. Even better: not many people have heard of it!

– Richard Davies

Wild file

  • Access Okahu Valley Road end
  • Grade Easy-moderate
  • Accommodation A great network of huts allow you to evenly space out the trip
  • Time Four days of 6-9hr duration
  • Map Topo50 BG38, BG39, BH39

5 Styx Valley – Kokatahi headwaters – Toaroha Valley

Camp on Whitehorn Ridge above the Kokatahi. A wonderful place in fine weather, but not so easy to get to

This trip takes about five days and crosses a pass into one tributary of the Kokatahi Valley from the Styx River in the north then leaves it by crossing another pass to the west. Tracks, huts and bridges are maintained by DOC, but this country is difficult by nature.

A four or five hour tramp up the Styx River leads to the new 10-bunk Grassy Flats Hut built by DOC a couple of years ago. This hut is also on the three pass route (Browning, Whitehorn and Harman), and replaces an older Forest Service hut which in turn replaced Renton Hut, built by the Canterbury Mountaineering Club.

Tuis often perch near the cedars at the edge of the red tussock flats behind Grassy Flats Hut and sing, particularly when the flax is in flower. Wekas prowl after spoons or anything they see and can carry. The climb up to the two-person Browning Range Bivouac, perched in scrub near the bushline, follows a marked route but is steep in places.

Poles lead up and over rocky Lathrop Saddle with its bluffs, boulders and intense blue tarns to the Crawford headwaters of the Kokatahi. Even in summer there can be snow around here.

A side trip to Mt Lathrop (1910m) offers dress circle views in a less-visited corner of the Southern Alps. The Main Divide is only 4km away.

Upper Crawford Creek has an appealing isolation to it and offers opportunities for a day trip to the Main Divide. This is blue duck country and the chance of seeing some bobbing in the white water is high. The track crosses from Crawford Bivouac to the true left of Crawford Creek and begins to sidle above the river to Top Crawford Hut, with open, north-facing views.

The Kokatahi Catchment has long been famous for its forest dieback, with trunks of rata and other canopy trees stark on the hillsides. This was once seen as possum damage but has proved to be much more complex with other natural factors probably having more influence than possums in rata and Halls totara regrowth. Enjoy the stark wildness of it and do your own snooping on the ecology – there is plenty there to investigate.

From Crawford Junction Hut and the mountain cabbage trees (Cordyline indivisa) nearby, the track leads to a wire cage crossing of the Kokatahi River then continues up the true left towards the headwaters. In places the ground-creeping bushlawyer Rubus parvus may be in flower or, in autumn, fruit. The berries are edible though a little tasteless.

In the headwaters of the Kokatahi DOC has recently moved and improved the old Top Kokatahi Hut and it now sits proudly at the tussock edge, close to the old site of Kokatahi Bivvy which has been removed.

Zit Saddle on the Toaroha Range has a poled route over it to give access to Adventure Ridge. However, sometimes a pole or two can be missing after winter snows. The saddle is often home to bobbing rock wrens with their distinctive chirp. Yeats Hut and ridge offer an alternative longer and less marked route down to the Toaroha Valley.

Once at Cedar Flats in the Toaroha, it’s only a few four hours to the farmland, but Cedar Flats Hut is a nice place to spend the last night, not least because of the hot springs in Wren Creek.     

– Geoff Spearpoint

Wild File

  • Access Both the Styx and Toaroha Valleys can be accessed from Hokitika via Kaniere-Kowhitirangi road then Upper Kokatahi Road. Lake Kaniere Road offers a slower, more scenic alternative
  • Grade Moderate-hard. Passes are subalpine tussock or rock, but snow patches can be expected to last until January on Lathrop Saddle
  • Accommodation Numerous DOC huts
  • Time Five days
  • Map Topo50 BV19