- Routeburn Road end to Par Pass Biv via Sugarloaf Pass, 9hr; Park Pass Biv to Cow Saddle and back to Hidden Falls Creek (base of Park Pass), 8hr; Hidden Falls Creek to Lake Nerine via Park Pass Glacier, 7hr; Lake Nerine to Routeburn Road end via North Col, 7hr
- From the Routeburn Road end
- CB09, CA09
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 June 2014, was included. You can find all 30 of the greatest Wilderness trips in the October 2021 issue.
A variant on Otago’s classic five passes tramp proves honest exercise for Carl Walrond
The wind had changed. Drizzle drifted in. Park Pass Biv is sheltered from the north but not the south. The plan needed revision. I got out my bible, Moir’s Guide South. We could go over the tops to Lake Nerine, past North Col onto Lake Wilson and the Valley of Trolls to join the Routeburn at Lake Harris as planned. But we would see nothing. So why not drop into Hidden Falls Creek? There was another biv a few hours upstream if the rain continued and we could go see some ultramafic rocks at Cow Saddle, at the head of the creek.
It took just 20 minutes to the pass where there were campsites by small tarns. Someone had built rock walls, but they were not the place to be in a nor’wester or southerly. It seemed in this country there were places to camp everywhere.
The evening before last we had climbed up Sugarloaf Pass and tented there for the night. The following morning we walked to the upper Rock Burn where we had been tempted briefly by a superb campsite. With a bed of cut tussock for the tent, a fireplace, ready supply of water and wood all set in a sheltered copse it was perhaps a site for gents with time. We had none of that so, in the last tongue of bush, we had lashed kindling to our packs. The last half hour through riverbed and tussock in light rain to Park Pass biv was hell, but the crackle of turpentine scrub and smell of wood smoke made it worthwhile.
In murk, we dropped off through bush to Hidden Falls Creek. It was very steep and we did it in the knowledge that the day’s descent was tomorrow’s ascent. At the valley floor we noted a good campsite on the other side of the creek. The route followed the true left; my brother Mark examined the ‘float’ – in geological parlance the rocks in the riverbed, which, while indicative of what’s upstream, are not bedrock (the rock-jock’s gold standard). Mark is a geologist while I just like strange rocks. There were black heavy cobbles and a mishmash of all sorts of weirdness; a melange if you will (one of the rock formations is called the Greenstone Melange). We wanted to see as much country as we could. I told my brother to mentally prepare himself to be coming back in the evening.
I noted a weird gouge mark. At the next flat a series of them and a room-sized boulder squashing a shrub – tracing the bounce marks a swathe cut through the beech and up on high to the source – the shattered cliffs. A well-used campsite was nearby. I did the appropriate thing and made good use of the biggest ready-made hole. The route followed the riverbed for a time before cairns marked a crossing to the true right where we stepped over a massive block of cosmos sandstone – a green puddingstone. And here were screes of chert and flint before we came to a flat where we lunched on biltong. In the rain, the biv in bush edge had seemed appealing but as the cloud broke it lost its attraction. We didn’t even scout to see it – although it was only a few hundred metres away. Abandoning packs we did a day trip to Cow Saddle and the Martian screes beneath Niobe Peak. Mark babbled something about oceanic spreading ridges and pieces of mantle but it was the oversaturated orange scree-field boulders that blew me away. These are ultramafic rocks. ‘Ultra’ as in ‘lots of’ and ‘mafic’ as in ‘magnesium and iron’. Rusty rocks.
Had we lingered too long? It must have been hours, we had no watch but the sun was starting to catch the valley sides. I wanted to get as far back down valley as possible to preserve options on the following days. We made good time getting back to our packs and we even had some daylight at the good campsite at the base of the pass we had seen that morning before night stole in. Our only concern was if the river came up. Above us were the peaks Barrington, Frenchman and Welshman. Long ago those three prospectors were trapped here by an early winter. A little lower down this valley Alphonse Barrington wrote “we are three skeletons just alive” in the autumn of 1864. Roll on a century and a half and we were two well-covered skeletons, Mark more so.
Next morning it was straight up. Mark had made it out to be a beast in his mind so that the actuality paled. It didn’t take long before we dumped packs at Park Pass. In cloud we headed up towards Park Pass glacier, found a ledge and then a spur with bluffs on both sides. Halfway up the cloud lifted and we saw the Darrans. We spent hours up around the terminal lake that the glacier calves bergs into but could have spent a day. This was moraine grand central station. Once were glaciers.
On Google Earth the bergs are bigger, aerial photos from a decade ago even show an ice tongue in the lake. It’s now gone. I climbed up to the terminal face and broke off a bit for my single malt. James Park, for who Park Pass is named, liked his whisky and was described as ‘a great extrovert, a man of the world’ in the words one of his students, Frank Turner.
After a few whiskies, Park convinced Turner that instead of doing field work in Dunedin’s ‘pigsties and backyards’ he may want to go over ‘Park’s Saddle’. In two journeys, one in 1929, the other 1930, Turner headed west famously mapping a grade of metamorphic rocks in the Haast River wearing nothing but boots, hat and geological hammer. In a lecture given to the Otago University Geology Department in 1977, when Frank was an old man, he charmed those present with a vivid account of a frontier era. On his second expedition his companions were two amateur alpine botanists in their 50s, George Simpson and Jack Thomson. “George said ‘How much whisky do you take?’ I said ‘Well, we always have a bottle’. He said ‘What?!’. I said ‘A small bottle’, in case of emergency’. He said ‘Oh God, we never take less than a case’.”
Among rocks scraped clean by ice, I found a $2 coin, saw one of the small bergs turn turtle and rescued a red-legged grasshopper that had jumped into a melt water tarn. But the trail was calling. We dropped to the pass and then headed up the range towards Nerine, sidling the unpleasantly steep snow grass slopes which if they were snow covered or icy and you slipped would see you arrive in Rock Burn pretty quickly sans your life. The unpleasantness lasted about an hour and then it levelled into gulchy rocky country with a lakelet and then a small climb over a lip to Lake Nerine with its piedmontite purple schist which was popular for fireplaces in the lower South Island in the 1960s, along with a green variety of schist.
True to form there was an excellent campsite with rock walls. Yet another locale to spend a day. We were looking forward to the day when we were not squeezed by that dual-brew of the responsibilities of the middle-aged: growing children and work. Perhaps in our 50s and 60s we could come here with adult children, taking it as more of a sojourn?
We pushed on and dropped to benches in the gloaming – the sunset bleeding behind Tutoko and Madeleine. In morning cloud we reached North Col easily, guided by cairns. And of course there were rock walls behind boulders where others had camped. There was no snow in the couloir on the south side of North Col – just a remnant of an avalanche fan further down. Rock jumbles, tussock and riverbed made for rough travel before the lower flats of the upper Route Burn North Branch were reached. Mark pointed out a biv where ice climbers came in winter and then where he had camped with his brood the year before. Strangely, walking down valley my thoughts turned to what I would do at university, who I would flat with. Songs from Nirvana’s Nevermind came unbidden into my head. It was 20 years since I had been in this country and it triggered memories of a former self. And then we were at Routeburn Flats. There was no one around. I checked the time in the hut warden’s quarters – I felt OK about walking in there as I was a warden once. We would have to push it to make my flight. The smells and make-up of the trampers hiking in was something else. They probably commented on ours.
The five passes is considered a classic Otago tramp and our trip was a variant, missing the Beans Burn, Fiery Col and Fohn Saddle but throwing in Park Pass glacier, Lake Nerine and North Col. It’s big country. No huts, just a route. Give it to me any day. The soles of our feet took a hammering. Not on the route but the hard surface of the Routeburn Track on the last hour-and-a-half to the car park. Mark even got a blister.
Perhaps it was tiredness at the end of the day – or was it the inevitable deflation stemming from the loss of anticipating what the journey will be? – that drove our antipathy toward the well-maintained track. My friend, who couldn’t make the trip, has an apt dichotomy. He’d agree: while the Routeburn was ‘fancy’, the Rock Burn was ‘honest’.