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October 2015 Issue
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Mind games on the Hokitika

Swingbridge above the Mungo River. Photo: Neil Silverwood
West Coast
Total Ascent
3-5 days. Road end to Frew Hut, 5-7hr; Frew Hut to Frew Saddle Biv, 4-5hr; Biv to Bluff Hut, 2-3hr; Bluff Hut to Toaroha Saddle Biv, 4-6hr; Biv to Cedar Flat Hut, 7-9hr; Cedar Flat Hut to road end, 3-4hr
Frew Hut (10 bunks), Frew Saddle Biv (two bunks), Bluff Hut (six bunks), Toaroha Saddle Biv (two bunks), Cedar Flat Hut (12 bunks)
From either the Whitcombe Valley Road end or Middlebranch Road. Car shuttle required.
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Toaroha Circuit (gpx, yo 127 KB)
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Lauren Kelley battles all the West Coast can throw at her in a soggy escapade through classic West Coast backcountry

The first time I made plans to tramp the Toaroha-Hokitika- lower Whitcombe loop, the weather was worse than that endured by the early explorers, Henry Whitcombe and Jakob Lauper, on their fateful journey through the area in 1863.

As tropical cyclone Ita arrived, my hopes of tramping for the Easter holiday fell with the trees into piles of windfall and I resigned myself to trying another time. Skip forward one year and my boots were finally hitting the track, lured by the chance of experiencing first-hand the rugged terrain, dense bush and stunning views that make this route the epitome of South Island West Coast tramping.

Our trip started on a warm, grey day and it wasn’t long before we arrived at the cableway over the Hokitika River. I was very dubious about this cableway. Neil, my partner, gave me a brief lesson and one at a time we put our packs into the tiny cart and clambered in. When it was my turn, Neil let the lever go from the far bank and suddenly I was zinging towards him at high speed; soaring over the river, grinning ear to ear, while perched on something resembling a second hand serving platter. I was glad to have the cable car and spared a thought for Whitcombe and Lauper who, in their time, had to walk several kilometres upstream to find a safe place to ford the Hokitika.

The Toaroha to Lower Whitcombe track is typically hiked from the Cedar Flat end, up the Toaroha River and out via the Hokitika and Whitcombe rivers, but being a holiday weekend, and during the roar, we decided to do it the other way around to avoid the crowds. It turns out that wasn’t necessary as there are plenty of hut and route options in the area.

A few minutes beyond the cableway we heard a red stag roar. Shortly after, near Rapid Creek Hut, we met some hunters and mentioned the sound to them. They told us they had stalked the stag the previous day only to turn around and find him sauntering along on the track behind them.  “He was only a seven-pointer,” they said. “Too small for us so we let him go.”

After leaving the hunters in a cloud of sandflies, it was easy going alongside the azure blue Hokitika and Whitcombe rivers.

Cable car on the lower whitecombe

Cable car on the lower Whitecombe. Photo: Neil Silverwood

That evening we arrived at Frew Hut in the rain and awoke next morning to a steady drizzle. This became the theme of our trip: rain, rain, wait… more rain. While the weather was what had been forecast, it was still disheartening; it made the track slippery and the creek crossings dicey. My city-girl muscles didn’t hesitate to complain. It did make us both really appreciate the sun – on the few occasions it made a timid appearance.

Our route on the second day was up Frew Creek to Frew Saddle Biv. In the few hours it took us to reach the biv, we experienced the full gamut of West Coast weather; from teeming rain to clear blue skies.

The view from Frew Saddle was stunning while it lasted; we could see for miles down the valleys on either side and the tussock shone gold in the late afternoon sun.

But the day was wearing on and thick clouds had rolled in. We faced a tough decision – stop early and stay in the tiny, mist-shrouded biv or carry on and risk getting stuck out at night before reaching Bluff Hut, about 5km away. We decided to push on, making the knee-quivering descent into the upper Hokitika River through thick cloud and accompanied by a lone kea that cried eerily as it swooped above. We were still picking our way pole by pole to Bluff Hut when darkness fell. Wet through, cold and regretting our decision to carry on from Frew Saddle Biv, I was dreading the thought of sleeping out. I suspect Neil, keen to round out the adventure, was secretly hoping we would.

One good thing about tramping at Easter is you’re guaranteed a bright moon. Though the cloud cover obscured the moon itself, it still created a moody glow so bright we only needed our headlamps to spot the elusive track poles in the distance. When the silhouette of Bluff Hut finally emerged from the shadows, my worn out feet couldn’t move fast enough.

Bluff Hut sits atop an enormous rock with a commanding view of the surrounding mountains and has a precarious path to the loo, which is situated even closer to the cliff edge than the hut itself. Ambling out for a midnight pee on weary legs felt like taking your life in your hands – I ambled very slowly.

Carrying on from Bluff Hut in the morning, we made a sheer, tree-hugging descent to a sturdy swingbridge over the Hokitika River to access the track that runs alongside the Mungo River. Between the bridge and Poet Hut, the trail, though only 4km, was a rollercoaster of steep ups and downs. Still tired from the previous day’s exertions, and having had a wistfully naive expectation of following a track along the same contour, my inner voices began to stir: ‘What were those sadistic Forest Service workers thinking anyway, didn’t they believe in sidling!?’ After every uphill section, the track sloped steeply down again, seemingly without any horizontal gain, and I started playing mind games to hold the frustration at bay. I rationed out lollies as a reward for making progress, bribing myself to continue and appeasing my grumbling inner ogre.

We arrived at the cute and colourful Poet Hut in time for a late lunch. I would love to have stayed the night – it has more charm than most huts and sports a cosy open fire – but that would mean a very long tramp the next day to Cedar Flats Hut. We set our sights on the tops and headed out.

Leaving the comfort of bluff hut in rare sunshine.

Leaving the comfort of bluff hut in rare sunshine. Photo: Neil Silverwood

At last the curse of the steeply undulating track gave way to a pure 700m uphill climb. It was grueling, probably more so than the previous section of track, but it felt like we were making real progress; every step up was one step closer to our destination. Once above the treeline, it was a quick scramble to Toaroha Saddle Biv. I counted down the marker poles, rewarding myself as I clambered to the top, “5 – lolly, 4 – lolly, 3 – lolly, 2 – what, no more lollies? 1 – biv in view!”

As I heaved my sodden pack through the door, I felt blessed to be a pint-sized person. Though not a quality I’m usually grateful for in the outdoors, it meant I had plenty of elbow room in the tiny two-bunk biv.

The track leading from the biv into the headwaters of the Toaroha River is not for the faint of heart and shouldn’t be attempted before a stiff morning coffee. The dizzyingly steep slope falls away through tussock and spaniard and is sprinkled with hidden potholes and narrow ditches. After the steep terrain of the morning, the track leveled out and wove pleasantly past low marsh, where the Top Toaroha Hut is situated, along Toaroha River and back into the forest for the final stretch. By afternoon we had made our way wet and weary to Cedar Flat Hut where we hoped to soak our tired bones in the much talked about hot pools – something I’d been looking forward to the entire trip.

But as we neared the swingbridge, a short distance from the hut, the skies opened. I quickened my pace but had the sinking feeling there would be no hot pool bathing that night. The river, which had been clear blue most of the day despite the steady drizzle, quickly turned frothy and brown as the deluge intensified. I was heartbroken; my shoulders slumped under my pack and I listlessly put one foot in front of the other, trying to cheer myself up by fantasising about what I would eat for dinner and hoping I wouldn’t have to rock-paper-scissors Neil for the best flavour of freeze dried meal.

We were greeted at the hut by Greg Ross, a Kiwi now living in Canada. Greg had spent his younger years in New Zealand and was full of stories about working for the Forest Service, cutting and maintaining tracks and huts in the area. As the rain teemed down outside, we made a fire and listened to his account of a similar storm many years ago. He had been out cutting tracks in the upper Toaroha when it started to rain. The crew realised the creeks were rising faster than expected and decided to race back to the hut; dropping their tools on the spot. The first two to arrive at the flooding creek made it across safely, but by the time the third turned up, the creek was above waist height and the fourth guy, appearing a few minutes later, didn’t stand a chance of crossing. The first two took a circuitous route back to their hut to put together a package of food while the third kept the fourth company. All they could do was throw the supplies across the creek and yell instructions to backtrack to Crystal Biv for a cold, damp and lonely night. The next day, flows were down and the men were reunited, thankful to have had shelter during the storm.

Cloud and rain at the head of the Toaroha

Cloud and rain at the head of the Toaroha. Photo: Neil Silverwood

Greg returned to New Zealand regularly to visit family and volunteer with Permolat, helping to clear the tracks and fix the huts that he had worked on all those years ago and that DOC is unable to maintain. After hearing his stories, I was grateful for his hard work and felt relieved we hadn’t been caught out ourselves. Listening to the rain beat on the roof, I worried that we would find ourselves in a similar predicament the next day.

I shouldn’t have worried. Though it poured all night, we took our time in the morning and left around noon, once the rain had stopped and the river showed signs of diminishing. I would later read in the news that Greg took a fall on a slippery track a few days later and spent eight nights stranded at Frisco Hut with a dislocated shoulder (read an account of Greg Ross’ story in the June 2015 issue).

Except for higher than usual creek crossings, and despite having to wear soggy boots for the fifth day in a row, the walk from Cedar Flat was the easiest day we’d had the whole trip. As we neared the end of the trail, I found myself thinking back to the breathtaking saddle views, the rush of picking my way down steep slopes, the elation of spotting markers in the misty twilight, and the satisfied feeling of tired legs and a well-earned meal at the end of each day. It was physically hard, and at times daunting, but it was all worthwhile. In referring to the magnificence and peace one feels in hard-to-reach places, a friend once told me: “This is a therapy that most people don’t get.”

Those looking for a classic Kiwi backcountry experience can find therapy, mind games and a whole lot more on this fantastic route.