The Lake Morgan Circuit on the West Coast involves three remote huts and challenging ridgetops and rivers.
The last time I ventured into this neck of the woods, the track was in a terrible state of disrepair alongside the Crooked River. Back then, I had made a vow: never again would I battle through dense West Coast bush along the banks of twisting, falling rivers.
Yet here I was with my friend Malcolm driving down Nelson Creek Road into the backblocks near Lake Haupiri. The memories of past trauma temporarily forgotten as we negotiate dusty gravel roads past paddocks full of cows and fields full of crops headed for Gloriavale. We try not to maim free-range children as we park at the commune’s headquarters and, at the office, sign the visitor’s book.
All this before an hour’s walk along a private 4WD road to O’Shanessy Creek, where we choose a clockwise circuit, rather than face the unremittingly steep Brian O’Lyn route.
Further up the valley, we are bluffed and need to ford the Haupiri River to where pleasant river terraces make for faster travel. We punch through mixed beech and podocarp to pick up a marked track to the Cone Creek confluence. The thigh-deep crossing required to continue up the Haupiri River to Elizabeth Hut is testing and would be impassable after rain. On the opposite bank, a short trail leads to a tepid spring, not really deep enough to bathe in. Soon after, the track is washed-out and we resort to scrambling around the edge of the water, which sometimes thunders through rapids and at other times flows through deep green pools. We are heaving heavy packs over large boulders; it’s a balancing act in soggy boots, gaiters sagging to half-mast, and energy levels flagging.
An orange triangle promises a bush track, but this dissolves into the river again. A pair of whio fly overhead. We envy their graceful passage up the valley. I build a few cairns which might prove helpful on our return to Cone Creek. Our position is established using my phone’s GPS. Four hours in the river has taken a toll on our bodies; constant navigational problem-solving has taken a toll on our minds. Rain is falling and so is my morale. I force a muesli bar down and utter those oxymoronic words: ‘Never again!’
We soldier on, tip-toeing along a series of landslides high above the roaring river. Finally, after five hours, we reach the river flats and spot the hut roof peeking over a grassy terrace above. We shelter inside the seldom-visited Elizabeth Hut, a typical NZFS six-bunker in a typical bush clearing. Some of the bench seats are child-size, and we note recent hut book entries from the Stedfast family… Courage, Pilgrim, Wisdom, Devotion, Loyalty, Cheerful and Discretion. It reminds me of the Seven Dwarfs.
The next morning, we halve the track time back to Cone Creek, since we are fresher and familiar with the route. It’s almost delightful wading through ferns beneath a canopy of red beech trees in summer sunlight. A line of permolat markers takes us on a high sidle to avoid an impassable gorge in Cone Creek. A friendly whio effortlessly ferry-glides through the rapids, showing off his white water skills and posing for photographs. I am now, finally, enjoying myself.
A straightforward kilometre of river travel has us splashing up braided channels. But, back on the true left, there are a few markers – pink tape, rock cairns and white permolat – that indicate brief bush detours to avoid tedious river travel. A larger cairn and track sign sends us directly up the valley wall. This well-marked trail levels out, sidling for an hour, but was choked in windfall.
Abruptly we exit the podocarp entanglement through a narrow gap between two huge boulders, wading into the water for 500m of hand-over-hand scrambling to reach the final section of old track.
This terrain is rocky, undulating and slippery, requiring a good sense of balance and a head for heights. The track dives into v-shaped guts with considerable exposure and no margin for error. I find myself swearing under my breath: ‘Never again!’
It takes eight hours to reach a pathway to the hut, and suddenly life isn’t so bad. Cone Creek Hut has just been fully renovated by the Backcountry Trust. Mountain cedar, rātā, kamahi, Hall’s totara, quintinia and cabbage trees surround the 56-year-old S70 design. The hut book shows an average of 10 parties visit annually. We doze off as kiwi whistle amidst the relentless roar of the river.
The perfect weather continues as we inch up a precarious slope of shifting scree and loose rock. The climb steepens as we puff towards the skyline. At the 900m contour, a prominent cairn leads off through dracophyllum, leatherwood and cutty grass to a small saddle filled with rock debris. At a delightful stream, we fill up our drink bottles and quench our thirst.
From this basin we go up the toe of a steeply rising tussock spur. We’ve been on the go for four hours when we crest the top to find a couple of cairns. Sidling into a higher basin, we hear frogs croaking in a small, weedy tarn. With not a skerrick of a track to follow, we orientate the map and set a compass bearing for the ragged ridgeline to the north.
By now, high on the Morgan tops, the afternoon is slipping away. We follow tussock ramps down to Lake Morgan, an oversize tarn trapped among a cirque of jagged peaks, emptying over an impressive waterfall into the shadows below. The next hut is visible, a button building sited among a sprinkling of tiny tarns, far in the distance. A line of bluffs blocks our descent but we discover a grassy gut that angles gently downhill to boggy flats. The red tussock is waist high and there’s prickly speargrass. Circling a deeply-incised gorge, we march through acres of tussock, wary of myriad ankle-wrenching holes. A lone waratah betrays the location of Lake Morgan Hut, hidden below the hill.
The six-bunker has a new corrugated iron roof, water tank and coat of paint. A crew from Gloriavale has built a beautifully-crafted longdrop. Over the past two decades, the most regular visitors to this cabin are from the Christian community – this is their wild backyard. The hut book is filled with intriguing entries from their annual school trips in late summer. On a Year Nine boys’ tramp, one lad had written in the visitor’s book: ‘Hut a bit small for 28’. One of the teenage girls had penned: ‘We made it! Never again!’ Others had mentioned sighting kea, chamois and red deer. Some clever soul had named the resident weka ‘Watchful Thief’.
That evening, two others arrive on an ambitious weekend trip from Christchurch. Kieran and Goldie have laboured for nine hours over the Brian O’Lyn route. We swap stories as the moon makes a staged appearance.
At dawn, the sunlight filters through skylights in the hut roof. Serrated mountain tops light up orange, contrasting with the cobalt sky. This is big country, glorious and majestic.
We have no set agenda, no timetable, no compulsion to hurry. We waste the day chatting, perusing hut literature, drinking tea, enjoying quiet solitude. Later, Malcolm makes a successful summit bid to the 1489m spire that presides over the lake. He enjoys a celebratory swim, a detox after four months’ Covid lockdown in the city.
The next morning we visit the remnants of the old hut, flattened by the wind on the plateau above the existing hut.
Lazy cumulus clouds crowd the sky as we head north, following marker poles up the leading ridge to Mt O’Shanessy (1462m). Here are views of Lake Brunner and the sheer walls of Mt Alexander. Turning north-west, we reach a hilltop where boulders are piled like scattered dice.
We follow the ‘Gloriatrail’, where dozens of young feet have made a well-worn path, keeping an eye out for snow poles. We are fast losing altitude along the narrow ridgeline into tussock and turpentine scrub. A profusion of colourful daisies and gentians are on display, as dragonflies hover above stagnant waterholes. Time is measured by the sun riding the ridgelines of distant peaks.
The route arcs onto a subsidiary mountain range. From the edge of these grassy clifftops, we gaze directly onto the Gloriavale community housing, airstrip, agricultural buildings and engineering workshops – a God’s-eye view of paradise, far, far below.
A cooling breeze is welcome under a fiery, midday sun. Bashing through scrub leads to a marked exit off the tops. The notorious Brian O’Lyn route is steep in places, overgrown in parts and definitely not for the novice. However, we reach the bottom in 90 minutes. A startled kererū flaps noisily above, its wings beat like the woosh of a whip. We return to the Haupiri River flats, the farm track, and the car.
This is a demanding four-day circuit for fit trampers with sound navigational ability who will be rewarded with ridges and rivers, tussock tops and tarns, hot pools and huts. Where human footprints are as rare as the whistling whio. Where track markers are as scarce as a fledgling kea. Would I return? Never say never.
- Total Ascent
- Four days. Car park to Elizabeth Hut, 5hr; To Cone Creek Hut, 5–7hr; To Lake Morgan Hut, 6–7hr; To car park, 5-7hr
- Elizabeth Hut ($5, 6 bunks), Cone Creek Hut (free, 6 bunks), Lake Morgan Hut (free, 6 bunks)
- From SH7 at Ngahere turn onto Nelson Creek Road, then Haupiri Road and Heaphy Road. Permission required from Gloriavale Christian Community. P: 03 738 0224
- BU20, BU21
- Lake Morgan Hut Loop (gpx, 15 KB)
- Your device does not support GPX files. Please try a different device.