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Not a trip for bunnies

Heading towards the notorious Waterfall face (thankfully, the waterfall to the left)
Area
Makarora
Grade
Difficult
Accom.
Wilderness stayed at Altamont Lodge. P: 03 443 8864
Access
Wilkin River, near Makarora (aircraft and jet boat are available to hasten your trip up-valley)
Rabbit Pass has a fearsome reputation. Its waterfall face ascent is notorious, but, as Matthew Pike discovers, so long as you handle the steep stuff with care, this spectacular trip should be on every tramper’s bucket list

I slogged my way up the valley wall, sweating in the midday heat. The terrain was persistently steep and every corner revealed more energy-sapping slog. I cursed the Bledisloe Gorge. This sudden narrowing of the Matukituki River East Branch was responsible for this uncomfortable detour. But for this one gorge, the trip out from Rabbit Pass would be one long riverside stroll.

But a brief chat with our ever-patient guide Ian Brandon convinced me that I’d been judging this 3km section of river the wrong way. For the relatively brief inconvenience I was experiencing was a key factor as to why Rabbit Pass retains its special quality.

“It’s quite normal to see no-one at all,” Ian told me. “The gorge makes the upper valley hard to reach.”

He was right. Apart from our first night in Top Forks Hut, we saw not a single soul over the subsequent three days. Our little group of six had this supreme landscape in the heart of Mt Aspiring National Park all to ourselves. And this was in January –  the school summer holidays.

Rabbit Pass has to be one of the destinations for any seasoned tramper. The exposure is thrilling, the journey ever-changing and the surroundings magnificent… I mean, truly magnificent. There are few locations that can beat it for the blend of hanging glaciers, extreme rock formations, Lake Tekapo-coloured glacial lakes and sheer magnitude.

And it was all ours. Indeed, the diversion around the gorge ensures most mortal trampers who cross into the east branch of the Matukituki River from  Rabbit Pass take two days to get to the Wanaka Aspiring Road. The full traverse, starting from the Wilkin Valley, takes four long days.

Without the gorge, the flats further upstream would surely have been farmed to a significant extent, as they have downstream, which would have inevitably led to farm tracks or even roads leading to the foot of the pass. Rather than the isolated paradise it is now, visited by only a handful of trampers each month, it would be a crowded thoroughfare, perhaps not dissimilar to Ben Lomond or Egmont/Mt Taranaki.

For those who have climbed Cascade Saddle and are looking for a similarly gripping experience, though even more challenging and further from the footsteps of fellow human beings, Rabbit Pass is for you.

Like its more frequently-climbed cousin, Rabbit Pass, if tackled from the Wilkin end, includes a very steep section where tussock and dry grass can be slippery. It’s particularly cumbersome in the wet,or in strong winds. But unlike Cascade Saddle, where the bowel dropping section is at the top, the equivalent is a waterfall face, shortly before reaching Rabbit Pass.

Michelle takes in the views before the descent from Rabbit Pass with Pickelhaube behind.

Michelle takes in the views before the descent from Rabbit Pass with Pickelhaube behind.

Getting hand and foot holds just right are vital and you’d be daft not to go with an experienced climber. You’d also be daft not to use rope to help you in the top section of the face because, although not a tough climb, the slippery nature of the terrain, even when dry, means a fatal fall is far from out of the question.

For most, rope is needed again on the opposite side of the pass, as a particularly steep section with temperamental scree dramatically quickens your digestive process and makes a fall possible with unthinkable consequences.

People have died in the area but, as Andy Oxley of Aspiring Guides points out, “in my experience, most who have got hurt have been trying to avoid Rabbit Pass, thinking there must be an easier way”.

Oxley describes the trip as  the toughest of the company’s walking options and I felt this would be the best option for me; a guide offering me assurance during the tougher and more exposed sections of the climb.

I met my guide, Ian; a man with military and engineering experience, meaning he’d be as useful for fixing broken pack straps as he would be for safely navigating us up the waterfall face.

I also met the other members of the tramping party at the briefing the evening prior to the trip. Syd and Phil are from Melbourne and come to New Zealand every year for an epic trip or two in the South Island. Petra and Michelle are from Whangarei. Michelle had just completed an alpine trip, also guided by Ian.

The trip was a true backcountry experience with the odd snippet of startling luxury. The first of these was a fixed wing flight from Makarora up the Wilkin Valley to within an hour of Top Forks Hut. It’s a stunning way to begin a tramp, passing snow-capped pinnacles, such as Mts Turner and Kuri, before bouncing along the grassy airstrip, staring straight towards Mt Betsy Jane, named after the hunting dog of 19th century explorer Charlie Douglas, who named many of the peaks in this region.

The next luxurious bonus was the weight of our packs. With no need to carry food, a sleeping bag or a tent, several kilos were knocked off the normal pack weight – it was instantly noticeable.

The short walk to the hut involved a number of river crossings and wading through deep pools left by recent storms. When we reached the hut, I was treated to unexpected luxury number three – my first ever mug of filter coffee in the backcountry.

For the remainder of the day we explored the Wilkin River North Branch in perfect weather, enjoying our alpine surroundings with trips to the unmarked Disappearing Tarn (which literally vanishes in dry spells), Lake Diana (in which we swam) and the extraordinary Lucidus Lake. Mts Pollux and Castor tower over this glacial pool, which is pale blue in colour with a severe wall of lateral moraine to its eastern side. We viewed it from a lookout at its southern end, from which it looked like a giant swimming pool – but not one in which you’d survive for long.

An orange tent was perched precariously on the slopes of Mt Pollux and in the evening we watched as two distant dots descended the mountain’s ice cliffs, reaching their home as the sun set.

Our relaxing first day was offset by ‘the big one’ the following day. Up at 5.30am we whispered over breakfast so as not to wake other trampers in the hut and at dawn we began our steady three-hour ascent through beech forest up the Wilkin River South Branch.

Soon, we reached Waterfall Flat, where the trees cleared and we stared, for the first time, at the waterfall up which we would need to clamber. The trip had been building up to this moment and life suddenly became serious. Gone was the leisurely swim and the casual amble from the day before. Here’s where we needed to keep our heads – and our balance.

Ian took us up in two separate groups. I was in the first with Michelle and Petra, each of us following his every step to a spot where we could rest. The route is to the true left of the waterfall itself and, though there were trail markers, it would have been easy to follow false leads onto a more dangerous path or to a dead end. At one point I lost balance, grabbing quickly for a handful of grass to stop myself falling backwards. It was a heart-jilting moment and I needed a few moments to regain my composure.

After Ian led Phil and Syd up the same stretch, we repeated the manouevre for a second section before being roped up for the third and final climb to the top, which we completed one-by-one. With the safety rope attached and fear of falling diminished, this final stretch was the most fun and brought us to a rugged hanging valley with tremendous views back to Waterfall Flat and the enticing-looking ridge leading up towards Mt Twilight.

Petra enjoys the view over Lucidus Lake with Mt Castor Behind

Petra enjoys the view over Lucidus Lake with Mt Castor Behind

We followed the stream, winding between small grass spurs. In the fine weather, it was idyllic, but this is a place where you can easily get trapped in the wrong conditions.

Reaching Rabbit Pass I felt like Julius Caesar about to address the empire. I stood as close as I dared to the edge with the Matukituki River East Branch’s valley floor almost 1000m beneath my feet; the flats stretching several kilometres into the distance. To my right glared the angry face of Pickelhaube with its hanging ice and sheer cliff walls. To my left, mountains sliced in half by glaciers many thousands of years ago formed giant cliffs dropping for hundreds of metres.

It’s said Rabbit Pass is so named because Charlie Douglas was convinced this was the route vast numbers of rabbits were using to get from the West Coast to Otago. I’m not sure what was in his tea, but we saw no rabbits on or near the pass; but we did see a hare and two chamois.

Our route from the pass involved a slightly demoralising 200m climb towards Lois Peak before an orange arrow pointed down a disturbingly steep gully. After sliding the first few metres down untrustworthy scree, Ian roped us up again and belayed us through the tricky terrain  one-by-one. Then came the unrelenting descent all the way down to the flats of the East Matukituki – the toughest section being the heavily eroded river agonisingly close to our campsite.

It had taken 12 hours, but we all felt in good enough shape to appreciate the work of Aspiring Guides’ chief guide Whit Thurlow. Though not with us for this trip, we benefited from his DIY skills. Both this site and the following night’s contained a camouflaged box in which the food, tents and all the cooking equipment and tools needed for our stay were stored – all designed or built by Thurlow. The box lid seconds as a tabletop, there’s carpet and a gazebo to ensure we were sheltered from whatever the weather threw at us. There was even a pair of slippers over which Syd, as the most senior member of the group, assumed temporary ownership.

Camp was also where we shared most of the banter between the group. Having two Aussies among us led to the inevitable trans-Tasman jibes. A couple of crackers I learned were:

‘What’s the difference between an Australian and natural yoghurt? … Natural yoghurt has culture.’ And, told by Syd himself: ‘For those travelling to Hong Kong, your flight’s at 11:50; for those travelling to Singapore, your flight’s at 11:55; and for those travelling to Sydney, your flight’s when both hands reach the 12 at the same time.’

The beautiful Matukituki River East Branch welcomed us on day three – a fantastic turquoise and, on another perfectly sunny day, cool and soothing to walk through. We took an early lunch at Ruth Flat, before heading through bush and up the valley wall to avoid Bledisloe Gorge.

This was a torturous spell. If we’d experienced this on the first day, the group would have had no problems. But with the psychology of thinking the hard bit’s done and the remainder was a riverside wander, the fatigue hit us. “I think it’s strawberry wafer time,” I declared. Everyone looked puzzled as I rummaged around in my bag. I think they were expecting the sort of wafer catholics receive at mass. Out came a packet of 99c Budget brand strawberry wafer biscuits that had been waiting for a moment such as this. Within two minutes we’d demolished the pack.

They raised our spirits enough to enjoy the views from the bushline ridge. Just when it looked as if we were leaving the truly high mountains, a giant colosseum of summits including Mt Avalanche and Popes Nose, famously summited last winter by Guy McKinnon, hove into view. Soon after, Mt Aspiring poked its head out from behind Scylla.

The beautiful waters of Matukituki River East Branch are a highlight of days three and four. Photo: Matthew Pike

The beautiful waters of Matukituki River East Branch are a highlight of days three and four. Photo: Matthew Pike

It was a fine view of some of the country’s most iconic peaks and one we could enjoy from our final campsite – situated next to a large drop into Hester Pinney Creek, close to a recent bushfire but just far enough away not to have been affected.

I was amazed that once walking had ceased for the day, Ian’s work was only half done. While the rest of us would flake out enjoying the shade, he got to work setting up the gazebo and preparing dinner. It was hard and tiring work but, thanks to me, his suffering endured long into the night.

While the other four slept in tents, Ian and I hunkered down in the gazebo area. Now, I do snore, but this is normally alleviated by a quick smack to the head followed by a command to lie on my side. But this night, whether on back, side or front, I sounded like a human foghorn and could do nothing to stop it. At times I woke myself up, but Ian didn’t sleep a wink until 3am when he finally gave up and found a patch of ground outside the gazebo on which to sleep.

How he didn’t slap me or spit in my coffee the next morning is credit to his professionalism. Instead, he served us all pancakes with cream and strawberries, belying his sleep deprivation.

Fortunately, the final day was the easiest. After descending 400m, Ian showed us a beautiful five tier waterfall with a perfect mug-shaped swimming hole. Some of the others jumped in, emitting soprano-pitched howls as the chill engulfed them. I thought better of it, but enjoyed a brief dip at lunch when we stopped for our final bite to eat on a rock overlooking the sparkling, inviting (though uncomfortably cold) river.

Rabbit Pass is a tramper connoisseur’s trip. But its notoriously dangerous reputation puts a lot of people off attempting it.

For the experienced tramper I’d say take some rope and carabiners, find a weather window and go for it. Even if the weather isn’t on your side for the pass itself, there are enough trips high in the Wilkin Valley to get your alpine kicks.

For those who don’t fancy carrying big packs for days on end or if, like me and the others on my trip, you wouldn’t feel comfortable on your own in the more extreme environments, the guided option keeps the trip within reach for the regular tramper. It means the trip is attainable for those who feel their multi-day expeditions are a thing of the past.

Speak to anyone who has completed a traverse of Rabbit Pass and it’ll soon become apparent that it’s a trip that lives long in the memory.

More photos from the Rabbit Pass trip…

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