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April 2022 Issue

The anticipation of crossing a mountain pass is matched by the trepidation at what lies beyond. These five passes should be on your life list.

The word ‘pass’ (nōti in Māori) has an evocative meaning for most trampers. There’s the physical meaning of crossing a mountain range, but also the more metaphorical sense of crossing from one world into another. 

On the approach to a pass, you experience growing anticipation of what lies on the far side, mixed with the uncertainty of the difficulties that may lurk in the unknown beyond.

Although many ranges bear differing characteristics from one side to the other, the contrast between west and east is particularly strong in Kā Tiritiri o te Moana / Southern Alps. While the east often boasts drier, more open conditions, and most likely beech forest, the west features confined gorges, tangled forest and usually wetter, wilder conditions. 

Curiously, very few landmarks named ‘pass’ exist in the North Island, and none in the backcountry. In contrast, the South Island features about 150 passes in the mountains, some of them famous, such as Ōmanui/McKinnon Pass on the Milford Track, and Harper Pass on Te Araroa. Rakiura has Big Sand Pass, near Mason Bay, the name of which speaks for itself.

Here are several worthy passes for trampers to visit at least once in their careers. 

1. Granity Pass Hut, Kahurangi National Park 

Granity Pass Hut offers access onto the highest mountain in Kahurangi National Park, the marble massif of Mt Owen. From the Wangapeka River Road, a well-marked track climbs a beech-covered rib, down the aptly named Staircase, past the ruins of an old gold prospector’s hut, into Ghost Valley, and finally to the 10-bunk Granity Pass Hut. Beyond, a cairned route leads to Mt Owen. As for Granity Pass itself, I assume this applies to the unnamed low point east of the hut (1250m), through which a tramping track leads to the Lookout Range.

2. Moss Pass, Nelson Lakes National Park

Although Moss Pass (1785m) is crossed far less often than Travers Saddle, it’s equally worthwhile. The pass lies on the Mahanga Range, which separates the D’Urville and Sabine valleys. South of George Lyon Hut, the Moss Pass Route climbs through forest onto easy slopes leading up to the range crest. Then it descends a scree gut through a formidable notch, onto easier ground and over a shoulder to reach Blue Lake Hut. It makes for a good 3-4 day tramp, beginning and ending at Lake Rotoroa.

3. Fowlers Pass, St James Conservation Area

Fowlers Pass (1295m) once provided access for pioneer farmers who lived in the country which is now known as St James. It’s named after Bill Fowler, who was born at Stanley Vale in 1872. Now the pass makes an enjoyable overnight tramp. From Tophouse Road, north of Hanmer, the Fowlers Pass Track begins at the historic Fowlers Hut and climbs steadily onto the barren slopes of the pass itself, where a steep zigzag descends into Smyths Stream. Easy riverbed travel leads into the open country of Stanley Valley and another historic six-bunk hut at Stanley Vale (allow 6hr each way). Adventurous trampers can traverse Mts Clara, Pickett and Catley to complete an off-track circuit.

4. Three passes, Arthur’s Pass National Park

The 4-6 day Three Passes tramp has long been a favourite route through the Alps, and one with much historic interest. Nōti Raureka/Browning Pass (1411m), served as an important crossing for Māori pounamu seekers, Pākehā gold prospectors, and pioneering pastoralists. From Klondyke Corner, tramp up the Waimakariri Valley, over Harman (1321m) and Whitehorn  (1755m) passes to reach Park Morpeth Hut in the Wilberforce Valley. The steep, eroded eastern faces of Nōti Raureka lead to the delightful alpine basin occupied by Whakarewa/Lake Browning, from where tracks descend into the Arahura River, famed for its pounamu.

5. Centre Pass, Fiordland National Park

For those not wanting to tackle the muddy challenges of the Dusky Track in its entirety, Centre Pass (1051m) makes a worthy destination. From Wilmot Pass Road, tramp to Upper Spey Hut, then follow the Dusky Track up the scenic Warren Burn onto the pass. From there, it’s possible to climb onto the flat-topped, tarn-strewn expanse of Mt Memphis, which makes wonderful camping in good weather. Allow three days.