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March 2016 Issue
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Spectacle of Sawcut

The trip to Isolation Hut requires wading the Waima River. Photo: Pat Barrett
Isolated Hill Scenic Reserve, Marlborough
Total Ascent
3.5hr. Road end to Sawcut Gorge, 2hr; Gorge to Isolation Hut, 90min
Isolation Hut, 6 bunks
Take Ure Road at Waima River to Blue Mountain Farm where you leave your car and sign the visitor book
BS28, BS29

Isolation Hut, Isolated Hill Scenic Reserve

WARNING: The Sawcut Gorge Track and Isolation Hut are closed following the Kaikoura earthquake due to multiple slips.

Heat radiated from the walls of the deep limestone canyon through which we walked, sloshing easily over the Waima River which flows beneath the walls and drains a huge, mostly hidden, catchment of rugged Marlborough backcountry. The Waima reaches the coast, and SH1, about an hour’s drive north of Kaikoura, where most judge it to be just another one of the many rivers draining the steep, inaccessible country west of the highway.

Our group of five were entering an area of spectacular gorges and dense forested terrain which has become an increasingly popular destination in recent years – Sawcut Gorge.

The trip was planned for just after New Year when fine, warm weather often predominates. Such conditions are a prerequisite for visiting here as much of the tramp entails river bed travel with multiple crossings.

Although it was late afternoon, the heat was still intense and it wasn’t long before most of us were enjoying a quick swim. It would have been longer were it not for the unwelcome arrival of river eels. Once the screams subsided, we travelled on to the spectacle of the Sawcut. At around 100m high, and barely 2m wide, the slot through the face of the mountain has been aptly named. Approaching it from downstream is like walking into a box-canyon where there is, seemingly, no exit. However, on rounding the last bend in the river, the slot opens the face, granting access to a twilight world of river pools, gravels, and soaring walls. The Sawcut can be readily traversed, its precipitous nature softening a little, yet still remaining fearsome, as you follow the sinuous canyon back to the Isolation Creek Basin and hut – our final destination.

It’s great to reach the hut by mid-evening, as the sun’s rays leave the basin and a cool wind fills the void. There was no one home so we claimed bunks and cooked dinner.

Everyone was tired after the long hot day so bed was the best option after a dinner beneath the cliffs.

The basin in which the hut is located is remarkably beautiful and surrounded by high bare summits, up which dense forested slopes reach 800-900m. Above here, the summits of Isolated Hill, 1039m, and Ben More, 1244m, block the sky and tantalise those with climbing aspirations. Both are reasonably challenging, but for us it was a quick march up to 700m behind the hut on the steep, hot track that leads to a neighbouring valley. The heat and airless nature of the forest eventually claimed our enthusiasm and it was back to the hut for a swim, dinner, and marshmallows around the campfire. Stories of ghosts and wild pigs had the team returning to the safety of the hut.

By daybreak we were up and ready to begin the return trek through the gorge. Large concretions (massive boulders excavated by the river and formed into almost perfect spheres by a process of surface erosion) occupied us on the way out along with an obligatory swim in the deepest eel-free river pool – we hoped!