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August 2015 Issue
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The Landsborough solution

Catching some sun on the Solution Range before descending to a frigid Marks Flat. Photo: Geoff Spearpoint
West Coast
7 days
From State Highway 6, Haast Highway, down a gravel road on the true right of the Haast River at the Pleasant Flat bridge between Makarora and Haast.
BY13,  BY14

Geoff Spearpoint wades the Landsborough River and climbs the Solution Range on a visit to Marks Flat on the West Coast

At the heart of the Hooker Landsborough Wilderness Area in South Westland, Marks Flat is an enchanting place. Situated in the head of the Clarke River, it’s hemmed up against Kea Cliffs on one side and tucked under Mt Hooker on the other. To reach it we went up the Landsborough and crossed the Solution Range, then came out down the Clarke.

It isn’t a difficult trip as far as off-track trips go, apart from two crossings of the Landsborough River, seldom an easy proposition, and a couple of the Clarke River, which isn’t so bad. The Landsborough is often uncrossable on foot in summer. We chose autumn when there’s less snow melt to increase our chances.

Sod’s law kicked in and there was a big flood in the week leading up to the trip. However, the rain stopped and rivers were receding when Gary Nixon, Robin McNeill and I splashed off the Haast Highway at the Pleasant Flat bridge and headed up the Landsborough Valley on the 4WD track in my 2WD car. Unlike my approach when I was younger, I didn’t rip the muffler off, bury the car in a deep muddy rut, or drown it in a side creek.

Leaving the car at Surly Creek, a couple of kilometres from the highway, we headed to the old open Landsborough Homestead between Cringe and Clapcott Creeks, which is midway between SH6 and Strutt Bluff. This was the base from which the lower Landsborough was farmed. DOC now manages this land, so there are no access issues. The bad news is the convenient shelter the homestead offers is not being maintained, and may be removed.

A few hundred metres past Parasite Creek we dropped our packs and detoured to the old ranger’s hut, used in the 1940s by government deer cullers. It’s a bit of a wreck, but parts of it would still keep you dry in a storm. Then on, getting to Strutt Bluff by mid-afternoon. The bluff was named after a deer stalking colonel who had a bit of a misadventure here in the 1920s. Strutt, his wife ‘Rabbit’ and their guide and head man George Humphries were descending the valley after their Easter ‘roar’ hunting trip. They had already endured two major floods, and, on top of that, Rabbit had lost her wedding ring. While trying to negotiate the bluff they all slipped off steep greasy rock into the river. Humphries managed to clamber out and, with the aid of a branch, fished the others out of a backwater. Strutt lost his pack in the accident, and it was found six months later on a West Coast beach.

A lightly marked route climbs 100m uphill before leading through the bluffs and down ferny banks back to the river edge.

Up valley we found a campsite in grassy alcoves amongst regenerating silver beech. It was only 5pm but already the light was fading. We stoked up a fire as kaka called from distant trees. Nearby, there were stoat trap lines. DOC has a significant trapping scheme running in the valley, with a trap line most of the way up the true left to Kea Flat, and in places a double line. On the true right, they run from Creswicke Flat to Kea.

Crossing the Landsborough at Strutt Bluff. Photo: Geoff Spearpoint

Crossing the Landsborough at Strutt Bluff. Photo: Geoff Spearpoint

Our second day took us over blackberry-infested Harper Flat, where Queenstown Rafting Company has a fly camp just before Harper Bluff.  We picked up the marked route over the bluff, climbing 200m following sparse orange triangles and then threading off the ridge at a point marked by a set of antlers, descending sneakily under bluffs upstream and back to the river. At times, we followed the stoat line markers and at others the riverbank, finally stopping for the night a little over an hour or so short of Creswicke Flat Hut (also called Fraser Hut), the only surviving hut from the private meat hunting era in the valley.

Next morning, we stopped into Creswicke Flat Hut for a brew. It was very cold, and we crouched around the fire, while trying to dry a dew soaked tent under a watery sun. Later, we checked out the private but open Toe Toe Flat rafting camp on the true left, and noted a tidy red hut across on the true right near the site of the old hunter’s bivvy. We backtracked to use a good crossing of the clear Landsborough near Fraser Creek. Shivering, we marched briskly up the flats, wondering who might have resurrected the old bivvy, but it wasn’t to be.

When we reached the new DOC conservation hut it was locked. Standing there wet and cold at 5.30pm, we felt neither welcome nor, in return, well disposed towards the department. Safety issues aside, locked huts won’t get more volunteers and public support. Perhaps an open hut with a well designed locker inside might be more appropriate here. On the other hand, we are egalitarian Kiwis, and a challenge is a challenge….

Mist hung on the flats the next morning as we made our way west along the bush edge to the top back corner of Toetoe Flat. We were headed for the top of the Solution Range and initially climbed through ferns beneath the beech, but deer trails led to delightful travel on moss and liverworts up a spur under the trees. At about the 500m contour we were surrounded by kakariki, bush creepers, yellowhead, tomtits and riflemen. Further up, big bunches of mistletoe sat in the crowns of the silver beech trees, their presence given away by an occasional leaf on the ground. Near the bushline, snow crept in and on the tops we stopped for lunch. There was warmth in the sun up here, no wind, and views across to the Main Divide to die for. Mt Ward looked spectacular, but so did many other peaks, while the Landsborough drained it all, glistening through forest and flats way, way below.

We plugged our way along the Solution Range to descend a scrubby bush spur to Marks Flat. As the afternoon went, so did the sun. A thin frozen crust of snow blanketed the flat, which looked to be in winter hibernation. Almost all the flat was in shade, blocked by the bulk of Mt Hooker. We crunched through the tussock and along iced stones to the west end, where there is a big but open bivouac rock. Light had faded from the sky by now, but in its place was a three-quarter moon, its glow reflected off a thousand frost crystals, mirroring the stars. The air held its breath and the cold was fearsome, but tucked into our bags we were warm enough.   

Marks Flat is the standard approach to Mt Hooker, which was first climbed by Samuel Turner and his son in December 1928. They did well. That climb seemed very long ago when I first went to Marks Flat in 1968. Now, another 47 years has passed but it seems like 20. Sigh. Time is clearly not constant. Einstein was right.

There are a couple of routes into the Clarke from Marks Flat. One leads down the gorge, and the other crosses into Saddle Creek, descending to the bottom of the gorge. We went for Saddle Creek. On the saddle, a falcon swooped in and landed on a branch nearby. Open clearings and small tarns on the ridge gave way to beech forest as we descended into the creek. For a while travel on the true left was good, then at 960m we sidled out on the true right, keeping our height, connecting little open areas. As we drew opposite Jack Creek we descended right to Saddle Creek itself before sidling again on a good deer trail to an open forest terrace at the 500m contour. A very good trail led down the spur between the Clarke and Saddle Creek, and we emerged onto misty flats, about 4hr from Marks Flat. The damp air was very cold and by 4pm the rocks were icy. We lit a big fire, and that sorted that.

Getting comfortable in the rock bivvy at Mark Flatts. Photo: Geoff Spearpoint

Getting comfortable in the rock bivvy at Mark Flatts. Photo: Geoff Spearpoint

By morning, streamers of mist had taken charge, stealing around the flat like wraiths, shifting imperceptibly from place to place, blotting out views and burying us beyond the reach of the sun. We thawed our boots by the fire and headed away about 10am, crossing the Clarke in the first few metres, and crossing back to the true left again just below a bluff. Boots are never dry on a long trip like this, and in winter that means uncomfortably cold feet.

The Clarke is an attractive valley, not often visited, with a lot of interesting unmarked tramping routes in and out of it. It is a place that requires some skill and forward planning to manage trips safely, but with care and an able party, it can be very rewarding. As we headed down Munro Flat, the mist began to burn off and tall tussock glinted with dew. Where the river closed in again, we crossed to the true right and stayed on that side to climb up to the 500m mark bypassing a gorge in the river. We had lunch at Davies Flat below it, before another sidle on the true right that took us north of Pt497m on our way towards Rough Creek. These gorge sidles were a bit scrubby and slow, particularly in the gullies, but eventually we reached the flats below Rough Creek and found a superb campsite tucked in behind a tongue of bush.

Overnight drizzle came in and turned to rain, pushing anxiety and river levels up. We still had to cross back over both the Clarke and the Landsborough to reach the car. As it turned out, it didn’t come to much, and we slogged along Rabbit Flat through long grass as the sun came out, crossing the Clarke less than a kilometre above Zeilian Creek on what must be the best river crossing in the valley. Near the confluence of the Clarke and Landsborough there is a locked A-frame farm hut with a lean-to on it. After a late morning break we continued on, keen to have the Landsborough crossing behind us. After a good look, we headed in, but it was very straight forward, and we emerged with wet pants ready for lunch in the sun. From here it was just a matter of following the 4WD track to the car, after seven glorious days in the hills.