A hut with entrancing viewsThere’s something of a wild west feel to this rewarding two-night circuit in the South Island’s Victoria Forest Park, starting and finishing near the town of Reefton. The highlight of the tramp is a night at the outstanding Kirwans Hut, with its grand architecture and stunning outlook over the Southern Alps. This part of the world might be wild but it’s anything but wilderness, and the hillsides still bear reminders of the gold mining days with many interesting relics of mines, machinery and miners’ huts. Big city conservation values don’t get you far in the republic of Reefton, where even the DOC office has a distinct anti-1080 vibe. The wild west feel is not mitigated on the first day’s tramp along a four-wheel drive track up the Waitahu River, where you’re likely to share the path with quad bikers or hunters. There’s no car park at the end of Gannons Road, which branches off SH69, five kilometres north of Reefton, so you’ll just have to find a spot before the bridge and hope for the best. There’s no difficulty though following the track as it heads upstream along a gentle gradient. Like any piece of land accessible by vehicle, it’s a mess of weeds, wasps and wildflowers. But don’t worry, things do get better. It’s an easy 3-4 hours to Montgomerie Hut, with the only confusing section being a point where the track abruptly ends on the river bank. Don’t attempt to cross the river but instead, look for a faint foot-pad leading through overgrown bush close to the river’s edge. The broad track-proper is regained shortly after. Montgomerie Hut is a classic six-bunker with a fire and good outlook over the river. Unfortunately, when we were there, the wasps were so bad we couldn’t enjoy the afternoon sun outside until we made a game of it, swatting dead about 60 before retreating to the hut and barricading ourselves in for the night. Frustrations of the first day were quickly overcome as the track picked up the Montgomerie River and plunged into welcome deep green bush, leaving the weeds and the wasps far behind. Three kilometres of easy ambling led to a sharp left-hand turn at Kirwans Creek. It’s a beautiful tramp along the cool, cascading mountain creek, with the track gradually steepening.
At the foot of the spur leading to Kirwans Hut sits the Lord Brassey Stamper Battery, a hulking, rusted relic of the mining days that looks incongruous against the lush bush and rushing creek. It’s a hint of things to come as the track zigzags its way up 500 vertical metres, passing cableways and fallen structures and the site of Kirwans Reward, an open cast quartz mine. Nature gets the upper hand the further up you go, and soon the bush is alive with birds. A South Island robin shares our lunch spot, hopping around us playfully against a backdrop of green ridge tops and dark river valleys.
Kirwans Hut is one of a kind: a bold, light-filled lodge perched on a rounded, grassy summit. Instantly arresting is the huge window that gives visitors magnificent views to the coast and the Southern Alps. You can see Aoraki/Mt Cook on a good day, but up here there’s really no such thing as a bad day.
Summer allows for sunbathing on the lawn, while in winter the open slopes outside the front door are perfect for improvising toboggans and getting immersed in snow play. The one downside of the hut is the stubbornly useless fireplace. We couldn’t get anything to burn. I thought it must just be us, but an examination of the hut book revealed consistent complaints about it.
A worthwhile diversion is the high point on Kirwans Hill, which offers the only views to the east, across the high peaks of Victoria Forest Park. The track is marked but becomes a little indistinct after leaving the bushline.
It’s a long but easy descent out to the road end at Capleston along a wide track that follows various spurs before levelling out on the pretty Topffer Creek. We encountered numerous large windfalls across the track.
Approaching the road end, unedifying signs of civilisation crept back: cows, weeds, a burnt out car. It’s not quite a complete loop, either. To find your car you need to scramble up a steep ridge and hike down a road before finally descending to Waitahu River Road (all routes signposted). Allow an extra hour to finish a unique and eye-opening tramp that gives a close up view of the impact humans have had on this still quite wild land.
- Total Ascent
- Easy / Moderate
- Gannons Road bridge to Montgomerie Hut, 3-4hr; To Kirwans Hut, 4-5hr; To Capleston, 4hr
- Kirwans Hut ($15, 12 bunks), Montgomerie Hut ($5, 6 bunks)
- Waitahu River Road, off Gannons Road, 2.6km along SH69 north of Reefton
- BS21, BS22