Rising on the alps of South Westland, the Hunter River drains a great swathe of the eastern side of the Divide as it flows south through north-west Otago to reach Lake Hawea, a journey of over 50km. It’s what I would call a forgotten valley by virtue of its perceived inaccessibility lying as it does at the head of steep-sided Lake Hawea with no regular road access into the lower valley flats.
Four-wheel-drive vehicles can be taken far up valley, once permission is obtained from Hunter Valley Station, but as this is not always forthcoming, recreationalists must either hoof-it themselves or try mountain biking.
Yet with a week in hand the watershed begins to look very attractive as a location for solitude and adventure in these distant hills.
I have explored the mountain ranges both to the east and west of the Hunter, and walked the valley flats to gain a high pass at the head and have found the valley to be a remarkable piece of mountain landscape. Beginning with the 2km-wide mouth and delta at the lake’s head, the valley runs straight and true into its mountain fastnesses. It’s empty and beautiful, littered with numerous high routes to the Ahuriri, Makarora, Wills, Huxley, and Landsborough, has just a few small valley huts, no bridges, and massive glaciated peaks running down both sides of the valley.
If vehicle access around the lake is not an option then a great way to enter the valley is by taking the tracked route that climbs into the Cameron Valley from Cameron Flat on SH6. Head over a low pass on the Young Range to access the High Burn which drains into Lake Hawea near its head. From here one long day or two shorter ones will take you to the valley’s premier hut and camping location – Forbes Flat. This magnificent grassy flat lies at the foot of several of the valleys principle peaks: Enderby, Soloist, Hammorack, Abseil, Huxley, and Protuberance, all over 2300m and requiring a high bivvy to ascend.
The upper valley splits into the West and East Hunter, with the west branch containing a good valley track and two high routes out; Wilson Pass to the Wills and Upper Studholme Pass to the Landsborough, both moderately challenging routes.
The east branch has an overgrown track leading to a large alpine cirque surrounded by heavily glaciated summits like Wilson, Adams, Pearson, and Mt Strauchon at the valley head. Routes out of this feeder are considerably more difficult with the main one being over to Brodrick Hut in the Huxley. However a rewarding couple of days could be spent exploring these tributaries, or perhaps climbing one of the easier summits near Upper Studholme Pass to gain superb views of the Landsborough Valley.
If you return to Forbes Hut there are other good high routes out of the valley, notably Fergusson Creek to Wills Pass and Wills River, Long Flat Creek and saddle to the Wills, both of which are harder alternatives than Wilson Pass, and Scrubby Flat Creek and saddle to the upper Makarora.
The creeks which enter the Hunter from the west are all steep, rugged valleys characterised by deep, wild canyons, open mid-valley flats and tussock passes.
Heading east there are three more options to leave the valley, or perhaps make a round trip back to the Forbes Flat area; the Hunter-Huxley Col is a high, moderately difficult route requiring good navigational skills to reach the South Huxley. Banana Tarn Pass is of a similar nature and is gained below Paddock Flat and accesses the Ahuriri Valley. The easiest however, is Little Canyon Creek Pass in the lower Hunter, opposite Scrubby Hut. This pass accesses Little Canyon Creek and the Ahuriri Valley.
All of these eastern routes require very long climbs out of the Hunter and consequently long days to reach the Ahuriri or Huxley and are considerably more difficult than the western options.
It becomes apparent that any tramping or climbing trip into the Hunter, unless it is vehicle-based into the lower valley, will require good aptitude for route finding to gain the best use of your time here unless you plan to walk in and out via the valley flats and Lake Hawea – a long and tiring trek. Yet with this in mind and a commitment to adventuring amid incredible scenery, a great prize can be won – be it a high summit or a high pass to a neighbouring valley.
A week in the Hunter could involve a two day tramp in over Scrubby Flat Saddle, or Cameron Creek-High Burn, a day’s travel up valley to Forbes Hut from where you could climb one of the high peaks mentioned. From Forbes Hut you could either return to the Haast Highway via one of the other two aforementioned saddles or head into the West Branch and over Wilson Pass to the Wills.
Permission from Hunter Valley Station is required to drive to Hawea Conservation Park.
Contact Digby Cochrane (03 4431242) for permission.