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West Coast boulder-dash

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April 2023 Issue

A challenging West Coast circuit that takes in some of the classic huts and rivers of the area. By Sarah White

The warning on the trip report seemed dire: ‘Don’t do this trip unless you will have good weather for all of it! And you are fit! And you can use a map and compass properly.’ Even Geoff Spearpoint, the doyen of New Zealand tramping guidebook authors, wrote: ‘this country is difficult by nature’. 

The Zit and Lathrop saddles’ circuit starts behind Lake Kaniere, inland from Hokitika. My partner Paul and brother Sam, my two favourite tramping companions, joined me for this trip.

There are about 140 huts in the mountains between Haast and Karamea. Most were built in the mid-twentieth century for deer cullers. In the early 2000s, DOC struggled to maintain this large infrastructure and the huts’ existence was threatened. A group of enthusiastic volunteers was formed and Permolat now renovates and maintains many of the huts, assisted by funding from the Backcountry Trust. They’re also marking and maintaining tracks in the area, and we benefitted greatly from their hard work. On this circuit, huts range from cute two-person bivouacs to four- and six-person New Zealand Forest Service beauties and two larger modern DOC huts.

The track up the Toaroha Valley starts benignly in the heart of Westgold dairy country on a rough farm road which leads to an easy-going pack track. This was built in the 1930s for access to the Wren Creek hot springs which are just past Cedar Flats. The pack track mostly remains in its original state, barring a short detour leading to the river.

From Cedar Flats, the track passes through striking cedar forest to the upper Toaroha swingbridge from where there are good views of the impressive canyon with azure blue water tumbling over jumbled rocks. A little further on, a 500m climb begins, directly uphill. This was sweaty work, and we were happy to reach the bush line and shortly after spy our home for the night, the lovingly restored Adventure Biv.

I’ve noticed that the most loved huts have handy accessories probably left there by regular visitors. My favourite thoughtful accessories are red band gumboots and a pair of reading glasses. Adventure Biv had the glasses (thanks Permolat) and a stunning view over the Diedrich Range and across to Yeats Ridge Hut.

The cableway provides safe travel over the Kokatahi. Photo: Paul McCredie

We spread our packs’ contents over the tussock and with a cup of tea in hand, a balmy calm evening and a good day’s climb behind us, now was the time to utter my father’s expression of gratitude in these situations: “This is the life!”

Sam impressed with his home-grown vegetables. He’d brought fresh goodness for all lunches and dinners and a very meagre portion of rice. Meanwhile, Paul and I tucked into our stodgy dehy, envious, but also wondering whether Sam was going to be hungry.

The hut book warned of difficult route finding up to Zit Saddle, but we followed orange triangles through the scrub, in and out of a couple of gullies, before a direct climb to the ridge of the Toaroha Range at a point above and to the north of Zit Saddle. It was good to have done the big climb before the heat of the day kicked in.

There were poles over the ridgeline to a tussock terrace before we dropped steeply down a rocky gut. We boot skied and scrabbled down the scree and gravel to a tributary of the Kokatahi River. From here there was delightful river travel and we rock-hopped quickly to Top Kokatahi Hut.

After morning tea, the delightful river travel soon lost its novelty. The boulders were bigger, the crossings deeper and more frequent. It hadn’t rained on the Coast for a few days, but care was still needed while crossing. This was turning into a typical slog down a wild West Coast River. Markings were infrequent with sometimes a triangle indicating that we should enter the bush with slippery sidles on rough tracks around spurs, over rocks and through dense vegetation. All the time the Kokatahi roared deafeningly. This was gorgeous country but hard work. We mimed through lunch, the river drowning conversation.

The azure blue water of the Toaroha River. Photo: Paul McCredie

During one foray into the bush, we bumped into a tramping club party from Wellington; for them an old-school tramping trip. They’d come down in the club van and were dropped at Arthur’s Pass with massive 11-day packs. They were being picked up on the West Coast by the easy group who were enjoying shorter trips. We exchanged stories of adventures and mutual acquaintances before continuing.

At last we reached the cableway crossing the Kokatahi which brought us back to the true right bank. It was fun to sit in the little cage and wind each other across. From here the travel eased and a nice track brought us to Crawford Junction Hut, which overlooks the confluence of Crawford Creek and Kokatahi River.

Time for a swim and a nap in the hut. Unfortunately, although Crawford Junction has been lavished with Permolat attention, the insect screens weren’t functioning well. We lay prone and bare in our sleeping bag liners, batting away sandflies and recovering from a very physical day.

Next day was to be the longest of the trip. We began with boulder hopping up Crawford Creek but were soon on a track high above the true left of the creek. The track was in good condition but there were several high sidles around slips.

It took a couple of hours to reach Top Crawford Hut. This was another welcome respite from the heat, with a prime view of our work for the rest of the morning – an 800m climb to Lathrop Saddle. We slogged on through a scrub-covered gut and over bluffs before topping out on a small terrace. A few poles marked the route which sidles up and across steep scree slopes to the saddle. This was an honest morning’s labour.

Lathrop Saddle is a starkly attractive U-shape with huge boulders and turquoise tarns. Here on top of the Browning Range, we are very close to the Main Divide and the views to Mt Lathrop and beyond are impressive. It’s big and majestic country.

From the saddle to Browning Range Biv, down the other side, the track was a little overgrown but easy to follow. I struggled, though, with this rough steep downhill and took longer than anticipated to reach the bivouac. Shortly after, we reached an ominously funny sign:  ‘If you’re just about buggered, you’re just about there.’ This was aimed at those coming up but warned us of further steep travel.

The track kept dropping until we reached a creek feeding into the Styx River. The boulders here were slippery.

Top Kokatahi Hut. Photo: Paul McCredie

I wasn’t in the mood for more gnarly river travel after our long day, but I didn’t have much choice. Finally, we reached the Styx River and, shortly after, the haven of Grassy Flat Hut.

Wekas prowled around the hut, so Sam carabinered his inReach to the porch railings. Two Canterbury farmers were at the hut and Sam’s agricultural consultant credentials gave us some cred with them. Up until now, Sam’s food talk had been all organic veges, so we were impressed by his knowledgeable nitrogen-hectare talk.  We all enjoyed the pan of home-kill sausages the farmers shared with us, especially Sam who had run out of rice, and his veges were no longer fresh.

We farewelled Paul on our fourth day, who, armed with ice axe and the last of our rations, was heading off to the Three Pass route through to Arthur’s Pass. Sam and I were approaching the Styx River exit with some trepidation.

There was an alert in the DOC brochure saying that due to substantial track damage, access to Grassy Flat was via Mid Styx Hut. People we’d passed on the track had done this and said the way was rough, difficult and slow. Other intelligence, gathered en route, suggested that we’d be fine sticking to the river all the way, as it hadn’t rained for a long time.

Up until 2019, walking down the Styx had been a breeze, predominantly following a wide flat pack track a few metres above the riverbed. This changed in March 2019 when massive floods hit the West Coast and big slips covered sections of the track.

Climbing towards Lathrop Saddle. Photo: Paul McCredie

It took us six hours from Grassy Flat Hut to the car. We made fast progress on the sections of track that were open to us. These sections are still well used by trampers and stoat trappers. Around the slips we needed to drop down into the river and in places ford the Styx, or climb very high up and around. In retrospect, with the Styx comparatively low, we should have done more river travel as our high sidles were time-consuming and in one case scarily sketchy.

There are many components to a fulfilling and memorable trip, not least: physical challenge, glorious surroundings, excellent tramping companions, interesting people met along the way and charming, comfortable huts. This trip had it all.

But the last word must go to Permolat. On its Remote Huts website, the group gives a stern warning: ‘The remote hut zone is an extremely rugged alpine environment and the routes and tracks are often rudimentary. High levels of fitness and experience, specific to this type of country … are essential. We are getting increasing numbers of enquiries from folk [who have done Great Walks] … Forget it! … You may think this disclaimer doesn’t apply to you because you have plenty of experience in the Alaskan wilderness or the Pyrenees, but you’ll still be lacking some specific skill sets that are unique to the western side of the Southern Alps’.

‘Nobody said it would be easy.’

Total Ascent
4-5 days. Car park to Adventure Bivouac, 5.5hr; To Top Kokatahi Hut, 3hr; To Crawford Junction Hut, 5hr; To Top Crawford Hut, 3.5hr; To Browning Range Bivouac, 4hr; To Grassy Flat Hut, 2hr; To road end, 6hr
Cedar Flats Hut ($5, 12 bunks), Adventure Bivouac (free, two bunks), Top Kokatahi Hut (free, four bunks), Crawford Junction Hut (free, six bunks), Top Crawford Hut (free, four bunks), Browning Range Bivouac (free, two bunks), Grassy Flat Hut ($5, 10 bunks)
Both the Styx and Toaroha Valleys can be accessed from Hokitika via Kaniere-Kowhitirangi Road then Upper Kokatahi Road. Car shuttle between track ends required

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Browning Range Bivouac (gpx, 156 KB)

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