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September 2012 Issue
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Winter hike in Wanaka

Fern Burn Hut. Photo: Josh Gale
Fern Burn Hut, 12 bunks
About 200m down Motatapu Rd, Glendhu Bay
Topo50 CB12
Fern Burn Hut, Motatapu Station Pastoral Lease

It was my first visit to Wanaka and low cloud sat above the town shrouding the mountains. DOC visitor centre staff said residents drive to Treble Cone Ski Field to escape the inversion layer and to bask in sunlight, but I decided to head to Fern Burn Hut on the Motatapu Track.

The 34km Motatapu Track runs across station land between Arrowtown and Motatapu Valley. In 2004, the Motatapu and Soho Station leases were sold to country singer Shania Twain. In 2008, to fulfil lease terms, Twain opened the three-to-four day track to the public.

Fern Burn Hut is the first hut on the track and takes about three-hours to reach.

When I got out of my warm and cosy rental car and started following a semi-frozen Fern Burn toward the equally cold and inhospitable-looking Motatapu Valley, I wondered if I should continue, especially alone.

My rental was the only vehicle in the car park, there were ice patches on the track and no mobile reception. If anything happened, no one would know until I became overdue. I also planned to run most of it so I had packed light. Add a lack of local knowledge and alpine inexperience and the odds of an embarrassing search and rescue scandal becomes a possibility.

In the face of this, I paused and considered turning back, but looking up the icy stream, past the paddocks to the beech forest and hidden peaks, the allure of the wintry mountain landscape drew me on. I’d just have to be careful.

Only 10 minutes later I was rewarded for continuing when two deer bounded across my path, with one stopping for a moment to stare.

I kept going and felt enlivened by the feeling of the chilly air, the voluminous, yet eerie atmosphere of the valley, the stark trees and shrub along the stream and the promise of walking through snow.

The first couple of kilometres of Motatapu Track are easy going so I ran them to get to the snow more quickly.

The track follows the true right of Fern Burn initially through deer and cattle paddocks and then turns with the stream into a gorge where it briefly enters a beech forest that’s part of the 4144ha Stack Conservation Area.

Here the track is every trail runner’s dream; benched, mostly wide and flat with a few ups and downs, covered by a soft carpet of brown beech leaves and all next to a burbling stream with islands of ice and small waterfalls.

I made good time through the forest, but had to slow down shortly after crossing an ice-covered bridge.

About 800m after the bridge, the track leaves the forest and begins to narrow. The Topo50 doesn’t show it clearly, but the track gradually ascends and eventually sidles along relatively steep sides. Snow and ice increasingly covered the track.

Looking down on the valley floor, I could see deer and rabbit prints in the thick snow heading towards the stream edge.

The sun came out about 1km before I reached the hut. The white landscape, pierced by golden tussock glowing in sunlight caused me to slow down even more – it seemed wrong to rush past such a striking scene.

When I looked back down the valley, however, I saw fog quickly drifting towards me so I sped up to get a photo of the hut before the sunlight was lost.

The hut came into view after a short sidle around a steep ridge. The 12-bunk hut, built in 2008, was nestled on snow beneath a spur coming off a rocky ridgeline. If I had more time I would have liked to climb to the top of the ridge to get a better vantage point of the surroundings. The views would have been gold, but the fog was closing.

As it was, I had just enough time to snap a few photos and eat some scroggin before the fog ended my brief bath in the warming sunlight.

Due to poor visibility, my return trip was slow and careful. I nearly lost the track on a couple of occasions, but found my way back to it quickly.