Thursday, February 2, 2017


Hunkering down in a hollow out of the howling wind, the hustle and bustle of Auckland which we had escaped a mere 6 hours ago was a distant memory.

A short flight from Auckland, a van ride, and an hour and a half of walking brought us to Mt Arthur Hut, perched high up in the mountains northwest of Nelson. After quickly settling in to the eight bunk hut, a couple of us headed up the mountain. Gale force wind and low cloud put paid to the idea, and after battling to stay on my feet for forty-five minutes we dived into the shelter of an old sinkhole before turning tail and retreating to the hut.

With a norovirus outbreak in nearby Nelson Lakes, and unconfirmed reports of people becoming ill in Kahurangi, I was rather uneasy about staying in Mt Arthur Hut. Reports from passing trampers of a sick boy at Salisbury Lodge, our next destination, did nothing to quell my nervousness. All benches got wiped down, water boiled, and hands thoroughly washed many times. Thankfully our group emerged unscathed.

The wind did not abate overnight, and with the cloud base lowering further our original plan to cross over Gordons Pyramid to Salisbury Lodge was abandoned in favour of the low route via Flora Stream and Balloon Creek. On the bright side, this gave the opportunity to investigate the four rock shelters en route. These would make wonderful overnight destinations in their own right, particularly the Upper and Lower Gridiron shelters.

Ray Salisbury, a descendent of the original Salisburys on the Tableland, had given us directions to find a few little-known points of interest on the Tableland. First up was Pillar Cave, half an hour across country from Salisbury Lodge. This cave boasts a magnificent wedding cake formation where stalactites and stalagmites have merged to form a great pillar. Names scrawled on the pillar date back to 1887. A few hundred metres further on is Richards Cave, where a level stream bed enters the hill. The cave is high enough to walk for quite a way in along the stream before eventually narrowing to a crawl space.

Five go Spelunking (apologies to Enid Blyton)

Rain drumming on the roof in the morning was a signal to snuggle deeper into my cozy sleeping bag. The weather gradually cleared and we departed for Balloon Hut. Most of this section is open tussock over the Tableland so there was little shelter from the wind & cloud. From Bishop's Cave at the head of Cundy Creek we attempted to find the grave of one of the old diggers, but couldn't remember the instructions so quickly abandoned the idea. All was not lost as I did manage to locate a geocache near the cave entrance. There are many fascinating tomos around this area and you could easily spend a long time exploring (and just as easily get disorientated).

An hour's lunch break at Balloon Hut was needed to fortify ourselves with hot drinks before braving the weather across the Peel Range. As we climbed higher the wind increased dramatically until a couple of people were struggling to stay on their feet. I relished the invigorating conditions! Turning the corner and descending to Lake Peel in the lee of the ridge provided a welcome respite from the gale. On a sunny day Lake Peel would be an inviting spot for a swim, but none of us felt the slightest inclination today. A steady climb brought us up to the ridge where we got our first misty view of the Cobb Reservoir. From here it is a long way descent to Myttons Hut and then another 1.5km to Trilobite Hut at the end of the Cobb Road. It was strange to be in civilisation again only halfway through our trip. We managed to score beds but there were a few people who resorted to sleeping in cars or tents. I drew the short straw and got a bunk with no mattress; even with two inflatable mats the wooden slats were still uncomfortable.

Cobb Valley

After a bad night's sleep, we were eager to leave Trilobite Hut behind and make our way up the Cobb Valley. Strolling through the beech forest and river meadows was very pleasant as the sun was shining for the first time this week. It is neat to see that the historic Chaffey Hut and Tent Camp have been restored to their former glory. These rustic shelters have a lot of character and would be quaint lodging for a night. I made do with a half hour snooze at the Tent Camp while waiting for the stragglers to catch up. Lying back in the shade with a pleasant breeze and the gentle gurgling of the Cobb River only a few metres away was very soothing. Half an hour brought us to Cobb Hut, and in another 15 minutes our destination of Fenella Hut was reached. This hut has a reputation for being one of the best in the country, and it did not disappoint. Despite being over-full there was plenty of space and the gas burners made cooking a breeze.

First priority was a dash up to the tarn 400m away for a swim. Without exaggeration this is the most majestic place I have ever swum! Surrounded by mountains, with an infinity pool edge, the tarn was very refreshing and I stayed in for a good 10 minutes before sunbathing on the rocks. Upon returning to the hut an hour later Dad was gearing up to climb Xenicus Peak & Mt Gibbs. After wolfing down lunch and grabbing a few essentials it was back to the tarn and along the cairned route toward the mountains. Instead of following the recognised route around the north side of Xenicus to the saddle with Gibbs we scrambled directly up the western face of Xenicus. It was steep zigzagging up the rocky ribs but mostly fairly straight forward. The trickiest moves were actually descending off the back of Xenicus to the saddle. Well, they were tricky for short people. It was a stroll up and over Mt Gibbs before descending steeply down to Round Lake and then the track to Lake Cobb. Back at the hut we found that another group of 11 had arrived, so 3 people slept on the floor and about 7 people slept outside in tents or tarps. This group was from Operation Mobilisation and we enjoyed thier company for two nights.

Just after 5am I was awakened by a bright light shining in my eyes. Whoops, slept through my alarm! Turns out that earplugs are very good at blocking out noise. Four of us were heading along the Douglas Range to Lonely Lake for a day trip. At 11km and a track time of 6-8 hours each way, we wanted to ensure that we had plenty of daylight. In addition, the weather was forecast to close in that evening. The track starts off by immediately climbing 250m up to the ridge before sidling around the southwestern flank of Waingaro Peak. This side was sheltered from the wind, but once we popped up onto the main Douglas Range we felt its full force. The cairned route was mostly straight forward to follow even in the cloud, although there were a few places where it petered out and we had to scout around. At the bush line past pt1610 we met three people heading out from Lonely Lake who were surprised to see people so early in the day. Lonely Lake can bee seen from high up on the ridge over a kilometre away, the hut tucked out of sight, although it still takes a while to get to. The vista is majestic and the tumbling series of waterfalls flowing from the outlet is impressive.

After 4:15 hours we arrived at Lonely Lake Hut, resplendent in all its newly refurbished glory. There are 3 bunks plus a fold-down bunk above the door so would cosily sleep four, and you could squeeze a couple of people on the floor if necessary. There is also room for a couple of tents nearby. This is definitely a spot I would like to return and spend a night.

We ate a very early lunch and browsed the historical hut books for nearly an hour while watching the bad weather slowly rolling in. Just before we left a big billy goat trotted up from near the lake and stared at us nonchalantly. Reluctantly we started our retreat back to Fenella Hut, and by the time we were out of the bush near pt1610 the rain had set in. It only got heavier and visibility worsened. There is something invigorating about being out in bad weather. It makes you feel alive! At least we knew where the track went so didn't have to waste time scouting. Until now I had managed to keep my shoes dry - a new personal record of 4.5 days - but the water running down my legs into my gaiters soon put paid to that small comfort. Once back on the poled route at the saddle Dad and I hared off running down the hill to Fenella for a bit of a blast.

The rain really set in during the afternoon and didn't ease off until after lunch the following day. A rest day had been factored into our plans so this was a good place to use it. My second ever hut day. When the rain finally did ease a few of us strolled around the cairned track to Lake Cobb for some (very) fresh air. Helen and I even braved another dip in the tarn! Consensus was that it was definitely colder than two days prior. That night, our third at Fenella, we had the hut to ourselves as no one had come up the valley with the less than inviting weather.

Looking across to Xenicus, Fenella Hut is bottom left.

Fondly farewelling Fenella Hut it was time to tackle the Lockett Range. So far we had been staying on the beaten track, but now it was time for an adventure. A steep climb up Waingaro Peak track brought us once more to the saddle where this time we turned south and onto the Lockett Range. The first kilometre was through a delightful hanging valley on top of the ridge. It was windy and there were occasional showers coming in from the west. From pt1310 the going got rougher and the cairns got few and far between. Lots of ups and downs and a few scrambly bits soon got us to the sidle below the south side of pt1503. This traverse was easy enough, but looking back from the eastern end it looked rather steep and daunting! Here the real grunt began. Steep scree led up towards pt1672, and our party got split due to the wind making it impossible to communicate unless standing right beside each other. Three headed for the high point while four of us decided to sidle. After a while we saw the other 3 at the top and decided that we better regroup so headed straight up the rockslide. Helen and Millie were rather out of their comfort zones but stoically kept going. In hindsight it would have been a much better route to keep traversing around to the saddle with Mt Benson. There was no apparent easy route off pt1672: either an exposed rocky clamber down the ridge, or drop down a chute into the bowl north of Mt Benson and then around to Ruby Lake. The vote was for the latter as several people were not keen for more rock scrambling. Again in hindsight we should have kept to the ridge, shuttling packs and using a rope for confidence if necessary. One nerve-wracking hour later, after descending snowgrass then sidling back up to the saddle, we were back on the ridge only a couple of hundred metres away from where we started.

pt 1503 (right). The route sidles from the left hand notch

By this stage the sun had come out but the wind was still very strong. David's pack got blown off the ridge and he had to scramble a long way down to retrieve it. Originally we had thought of camping at Ruby Lake but we decided to push on to Diamond Lake to make the last day much shorter. Once back on the ridge it was relatively straight forward, but still with a few careful pitches. At one point I turned around to point out an easier route to Helen only to see her lose her footing and somersault twice down the mountainside. My heart leapt into my throat as I helplessly watched, visions of injuries and helicopter rescues racing through my mind. Amazingly Helen landed relatively unscathed, with only some big bumps and bruises to show for it. Not even any blood as she was layered up in all her storm gear. After a few minutes to calm rattled nerves we tentatively carried on. By this stage everyone was getting more than a little tired.

It was neat being able to look all the way up and down the Cobb Valley, with Chaffey and Trilobite huts visible far below. At the 1,400m saddle between Mt Benson and pt1631 we dropped straight down slowly through the lumpy tussock to pick up the bush edge which provided easy going down to the valley floor. Thankfully we stumbled upon an old campsite at the very bottom eastern corner of the bush which we claimed as home for the night. Two weka were already in residence, and although they were not in the least shy they weren't interested in our shiny paraphernalia which is usually very attractive to those weka who have become used to humans. Helen was in a bit of shock from her fall and retreated to her sleeping bag to rest and warm up. Over lots of hot drinks and a big dinner we gave thanks for a challenging but memorable day. Oddly enough this day proved to be the highlight of the trip for many.

I lay in my tent contentedly listening to the morning birdsong. Bliss. This is what I love about camping - the fresh air, the smell of the bush, the sound of the birds, and the feeling of freedom.

Diamond Lake was reached after an hour of strolling through the open tussock valley. A rough track leads along the southern shore to the end of the lake where there are many picturesque campsites. Yet another place to add to my list of spots to re-visit. From what we had read, we expected there to be a track from here up through the bush to Lake Lillie, and indeed there was a big cairn and a piece of permolat indicating where to turn off. Either the track no longer exists or else we lost it within 50m, as we ended up picking our own way up through the open beech forest. Once back in the open it was a short sidle around to Lake Lillie. We were glad we had not decided to camp here as there were no inviting tent sites and no shelter.

Diamond Lake
A discussion ensued as we tossed up where to go from here. One option was to ascend the ridge to Iron Hill and follow the ridge along to the Sylvester Lakes. The alternative was to traverse around to Iron Lake, reports indicating that there was an old Forest Service track near the bushline. The idea of climbing the ridge was vetoed as it involved going uphill. A cairned route was discernible leading east from Lake Lillie so we followed this until it got to the bushline. Here there were a couple of tiny cairns and a blue triangle leading into the bush directly down the spur but as this was not the direction we wanted to head and we didn't know where this track went, we elected to continue traversing at the same altitude. Progress was easy at first, with obvious deer trails to follow but the going soon got frustratingly slow with more rocks and obstacles to avoid. Ensuring that the whole group maintained contact meant travelling the at the pace of the slowest people. Balancing the abilities and needs of everyone was not easy. Today we also had the added time pressure of meeting our shuttle on time at the Cobb Dam.

Something out of place caught my attention: on old map dropped by previous wanderers. We were not the first to pass this way. Eventually bluffs in front of us forced us to drop steeply down to the stream, which for those with dodgy knees was no easy feat. From the stream it was just a bit more scrub-bashing and clambering up to the outlet of Iron Lake. For this last section I was double packing to help out a couple of those who were getting rather tired. A few minutes' respite at the lake and then we headed along the cairned route down to Lake Sylvester. All day Helen and I had been looking forward to a swim, so as soon as we found a suitable spot we launched into the water. It was rather chilly! The large lake was noticeably colder than the wee tarn at Fenella Hut. Still, it was very invigorating. Reluctantly we shouldered our packs for the final stretch to Sylvester Hut and down the old metal road to the Cobb Dam.

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