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makarora lakeohau 054 6994 1200 900 80Unnamed Tarn under Mt Heim in Canyon Creek, Ahuriri

by Dennis Brown (published in the Auckland Tramping Club's Wanderlust Mag)

makarora lakeohau 006 1200 900 80Makarora Hut

This trip was a 9 day traverse from Davis Flat near Haast Pass to Lake Ohau, a largely untracked route crossing 4 significant ranges – the Young, Huxley, Barrier and Ohau – and two major rivers, the Hunter and Ahuriri.

DAY 1

Gathering at Queenstown Airport, we took a shuttle to Davis Flat, arriving around midday. The Makarora Valley Track initially climbs high to avoid the gorge, then sidles down to the river. From there it’s river bed and bank, boulder fields, bouldery scrub and flats before breaking out into the final extensive flat leading to Makarora Hut. Lugging 9-day packs, this took us 6¼ hrs. With the hut occupied we camped nearby.

img 0016 1200 900 80Approaching Scrubby SaddleDAY 2

A kilometre or so upriver we took a spur leading directly to Scrubby Flat Creek Saddle. Very steep initially but open and with the odd game trail to follow, the spur soon saw us through the bush, battling a gnarly scrub belt and breaking out into the tussock. Not far short of the top Terry had an epiphany. Apparently there were more rewarding things to be doing than hauling his carcass up and over a series of gnarly mountain ranges for a week. More accurately, he felt he was struggling and was concerned at the harder climbs and days to come. So he retreated back to the hut, and over subsequent days headed off to enjoy the delights of Wanaka and Arrowtown.

makarora lakeohau 016 1200 900 80Descending Scrubby Flat CreekThe upper Makarora valley is spectacular with Mts Armstrong and the higher Brewster flaunting their snow covered slopes before plunging precipitously several hundred meters to the valley floor. After our fill of the views, we dropped off the saddle down steep tussock slopes to the upper Scrubby valley for lunch. Slow travel followed down to the bushline where Moirs Guid e (the bible for these parts) talked of a permolatmarked route sidling above a gorge to meet the DOC track. A battle saw us find the permolats only to lose them shortly after and end up pushing through difficult steep bush, across a slip and down a rocky Descending Scrubby Flat Creek chute before picking up the marked track.

The DOC track turned out to be one of those tortuously sidling, in and out of gullies, sometimes washed out, seemingly neverending ordeals. Finally we hit the Hunter valley and camped on a grassy spot beside Scru bby Flat Creek. 9½ hrs.

DAY 3

img 0046 1200 900 80Climbing to Little Canyon Col, the Hunter far belowThis was always expected to be our hardest day -  a 1400m+ climb up an untracked ridge with a difficult scrub belt to negotiate lower down. It didn’t let us down.

First off, an hour’s easy amble down valley and a straightforward, although linkedup, crossing of the Hunter. Then the ‘fun’ began. The first 200+ meters of the climb was awful, and awfully energy sapping. We took turns in the ‘dozer role and haulincrashing, bashing g ourselves over, through and under unforgiving scrub up a very steep slope, sidling under minor bluffs to gain better terrain. Then a weaving, trial and error route up through more scrub and low vegetation.

A few hours up, we diverted across to the strea m to replenish our water supplies only to find it dry , with the stream travelling underground in the rocky terrain. Climbing to Little Canyon Col, the Hunter far below 31 32 In true military fashion Robin was volunteered to head downstream to re-fill Uta’s and my water bottles. The higher we climbed the more spectacular the views – of the Hunter snaking way below, the Young Range laid out before us and the many snowcapped peaks encircling the upper valley. Tussock slopes gradually gave way to rock and scree and we marvelled at the views on a beautiful, almost windless day.

makarora lakeohau 027 1200 900 80The Young Range spread out before usWe’d read of a tarn just south of Little Canyon Col, our range crossing point. As the climb wore on and hours ticked by and with the weather so benign, camping there started to become an increasingly attractive option. Nearing the ridgeline we popped out above a large dry crater – oh no, I guess that must have been the tarn! Won’t be camping here then. Circumnavigating the crater we came to our assumed crossing point – which looked frankly frightening! So we wandered right looking for a better route – and there below us tucked away amongst the scree and boulders hid a most delicious tarn. Yay! After a search for spots and some concerted earthworks we settled in to a wonderful high (1800m) camp on the crest of the Huxley Range. It had taken us 9 hours to get here.

That night in modest winds the stitching holding one of the corner guy ropes gave way on my new Aeon Li tent. That would require repair the next day.

DAY 4

makarora lakeohau 041 1200 900 80Descending to Little Canyon CreekOur task today was to descend Little Canyon Creek to the Ahuriri. Looking down from the col we couldn’t see an obvious (safe) way down to the inviting scree slopes below. However after couple of false starts Robin found a straightforward sidle through the bluffs to gain the slopes we wanted. A few hours later we had descended the scree slopes and upper valley and wound our way through open bush above the Little Canyon gorge to pop out near the Canyon Creek confluence. After three hard days we decided on a short day so set up camp - a 4.5 hour day. I spent the afternoon repairing my tent under Pete’s watchful tutelage from resources pooled from the group. Lesson: carrying decent repair kit is not a silly idea!

DAY 5makarora lakeohau 073 1200 900 80
Above Watson Creek

We awoke to misty drizzle, but with a fine forecast weren’t put off and 3 of us headed up Canyon Creek for a day trip. Canyon Creek is an awesome and justifiably popular part of the world. A well worn DOC track leads up valley and then around high bluffs disgorging a thunderous waterfall to gain the upper valley. The weather soon cleared and we were treated to another beautiful day. From the upper valley we took a route described in Moirs to a spectacular unnamed turquoise lake nestling under Mt Heim - a perfect lunch spot. (first image in the article) We then returned the way we’d come and transhipped to Shamrock Hut where Pete awaited us. 8hr day walk, plus 1.5 hrs to Shamrock Hut.

DAY 6

makarora lakeohau 075 1200 900 80Surreal light near the Watson Creek forksA 6.15 am start (yes, that’s right!) to beat the high winds forecast the afternoon saw us heading off across the flats under headlamp for , soon entering an eerie, misty world. Pete had sussed a nice route and soon the Ahuriri loomed in front of us. Easily across that, we started up a grassy ramp on the true left of Watson Creek just as daylight began to filter through.

A few hours later we were at the forks, with surreal light as the sun sought to burst through the mist clinging to the valleys. Sidling the upper gorge, a tricky scree slope gave Uta pause and she climbed higher to find a more comfortable route. Slowly our proposed route over into the Maitland came into view. Yikes! Nowhere looked good. In fact everywhere looked horrible. A lengthy climb up shifting scree looked inevitable.

img 0122 1200 900 80The tussock rib leading to the Barrier Range ridgeline We decided to abandon both the routes we’d read of and make use of a tussock rib that extended high up towards the ridgeline before sidling up and across scree to gain the ridge and traverse down to our range crossing point. Fortunately the forecast 75kph winds were busy elsewhere and we experienced barely a zephyr on another blue sky day. We lingered on the climb and pass, revelling in the majestic views and snow-capped ranges stretching in all directions.

makarora lakeohau 092 1200 900 80Descending to the Maitland Finally we dropped from the ridge onto a grassy bench for lunch. The descent to the Maitland was straightforward, albeit encountering messy windfall and new growth in the final section to Maitland Hut. 10 hrs.

DAY 7

A rest day. Naturally, Robin hared off to explore a ridgeline and high point. Some of the rest of us (me!) barely moved a muscle all day.

makarora lakeohau 105 1200 900 80Rest day at Maitland Hut DAY 8

A second hut day as light rain continued through to mid afternoon. The tussock rib leading to the Barrier Range ridgeline Descending to the Maitland Rest day at Maitland Hut With the forecast today proving accurate we were hopeful for a fine day to cross the Ohau Range tomorrow.

DAY 9

img 0148 1200 900 80Dodging spaniards in the Maitland valleyQuickly through the bush on the DOC track, we headed up the wide tussock-filled Maitland valley. Left at the first forks then up the spur at the second to the ridgeline just south of Pinnacle .1817. A small detour to view Lake Dumb bell revealed a surprisingly picturesque scene (I was expec ting barren rock). Another beautiful day and from the ridge we were surprised to look on cloud covering Lake Ohau.

Robin talked us into climbing higher and dropping off the ridge near .1922. Down scree to the picturesque lakes at .1479 then on to the Te Araroa Trail for the descent down Freehold Creek and final excruciating 6km bash along the Alps to Ocean cycleway to Lake Ohau Lodge. A 10 hr day, some tired bodies, but not too tired to enjoy a bevy of thirst quenching ales and superb steak.

Our morning shuttle dropped Pete at the Intercity bus stop in Twizel and the rest of us at Queenstown airport where we reunited with Terry for the flight back to Auckland. An awesome trip blessed with gr eat weather. Huge thanks to Pete and Robin for their consistently excellent route finding and patience whilst the two slowcoaches caught them up, and to Andrew M for his dedication in sending us through invaluable daily weather forecasts. We were Dennis Br own (leader), Robin Houston, Uta Machold, Pete Waworis, Terry Chubb.