It didn’t take long for me to realise that this walk was something special. Nearly two hours south-west from Christchurch, nestled within Peel Forest, is Blandswood Road, where a small car park denotes the start of a myriad of walks. It just so happened to be my birthday and I was excited to be spending it summiting a new mountain.
I took the last spot in the car park, and set off up the steep Lookout Road where a Department of Conservation (DOC) sign denotes the start of the Fern walk. A gently graded stroll through the forest brings you to a junction where the Deer Spur track begins. It is possible to continue on the Fern walk which disappears into the forest for a low altitude walk, but my target for the day was Huatekerekere or Little Mount Peel, the lower of three Peel peaks. Once on the Deer Spur track, the path started to work its way up the hillside, initially still within the forest. It was a broad and obvious track for the most part, with a few high steps to negotiate, but after about 40mins, the forest opened up and the path was noticeably narrower.
From the beginning it was a busy track. I had read that it was one of Canterbury’s most popular walks and this was well evidenced on that day with the regular stream of people either coming down or visible going up in the distance. After a small tarn, it wasn’t long until the view appeared, and what a view it was. As with most of the hikes that I’ve done, a haze clung over the Canterbury Plains behind me, but inland and either side were mountains, and it was stunning. From that first sighting, the peak of Little Mt Peel looked unachievable and distant. There were so many lower ridges to negotiate but I put those thoughts aside and ploughed on. The first ridge gave some welcome relief from the previous climb and I paused briefly to soak up the view.
From then onwards, despite the constant climbing, I really enjoyed this hike because there was just a stunning view all around. I came across a family with two young children, the youngest being just 5 years old, and was impressed to see them negotiating this mountain on their own two feet. They stopped regularly meaning I eventually overtook them and about the same time it became possible to make out the summit trig and the nearby shelter in the distance. Shortly after passing them, the wind picked up and a bank of low cloud formed and whipped up and over the ridge I was heading towards, hiding the summit from view. I had previously experienced this a few months prior when hiking up Mt Thomas and I had learned that with patience, this kind of cloud is usually dispersed in a short space of time.
Sure enough, by the time I reached the altitude of the cloud bank, it was already lifting, and ahead of me I saw a hiker who was close to giving up. The summit was still 2 ridges away, but was tantalisingly close, and he sat off the track trying desperately to catch his breath whilst his friend continued. A descending hiker encouraged him to keep going, letting him know how close he was, and with the two children not far behind me, he seemed to get a second wind, and pushed on shortly after I passed him. The second last ridge involved a bit of hauling up a boulder face, and I reflected on how good a work-out I was getting. The last ridge was a walk in the park, and sweaty yet satisfied, I found myself crossing that last section with the hut and summit right in front of me.
The Tristram Harper Memorial Hut appears to perch on the side of the mountain a short distance below the summit. I bypassed the track to it and made the final ascent to the trig marker that stood proud on the summit (1311m). Despite the cloud building up inland, it was a fantastic view. Mt Peel and Middle Mt Peel were clearly visible, looking deceptively close and achievable, and both to the north and the south, other mountain ranges rolled off into the distance. The haze persisted over the Canterbury Plains, and above them, the hut and the lateral saddles of Little Mt Peel rolled down to meet them.
Being such a popular walk, I didn’t have the summit to myself for long. There was plenty of people milling between the hut and the summit, so after enjoying some lunch, I left it behind for the next lot of people. I had previously made the decision to descend via the South Ridge Track, making the whole walk a loop. Everyone else was heading down the same way they’d come up (Deer Spur Track), and having read a warning on the DOC website that the South Ridge track was only suitable for experienced hikers with back country navigational skills, I had spent a lot of the hike up, trying to pick out the track on the opposing ridge for the descent. From the summit, I could see it disappearing in the distance, and felt it looked perfectly achievable so decided to stick to my guns.
Just below the summit was the hut which I discovered contained the family with the two young boys and the hiker who had nearly given up. They were all chatting away, and after signing in to the guest book, I left them to it. A DOC sign on the side of the hut pointed towards the South Ridge track and I picked my way through some undergrowth towards the drop toilet, from where the track split off. I peered over the edge, decided it was doable, and made the commitment to follow through. I had read in a blog that this would be a steep descent, so I knew there would be no backtracking once I’d started. Straight away, I found myself having to lower myself gingerly over boulders but it was such a beautiful day, it was easy to follow the orange poles disappearing into the distance.
The South Ridge Track involved a rapid descent, and the track was so overgrown, that I spent a lot of the time staring at my feet to watch my footing, that I hadn’t realised how quick the descent had been until I stopped on a lower ridge to admire the butterflies that were everywhere. The mountains to the south were beautiful, a viewpoint that hadn’t been afforded from the Deer Spur track, and looking back towards the summit, the hut and trig point were like little dots on the horizon. As the altitude dropped away, the track became more and more overgrown in places, and at times I found myself chest deep in bushes barging my way through the under growth. I focused on the orange poles to guide me through, but I stopped regularly because there were butterflies everywhere and the view all around was again exceedingly stunning.
Eventually though, I hit a basic little post with an orange arrow to guide me off the ridge, and I started the final descent back into the forest. The view remained briefly before I was encompassed by trees again. This final section was quite steep and I negotiated several sections in a crouched position to prevent me slipping, but even then, I found myself on my butt twice. This is not a track I would have wanted to take in the opposite direction. Within the forest, with nothing but trees to look at, I sped up a little, eager to reach the waterfall. Finally the path broke out at Emily stream, crossed the stream and headed up the embankment on the other side. Just a few minutes later, I reached the end point of the track where it met the Emily Falls track.
It was only a couple of minutes walk to Emily Falls which were pretty, but not easy to see without crossing the stream to the other side. There were few flying insects to annoy me, so I enjoyed watching the water for a while before retracing my steps. Back at the track junction, the DOC sign detailed 45mins back to Blandswood road, and I pushed on, still with a slight skip in my step. I was a little confused when the path came out at a stream and seemed to just disappear. An orange arrow pointed to the left but all I could see was the stream. Picking my way up the stream, I found another orange arrow letting me know I was heading in the right direction. After a while though, the stream got harder to negotiate and I found it strange that I was supposed to be following it so far. I decided to back track towards the last arrow, and in doing so had a differing viewpoint which allowed me to realise I’d walked past the path leading out of the water.
Finally back on track, after climbing up the bank, it was an easy walk through the lower forest, past the turnoff for Rata falls, emerging back onto the lower section of Lookout Road just above its junction with Blandswood Road where my car lay waiting. The DOC sign detailed a 3hr ascent on Deer Spur Track (versus a 3.5hr ascent on South Ridge Track), with half an hour less for the descent on each path. I surprised myself by reaching the summit in just over 2 hours, and after spending about 45mins at the top, I made it back down again in about 2.5hrs. I’m glad I did the loop, but having done it once, I’ll stick to the Deer Spur track both ways next time. On a clear and non-blustery day, the South Ridge track is definitely achievable by anyone of reasonable fitness, but with exposed sections, and parts that are quite overgrown, it is not a track to be done on a windy or low visibility day. But with such views, and an enjoyable climb up, this hike quickly jumped to the top of my list of favourite hikes to do in Canterbury.