If there was ever a hike worthy of a sturdy pair of hiking boots, Mount Thomas’ summit track would be it. And if there was ever a day where getting up very early makes a big difference, then this day would be it. Just over an hour north of Christchurch, in the Waimakariri District of Canterbury, north of the town of Rangiora, and nestled down an unsealed road is the Mt Thomas Conservation Area. From a car park near a camping ground, a selection of paths head off into the forest for a variety of routes.
I set off from the car park a little before 10am with the sun shining down from a near cloudless sky. There was a hint of wind, but choosing the summit track, I was sheltered well within the forest. For the first hour of this track there is little relief from the steep uphill slog, and the path is stony with a covering of fallen vegetation making for a route in need of good grip on your shoes. The steep incline was tough on my calf muscles as I found myself a little unfit after a spring of near laziness. There is little to see other than trees, as other than a brief section next to a private road, the majority of the path is deep within the forest.
By the time the gradient began to ease a little, I was disheartened to see the sun had disappeared behind a thick blanket of cloud. When finally the trees gave way and opened up slightly to afford a view down into the gully at the side of the mountain, I realised that the wind had completely changed direction and a low-lying fast moving cloud had barrelled into the gully meaning that I was now within the clouds. It was cold and there were spots of rain, and I could barely make out the neighbouring hillside. The path hugged the upper reaches of Mt Thomas before finally the forest ended and the track emerged on a 4×4 track. There is no marker here other than the one pointing you in the direction you came from, but common sense leads you up the track instead of down, and round a couple of bends the aerials and trig point marking the summit (1023m/3356ft) became visible through the racing cloud.
The cloud bank was whipping up the gully and over the nearby ridge very fast, and gusts of wind made the summit quite cold. There was no view in any direction and I was a bit gutted. Had I set off an hour earlier, I would have summited in the sunshine. After a quick wander round the summit, the sun threatened to burst through and I contemplated stopping to eat some lunch and see if the cloud burnt off. But the summit was completely exposed, and it was cold and windy, so I made the decision to push on. I had decided to return via the Wooded Gully Track which involves crossing the ridgeline next to Mt Thomas. This exposed ridgeline was where the cloud was whipping up and over, so all that was visible was the thin path snaking into the mist, marked by an orange marker.
The wind wasn’t strong enough to have me concerned, so I set off into the cloud and followed the ridge track through a very alpine environment. The track varies in width but is easy to follow, and as it dropped slightly down the one side of the ridge, it was possible to see down the gully slightly and get a slight view of the neighbouring mountains. Something caught my eye on the track at my feet and I was astounded to see a stone shaped like a heart. It wasn’t much further until the track disappeared back into the forest again.
Whereas the summit track had gained the majority of the altitude in the first hour before easing off, the Ridge Track which soon after entering the forest split into the Wooded Gully Track, lost most of the altitude early on going downhill, only easing off in the lowest section. The Wooded Gully Track was much more interesting than the Summit Track with several streams to cross, and a varied forest canopy which was full of bird song. Even with the path being dry, there were several parts which were a slip risk, and on two occasions I lost my footing before managing to catch myself again. About half an hour after re-entering the forest, I was aware of the sun breaking through the canopy, and through the occasional break in the trees, I could see the now uncovered summit of Mt Thomas off to the side of me. I hadn’t met a single soul on the whole hike yet and several parts of this track were only wide enough for one person with steep drops off to the side. There were plenty of trip hazards too, so some sections took a lot of foot watching to prevent a fall. Finally, I passed a scattering of other hikers in the lower reaches of the forest where the path splits at different stages to give alternative routes back to the car park.
DOC walks are always well signposted and can sometimes be generous with their listed times for their walks. There was only one spot in the lower forest where the path forked that it wasn’t as blatantly obvious as usual which path I wanted, but again common sense prevailed. All the paths in this area lead back to the same car park though, so even a wrong turning here will eventually get you back to the same exit point. The final hour of the walk was in sunshine and I was slightly dismayed to realise that an hour either side of my leaving time would have afforded me a summit view. With just 10 mins left to walk, the path crossed a river and a picnic bench sat haphazardly to the side of the bridge. Having not eaten yet, I opted to sit for a while to have some food, but even this early in the season, the sandflies were out and about and insisted on flitting about my head. They are the bane of waterways in New Zealand and in enough numbers have the ability to ruin a pleasant summer day out in the countryside. After a fast consumption of my sandwich, it was a very brief and easy walk back to the car park.
The DOC signs state a 2hr hike up the summit track and a 2.5hr hike down the Wooded Gully Track. There is also the option of following the Ridge Track to its terminus which makes it a 3.5hr walk back to the car park. I reached the summit in about 1.5hrs despite being painfully slow in the early stages whilst my legs eased into it, and including a brief stop at the summit and a lunch stop at the bottom, I made it back to the car park in 2hrs. No matter which path you choose, this is definitely a track in need of good walking boots and good hiking socks too, as there are steep sections on either route, and the Wooded Gully track has sections where streams flow down the track. The only toilets on the path are at the camping ground near the car park at the start.
This was hopefully the first of many day hikes this summer season, but alas, a summit view is going to have to wait for another occasion…