I had the whole mountain to myself. Pulling in to the little area demarcated as a car park, I was surprised to find no other vehicles, on a summer Sunday. It had even been a fairly traffic-free drive from Christchurch, along the Inland Scenic Route past the Rakaia Gorge and the bottom of Mt. Hutt, considering the tourist season is in full swing. Past the turn-off to Methven and a little further down the road, is the turn-off to Alford Forest and the road that leads to the start of the Mt. Alford summit track. Parking up next to a large field crammed full of sheep, the DOC sign marks the entrance and maps the route up.
The walk starts on private farm land where signs repeatedly note the importance of closing gates and sticking to the path. It is generally a case of follow the orange poles, but most of the track is well trodden and quite obvious. Leaving the sheep behind, the path crosses a private track and heads deep into the forest where it stays more or less for the best part of an hour. It was very muddy underfoot thanks to some recent heavy rain but the vegetation in the forest hints at frequent rainfall here, so no matter how good the weather is, this is a walk worthy of good boots.
I’m not always a fan of forest walks due to the lack of view, but this forest was teeming with birds which made it a really enjoyable place to be. In fact the whole hike was really enjoyable, and the forested section reminded me of the Kepler Track in Southland. At times, the birdsong was interspersed with the bubbling of a nearby stream, which at one stage needed to be crossed. There is only a slight break in the trees where a private track cuts through, and the next section of forest was particularly boggy in places as well as having lots of tree roots underfoot.
Finally, there is a break in the trees, and the first proper look back over the expanse of the Canterbury Plains is possible. Whilst the clouds were high, there was almost a haze over the plains, and it looked suspiciously like the weather man had got the forecast wrong. At least the sky looked promising in the direction of the summit and I remained hopeful of getting a decent outlook at the top. Through another brief section of forest, I emerged at a gate into a field of cows who all turned round to look at me as I proceeded to hit my head on the fence whilst passing through the gate.
Having worked on a farm in my younger days, I feel confident around stock, but as beef cattle are handled a lot less than dairy cattle and therefore more prone to be inquisitive or seem aggressive, I could see how someone of a fainter heart would not be thrilled about negotiating a field of cows. The orange markers mark the path along the edge of the field, but I had a hundred pairs of eyes on me as I negotiated the quagmire in places. By now the sun was beating down from above and without realising it at the time, I was approaching the half-way mark.
At the top of the field and through the gate, the track very briefly follows a 4×4 track before veering off across the field and for the first time, losing an obvious route. The track is not well worn here and at one orange pole it really was not obvious where to go. As I knew I was headed up, I simply picked my own way up the hillock until I came to the next fence line where I found the next gate. On the other side of the gate was a picnic table overlooking a stunning view across to the neighbouring mountains. This would have been a sensible place to stop for a while, but I opted to push on, aware of some clouds creeping over the summit, and not wanting a repeat of Mt. Thomas a month prior.
From here on though, it is a relentless uphill slog. The vegetation changes to a more tussock or alpine plant, and the path underfoot is quite stony. There are several alpine plants that have spines, and I repeatedly got stabbed in the leg or the hand as I negotiated my way up the slope. But the pay-off was the view which was spectacular from this point onwards, with one side of mountains visible to begin with, then eventually another side opening up as the ridge drew nearer. Finally, the lower ridge was reached, and then it was an easy walk up to the summit (1171m/3842ft).
Unlike other walks maintained by DOC, there is no summit sign or trig point. A man-made stone cairn denotes the top of the mountain and for 360 degrees, there is an amazing view of mountains spreading out in an arc behind and to the side, with the expansive Canterbury Plains opening up below. I spent an hour at the summit, just me and a few bees for company. Many of the alpine plants were in flower, and despite the high cloud, there was still an impressive vista to soak up. The sun teased me, threatening to break through, but it never did. Instead, I watched as clouds formed on the neighbouring mountains and swirled around and up the valleys.
In fact I was so mesmerised with the clouds that I didn’t realise how much they were building up. I had been so busy ogling the landscape and the clouds in one direction then the next, that suddenly I looked round and realised that both neighbouring mountains had been partly engulfed with clouds, and there were a cluster threatening to obscure the face of Mt Alford. With my descent purely visual based on following orange poles, I came to the sudden realisation that if I didn’t get my ass off the summit, I may lose visibility to get back down again. Supposedly, the afternoon was supposed to be better weather than the morning, but by 1.30pm, it looked the opposite.
Pausing briefly to study some more alpine plants and to photograph my descent past the clouds, I made it back to the picnic table in no time at all. In the end, I needn’t have worried, because it wasn’t long before all the cloud dissipated and the sun appeared. Retracing my steps, I passed through the gate and picked my own way down the hillock before joining the cows once more. Again they watched as I passed by, and soon I was back in the forest where I came across the only two other people out on the track that day. Back through the forest I picked my way down, being ever careful of my footing, but once again surrounded by birdsong. The sun was out with gusto when I reached my car, still alone in the car park by the sheep.
Walking at a reasonable pace, it took about 2hrs 15mins to reach the summit and about 1hr 45mins to get back down. With the start of the walk being roughly 1.5hrs drive from Christchurch, it is a very accessible and very enjoyable day trip away from the Garden City.