Within the Hakatere Conservation Park, on the same road as Mount Sunday, but not quite so far along, lies the dominating and striking peak of Mount Guy. It takes about 2hrs to drive there from Christchurch, heading first to the little village of Mount Somers that is nestled near the base of the peak of the same name. Following the signs, the road snakes through and into the mountains until Hakatere where it becomes a long but wide unsealed road. Most of the hikes I’ve done in New Zealand are reached on gravel roads to varying lengths, so I’m used to them to some degree, and as with many New Zealanders, my car is old and pre-battered, so I probably drive these roads with slightly less caution than people who are inexperienced or have rental cars. Still, there are spots on this long road where the grip is better than others, and caution is required when driving along the banks of the lakes or going round bends. On this particular day, I came across a car that had recently gone off the road and down an embankment towards the nearby stream. The driver door was wide open but there was no-one to be seen.
Lake Camp and Lake Clearwater sit one either side of the road. The former is smaller and popular with motorboats, whereas the latter is larger and the realm of self-propelled water sports. I turned into the village and reached the lake shore where a few people were stand-up paddle boarding. By now mid-morning, I parked at a picnic spot right by the lake, and the reflections on the surface of the water were stunning. With a predicted high of nearly 30oC, the sky was cloudless and it was already getting quite warm. Looking across the lake towards Mount Guy, I realised straight away this was going to be tough – unlike most of the other mountains I’ve hiked up, there was only shrubbery and no trees or shade in sight.
The walk starts off following a 4×4 track around the eastern end of the lake. I meandered along, admiring the changing reflections of the surrounding mountains on the lake surface. Where the track fords the river at the end of the lake, a pedestrian bridge ensures dry feet. A little further round the lake, a Department of Conservation (DOC) sign near a stile marks the track to follow to summit Mt Guy. The sign where I parked my car stated 2.5hrs to reach the summit, but yet at the base of the mountain it said just 1hr 15mins. I hadn’t been walking that long, so I knew one of them was wrong. It didn’t take long to work out it was this more recent one. Crossing a flat stretch of land, the path starts climbing and it doesn’t give up the whole way. By now, the temperature was well into the 20s and the sun was continuing to rise above me.
The lower shrubbery involves a lot of thorns, and the path is marked by orange poles the whole way up. In the lower reaches, it is quite obvious and well trodden, but as the altitude rises, there are more and more sections where it becomes quite vague. About half way up, as it continues to increase in steepness, there are a few small boulder fields to negotiate and some small scree patches. I was already exhausted by this point and having to stop regularly to catch my breath. These sections were not a good place to stop, so I caught my breath where I could and ploughed on. The whole way up the view is behind you, but these breathers allowed me to appreciate the view unfolding below. The lakes grew smaller and the valley opened up in both directions, and the distant mountains had snow on their summits.
I realised that there was another solo hiker about 20mins behind me. We were maintaining a similar pace so I continued to pick my way up the mountainside. After the short bouldered sections, a peak of rocks signalled a crossing over point of the track and it shifted from the side of the mountain to slightly more front-on. It was still vague and stony, but not quite so steep, and the last third of the hike was a little more pleasant. Like so many mountains there was a false summit, but it wasn’t much further to go on a much easier gradient until the summit cairn (1319m) was reached. From here there was a 360degree view of the surrounding mountains, and in the distance, through the haze, the Canterbury Plains disappeared into the distance to the east. On a clear day, the Pacific Ocean is supposed to be visible, but there was too much haze on the horizon for me to be able to see that far on that day.
After a brief walk around the summit, I settled in for a much needed lunch, and shortly after the other hiker reached me and we had a brief chat before separating ourselves to soak up the view amongst our own reveries. My phone made a noise and I saw a text from my partner to say that Christchurch had just had a very strong earthquake. Upon trying to phone him, the phone lines were down and it wouldn’t connect. Having lived in an earthquake zone for the past 4 years, I’m quite used to quakes rocking and rolling through the city unannounced. Granted, I wasn’t living there when the destructive ones hit, but they’ve never particularly worried me because they’ve never come to anything. But I’ve never experienced one where the phone lines go dead, so immediately I was on edge and concerned. I tried again, and still the line was down. Having felt nothing, and having just summited, I wasn’t sure what to do. I decided to wait it out a bit then try again a little while later.
I got through after five minutes and my partner reported a 5.9 mag quake. This was later downgraded to a 5.7 mag, but whilst it didn’t do too much damage overall, it was enough to loosen some sections of cliff face on the coastline near the eastern suburb of Sumner, and fresh liquefaction bubbled into the streets elsewhere. Satisfied that my partner and house were ok, I settled back into a peaceful lunch at the summit. The whole way up and at the summit too, the crickets were out in full force, and the noise was incredible but enjoyable. During the hike itself though, they repeatedly leaped about in front of me as I disturbed them, some of them leaping high enough to smack me in the face. Like little missiles, I was regularly hit across my torso and head, including one that landed right on my mouth, causing an involuntary freak out. Missile hits aside, it was an awesome soundtrack to the hike.
After about 45mins of relaxing and lazily taking photos, I left the other hiker to herself and started the walk back down. This time, facing outwards, I had the cracking view of the lakes below the whole way down. Aside from the scree and boulder sections where I had to watch my footing, it was generally a pleasant descent, and with slight jelly legs, I made it back to the lakeside circuit track. From here, I could have returned the way I came for a quicker walk back to my car, but I decided to continue onwards round Lake Clearwater, a decision I later regretted because it went on for a long distance and my legs were really tired. Whilst a few clouds had rolled in, it was still baking hot, and mostly sunny, and whilst I had plenty of fluids to keep me going, my feet were throbbing and I was keen to sit down.
Despite my increasing begrudgement, it was a lovely walk. The wind meant the lake was no longer very reflective, but now people were out kitesurfing and kite boarding across the lake. It gave my something to watch as I trudged along. Towards the western end, the 4×4 track stops at a fence, and over a stile, it is not signposted where to go. A few trodden routes head off, but the desired path is the one that hugs the fence to the right, and eventually swings across to the wetlands that hug the end of the lake. The blooming flowers were pretty and from the bridge and boardwalk that spans the wetlands, the view along the valley floor to the snow-capped peaks is stunning.
By the time I was on the southern shore of the lake, I was just focusing on getting back to my car. Had I not been so tired, the lake circuit track would have been enjoyable the whole way, but approaching the 6 hr mark, I was just a little bit over walking on such a hot day. I was so relieved when I eventually reached the campsite that marks the edge of Lake Clearwater village. I reached my car just over 6hrs after leaving it behind that morning, and it was nice to get my boots off and sit down. Following the gravel road back to Mt Somers, the crashed car was gone, and I headed back home to Christchurch and a much needed shower.
DOC signs are notoriously generous with hike times. At the start of the hike, the circuit track is listed as 3hrs, and the summit track listed at 2.5hrs. The 1hr 15min sign at the base of Mt Guy does not correlate with this first sign, and is the only DOC sign I’ve seen that has under-estimated the hike time. Slow as I was, it took me 2hrs to summit, but in the heat of the summer with not an essence of shade on the whole hike, it was a tough one.