I’m pretty spoiled for choice here when it comes to hiking options in New Zealand. With a multitude of short walks, half-day, full-day and multi-day options available around the country, the biggest obstacle that I have is having enough time off or energy to do them. Last November I had 4 days off work thanks to a fortuitously placed local public holiday, and with the biggest hike of my life in the pipeline, I was in need of some training. Nestled among the foothills of the Southern Alps near Lewis Pass is the St James Walkway, a 66km (41 mile) walk that traverses a sub-alpine zone. It is listed as a 5 day/4 night hike but I was confident that I could shave a day off, so I was planning on skipping a couple of the huts to walk it in 4 days/3 nights. Although traditionally started from a pull-in by a picnic site at the side of State Highway 7, and completed at the settlement of Boyle, it can be hiked in either direction. Irregardless of the route chosen, it does take a bit of arranging to either get dropped off at, or picked up from, the non-Boyle end of the hike.
I had an early start from Christchurch to make the arduous drive to Boyle settlement where I’d arranged a park and transfer with the Boyle River Outdoor Education Centre. On arrival, it was just a matter of filling in some paperwork with my trip intentions and then the lady that worked there drove me in my car to the start of the hike before she would return with it to park it for me to collect later. The car park at the start of the hike had a good few empty cars in it, and it was a quick deposit before I found myself alone in the middle of the mountains. With my boots strapped up and my bag slung over my back, I was experimenting with hiking poles for the first time having been feeling my knees ache for some time on mountain descents.
A small lake near the car park formed a local nature walk, and it made a nice foreground for the snow-topped peaks behind it. The track continued past here across the sub-alpine meadow, crossing a river and cutting into the trees. A little further along, it cut down to a long swing-bridge that spanned the Maruia River and on the far side the track followed the bank of Cannibal Gorge. As I’d approached this bridge, I had heard voices, the first sign of other people on the trail. I caught up with them just across the bridge and discovered that one of their party knew me. I’m terrible with people out of context so took a minute to make the connection. They were travelling as a group of friends and family and were heading to Cannibal Gorge Hut to spend the night before heading back to the city. With kids in tow I was quick to leave them behind, their pace more casual than mine. There was a lot of undulation ahead and large sections of the track were deep within the forest, breaking the treeline where avalanche routes have scourged the mountainside. Most of these tree breaks had waterfalls trickling down through the rocks or the bush and they were a great distraction from the occasional monotony of this part of the hike.
I was distracted to my joy at a bend in the track by a South Island robin (kakaruwai). These birds are incredibly bold and inquisitive and love to come close and interact. They are an absolute joy to have as a hiking companion and I watched it a while before moving on. With all the waterfalls, there were more distractions than I had time for, but eventually I made a snack stop near one of them. Pushing on I eventually reached another swing bridge that meant I was near the hut. The avalanche route that this bridge crossed was littered with giant rocks and tree fall. There is a good reason that this hike is risky when there’s heavy snow above, and the multitude of avalanche warning signs on this first day of the hike really brought it home. But finally there was a change in scene as the route quickly dropped down to the bank of the Maruia River and out of the trees I found myself at a flat staring across to the mountain hut near the treeline.
Despite the grey skies, the back drop of the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps provided a dramatic backdrop to the Cannibal Gorge Hut which grew bigger and bigger as I crossed the grassy path to reach it. There was no-one to be seen when I made it, and I was quick to dump my stuff and take a nosy inside. These Department of Conservation (DoC) mountain huts can vary in size and quality, but this was one of the bigger ones, complete with separated bunk rooms and kitchen space. Whilst the group I’d passed earlier were staying here the night, this was just a stopping point for me. I ate whilst I wandered around inside, then sat for a while at the picnic table outside until the swarming sand flies started to drive me crazy. It was a good encouragement to push onwards, and as I slung my bag back over my shoulders to leave, I heard voices followed by the sight of children bursting from the forest.
Behind the hut I was immediately thrust back into the forest again, but this time the route kept low, mostly following the course of the Maruia River upstream. When it finally opened up into a clearing there was a striking view of a cone-like mountain top in front of me, and steep mountain slopes to my side. It seemed clear to me that these nearby peaks acted as a bit of a weather divide as I could see high up above the movement of poorer weather skirting round the mountain tops close by. There is so much hiking I’d love to do on the western half of the island, but the weather is notoriously wet, windy and unpredictable to the west of the divide and so it’s always hard to plan ahead. I was at the mercy of the weather Gods on this weekend, and I knew it could get a lot worse if it wanted to. But this clearing meant I was very close to my destination for the night. Crossing another bridge back to the original side of the Maruia River, there was only a short muddy section before I found myself at Ada Pass Hut, my rest stop for the night. There were already many people at the hut by the time I arrived. Several people from Christchurch were there for an overnight hike and would return to their car back at the start of the hike the next day. Another couple were going to walk to the next hut and then head back, and there was myself and another solo hiker that were walking the full St James Walkway. After nabbing a mattress, I headed out to explore the immediate surrounds but again the sand flies were out in full force and as the hours before darkness ticked by, more and more people arrived in the hut and it was full to the brim.
Inevitably on a multi-day hike there is a day that is way longer or more strenuous than the others. With compressing the 5 day hike into a 4 day hike, the second day on the trail was to be a long one. As the crow flies, my bed for that night was just on the other side of the peak behind Ada Pass Hut, but to reach there on foot meant circumnavigating a giant chunk of rock that made up a conglomerate of peaks, the highest of which was Philosophers Knob at 1921m (6302ft). After leaving the hut behind, my fellow multi-day hiker having left some time ahead of me, I was quick to reach Ava Pass (1008m/3307ft) which were it not for the sign to mark it, would have otherwise been non-descript. The forest here reminded me a little of the forests back in Scotland, especially those of the Rothiemurchus Estate in one of my favourite parts of the country. With grey skies above me and the absence of birdsong it felt a little bleak and I could feel a change in weather in the air.
From the pass, the track follows the valley floor with minor undulation. A lake with some waterfowl was a nice distraction from the trees, and beyond here a sign denoted yet another avalanche risk zone as it moved below some rather steep slopes. It was nice to be out of the trees though with the expansive open space allowing views up onto the nearby peaks and also a good distance ahead. Orange-tipped poles peppered the route and the trail was well-trodden and easy to follow. The bubbling stream nearby was also a welcome sound to the otherwise silent hike. There was no-one to see ahead of or behind me and it was easy to feel miles from civilisation – just what I want when I go hiking.
As the route continued, the view opened up more and although there was swirling rain clouds over the peaks of the Spenser Mountains, it was a spectacular view. Past Camera Gully the Ada River grew larger and at a notable change in track direction it intermingled with the Christopher River and from here the route lifted up a little enhancing the view even more. After the slightly uninteresting forested sections of the earlier parts of the hike, I was starting to love where I was, and even though I could see and feel rain moving in, I made a point of fully taking in the view as I walked, keeping a good pace without over-rushing it. After the change in direction I popped out at a historic hut, Christopher Cullers Hut. It was basic, effectively a tin-shed with a couple of bunks and a fireplace. It would make a good windbreaker or emergency shelter but I wouldn’t choose to stay here, especially as a proper hut was just 1km (0.62miles) further ahead.
An expansive valley floor led the way to Christopher Hut. Set within a fenced-off zone, a stile provided access and I arrived just as a fellow hiker was leaving. He was walking the St James in the opposite direction so was heading to Ada Pass Hut. He reported that the lady who was walking in the same direction as me had left just as he had arrived. After a brief further chat, he left me to it and as the sand flies quickly descended on me as I took my boots off, I got inside as quickly as possible, eager to make some lunch. I eat a lot of food when I’m hiking even although the calories often aren’t required. This kind of hike was about stamina rather than cardio but I needed little excuse to eat a good-sized lunch and the warm soup was a welcome source of heat. But I wasn’t even half-way through the day’s hiking yet so once finished and washed up, it was time to get back out and at it again.
By now the peaks behind me had disappeared in cloud. I only felt the occasional spot of rain but the hint of heavier falls haunted me for some time. I was now fully exposed with the continuing valley floor ahead of me, the river set apart from the track for some time before the two came back together again. Where they met I could see another valley begin to open up to the left and as I neared it I saw horses and eventually a homestead appear. At the confluence of the Ada and Waiau rivers, the track skirted the foot of Mt Federation. Coming down the Waiau Valley, the Waiau Pass track is part of the Te Araroa (TA), the full-country hike that traverses both islands from Cape Reinga to Bluff. Although the rivers and valleys merge here, the TA and St James walkway remain separate for some time, and following this new valley, the St James turned south onto Ada Flat.
Initially the track followed the river bank where the water was fast flowing and the river broad but a sudden change in direction of flow a little down the valley meant the track left the watercourse behind and an expanse of grassland and bog lay out beside me. The Waiau River valley coursed off in another direction as the St James walkway followed a separate valley in a south-westerly direction. The track started to undulate a little and included some boardwalks across some of the dips. Eventually the track joined up with the TA and here it expanded from a route to a 4×4 track through a low thicket. The DoC sign at the junction stated the hut was still 1.5hrs away, and whilst their signs are usually over-generous with time, I was a little disheartened to think there was still so much to go. It had been a long, though interesting hike, but I was eager to get off my feet.
Up and down the track went for a while until the route split off from the 4×4 track. The markers didn’t quite fit the topographical map I had for following the route but I put trust in the markers that were placed and sure enough they led me to a swing bridge across the Henry River. At the far side, the route was a narrow ledge that gradually cut down to the level of the river then swung away and towards it as it coursed along. After it rejoined the 4×4 track which had forded the river, it looked on the map like I should be close but the hut remained out of sight. FInally though, as I cut through a small group of low trees I saw it in the distance and my pace quickened as I quickly covered the distance across the flat ground to reach it. Anne Hut was massively exposed, slap bang in the middle of an expansive clearing in the wide valley so I laughed when I saw the graffiti on the sign at the door stating it was the most exposed hut in NZ. Clearly some people had sat through some very wild weather here.
For me though I was just glad to get my boots off. There was still a good bit of daylight ahead but there was a hiker asleep in the one bunkroom and the lady from the night before was also there. It turned out the third hiker was walking the TA and planned on pushing on to Boyle Settlement the next day, a 2 day hike away for myself and the other woman. Despite servicing both routes as well as a cycle trail, no other people showed up that night and it was just the three of us in a very large hut. It felt exceedingly spacious and bright, a total contrast to the Ada Hut which had been relatively small, cramped and dark in comparison. Without a pile of other snoring bodies to contend with, I was able to get a good night’s sleep ahead of a 3rd day of hiking that turned out to be more challenging than expected.