With a need to take every opportunity I could to go hiking ahead of an upcoming mammoth of a trek, despite having to work in the morning and a class in the early afternoon, I set off mid-afternoon to go to Mt Thomas Forest Conservation Area. I previously hiked Mt Thomas back in 2015 and had summited to no view when the clouds descended as I ascended. I had made a couple of attempts to go back in 2018 and been thwarted by the weather each time. Now, in January 2019, I was confident the weather was in my favour. With another hike planned for the following day, I reached the Wooded Gully campsite and set up my tent for the night, choosing to camp out rather than go home. By the time I’d done that and got my hiking boots on, it was after 4pm, but with the long day to my advantage, I set off to hike Mt Thomas for the second time.
Almost immediately after leaving the campsite behind and taking the direct summit track, I was shocked by the difference. Part of the forest in the lower part of the hike had been felled and this left a giant scar in the landscape: a muddy, roughened track of clay-like dirt amidst a mess of tree stumps and abandoned branches. This also left me totally exposed to the hot summer sun and with this part of the track being especially steep, I suddenly felt immensely unfit and had to stop often to catch my breath. It worried me a little. This hike was nothing compared to what was to come the following month and I couldn’t help but chastise myself for struggling with this track. Reaching the forest only offered relief from the sun but the steepness of the hike continued.
It was only in the last 100m altitude gain that the forest opened back up again and the view across the ridge stood before me. It was at this point last time that I’d found myself in dense cloud, so it was great to finally see the vista that I had missed. Looking behind me, I could make out the expanse of the Canterbury Plains. After this short section, the track reaches a forestry road which then leads the way to the summit at 1023m (3356ft). It was very windy but at least without the cloud this time, I could see inland across the outer reaches of the Southern Alps, and seaward to the sweeping arc of Pegasus Bay and Banks Peninsula in the far distance. The heat had not browned the vegetation here, and everything looked green and beautiful. I had the place to myself, unsurprising considering how late in the day it was. I would never normally hike up a mountain this late myself, but on this occasion it had worked out well.
From the summit there are a multitude of walks to take. It is possible to return the way you’ve come, or to cross the ridge and take the Wooded Gully track or the Ridge track, both of which lead back to the campsite; or continue across the mountain tops and follow a track deep into the mountains to a bivvy for an overnight hike (Bob’s Camp route). Having done the Wooded Gully track last time, I opted for the Ridge track this time round, to make it a longer hike, and to prevent monotony. Crossing the ridge was exposed with a crosswind, and I was quick to make work of this section of the trail. I passed the Wooded Gully turn-off in no time at all, but the junction I needed for the Ridge track took a little longer than anticipated to reach. When at last it appeared, the sign offered 5 different hiking options to choose from. My campsite was listed as 2.5hrs walk away, and the angle of the sun was starting to lower.
Almost immediately the track delved deep into the forest, and this it shared with the Wooded Gully track. What differed though, was the route it took back. Whereas the Gully track almost immediately lost altitude to follow the lower slopes of the hillside down, this one remained up on the ridge as the name would suggest. In fact the drop in altitude was so gradual that for a long time it felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere nearer to my destination. Deep within the forest it was hard to tell what altitude I was at as the views were few and far between. The bird life was minimal and the wind caused a lot of tree movement. At one point, a large tree had fallen over and the path had to skirt round the base which had been ripped up in the process. I wondered whether I was at risk of some of the flimsier trees falling down around me.
Eventually as the drop in altitude finally became noticeable, the forest proper suddenly came to an abrupt end, reaching a clearing which was scattered with young forest starting to push up at its margins. Finally I could see the Canterbury Plains again but I was still quite high up. As I got lower though, I reentered the active forestry zone and once more I found myself among tree stumps and a churned up and degraded track. In the process of deforesting this section, a few of the hiking markers appeared to have been lost and it was purely common sense taking me in the right direction. I knew I was on the look out for a forestry road and eventually I reached it at a large wasteland where abandoned tree limbs had been piled high at the margin. My topographical map had me follow the road to the next bend and then another track would lead me through the forest but as I trudged down the 4×4 track, this next track never materialised. I briefly clambered over some logs in search of it, but alas could not find it. Luckily the forestry road would take me to the same place, albeit with a few more bends so I just kept going.
I had seen not a single person on the whole hike, apart from a couple heading down right as I was setting off. But when I returned to the campsite there was a lot of activity and even more people had set up camp since I’d left it 4hrs prior. I finished at 8pm, ready for dinner, and had to make a wind break to stop my stove being blown out. Being next to the river, the sandflies of course were in full-on hounding mode and as soon as I’d eaten, I was straight into my tent to escape them. Despite being deep in the gully, the wind that I’d hiked through continued to pick up strength and seemed to just whip through the gully, rattling my tent and creaking the overhead trees. In fact it got so strong in the night that I couldn’t sleep from the noise as well as the concern that a tree might end up on top of me. In the early hours of the morning, I even got into my car and tried to sleep in there. Although I felt safer, it was so uncomfortable that I didn’t really feel any better off. Eventually, eager to get horizontal, I crept back to my tent sometime later, finally dozing for a few hours before the morning sun lit up my canvas. I love camping but I hate it at the same time. I never sleep well but there’s something kind of fun and isolating about it that makes me do it over and over again. But needless to say, having been stimulated by the increasing brightness of yet another sunny day, I arose early, shoved my camping gear in the boot of the car, and headed off for another day of hiking.