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Mount Somers Track – Day Two

New Zealand’s network of back country huts are the welcome sight at the end of many a hike, although they vary in size, style, and comfort level. What they all have in common is a lack of electricity, meaning that when the sun goes down at night, everybody tends to go straight to sleep, and in the morning as the hut lights up with the morning sunlight, the first stirrings of the early risers awaken the rest of the occupants from their slumber. And so it was as I lay asleep under the kitchen bench top in the over crowded Woolshed Creek Hut at the back of Mount Somers. I don’t know if it was the light or the early risers that stirred me from my slumber, but soon the whole hut was bustling with activity. The vast majority of the hut occupants had hiked in on the shorter Miners track from the car park off Ashburton Gorge Road, which makes it a suitable walk for families. I however, was parked at the Sharplin Falls car park on the directly opposite flank of Mount Somers and had a full day’s hike ahead of me to get there.

Being in February, I had picked an exceptionally hot weekend to do the hike, having hiked in on the Mount Somers track in 27oC. For my return leg, the temperature would peak at 29oC and the majority of the return leg was exposed to the elements. I’d gotten a little deflated at the end of the previous day, having taken 7hrs to hike what should have been a 6hr trek. With the return route listed as an 8hr trek, I set off that morning already feeling a little deflated again. First things first, there was no point even putting my boots on upon leaving the hut as I had to wade across the stream back to the far side to rejoin the Mount Somers track.

 

Starting off with a wander along the valley floor, the track skirted up a low ridge to face a deep gulley across which, a long swing bridge spanned the gap. The plaque denoted that it had replaced a ladder and I wondered if that meant that previously the river had had to be forded. This seemed like it would have been a rather dodgy affair if it had. I was glad of the bridge to take me safely across, and from then onwards, the climb began. First up and over an exposed ridge from where I could still see the hut in the valley behind me, and then into a little forested section. After wading across a stream in my leaky hiking boots, I climbed back out to come across a side track leading to a waterfall. Deep in shadow, it was difficult to get a decent photo of it, but it was definitely worth the short side trip to go and view it.

 

Once back out the forest, the next section of track was probably my favourite, despite the constant climb that went with it. It was exposed but this meant the views were incredible, and as it climbed and hugged the edge of a steep gully, I could see mountains rolling off into the distance, including some distant peaks that still had snow on them. There was only a couple of other people on the track ahead of me, otherwise it was a quiet trail, and from my vantage point I could see some of the other hut occupants walking out on the lower trail they’d come in on. As the track reached its highest point for the day, it cut directly under a rocky overhang where a cut out in the rocks was known as the Bus Stop overhang. Someone had even attached a Bus Stop sign to the edge of the rocks which I passed after taking a rest to enjoy the view.

 

It wasn’t far before the track descended steeply, and suddenly the vegetation changed dramatically from the scrubby bush to reams of tussock before the stumpy trees reappeared briefly whilst the track cut down to another stream and cut back up the other side. It was then an almost flat trek across more tussock, from where there was a final view of Woolshed Creek Hut in the far distance before it disappeared out of sight. Still on the western slope of Mount Somers, I eventually came across the track junction with the Rhyolite Track which cuts steeply down to the same car park that the other hut occupants would reach on the Miner Track. For me though, it was time to cut round to the south face of the mountain and push onwards.

 

There was next to no shade on this south face, and having overtaken the couple of hikers back in the tussocks, it was just me and them some way behind me on this track. For the rest of the day, the trend was set, with a constant undulation up and down in altitude the whole way back to the car. The view south was also less interesting than the view west or the view north the day before, and under the beating sun, it didn’t take long for me to start to get frustrated again. I’ve done many hikes, including 8hr day hikes, but this was my longest hike with a full pack on my back. I’ve also let my fitness reduce and my weight increase, so it was as much frustration at my self for letting myself lose condition as it was about the monotony of the hike in the blazing heat. But there were some interesting sections as the track followed the contours of the mountainside, passing or crossing multiple streams as it went, and the vegetation was by now back to the bushy scrub or the occasional copse of trees.

 

I had my eye on a little shelter where I planned on having lunch, but as with the day before, it felt like it wasn’t getting any nearer, and eventually I decided to stop to eat in the shade of a small copse near a stream. When I finally reached the little shelter I did a quick nosey inside before continuing, realising to my dismay that there was a rather steep incline ahead. Thankfully it turned out that most of it was in the shade of a woodland, and despite the perceived exhaustion, it was actually not too bad to negotiate in the end. After reaching the top of the incline, it skirted yet another corner to suddenly open out of the trees onto the top of a large scree field. Picking my way across it carefully to avoid creating a stone avalanche, there was just another small incline until finally I found myself at the junction with the Mount Somers summit track.

 

It was all downhill from here, and I told myself gleefully that I was nearly finished, but as the sign at the junction attests and as I consulted my map to remind myself of the next section of the track, there was still 1/3rd of the south face track to walk! There were a few more people on this part of the track with those coming off the summit heading home too. I just focused on the thought of my car and picked my way down the lowering ridgeline before I finally entered the forest for the final section. I passed some older gentlemen that had come off the summit and they started congratulating me when they found out I’d walked the circuit. I’m never sure if it’s a genial hiker’s praise or a surprise at the fact that I’m a solo female hiker, because I’ve been stopped a few times by fellow hikers (always males) who seem surprised or overly congratulatory about my intentions or achievements. Certainly, I come across far more male hikers (solo or otherwise) than I do fellow female hikers (solo or otherwise), so probably I’m still in the minority.

 

When I reached my car, 8hrs 40mins after leaving Woolshed Creek Hut behind, it wasn’t long before the same men completed their hike and we shared in each other’s elation. In the intense heat and exposure, I had run out of water about an hour before finishing, as I had done the day before. This hike was the first time that had ever happened and I reflected on the fact that I had underestimated the hike. In the end though, I felt more proud of myself for completing it, having ticked another Canterbury hike off the list, and feeling far more prepared for the 3 day hike I had to come in a few weeks time.

Mount Somers Track – Day One

After New Year came and went and the days of January started ticking by, I had the sudden realisation that I had a multi-day hike just around the corner in February and I was generally unfit and hadn’t done much training. I’d struggled upĀ Ben Lomond on my recent visit to Queenstown, a mountain which I should have coped with well in my peak fitness, so I realised I was in need of an overnight hike, or tramp as it is called in New Zealand, to give my body a practice run. So I decided to do the Mount Somers Track in Canterbury, a track that wasn’t a drastic drive away, was just a 2 day hike and seemed perfectly achievable, being as it went round the slope of Mount Somers without actually summiting it. What could go wrong? I knew that the hut I wanted to stay at could be busy at weekends as it is accessible also via a shorter walk and is therefore very popular with families as a reasonable walk when kids are involved, so with a long weekend, I decided to hike Sunday to Monday, thinking I’d have a better chance of getting a bunk. I didn’t have a tent to take with me as a back-up, but I did take my camping mattress just in case.

For many reasons, the trip just didn’t go the way I had anticipated. I was a little lazy getting myself going on the Sunday morning, so I was setting off later than I really should have. I left my car at the Sharplin Falls car park near Staveley, and noted the 6hr time on the Department of Conservation (DOC) sign to Woolshed Creek Hut, my destination for that night. For my general level of fitness, I find these DOC signs very generous with their estimated times, so I knew I should make the hut at a reasonable time to have a chance of bagging a bed spot if it was busy. I set off over the stream and up the winding pathway into the bush, setting my sights on Pinnacles Hut which was just a little over halfway. I planned on using it as a lunch and rest spot before pushing on to the second hut. The track was rough but obvious as it negotiated tree roots and an undulating altitude and for a while I could see little more than the bush around me. I passed several people who were hiking out from wherever they had spent the night and at one point a man stopped me and asked me where I was staying. He explained that the Woolshed Creek Hut had reached double capacity the night before and it had been rather chaotic and cramped. He wished me luck for that night and continued on his way. I continued to hold onto the belief that it was Sunday, so it had to be quieter. Shortly after, I fell on my arse.

 

A break in the trees allowed me to see Mount Somers, the mountain that I was hiking around and have previously climbed up. It was a beautiful sunny summer’s day and it was getting rather hot, peaking at 27oC. There had recently been some heavy rain so as the track dipped down to Bowyers Stream there were fresh landslips to negotiate and the water level was higher, flooding small sections of the track. My trusty hiking boots have been a reliable part of my life for nearly 10 years. I knew they were coming to the end of their life, but when the water started seeping in to them as I crossed some small streams, I realised that this hike was going to be a problem for them. In the deeper patches where the stepping stones were well submerged, I was forced to take my shoes off and wade barefoot: not an ideal situation, but it seemed the better scenario than hiking in saturated shoes and socks. Further up a stream a swing bridge offered a decent crossing across a wider section but even after this there were a few more zig zags across the water.

 

The heat was beginning to get to me and I had a feeling I wasn’t making progress at a rate that I was comfortable with. I put these thoughts aside when I came across a waterfall that the track went behind. Dripping off the moss and vegetation on an overhang, the light flow of water glistened in the sunshine and it was a nice distraction from the slight monotony of the bush. Given the roughness of the track and the use of chains to negotiate a few sections, I was a little surprised to see a family with young children swimming in a pooled section of the stream which the path came really close to. I had seen this area on the map and had decided it would be a good place to have lunch given that the hut still seemed a bit away, but when I came out of the bush I saw the children were naked and it felt inappropriate for me to stop there, so I pushed on till I found a clearing with a rock to sit on.

 

But at some point it really became evident that I should have reached the first hut by now. I’m normally a lot quicker than the DOC signs state, but once before I have been caught out by the time estimate being more realistic than they typically are, and I was coming to the realisation that this was going to be another one. It led to a bit of frustration kicking in and my tiredness was becoming a little more pronounced. It was dawning on me that I still had hours of hiking ahead of me, and I was going to get in later than I’d thought. The final lead up to Pinnacles Hut is dramatic though – the bush opening up to reveal the sheer wall of the north face of Mount Somers and some large rocky prominences jutting through the trees. As I finally neared the hut, I could see some people climbing the largest prominences a little way behind the hut. I peaked inside as I like to do when I pass by and I spied an updated time estimate sign and looked in dismay at the lies which it portrayed: It had taken me longer to reach the hut and I knew it would take me longer to reach the next one.

 

From Pinnacles Hut the track climbed steeply to reach a pass and followed the natural curve of the slope for a while. The bush was minimal now so it was a stunning view that I tried hard to enjoy through my growing tiredness. I passed some more people heading in the opposite direction before I finally reached the beginning of the long descent. The shadows were starting to stretch a little and I was eager to get down to the hut in the valley below. It was a straight-forward descent surrounded by mountains disappearing into the distance in several directions with the hulk of Mount Somers as a constant companion to my left, its appearance changing as the terrain around it changed. As the path levelled out, I was sure I had just a few more corners till the hut would appear, but again when I consulted the map, I proved to be sorely wrong. I still had a good 45 mins of hiking to go. I was quite deflated by this stage, disheartened with the miscalculation of time, irritated by the heat, and disappointed at the failing condition of my hiking boots.

 

Despite all this, when a little side-track appeared as the path skirted a tributary of Morgan Stream, I took it to cut down to the water and look at some faux caves where the rocks created some channels and pools for the water flow to negotiate. It was tempting to have a wade but I really needed to get to the hut. The path cut down to Morgan Stream proper where I was startled by a large hedgehog scuttling into the bush, it having gotten as big a fright from me as I had by its sudden movement. Where the path disappeared into the stream and out the other side, I had to de-boot once more to cross it. After climbing back up the far slope, over the ridge and down the other side, I was beyond ecstatic to finally see Woolshed Creek Hut at the bottom of the hill. There were a lot of people milling about and I realised it was going to be busy. I almost skipped the last section of the hike only to be brought to a standstill when I realised Woolshed Creek stood between me and the hut. Off the boots came again and I didn’t bother putting them back on, dumping my stuff on the decking and popping inside.

 

The hut was a hive of activity, full of children inside and out, which seemed so foreign to me at the end of a long hike. I love seeing a new generation get into hiking and the outdoors, away from electronic devices, but it wasn’t what I wanted to find after a 7hr hike. It had been an hour longer than the DOC sign had stated meaning it was almost 2hrs longer than I thought it would have taken. I looked into the bunk rooms to discover that all the mattresses were spoken for and I realised I would be kipping on the floor. I wasn’t even the last person to arrive, with a few other groups of hikers having walked in on the shorter track. We all fought for space to prepare food and eat, and once the kitchen area was clear, I set up my camping mattress and sleeping bag under the workbench where I thought I’d be out of the way. The bugs kept me company for a bit, and I read a magazine in the torchlight before one by one, all of us that were sleeping on the floor settled in for the night. I was exhausted and mentally drained, and the next day I still had to make it back to my car.

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