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Mount Thomas (Ridge Route)

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.

Mount Thomas

If there was ever a hike worthy of a sturdy pair of hiking boots, Mount Thomas’ summit track would be it. And if there was ever a day where getting up very early makes a big difference, then this day would be it. Just over an hour north of Christchurch, in the Waimakariri District of Canterbury, north of the town of Rangiora, and nestled down an unsealed road is the Mt Thomas Conservation Area. From a car park near a camping ground, a selection of paths head off into the forest for a variety of routes.

Mt Thomas Conservation Area

 

I set off from the car park a little before 10am with the sun shining down from a near cloudless sky. There was a hint of wind, but choosing the summit track, I was sheltered well within the forest. For the first hour of this track there is little relief from the steep uphill slog, and the path is stony with a covering of fallen vegetation making for a route in need of good grip on your shoes. The steep incline was tough on my calf muscles as I found myself a little unfit after a spring of near laziness. There is little to see other than trees, as other than a brief section next to a private road, the majority of the path is deep within the forest.

The first split in the paths

Near the bottom of the summit track

A brief break in the trees

 

By the time the gradient began to ease a little, I was disheartened to see the sun had disappeared behind a thick blanket of cloud. When finally the trees gave way and opened up slightly to afford a view down into the gully at the side of the mountain, I realised that the wind had completely changed direction and a low-lying fast moving cloud had barrelled into the gully meaning that I was now within the clouds. It was cold and there were spots of rain, and I could barely make out the neighbouring hillside. The path hugged the upper reaches of Mt Thomas before finally the forest ended and the track emerged on a 4×4 track. There is no marker here other than the one pointing you in the direction you came from, but common sense leads you up the track instead of down, and round a couple of bends the aerials and trig point marking the summit (1023m/3356ft) became visible through the racing cloud.

The upper forest

Looking through the cloud bank

 

The cloud bank was whipping up the gully and over the nearby ridge very fast, and gusts of wind made the summit quite cold. There was no view in any direction and I was a bit gutted. Had I set off an hour earlier, I would have summited in the sunshine. After a quick wander round the summit, the sun threatened to burst through and I contemplated stopping to eat some lunch and see if the cloud burnt off. But the summit was completely exposed, and it was cold and windy, so I made the decision to push on. I had decided to return via the Wooded Gully Track which involves crossing the ridgeline next to Mt Thomas. This exposed ridgeline was where the cloud was whipping up and over, so all that was visible was the thin path snaking into the mist, marked by an orange marker.

View towards the Ridge Track from the summit

Mt Thomas summit

View from the summit of Mt Thomas

 

The wind wasn’t strong enough to have me concerned, so I set off into the cloud and followed the ridge track through a very alpine environment. The track varies in width but is easy to follow, and as it dropped slightly down the one side of the ridge, it was possible to see down the gully slightly and get a slight view of the neighbouring mountains. Something caught my eye on the track at my feet and I was astounded to see a stone shaped like a heart. It wasn’t much further until the track disappeared back into the forest again.

Following the Ridge Track into the clouds

Following the Ridge Track

The neighbouring ridge appearing out of the clouds

 

Whereas the summit track had gained the majority of the altitude in the first hour before easing off, the Ridge Track which soon after entering the forest split into the Wooded Gully Track, lost most of the altitude early on going downhill, only easing off in the lowest section. The Wooded Gully Track was much more interesting than the Summit Track with several streams to cross, and a varied forest canopy which was full of bird song. Even with the path being dry, there were several parts which were a slip risk, and on two occasions I lost my footing before managing to catch myself again. About half an hour after re-entering the forest, I was aware of the sun breaking through the canopy, and through the occasional break in the trees, I could see the now uncovered summit of Mt Thomas off to the side of me. I hadn’t met a single soul on the whole hike yet and several parts of this track were only wide enough for one person with steep drops off to the side. There were plenty of trip hazards too, so some sections took a lot of foot watching to prevent a fall. Finally, I passed a scattering of other hikers in the lower reaches of the forest where the path splits at different stages to give alternative routes back to the car park.

Re-entering the forest

Wooded Gully Track splits from the Ridge Track

Stream Crossing

Looking back up the mountainside

Forest track

 

DOC walks are always well signposted and can sometimes be generous with their listed times for their walks. There was only one spot in the lower forest where the path forked that it wasn’t as blatantly obvious as usual which path I wanted, but again common sense prevailed. All the paths in this area lead back to the same car park though, so even a wrong turning here will eventually get you back to the same exit point. The final hour of the walk was in sunshine and I was slightly dismayed to realise that an hour either side of my leaving time would have afforded me a summit view. With just 10 mins left to walk, the path crossed a river and a picnic bench sat haphazardly to the side of the bridge. Having not eaten yet, I opted to sit for a while to have some food, but even this early in the season, the sandflies were out and about and insisted on flitting about my head. They are the bane of waterways in New Zealand and in enough numbers have the ability to ruin a pleasant summer day out in the countryside. After a fast consumption of my sandwich, it was a very brief and easy walk back to the car park.

DOC sign at fork in the path

Bridge across the river

 

The DOC signs state a 2hr hike up the summit track and a 2.5hr hike down the Wooded Gully Track. There is also the option of following the Ridge Track to its terminus which makes it a 3.5hr walk back to the car park. I reached the summit in about 1.5hrs despite being painfully slow in the early stages whilst my legs eased into it, and including a brief stop at the summit and a lunch stop at the bottom, I made it back to the car park in 2hrs. No matter which path you choose, this is definitely a track in need of good walking boots and good hiking socks too, as there are steep sections on either route, and the Wooded Gully track has sections where streams flow down the track. The only toilets on the path are at the camping ground near the car park at the start.

This was hopefully the first of many day hikes this summer season, but alas, a summit view is going to have to wait for another occasion…

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