After 7.5 years living in Canterbury in the South Island, I’ve managed to get up a good few mountains in the region’s Southern Alps. I have a few favourites that I go back to, but every now and again I’ll try something new. I’d known about Mount Isobel for some time, but it wasn’t until November last year that I finally got around to hiking it. The mountain sits overlooking the town of Hanmer Springs, what used to be a 90 minute drive away from Christchurch, but realistically is longer now with the speed restrictions that were introduced after the Kaikoura earthquake of 2016. With weather forecasts for the mountains being vague, I was hopeful for a clear day when I set off, but the reality is that you don’t always know what you’re going to get until you reach the mountain. The closer I got to Hanmer, the more I could see a thick bank of cloud sitting atop the range to the west and it was only on the final approach to the town that I could finally see a clear summit, separated from the cloud bank by the Clarence Valley.
There are several routes up Mt Isobel, and I drove through Hanmer and out the other side to turn onto Clarence Valley Road, a steep, winding and unsealed road that leads deep into the Southern Alps. I don’t have a 4×4 or a fancy traction system in my little car and have previously lost traction driving up a steep unsealed road, so I’m always a little nervous taking my car on some of New Zealand’s back country roads. It was only a few kilometres to reach the pull-in for the Mt Isobel track but when I got there it was full, and I had to pull up on the verge just a short distance away. For me, the initial part of the hike was rather uninteresting. It started across a deforested section of slope, where there was a glimpse of Hanmer Springs in the valley below before it disappeared into the trees; a narrow, rough, and at times zig-zagging path up the slope. Intermittent breaks in the foliage gave views of a town getting smaller and smaller, but I have to admit I found this lower section a bit of a drag.
After about 50 minutes, I reached the junction where the Dog Stream Waterfall track met up to share a route to the summit. There was no signpost here to direct but it was clear that up was the way to go and as the track broke free from the trees and onto the alpine slopes, I started to enjoy the hike a little more. Even although the track was steep here, by the time I’d reached the ridge and the junction with the Jacks Pass track, another 30 minutes later, the views had really started to become delightful and I loved this upper section.
I’d already passed a few people coming down from the summit. The early start from Christchurch had me at the start of the track late morning, but clearly those with the benefit of staying more local had managed an earlier start than me. I could see a couple of groups of people ahead of me on the ridgeline, and even though it is classed as a route rather than a track from here onwards, it really isn’t difficult to follow at all. The well trodden route follows the contours of the rising ridgeline towards the summit proper, and to my left I had mountain peaks disappearing into the distance, and to my right I had the plains of the valley with the buildings of Hanmer Springs.
Only near the final ascent did the alpine plants thin out a bit, and a scree slope had to be crossed to reach a rocky climb up to the summit marker at 1319m (4327ft). I’d made it up in just under 2hrs, less than the track sign at the start had listed. Surprisingly I had the summit to myself and made the most of it, taking photos and eating my lunch in solitude, admiring the view. From the summit, it is possible to walk down to Jollies Pass Road to the east, and one of the groups ahead of me had continued this way. After about 20 minutes to myself, a couple of other hikers arrived, so I started back down the mountain, leaving them in peace.
The view on the way down was full frontal mountains and valley and without the exertion of the climb, it was much easier to take it all in on the way back. I passed several people working their way up the slope as I descended, and as the alpine plants became replaced with trees and I once again reached the lower track, I found myself hurrying to complete this uninteresting section once more and I was back at my car a little over an hour from leaving the summit behind. The downhill return to the town was easy and quick and I found myself at a new cafe hidden down a side street where I enjoyed a post hike coffee and cake. But the best thing about Hanmer Springs is the thermal spa in the middle of town, and this was the perfect place to soothe my post-hike muscles, something that became a recurring theme after the next weekend’s hike.