by Franz Hubmann
One sunny day at the end of December 1996, six trampers took a jetboat trip up the Wilkin River in Mount Aspiring National Park and then walked up this beautiful valley to Top Forks Hut near its head. We were on a mission, to cross the Main Divide twice, over into the Waiatoto River on the West Coast and back again.
Next morning we followed the track up to Lake Castalia in the North Branch of the Wilkin River, passing under the imposing slopes of Mts Pollux and Castor on the way. This lake has large bluffs on several sides, but on the less steep eastern side we slowly trudged up over scree, tussock, snow, rock slabs and more snow to eventually reach the ridge north of Mt Juno. We got into some difficulty on the rock slabs on the way up and used our rope to extricate ourselves, but above this area the snow slopes were gentler. Turning north along the ridge we reached the Main Divide just below Leda Peak.
Admiring the views we headed east along the Divide towards The Sentinel, with steep bluffs into the Wonderland Stream on our right and the upper Te Naihi River filled with late afternoon sunlight on our left. North of Sentinel the Divide drops a little to a broad rolling series of tussock and rock mounds, beautiful to walk on, and carved by huge bluffs below it on either side. We camped here in a tussock hollow by a small tarn.
In fine weather the following morning (we were blessed with good weather for 11 out of 12 days on this trip, due to the storms which lashed the North Island that summer) we continued north to Mt Achilles. From the summit cairn we had a long look around. To our east the serrated summit of Mt Alba whose, Maori name is Kahukura, stood grandly above Newland Pass, while 30 kilometres away to the south-west Mt Aspiring floated on a sea of mountains.
Below us on the west snow slopes led down to Te Naihi Saddle. This, for many years, was thought to be a low, potentially useful crossing of the Main Divide, after Charlie "Mr Explorer" Douglas found it in the low visibility on day last century. It was only revealed to be a saddle between two branches of the Te Naihi River in 1950, when a TTC party made the first ascent of The Sentinel. While gazing in this direction we were startled to see a figure moving up the snow slopes towards us. We initially assumed it was a person but rapidly realised it was moving too quickly, and when it turned side-on we realised it was a chamois. It was delightful to watch it steadily climb towards us until it stopped only a short distance away to check us out, completely at home in its environment.
When it decided we looked a bit scary it turned and bounded back down the slopes until it disappeared around a spur.
Returning south along the Divide we followed a good tussock spur down into the headwaters of the Te Naihi River.
Further down the river we camped that night at the bottom of the first big flat, with the brown rock cliffs of Mercury Peak towering above us.
For the following day and a half we descended the rest of the Te Naihi River, boulder-hopping along the river-edge wherever we could, and bush-bashing through forest (and thick scrub in the upper reaches) when the bank was impassable. We met three other trampers heading upriver in the lower Te Naihi. At the Axius Flats (the Te Naihi River was once alternatively called the Axius, a name which also lives on in a small glacier and peak at the head of the valley) we reach the confluence with the Waiatoto River, a large opaque, grey-green glacial river which drains the northern side of Mt Aspiring at its head.
After lunch, enlivened by the famous West Coast sandflies we headed up river. There were traces of a track through the bush but boulder-hopping, where possible, was the easier option. We camped on a grassy shelf beside the river that night, with a driftwood fire to warm us. Next morning we reached Drake Hut and our Speights drop, the beer previously helicoptered in with the last 5-days worth of our food. As it was raining and we had a lot of food to eat we went no further that day.
In more fine weather we continued our journey towards the source of the Waiatoto the next day. We camped on a riverside terrace between the Pearson and Bettne Rivers, and the following morning we boulder-hopped the last few hours up to the lake which drains the Volta and Therma Glaciers under the northern ice and rock ramparts of Mt Aspiring. We had glimpsed the summit from further back down the river but when we reached the lake could had settled a concealing blanket over the upper slopes, and the most visible feature of the mountain was the huge cirque dropping away beneath the north-east Ridge. The view was equally impressive in other direction, especially to the west, where the enormous bluffs of the Haast Range loomed above us. The edges of small shelf glaciers appeared above the bluffs, but the romantically named summits of the Haast Range - Stargazer, Skyscraper and Moonraker, were concealed from this angle.
Returning to camp, we set off the next morning for our second crossing of the Divide, via Pearson Saddle, whose first recorded crossings were in the 1940s. From our campsite we climbed the forested spur between the Bettne and Pearson Rivers. Following the route in Moir's we ascended a sloping shelf, in scrub then out into tussock. A steeper section of short tussock made us grateful for the dry conditions, in show or even if wet the surface would have been quite treacherous. Above this we found ourselves on a gentler sloping shoulder at about 1600 metres altitude. We followed this around above the Pearson Basin before dropping 400 metres down more steep tussock to the basin floor. Then a final haul up the slopes just south of Pearson Saddle to finally put packs down before setting up our second camp on the crest of the Main Divide near a small stream.
We stayed there for two nights as it was such a glorious spot. A short trip past Rabbit Pass and up onto an outlier of Lois Peak occupied most of the next day. Awesome views of most of the peaks we had passed by earlier in the trip were followed by bum-sliding back down the snow slopes towards Rabbit Pass, and returning to camp.
Down off Rabbit Pass (steep loose rock at the top) next morning and back into Otago. Following the East Matukituki River, we lunched at Ruth Flat, admiring the impressive sheer east face of Fastness Peak, Then the Bledisloe Gorge sidle track and a last mountain radio schedule at the bushline before descending to camp at Junction Flat on our last night of the trip.
3.0 New Zealand License.
A pleasant walk down the East Matukituki and across the West branch the next morning brought an end to our trip. We had been very lucky with the weather which had enabled us to see and enjoy some of New Zealand's magnificent back-country.