Our day begins with getting a long-overdue tire puncture repaired in Methven after about a month of adding air every couple days. With that finally off of our list of “to-do's”, we head off on the scenic route to Castle Hill, just south of Arthur's Pass. Castle Hill is a rock climbers dream come true, with rounded limestone boulders stretching into the blue sky. The sun is shining down as we scramble onto some rocks that are a perfect shape for nestling into and relaxing.
Leaving the boulder-strewn paddocks of Castle Hill, Julie eyes a pair of crested grebes with a baby on Lake Pearson in the Moana Rua Wildlife Reserve. We stop to watch the strange looking ducks with our binoculars as they dive for food. They are just out of range for her telephoto lens, so the finer details are out of focus in the photo below.
Making our way north to the town of Arthur's Pass, our mission is to gain insight on coming weather. I really want to tramp over the Goat Pass but that involves hiking up one river valley, over the pass, and back down through another river valley to civilization. DOC informs us of a slight chance of heavy rains within the next 24 hours. If the heavy rains arrive we might be stuck at the hut for an extra few days before it is safe to tramp down the river valley. Our best option is to prepare for the gruelling hike but to get a weather update again in the morning and then make our final decision.
With the remainder of the day, Julie is interested in taking a short hike up the Otira Valley to wander through an array of alpine flowers. The track starts above the treeline at Arthur's Pass (920m) and travels up the deep valley with views of the Otira River flowing below. We hike over the old glacial moraine now grown over with alpine flowers and tussocks waving in the wind. Mountain ranges are on all sides and the snow has melted off all of them except Mt. Rolleston.
Flowering Shrubs on Otira Valley Track
After the quick hike up the Otria valley we head to Klondike Corner (south of the town of Arthur's Pass) for the night. A friendly couple from the UK, looking for some company, approach us while we are finishing our dinner. We chat about our travels and play some great card games as the sun sets. The setting is perfect in the open grasslands as the stars poke out one by one and the moon slowly appears from behind the mountain ranges. It's hard to call it a night, but we have to get some shut-eye before tomorrow's trek.
Camping at Klondyke Corners
Moonlight Night at Klondyke Corners
Morning brings more gorgeous sun and we find out that rain will not arrive until tomorrow afternoon. We discuss our options. We really want to do the day hike to Avalanche Peak but we also really want to stay in a back-country hut over night. The lady at the DOC office informs us of the perfect solution. That is to head up to Avalanche Peak (she mentions that it is the best day trek in NZ) and then drop over the other side to Crow Hut via an unmarked trail. Julie is bit nervous of the “unmarked” portion of the plan, but is convinced that it will be an amazing adventure. So we change our original plan, a 2-day trek over Goats Pass, to a 2-day trek over Avalanche Peak.
Our hike begins directly after filling out an intentions form and hiking to the trail head just north of town. We take Scott's Track literally straight up the steep mountain and within an hour we emerge from the tree-line with outstanding panoramic views of the Bealey River Valley. Devil's Punchbowl Falls is across the valley and looks just like a huge punchbowl spilling out down a rocky cliff. As we continue gaining elevation the track gets drastically steeper on all sides. Keas fly overhead letting us know of their presence by letting out echoing squawks that sound just like there name “KKKEEAAA”.
View of Bealey River Valley
Enjoying the View from Scott's Track
After a short break we reach the summit, the highest point on the ridge we ascended. There is only enough space on the summit for about 6 people to stand, it is quite small with steep rocky screes on all sides. The 360 degree views are astonishing, comprised of towering scree slopes, glaciers nestled between sharp ridges, and distant river valleys. It is break taking, words can't describe it, and photos don't do it justice. Once we get our barrings we trek off in the opposite direction of everyone else that is on the summit with us.
Avalanche Peak Track near Summit
Kea on Avalanche Peak
We find the slightly worn trail marked with rock cairns and slowly creep across the windy ridge looking for the scree that will take us down to Crow Hut. DOC gives us three critical conditions that must be met in order for us to know which scree will take us to the Hut. If we take the wrong one we could get bluffed out, which could be fatal. No big deal. The three conditions are: we must be able to see Devil's Punchbowl Falls in its entirety, we must be able to see all the way down the scree slope to the Crow River, and the scree is located before the trail sharply ascends. As we hike along the ridge we come across a large arrow formation on the ground made with rocks. At this location, all three conditions were met and without any doubt we know this is the scree we had to descend.
Heading North along Ridge from Avalanche Peak
View of Crow River Valley
We strap on our scree boots and hit the scree slopes. The loose rocks slid under our feet making the decent a blast. It is like walking down a steep sand dune, but with rocks. After almost an hour of screeing down and some close calls of loose soccer sizes rocks tumbling past us, we hit the valley floor. When we started the decent down the scree we were nearly at the same level as the Crow Glacier and now it loomed high above us. The Crow River stems from the Glacier but at the bottom of the scree the water is not at the surface but beneath tons of rocks. We are standing in between two rock screes in the valley. As we follow the valley “down stream”, small pockets of fresh glacial water begin to appear, so we strip down for a polar bear skinny dip. Luckily the sun is beating down because the water is instantly numbing and is only tolerable for a heartbeat before stinging sensations set in. Before putting the packs back on, I dip down and take a slurp right out the stream, the pristine water quenches my thirst. Another 20 minutes down stream and we arrive at Crow Hut, a newer ten person hut. The entire afternoon is spent exploring the area and relaxing under the sun before it slips away behind the steep peaks. What an incredible hike to a remote paradise and we have the hut all to ourselves!
Top of Gravel Scree Slope
Bottom of Gravel Scree
Drinking from Crow River
Views from Crow Hut
Crow Hut in the Crow Valley
Getting Drinking Water from the Glacial Crow River
Stoking the Stove in Crow Hut
The quiet night passes and the sun finally hits the valley as we leisurely pack our bags and drag ourselves away form this beautiful place. We follow the Crow River down stream, which by this time is a raging torrent. The trail is marked again and after some boulder hopping and river crossings we reach the point where the Crow River joins the Waimakariri River. The vast valley has grown immensely since the point we descended the scree slope. We now trudge along the Waimakariri River over rocks, crossing its braids dozens of times. We have managed to keep our feet and boots dry up until now but have reached a point where we have to ford the river, and its deep. We plunge through the river, icy water filling our boots. I hate getting a soaker. It's only about an hour with sloshy boots before we reach the gravel road that takes us out to the main highway.
Waimakariri Flats and Mt. Wakeman and Mt. Davies
Fording the Waimakariri River
Julie sticks her thumb out and hails a ride within minutes. We end up getting a lift with a Newfie doctor working for a couple months in Christchurch. He drops us off at our car in the town of Arthur's Pass and we wish him well. The forecasted rain sets in as we unpack our gear and hit the road toward St. Arnaud and Nelson Lakes National Park.
After a good four hour drive we pull into the DOC campground only to find out that it is full. Luckily the warden points us to a free DOC campsite for the night. We utilize the full-service campground, indulging in much needed hot showers and filling our bellies while the sun drops calmly behind Lake Rotoiti. We then head to the free DOC campsite, which only contains an outhouse. Once the tent is upright, our heads hit the pillows and sleep arrives quickly after an exhausting day.