Kayaking on the West Coast of New Zealand

WESTLAND WINTER

Adventure, Mountains, Walking & Hiking

Winter on the West Coast is hard to beat. Clear blue skies, panoramic views of Aoraki Mount Cook & the Southern Alps, relatively few tourists and mercifully few sand flies…

Early winter can be a SAD* time of year in Wanaka. The ski fields are waiting for the first snowfalls of winter to arrive and a low, damp, cold layer of inversion cloud can hang over the lake and hide the sun for days on end. It’s the ideal time to get out of town on a  road trip to find some blue skies, and a pilgrimage across to the West Coast is becoming an annual tradition for us….

*Seasonal Affective Disorder

Road on the coastal West Coast of New Zealand passes through forest

SH6 – The Haast Highway – cuts through ancient coastal podocarp rainforest

West Coast New Zealand Coastal Forest

Beach | Forest

Hectors Dolphins West Coast New Zealand

Hanging out with the locals – a pod of Hector’s Dolphins catch a wave at Ship Creek. These are amongst the smallest and rarest species of dolphin in the world.

West Coast Beach New Zealand

The Wild West Coast, Ship Creek.

Reflections in a lagoon on West Coast NZ

Okarito Lagoon in reflective mood

White heron West Coast NZ

GONE FISHING… A white heron focused on the job in hand

Sunset and waves West Coast New Zealand

Light shafts at sunset.

West Coast Beach New Zealand Long Exposure

Watching the sun go down, West Coast NZ (long exposure)

Misty Mountains Southern Alps NZ

An easterly flow spills cloud over the Southern Alps – clagged in back home in Wanaka!

West Coast Beach New Zealand

SURF’S UP. The wild, rugged West Coast

A bridge spans a lagoon on the West Coast of New Zealand

Three Mile Lagoon

Forest reflections West Coast New Zealand

Podocarp forest flanking Three Mile Lagoon

Forest reflections West Coast New Zealand

Podocarp forest reflections in Three Mile Lagoon, with easterly clouds spilling over the Main Divide (cloudy in Wanaka)!

West Coast Beach NZ with views of Southern Alps

Classic West Coast

West Coast beach New Zealand

Frothing.

Oystercatcher on beach

Foam bath. A variable oystercatcher hunts for shellfish on the tide line

Sunset West Coast New Zealand

Orange glow

Moonlight reflections, Okarito Beach

Moonlight reflections, Okarito Beach

Kayaking West Coast New Zealand

Slicing through the glassy water of Okarito Lagoon

Kayaking on Okarito Lagoon, West Coast New Zealand

Tranquility.

Mount Cook

Aoraki, the cloud piercer.

Mount Cook reflections on West Coast

Ocean | Rainforest | Ice | Rock

Kayaking West Coast NZ

Into the wild…. Kayaking up the Okarito River

Kayaking on the West Coast of NZ

Thorney looking pirates!

Kayaking on the West Coast with views of Mt Cook, West Coast New Zealand

Winter on the West Coast. Magnificent.

Kayaking on the West Coast of New Zealand

Glassy.

Kayaking on the West Coast of NZ with views of Mount Cook, NZ

Ocean to Alps. Kayaking on the glassy water of Okarito Lagoon.

Haast Pass Highway Mt Aspiring National Park

Homeward bound. The Haast Highway cuts a swathe through Mount Aspiring National Park.

 

Treble Cone ski area view over Lake Wanaka New Zealand

ON SNOW IN JULY, YOU CAN RELY…

Adventure, Mountains, Skiing

Anticipation for the ski season starts early in Wanaka with every autumnal snow flurry heralded as an omen of the winter to come by novice skiing soothsayers. But the locals know differently. Spend more than a season in Wanaka, and you’ll soon learn that, “snow in May doesn’t stay”; that “snow in June is too soon; but “on snow in July, you can rely”!….

And, boy, did July deliver for the 2017 season. Although slightly later than scheduled, Treble Cone opened to blue skies, short queues and a powder day! Regular, but modest snowfalls with cold temperatures have kept the snow in great condition and I think we’ve notched up more ski days this July than ever before including a few days ski-touring in the TC side-country.

Given TC normally saves its best conditions for August and September, we can’t wait to see what the next couple of months deliver. Bring it on!

Skier at Treble Cone Ski Area Wanaka New Zealand

Wannabe cover shot. Clancy telemarking on Opening Day. It doesn’t get much better.

Skier at Treble Cone Ski Area Wanaka New Zealand

Shredding cords on Main Street. Opening Day.

Sunrise over Lake Wanaka seen from Treble Cone

Securing a car park is not the only reason to get up to Treble Cone early in the morning…

Treble Cone Lake Wanaka View

Mountain Road. The pilgrimage up to Treble Cone on a misty morning.

Ski touring Treble Cone Wanaka New Zealand

Raewyn, Georgia & Andy earning the turns in the TC backcountry

Skier Treble Cone Wanaka New Zealand

Early season freshies on one of several bluebird powder days!

Ski touring Treble Cone Wanaka New Zealand

Backcountry ski-touring above the clouds

Skier Treble Cone Wanaka New Zealand

A short hike from the Saddle Chairlift usually results in freshies! Another bluebird powder day in July!

Ski touring Treble Cone Wanaka New Zealand

Trail blazing. Skinning up Towers Ridge.

Skier Treble Cone Wanaka New Zealand

The hike was worth it! Rae scoring fresh tracks after a hike up Towers Ridge, TC backcountry

Ski touring Treble Cone Wanaka New Zealand

Earning the turns….

Matukituki Valley Treble Cone Wanaka New Zealand

A bluebird day in the Matukituki Valley

Black Peak & Mt Aspiring Southern Alps New Zealand

Black Peak and Mount Aspiring (3,033m), dominate the skyline of the Matukituki Valley.

Skiing Treble Cone Wanaka New Zealand

Skiing can sometimes be secondary to enjoying the view. Matukituki Valley, Treble Cone.

Skiing Treble Cone Wanaka New Zealand

Yours truly on the wrong side of the camera in the shadow of Mount Aspiring in the Matukituki Valley

Treble Cone ski area view over Lake Wanaka New Zealand

Lee scopes a line in the Matukituki Valley

St Bathans Mountains New Zealand

The St Bathan’s Range rises proudly above the cloud and is the dramatic backdrop to that TC view. I’ll ski it one day….

Treble Cone Ski Area Wanaka New Zealand

Above the inversion layer. A drive up to TC is a good good way to find some sun when it’s frigid & gloomy in town.

Treble Cone Ski Area Wanaka New Zealand

Rite of Passage – hiking to the TC Summit on a powder day.

Southern Alps Wanaka New Zealand

The view from the Summit looking back behind Treble Cone is not bad either… NZ’s Southern Alps in all their winter glory.

Skier at Treble Cone Lake Wanaka New Zealand

Clancy finding the goods on a bluebird powder day.

Kea Mount Aspiring Wanaka New Zealand

Treble Cone Icons. A kea and Mount Aspiring

Kea mountain parrot and Black Peak

On the charge – an inquisitive kea hops across to check out its reflection in my shiny new camera lens

Kea and Black Peak Wanaka New Zealand

The king surveys his kingdom.

Glendhu Bay Lake Wanaka Mountain Reflections

The drive home from Treble Cone can also be easy on the eye. Mirror-like reflections at Glendhu Bay, Lake Wanaka.

Southern Alps Sunset Wanaka New Zealand

The view over Black Peak & Treble Cone at sunset seen from our bedroom window – also an ideal vantage point for the “no BS” TC weather report in the morning!

Mountain bikers ride through rainforest on the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

TRUE GRIT – Biking the Old Ghost Road

Mountain Biking

Mountain biking the Old Ghost Road on New Zealand’s West Coast is a story of muscle, grit and determination. Not that these are prerequisites for riders – although a modicum of each won’t go amiss – no, the true story of the Old Ghost Road belongs to the handful of visionary volunteers that built this epic backcountry track.

Since opening in December 2015, the Old Ghost Road has firmly become a “must do” for mountain bikers, and its 85km of flowing single track are one of the best adventures I’ve ever had on a bike. We took 2-days to complete the journey, although you could easily take tour time on the trail as there are a number of huts along the way which are fully-equipped with cooking utensils so that bikers can travel light.

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Fresh & clean at the start of the Old Ghost Road, near Lyell, West Coast NZ.

A mountain biker rides through forest on the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

Waterfalls & lush rainforest welcome riders at the start of the Old Ghost Road

Beginning at Lyell on the Buller River, the first 35kms of the trail climb steadily through lush West Coast rainforest with cascading waterfalls tumbling across the track. Despite the length of the climb, the average gradient is only around 4% and a comfortable spin quickly sees you gain altitude.

A mountain biker rides on the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

Exposed slips are a frequent hazard for bikers, & were a real challenge for the engineers of the Old Ghost Road

Mountain bikers on the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

Most of the track is rideable, but there are some sections where it pays to get off and push!

mountain biking through forest in New Zealand

Riding through beech forest is a rare treat, elsewhere in NZ forest like this is the restricted to hikers.

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Riding up through ancient beech forest

mountain biking old ghost road

Emerging from the beech forest to spectacular alpine views

Mountain biking on the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

The views above the bush line were worth the 35km climb!

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The track sidles around the ridgeline towards Bald Hill (1,385m)

Panorama of the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

A panoramic view of Bald Hill with the track sidling around to the left.

Mountain bikers on the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

Our little convoy of bikes keeps steadily climbing upwards….

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A masterpiece of alpine track building, but the exposure can cause a wee bit of nervous twitching!

Mountain biker on the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

Keep your eyes on the track and don’t look down! Heading towards the high point on the Old Ghost Road, ‘Rocky Tor’ (1,456m)

Mountain Biker on the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

Nigel happy to be at the top! Mostly downhill for the next 50km!

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Celebrating a successful summit!

Our first night was to be spent at Ghost Lake Hut, and we took our time getting there – the landscape and views really insist that you ride at an easy pace. However, perhaps the best views are reserved for the hut, a truly spectacular location for the night.

 

Backcountry Hut on Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

Home sweet home. One of the “summer sleep-outs” at Ghost Lake Hut

Sunset over the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

Sunset over the Old Ghost Road. The track can be seen below winding its way up the ridgeline – with perhaps a tad more uphill on tomorrow’s itinerary than anticipated!

Sunrise above the clouds on the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

Sunrise above the clouds at Ghost Lake Hut

We awoke to another bluebird sky on day 2 with low cloud blanketing the valleys below. The first hour on the track were to be the most technical of the trip and we chose to walk many of the sections. Whilst the trail is definitely rideable there were some exposed parts where a fall could have been, erm, terminal….

Ghost Lake Hut on the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

Ghost Lake Hut perched like an eagle’s eerie on the cliff edge. Location, location, location…

Mountain Biking on the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

Day 2 post-breakfast climbing, but Nige seems to be enjoying it!

Mountain Biker on the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

Single track heaven – biking along the Skyline Ridge.

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Zipping along the Skyline’s single track on a bluebird day

Skyline Steps Old Ghost Road

The Skyline Steps – more ingenious engineering and the only option to negotiate down a series of steep bluffs.

Mountain Bikers on the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

Negotiating the Skyline Steps

Once we’d hiked down the Skyline Steps with our bikes slung across our shoulders, we enjoyed 20kms of some of the best downhill, flowing single track that we’d ridden anywhere – barely touching our brakes for 20km until we reach the Stern Valley Hut for lunch.

Mountain Biker crosses a creek on the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

Creek crossings and wet feet are all part of the Old Ghost Road experience… Although we were lucky to score 2-days of blue skies and sunshine – somewhat of a West Coast rarity!

Mountain Bikers on the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

Lush green forest at the entrance to Mokihinui Valley, near the “Resurgence” where the river reappears from underground and bubbles up to the surface as a crystal clear spring.

Backcountry hut on the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

Goat Creek Hut – one of the original backcountry huts on the Old Ghost Road

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“The Boneyard”. Hot, dry and dusty riding.

Mokihinui River on the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

The glistening green waters of the Mokihinui River, it would have been a tragedy for this beautiful valley to have been dammed and flooded for hydro-power.

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The mighty Mokihinui River thunders through the valley on the way to the West Coast

Swing Bridge on the Mokihinui River on the Old Ghost Road, West Coast NZ

Swing bridges criss-cross the Mokihinui Gorge

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Riding along the banks of the Mokihinui River on the home stretch of the Old Ghost Road

The final leg of the Old Ghost Road follows the raging waters of the Mokihinui River and a series of swing bridges, yet more marvels of engineering, span the gorges and tributaries of the river valley. For a period of time the river was scheduled to be dammed for a hydro-power scheme that would have seen the valley flooded and the Ghost Road would never have been built. Thankfully, the valley was saved from flooding so that bikers and hikers can continue to enjoy access to this spectacular landscape on a truly world-class track.

Rolling under the gate at the end of the track and arriving in Seddonville, there is one final exclamation mark to complete the journey along the Old Ghost Road, and that’s a cold beer and a comfortable bed at the Rough & Tumble Lodge, almost as iconic as the Old Ghost Road itself!

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Muddy & sweaty at the end of the Old Ghost Road in Seddonville but with a cold beer at the Rough & Tumble Lodge just moments away!

Brewster Hut & Haast Pass, Mt Aspiring National Park

Climbing & Karma on Mt Armstrong

Walking & Hiking

The karma couldn’t have been better. Earlier that morning we’d stopped in the dark to help two young tourists change the wheel on their rental car, so we were convinced the Mountain Gods would be smiling on our planned hike up to the Brewster Glacier….

We reached the forested slopes of Mount Aspiring National Park on the Haast Pass Highway at dawn and glancing up at the mountains could see blue skies through breaks in the cloud and felt confident that once the sun was up the mist would burn off, as the weather forecast had predicted.

Hikers cross the Haast River, Mount Aspiring National Park NZ

A chilly crossing of the Haast River at dawn, Mount Aspiring National Park NZ

The Brewster Hut Track begins immediately with a crossing of the Haast River, which after heavy rainfall can be impassable, but today the flow was light and we barely got wet ankles. As this is the only river crossing on the Brewster Track we had a cunning plan to keep our boots dry so crossed in old trainers which we then hid in the bush and changed into warm socks and dry boots (not the normal Kiwi attitude)!

From the Haast River the track climbs steeply through lush, native beech forest and for most of the way is a jumble of gnarled tree roots and moss covered rocks. It can be quite a scramble in places and we were happy to be carrying relatively light packs with just enough gear for staying overnight in the hut, rather than camping gear including a tent etc.

Hiking through native beech rainforest, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

Hiking through lush native beech rainforest

Hiking track through forest, Mt Aspiring National Park

The track to Brewster Hut winds its way through gnarled roots and moss covered rocks under the ancient canopy of native beech

After climbing consistently for about 90 minutes with plenty of scrambling up steep sections of track, we emerged from the forest at the bushline to find low, damp and thick cloud blanketing the mountain with visibility down to just 20 or 30 metres. What were the Weather Gods thinking?! Had they not seen me change that flat tyre in the cold and dark for the damsels in distress?

Surely the cloud would burn off? And anyway, it was only about 10am in the morning which still gave us a good 10 hours of daylight – plenty of time to hike up to the Brewster Glacier and back to the hut before nightfall, as planned.

Hiking through the mist on the Brewster Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

Hiking through the mist on the Brewster Track

I mentioned that we were travelling light….

It was about now, as we started to wade through the sodden tussock grass, that I began to regret not packing some of the gear which would usually accompany me on a longer tramp. I’d naively been lulled into a false sense of security by the fine and dry forecast… no need for gaiters, right?

Wrong.

Within 5 minutes of hiking through the soaking tussock, water had cascaded down my legs and my socks, sponge-like, had readily soaked up the moisture and my boots were drenched from the inside out.

Travelling light… No spare, dry socks. Oh bugger.

But, we were only 45 minutes away from the hut which would surely be above the cloud and we could dry out there before the onward hike up Mount Armstrong and across to the Brewster Glacier.

Brewster Hut in thick, low cloud

Brewster Hut in thick, low cloud with visibility down to 20-30m.

After about 2.5hours of climbing we arrived at the hut on schedule to find visibility down to less than 20m and the cloud thicker and damper than ever. And it refused to lift.

7 hours, 3 cups of tea, 2 cups of soup, 2 sandwiches, half my chocolate ration, and numerous trips to the long-drop for a pee later, the cabin fever really set in and we decided to go for a wander up the hill towards the summit of Mount Armstrong – just for a change of scenery.

All hope of reaching the glacier that day had gone, but on the upside my socks were now dry.

About then the Weather Gods woke up and karma kicked in. The clouds slowly began to clear to reveal tantalising glimpses of the towering mountain peaks and glaciers surrounding us. We climbed onwards towards the summit of Mt Armstrong and the clouds continued to clear.

The Brewster Glacier, Mount Aspiring National Park

BITTERSWEET: Clouds clear to reveal the Brewster Glacier, Mount Aspiring National Park

Hiking above the clouds, Mount Armstrong, Mount Aspiring National Park, NZ

Hiking on Mount Armstrong waiting for the clouds to lift.

Campsite with a view, Mount Armstrong, Mt Aspiring National Park, NZ

A tramper finds a campsite with a view (well, now the clouds have cleared), Mount Armstrong

Hiking down to Brewster Hut at dusk, Mt Aspiring National Park

Returning back down to Brewster Hut at dusk

Mount Brewster and the Brewster Glacier

Mount Brewster and the Brewster Glacier. The ancient path of the glacier is clearly evident where the rock has been smoothed and rounded by the grinding and erosion of the ice.

Reflections of Mount Brewster in an alpine tarn, Mount Aspiring National Park NZ

Reflections of Mount Brewster (2516m) an Topheavy (2076m) in an alpine tarn

Returning to the hut, the silver lining of the days cloudy weather was apparent as the sunset lit up the last of the passing high cloud for a magnificent display.

Sunset at Brewster Hut, Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

Sunset at Brewster Hut, Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

Sunset at Brewster Hut, Mount Aspiring National Park, NZ

Watching the sunset at Brewster Hut

Sunset over the Southern Alps

Sunset over the Southern Alps. A slight halo (or sun dog) around the sun can be seen as ice crystals in the high cirrostratus cloud refract the light of the setting sun.

Whilst I had left out some essential gear, I hadn’t forgotten the whisky, and after dinner we enjoyed sitting out on the deck under the stars with a few nips of single malt until it became too cold. It was a full-house at the hut – which we’d suspected might be the case – but we’d borrowed the key to the 2-bunk Brewster Bivvy from a friend at DOC in exchange for agreeing to clean the toilet and the hut before our departure. A fair trade we reckoned for a night away from the snorers and rustlers back in the main hut!

Brewster Hut and the stars of the night sky under moonlight

Brewster Hut by moonlight at 2AM.

Brewster Bivvy & Southern Alps under moonlight and stars, Mount Aspiring National Park

Brewster Bivvy under the light of a full moon

The next morning we awoke to the pink glow of a mountain sunrise and clear skies. After a couple of coffees, we completed our domestic chores for DOC, and headed up Mount Armstrong again. We didn’t have time to traverse across to the glacier this morning, but watched a mountain guide sidle around to the ice and and made a mental note of the route for next time.

Brewster Bivvy at sunrise, Mount Aspiring National Park, NZ

Brewster Bivvy at sunrise

Haast Pass and the Southern Alps at sunrise, Mount Aspiring National Park, NZ

Sunrise over Mt Aspiring National Park, Haast Pass and the Southern Alps

A hiker leaves Brewster Hut at sunrise, Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

A climber leaves Brewster Hut at sunrise, Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

The 2 hour walk back down to the car seemed more of a scramble than the hike up, but we were rewarded with spectacular views of the Southern Alps – views which had eluded us the previous day.

Hiking down to Brewster Hut, Mount Aspiring National Park, NZ

A Sunday morning stroll on Mount Armstrong with Brewster Hut below

Hiking along the ridgeline of the Mt Brewster Track, Mt Aspiring National Park

Descending down the Brewster Track, Mt Aspiring National Park

Hiking along the ridgeline of the Mt Brewster Track, with the Haast Pass Highway below

Hiking along the ridge line of the Mt Brewster Track, with the Haast Pass Highway below

Hiking along the ridge line of the Brewster Track

Hiking on the Brewster Track with native rainforest in the valley below

Despite arriving later than anticipated, karma had finally played out on Mt Armstrong for us with a spectacular sunset, night-sky and sunrise. More importantly, it taught me an important lesson – never entirely trust the Weather Gods in the mountains and always pack gaiters and dry socks!

Panorama of Mount Aspiring National Park and the Haast Pass from the Mt Brewster Track

Panorama of Mount Aspiring National Park and the Haast Pass Highway from the Mt Brewster Track

A hiker is dwarfed by the huge Dart Glacier on Cascade Saddle

The Cascade Saddle DOMS…

Walking & Hiking

Anyone who has hiked up and over Cascade Saddle in Mount Aspiring National Park is probably familiar with DOMS. By which I don’t just mean the Dramatic, Outstanding Mountain Scenery….

This was our first hike of the summer as tramping had taken a bit of a backseat as we had been Doing Other Mountain Stuff (but not DOMS). A big ski trip to Japan in February and biking the Old Ghost Road before Christmas had meant training had been focused on activities where I was less likely to aggravate my dodgy knees, and the 3-4 hour descent from Cascade Saddle was a surefire recipe for a week of anti-inflammatories and ice packs.

Mountain biking into Mount Aspiring National Park New Zealand

Mountain biking into Mount Aspiring National Park

Taking advantage of a rare window of good weather (this summer has been a shocker), and the fact that our good friends Stu & Heather were the duty wardens at Aspiring Hut, we left Wanaka after work on Friday and mountain biked from Raspberry Creek car park to the hut. The 1-hour bike ride along the West Matukituki Valley is spectacular, and always serves as the hors d’oeuvre to the main event deeper into the mountains of Mount Aspiring National Park.

Hiking in Mt Aspiring National Park

Hiking up the steep slopes of the Matukituki Valley to Cascade Saddle

We spent an enjoyable evening with Stu & Heather, but had quite a late night due to more DOMSDrinking Old Mature Scotch – plus a pair of noisy delinquent juveniles (kea!) which decided it would be hilarious to race, bang and crash around the hut well into the small hours! The next morning suitably fuelled on coffee after a restless night, we began the steep 3 hour hike up towards Cascade Saddle. Our original plan had been to climb with a tent and spend the night at the top of the Saddle, but the weather was marginal (so much for the weather window), with low cloud and light rain forecast. So we were travelling light with only day bags – a good move in hindsight given we had zero kilometres of tramping in our legs.

A paid of young kea

A pair of juvenile delinquents (kea) looking for trouble!

The first 90 minutes of climbing was through temperate beech rainforest and we were really excited to see – and hear – so much birdlife in the forest. The West Matukituki Valley has had an ongoing predator trapping programme for the past few years as well as the Department of Conservation’s use of 1080 poison to control introduced pests, i.e. stoats, possums, rats and mice which all threaten the native wildlife. The use of 1080 is controversial, but the results are obvious to see with native birdlife returning and thriving once again in the Matukituki, thanks mostly to the efforts of a small team of dedicated volunteers. On the hike up from the valley floor we saw or heard kea, kaka, kakariki (NZ parakeets), NZ robins, bellbirds, karearea (NZ falcon), fantails, tomtits and riflemen.

Piwakawaka - the NZ Fantail

Piwakawaka – the NZ Fantail. Fast, flighty and almost impossible to photograph!

Emerging from the forest and now above the bushline we were rewarded with panoramic views of the valley below, although low cloud obscured the iconic views of Mount Aspiring / Tititea and the Bonar Glacier.

Panorama of the West Matukituki Valley in Mount Aspiring National Park New Zealand

Panorama of the West Matukituki Valley on an overcast day

Hikers with a view of Mount Aspiring National Park New Zealand

Great views of the West Matukituki Valley, despite low cloud obscuring the view of Mount Aspiring

Above the forest and into the tussock of alpine zone the track was less well formed and is what DoC refers to as a “poled route”, i.e. a roughly formed track which is marked by a series of orange poles. It’s also where the real climbing starts with some very steep and exposed rocky sections which have claimed multiple fatalities of poorly prepared hikers in wet or icy conditions.

A hiker climbs the steep slopes of the Cascade Saddle Track in Mount Aspiring National Park

Scrambling up steep sections of the Cascade Saddle Track, Mount Aspiring National Park

After around 3hours of steady, steep climbing and scrambling we reached The Pylon, the figurative and literal high point of the day (approx. 1800m). The Pylon was once a trig point and although still marked on the topo maps there’s no actual structure to be seen anymore. Crossing the ridgeline and looking down into the Dart Valley is nothing short of spectacular and the barren, glacial landscape is in stark contrast to the lush, forest clad slopes of the Matukituki Valley.

A hiker is dwarfed by the huge Dart Glacier on Cascade Saddle

A hiker is dwarfed by the huge Dart Glacier on Cascade Saddle, Mount Aspiring National Park

Hiking over Cascade Saddle with spectacular views of the Dart Glacier

Hiking over Cascade Saddle with spectacular views of the Dart Glacier, the track is visible to the lower left of this photograph.

Hiking in New Zealand - The Dart Glacier, Cascade Saddle, Mt Aspiring National Park

The Dart Glacier, Cascade Saddle. Mt Aspiring National Park.

Low cloud was rolling in and out of the Dart Valley which made for misty, moody photography as we descended the steep, slabby and loose track to the Cascade Creek which is fed by the Isobel Glacier to the South. We had originally hoped to walk across the plateau to Cascade Saddle itself to enjoy the view of the flowing blue ice of the Dart Glacier, but with thickening cloud and with a hint of rain in the air we decided to turn around and head back to Aspiring Hut before the descent became too wet and slippery. Even in the generally dry conditions the descent back down to the Matukituki Valley is tricky and exposed, so I regularly employed the DOMS methodology of down-climbing: Descending On My Seat!

A hiker climbs down a rock face in Mount Aspiring National Park NZ

Descending steep rock slab on Cascade Saddle

Upon our return to the hut we were greeted by a very excited Heather who had spent the day counting and banding NZ robins and had encountered one of the original birds which she and Stu had captured on the Routeburn Track 10-years ago. This veteran bird was one of a number of robins that had been relocated to the West Matukituki to help re-establish the Valley’s population. For a robin to live to this age is remarkable and is further evidence of the success of the pest control operations in this corner of the National Park.

9 hours had passed since we’d departed the hut that morning, and we had been walking for about 8 hours. Not bad going for the first tramp of 2017. We were both very pleased to have left the heavy camping gear behind, but somewhat nervous of how stiff and sore we might be the following morning….

The West Matukituki Valley, Mount Aspiring National Park Under Low Cloud on the Descent from Cascade Saddle

The West Matukituki Valley Under Low Cloud on the Descent from Cascade Saddle

After an early night with only a wee nip of whisky and mercifully quiet keas, we were pleasantly surprised to wake up feeling quite fresh. So, after a couple of coffees we packed up our gear and biked back to the car. The night before we had been nervous about a dose of the Cascade Saddle DOMSDefinitely Old, Major Stiffness – but our legs felt good on the bikes. We naively thought we had knocked off a challenging 9-hour tramp with no prior training completely unscathed.

Oh, how wrong we were…

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (otherwise known as DOMS) hit hard on Monday morning when neither of us could get out of bed without wincing, and lowering to sit on a chair (or the toilet!) was akin to torture. And DOMS is the gift that keeps on giving… despite stretching, recovery bike rides and as many magnesium supplements as our aching bodies could absorb it was 3-days before we could move freely again without a grimace.

So, be warned. Cascade Saddle has many potential dangers, from delinquent keas and exposed rocky bluffs to a nasty does of the DOMS which will sneak up on you when you least expect it.

Mount Aspiring at the head of the West Matukituki Valley, Mt Aspiring National Park.

And here’s one I prepared earlier…. Mount Aspiring (3033m) & the Bonar Glacier at the head of the West Matukituki Valley, Mt Aspiring National Park.