New Zealand part II: the central South Island

After straying off the Te Araroa in Arthur’s Pass National Park, I was about to tackle by far the most daring part of my entire South Island Traverse: over 3 weeks of almost entirely off-trail hiking through some of the wildest country of the Southern Hemisphere – across countless alpine passes in the very hearth of the Southern Alps, with many kilometers of infamous bush-bashing, and including a ford of one of New Zealands most powerful rivers. It was to be the most remote, the most difficult, but also the most rewarding part of my entire trip. My packraft, which I would pick up on the way, would allow me to paddle world-class rivers – including the Tasman River itself, the arterial of the South Island, draining the massive glaciers sliding off the slopes of Aoraki / Mount Cook, the highest summit of the country.

In the end, I did not follow my intended route and even skipped part of it. After a possibly unprecedented 7-pass crossing of Arthurs Pass National Park towards the farmlands of Hokitika at the West Coast, I even decided to hitchhike around to my next resupply at Erewhon Station, skipping a 6-day stretch through the untamed rainforest of the Hokitika watershed, across the Main Divide at Whitcombe Pass, and the ford across the Rakaia River. Why? The Rakaia is a highly demanding ford, where fatal accidents have happened before. I made a bet before my trip putting my packraft in the resupply package after the Rakaia ford, thus avoiding 4kg extra in my pack during a difficult week of hiking. But the Rakaia is a river which can only be attempted to cross in (very) good conditions, and the weather forecast was up for the first rainy weather of the trip. It meant the end of my attempt to make an unpropelled traverse of the Southern Alps. But when I had to paddle across a 100m wide, muddy and powerful Rangitata River a few days later instead of easily fording it in knee-deep water like you can in good conditions, I knew I had made the only safe and right decision – and never thought about it again.

I continued my hike through the hearth of the mountains, and although the harsh terrain and an episode with cold weather and snow down to 1000m made me veer off my original route twice more, it became the most intense part of the entire trip. I crossed passes which are likely visited by only a few people per decade, paddled down fantastic rivers like the Tasman, the Dobson and the Ahuriri, shared the barren valleys with only tahr and chamois, and saw the sun rise from nameless peaks. And I did not meet any other tramper for 18 days straigth. Enjoy!

The walk up Kelly's Creek was a good appetizer of what I could expect during my 4 day crossing of Arthur's Pass National Park - and not the best hike with my hangover from the night before!

The walk up Kelly’s Creek was a good appetizer of what I could expect during my 4 day crossing of Arthur’s Pass National Park – and not the best hike with my hangover from the night before!

View up Hunt's Creek, with Bijleveld Col, the menu for tomorrow morning, in the back. The walk through the valley was slow because of the dense vegetation. I walked most of the distance through the river as it was the easiest (but coldest!) way up.

View up Hunt’s Creek, with Bijleveld Col, the menu for tomorrow morning, in the back. The walk through the valley was slow because of the dense vegetation. I walked most of the distance through the river as it was the easiest (but coldest!) way up.

Camping between the tussocks high in Hunts Creek Valley

Camping between the tussocks high in Hunts Creek Valley

Climbing up to Bijleveld Col

Climbing up to Bijleveld Col

The Central bits of Arthur's Pass National Park from Bijleveld Col (1690m)

The Central bits of Arthur’s Pass National Park from Bijleveld Col (1690m)

The walk from Bijleveld Col to Campbell Pass and up to Mount Campbell was arguably the hardest of the entire trip, with complex orientation, severe bush-bashing, a descent which felt more like canyoning, and a steep climb on scree and boulders. The views from the summit of Mount Campbell (1829m) made up for it!

The walk from Bijleveld Col to Campbell Pass and up to Mount Campbell was arguably the hardest of the entire trip, with complex orientation, severe bush-bashing, a descent which felt more like canyoning, and a steep climb on scree and boulders. The views from the summit of Mount Campbell (1829m) made up for it!

Looking back towards Mount Campbell Range, I came down the pass at the very right of the picture. Steep stuff!!

Looking back towards Mount Campbell Range, I came down the pass at the very right of the picture. Steep stuff!!

Looking towards Whitehorn Pass, first thing to climb tomorrow morning, while descending to Harman Pass

Looking towards Whitehorn Pass, first thing to climb tomorrow morning, while descending to Harman Pass

Camping at Ariels Tarn near Harman Pass after the hardest day of the entire trip.

Camping at Ariels Tarn near Harman Pass after the hardest day of the entire trip.

View back while climbing towards Whitehorn Pass (1753m). A small earthquake occured while I was climbing up and just before I took this picture, bombarding the snowfield with scree and boulders. Luckily I had been smart enough to walk on the safe side.

View back while climbing towards Whitehorn Pass (1753m). A small earthquake occured while I was climbing up and just before I took this picture, bombarding the snowfield with scree and boulders. Luckily I had been smart enough to walk on the safe side.

Taking a break on Whitehorn Pass (1753m)

Taking a break on Whitehorn Pass (1753m)

More harsh terrain on the descent from Whitehorn Pass

More harsh terrain on the descent from Whitehorn Pass

Next goal: the supersteep south side of Browning Pass. With a vague trail, luckily!

Next goal: the supersteep south side of Browning Pass. With a vague trail, luckily!

Looking down the Wilburforce Valley from Browning Pass

Looking down the Wilburforce Valley from Browning Pass

Beautiful Lake Browning on the Pass

Beautiful Lake Browning on the Pass

Morning beauty near Harman Hut

Morning beauty near Harman Hut

The beautiful Arahura valley as seen while traversing to Styx Saddle

The beautiful Arahura valley as seen while traversing to Styx Saddle

Giant slips and landslides had swept away the trail through the Styx valley on many places, forcing me to ford the river a couple of times. Don't think about the name!

Giant slips and landslides had swept away the trail through the Styx valley on many places, forcing me to ford the river a couple of times. Don’t think about the name!

Looking up the wild Styx Valley

Looking up the wild Styx Valley

Once I made it down from the Styx Valley I could check the weather forecast - and decided to hitchhike around to Erewhon Station to avoid the Rakaia River ford. I made a 1-day stop at Arthur's Pass on the way to climb Avalanche Peak (1833m), where I could spot the kea's I'd heard and seen a couple of times during the last few days

Once I made it down from the Styx Valley I could check the weather forecast – and decided to hitchhike around to Erewhon Station to avoid the Rakaia River ford. I made a 1-day stop at Arthur’s Pass on the way to climb Avalanche Peak (1833m), where I could spot the kea’s I’d heard and seen a couple of times during the last few days

Kea's are the world's only alpine parrots, and are said to be one of the smartest animals on the planet. This one gave a quick demonstration by distracting me and posing for pictures, while his buddy was stealing food from my daypack.

Kea’s are the world’s only alpine parrots, and are said to be one of the smartest animals on the planet. This one gave a quick demonstration by distracting me and posing for pictures, while his buddy was stealing food from my daypack.

Views from Avalanche Peak (1833m)

Views from Avalanche Peak (1833m)

Devil's Punchbowl Falls

Devil’s Punchbowl Falls

Picking up my next resupply package at Erewhon Station, including a packraft and new shoes!

Picking up my next resupply package at Erewhon Station, including a packraft and new shoes!

I crossed the Rangitata river near Erewhon Station. This was one of the smaller braids, yet I had to paddle across as the river was wide and swift after a few days of rain along the Divide.

I crossed the Rangitata river near Erewhon Station. This was one of the smaller braids, yet I had to paddle across as the river was wide and swift after a few days of rain along the Divide.

Crossing the Rangitata braids

Crossing the Rangitata braids

The mighty Rangitata braids - to give an idea about the sheer extent of this all, the valley is about 4km wide, and the last channel I had to paddle across was over 100m wide!

The mighty Rangitata braids – to give an idea about the sheer extent of this all, the valley is about 4km wide, and the last channel I had to paddle across was over 100m wide!

Cattle in the Rangitata Valley

Cattle in the Rangitata Valley

Bivy near Mesopotamia Station

Bivy near Mesopotamia Station

Morning beauty near Mesopotamia Station

Morning beauty near Mesopotamia Station

Dust storms on the slopes of Bush Creek on the approach of a cold front. The weather went from clear skies to torrential rain and severe gale in only 3 hours, one of the most rapid and impressive changes I have ever seen in the mountains.

Dust storms on the slopes of Bush Creek on the approach of a cold front. The weather went from clear skies to torrential rain and severe gale in only 3 hours, one of the most rapid and impressive changes I have ever seen in the mountains.

Crooked Spur Hut in the Bush Valley

Crooked Spur Hut in the Bush Valley

I was joined by Kiwi packrafter Dulkara for a couple of days as we hiked through the vast tussocklands of Canterbury High Country towards Godley Valley

I was joined by Kiwi packrafter Dulkara for a couple of days as we hiked through the vast tussocklands of Canterbury High Country towards Godley Valley

Fresh snow at Royal Hut during a brief cold spell

Fresh snow at Royal Hut during a brief cold spell

Ripe while hiking up to Stag Saddle (1902m). Sub-zero temperatures and gale force winds made the crossing of this pass super-cold, with the water freezing in our bottles.

Ripe while hiking up to Stag Saddle (1902m). Sub-zero temperatures and gale force winds made the crossing of this pass super-cold, with the water freezing in our bottles.

Across Stag Saddle, Lake Tekapo far down

Across Stag Saddle, Lake Tekapo far down

Descending into Godley Valley

Descending into Godley Valley. We forded the river without too many problems.

Cozy Ribbonwood hut in the beautiful Godley Valley

Cozy Ribbonwood hut in the beautiful Godley Valley

Cozy Ribbonwood Hut in the Godley Valley (GoPro picture)

Cozy Ribbonwood Hut in the Godley Valley (GoPro picture)

Cozy Ribbonwood hut in the beautiful Godley Valley

Evening beauty, Godley Valley

Climbing up to Rankin Pass, crossing into the Cass Valley

Climbing up to Rankin Pass, crossing into the Cass Valley

Reaching Rankin Pass after a fairly easy climb. There are bivy possibilities about 100m down from the pass on the north side.

Reaching Rankin Pass after a fairly easy climb. There are bivy possibilities about 100m down from the pass on the north side.

The descent down Rankin Pass was along a spectacular moraine wall.

The descent down Rankin Pass was along a spectacular moraine wall.

Descending along the Cass, with Mount Hutton Range in the back

Descending along the Cass, with Mount Hutton Range in the back

Speargrass, also called 'Spaniards grass', trampers worst nightmare. The leaves sting right through the skin.

Speargrass, also called ‘Spaniards grass’, trampers worst nightmare. The leaves sting right through the skin.

Crossing a remote, nameless pass (2050m) on my way from the Cass to the Jollie Valley

Crossing a remote, nameless pass (2050m) on my way from the Cass to the Jollie Valley

Descending into the Jollie valley, a horrendeous bush-bash on steep terrain. My legs were covered in blood by the time I made it down.

Descending into the Jollie valley, a horrendeous bush-bash on steep terrain. My legs were covered in blood by the time I made it down.

Descending along Jollie River

Descending along Jollie River

Storm brewing in the Jollie Valley. I would not sleep a lot that night.

Storm brewing in the Jollie Valley. I would not sleep a lot that night.

Tahr hunters trophy, Jollie Valley

Tahr hunters trophy, Jollie Valley

The beautiful lower Jollie Valley

The beautiful lower Jollie Valley

Paddling down the mighty Tasman River towards Lake Pukaki - Mount Cook (3724m) in the back

Paddling down the mighty Tasman River towards Lake Pukaki – Mount Cook (3724m) in the back

Paddling down the Tasman River!

Paddling down the Tasman River!

Ready to paddle Lake Pukaki

Ready to paddle Lake Pukaki

Aoraki / Mount Cook (3724m) from Lake Pukaki

Aoraki / Mount Cook (3724m) from Lake Pukaki

Looking south across the ridiculously beautiful Lake Pukaki

Looking south across the ridiculously beautiful Lake Pukaki

Paddling across beautiful Lake Pukaki, Mount Cook as a perfect backdrop

Paddling across beautiful Lake Pukaki, Mount Cook as a perfect backdrop

Turqoise Lake Pukaki in the brown steppe landscapes east of the watershed

Turqoise Lake Pukaki in the brown steppe landscapes east of the watershed

Bivy in Jacks Stream Valley while crossing from Lake Pukaki towards the Dobson Valley

Bivy in Jacks Stream Valley while crossing from Lake Pukaki towards the Dobson Valley

The menu for tomorrow morning, Kaimakamaka Peak (2431m) to the left. I would not be surprised if I was the only person crossing this pass during the entire summer

The menu for tomorrow morning, Kaimakamaka Peak (2431m) to the left. I would not be surprised if I was the only person crossing this pass during the entire summer

Mount Cook Range and the Tasman Valley from Kaimakamaka Peak (2431m), the highest summit I climbed during my trip

Mount Cook Range and the Tasman Valley from Kaimakamaka Peak (2431m), the highest summit I climbed during my trip

Looking down the valleys of Irishman Stream (left) and Stony Stream (right). I would descend all the way to Dobson valley through the latter that day

Looking down the valleys of Irishman Stream (left) and Stony Stream (right). I would descend all the way to Dobson valley through the latter that day

Massive amounts of wild tahr were roaming along Stony stream

Massive amounts of wild tahr were roaming along Stony stream

Spreargrass minefield during the descent along Stony Stream

Spreargrass minefield during the descent along Stony Stream

Descending along Stony Stream. Most of the descent was through the riverbed, but at one point the river plunged down into a narrow canyon and I had to make a difficult, steep traverse through the beech forest on the right bank.

Descending along Stony Stream. Most of the descent was through the riverbed, but at one point the river plunged down into a narrow canyon and I had to make a difficult, steep traverse through the beech forest on the right bank.

Reaching wonderful Dobson valley

Reaching wonderful Dobson valley

Paddling down the Dobson River, my favorite packrafting stretch of the entire traverse

Paddling down the Dobson River, my favorite packrafting stretch of the entire traverse

Looking down Dobson Valley during a 20km late afternoon paddle on the river

Looking down Dobson Valley during a 20km late afternoon paddle on the river

Beautiful take-out at the confluence of the Dobson and Hopkins Rivers

Beautiful take-out at the confluence of the Dobson and Hopkins Rivers

Dust storms raging through the valley while taking out at the confluence of the Dobson and Hopkins Rivers

Dust storms raging through the valley while taking out at the confluence of the Dobson and Hopkins Rivers

Evening in Dobson Valley, beautiful Mount Glen Lyon in the back

Evening in Dobson Valley, beautiful Mount Glen Lyon in the back

Beautiful camp sheltered by a group of wilding pines in the Dobson Valley

Beautiful camp sheltered by a group of wilding pines in the Dobson Valley

I climbed out Dobson Valley through the valley of Temple Stream (South Branch) and camped near the tarns at the pass into Watson Valley. I was misted in for most of the next day, the first real weather day of my trip.

I climbed out Dobson Valley through the valley of Temple Stream (South Branch) and camped near the tarns at the pass into Watson Valley. I was misted in for most of the next day, the first real weather day of my trip.

The weather cleared in the evening and I could finally climb the nameless peak (2005m) I had hoped to summit the day before

The weather cleared in the evening and I could finally climb the nameless peak (2005m) I had hoped to summit the day before

Evening light from a nameless summit (2005m) in the Mount Maitland Range

Evening light from a nameless summit (2005m) in the Mount Maitland Range

Evening alpenglow from the nameless summit (2005m) in the Mount Maitland Range

Evening alpenglow from the nameless summit (2005m) in the Mount Maitland Range

Sunrise from the nameless summit (2005m)

Sunrise from the nameless summit (2005m)

Sunrise from the nameless summit (2005m)

Sunrise from the nameless summit (2005m)

The Barrier Range from the summit of my nameless mountain (2005m)

The Barrier Range from the summit of my nameless mountain (2005m)

Skyline hotel, Barrier Range

Skyline hotel, Barrier Range

Another stony descent down Watson Creek towards the Ahuriri Valley

Another stony descent down Watson Creek towards the Ahuriri Valley

Reaching the Ahuriri Valley

Reaching the Ahuriri Valley

I paddled down a nice section of the Ahuriri valley from Watson stream towards the Ahuriri Base Hut. There shouldn't have been less water, but I managed to make it down without portaging anything.

I paddled down a nice section of the Ahuriri valley from Watson stream towards the Ahuriri Base Hut. There shouldn’t have been less water, but I managed to make it down without portaging anything.

The beautiful Ahuriri River near Ahuriri Base Hut

The beautiful Ahuriri River near Ahuriri Base Hut

The upper Ahuriri Valley, with Mount Barth (2456m) in the back, as seen while crossing

The upper Ahuriri Valley, with Mount Barth (2456m) in the back, as seen while crossing

Hiking down the Upper Dingle Burn Valley

Hiking down the Upper Dingle Burn Valley

Due to numerous landslides the track through the lower Dingle Burn valley is now a through hike with about 1000m of climbing (and descent) on the 8km stetch through the beech forest between Cotters Hut and Bush Hut. I slept in cozy Bush hut and hurried down this last section towards Lake Hawea the next morning - hoping to be there before the wind picked up.

Due to numerous landslides the track through the lower Dingle Burn valley is now a through hike with about 1000m of climbing (and descent) on the 8km stetch through the beech forest between Cotters Hut and Bush Hut. I slept in cozy Bush hut and hurried down this last section towards Lake Hawea the next morning – hoping to be there before the wind picked up.

I reached Lake Hawea - still flat like a mirror - around 10am and paddled across as fast as I could. The wind started to pick up just after I completed the 3km crossing of the lake - this is a view back from the western shore.

I reached Lake Hawea – still flat like a mirror – around 10am and paddled across as fast as I could. The wind started to pick up just after I completed the 3km crossing of the lake – this is a view back from the western shore.

Lake Hawea from 'The Neck', where I reached the highway after picking up another food drop at Hunters Farm. I was invited in for a nice dinner with pizza and could have all the sausages the family couldn't finish - I don't dare to tell how many I ate :-)

Lake Hawea from ‘The Neck’, where I reached the highway after picking up another food drop at Hunters Farm. I was invited in for a nice dinner with pizza and could have all the sausages the family couldn’t finish – I don’t dare to tell how many I ate🙂

11 thoughts on “New Zealand part II: the central South Island

  1. Willem says:

    Thanks Liz!

    Does anyone know why the pictures in my posts are so blurry, and what I can do about it? I tried some of the online help, but nothing seems to work.

  2. karelsabbe says:

    Awesome pictures and adventures! It’s crazy how green slopes or valleys look very accessible and easy walking from a distance, but as you get in it it’s damn hard work. And when you’re in it you keep thinking that a hundred metres away it will become better but it remains the same leg/face/raincoat cutting bushbash. Walking in a riverbed is like heaven then🙂. I started my first walks in New Zealand without gaiters, not knowing they could be used not only for snow but that in NZ they even had specific ones for the rough terrain – bought them after 2 weeks of cutting and bruising my legs🙂.

    • Willem says:

      Hi Karel, yep, the vegetation in NZ is so much more rough than anything we know in Europe! In the beginning I often a bit frustrated by this, also because it was often very hard to find a bivy spot in the tussocklands. I had (low) gaiters but they were just not enough for the Spaniards, which stinged right through. In the end I just accepted my fate; have some very funny GoPro videos of painful walks through the Spaniard minefields🙂

  3. David says:

    Opnieuw een episch avontuur. Prachtig !!!! De foto’s zijn echt om bij weg te dromen Willem.
    Wie weet misschien geraak ik ooit eens in Down Under…

  4. poksumdo says:

    Hoi Willem, goed te zien dat al je planning zo mooi uitgekomen is, zelfs het weer werkte mee.
    Natuurlijk een bijzondere route als je 18 dagen alleen was. Tasman river en Mt Cook in de zon -Schitterend

    • Willem says:

      Inderdaad fantastisch weer gehad over ‘t algemeen. Al zijn er van de mindere dagen natuurlijk ook gewoon minder foto’s😉 Ik heb veel geluk gehad met de Tasman River en Lake Pukaki, de dag voordien in Jollie Valley erg veel regen en wind waarbij het onmogelijk zou zijn geweest om het meer over te geraken.

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