My hiking buddy Manu has turned up from France to join me on some of the more interesting trails in the South Island, starting with the Richmond range – described as a route only for experienced hikers and not to be attempted in bad weather. Manu was a bit sceptical when I told him we had to carry 8 days of food and be prepared to wait it out in the huts if the weather wasn’t right, but conditions on the hills persuaded him that hiking here was a serious proposition!
Day 1 Nelson downtown to Rocks Hut – 23km, 4 hours
This was a cruisy day! We arrived on the flight from Auckland, bought some fuel and started walking from the bustling metropolis of downtown Nelson. The short way into the Richmond Range is up the Dun Mountain Track, a beautifully graded old horse track that climbs gently for 17km up to the Dun Mountain saddle. Manu was appropriately sceptical about my claims that NZ tracks were hard….hmmmmm…… little did he know. We grunted up the hill with 8 days of heavy food in our packs and eventually left the easy trail to scramble over the pass to the lovely Rocks Hut. We were lucky, the hut only had 8 people in it, and beds for 16…. Apparently the night before it had been heaving with 18 squished in. In bed by 8pm, and was grateful for no snorers
Day 2 Rocks Hut to Slaty Hut – 25km/ 8 hours
This is the day the range began. After a relatively gentle walk down to Hackett Hut (the guide said 5.5 hours, we took 3), the real hiking began with a relentless slog up the river and then up the hill to Starveall Hut. I love that NZ trail builders always seem to be short of funds, as they don’t bother investing in any switch backs….. the path took the shortest and most direct route from the bottom of the hill to the top. It was a wonderful example of a classic kiwi trail and I could feel my calf muscles groaning by the top. We passed a Te Araroa hiker on the way up who was surprised to be overtaken, but even Manu was knackered by the top. The view from Starveall was lovely, but given it was only 1pm (the guide said 6 hours to get there from Hackett and we took 3), we thought we should push on, and we made it to the lovely Slaty Hut on the tree line below Mt Rintoul at 4pm. Manu is astounded how few miles you can cover in NZ relative to the alps! We both admitted begrudgingly that we were knackered so had a kiwi tramper shower (one cup of cold water and no soap) and got down to the serious business of shoving calories in our faces. We were joined for the night by the lovely Swiss Lion – Lionel a.k.a Swissless and Clement the energetic German software programme! Fortunately none of them snored too much, and we had a lovely evening discussing global politics in a mix of french, english and german and listening to the wind howl around us.
Day 3 – Slaty Hut to Tarn Hut – 21km/8 hours
The guide warned of attempting Mt Rintoul today in bad weather, and describes this section as the most difficult part of the Richmond Range traverse. I can see why having hung off the side of the mountain at various points of the day questioning WTF I was doing up there. Fortunately, although there was plenty of fog, the wind had died down and there was no rain. So we decided to give it a go, although we realised there was no hut for 8 hours. It was a hairy day. I have vertigo and no balance – those things are probably related.
I was ok grunting uphill over unstable rocks, but have more trouble keeping my balance when skidding down scree slopes. It was a blessing for once to have a hiking companion as there really are very few people hiking out here (we only saw two other people for three of the days we were out, and they were the two guys we shared the huts with), and if something happened to you, it could be a while before anyone noticed. We made it to the top of Mt Rintoul in the fog, and managed to pick our way to the other side.
I heaved a big sigh of relief when I finally skidded my way (mostly on my butt) to Rintoul hut where we stopped for lunch and coffee and to admire the hardy goats who were eating the grass in front of the hut.
After that it was a relatively easy walk along the bushline ridge through purple top to the old fashioned tarn hut. We made it there by three with time to push on to the next hut but the rain had started, so we decided to stay dry. Clement and Lionel made the same choice, and we had a rerun of the night before in the hut. It was a smaller, older, cuter hut with a few holes in the floor, and it quickly smelt of dirty socks and laundry as the condensation built up on the windows. I was kept amused by the sight of them all doing their stretches. I had a relatively quiet night until about 5 am when I was woken up by three men with head torches chasing one small mouse. I had forgotten to mention that I thought there would be mice, as I had seen a few mice sized holes in the floor. Ooops. Oh well, there were three of them taking care of business so I put my sleeping bag over my head and went back to sleep
DAY 4 – tarn HUT TO hunters HUT – 25 KM/7 HOURS
Another day with some hairy sections. After a steep descent to Mid Wairoa Hut on the Wairoa river, where I fell six times on my butt, we then had to head up the Wairoa river. This section is perilous after heavy rain as there are no bridges and the trail crosses the river 8 times. We had agreed to tackle this section as a group the night before, as all kiwis know it is safer to cross a challenging river as a group. As it turns out the river was calm and quiet, so while we enjoyed each others company, we didn’t need to hold on to each other as we crossed. Amusingly, much of the trail hung off the cliff side. I was too busy gossiping with Clement at one point and did fall down the cliff, but was conveniently stopped by a tree before I went too far. After that, less gossiping and more focussing on the feet!!!
We reached the delightfully orange Top Wairoa hut in time for lunch and a pee with a view! I love the long drops on this section, for some reason they are always located in amazing spots, and given the paucity of people it is fine to go with the door open :-).
After lunch, we made the gentle climb up to Mt Ellis, where I had to endure a few sections of my least favourite type of trail – crossing steep scree slopes. Fortunately my footing was more sure than the morning so no problems. After that we bombed down the hill, passing a couple of TA hikers and then eventually made it down the river to Hunters Hut.
We had planned to go further, but figured out from Alex at the hut that the next hut along the track was full…. (which we confirmed the following morning), and I thought it was too cold to bother putting the tent up at the next hut, and Alex had lit a fire, so it was too hard to leave. Lionel and Clement arrived and decided to stay also…. we were in a nice groove.
So we whiled away the bulk of the afternoon eating and chopping wood. Lionel gave me a 250g of whittakers, and I demolished half of it in ten minutes – it is amazing how hungry I get when I hike. And we were all in bed by 8.30pm, and no mice.
DAY 5 – hunters HUT TO st arnaud- 31 KM/6.5 HOURS
Another glorious morning and we set off for the straightforward stroll to Porters hut up and down some boulder fields. We made it there in two hours (versus the advertised four – a common ratio for our hiking), and then headed on to the Red Hills Hut, the last stop in the range. This section was a bit trickier as we had to traverse the Motueka and Maitland rivers. Frequent flooding means the track disappears relatively frequently so my short legs got a good work out clambering up and down some steep slippery banks. Neither of us were thinking about much apart from the burgers we were going to buy when we arrived in town, so we just kept plodding on.
We passed Red Hills Hut at noon, and were heartened by the guide notes that it was only 1 hour 15 minutes to the highway – which we thought we would do faster. It turns out it was 8k, and it did take us all of the time to get there, even at the rapid pace we were walking. We were hoofing it, ‘smelling the barn’ as we say in running.
We made it to the highway where it was going to be a 10km hitch into St Arnaud town. There were already a couple of hikers trying to hitch down the road, so we decided to start walking. After about a km, we arrived a some road works, where I cheekily asked the Stop/Go man if I could hitch a ride when he had stopped the cars and he was fine with that. (Manu couldn’t believe that!!!). The first car we asked were a lovely Maori dad and son from Picton and they dropped us in town. We went straight for burgers and fries, followed swiftly by cake and coffee, and then after an hour in town we headed straight out into the Nelson Lakes National Park for another three nights – but that is another post…..
I would highly recommend the range, I loved it, but make sure you pay attention to the weather, and ideally go with someone else. More info here….
Click to access alpine-route.pdf