I have just finished a ten day trip to the Olivine Ice Plateau and back. I am ignoring a very sore and slightly damaged knee and looking to take advantage of what I believe are my elevated fitness levels. I’ve identified the Motatapu Track which links Arrowtown and Wanaka as being an appropriate challenge. It takes three days and is supposed to be rather strenuous.
After an uncomfortable night on the bedrock campsite at Queenstown I am up early to catch the bus to Arrowtown. It is a short half hour ride. The brief burst of rain has played itself out and conditions are cloudy but reasonable. At the edge of the parkland in Arrowtown I take my time packing my gear and my time leaving the tourist area for the dirt walkway leading towards the hike.
The Motatapu track passes many interesting historical features, particularly on the walk out of Arrowtown. Initially travelling along the Arrow Gorge Track it climbs ever higher above the steep gorge of the Arrow River. Down below can be seen a pipeline and concrete works. I’m occasionally passed by mountain bikers who are forced to push their bikes on the steep soft dirt of the churned up road and joggers who trudge along efficiently. It’s good to be on a dirt road rather than being forced to navigate, I just was to tune out and take in the changing scenery. After a slow six kilometre grind the track fords Soho Creek and crosses over to the true right of the river. At this stage of the trip I want to keep my boots dry so I opt for change of footwear for the fords. The track continues to climb and my pace is slow and ponderous.
After ten kilometres I am on the edge of Macetown, an old gold mining sight where there are many derelict huts and homesteads, including the historic Eight Mile Hut and Mt Soho Homestead. Another feature is the sturdy stone fences that must have taken many luckless shepherds hours of back breaking work to complete. Throughout the day I’ve been forced to give way to several 4WD’s and it around this area that they have parked. It makes a natural lunch break spot with the opportunity for a wee bit of nosying about the old huts and diggings. There are a number of interesting day walks about the area leading to old batteries in the hopefully named Gold Burn. The map notes that Burn’s alternative name is Rich Burn.
Perhaps if I’d been kinder to myself I’d have camped at Macetown and enjoyed doing some of the walks without a pack on my back. But that is not the way it often works out on these tramps, there is always the imperative to get somewhere else at double time. And so I said goodbye to the muted charms of Macetown.
The lure for pressing on was the luxury of a hut waiting for me no more than 8kms away. After two weeks of sleeping in either a tent or under rocks this is an imaginable luxury. What I failed to reckon with was the formidable terrain and poorly defined tracks of the Motatapu. I have picked up a tramper along the way who is slightly ahead of me. There is an option on the track of climbing above the river and when he does so I opt to follow the river itself. It means I spend the initial part of the afternoon sloshing through ankle high braids.
Eventually I abandon this for the unnervingly steep sidle on high sided banks. It’s slow tramping on what appears to be a perfunctory track that has had no grading work done to it. Perhaps this will be completed in stage two. After several hours of this unenjoyable work on tussock the track eventually leaves the river and begins to follow the steep ridge leading towards Roses Saddle. Although the Saddle is at 1188 metres it feels like hard, unrelenting work. Progress is slow and I’m not inspired by the smooth forms of the nearby Harris Mountains. There is little snow or jagged peaks to set the imagination soaring. Instead the surrounding mountains remind me only of the unpleasant haul I’m already on. Notable landmarks are limited to the stile which assists trampers over the wire fence dividing paddocks. We’re a long way from wilderness when this is the hurdle that needs to be faced.
I’m badly missing the motivation provided by the single minded Bill. Without his receding figure in the distance I’m left to my own unfocussed thoughts. The walk is merely something I need to get through so that I can have some rest. At least from the saddle I’m in a position to view the long ridge leading down to Roses Hut. It is beautifully situated in the broad valley through which the Motatapu River runs. Usually one is surprised by the sudden realisation that you’ve arrived at the hut due to the tendency to have them in sheltered spots. In the case of Roses Hut it takes quite a while to reel in the distance between the saddle and the hut. It doesn’t help that the track seems to disperse so that one must make one’s own way across the slippery tussock. I’m in for several spills before I can step off the ridge and travel the final leg to the hut. It’s been a gruelling ten hour trip from Arrowtown and perhaps not the best recuperation day I could have had after the ten days in the Olivine Wilderness.
The European tramper I’ve previously noted has set himself up and after some perfunctory conversation we ignore each other by agreement. Both of us would prefer to experience the hut as it’s sole occupant and this is the best compromise to achieving this. As it is he leaves early in the morning and although I expect to see him again at the next hut I never do. Obviously he has pressed on. My own sluggishness can be put down to the next leg being listed as an 11km walk. I seem to have paid more attention to this than the estimated hours which is listed as 7 to 8. This would make it one of the slowest tracks in the country outside of the Dusky Track.
It doesn’t take long to appreciate why the route is listed as taking so long. The first ridge is seriously steep, to the extent that I am taking a break at every fifth pole and when I do so I turn around in order to take the pressure off my burning calves. What I’m not expecting is the demoralising descent back into a forested section before the route begins another dispiriting climb. I’m puzzled by the poorly plotted route. At it’s lowest point it is within reach of the dirt track that follows the Motatapu River South Branch. It seems like a cynical exercise in mocking the tramper, forcing us to follow a route that makes no sense. Obviously the road following the river has been deemed too inviolable to have public access. Having climbed to 1,245m, far higher than Roses Saddle the descent and following sidle make this a day of cursing.
The other option suggested by cannier trampers who are prepared to back themselves is to continue to follow the ridge beyond the mid point, climbing towards Knuckle Peak and then dropping down through bluffs to Highland Creek Hut. For the rest of the day I’m forced to look at the highly achievable ridge and contemplate what might have been.
The designated route drops into a stretch of forest and then commences another long sidling climb towards the next valley. The following section is fully of steep descents on tussock and I am relieved to be doing this section in fine weather. It is the sort of terrain that is usual avoided on most other tracks. Again, it seems to have been chosen with least amount of care. The route guide suggests that care and concetration be employed for this section and this is on the money. On this occasion there are no long ambles down to a distant hut. The route absorbs all my attention to the extent that I’m surprised to encounter another tramper, travelling with no more than a day pack who is making his way to Roses Hut. If nothing else it is remarkably late in the afternoon, even if we are in the time of long days of good light. I can certainly appreciate the rationale behind carrying the least amount of gear when faced with unnatural inclinations of this track.
It is great relief that I finally arrive at Highland Creek Hut which sits in a rather spectacular upland basin. If I had energy left from the day I’d have been out exploring. In retrospect I should have had a layover day here and done the Knuckle Peak Ridge as a day walk. Instead I make do with a restful evening spent in this grand location.
The following morning I am in for another arduous climb winding its way to the 1,275m Jack Halls Saddle. The saving grace is being able to look back towards the imposing views of Knuckle Peak and perhaps gaining an appreciation that this broken and bluff-riddled country is not the place to be rambling in search of a route. From the saddle there is another long descent to Fern Burn Hut.
After a steady ramble down hill I arrive at the hut at about lunch-time. I’m surprised to find the hut completely occupied by two families. There are tiny children all over the place. If I’d intended to stay at the hut then the crowded conditions make up my mind. In my head I think I’ve booked accommodation in Wanaka for tonight. The other think about the presence of children is that it suggests that the walk out is not too strenuous. I feel okay about having lunch and then moving on. I make some conversation with the families and discover that they will be at the hut for another night.
Rather than use the hut for lunch I continue down to Fern Burn and find a cool spot next to the running water. I might even dip my feet into the cooling burble while I enjoy tuna on crackers. After lunch I discover that the walk out contains several slightly unnerving overhangs down to Fern Burn. There really has been nothing remotely comforting about this walk, I’ve had to be on my guard the entire way. It’s a relief to be heading out. A few last glances back to the hut do suggest that there could be much well rewarded exploration of the area.
On the way out I spot a deer with her hind and they make a quick exit via the tussock slopes. The walk out takes me past cattle and through scrubby farmland until I emerge on the Lake Wanaka road near the Glendhu Bay Camping Ground. I had expected to be able to ring a taxi from here but there isn’t a working phone at the site and I haven’t brought my phone. Instead I buy an ice-cream and begin what I expect to be a long walk back into town. I am in luck however and two local rock climbers stop to offer me a much appreciated lift. Even better they are so pleased with their day’s work they don’t really need me to explain much about my own trip. Instead they express bemusement that I wasn’t going to signal that I wanted a lift even though this was the case.
My only set back is when I discover that I’ve arrived a day early. I really could have camped at Macetown and enjoyed a half day without a pack on my back. The attendee kindly books me share accommodation at another backpackers in town. I cancel my accommodation for the following night and decide to spend the day in Christchurch. At the backpackers I end up talking to an Australian who has had to be airlifted out of the Dusky Track after not paying attention on a steep descent. I’m mortified to hear of his casual negligence. The Motatapu has been a challenging addendum to the Olivine Wilderness Area; in many ways I found it to be the more difficult tramp, probably because I was tired and tramping solo. At least the weather had been good, something to never take for granted in New Zealand.