By Dave Mitchell
The 1973 pastoral map of the South Island showed Clarence Reserve Station as one of the country’s largest, next to the Molesworth (comparatively and literally). Our first trip into this country revealed one of the reasons why many a farmer had struggled or completely walked off the land. At dusk the hillside moved with a plague of rabbits that infested the whole area.
The Ka Whata Tū o Rakihouia Conservation Park takes in a huge chunk of the valleys and mountains, from the Palmer Stream to the south and Snowgrass Camp to the north. It’s almost 60km in length with the Clarence River as its western boundary and the Seaward Kaikoura tops (and beyond in places) its eastern edge.
New huts have been built, signage erected and discovery encouraged on foot and by mountain bike. DOC’s impressive signage denotes the huts, tracks and features of the area. Interestingly, DOC has invoked a permit system for 4WDs and horses, to protect the tracks. Low impact MTBs and walkers have unrestricted access.
At dusk Dave Fenton, Pete Braggins, Ditte and I headed east from the main coast road onto the Inland Kaikoura Road. We parked 18km inland just before the long one-lane bridge that spans the Kahutara River.
It was cold and starry outside when we hopped into bed and we were soon dead to the world.
Mid-October delivered a great weekend forecast; cool but calm sunny weather was predicted and duly arrived. From the locked gate beside the Kahutara River we rode immediately onto the ascent. A smooth gravel road rose up through a corner of bush and onto a plateau of long thin cow paddocks, a row of inquisitive faces lined up along the fence puffing trails of white vapour like a steam train at a station. The track, with us upon it, wandered up the ridge to Bushy Saddle through hedges of kanuka and over dry potholes. Alas, the trees had risen above the commanding view.
We climbed steeply from Bushy Saddle up Driving Spur and quietly renamed it Grovel Spur, owing to its inclination to steepen up at any excuse. You have to take your hat off to the fellas that built this road through such steep country, combating the many slips and massive rockfalls along the way. The track teases with a false summit at Blind Saddle then continues on up to join the 1,200m contour. We were now on top of the Seaward Kaikouras in a light cool breeze and then dropped a wee way down the ridge for smoko. Flax, tussock and a huge variety of alpine plants cover much of the surrounding area with hard grey rock pillars rising up out of this greenery.
The track drops momentarily to the origins of Split Rock Creek and wanders along the 1,000m contour as a folded landform of spectacular waterfalls and gullies.
At the far end of the ridge a smooth fast downhill presented itself, disappearing in a series of swooping corners and chicanes to the historic Tent Poles Hut. Nicely painted in fire engine red, it sat tucked in a gully amongst willow spring colours. We continued down to Seymour Stream, crossing it twice while trying to keep our feet dry, to the palatial Warden Hut. In comparison, the adjacent historic Bluff Dump Hut looked like an old car left in a farm paddock.
We lost count of the river crossings as we rode further down the Seymour Stream. This flows into the Clarence River just before Quail Flat, and between the two resides the equally palatial Seymour Hut. The other way to get there is a climb up the gully below Red Hill and down to the historic homestead at Quail Flat before backtracking up the river. We weren’t having a bar of that and headed in the opposite direction to the Willows.
A torturous climb took us through broken country below Warden Ridge. Rosehip covers this very dry and barren face, their bright red berries contrasting with the dusty ground in high summer. The descent into the Willows Stream was fast and smooth in contrast to the climb. An historic willow slab hut stands proud on a terrace between Gore and Willows Streams.
We crossed its flow and headed up the Palmer Ridge to the saddle and straight down into the Clarence River valley below. The track follows the meandering flow of the blue green waters of the mighty Clarence River. Much of the broom that was taking over these flats had been sprayed and was in retreat, but over on the Molesworth side it remains prolific.
The Palmer Hut is hidden from view until almost the last moment. It’s a warm abode with double glazed windows, bunks for 12 and a great little Pioneer stove that heats the hut on the smell of an oily rag. We lubed the bike chains and headed off to check out the Palmer Biv. Alas, my rear derailleur broke 1km from the biv and in the rapidly approaching dusk no chain-tight gear combo could be found, so I legged it back to the hut. Small chain ring and five down on the back finally gave me a single speed for the trip out. A clear starry sky promised a cold morning.
Good hut location ensured we caught some of the first rays of the sun and it warmed up accordingly. With breakfast and packing over, we braved frozen air and an ice cream headache but soon warmed up on the first ascent while retracing our steps back to the Willows Stream. Spent cartridges and 4WD tracks were followed back out to the Seymour Stream. All the return climbs were easier in reverse and our altitude graph showed why: 2,000m of climbing into Palmer Hut and only 1,600 for the return on an easier gradient with a lot less food in our packs. The downhill from Blind Saddle proved a blast and we were back in time to pack up in the late afternoon sun and head home.
Maps: Kaikoura BT27 and BT26 Mount Clear.
Distance: 18km to Warden Hut
27km to Seymour Hut
44km to Palmer Hut
49km to Goose Flat Hut
With a few extra days food an extended visit would give time to explore north, to Limestone Hill, Goose Flat and Stony Flat. Temperatures range from 30+ degrees in summer to well below freezing in winter.