Saturday, March 15, 2008

The St. James Walkway - Lewis Pass

Last week we walked the 5 day St. James Walkway, which begins and ends on the Lewis Pass highway, about 15 km apart. The walkway goes through parts of Lewis Pass Scenic Reserve, Lake Sumner Forest Park, and a private cattle farm called St. James Station. It's rated as an easy tramp, which sounded nice to us as the weeks of travelling and tramping begin to take their toll on our weary bodies!

In truth, the walkway is better set up as a 4 day tramp. Otherwise most of the days are really only half a day of walking, and you end up spending a lot of time sitting around the huts. A fairly fit tramper can easily do it in 2 long days and one short day.

However, we were taking the leisurely option and going for 5 days. While I waited at the trailhead shelter for G to do the car shuttle, I watched the rain falling and felt my enthusiasm wane. I'd had quite enough of walking in the rain down in Fiordland, and was hoping for better luck up here. But by the time we got going, the rain had slowed to a drizzle, and soon stopped completely.

The first day's walk took us down into Cannibal Gorge, through lush, beech forest and mossy ground. It was relatively easy going, with no steep climbs or descents. In fact, there is not much altitude change over the entire track, with the majority of it following river valleys, and a couple of low passes connecting them.
A few hours in we passed Cannibal Gorge Hut, but continued on to the next hut, Ada Pass Hut. It was chilly there by late afternoon, so G set himself the task of getting the coal stove burning. At first the hut filled with smoke, and we got even colder opening all of the windows and doors to clear the air. But eventually the fire settled in and the hut was cozy and warm. We shared it with an older woman from Germany, who had somehow misplaced her cutlery over lunch. So G gallantly gave her his plastic spoon, and resigned himself to eating with our wooden cooking spoon for the rest of the trip.
Day 2 took us into the St. James Station, so we were contending with cows and their droppings along the way. We went of Ada Pass, which is neither steep nor high, and then followed the river valley through mostly open flats until reaching Christopher Hut. We took our time, since the day's walk was only predicted to take 4.5 hours, and even with the slowest pace we could muster we arrived a bit ahead of that time. So we hung out at the hut, and were eventually joined by a young Scot named Thomas who was walking the track in the opposite direction. He has been living in Blenheim, working for the vineyards. This hut was out in the open, so it got more sun and a fire was not needed.
Day 3 was another short jaunt along the river. The cows on this station were very jittery. I guess I would be too, if I had some inkling that I was destined to become a steak dinner. But it was sometimes unnerving as they stared us down on the track, unsure whether they would bolt away, or charge at us. It was particularly dicey when there were both bulls and calves around for them to protect. However, we carried on without incident, giving a wide berth to the bulls. We also noticed that this track has a lot of birds along it. We saw fantails, robins, paradise ducks and a large population of Canada geese. It's funny, but those were the first Canada geese I've encountered since moving from Canada, and their off-key honking immediately reminded me of home! Sad but true, the annoying honk of the Canada goose is as much a sound of Canada and the plaintive cry of the loon, or the drunken roar of the hockey fans. But I digress...
The track itself stayed mostly in the open, crossing small streams but otherwise easy and quite flat. The next hut was Anne Hut, equipped with an emergency radio as it's about half way around the track. Luckily we were not having an emergency, and in fact we found we had the whole 20-bunk hut to ourselves that night. Woo-hoo! Clearly this track doesn't see much action outside of the peak holiday season. It's walked mainly by Kiwis, so while many of the more tourist-oriented routes we'd taken on this trip were still busy, this one was already quiet. Unfortunately, we seemed to be running a bit low on gas, having taken 2 partly-used canisters with us. So we lit a fire in the stove, and used it to pre-heat our cooking water for dinner.

The 4th day is meant to be the big one. 7 hours is the allotted time, including the conquering of Anne Saddle. In truth, the saddle rises only a couple hundred metres above the valley. There were some other places where the track rose nearly as high, just to get over a bluff. We met up with a group of young bulls who actually ran alongside us for a while, trying to decide whether to take us on. Luckily they left us alone in the end. I'm becoming less and less fond of cows as this trip progresses.
We ended up arriving at the next hut, Boyle Flats Hut, after 5.5 hours. Behind the hut a bit was a lovely stream, full of mossy boulders. So we went for a short walk before retiring inside. Our gas supply held out for the evening, and we even had enough for hot tea at breakfast. Again, we were the only ones at the hut.

Our final day should have been a straightforward 4 hour walk out to the road. However, after crossing the Boyle River over a swing bridge and re-entering the bush, I got distracted (probably trying to avoid the mud) and somehow lost the track. I thought I was still on it, but didn't see any markers for a while, and eventually came out by the river bank, where there was still no indication of the track. Then I knew I'd messed up.
We knew that the track ran parallel to the river pretty much all of the way, crossing another bridge near the end. So G suggested we just follow the river until we reach the bridge. I was more in favour of backtracking to find where I lost the track, but we went along the river.

At one point I noticed a clearing in the trees above, so I suggested we climb up to see if the track had emerged from the trees there. However, there was still no sign of the track. I wanted to look a bit higher up in the bush, which G thought was a waste of time. But he humoured me, and we ended up walking across the clearing, which turned out to be a bog with more nasty cows on it. Bush-bashing our way up, we still couldn't see the track anywhere. I resigned myself to following the river again, and we retreated back across the bog, having wasted a good half hour.

Another hour or so later, we finally spotted some poles marking the track alongside the river. Hooray - back on the track! I swore to follow more diligently for the remainder of the day. Our misadventures, it seems, had put us about an hour behind schedule. But we made it to that bridge across the river and knew we were close to the end. The rest of the walk went smoothly, and the car was waiting for us at the road.

The St. James is not the most spectacular walk in New Zealand, but for those who are not ready to take on alpine ridges, river-bashing or steep climbs, it gives you the chance to get out there for several days, surrounded by mountains, and not feel overwhelmed. In fact, many Kiwis seem to use it as a good way to introduce their kids to tramping, some as young as four! And if you're a bird-lover, you'll enjoy the fact that this track's relaxed pace will give you time to stop and appreciate the bird life in the area. Even the Canada geese!
So we're down to our last week of the trip, and tomorrow it's off to the Queen Charlotte Track, tent camping for four days in the beautiful Marlborough Sounds.


Phreerunner said...

We are enjoying reading about your current trip.
We returned to the UK a week ago after a 7 week trip to NZ during which we visited similar places to you. Have a look at
We were about 3 weeks ahead of you and luckier with both the insects and the weather (eg Milford Sound had one day of rain in 15!). Our blog still needs to be edited, but we did manage to post pictures as we went along.
Enjoy the rest of your trip.
Martin and Sue

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