Hellfire - Misery - Branch – Lees

Easter, 6–9 April 2012

This trip has been on the club programme previously, but not gone because of the weather. No problem with weather this Easter. Four days without any sign of cloud and little wind. And, unbelievably, dry underfoot at each campsite.

The trip is described in Sven Brabyn’s guidebook and might normally be approached by 4WD up the Clarence from Hanmer along the transmission line, or Rainbow Road. Once over Island Saddle, the 4WD road drops down the Wairau to the trip starting point at the Lees swing-bridge. This is only a few kilometres south of the turnoff on the Rainbow Ski-field road. As we had a non-4WD club group, our plan was to drive to St Arnaud on Thursday evening and then drive the 30km in to the swing-bridge on Friday morning. That worked fine. Actually, our trip was a ‘non’ most things. No 4WD. No GPS. No one had been on any part of the circuit before.

Getting out of town on Thursday afternoon posed a few tactical problems, afternoon traffic held us up and then the dairy at Culverden was closed even on Easter Thursday with droves of people milling about desperate for food. The option was the queue at the fish & chips shop if that’s your scene or an enforced fast. The good end to the evening was arriving at the Travers-Sabine Lodge in St Arnaud about 10.15pm. It was well set up and a good place to stay.


Having left $50 at the lodge for Rainbow Station’s road toll charge for two cars, we were away early. Crossing the Six Mile Stream ford was uneventful and soon we were at the car park near the swing-bridge and walking by 8.45am, then an hour down the right bank of the Wairau to get to the Hellfire confluence. Along the Wairau it’s tracked or grassy and in the Hellfire mostly tracked in bush up the true right to start with. Let’s not talk about the wasp stings. For the route above the bush-line, Sven’s book describes climbing out on a rib to the west. Fine weather navigation is easy, isn’t it? We could see the rib and the big tarn basin up ahead. The route description is for climbing the rib and continuing around directly to the col behind point 1988m. We sidled off the rib lower and easily around to be just above the tarn. By then it was 4.30pm and the option of getting over the top and down into the Misery before camping, was greeted with mumblings in the ranks. So that was it for the night. We set up our three tents on widely dispersed sites. With little wind, dry tussock and an Easter moon, it was a very comfortable night.


An overnight frost froze wet boots and socks, even under the tent fly but by the time we got up the ground and tents were bone dry on a lovely morning. At 8am, I was the last away from our campsite—past the tarn and straight up a fairly steep face to drop over to the north side of the col at 9am. It’s necessary from here to sidle up-valley and drop down the second stream. Once at the stream we crossed to the left and travelled easily down-valley to Top Misery Hut by 10.45am. The hut was all set up for airborne hunters, including large gas cooker, gas fridge and a porch that is floor to ceiling with beer can cartons. After lunch, as we got closer to the Branch, the spread of wilding pines from those first planted in the Branch in the 1950s, made their appearance and then got denser which is very demoralising to see for any dedicated “no-green-needles” volunteer.

The Bottom Misery Hut is a delight, sitting on a spur above the river with a view straight down the Branch. We arrived there at 2pm intending to pass by. BUT, Chrys now confessed she had been coping with a sore knee for some time. She was naturally concerned, not only about coping with the rest of the day up the Branch, but more so, climbing over the top and down the Lees next day. Its times like this that a trip leader can feel a little relieved to have brought two burners because we had eight people when the trip was planned. We could manage with one, so the second was really just a back-up. Actually, there was another secret burner on the trip and it was ideal to leave that one with Chrys. We agreed Chrys and someone else would stay at the hut and then take two half days to walk north, down the Branch, to be picked up by us on Monday. Kerry offered to be the someone else. This new plan meant returning to Christchurch via Blenheim—no problem, just extra kilometres.

After a divvy-up of food the remaining five left the hut at 2.30pm to travel up the Branch to the Branch Bivvy. It did get interesting travel at times and the presence of wasps added to the concern. Nearing the biv, we met a party of hunters that were based there. They didn’t appear to be too serious about looking for animals, but were good company. Arriving at the biv at 5.30pm made it a 9½ hour day. With perfect weather and good variety of terrain, it had been 9½ enjoyable hours. We set up at the bush edge along from the biv, for a pleasant evening. Sleeping out that night, with the full moon tracking across the valley, seemed rather special.


One of the hunters took our photo and we left the biv site at 7.55am. After the trip, Glenda pointed out that all five of us wore Aarn packs of varying designs and vintages. So maybe that was why Kerry offered to stay with Chrys? Neither have an Aarn pack, poor souls. Anyway, we arrived at the bush-line at 10am after some fairly rough going and then another two hours-plus, to be at the base of a scree at 12.15pm. The scree rose on the true left and was our route out of the Branch. We climbed that until we were beside the large basin that is very obvious on the map. From there, we turned west and climbed straight up a steep scree shute to a small col on the ridge.

Having arrived on the western side, what better place could you pick for lunch? After lunch, the drop and sidle to get around to the Lees, was easier and shorter than it had looked from our lunch spot. Judges Stream dropped away to the south as we sidled around. Once back on the ridge to the west of point 2022m, Linda saved the day. The trip leader had not given a thought to Easter and it’s important rituals; but Linda had and shared Easter eggs all round. Gosh. There were only five of us now. Would we score the quantity for seven?

Sitting above the Lees with views to die for was too good to leave, but eventually we had to drop down a scree and into the lovely upper basin. Travel down-valley, including in the bush was straightforward enough, and we arrived at the 4-bunk Lees Hut near the far end of a long flat, by 5.10pm. On arriving, we disturbed the solitude of three people from Nelson. The man had a tent up, so Ruth and Bill bunked inside. Linda put a Minaret up out in the tussock. Aarn and I slept out on a dry, moonlit night at the bush edge.


It took 2½ hours to walk out in the morning. Linda drove off straight away to get down to the Branch road and drive in to meet Chrys and Kerry. The rest of us drove down to Six Mile Stream for the usual post-trip scrub up and change. By the time we drove down to the Branch road, the others were out waiting for us.

The worry about having enough petrol to get to Blenheim was unnecessary, as it transpired. But then we were faced with a quandary that we should know the answer to by now: finding a café in Blenheim that’s open, or, if you mean central Blenheim, finding your way through the maze of streets. The answer’s still the same, give up and drive on to always reliable Kekerengu and then home by 7pm.

Overall conclusion: When will we ever get four perfect days like that at Easter again? A great round circuit with two high crossings and all uncharacteristically green this year.

We were: Ruth Barratt, Chrys Horn, Bill Hotter, Linda Lilburne, Kerry Moore, Aarn Tate and Merv Meredith P MM

Hellfire, Lees, Branch. Diversion

Chrys and Kerry opted for the easier well tracked route down the Branch River and elected to stay at the charming Bottom Misery Hut. We had lots of time to kill so lit a fire down in the river bed where there was ample driftwood including a fair proportion of douglas fir. Around the hut lots of pines grew, including some full-sized ones. Dinner was cooked over the fire in a hut billy and was some ancient packets that have been carried on many trips as emergency food—not very appetizing.

Next day we walked down the Branch to the aptly named Siberia Hut and crossed the river to the sunny side for lunch amidst a near-forest of pines. Chys’ knee was still hurting and she was glad she wasn’t slogging over to the Lees River. From there we got onto a vehicle track on the true left with some major high zig-zags. Where we crossed to the right bank of the Branch there was a good road going up-valley so we checked it out and soon found Greig Hut. Painted white with two large bunkrooms it is a popular place for 4WDers to visit and indeed at 6pm a vehicle rolled up bringing everything a camper might need. A local farmer wearing a mean sheath-knife, and an older guy placed boxes of supplies and a camp oven on the table. The 30kg bag of livestock salt stayed on the vehicle. The camp oven was used to thaw and then cook a wad of mutton chops on the hut wood-stove. An innovation that was very effective is to take a spray squirt bottle of diesel. You open the firebox door, give it five squirts and the fire is roaring. This is the lo-tech diesel fuel injection system. We’d had our dehydrated dahl and very good it was but the emerging smell of cooked mutton was mouth-watering. The duo had fresh corn to cook but I don’t think they got around to eating it. Their gas lantern gave a welcome light and their stories were entertaining. They planned a day trip up Mt Morris track the next day.

The map in the hut told us we had a long walk on a good road so we made an early start in the morning and made good time on a 4wd road so were out to the Branch-Leatham confluence by eleven. Our hour of waiting passed quickly enough with the help of a local resident who came to chat for well over 30mins. At noon Linda motored up to retrieve us and gave us each a welcome Easter egg. A ten minute drive had us back in the fold—seven again in two cars headed for Blenheim and home.

Note: In the pre-trip notes Merv wrote that he was taking the Mrs to do the cooking so I was expecting cordon bleu dining in the upper Hellfire. Alas, Glenda was nowhere to be seen and we had a regular tramping meal. It seems that Merv had meant MSR stove rather than MRS Meredith. Oh well. (KM)