Toaroha – Frews – Whitcombe — Sat 14 – Wed 18 Sept 2013

For me, this was a repeat of the trip but with a difference. Dan Pryce and I had been around this circuit in late summer 2001. Some years prior the Bluff swing-bridge in the Hokitika had been swept away. With no hope of the bridge being reinstated, DoC had marked a route up Homeward Spur from the Mungo swing-bridge. The route sidled around very near the 1651m top and dropped down Steadman Spur into the upper Hokitika, completely bypassing Bluff Hut way below at about 900m. It was a great diversion on a fine day. Ten years later, it was hard to believe that DoC had not only found the money to replace the Bluff swing-bridge, but they had moved the Bluff Hut a bit and totally refurbished it.

So with Bluff Hut back in the circuit and a party of five, the route and timetable we followed was:

  • Day 1: Drive in two cars to Hokitika and on to the Toaroha road end at the barn. Leave one car at the Whitcombe end. Walk 4 hours to Cedar Flats Hut.
  • Day 2: Up the Toaroha to Top Toaroha Hut—about 6 hours
  • Day 3: Over Toaroha Saddle, down to the Mungo to Poet Hut, then on down the Mungo to the junction with the Hokitika and the new Bluff swing-bridge. Then up the steep face, through bluffs to pop out on top and cruise along to Bluff Hut. Say 8.5 hours
  • Day 4: Sidle up-valley dropping into the Hokitika and on up to the foot of Frew Saddle. Then straight up to the saddle. On to the biv and the long walk down-valley to the Whitcombe, with a short walk back up-river to the 10 bunk Frew Hut. Say 9 hours
  • Day 5: Down the Whitcombe, over the Collier Gorge swing-bridge and on to Rapid Creek Hut. Then back over the Whitcombe using the cableway and on down-valley on a farm road, to the car. Say 7 hours. Cram all five in the vehicle and return the 32km to the Toaroha road-end. Then drive home.

The Hokitika forecast had progressively improved all week, so we left home hopeful of five fine days and little wind—almost what we got.

Day 1: The walk in to Cedar Flats in light rain was routine. In a wider, braided section, we saw two young women who left the road end ahead of us, making a commendable job of crossing the river. But why? We lost sight of them but then they suddenly appeared back on track. They had managed to cross the Toaroha twice. When questioned, one confessed, the crossings were challenging and they hadn’t done much research about the route before leaving home. We knew Cedar Flats Hut had been extended to double its capacity to 12. Alas. Talk about the Black Hole of Calcutta! With new huts now having lined ceilings it had no skylights and along a critical wall, no windows. The young women turned out to be vets and amazingly the other woman there with her French boy-friend was also a vet.

Day 2: We left the hut at 8am, over the gorge and on up-river on the true right. We saw blue ducks in the usual place above the gorge. Frequent slips and consequent route realignments made progress slower but we reached Top Toaroha by 2.20pm. Patches of snow surrounded the 6 bunk hut. We slept through a brilliant moonlit night.

Day 3: Away by 7.30am, we climbed up Bannatyne Creek on a mostly well-marked route with the remaining snow-cover looking good. The route climbs out a steep gully and on up to the Toaroha Saddle where the biv now looks pretty with buff-coloured walls and powder-blue roof. The steep plunge, first in snowy tussock or scrub and then in Westland alpine forest on a wide track led down the spur to the Mungo. A short walk down-river to the mustard yellow 4-bunk Poet Hut gave us a stopping point for an early lunch. The walk down to the Bluff swing-bridge still isn’t easy and took us two hours. The new bridge is good but then the climb up the steep track had each going at their chosen pace. Bill was up front, then Markus, then Merv, with Sue and Kerry taking a leisurely approach. The climb to the fancy 6-bunk Bluff Hut sitting on a big hunk of rock is worth the effort with great views all around.

Day 4: A sou’wester had started during the small hours and blew moderately all day. So it was fairly cool sidling away from the hut at 7.30am with a moderate snow cover in the sunless spots. We all had our cameras clicking as we progressed up a snowy upper Hokitika River. It is still a grunt straight up to Frew Saddle but worth the climb. We sat awhile in the lee of the ridge then moved down to the biv for lunch. The long walk down the Frews Valley begins with a poled route before entering a bush track. Welded steel bridges have replaced the two, 2-wire bridges on the side creeks. A modern Frew Hut now sits on a terrace with a pleasant view up the Whitcombe but it’s definitely down at sand-fly level!

Day 5: Away at 7.15am so we wouldn’t be too late getting home. The Collier Gorge swing-bridge is still impressive—15m above the river yet washed away in Jan 2004! Downstream on the true left there is now a flood bypass bridge on Rapid Creek but it is almost a kilometre upstream. For the record and to tell Leo they had seen it, Merv and Markus went up to it. Not far below Rapid Creek Hut we had the fun of crossing back over to the Whitcombe on the cableway—well, fun if you aren’t the one doing most of the winding. From there was the final leg down the farm track to Markus’ car parked by the dry stream—2pm. Back in two cars we had an enforced stop waiting for a big herd of cows to amble off the road. We made it home by mid-evening after a stop in Hokitika. But for day 1, we had excellent weather and couldn’t have wished for a better trip.

We were: Markus Kaufmann, Merv Meredith (leader), Kerry Moore, Sue Piercey & Bill Templeton. (MM)

Top Toaroha Hut

Bill, Merv, Markus at Frew Saddle