Sawcut Gorge

29 December 2014

Old hands may have thought they had done this trip—an afternoon stroll up through the gorge, overnight at Isolation Hut and back out the same way the following morning. But this was not the trip that Sue Johnstone had in store for us.

Sue, and husband Dave, live at Elterwater, a small farm three kilometres north of Ward. And what they provided from Friday night through to Sunday morning was a base camp, with a happy-hour at Ward’s East Coast Inn, a 4WD excursion that climbed 700 metres and included magnificent views of the snow-capped Inland Kaikouras and then a full day’s tramp with a good mix of up and down through both mature and desolate forest, and finally a river stroll through stunning Sawcut Gorge.

After our Friday night happy-hour we stared out at the rain that had blighted our trip north. But Saturday dawned clear and we set off on our 4WD excursion, down the coast to Kekerengu before turning up Valley Road. We wound first past Bluff Hill Station, one of the largest farms in NZ, and on to Remuera, where Peter Green assisted us with the driving and vehicle shuffles. From here we tortuously wound our way up over Rag Saddle then Burnt Saddle with views of Alarm, Tapuae-o-Uenuku and Pinnacle until we alighted and donned packs. Well, most of us donned packs—Dan found the vehicle shuffle a bit complicated and alas his pack had not made it. Never mind, he was thus to get a free lunch and in return he carried Margaret’s pack for her enquiring—“what on earth have you got in here, Margaret?”

We then strolled down to Zoo Hut—the reason for the name we did not discover. This stroll was as easy as it was going to get. Thereafter we sidled underneath huge bluffs buttressing the Iwitahi Ridge before descending to what seemed like the centre of the earth. Here, surrounded by towering bush-covered limestone bluffs, we had lunch and decided from the map that we were at a tributary of Brian Boru Stream. Soon after lunch we reached Brian Boru Stream and the biv of the same name.

The gorge begins soon after leaving the hut and within its narrow confines there are whiffs of sulphur. And despite the walls of the gorge appearing sheer, they are adorned with rock daises. After about an hour it seemed as if our way was going to be blocked by a dead end. But behold, ahead was an alleyway carved through the limestone, 50m long, 50m high and at its narrowest barely 3m across, Sawcut Gorge no less.

After the sawcut, we joined the Waima River and although approaching 7pm, the sun still shone. Finally at the head of Ure Road we reached a patient Dave, and friend Meg, who had been ready to receive us anytime from 4:30. So it was back to base and a great late-evening feast, compliments of Sue.

From the biv, the track climbed steeply up loose rock beside a side-stream. As the climb tapered off we found ourselves in forest with little undergrowth and littered instead with rocks, giving the area a forlorn ‘Lord of the Rings’ appearance. This was in contrast to our earlier descent through beech forest, including many impressive matai trees.

After a few more hours we reached the junction to Napoleon Biv, where we turned the opposite way (left) and descended into Isolation Stream to arrive at Isolation Hut which sits opposite a massive and precipitous rock slope devoid of trees. Here we had lunch. A woman from Colorado was in residence as were two young hunters who had just shot a deer. It was tempting to settle in for the night, as the hunters were departing and a previous party had left a quantity of meat chops and a dozen beer. But we were intrepid explorers and though it was now 4:30 pm, we still had yet to reach our mission for the day—Sawcut.

Sunday morning was the time to enjoy Elterwater, where the house is set amongst mature trees in rolling farmland, overlooking a lake formed by run-off. At breakfast Dave pointed out a crested grebe on the lake, the first I have seen from the comfort of indoors. During the morning most of us variously trekked to the farm’s highpoint for all-round views or to ‘South Point’ for views up and down the lake. I say most. Dan sat on the deck, soaked up the sun and had another cup of coffee. Then after our farewells we made a quick trip to nearby Ward beach, where oval, perfectly flat pebbles are a feature and then headed for home.

On the tramp we were Sue Johnstone (Ward co-ordinator), Dan Pryce (Chch co-ordinator), Margaret Clark, Pauline Hill, Chris Leaver, Lois Moore, Graeme Townsend, Stan & Sue Wilder and Stuart Payne. (SP)