Nuts & bolts
Location: A couple hours east of Christchurch near the towns of Methven, Staveley and Mount Somers, New Zealand
Admission: Free to hike. Hut passes are a small additional amount.
Activities: Hiking, rock climbing and bow hunting during certain seasons.
Directions: Access to Woolshed Creek is through Mount Somers Township. Follow the Ashburton Gorge Road for 10.5 km then turn down the signposted road 3.5 km to Woolshed Creek picnic area -- a large, grassy, sheltered picnic and camping area, with toilets and information panels.
Safety: Being a sub-alpine walkway, the weather can change quickly and trampers should always be prepared for all conditions. A sleeping bag, adequate waterproof and warm clothing, cooking utensils and sufficient food are essential. Although the tracks are not closed in winter, snow may make travel very difficult. Always cross streams and rivers with care. Do not attempt to cross them if they are flooded or swollen after heavy rain. Extreme weather conditions can cause trees to become unstable. Trampers need to be aware they may pose a risk.
Huts and hut tickets: There are two huts on the Mount Somers Walkway. The Mount Somers Hut sleeps 14 and the Pinnacles Hut sleeps 19. Both have mattresses and running water. Trampers need to carry their own cookers. Backcountry hut tickets should be bought in advance from Department of Conservation offices or the Staveley or Mount Somers stores.
Contact: Department of Conservation - North Terrace, PO Box 33, Geraldine Ph +64 3 693 9994
Lodging, rentals and stuff:
Mount Somers Holiday Park - 1 km off Inland Scenic Route 72, Mt Somers village. 1hr 15mins from Christchurch. 40mins from Mt Hutt Ski field, bush walks, rockhounding, Salmon and Trout fishing. Cosy garden setting. Tavern across the road serves meals seven days. Capervan spaces, camping, cabins, and hotel style rooms available as well as kitchen and bathroom facilities.
Hoods Road, RD 1, ASHBURTON Phone +64 3 303 9719 · Fax +64 3 303 9797 E-Mail Website
Mount Somers Sub Alpine Walkway Review
by Dana Farnsworth
When the going gets tough -- or in New Zealand’s case, wet -- one needs to improvise, adapt and hope for the best. My first two attempts to backpack in New Zealand or “tramp” (as the Kiwis call it) were washouts. The night prior to my first attempt in the insanely popular Milford Sound National Park was stressfully spent in a pitching and rocking camper van with my wife Kelli as 100 km winds and torrential rain pelted our van. Milford Track was washed out and beaten so bad that six people had to be rescued the next day. The park closed the track for the season. Time to hit the road and try again.
Our second attempt at famous Mount Cook National Park was almost a repeat performance. The exception being, when the rain and wind came, we got out of the van and unfortunately spent way too much for the comfort of a more secure feeling hotel room. One night in a high-sided vehicle being blasted by gale force winds was one too many times for both of us. The following morning we made a monumental decision: Forget the well-publicized tracks, scrap our itinerary, simply drive to where it is sunny, check our guidebook for hiking opportunities, and go for it!
Driving easterly across the flat farmlands ringed by mountain ranges that seemed to be heavy storm cloud magnets, we could see blue sky and sunshine on the horizon. With guidebook and map in hand, we did some quick research and decided on driving to within a couple hours of Christchurch to the tiny towns of Methvan and Mount Somers, where we would attempt to go backpacking yet again. During the tedious planning we did weeks before arriving in New Zealand, Mount Somers Sub Alpine Track had not been mentioned as a “must do” event. In fact, prior to that morning, we hadn’t even read about or heard of Mount Somers.
Mount Somers features two huts for backpackers. To stay in them, a hut pass must be purchased; several small stores and cafes in the area sell them. Our first stop was at the Mount Somers General Store, where the owner, Graham, helped us plan our hike and sold us a map, supplies and our needed hut passes. Our plan was to hike from Woolshed Creek to Sharplin Falls. We would pass the Woolshed Creek Hut during our first day and hike onto Pinnacles Hut for the night and continue out the next day.
With a plan and passes at hand, we set of to find the Mount Somers Holiday Park. It was a beautiful crisp sunny fall evening as we secured a parking site for our campervan. After a couple days of wet and nasty weather, we jumped on the opportunity to open all the doors on our campervan, open a bottle of wine and pack our backpacks for the next day al fresco style.
Both ends of the Mount Somers Track have been recently connected making it an optional three-day circuit hike (starting and finishing in the same place). However, one of Graham’s many valuable tidbits of hiking wisdom was to not attempt the circuit in the fall due to the potential exposure we could face on the South Face Route that connects the two trailheads. With a two-day, one-night, point-to-point hike planned, we made use of the valuable shuttle service provided by the owners of the holiday park. After parking our campervan at the Sharplin Falls trailhead near Staveley, we were shuttled to the seemingly remote Woolshed Creek trailhead to begin our hike.
Far from the other trailhead, no one else around, I looked at Kelli as our ride drove away and felt a familiar yet strange feeling in the pit of my stomach - anticipation mixed with a large dose of anxiety. We were alone with 17 kilometers of unknown trail in front of us. What was going to happen? Would the hike be easy, hard, disappointing, rewarding? What were we going to see, experience and overcome? Adding to the sense of the unknown was the fact that we were in unfamiliar territory. It certainly is an interesting discomfort; one that Kelli and I both admitted to feeling and oddly enjoying when our tramp was over. The Woolshed Creek trailhead begins in an area that historically was more known for coal mining than recreation. In 1864, commercial coal mining had first begun here. Remnants of the industrial past and the agricultural present are apparent during the first kilometer or so. If you can take your eyes off the trail while dodging sheep poo left by the present residential sheep a lot of old rusting coal mining equipment from the past can be spotted. Almost immediately, the trail ascends rather sharply along an old miner’s took (used to transport coal) to the first crest at 760 meters, where the major portion of the Blackburn Mine is located. The area was mined until 1954 when it became uneconomic and several underground fires finally forced closure. The sub surface deposits still smolder and on calm, humid days it is possible to detect the faint smell of sulphur. The thought of an underground fire seems pretty strange. I was curious, but not curious enough to try to open the door to the mine that we dubbed “the gates of hell”. As we exited the area, the last few sheep exited in the opposite direction, leaving nothing but “baaahs” of disdain and more trail nuggets to dodge.
The mine is a “geo transitional marker” of sorts; the pine forests landscape found below the mine transitions into rolling grassy tree-less high country as the route slowly gains altitude heading towards the summit of Trig R (934 m). The view from Trig R is a rewarding one – a classic South Island high country panorama, featuring views of the distant Arrowsmith Range and the glacial terraces of the upper Ashburton Gorge. Shortly after we both had commented on how easy the hiking was to this point, we had to eat our words. The trail switched back and forth up a strenuous and thankfully short ascent to the next peak. The windy summit of this next peak provides more sweeping views of the surrounding mountain ranges encompassing the Woolshed Creek valley. Mountains, waterfalls and gorgeous pools of emerald water in the distance surrounded the tiny insignificant silver dot that was Woolshed Hut. The setting is idyllic; the hut, as we would find out later, isn’t. The current Woolshed Hut is thankfully on the endangered species list – it’s scheduled to be replaced in 2005. The current structure’s low ceiling, dank quarters and shabby, dirty appearance do nothing to entice a hiker to sleep inside. Short of a blizzard or driving rain, I would have chose to sleep outside under the stars. Tent camping is also an option along the track.
Crossing Woolshed Creek, the now wide path begins a sharp ascent to a saddle and down again to Morgan Stream, which incidentally is a great spot for a rest. If a side trip is on your schedule, you can take a short track down the stream to view impressive water caves carved out by fast flowing water.
The rugged northern and southern faces of Mount Somers mark major fault lines, exposing columns and cooling fractures that really come into view in this little valley; I imagined all sorts of evil creepy creatures crawling around the dark exposed rock structures. It is no coincidence that much of this area resembled many of the sets in the Lord of The Rings trilogy - some locations in the films were actually in this area. The three "Lord of the Rings" films were shot over a wide area of New Zealand, including Matamata, Tongariro National Park and in Wellington in the North Island, as well as Queenstown and Methven, near Christchurch. The castle sets on Mount Somers near Methven have become the icon for the project with the towering Southern Alps behind it. The next couple of kilometers are as equally challenging as beautiful. The wide path climbs a long steep grade that without respite ascends to Mount Somers saddle (1170m), which is also the mid-way point of the hike. As our legs and lungs fiercely protested the vertical ascent through grassy highland terrain along the way to the saddle, we crossed a pretty mountain stream, spotted a few hares hopping out of the brush and enjoyed big views of snowy peaks in the distance.
Just as we began believing that this section was very difficult, a jogger with calves the size of tree trunks put things in another perspective as he sped by! Outside of the two people occupying the Woolshed Hut, he was the only other human being we had seen on the trail - we didn’t see him for long. His inhuman Popeye-sized calves propelled him rapidly out of our sight.
At Mount Somers saddle, you’ll get a first glimpse of the flat plane that stretches east towards Christchurch. In other directions there are great views of the Taylor and Old Man Ranges and the closer Winterslow Range to the north. Layered perfectly like a multi-layer dessert, the mountainous view is one of lovely contrasts - snow capped ranges in the distance, bare, brown ranges in the middle and grassy scrub in the foreground. One of the highlights of the walkway is the variety of plants that can be seen at the various altitudes. From Mount Somers saddle the trail descends through tussock, sub-alpine scrub and later, ferns and pine forest. Just as the terrain begins giving way to lush green vegetation, the first glimpse of Pinnacles Hut can be spotted from the surrounding trees and brush at the bottom of a descent into Slaughterhouse Gully. We had arrived not a moment too soon. The descent into the hut is at times steep and very demanding on ones feet. By this time, my feet were screaming - ready for a rest. Trudging down the hill with a full pack on my back, my toes had been jammed hard against the front of my boots, I thought they were going to forcibly shoot through the fronts like ten Vienna sausages shoved through a Playdough factory. Perhaps Slaughterhouse Gully is a very apt name, based on how my toes felt after reaching the bottom. It was a relief not only to arrive at the Pinnacles Hut (named after the signature volcanic rock protrusions nearby), but to also see that it was a very nice hut, a virtual five-star hotel when compared to the dank vacancy offered by the Woolshed Creek Hut. Kelli and I enjoyed a nice rest on the front porch while watching rock climbers scamper all over the pinnacle rock formations above. From the hut, they appeared to be little ants with white helmets, scampering around on the cliff’s faces.
If you’ve never shared a backcountry hut with strangers before, I hope you have the luck we did. Our fellow resident rock climbers were a friendly and interesting bunch – 3 separate groups of young men from New Zealand with a French friend thrown in for what turned out to be comic relief. At dinner, each one cooked up an interesting dish from scratch. I marveled as the climbers pulled out all manner of produce from their packs; canned peaches, giant bags of pasta, whole onions, tomatoes, zucchini, sausages, blocks of cheese and even six or seven bottles of beer were pulled out in succession like magicians pulling items out of a hat. The little hut soon warmed with a pungent, spicy and inviting aroma of many different meals being prepared.
As it was getting dark, we all donned headlamps and continued the post-dinner card games we all had started. Two or three of the climbers were comically trying to teach one of the other guys how to play a rather complicated card game. With our hunger sated and dinner’s inviting aroma still lingering in the fire-warmed air of our cabin we crawled into our bunk for a restful night’s sleep. The last section of the trail from Pinnacles Hut to Sharplin Falls climbs briefly over One Tree Ridge, which was now being painted gold by mid-morning’s light. From there the trail sharply descends into a lush environment of green vegetation, streams, waterfalls, beech trees and pine that stands in stark contrast to any other landscape thus far. Following the trail along Bowyers Stream, small and medium sized waterfalls become almost too numerous to count. Crossing Bowyers Stream can be a challenge. It’s wider than the other streams in the area, has less useable rocks to hop across on and can rise rapidly after heavy rainfall or snow melt. The Department of Conservation cautions that at times, it may be impossible to cross. I aggressively tried a difficult rock-hopping route, while Kelli sat on the bank and studied a route that ended up being the best way across. With more waterfalls and streams, the left bank trail varies little from the previous trail, at least initially. Soon, the trail begins to undulate sharply up and down rocky slopes along the bank of Bowyers Stream. At times, the trail looks more like a rock wall than a path. With loaded packs, this type of rocky scrambling can and did take a toll on knees and ankles. A steep half hour’s climb to Duke’s Knob (740m) follows. From this point, the walkway descends steeply into Sharplin Falls. Day hikers and picture takers began appearing in force during the last kilometer or so of trail passing through Sharplin Falls. The area is very pretty and easily accessible, making it a popular spot for a short stroll.
Overall, if a two-day, one-night hike fits your agenda, it would be hard to top the Mount Somers Sub Alpine Walkway. While a lot of tourists and Kiwis turn their tramping attention to the multitude of well publicized “Great Walks” in New Zealand, this less-traveled track delivers its own big views along exceptionally varied terrain in a less demanding two or three-day package for those who stumble upon this wonderful little track.