This weekend’s adventure, the Black Birch – Blairch loop, was a surprise delight and completely new territory for both of us. It’s hard to find somewhere within a few hours drive of Nelson that my partner hasn’t been adventuring already, and this weekend ticked all the boxes: a loop walk, a decent climb, an interesting variety of landscapes, easy off track, plenty of open tops and amazing views. We started walking at around midday on Saturday and by 4 pm Sunday had covered a 1500m peak and something like 21km of beautiful walking. Black Birch Blairich loop.
Getting There Black birch blairich loop
From Nelson, we took the SH6 North and East via the Whangamoas, Pelorous bridge and Havelock to Blenheim, about 1.5 hours (120km) away. As we usually do when we come this way, we made a cafe stop at the wonderful 23 Grove Road Coffe House in Blenheim. Our destination was up the Awatere Valley, so we headed South for a scenic drive past the Wither Hills and across the Taylor Pass Road to the Awatere and down through Blairich to Blackbirch, about 30 minutes away. As we did, you’ll probably blink and miss the stop for the track. There is a car park next to some paddocks on the left with a DOC sign by one of the gates, just before you reach Black Birch. Black birch Blairich loop.
The track is in an area called the Ferny Gair Conservation Area, which is popular with hunters and is great for tramping.
Starting at Black Birch Blairich Loop
We were at the track start around midday and chatted to a group of hunters who were waiting for a lift home. We got going at 12.15 pm. Our cafe stop in Blenheim had been a perfect mid-morning snack (a light, pizza bread and a ‘sticky bun’ – which totally undersells the deliciously rich, fluffy cinnamon, fruit mince, golden syrup scroll delight!) so we felt no need for lunch yet.
The track started with a walk through a paddock with some large bulls in it, which always makes me a tad edgy. But they were perfectly happy to let us wander through and made no signs of moving. We kept a close eye on them just in case.
The track swung right as we came to and followed the river terrace up the Black Birch Stream. The trail was a pleasant, flat four-wheel drive track, and the farmland and vineyard views across the stream were pretty. We enjoyed the sunshine and easy walking and discovered that the water catchment is part of the Marlborough District Council water supply.
This part of the track is also the start of the Blairich Mountain mountain bike track although today we didn’t see anyone else. There was a pristine toilet around 1.5 km down the track, which was just what I needed. From here there was a sign which read that the Black Birch Bivvy was 4 hours (7.3 km) away. It took us around 2 hours 45 mins from here including a 20-minute lunch stop (from the car park it took us around 3 hours 15 minutes to the bivvy).
The Black Birch Track
There was another 1 km on the flat before the track entered a beautiful manuka (or possibly kanuka… we didn’t check the leaves) forest of the Black Birch track. Aside from some ups and downs – mostly a slow up for a couple of hundred metres – that’s exactly how things continued for the next 1.5 hours. The track itself was easy, in great condition and not too boggy.
We enjoyed a quick lunch and listened to the bellbirds and fantails in the canopy above. The mountain bike track finished abruptly above a side stream, and the walking track dropped down steeply to cross it at a beautiful water hole which would be perfect for a dip in summer.
From here, there was a whole lot of up to the Black Birch bivvy.
Climbing to Black Birch Bivvy
‘Relentless’ is the word I would use to describe the 450m climb up the 2 km or so to the Black Birch bivouac. But we enjoyed it, and were rewarded with some decent views over the valley and the Blairich range. The trail itself had become quite rocky and the slippy, particularly steep bits reminded me of the climb up to Stodys hut from the Timaru river on Te Araroa trail – hands down one of the most difficult and most memorable parts of Te Araroa trail for me.
After several micro-breaks, photo breaks, and losing the trail on the tops just before the bivvy, we did eventually find the 2 bed Black Birch Bivouac at around 3.30 pm, about an hour after we started climbing.
Black Birch Bivouac Blackbirch blairich loop
This great little hut was relocated and revamped in 2015 and is looked after by DOC and the local deerstalkers association. Post-revamp it is split-level, with a rather challenging giant step up to the upper-level bedroom area. It has 2 bunks and 2 spare mattresses, a couple of benches (one upper and one lower level) and a couple of extremely comfy plastic chairs.
We spotted a couple of very small flat areas which could be used for tenting – one in front and one behind the hut.
Once we settled in we went exploring, and discovered the ‘loo with a view’ a little way away from the hut over a rocky outcrop. From there we continued up and across the mountainside to take a look at tomorrow’s route. The whole area had been recently ripped apart by pigs.
We walked up to the nearest high point. From there we could see the ridge to Blairich mountain stretching out in front of us. We spent some time checking the map and working out a route (there isn’t a track up the ridge) before the strong wind and cold sent us back to the comfort of the hut.
We ended up having the hut to ourselves and had a leisurely dinner and several games of Yahtzee.
Black Birch Bivvy to Blairich Mountain
Having abandoned the thought of getting up early to watch the sunrise from the peak, I had probably the best and most uninterrupted sleep I’ve ever had in a hut – a full 10 hours! We woke to a day of solid cloud cover, but it was still warm enough to enjoy breakfast outdoors.
We left around 8.45 am. As usual, we swept and tidied the hut, and took with us a couple of empty gas canisters and some unburnt rubbish which someone had left in the outdoor fire.
Today we had a 700m climb to Blairich peak followed by the ups and downs of the Blairich Range, then back down to the forest, and out.
We quickly reached yesterday’s high point, then opted to stay fairly low and skirt the flanks to underneath the 1187 high point. As sidling goes, it really wasn’t too bad. Some parts were a little loose underfoot and there was some minor bashing through the low bushes. By about 10 am we were almost halfway up the mountain, past the small patch of trees at around 1100m. Then Rich casually dropped into conversation that “everyone else probably just goes over the top…”
Up the ridge
We were directly below the 1187 high point when we threw our packs down for a break. Rich offered to climb the high point for a look and returned 10 minutes later to announce that “over the top” was indeed very nice, and very do-able. We scrambled about 80m up and continued along the ridgeline. It was fantastic. The views were incredible and the wind wasn’t quite as strong as it had been yesterday. We were glad for the cloud cover because we now had a further 400m climb.
We had recently suffered a cold snap after a balmy few weeks of beautiful Spring weather, so I was very excited to see a couple of very tiny pockets of snow on Blairich. We took the opportunity to stop, have a drink and make some snowballs.
We plodded onwards and upwards for about ten more minutes until we reached the wide, flat top of Blairich at 11.20 am. With a couple of decent stops, it had taken us about 2.5 hours from the bivvy. On the peak was a jumble of fencing and old bits and pieces, but the views were great.
The high point of the Black Birch range “Altimarloch” stretched out in front of us to the South West. There is a four-wheel-drive track all the way up to the 1693m peak. From the 1970s to the 1990s there was a US Navy observatory at the top, hence the track.
The wind whipped up and the sun showed no sign of coming out so we donned our warm layers and hats and gloves. Turning East, with the wind behind us, we headed down the beautiful vast expanse of the tops. We were very glad we hadn’t walked the other way!
Down the Blairich Range
We mostly followed the ups and downs of the fence line as we made our way down the Blairich range. At a rough guess, we had around 8 Km and a 1000m drop on the tops before heading back into the manuka forest and dropping down to the river terrace. Despite the gale and the cold, we really enjoyed it.
We eventually descended into prime speargrass territory. The silly thing was we’d both packed long gaiters which would have made things slightly easier, but instead, we carefully picked our way through the spiky forest, with the occasional yelp as one of us was speared. Hilariously by the time we were scratched bleeding enough to warrant the three minute stop to find the gaiters and get them on, we realised there was a perfectly acceptable farm track for us to be walking on, below the ridge.
We hit the farm track at around 1.25 pm and enjoyed the next 4 km or so walking the downhill, with an occasional respite from the wind as the track twisted and turned. We stopped for lunch with a view over the Black Birch stream and the Awatere River below at around 2 pm.
As we dropped down the Manuka forest came up to meet us on our right. At around 2.45 pm and just as the sun came out, we arrived at the sign pointing us into the forest and down the mountain bike track.
Blairich Mountain Bike Track
The 320m or so descent through the forest to the river was mostly a series of switchbacks and shortcuts, and if I was being a little harsh about it, really not all that exciting. The forest was just as pretty as yesterday, but we had seen lots of it yesterday, and right now all I wanted to do was get down onto the flat. We reached the river about half an hour after entering the forest, with a quick stop after 15 minutes at a stunning outlook across the full length of Black Birch.
We took a quick break at the river. It had turned into an absolute scorcher of a day, and we stripped off more layers and slapped on the sunscreen. About 50 minutes later we were back at the bull paddock, for a no-nonsense-don’t-look-’em-in-the-eye-fast-walk back to the car.
We topped off the magnificent weekend with a well-deserved boysenberry trumpet (King of icecreams) in Seddon.
If you haven’t been to this part of the Northern South Island or you have a spare weekend in Marlborough, and you don’t mind a bit of a climb for your epic views, then the Black Birch Blairich Loop is the perfect solution. We loved it!