Camp Creek to Mt Alexander
We walked the Camp Creek route to the Mt Alexander tops on the Kaimata Range just after Christmas, and while the rest of the country suffered a cool, damp few days, the West Coast basked in glorious sunshine. The tramping possibilities on the West Coast are seemingly endless, but this one ticked the boxes in terms of our number of days, difficulty, a decent climb, lovely tops, spectacular tarns, a huge boulder garden, and wildflower meadows. We had such a wonderful time exploring we didn’t even feel miffed that cloud prevented us from reaching the summit of Mt Alexander 1958m (which had been our goal) and instead we went as far up as the 1795 pt.
DoC categorise the route to Camp Creek hut as ‘expert’. It took us 2.5 hours to get to the hut, which is about 3 Kms distance and 750m elevation – giving you an idea of how slow going it is. This included a couple of beautiful West Coast river crossings, that you wouldn’t want to attempt in anything other than perfect weather. From the hut, it took us another 2 hours of very steep climbing up 1.5 Km or so to reach 1400m, then 40 minutes of negotiating the boulder field, and about 30 minutes to get down to the large tarns – around 7.5 hours from the car park to camping including over an hour’s lunch break.
Mt Alexander is part of the Kaimata Range running East-West to the North of the Taramakau River between Inchbonnie and the Otira River. The Alexander Range runs roughly North-South to the East of the Lake Brunner Road between Inchbonnie and Rotomanu. It is from this side that you access Camp Creek, about 3 Kms North of Lake Poreua. Head through a gate and drive up a grassy lane until you reach the car park at the end (not visible to the road). A path leads you over a stile to the start of the track.
Camp Creek Route
We set off at 10.30 am on a magnificent blue-sky day. The trail led us straight into the broad-leafed forest and we enjoyed the initial, and short-lived easy gradient. Apart from an embarrassing navigational failure within the first seven minutes, the track was well marked and easy to follow. One thing that became clear fairly immediately was that this was going to be a trip with a fair amount of ongaonga stinging nettle. As usual, I was wearing my running shorts, but I was glad I had opted for long gaiters this time.
Within about twenty minutes we arrived at the first of the two major river crossings. On a fine day like today, there was nothing too much to worry about, and we picked our way over the giant boulders across the river. There weren’t any markers so we made our way through and up the river until we found the track again on the true right.
The track became steeper as we sidled up the valley. We crossed a couple of side streams, traversed a slip and encountered a slippery rope-climb. It was varied and interesting and we watched our footing as it was pretty wet. The second river crossing was a beauty and it was nice to bask in the sun as we crossed.
Camp Creek Hut
We reached the six-bed Camp Creek hut at 1 pm. From 1977 to 2006 it was a research hut and was then rather fancy. Today it has an outdoor bath which we didn’t use, and despite the hut itself being a tad dark, it had a sunny verandah where we ate our lunch.
Camp Creek hut to the Alexander Tops
The route from the hut to the tops was signposted several times in addition to the usual trail markers. This section was mostly very steep up a narrow spur, apart from the beginning where it was very muddy. The 700m or so climb began in the forest and didn’t let up once we were out in the open. By the time we’d left the forest behind the track was more of a solid bash and climb up through the flaxes, bushes and roots. We found ourselves hanging on to any vegetation which helped get us up the steep track. We found a couple of sneaky speargrass here and there and yelped as we inadvertently reached up to put a hand in one, or found ourselves with no other option than to sidle closely around them.
Half way up I realised I had forgotten to pack the Yahtzee dice (always our evening entertainment). Rich loves making ‘backcountry solutions’ to our first world problems and found a solid stick to carry with us up the 750m climb – which he intended to whittle into some dice. I scoffed… more on his achievements later.
At 4 pm we had climbed out of the bush and were following the trail markers around and to the left, below the main boulder field. We wanted to camp at the beautiful long tarns to the South West. Having read some notes in the Camp Creek hut book about not turning right and attempting to go through the boulder field too soon – we did exactly that and ended up in the jumbled maze of giant boulders. We followed our noses and found a route through. We took a different route on the way back the next day as below.
A route through the boulder field Mt Alexander
Below are the guestimations of our route in and out of the boulder fields to the big tarns, from a photo taken from the tarns looking back. The red route was more adventurous (hit & miss) through the boulder field. The green route is less boulder-field but a steeper drop down to the tarns.
Climbing up from the Camp Creek route once you get onto a flatter section with the boulders to your right follow the markers to the small tarn on your left (you can’t see it in the photo). Not far after the tarn, turn right when you’re at around 1420m and you’ll find your way through an alleyway in the boulders taking you across to the Eastern side. There were a couple of cairns through here. You’ll come out the other side of the main boulder field and can easily sidle below the main jumble of rocks and down to a narrow steep gut which takes you down to cross a stream, then you’ll head up to the long tarns.
Down to the tarns Camp Creek Mt Alexander
… So we turned right too soon and ended up crossing the middle of the boulder field. The wind was roaring so we donned all the warm clothes we had close to hand and made our way as quickly as possible through the boulder field.
It was incredibly beautiful, and we couldn’t wait to explore more when we came back tomorrow. The bonus of taking the ‘difficult’ route to the tarns, was that we found the most fabulous view after a bit of a sketchy climb-down through a narrow crack in the jagged rocky ridge. Quick photo-op over, and getting colder by the minute, we climbed down to the rolling hills to the Western side of the tarns.
It took us about 40 minutes to find a route through the boulders and another 30 minutes from the photo-spot to walk across and down to the tarns. We ended up finding a magnificent and quite sheltered camp spot on the Western shore past the first long tarn.
We got the tent up and more clothes on as quickly as we could. As I got to work putting the water on for a cup of soup, Rich got to work whittling us a set of Yahtzee dice. As I admitted earlier, I wasn’t holding out much hope of success but ate my words when he presented the finished product.. a set of fully functioning, 100% natural, hand-carved, ultralight wooden dice.
** having played multiple times since, we have discovered that they are slightly weighted and therefore most likely to score a Yahtzee on ones and twos!
Exploring the Tarns Camp Creek Mt Alexander
The following morning we woke to another fine day. We had a brief look around before breakfast and climbed the hill towards the Taramakau valley. The views towards the Otira and Arthurs Pass were wonderful. As we came back we stopped to have a look at the smaller tarns and saw some tadpoles swimming around – we were amazed that frogs could survive up here! As our stomachs started rumbling, we headed back to enjoy an unhurried, sandfly free breakfast.
After breakfast, we left the tent up and wandered up and around the tarns. It was easy walking over the tussock hills and the views were incredible! We had obviously picked the right time of year to come as the ground was carpeted in flowers. We stopped at the end just in time to see the Alpine Explorer scenic train (from Christchurch to Greymouth) rumble across the railway bridge of the Taramakau River 1300m below.
On our way back we walked up to take a look at prospective routes back up to the mountain avoiding the main boulder field and settled on the route up the steep gut to the left as we looked at it (the green route above).
Back up to the Mountain
It was 1.30 pm by the time we packed up and got under way again. We headed back to the mountain along the Eastern side of the tarns. Having made our way down and across a small stream, we climbed the steep gut – clinging to the foliage for support. We climbed a second gut before sidling below the main boulder field. We found a nice tarn and possible camp spot and locked it away in case we come back. Sidling below the rock field we caught sight of the odd cairn here and there. We kept our eye on an enormous boulder in the distance and decided we’d cross there. This turned out to be a ‘route’ of sorts through to the main track that we’d come off yesterday.
By about 2.30 pm we had crossed through the giant boulders and found a trail marker, which meant we were back on the main route heading up to Mt Alexander at around 1420m. We turned left and immediately saw a tarn almost on the edge of the North-West facing drop-off. It was quite exposed so we scouted around a little and found a sheltered dip just big enough for the tent, and set ourselves up.
Up to Little Alexander
The afternoon cloud had come in, and scuppered any chances of views from Mt Alexander itself (and to be honest I didn’t really feel the need to go up all that way). So we made our way up to the 1795m point, or as we’ve read since, “Little Alexander”.
The 380m climb from our camp spot didn’t seem too bad after yesterdays exertions, and we weren’t under any time pressure. After around 60m of climbing, we came to a second tarn. Not as great for camping as the first, but useful for emergency water if you needed it.
The views got better and better as we climbed, but unfortunately, we were walking into the afternoon puff of cloud which had gathered over the peaks. About halfway up Rich saw a chamois on the rocky slopes of the opposite ridge. When we were about 40m from the top the cloud swept in, and in an instant, it was very cold and pretty miserable. I felt the need to go no further so crouched behind a large boulder out of the wind while Rich scrambled up to the 1795m point.
In the evening, after dinner, we received some visitors. A couple of kea (alpine parrots) did a fly-past, so we got our little wooden bird caller out (foolishly, in hindsight…) to see how they would react to it. Five minutes later a flock of about 10 kea had gathered. We spent the next 30 minutes entertaining each other until we wanted to go to bed. The kea had different ideas. They had become quite bold and were hopping around our campsite casually investigating anything shiny with their sharp beaks.
We found enough rocks to fully cover all the tent pegs, but we couldn’t hide the tiny metal bits which tension the guy ropes of the tent. It took us about twenty minutes to shoo them away. During the night they came back at about 10.30 pm, announcing their arrival with their trademark squawk, to pull the ropes. Next was at 3 am, by stealth, with just a sweep of wings over the tent and a gentle tug-tug-tug on the tent.
We woke to another beautiful morning and a wonderful cloud layer beneath us. We climbed up into the boulder garden to marvel at the views. Over breakfast, a fog-bow developed just next to us.
After breakfast, we reluctantly packed up and headed back down the steep ridge back to Camp Creek at about 9.40 am. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, because there was so much foliage to hang onto. But we still had to take great care not to slip. If you have dodgy knees I definitely wouldn’t recommend it.
We enjoyed lunch at one of the river crossings and were glad to ease off the knees a bit! Just before the car park, we met a young couple going up for the New Year – the first people we’d seen for the whole trip. We were heading out of the car park by 2 pm, so it had taken us around 4.5 hours to descend, including lunch.
We’d definitely recommend an adventure up Mt Alexander – it was absolutely superb!! but only if you have good knees, and only if the weather is perfect 🙂