Ellis Basin Route
We took a detour off the popular Mt Arthur summit track in the Kahurangi National Park, to spend a weekend freezing our bits off tramping the beautiful Ellis Basin Route and around the other-worldly karst landscapes beneath The Twins. Although it’s only a few hours to Ellis hut and not far from civilisation (Flora car park), it felt like a true wilderness weekend with the hut to ourselves and some wild weather.
Getting There Ellis Basin Route
The Ellis Basin Route starts just short of Mt Arthur summit. Check out my Mount Arthur and Tablelands Circuit posts for details of other tramping options in the area. We parked at the Flora car park on the Motueka side of the Arthur Range, which is about 75 km (1.5 hours) west of Nelson. From the end of the Graham Valley Road in the Motueka valley, the road takes you up to 930m. Beware though, the track up to the car park is steep and narrow and can be rutted, and badly pot-holed. DOC recommends that you take a four-wheel-drive vehicle and I would definitely agree.
We chose this tramp because it was a three-day weekend, it’s practically on our doorstep and it meant we got a sleep-in on day one. The weather forecast wasn’t looking too bad, but we expected some showers.
Towards Mt Arthur
Being Anzac weekend, the Flora car park was packed at 10.30 am when we arrived, so we parked a little way down the road. By 10.40 am we had signed our intentions in the book in the shelter and were on our way. The track to Mt Arthur starts in beautiful beech forest along a wide track before it separates. We took the left turn and walked the 4.2 Kms up towards Mt Arthur hut. An hour later we were out on the tops.
The Flora car park is no place to assess the weather above Mt Arthur hut. This weekend was a lesson in that you really only know what it’s doing up there when you get there. This was especially relevant on our return journey when there was a howling gale and sleet just up the track from Mt Arthur hut and blue skies at the car park. Most times I have been up it has been glorious. Today it was less so, with light clouds swirling around Mt Arthur summit in the distance. We had prepared for the worst and started piling on the layers shortly after breaking out onto the tops.
Mt Arthur hut to Ellis Basin turn-off
With the cloudy skies, I saw the stretch from the hut towards Mt Arthur in a different light, but even when the cloud came across, the track was easy to follow as it’s so well-marked. I donned my new raincoat, which we immediately christened my ‘tramping frock’ – a Kiwi made Earth Sea Sky ‘Hydrophobia’.
Mt Arthur into Ellis Basin Route
An hour and a half from Mt Arthur hut at around 1680m, and with Mt Arthur summit about 500m distant, we took the turnoff left (south) to Ellis basin. It was 1.10 pm and we were ready for some lunch. After the turnoff, the track climbed 40m or so and flanked Winter Peak before dropping down into what we hoped would be the perfect sheltered little saddle for lunch. Instead, we walked into a wind tunnel coming up from Ellis basin. We dropped a little into the northeast-facing basin out of the worst of the wind and ate our cheese and crackers with an incredible view.
We piled on the warm clothes for lunch, including long johns and rain pants, and were especially glad of them when we got going again 30 minutes later. We climbed up out of our lunch spot, then shortly dropped over into the Ellis basin at around 2.10 pm. The initial 200m dropped down a rocky scree section with great views along the Arthur range across the basin, but The Twins in the distance were hidden by cloud.
After the initial 200m drop things got a little hairy for a few minutes as we negotiated a particularly steep, slippery grassy section at around 1480 m. There was still a track to follow, so we hung on to the vegetation and made our way slowly down. After that, it was plain sailing, and the 400m drop stretched out before us down to the hut at the bush line.
With the numerous stops for photos and the gradual shedding of clothing layers, it took about an hour and a quarter to get down to the hut from the initial drop. We arrived at the hut at about 3.25 pm.
Ellis hut hadn’t seen much sun today. We opened the door to the spotless six bedder, looked at the open fire and the lack of dry firewood in the woodshed, and knew we were in for a cold weekend. We stacked a little wood from the shed around the fireplace, then ran around the woods to replenish the woodshed with some windfall close by. Next we went out to fill all the water containers from the stream nearby.
Chores over, we settled in, got the sleeping bags out, and put the water on for a soup. We learned from the hut book that some lovely gentlemen had recently been up to install a new kitchen bench and dig out the underneath of the hut to improve the airflow.
Several rounds of Yahtzee later as it grew dark and colder, we attempted a fire. Within twenty minutes we abandoned it owing to the amount of smoke that filled the hut, and also to the amount of attention required in keeping a fire blazing with wood that wasn’t entirely dry. Thank goodness for my wonderful new sleeping bag.
The morning dawned cold. We had the hut to ourselves – usually something to champion, but in this case, it meant less body heat to warm up the hut. A trip to the loo confirmed what we suspected, that it was probably warmer outside than in! We lounged around in our sleeping bags until we felt brave enough to get some breakfast together.
Exploring Beneath The Twins
Today’s adventure involved a quick exploration of the limestone karst area to the southwest of Ellis hut, beneath the Twins. After crossing the small stream, we took a right turn off the Ellis Basin Route and headed around the base of the mountain until the track led us up to the bush line. There wasn’t a track on the map, but there is a marked track on the ground (look for the blue markers).
We noticed plenty of large holes in the ground a clue to the other activity Ellis Basin is famous for – caving. A couple of New Zealand’s longest and deepest cave systems can be found up here.
Rich had been exploring up here before so vaguely knew the area, but as we came out onto the karst, we saw a blue painted rock cairn. We latterly found more cairns and eventually found some blue marker poles. We slowly made our way southwest to a small saddle near pt 1248 beneath The Twins.
The day was overcast and low clouds hung around ‘The Twins’ so we never saw the skyscrapers above us. Nevertheless, climbing up and over the huge boulders and broken landscape was very cool, and I’m not sure the photos really give a good impression of the giant scale of things.
We peered carefully into some giant holes and wondered if these were entrances to the cave systems below.
We only covered a reasonably small area – probably a square kilometer, to the low saddle near pt 1248 then headed back to overlook the basin, before the rain set in at around 1 pm.
We slowly headed back to the hut and whiled away the afternoon with another Yahtzee challenge, which took us into another cold night and an early bedtime.
The following morning after the usual hut tidy and sweep, we left around 8.30 am. There was some cloud scudding quickly over the mountain tops but it was pleasant as we left the hut.
We made quick work of the 600m climb. At around 1400m we discovered that it had been an extremely cold night at altitude, and everything was frozen. As we climbed the wind got up too, and we stopped to put more layers on. The scree section was frozen and the cold wind was sweeping up the basin at our backs.
The highlight of the climb was finding a large vagrant spider who was making an outing from rock to rock when Rich spotted him. We spent a few minutes watching him before the cold moved us on.
Above the basin at 1700m, it suddenly became winter.
It hadn’t snowed overnight, but the ground had frozen and it was bitterly cold. I was glad of my many warm layers, two pairs of gloves, and waterproofs. Beneath Winter Peak we were excited to see the frost-covered vegetation, before the thick, dark cloud rolled in and it began to sleet.
Mt Arthur Route
It took about an hour and a half to get from Ellis hut to the Mt Arthur junction, which we reached at 10 am. We had hardly been dawdling, but it was now pretty clear that we had better hurry back.
Thankfully, Winter Peak blocked the brunt of the gale-force winds coming off the Arthur range for the first part of the route down, but as we rounded Horseshoe Basin beneath pt 1565 we felt the full force.
The wind was so strong we could barely stand. The crosswind was battering us and we had to plant our poles and brace ourselves to avoid being blown over. The visibility came and went, and sleet stung my cheeks each time I turned to check Rich was still with me.
This was the worst weather I had tramped in. I was glad we were dressed for the conditions, on a well-marked route which we knew, and that it was downhill (by now, a relatively short distance) to the hut.
Mt Arthur hut and down to Flora car park
About 600m from the hut we saw some figures ahead of us, and quickly caught up to them. I’m not sure who was more surprised to see the other group! They had stayed at Mt Arthur hut last night and were venturing out for a look at the summit, but turned back in the terrible conditions. We confirmed that things were as bad as they appeared up there, and we all hurried down to the hut.
The conditions at Mt Arthur hut didn’t give any clues to the storm just up the track. We sat at the picnic table out of the wind, enjoying the sun, exhilarated and (for me) a little exhausted. It was mind-boggling to think that twenty minutes ago we’d been finding it difficult to stand up in the gale and sleet! We took a leisurely break and kept our belongings clear of the resident weka, before heading back down to Flora car park.
As we walked down lots of people were walking up from a blue-sky day at the car park. When we signed ourselves back into the hut book at the car park I overheard some lads talking about summiting Mt Arthur today. They were dressed in their summer shirts and shorts, and I was still dressed in my 5 layers. I’m not sure they believed me when I said it had been gale-force winds and sleet just above Mt Arthur hut.
What a great weekend! We will definitely be back to explore again in the summer, with a view of the mountains, longer days, and hopefully great weather.