Hapuku River, Kowhai Saddle to Mt Fyffe
We made it a ‘crossover’ trip with some friends for this great overnighter. Starting from the Hapuku River, we headed up to the Kowhai Saddle for the overnight, then next day it was up and over the Gables End and along to Mt Fyffe and down. Our friends, who walked the other way starting at Fyffe, agreed it was equally as glorious in the opposite direction. It was my first overnight in the Kaikouras and I can’t wait to get back!
Getting There Hapuku River Mt Fyffe
Kaikoura is around 3.5 hours from Nelson, so we met at 6.30 am and headed up the SH6 to Blenheim. Luckily our favourite cafe the 23 Grove Road Coffee House opened at 7 am, so we made the most of it with coffees and pastries. (We had the usual sticky bun, plus a bacon & egg croissant and a spinach flatbread – delicious!). From Blenheim, we continued South down the SH1. Just before Kaikoura, we headed inland taking a right onto Postmans Road then Chapmans Road (the last part of which was unsealed) which took us to the Mt Fyffe car park.
At 9.30 am the car park at Mt Fyffe was already packed. Turns out we had picked a day when there was a local running event on, and the opening of some new mountain bike tracks on Mt Fyffe. We handed our friends the spare car key and left them sorting out their gear in a sunny spot in the car park. Retracing our route, we drove back up Chapmans and Postmans to the SH1 again, then took a left to come off at the Hapuku River at Parsons Road, and continued onto Grange Road where we would start our walk – and where our friends would finish theirs, picking the car up tomorrow and driving back to Fyffe to collect us.
We arrived at the Hapuku River at around 10.15 am. A few other cars scattered around indicated that this must be the end of the road, so we parked next to the river. We got ourselves together and by 10.45 am were ready to go, crossing a small side creek before coming out onto the wide, debris-filled Hapuku River bed.
The Hapuku River Mt Fyffe
Several other groups had started just before us, but there was no sign of them in the river valley. We assumed they must have found the four-wheel-drive track on the opposite (true left) river bank. We preferred to walk the river – the views were incredible, and it was easy enough to pick out and follow the dry channels in the river bed. There wasn’t really any rock-hopping involved, but rather the gentle ups and downs of the channels. We stayed to the left of the island before the valley opened out again.
We followed the river for around 2.5 km until it started to narrow. The river was running clear, wasn’t deep and the few crossings we made were easy. We must have made pretty good time, as we saw the other parties emerge from the right bank, just ahead of us.
Soon enough, the river valley began to close up around us and cliffs rose on either side. The gravels and debris of the river bed formed large terraces in front of us.
We made a final crossing to the true right side of the river opposite the large rock slab and walked up to look for the trail which was to take us through the forest. A large orange marker showed us the way and by midday, we were making our way up the climb.
Into the Forest
As we followed the trail markers up the steep track up through the bush, we were puzzled to discover the trail on the ground was different to the one on the topo map of my BackCountry Navigator phone app. Turns out the app had a pre-2016- earthquake version of the topo (long story – I’ve since changed to a better app – NZTopo50 Offline South Island map). From a height, the track gradually turned with the river and we were treated to some great views up the valley towards Mt Stace and the tops of the Kaikoura ranges.
The track led us back down to the river after a km or so, and we decided to find a nice lunch spot around 1 pm. It presented itself by the river just off from a large rockfall. Over lunch, we took our wet socks off and dried them in the warm sunshine, and enjoyed the remarkably sandfly-free experience.
To Hapuku Hut
At around 1.30 pm we got ourselves together and set off towards Hapuku hut. From here the trail stayed close to the river for the next couple of Kms and we arrived at the cute 6-bed hut at around 2 pm. It was occupied by a dads-and-kids hunting expedition. We had a quick chat and Rich took the opportunity to whittle a water-bottle stopper out of a piece of manuka (the hardest piece of wood he could possibly find) with his penknife.
It wasn’t that he was simply feeling creative – we had a mission to attend to. Our friends were coming from Mt Fyffe, so the last water they would pick up would be from the hut this morning with a day-walk ahead of them, ending at our meeting point on the Kowhai Saddle. We knew there wouldn’t be any water on their route, or on the saddle, so we offered to take and fill their spare water vessels and carry them up to the Kowhai Saddle. I mentioned it was a mission – we also had to carry our own water for the evening and the next day up to the saddle (as it would be the last water we’d get until Fyffe hut). More on this later… in the meantime Rich set to work whittling a stopper for the extra water bottle that we couldn’t find a lid for earlier.
Hapuku hut to Kowhai Saddle
We must have left the hut around 2.15 pm and immediately went the wrong way after Hapuku hut. We weren’t actually ‘lost-lost’, but we completely missed the track that leads across the river almost immediately after the hut. We carried on up the true right, following the cairns, climbing in and out of the river until it just didn’t feel right. I had vaguely remembered seeing on the map at lunchtime, that we should be on the opposite bank, so Rich did a bit of a bash to see if he could pick up the trail on the other side, but had no luck.
We retraced our steps, and did a fair amount of random faffing before heading back to the hut and seeing the rather obvious crossing we had missed!
Once on the correct side of the river, we started the slow climb in the bush which then led us through a beautiful section of tōtara forest. I’m not really sure why, but I was feeling really tired and was actually struggling a little. I paused for numerous micro-breaks and had a muesli bar to perk myself up. It was lucky I did, the fun part was to come.
To Kowhai Saddle
We had arranged to get all the water from a stream approximately a kilometre or so below the Kowhai Saddle. The stream was close to a final crossing of the Hapuku river before the trail went up a steep spur to the left, which led up towards Gables End before peeling off to the Kowhai Saddle on the right. At least that’s what the map said.
In reality, after we filled up with 13 litres of water from the stream 9L for him and 4L for me (the whittled wooden bottle stopper worked perfectly with a bit of duct tape) we carried it up 350m vertical of rock and scree, through the river valley! As was evident all around us, the powerful Kaikoura earthquake had shaken this place to bits in 2016, so the ‘up and over the spur’ on my map had gone, and the route changed to follow the river instead. My app had not been updated… grrrr.
Tipping out all the water and refilling again seemed like it would be more of a hassle than getting our heads down and slowly plodding on. Step by step (one forward, two back) we followed the marker poles up the rock and scree, and I tried my best not to think about what might happen if a little shake came now. If the precarious-looking towers crumbled around us, we certainly couldn’t escape.
The Kowhai Saddle
It was around 4.45 pm when we made it up the final 20m of sandy, gravel scramble to set foot on the solid grassy lumps of the Kowhai Saddle at 1153m. We were immediately on full alert for possible camping options. but discovered that another group had arrived from the Kowhai valley about ten minutes before us and bagged a great spot near the signpost. Undeterred, we dropped our water-laden packs and headed up the track a couple of hundred metres towards Gables End.
We could see a couple of tiny figures coming down the steep slopes of Gables End, which we eventually recognised as our friends. We sat down at a small but reasonably flat spot which seemed like it would make do for camping and waited for them to join us. When they arrived, they didn’t have their packs. They had found a large, flat and almost perfect campsite just a little further up. We went back down, grabbed our packs and all the water and headed back up to it.
It wasn’t really until we got the tents up and started eating that we relaxed and appreciated the incredible beauty of our surroundings. We had spectacular views down the Hapuku and Kowhai valleys East-West and the Seaward Kaikouras and Gables North/South. We enjoyed a wonderful, calm Spring evening and watched the sun go down behind the mountains to the West.
Kowhai Saddle to Gables End
During the night the wind got up and we were buffeted around in our tent on the saddle. I put my earplugs in and had excellent sleep! In the morning the wind was still up, so we took breakfast just off the saddle amongst the tussock.
After a leisurely breakfast, we went our separate ways from the Kowhai Saddle at around 9.15 am. Our friends headed down to the Hapuku River and we left at got stuck into the steep 350m climb up to Gables End.
On reflection, I was glad to be going up it rather than coming down, even though it was hard work again – two steps up, slide one back on the loose rock and scree. We really enjoyed it though, and as we followed the poled route to climb higher the views became even more spectacular. As we rose, so did the wind, and it was strong enough to blow me over as we were climbing.
We reached the top at Gables End 1592m at around 10 am.
From the top of Gables End there was a beautiful walk along the tops which allowed us to take in the jaw-dropping views of the Kaikoura Coast to the East and the mountains to the West. After about 500m we dropped down into a snow-crested dip before another steep rocky ascent up to the Gable at 1585m.
We headed down into the saddle separating the two high points and by 10.45 am and another short, sharp climb, we were up on the Gable.
The Gable to Mt Fyffe
From the Gable it was a beautiful walk along to Mt Fyffe a couple of Kms down the ridge. The wind was howling, and we met a family with some extremely hardy kids, who were walking the Fyffe – Kowhai Saddle – Kowhai hut route. At least they had the wind behind them. We had donned our warm layers now that we had finished climbing and pushed on.
We had wondered whether it would be possible to camp up on the top, and aside from the limiting factors of no water and a howling gale, we did see some spots where you could put up a tent. As long as you were guaranteed a calm night and took additional water it would be do-able.
As we neared Mt Fyffe the wildling pines began to creep up around us. Pines were planted on areas of the mountain in the 1970s to help control soil erosion which had occurred from a history of logging and farming. However, they have spread to the point that local groups have adopted various eradication measures for the area.
We reached Mt Fyffe 1165m at 11.45 am and found a spot just off the ridge, out of the wind to eat lunch. To be honest, I was a little underwhelmed.
There were plenty of day walkers on Mt Fyffe (DOC time reads 8 hours return as a day walk from the car park) and after a hard couple of days of solitude and the elements, it always seems a bit strange to be thrust back into reality again. The four-wheel drive track down from Mt Fyffe summit was pretty easy. It was still blowing a gale, and when we looked across to the mountains there were active landslips going off in several places – sending up large puffs of debris and dust into the air.
Within an hour after our lunch stop, we were approaching Mt Fyffe hut 1103m which is in a lovely, mostly flat setting with a huge lawn. The hut isn’t bookable but given how easily accessible it is, I imagine its full most weekends. I poked my nose into the lovely 8-bedder and used the facilities which (in case you value your privacy) has a half glass door. We heard the loud whoomph whoomph whoompf of a helicopter coming, and to everyone’s excitement, a local whale-watching-scenic-flight landed on the lawn.
After examining the helicopter (him) and chatting to the occupants (me) we made our way down the track. It was about 1pm when we left. The journey down was easy and uneventful and we stopped half way for another 20-minute break.
We were back down at the car park by 2.30 pm. Compared to the gale blowing on the mountain, there was hardly any wind at the car park. We stripped off and lazed in the shade. Amazingly, our friends arrived at the car at the Hapuku river at almost exactly the same time, and by 3.30 pm we were piling into the car to head home.
Heading home started with a detour into Kaikoura for an ice-cream. There was great debate about where to get the ice-cream, but a free car park opposite the first ice-cream shop sealed the deal. Disappointingly though, the ‘real fruit’ ice-cream store appeared not to have any real fruit in their ice-cream, so we went next door to the dairy, who did.
On the way home, we sealed the deal on an amazing weekend with a fish ‘n chip dinner, eaten at the waterfront picnic table just outside of Havelock 🙂