Saxton Severn, Leatham Molesworth Loop

Descending from the Severn Saddle on the Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth loop. Tinytramper

Saxton Severn, Leatham Molesworth Loop

The Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth Loop is an epic four- or five-day adventure in South Marlborough. DOC categorise the 56-kilometre loop as “expert” owing to not much of it being marked or on a track, and you’ll need great route-finding experience and fitness. We started and finished at the Saxton River along the Acheron Road.

The loop winds through river valleys and over mountain passes through a surprising variety of scenery and offers some spectacular views. If you love a good scree run there are a couple of whoppers. It isn’t easy and there were plenty in the way of surprises. Notably the extent of wilding pines in the Leatham and plenty of downed trees/windfall (we assumed post the July 2022 storms).

If you’re a hay fever, grass, or pine allergy sufferer be warned that this track could be your worst nightmare. I was OK in the bush/tussock sections, but in the long farm grasses and pine I only just managed to rein it in with a full complement of nasal spray and tablets. Post-tramp, I came up in full hives on both legs for a couple of days. (I took my long gaiters, but it was so hot I couldn’t bear to wear them).

There's plenty of grass in the Molesworth
There’s plenty of grass in the Molesworth 🙂

Restrictions Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth

By the looks of the hut books, the Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth tramp is generally pretty quiet. Probably due to the remote location and that you need a permit from DOC to walk from 1st January to 31st April. There are also restrictions on the direction you can walk (upstream only from Saxton hut during that time) so you don’t inadvertently move any cattle the wrong way. We walked the loop before the cattle had been moved up the valleys. The bonus of this was that the meadows weren’t covered with fresh cow pats, they weren’t all trodden/rutted, and we didn’t have to contend with any cattle except in the first and last half an hour of the walk. We happily swam in and drank from all the streams without any problems. The weather was fabulous and the rivers were low.

Molesworth Station

If you don’t know the Molesworth it’s well worth a visit. There could be a whole post dedicated to it but the links (in red) are good for starters. Molesworth Station is New Zealand’s biggest farm which according to Wikipedia is over 1,800 square kilometres (440,000 acres) and has around 10,000 cattle (although we only saw about 50 cattle and about 10 giant bulls). The land is owned by the government and leased for cattle farming, and the Recreation Reserve is administered by DOC, so there are restrictions on where you can go. The area has great biodiversity value with almost half of the species of Marlborough’s endemic plants, growing here. DOC urges you to check your gear before you go in so you don’t carry any nasties into the area. There is an East-West trail, which I’d like to tick off one day, and a number of short walks.

Great views from the Acheron Road
Great views just about everywhere in the Molesworth

Our tramp had been on the radar for a couple of years since we took a leisurely drive through the 200-kilometre-long Molesworth road from Hanmer Springs to Seddon, stopping off at the places of interest and historical information boards along the way. We repeated the same trip this time, driving over Jack’s Pass from Hanmer Springs and heading northeast up the Acheron Road. Before driving in, check if the road is open. It is only open to the public between October and April, but weather and related events may close it during this time. The mostly single-track gravel road takes about six hours to drive end to end. There are restrictions on the type of vehicle you can bring in (no trailers or large camper vans etc) so check before you set off. We stayed at the Molesworth Cobb Cottage campground the night before.

You can also start the tramp by driving to Top Leatham hut. This will involve a lengthy drive on the Leatham Road, a 4WD track off the SH63, 70 kms west of Blenheim towards St Arnaud. According to DOC, the road requires a high clearance off-road 4WD vehicle and river-crossing experience. We drove in as far as the Branch River one day years ago and watched some 4W drivers tackling the first of the many river crossings up the Leatham. If you’re a novice, don’t bother. Call DOC to find out the state of the Leatham road before attempting it.

Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth Map
Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth Map – Click the image to open Topomaps

Timings

DOC times vary slightly according to which page/signage you read. Check out the DOC brochure for the walk.

Gate at the Acheron Road road to Saxton hut

From the Severn Saddle to the Severn Valley
Perfection in a scree slope. Heading down from the Severn Saddle – Day 3

DOC time: 1hr 30 mins
Our time: 1 hr 5 mins. No break

Saxton hut to Top Gordon hut
DOC time: 7-9 hr (18.5 km)
Our time: 8.5 hr including swim

Top Gordon hut to Bottom Gordon hut
DOC time: 3 hr (5.5 km)
Our time: 2 hr. No break

Bottom Gordon hut to Top Leatham hut
DOC time: 4 hr (7.4 km)
Our time: 2hr 50 mins. No break, plenty of windfall

Top Leatham hut to Severn hut
DOC time: 6-7 hr (13.6 km)
Our time: 7hr 15 mins including a slip, lots of windfall and 1h 15 mins break

Severn hut to Saxton hut
DOC time: 8-9 hr (11 km)
Our time: 5 hr 40 mins including a couple of 20 min stops

Special Mentions

Huge thanks to Naomi Brooks for her excellent trip report on her blog ‘Whatsnextnaomi‘ and to the Wellington Tramping/Mountaineering Club for their post – which we used to research our trip.

As this loop requires a fair degree of route-finding, please don’t take this route/description as ‘the’ route – more a description of the route we took given the factors at the time. Weather conditions may mean that rivers become impassable, or more trees/slips come down and you may find tracks/markers more or less easily than we did. It was interesting reading Naomi’s blog again after we returned, noting the differences in what we both did/didn’t find en route.

Day 1 – Saxton River almost to Saxton Saddle

The Acheron Road Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth

Coming from the Molesworth Cobb Cottage we drove west back towards Hanmer over Wards Pass, to park the car for the tramp. Driving through the Molesworth involves opening/closing many gates and this morning we took our chances with the giant bulls again. When we’d driven through yesterday there were numerous beasts lounging around in their favourite spot at the gate. Most of them were pretty chilled, except Mr Grumpy who was pawing at the ground and giving us a menacing, low moo as I opened the gate, petrified. It was a busy day on the road, and we came through not long after a party of six 4WD vehicles. He was probably just a bit pissy about having to move for all the vehicles. I know I would be.

Thankfully today was a new day and only a few bulls had settled at the gate. We felt sorry for the cyclist we passed who’d have to get his bike through.

Bulls at a gate on the Acheron Road. Saxton Severn Molesworth Leatham circuit tinytramper
Bulls at the gate on the Acheron Road

Acheron Road to Saxton Hut

After an embarrassingly false start, which warrants its own post (!) we began our journey by securely hiding a beer in the river for our return. It’s something we wish we’d done on just about every trip, points to ourselves for remembering this time!
The track to Saxton hut starts approximately half a kilometre from the car park. Rich dropped me off with the packs by the Saxton hut signage, then drove down over the Saxton River bridge, parked and returned. We officially got under way at 12.05 pm.

Signage on the Acheron Road for Saxton hut
Signage on the Acheron Road for Saxton hut – with the welcoming committee waiting for us ahead

The journey started with some hilarity and everso slight nervousness on my part through a bunch of very frisky young cows. The inquisitive type who all jostle for a look but stop a couple of metres away. Closely supervised by the trotting herd, we followed the 4WD track on the true left of the river up on the river terraces.

We left the cows at the first gate and crossed the Saxton river for first time about half an hour into the walk. There hadn’t been any rain for a while and all the rivers on the trip were low.

4WD track towards Saxton hut from the Acheron Road. Saxton Severm Leatham Molesworth loop
4WD track towards Saxton hut
Saxton hut just after the river confluence
Saxton hut on the high terrace

A couple more crossings later we came up onto another terrace and saw Saxton hut in the distance. We found it hard to believe it sits at 1020m. It requires another crossing to the true right of the Saxton just after the confluence with an unnamed river (which the hut book refers to as Boundary Stream). We would walk down this river from Severn hut in a few days’ time.

Saxton Hut Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth

At 1.10 pm we were wringing out our socks and getting lunch under way in the lovely six bed Saxton hut. It had benches for cooking but no table – the nice sturdy stools made do instead. It also had wonderful new blue mattresses and great views. Most of the huts on the loop had a great poster about their history, which we enjoyed reading.

As we were leaving an hour later, we both realised we’d both come a little underprepared on the sunscreen front, and it was wickedly hot and sunny. Rich had a final rummage through the hut items as we tidied up to leave and found an unopened tiny sunscreen – brilliant!

Saxton hut and Saxton River. Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth loop
Saxton hut and the Saxton River

Team Hut and Swims Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth

A hot strong wind did nothing to lessen the effects of the hot sun which beat down on us as we left the hut at 2.10 pm. The walk from Saxton hut was up the river and the large white rocks radiated the heat back up to us. After a couple of kilometres, we reached a grassy scrubby section indicated as swampy on the map and skirted up and around it, on and off a 4WD track.

Heading towards Team hut
Heading towards Team hut

We reached Team hut (a private hut) at 3.30 pm, dropped our packs and popped over the river for a look – just long enough to let the sweat dry. From Team hut it was more of the same, crossing back to the true left and walking up the beautiful river up onto terraces and crossing as required.

River walking after Team hut. Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth circuit
River walking after Team hut
Swimming pool after Team hut Saxton River
The perfect spot for swimming

About forty minutes after Team hut, we came to a river crossing that had a couple of deeper pools and a small rocky gorge just upstream. We stripped off and had a wonderful swim and some fun floats down the river. It was hard not to just lounge around here for the rest of the day as it was so perfect, but we wanted to get closer to, if not over the saddle.

Half an hour later at 4.40 pm we were on our way again and found an animal track to the true left. The river closed in and became slightly more gorged and there were beautiful rocky outcrops amongst lush bushy gardens above us. The huge speargrass was impressive in full bloom, their tall yellow flower fronds covering massive spikes.

Along Saxton River towards Saxton saddle
Along Saxton River towards Saxton saddle
Tinytramper on the Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth loop
Staying cool, not looking cool 😉

** Sometimes I get comments questioning the (shorter) shorts, (short) gaiters, and the (cotton) shirt I sometimes wear. During the past couple of summers, I have enjoyed wearing a cotton shirt on hot days which keeps me cooler than a clingy sports fabric/tramping shirt.  On this trip, like all the others, I carried a merino singlet, two long-sleeve merinos, a sleeveless fleece, long gaiters, merino long johns, puffa for the evenings, a heavy-duty waterproof jacket, waterproof pants, a warm hat and gloves **

Overnight

At around 5.40 pm we climbed up and over a gorge section on the true left and came out over a high terrace where the valley opened up again to give us expansive views of the imposing high peaks and the river snaking north.

I left my mojo back at the swimming hole, my hay fever was kicking off and I was suddenly extremely tired and snippy. Remember the false start this morning which we are not yet speaking of? Suffice to say, the long day and the heat and anything/everything else had caught up with me suddenly and I had to stop.

Upstream Saxton River
The Saxton River valley opens up again

After some minor faffing, we found a fairly sheltered spot on a terrace near a small side stream about 2km from Saxton saddle and put up the tent, startling a goat family, who shot off up the peaks. It was a relief when the sun dipped below the mountains, and we enjoyed dinner without any sandflies.

As an after-dinner activity, we pulled up some baby wilding pines we’d noticed around the tent, and at 8 pm went indoors and fell asleep almost immediately.

Camping by the river
Relieved to stop for the day

Guest Food: Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth Loop

For this trip and for subsequent trips, we have decided to bring a couple of “guest foods” with us. We know what works when we tramp, but I need something more exciting to look forward to at the end of the day! On this trip the guest foods were:
• Pork scratchings: “Snicks” – the ones in the blue packet that break your teeth, not the puffed rubbish. I’d score them 10/10 as a tramping snack, despite having to suck them so I don’t ruin my teeth. Surely it’s good for you to eat protein and salt whilst tramping? They’re practically a health food in that regard. They are also easy to ration due to the teeth thing, and we made one packet last the whole trip for both of us.
• Dried watermelon: 8/10. Great flavour, but a melt-in-the-mouth, almost mushy texture. Would have preferred something more solid.

Please feel free to comment on this post with any top snack suggestions for next time.

Day 2 – Saxton River to Top Leatham Hut

We woke from a great sleep at 6 am. The tent was dry and the sun had only just made it to the mountain tops above us. We donned all our warm clothes including coats, hats and gloves and warmed the milk for breakfast. It was a struggle to put on cold, wet socks and boots when the time came. We left at 8.10 am just before the sun made it to our camp.

River Flats before Saxton Saddle to Top Gordon Hut

Continuing on the true right of the Saxton River and around a sweeping bend, we saw Saxton Saddle ahead and to our left. We made a couple of crossings to take the best line upriver.

Tinytramper crossing the Saxton River towards Saxton Saddle
Crossing the Saxton River. Saxton Saddle is the low dip on the left

We walked for a further 1.5kms climbing a little higher on the river terraces before dropping to the base of the saddle and finding the fence Naomi told us about in her blog. It led us to the gate and through the gate, the marker. At 9 am we started climbing, following the fence line up to just above a rocky hump around 1380m.

A gentle climb up Saxton Saddle
A gentle climb up Saxton Saddle

The climb up wasn’t too bad at all. For starters, it wasn’t too much of a climb – from 1260m to 1419m at the saddle. The terrain was pretty good too. Tussock and subalpine bushes interspersed with some speargrass and boggy bits. We noticed lots more wilding pines, some of which had been sawn off – good to know it was being addressed. We continued to pull out any baby ones we found. Turning back, the views up and down the Saxton River were incredible.

From approx. contour 1380m we moved away from the fence and sidled around and up to the saddle. We arrived on the saddle at 9.35 am somewhat to the left of a large orange marker and DOC sign. (As you reach the saddle, keep right rather than heading for the middle).

Saxton Saddle Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth

We had a short break at the signpost and continued straight on, staying high until we could see how the descent on the other side was looking.

At Saxton Saddle
At Saxton Saddle
Saxton Saddle towards Gordon Stream
Saxton Saddle towards Gordon Stream

The extent of wilding pines, especially ahead on the slopes around Gordon stream and the Leatham was prolific. We couldn’t quite believe it! We realised then, that our pulling up a few baby pines was a drop in the ocean in helping this particular crisis.

Apparently, the Molesworth and Leatham were a couple of the sites where pines were planted years ago to control erosion. Also see the South Marlborough Landscape Restoration Trust website for more information about what’s being done to control them, and to donate to help the cause.

To Top Gordon Hut Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth

From the far end of the saddle, we descended a patch of bushy scree then down a spur above Gordon Stream. A beautiful unnamed stream fed into Gordon to our right. We picked a good line and found the first of about six cairns leading us down the spur. We picked our way down the rocky, bushy terrain, trying to avoid the speargrass, and eventually crossing Gordon Stream a couple of times.

Towards Gordon Stream from Saxton saddle. Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth Loop
Almost at Gordon stream

The cairns stopped when a track became more obvious. We saw an orange marker in the distance and crossed a couple of scree slopes – nothing too sketchy. Then it was into the bush. First manuka then beech. Sadly, we were pulling pines even in the native forest. An hour after leaving the saddle at 10.30 am and about 700m from the bush line we saw the sign for Top Gordon Hut. The track led down to the right and crossed Gordon Stream before climbing to the hut. We arrived at the hut at around 10.35 am.

Top Gordon Hut Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth

The six-bed Top Gordon hut (with or without the ‘s’ varies according to what you read) sits in a beautiful sunny clearing in the beech forest with magnificent views of the pines on the slopes around it.

A notice on the hut wall mentioned green markers for horse tracks. We remembered meeting a gentleman a couple of years ago at the Branch River who was looking at putting a horse track through to the Severn Saddle, which has since transpired. After a decent break, we left at 11.15 am.

Top Gordon Hut
Top Gordon hut

Top Gordon Hut to Bottom Gordon Hut

We retraced our steps back to the main trail, and headed on Bottom Gordon(s) hut. The track led down to the river and not finding any markers in the bush, we made our way down the wide riverbed. I took a graceful fall amongst the boulders, thankfully with no injuries. Markers appeared, indicating we were in the right place. We followed them and ended up back in the bush, climbing above Gordon stream with some great waterfalls thundering to our right.

Down Gordon stream from Top Gordon hut
Down Gordon stream from Top Gordon hut
Windfall between Top and Bottom Gordon huts
Windfall between Top and Bottom Gordon huts

There was a bit of windfall in the forest, but nothing too serious. Having climbed up onto some river terraces we headed straight across a field of pines, and eventually through a cool mossy manuka forest.

Manuka forest between Top and Bottom Gordon huts
Manuka forest between Top and Bottom Gordon huts
Track markers between Top and Bottom Gordon hut
Track markers between Top and Bottom Gordon hut

More grassy terraces followed, then just before Bottom Gordon hut we crossed a swing bridge over the Leatham river. It had only taken us a couple of hours from Top Gordon, and at 1.20 pm it was definitely time for lunch.

The road into Bottom Gordon hut
The road into Bottom Gordon hut

The six-bed Bottom Gordon Hut was fairly unremarkable apart from having a retro kiwi formica table, and a lovely little pot-bellied stove. The hut book indicated it was mostly used by hunters. It was so hot in the hut that the preferred lunch option was a sandfly-infested half-hour on the rocky outcrop overlooking the Leatham River and Hut Stream confluence.

The Leatham and Hut Stream confluence
The Leatham and Hut Stream confluence – pretty, with lots of sandflies

Bottom Gordon to Top Leatham Hut

Leaving our lunch spot at 2.10 pm we crossed Hut Stream and found a track on the true left of the Leatham. It led to the base of a large scree face which we hurried beneath, remaining on the true left of the river.

Beyond Bottom Gordon hut
Walking beneath the scree slope just beyond Bottom Gordon hut

A track continued after the scree and about fifteen minutes later came out onto river flats. The river was braided so we crossed the first braid and walked up the middle, then saw a marker in the distance. After about ten minutes we ended up on a track on some grassy terraces quite high above the true left again.

Walking a braided section of the Leatham River
Walking a braided section of the Leatham River
Grassy flats on the true left above the Leatham
Grassy flats on the true left above the Leatham
Walking through pines on the Leatham River
Walking through pines on the Leatham River
Crossing the Leatham River
Crossing the Leatham River

After the grassy terrace, it was into pine, then native, then back to the river where a marker took us to the true right. It was about 3 pm when we crossed, nearly an hour from the hut. As I remember it, there was a nasty climb up a slippery wee waterfall/bank and some debate about where the track was, before we found one and climbed higher above the river for a while overlooking grassy flats.

About fifteen minutes later we came to an area with lots of windfall – some of which had been cut, which made progress a bit quicker. Later, as we were walking through a section of larger pines, we wondered if this may have been an area that had been planted years ago. The trees seemed very uniformly spaced.

Windfall amongst the pines on the Leatham River
Windfall amongst the pines on the Leatham River. Thankfully some of this had been cut.

By 3.50 pm we were heading down close to the river again and track markers became more frequent – then too plentiful, with horse track markers here and there, and tracks leading in various directions. At one point we wondered if the actual track was now decommissioned in favour of the horse track but then we’d lose the horse track and be back on a DOC track. DOC confirmed that for a section, the horse track is now the track and that there are plans for more track maintenance in the area so keep your eyes peeled.

It all became a bit of a blur, to be honest, with river and windfall crossings. We were still heading upstream, which was the correct direction to be going in, and ended up on the true left, which was the correct side for Top Leatham hut. Having found the track on the true left, we hit more windfall before the hut.

Windfall before Top Leatham hut
Windfall before Top Leatham hut

Top Leatham Hut Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth

The approach to the six-bed Top Leatham hut was lovely. We came out of the bush into an open area with fantastic views towards the mountains we’d cross tomorrow and a beautiful high-waterfall creek to our right. The meadow leading to the hut was a lush green carpet filled with yellow flowers. Don’t let this beautiful vision fool you though. When we got there it was a bog with a boardwalk just beneath the surface, and also just bog.

Towards Top Leatham hut. Saxton Serevn Leatham Molesworth loop
Top Leatham hut – just to the bottom right

I was pleased to reach the hut. My spirits were further lifted when I realised we’d made decent time given the windfall and track finding. It was only 5 pm, which made it around 2 hrs 50 mins from Bottom Gordon hut. What little sun was left dropped behind the mountain and the temperature dropped with it. There were a couple of large buckets at the hut so we got water from the river, had a wash and settled in for the evening.

Reading the hut book, there were comments that people do take horses (on organised trips I believe) over the Severn Saddle and through the Leatham, which seemed pretty adventurous.

The hut was lovely and warm. On our last tramp, we took books – a first for me. I’ve never really been able to justify the weight before, but actually, it’s lovely to have a silent wind-down to bedtime. He’s too polite to say it, but Rich would especially enjoy an evening without me wittering on in the background.

Day 3 – Top Leatham Hut to Severn Hut

We enjoyed a wonderful sleep at Top Leatham hut and left at 7.45 am towards the Severn saddle. We took the DOC track from the back of the hut heading left towards the stream.

A comment by a member of the public in the hut book mentioned the ease of taking the horse track upriver from the hut. A DOC sign indicated the horse track towards the river, but we hadn’t seen any official information about using it as the route. The following day we also read a similar comment in the hut book at Severn hut re. taking the horse track from here, heading up the river to the ‘horse paddock’ area. After the tramp, I contacted DOC to ask them about it (Jan ’23). They confirmed that bad weather had affected the Gordon/Leatham area in the spring of ’22 and that maintenance work is planned, including an assessment of the slip we encountered (below). There is a horse track in and out of the river from Top Leatham hut – but no official recommendations at this time about walkers using it, as the river is hazardous during high flow.

So anyway, we strode up the DOC track. We crossed the stream and managed to keep our boots dry. There was a little light windfall to start the day and a very boggy bog to follow. Perching on one wobbly tuft to the next we felt like we were playing Frogger (an arcade game from the ‘80s). The meadow exit was a little confusing as the track was blocked by a large, downed tree.

Views from the boggy meadow past Top Leatham hut
Views from the boggy meadow past Top Leatham hut

We found a track in the bush, climbed more windfall then found ourselves walking along the right-hand side of a fenced area. Not long afterward we came to slip across a gully. We discussed it and Rich went ahead to scope things out. He got across, left his pack and came back to give me a hand. I found it fairly sketchy, clinging to what I hoped was solid vegetation, a little out of my comfort zone to be honest. If the rivers are low, I’d go with that option next time.

Slip after Top Leatham hut
Checking out the slip after Top Leatham hut

The Horse Paddock

At 8.40 am, almost an hour after we’d left the hut and with probably only about a kilometre traveled, we came to a sign for the horse paddock. From here, we found markers crossing rivers, heading in and out of the bush and over more windfall. We did our best and ended up at a fenced area (was this the horse paddock??) twenty minutes later.

Signage on the Leatham
Signage on the Leatham
An area which might be the horse paddock on the Leatham River towards the Severn Saddle
An area that might be a horse paddock, on the Leatham River towards the Severn Saddle

We continued up into an area of pines on a track with orange markers. Passing through a huge speargrass forest in bloom was a highlight and we noticed the spines were longer, more supple and less prickly than their cousins in the tussock areas. I was fine wearing my short gaiters. We got some great views of the mountains and the saddle ahead.

Speargrass in bloom, Top Leatham hut to Severn Saddle
A beautiful field of Speargrass in bloom. The Severn Saddle is the dip in the middle beyond.

The Pines

The pines thickened, and the route became completely overgrown. With every movement, we released big clouds of pollen as we pushed through the branches. We assumed the track kept going straight and continued on. Then we came to all the fallen pines – up and over some, under others, around very few. The rest of the pines were thick and we didn’t want to lose our straight line. It was rather frustrating, and I think we were most annoyed by the fact that it was pine we were climbing through – no wonder native trees don’t stand a chance amongst this lot!

After about 25 minutes we finally popped out the other side and found a marker. It was 9.30 am. It had taken 1hr 45 mins from the hut.

Heading into the pines from Top Leatham to Severn Saddle
Apparently, it’s this way
Track marker out of the pines. Leatham River towards Severn Saddle
Finding a track marker out of the pines

After crossing the Leatham one last time the track led into a lovely section of beech forest and it was a pleasure to climb up without any major windfall. By 9.55 am we reached the open face and could see markers heading up the saddle.

After a fifteen-minute break taking in the views, we walked across the face to the marker. The track did a switchback across the face and we headed back into the bush and a little more windfall. By 10.25 am we were at the start of the scree crossings to the saddle. To our right, the waterfalls we’d seen yesterday were tumbling down into the adjacent valley.

Just out of the bush from the Leatham to Severn Saddle
Out of the climb in the bush, looking to the Severn Saddle

We crossed the scree slope, following light tracks to the large marker in the middle, climbed up a tongue of bush then sidled more scree to reach a scrubby grassy section to walk over the top. I have a feeling we may have missed a zig or a zag, because we saw more markers above us. Anyway, it all worked out perfectly.

Scree crossing towards the Severn saddle
Scree crossing towards the Severn saddle
Climbing up a tongue of bush towards the Severn Saddle. Tinytramper
Climbing up a tongue of bush towards the Severn Saddle
Heading up the scree towards Severn Saddle from the Leatham
Heading up the scree towards Severn Saddle
Looking back to the climb from the Leatham to the Severn Saddle
Looking back to the climb from the Leatham to the Severn Saddle

Severn Saddle Leatham Molesworth

We reached the saddle at 10.50 am, just over three hours from the hut. The morning’s slips and windfall frustrations evaporated with the spectacular views of the rock pillars and the Severn valley. Small pockets of snow still lingered and high waterfalls cascaded from the rock. It would be wonderful to see it in winter. The day was glorious with hardly a cloud in the sky. We spent five minutes on the top and then started our descent.

At the Severn Saddle
At the Severn Saddle

Into the Severn Valley

The descent into the valley consisted of a huge scree slope sidle before heading down onto the grassy slopes. The main thing we’d read was to stay high initially to avoid the waterfall which was down to the right and easy to spot on the map and below us.

We found a light track through the scree, and followed it. The scree itself was the good kind – not too big or too small and sufficiently loose to dig your heels in without it sliding away above or beneath your feet.

The Severn Valley from the Severn Saddle
The Severn Valley from the Severn Saddle
Descending from the Severn Saddle on the Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth loop. Tinytramper
Following the trail across the scree from the Severn Saddle
Looking back at the head of the Severn Valley. Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth Loop
Looking back at the head of the Severn Valley

As we sidled around, the scree became more solid then we got into a short rocky patch. We continued high for a little longer on a faint narrow track, crossed above a gully and came down into a tongue of grasses where we stopped for a fifteen-minute break at 11.20 pm to take in the views of the cirque and the valley.

Where we dropped down to the Severn River
Where we finally dropped down to the Severn River
A great spot for a break above the Severn Valley
A great spot for a break above the Severn Valley

Before another gully, we continued to drop down the tussock and by midday came down onto the flats above/to the left side of the furthest, small dark patch of trees which we’d seen from up on the scree.

At the Severn River. Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth loop
At the Severn River

The Severn Valley

Once on the river flats of the Severn, it was a beautiful stroll in the sun towards Severn hut. Rich pulled a few more baby pines and we marveled at the beauty of the mountains and scree slopes. A patch of beech forest cloaked a small section of the lower slopes above Pt 1162 at the river confluence, and bellbird calls drifted our way it was magical.

A beautiful section of bush at the river confluence at the Severn
A beautiful section of bush at the river confluence

Out of luck for a shady lunch spot, we stopped at 1 pm when we reached the low matagouri bushes by the river. There were surprisingly few sandflies.

We continued on at 1.45 pm. The afternoon’s wildlife highlights occurred early on at a river crossing, including a paradise duck doing the ‘lame duck’ decoy, and being shooed away from the river by a flock of agitated terns. Throughout this trip, we’d been careful to watch where we were walking along the rivers for fear of disturbing nests.

Severn River towards the head of the valley
Looking back up the river from our lunch spot on the Severn
Looking downstream on the Severn River
Looking downstream on the Severn River

We latterly took the high terraces on the true left of the river, finding a track recently used by horses. A couple of kilometres from the hut we picked up a second, almost full tube of sunscreen from the track. We hadn’t even broken into the Saxton hut one yet.

Severn hut came into view and the wind picked up in the final twenty minutes. We waded through some very high tussocks and arrived at 3 pm.

Severn hut
Severn hut

Severn Hut

The gorgeous six-bed Severn hut was an absolute winner in terms of views, perched on the high terrace looking upstream and across to the mountains we’d climb tomorrow. It also had one of the cleanest backcountry toilets I’ve probably ever used, with the bonus of a glass pane in the loo door for views.

Rich went to get water from the nearby stream and created a temporary, beautiful little bathing pool. As it was still early and cleaning tools were available, we cleaned the windows, scrubbed the benches and swept. The rest of the afternoon was spent drying clothes and boots, eating, reading and playing Yahtzee. It was nice to laze around. We wanted to be well rested for tomorrow’s climb to pt 1764m mountain directly to the East as we looked out of the window – a 660m climb up over and down into the river catchment which would lead us into the valley and on to Saxton hut.

Severn hut to pt 1764
Our route to pt 1764 went something like this

Later, after dinner, I was going over the mountains with my scope and saw a couple of deer lounging in the sun in an impossibly high, sheltered patch of grass. They remained there until we went to bed at 9 pm – hiker midnight. With that, we bade farewell to 2022.

Day 4 – Severn Hut to Saxton Hut

The first alarm of 2023 went off at 5 am and we allowed ourselves a luxurious ten-minute snooze. There was hardly a cloud in the sky and the day was calm. Perfect for a mountain climb. We wanted to reach the top before the sun hit the face we were climbing.

Over breakfast, I toyed with forcing myself to read the “Bushman’s Bible” this year as a new year resolution, and Rich won the first round of Yahtzee of the year. We put on dry, cardboard socks, hats and gloves, and left at 7 am. Our opinion that it seemed rather chilly outside was confirmed when we saw frost on the grass. The hut had been toasty warm from yesterday’s sun.

Looking back to Severn hut, from the climb to pt 1764
Looking back to Severn hut, from the climb to pt 1764

Climbing from the Severn Valley

The walk through the tall tussocks was cold and we set off at a good pace. The route up the mountain wasn’t marked, but it was pretty easy to ascend the ridge somewhere without too much matagouri and keep going to the top.

The first brief stop was at the first rocky outcrops after 100m of elevation where the warm clothes, hats and gloves came off. Looking back, the sun wasn’t falling on the hut yet. The terrain up the mountain was easy to handle. After a grassy rocky start, the mid-section was low alpine plants and the final section was a scree climb. The ridge narrowed at points that would have been a little daunting for me if I’d been going down rather than up.

We took micro-breaks (for the views of course) but fuelled by caffeine and post-breakfast ginger nuts we were motoring. The sun hit the hut at 8 am, an hour into our climb. We walked into a sunny patch briefly in the mid-section then owing to the shape of the mountain walked the steep scree in the shade again, thank goodness.

Racing the sun to get up to pt 1764 from Severn hut
Racing the sun to get up to pt 1764 from Severn hut
The final section heading up to pt 1764 from Severn hut
The final section of scree, heading up to pt 1764

The Crossing at Pt 1764m

At 8.30 am, 1.5 hours after leaving the hut, we reached the saddle at pt. 1764m pretty pleased with our efforts. A gentle but chilly breeze was blowing and the warm clothes went on again as we stopped for views and photos. We could see Mt Tapuae-o-Uenuku to the East and Fairie Queen (just north of Ada Pass on the St James) was visible to the Southwest. The saddle we were standing on continued onto a ridge to the North, which looked epic for exploring. We opened the Peak Finder app to help us name a few of the other mountains.

Views to the East from Pt 1764 from Severn hut to Boundary Stream.
Incredible views to the East from pt 1764
Views upstream of the Severn valley from pt 1764
Views upstream of the Severn valley from pt 1764

Just down to the left was a great rocky outcrop offering shelter from the wind to take in the views to the East. We had a quick bite and plotted our descent. Looking at the massive scree slope to our left we wondered what the longest Zorb descent was. (Wikipedia informs me that the record for the longest zorb is 570m, but didn’t mention the # metres descent).

Heading down to the Valley

At 9.05 am, we took the big, fun scree run to the left sweeping down to the lush green grass and bubbling brooks. Almost immediately we came across evidence of cattle from last year. We’d temporarily forgotten we were in NZs biggest backcountry station.

Heading down from pt 1764 to the East
Heading down from pt 1764 to the unnamed stream (referred to as Boundary Stream at Saxton hut)

The route wasn’t marked down the river to Saxton hut but it posed no problems at all. We found our way easily, initially crossing with dry boots, then succumbing to the inevitable as the brooks became a stream then a river.

The valley wasn’t sweeping and open like the Saxton. The river meandered between the mountains and small gorges. We picked up animal tracks for much of the way. As we walked downstream, we crossed numerous side streams leading up to beautiful valleys.

At the river heading downstream. Boundary Stream
At the river heading downstream. Boundary Stream
Walking down Boundary Stream towards Saxton hut
Walking down Boundary Stream towards Saxton hut

At 10.20 am we found some shade and took a twenty-minute break. Again, the speargrass was magnificent. The smaller, more prickly variety with the brown tips had flowered already, whilst the bushy bright green more supple ones were in full bloom.

Towards Saxton Hut

Eventually, the narrower gorges widened a little and we walked from terrace to terrace. Today had the most river crossings, but all were easy and at most knee-deep. We pulled out the first baby wilding pines of the day and noticed as we approached Saxton hut that other larger ones above us has been sprayed.

Saxton hut ahead on the true left
Saxton hut ahead on the true left

At 12.40 pm we arrived at Saxton hut – 5h 40 mins from Severn hut. We were greeted by a wisp of rainbow cloud followed by a sun halo. We didn’t want to head back to reality yet, so we made ourselves at home at the hut. Afternoon duties included sweeping, tidying, taking whatever rubbish we could carry and swimming in the amazing pool by the small rocky outcrop beneath the hut.

Day 5 – Saxton Hut and Out

We didn’t set an alarm and were woken by a helicopter flying overhead. It flew back over about half an hour later, then as we were about to leave landed on the terrace beside the hut. There’s something about a helicopter landing that’s terribly exciting (!). All in a day’s work for the crew though, who were target spraying wilding pines. We had a brief chat and let the pilot know we were heading out.

The Saxton River downstream from Saxton hut
The Saxton River downstream from Saxton hut

At 9.10 am we left the hut, just as clouds were spilling over the distant mountains from the East. Because we had all the time in the world, we opted for boots off crossings. We stopped to watch a tiny skink scuttle around our feet and to get the scope out for a closer look at the shag nests on the rocky ledges on the true right about half way along.

Cows on the Saxton Severn Leatham Molesworth loop
We’re back!

The frisky cattle were pleased to see us, and still in good spirits. We were back at the car at 10.40 am. Then we remembered the beers hidden in the river! Double blow – firstly, it was the wrong time for beer, and secondly, the river had dropped by about 10cms which meant our beers were no longer in it! Hilarious. We won’t make that mistake again.

On the beautiful few hours’ drive out to Seddon, we reflected on the circuit. We thoroughly enjoyed it. Suitably challenging but not overly difficult, with each day offering something very different. Our favourite day, despite the slips and windfall was Top Leatham to Severn hut over the Severn saddle. We were glad the weather was perfect, and that we managed to squeeze it in before the cattle were in the high valleys. I’d definitely recommend this tramp for confident, experienced trampers with plenty of time up their sleeve. You certainly wouldn’t want to rush it.

For more tramps in Marlborough check out the links below:

Comments

  1. Adam Thomas says:

    I’m going to guess you left something critical behind on day 1? A sleeping bag? Cooker? Something annoying like that?
    Anyhow, great write-up. That looks like a very interesting circuit, but possibly a bit frustrating at times where it gets messy. And definitely one to have plenty of sunscreen on. Not much shelter up on those tops…
    Your post mentions Peak Finder. I didn’t find that app, but downloaded PeakLens, which I suspect is similar. I didn’t know apps to name peaks existed. Handy stuff, thanks!

    1. tinytramper says:

      Cheers Adam, haa haa – Good guess. Leaving your brain behind is close. I’m going to write up the embarrassing story as a lesson to anyone else who thinks they have their sh*t together. Re.Peak finder, maybe it’s all one word. (Funnily enough, I invented it years ago in my head – as I’m sure may people have “wouldn’t it be great if you could point your phone to the mountain and it told you what it was…” except mine was called “what’s that mountain”… luckily someone came up with a better name, and an actual product 🙂

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