St James Walkway
The St James Walkway from the Lewis Pass to Boyle Village in North Canterbury is a Kiwi gem. The 66 km trail is easily accessible, not too difficult (no major elevation or troublesome river crossings), passes through a beautiful variety of river valleys and has a good number of serviced, non-bookable huts. It’s not surprising that many people head for the St James Walkway on their first multi-day tramp.
I had a few days up my sleeve at the beginning of winter, so headed down for a three-night dash. Many people walk the St James Walkway over five days, four nights, but I fancied some decent exercise and had walked half of it before as part of Te Araroa Trail a few years ago. It was as stunning as I remembered.
My approximate timings for this trip were:
- Day 1 – Lewis Pass car park to Cannibal Gorge hut: 2 hours 15 mins
- Cannibal Gorge hut to Ada Pass hut: 1 hour 10 mins
- Ada Pass hut to camp – 1 hour
- Day 2 – Camp to Christopher hut – 2 hours 45 minutes
- Christopher hut to Anne hut: 3 hours 35 mins
- Day 3 – Anne hut to Boyle Flat hut: 5 hours 15 mins
- Boyle Flat hut to Magdalen hut: 1 hour 10 mins
- Day 4 – Magdalen hut to Boyle Village: 2 hours 40 mins
I started the St James Walkway from the Lewis Pass and walked clockwise towards Boyle Village. The Lewis Pass is about 3 hours south of Nelson, taking the SH6 out of Nelson to Murchison then heading down the SH65 via Springs Junction. To make it easier for my return, I parked my car at the car park at Boyle (where there is a decent toilet and a security camera) and hitched back to the Lewis Pass to start my walk. The Boyle Village Outdoor Education Centre do a shuttle service if you prefer.
As it happens I got my easiest hitch ever. I crossed the main road outside Boyle village, and five seconds later the first car that passed pulled over and I spent a delightful ten minutes chatting to the lovely lady driver. My own hitch-hiker-pickup efforts had paid off in kindness back. Thank you New Zealand!
Lewis Pass to Cannibal Gorge Hut
I got going close to 11 am at the Lewis Pass. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how far I fancied walking today, but it was winter, and I was carrying my tent, so I knew accommodation wouldn’t be a problem. Avoiding the very large puddle (who wants wet feet from the start?!) I signed in at the hut book a short way down the track.
A few days earlier, Canterbury had seen some terrible weather and many areas to the south had experienced horrendous flooding. This area had got off pretty lightly though and there was a good weather window, but the track was still pretty wet.
The track down to Cannibal Gorge is a great short walk in itself, and it took about 30 minutes to get down to the swingbridge at the Maruia River Right Branch. It was very well marked through beech forest with some lovely stretches of boardwalk. At the river, there was an information board detailing the history behind the rather grisly name: kopi-o-kai-tangata. This route was used for both trading and war parties in the 1700s and human bones had been found here, which were thought to be left from the victory feasts of war parties.
The track was nice and easy with some gentle ups and downs as it followed the river upstream. After the bridge the track was well maintained with some small side streams to cross, but nothing that required wet feet. There were a few avalanche warning signs indicating to beware during the winter months, but there was only a light dusting of snow on the tops just now. I passed a school group on an outdoor education course, but aside from the group, I didn’t meet anyone else on this stretch.
I reached a sunny open clearing and the 20-bed Cannibal Gorge hut at around 1.10 pm where a lovely dad and daughter duo were eating their lunch. We chatted in the sun and kept the sandflies at bay for twenty minutes or so before heading off.
Cannibal Gorge Hut to Ada Pass Hut
I left Cannibal Gorge hut around 1.35 pm. The next few kilometres to Ada pass was an almost imperceptible uphill. The elevation at Lewis Pass was 863m, Cannibal Gorge hut around 900m and Ada Pass hut at 1000m. The track was a little more open and rugged, with some great views of the Freyberg and Spenser mountains.
I reached the 14 bunk Ada Pass hut at 2.45 pm. Situated by the river and with excellent mountain views, it was certainly a great spot. I popped in to sign the hut book, but as it was still quite early decided to continue on and camp somewhere along the track.
Ada Pass Hut to Camp
The track immediately after Ada Pass hut was very wet, and the goretex on my beloved second-hand Salomons, despite a valiant effort, gave up. In addition, the track was through some pretty thick, lumpy forest and I was a little nervous about the lack of camping opportunities.
I found a good option a kilometer or so further on next to the river before a large grassy clearing. I wanted to stay in the trees as my tent would be less likely to freeze overnight in the forest. It was 4.20 pm so there was about an hour of decent daylight left. I set about clearing the sticks away from my perfect little spot and set up the tent.
After a cup of hot soup, I got a self-dehydrated spag bol under way for dinner. In the wilderness, I’m happy to eat pretty much anything, but it really makes a difference having a home made dinner. I warmed up nicely and after clearing up, got into my sleeping bag to relax and digest.
It was pitch black by 6 pm, and I was doing my best not to fall asleep too early. Everything changed when something outside, close by, made an absolutely terrifying noise. It was like the biggest single guttural dog bark I had ever heard, followed about 45 seconds later by another, then another. On full alert, I realised that my only line of defense (my walking poles) were outside, and clearly, I wasn’t going to go out there! I decided that if the Hound of the Baskervilles was going to rip me to pieces it would have to get through the fortress of my tent and sleeping bag first, so I put my head under the covers and waited.
I ascertained its whereabouts as being on the other side of the narrow river. It was definitely patrolling an area – the great bellows were coming from the left then right. But hang on… that kind of noise had to be coming from something bigger than a dog, even a very big dog. Given the limited number of large forest-dwellers in New Zealand, I gladly settled on it being a deer.
Camp to Christopher Hut
After the dose of adrenaline subsided, I had an excellent sleep. I woke up early, donned my wet socks and boots and started walking at 7.30 am. It had been a cold night, and everything was frozen along the grassy flats. I passed a small lake and disturbed a large flock of Canada geese who honked furiously.
As the sun crept its way over the mountains, it gave a frosty shine to everything. The track was in good shape, wasn’t too wet, and wound in and out of the forest. It eventually swung a right, before the confluence with the Christopher River. I enjoyed the sun on the way down to the very cute, but very cold four-bed Christopher (Ada) Cullers hut.
The couple of kilometers either side of the Christopher huts was probably one of my favourite sections of the St James Walkway. The sweeping mountain and river views were beautiful and it was now a glorious day. I passed the Cullers hut at 10 am and arrived at the 14 bed Christopher hut at 10.15 am.
Christopher hut creaked and dripped as the sun warmed it up. I popped in to sign the book and took a long break in the sun on the verandah. I had already walked about 8 km with another 13 km to go.
Christopher Hut to Anne Hut
I left Christopher hut at 10.40 am and headed along the open Ada River flats. I had read about the wild horses along the river here and came across them not far past the hut, along with more flocks of geese.
The track met the river at the base of Mt Federation and rose and fell gently. Up on the high points, there were some lovely views of the Ada and Waiau River flats, and down at the river banks I was sloshing around in a lot of watery, grassy, boggy stuff. There were many areas along this stretch that had recently been bulldozed by pigs and was in a pretty terrible state.
The section around the base of the mountain looking across the Ada Flats and down the Waiau valley was as stunning as I remembered it being on Te Araroa trail. The Waiau Pass track was just a couple of hundred metres down to my left on the river flats, but this country is so big it seemed like an age before the tracks joined before following a four-wheel-drive track.
The four-wheel-drive track continued through matagouri on the river terraces on the true left above the Henry River until dropping to cross it via a swingbridge. A cold headwind had picked up, so I stopped to get another layer on.
I had forgotten how long this stretch was. As I remembered it, there was only a short walk to Anne hut from the Te Araroa junction, but actually, it was several kilometers. I hadn’t had a break since Christopher hut, so I was really glad to see Anne hut appear in the distance at 2.15 pm.
Anne hut is a 20-bed beauty. I immediately spread my gear out on the deck to dry a little, swept the hut and got a fire going. I anticipated that the school group would arrive later, so thought it would be nice for everyone to have a warm hut and space to dry their gear.
Anne hut was built in 2011 and sits at 890m. Someone has scrawled on the sign “the most exposed hut in NZ”. Whilst I’ve stayed in a few huts a little more exposed than this one, I certainly agree with the sentiment. Thankfully, Anne hut catches the sun and keeps in the heat.
The school group arrived just on dark, and camped! They hung up a few items that were soaked, then took it right on the chin and spent a very cold night outdoors. I’m all for tenting, but when you have a warm hut right next door on a freezing night, it must have been pretty difficult.
Anne Hut to Rokeby Hut
I left at 7.45 am as the school group were packing up their frozen tents. It was another very cold morning but at least I could put dry socks on today. That didn’t last long though – as soon I dropped down from the river terrace to cross the Anne River the ground was really wet and I spent a good part of the day sloshing around in water.
The trail followed the river in and out of the forest along the river towards the Anne Saddle. It was actually preferable to walk in the water because it was warmer than walking through the frozen grass. It was such a relief when the sun finally hit the valley floor.
I reached Anne Saddle (1136m) at 9.45 am. The steeper section going down towards the Boyle River was eerie – cold, damp, dark and completely devoid of any birdlife.
After the saddle, the trail followed the Boyle River for another four kilometres or so to Rokeby hut. Again the track was easy to follow, well-marked and pretty wet, but the sun was on my back and the views down the river were lovely. I reached the basic, 3-bed Rokeby hut at 11.40 am (four hours from Anne hut). It was still in the shade and was absolutely freezing! I decided to have my lunch in the sun overlooking the river.
Rokeby Hut to Boyle Flat Hut
The views from my lunch spot were great, but the sandflies were also out in full force enjoying the sun. Fifteen minutes later, when I couldn’t bear it any more I continued on.
Along the rivers from Anne to Rokeby huts I came across many more flocks of Canada geese. As you can imagine they are big birds and lots of big birds leave lots of big bird poo. I was quite intrigued that all goose poo looks the same. I felt compelled to research it when I got home and found this useful website Pest Detective. As well as having lots of information on the geese themselves they have some fascinating stats on goose poo e.g. that apparently, one goose can produce 0.5 to 1.5 kgs per day – yikes!
Back on track, it took an hour and fifteen minutes from Rokeby hut to Boyle hut, which was very pleasant walking.
Boyle Flat Hut to Magdalen Hut
Even though it was early afternoon the 12-bed Boyle Flat hut was still very cold. I took another quick break outside in the warmth of the sun and set off at 1.30 pm. It took about 40 minutes to get to the swing bridge which crosses the Boyle River.
From here I left the St James Walkway and continued straight on to the 6-bed Magdalen hut. As expected, as soon as the track left the walkway, it became more of a regular tramping track, and was pretty muddy and tree rooty in places. The views down the river down to the Poplars Range were great, but the huge amount of cow poo in the last few hundred metres before the stream and hut was not.
I reached Magdalen hut at 2.40 pm, thirty minutes after passing the swingbridge. I crossed the Maritana stream, then crossed the fence. I’m not entirely sure what the fence was for, as the number of cow pats indicated that a large number of cows visit both sides.
I loved Magdalen hut. It was built in 2008 and everything was in excellent condition. It had great views, was toasty warm and had plenty of dry firewood. Outside there was a huge area for camping. I did the usual hut chores before settling down for something to eat and drink. As it was getting dark I lit a fire and was joined by a very nice hunter from down South, with whom it turned out, I had friends in common.
Magdalen hut to Boyle Village
In the morning my hut buddy was up and out early. I took my time and left at 8 am as it was only a couple of hours’ walk back to Boyle Village. It was immediate wet feet as I crossed the stream, followed by a mini adventure crossing the Boyle River to join the track without having to walk back 30 minutes to the swing bridge.
The final section which I remembered from last time, was wide and beautiful. I signed the hut book just along the track and reached Boyle Village at 10.40 am.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the St James Walkway draws all kinds of walkers. Even though I was on a reasonably quick mission this time, I still appreciated the beauty and variety. I would absolutely agree that it’s a trail for everyone, and I will definitely be back again.