Tablelands Circuit – via Gordons Pyramid and Balloon hut
The Tablelands area of Kahurangi National Park accessible from Graham Valley Road or the Cobb Valley is a great spot for all kinds of weekend and multiday activities – for adventurers and beginner trampers alike. We were making the most of the weather on a quick weekend mission; over the tops of Gordons Pyramid on Saturday to Balloon hut and back along the river valleys of the Salisbury Track and the Flora Track on Sunday. This Tablelands circuit was a great way to knock off a few very special DoC huts and rock shelters.
The Tablelands area has some fascinating landscapes – karst rock slabs, huge rock outcrops, caves and sinkholes. These special ecosystems are quite rare, and are home to some threatened species. I can’t believe how time flies! The last time I was up in this area was back in February when I walked to Mount Arthur summit. Five months later we enjoyed beautiful weather for the latest jaunt, but the temperature was a good 25 degrees Celsius colder!
We accessed the area from the Flora car park on the Motueka side of the Arthur range. From the end of the Graham Valley Road in the Motueka valley, the road takes you up to 930m (which means less to climb on foot). But beware, the track up to the car park is steep and narrow, and can be rutted, and badly pot-holed. DoC reccommend that you take a four-wheel drive vehicle, which on this occasion we did. The track was pretty decent shape even in mid winter, but I’m not sure I would ever attempt it again in my ageing camper van to be honest.
The alternative access to do a Tablelands circuit is to drive into the Cobb Valley to start your journey from one of the numerous tracks there. Check out my Lake Peel and Mount Peel summit post for details of accessing the Cobb Valley and check out the marvellous DoC brochure for the Cobb, Arthur and Tablelands area.
Flora car park towards Mount Arthur
We arrived at the Flora car park at 10.30am, completed the intentions book in the little shelter, used the facilities (bonus – no wasps in the winter!!) and headed off towards Mt Arthur hut. Today’s walk would be 14 Kms to Arthur hut then via Gordons Pyramid to Salisbury hut, followed by another 4Kms to Balloon hut.
I had forgotten how beautiful the trail was. It starts in lovely beech forest along a wide track before the track separates. We took the left turn up towards Arthur hut 4.2Kms away (and would return from the track heading straight on to Salisbury Lodge).
The trail through the beech forest was beautiful, climbing gently before opening up a little. As we gained elevation the forest changed to dracophyllum. We reached Mount Arthur hut at 11.35am.
Mount Arthur Route
We stopped for a chat with the hut occupants before heading off towards Mount Arthur. Just above the hut is a turning which takes you down to Flora hut into the valley. We continued to the left and up to the open tops. At once you are struck with incredible views across the Tasman to the bay, and turning the next corner you join the ridge that takes you up to Mount Arthur.
The path was very easy to follow on this beautiful, clear Winter day. It was pretty cold though, and we were glad for our heavy jumpers, hat and gloves. The incredible rock landscapes are what make the Kahurangi so beautiful, and even though I had walked this track before, I still found myself stopping to admire the rock slabs, sink holes and views over the mountains.
At 12.25pm forty minutes after leaving the hut, we arrived at the turn-off to Gordon’s Pyramid. From here, Gordons Pyramid was 4Kms and Salisbury Lodge/hut 7Kms. The marked track took us down into horseshoe basin, and was in good shape and really easy to follow. We got some incredible views of the route to Mount Arthur, and of the mountain.
The drop down into Horseshoe basin was about 100m in elevation, with a gradual climb back out to the first little peak. Down in the basin the jumble of rock formations, caves and holes is even more spectacular close-up.
Gordons Pyramid Route
The trail from horseshoe basin up to Gordons Pyramid is a climb of around 450m over 2Kms or so. It was an absolutely glorious walk. For much of it we were sheltered from the prevailing wind and peeled off our layers. We took our time and admired the views.
Much of the route was easy enough, with just one short section of rock that required a bit of a scramble. Of course there was plenty of speargrass to make things interesting at this point!
We reached the top of Gordons Pyramid (1489m and 7.2Kms from Mount Arthur hut) at 1.45pm. It had taken two hours and ten minutes from Mount Arthur hut and an hour and twenty minutes from the turn-off on the Mount Arthur route.
We stopped on the sheltered side of Gordons pyramid for a very leisurely hour-long lunch. From here you can take the Mine Track down past the disused Cloustons mine, to meet up with the Flora Stream and Flora hut walk (the way we would exit tomorrow).
We met a group of lads at the top who were on a “three-peaks” mission to hit Lodestone, Gordons and Mount Arthur in a day. What an amazing circuit! I tucked that one away for another time.
Gordons Pyramid to Salisbury Hut
We got going again at 2.45pm and headed down the trail towards Salisbury hut 3Kms away. It was an easy walk down into the beautiful, mossy goblin forest.
After a short time we came out to the open tussock at the start of the Tablelands, with less than a Km to go before Salisbury hut. We arrived at the hut around 4pm.
Salisbury hut is a lovely 22 bedder, but we just poked our noses round the door, used the fancy toilets and decided to carry on the 4Kms to Balloon hut. We didn’t fancy heating a 22 bed hut for just the two of us on this cold weekend, and we knew Balloon would be cosier.
Salisbury hut to Balloon hut
As the day drew in, it got pretty cold. The Tablelands is very exposed and at an altitude of around 1000m give or take. The paths were still frozen from this morning, and ice crystals cracked and crunched under our feet.
As we headed to Balloon hut we walked in and out of more forested areas. About half way to Balloon hut near Cundy Creek, we detoured off to the right to check out Bishops Cave. It is said that in the late 19th Century (at different times) two Bishops lived there, and preached to the local gold diggers working in the area. The cave is definitely worth a visit and we explored around a little, and walked all the way through. Unfortunately my photos didn’t do it any justice at all.
We continued on up and over the Tableland to Balloon Hill at 1303m elevation. By this time, and despite wearing gloves, I could hardly feel my hands it was so cold!
We reached the 14 bed Balloon hut around 5.20pm. A family and another couple were already there, and we were delighted to see they had a roaring fire going. We immediately got stuck into making dinner, and accompanied it with hot mulled wine – what a treat!! and the perfect way to end a magnifient day’s tramping.
Balloon hut to Dry Rock Shelter
We woke at a reasonable time in the morning and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. It had been a freezing cold night and everything was frozen, including the water in the pipes outside. One of the lads had to break the ice in the tank to enable us all to have our morning cuppas.
Everyone else left the hut before us, so we swept, tidied and left just after 10am. We headed into a crisp Winter wonderland. There was a stiff breeze blowing as we walked the 4Kms back to Salisbury hut. When we arrived there were a couple of Kea (alpine parrots) hopping around, picking at everything with their sharp beaks. We guarded our packs and hung around to watch them.
Finally we headed on. From Salisbury hut it was 14 Kms back to the Flora Car Park. After 20 minutes or so we came to a little bridge which marked the turning to the Dry Rock Shelter.
Dry Rock Shelter
We arrived at the bridge at 11.50am, dropped our packs and headed right, up the little stream. Dry Rock Shelter was only about 200m away. I had read about and seen photos of the rock shelters in the Tablelands, but to visit them is really something special. I can’t wait to come back and stay overnight!
Dry Rock Shelter is made up of an enormous slab of angled rock, complete with a beautiful roof garden, and a wooden platform with a few DoC hut mattresses. There was a fire pit, and a toilet nearby. You could spent an amazing night here on a clear night watching the stars, or on a rainy night sheltered by the rock (although I imagine the sandflies would be horrendous in summer).
We marvelled for a while at the beauty of it all before continuing on to the next cool shelter.
Dry Rock Shelter to Growler Rock Shelter
We picked up our packs back at the bridge and carried on down the Salisbury Track which sidles along Balloon Creek. The state of the track was amazing! Wide, flat and very easy walking. We arrived at Growler Rock Shelter at 12.30pm and had a 30 minute break for lunch.
Whilst not quite as magnificent as Dry Rock Shelter, Growler was still pretty awesome. A little hole-in-the-wall trype of a rock shelter, again with a nearby toilet. There were no matresses, but there were two wooden platforms and a raised bench area.
Growler Rock Shelter to Gridiron Shelter and hut
The wonderful, easy walking continued past Upper Junction and along the Flora Stream for a couple of Kms.
Just after the Gridiron Stream, at 1.30pm we headed up to the right and found the Lower Gridiron Shelter. What a beauty! This spot really takes some beating in the ‘world’s coolest overnight sleepout’ stakes. This was another of nature’s shelters underneath a giant rock, with a couple of benches, fire pit, a swing and a beautiful mezzanine area for sleeping with 4 DoC mattresses. Toilets and the stream were nearby.
It immediately shot to the top of my list of places I want to sleep (semi) wild. However no doubt you’d want to get here out of season, and on a week night if possible, as it is very easily accessible. I imagine it must be hugely popular in summer.
As if that wasn’t enough, just up the track is one of the cutest DoC huts you’re ever likely to come across! Upper Gridiron hut is a tiny but beautiful 3 bed hut, nestled into an overhanging rock, with an outdoor fire pit, nearby toilet and a swing sofa!! Today was just getting better and better!! We rested on the swinging sofa and took in the lovely forest views.
Upper Gridiron hut to Flora hut and Flora Car Park
After finally persuading ourselves out of the comfort and luxury of the swing chair, we left at 1.45pm and headed off along the trail to Flora hut. From here the trail was a wide four-wheel drive track and continued to be very easy walking. We met numerous people on this stretch, out for their Sunday strolls.
We reached Flora hut at 3pm and had a quick scout around. This 12 bed hut has two ‘wings’ on each end of the firewood storage area. There was a large grassy area outside, which would be great for kids in the summer.
We toddled back to the Flora car park in around 30 minutes. We signed ourselves back into civilisation in the hut book and fell into the warmth and comfort of the car. What an incredible weekend! There is so much to do here in the Kahurangi National Park, and the Tablelands Circuit is a perfect introduction to the area. I have to come back for at least a few more overnighters to experience the incredible rock shelters. I’ll be bringing a decent sleeping bag! 🙂
Check out my other walks in Kahurangi National Park: