Whakaari Conservation Area – Heather Jock and McIntosh Loops
An overnighter in the Whakaari Conservation Area just outside Glenorchy could easily be overshadowed by the more glamorous walks in the area, but it’s well worth spending some time here. There are options for tramping and biking, and if you like a demanding off-track challenge there’s always Mt Alaska (1965m) and Mt Larkins (2300m) to tick off – which have been added to the list since my visit.
Over my two days, I walked the Mt Judah / Heather Jock Loop Track and the Mt McIntosh Track consecutively. If you don’t have much time, both loops can be walked in a long day, but it’s worth spending the night with the incredible views at McIntosh hut.
On day one I started with the Judah Track / Heather Jock loop and its numerous historic huts then headed down to the Buckler Burn and up to McIntosh hut on the Mt McIntosh Loop Track. I explored Black Peak on the morning of day two and returned to the car park via the steep ridge on the true right of the Buckler Burn. With the significant up–down–up between tracks and random exploring, the elevation wasn’t to be sniffed at (I guestimated around 2000m) and the descent down the ridge of the Mt McIntosh track reminded me how old my knees were.
If you get clear skies, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of Lake Wakatipu, The Humboldt and Thomson ranges, Mt Alfred, the Dart and Rees rivers, Mt Earnslaw and the Richardson Ranges.
From the 1880s this area was mined for the mineral scheelite (calcium tungstate) which was used to harden steel, for light bulb filaments and for armaments. The remaining battery, mine sites and huts all have great stories to tell.
As you head from Queenstown to Glenorchy the Whakaari Conservation Area is on the right about 1.5 km from Glenorchy village, just before you drop down into the Buckler Burn. Look out for the tiny brown signpost on the left and a larger DoC sign on the right. The parking area has a toilet and some excellent information boards.
I walked on a fine summer’s day following a few days of rain. I crossed the Buckler Burn solo, between the Heather Jock and Mt McIntosh tracks. My timings were as follows:
- Judah Track and Heather Jock Loop incl. all huts and back to Buckler Burn turnoff – 4 hours 10 mins.
- Buckler Burn turnoff to Mt McIntosh hut – 2 hours 30 mins
- Mt McIntosh hut to (almost) Black Peak – 1 hour 25 mins
- Mt McIntosh hut to Judah Road car park – 2 hours 40 mins.
Judah Track to Heather Jock Loop
The adventure began with a short section on the flat out of the car park, followed by a stiff climb up the Judah Track. Twenty minutes later I arrived at the first historic site, the Glenorchy / Wyuna Battery. During the mining days, rock was crushed here and the heavier scheelite mineral separated from the lighter quartz and schist. A couple of huts still remain and some great information boards described the workings.
From the battery, there were already great views over the Glenorchy Delta, the Buckler Burn, the basin of Long Gully and Black Peak ahead. I continued on to the Mt Judah mine site and went down to take a look at Smithy hut.
Back on the Judah Track and the climb continued at a more respectable gradient, opening up magnificent views of Chinamans Flat, the Long Gully basin and Mt McIntosh. By 9.40 am I reached the turn-off to the Buckler Burn (which I would follow later, down then up to Mt McIntosh).
Heather Jock Loop
From the junction I could see almost all the huts in the distance that I would bag today – each was a tiny dot in the distance. I continued up towards the Heather Jock Loop and after about a kilometre passed the junction to Jean hut. A short sharp steep section followed, which blew some air from the lungs and it was a relief to get to the historic cableway (an excuse to stop) fifteen minutes later.
Five minutes uphill, I took a little side track up to Boozer hut which was named after the drinking habits of a local shepherd who discovered the nearby scheelite vein. In 2011 Boozer hut was relocated from further up the valley and refurbished. Before it was relocated, the artefacts were removed and catalogued, then lovingly replaced, along with information boards detailing the hut’s history. What a beauty! Although you can visit, overnight stays are not permitted.
Bonnie Jean Hut
I left Boozer hut at 10.25 am, crossed Bonnie Jean Creek and ten minutes later was opening the door to the historic Bonnie Jean hut. The hut and shed were more of a museum and filled with artefacts from the mining days. You can go inside, but bars protect the artefacts, and there are no overnight stays.
Heather Jock Hut
I left Bonnie Jean hut at 10.40 am and half an hour later at 11.10 am (2 hours 40 mins and roughly a 1000m climb from the car park) I approached the super-cute 3 bunk Heather Jock hut. Now, this is a hut worth staying in! At 1320m elevation, the views were amazing – looking across to Mt McIntosh and down into the valleys of Bonnie Jean and Buckler Burn. It had a water tank and a decent long drop and was the perfect place for a morning break.
Jean Hut to Buckler Burn
At 11.30 am I left Heather Jock hut and enjoyed the easy walk down the occasionally boggy and slippery loop track. From here, I had a 650m descent to the Buckler Burn, before the significant uphill to Mt McIntosh at 1460m. I reached the historic Jean hut at 12.05 pm. Jean and Bonnie Jean huts were known by the scheelite miners as the ‘red huts’ due to their cladding, and the exterior of Jean hut was made using flattened drums. The roof is held down very effectively by huge rocks suspended on wires. Like the other historic huts, it is not intended for overnight stays, but it’s definitely worth taking a look at.
I continued downhill from Jean hut and joined the Judah track again ten minutes later. A lovely local couple checking their trap lines stopped for a chat, after which I ambled down to the turnoff to the Buckler Burn. This seemed like a good place as any for lunch, and perfect for contemplating the remaining 200m drop and 800m climb opposite! I spotted a couple of walkers who had just popped out of the bush, making their way slowly up to McIntyre’s hut.
Buckler Burn to McIntyre’s Hut
At 1 pm I started walking to the Buckler Burn down a damp and occasionally very steep track. The Buckler Burn wasn’t too high but it was pretty fast. I walked up and down to look for the best spot to cross (not having seen the marker which was clearly visible in the photo I took). A graceful trail runner appeared on the opposite bank and quickly picked her way across without any problems. I am neither tall nor graceful nor particularly good at balancing in rocky rivers, but I took her line, narrowly avoiding wet shorts.
Over the river it was straight into the 380m climb to McIntyre’s hut The wide track through the bush opened up to a scrubby section which was muddy and overgrown in places. A couple of hundred metres up and the track headed across the southern face of Mt McIntosh, which I’d been looking at during lunch. The views into the basin of Long Gully, towards Lake Wakatipu and looking back to this morning’s track were stunning! The sun was out in full force, there was no shade and it was baking hot – only another 150m to climb to McIntyre’s hut… Phew! I reached it in fifty minutes from the river.
The 5-bed McIntyre’s hut is essentially a box perched on the mountainside at 972m, with a gravel floor and a wonderful view out the back window. I loved it. I signed the hut book and continued on.
McIntyre’s Hut to McIntosh Hut
The remaining (almost) 500m up to McIntosh hut was a hot, sweaty affair but at least there was a bit of a breeze. I caught up to the walkers I’d seen at lunchtime, a couple of lovely young ladies on a day walk. We chatted for a while – all of us glad for the break from the climb. It was 3.05 pm when I reached the saddle at the top of Long Gully (pt 1244) forty minutes from McIntyre’s hut.
The Mt McIntosh Loop Track heading left towards the car park was so steep out of the saddle that it was laughable. I took the right-hand track up to Mt McIntosh which was marginally less steep for a further 200m climb. A feeling of relief gently washed over me as the hut came into view, and I began to appreciate the beauty of McIntosh beyond the hut.
I reached the 5-bunk McIntosh hut (1465m) at 3.30 pm. It had a lovely veranda at the front, a great seating area inside with a separate kitchen, and a bunkroom at the rear.
Despite Mt McIntosh hut having many favourable attributes, the best thing about it is the 360-degree views outside. The hut was a little dark inside and having clapped eyes on the very roomy, flat lawn outside I knew I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to camp there. I set up the tent and sat down with some celebratory snacks to enjoy some of the best views you can get for a day/overnight walk. Ahead was Glenorchy and Lake Wakatipu, with the mountains beyond. To my left was this morning’s loop walk and to my right, the Glenorchy delta where the Dart and Rees rivers come together with Mt Alfred rising up between. The Southern Alps of Fiordland rose up in the distance. Behind me loomed Mt McIntosh.
For some excellent photos, complete with really useful labelling of all the key features, tracks, huts and mountain names etc. check out Southern Alps Photography – who walked the track in the reverse direction to me.
It’s hard to describe the feelings you get when you’re looking at outstanding scenery which required a decent amount of effort to obtain. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, and just sat and watched for over an hour. I think we tramp/hike/bike/climb/insert-your-thing-here for this exact moment. It’s cool to share epic views with others (and I did later on) but for now, all this was mine.
I enjoyed an early dinner at 5.15 pm and just as I finished a couple of trampers arrived at the hut. There was still plenty of daylight left and (although I couldn’t quite believe it) I felt I had a bit more left in the tank. I wandered off up the unmarked track for the climb towards the peaks of Mt McIntosh. There were various tracks here and there which petered out, then a few cairns, then nothing. I headed to the southern end of the peak first, for a look at this morning’s track and the Richardson mountains beyond.
I almost reached Mt McIntosh peak but didn’t want to scramble up a dodgy-looking scree-filled gully on my own. (There may have been an easier way up…) so I backtracked and went down and round to the saddle between the two peaks instead, following the occasional cairn.
I returned at 8 pm, just as another couple arrived at the hut. We all watched an incredible red sunset over the mountains beyond Lake Wakatipu.
Even though it was mid-January it was a clear night and I woke up in a frozen tent, so I was glad to get a hot drink and breakfast inside me. I left with a day pack at 8.10 am to explore Black Peak. The day was clear but clouds swirled around the peaks and it was frosty underfoot. The track was mapped and initially easy to follow with just a couple of little slips en route. I managed to lose the track (or it ran out) at some point close to the hut marked on the topo (which I also didn’t see), but there was the odd cairn here and I followed my nose. I found the track again and followed it up to the switchbacks at around 1800m.
The views were spectacular, and Mt Earnslaw peeked out of the cloud in the distance. Talking of cloud, it had been sweeping on and off Black Peak as I approached and now it started rising up from Temple Burn and Pulpit Basin to my left. Just as the track ran out as per the map, the cloud started swirling around me and as close as I was to the summit I didn’t fancy off-tracking on a frozen mountain on my own in the cloud. I called it a day at 9.30 am and headed back down the hut, very happy with the morning’s adventure.
Mt McIntosh Loop Track
After packing up the tent at McIntosh hut I left at 11 am, heading down the Mt McIntosh Loop Track to the saddle and up the steep track opposite to pt 1342.
There was about a kilometre to cover on the high ridge, which dropped off steeply to the left. The views were spectacular! Turning back, the heat of the sun had just about taken the cloud away from Black Peak.
I ambled along taking lots of photo stops and reached pt 1247 at around 12.10 pm. It was all downhill from here through lumpy tussock and bushes. If your knees are OK, that might sound like a good thing. Generally, my knees are OK, but it was probably during the steeper section of track from pt 1203 that they started to protest. The main track, with numerous offshoots here and there, stuck close to a fence line down the ridge and was mostly giant strides down into a somewhat slippery hole, then repeat and repeat. I would definitely have preferred to walk up it rather than down, and I slipped numerous times.
From Chinamans Flat
I was glad to reach the stile and flatter ground at 1 pm. The view through Chinamans Flat towards Mt Earsnlaw was amazing, and the track across to Chinamans Creek was well marked if a little boggy in places.
I nearly ended up in Chinamans Creek, which wouldn’t have been fun given there was a nasty little drop immediately downstream. The crossing required an easy single step onto a rock in the very shallow creek, then one more across to the other side. I expected it to be slippery but it was like stepping onto ice – thank goodness I’d held onto the fence to balance! My legs instantly slid downstream and I was left clinging to the fence, legs flailing (and choice words forthcoming) until I found somewhere to wedge my feet. My core strength was tested as I tried to get my body to awkwardly follow my legs in a weird limbo manoeuvre. That was a nice little adrenalin rush to remind myself that I’m not invincible.
From the creek, the track followed a water race for a short time. It gradually swung right following the edge of the terrace over the Buckler Burn, with views of the Judah mine between the trees and broom. Although this part was fairly overgrown it was easy to follow. At 1.45 pm I reached the track signage before dropping down a muddy slide to the Glenorchy – Queenstown Road. After a brief road walk to the car park, I was back at the car park by 2 pm.
Lunch at Glenorchy
At the car park I realised I hadn’t had any lunch and headed off to Mrs Wooleys. The only pies left in the cabinet were vegetarian. Thankfully no one in the queue in front of me was happy about that, but a pie is a pie – meat or no meat, and it was delicious. I accompanied it with a giant cheese scone and a huge muffin. Eyes bigger than tummy, I was forced to leave half the muffin for later. I was van camping elsewhere for the night so I somewhat cheekily asked if I could pay a day rate at their campground for a shower. To my delight, they have a separate shower block for day showerers!! ($7) so I took the key and revelled in the joy of my hot water allowance. What a great way to end an epic weekend!