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Canterbury Surprise: The Foothills of the Alps

Published
January 30, 2021
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To the West: The Hakatere Conservation Park

In the Ō Tū Wharekai/Ashburton Lakes district southwest of Christchurch, Mount Guy (1319 m/4,327 ft) and the chilly Lake Clearwater (667 m/2,188 ft) are in the middle of a nexus of tracks, with several other lakes and peaks nearby.

These lakes and mountains are part of the wider Hakatere Conservation Park.

The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) describes the area of Ō Tū Wharekai/, with its twelve lakes (the usual count), the headwaters of the Rangitata River and a number of smaller hollows and occasional ponds called kettle-holes, left by melting blocks of ice, as a nationally significant intermontane (between-mountains) wetland system.

Whence the name Ō Tū Wharekai, which builds on the word for banquet hall or dining room (wharekai) and refers to the fact that the wetlands in this area were an important source of food in earlier times. The area is also one through which people used to travel on the way to gather pounamu on the West Coast, stocking up on food as they did so.

Sunrise at Lake Camp (this is the name of one of the lakes)

One of several camping areas by the lakes

Surprisingly enough, I found Lake Clearwater to be unswimmable and unfishable. There is a little village next to it (handy for some things), and it seems that it has become polluted by excess nutrients from septic tanks as well as from nearby farmland, both of which have lately combined to convert the lake into "pea-brown soup." Which is indeed ironic, in view of the lake's name.

There are a number of campgrounds in this area, including sites at Lake (not-so) Clearwater, Lake Camp and Lake Heron. There is also accommodation at Mount Potts Station, now a back-country ski area in winter and the site of the Mount Potts Station Campsite and the Mount Potts Lodge.

Of all the public campsites I would suggest Lake Camp, but most vehicles have to be self-contained. At Lake Heron, you can't camp between the first of April and October, and it's too cramped and confined. So, personally, I would suggest Mount Potts Station Campsite for NZ $35 and $45 a night (the price varies, on the website at the time of writing it seems to be $50). It's a much nicer spot for camping and a caravan, though more upmarket and pricey as well. If you feel prosperous enough, you can also stay in varioius levels of fixed accommodation at the Lodge.

Along with Mount Guy, some of the best known mountains in this area are Mount Harper/ Mahaanui which, in spite of being 1829 m or 6,001 feet high, is comparatively easy to ascend, and Mount Somers (1688 m / 5,538 ft) which is the location of a popular circuit walk past craggy outcrops and old mine workings.

Hakatere is the Māori name of the Ashburton River, which flows past the large country town of Ashburton, and is also an official name of the river. The exact origins of the name Hakatere are up to interpretation, but its most commonly accepted meaning is to move or dance swiftly along.

This locality is close to Erewhon, the setting of the English writer Samuel Butler’s fictional utopia Erewhon,but also an actual place.

Indeed, when it comes to fantasy tales it's worth mentioning that this district includes an isolated hill with sweeping views called Mount Sunday, so-called because riders from several areas would meet up there each Sunday to swap news. Mount Sunday is otherwise best known as the site of Edoras in the Lord of the Rings movies. They say that this is one of the most remote Lord of the Rings sites that you can easily get to, and the whole area is Lord of the Rings country, really.

One of the advantages of staying at Mount Potts Station, though pricey, is that you are particularly well-placed for going up Mount Sunday and also up to the nearby Mount Potts Skifield. Though having said that, the lake campsites aren't too much further away.

The Te Araroa Trail runs through here, and from Lake Clearwater you can venture along a section of the trail. And also do the Mystery Lake track, which runs along the edge of the stunning ravine of the Potts River for part of the way, and then via the Mystery Lake Link Track to the Potts Hut Track, which leads in one direction to the Boundary Creek Hut, and in another to the Potts Hut on Mount Potts.

The following topographical map gives you an idea of the incredible nature of this country. The Potts River ravine, which dominates the left side, has banks that plunge down below the flat land for two hundred metres or more in places, before you get to the Potts River. Lake Clearwater is also toward the bottom of the map, at centre. Toward the top right you can see a gorge of the South Branch Ashburton River, or Hakatere, which helps to explain the name of the road by which this area is generally accessed from the town of Mt Somers in the Canterbury plains, namely, the Ashburton Gorge Road, which eventually becomes the (unsealed) Hakatere Potts Road, terminating at Erewhon.

LINZ via NZ Topo Map, CC BY-SA 4.0, 2021. North at top.

Here's a 3D Google Earth aerial image.

The Lake Clearwater and Potts River region. The big river to the left is the Rangitata River. The large lake at top right is Lake Heron. Imagery ©2021 Maxar Technologies, CNES/Airbus. Map data ©2021 Google. View looking northward.

See, further, the DOC webpage on 'Potts River tracks'. The Potts River, Mount Potts and Mount Potts Station are all named after Thomas Henry Potts, an early runholder and conservationist.

This is a really iconic part of the Canterbury High Country. It looks best in the snow season, when the hero image on the DOC website was photographed. I would love to come back to this area in the snow season and get some more photos of my own.

The Hakatere Potts Road, which runs past Lake Clearwater toward Erewhon

This seems like Lord of the Rings Country to me!

It's worth noting that you can also visit the publicly-accessible Hakatere Station, a short way up the Hakatere Heron Road. The Hakatere Heron Road branches off to the side from the point where the Ashburton Gorge Road becomes the Hakatere Potts Road, at the locality of Hakatere.

Hakatere Station, with a close-up of the blue plaque below

See, further, the DOC pages 'Hakatere Conservation Park' and ‘Lake Clearwater tracks’.

Mount Somers/Te Kiekie

Eastward from Lake Clearwater, you return to the Canterbury Plains by way of the Ashburton Gorge Road as far as the town of Mount Somers, where there is an old-fashioned general store.

The town of Mount Somers was founded partly in order to hew coal from the flanks of the physical Mount Somers, which stands as a sentinel on the northern side of the entrance to the Ashburton Gorge though which the Hakatere area is accessed from Canterbury.

The physical Mount Somers has been known for much longer, in Māori, as Te Kieke. Both names celebrate individuals who played a hand in the founding of their respective communities here: the British politician Thomas Somers-Cocks who was a sponsor of the Canterbury settlers on the European side and Te Kiekie, a founding chief of the Māori who arrived in one of the first voyaging-canoes from island Polynesia. It's an interesting parallelism, I think.

The town was established in the days when the larger West Coast coalfields had not yet been tapped, and when there was in any case as yet no way of getting the coal through to Canterbury. Clay, sand and limestone were also mined locally.

From the town of Mt Somers, you head north to Staveley to gain access to the tracks up the east side of Mount Somers/Te Kiekie, which has great views eastward over the lush Alford Forest and out to the coastal plains, and also inland back toward the area around Lake Clearwater. You go in via Flynns Road and past the Sharplin Falls Reserve at its end (it seems that the track to the falls is closed, however).

Looking northward over Mount Somers/Te Kieke. Imagery ©2021 Maxar Technologies, CNES/Airbus. Map data ©2021 Google.

The mountain is a little unusual by the standards of the interior of the South Island, in that it's an extinct volcano. All of the volcanoes that are currently active in New Zealand are in the North Island. Though Banks Peninsula and the Otago Peninsula are also extinct volcanoes, along with Mount Horrible which supplies Timaru with its bluestone basalt, 'ordinary' mountains are otherwise much more typical of the South Island.

There are two ways of getting onto Mt Somers/Te Kiekie: from the eastern Staveley end, and also from the southwest via Jig Road, which comes off the Ashburton Gorge Road.

There is a circuit route around the mountain, with a track within that leads to the summit. TheOutbound.com rates the Mount Somers Circuit as 5/5!

There is also another, shorter, circuit route that runs around the green cleft that you can see in the 3D aerial image above, at top left. This cleft has a creek called Woolshed Creek in the bottom.

Both circuits access Woolshed Creek Hut. For a fairly easy, family-friendly walk you can walk the Miners Track to the west of Woolshed Creek, to the Woolshed Creek Hut and back. The circuit around both sides of Woolshed Creek is a bit more challenging.

East of Woolshed Creek Hut, on the Mount Somers Circuit, there's the Pinnacles Hut. This is on the northern leg of the Mt Somers Circuit. You ascend Mt Somers itself from the southern leg of the Mt Somers Circuit.

See, further, the DOC webpage on 'Mount Somers track'.

Here's a short video I made, of my ascent from the Staveley end through the lush forest and onto the incredibly barren tops.

On my hike, which was just an ascent to the summit and return (taking about ten hours), I ascended through quite lush bush at first, though it was beech forest and not the jungly type more typical on the West Coast.

The author in the Alford Forest

As I got higher I passed through terrain that was more Mediterranean in character, before finally getting onto really barren tops.

The summit of Mt Somers/Te Kiekie, in the distance

The track, halfway up

I found the track to be rough, steep and slippery in places, both on wet patches and on gravelly bits. I fell over about four times even though I was wearing proper hiking boots, with poles. This is an issue that pretty much everyone reports with regard to Mt Somers/Te Kieke.

Hiking on the edge of some precipice or other!

Outcrop and view over the plains. Is this lava?

View out over the plains from the summit. This sort of rock definitely looks volcanic.

View inland from the summit (Mount Somers/Te Kieke is flatter on this side)

Here is a DOC page on the Mount Somers Summit route, as distinct from the loop tracks.

I met about thirty people on the way, with some even running the track! Mt Somers/Te Kieke is quite popular, and the huts have to be booked through the DOC booking website, or at a local DOC office or franchise.

Lastly, while I was in the Mount Somers area, I kept my caravan at the Mount Somers Holiday Park.

The Rakaia

North of Mount Somers/Te Kiekie, you come to next major South Island River, the Rakaia. Standing over the plains on the south bank of the Rakaia, in a similar fashion to Mount Somers/Te Kiekie is Mount Hutt, a well-known skifield in winter, which also has some tracks that you can explore in summer.  

View from Mount Hutt

Proceeding up the river, you come to the scenic Rakaia Gorge and its walkway.

The Rakaia Gorge. Photo by 'Ben', CC BY-ND 2.0, via the DOC page on the Rakaia Gorge Walkway

If you press on up past the Rakaia Gorge on the river's true left, or in other words the northern side, you come to  Lake Coleridge, the largest lake in the region, which also has one of New Zealand's earliest hydroelelectric power stations on it.

'Lake Coleridge on a cloudless day'. Photo by Andrew Crump, 5 January 2008, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It's also possible to head up the river's true right, from the township of Mount Hutt, for a somewhat greater distance to Glenfalloch Station in the hills, where you can stay as an Airbnb guest. Past Glenfalloch Station you can hike to the beginnings of a cluster of alpine glaciers, at an altitude of only a thousand metres or so. It is of course hazardous to go into the glacier fields, unless you are an alpinist with the appropriate skills.

LINZ, via NZ Topo Map, CC BY-SA 4.0, north at top. You can zoom in further on NZ Topo Map for more detail.

Further up in the mountains, this glacier field develops into an icecap that is kilometres across, a remnant of a once much larger icecap of which the very largest remnant, covering hundreds of square kilometres, is further south in the Aoraki/Mount Cook area.

For more on the hike to the very top of the Rakaia River and the beginnings of the mountains, see this page from the Canterbury Mountaineering Club, 'Lyell Hut'. It describes a promontory called Meins Knob, just across the river from the Butler Range and close to the last (Lyell) hut; more clearly apparent if you zoom in to the closest scale on NZ Topo Map. Spectacular 360 views from Meins Knob were described by the nineteenth-century explorer Julius von Haast

This including the eastern or Ramsay face of Mount Whitcombe, a near-vertical cliff towering more than a thousand metres in height above the Ramsay Glacier, like something in Hawai‘i or at Yosemite. Or for that matter, the Eiger.

There would be a motorway to Meins Knob in many other countries. It's not too hard to get to, even on foot. And yet in New Zealand you would have it pretty much to yourself. Probably worth doing with one of the new 360 degree digital cameras, in particular.

There's a great collection of photos of a trip through the mountains in this area by Danilo Hegg, on SouthernAlpsPhotography.com. It looks like a trek through the Himalayas in Nepal, great white shark's tooth peaks with clouds and snow blowing off the top above gravelly rivers and glaciers, with verdant forest lower down. Yet it's all right here in NZ, just inland from Christchurch!

Back down on the main roads, driving the Inland Scenic Route, you can also stop off at WashpenFalls, just northward of the Rakaia Gorge. This is a privately-owned locality on a private track through a scenic gorge. It’s very highly rated by ‘glampers’, but basic access only costs NZ $10 for adults, on washpenfalls.co.nz. The private website notes that Washpen Falls has featured as a Hollywood filming location. See, also, backyardtravelfamily.com/washpen-falls-canterbury.

To the North: The Foothills Forests and their Peaks

To the north and northwest of Christchurch, four joined-together forest parks called the Oxford, Glentui, Mt Thomas and Mt Grey/Maukatere Forest Parks form a ring partway around the city. Within the Foothills Forests, as they are called, several medium-sized mountains, more foothills of the Southern Alps, look directly down on the city and the plains and also into the interior, with summit tracks that range from easy to advanced:

·       MountGrey/Maukatere. The 934 m (3,064 ft) Mount Grey or Maukatere is not the highest peak in the area, but has the advantage of being comparatively easy to ascend by way of one of the tracks to the top. See the DOC page on ‘Mount Grey/Maukatere tracks’.

·       Mount Oxford. (1364 m 4,475ft). See the DOC page on ‘Mount Oxford tracks'.

·       Mount Thomas. (1023 m /3,356 ft). See the DOC page on ‘Mount Thomas tracks’.

·       Mount Richardson. (1047 m /3.435 ft). See the DOC page on ‘Mount Richardson tracks’. These include the Glentui LoopTrack partway up Mount Richardson, itself the subject of a DOC webpage.

View from Mount Oxford. Photo by JimTheGiantEagle, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via DOC.

As the foregoing photograph suggests, the views from the peaks here seem similar to those from Mt Somers/Te Kiekie, though none of them are as high. The Foothills Forests also contain:

·       Ryde Falls. A five-tierwaterfall on a lengthy, but easy walking track. See the DOC webpage on 'Ryde Falls tracks'.

I haven't devoted as much space to this area as I have to the Hakatere and Mt Somers/Te Kiekie. But that's because I simply haven't hiked in it lately!

See, further, DOC: ‘Canterbury Foothills Forests Brochure’ (PDF)

If you liked the post above, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.

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