Monday, March 21, 2016

Crossing the Southern Alps, New Zealand

The Southern Alps have long been a barrier for travelers of New Zealand’s South Island. Even today only several motorways traverse this formidable mountain range.

The South Island's first inhabitants - The Mauri - often crossed the Southern Alps to trade pounamu (greenstone) by connecting the Taramakau and Hurunui river valleys through a relatively low saddle known today as Harper Pass (963m). 

After English settlement in the 1850s, a road was established just to the south at Arthur's Pass (920m). Later, in 1923, the Otira Tunnel was completed and a contiguous train line connected the communities of Christchurch to the east and Greymouth to the west. 

Combining a ride on the scenic TranzAlp Train from Christchurch to Otira via Arthurs Pass, a trek up Taramakau River Valley and over Harpers Pass, and a descent of the Hurunui River created a delightful 3-day packrafting adventure that included history, wilderness, and a splash of whitewater.

I got off the train at the small village of Otira. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough water to paddle the Otira River and I had to continue a few miles down the road to the even smaller settlement of Aickens and the confluence with the Taramakau River.

After trekking up the Taramakau River Valley, I spent the first night in the Locke Stream Hut that was constructed 1940 from local timber and restored in 1993.

The View from Harper Pass

Harper Pass is one of many passes along the Te Araroa (New Zealand's Trail), that travels 3,000km across both the North and South islands.

In the upper Hurunui River Valley, I was able to launch my BAKraft about five miles above Sumner Lake. The seven-mile lake crossing was eased by a down valley wind. 

Near the outlet of Lake Sumner is Gabriel Hut. One of 950 backcountry huts maintained by New Zealand's Department of Conservation (DoC), the hut provided a delightful shelter for the night.

The Hurunui River meanders gently as it leaves Sumner Lake and enters the first of several limestone gorges.

The Hurunui River includes multiple gorges that would be rated Class 3 in the U.S. This includes Maori Gully and Hawarden Gap, two of the most popular stretches of whitewater in Canterbury. My 3.5-kilo BAKraft performed perfectly in the turbulent water.

Just before the Hurunui River spills out onto the Canterbury Plains, I finished my journey staying with the McRae family whose sheep station Glens of Tekoa was homesteaded by their great, great grandfather in 1850. Today the McRae family primarily raise merino sheep and is one of the main suppliers for Icebreaker. The McRae family also opposes the construction of a dam on the Hurunui River.

"Whether friend or foe the Hurunui is a part of nature which gives and takes but above all is endlessly constant. What a river to explore, enjoy and learn to understand." 

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