Glenorchy area, 16 – 20 November 2019
The main aim of this trip was to spend time visiting old huts in the Whaakari Conservation Area just south of Glenorchy to learn more about the history of scheelite mining in the area and to enjoy the grand views the region has to offer.
The weather forecast for most of the time was for nor’west winds with some heavy rain about the Divide and this turned out to be very accurate. As we drove through Queenstown on Saturday it was obvious that it was raining in the mountains beyond Glenorchy. After having a late lunch in the town we continued to the Lake Sylvan DOC campsite where we donned raincoats and walked the recently upgraded loop track through the forest to the lake; first along the Tramline track and then back on the shorter one. Still raining, we drove three kilometres from the campsite to the (new) Routeburn Shelter where we had our evening meal and sorted gear ready for the two or three night stay in the Whaakari Conservation Area. After erecting our tents late in the evening, the wind blew and the rain continued all night, thoroughly testing the water-shedding qualities of our respective tents. Judy and Barry’s stood the test much better than mine! Catherine and Hazel had decided to sleep the night in the car. Not a bad decision!
We began walking along the Judah Track in the Whaakari Conservation Area at 9.45 am on Sunday morning, happy that the rain had stopped. It was a steady climb along the old road that in previous years had been used by horses (and later, motorised vehicles) but now used by trampers, mountain bikers, horse riders and those keen to explore the area’s mining history. After 45 minutes we arrived at the Glenorchy Battery and a short time later reached the Judah Mine (also known as the State Mine), the oldest and largest mine that was purchased by the Government in 1942. At these sites, as well as many others, information panels and photographs helpfully explain the history of scheelite mining in the area. Scheelite, a tungsten ore used to manufacture durable, heat-resistant steel, was actively mined between the 1880s and 1980s and was in high demand during the two World Wars when prices sky-rocketed.
Continuing on up the road, we reached the Junction where the final decision had to be made as whether we descended to the Buckler Burn to do what is known as the McIntosh Loop or continue straight ahead to explore the huts on the river’s eastern side.
Information put out by DOC and others clearly warn that the Whakaari tracks are alpine and exposed with changeable weather, extreme temperatures, strong winds and the possibility of snow and ice at any time of the year. River crossing experience is considered essential. A red DOC warning sign at the Junction helps to ensure that people are well aware, if they do not already know, that high water levels in the Buckler Burn make the crossing impassible.
In view of the tremendous amount of rain over the past days we knew that crossing the Buckler Burn would be virtually impossible and so, feeling satisfied that we’d made a good decision, we continued to another junction at the end of the Judah track and turned left to walk in a clockwise direction to the Heather Jock Hut, our shelter for the night. Six goats suddenly appeared before our eyes, the first of around no less than sixty that we encountered: black, brown, speckled bulls, nannies and many young ones. A goat-hunter’s paradise!
The Jean Hut was the first of the three day-use-only huts that we passed. This one, built during the first World War, the roof weighed down with large stones on each side, made a suitable lunch place.
Continuing upwards on a zig-zag track, we reached the snowline and trudged on through the soft snow which had fallen the previous night. When we reached the 3-bunk Heather Jock Hut, the snow around the door and on the roof was gradually melting. The sun even came out and, with a fresh nor’wester blowing, we stood outside holding the wet tents (that had been carried lest the hut was already full) and in no time they were dry. The Heather Jock Hut, at 1300 metres altitude, sits just below the ridgeline so we climbed higher and were rewarded with magnificent views of the upper Buckler Burn and Walters Creek valleys and the near and distant mountains including Mt Earnslaw and the Humboldt Mountains on the opposite side of Lake Wakatipu.
Throughout the whole of our five days away the weather was very fickle and late on this Sunday afternoon was saw yet another example of it: after sunshine, the clouds drifted over from the west and it wasn’t long before it was snowing. The snow was being blown with the wind – horizontally!
How did we fit five people into a three-bunk hut? Catherine took a top bunk (no ladder to reach it), Judy had a bunk, Hazel and Barry ‘topped and tailed’ in the third bunk and Dorothy slept on a mattress on the floor. Easy as. The only disturbance during the night was the sound of mice inside the hut – even at that altitude.
(The mice are very prolific this year. At the Lake Sylvan campsite Judy had had her tent nibbled through by a mouse that had fancied a nut bar. It had no trouble chewing through the plastic/foil wrapping to consume over half the bar.)
The same old piece of machinery and the hut presented a very different picture next morning!
On Monday morning we awoke to find six inches of fresh snow on the ground, but as it was soft and easy enough to walk through we had no trouble, apart from a few slips and slides, as we descended to the Bonnie Jean Hut. Here, in the adjacent shed, an old Massey Ferguson tractor stands complete with key. It must be at least 40 years since it was last used. The (day-use-only) hut is filled with relics of yesteryear. A 1972 calendar from West End Motors, North Street, Timaru, hangs on the wall.
Further down the track is The Boozer Hut that was relocated to its present position in 2011, presumably from a site nearer to Bonnie Jean Hut. Its name suggests that it was a retreat for some of the thirsty miners who worked in the harsh conditions at such a high altitude during those previous decades.
Having completed the Heather Jock Loop track, we arrived again at the Junction, dropped our packs and descended the steep track through beech forest towards the Buckler Burn, simply to get a close-up view of it. However, when we reached the rushing Bonnie Jean Creek Barry was the only one game enough to cross. It was quite some ‘creek’! As expected, Barry came back with the report that the Buckler Burn was a high-flowing, dangerous rushing torrent that for anyone to try and cross would be to risk a fatality.
After descending the Judah Track we arrived back at the vehicles at 2 pm.
Walking the Glacier Burn track, which was originally intended, was out of the question due to road closures and so we continued towards Queenstown, stopping at Bob’s Cove on the way. A pleasant stroll was taken along the old Bridle Track followed by a walk in the sunshine past a restored lime kiln that had been constructed in the 1870s, one of seven that were built to burn limestone for lime mortar and fertiliser. We continued on quite a new loop track to an excellent view up and down Lake Wakatipu.
At Moke Lake DOC Reserve camp, ten kilometres west of Queenstown, we erected our tents and were thankful for the Shelter in which we could prepare and eat our evening meal while the rain came and went. The wind turned southerly during the night but it was decided to still do the lakeside loop track first thing in the morning. The rain eased half way round and when the sun started shining again, we decided late morning to walk up the valley beside Moke Creek, following the historic track into the Moonlight goldfields. We were enjoying our lunch high above the river when a helicopter flew over and dropped off two people on the top of the 1100 metre peak in front of us. At first we thought they must be two hunters but when the helicopter returned with some antenna-like structure we were were left wondering what exactly they were doing.
We continued on the old road as gathering clouds signalled more rain coming. Undeterred, we spotted the poplar trees marking the site of Sefferstown a kilometre or so further on and thought that would be a suitable end point for our walk. Most of us continued down and then up another steep hill to reach the site of this once-populous town, the two remaining huts nowadays being used by a horse-trekking operation. By now it was pouring with rain again and we made our way back along the road as fast as we could. Typically though, the rain stopped after a while and for a few minutes at any rate, we were in sunshine again; enough to even get some of our damp clothing dry back at the Shelter – before the next heavy downpour!
Wednesday was home-going day. Thinking we’d arrive back in Timaru to more settled weather than we had experienced down south, we arrived home to find the devastating effects of the hailstorm that had battered much of the town – dented vehicles, broken spoutings and windows, pelted trees and gardens… Oh well, it helps remind us that, wherever we are in the country, we must expect the unexpected, be flexible and carry a non-plussed attitude. Such is life!
Special thanks to Catherine for planning this trip and for kindly organising the meals. The trip wouldn’t have happened without her energy and enthusiasm. Thanks to Judy for preparing one evening meal, to Hazel for taking her car and to Barry for his willingness to take his vehicle too when at the last minute we found that Hazel’s car would not be big enough for all five of us along with our gear. It was a great trip exploring a new area. The other half, the McIntosh Loop in the Whaakari Conservation Area remains to be explored some other time when the Buckler Burn is crossable and the weather more settled!