From Avalanche Peak to the Devil's Punchbowl - In Search of Alpine Panoramas

Published: March 18th 2017
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Mountainous BackdropMountainous BackdropMountainous Backdrop

Standing atop Avalanche Peak, over 1000 metres above Arthur's Pass village
After returning to Westport on Tuesday morning (7thMarch), we finally put the West Coast in our rearviewmirror and headed inland through the scenic lower stretches of the Buller Gorge; before turning south and passing through the former gold-mining town of Reefton – which according to the local tourist propaganda was the first town in the Southern Hemisphere to receive electric street lighting. With rain falling for most of the day – including a long-overdue downpour that finally washed away the past week's worth of West Coast gravel road dust accumulation – we wisely decided to call an early halt to proceedings at the Slab Hut Creek DOC campground, where I was able to finally finish reading Heinrich Harrer's excellent 'Seven Years in Tibet' while Linda indulged her inner German engineer by constructing a flood channel in the gurgling waters of the adjacent creek.

Waking to a beautiful, crisp morning the next day, we made a brief return visit to Greymouth on the coast for a necessary food (and beer) stock-up, before heading inland for good on the super-scenic road up to Arthur's Pass. Being not only the main crossing point between the East and West Coasts, but also the route
Spectacular RoadSpectacular RoadSpectacular Road

The soaring Otira Viaduct, just below the summit of Arthur's Pass
of the country's most acclaimed train journey (the twice-daily Tranz Alpine trip from Greymouth to Christchurch) I was somewhat surprised at the relative lack of cars on the road; though this was pretty much in keeping with every other road that we have encountered on the South Island - with the notable exception of the Milford Road during peak times.

With the mountains growing ever higher and the valleys ever deeper, we climbed slowly towards the pass at first, before reaching the 16% gradient of the Otira Gorge - where the winding road clings to the cliffs high above the Otira River, and a waterfall has been diverted out over the road to fall into the void just metres from passing traffic. But the highlight of the steep climb up to Arthur's Pass is indisputably the Otira Viaduct, whose smooth curves tower above the valley floor and provide a truly spectacular sight when viewed from a lookout point just below the crest of the pass.

Just a few short kilometres from the actual pass – which at 920 metres above sea level is the highest of the three main east-west passes through the Southern Alps – lies the
The Devil's PostcardThe Devil's PostcardThe Devil's Postcard

Enjoying a break on the trail to Devil's Punchbowl Falls
tiny village of Arthur's Pass, which like the settlements at Waitomo Caves and Milford Sound appears to have been set up entirely to cater to the constant flow of tourists. But unlike at Waitomo or Milford, the flow of tourist traffic through Arthur's Pass is more a trickle than a torrent – and unsurprisingly this makes a visit to the surrounding national park (the first to be declared on the South Island almost a hundred years ago) all the more rewarding. And best of all, the Department of Conservation maintains a campground directly opposite their visitor centre in the heart of the village – and at the epicentre of the national park's extensive hiking trail network.

And so without any hesitation at all we paid our sixteen dollars for a campsite at the Avalanche Creek Shelter site – complete with a magnificent indoor dining area that provides ample shelter from the frigid winds blowing through the pass – before paying a visit to the DOC visitor centre all of fifty metres away.

Being only too aware of the sort of unstable weather mountain passes are usually renowned for, I could hardly believe our luck as we enjoyed a
Stoney StreamStoney StreamStoney Stream

Bealey Chasm, just off the Arthur's Pass Walkway
hearty lunch at the campground whilst basking in the early autumn sunshine. And I certainly wasn't about to waste such good fortune, setting off straight after lunch for what turned out to be an 18km hike that first brought a close-up look at the 131-metre-high Devil's Punchbowl Falls on the opposite side of the valley; before following the excellent Arthur's Pass Walkway up through the forest towards the crest of the pass, stopping off along the way to take a scenic detour up the adjacent Bealey Valley – from which the river of the same name begins it's long and winding journey to the Pacific Ocean.

But even then I wasn't done, so with the sun having already set prematurely behind the high mountains to the west of the pass (which despite linking the East and West Coasts actually runs in a north-south direction) I headed off up a side-track into the Otira Valley on the far side of Arthur's Pass – from where the Otira River begins it's journey toward the Tasman Sea. With high brooding cliffs rising up on either side and not another soul in the valley, the hour that I spent walking in splendid solitude
Entering the UnknownEntering the UnknownEntering the Unknown

Crossing a scree slope in the deserted Otira Valley
through the Otira Valley was both peaceful and un-nerving in equal measure.

Returning to the campground in Arthur's Pass village, I found Linda cooking up a delicious spicy red curry, after having spent part of her afternoon rescuing seven very fortunate rainbow trout (of varying sizes, up to a foot long) from an ever-shrinking puddle of water in the mostly dry creek bed of the Bealey River. And while the night would prove to be the coldest of our entire trip – compelling both of us to sleep fully clothed (which included woolly hat and gloves in my case!) - we were at least spared the usual sandfly onslaught thanks to the frigid night-time temperatures.

After spending a fitful night trying to sleep inside our poorly insulated campervan, I was most thankful to have leftover curry to feast on after waking early the next morning - which served the dual purposes of warming me up (Linda never being shy when it comes to adding chilli to a meal!) and fuelling me up with enough energy to launch an assault on Avalanche Peak. With the village of Arthur's Pass sitting at an altitude of between 737m and 790m (depending
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Looking north from the Avalanche Peak Track towards Arthur's Pass
on which map you look at) and the summit of Avalanche Peak sitting at an altitude of 1833m, this infamous climb rises over 1000 metres vertically in just 3 kilometres of trail – though I use the word 'trail' lightly, since there is almost as much climbing involved as walking!

With two routes to choose from, I had decided to follow the conventional wisdom by taking the slightly steeper Avalanche Peak Track on the way up the mountain and the only-marginally easier Scott's Track on the way back down, thus forming a highly-recommended loop hike. Either way there is only a recognized track to follow for the lower half of the climb through the forest, before the bushline is reached at the halfway-point and a poled route is followed the rest of the way up to the summit.

So steeply does the mountain rise up from the village, after waking to find the upper-most fringes of it's forested lower slopes already bathed in sunshine, the base of the mountain had still not yet received it's first rays of sunlight an hour-and-a-half later – leaving me to start out in pretty much exactly the same outift I had been
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Looking south from the Avalanche Peak Track towards the Waimakariri Valley
wearing throughout the night! I needn't have worried about the cold though, since within five minutes of setting out I had not only felt the first warming kiss of direct sunlight on my face, but had already worked up quite a sweat.. while another ten minutes into the hike I was down to long pants and t-shirt, and wishing I had brought a pair of shorts along to change into!

The trek itself was certainly a unique experience, being more similar in nature to the climb that Linda and I had done to reach the summit of Tibrogargan (in the Glasshouse Mountains on Queensland's Sunshine Coast) than any traditional hike that I had previously done. For the first hour I slogged away uphill through the forest - using my arms almost as much as my legs to haul myself onwards and upwards - whilst finding it impossible to keep going for more than five minutes without having to stop and catch my breath... though I was by no means the only one adopting this approach; it really was that bloody steep!

Breaking out above the bushline exactly an hour into the climb, I was finally rewarded for my
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Atop Avalanche Peak (1833m), with Mount Rolleston (2275m) in the background
efforts with incredible views of both the braided river channel of the Waimakariri Valley to the south, and the gently rounded summit of Arthur's Pass to the north. From there the route continued to climb almost as steeply as before, as it followed the crest of a ridge which dropped gently to one side but fell away alarmingly on the other – in places a single step too far to the left would have resulted in a potentially-fatal fall of hundreds of metres. While there was no danger of that happening on a day such as this – with not a cloud in the sky and almost no wind to speak of – such a route would unquestionably be a death-trap in bad weather... and indeed it was a sobering thought to know that many people have died on the ascent of Avalanche Peak.

But for those of us lucky enough to be tackling the climb on this most glorious of early autumn days, any hardships were adequately compensated for by the magnificent alpine scenery on offer. And after two-and-a-half hours of physical exertion, I finally edged my way along the knife-edged summit ridge to be greeted by the
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Our waterfront campsite beside Lake Pearson
most glorious panorama of all – with the formidable bulk of the 2275m Mount Rolleston and it's impressive hanging glacier stealing most of the limelight dead ahead to the north-west.

After striking up a conversation with a German traveller named Daniel on the final climb to the summit, I passed an enthralled half-hour on the top of Avalanche Peak, before accompanying Daniel on the knee-buckling descent back to Arthur's Pass village on the Scott's Track, which offered outstanding views of the towering Devil's Punchbowl Falls directly across the valley as we made our way back down towards the bushline. Ninety minutes after we left the summit, we were back down at the base of Avalanche Peak almost 1100 metres below - still thanking our lucky stars for the unbelievably good weather we had been blessed with for such a challenging climb.

After resting my weary legs for a while, it was decided that Linda and I would push on a little further below the pass before calling it a day, and so we hopped back in the campervan for the half-hour drive to Lake Pearson – beside which sits a free DOC campground where we were able to
Hole in the EarthHole in the EarthHole in the Earth

Looking out from the mouth of Cave Stream
nab ourselves a lovely lakeside campsite frequented by curious ducks, but thankfully devoid of sandflies. Just what the difference is between the DOC's 'standard' campgrounds that cost $8 per person and their 'basic' campgrounds that are free we couldn't quite be sure; but either way we were more than happy to pass the rest of the afternoon looking out over the placid waters of Lake Pearson... especially given that our secluded campsite provided us with the opportunity for a much needed 'camping shower' (ie a good old-fashioned sponge-down)!

Heading further east on Friday, we stopped off at the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, where the aforementioned stream has carved a 560-metre-long tunnel through the earth, which incredibly is open to the public for self-guided caving explorations! Wishing we had the necessary wetsuits and caving equipment (not to mention experience) to tackle the journey through the cave ourselves, we nevertheless headed down to the outflow of the cave to take a closer look at it's perfectly-round, tunnel-like entrance; before heading around to the other end where the stream disappears into the darkness over a 3-metre-high waterfall!

After continuing on over Porter's Pass we then followed the Inland Scenic Route past
Waterfall Number OneWaterfall Number OneWaterfall Number One

Rata Falls in the Peel Forest
the impressive Rakaia Gorge, before turning off the main road just after crossing the Rangitata River to find the Peel Forest campground nestled amongst the bush – which despite being run by the Department of Conservation offers facilites (and charges prices) more in keeping with a holiday park... which was just as well, since neither of us had showered (properly) in four days and we had a mountain of clothes that needed washing!

With our clothes hung out to dry on a makeshift clothesline Linda had strung up between a couple of trees, we drove a few minutes down the road to hike to a pair of waterfalls hidden in the forest. And though neither the 10-metre Rata Falls nor the 8-metre Emily Falls were particularly high, what they lacked in size they more than made up for in beauty, sliding down smooth, moss-laden rock faces surrounded by lush greenery. It was even enough to motivate Linda to go for her first skinny dip of the road-trip – on the condition that I join her of course – in the secluded plunge pool of Emily Falls... though I do confess I immediately chickened out after hearing her piercing screams
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Emily Falls in the Peel Forest
upon entering the frigid water! Not my proudest moment; but not my most regrettable either...

And that was about the final highlight of our tenth week in the campervan – despite the fact that we still had the weekend to go – since both Saturday and Sunday brought possibly the worst weather of the entire trip, with virtually non-stop rain and a low blanket of clouds preventing us from enjoying any of the epic 'lake and mountain views' that both Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki are renowned for.

Spending Saturday night at the council-run Lake McGregor campground only a stone's throw from the shores of Lake Tekapo; and Sunday night at the free Lake Poaka campground not far from Lake Pukaki; we adopted pretty much the same strategy for both days – to find ourselves a campsite as early as possible and spend the rest of the day in the comfort of our campervan. At least we had a few friendly ducks to keep us company on the Saturday, including one who turned up as we were having dinner and then refused to leave my side for the next hour or so!

On the Sunday we found
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Footbridge over the outlet of Lake Tekapo
a nice cafe in Twizel in which to pass a few hours (hot chocolate and free wifi are luxuries to savour when you're on the road!) though it must also be said that our stay at the free campground beside Lake Poaka that night was made all the more comfortable by Linda, who showed some genuine ingenuity in constructing an undercover shelter beside the campervan using only a bedsheet, a waterproof backpack cover, some garbage bags, a large fallen branch and a length of cord!

But with only five days left before the end of our road-trip and a weather forecast that predicted two more days of rain, we found ourselves in a quandry – should we push on to Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park and risk being rained out there; or stay put and wait to see if a break in the weather might allow us to finally enjoy the scenery around Lake Pukaki? With time as much an enemy as the weather, we decided to press on towards Mount Cook – figuring that surely the weather there couldn't be any worse than what we'd just put up with!

And so, after stocking up on groceries
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Mueller Lake, with the Hooker River flowing out of it
in Twizel on the Monday morning, we drove the sixty kilometres to Mount Cook village under threatening skies, during which we could only make out the faintest hint of the stunning turquoise water that Lake Pukaki is famous for along the way. Taking advantage of the opportunity for a (coin-operated) shower at the public shelter in the village, we then checked the latest weather forecast at the Department of Conservation visitor centre before heading out to the perfectly-located (if extremely crowded) White Horse Hill DOC campground just outside the village in the Hooker Valley.

By this time we were starting to go a little stir-crazy, so with the rain holding off for the moment we decided to set off on the Hooker Valley Track, which begins from the campground and crosses three soaring swingbridges (Kiwis seem to like making swingbridges for hikers almost as much as they like building one-lane bridges for cars!) as it follows the Hooker River upstream towards it's source.

Passing the poignant Alpine Memorial (which is covered in plaques commemorating the many climbers who have surrendered their lives to the surrounding peaks) shortly after setting out, we then came to a stunning viewpoint looking
Rushing River, but without the MountainsRushing River, but without the MountainsRushing River, but without the Mountains

Hoping for a change in the weather on the Hooker Valley Track
out over Mueller Lake, whose waters come from the just-visible Mueller Glacier beyond and then in turn feed the Hooker River, which could be seen rushing down-valley beneath the first of the swingbridges.

With Linda turning around shortly before the third swingbridge, I continued on alone for the final fifteen minutes before arriving at Hooker Lake, where the terminal face of the Hooker Glacier could be clearly seen just a couple of kilometres away at the other end of the lake; while one particularly large iceberg (at least twenty metres long and close to ten metres high) could be seen floating on the surface just a couple of hundred metres from the shoreline.

While the clouds may have prevented us from seeing any of the mountains for which Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park is famous, the scenery had nevertheless proven to be pretty awesome... and it sure was nice to be out of that bloody campervan (without being soaking wet) for a change! Now if only we could get some nice weather with which to enjoy our final few days on the road in Aotearoa / New Zealand...

Additional photos below
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Scenic Stream CrossingScenic Stream Crossing
Scenic Stream Crossing

Footbridge leading to Devil's Punchbowl Falls
From Source to SeaFrom Source to Sea
From Source to Sea

View from the Bealey Valley Track
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Mountains Aglow

View from the Arthur's Pass Walkway
Crest of the PassCrest of the Pass
Crest of the Pass

View from Arthur's Pass summit - take one
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Crest of the Pass

View from Arthur's Pass summit - take two
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Crest of the Pass

View from Arthur's Pass summit - take three

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