Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cass-Lagoon Saddle Tramp

Stephen has been on holiday now for nearly two weeks. Last weekend, we took the opportunity to do a little tramp in the Craigieburn mountains just 2 hours drive from Christchurch. A lovely group of mountains where there are 5 ski fields in winter and thousands of sheep and cattle in summer. We skied here a few times last winter, so we thought we might explore it in summer as well to see what back country potential it held for the upcoming ski season.

The trip started on a decidedly relaxed note as we slept in and went to the Lyttleton market to finish up our groceries for the trip and the week. It was a lovely cool morning, so we were quick to pick up our blueberries and apples and got back home by 11am. Then we quickly (yet relaxedly) finished packing, stuffed it all into the car and left. By about 1pm - definitely off to a good start.

After dropping off Stephen's bike at the end of the tramp (a good 10km by road) we parked in the little parking lot and headed off down the dirt road that was our trail. Cass is a rail stop on the Arthurs Pass rail line, the pass we were heading for into the Craigieburn range was named after the station which was named for a pioneer surveyor who surveyed the area. Presumably there is or was a Maori name for the area as well, but that has been wiped from the maps and minds.

The afternoon sun was lovely and warm and kept our spirits high for reaching the first hut before dark - but the long shadows kept us marching at a faster speed than normal. Unfortunately, this also meant there were to be no pictures on this part of the trip. Apparently, it slows me down . . . so we marched down the road, across the river, up the river and onto the trail. And on and on and on and up and up and up.

As the valley got narrower, the sky got darker and the air got cooler. We were definitely racing for a shelter now. The first hut, Cass Saddle Hut, has only 3 bunks and with four other cars in the parking area there was the distinct possibility someone might already be inhabiting the hut - which to Stephen meant we would have to keep marching to Hamilton Hut (another 2-3 hours hike). I on the other hand knew where I would be sleeping and it was not another 2-3 hours away. However I kept this to myself and doggedly marched on behind Stephen.

We reached the hut at the top of a steep climb from the now trickling Cass River. Tucked into a little clearing in the beech forest, the hut, although tiny, shone with the promise of warmth and a place to sleep. It was empty. Hooray! We dropped our packs and collected some firewood for the little stove inside. As I worked away on the fire, Stephen got dinner together and cooked us up some delicious stir-fried rice. We tucked ourselves into bed on our plywood bunks and slept.

Kind of. There was a mouse.

Scuttling about, we could hear it digging through our bags. . . .and into our food. Stephen lept out of bed (ok, he crawled out - neither of us was eager to get out of our snuggly nests) and gathered together all the food and hung it from a nail in one of the roof beams. I told him about the candy in my backpack, but he figured it would be ok (foreshadow warning!!!). Once back in bed, he switched off the flashlight and we both tried to sleep with a noisy mouse scuffling around.

At some point, I must have slept because I woke in the morning to sunlight filtering through the roof window. Stephen was already up making a fire and getting breakfast on the go (scrambled eggs - yes, we camp posh because we carry no tent). The eggs were delicious, but our warm beds were calling so we crawled back into them and slept for another little while. Ah, how relaxed you feel when there is absolutely to rush to get anywhere in particular. Eventually, we got out of bed, dressed and began to pack. Which is when I discovered to my horror that our candy had been infiltrated and pooed on in a most rude manner. I mean geez, couldn't he at least have shat outside the bag, then some of it might have been rescueable. It appeared as though we would have to continue without candy. A palpable sense of animosity and blame floated throughout the hut, until Stephen told me about the two giant chocolate bars we still had. All was saved and we could continue with no deaths.

The day was absolutely gorgeous. After a 5 minute hike we emerged into lovely alpine tussocks and spikey plants and climbed gently towards the saddle. The valley behind us slowly disappeared, while the world in front of us opened up. A new landscape to explore and learn. We followed the side of the mountain a little ways watching the keas fly overhead, examining the map to see which ski field we were behind and where this winters turns might be had.

We dropped down into the beech forest and quickly lost elevation. I was sorry to loose the view, but the forest was pretty ethereal with lichen draped over the gnarled old trees as they clawed their way up to the sun. Tiny rivulets of water trickled their way amongst the tangled roots and fell laughingly down into the valley below. Eventually, you could see blue and yellow in between the twisted trunks and we emerged rather quickly into the open grassy river valley. At the far end, where the forest crept back to the rivers edge, we could see the hut tucked up on an embankment, mountains rising up all around it.

Hamilton Hut is absolutely fabulous. It is a serviced hut, so has 20 bunks (with cooshy mattresses), a big fireplace, tables, benches, counter tops for cooking on, running water (spring fed) and amazing views. We dropped our packs, took off our boots and just enjoyed the birds, the river, and the quiet. We had the whole place to ourselves. Although it was only lunchtime and we could have easily made it to another hut, we decided to stay the night and enjoy the place. We napped, read, wandered down to the river and generally, did nothing. It was wonderful. As the valley filled with the rich golden rays of evening, we made up a fire and cooked up some dinner. As the last of the sun scrapped the tops of the mountains, we cleaned up and climbed into bed to play cards and sleep.

The next morning, as we lazed in bed and enjoyed the sunrise through the front window we debated our next move. Or rather, whether we would move. It was unanimous. There would be no moving tonight, we were staying put. There was just too much nothing for us to get done. So we slept some more. Eventually, we got up and ate. Stephen chopped some wood (and met a little Tom Tit who liked going into the chopped wood and pulling out all the yummy little bugs there) and I drew quilts. We eventually got bored and decided to go for a walk down the valley towards Lake Coleridge. With lunch packed into our little bum bags we sauntered off down the road (there's a 4WD track about 15 mins from the hut). It was a lovely walk and despite all the river crossings my feet stayed dry (Stephen's didn't - he carried me, what a gentleman). We lunched down with some cows (New Zealand's beef - all grass fed) and watched two DOC (Department of Conservation) trucks drive by heading up the road we had just walked down. The wind was picking up so we decided to head back up to the hut and see what our visitors were doing.

When we got back, we found three DOC rangers unpacking the truck. So we helped carry their gear the 15 minutes back to the hut and settled in once back. They were here for general maintenance, checking bridges, painting, cleaning and such. At dinner time, we talked a little about skiing in the region (they've all worked at different fields in the area) and hiking.

While cleaning up, Stephen encountered two very forward possums outside. I presume they had been fed by previous visitors because they had to issue coming right up to your toes (I never stayed still long enough to find out what they would do once they had reached my toes). We offhandedly mentioned them to the guys inside who promptly grabbed the nearest hard objects (small broom and fire poker), their flashlights and headed out to find them. After some general ruckus one of the guys came into the hut and said, "We got one! Do you have a plastic bag?" I pulled out an empty food bag and insisted on joining him. So Stephen, myself and Tim (one of the rangers) went back outside to find Jim (another one of the rangers) with the possum bleeding out the neck (apparently, the best way to kill a possum is to grab it by the tail, hit it on the head with a hard object and while its' stunned slit its throat with a knife). Tim then started pulling fur off the critter and stuffing it in the bag. While the animal is still warm you can just pluck the fur from the skin. Once that was done, we asked if we could have the meat too. Tim laughed, but Jim has happy to meet someone open to trying new things. So he happily skinned and cleaned it for us, presenting us with the torso and hind legs to cool overnight. We went back inside and had a good chat about hunting, food knowledge and invasive species. By about 8pm we were all knackered and fell into bed.

The next morning after an early breakfast, we packed up our stuff and hit the trail. The sky had clouded over the night before and ominous dark shapes were churning in the direction we were headed. With a dark sky, the forest seemed to come alive. Creatures hid behind trees, words were whispered on the wind and finally, the first cold drop of water fell down my neck. Once the rain started it didn't want to stop. The trees provided some protection, but when we were out in the river bed there was nowhere to hide. We climbed up and up and up. As the ground got soggier we arrived at Lagoon Saddle Hut. We quickly ducked into the little alpine shelter and grabbed some food. I changed into some dry clothes for the final bit of the hike and we pushed on.

The climb over the saddle was wet and mucky, but quite pretty. Alpine environments tend to steal my heart and this one was no different, despite the chilly, soggy clime. We trudged through muck, having to guess which puddles were only an inch deep and which were calf deep. We clambered over creeks and between giant grass tussocks and eventually we came around the hill to see our final destination. As we dropped into the military ranked trees of someones tree farm, Stephen sped up as he would bike back to the car and come back to pick me up.

Downhill is always harder than you think. My socks were wet, so made my feet slip about in my boots. I could feel a blister on my left heel and my right knee was getting twitchy, but there was no rest, the trail just kept going down. I would stop every once in a while to listen to the rain and the birds and the far off highway sounds - "Is that Stephen? Or could that be him?"

Suddenly I saw the hut. I went in out of the rain and changed. And then I waited. First I read the visitor log book, their always interesting for a story or two. Then an old newspaper magazine. I knew I was getting desperate when I started flipping through the mens magazine, but Stephen arrived and we were off. Back home.

Next up - how to cook a possum!


  1. You don't know me, but my wife found your site and I've been following it for a while. We're living in Whitehorse, but eagerly awaiting the completion of some schooling so we can move to New Zealand.

    I have to say, the life you lead is absolutely amazing! I can't wait to be living in New Zealand in the next 5 years.

  2. Thanks for the comment. It's always nice to know someone is reading what I'm writing.

    Good luck with the schooling, New Zealand is indeed a great place to live. Though I will admit, Stephen and I are getting more and more anxious for my schooling to be completed so we can move back to the Yukon. Funny how the world works.

  3. thanks for your post. My son and husband doing the Cass track next weekend and I am a little nervous about it! My son is 10 years and they are also with 2 other dads and sons, one who is very experienced but keen to do river crossings with the boys so I'm hoping the weather will be good and it's not too dangerous!