Mount Aspiring National Park
Day 1 - Raspberry Creek Carpark to the Liverpool Hut
Monday, February 22
We had split the mountaineers and non-mountaineers into separate cabins (well, except for Brian, who had to sneak out and come over to our cabin), so that we could get up early without disturbing late-sleepers. With our packs already prepped, there wasn't all that much for us to do - except for me, that is.
Our itinerary in Aspiring National Park involved staying overnight at DOC and Alpine Club huts. These huts are of the first-come, first-serve variety - but certain of these huts require hut tickets, and these tickets must be purchased either online in advance or at a local park service office. Unfortunately, we had arrived after the Wanaka office's closing time the day before, so our first task this morning - my task - was to acquire these tickets.
Packed and ready for Aspiring
The DOC Aspiring Park visitor center in downtown Wanaka opened at 8 a.m., and I was the very first person to walk in the door (in fact, there was no one else around). I discussed our plans with the pleasant ranger, and purchased a set of tickets for the next two nights at two different mountain huts - the Liverpool Hut, higher up near our destination mountain, and the Aspiring Hut, larger and down in the valley bottom.
With hut tickets in hand, I hurried back to our camp cabins, and we made ready to head off. We said goodbye to Andy and Andrea, agreeing to meet in three days time in the nearby town of Queenstown.
Although on paper the shuttle drive to our Aspiring National Park trailhead doesn't sound all that interesting, in real life, it certainly was. The drive from Wanaka to the Raspberry Creek Carpark and trailhead - which utilizes the Matukituki Valley Road - is considered by many to be one of New Zealand's top five scenic drives.
It didn't hurt that the light was still low and the morning completely sunny and clear. The first part of the Matukituki Valley Road is on smooth, winding pavement, passing by ranchlands and lakeshore, and framed by tawny, treeless peaks. As we headed further west, the peaks rose higher and an occasional patch of snow was seen at higher elevations (with late February in the southern hemisphere being roughly the equivalent of late August in the north, most of the spring snows had already melted off the lower elevations).
Matukituki Valley Road
About a third of the way along our drive, the pavement ended and a well-graded gravel road continued up-valley. The valley bottom, wide and flat, was host to many livestock farms, full of cattle, sheep, and - strangely at times - domesticated deer.
The Matukituki Valley bent further to the west at about the halfway mark, and it was here that we caught our first good glimpses of the really high alpine peaks - brilliant and snow-capped, glaciers with crevasses clearly visible on upper slopes. For those with a love of high places, these are pulse-quickening sights.
The road started to narrow as the Matukituki Valley split into two major branches, and the road led into the left (west) branch. Now rolling along with the terrain rather than cut through it, the road began to cross a series of unbridged fords, each with only a small (perhaps 6-10 inches deep) flow of water. No doubt such a road could become tricky to pass in regular vehicles at certain times of the year or in bad weather. For us today, on this beautiful summer morning, the fords did nothing more than get our van's wheels wet.
Raspberry Creek Carpark
It took us about 50 minutes to cover the 50 kilometres between Wanaka and the end of the Matukituki Valley road, where the Raspberry Creek carpark is located. There were quite a large number of cars, vans, and tourist buses milling about. This seemed a bit strange, since we had seen little traffic on the drive in.
Shuttle Driver Farewell
Not wanting to waste too much more of this beautiful morning, we quickly unloaded our packs and made ready to head off. Brian said his farewells to Lori, promising to return safely. We agreed upon a meetup / pickup time back at the trailhead with Lori - roughly noon on Wednesday, just over 48 hours from now. Although the weather was beautiful at the moment, some inclement weather was due to roll in on Wednesday, and we hoped to get picked up and driven out before things got too wet.
West Matukituki Trailhead
We waved goodbye to Lori and started off up the West Matukituki Valley Track. Ultimately we were headed to the higher of our two huts, known as the Liverpool Hut. But for now, our first destination was the Aspiring Hut, located 9 kilometres up the valley.
The track was more of a road at this point than a hiking track, serving as access for farmers to pastured land, and for the park rangers, who use a vehicle to drive up to the Aspiring Hut.
Happy to be in wilderness
On this most beautiful of days, our surroundings were quite pretty. There were no trees on the valley floor, and the track crossed over some lightly rolling ground covered in short grasses. On the left were steep, grassy slopes that angled up to a craggy skyline devoid of snow. On the right, an even steeper slope - amazingly (because the grade was so steep) covered in thick forest, shot into the sky above.
After passing through a constriction, the valley opened out again, wide and flat-bottomed. Off to our right a footbridge led across the West Branch of the Matukituki River, and we could see a trail parallelling the water on the opposite side. This was the track that lead up to a viewpoint of the Rob Roy Glacier, of which we could see a spectacular slice through a side valley on the right.
Despite the large number of vehicles at the carpark, there was hardly anyone on the trail after the Rob Roy Glacier Track turnoff. It was like we had the valley to ourselves (and the smattering of cattle we could see grazing in various pastures).
Up head we could see a slice of the higher mountains, gleaming brilliantly with snow and glaciers. We were excited to see more of these higher peaks, including the peak we hoped to climb.
The peak we planned to summit had a curious name: Mount Barff. Although it would have been more appropriate if the name had been bestowed by an ill climber, the truth is that the name derives from a regional politician of the late 1800s - one Mr. Edmund Barff. Anyhow, Mt Barff is a peak of moderate height at the head of the West Matukituki Valley. For the moment, the view of Mt Barff was hidden to us as a result of the orientation of this part of the valley.
Our plan was to hike up the West Matukituki Valley Track to the base of the Liverpool Track, at the foot of Mt Barff. Then, we would climb the Liverpool Track up to the Liverpool hut, where we would stay for the night (the Liverpool Hut is situated partway up Mt Barff). Then, getting up very early the next morning, we would attempt our climb to the summit of Mt Barff via the southeast ridge, and returning via the same way back to the hut. We would then hike back down the Liverpool Track and the West Matukituki track as far as the Aspiring hut, where we would stay for our second night. On the morning of the third day, we would again leave early and hike the two to three hour journey from the Aspiring hut back to the carpark, hopefully to arrive around noon.
The plan above was a slightly compressed version of what we had initially envisioned, which would have had us stay an extra night at the Liverpool Hut. However, the change in plans due to the bad weather before our Abel Tasman kayaking adventure had forced us to do a little bit of trimming. The distances and elevations were still within our group's reach: 16km and 2500 feet of gain on day 1, 10km and 3800 feet on day 2, and 9km mostly all downhill on day 3.
The walk at the moment was mostly flat. Since we were going up-valley, we must have been climbing somewhat, but the grade was imperceptible. We encountered only one exception to this, about 90 minutes after setting out: a grassy bluff on our side of the river. It pressed up hard against the water, barring passage at river level. With a decisive two-turn switchback, the track/farm road climbed steeply up and over this bluff. Beyond the bluff, the valley widened out again, the track descended, and we resumed our flat walk towards the Aspiring Hut.
Next section of valley appears
Andrew, West Matukituki Valley
The hike up the West Matukituki Valley was quite pleasant. More than pleasant, in fact. The initially beautiful views only got better as we continued. Pretty pastureland and soaring slopes formed the base of our scene. The ever-present glacially-blue waters of the West Branch Matukituki River constantly cut through this scene, an ever-present companion to our right. Little creeks and streams, often with waterfalls, cascaded down from the grassy valley sides. Quaint stands of trees were artfully placed here and there, just enough to accentuate the scene, but never enough to hinder our views. It all combined to create an unnaturally beautiful scene. No, unnaturally is not the right word. Super-naturally would be more like it.