After 3 weeks of amazing weather, it was inevitable that the forecast was lousy for our weekend. Mid-week, it appeared we were in for possible snow to all levels of the Canterbury high country however by Friday it was all looking pretty good, with overnight rain Friday night set to clear throughout Saturday and leaving Sunday fine. While a bit of rain wouldn't totally ruin our plans, we were looking for fine weather on Sunday for our return trip along the tops.
Saturday dawned grey and wet, with the heavy rain having given way to light, misty drizzle. A quick ring around revealed 5 of the intended 6 in our party were still keen so off we went.
It's a long drive over in to Lees Valley, about 45 minutes on a slow, winding road. The road was in great condition for our trip, but is prone to slips and rockfall, making it impassable at times. Once down in the valley keep an eye out on the left for a signpost beside a farm gate, which gives access to a rough vehicle track that crosses paddocks to the start of the track.
The track starts where the Ashley River emerges from the hills, and follows a farm vehicle track alongside the river for the first hour. This section was an easy warm up, but not overly interesting, except for a mysterious trail of mandarin peels left along the track. There was plenty of evidence of farm workers about, but no one in sight.
After an hour's easy tramping we reached the Lilburne River. By this point we had all shedded our rain jackets, finding ourselves wetter inside the jacket from sweating than outside from the rain.
We forded the Lilburne with ease, although it does flow swiftly and would make for a challenging crossing if the river was up. Apparently there is an easier ford about 1km upstream that could be used if necessary.
After crossing the Lilburne we set off up the river. The route is poled across open areas, and marked with the ubiquitous orange triangles when it passes through pockets of bush, and was easily followed.
Initially we kept quite close to the line of the river, following along terraces perhaps 20m above the river, and remained this way until the marked track junction just upstream of Tent Gully.
There was one small slip through this section (approximately between BV22 325327 and 325332) which required a few interesting moves to negotiate, more so on my part as I tried to quickly descend the slip down to the river to get a shot of the others as they crossed the slip.
We stopped for lunch at the track junction, having made good progress up the valley. A quick look up the line of the route heading up the hill behind us, the newish alternative route onto the tops, indicated it was in pretty rough condition. I'm not sure how much maintenance it gets now, especially since it's a route that's no longer needed now that the new landowners have opened up access to the area.
After lunch it was time for the harder work to begin. The track climbed directly up a spur not far past the junction, and seemed to just keep climbing. We were expecting a small 100m or so climb a bit further up valley as marked on the map, but instead, when it was all done, we climbed around 280m up in a series of steep climbs with short periods of level sidling in between. At its' peak the track reached 880m, significantly higher than indicated on the map. I've done my best to indicate the actual line of the track on the map below.
Once we reached the high point of the track, we sidled across the face of the hill for a short distance, before plunging back into the bush and down a steep spur that took us back down to the river again, directly across from Youngman Stream Hut. We found it easiest to head upstream on the bank for a couple of minutes until we reached Youngman Stream as it joins the Ashley, as the river has eroded away the bank where the track exits the bush and the river flows deeper up against it.
Once across it was a short stroll through to the pleasant clearing where Youngman Stream Hut is sited, arriving mid-afternoon around 5 hours after setting off.
Youngman Stream Hut was built in 1955 by the NZ Forest Service, and is nicely located in a clearing at around 700m altitude. It has 6 bunks, with quite new mattresses (that even come with a firm side and a soft side, marked accordingly!) and a woodburner for heating. We found it to be in a very tidy condition, although there was a few extraneous items left behind from previous parties.
It was nice to arrive with plenty of time to relax and enjoy the surrounds, without feeling the pressing need to crack on get dinner made. Copious amounts of totally rubbish food were consumed during this time, but that's all part of the experience.
As the evening wore on the lovely sound of rain on the roof was heard, gradually increasing in strength but when morning dawned it had all cleared, and we were greeted with a great looking day.
Collecting water from the river for a morning cuppa revealed the sight of fresh snow on the tops, having fallen to around 1300m overnight, meaning we would be up amongst it later in the day - always something to look forward to.
We set off around 9am, mindful of the fact we had a solid climb ahead of us to gain the tops. Initially the track climbs through beech forest, steeply on the lower slopes before easing a little higher up. The track was in great condition, having been well tidied up by DOC following storms in 2013 that caused extensive windfall to many tracks in the Canterbury area. At just one point did we have to clamber over a tree, and this was quite an effort given the treacherously slippery footing, otherwise it was easy going, albeit uphill all the way.
In a little over an hour we broke out of the bush into an open patch of low scrub, at around the 1050m contour, which gave us our first real views of the day. It made for a wonderful place to stop and have a snack, taking in the views across to snow covered slopes on the Puketeraki Range, and right up into the headwaters of the Ashley River.
I always used to have a chuckle reading accounts of early exploration in Canterbury. The early surveyors were tasked with the job of finding a viable route through the Southern Alps to the West Coast to make the most of greenstone and, later, gold findings in the rivers there. One such man, Henry Whitcombe was given instruction to explore the headwaters of the Rangitata, Rakaia, Waimakariri, and Ashley Rivers, and to seek out a suitable pass across to the Coast. The first 3 of those rivers are the main arterial waterways of the Canterbury Plains, whereas the Ashley River, today anyway, hardly seems worthy of being used in the same sentence. My early experiences of the Ashley were ones of driving across the bridge to Rangiora and seeing it dry more often than not, but a quick study of maps reveals it to be perhaps every bit as long as the other main rivers, but with a difference. If Whitcombe and co. had decided to explore it they would have been disappointed, as the river makes a turn northwards, cut off by the long line of the Puketeraki Range, and to cross over the mountains at its' head would have you end up in the Lake Sumner area, a far cry from the West Coast.
We kept moving, slowly but steadily upwards, through a final patch of bush before reaching the alpine scrub. Lilburne Hill (1405m) rose up ahead of us, drawing closer, its tussock slopes draped in a thin white blanket of snow. At the foot of the final climb we separated out a little, each finding their own pace as we worked our way up onto the summit. Paul led the charge, leaving the rest of us in his wake. I joined him on the summit shortly after, snapping photos and reveling in the perfect stillness that greeted us on the summit. The others were not far behind and we enjoyed a congratulatory moment before moving on across the tops to Tarn Hut, our destination for lunch.
Only 15 minutes later it came into view, and we quickly descended, eager for lunch now.
Tarn Hut occupies a wonderful spot, nestled away on a broad saddle at around 1280m right next to an attractive tarn. It was built in 1958 and boasts 4 bunks (with mattresses) and a great little woodburner for heating. It would make a cosy little hideaway if you wanted to spend a night up here.
Having made good time we decided to have a leisurely lunch, getting cookers out for a cuppa and just enjoying the location. We spent an hour here relaxing, before moving on with the arrival of a southerly breeze starting to pick up. Donning jackets, we set off along the vehicle track that winds its way along the tops, passing under a high point of the ridge before gently rising to meet the ridge further along.
It was straight forward travel from here back down to the Lilburne/Ashley confluence, following a well formed vehicle track all the way down. It's a long descent, that would make for a hot slog uphill if travelling in reverse, but the easy nature of it was a joy at the end of a weekend's tramping.
Once back down at the river, all we had to do was get our feet wet again fording the Lilburne and plod our way back to the car along the farm track.
A great weekend tramp, which had a real wilderness feel to it in the upper valley, and one that could be worth another visit sometime.
|Fording the Lilburne River|
|Attractive pool in the Lilburne River, just downstream of the ford|
|Alongside the Ashley River|
|Small side stream near the track|
|Small side stream near the track|
|Start of the steep climb just past Tent Gully track junction|
|Poked my nose up a little side stream and found this|
|Looking down the steep spur, but we weren't done climbing yet!|
|High above the Ashley River as we sidled high along the hillside|
|On the high sidle, looking back down the Ashley|
|Back in the river, not far from Youngman Stream Hut|
|The others arrive|
|Arriving at Youngman Stream Hut|
|Interior of Youngman Stream Hut|
|Ashley River at dusk|
|Ashley River at dusk|
|Youngman Stream Hut - built 1955|
|Looking up Youngman Stream, with fresh snow on the tops|
|In the clearing at 1050m, looking across to snow capped Pt 1775m|
|View to the Ashley River headwaters|
|Snack stop, with Pt 1775m behind|
|Looking across to the Pancake Range|
|Climbing through alpine scrub, heading towards Lilburne Hill|
|Gnarly trees at the bushline, Pancake Range behind|
|Paul looking relaxed, making easy work of the climb so far|
|Ashley headwaters, with Ashley Head (1465m) just left of centre, and Pt 1654m on the right|
|Pancake Range - Pts 1654m, 1630m, and 1583m (L to R)|
|Another view towards Pt 1775m|
|Looking down the upper slopes of Lilburne Hill, into the Ashley headwaters|
|On the summit of Lilburne Hill (1405m), with the Puketeraki Range behind|
|Peaks at the head of the Lilburne River, Puketeraki Range, from the summit of Lilburne Hill|
|Gaining the summit of Lilburne Hill, backed by the Pancake Range|
|Setting out along the tops to Tarn Hut|
|Descending to Tarn Hut, located in the saddle ahead of us|
|First sighting of Tarn Hut|
|Descending to Tarn Hut, Julia almost there, rounding the tarn - she LOVES downhill!|
|Tarn Hut - wonderful location, sitting at around 1280m|
|Approaching Tarn Hut|
|Arriving at Tarn Hut - time for lunch|
|Looking back to Lilburne Hill|
|Interior of Tarn Hut|
|Panorama from behind Tarn Hut - Lilburne River centre image, with un-named peaks at its' headwaters|
|Heading along the tops south of Tarn Hut, which is located in the obvious saddle to the left|
|Crossing the tops, about to start the descent back to the valley floor|
|On the tops, Pancake Range behind|
|Final snack stop on our way down, Ashley River leading towards the top of image, Lilburne River below on the right|
|View of the Ashley/Lilburne confluence, the ford is near the cluster of trees centre image|
|View up the Ashley, the route of the first day|
|Back on the valley floor, the sandflies were thick here, this poor beast didn't survive them!|
|View back up the Ashley to Lilburne Hill (centre)|
|Crown Copyright - Land Information NZ|
Access: From Oxford (around 45 minutes north-west of Christchurch), follow signs towards Ashley Gorge. After about 5km, turn left onto Lees Valley Rd, which takes you through hills into Lees Valley. Once on the flat, look for a DOC signpost at a farmgate 10-15 minutes up valley. Enter here and drive across farmland on a rough vehicle track to the carpark. NOTE: the road into Lees Valley is prone to damage from rockfall and slips, and can easily be impassable for long periods. There is a sign when you turn off the main road indicating if it's closed.
Time: Carpark to Youngman Stream Hut 4-5hrs, Youngman Stream Hut to Tarn Hut 3hrs, Tarn Hut to carpark 2hrs 30mins
Map: BV22 Dampier Corner
Huts: Youngman Stream Hut (6 bunks), Tarn Hut (4 bunks)