Participants: Tae Park, Glen Baxter, Josie Dransfeld, Charlotte Stephen-Brownie, Sergei, Gordy Kast, Andrew Spencer, Arty
Date: 19-20th July
Words and images: Charlotte Stephen-Brownie
The forecast said “snow flurries to 500 m in the Canterbury High Country, blowing in from the south east”. Our gamble, after much discussion, was that the Torlesse Range would catch the snow, and leave us, on the Cass-Lagoon track in the middle of winter, comfortably high and dry. Fortunately, the gamble paid off, and we enjoyed a crisp, clear weather window.
Driving along the highway in the lead car I spied a DoC sign with the words “Cass-Lagoon …”. It was in the right place according to my topomap, as I was looking out for Grasmere Road, so we cruised up this road and parked up happily. I did think it a little odd that there some buildings and no normal looking DoC carpark, but thought little more of it as we were greeted by some friendly sheep and headed on our way.
Walking the route clockwise meant getting our feet wet pretty early on with the 19 river crossings (thanks for counting Josie!), as the track undulated beside the Cass River. Cass Saddle Hut is a lovely little rustic building, with two small rooms and a fire which would probably warm it up well. It would be great to spend a night one day. After lunch at the hut we carried on over the wide Cass Saddle, and down into the Hamilton Creek. This track was made slippery with recent snow over the beech leaves, but the descent was not too difficult.
We arrived at Hamilton Hut (a large, modern 20-bunker, and very comfortable albeit not at all rustic) after making good time down from Cass Saddle. We were surprised, however, to meet a party of 11 already at the hut! We weren’t the only ones to brave the weather forecast. Having carried in a small tent “just in case”, I figured I may as well use it since the hut was nearly full, so set it up next to the hut. While cooking dinner however, it was brought to my attention that the tent had caught the beady eye of a resident kea, who was determined to investigate and would not be dissuaded! Short of standing guard until I froze, I could see no way of effectively shooing away the kea, so quickly disassembled the tent (under the watchful eye/beak of said kea) and moved back indoors.
As it transpired, the group of 11 had been making an annual pilgrimage of sorts to Hamilton Hut, every year at this time, for the last 27 years. We were quickly invited to join the festivities, and with such a tradition, it would have been rude not to!
General festivities, like plenty of food and drink, and toasting marshmallows, were standard fare, but I think none of us were quite expecting the annual party game which followed. As a gentleman from the group explained to us newcomers, this game has been played every year for the past 27 years. It involves an old 50 cent coin (one of the big ones), and an enamel mug which is placed several strides away across the hut floor. As you might guess, the object of the game was to get the coin into the mug. Fairly straight forward? Not so when you learn the method! The coin must be carried via the clenched buttocks of the competitor (fully clothed, I hasten to add), who minces across the floor, a picture of concentration, and the butt of ridicule from the audience, as he or she attempts to “deposit” the coin in the cup.
Being the merry folk we are, we CUTCers cheerfully took up the challenge, and competed with the experienced crew with style. Especially Tae, who’s cracking precision led to him winning the competition!
The excellent fireplace conspired to make the hut a lot warmer than I’m used to in my Christchurch flat, and luxuriating in the warmth of a third storey bunk bed would have made for an excellent sleep, if it wasn’t for the elephantine snores!
Waking bleary eyed and somewhat sleep deprived the next morning, everyone was packed and ready go to by 9.30am. Just 10 minutes down the track from the hut is a short detour to Mirror Tarn (beside point 842 on the topo map), which was well worth the short climb. The tarn wasn’t particularly mirror-like, as it was frozen solid, but was still beautiful, and gave the boys some entertainment as they attempted to make a hole in the ice.
West Harper Hut was our stop for a late morning tea/early lunch. I think this must be one of my favourite huts – it has character simply oozing through its rusty iron roofing. Built in 1957 as a deer-cullers’ hut, it still retains its original look, complete with sagging sack mattresses and wall beams cut from manuka. DoC is maintaining the hut as an historical piece, which is fantastic.
A short while after West Harper Hut, I realised what we’d forgotten to tell the members of the group who were new to tramping in NZ – the fact that a small pile of rocks (known as a “cairn”) is as good as an orange triangle when there are no trees that can be triangled. A quick dash back ensured that everyone was on the right track.
After most of the day in the bush, it was wonderful to emerge from the tree line above the Lagoon Saddle, and soak in the spectacular views of the Waimakariri River and Bealey Spur. This section of track was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the walk.
A long gradual descent through beach and pine forest brought Sergei, Tae and myself down to the carpark at around 5pm, where we promptly headed off to complete the car shuffle, anticipating the others to be not far behind us.
It was in driving back toward the first car park that I noticed another, larger, DoC sign for the Cass-Lagoon track, a kilometre or so up the road from Grassmere Road where we had started from. That’s strange, I thought. Then, while turning into Grassmere Road I had another look at that sign I had only read the start of on Saturday morning; it read, “Cass-Lagoon Track: 2.8 km ↑”. Ooops! Maybe they won’t have noticed the bright red station wagon parked flagrantly on their property?
They did. They were unimpressed. After Tae and Sergei sped off, I was approached by a stony faced farmers wife (with a friendly dog), who berated me for my rudeness in parking on private land, and could not believe that it could possibly be an “honest” mistake. My offer of delivering a bottle of wine next time I pass through seemed to appease her slightly, and we parted with a “well now you know” grumph.
Feeling glad to be out of that situation, I cruised back around to the other end of the track, only to find myself in another situation – the other five trampers had still not emerged from the bush! Where could they be? Surely not lost, the track was straight forward. Injured? But not all five of them? It’s amazing what answers your imagination can concoct when you are waiting on a late party. After some shouting and discussion, Tae had the idea to try his cellphone, and miraculously he not only had reception, but so did Glen (our tail end Charlie), who answered on the second attempt! Turned out they’d enjoyed watching the sunset, and were making their way down, heedless of the concern from below.
Once everyone was gathered finally at the cars, we took off back for Christchurch (with only one back track for a forgotten camera), full of the good feelings that you can only get from a wonderful weekend in hills, with stunning scenery and great people.
PS. A special mention must go out to Sergei, Gordy, Andrew and Arty, for whom this weekend was their first ever tramp in New Zealand, and who all survived admirably!
 I should note that I’m not actually sure whether elephants do snore. Perhaps they are angelic sleepers? If so, I apologise. Those snores at Hamilton Hut nearly triggered an avalanche.