The pool of water around our Arc Cabin in Mapuia Springs had grown into a torrent. I imagine at any moment the little wooden cabin will lift like Noah’s Ark and we will find ourselves down the Mapuia River. We sigh at the impressive noise on the tin roof pinned to our phones, the blue light reflecting on our faces as we scroll hopefully through the weather forecast. I hiss at no one in particular, ‘there go our plans for Lewis Pass.’I had probably grumbled this about 5 times since we boarded the Interislander Ferry that morning. Jack and I had planned our trip for weeks but had not planned on a category 3 tropical cyclone. We were due to tramp a partial route of the St James Walkway, the other part of the walk we hadn’t seen since having completed Waiau Pass to Boyle Village on Te Araroa in 2017. It would be 2-3 days of walking to Ada Pass then returning to Lewis Pass but Cyclone Dovi put a grinding halt to that. Tiring of our cabin and the impending Noah’s Ark scenario we scamper over to the hot pools, enjoying the heat in the pouring rain and sound of the tauwhauriki trees moving in unison with the wind.
The next morning we decide, with our timeline and continued rain forecast, that maybe it was best to head to our next planned destination, Arthurs Pass, where we had a trip to Carol Hut planned and maybe some camping at the Kelly Range Tarns if the weather took a sharp U-turn. We took our time driving through Reefton, navigating the grim road conditions—slip after slip, orange road cones galore. We arrive late afternoon at Arthurs Pass only to discover that the trail to Carol Hut had washed out!
Pinned to our phones once more, this time in a lovely motel just outside of the village, Jack discovered a tramp I’d never heard of: The Mt Somers Circuit—Our Plan C.
With the last of the cyclones waters running towards the Otira River we take our time leaving Arthurs Pass—walking to Hinekakai (Devils Punchbowl). We have the entire trail to ourselves, an oddity considering the popularity of this short walk. A cyclone and a worldwide pandemic combining to provide some quietude to this usually busy tourist hot spot. Jack and I only encountered a pushy Toutouwai that swooped in front of us, disgruntled when we didn’t spare so much as a crumb when it had been so obviously fed by passing tourists. It was rather concerning seeing such a rotund bird on matchstick legs, Its lower limbs quaking underneath its enthusiastic bleats. Skirting around this hefty hustler the Eastern sun finally crested over the top of the beautiful cascading wai and we breathed in the fresh scent of this Ngaai Tahu ancestor—the waterfall named after one of the iwi’s greatest flax weavers, each cascade a nod to her intricate weaving technique. As we gazed at the water works I wondered how this wairere ever got the name Devils Punch Bowl. Had the Devil and Hinekakai ever met? Some names, often those inappropriately slapped on by pakeha explorers, really stick, others must be geographically confused (the original Devils Punch Bowl is in Hindhead, England). So it makes sense for Aotearoa to continue its journey of restoring proper place names and by proxy the mana, stories and whakapapa linked to these important sites.
We drove on to Kura Tawhiti (Castle Hill) where the Canterbury sun shone on huge boulders and rocks that cast shadows and basked in an ethereal light. In its centre point Kura Tawhiti is full of natures sculptures—animals, human and god like forms all towering over us with the distinct sensation of ceremony. One morning of cyclone free actives and we were left in awe, finally making it to Sharplin carpark to begin our Mt Somers journey. Once on trail we were glad we had allowed the rain to pass, the Bowyers stream high around our calves as we skirted its waters and ascended through the tauwhauriki forest. Shortly after our climb the misplaced scent of sandalwood made its way to my nostrils. Twice through the tauwhauriki forest I paused thinking, sandalwood? On the third waft I stomp my feet in place. ‘There! Can you smell that?’ Poor Jack raises their nose to the air like a bloodhound but the scent has passed and they simply shake their head.
A short distance from Pinnacles Hut we see the stunning hardened lava flows from Mt Somers crown impressively laden with waterfalls from Dovi’s wrath all bathed in a sanguine sunset. The weather had settled and we were at the hut before nightfall, relieved. As I climb the stairs and enter the weatherboard hut the same sandalwood scent hits my olfactory once more. Ah-ha! One box of sandalwood incense, a cigarette and a two dollar coin are placed neatly on the hut bench. It was an interesting collection and I was about to met its owner.
The hut warden sauntered in shortly after our arrival, mala beads swinging from his neck and coming to rest at the Buddha printed on his t-shirt, the words F-O-C-U-S splayed across Buddha’s outstretched palm. The hut warden told us he tramps, including hut wardening for 40 days then goes home to meditate for 10 days over summer. In winter he works as a dairy farmer, a surprising contrast. The hardest part about a 40 day sojourn he tells us is carrying enough food (let alone incense and cigarettes). Seeing my slight interest when he tells us about his stints at a vapasana (silent retreat) center in Auckland he delves into how he got here-a lifetime of drug use and extreme behaviour that seems to have found contrast in a “healthier environment”. I always find it fascinating when people talk about trading drug addictions in for bikram yoga, stints with bears, ultra marathons and….well whatever borderline sadistic niche feels like home. Its all addictive behaviour to me but I wonder if they see it that way? Sure its healthier and probably wont kill them but I find the thread annoyingly apparent. At 8pm a family of three arrives, a young daughter and her older parents, her sour looking father complaining about being ‘stitched up’ but once dad is supplied with a cup of tea and a clean shirt the hut was full of laughter and boiling pots, chocolate and yarns—the exilir for any hard day.
We were rewarded for our patience on day 2 with a blue bird day, the waterfalls slowing in their intensity but breathtaking against the backdrop of the pinnacles. Mt Winterslow loomed brightly to the North, a perfect February coating of the white stuff perpetuating its namesake. As we descended from Mt Somers Saddle we were beyond ready for lunch—our tramping appetites dictating our solid speed towards Woolshed Creek Hut—a modern beauty built for its popularity. A group of climbers were just about to depart and we scuttled inside hiding from the heat of the day. Avocado, tomatoes and peanut butter were smeared over English Muffins, our lunch of champions finished with a cowboy mocha (instant coffee and hot chocolate sachets pinched from our motel stay in Arthurs Pass). The caffeine was needed for our sluggish post lunch climb away from the hut followed by one sharp decent to cross a swing bridge over the icy pools of Woolshed Creek. Up, down, up, down was the theme of the hot afternoon until we found ourselves under the impressive rocky tors of the Bus stop overhang at 1143 meters. Out into the open we made our way towards the Ryolite Ridge Junction and that’s when things really started to slow.
Jack and I hadn’t been on a multiday tramp in a few months and it showed by us being, on average, 45 minutes behind the DOC signposted tramping times. Tramping fitness is one of those annoying physicality’s that requires constant attention—tramping that is. Our enthusiasm waned to the relentless Canterbury Sun and shortly after reaching the South side of Mt Somers we set up camp in the first flat spot we saw. By dusk we had settled in and two sweaty teens passed us on their way to Woolshed Creek Hut. They looked tired and I didn’t want to give them any hints to what was coming but at least they had the power of youth on their side. As I segue towards my 40’s my knees have started to complain loudly on my outdoor excursions and even squatting for a bush pee emits a whine from my otherwise trusty quadriceps so after a restful sleep under the gaze of Mt Somers I was ready for a town day. We woke to cloud on Mt Somers top and a whipping wind that promised deteriorating weather. We were keen to move quickly to avoid the worst of it so our Southern sidle back towards the Sharplin carpark was broken only by a well needed rest at Achland Shelter—a well placed emergency shelter near the summit junction for those caught out in poor weather. Today was my birthday so along with my cowboy mocha Jack lovingly placed a candle in a chocolate OSM bite and sung me happy birthday. The anniversary of my birth was baptised by cold showers burnt off by a hazy afternoon sun on our decent to Hookey Knob. Our knees wobbled through the tauwhauriki as titipounamu cheered us on, right to the very end. I breathed a sigh of relief and gratitude at the car park, always appreciative for Plan C.