Hurunui: A River Journey

Shaun Barnett explores the wilds of the Hurunui catchment in Canterbury.

It’s the middle of winter, and the snow covering Macs Knob lies white in the frigid early morning air. My breath steams as I stiffly emerge from the tent and pull out my tripod. The mountains of the Southern Alps lie in utter stillness, and the moon’s orb still hangs over the Hurunui River as its braids reflect the first glint of the pink pre-dawn sky.

Macs Knob presents one of the few viewpoints where the topographical virtues of the upper Hurunui and Harper Pass are immediately obvious. Harper Pass, also known as the Hurunui Saddle, forms a distinctive dip in the Main Divide, sufficiently low to escape the worst of winter snows. Either side of the 962-metre pass peaks rise sharply to heights of more than 1500 metres.

Harper Pass has that rarest of features in the Southern Alps: relatively easy approaches on both sides, which make it an undemanding east-to-west route across the mountains. The Hurunui has many flats, few gorges, and quite open beech forest. Even the Taramakau River, on the western side, presents few obstacles to travel other than boulders. By West Coast standards, it is a tame river.

Little wonder this was the principal route used by Maori to cross the Southern Alps during journeys to source that most treasured of West Coast materials, pounamu. No surprise either that the first Pakeha to cross the Southern Alps from coast to coast came this way too. I imagine Leonard Harper (whose explorer-mountaineer son, Arthur P. Harper, later became President of Forest & Bird) as an impressionable youth, crossing over the pass with his Maori guides in 1857.

I imagine too, in earlier centuries, parties of Maori labouring over the pass carrying kete weighed heavy by the dense, dark pounamu. For hundreds of years parties travelled up the Hurunui River, crossed the pass, and then went down the Taramakau to reach the pounamu grounds of the Arahura.

By the time Harper came to cross the pass now bearing his name, Maori use and knowledge of routes over the Southern Alps was dwindling; European boats made the alternative of a sea passage more attractive.

For a brief few months of glory in the mid 1860s, Harper Pass became the principal passage from Canterbury to the burgeoning West Coast goldfields, but the more direct route over Arthur’s Pass soon eclipsed it.

Seventy years ago, influential Minister of Internal Affairs, Bill Parry, decided to open up the Harper Pass route as a tramping track, part of his late 1930s “Physical Welfare” campaign to get the increasingly urban youth of New Zealand out into the open mountain air and healthful exercise. He engaged deer cullers to cut tracks and build huts, giving them the prosaic names of No. 1 to 5. Two of these are still in use: No. 3 and No. 4, the latter of which is also known as Locke Stream after one of Harper’s companions.

I must confess that my first trip over Harper Pass, over 20 years ago did not overly impress me. Parry had wanted the Harper Pass route to rival that of the Milford Track, but the scenery is, it must be said, decidedly less grand. I and the travel proved too easy for a young tramper seeking more challenge.

But with age and more trips comes greater appreciation of other qualities. The subtle nature of landscapes, the quiet riffle of a rapid in the upper reaches, the uniformity of beech forest trunks cloaked in black moss, the matagouri-studded flats of the Hurunui above Lake Sumner. The layers of history represented by a place that has seen the footfall of Maori pounamu seekers, Pakeha explorers, gold diggers, deer cullers, track makers, anglers, hunters and trampers. The simplicity of accomplishing a modest trip where the focus is on enjoyment rather than overt challenge.

During a later trip, friend Geoff Spearpoint and I crossed Harper Pass just ahead of a snowstorm, and reached the diminutive form of Harper Pass “Biv” just as the first heavy flakes of snow began to waft out of a bleak, grey sky. The winter storm soon reclothed the winter-denuded branches of deciduous fuchsia, and softened the clumps of prickly shield fern. The orange bivouac rapidly became the only colour in an otherwise monochromatic scene. With a warm brew in our hands, and a hut awaiting us down-valley, the pervading silence was peaceful rather than menacing.

Downstream, a day later, we soaked in the hot springs in the mid-reaches of the Hurunui North Branch. Naked but warm despite the winter, we imagined parties of Maori enjoying just this luxury on their own journeys. Geoff wondered whether the bracken that grows in the warm, steamy environment around the springs was natural, or planted by Maori as a food source for their travels.

On another trip, an autumn one from Lewis Pass to Arthur’s Pass, a friend and I cut across the North Branch of the Hurunui and climbed over Terrible Knob, then bush-bashed down into the little-visited South Branch of the Hurunui. Here we stayed in the rough shelter of the South Branch Hut, heard great spotted kiwi call during the night, and wondered where the elusive orange-fronted kakariki might hide. In the South Branch the Department of Conservation operate their largest “mainland island,” controlling predators to ensure a future not only for the kiwi and critically endangered kakariki, but also for karearea, kaka, kea, and a host of more common native species.

Back on Macs Knob, as the sun rises and the shadows retreat, the extent of the upper Hurunui and its tributaries comes into sharp relief. Lake Sumner sprawls where it can among enclosing mountain folds. On the south-eastern corner of the lake, the Hurunui slips quietly over the outlet. A short distance downstream, the South Branch adds muscle to the river just before it enters a formidable gorge known as Maori Gully (once the bane of run-holders on horseback, now the playground of kayakers and rafters). Then the river flows on, threading a torturous path through the farmland of north Canterbury towards the sea.

The Hurunui to me symbolises journeys, not just those of people, but a conduit through which life flows and depends upon. The river takes the residue of mountains to the lowlands and sea beyond. And it sustains the plants and animals which find home here in Lake Sumner Forest Park.

There are other places in the Southern Alps where the words grand and wild have greater weight, but I can think of few other rivers that better deserve the protection of a Water Conservation Order than the Hurunui. Dams, weirs and irrigation schemes should have no place on this river.