Combating the Gladiator and the meaning of life
The Gladiator, a four day transalpine loop in south Westland
“What is it all for?”, a question asked by titans of the arena in the first century AD, and by a travelling middle-aged Norwegian academic armed with a high-powered crossbow that we met at Cassel Flat Hut.
But I get ahead of myself, you may be wondering why we found ourselves at Cassel Flat in the first place. Leading up to the end of 2022 we had been dreaming and scheming of a trip to a remote part of the South Island. Originally we had been set on a trip to the Olivine Ice Plateau, but for various reasons we ended up setting our sights on ‘The Gladiator’, a 2125 metre peak on the Hooker Range in south Westland. To get there we would have to follow the Karangarua River up to Cassel Flat where Tereza would meet me and Mat, before traversing high above the Douglas River to Horace Walker Hut. From there we had to cross the wild Douglas River before climbing the untamed slopes of the Gladiator and ascending to its peak.
1. Roadend to Cassel Flat Hut
Our journey started at the 130-metre long Karangarua suspension bridge, the longest in the country. Over the river was the familiar carpark that marks the start of the Copland Track to the Welcome Flat hotpools. Instead of crossing the river we stayed on the true-left following a reasonable track along the bank of the Karangarua.
We left the Copland behind at its confluence and continued up the Karangarua. It was a muggy December afternoon and the heat was really starting to get to us. Every stream we crossed warranted a stop to take on a precious few handfuls of water. At one of these Mat made friends with an enormous dragonfly that decided to hitch a ride for a few minutes on his hat, much to my amusement.
A kilometre after the confluence the track crossed MacTaggart Creek, and from here it started to get a bit silly. Rather than continuing to follow the river along the track cut inland, slowly climbing as it crossed a number of significant unmarked streams. The track then climbed over material that long ago fallen from the imaginatively named Bare Rocky Range. My old topo map did not show this uphill detour so I was rather unamused. The drop down to Cassel Flat from the top of the climb was a breeze other than navigating around a few fallen trees. All up it had taken me and Mat a little over three and a half hours, not bad given the sign at the bridge had said six!
The time was little after 5pm and the day was still oppressively muggy. I tried to air out the hut but Mat insisted on keeping the door closed so bugs wouldn’t get in. Frustrated and overheating I plodded off to find a spot to swim in the river. Crossing the grassy Cassel Flat I managed to push my way through some trees to get to the stony bank of the Karangarua. Here I stripped off before plunging into the impossibly inviting turquoise water. At once my overheated thoughts evaporated, instead replaced by a bone chilling cold. I felt alive, “this is why I do it” I thought to myself.
Tereza arrived at 6:30pm just as we started to cook our dinners on the hut deck. Reunited we ate before discussing our plans for the following day. The evening was rounded out (so I thought…) with some reading, before drifting off to sleep around 9pm in the oppressive heat of the hut.
It was 11pm when I awoke to the high-pitch drone of mosquitos buzzing around my head. As hard as I tried to ignore them I could not get back to sleep. Instead I instituted an eradication strategy. Every time I heard a whine I sat bolt upright, turning on my headtorch to find the bastard, judicially using my book to resolve the issue. What I had not counted on was that each mozzie smushed would be replaced by two more. And so the night went on with little sleeping. At one point Mat went outside to find some peace from the mozzies, but to no avail. I resorted to pulling my sleeping bag over my face and bearing the heat for as long as I could before coming up gasping for fresh air. Safe to say we were all glad when the dawn finally came.
2. Cassel Flat to Horace Walker Hut
Given the unpleasant situation in the hut we were in no mood to stick around the flat. From what we had read the time for the next section was 12 to 13 hours so we might need every minute of daylight we could get. Setting off just after 6:30am we crossed Cassel Flat to the cableway over the Karangarua River. Tereza and Mat had never used one before so I gave them the rundown before jumping in the cage and heading across.
The wires were a little saggy, which isn’t exactly what you want when you’re flying over a large river in a little metal cage. Despite this, I made it to the other side in one piece, soon followed by Tereza and Mat. We slowly climbed above Regina Creek on its true right for 500 metres before the terrain steepened and the creek became a raging torrent. There was a bit of treefall in this area so travel up to the relatively flat upper Regina Creek took some time. We reached the three-wire bridge over the creek by 9:30am. As with the cableway, this was a bit loosey-goosey for my liking, and the dismount on the far side took a little bit of gymnastics to accomplish.
Note: the three-wire is 200m south of where it is marked on the 2019 Topomap.
After a bit of a break by the bridge we began our climb to the Conical Hill tarns. At the edge of the flat valley floor a slip had come down at some point carrying large trees with it, before being colonised by a mess of bracken and fern. This proved an unpleasant obstacle, with plenty of hidden holes to swallow unwitting trampers and things to kick your shin on. On the far side I spotted an orange marker, and one by one we crawled out of the fern and up the hill. Steep does not do the 500 metre climb to the tarns justice. Vertical would be a better adjective, with sections of the track involving swinging on branches just above the odd open slip. With relief we emerged from the bush, before climbing the final 100 metres to the saddle above the tarns.
It was hot up on the tops, but not the same type of oppressive mugginess as the day before. We took the time to have a break to enjoy the view and I took a trip down to the tarns to collect some water. The area around the tarns is a popular camping spot, used to break up the trip up to Horace Walker. I duly filled up my water bottle with what I can only describe as ‘swamp water’ before climbing back up to the packs.
The next section was a bit of a 200 metre grunt up the hill before the ridge narrowed and travel became more technical. The route was well marked, weaving around ‘germanderie’. If that word means nothing to you, you are in the same boat as I was, but that is how Moir’s Guide describes the route. Imagine my surprise when I was confronted by pinnacles of rock on a mountain ridge, rather than friendly French policemen. On either side of us the terrain fell away, leaving nothing but air between us and the water half a kilometre below.
This technical section lasted for about a kilometre ending around pt 1428. We stopped under a large rock here to enjoy our lunch out of the sun. I still had a bit of a dickey tummy after some Christmas food poisoning so I settled for three plain wraps for sustenance.
From pt 1428 a large totem pole marks the beginning of a long traverse under jagged rocky peaks. The traverse was punctuated by streams, often carried down in impressive ravines that have to be crossed in the correct spot. Safe to say I soon dispensed with my swamp water, replacing it with fresh snow melt.
The route was sporadically marked by poles so navigation was not an issue. What was an issue was that I was getting a sore foot on one side because of the long uneven traverse! When we reached the final two streams flowing from pt 1848 the route was incorrectly marked on our topo. Rather than crossing around the 1480m contour, we dropped right down to where the streams plunge off bluffs into oblivion, falling into the Douglas far below.
Here we could relatively easily cross the ravines before climbing back to where the route is marked on the map. Following this it wasn’t long before we reached another colourful totem pole that marked the beginning of the descent to Horace Walker Hut.
The route took us steeply down to the old moraine wall of the Horace Walker Glacier. Dry stream beds along the flat top of this wall provided easy travel, my feet welcoming the more even terrain. At the far end of the moraine wall we dropped to grassy flats alongside the Douglas River. One last obstacle remained before Horace Walker Hut, the river draining the glacier. Mat was in front of me, and by the time I came upon the river he was already on the far side.
“It’s not terrible, but I probably wouldn’t have liked it without a pole!”
He kindly launched his pole back to me javelin style, before I put my camera in its dry bag and looked down to the river. With the hut so close I perhaps was not paying the closest attention. My dry boots soon filled with chilling glacial water. Strong currents tugged at my shorts and before I could really think I had stepped off the edge of a rock and gone up to my waist. Numbness crept over my limbs as I fought the water to reach a boulder on the far side. I launched myself at it, using all my strength to pull myself out of the main flow. Shivering I climbed out of the water, cursing Mat for not waiting so we could cross as a group.
On reflection, I was angry with myself for not taking the time to assess my crossing point and rushing across. The situation could have been a lot worse and I knew it. After waiting to make sure Tereza got across safely we continued on the last few hundred metres to Horace Walker Hut.
It was just after 3:30pm when we reached the hut. The sun was shining, perfect for drying out wet trampers and their gear. Gear exploded around the hut and we settled into some camp chairs that we found inside. A heli-hunter was obviously in residence as all manner of luxuries were scattered around the hut.
Because I hadn’t learnt my lesson from my most recent dunking, I took the opportunity to have another wash in the river. Afterwards I ended up in all my warm clothes on the top bunk trying to warm up, but at least I felt relatively clean. The rest of the afternoon was sunbathed away with no sign of the hunter. When the hunter had not arrived after dinner I begin to wonder if he might ever show up. Thankfully as the last daylight faded I spotted a lone figure crossing the grassy flats to the hut. After a quick hello we were all asleep, well aware of the big day ahead.
3. Horace Walker to Christmas Flat via the Gladiator
It had been our plan to rise early to make the most of the day. This was quickly scuppered when we saw that the entire valley was enveloped by low hanging cloud, the gentle patter of rain sounding on the roof. I suggested that given we had enough food we should wait it out and have a rest day. Mat and Tereza agreed and went straight back to sleep. Meanwhile the hunter had risen, and like all lone-hunters, was excited to have someone to talk to. So instead of catching up on sleep I had a yarn and was rewarded with two bacon sandwiches — score.
I eventually managed to excuse myself and got some extra sleep. When I awoke after 9am sun was streaming into the hut. After a quick discussion we decided it was go time and we were out of just after 10am, saying goodbyes to the hunter before making our way upriver. From the hut our route followed the true right of the river for a kilometre until we were opposite the stream draining the Gladiator and Mt Howitt. We had a decision here, we could either attempt a crossing or go further up to the outlet of Douglas Lake and cross there. We decided to give the lower crossing a go.
Linking up we took our first cautious steps into the flow. Slowly shuffling we made progress across the river, which was soon licking around our thighs. Nearly across the main current we were blocked by a boulder sticking out of the river, with another just downstream hidden by the glacial water. I was unaware of the second rock, but after brief words we started to carefully move down with the flow, until I could get around the unseen obstacle. Once past this all we had to do was haul ourselves up the far bank, which we did grinning with relief.
We set off up the creek. Low cloud hung around the bushline and I wondered how much of a view we’d get from the top. The going up the creek was good, alternating from the bed to grassy flats on the side that would offer good camping. This quick travel came to an abrupt end when the mellow stream became a roaring waterfall.
Moir’s Guide instructed us to go into the bush on the true right, following the creek “as close as practically possible”, before finding an old hunters track marked with tape 50 metres or so up. Our great point of contention was, how close is PRACTICAL? We debated this as we fought the bush, battling undergrowth that loved to hang onto our iceaxes. The bush was dense and disorientating, the ground covered in dracophyllum fronds. When we stumbled on a stream we followed this uphill, unsure if it was leading us off route or not.
Crawling along I let out a squeal of excitement when I spotted a bit of faded pink tape. From here it was simply a matter of finding our way from tape to tape, usually following the path of least resistance. Once at the scrubline we moved between clearings, winding our way up beside massive boulders, including one that looked like it would be a half decent bivvy.
To make our way higher we had to navigate through a series of bluffs, which we did by passing through the most easterly of two ‘v’ notches in the bluffs. As we did so a circus of kea circled over us, mocking us for the effort it took us to gain altitude.
Once above the bluffs we dropped into a ‘pleasant’ alpine basin that was littered with house sized boulders that had obviously travelled from the surrounding peaks at some point in history.
We left the basin via a snowgrass gully underneath overhanging rock. There was a moment of indecision here as the gully forked, with the most obvious route ending up on a spur which didn’t seem to match up with the route description. Doubling back we passed underneath large overhanging rock on the left and discovered a passable grassy gully that would take us onto the rock and scree slopes above. Phew.
From here it was just a simple matter of plodding higher, keeping our sights set on the ridgeline in the vague direction of the Gladiator. As we climbed higher we passed pockets of snow that fed small streams. Higher still and the scree was interspersed by more significant snowfields. We hit the ridge around the 2000m contour and decided to drop our packs before one last push to the summit.
From our packs the ridge provided easy travel, so long as one did not stray too close to the bluffs that dropped down to the Landsborough. In front of us Mt Sefton and the Douglas Neve were showing in spectacular clarity. The alpine silence was occasionally broken with the boom of ice crashing off the neve. We celebrated reaching the summit with some photos, taking some time to soak in the 360 degree views, appreciating the fact that the weather was playing ball.
Once we had filled up our memory cards we started back down to our packs. I felt that I could certainly get used to not carrying one!
Reunited with our packs we continued down the ridge in the direction of Mt Howitt. Compared to the rest of our travel that day this was a breeze. There was one scrambly section to obtain the peak of Mt Howitt, which was necessary to get past a deep ravine on the Douglas side.
Once over Mt Howitt we dropped down a snow covered shelf to the northeast before climbing back to the ridge. From here we got a view down into Christmas Flat and the Karangarua.
Leftover snow provided us with an opportunity to do a bit of summer skiing. Sadly this did not last and soon we were descending on broken scree, but not the fun runnable kind. To our left the hillside was becoming one giant slab of steep rock with water quickly flowing down its face. At one stage I tried heading more to the left to follow snowgrass, and in doing so nearly got both Tereza and myself a ticket for the big waterslide. Once safely back on the scree we crossed the creek around the 1400m contour, following it down its true right from then on.
Parts of the travel from this point were on rocks overgrown with low scrub, which was just asking for a rolled ankle. We eventually dropped to a point where the creek flowed down a slab underneath a large rock. From here we walked down the bank of the creek, which was quickly growing in size, occasionally dashing into the scrub to avoid the odd waterfall.
The sun was slowly making its way below the valley’s walls. Our feet were weary, not that the river cared, it seemed to have an infinite propensity to throw new obstacles our way. Moir’s Guide mentioned two hunters tracks further down the river that were necessary detours. However in our haste we missed these entirely, yet still managed to find ourselves blissfully crossing Christmas Flat to the hut around 7:30pm.
Christmas Flat owes its name to AP Harper, who along with Charlie Douglas spent the Christmas of 1893 here whilst exploring southern Westland.
Christmas Flat Hut is of curious construction, it has four beds arranged in a triple stack, with the top one in the ‘loft’ being a double.
Christmas Flat and Lame Duck Hut have an interesting shared history. Around 1980 a hut was built on Luncheon Rock by Franz Josef Glacier and called McCormack Hut. However by the mid-1980s the glacier began advancing (imagine that!) and threatened the hut. It was decided to chopper the hut out in pieces, and it was taken first to Welcome Flat, and then to the confluence of the Copland and Karangarua where it was used by the Department of Corrections for the short-lived “Hoods in the Woods” scheme. In the 90’s McCormack was chopped in half to make two 4 bunk huts, with one of these being flown to Christmas Flat in 1994, whilst the other remained in situ. In 2008 DOC reached an agreement with the New Zealand Deerstalkers’ Association and Safari Club International to replace the derelict Lame Duck Hut, using the other half of McCormack. However as the hut was being flown in it had to be jettisoned mid-air as it had begun to spin dangerously - it fell hundreds of metres before exploding into a million pieces. The roof and trusses were transported separately and arrived safely, and a roof and walls were constructed around this, giving us the current Lame Duck Hut. For more information, see: https://wilderlife.nz/2017/05/mccormack-hut/
4. Christmas Flat to the roadend
We were on the track by 7:30am the next morning. The night before we had some debate about whether we wanted to walk out and this was yet unresolved. The track down to Lame Duck Hut was glorious, being freshly cut earlier in 2022. About half-way along we emerged on the banks of the Karangarua where the Troyte flows down from its high alpine basin. The setting was breathtaking to say the least, the river calmly reflecting the glory of the mountains that surrounded us. We reached Lame Duck Hut just after 9am.
The hut is superbly located, and has a grass lawn that stretches down to the clear blue waters of the Karangarua. We stopped for a snack here, and Tereza went on ahead as she was a bit slower than me and Mat. We lazed in the sun until 9:30am and then set off after her. From Lame Duck the track climbs to cross swampy terraces above the Karangarua. The swamp was broken up by streams that ran down large rocky slabs which could be both treacherous and enticing. One was shaped like a (near) perfect waterslide and it was too tempting an opportunity for Mat.
He still has most of his ass intact. I also couldn’t resist and had a bit of a swim before we continued on. However, it wasn’t long before we came across another spectacular spot which warranted another stop. The stream that drains Jagged Peak cascades down a series of rock steps and where it crosses the track has formed a number of impossibly deep pools. Mat couldn’t help himself and just had to jump into one.
This almost proved his undoing. As he positioned himself with his phone by the outlet of the lower pool, lining up a shot for me to take, he slipped. In the moment his only thought was for his phone, which he didn’t want to lose into the bottomless pool. He completely ignored the fact he was on the cusp of a 40 metre waterfall, something he only realised once the world had stopped spinning…
After he had collected himself we continued up the track, which climbed steeply from this point up to the 700m contour. From here it traversed along, with a few slippery creeks that had to be negiotiated with extreme care for lack of handholds. About halfway along this traverse we caught up to Tereza and from there continued along as a group to the highpoint to the north of White Rose Falls.
We had a quick break and then continued down the track, rapidly losing altitude before reaching a scrubby saddle between Tui Creek and the Karangarua. From here we dropped down an old slip to the Karangarua itself.
The going along the river bank was a welcome relief after a couple of hours of ups and downs. We trotted happily downstream alongside the alluring water, each of us taking a turn to take a swim at different points. It wasn’t long until we reached the confluence of the Karangarua and the Douglas, where the clear blue water met the glacial grey. Here we met a middle-aged Norwegian man with a bow who worked at the university in Tromsø, more on him in a second.
From the confluence it was long until we passed the cableway and were crossing Cassel Flat to the hut. It was about 2pm and we decided it was a worthy spot for a bit of lunch. Given we had made such good time, and with the lure of spending New Years in the big city of Fox, we decided that we would continue out to the roadend. As with before, Tereza decided to go on ahead leaving me and Mat lazing in the sun for another half and hour.
Around 2:45pm the Norwegian showed up and started chatting to us. He was obviously a very knowledgeable man, with conversation touching all aspects of hunting, tramping and conservation in New Zealand. It was in this context that he poignantly turned to us and after thinking for a second asked:
“What is the point of this?”
We were a little taken a back, this was a very deep and philosophical question to ask two people you had only just met. He saw the puzzled look on our faces as we pondered the meaning of life and realised his mistake.
“Ah no that is not what I meant! I meant why are all these huts here, they can’t just be here for tourism?”
And so the conversation flowed onto the history of backcountry huts in New Zealand, from the tramping clubs to the culling days and now DOC. As the conversation went on Mat and I were only too aware that we should probably be catching up to Tereza, but it was extremely difficult to pry ourselves away from this extremely interesting, if a little socially deprived, Norwegian hunter. We managed the feat around 3:10pm and set off at pace up the track keen to catch up to our compatriot. We flew down (and up) the track, stopping only for a small break at the confluence. At one point along the bank of the Karangarua Mat became stuck in quicksand with hilarious results. It was tempting to leave him there, I’m not sure what would be worse, drowning in the sand or the sandflies.
Unfortunately he managed to wiggle himself free and so we continued our pursuit. With about 2km to go we caught sight of Tereza and soon we were walking together with the bridge in our sights. We weren’t quite out of the woods yet though… as we approached the bridge a herd of wild sheep began trotting along the track in front of us, neglecting every side track that presented itself, with few options we continued. I was in front of the others by 5 metres or so, cresting a rise when I came face to face with a sheep. I knew that look and I quickly flung myself against a tree and yelled “WATCH OUT!” to the others behind me. A torrent of suicidal sheep cascaded down the track and narrowly missed Tereza. Sheepishly (rather than triumphantly) we walked the 10 metres up the track to the carpark.
The Gladiator loop certainly made for a spectacular four day trip, complete with alpine views, wild rivers and funky huts. However, I am still asking myself what is it all for. I’ve pondered this question and I’m not sure I have an answer yet. Certainly to be in the hills is to recharge, to reforge connections with nature and with friends. Time spent in the backcountry is always memorable. Quite simply, it is to live. Or maybe it’s just to eat food in cooler places. Either way, that’s enough for me.