The long way to Wānaka: Cadrona — Cromwell Pack Track
Walking the wild rounded peaks of the Pisa Range, a journey in the footsteps of gold-diggers and musterers
It was the Tuesday after Easter, I was fresh (definitely didn’t smell it) off the road from a trip over Rabbit Pass. I had a roof for a night in Queenstown before I’d have to think of somewhere else to wander. I had a friend in Wānaka who would have me, but he was working till Friday. To make matters worse, the weather was packing in across the South Island. The Pisa Range stood out as a dry glimmer of hope in this conundrum. I could walk in the footsteps of swag carrying gold-diggers and musterers, from the Kawarau Gorge over the Pisa Range to the Cadrona Valley. Katie even thought it was a good enough idea that she’d tag along for the first night.
A series of calamities cursed us from the start. The first of these was that I realised that I would have to lug my day bag of non-tramping niceities along for the ride. As a result my pack was heavier than it was when I started our walk over Rabbit Pass! Second hiccup was that Katie had to do life admin all Wednesday, so it wasn’t until 4pm that we left Queenstown… To add insult to injury when we arrived to drive up the Roaring Meg a very aggressive gate told us that the road wasn’t open to vehicles! [despite it being a public road…] So out of the shitty white Honda we piled, off up a scrubby little track in defiance of the setting sun.
There are many legends about how Roaring Meg got its name. To early settlers it was the Kirtle Burn and to Māori it is Te Wai A Korokia. Roaring Meg flows in to the Kawarau not far from Whatatorere (Chalmers Leap), a natural stone bridge that enabled the formidable Kawarau River to be crossed, providing a navigable route on to Southland. According to legend it was blown up by a local gold-miner, but it is still crossable without a leap, despite the name.
Thankfully the scrubby track soon connected with the road proper, and we made good time marching (double time) along it, as it twisted and turned beside Roaring Meg. Autumn colours filled the gorge as we climbed higher, sweat dripping off our brows. By the time we had covered the 4km to the farm track that climbs in steep zig-zags beside Skeleton Stream the sun was well and truly setting. We continued our grueling pace upward, our head lamps occasionally giving us reflective glimpses of peering eyes in the dark. With no exaggeration, I felt like utter shit. I had hardly eaten in the past few days because of the stomach bug I had, and the tsunami wasn’t over yet. Regardless we motored on and two hours after we left the car the track started to flatten out, weaving between rocky tor before crossing endless tussock flats. In just over half an hour we reached pt 1415, but not before almost getting led astray by another farm track. Despite the worst of the uphill being over, neither Katie nor I had the energy to speak, occasionally we made an animal sound out to the darkness to make sure the other was okay. From pt 1415 it was just under an hour until we stumbled on to the porch of Deep Creek Hut, absolutely shattered. I sat in a hard wooden chair as my body started to shut down, my eyes casting a thousand yard stare. We had averaged 4kmph on our 1,300m ascent and boy I could feel it.
Rain battered the tin roof of the hut all night, a sound that I happily slept to. We were in no rush that day, Katie would go back to the car and I just had to walk a couple of hours on to Meg Hut down the packtrack.
Deep Creek Hut was built as accommodation for high country musterers and other station workers in the late nineteenth century on the Cromwell-Cardrona Packtrack. For over a century it provided shelter to seasonal gangs of musterers working to move sheep off high snow-prone pastures. These men left their mark, graffiti on the hut’s corrugated iron records many of the early 20th centuries interesting events. The hut came in to DOC’s possession in 2005 following a review of Pisa Station’s Crown lease and has since been restored making it quite cosy.
Instead of venturing out in to the storm I busied myself with a pitiful attempt to use the old range that sits proudly at one end of the hut. For my efforts I was rewarded with a luke-warm cup of tea and a lung full of smoke. Chapters of my book were happily ticked off as wind whistled through the cracks in the hut’s corrugated iron. A quick peek outside showed ominously dark clouds encircling the hut. I decided to make a break for it whilst I still could at half-past 11, giving Katie a goodbye hut before beginning the grunt up the hill behind the hug.
From Deep Creek Hut the track undulated, criss-crossing old water races as it went. Rocky tor (rock outcrops) dominated the skyline, long left behind by the forces of erosion. Despite being between two of New Zealand’s busiest tourist centres I felt totally isolated, at peace in nature. Once upon a time these tussock highlands might have been dominated by dry beech forest, but this quickly disappeared following the arrival of humans, who brought with them fire. Evidence of human interference in the landscape were all around to the eager eye, scars in nature long since abandoned and in the process of being reclaimed.
I crossed over the high point of pt 1440 before beginning my descent back down to the Meg. I felt a bit like a truck with worn out brakes, my heavy pack propelling me forwards at a seemingly uncontrollable speed. I could only embrace gravity in one long ‘controlled’ fall down the hillside.
In the last half-hour this took on a new level of steepness and I really was careering down the hill, much to the protest of my poor knees. Soon piles of tailings became visible, with the hut sitting proudly just beyond, on the other side of the much quieter “roaring” Meg.
Meg Hut was empty when I arrived at 2pm and I reveled in the solitude. Little did I know it would not last. As I made lunch a Kiwi/Canadian couple turned up. We passed a few words before digging in to our respective books or settling off for a mid-afternoon nap. The peace was shattered when I heard a
“fuck we made it, I’m shattered”
from outside, accompanied by a lot of panting. I greeted these out of shape blokes on my way out of the hut, axe in hand, in search of some firewood. I found some 200m upstream around the corner and started to work hacking and sawing at the great logs of wood. After about half an hour I had filled a sack with firewood and set off back to the hut, what I returned to was quite a sight. Five kids were running free-range outside the hut, whilst several groups of adults chatted. I knew from that moment that it would not be a quiet night.
Two good-humoured middle aged men had installed themselves on a wooden bench inside the hut, sipping on their 2L of G&T as they rehydrated their smorgasbord. One was a deputy principal, the other a paramedic; and soon they put the kids to work finding firewood with the incentives of sugar. As the sun descended the hordes came back in to the hut, which was becoming a hive of activity. Child-labourers were hauling whatever rotten wood they could find in hope of a chocolate bar, while the two parents were busy cooking dinner. To make the scene even more chaotic a Brazilian bow hunter called Mo arrived out of the darkness. As the DP sipped on his G&T he casually remarked that several weeks earlier he had been crushed between a glacier and a boulder resulting in 10 broken ribs.
“Shit, that’s a good effort”.
Once the fire was well and truly going, the paramedic, feeling a little tipsy by this point, had a production line of marshmellows being delivered to him by kids eager for a score out of 10. I think he ate more of them than all the kids combined! It was here that I made the mistake of pulling out my notebook, and was eagerly encouraged by the DP to record the following about the mayhem:
“Beetroot and lemon zest hummus, you should try it” [but leave for 20 minutes]
“A little red neck”
Father sits cross legged on the floor — “[Paramedic] How do you sit like that??”, “[Deputy principle] Are you trying to hit on him??”
“Love wife, loves daughter but… (holds up litre of gin)”
It’s hard to recollect the meaning behind the scribbles, but its fair to say it was chaos.
In the morning, snow littered the surrounding hills , but with so many people in the hut it was so warm you wouldn’t know it. The DP, the paramedic and Mo had all slept outside but other than that we had all been crammed in the hut. Various parties trickled away from the hut in search of peace until it was just me and the families packing up. It turns out the two adults were ex-members of the OUTC from the early 2000’s and we had a great yarn about Antics. One of them casually remarked that she had done Rabbit Pass in a Friday-Sunday weekend - so they were the real deal (aka nut cases in their youth). When they left I was alone and could finally devote some time to my book. When I went to make my cup of tea I managed to drop my little billy of boiling water on my leg, leading me to curse my own stupidity. “Right” I thought, “time to get out of here before I do something even dumber and accidently burn the place down”.
I had been slightly dreading the 200m climb behind the hut, but it turns out if you eat food your pack actually gets lighter. It only took 20 minutes before I was on the saddle looking down Touhys Gully. From here it was an easy stomp through curious sheep in to the Cadrona Valley.
One and a half hours after I left the hut I was back on the road, thumb out and looking forward to a burrito in Wānaka. The packtrack had been a great taste of the Pisa Range, taking in two well looked after historic huts as well as many other curious artefacts long the way. Options abound for making it in to a one, two or three day tramp, or even ski trip in the winter. Just make sure you don’t set off at 5pm.
Note: Correct access to the area is either up Swann Rd and Pack spur, or up the road the leads over Double Rock and Mt Michael. Alternatively the packtrack can be followed from the 4WD Roaring Meg Road up the valley, eventually reaching Meg Hut after a few hours.