Harper Pass | North Canterbury/West Coast

Wow, crossing the Southern Alps.


Well, almost. Don’t tell anyone that this is actually the lowest pass in the range, the climb is barely noticeable if you start the Lake Sumner side and after that, well, it’s all downhill. So, a high swingbridge to start, a trudge through red beech, big tree forest up the wide Hope Valley, over around Lake Sumner, sadly with limited views, up Hurunui Valley to the low pass, then dropping quickly through the dracopyllum scrub into the Taramakau valley, with beech trees on the north side, rata and rimu on the south. Then you pop out into the type of civilisation that’s found on the West Coast.

The pass is an old Maori walking route to access the pounamu/greenstone on the West Coast that was later converted into a pack horse track. Kinda handy that Harper Pass is the lowest pass in the Southern Alps, the easiest route to get overland to the central West Coast, and used extensively early on by pack horses, at least until 1866 when the Arthurs Pass coach road was completed.

In the 1930s it was again converted, this time into a walking trail to “rival the Milford Track”, guess that didn’t eventuate, but there’s a couple of huts remaining from back then, Hurunui No 3 Hut and Locke Stream.

Sounds great, if not easy, and, well, it is, with the one proviso: the Taramakau River can quickly turn into a seriously gnarly, thundering river and there is no bridge to cross it, there’s the case of having to wait it out until the level drops. For one unlucky tramper in January 2013 that was a six day wait, two months later you could cross without getting your feet wet.

where | Harper Pass, Canterbury/West Coast

From Windy Point on Highway 7 between Hamner Springs and the Lewis Pass to Aitkens on Highway 73 near Otira, note that neither locality has anything actually discernible other than signage.

It may make more sense to start on the West Coast side to ensure that the big, gnarly Otira and Taramakau Rivers can be crossed safely.

click to view larger, more interactive topographic map from, err, topomap.co.nz

distance | Harper Pass, Canterbury/West Coast

around 76 km

time | Harper Pass, Canterbury/West Coast

5 days, usually

when | Harper Pass, Canterbury/West Coast

Any time, almost, the pass is actually less than 1000 m and is not excessively steep, although avoiding the super frosty period, ie, winter would be sensible.

February to April would minimise the chance of a high Taramakau River.

maps and GPS | Harper Pass, Canterbury/West Coast

Download free digital versions from LINZ Mapchooser and for the Otira area map, then you can print off the areas you need yourself.

Or it’s possible to buy the real thing, ie, on old fashioned paper, there’s a couple of detailed options there.

You need two maps from Newtopo, newtopo.co.nz/ from the east Lake Sumner tramps at a scale of 1:75,000, $9, and Arthurs Pass, scale 1:55,000, $20, both available from major DoC offices and some outdoor stores, Macpac keep them. Unfortunately these maps omit a short section between Hurunui Hut No 3 and Harper Pass, ie, exactly where you are most likely to need them.

There’s also the Topo50 series maps that cover the country, for this trip you need four, BU20 Moana, BU21 Haupiri, BU22 Lake Sumner and BU23 Boyle Village, each costing around $7.90 and available at DOC offices, outdoor shops and bookshops where maps sold. There’s a nationwide list at LINZ Map Retailers.

Need a custom map for your GPS device, download a more compact .klm format file from topomap.co.nz for free, although if you download a few maps consider a small donation, there’s considerable work gone into getting that info onto the internet and we should support these useful resources.

route description | Harper Pass, Canterbury/West Coast

From Windy Point carpark and bus shelter in the east there’s a swing bridge across the Boyle River from where you head up the wide Hope Valley to Hope Kiwi Lodge. Then it’s over to Lake Sumner although you don’t get more than an odd glimpse of it and up the flattish Hurunui Valley to the actual Harper Pass, not much climbing required. It’s steeper on the West Coast side and the top of the Taramakau River valley has been severely affected by flooding in January 2013, ie, you need to cross the river a few times to get around some slips. Past Locke Stream Hut the valley flattens out somewhat but there are still river crossings required, the river is normally deep enough but it sure could be dangerous if the river is up at all.

Topographic section of Lake Sumner/Harper Pass, Canterbury/West Coast

huts | Harper Pass, Canterbury/West Coast

The ageing huts are comfortable enough, the plastic encased mattresses are okay, the fireboxes work, the roof keeps the water out, what’s to complain about?

Unlike the Great Walk hut situation, you can camp basically anywhere, and for nothing, with the exception of directly outside Hope Kiwi Lodge, a serviced hut.

Here are most of the huts you will encounter:

Cameron Hut

Harper Pass Bivvy

Hope Halfway Hut

Hope Kiwi Lodge

Hurunui Hut

Hurunui Hut No 3

Kiwi Hut

Locke Stream Hut

Windy Point Shelter

Tramping times | Harper Pass, Canterbury/West Coast

Here’s the DoC stated tramping times between huts, as shown on their website, usually actual walking times, ie, not taking into account any long breaks. DoC bases its estimation on times for an “average” tramper which means that it’s possible to slash times for more popular sections. With more remote sections the stated time is close to the actual time required.

Unfortunately, this time information tends to emphasise a pointless aspect of tramping, The Destination, and, some trampers feel they need to test themselves, rush, to prove something to someone. Aren’t you there to experience your environment, notice things, go down to the river and spot a huge trout, and watch the bellbirds flitting around? There’s no actual requirement to occupy the full ten hours a day racing through the landscape.

Windy Point Car Park to Hope-Kiwi Lodge
Time: 5 – 6 hours

Hope-Kiwi Lodge to Hurunui Hut
Time: 5 – 6 hours
Distance: 19 km

Hurunui Hut  to Hurunui No. 3 Hut
Time: 4 – 5 hours
Distance: 10 km

Hurunui No.3 Hut to Locke Stream Hut
Time: 7 hours
Distance: 15 km

Locke Stream Hut to Aitkens
Time: 6 hours
Distance: 23 km

getting there | Harper Pass, Canterbury/West Coast

You can jump on the seasonal East West Coaches bus departing Westport at 8 00 am, arriving Windy Point at 10 35 am, or, departing Christchurch at 2 00 pm and arriving at Windy Point around 4 20 pm. Phone 03 789 6251, or 0800 142 622 for further information and pricing.

From Greymouth a daily service by East West Coaches leaves from the Greymouth Railway Station at 8 15 am and arrives at Aitkens around 9 20 am, or, departs Christchurch at 2 00 pm and arrives at Aitkens around 4 20 pm, ie, almost too late to get to Kiwi Hut, the first hut. Phone 0800 142 622 for further information and pricing.

Getting around by hitching is also possible but, of course, entirely unreliable.

supplies | Harper Pass, Canterbury/West Coast

Nelson, Blenheim, and Richmond have the usual major supermarkets, Countdown, New World, Pak’nsave for getting the main supplies. Shellite or Fuelite and gas canisters for your stove can be obtained at outdoor and hardware stores if you haven’t been allowed to fly with it.

From the other direction, Christchurch has the works of course. Hamner Springs has two supermarkets, The Hamner Four Square in Conical Hill Road, open 7 days, most 8 30 am to 6 00 pm, and the Hamner Springs Foodway in Amuri Avenue open 7 days, 9 00 am to 5 00 pm.

On the West Coast side Hokitika has a New World, open 8 00 to 8 00 pm seven days, and Greymouth both a New World, 7 00 am to 9 00 pm, and a more central Countdown, also 700 am to 9 00 pm seven days a week.

warnings | Harper Pass, Canterbury/West Coast

The obvious issue is crossing the Taramakau River: it can be a major impasse, ie, the river comes up hugely and quickly, there’s no method of crossing other than wading, and it’s a typical West Coast river, ie, steep, the flow is swift so if the is much above knee height, with the bouldery bottom it’s perilous.

If you’ve successfully negotiated those Taramakau River crossings within sight of the end there’s the last barrier, crossing the smaller but more narrowly channelled Otira River. The Otehake River can also be problematic.

The shelter, shown on many maps, on the Otira River has been washed away as has much of the Flood Track that goes up to the Morison Bridge over the Otira River.

blogs | Harper Pass, Canterbury/West Coast

I haven’t found many engaging blogs about this particular route, but my own blog starts here as the second section of a St James Walkway/Harper Pass, or, Lewis Pass to Taramakau River wander: Day 9 | Hope Kiwi Lodge: a big day on the trail.

“The bivvy is three-quarter size, just the 6 feet wide, 8 feet long, ie, I’m not actually able to fully stretch out in the bunk. I’ve hit my head on everything, the upper bunk, twice, the two-thirds height door, twice, the low-flying collar tie, a rafter, twice, basically I’m getting intimately involved. There’s also a considerable lean on the structure, better take that into account when rolling over in the bunk in the night.

For once the hut book has been around for a while, going back 13 years to April 2001, Geoff Chapple’s name inscribed in February 2002, the guy who instigated Te Araroa, not so many entries back then, much less traffic. On 17 May 2002 I see my name together with my partner of the time, a self-described middle-aged woman, I remember it was horribly cold and wet, we were similarly horribly cold and wet, and I managed to create a roaring fire, was almost unbearably hot in our tiny compartment, faces scorched, hut almost torched, we had to leave the door wide open for a while, over achiever. I’m not sure she was so impressed with the level of accommodation, but we both loved our Little Adventure, at least we did interesting things. There’s no fireplace these days.”

There’s also Nicky and Cookie’s hugely entertaining account, with accompanying images, as part of their Te Araroa wander in the summer of 2010, this route starts with Hope Valley Halfway Hut.

“What you doing tonight Cookie?”
“I’m just Axe-in’ up some wood for the fire.”
Nicky laughs at me for using this phrase, she doesn’t think it’s a proper word, I should use “chopping” instead. Surely chopping is what you do to vegetables, when I’m dismembering trees, I’m axe-in’ them (to bits).

other websites | Harper Pass, Canterbury/West Coast

DOC has some info on the tramp.

DOC has a pdf route guide.

a big image slideshow | Harper Pass, Canterbury/West Coast

Here’s a 39 image slideshow from the Harper Pass giving an indication of the general track conditions and sights along the way, if you need any further convincing.

Click on the thumbnail image below to get the slideshow started, then you can click on the left or right sides of the bigger images to go forward or back.

Harper Pass, Canterbury/West Coast

Images of the Harper Pass huts can be found in the Harper Pass huts section.

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