"You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you" - Isaiah 55:12

4 March 2013

Cass-Lagoon Saddle, Craigieburn Forest Park - 9-10 February 2013

After 2 trips up the Hawdon Valley, the church tramping group needed a change of scenery and a more challenging trip. While not difficult, the Cass-Lagoon Saddle tramp offers variety, beautiful scenery, is easily completed in a weekend, and has a well appointed hut midway - what more could one ask for!

The track ends are about 15km apart so a car shuffle was in order but we were ready to hit the trail at 12.30pm on a glorious Saturday, with the intention of arriving at Hamilton Hut (our destination on day 1) for a slightly late dinner around 7pm. Good intention, but not how it panned out for us!

The track started by following a vehicle track from the carpark down to the Cass River, a gentle though uninspiring start to the trip. Once we reached the river we had great views of the peaks around the lower valley, as well as one of the lodges on Grasmere Station - would be a stunning place to visit. The route followed up the Cass river, crossing from side to side when necessary. After 2 weeks of sun the river levels were low so we could cross at will, taking advantage of the easiest travel.

After about 2 hours we picked up the start of the marked track up into the bush. It really does pay to be on the true right of the river when approaching this point, as it would be very difficult to spot the first track markers from the opposite bank - the river currently flows well away from the start of the track and the marker triangles are tucked in behind some large bushes. The track starts just above where McLeod Stream comes into the Cass on the true left - this is the first major side valley on the true left and is easy recognised. Travel on the marked route is easy, with the track being well formed.

An interesting feature has been formed in the Cass river, just above the Long Valley Stream confluence - a large slip has come down and blocked the river. Once we had climbed to the crest of the slip we saw a reasonably large lake has formed in behind the slip. We were very tempted to test the waters (it being a warm afternoon) but resisted the urge and moved on. For those following our footsteps (and if the lake is still there) it is easy to push through bush to reach the 'beach' at the upper end of the lake.

Setting off up the Cass River

Further up the Cass 

The 'lake' in the Cass River

So tempted to have a swim

The track proper re-enters the bush midway up the slip - look for a large cairn on the slip to pick up the track - and starts to climb steadily. Again, the track condition was superb, DOC staff have been busy clearing the tracks after spring storms caused widespread damage - the damage is still there to see but the tracks are clear. The track meanders up and down over small spurs that meet the river, rising all the time with the valley. Further on the Cass is crossed on a footbridge and after a short distance re-crossed back to the true right where Cass Saddle Hut is located, perched in a clearing just below the bushline at around 1140m.

Cass Saddle Hut (3 bunks) was built in 1953. It has a corrugated iron exterior, around wood slabs that make up the inside walls, probably sourced from trees felled on site. Before Hamilton Hut was built in the 1980's this tramp was probably serviced by the Cass Saddle and West Harper Huts, making for a comfortable 3 day tramp with a night in each hut. On the day of our visit a party of 4 was in residence, it was 5.30pm and dinner smelt very good! It was hard to move on but with several hours still to go to reach Hamilton Hut we had to part ways.

Cass Saddle Hut

Looking down the Cass valley from Cass Saddle

View down Hamilton Creek from Cass Saddle, with the flats in front of Hamilton Hut just visible

A short trail through the bush behind the hut brought us out onto gentle tussock slopes that led up to Cass Saddle. The route is poled and works its way on an easy gradient up to the saddle, which stands at 1326m. The area is prone to avalanche in winter but would be an attractive place to visit with snow on the surrounding peaks. After a quick pause to take in the views it was time to move on.

The route makes a short sidle round from the saddle to the top of a bush spur, then makes the plunge back down to Hamilton Creek and the valley floor. The descent is very steep, especially at the top of the spur, but is well marked and tracked. The many hours of gradually gaining height were erased in quick time, and after around 45 minutes we had given back the hard earned height and were back on the flats following the river downstream toward Hamilton Hut, our shelter for the night. The track along Hamilton Creek is road-like, but slow progress was made, as it had been all day, due to one of our party discovering his lack of fitness early in the tramp. Still, we were moving towards the hut and make it we did, arriving at around 9pm after 8 and a half hours on the go.

Hamilton Hut (20 bunks) was built by the New Zealand Forest Service in 1983, part of their expanding programme of building bigger huts after the successes of their 4 and 6 bunk designs. It boasts 2 solid tables, stainless steel benchtops, running water, and a logburner for heating (with a ready supply of firewood in the shed behind the hut). The hut sits at 800m, perched on a grassy terrace above Hamilton Creek, just above its confluence with the Harper River, and offers good views of the Grey and Black Ranges.

Despite the luxuries on offer inside the hut, it was such a great night that 2 of us decided to sleep on the verandah under the stars - disturbed only by the resident possum scuffling on the roof, and by the sandflies, which woke before us and were hungry for breakfast!

Hamilton Hut sits perched on its terrace

Hamilton Hut

Early morning sun on the Grey Range, seen from the flats in front of Hamilton Hut

A glorious morning dawned, with the promise of warm weather for the day. With a nor'west wind forecast to pick up in the afternoon, and possibly bring a little rain with it, we were away early, endeavouring to make good time and beat the weather. Again...good intentions.

Day 2 started with an easy stroll along Hamilton Creek towards its confluence with the Harper River. A short distance along we crossed Hamilton on what looked to be a fairly new footbridge. Our map showed a walkwire here but the bridge is much more solid and less airy than a walkwire. The track took us along the true left of the Harper briefly, before crossing on a swingbridge to the true right where we would stay for some time.

Just as it was going up the Cass the previous day, travel was on superbly formed tracks, with the route making a few short, sharp climbs over bush spurs. After 2 hours comfortable walking we reached West Harper Hut, a good example of hut building in days of old.

West Harper Hut (5 bunks) was built in 1957 using beech saplings for the framing and to construct the bunks. The bunks themselves have sacking rather than the usual solid bench. There is an open fireplace and the hut even comes complete with a dirt floor. Corrugated iron provides the outer shell - simple hut construction from back in the days when building codes didn't enter the minds of those who endeavoured to create a shelter in the wilderness.

Our stay at West Harper was short lived - the sandfly population was healthy here too and with a few spots of rain falling it was time to get moving.

On we went up the Harper, our travel mixed now between bush tracks and short stints in the riverbed itself. Cairns were over-abundantly supplied - at one point there were 3 sitting side by side at a place were there was no possible risk of taking the wrong route. We crossed over to the true left before reaching probably the most critical route-finding point of the trip - the Harper-Long Creek confluence. It is easy to see how parties could mistakenly head up Long Creek, it is by far the more major tributary and makes the Harper look like a mere side stream, especially with the water flow as low as it was. Looking up the Harper there is a large orange marker triangle on a tree about 50m up the river - if you're looking you can't miss it.

Having correctly chosen our route, travel remained much the same, albeit a little rougher now. The boulders in the riverbed were bigger and the bush travel was often over or around slips, making for steeper sections than would perhaps normally be encountered. Our travel really slowed now, due to physical limitations within the party rather than any great difficulty with the terrain itself.

And so it was that we found ourselves still short of Lagoon Saddle Shelter (A Frame), our intended lunch stop, at 3pm. It was decided to sit by the track for a rest, some food, and a chance to regroup. It turned out we were only about 20 minutes from the A frame shelter below Lagoon Saddle so we just stopped to photograph it before continuing on, mindful of the time now.  The Lagoon Saddle A Frame Hut (as it's marked on maps) stands at 1140m on the edge of a nice little bush clearing just below the bushline. It was built in 1983 and is a much tidier place to stay than the older Lagoon Saddle Hut directly across the stream. Both are classed as 2 bunk bivvies.

From the shelter the route climbed steadily up towards the bushline and after a short while we emerged onto open tussock tops above Lagoon Saddle itself. Boardwalks led up to the crest of the ridge, where the best views of the tramp were to be found. The forecast cloud and wind had not yet arrived, allowing grand views to the peaks of the Waimakariri headwaters and western Arthurs Pass National Park. As we were taking it all in, an all too familiar sound was heard - the beeping and buzzing of cellphones as we picked up reception out on the tops...it truly is hard to escape it all these days!

It was now approaching 5pm so we set off across the tussock slopes beneath Mt Bruce. The route sidles directly across the face, descending ever so slowly as we made our way in and out of small gullies and through the thigh high tussocks. It was hot work, tramping across the exposed, north-facing slope with the late afternoon sun beating down, and we were relieved to reach the bushline again after about 50 minutes. All that was left was the descent through the bush and out to our waiting car at Cora Lynn.

It was a slow descent on weary legs but we eventually emerged from the bush at Bealey Hut (6 bunks) at 6:45pm, pausing briefly to exchange pleasantries with those who were staying the night, before plodding down the road to the carpark. Packs were dropped, boots quickly removed, and the feet saw their first fresh air since 8:30 that morning. Despite the long days and slow travel at times, it was a trip enjoyed by all, and comes highly recommended.

Crossing Hamilton Creek the easy way

Swingbridge across the Harper River

The Grey Range provides a scenic backdrop 

Pleasant travel up the very attractive Harper River

Side stream on our way up the Harper

Arriving at West Harper Hut

Inside the very rustic West Harper Hut

West Harper Hut

Lagoon Saddle Shelter

Out of the bush, above Lagoon Saddle

Looking back down the Harper from the tops above Lagoon Saddle

Checking cellphones on the slopes beneath Mt Bruce

View into the Waimakariri headwaters

Sidling across the face of Mt Bruce - impressive rockfall

Great views down the Waimakariri, Mt Binser in background on the right

Crown Copyright - Land Information NZ

Access: Track ends are both off SH73 from Christchurch to Arthurs Pass, just south of the Cass road bridge and at Cora Lynn, around 15km apart.

Time: Cass carpark to Cass Saddle Hut 4hrs, Cass Saddle Hut to Cass Saddle 45mins, Cass Saddle to Hamilton Hut 2hrs, Hamilton Hut to West Harper Hut 2hrs, West Harper Hut to Lagoon Saddle A Frame 3hrs, Lagoon Saddle to Cora Lynn 2hrs 30mins (note: these are usual times, not those described in our trip!)

Maps: BV21 Cass, BW 20 Lake Coleridge, BV20 Otira

Huts: Cass Saddle (3 bunks), Hamilton (20 bunks), West Harper (5 bunks), Lagoon Saddle A Frame (2 bunks), Lagoon Saddle (2 bunks), Bealey (6 bunks)

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