Each year we take a winter trip from Wellington to the very bottom of the South Island. Previous trips had involved wading or swimming through thigh deep snow, so we now pack snowshoes.
Tony had proposed the Garvie Mountain Range. As a place I had never heard of, much less visited, it was doubling exciting to discover it sits within the proposed Remarkables National Park.
I wasn’t quite sure how snowshoes would fair in the mountain range, particularly with the steep and rocky peaks of the Remarkables in the back of mind. As it turns out, the rolling highlands of the Garvie Mountains provide the perfect snowshoe environment. In fact the nearby mountains of Umbrella Mountains, Old Man Range/Kopuwae and Old Woman Range look to offer similar highlands.
Our original plan was to visit the Blue Lake Huts, inspired by Danilo Hegg’s trip. The huts are privately owned by the station and require permission to use. They’re happy for visitors, but you need to ask in advance as they coordinate how many groups are there at any given time. It’s also worth a nominal donation/koha to support the upkeep of the huts. Unfortunately, the forecast wasn’t looking great for the weekend and this area is well known for being gusty when strong winds are forecast from any direction.
We had flown in to Invercargill, and on the short drive to the Piano Flats campsite, we formulated a backup plan. On the way we called into the Glenaray Station office to make a last-minute inquiry about changing our plans to visit another of the private station huts, Titan Hut. The office manager was full of history, useful information and helped us track down the right person to give permission. In short order, we had approval to visit Titan hut in our newly revised plan.
Beyond Glenaray, we carried on to Piano Flats campground. It’s a wonderful place with plenty of flat grassy spots to camp, pre-built fire circles, large trees for shade and the gentle Waikaia River flowing through. In summer I can imagine this accessible and lush place is quite popular, but in early-winter, we shared the entire area with just one campervan.
Waking to the birds, we packed up and started across the swing bridge. The track was so wide we thought it might have been a tram track, which seemed likely since forestry was active here long ago. There, however, plenty of trees still standing, which made for lovely travel as we meandered our way up the Titan Rocks Route.
Eventually gaining 700 metres of elevation, we broke above the bush line to big tufts of snow grass.
Following a few marker poles to the south led us to a snow covered spur. Snowshoes on, we walked the last 300 metres of elevation over the hill to gain the highlands. Passing what looked like a weather monitoring station, we popped up within spitting distance of Titan Rocks and had lunch there.
From this vantage point, you can see as far as the horizon; rolling hills punctuated with a few more serious bumps in the middle. It looked the perfect environment for snowshoes. However, the wind had already picked up to an irritating level and the clouds were heralding an ominous wet forecast. Despite the blazing sunshine, we were wearing several lays of clothes to keep warm.
We felt confident that our planned decision to abandon the much longer original trip to Blue Lake Huts in lieu of a much shorter, less wind exposed walk to Titan Hut was an excellent choice. Wanting to get a bit more time in snowshoes while the sun was still shining, we decided to wander off towards Boggy Saddle.
Since we were still at the start of winter and the snow was late this season, the depth of snow was just a little bit shy of being thick enough. To our frustration, we were occasionally plunging through despite our snowshoes. We wandered for a ways before deciding we had enough of breaking through and being pushed around by the cold winds.
So our group turned back and headed past Titan Rocks to descend to Titan Hut. What a brilliant little hut; popular among hunters and complete with carpeting!
The next day, the rain continued to hold off in the distance. Deciding we wanted a little more adventure from our trip despite the bad forecast, we opted for an off-track route back.
We headed towards point 749 and aimed for a somewhat defined spur that would descend back to the swing bridge of the Waikaia River. We were mostly right, but had a little exploratory navigation as the ground was steeper, and the spur not so easily defined, as the map might have suggested.
All the same, we got back to the car early enough to drive away just in time for the rain to arrive.
It was a brilliant little weekend trip and we’re looking forward to returning next winter with a forecast that will allow us to explore all the way to Blue Lake Huts. Though from this trip report, I get the feeling it’s just as good to visit in summer.
Words by Megan Sety and images by Tony Gazley, both members of the Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Club.