Treasures of the Kahurangi  The Needle and the Haystack

During one magical Easter, Lorraine Johns and Simon Bell visit Kahurangi National Park in NW Nelson. Lorraine vividly recalls their journey through a bewitching landscape and shares how it became a trip to remember.

This is just one of the stories in Simon’s Trips, a book honouring the life of NZ mountaineer, Simon Bell.

After his disappearance on Pikirakatahi/Mt Earnslaw in January 2015, his parents, Colin and Jeni Bell, compiled the book from Simon’s accounts and photos. Lorraine Johns, Rob Hawes, the late Steve Dowall and other friends also contributed stories of tramping or climbing trips they made with Simon.

Simon’s Trips was originally a gift to his family and friends but was later made available in return for a donation to the FMC Mountain and Forest Trust. These donations paid the majority of the costs of digitizing FMC’s publication ‘Safety in the Mountains’ (available here as the ‘Manual’) and establishing the Wilderlife website. Simon’s estate contributed the balance.

We will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Simon’s Trips here on Wilderlife. If you would like the complete PDF, Simon’s Trips may be downloaded here, and a donation made here.

By Lorraine Johns (March 2013)

Kahurangi National Park is a realm of contrasts.  Sinkholes lurk just beneath tranquil meadows, and vast alpine plains conceal a labyrinth of the deepest caves in the country.  Gentle tussock slopes terminate abruptly above distant valley floors, while rugged ridgelines such as the Dragon’s Teeth are at odds with the distinctive backdrop of flat top peaks like Mount Owen. Anyone who has walked the length of the Heaphy Track can understand that Kahurangi is a place where just about anything could be around the corner.

For me, nowhere is this sense of diversity and visual splendour more present than Thousand Acres Plateau, which lies just above the Matiri Valley near the southwestern entrance to the National Park.  I accidentally stumbled across this mystical place during an idle hour browsing old trip reports.  Long afterwards, the mysterious allure of the landforms known as The Needle and The Haystack lingered in my mind.  Even if the first fleeting vision to strike my imagination was of an unusually large stack of tussock, rather than a mudstone mountain of gargantuan proportions!

Some years later, a misty forecast, with the promise of both sunshine and rain, brought my partner Simon and me to the doorstep of the Matiri.  A gentle walk on a humid afternoon led us to the shimmering lake.  Many a pleasant tale has been recounted about gorging on the blackberry bushes that adorn the route to Lake Matiri Hut.  However, we dared not stray a step from the beaten trail to claim a single berry.  It was early autumn and the wasps, having left their nests, buzzed belligerently around us, drunk on the excess consumption of rotting fruit.

Past this point, the country became more rugged, and the real adventure started like all the best ones do.  That is, painfully, with an unrelenting grunt up a timeworn track.  Yet our spirits were lifted by the occasional glimpse through foliage of the steep flanks of karst country beyond.

Breaking out from bush into alpine shrubbery, a place of frugal beauty lay ahead.  Poles led across a small tussock plateau, the red and gold colours of the palette punctuated only by the odd splash of vibrant green.  Poor Pete’s Hut is directly below Thousand Acres Plateau, built to take advantage of the scenic little plateau which benignly terminates above the valley floor.  Recently replaced, this immaculate hut is anything but a poor choice for a weekend escape, and with its sheltered picnic table, was difficult for us to bypass.  Yet, beckoning mere minutes beyond, lies one of the most stunning horizons in the country.

Nothing prepares you for your first view of the astonishing landforms which guard the northern edge of Thousand Acres Plateau.  The hulking Haystack rises like a fortress above the rolling meadow.  Its shingle slopes cast such a long shadow that Larrikin Creek Hut, at its base, is bereft of sunlight during the winter months.  The dainty little needle on the adjoining ridge contrasts sharply and, on a fine day, the first golden rays of the sun warm its spaniard-clad slopes.  There is an Egyptian feel to this place, with the sphinx-like Haystack watching over the pyramid-like Needle.  Or is it paradise in the witching hour?

Evening fell as we pressed on to Larrikin Creek Hut, the soft alpenglow framing the peaks on the skyline.  A hearty fire and friendly faces greeted us as we arrived at the hut, and we slept cosily, our dreams full of weird and wonderful things.

It would have taken very little to remain thus, sound in sleep, appetites well-fed on the delights of the day before.  But my body was restless in its longing to wander across my mind’s obsession: The Needle and The Haystack. And so we rose at dawn to venture out and upwards into the chilly autumn air.

While no track is apparent on the map, a few hundred metres to the north-west of the hut, a large orange triangle signals the start of a well-marked trail leading safely to the bushline.  The entrance is directly across a dry creek, and the story goes that the odd tramper has been tricked into following this upwards to their peril!  From here, access directly to The Needle is as comfortable as anything can be that passes through a gauntlet of speargrass!

A climb of The Haystack poses more of a challenge, primarily due to the disintegrating nature of the rock from which it is made.  In keeping with the surrounds, the way upwards is both straightforward and severe.  The ridge is generally broad, with a dark, scoured rockface plummeting to the south, and ordinary tussock slopes leading gradually downwards to the north.  Even greater is the contrast between the Thousand Acres Plateau below, where sheep once grazed, and the rim of impenetrable bluffs entrapping its furthest reaches.  A thick cap of weather-resistant rock overlying the limestone has prevented the plateau eroding, while the earth at its edges has crumbled away over deep time.  It is only from this vantage point that Thousand Acres Plateau can be fully understood.

Our senses were heightened as we travelled over The Haystack, passing through a small world of contorted arches and karst sculptures as we made our way up to the little grassy knoll that signified the summit.  The sky had darkened a little so we did not pause long before continuing back along the ridge toward The Needle.  A narrow pinch was shortly followed by a scramble around some small gendarmes, before the ridge broadened once again into a walk.  The little bump of The Needle’s summit was not threatened by any sudden drops, and we were able to relax in the sun as our neighbours from Larrikin Creek began to arrive.

A full day at our disposal, we decided to venture on to Hundred Acres Plateau, the misshapen mini-me of Thousand Acres Plateau.  This little plateau is also known as the Devil’s Table Top or the Devil’s Napkin, most likely because it is populated by sinkholes! 

We dared not venture near any of the suspicious depressions in the thick tussock, as we headed toward Mount Misery for our final panorama.  We finished our day lying alongside the tarns of the plateau, amusing ourselves with the discovery of cushion plant!

The next day the weather finally turned, and we hastily retraced our steps to recross the West Matiri before its waters began to swell – the cableway marked on the map is no longer there!  However, not before Simon discovered the Easter Bunny had visited during the night (resulting in a methodical search of every nook and cranny to uncover chocolate treasures)!  The heavy downpour could not drench our high spirits as we marched back to the road end, and we were left to muse on the wonders of the tramping world while munching on Easter eggs.  The conclusion reached as we drove away was that a little bit of this journey goes a very long way and is within the reach of most outdoor enthusiasts.

We will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Simon’s Trips here on Wilderlife. If you would like the complete PDF, Simon’s Trips may be downloaded here and a donation made here.

Wilderlife