This excellent little overnighter is the second of a trio of bikepacking trips we made in quick succession back in autumn; that time of the year when the days start to shorten more noticeably and the afternoon shade begins to pick up a chill that has been forgotten over the hot, dry days of summer. It’s a nice time of year to ride: the light has a better quality to it, the landscape changes colour and there’s less people around.
I must admit, I’ve fallen behind a bit on blog posting lately, but there are a couple lined up in the ranks. So hang in there and maybe you’ll pick up some more ideas for adventures on two wheels.
This particular trip was organised by Chris and Tam, who invited Hana and I along for a weekend escape from Christchurch. The observant among you might recognise these two from some of my photographs from Argentina and Chile. Chris and Tam joined us for two weeks back in January 2020 and we cycled some Andean passes together and the classic Cerros de Mendoza bikepacking route. Back then Covid was something that was going on in Wuhan and Italy and the world had not yet fallen under its grip. Now, nearly two years later, vaccines have been rolled out and variants continue to make the course of the pandemic unpredictable. But we’ve come a long way.
The Hurunui Valley is a place that’s become quite special to me over the last few years. Apart from a couple of short mountain bike rides into Lake Sumner along the 4WD road, I was virtually unacquainted with the place until I through-tramped the Harper Pass route in 2015, while I was walking the Te Araroa Trail. Ahead of the 2021 Tour Te Waipounamu bikepacking race, Hana and I biked (and hiked) through to Lake Sumner from SH7 following the Hope-Kiwi Track, which offers some good technical beech forest single track, intermingled with some quite slow and grovelly hike-a-bike in places. That time we exited via the gravel road and Jacks Saddle out to Hawarden.
During Tour Te Waipounamu we came through the Hope-Kiwi Track a second time, but after crossing the Hurunui at the swingbridge climbed over a small saddle into the Lake Mason basin (private property) on farm tracks before heading towards the North Esk River and Dampier Range.
The plan for this relatively casual 2-dayer was to ride from the campsite at Lake Taylor to Lake Sumner, then across the Hurunui and up the true left of the river to the historic Hurunui No3 Hut, where we’d spend the night. On the second day we’d back track to the Hurunui swing bridge and then climb over to Lake Mason, then ride down valley a few kilometres, before crossing over a final small saddle at Flax Stream and back to the car at Lake Taylor.
Lake Taylor on a calm spring day – not a bad place to start a ride!
A dirt road follows the edge of Lake Taylor before climbing gently and then dropping to Loch Katrine. From there gently rolling double track eases you around to Lake Sumner, fed by the Hurunui River. It’s a bit over 4km from the Lake Inlet to the swing bridge over the Hurunui, where the river is an easy ford at ‘normal’ levels. The swing bridge is high and awkward to get onto with a bike.
Once across the bridge it’s really nice riding on grassy river terraces, generally following your nose upstream. There are a few minor (at normal levels) side creeks to cross.
From the bridge it’s 11km up to the hut, with only 100m of elevation gain.
On the other side of the river, just inside the bush is the main tramping track that the Te Araroa follows. The main track passes Hurunui Hut, but we were heading for the next one up the valley. There’s also some hot pools near the tramping track (marked by an X on the NZ Topo50 Map, grid ref: BU22 2200 7263). We accessed these by leaving our bikes, fording the river and hunting around in the bush for a while. There’s not much room for more than two people and the sandflies were horrendous, but the water is very nice.
And then onwards we rode in beautiful afternoon light, with the bush clad mountainsides slowly closing in as we headed up-valley.
With the side creeks and the mandatory ford of the upper Hurunui to reach the hut, this is very much a trip for fine weather and reasonable river levels.
Hurunui No3 Hut was a welcome sight. I’d last arrived here in the dark on a cold, late autumn night back in 2015 and it was good to be back.
The hut was built during the 1930s and was one of a series of tourist huts built on the Harper Pass route (which you cross just beyond the headwaters of the Hurunui River). Only two of the 1930s huts have survived, with the other being Locke Stream Hut on the other side of pass. The New Zealand government had intended for Harper Pass to be an alpine tourism crossing of the same ilk as Fiordland’s Milford Track, but for various reasons it never took off in quite the same way. The lesser grandeur of the scenery probably played a part, along with the wild and untamable steep valleys of the western side. But the history of the Harper Pass route runs much deeper; for Maori it was a greatly important crossing of the Southern Alps for obtaining and trading pounamu (greenstone) from the West Coast, and was also used by late 19th century Europeans during the gold rush.
It’s great to see a character hut like this still surviving.
The temperature dropped a bit below zero overnight, so it was a very chilly start to the morning, with some more reluctant to get out of their sleeping bags than others.
With the morning slowly warming we made our way back down valley towards the Hurunui swing bridge.
Back across the toe-numbing streams…
…and along the margin of the beech forest.
Once back across the river we began the steady climb up and over to Lake Mason. It’s only about 270 vertical metres, but you have to work for them on the rough farm track.
But what a day for it, with Lake Sumner shimmering calmly below.
Some of us had to work for it harder than others. This is the same climb that the Tour Te Waipounamu route follows.
Lake Mason’s quite a special spot that not too many people visit, but on a calm day like this it was magical.
We certainly weren’t in a rush. The route down to and along the side of Lake Mason is a mixture of farm track and technical singletrack, but it’s mostly ridable.
Beyond the lake good double track heads down valley, following Mason Stream and then the Hurunui River South Branch, before gradually climbing away from the river and over the final steep saddle.
It’s quite the grind in places (bring easy gears!), but the surface is smooth and it was good to back in the forest again briefly.
They say the best rides end on downhills, and this one is no exception, with a beautiful winding 4WD road dropping back down to Lake Taylor, where the car was parked.
Although the whole route is only 66km, it’s best spread out over two half days, so that you get to enjoy a night at the hut. It could also be incorporated into a longer ride, coming in over Jacks Saddle or from SH7 via the Hope Kiwi Track as mentioned. And of course it would make a fun day ride too.
Note: While most of the route is on the DOC conservation estate within Lake Sumner Forest Park, the Lake Mason section (KM47–64.5) is private property (Lake Taylor Station). Permission must be sought before using this section.
Call 027 424 6685 or 03 3144344.
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