Jam Hut and Hornby Bivvy
by Megan Sety
We had booked flights to Christchurch with the plan to go over Ball Pass in the Mount Cook area. But the weather forecast was for rain throughout the main divide and high winds everywhere. The Seaward Kaikoura Range seemed about the only place that would be dry and not blowing a gale. When talking about alternative trips, Tony piped up that he knew a nice and easy 3-day trip to visit Jam Hut in the Kaikouras. He’d been there several times before. That sounded good to me and Fiona.
So it was that at 9 pm on Friday night, we were getting out of the car to inspect what looked like the Clarence Valley Road driving directly into the Clarence River. Tony was certain there was a bridge before, but there was no bridge now. There wasn’t even evidence that a bridge had once existed. We hopped back in the car, inspected the map a dozen times and concluded that the Kaikoura earthquake of 2016 must have wiped out the bridge, since there was a bridge on all of our maps at the exact place we had been.
This prompted a discussion that revealed Tony’s previous trips were pre-earthquake and other than Fiona checking Jam Hut still existed, none of us had done any research to verify that our intended trip was still possible post-earthquake. This would have been an opportune time to practice one of Ken MacIver’s communication pauses to consider our next decisions.
Instead we focused on finding a place to camp for the night since we were clearly not going to make it to our intended road end. Settling on the Puhi Puhi camping area, I did some googling on the way there.
We determined indeed the Clarence Valley Road bridge had been destroyed and as yet nothing had been replaced. Comparing District Council notes, a Stuff article and the map, we determined that we could still reach our road end by driving up the Waipapa Road, parking the car at the obvious ford over the confluence of the Wharekiri and Miller Streams, and walking an extra 5 km to the originally intended road end where Waiautoa Road meets George Stream. We’re trampers after all, so what’s a little walking.
The next morning on the way out, we happened on the Middle Hill Mountain Bike Park and decided to call in and confirm the road was publicly accessible. The guys confirmed indeed it was and they even thought we might get our 2-wheel drive car across the ford. When we got there, we thought better of risking an extra couple hours trying to tow our hire car out of the river, so we parked and walked the extra 5 kms. It’s not a bad walk as 4-wheel-drive roads go and we had a fantastic vantage of where the Clarence Valley Road and bridge once were. Though in the future I’d recommend asking the mountain bike park if they would offer a shuttle trip for a fair price!
We got to our proper road end and then started ambling up the George Stream which initially looks like a classic South Island braided river. But after 5 km turns into a nice little stream with boulders to clamber over. Slowly the banks steepen and the stream feels a bit more gorgy, both beautiful and fun to travel up.
Eventually we got to the turn off point to head towards George Saddle. Tony had previously had some serious navigational fun getting to the saddle. So his memory of the best approach was pretty useful here. The headwaters of the George stream is a maze of streams. We’d suggest getting yourself in the stream marked in our GPS track and continuing up it until it looks better to get out of the creek and head up the true right of the stream. We stumbled across a few cut branches—you might get lucky and find those as confirmation or you might just bash your way all the same. The scree isn’t very good going on the approach to the saddle from the south side, so your best bet is finding a route up through the most solid looking vegetation.
The wind was whipping when we got to George Saddle but we had fantastic views. The scree down the other side is perfect to descend in about 5 minutes. Since we were running a bit behind our schedule, we decided to end the day sensibly at 6pm and camped alongside the Doddemeade Stream—about 30 minutes down from the saddle.
The next morning we had a dawn chorus of bellbirds and blue skies. We easily made our way down to Jam Hut for morning tea. It was empty but we scoured the hut book for reports related to our planned route to Hornby Bivvy. We were hoping for confirmation that it was do-able post-earthquake. So far we hadn’t seen too much to indicate significant changes to the terrain, but Fiona and I were still nervous about the uncertain nature of what was ahead. Tony was convinced it would be fine. He’d been here four times before and one of those included getting a WTMC group of 10 people along the same route.
The intentions book had an entry pre-earthquake that included our route to Hornby and some alternative options. I’ll let the entry speak for itself:
While it was pre-earthquake it was good to get some confirmation that Tony’s memory of the planned route was backed up by someone else. We had also read Mike Phethean’s trip report providing similar navigation tips.
So we set off for point 884. Before we left, we discussed whether to use Tony’s known route up the hill to pt 884 and along the ridge, or whether to go with the intention book entry of the slightly steep scramble but good travel in the stream. Thankfully Fiona suggested we go with the hill and ridge—a known route and different to yesterday’s travel in the stream.
As we approached pt 884, I asked Tony if the hillside I was looking at was the one we were planning to go up. He confirmed. I said “That looks awful, how can we possibly go up there?” Fiona agreed and both of us wondered what Tony was on about.
Yesterday we had quickly discovered that the bare hillsides were hard packed earth with tiny little loose gravel over the top. Unlike normal scree, stepping on this stuff felt like stepping on ball bearings on concrete. Looking up the SW face of the approach to point 884 there were limited bands of vegetation and huge amounts of bare ground where the whole hillside had just slipped away. We should have had another one of Ken’s communication pauses, but other than expressing our disbelief at the proposed route, Tony was certain it would be fine once we got there.
The initial 100 metres was just that and we relaxed. As we crested a little bump, we could see into the unmarked stream just south of pt 884—the one that had a so-called steep start. It was indeed steep, if that’s how you would describe an 80 metre waterfall. We were glad to have stuck with Fiona’s suggestion to stay out of the stream. In hindsight, we were starting to see evidence that the terrain had been dramatically affected by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, but Fiona and I didn’t have anything to compare it to and so far, most of what we had covered was matching Tony’s memory of six years before.
But as we carried on, the wake-up call to the impacts from the earthquake became impossible to ignore. Most of the remaining 300 metres covered bare ground as if all the top layers had slid or broken away. What was left, was hard packed soil with loose pebbles strewn across at persistent 35 degree slopes. It was difficult to trust your feet and when you reached for something stable to hold on to, the rock crumbled like a sand castle and the dried dead vegetation just broke up and ripped the roots from the ground.
We would move up until we hit another terrifying slippery bare patch, then daintily sidle towards patches of vegetation that mixed matagouri and manuka. It was not Type 2 or even Type 3 fun.
When we neared the top, the sides of the hill had dropped away, leaving a narrow spur. It was a jumbled pile of newly broken giant boulders that looked pushed up from the ground and precariously perched. When there was soil, there were tension cracks splitting it right down the middle.
We moved quickly trying to get to pt 884 both for a sense of security and safety, but also quite uncertain if the true ridge beyond would even be passable. Finally hitting a secure place around 2 pm after about 3 hours from leaving the valley floor, we had lunch and regrouped. Tony admitted the terrain might have changed. Now we knew for sure that the rest of our route was completely uncertain. We just hoped we could get to Hornby Bivvy and could rest and rethink the last day and our planned route out.
We carried along the actual ridge from pt 884 towards pt 968. The entry in the intentions book had referred to a poled route here that was good and once again said the stream you land in was good going. Tony had seen the poles on past trips, but had decided against them thinking the route looked to go nowhere. However, Tony had previously navigated down more directly from pt 981 and found it mixed. Mike had also happened on the poled route in their trip, but had run out of time to explore the route. We decided to give it a go.
However there was no sign of poles. Either they had been removed or more likely disappeared in the damage of the earthquake. Initially the terrain down from pt 968 was quite good going, but before long we hit a massive bluff and sidled NE—aiming towards the stream that looked to go right past the bivvy. Overall the route down was far better going than the approach up pt 884, but it was clear in parts the ground had been affected by the earthquake and that subsequent erosion was causing large slips that were significantly changing the terrain. It seems likely the accessibility of the route will only further deteriorate.
We eventually hit the unnamed stream and felt a huge sigh of relief. Sadly it was a tiny stream with steep sides and was full of bush lawyer, matagouri and fallen dead manuka. The hillsides along the stream were more of the same, so we pushed on, poking and tearing our skin, and egos, along the way. After a couple hundred metres we used the GPS to locate the bivvy since the bush was quite thick.
We were ecstatic to arrive around 5 pm after an intense and unsettling day of travel. The bivvy was in excellent shape. The number of cobwebs matched the hut book’s records that since the earthquake the only person to visit the hut was a DOC worker who had flown in to confirm it was still standing. In fact all of the entries going back to 2012 fit on one page, and no surprise Tony was half of those entries. Actually Hornby Bivvy was newly installed in 2006 to replace the former Hornby Hut and since then just a total of 17 parties have visited.
We dropped our packs and breathed a sigh of relief. Tony had remembered that previously the only hard part of the trip had been the descent from this hillside into the creek directly east of the bivvy that leads to Snowgrass Stream. He’d never consistently found a good route down. To save time for the next day, Tony and I went to scout out the possible route down. But we quickly realised it was going to take too much time. We did spot a pole, which Tony had seen before but had found led nowhere. Back to the bivvy to rest up for the night.
The next morning, we packed up and got ready to go. We then had the first really robust conversation about our intended route and the possible challenges ahead with the uncertainty of the terrain. Tony was still certain it would be fine, but Fiona and I didn’t quite have his confidence. We agreed there were at least four major problem areas ahead. We talked at length about whether to return the route we came or what options we had. Ultimately notes in the bivvy hut book and the topography on the map indicated there weren’t many other options to exit. The best bet was to follow the route that Tony has used before, and at each crossroads we would be open to the possibility that we might have to turn around or spend an extra day finding a route out.
We set off at 8 am, finding the pole we’d seen and used that as a loose guide to work our way into the unnamed stream. Our goal was to get as close as far downstream as possible before we actually got in the stream since there were previously known waterfalls that would bluff us out. It was more of the same terrible and precarious travel—ball bearings on concrete. Thankfully it was a much shorter and quicker descent. The stream itself seems to have been drastically changed by the earthquake and was finally the first easy travel. In fact we likely could have entered further upstream and been fine. First problem passed.
We easily dropped down into Snowgrass and then walked the 15 minutes to the second problem – a 4 metre waterfall that we needed to ascend. There was still a rope hanging along the steep true right side – the same rope that had been there eight years ago from the 2011 WTMC trip. The rope and that option looked terrible. The true left looked climbable—as in rock climbable. I decided to give it a go. With a little help from Tony and Fiona bracing my feet, I easily climbed on to the first ledge, but I wasn’t willing to risk the mantel move over the lip of the waterfall—the consequences were too great. Back down I went.
Tony gave the rope a big tug and it broke and came away from the tree branch it was tied to. We tried several times to scramble up the true right but it seemed just that little bit risky. Finally, taking the spare rope with us that we had brought just for this waterfall, I gave it one last go. In the end it was doable and we used the rope to haul our packs up the side and Tony and Fiona quickly followed. Two hours of problem-solving later, we and all three packs were safely over the waterfall. Another problem survived.
We carried on up the stream to where we would turn off and head up to Cuckoo Saddle. We stopped for lunch, and I think for Fiona and I, we started to feel an inkling of hope that we might reach the road end tonight.
The travel up to Cuckoo saddle again was heavily affected by the earthquake and previous descriptions of the route up bared no resemblance to the ground. It was again difficult but there was far more vegetation to help us gain the ridge. Problem three done.
Now it was just the 4th problem, the ridge—we wondered if the narrow Ben Spur had become too narrow to pass, but onward we went. In the end the spur was fine, but similar to the other ridge, there were intimidating tension cracks and jumbles of boulders that seemed ready to tip off at any moment. We reached Black Hill and could see into George Stream and our route home. From there, the travel was easy and we could finally relax. It was still several more hours until we finally reached the car, but it was walking that we were happy to. A note that depending on your descent route, you’ll cross over private land and require permission—try DOC for the best contact details.
I think you could sum up the trip with Tony’s comments about the terrain “an incredibly fragile and dynamic area that’s already showing signs of tension cracks” or maybe my more succinct summary when writing in the hut book about our route “Would Not Repeat.”