Finding dinosaurs and magic on the Leatham-Molesworth Circuit

The Leatham-Molesworth Circuit is a 5-day hiking loop trip through spectacular mountain scenery in the Leatham Conservation Area passing through the Leatham River, Severn River, and Saxton River

‘Dolphins’ shouted a crew member as we travelled through the Marlborough Sounds on the Interislander. I sprinted over to the railing as dolphins are my favourite animals and saw a huge pod of dolphins swimming joyfully alongside the ferry. Just magical! This seemed like a good start to our five day tramp as did the stunning bluebird day.

On arriving in Blenheim Tony declared we would camp the night at Onamalutu. I thought Tony was pulling my leg as it sounded like somewhere in Hawaii. It turned out he was completely serious and the Onamalutu DoC campsite does indeed exist – a beautiful campsite in podocarp forest on the edge of Richmond Forest park. Tony and I set up camp only to discover we had both bought identical Macpac microlight tents that I was worried could be a source of confusion when trying to find my way back to my tent in the dark. 

Drama ensued that night when we thought we would have a hot drink. Tony’s reliable MSR stove had decided to give up the ghost. He spent a long time trying to identify the problem only to be goaded on by the cackling of the moreporks that seemed to be almost laughing at his futile efforts. Luckily I had bought my stove as a back-up and we quickly hatched a plan to ditch Tony’s MSR into the naughty corner for the trip (not sure if he has forgiven his stove yet!) and make a quick trip into town the next morning to get a couple more gas canisters for it. The night camping at Onamalutu campsite was lovely – we had a very bright full moon and our alarm clock in the morning was a chorus of bellbirds. Tony told me in the morning that the only other occupants there had made the decision to drive over to the toilet block 100 m away during the night rather than walk, before driving back to their parking spot! I told Tony they must have disliked ‘functional walking’ which was a term he found hilarious. He was even more entertained when I told him that I know of runners who hate walking for any other reason and will choose the carpark closest to the shop/gym to avoid what they term ‘functional walking.’

Saturday morning dawned a beautiful clear day. We had a 24 km walk along a 4-wheel drive road to get to Bottom Gordons Hut and onto the Leatham Circuit. After only an hour of walking, we had our first vehicle pass us – Tony managed to organise us a lift on the back of the hunter’s ute with his hunting dogs. It got a little cold during the ride on the back of his ute so I tried to get as close to the dogs as possible to stay warm. Just after Caves Hut, this driver dropped us off and the driver immediately behind him offered us a ride all the way to Bottom Gordon Hut! This was quite an adventurous 4-wheel drive ride as there were a few deeper river crossings. Tony and I were congratulating ourselves on being so clever and avoiding having to walk the entire 24 km up the road – little did we know that we would indeed find ourselves walking back along it in a few days!

On arriving at Bottom Gordons Hut, we had lunch and decided we would walk on to Top Leatham Hut for the night since it was still early and we also hadn’t really done any walking! On the way we met a hunter who came around the corner just as he saw me making a fuss over a small patch of snow on the ground. He inquired about what our plans were and told us we wouldn’t get over Severn Saddle without alpine gear. I think he was alarmed by us making such a fuss over that patch of snow and maybe thought we had never seen snow before. I have to admit I was a little disappointed to hear what he said as I was excited to do the whole loop. This hunter would be the last person we would see until we had completed the Leatham Circuit and arrived back on the 4-wheel drive road again.

Track to Top Leatham Hut
On the track to Top Leatham Hut
Wilding pines
Wilding pine forest

Tony and I got so distracted talking at one point that we had to stop and check the map to find out that we had somehow ended up on the wrong side of the river – it was during this stop we saw a massive footprint in the sand that was definitely not human. I’m not sure what makes a huge footprint like that – it looked far too big to be a dog and the wrong shape for a deer. I was convinced it was perhaps a dinosaur! Maybe the Leatham Circuit has its own dinosaur species – the Leatham Dinosaur?! But since then another tramping friend has suggested it could be a Ruahine Mountain Dolphin that has migrated South – they are real animals of deception as my previous experiences with them have shown (see my Ruahine trip report here). Whatever it was that made that footprint, we never found out and it is still wandering around out there so maybe another tramper will solve the mystery of that huge footprint one day!

Luckily the Leatham Dinosaur didn’t chase us down and we safely made it to Top Leatham Hut for the night. I had said to Tony I would organise all the food for the trip and we weren’t doing any dehy meals as I wanted the fun of cooking each night! Luckily Tony was a good sport about this and didn’t mind having a heavier pack. This also meant I was carrying a rather crazy bag of veges – carrot, onion, 3 zucchini, 3 capsicum and a head of broccoli. Not the usual menu for a five day trip! We had fun toasting marshmallows that night and Tony’s woodburner fire was so hot that our packet of Tim Tams on the bench started melting. We had the hut to ourselves that night although I have to admit that I was expecting a horde of possums to invite themselves in for the night and take advantage of DoC’s hospitality and scoff all our Tim Tams as a message next to the door indicated that the possums had learnt how to open the door handle. Possibly they did try to invite themselves in during the night as I woke up at one point to the door opening slowly – I slammed it shut pronto – I had to protect the precious Tim Tams! I didn’t want to lose them to the possums as had happened on another trip with Tony where the possums consumed a whole packet of toffee pops overnight and rudely left us with just the empty wrapper the next morning – see here! 

On Sunday morning we started up to Severn Saddle knowing we might have to turn around and make a plan B given what the hunter had said. It felt a bit like Christmas  on the walk up as there was snow and wilding conifers (we pulled out as many as we could along the way though as they are weeds and killing off the native vegetation. There has been a number of working bees in that area to try and reduce their numbers). The track up to the saddle got increasingly steeper; so steep that with the snow I simply slid back down the hill a few paces. I kept myself entertained by finding a little snow person along the way and as we broke the bushline the views were just stunning.

Leatham Valley
Above the bushline in the Leatham Valley
The sidle to Severn Saddle
The sidle to Severn Saddle

There was indeed a short snowy traverse to get to the saddle but it was all really soft so it was safe to cross. I was feeling pretty jubilant on making Severn Saddle especially when we popped over to the edge to check out the south side and found absolutely no snow but just a nice scree slope to travel down.

I had found a DoC route guide for the Circuit before we left Wellington and it mentioned using our ‘height wisely’ on our descent down the scree slope. Tony and I had absolutely no idea what on earth the route guide meant by this so I can’t say if we achieved this or not! The scree descent was so much fuuun. About halfway down I had a moment of panic thinking I had accidentally set off my PLB as suddenly there was a loud noise like a helicopter. On frantically looking around trying to see where it had come from I realised it was actually a massive snow avalanche on the other side of the valley. Since we were in a safe spot on the scree slope, we stayed to watch it and another avalanche that it then set off.  It was a reminder to us that while Mother Nature can be incredibly beautiful, we can never forget her inherent dangers and why we need to respect that. 

Walking down the Severn Valley was a strange sensation. I was struggling to wrap my head around the fact that I was walking down a river valley at 1,200m altitude which is the same height as Jumbo Hut in the Tararua Range. I felt so tiny compared to the huge mountains that we were walking between. It was simply magical especially with the snow. We saw a stag and lots of noisy geese as we followed the Severn River for about 8km. Just before Severn Hut we had a big decision to make when we came to a huge patch of matagouri – a timely detour or bash straight through for lunch  – we chose lunch! (my legs disagreed later on as I was not wearing gaiters!)

Head of Severn Valley
Head of Severn Valley
Severn Valley
Severn Valley

Severn Hut was in such a fantastic location that we could have been tempted to spend the night there but we had another hill to climb – up the spur east of the hut to point 1764m. I saw a few skinks during the climb and had fun making snow angels in the snow to cool down during the climb. During one break, Tony appeared below me absolutely dripping and complaining of an ice-cream headache. I was starting to get alarmed about the state he was in before he pulled his hat off to reveal a pile of snow under it that he had been using to cool himself down! I had promised Tony a Tim Tam at the top of the climb but it was so windy that I was struggling to just get my jacket on so we skied down another scree descent into Boundary Stream for our Tim Tam break. Tony and I started looking for good campsites and eventually found a sheltered one behind some matagouri – while we could have made Saxton Hut around darkness that night we were both keen to have a night camping. 

Raglan Range
On the unnamed saddle above Boundary Stream
Boundary Stream
Boundary Stream. Inland Kaikoura Range distant skyline
Severn Hut
Saxton Hut

On Monday morning we had a hour’s walk to Saxton Hut. Like Severn Hut it had a gate to stop nosy cows from wandering into the hut – cows graze the area during summer and during the summer months you are only permitted to travel upstream to avoid moving stock out of the valley – I still found it hard to get my head around the fact that there would be cows at 1,200m during summer – I reckon that these the cows were getting some serious altitude training in to be super endurance cows and must have an abundance of red blood cells! (maybe I can get one of them to pace me for the next ultra-marathon I run?!). The Leatham Circuit is not commonly visited so many of the huts didn’t have a lot of visitors each year and while flicking through the intentions book in Saxton Hut I was not expecting to see anyone I knew so imagine my surprise when I not only saw two Wellingtonians but two club members – Emily and Mark who had done a trip to Saxton hut off the Molesworth Road in January 2019!

We had another magical walk up the Saxton Valley following the river – we took a moment to visit the private Team Hut where I found the toilet had no door, just a view back down the river valley. It’s probably lucky it wasn’t summer otherwise I might have had a visit from a nosy cow! Going up the river valley we were often following the cow trails but we found that I wasn’t always very good at pretending to be like a cow and we ended up in a bog a few times – opps, sorry Tony!

Saxton Valley
Saxton Valley

There was one or two river gorges that involved a climb up and over so we didn’t have to go for a swim through deep pools – I even spotted a few big trout swimming in the river. There were even still random bits of snow lying around next to the river so Tony and I kept joking that we were above the snowline!

The climb up to Saxton Saddle wasn’t easy work as there was no easy foot trail and we kept falling in deep tussock, spaniards and matagouri and my legs were burning by then from been ripped to shreds – I was starting to look like I had been in a battle with a thousand wild cats. I think I have now been convinced about the benefits of owning gaiters! We struggled onto the Saxton Saddle before the descent into Top Gordons Hut – there were a few dodgy siddle bits that I was glad to get over done with before we were back in beech forest with track markers again (our last track marker had been on Severn Saddle) and arriving at Top Gordons Hut for the night – it was basking in so much sun-light that Tony and I decided we did not to worry about having a fire that night. We were living such a life of luxury on this trip that I was even enjoying a marshmallow in my mint hot chocolate at the hut! 

On Tuesday we headed back down towards Bottom Gordons Hut. This was our alternative plan as we had to deviate from our original plan of walking out off-track over Waihopai Saddle and up Cow Stream to Bolder Stream Hut – we thought the snow would be too deep for us to get us safely across without ice-axes and crampons and we wouldn’t have the time to retrace our steps. That meant we had to walk back along the 4-wheel drive that we thought we had cleverly avoided – here was our comeuppance but it actually turned out to be a rather pleasant walk back along the road that we both ended up enjoying. Tony showed me the honeydew on beech trees and we tried licking a bit off the trees along the way. On reaching Bottom Gordons Hut, I found myself writing our names right under our previous entry 4 days ago as no one had visited the hut since. Tony and I decided to have lunch at Barbers Hut but it turned out we both had confused memories of where it was along the road and we both thought the big river crossing was before the hut – turned out the hut came first and I may have kept telling Tony the hut was simply around the next corner – a fair few corners later I’m pretty sure he deduced I was giving him a bit of ‘trampers’ spin’ that we had used on another trip – see the trip report here

Saxton Saddle
Saxton Saddle

Heading down to Top Gordons Hut
Heading down to Top Gordons Hut

Top Gordon track
Top Gordon track
Top Gordon track
Stream crossing Top Gordon track

After Barbers Hut we did finally find the river crossing that we had been expecting for the last hour – we decided a linked up crossing was needed as the river was really fast flowing. Even the four-wheel drives apparently had struggled in it – the four-wheel driver who had dropped us off the other day said someone else had got their vehicle stuck in the river the day before and had to call in a tow truck to get it out! We made it to Caves Hut where I promptly dropped my pack and had fun pretending to be a plane on the air strip next to the hut. Tony and I were impressed at how tidy all the huts were along the 4-wheel drive road. At Caves Hut we decided it was too early to stop and I was keen to have another night camping with an open fire so we continued until we found a lovely camping spot in a manuka forest next to the Leatham River. There was an abundance of firewood so Tony got a big fire going that we could sit around for dinner and toast marshmallows on. We had a lovely chorus of both bellbirds and frogs that night – it was a perfect camping spot.

Camp in manuka forest
A cozy camp in the manuka forest

On Wednesday we had just a short 1 hour walk back to the car to drive back up to Picton for the ferry at 2pm. On getting back into cellphone reception Tony found out that he won two categories in the FMC photo competition which was a pretty fantastic way to finish a trip!

Saturday – Rodend to Top Leatham Hut:

Trip stats from Sarah’s watch:

Distance – 31km (a large amount of it in a 4-wheel drive!)

Elevation – 968m

Moving time – 4.75h 

Sunday – Top Leatham Hut – Boundary Stream campsite

Distance – 21km

Elevation – 1,341m

Moving time – 6.5h

Monday – Boundary stream campsite – Top Gordon Hut

Distance – 23.5km

Elevation – 639m

Moving time – 6.5h

Tuesday – Top Gordon Hut – Leatham River campsite

Distance -24km

Elevation – 351m

Moving time – 5.5h

Wednesday – Leatham River campsite to roadend

Distance -6km

Elevation – 39m

Moving time – 1h

Reports of other WTMC trips in the Leatham Conservation Area:

For a Lees Hellfire Circuit trip go to Lees Hellfire Circuit – The Bounds of Hades

For A Bounds Circuit trip trip go to Bounds Circuit – 6 days in the Leatham Conservation Area

For Tararua Range photos go to

3 thoughts on “Finding dinosaurs and magic on the Leatham-Molesworth Circuit.”

  1. Information on what month this was done in, would really help trip planning for others. Thank you.

  2. We now know it wasn’t a dinosaur foot print we saw but instead the print of one of the rare and seldom sighted ‘big cats’ that roam in the south island – refer to:

    Clearly there are the four claw prints – and possibly because the print is quite deep also the dewclaw print.
    Sarah and I are planning a trip back there with the idea of trapping the cat and becoming world famous and fabulously rich. Watch this space.


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