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Lees Creek Track - An Adventure in Marlborough's own 'Middle Earth'

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Last Modified: 12-5-2021 21:20

Crossing the Wairau River
Crossing the Wairau River
© Christopher Cookson  License this image

Poring over maps of Marlborough for interesting places to visit, I discovered a tramping track about eight and a half kilometres long in the upper Wairau, to Lees Creek, where the DOC website reported that there was a four bunk hut. Studying the contours on a topographical map indicated that the track only climbed about 200 metres over its length, so hopefully not likely to be too strenuous. I informed a friend who’s a keen tramper and had spent a lot of time in the upper Wairau and St Arnaud area, but had never heard of Lees Creek before, and he was quite keen to explore the area. Neither of us had been tramping for a while due the responsibilities of family life, but we were keen to get some wilderness time.

The start of the track is about five kilometres south of the Rainbow ski field car park just before Six Mile Creek, which is the limit of two wheel drive access along the Rainbow Road. Except for a period during summer when the length of Rainbow Road is open to the public, there is also a locked gate just south of Six Mile Creek. Since we didn’t have a four wheel drive, we decided to drive then take mountain bikes the five kilometres from the carpark to the start of the track.

Leaving Blenheim about 8.30am on an overcast morning, by the time we arrived at the Rainbow ski field car part, we’d left the grey weather behind for a fine day with some high cloud. On our bikes, we had a bumpy ride of a short distance down to Six Mile Creek where I managed to get across without getting my feet wet by keeping my bike close to a line of boulders that marked the edge of the ford, and kept one foot on the rocks using the other to pedal the bike through the loose gravel. Zane, my friend, wasn’t so fortunate and tried to ride right through the middle of the ford where his bike inevitably came to a stop in the loose gravel, so he got his feet wet. Once across the creek, we walked our bikes up the other side, as it was a fairly steep gradient which would have been a good challenge at the best of times, but with a heavy pack and cycling with boots, definitely not something we felt like riding. Away from the creek, the road levelled off, although there was a gradual gradient most of the way that made us use plenty of energy. The road descended steeply at St. Ronans Well, which gave us a bit of respite, although it required braking to avoid losing control. From St. Ronans Well to the start of the track was a little over a kilometre, where we left our bikes in the beech forest to continue on foot.

A DOC sign indicated the start of the Lees Creek track, and a steep trail descended for about twenty metres to a swing bridge over the Wairau River. Although there hadn’t been much rain in a while, the Wairau was still anything but a quiet stream. It seemed as though the swing bridge had been carefully positioned to be immediately above the largest rapid in that section of the river, and the roar of white water immediately below the bridge drowned out any other sound and created its own cool breeze. The bridge itself must have been between thirty to forty metres long, and perhaps five to six metres above the river, so not a structure for anyone with a fear of heights.

I let Zane cross over first, and took a photo before it was my turn. I gingerly made my way across the swaying structure, with a very definite adrenaline rush, and I dare say a little trepidation, however capturing the moment was also important to me, and with my camera strap securely around my neck, photographing the river upstream distracted me from the raging torrent below the gently swaying structure supporting me.

Fungal Wonderland

Fungi on a tree trunk
Fungi on a tree trunk
© Christopher Cookson  License this image

Once across the bridge, there was a steep flight of steps to climb, and then we were away from Wairau and into beech forest, and it almost seemed as though we’d fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole, as the proliferation of fungi of all shapes, sizes, and colours on the forest floor, and even right on the track itself, transformed the place into a living wonderland. The forest had a rich smell, probably due to this diverse assortment of fungi decomposing dead wood and leaves on the forest floor.

The track soon led us along on the true right of Lees Creek itself, which at this point was a broad, boulder strewn stream, with patches of grassy alpine meadow along its banks in places and beech forest down to the water’s edge in others. We were making a good pace along a flat track, and it seemed like we might be in for an easy tramp. Although there was no sign of recent rain, the track was damp, and we noticed the unmistakable prints of a horses hooves, which left us curious, as there was no possibility of a horse crossing the swing bridge over the Wairau, and there didn’t appear to be any other safe crossings of the Wairau nearby. We didn’t encounter anyone, and as it appeared there had been no rain, the hoof prints might have been several days old.

We noticed a lot of signs of pig rooting along the track in various places, although the only wildlife we encountered was bird life. Near the start of the track, I thought I heard the distinctive cry of kea several times, but as we headed upstream, I heard no more, however korimako and piwakawaka were about, and at one point a tomtit sat on a branch observing me as I slid down a bank.

After walking for a fairly short time, we came to a swing bridge across Lees Creek to the true left bank, and were quite pleased with ourselves how much progress we’d made, as according to the map, it was about two kilometres from the start of the track, however according to my GPS we hadn’t reached it yet, and when I later consulted tramping reports via Google after our return to civilisation, it turned out others had been led astray by the map as well, which placed the bridge considerably further east than its true location.

The track passed in and out of mountain beech forest and across alpine meadows, which allowed us good views of our surrounding landscape as we were never surrounded by forest for too long at a time, and had the opportunity to enjoy some sunshine without getting too hot walking the entire time in the open.

I noticed a few wasps as we walked, so was pleased we were doing this tramp in autumn when insects would be more lethargic. Hopefully this would apply to sandflies as well, although I was carrying repellent just in case.

Gorges and Goat Trails

Rocky creek
Rocky creek
© Christopher Cookson  License this image

We discovered that our idea that we’d have a nice easy walk all the way to the hut wasn’t going to be true. In parts of its course, Lees Creek turns into a narrow, rocky gorge, with white water cascading down large rocks with mossy banks and forest canopy closing in around the stream. In these parts, the track climbed up steeply using tree roots as natural steps in a narrow path, not much more than a goat track, clinging to a steep hillside above the boulders and angry water below. Here it was necessary to pay attention to choosing stable footholds, as any misstep here would have had unpleasant consequences. Although there were only a few sections of track of this nature, they did slow our progress considerably, eliminating our thoughts that we might enjoy an easy stroll to the hut. Although the track wasn’t all as flat as we’d thought, at least there was only one point where there was a stream crossing that resulted in wet feet, and in my case at least, in fact it was only a wet foot.

Majestic Mountains


Alpine grassland and beech forest on Lees Creek Track
© Christopher Cookson  License this image

As we progressed up the valley, we caught glimpses of the majestic rocky peaks of the Raglan Range rising up to nearly 2,000 metres with remnants of snow on them.

At last, after a scramble through a steep section of the track through dark, forest with giant verdant mossy boulders, and a furiously raging stream tumbling in white water cascades, we came out into a clearing, and by the reckoning of my GPS we were only about 500 metres from the hut. The track entered the forest again at the end of the clearing, and I began to worry whether we’d have another scramble to reach our goal, but it turned out to be an easy stroll through the forest till at last we came out of the trees into a large open tussock grassland meadow almost a kilometre long, with the hut situated not far from the edge of the forest on high ground.

I wouldn’t say the hut was a sight for sore eyes, as we’d thoroughly enjoyed the scenery the whole way, but it was certainly most welcome for sore legs and feet. I’d developed some blisters; nothing that a generous supply of band aids couldn’t take care of, and Zane had aching legs, probably from the bike ride at the start as he was much less accustomed to mountain biking than I was.

Lees Creek Hut

Lees Creek Hut
Lees Creek Hut
View east to the Raglan Range
© Christopher Cookson  License this image

The hut was small, but comfortable, with four bunks, a brand new wood stove, and a surprisingly good supply of pots and pans. There was also a brand new woodshed beside the hut, although it wasn’t particularly well stocked with firewood, so I set about gathering some more wood supplies. The woodshed was actually almost big enough that with a sleeping mat, someone could have slept in it if the hut was full, although it would have been very well ventilated accommodation.

I fetched a billy of water from the creek, which here was a charming little stream flowing gently in a shingle bed between grassy banks with no hint of the noisy, angry torrent it would become not far down stream.

It was only mid afternoon, however after making a coffee, we were happy to just chill out and take in the landscape around us. We noticed a waterfall cascading down a mountainside to the north of us, and on a scree slope west of the hut across the creek, we could see what looked like very clear animal trails.

The valley was already falling into shadow, so we decided it was time to make a fire to warm the hut and cook dinner. There was some amusement when we discovered that we’d each packed a nearly identical selection of meal choices and had the same food on the menu for dinner.

As twilight came, I hung up a solar charged lantern I’d brought on a hook on a rafter to give us more light than a candle would afford. I’d tossed up whether to bring it as it was lightweight but bulky, however it turned out to be worth the effort, as it gave us hours of light, and if by chance we’d had to stay longer at the hut, I could have simply put it outside during the day to recharge.

A Starry Night

A night under the stars
A night under the stars
Lights from a high altitude jet disrupt an otherwise pristine night sky.
© Christopher Cookson  License this image

As darkness fell, the Southern Cross and Milky Way were clear overhead on a moonless night. Zane ventured out with his torch to look around, and found a possum and a feral cat which we were none too pleased about, as this would mean disaster for the local bird life. After attempting some astrophotography to at least justify carrying my tripod and numerous lenses all this way, we both decided it was time to go to bed although it was still early by urban standards. Hut mattresses are designed to be durable more than luxurious, so tend to be quite firm. I tossed and turned quite a bit during the night, but I did sleep, and almost overheated in my sleeping bag in spite of the fact that the fire went out during the night, and the hut windows were louvres which are notorious for letting warmth escape.

The morning dawned overcast, and although we were keen to explore further up the valley, in the interests of keeping our wives happy, we decided it was probably best to begin the return journey to be home by a reasonable time. As we were preparing to leave, we spotted movement on a scree slope to the north of us, but since I hadn’t brought binoculars we couldn’t work out what it was. The hut book indicated that someone had shot a chamois here about a month ago, and a nicely taxidermied head of one had kept watch over us during the night, so clearly there was wild game about.

Homeward Bound

Morning Light
Morning Light
© Christopher Cookson  License this image

The return trip was uneventful with the sun occasionally breaking through the clouds as we walked. Knowing our route, I stopped frequently to photograph fungi, or occasionally the landscape if we were in the open when the sun broke through the clouds. We stopped for a coffee and snacks on a grassy bank beside the creek about two thirds of the way back to the start of the track. At length we made it back to our bikes and an easier ride back to the car, as the route was mostly downhill apart from a couple of sections we walked.

We’d travelled well prepared for eventualities in the bush with extra food, first aid gear, spare warm clothing and all, but when we reached the car, we quickly discovered one eventuality we had not planned for. When I turned the key in the door, I was surprised that the other doors didn’t unlock, and tried a second time, before noticing to my horror that the park light switch was in the on position. We didn’t have jumper leads, and were weren’t sure when someone would pass by, as we were fifteen kilometres from the main road.

We consulted for a bit, and then we decided that since I was reasonably fit on a bike, I’d stuff my pockets with energy bars, take my water bottle, and ride for help and leave Zane with the car. It wasn’t as though he’d starve or die of cold, and the fifteen kilometres or so to the main road was well within the distance I could ride, although if I didn’t encounter anyone I’d have to ride further to get cellphone reception. The weather was looking a bit threatening, but I had a good high visibility rain jacket, so I wasn’t particularly worried, although I hoped I wouldn’t have to ride to St. Arnaud, as I knew there was quite a steep uphill section of the road I’d need to climb to Tophouse.

I set off and was making good time along the road when I saw a van, and managed to wave it down. It turned out it was a bunch of Air Force lads, smelling like a perfumery, off to Dip Flat. It turned out that just because they were military didn’t mean that they carried jumper leads, although I suspect from some of their cheerful banter, if it had been alcohol I’d needed to get the car going, they probably could have obliged. After a brief discussion, they told me to jump in anyway, and they’d try to figure something out. I parked my bike behind a bush on the roadside, considerably relieved, and we set off back to the car. Shortly before we reached the car, we passed a farm ute, and we waved it down in case it had jumper leads. It turned out they didn’t, but another farm vehicle coming along behind did, and they’d been asked to help jump start our car. The Air Force guys dropped me off at the car, and a few minutes later a Rainbow Station ute towing a trailer with a four wheel drive in pretty bad shape, pulled up along side us and in no time the car was running.

Our adventure was finally over, and apart from a brief stop to pick up my bike, it was time to head home to our families, and a good hot shower.

Although the route had turned out to require a little more effort than we’d anticipated, and we’d had an unexpected twist to our adventure at the end with the car, it seemed as though we’d condensed much of the scenery of cinematic epics like the Lord of the Rings trilogy into one tramp, which wasn’t bad, even if it required a bit more effort than chilling out on the sofa in front of the TV. Both of us knew we’d be back to shoot things; Zane with a hunting permit, and me with a substantial assortment of camera equipment.

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Cookson, C. (2021). Lees Creek Track - An Adventure in Marlborough's own 'Middle Earth'. Retrieved June, 19, 2021, from https://www.marlboroughonline.co.nz/marlborough/information/commentary/lees-creek-track/

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