Waihopai Valley

Last Modified: 21-2-2019 2:35

On a clear winter morning in Blenheim if you turn your eyes westward from a suitable vantage point, you will see a high jagged range with rocky ridges standing clear of snow filled basins. This is the nameless range which lies between the Wairau and Waihopai Rivers. The face visible from Blenheim was part of Glazebrook Run early on in the European settlement of Marlborough.

The mountains in that part of the country are composed of for the most part pretty plain greywacke and argillite. These rocks absorb moisture which, if it freezes, expands, causing the rock to shatter. And so these mountains are littered with great screes. The early explorer Mitchell described a top in the area as. . . "stones put on a recently finished Macadamized road".

European sheepmen embarked upon an orgy of arson which destroyed most of the beech forest. Burning was the only feasible way to clear the valley of matagouri and spaniard which hindered the travel of men and sheep. Accelerated erosion induced by human activities, including the introduction of grazing animals, has formed large gullies and fans while the river flats and many of the gorges have filled with shingle.

Present day vegetation is in the valley bottoms and lower sides mainly a sparse pasture of grasses such as browntop in a generally ubiquitous cover of Hieracium.This introduced herb forms vast mats which limit or even preclude the growth of pasture plants. In its favour is its excellent ability to protect land from erosion. In the valley bottoms large matagouri provide shelter for stock in winter. A few Marlborough pink brooms ( Notospartium carmichaeliae ) survive on stream banks.

In Boundary Stream there is healthy regeneration of red beech ( Nothofagus fusca ). Elsewhere mountain beech ( Nothofagus solandri var. cliffortioides ) is the dominant tree. A few trees cling tenaciously to rocks at 1700m where they have escaped the fire. This is as high as trees grow in New Zealand. Common smaller trees are broadleaf (Griselinia littoralis ), lancewood (Pseudopanax crassifolium ) and yellowwood (Coprosma linarifolia.). With the control of goats totara is regenerating well in the Gosling Stream and nearby catchments.

Where there has been fire or destruction of vegetation by floods kanuka and manuka dominate. Above the kanuka zone the succession after fire includes the tussocks Festuca matthewsii and danthonia (Rytidosperma setifolium ), mountain daisy (Celmisia ), and tauhinu (Cassinia ).

Snowgrass (Chionochloa ) reaches up to the bare rock. Among the tussocks, up to a metre tall, are turpentine scrub (Dracophyllum ) and the swordlike leaves of Spaniard (Aciphylla) which cause one to move carefully. The rocks and screes have their own specialized plants such as vegetable sheep and penwiper (Notothlaspi rosulatum). The latter is common on Acheron Saddle.

Acheron Saddle was used for a long time as a route for driving sheep from Marlborough to Canterbury. Easier routes in the Awatere and Wairau were preferred, though it continued to be used from time to time as a stock route well into the 20th century. For instance in 1927 7000 sheep were taken over the saddle to St James Station near Hanmer. In the early 1950s sheep were still being driven over the saddle on their way to the Culverden sale. In the 1970s Tom Willis of Blenheim found an old campsite on the track to Acheron Saddle but another search in 1994 was fruitless, scrub having covered the place.

Here and there along the route one comes across gooseberry bushes. In the upper Wairau berry bushes are known to have been established by a traveller for the sustenance of himself and others. The idea seems to have caught on and been applied in the Waihopai. The gooseberries actually proved their worth on a recent trip of mine to Glazebrook when, cut off by for several days by flooded streams, we were running short of food.

The actual saddle was not used because it is very steep on the north side. The animals were taken up Canterbury Spur and over. This route was pioneered in 1851 by Captain William Mitchell, a soldier on sick leave from India, and Edwin Dashwood, a local sheepfarmer, in the company of Harris, an old whaler. They also took a horse and a mule to carry their supplies. By the time they had reached Port Cooper (Lyttelton) they had endured many hardships, not least struggles with matagouri and Spaniard. This was the first overland journey by Europeans from Marlborough to Canterbury.

Canterbury Spur still has its travellers. Kevin Ryan of the neighbouring Leatham run, used it a few years ago when travelling to a farmers' meeting in the Awatere. The trip involved two high passes. Returning after his meeting Kevin got foxed by fog and ended up on the tops above Canterbury Spur. This is what comes of taking a short cut through your neighbour's backyard. Needless to say, he made it back home to tell the tale. A far cry from the travel arrangements of the suited and tied brigade at a city business meeting!

As the range on the true left of the Waihopai has very steep faces with loose rock, and some of the streams are blocked by waterfalls, you have to choose your route carefully when planning a climb. There is good access up Gosling Stream to a hut owned by the Marlborough Tramping Club and thence to Bounds (2044m). The main ridge of the range is a real rock scramble in many places, becoming quite a challenge when sheathed in winter ice. Even lowly Mt Philips (1542m) behind Stronvar homestead has an interesting route via a staircase of huge rock towers.

In contrast the true right range has very straightforward spurs and ridges. The highest of these mountains is Blue Mountain (2051m)

The only easy passes are Acheron Saddle (1566m) via Canterbury Spur (1674m), which leads to the treeless Acheron Valley and the Molesworth country; and Waihopai Saddle (1750m) which leads to the forested valley of the Leatham River.

The pick of the side valleys is Waterfall Stream which has delightful beech copses and a generous cover of alpine plants. There is an impressive moraine with erratic blocks up to house size left by the ice. A steep scramble to the head of the true right fork leads to a couple of tarns in the cirque. A December trip brought home to me the fragility of our present interglacial phase. Unusually heavy snow had left a tarn with large ice floes. Continuing our climb on to the col above the tarns we could look into the grassy hanging valley of Cow Stream which has a couple of tarns of its own.

There are DOC huts opposite Boundary Stream and Blue Mountain Stream. Although most land above 1000m and some bushy gullies are under DOC's control, access is through private land.

Permission to enter the Waihopai Valley past the road end is obtained from:

Donald Stuart Glazebrook +64 3 572 4808

Geoff Evans Stronvar +64 3 572 4809

For range crossings you may need to contact:

Kevin Ryan The Leatham, R.D. 1, Blenheim +64 3 572 2533

S.W. Satterthwaite Muller, Private Bag, Blenheim. +64 3 575 7044

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Waihopai Valley. (2019) Retrieved May, 27, 2022, from