Kirwans' Loop Track: A Sick Adventure
My girlfriend and I recently purchased annual hut passes, and were keen to use them as much as possible in our remaining nine months in New Zealand. Our criteria for picking a hut boiled down to one main thing; does it have a fireplace? We don’t mind hiking in rainy weather, and since we we're on the west coast of the South Island in March, we didn’t have much of a choice. As long as we can hang our soaking socks and warm our feet again by a fire, we are happy.
The choices that fit our rigorous filters are slim around Greymouth, so we settled on Kirwans Hut outside of Reefton. We discovered it was a not only a loop track, but also had lots of leftover historic gold mining artifacts littered around the trail. These were added bonuses to the aforementioned fireplace. The loop itself was rumored to be popular, although that directly contradicted our experience since we saw a total of 2 people in our 3 days out there. That may have had something to do with the fact that we arrived at Kirwans Hut on a Thursday, or perhaps with the weather living up to its wet west coast reputation, or maybe even due to the DOC warning about windfall on the trail. We view the rain as a good way to cool the body down as it warms up whilst ascending a mountain, another added bonus, since this tramp is non-stop ascension. Who would want to do THAT in the rain?
Kirwans Hut is 14 km from the carpark and DOC allows six hours. After crossing a cow paddock (this is New Zealand of course) the track keeps on a relentlessly steady uphill until you reach the hut. This monotony is broken up only by an exciting tunnel blasted through the rock by old miners, as well as the occasional windfall that must be climbed over, or under, or gone around as the old nursery rhyme suggests.
The forest seems happiest when it is wettest, and I was thankful for the precipitation. The mosses seemed so lush and inviting, and sprang back into place after being touched. The birds were actively flitting about, particularly the friendly robins which appear just around every bend checking on our slow progress. And the mushrooms were so bulbous, sprouting up everywhere like housing developments in Los Angeles. The numerous wasps seemed slowed by the cooler temperatures, and thankfully didn’t bother us at all. The trees in the mist also made it feel like we were walking through some mysterious fairy tale land, a feeling heightened by the lack of people.
We arrived at the hut an hour and a half ahead of schedule. Our favourite thing to do once we’ve taken off our boots and hung our wet clothes is to crack open the Hut Book to see what other people’s hikes have been like. The comments all rang of the same general theme; “Amazing view!” “Unbelievable sights out the window” and “I literally cried tears of happiness when I saw the view." We glanced longingly out the humongous bay windows, only to find our pale reflections bouncing off the cloud nestled comfortably around us. “It’ll clear up” we feebly reassured ourselves. “If not tonight, then at least tomorrow…”
We busied ourselves by making a fire, stealing periodic glances at the window hoping for even a meagre glimpse of blue. The use of coal was still foreign to us, although we had mastered it once before. Coal is still quite prominent on the west coast, with mining operations only being shut down in the past year. We eventually succeeded in making a roaring fire, unsurely adding one small piece of coal at a time. As we moved the mattresses closer to the furnace and cuddled up under our sleeping bags, I could feel the harsh effect of the rain on my wellbeing. My sinuses were plugging up and I had a slight burning sensation in the back of my throat. A cold was coming on. My partner kindly fixed me up some instant soup and a piping cup of NeoCitran, and we settled in for an early night sleep in hopes that I could stop the sickness before it stopped me.
The next morning, the room lightened slowly as the sun rose. As black faded to deep gray, to a lighter gray, and finally to white, our hopes of a view that would bring us to tears turned into tears from the lack of view. The comfortable cloud was still firmly wrapped around our little hut, keeping the promise of any breath taking landscapes away from us. And if that wasn’t disappointing enough, my sinuses burned with the freshness of a bacterium that firmly made its new home in my face. Things were peachy.
We had a choice to make: Stay at Kirwans Hut for another night and then retrace the same 14km hike the next day, or complete the loop by walking downhill through the Waitahu Valley to Montgomerie Hut 4 hours and 10km away, and connect a short 7km walk back to the carpark the day after. We chose the latter because I hate feeling like I’ve missed out on something, especially if I know I’ll never be back there again. Besides, 10 km sounded a lot nicer than 14km, so we slowly packed our things and tidied the hut. It was already eleven o'clock which we consider quite late to be leaving, and the clouds showed no signs up letting up so we figured we weren’t missing anything. Als,o we hadn't seen the gold miners camp yet so we had to move forward.
If anyone ever does invent a time machine, then THIS was the moment I would go back to. Everything felt like it started to go wrong after this point, and it all could have been fine if we had stayed put and enjoyed a rest day.
A downhill walk is welcome when you are feeling fit and healthy, but with my newfound sickness, I constantly felt like I was on the verge of losing my balance and rolling down the steep hillsides, and this side of the loop was STEEP. Every 30 minutes or so, I needed to stop to regain my energy and keep the blackspots that started appearing in my vision at bay. Every bit of windfall across the trail felt like the Great Wall of China and needed to be carefully maneuvered around. Even still, on more than one occasion, I came up too quick from ducking below a log and nearly bit off the tip of my tongue when I smashed my head on it. There should be billboards on trails, like the ones along highways, “Fatigued Hiking Kills”. Oh and did I mention that as we reached the bottom of the hill, the clouds started to clear on the peaks? Yeah, the view must have been great from Kirwans Hut. Just freakin’ great.
At 4 ½ hours, the hut was finally in sight. Only a half an hour longer than DOC suggested which shows how lenient those times can be. Two mountain bikers had taken the 4x4 road and were the first people we had seen our whole trip. I was in no shape to communicate with anyone, so I flopped exhaustedly onto my mattress and passed out for a while. I awoke covered in sandflies and sleepily took in my new surroundings. Even though Montgomerie Hut is considered Standard, it looks a lot like a basic bivvy (and had been one until recently).
There are 6 small bunks in the hut and the top bunks are only half a meter above the bottom bunk, so I had to be extra careful not to sit up too fast and hit my already throbbing head. Every surface was (and probably still is) covered in mouse droppings, and it has a door with plenty of space underneath for sandflies and mice to come and go as they please. There is no sink, and if you need water you can walk 2 minutes down an incredibly steep and slippery slope to the rivers’ edge. Just make sure your water is boiled!
Every joint in my body ached as I got up to use the WC. Luckily I was movin slowly, because if I had been too quick I may have not noticed the hordes of wasps pouring out from the bottom of the dunny. I hardly reached for the handle before the buzzing reached my ears, and I slowly backed off to leave them their throne. Why a colony of wasps needs a toilet, I can only guess. Maybe it has to do with the fact that they crap on everything that’s good? Metaphorically speaking of course. Everyone else in the hut had already discovered our waspy neighbors and neglected to tell me before I ventured forth. Thanks team.
We made friends with our 2 Kiwi roommates who had come out from Christchurch to do some mountain biking. They would have gone the same way as us to Kirwans Hut, but they had heard that all of the windfall made it heinously tedious and unenjoyable. It was a good call on their part. The effort of joining in a conversation was exhausting for me, so I settled into bed and tried to will away the sickness. I was looking forward to another hot cup of NeoCitran that night to end such a long gruelling day on my body.
I boiled up some hot water, and made myself cozy in my sleeping bag with the hot drink in my hand. It was finally dark and everyone was getting comfortable in their beds. Megan tried to scootch closer to me for a reassuring cuddle, but in her haste accidentally knocked the piping hot cup from my hands. As the lid came off and the liquid fire spread across my groin, all reason left my brain entirely. Megan had to fill me in on the finer details of what happened next, because nothing but pain and instinct informed my actions. I screamed uncomprehendingly, ripped off everything below the belt in the doorway, and bolted bare-foot and bare-butt down to the rushing river below. I threw myself pelvis first into the cooling waters, and a soothing calmness came over me. I swear I could see steam issuing from my nether regions.
As sense slowly returned to me, I realized I had gotten myself into a fine position. In my haste, I hadn’t bothered to bring a towel, or dry clothes, or even shoes with me. Luckily, a bobbing flashlight indicated Megan was coming to my rescue at that moment. I must have looked quite strange sitting naked in that river with a dumbstruck smile on my face. I couldn’t believe how close that day had come to being over, and it wasn’t quite done with me yet. I dried off and tenderly put on fresh clothes, being extra careful to keep it loose around my caboose. I was nervous about going back into the room though. Did I wake those guys? Of course I did, what a stupid question. Were they freaked out? I entered and they quietly checked that I was alright and went to sleep giggling. This probably wasn’t their usual experience in a hut either.
As bummed as I was that I didn’t have my warm drink to soothe me to sleep, I was quite happy for the impromptu swim in the river. I had been running a fever earlier and jumping in that cool water had brought me down to a comfortable temperature. Who would have guessed?
I woke up the next morning feeling loads better than I had the night before. Despite the inevitable chaffing on my burned skin, I was ready for our last couple of hours until the sweet sanctity of the carpark. Nearly the entire road back is just a 4x4 track, so it was relatively flat and easy to follow. Except when the track leads straight into the river. The bikers warned us about this part earlier so we knew we would have to cross it. What they didn’t tell us about is that we would have to cross it again just a few minutes past that point to get back to the same side we had just been on (they also didn’t tell us that they hadn’t actually followed the trail properly). After we had crossed it twice, we noticed very small orange trail markers guiding the way through the trees, and realized we never had to cross the river at all. Sweet.
We reached the trail end after only an hour or so of walking on the once again deserted route. In order to get to our car though in the Capleston Carpark, we needed to hike a short connector path. The path goes straight up the side of a mountain for about half an hour and is steeper than anything else we had come across on this tramp. Then it flattens out and follows a logging road. Not the most scenic of routes considering all of the trees are chopped down. However it does leave some good views of the surrounding country side, which we finally had a nice sunny day to experience.
We arrived back at the car with a few lessons learned. If you feel a sickness coming, best wait it out at home. And also, cold water really is the best thing for burns.
Read what DOC says about tramping this loop.