Gillespie Pass

I took a hike a couple weekends ago to Gillespie Pass. Though I mentioned the trip already, the epic scenery and ideal weather of the trip really merits its own trip report.

Gillespie Pass is at the top end of Lake Wanaka, a good six hour drive southwest from Christchurch (see red arrow). It’s a three day hike which we made into a four day-er by spending a day on a side trip to Lake Crucible, putting the tramp solidly outside the realm of a simple weekend trip.

We had originally planned this one for February 2020, when my sister Susanna was visiting. But foul weather to the south dictated that we change our destination last year, leaving Gillespie still on our to-explore list. Our original group had been winnowed down by a broken ankle and a pregnancy, so it was just Carrie and me on this adventure.

Most people do the hike from the Young valley over Gillespie and out the Wilkin, but we did it the opposite way (map days go red, orange, yellow, green).
We took a jet boat to start, replacing 4-6 hours of river valley trudging with a 45 minute whiz up the Wilkin River, and essentially allowing time in that same day to drive to the trail head. We had stayed the previous night in Tekapo, so made it to our 1:00 p.m. jet boat with ease.

Yes, we totally felt like softies stepping out onto that river bank after taking the jet boat with a crowd of seniors…but, hey, NZ domestic tourism needs our support after all. Only doing our part. Thanks Wilkin River Jets!

We continued to feel like softies strolling up this well-groomed and graded trail. There’s nothing like a west coast “trail” to make you appreciate a popular DOC track, and our last hike to Lake Morgan had been one of those. We fairly skipped along, admiring the gutters dug on the side of the path to deal with the frequent downpours, and singing “We love trails!” Carrie’s husband feels tracks are boring, compared to the raw wilderness experience of bush bashing and route finding, but…..we simply don’t agree.
Siberia Hut is very popular and requires bookings, but you can see why. Only two hours after our jet boat dropped us off we meandered into this alpine meadow with the hut deck and windows perfectly situated to take in the magnificent setting.
Not too shabby an outlook! Seems we hardly deserve it after only 2 hours of walking.
My tramping buddy has a greater affinity for cleanliness (and maybe less aversion to cold water) than I do, but I caved to peer pressure and washed in the river. The afternoon was warm and as we dried in the sun on the hut deck, we could see plumes of grass pollen being released and wafted over the meadow. Soon poor Carrie was sneezing and had to take refuge inside with an antihistamine.

By then it was only about 4:30, and it was still a warm basking sort of afternoon, too hot even for sandflies to be very pesky. I decided to sit in the long grass and see if I could discover which type was pollenating so copiously. It’s amazing what you see if you sit still. Besides discovering that it was the purple foamy grass that was shedding pollen and reacquainting myself with grass flower morphology, there was a lot of other business to admire. There was an assassin bug hugging its sandfly prey, various solitary and bumble bees hectically visiting the yellow asters, and lots of orange and black butterflies with green fuzzy thoraxes and spiral tongues chasing each other in loops. I tugged at the grass leaves and examined where they grip to the stem–the structure of that sheath and the hairs on the leaf base would tell me which species I was holding, if I could have remembered the grass key. The light purple harebells had white downy stigmas, and they didn’t seem to mind their resident thrips. Down near the river miniscule coprosma plants were heavy with orange berries, and their neighbour plants held their bare black seeds cupped in a white fleshy receptacle. Turn over a river rock and creepy crawlies scuttered away, gills quivering (maybe mayfly larvae?). The undersides of the rocks shelter perfect pebble pupa cases too, glued on strongly to make safe homes for…? Occasionally I heard a kea, but never caught glimpse of it. The cicadas were loud, and I brought an empty moult in to Carrie to show her the thread-like trachea linings, and tell her about the rest of the gorgeous miniscule world. “You’re frothing!” she commented. Yep, I was. I spent an hour and a half exploring the petite, and next time I’ll carry my 10x lens.

The next day we shouldered just a light daypack and walked down the valley and across the river to the steep trail leading up into the forest and out to Lake Crucible. There are many wonderful things about the woods, and the feature we’re enjoying here is the lack of sandflies for morning tea break.
We came out of the beech forest into an alpine meadow with blooming mountain lacebark. I don’t remember seeing these before, but unless they were blooming one might not take note of them. They’re showy in blossom! Lake Crucible is up behind the scree wall at the bottom of the cirque (bowl shaped cliffs at the head of the valley).
Carrie, always keen, dove in for a breath-snatching swim. Perfect timing–soon after she climbed out the wind came up and made it decidedly less inviting. Just afterwards a passel of 5 cheerful young kiwi girls arrived for their dip. “Tata’s out, girls?” The answer was yes, “tatas” were released but undies kept on, and they dove shrieking in. They had carried up a plunger coffee carafe and a burner, but had forgotten the coffee, disappointingly.
We found a bewitchingly still spot on the ridge and settled down for lunch and a bask in the sun. We must have lingered for more than an hour before walking back down to Siberia Hut for our second night there.
The hut was busy that night, and the table was like a meeting of the European Union. Italy, Spain, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, France….I’m sure I’m forgetting someone. They had been in NZ when Covid19 shut the border last year, and were still here. They asked if I had ever been to Europe. “No….well, only England…and that’s not really part of European Union anymore” I admitted. “Bah, England,” they grinned. They clearly didn’t mind that the UK has divorced herself from the rest of Europe.
Next morning we set off up the valley once again, this time peeling off on the Gillespie Pass track.
We again enjoyed a very well formed track, and soon gained a view of the valley below us. The grassy bit there by the stream would be very nice for tenting, and seemed to boast fewer sandflies than the river valley below.
The low point of the pass itself is a bit lower than the track, which sidles along the right, above the cliffy bits. At the top we stopped for lunch and saw an older fit couple labouring up the last bit of their climb from the other side. Their packs were big as they were at the beginning of a 10 day journey. “I wonder what they’ve got in their packs for food for 10 days,” I pondered, as I enjoyed my own heavy hard boiled eggs. “I’m going to be nosy and find out!” That started an enjoyable conversation, and I realized that another silver lining of the job hunt is my growing ease with starting inquisitive conversations with strangers.
Here we are looking back up at the head of the Young River. You’d wonder how in the world the track would reach up there! It goes up a steep tussock and rock spur that’s out of view around the corner to the left. The bridge seems overkill on a nice day, but Carrie recounted the tragic fate of one tramper who tried to beat the weather front over the pass and got swept off the trail by a swollen side stream crossing, eventually drowning in this river. Her clothes were later found inside out and her pack straps still clipped….the river had pulled them off. The force of a river in flood is sobering.
We spent the night at Young Hut, and left by torchlight the following morning as the walk down the valley to Makarora was 5-6 hours. Some people get tired of looking at trees, but I find it quite restful and I enjoyed this bit of the hike.
And again, the trail was impeccable. Look at this fantastic bridge!
I have a somewhat ridiculous affinity to dry boots, so even though the last river crossing (Makarora, unbridged) was only a few kilometers before the hike end, I opted to wear my hut shoes and carry the boots. They may seem prissy, but they’re a great little pair of Crocs, and hefting the leather boots over my shoulder made me realize how heavy they are, even dry! Long distance hikers often go for light weight running shoes….I might have to try that next time, provided the weather is warm.
We had about 2.5 kilometers along the road to get back to Makarora village, but just when we were really getting tired of it, a kind farmer gave us a lift on his hay cart.
The cafe at Makarora does a nice coffee on their scenic veranda, just the pick-me-up we needed before driving back to Christchurch.

2 thoughts on “Gillespie Pass

  1. Uhm… I thought I wrote a comment, but it’s not here? :/ (Was it too long to get published? Is it needing to be moderated? Hmm. I might try again.)



    Okay, that’s probably a bit too much excitement, but… AAAAAAAA!!! You’ve done it! 😀 Your photos and words brought such lovely memories back to me. I loved that track so much, especially the side-trip to Lake Crucible. And I am totally a supporter of Wilkin-to-Young travelling direction, too.

    Have you come across stories of Ally Willen – the girl who died in Young river a couple of years back? They really resonated with me. One thing is the incident analysis in Federated Mountain Clubs bulletin that appeared shortly after, I read it at a time when I was still analysing how we ourselves got swept down a river when heading to Gillespie, so I was intrigued by other people’s stories. That then lead me to a foundation her family started after Ally died, “Live Like Ally Foundation”

    There are a whole number of stories her family have written on the foundation’s blog, but some that stood out more: Ally wrote down this quote in her travel journal, “I have to be young and stupid before I become old and wise.”

    Also, she was writing letters back-and-forth with a man who was serving a life sentence at a Texas prison. The way her sister described it, Ally “believed that every living thing was good and worthy of unconditional love. ”

    Thank you for reminding me of all that. And I’m so glad you’ve been to Crucible lake, too! I was there in early January, when ice floes were still floating around. I stripped down – undies and all – and jumped in for a quick swim, pushed one of the floats out of my way a bit when climbing back out :). Such a neat place.

    • That story of Ally was in my mind the whole way down the valley from Gillespie to the Young hut as I looked down into the apparently tame Young creek (you’d hardly call it a river the day we were there). Weather is not to be trifled with.

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