Site menu:


Site search

Red Hill, Big Bay, Kaipo River, Harrison River – Pembroke Wilderness Area

13 day traverse from Jacksons Bay, South Westland, to Milford Sound via Cascade River, Red Hills, Big Bay, Kaipo River, Harrison River. Accompanied by super tramping partner Guy Nicholls.

Day 1
Hitchhiked to Arawhata Bridge and walked 4 1/2 hours along the Jackson River road, with a side trip to a lake. Martyr Homestead and the lower cascade flats spread below as dusk and then rain fell. Camp at Big Bend.

Day 2
Walked upriver on the true right in steady rain. A swift and powerful knee deep crossing of Woodhen creek and several more hours of easy travel (except a high sidle of the lower gorge on compass bearing) took us to a dry spot beneath an old hunters camp of blue tarp. Tuis harassed a long tailed cuckoo while we nursed chafe caused by damp shorts. Often a tramping trauma, chafe is cured by liberal application of chap stick, vitamin E cream or as a last resort, butter. 8 hours walk.

Day 3
Heavy rain fell all night, causing McKay creek to flood. We found a good crossing spot but had to wait until 6pm to ford. The rain stopped and the Cascade dropped 30cm each hour. An evening stroll over rabbit cropped turf and chat with freshly helicoptered in hunters took us to campsite in open clearing.


Day 4
Dawned rain washed clear blue. After crossing swift Falls Creek we dried out in the sun at the start of Cascade gorge, preparing for the ordeal ahead. 3 1/2 hours of bum sliding, falling down holes and clambering through nasty boulders saw us emerge at mighty Durwards Falls for late lunch and an hour lazing in the sun to recover.


The Gorge is rough going. Guy describes this kind of tramping as “like getting beaten up. Or the feeling after a rugby match. Or boxing.” Twisted knees, cut hands and aches and pains appear as we stumble and stagger in thick, steep bush, unable to see where to put feet.


Scrambling around the top of the falls, we found a thigh deep but safe crossing spot on the Cascade, then headed for the closet ramp to the red tops. Yellow silver pine and rata forest clad the slopes of red mountain, while silver beech covered the more fertile Olivine side. Wanting to reach the prime Red Hill campsite, we walked into the late evening. Two large tarns filled the barren red boulder basin. Scrub abruptly ended and massive, gritty red boulders allowed fun travel. Guy botanised the interesting Red Hill plants, including gnarled pittosporum and miniature dracophyllum.


Day 5
Superb views on a cloudless day. We ambled off to climb Red Mountain, heading up the southern scree ramp and returning down the north-west ramp. Huge red, brown, gold, grey and yellow boulders provide great grip for boulder leaping, while green and white asbestos shards are collected. Olivine range loomed glacier scraped, Darrens in the distance, Gorge River winds through bush, Big Bay’s surf glowed below.




Day 6
Descent from Red Hills camp took us along the ridge heading to Pyke bend. Open clearings and bush took us to a lunch spot overlooking Big Bay. 3 hours descent via an interesting bog with weeping matipo, raukawa, mountain toatoa and some new olearias took us to flats and deer hammered bush. A fast stroll through lowland kahikatea, beech and rimu forest full of pigeons and deer along the road bulldozed in the 70’s. 10 hours walk.



Day 7
Lounge in Big Bay hut doing washing. I daydream of making a movie about Inanga as whitebait stands and huts lie ready for the season. After gathering mussels we cook an enormous feast.


Day 8
Gravel and sand is blinding white for the coastal trip to Martins Bay. We spot Rebekah and continue past scores of fur seals and kiekie lined track, to enjoy another big mussel feed. Martins Bay is a lovely sand fly infested spot where the Hollyford river meets sea. I wish for a fishing rod!


Day 9
Now a party of 3, we hitchhike across the Hollyford with a boatload of trampers. Gum trees mark the old homestead, while a shack has a dead possum in the water tank. Pingao glows orange then more boulders and rocky points for the wander to Kaipo Bay.On the beach stands a Fiordland Crested penguin. A decrepit hunters hut lies hidden near the mouth, while the river itself meets sea at the far end of the bay.


Ominous grey lenticular clouds herald a nor wester as we walk up Kaipo river. Easy travel on the banks or riverbed, then huge open slips remain uncolonized by forest. Upper Kaipo hut (Mid Kaipo hut is a hunters tin shack with good camping) is a classic hunters hut. Only 3 tramping parties have visited in the last 4 years, of which we were one ad one other flew in! Happily for us airborne hunters left behind a good feed of potatoes, fried on open fire. Just in time we finish the third batch as rain falls at last.


Day 10
Rain eases as we laze around the hut, for a 12 o’clock departure! The Kaipo headwaters see us climbing on deer trails then an enjoyable climb directly up the mossy creekbed to sharp saddle overlooking Lake Unknown on John O’Groats river. Moirs Guide times prove to be grossly overestimated as we sidle the tops and hit another distinct, sharp saddle. One hour descent and we camp in the hanging valley.

kaipo-creek.jpg kaipo-creek-1.jpg

Day 11 Christmas Day
A sidle across a bush tongue leads us to the scree slope which heads up to the Harrison saddle. A classic tramping mistake sees us sheltering in the lee of a boulder on the saddle in deteriorating weather, but not putting on all our wet weather gear. The result – a frozen cold sidle past Lake Puketahi in sleet, driving rain, snow and strong wind gusts. We head for the bush tongue that, according to Moirs guide, “is the only way down”, and in the shelter of bush admire the scores of waterfalls cascading down the vertical cliffs surrounding us. Crossing the Harrison at the big waterfall we name Timotei falls, we find a mossy camp. My optimistic exclamations that the front will pass and tomorrow will be blue are met with skepticism.

Day 12
Blue skies! Hopping with excitement I race off to re-climb the bush tongue (after an hour pushing uphill through thick scrub!) and lunch beside Lake Puketahi. Incredibly, the weather has come good. The only clouds swirl on the western side of Te Hau and Mount Pembroke. We climb the ridge to the north of Lake Puketahi and clamber over grey boulders to the summit ridge. Mist swirls to the west and we only glimpse Yates Point and John O’Groats river. But in all other directions massive peaks soar. Mount Grave stands alone, Troglodyte pokes out of the Ngaopunatorou snow plateau where tourist helicopters buzz and land. Tutoko and Mount Pembroke appear as the mist surrounding their peaks evaporates. A long climb takes us to Te Hau summit for superb views over Milford sound and Harrison river. Bearings help us spot Mitre peak, Sheerdown peak, Llawrenny Peaks, and a host of others in this most spectacular spot.


Lush alpine herb fields provide habitat for Rock Wrens. Guy first heard their cork-on-glass squeaks, and I spot one bobbing on a rock in the evening sun. Buttercup, Daisies, Anisotome, Aciphylla, cushion plants and a host of others are in full flower. We are briefly lost on descent as mist swoops. Following the ridge south of Puketahi as far as we can, we are forced to down climb steeply and wade through the lake back to our high camp.


Day 13
Dark clouds moved in from the southwest overnight. In a stroke of luck we manage breakfast in bed before heavy rain falls. A big puddle quickly formed beneath our groundsheet and hurried our packing. Lucky that rain didn’t fall in the night! Third time down the bush tongue, but 3 hours of rain meant the Harrison river was booming. We decided not to cross despite Moir’s advice, and stayed on the true right.


Waterfalls crashed down from mountain walls and side creeks were up. Unnamed side creek flood forced us on a 2 hour detour, upstream through the most horrible, dense fuchsia thicket imaginable. Harrison Gorge was navigated close to the roaring river, the waterfall almost a rapid in an impressive thunder of flood. Which, in fact, was not a flood at all but an everyday occurrence! Pembroke creek stopped us.

Day 14
Rain stopped and another blue sky day allowed us to cross Pembroke creek easily and carry on to dry out at the massive rock overhang. Boulder hopping downstream we quickly reached Harrison cove, complete with tour boats roaring past with flashing cameras. After washing in green pools we put on our town clothes and wave to the Underwater Observatory people who kindly collect us. Before we know it we are ogling the monstrous tourist catamaran and hordes of tourists shepherded by counter-clicking workers, for a scenic trip back to Milford and hitchhike to Invercargill.


One of the best tramping trips I have ever done. Magnificent scenery, great company, good weather, several challenging spots. For the first time I was warm and dry in pouring rain, thanks to my new raincoat and home-made hit-tech clothes!


Comment from vivien eyers
Time: February 3, 2011, 2:49 pm

Hi Tristan – we are looking at doing the trip from Martins bay up the Kaipo and down the Harrison in a few weeks. Looks a great trip.

A couple of questions;

Did you pre arrange the lift back to Milford from Harrison cove? sounds as if you didn’t need to – ringing around i seem to just get shunted from one tour operator to another in circles and a pre arranged pickup is not really practical for a trip of that length
Can you walk around the beach at Harrison Cove to the jetty/wharf or is it totally impassable? – or do you just need to wave out?!



Comment from Marcus Sinclair
Time: April 23, 2011, 1:17 am

Sounds a fantastic trip would you recommend going up Harrison River to get good views of Mt Tutoko?
Seeing the Rock Wrens in such an unspoilt place must have been great.

Comment from Mike
Time: May 27, 2011, 2:54 pm

hi, nice trip. was this on any track or all self navigated? Do you have a map of your route? I was looking at doing the hollyford track then continuing to Jackson Bay. I’m trying to find information. Not sure if it’s possible with a few rivers in the way.

Comment from Matteo
Time: November 23, 2011, 4:24 pm

I’m in New Zealand for a few months. I’ve just bought Moir’s Guide a few days ago and I’m planning to walk the Holyford track and continue with what you describe here since days 9.
So I’m happy to find in the Internet someone else how did it.
Thank you for sharing your experience 🙂

Write a comment