Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Rob Roy Glacier- Mt Aspiring National Park

This one's a catch-up but not a catch-up from way back (I'm still working through those), this one is from our time staying at Glendhu Bay, Lake Wanaka in early April. I've had the photos ready to go but have only just found the time to write the script.

There was one more walk we wanted to complete before we left Wanaka-well there were two, but I decided after seeing dozens of cars parked in the Roy's Peak carpark, and along both sides of the road everytime we passed the trail head, that we'd give that one a miss. We could do without a picket line of people plodding up and down a steep track (famous last words), which climbs to over 1500 metres and takes 6-7hrs to complete. This, and the fact that the very steep 16km(return) zig-zag track has no cover and needs to be walked on a clear day to make the most of the views. And of course with a clear day comes the hot and draining sun. Roy's Peak can wait for another time....maybe (I think I just talked myself out of it altogether!).

The walk we did want to do was the Rob Roy Valley Track to view Rob Roy Glacier in the Mt Aspiring National Park. The track starts at the Raspberry Creek Carpark which is 54km from Wanaka town (44kms from Glendhu Bay) with the last 30kms being gravel. 

The last time we were in Wanaka we started up the gravel section but turned around after a few kilometers as it was very corrugated with a lot of muddy pot-holes. It was also early winter with snow on the surrounding mountains, this time it was late summer so we were hoping for a better go at it. As we've found on other gravel roads the first kilometre or so is always badly corrugated and it was the case with this one too. But once we passed through that, the road was smooth and firm and very easy to drive, as we headed up the wide Matukituki River Valley plain.

The surrounding mountains rose dramatically from the valley floor and the scenery is spectacular.

Ahead of us we catch glimpses of Mt Aspiring as the cloud lifts, separates  and settles again. We can see a couple of glaciers but are unsure if any of them are Rob Roy. We still have about 25kms to travel.

There are a number of large farm stations located up the valley and we pass over many cattlestops and a lot of cattle and sheep grazing along side the road. There are also a number of farm buildings, woolsheds and this cute newly painted hut set back off the road a way...

...with a very steep mountain as a backdrop. The tiny white dots scattered over the mountainside are sheep.

The road cuts in close to the Matukituki River on a number of occasions and then it narrows right down as we come to the first of 13 fords, 6kms from the end of the road. The sign also warns us that it's now a 'back country' road and to proceed only if the weather & road conditions allow. For the next couple of kilometres the road is narrow with the river on one side and tall dark cliffs on the other.

We pass Cameron Flat where the East Branch of the Matukituki River flows down from a distant valley. We're then following the West Branch of the river through another wide river flat passing the Wishbone Falls (very apt name) along the way. There's a short 10 min walk to the falls but we'll have to settle for a drive past. We have bigger fish to fry today.

I spot a swingbridge ahead of us. Now we do have to stop for this one. I have a growing photo album of swingbridges (in fact any bridge) and this one is a beauty. The track that leaves from here heads to the junction of the west and east branches of the river. The water is crystal clear, aqua blue and no doubt very cold as it flows straight off the nearby mountains.

As I headed back to the ute happy with my photo shoot, I spot a line of cars approaching from down the road. I hurried across the grass, dodging sloppy cow pats as I ran, beckoning David to quickly pull forward to collect me- it would be slow going following this lot through the fords. Ever the polite driver, he stayed put. They rumbled past. We'd only seen one vehicle all the way in and that was parked near the first ford, where the heck had all these come from?

We still had 4kms to travel and many fords to cross and we are now tail-end Charlie to a small convoy of mainly rental vehicles carefully making their way through the fast-flowing fords. Some of the fords were reasonably deep and a couple very bumpy, another had a huge wash out through it, with plenty of mud. 

I'm not sure I'd be happy bringing a rental in this far especially the bigger motorhomes we saw in the carpark (where you can camp in self-contained vehicles). I'd hate to be caught out in the carpark if it rained though. It looks like the water gushes down from the steep mountainside beside the road and out to the river washing mud and debris across the road and filling the fords to overflowing.

Finally we could see Raspberry Creek Carpark ahead of us and what a surprise there was as we pulled in. Three large areas already nearly full of vehicles at 11am, with toilets and shelters, information boards and people milling about. 

We took our time getting our gear together, letting the 'crowds' depart ahead of us, before we crossed the stile and headed off up a farm track alongside the river.

The track passed through a huge paddock where the cattle were accessing pasture on both sides of the river, crossing back and forward at leisure. As a fisherman, David was none too pleased with this, but high country farms are excluded from fencing their waterways, because a) water degradation is minimal, b) costs would be massive (for little benefit) and c) aesthetically, miles of fencelines would destroy out high country landscapes. 

Looking back towards Raspberry Creek Carpark                                                               
It's not long before we see a swingbridge ahead of us...

and the start of the track proper.

We cross the bridge and disappear into the bush, beginning a steady climb upwards, all the way to the bottom of a glacier hanging off the side of a mountain. It's not too long before we reach a large clearing (and a seat) with magnificent views up the Matukituki valley. Across the braided river a farm track runs along the edge, this is also the beginning of the tramping track into the heart of Mt Aspiring National Park and access to Mt Aspiring itself.

Even though our native forests are evergreen, they still shed their leaves on a regular basis, just not all at once. This Southern Beech decides to give a show of autumn colours at the right time of the year.  

The track is rather steep and narrow with plenty of rocks and tree roots along the path, and a couple of rock slides which we carefully cross taking note of the sign that says 'no stopping for 50 meters'. 

The track hugs the base of a ridge as we follow the Rob Roy Stream up through a narrow gorge towards it's source. It's a steady climb and we're not the only ones taking regular rest stops along the way. It's a relief when the track levels out occasionally, and once our target comes into view, it's easy to stop and take in the view while catching our breath.

Ahead of us we can see Rob Roy Glacier, the mountain looks very close but we know from experience, they always seem a lot closer than they actually are. The tracking app on David's phone tells us we still have a couple of kilometres to hike.

We're getting closer to the glacier and unfortunately so is the sun. It's dropping towards the ridge and straight into lens view. I make the most of it here, closing down the aperture (f/25) so I can get a sunburst. The rest of the time it's a pain in the butt and I get lens flare through many of my shots. If anyone is thinking of walking the track, it would be best to leave early in the morning when the sun is still rising and highlighting the glacier as it moves overhead. These were taken around 1:30pm in early April.

It takes us 90 minutes to reach the lower lookout, 30 minutes more than indicated; some of that can be attributed to me taking plenty of photos but much of it was taking rest breaks. And while we're both not super fit or young, I sometimes think DOC understate their track times especially for the average tramper.

By the time we reached the lower lookout, a group of young people (who overtook us at great pace, chatting ninety to the dozen) were taking up all the bench seats and filling the view. I squeezed in between them and took a quick photo and carried on. I'm sure people would be tempted (it was a fleeting thought for me too) to call it quits here, turn around and head back down. Don't. There is so much more to see from the top lookout and it's 'only' another 30 minutes and 1km further on.

We press on, still climbing steadily, and all I can think of is 'at least it's downhill on the way home'. That is until we come to another huge rock slide and there's a steep wooden staircase up one side of it and then down the other, right down nearly to water level. 'I'm not looking forward to climbing back up that later' I think. In fact I don't recall it on the way home. Down at water level the glacier doesn't look to be getting any closer and there are a few people sitting on rocks in the middle of the stream just soaking in the views.

The track finally breaks out above the bushline and we know we must be getting near. We can see the dirty blue ice of the glacier face and also that it's spread over the mountainside for quite a distance. We can also see what looks like a thin stream of water falling off sheer rock face to the side.

A little further on and the thin stream of water is in fact a waterfall with a massive long drop. I don't think you can see it here, but there are tiny dots in the bush near the base of the falls; they are people!

We finally reach the upper lookout where there are a number of information panels and lots of people. We can see a number of glacier waterfalls cascading off the walls around us and into the valley below, all making their way towards the Rob Roy Stream. One waterfall in particular is backlit for just a few minutes by the dropping sun.

Ahead of us is Rob Roy Glacier, that's the dirty coloured ice pack, to the left and right, looking like it might just slide off the mountain at any moment.

The glacier looks more  horizontal than vertical as it also reaches far off to the left across the mountain side as well.

Here's a bad panorama which will give you a rough idea of the mountain, waterfalls and glacier layout (click to enlarge).

There are dozens of people scattered about; down in the stream bed and and higher up the rock slide. We  climb higher ourselves and find a comfy rock to sit on, to take in the views and eat our lunch. It's warm and relaxing sitting in the sun which will soon disappear; we can see the shadow creeping across the rocks towards us. 

We explored around us a little bit and saw a few Rifleman/Titipounamu in the bushes nearby. It was not until I was on my way down that I saw a poison drop sign with the photo of a Rock Wren on it. There are Rock Wrens here and we missed them?! Darn a wasted opportunity.

David left ahead of me, I wanted to stay a few more minutes as the sun was just about to drop out of sight. But in the end, after seeming to speed across the sky while we were sitting there, it took an age to disappear and I couldn't wait any longer. 

I stopped to grab a couple of shots back up the valley, as I ran down the path and then put my camera in my backpack (a very rare occurrence),  so I could balance better when my feet got ahead of me during the descent. While I tried not to run, once you're underway, the momentum seems to carry you on faster and faster. The air was chilly now so it was nice to build up a bit of warmth. People were still making their way up towards the glacier.

I caught David up, he has the right idea, supporting himself with a walking pole- I find it hard to carry a pole and a camera so rarely take mine with me. I passed him and carried on down to the clearing to wait for him. It was lovely to sit in the sun once again and take in the amazing landscape and patterns forming in the soft late afternoon glow on the moraine wall across the river.

David arrived and we carried on towards the swingbridge...

...arriving exactly 1.5hrs after leaving the top lookout. DOC got the time right for the descent!

It was now 4:30pm and the sun's shadow was chasing us across the paddock towards the carpark. Shark Tooth Peak (2096m) was still bathed in sunshine.

The cattle- cows with large playful calves at foot- were scattered along the farm track and still crossing back and forward through the river. I'm sure many of the tourists walking the track would have enjoyed being so close to farm animals (there were sheep also in the paddock), although I saw a couple of groups walking very wide around the cattle on the path.

It was just after I took the shot below of a classic New Zealand scene- mountains, sheep and a river- that I stepped in a rabbit hole and stumbled forward, nearly regaining my composure before actually falling flat on my face, whacking my cheekbone on a flat rock (lucky it wasn't a wet cow pat), twisting my ankle and wrist as my other arm reached out to save my camera from hitting the deck! That winded me good and proper. 

I didn't get much sympathy from David either to begin with- he was just about to say 'not again, you clumsy galoof ' , when he saw that I was actually hurt. I hobbled back to the carpark, secretly thankful I saved my camera from sharp thump on the ground but cursing my painful wrist and cheekbone. Both took a few days to settle down and I had a number of bruises as momentoes. Fancy walking all that way on a reasonably difficult track to fall over in the soft grass, 100 metres from the carpark! As David would say 'It could only happen to me!'. 

Back at the carpark I take one last photo before carefully removing my boots and collapsing into the seat, keen to head off back home. But not before crossing back over 13 fords, 15 cattle stops (I counted them) and nearly wiping out a vehicle coming the other way! I know some people expect to complete this visit in a few hours but it's more likely a full day excursion, we left Glendhu Bay at 10am and arrived back home at 6pm.

I always feel good after completing a walk, and the Rob Roy Glacier walk was no exception, but I'd have to say it was one of our least liked walks. I think we're getting very spoiled on our travels seeing such a range of landscapes and wonderful sights. I'm sure others would think this was an amazing hike and so easily accessible to most people, but I actually enjoyed the road trip in more than the walk itself. Selfishly, I also didn't enjoy sharing the track with so many people.


  1. You may not have enjoyed sharing your excurtion (with so many people) to view the Rob Roy glacier,but I for one certainly enjoyed the photo,s you took on your hike.My one disapointment was you never managed to get a clear photo of Mt Aspiring. Mr Brown.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the blog and photos. I'll have to keep that shot of Mt Aspiring for another day. I thought we'd see it as we got closer but it disappeared our of sight long before we reached the carpark.

  2. Living the Dream!
    Life is a Verb.

  3. Just like you, we also enjoyed the road trip in much more than the walk. After we left Glendhu Bay, the sun disappeared quickly. We decided to overnight at Lake Diamond and leave the drive in for next morning. That turned out to be one of our most memorable scenic drives in South Island. In fact we saw the best of Mt Aspiring while we drove, not when we walked. We managed to get many clear shots of Mt Aspiring and the glacier in perfect early morning sun just before the thick clouds closed in and settled there the whole day. We never saw the very top part of Mt Aspiring and Rob Roy Glacier again during the 12km walk.
    Though the walk was not the best, we still enjoyed our first attempt of such a long distance walk. We took our own sweet time to 'stroll' through the beech forest and fern groves, taking in the exotic (to us) flora, marveled at the giant fungi (2 feet plus, just before the large clearing with seat), breathing in fresh pure air (that's luxury, if you know how hazy our country is), soaking in the autumn coolness...indeed I found the walk quite pleasant and poetic, in a way. Perhaps we were there with less people than you met, we came across quite many but most of the time we were walking alone. Haha maybe because we were too slow, we took 3 hours to reach the upper look out, picnicked a few times in between - Francesca's polenta fries, Kale and risotto tasted heavenly here :)

    1. Sounds like you had the perfect drive in Offstone! And even though the walk wasn't one of the better ones, nothing can compare with being out in the great outdoors enjoying the fresh air as you obviously were! You did well, you made the whole journey an adventure.


Thanks for taking the time to comment, it's much appreciated.