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Serpentine Hut

Serpentine Hut

(Serpentine Hut: Photo Andrew Buglass 2015)

Maintenance Status

Maintain-by-community. Serpentine Hut was originally designated for removal in DOC's 2003 high-country review. It was in good condition, but hardly ever visited because the access tracks hadn't been cut since the mid-1970's and had vanished back into the bush. The extremely rough nature of travel both up and downriver from the Hut was an additional deterrent. The place had considerable sentimental value for me, having first visited there in 1973, so when a maintain-by-community project with a local kayaking group fizzled out, I signed a maintenance contract with DOC. We started work on opening up parts of the old track to Serpentine in 2014, and with the help of some funding from the Outdoor Recreation Consortium and Permolat, were able to repile and paint the Hut in early 2015. The trackwork around the canyoned sections of valley from the Whitcombe Junction was completed shortly after, and the route to Frisco Hut, upvalley from Serpentine in May 2015. The lower Hokitika is now open through to the DOC maintained Toaroha-Frew Saddle loop in the upper valley for the first time in almost 40 years.

History

The Maps Past website shows tracks have existed between the roadend and Serpentine since 1899. Sections of benched track below the Hokitika-Whitcombe Junction probably date from the 1880's. Maps Past has a 1919 map showing a track going all the way to Serpentine and beyond. The tracks were put in to assist gold prospectors, and believe it or not, graziers/ drovers. There were a smattering of gold miners working and prospecting in the Hokitika above the Junction at various times from the 1860's to the 1930's. There is one prospectors mine shaft very close to the track near the junction and another just above the Kakariki Canyon. Moose were released in the lower Hokitika in the early 1900's, but failed to establish. Deer cullers reused some of the old tracks and constructed new ones.

Location

Hokitika catchment. Map BV18. Grid Ref: E1443495/ N5235934 (BV18 435 359). Altitude 300m. Serpentine is located on the TL of a large unnamed side-creek midway up the lower Hokitika valley. A series of impressive and visually stunning gorges (three are named on the topo map, but there are in fact six) lie between the Hokitka - Whitcombe junction and the Hut. Prior to the opening up of the valley Serpentine had the distinction of being the hut least visited by foot parties on the website. Gaps of 2-3 years between hutbook entries were the norm, with no recorded visits between 1987 and 1993. From then on there were odd drop-ins from kayaking parties who rarely stayed overnight, and very occasional foot visits. Serpentine featured briefly in a short film on extreme kayaking called "Flow Hunters." Since the trackwork has been completed there has been a slow stream of visits and 2017 hit an all time record of 17.

Hokitika Tracks

Special Note

The lower Hokitika is an extremely rugged, gorged valley, and several sections are actively slipping. There are four large unbridged side-creeks that are usually uncrossable after heavy rain. Entry points to the tracked sections around the canyons are marked with a combination of cairns, cruise-tape and permolat. The terrain is generally rough, even on the tracked bits, with lots of ups and downs, and there are several sections of riverbed travel. I've grubbed benches on slips in the lower Kakariki and lower Omatane Canyons, and the unnamed canyon just down from the Hut. The last two are secure but narrow and exposed. You have the option of climbing up and around the slips through the bush if you prefer. There is a steep descent down a narrow razorback to the River at the top end of the Kawau Gorge. Parts of it are roped and there are plenty of trees as handholds, but the drop-off on both sides can be vertigo or awe inspiring depending on your genetic makeup. It's a long haul up from the Rapid Creek cableway to Serpentine and high levels of fitness and experience are essential prerequisites.

Access

The Serpentine route starts at the bush edge on a gravel bar around 500m up the Hokitika River from the Rapid Creek cableway. It passes through a flat area of lowland forest rejoining the riverbed riverbed just below New Year Creek. The riverbed is followed to the mouth of the Kakariki Canyon where the second section of track starts. It climb/ sidles on rough and undulating terrain across the bush faces above the Canyon. Some old regenerating slips need to be crossed with thick kio kio in places, then some more active ones which are cairned and cruise-taped, before the trail drops back to the River. After Moose Creek the track re-enters the bush and sidles up around the beautiful slow-flowing upper Kakariki Canyon before dropping again to the River. A reasonable stretch of river travel follows, then a section of track that sidles high around the Kawau Gorge. The entire hillside is actively subsiding at the top of the sidle, after which he track drops down to the lip of the waterfall in Whitehorn Creek. It climbs from here to point 298m, levels for a bit, then drops down a very steep, narrow rib to the unnamed creek at the top entrance of the Kawau Gorge. A short sidle across some slips leads to a section of track that goes as far as Lyes Creek.

After Lyes Creek the route goes under a bluff at river level to the mouth of the lower Omatane Canyon and the next tracked section. It is sandy under the bluff, constantly changing, and occasionally requires wading. The track climbs steeply from the mouth of the canyon, sidles a bit, and drops down a fresh slip to the River. Another 500m stretch of boulderhopping follows to the upper canyon the approaches of which are actively eroding. The cairns and cruise-tape around this bit usually have a short shelf life, but lead diagonally up a large scree at the mouth of the canyon, then a side-scree on the TL that provides access back into the bush. The track climb/ sidles around the upper Canyon, then drops back to the river at Serpentine Creek. The river is followed for 500m to a steep tracked climb over a small unnamed canyon. The top of this climb has slipped away and has a narrow bench grubbed across the upper slip face. The track drops to the River down a small creek and the riverbed is followed to a last section of track leading to the Hut. Allow 7-10 hours travel from the Hokitika road end to Serpentine depending on fitness and bush savvyness. The side-creek next to the Hut is usually been the most problematic of the crossings on this route in wet weather due to its steepness and volume. It is named as Serpentine Creek on the earliest maps of the Hokitika and was probably mistakenly shifted to the next one down at some point, and has remained so on subsequent maps. The tracked sections on the Serpentine route were last checked, and flood damaged bits re-marked in December 2019.

Access down from Frisco Hut was restored in 2015. The track leaves Frisco and sidles across the bush faces for just under a kilometre onto a broad ridge with montane forest. It traverses some open marshy hollows with mossed-over tarns and well-used deer trails to point 910m. From here it drops down a broad ridge on the TL of Nogo Creek to the River. There are animal and vegetation survey plots on the ridge every 400m or so, with permolat stakes, and tagged trees. Follow the riverbed from Nogo to Bonar Creek. A short section of track is followed by another river section, then a steep climb up and around a waterfall and small gorge. In the past this climb could be avoided when flows were low by fording the River upstream of Bonar Creek and recrossing at the mouth of the gorge (around E1443912/ N5235376 (BV18 439 354)). At the moment the bottom ford appears to be a bit dodgy and a recent party had to backtrack up the River and use the tracke around the fall. From the gorge to Serpentine is a mix of river travel with a couple of short tracked bush detours. Allow 3-3.5 hours currently for the journey from Frisco. The tracked sections were checked and had flood damage repaired in December 2019.

The scrub around the chopper pad at Serpentine was retrimmed in 2019.

Type

Serpentine was one of four of an unique run of 4-bunk NZFS B48 designs built the NZFS in Westland in 1957. Dave Tiller and Jock Fisher erected the Hut from materials dropped in by fixed-wing aircraft. The Serpentine design was a forerunner of the standard SF81 model that followed, and owes much of its layout to Department of Internal Affairs structures built in the area earlier in the decade. The Hut had flat-iron cladding on both walls and roof. The roof iron was replaced by corrugated iron at some point in the 1960's. In 1983 the NZFS did some major renovations on the Hut including removing the fireplace and installing a wood burner, and replacing some piles and framing.

Condition

Serpentine survived a 20-year maintenance gap between 1983 and 2004 in very good shape. It had its exterior repainted and resealed, and some of the less solid framing replaced in the summer of 2003/4 by DOC. By 2014 the original silver pine piles were rotting out at ground level and needed replacing. They were uncemented and only went down 10-15cm into the soil. In 2015, 11 of the 15 piles were replaced and concreted in and diagonally braced. Some flat-iron flanges were added to protect the tops of some of the piles that were protruding out from the base of the wall.

The roof had a thick layer of red lichen removed and was repainted, along with the end wall and other areas of the iron cladding that needed it. A rotten purlin under the clearlight on the south side of the roof was replaced and along with a damaged section of clearlight. Some sealing was done around the bottom of both door studs. The regrowth around the Hut was cut back and the Hut given a good descunge. The work crew comprised myself, Alan Jemison, Paul Reid and Joke de Rijke. The woodburner installed by the FS in 1983 is still in good order. It's a simple NZFS constructed iron box, which is hot enough to cook on. Water is from the River or a couple of plastic containers next to the Hut. An outside bath was added as a extra feature and a rudimentary toilet constructed. Some of the iron cladding overlaps have started lifting a bit and need sealant inserted. Red algae is starting to appear again on the exterior end wall and corner of the roof. The Hut does get the odd rat coming in, but has a supply of poison and traps. Don't leave anything edible out to encourage them. The abundant supply of firewood left from the 2015 maintenance ever dwindles. The only possible way to avoid this disabling human characteristic is to cut more firewood than you use.

Tops Routes into Serpentine

It is possible to access to Serpentine over the Diedrichs Range from Mullins Hut via the upper TL branch of Mullins Creek. Exit the Creek at the waterfall at E1446515/ N5237253 (BV19 465 373), up the small steep-side creek on the TL at the foot of the fall. Climb to the 1600m mark on the SE ridge of the low peak of Mt. O'Connor and sidle across the basin under the middle and high peaks. A conspicuous bench can be followed over to the low point between Mt. O'Connor and point 1718m. Drop from the crest of the Range into the Hokitika at around E1445682/ N5236537 (BV19 457 365). and head down the prominent SW running spur below. The top of this descent is very steep and may require ice axes in winter and spring. The spur was once tracked from the scrubline down to Serpentine Hut, and had an NZFS animal and vegetation survey line superimposed on it in the mid 1980's, however it is now unfollowable. A few bits of permolat may still be found here and there, but it's essentially a bush-bash down to the River. The first couple of hundred vertical metres of track were cut up from the Hut in 2017.

Another option is a traverse Mt. O'Connor and a descent of Serpentine Creek. The Creek's upper basin is easy travel with good campsites. Further down the going is rough with waterfalls that have to be skirted through steep bush. This route has been mentioned three times in the last 32 years in the Serpentine Hut books. Two of the accounts were neutral, the third and most recent (2011) highly scathing of its value as a route.

Both of the above routes can be used to access Serpentine from Gerhardt Spur Biv. A traverse of Jumble Top can be avoided by dropping off Gerhard Spur around the 1300m contour into the top fork in the headwaters of Diedrichs Creek (at E1445315/ N5240625 (BV19 453 402)). Climb up onto the Diedrichs Range up via the TL fork of the Creek. The top of the climb is steep with crumbling rock and care needs to be taken here. Ice axes may be needed on this pitch during the colder months. Allow around 10 hours to do the traverse from Gerhardt Biv.

Access to Serpentine is also possible over the Meta Range from the Whitcombe valley, and could potentially be done in a long day by a fit party. An old NZFS tops track provides access to the tops from the Frew Saddle track, and was recut by Glenn Johnston and John Hutt in 2011. It was still OK to follow in 2014, although it could do with better marking. It branches off from the Frew track on the Terrace above Tom Creek at around E1440915/ N5232014 (BV18 409 320), and is marked with a mix of the original permolat and cruise tape. The track emerges at the tussock South of point 1235m, around E1442808/ N5232655 (BV18 428 327). Travel along to Inframeta is mostly good, although there are several points where the Range dips into the scrub before and after point 1325m. Most of it is OK due to a very well used animal trail. Access into the Hokitika is down a gut just NE of Mt. Inframeta (around E1442093/ N5234736 (BV18 421 347)). The top of the descent is cruise-taped and leads down into an open gut that becomes an unnamed side-creek further down. Where the terrain flattens around 700m, veer North through a band of mountain holly into the next creek catchment downriver. This is blown-out out a short distance further down and provides easy access all the way down to the Hokitika directly opposite the Hut. There is a waist-deep winter-only ford here. In summer the flows are too strong and you'd need to cruise upriver for a good half hour to find a decent ford. Allow 7-9 hours from Frews Hut to Serpentine Hut.

There is also a very overgrown NZFS track up onto Mt. Inframeta from the Hokitika - Whitcombe junction that may be of some interest to masochists. It branches off the original Frew track which is also very overgrown, on the TL the Hokitika above the site of the old cableway. The cableway was removed in 2011 and was a short distance up the Hokitika from the Whitcombe junction. The Hokitika River can usually be forded at normal flows at the old cableway site. The lower section of the Mt. Inframeta track goes up a broad face and will probably be a serious bush-bash through dense quintinia and other hardwoods by now. Further up where the ridge becomes better defined the track may be easier to follow. After this there is a long section through the sub-alpine and alpine zones, which I surmise will be pretty hideous. This section has areas of subsidence above the big slip that wiped out the original Frew track in 1975. Access down into the Hokitika would be the same as for the Tom Creek route.

Repairs still needed

Some the rear piles protrude out past the cladding and had in the past allowed water to seep under to the bearers and create a few patches of rot. We were able to add cladding overlaps and brace the bearers along the areas of rot, which were relatively small. Over the long term some of the bearers will need replacing. One short bearer under the Hut has borer and needs replacing. The piles we didn't replace are OK, but may need looking at over the longer term. A floorboard in the middle of the Hut is a bit spongy and needs an extra brace underneath. A bit more sealing needs to be done around the external cladding and the algae scrubbed off. More rat poison needs to be taken in.

Provisions on Site

Two foldout deckchairs, One axe, one shovel, two buckets (one plastic, one aluminium), two basins (one plastic, one aluminium), a broom, a frypan, a large casserole pan, a pot, and utensils and cups, a small crowbar, a small gin trap, two rat traps, a mouse trap, a small hand saw, a car jack (no winding arm), a small set square, a plastic scrubbing brush, a sealant gun, 2 hacksaw blades, 15kg cement, a wire brush, 8 litres of karaka acrylic, 9 litres of lichen acrylic, 7 litres of anti-rust primer, turpentine, 3 paint brushes, a paint roller and tray, 1.5 kg large jolt head nails, 40 10g x 25mm hex bolts (for securing the external wall cladding), 40 12g x 50mm hex bolts (for securing the roofing iron), 20 z-nails, 2 coach bolts, a small quantity of 6" nails, a small packet of fence staples, and some small flathead nails. There are a couple of rolls of No. 8 wire under the Hut, one 900m long treated pile and half a sheet of clearlight.