Two really tough days of off-track travel through thick (and steep) South Westland scrub lead to the obvious put on for the Okuru River. The Okuru is a gorgeous river, mainly class I, with a few class II rapids and about 6 in the easy class III range. A satisfying trip for determined and experienced bush-bashers who are intermediate paddlers.
Thanks to Dan Clearwater for the trip information and photographs. There’s more detailed information about routes in this area, and alternative approaches via the Blue valley and Maori pass in Moirs Guide North which is available online, and commonly in bookshops and DOC visitor centers throughout the lower south island. The Moirs Guide description for the difficult section (approach to Emily Pass through to the Okuru) is written as though you’re travelling in the opposite direction, so is tricky to follow when heading north to south.
A GPS and altimeter can come in very handy for this trip. We used our throwbags 3 times to climb down bluffs during the approach, and not at all on the river… Future parties may consider only carrying one throwbag for the goup, plus a light 30m rope, with fliplines and carabiners for makeshift harnesses.
The bush bashing, routefinding and navigation around Emily pass is by far the hardest part of the whole route; don’t attempt this route unless you’re fit, determined and skilled in steep off-track scrub travel!
Leave a car near the Okuru River bridge on the Jackson’s Bay Road. This road is a long dead-end; hitching isn’t recommended, but you could potentially cycle back to the main highway and hitch easily from there. If you drive, there is petrol available in Haast Beach and in Haast, but hours might be limited – make sure you’re topped from Wanaka or Franz Josef!
Roaring Swine Creek to Emily Pass
From the car-park on the true right of the creek, an old trail can be occasionally followed through moderately thick forest through to the flats above. There are many campsites in the flats, but to achieve the trip in 3 days, you need to continue up to Emily Pass.
Boulder hop up Roaring swine creek; there are lots of tributaries, not all are marked on the map, so ensure you continue to follow the creek with the most water volume. About the 560m contour a usually dry tributary can be quickly climbed for about 150 vertical meters, before climbing through thick scrub and leatherwood to sidle back to the main creek, where the final waterfalls begin.
We continued too high, and had to descend slowly through the scrub to the waterfalls; wasting more than an hour.
We climbed the scrub immeadiately beside the waterfall on the true right, until a bluff barred the way. The creek’s was easy to cross at this point, and we continued up the true left, heading directly for the pass, rather than trying to follow the river.
Emily Pass is rather boggy and flat, dry campsites are scarce. It took us 8hrs of continuous movement from the highway to the pass, including our mistaken detour.
Emily Pass to upper Emily Creek
Its impossible to tell from the pass, but there are 3 distinct streams with waterfalls which drain the main bluffs directly beneath Emily Pass. This makes it quite difficult to interpret the Moirs guide description, which gives its advice relative to ‘the creek’.
It took us 7hrs to reach the upper basins of Emily Creek, with 2 attempted and 1 successful route. I don’t think any of them were the routes that Moirs had in mind.. Our initial attempt was via the eastern route, but we backed off when it became extremely steep.
We tried descending a series of spurs on the western edge of the headwall. This ended in a bluff system on an open ledge at the 800m contour. (Red line)
We followed bench on the true left above the creek that drains the eastern end of the pass. We followed this down to about the 800m contour, where it got too steep to descend. We continued south through very steep and very thick bush, crossing a number of gullies before we had gone enough to find terrain which could be descended to the valley without going over bluffs. Before descending, we climbed trees to ensure we’d gone far enough, and that there was a visible line of descent. All you can judge it off is the tops of the trees; can you see a line where the tops descend without any obvious ‘steps’? (ie bluffs) From Emily Pass to the upper basin took 2.5hrs; though bear in mind this was after two previous failures, and our total time to here was 7hrs. (Green line, mostly out of view)
Where do I think the route goes?
I think the route that Moirs refers to is in between our two attempts, following the yellow line by the eastern waterfalls. Perhaps our error was not staying close enough to the creek at the very top?
The route could also ascend the central stream, but we got travelled in the higher part of the central stream during our western attempt (red) and it really didn’t match the Moirs description.
A decent bit of rope (30m or more) and some absielling gear would probably make descending close to the the central stream viable; there’s plenty of leatherwood to wrap a rope around for anchors, although less so on the final cascade, as you can see in the picture. Routes further west may be possible, but there are a number of bluffs that side, among leatherwood scrub before reaching flatter terrain.
Upper Emily Creek to Okuru River
From the upper basin, rock hop down to where the beech forest begins, (580m approx) then enter the forest and make a descending sidle through moderate forest to the next marked tributary on the true right. The “open gully” is much more defined and deeper than it appears on the map, and is full of scrub. We sidled a bit high, but found an excellent deer trail on the spur from the 580m contour all the way down to the crossing at 420m. From the upper basin to the crossing took about 2hrs.
Follow your altimeter at 440m through moderate forest to Ironstone Spur. (about 1hr from the crossing to the spur).
Descending Ironstone is much more difficult that it sounds from the Moir description “steep but open”. The crest of the spur is often extremely narrow, with very steep sides (think one leg either side of the crest) and a number of bluffs, and gendarmes (spires/steep knolls). The key is to stick on the true spur, which is difficult during descent; vauge false spurs head off frequently. If you can’t find a way over the spur crest, then you may have to descend on one side, before regaining the ridge. Much of the spur crest is relatively open, but lower down it gets scrubby again.
We used our throwbags, looped around sturdy trees on two occasions to give us some support to downclimb some sections of ridge that were exposed to bluffs. Again a rope and basic harness could come in very useful here. You really have to concentrate, and keep on the ridge as much as you can; there’s plenty of scope to get bluffed out here. It took us 2hrs to descend from 440m on Ironstone Spur, down to the toe of the spur by Emily Creek.
Its an easy boulder hop down to the confluence, where there are huge, flat, grassy camping spots. It took us 14.5hrs all up from Emily Pass to the confluence. There weren’t any decent camping options (either too steep with water, or flattish with no water) between the pass and the Okuru. Start early and appreciate the level of commitment!!
Okuru River (I/III) from Emily Creek to the bridge
The vast majority of the river is class I, with the occasional class II wave train where the braids drop over boulders. In the river beside the sections of track, are gorgeous deep pools, with boulder lined banks and overhanging beech forest. Quite beautiful in there!
There are about 6 class III/III- boulder garden rapids as marked on the map. All are easy to portage if needed.
The low, flat spur which leads to the Boil Hole is easy to see from up river. The boil hole itself is just a huge wide pool at low flow; I bet it lives up to its name when the river is in flood! The longest rapid is immeadiately above the boil hole.
Once onto the flats, it is a long slow paddle to the coast; watch out for afternoon seabreezes! It is still quite pretty though, with great views back to where you’ve come from, and some nice forest lining the river bank in places.
There’s a reasonable spot to scramble up by the bridge on the true left bank. The float took 8.5hrs including a few breaks and some scouting at quite low flows.
Guesswork! The river at the Okuru bridge is basically tidal, so its no help there. Our trip was after quite a long dry summer. We could see the level was maybe a meter lower than normal. As it was, we had to portage one of the hard rapids due to too little water, and a number of the braided rapids up higher were quite bony.
The trip would likely still work with quite a bit of extra water; the main rapids are easy to portage in anything less than full flood and there are old tracks above any of the steeper sections.