A Wander up the Wilkin

Since this is Cesco’s last big fishing trip before he heads home to Italy next month, we wanted to make it epic. He canvassed some experienced fishing buddies who advised that the Wilkin River, a tributary of  the Makarora, is considered an excellent spot for some isolated trout fishing. You can get there by jet boat, but once we learned that would cost $440, we resolved to walk up the valley instead. We’d stay the night in the Kerin Forks Hut and catch a bunch of fish from the river nearby, then walk out next day. Sounds pleasant right?

PhotoThe official word is that the walk up the valley takes five hours, but in my experience DOC uses somebody’s grandma as a model for timing its walks. Why, we can probably do it in three!

We took State Highway 6 past Lake Wanaka and pulled into Wilkin Rd shortly before reaching Makarora. A gravel road allowed us to park near the bank of the mighty Makarora braided river.

To prepare for the ambitious journey, we divested ourselves of every gram of unnecessary weight, paring our packs and pockets to the bare essentials. To access the Wilkin Valley, the Makarora must be forded, but it had been dry so the rivers were pretty low, reassuring us that we’d have no trouble.

We picked a likely looking spot not far above the confluence with the Wilkin, linked hands and waded in. Despite being “low”, the Makarora was extremely powerful and numbingly cold. It wasn’t too bad for Cesco, reaching his waist, but he has a foot and 30kg on poor little me. Emitting a brave chorus of “I don’t like it, I don’t like it, I’m floating away” I shuffled incrementally onward.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one concerned, as a member of a nearby tramping party had left his group to hover behind me as I crossed. Still, I made it safely to the far side, and collapsed on the bank to recover.

I should mention that these rivers are not to be taken lightly. On our last fishing trip, Cesco ended up rescuing a woman who got stuck attempting to cross the Makarora up near where the Young River joins it. At around the same time, a man was swept away while crossing the upper reaches of the Wilkin. This entire post is basically a list of things you should not do if you are adventuring in the New Zealand wilderness.

Once I was fully recovered from my ordeal, we cut across the vast stone Wilkin River flat until we reached an irresistible pool.

We dropped our packs and set to casting. Ten minutes later I was holding my reward.

We released her and decided to set off on our journey proper, heading up the wide rocky expanse of the valley floor.

Surely this won’t take too long. Hut’s probably right round the corner

There was not a single cloud to be seen, and it soon began to heat up considerably. I searched for my sunscreen, only to realise I’d ditched that hundred grams of dead weight back at the car. Uh oh.

The valley is certainly very remote, walled in as it is by beech forest and cut off from civilisation by a fearsome river, but the effect is ruined a little by the constant jet boats, aeroplanes and helicopters ferrying richer (or wiser) travellers to and from the Kerin and Siberia huts.

We alarmed the local family of geese who departed, honking angrily.

There goes the neighbourhood!

After tiring on the rough stones under the scorching sun, we opted to try the marked track through the beech forest along the edge of the valley. Blessed shade enveloped us, but we found the track to be extremely rough, all gnarly roots, fallen trees and steep climbs and descents. What kind of grandma did they use to measure this?

The best section of the track

We struggled along, while the cacophony of cicadas competed with the occasional bird call. This brought back memories of my childhood in Wellington, where these big noisy insects are common. I used to try to catch them and tame them. It never worked, even when I made little cotton leashes for them. By comparison, the little cicadas we get in Dunedin are pretty unimpressive. I proved I still had it by nabbing a soundless female.

Quick, make a little leash! I’ll call her flappy!

With that entertaining excuse for a break over, we took the first available chance to return to the river bed, having decided that sun and rough rocks was preferable to the feats of agility required in the trees.

We then arrived at the golden grassy expanse of Dans Flat, likely named after “Yankee Dan” Donald Caldwell, an early saw miller who rode a horse named Jumbo up the valley and into the top flats – one of which is now known as Jumboland.

There were no track markers here, the path up the valley being somewhat open to improvisation, but luckily the tramping party that was now far ahead of us had left a clearly trampled trail through the dry grass. This made the going slightly easier as the hot sun beat down on my unprotected lily-white skin.

Then it was once more into the beech and wonderful shade. We lunched under the trees before slogging onward. Surely we are almost there?

But alas! We emerged from the trees only to gaze upon another vast desert of shadeless grass – Kerin Forks Flat. We soldiered desperately onwards.

Finally, finally, we spied the hut on a hill overlooking the Wilkin River. But one final test awaited us before we could reach sweet rest – the fording of the Wilkin. We picked a likely spot and I repeated my mantra as I shuffled across.

Our salvation on the hill

We made it up the final hill and I collapsed soggily onto the nearest bed. Our journey of 15km was finally over…until we had to do it all again tomorrow, of course.

A mere hour and a half later, Cesco decided it was time for some fishing. I did my best, but finally had to admit defeat and retire to bed while he fished on. I dropped off to sleep amongst the symphony of throbbing feet, sun burn, and sandfly bites.

Next morning, Cesco led me to an a amazing nearby pool he’d discovered the previous night.

Our fishing pool

It wasn’t long before Cesco was wrangling an energetic rainbow trout.

Cesco’s catch!

He had barely released it before I was battling a fighter of my own.

Is mine bigger?

So we can confirm, this is a great place to fish! We fished up river until we reached the place where the Siberia Stream meets the Wilkin, and then debated our next move.

Near the confluence

I had spotted an old cottage nearby, and since this kind of thing is a magnet for me, I wanted to investigate. I started across the grass to investigate, but soon found myself on very rough, swampy ground. My thigh muscles were still weak from yesterday’s walk, and I was forced to give up and go back.

So this is the best look you’re gonna get of it! (unless you want to walk there yourself)

This may be the hut built by John Kerin, an Irish farming and gold mining pioneer who ran stock on this land until forced to abandon it in the 1890s due to a plague of rabbits.

Now it was time to face the long march back to civilisation. We set off bravely down the valley, across the river and over the grass flat.

Maybe it was exhaustion, but the sun felt even hotter today, and my exposed skin was soon a crispy shade of red. We both began to struggle, increasing the frequency of rest stops, but kept each other’s spirits up with tales of the hot meals, icy cold drinks and soft beds we’d enjoy once the ordeal was over.

A mere seven and a half hours after we’d begun, we reached the mighty Makarora once again. This time it was a nearby angler who hovered anxiously as we crossed. But we made it, and dragged ourselves to the nearby Makarora Tourist Centre for an enormous steak dinner accompanied by a mug of ice cold cider.

Then it was time for blessed rest, while we reflected on the newfound knowledge that 30km in two days is too far to walk.


5 thoughts on “A Wander up the Wilkin

  1. susan Nunn

    Very entertaining story and an impressive walk, fish looked good too. This Grandma was not the test Grandma,,lol

  2. auntie M

    Nice storytelling

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