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Dr Alfred Limestone

27 September 2022

Words: Dave Mitchell
Images: Ditte van der Meulen & Dave Mitchell

Rosehip & Rabbits

At over 10 kilometres wide and 50 kilometres long, the former Clarence Station occupied an almighty chunk of the earth's crust, dropping down from the very top of the Seaward Kaikoura Range to the energetic waters of the Clarence River.

Sheep were farmed here from 1857 but its remoteness and poor access saw a string of run holders come and go, unlike the rabbits. Finally in 1969 the rugged pack track over the range was upgraded to a 4WD road and anything became possible. In 1993 the Forest Heritage Fund bought the crown lease and Ka Whata Tu o Rakihouia Conservation Park was born to protect the unique landscape, rare plants, invertebrates and best of all, recreation. Hunting, fishing, biking, rafting and tramping were encouraged.

Historic Quail Flat

Quail Flat cobb homestead

Quail Flat barn

Over the years Ditte and I have enjoyed numerous Mtb trips into the park, climbing from the Inland Kaikoura Road up to Blind Saddle and onto the ridge  at over 1100m. Then bombing down Seymour Stream to the Warden Huts. We've explored the old farm tracks ranging up to Stoney Flat and down past Palmer Hut. This time our intention was to spend a week or so bike-tramping - accessing some of the more remote historic huts that were built not long after WW2 to assist in the control of rampant pests.

Muzzle Station greenery from Limestone climb

Muzzle Station resides directly opposite the Conservation Park. It holds a DOC grazing concession and maintains the access road over Blind Saddle. This logically allows them to control vehicle access and charge a maintenance fee, but trampers and cyclists are free to come and go as they please. We loaded up the Triton with plenty of of food, bikes and tramping kit and trundled over the excellent track in 4WD mode. The 21 fords of Seymour Streams were at low flow with smooth bottoms, all the way out to our base camp at the Forbes Hut.

Forbes Hut base camp

Quail eggs

Uncle Alfred

On day one we pedalled back up Seymour Stream to take the marked turn-off that heads sou-west to the old historic split slab Willows Hut. Curiously, Forbes Hut was shifted from up the hill behind the Willows Hut and originally renamed Seymour Hut, but I digress.

The initial climb is super steep as it ascends over a massive slump but we were soon back on the original easier farm track. This climbs and descends across a wide rosehip covered terrace a few hundred meters above the Clarence River. Excellent views across to the Inland Kaikoura Range and the great shingle pyramid of Dillion Cone hung below a clear blue sky like an Egyptian icon.

Willows Hut

Cattle freely roam this grazing concession but all of humanity were absent. We crested the final climb and headed down to the Willows Hut and onto the wide alluvial Alfred Stream bed. There is good riding for just over three klicks up the river flats before boots needed to hit the ground. We parked the bikes by a huge shaded rock wall and headed up Alfred Steam into the unknown. It’s a fascinating tramp full of short gorges, rare plants, massive rocks and very little water after an extremely dry summer and early autumn. I suspect in mid summer the water would be warm enough to take a tepid bath.

Alfred Stream bed

We made great progress using our map and GPS to make sure we didn’t wander up any random side stream by mistake. A kilometre before the hut the valley widens and the stream spreads out somewhat. We soon spotted a large orange triangle, a sure sign that civilisation was close. The hut was hidden behind a short steep ridge on the true left of the stream. The hut book dated back to 2004 and had recorded only 3-4 visits per year, mostly helicopter hunters and DOC staff merrily culling goats.

Alfred star spangled Hut

We harvested dead branches from a block of ribbon wood as the sun disappeared behind the 1000m tops. The temperature dropped like a large boulder. The fire was soon blazing. We had a brew boiling and dinner on the way. Alas as the wind picked up, the smoke abandoned the chimney for the hut. We were forced to evacuate. Well the stars were out and next morning a light frost greeted us for breakfast. The tramp back out was downhill with a new set of views and the sun bouncing around the tortured rock faces like a big rubber ball. The bikes were glad to see us and the ride back to base camp with less weight and less climbing was a welcome bonus.

Exit Alfred back to camp

Limestone Hill toppage

Limestone Cowboy

On our third day we embarked on a circumnavigation of Limestone Hill. The very top proved popular with a flock of cattle. They had set up camp and just like us spent most of their lunch time admiring the view. This was a long hot climb but well worth it for the downhill. There was no water in any of the stream gullies that we crossed on the descent, even if we had bought a cattle-country-grade water filter.

Limestone Hill descent

Like an autumn leaf on a Limestone stream

Hotel Limestone

Day four, from Forbes Hut we rode the low track to Quail Flat where the old historic Cobb homestead and red roofed barn reside. From there we pedalled along the river flats, past a shiny new barn, sidling over a huge slip above a bend in the mighty Clarence, eventually arriving at Horse Flat. A very good gravel road undulates to the shingle fan of Limestone Creek at around the 11 km mark. Before the ford we headed right and continued on a 4WD farm track that roams the river flats before dropping into the stream bed. We crossed and recrossed the stream, parking the bikes under a south facing overhang about 2 kms upstream.

Goat Rock Hotel

Limestone Stream rockfall hazard

Recent quad bike tracks wound their way up the rocky bed for an age, passing two big stands of poplars in autumn gold. This wide stream valley continued for a few kms then headed into a tight gorge full of old and new EQ rockfall. We clambered over a series of huge boulders and slips to to the end of the gorge. A rifle would have been handy with all the feral goats on the crazy steep rock faces above us. They looked totally unconcerned as they kicked rocks in our direction. The gorge finally gave way to more open country with stunted totara, ribbon wood, kanuka, flax and toi toi. Ditte asked “how far to the hut”. I said “just around the next corner” and consulted the GPS. Sure enough just beyond where the stream split there it was, patiently waiting on the true right bank.

Food for thought

Limestone shared the same story book as Alfred, just 3-4 visits per year with DOC culling hundreds of goats on each visit. The open fire proved to be a smoke machine from Hollywood but the hut was brimming with character and army rations, so all was forgiven. It was clean and tidy, newly painted with four comfy bunks. A starry night ensued and another frost greeted us in the am over porridge. The sun rose early, lighting up the cobwebs and melting away the cold.

Hut fall

We found the gorge section a lot easier heading downhill and were soon back out to the bikes for a leisurely lunch and a cruisy ride back to base camp.

Sey-mour contortions

Warder ridge-top tiny home

Warder Ridge

Day six. A long climb along broken fence lines and tall tussocks reaches for the sky up the Warder Ridge. It climbs to almost 1400 meters and overlooks both the vast Clarence River Valley and the Seymour Stream catchment. We were lucky to strike some beautiful light on the tops before the long descent back to camp for our last night in the Clarence. We packed our flotsam and jetsam into the ute and trundled our way leisurely out over Blind Saddle and back to civilisation, checking out the row of historic huts that line the route. Black Spur, Warden and Tentpole.

Time to pack

Black Spur Hut

There are a host of other remote huts to discover and tracks to ride but that can wait for our next Clarence trip. With names like Jam, Fidget, Haycocks, Kahutara, Palmer and Dubious who could not be intrigued?

Palmer Hut

Palmer Biv

Civilisation Kaikoura