Winter Adventure Gems - St James Ranges: A party of two
Duration: Three days
Location: St James Ranges - Fowler pass, Stanley Valley, Edwards Valley
Plan: A loop ride staying in two huts
Weather: Rain on day two, otherwise clear
Be prepared for winter and you’ll be prepared to have fun in the cold or wet!
These ranges were the first on our list for 10 days of winter adventures
Heading over the rain-damaged Jollies pass road, from Hanmer, I breathe in that new experience of the stunning scenery that greets you, the open golden brown landscape, the rocky and snow-capped peaks. The St James Ranges are a relatively new discovery for me, singletrack that reminds me of the French Alps and Provence, some of the most beautiful character-filled huts, capturing times past and age-old systems that are still in use today. Most of these huts are supported with fully functioning and well-used horse infrastructure, grazing pens, shelter, and water, it feels like a time warp. The huts with their open fires and smoke-stained books lining the shelves above. Beautiful mud-brick walls between supporting timber framework.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, before one gets to absorb all this awesomeness there is a bit of work to be done getting there.
Let me start, Anja and I are enjoying our morning at Maruia hot springs. The process of getting to the start of our Fowler pass - Stanley loop. It was already the afternoon when we parked in the desert landscape of the Rainbow Road near the gate out from Peter’s track, which was our returning exit point. We locked up the Landcruiser and jumped on our bikes, I had everything loaded in my 35-liter backpack. Anja had opted for her bike packing bags. We had 10 kilometers or gravel road to ride to the Fowlers Hut and the start of our single-track climb to Fowlers Pass, there was a cold breeze blowing and it was a slow climb up with Anja suffering an asthma attack which she’d not had for over 4 years, so we took it easy up the climb. It became obvious we weren't going to make the historic Stanley Vale hut in the light, and most likely not even the pass either, neither of us was phased as these things are not stressful if you're prepared. Reaching the pass in the pitch black it was on with our night riding lights and the amazing descent down the perfect tight switchbacks, which were totally enjoyable in these conditions!
We crossed a bunch of small creeks, as we made out way down the upper reaches of the Stanley River, eventually the trail opens out onto a huge triangular grass plain, with the Stanley on one side pointing out to Lake Guyon. With some very vague trail marking and not any notable signage we managed to navigate the open plain to find the Stanley Vale hut.
What a beauty the hut is, the smell, the horse equipment, the rustic mud and straw walls infilling the exposed timber frame, the virgin Mary hanging above smoke-stained books, the open fire sits to the right, and to the left is a half wall separating the bedroom and the classic DoC bunk beds. The fire was soon roaring and dinner was on. Lying in bed and looking through the open door frame to the open fire was just another magic moment from the trip. A magic end to the day!
After a wild night of the wind whistling at the hut edges and rain drumming on the roof the morning dawned with the promise of better weather, but after breakfast, I stood at the door dressed in full wet weather gear, watching tall column-like sheets of rain drive across the plains outside.
There are a lot of river crossings as one continues down the Stanley River valley, toward our climb up to the “Racecourse” a flat named I assume after the Death Valley flats of the same title in the US.
Setting out from our shelter into a day of wet, cold, and unknown gives the departure a spicy wee edge. Before the plains narrow back into the river valley, we navigated some boggy sections of trail where one needs to take care not to throw yourself over the bars…I’ve seen it done here before.
The rain was steady but not overly heavy, and already I was starting to feel distracted by the upcoming river crossing. We had five to get over before water levels rose to something beyond our capacity. Most of the Stanley is a wide trail on an old disused farm track, now growing into more and more of a single track. It's a pleasurable ride on the old tracks, and there is really only one section up over some bluffs with the gorge below that people have to push. We got over the first three crossings without much issue, but with every kilometer, there were more and more side creeks joining and by mid-morning, the rain had set in pretty steady.
As we descended a sweet piece of the trail down to the fourth crossing I was starting to feel a little concerned, it was a much narrower part of the river, and soon after the river turned sharply into the before mentioned gorge. There were no braids here to take advantage of and the runout, if one of us swam, was okay but not ideal.
Understanding river crossings are very important to making sound decisions and being consciously prepared for a possible swim and what your path, and downstream exit are like is all part of these factors. Understanding what the water on the top is telling you about the terrain underneath and one's approach and angle is another important factor in making a good choice. It wasn’t the day to even consider the entry and exit of the low water flow crossing points, so I waded up the edge. I walked out to test the waters while holding my bike on the downstream side, one hand on a handlebar grip and the other at the rear of the frame top tube. The bike does pull away from you but that is good, you don't want it on the upstream side pushing into you. The drag of the two wheels facing the direction of your travel adds support to your difficult steps on the round boulders below.
This was a classic case of this, so after the depth and current test, I went again and committed to the crossing with a long downriver angle. I made it across reasonably well, but now I had to cross back on another new and unknown downriver angle, but without my bike or backpack, I needed to help a much smaller Anja across. First I took her bike and then came back again to link us together, waist belts are undone and by putting one arm in behind and between the back and backpack and either holding onto the far shoulder strap by the waist or securely holding a fist full of clothing, this creates a strong, flexible, but braced connection. Again like the bike, having two people softens the uncontrolled movements en route across and ultimately helps keep one upright.
The rain was stronger now and the last crossing was still to come, I knew we would have to wait and see, but I was calculating options of what-ifs, make-shift shelters, and how many hours we could maintain in these conditions without getting too cold. The area of the last crossing was again of a narrower style river bed, but after scouting, I found, roughly 500m upriver from the natural trail crossing, an area that gave me hope of something I could work with. A similar story to the last crossing unfolded. Except there was a little more rejoicing and lightening of focused energy. So, I felt quite relieved to have managed all the crossings without any overly wild moments or unexpected swims.
This is where the 200m climb up to the Racecourse starts. A cold and wet lunch was had huddled in the Matagouri scrub beside a small creek. We got a bit cold here, and soon after we were on the exposed flats of the Racecourse, but as we tipped across the low saddle at the end of the flats we had fun traversing the single track, the manuka was bending and flapping around us as the wind and rain swept through, but we knew it wasn't too long to Scottie's hut.
A new wide swingbridge took us safely over the Edwards river, which Scottie's hut sits beside. A four-bunk hut. It doesn't feature high on the romance scale but was a welcome sight in these conditions. There is no fire but it does for some reason have solar lights and, well, that's about all.
Another night with the wind and rain reminded us of the wild day we’d just had. Morning broke with a clear sky, a cold breeze, and the roar of the Edwards in flood.
We only had about 12 or so kilometers to the Rainbow road, and we had the hot springs to pass which we thought would be well under the flooded waters of the side valley they sit in. There is beautiful stone work around the spring creating about three pools to be enjoyed. Well, that wasn't on the cards for today. We had other waters to deal with. Looking out at the river outside Scottie's Hut I was thinking,”Low chances will we get across”, but it is amazing what a wider section of the river bed will do in reducing the flow height and making it possible to ford. So what we looked to find, and surprisingly that is what we foun, crossing with careful ease.
After about 8 km of criss-crossing up the Edwards Valley, we had the climb up onto the plateau of Peter’s Pass. What's called Peter’s valley but is more of an open elevated area you ride through.
The 4wd track out from Scotties is relatively easy-going and the last section with its downward slant made for some easy final kilometers.
There was Lance the Landcruiser still parked where we left him ready to whisk us out into suburban Hanmer Springs, with a little shock we viewed this busy world through a lens of nature, and the power of that experience was still alive in us both.
This was a great trip, I’d definitely recommend doing your trip in a window outside of a cyclone. But, having the knowledge of the track helped me, and we were very happy that it we still had a fun time and even the wet the scenery still wowed us superbly!
Words & Pictures: Jamie Nicoll