“At 11.30am we reached the Copland Hot springs, which are hidden away in the bush, and only to be traced by the continuous cloud of stream that hovers round the tree-tops. To our disgust the water was too hot to bathe in, as we had been looking forward to doing the whole morning. This was my very first experience of a hot spring, and I examined it with great interest. (…) The ground between the pools was hot to the feet and crusty, forming into terraces which shaded from yellow to chocolate brown. The air was pervaded with a saline sulphury smell, that requires a week’s residence before it can be assimilated with tolerance”
Freda Du Faur, The conquest of Mount Cook, 1915
Have you heard of Freda Du Faur before? She was a keen mountaineer from Australia who spent a few seasons in New Zealand climbing peaks that had never been climbed before around Mount Cook. She was also the very first woman to summit Mount Cook (3754masl, slightly less today) in 1910 together with her two guides, Peter and Alec Graham. She then wrote that delightful book that I’m reading at the moment which is incredibly well written and very informative about what mountaineering was like back in the days. For instance, what does a lady wear to go climbing? Forget about goretex and crampons…
Obviously times have changed since Freda du Faur’s visit of the Copland track at the beginning of the 20th century. After years and years of struggle the track was to become one of the most popular traverse from Aoraki/Mount Cook to the West coast.
From Arthur’s pass where we stopped in the last post, follow the road to the west. The landscape quickly changes to a flatter sea side road. Drive a couple of hours south on the SH6 and you will get to the extremely popular (also extremely overrated in my opinion) townships of Franz Joseph and Fox glaciers. There was a time when you could hike to the lowest part of the glaciers, which probably was much nicer than the boring hikes that lead to a distant viewpoint over a worn out glacier. But glaciers are melting and accident happened so it has become too dangerous to do so. Instead, it’s a constant buzz of helicopters flying people up for a quick glacier stroll in exchange for a few hundred dollars. Unless you don’t mind spending that kind of money, what I’m trying to say is don’t waste your time when a myriad of other wonderful glaciers can be admired further along. But we’ll talk about that later.
Drive 26km south of Fox Glacier to the Karangarua bridge and you will find yourself at the beginning of one very fine tramp (in New Zealand people don’t hike, they tramp!); the Copland track. Looking at a map of the southern Alps, I always find it incredible that this mountain range creates such a barrier from one side of the country to the other. There is indeed no road crossing over the mountains for more than 200km! This is a major information to understand the importance of the Copland track despite difficult beginnings.
Following the Karangarua river for a while, the track swings around to carry on along the Copland river in the Tai Poutini national park.
After a couple of hours of walking through the forest, I hear something foraging around in the bush. Wondering what it could possibly be, I freeze to lure it out of the bush. A few seconds later, that big bird jumps on to the middle of the path. It has a longer than usual beak and wide spread claws. My lack of knowledge of New Zealand bird never fails me and I immediately recognize a kiwi, the (legendary I suppose) native bird that very few people have actually ever seen. No need to extend on how disappointed I got when admitting my mistake, looking at a bird encyclopedia at the hut. Ah well, wekas may not be that rare but pretty funny inquisitive bird nonetheless. They are endemic and flightless, like all birds used to be in New Zealand as they had no predators.
Walk about 3 hours and here comes the first hut on the track called Architect Creek hut, a very cute one with just a bed bunk, a table and a fire stove.
It’s a rather long (18km) but also rather flat hike to Welcome Flat hut and a lot of fun with a bunch of high and long swing bridges suspended over powerful creeks.
Due to the weather and a certain lack of labor, it took about 10 years for the track to officially open in 1913. It was a big deal though as it quickly became the busiest route to link the West coast to the Mount Cook area through the Copland pass.
Nowadays it has become much trickier. Several reasons for that, the area is geologically dynamic, which make the southern alps some of the fastest growing mountains in the world (although erosion makes up for it). Weather conditions in the glacial valley and alpine environment can also be quite extreme and severe. But the Copland valley has always been of interest for the tourist industry. A road up the valley or even a tunnel straight to the Hermitage in Mt Cook village were suggested but thankfully never happened. The realization that even huge amounts of money would not help much to fix the damages that the dynamic nature of the geology would cause. Nature 1, people 0.
As much as I would have loved to spend several days on the track to go all the way further along the valley, I only spent one night in busy Welcome Flat hut. I did take my time to enjoy the wonderful natural thermal springs, which contrary to Freda’s experience didn’t smell bad at all and were definitely not too hot when I was there at the end of summer!
All in all a very easy tramp through a gorgeous valley filled with history. A few people around but absolutely worth it. I already look forward to going back!
A few years later, Freda Du Faur is back on the Copland track and beautifully describes the beauty of the area:
“On the right hand bank the ribbon woods overhung the water and showered their sweet-scented white blossoms into the swift current. On the left they were interspaced with the dark green rata-trees, whose glossy foliage was crowned with a wealth of crimson blossom. Soft puffs of white cloud hung half-way up the mountains sides, and the distant hills in the west were deeply blue. Such a soul-satisfying colour I have seldom seen, and tired though we were with our long tramp, we all appreciated its restful beauty, so different from the ice-world from which we had just come, or the yellows and blues which make the dominant note of colour on the east of the mountains.”
It seems that Freda was thinking a fair bit about the future as in her book she often speculates about possible scenarios concerning the touristic development of the areas she loves so much. Her concerns are usually expressed towards the development of mass tourism making of the mountains more accessible to novices. She was somewhat right to worry as on one side mountain climbing has definitely been made more accessible since her time, involving some (often silly) rescue missions that would not have happened back then (wrong gear, too late a start, lack of knowledge and so on) but also as the big hotel in Mount Cook village actually exists and paradoxically is a bigger and fancier version of the hotel mountaineers used to stay at, The Hermitage. Today it has nothing left from the original one though, mostly because the old one was destroyed after a big flood.
“The hut is only a few yards away from the Copland Hot Springs, so we were all able to enjoy the luxury of a hot bath; if a kindly Government some day provides a cold pool next door, into which one may take a refreshing plunge after being par-boiled, and endeavours to remove the sandflies which are all too active for comfort, these springs should prove a most popular resort. The view from them is superb, and the forest by which they are surrounded a veritable fairyland, in which one may wander for hours. I have no doubt that some day a large hotel will occupy the site of the present hut, and prove a very popular tourist resort, for many charming excursions can be made from this spot. For those on mountaineering it will also be a good base, as there are many fine peaks in the vicinity and much unexplored country.”