McIntosh Loop Track, Whakaari Conservation Area
It’s well known that Otago’s history is steeped in gold. What is less well known, is that the area was also mined for scheelite – a shiny metallic ore discovered in the 1880s and boomed in demand during the warring years to produce military armaments. Five minutes drive from Glenorchy is one such abandoned mining area, high up on Mount Judah overlooking Lake Wakatipu’s head and the bottom of the Humboldt Mountain Range. This, in the Whakaari Conservation Area, was to be our destination for the weekend.
Mt Judah Road – a private gravel access road that sidles along its namesake – is a reasonably popular day walk for those wishing to see the historic scheelite mining sites and valley views. My son eagerly explored and clambered over old rusted equipment in the abandoned Glenorchy Battery, we temporarily ditched our packs to slink down a side track to Chinamans Flat and poke our heads in the entrance of an old mine, and I read the informative storyboards paying homage to the Glenorchy miners whose sweated brow toiled the area.
Our guiding maps said it would take 1.5 hours to reach The Junction, yet our exploration of the historic sites added an extra hour to our hour trip. The Junction separates the shorter Heather Jock Loop track from the longer more difficult McIntosh Loop track. We stopped here to nibble scroggin and marvel at the golden summit of Mt McIntosh that still bears the scars of its mining history, as well as the roofed speck that was to be our nights’ accommodation – McIntyre Hut – hidden in its tussocky underbelly.
From The Junction, the track dropped steeply, and we were forced to weave our way through flood debris much of the way down to the river – Buckler Burn. Obviously, this would not be somewhere you’d want to be caught in heavy rain. Stopping on a knoll above the churning burn, I had a serious river safety briefing with my teenage son before proceeding. After finding the safest passage, we stepped to our thighs into the strong ice cold current, and then with hungry sandflies in pursuit, made a hasty retreat up a very steep slope on the other side.
Zigzagging out of the gut of the valley, the track finally relaxed to crescent its way along the flank of Mt McIntosh at a less arduous gradient. Golden grass and wildflowers bent in the breeze and four hours after leaving the car park we made McIntrye Hut. The hut was basic but tidy, with a gravel floor and six berths – spoilt, we had it to ourselves. There was no heating, but the cabin was warm as we cooked dinner, relaxed and admired nature’s pastel palette as the sun sank over the Humboldts.
Heavy rain was forecast for late on our second day, so we made a quick exit the next morning. The first hour up to Long Gully Saddle was easy if not a bit soggy underfoot, and as we crest the saddle our world opened up and we got our first glimpse of the valleys and mountain peaks on the other side. McIntosh Hut – the second hut option on this loop – overlooking us on its high perch and two hikers could be seen making their way down to join us at the saddle.
But our climb wasn’t yet done. A brief but very steep half hour later we had ascended from the saddle to the ridge top. This opened up views in all directions including the Rees and Dart Valleys, Pikirakatahi, and of course Lake Wakatipu. From here we meet the park’s boundary fence, and followed it along the ridge top and back down into the valley. The descent was quite literally straight down, so the fence line came in handy as a makeshift balustrade to prevent the complete ruin of my knees.
Relieved to be off the slope, and out of the tussock, we entered overgrown grasses and meadows and followed a remarkable creek that seems to defy gravity. Dropping down into a honey scented white flowering Manuka forest we meet up again with Buckler Burn, before the track finally spat us out onto the Glenorchy -Queenstown Road. Five and a half hours since breakfast, we walked into the doors of a Glenorchy cafe for hot drinks, and as if on cue, the skies finally opened up as promised. (727 words)
- Access: 5km south of Glenorchy
- Grade: Advanced/River crossing experience required
- Time: 8-10 hours return
- Accommodation: McIntyre Hut (6 bunks) or McIntosh Hut (4 bunks)
- Map Topo50: Glenorchy CB10