Photo: Jesse Dhue
Blog Hiking

Otehake Natural Hot Springs

Our plans to tramp in to Ivory Lake Hut over Easter were thwarted early by Cyclone Cook. The string of bad weather didn’t deter us from making something of the long weekend. However, with the forecast set for nothing but rain across the country, I resigned myself to getting wet. I figured that if we were going to be wet we may as well be warm. So we hatched a plan for an overnight hike to the Otehake hot springs in the Arthurs Pass NP.

Relaxing in the Otehake Hot Springs. Photo: Jesse Dhue

We loaded the car up and headed out through the pass to the Taramakau Valley, 2 hours north east of Christchurch. It was drizzling consistently, as it had been for the last few days, and there was a lot of water about. At this stage we weren’t sure we would get very far, as you have to cross the Otira river within the first kilometer of trail. Nevertheless, we packed our bags in hope and headed out. A kilometer in and we reached the banks of the river. The initial prognosis looked grim, as the river, swollen by the rain, was flowing quite fast. Not ones to give up easily, we explored further upstream, eventually finding a place where the river braided out, dividing the amount of water across a larger area. The water was very clear so we could see how deep it was and how good the footing was. After a few attempts we found a path across that only came up to our knees.

Crossing the Otira River. Yep, that’s the new lighter, quicker drying me. Photo: Jesse Dhue

The next part of the track winds through a nicely wooded section that crisscrosses Clear Stream. Unfortunately cattle have recently grazed here and the track was chopped up and covered in cow pats. Unfortunately I had already drunk from the water before I discovered this. Although nothing ever came from it, I probably wouldn’t recommend it. Soon you emerge from the woods into the river flats. After crossing a wide but shallow stream, you are faced with an uninspiring trudge along a 4WD track through the thick, spiked, introduced gorse shrub.

Moody weather in the valley as we begin the trudge along the flats.

Eventually where Pfeifer creek runs into the valley, you cross and pick up the marked trail to Lake Kaurapataka. This trail immerses you deep into the NZ bush. The trail is flat and not so technical, but at times the thick underbrush of ferns obscures your view of slippery roots making the footing uncertain. Additionally many trees have fallen over the track forcing you to take detours around that can often lead you astray. Keep an eye out for the orange trail markers they are prolific and regular if you haven’t seen one for a while stop and back track. The lake offers a nice campsite on its banks about two hours from the car but we only stopped for a muesli bar before motoring on.

By this stage we were so wet it didn’t really matter if I was standing in the lake or not. Photo: Jesse Dhue

Eventually we reached a sign at the end of the lake, pointing left for the Otehake Valley. Someone had also scratched ‘hot pools’ on the sign with an arrow pointing right towards a much less traveled but still distinct trail. This trail is a lot more technical than the last sections, especially in the wet. However it is well posted with orange and green trail markers. Our pace slowed considerably as we clambered up and down slippery roots benched into the side of the steep hill. The Otehake River roared far beneath us as we finally began to descend towards it after an hour of slow going. Some steep, slippery terrain abruptly ended at a waterfall. I looked across the fall for a trail marker anticipating we would have to cross this somehow. When I saw the marker I was amazed to see that it was pointing straight down the waterfall. The trail went straight down the steep steps of the fall with copious amounts of water rushing over it.

I wasn’t kidding, we descended this waterfall almost 30m. Luckily we couldn’t get any wetter. Photo: Jesse Dhue

Descending this trail quickly brought us down to the river Otehake which was raging.

It was at about this point that Jesse informed me, the hot springs we had hiked all this way to visit, were on the other side of the river! I thought we were done. I couldn’t see any way we could make it across, and it seemed that four hours of hiking in the rain was going to be for nothing. Jesse however was not going to give up so easily. The river was reasonably high and there was no sort of trail on our side so we forded upstream hugging the bank and clambering over boulders. Eventually we found a slower, wider part of the river with a clear silt embankment in the middle. Jesse tentatively began crossing and soon found that while it was moving fast, it was only about knee deep. Soon we were on the other side. We began to catch whiffs of sulphur on the wind, a sure sign of nearby volcanic activity. This immediately got us excited and we forged up the right bank with renewed vigor. Eventually our noses led us to a short flood diversion where there was a pool of water bubbling up from under a large boulder. I quickly stood in it and my initial excitement was  replaced with disappointment, when I realized that it was only luke warm. I really wanted to warm up after being wet for the better part of a day. The constant drizzle stopped for the first time all day, so we quickly decided to seize the opportunity and set up our tent. There were a few flat spots up in the forest unfortunately the ground was very moist. We quickly set up and then raced back to the springs where Jesse, the builder, directed me to build a levee to keep out the incoming trickle of cold water and isolate the spring pool. We then dug out the base and soon had the springs cranking. With the cold water blocked out the temperature began to climb. Eventually it got too hot to sit in and we had to re-open the levee to try and regulate the temperature. It was so nice lying there after a long, cold day and relaxing in a warm pool with the cold rain pattering on my face. After an hour or so in the pool its started to get dark. I suggested we cook in the pool as it was still raining; at least that way we’d be warm. Dinner was teriyaki chicken and rice.

Cooking teriyaki chicken in the hot springs. Photo: Jesse Dhue

Eventually we retired to bed and that’s when the rain kicked it up a notch from a drizzle too a heavier rain. I lay awake most of the night listening to the rain and stressing that the river was going to rise and trap us here. Our camp site was on a high bank, so we were safe from flooding, but if we couldn’t get back across the river, we would be stuck on the wrong side until it lowered again. We packed up at first light and to our dismay the river had risen to the point that it was flying through the hot pool deviation. This was bad news.

With nothing to do but at least scope out yesterday’s crossing we forded down the river, this time in significantly deeper water. When we got to our previous crossing it was running faster but didn’t look immensely different. However looks can be deceiving. We tried an A-frame, formation where we support each other across the river, but it was quickly up to our waists so we made a hasty retreat. It was looking like we might have to wait it out. Neither of us were keen to just hang out in the rain and wait, so Jesse suggested we pack float across. Packing floating can be an extremely hazardous option. The biggest risk is that you get swept further and faster down stream than anticipated, and then caught up in and trapped by submerged obstacles. Once the force or the water builds up there is virtually no escape. Rather than dismiss the idea out of hand, we headed downstream to evaluate the risks. The river was moving pretty fast, but there appeared to be no immediate downstream hazards. Also the crossing is quite short to a small island in the middle. If we put in upstream, I hoped it would give us plenty of time to maneuver across to the island. Eventually I felt comfortable enough about the idea and we deemed it safe enough to give it a try. We started out wading into the water until the current threatened to knock us over, then we assumed defensive swimming positions and grasped our packs. I was quickly swept downstream, and soon my mind was set at full panic stations. I could feel the current pulling me back to the bank where we had come from and I was moving so fast I thought I would miss the island altogether. I fought the urge to abandon my pack in order to swim out. I really didn’t want to go upstream to try again, and dreaded the consequences of being swept past the island. Fueled by adrenaline, I kicked and clawed at the bottom of the river with all my might, and eventually broke into an eddy where I could stand up and wade onto the island. My heart was pounding, but we had made it safely across the worst of it. The second half of the crossing was much less intense and soon we were safely on the other side. Our packs were now a lot heavier, as the water had soaked into everything that wasn’t dry bagged. Compared to the river crossing, the rest of the return trip was uneventful. We delighted in the wonderful bird life as the rain began to break up. We made it back to the car by 1 pm. The trip was 5 hours of solid walking each way over varied and technical terrain. We were soaked to the bone, but it was a great adventure and we felt like we had made the most of some horrendous weather.


Avid outdoors man, aspiring mountain guide and author of 'For love of the Mountains'

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