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Matukituki River, West Branch

24 May 2010

Raspberry Flat car park coordinates 44°30.580′ S, 168°44.535′ E 

The Matukituki River drains the eastern and southern aspects of Mount Aspiring and flows east of the Main Divide into Lake Wanaka. It collects the waters of two main catchments, the Matukituki River West Branch and the East Branch, which join at Cameron Flat, approx 30km upstream of Lake Wanaka. The maori name is interpreted as ‘dashing’ or ‘pounding stream’, from ma: stream, and tukituki: dashing. It is possible however that the river would have been named after a maori chief [1]

The West Branch is arguably one of the most popular valleys in the Southern Alps, thanks to the ease of access, the magnificent alpine scenery, and the fact that it provides the easiest approach to Mount Aspiring. It is served by a good network of tracks and huts, including Cascade Hut, Aspiring Hut, Liverpool Hut, French Ridge Hut and Colin Todd Hut (although the latter is technically in the Waipara catchment). Crossings to the neighbouring valleys are possible over Shotover Saddle to the Shotover River, Cascade Saddle to the Dart River, Arawhata Saddle to the Arawhata River, Matukituki Saddle to the Waipara River, Bevan Col and Quarterdeck Pass to the Bonar Glacier (Waipara catchment). The valley also offers easy access to a number of popular climbing peaks, including Sharks Tooth Peak, Mount Tyndall, Governors’ Ridge and Mount Liverpool, Mount Barff, Mount Avalanche and Rob Roy Peak

The lower reaches of the West Matukituki from the route to Cascade Saddle. Photo D Hegg


The Matukituki River was familiar to the Maori, although it did not provide any trade routes to the west. The first Europeans to visit the valley were the surveyors Edward Jollie and William S. Young, who travelled up the west side of Lake Wanaka in 1859 and followed the river into the West Branch, hoping to find a pass to the West Coast. They eventually retreated and explored a southern tributary, the Motatapu [2]

By 1860, settlers had occupied much of Central Otago, and run-holders were filing applications for country that did not exist on the maps. James McKerrow was thus given the gigantic task to survey three to four million acres and six lakes in inland Otago (including what is today Southland). His first expedition was to Wanaka in 1861-62, and in 1862 he made his way into the West Matukituki and went ‘further up the river and further inland in this direction than ever man was known to be’. His task was to survey pastoral country, and he  had to forgo any plans of exploring the alpine region [3,5,6]

Later in the same year, James Hector climbed Black Peak, from where he thought he could see a gap in the range south of Mount Aspiring. This looked like a promising route to the West Coast, and in February 1863 Hector made his way up the Matukituki River with a party of six. Hector, Sullivan and Rayer climbed to Hector Col and crossed the Main Divide into the Waipara River [4,7,8]. For more information about their trip, see the notes about Hector Col.

Gold prospectors were in the valley roughly at the same time as James Hector, but didn’t meet with any success. Shovel flat however is named after one of their relics. A shovel was left hanging in a tree at the edge of the bush, and while the handle rotted away, the rusted blade protruded out of the tree trunk until the 1930s [9]

The first runholders settled in the valley in the 1870s. Stations were established below the forks at Cattle Flat (Rose Brothers) and downstream of Cameron Flat (Ewan Cameron, Glenfinnan Station), and in the West Branch of the Matukituki by MacPherson Creek (Duncan MacPherson and his wife) [10,11]. A sawmill operated near the mouth of Mill Creek from 1879 to 1891, across the river from Glenfinnan Station [9]

Major Bernard Head, Jack Clarke and Alec Graham were the first climbing party to reach the head of the valley in November 1909. They completed the first ascent of Mount Aspiring after discovering a route to the Bonar Glacier via French Ridge and Quarterdeck Pass [12,13]. Since then, the valley has seen a steady flow of climbers aiming to conquer the highest peak in the region. Trampers have followed in masses with the opening of huts and tracks, and routes into the neighbouring valleys. 

Route descriptions

Matukituki River West Branch map. 1 grid square = 1km. Click to enlarge

Raspberry Flat car park to Pearl Flat

Rating: tramping track, easy              March 2010 

The track up the West Matukituki starts at the road end at Raspberry Flat, just before Big Creek. A good farm track (no vehicle access) leads all the way to Aspiring Hut, with several shortcuts marked with orange poles. A popular side-track up Rob Roy Stream is signposted about 20 minutes from the car park. 

Cascade Hut is well visible in a paddock 100m west of the track, half an hour down valley of Aspiring Hut. The start of the route to Cascade Saddle is signposted at Aspiring Hut

Beyond Aspiring Hut, the track enters beech forest and crosses Cascade Creek and Rough Creek on swing-bridges before reaching Shovel Flat. From the top of Shovel Flat it’s only a quarter of an hour through beech forest to Pearl Flat, from where tracks lead up the sides of the valley to Liverpool Hut and French Ridge

Times: 2 hours from Raspberry Flat car park to Aspiring Hut, 1.5 hours from Aspiring Hut to Pearl Flat. 

Pearl Flat to the head of the valley

Rating: tramping track, moderate      November 2001 

At Pearl Flat, Liverpool Stream is crossed on a swing-bridge 50m up from the forks. After re-descending to Pearl Flat, the track enters beech forest again and continues to a wire bridge on the Matukituki River near the head of the valley. This section of track is rougher and climbs up and down over a couple of bluffs, crossing a major avalanche path on the way. 

Beyond the wire bridge, a cairned track is followed on the true left of the Matukituki River past Scott’s Bivvy and to the end of the scrub. When going down valley, the track entrance in the scrub is well marked with cairns. Once in the tussocks it’s easy travel to the waterfall at the head of the valley, on the true right in the last section. 

Time: 2 hours from Pearl Flat to the base of the waterfall. 

Early morning at Shovel Flat. Photo D Hegg


[1] Reed, A.W. (1996) The Reed Dictionary of Māori Place Names, 3rd Edition. Published by Reed Books. 144 pages 

[2] p76 in McClymont, W.G. (1959) The Exploration of New Zealand. 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press, London. 125 pages 

[3] p78-79, same as above 

[4] p82-83, same as above 

[5] McKerrow, J.: Exploration and Survey of the north-west part of the province. Otago Witness, Issue 553, 5 July 1862, Page 8 

[6] McKerrow, J.: Reconnaissance Survey. Otago Witness, Issue 556, 26 July 1862, Page 3 

[7] Chapter 11 in Pascoe, J. (1959) Great days in New Zealand exploration. A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, 192 pages 

[8] Sullivan, M.: Dr Hector’s Exploring Expeditions into the Interior. Otago Daily Times, 9 February 1863 (Part I), 19 March 1863 (Part II) and 20 March 1863 (Part III)

[9] p24-28 in Aspinall, J. (1993) Farming under Aspiring. Published by the Aspinall Family, Wanaka, 267 pages

[10] p30-37, same as above

[11] Chapter 11 in Gilkison, W.S. (1951) Aspiring – The romantic story of the Matterhorn of the Southern Alps. Whitcombe and Tombs Limited. 80 pages 

[12] Chapter 4, same as above 

[13] Head, B.: Conquest of Mount Aspiring. The Press, 18 December 1909

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