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Matukituki River, East Branch

28 May 2010

Matukituki forks coordinates 44°28.580′ S, 168°48.900′ E  

The lower East Matukituki from the south ridge of Sisyphus Peak. Photo D Hegg

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 East Branch offers a quieter and more remote experience than the adjacent West Branch. It is less developed, with fewer tracks and no huts, and generally presents more challenging climbs and crossings to the neighbouring catchments. The only passes out of the valley that get any use are Albert Burn Saddle, leading into the Albert Burn, and Rabbit Pass, leading to the South Branch of the Wilkin River, while Ruth Ridge and Moncrieff Col are difficult access routes to the Volta Glacier in the Waiatoto headwaters. Sisyphus Peak and Dragonfly Peak are great viewpoints onto the surrounding mountains, and are both very easy to climb. 


It is likely that the East Branch of the Matukituki River was first visited by Europeans during James Hector’s expedition in 1863. While Hector, Sullivan and Rayer proceeded up the West Branch and over Hector Col into Westland, the remaining three party members (led by the botanist Buchanan) were left behind to explore the ‘North Branch’ [2]. Unfortunately nothing has been recorded of their travels. 

In 1879, Hugh MacPherson and his wife settled in the East Matukituki, 1km up from Cameron Flat, in what was to become Mt Aspiring Station. Their house was built out of timber from a nearby sawmill, which operated on the north bank of the Glacier Burn from 1880 to about 1892. The MacPhersons ran a few cattle and cultivated a small area of land un til 1902, when Hugh was drowned in his sleep while on his way home from Wanaka. In the dark, the horses pulling his dray failed to notice a recent wash-out and went over a bank into the Matukituki River [3,4]. The homestead was occupied in 1909 by Duncan MacPherson and family, who relocated from their nearby station in the West Matukituki. The family left in 1919 after Mrs MacPherson’s life was also tragically claimed by the river, and shortly afterwards Jack and Amy Aspinall moved in [4]

In November 1909, Major Bernard Head, Jack Clarke and Alec Graham followed a good bush track up the East Matukituki to Junction Flat, from where they were hoping to climb Mount Aspiring. They later called their base camp here “Disappointment Camp”, for when the weather cleared and they explored the Kitchener River as far as Aspiring Flats, they could see no line of approach to the mountain. They wisely decided to abandon the attempt from this side and tried their luck up the West Branch, where they succeeded in the first ascent to the highest peak in the region [5,6]. Head named Hester Pinney Creek, the true left tributary of the East Matukituki above Disappointment Camp, after his sister’s married name [7]

Bernard Head returned to the East Matukituki in November 1911, to explore the head of the valley. He was accompanied by guides Jack Clarke and Jim Murphy, and by Otago University students K.E. Tapper (a botanist) and R.A.W. Southerland (a geologist). Head and party were able to overcome the gorge above Junction Flat – with difficulty – and on December 1st they reached Ruth Flat, which was named on the occasion. No explaination for the name ‘Ruth’  is given in Head’s diaries. Given his habit of naming geographical features after close female relatives (see also Hester Pinney, Maud Francis), it is likely that the lady immortalized in New Zealand’s geography was Mary Ruth Mayhew, married Head, Bernard Head’s sister in law [8]. The party pushed on to the head of the valley but had to abandon the climb to Rabbit Pass because of abundant fresh snowfalls. The next day the two guides made it to the snow-line on Ruth Ridge, but had to retreat again because of the bad weather [9].

H.W. and E.G. Boddy visited the head of the valley again in 1930, when they climbed Mount Aspinall on 17 February [10]. H.W. Boddy, J.S. Shanks, E. Miller and R. Pinney (Hester Pinney’s son) returned to Ruth Flat via the Kitchener River, Rainbow Stream and Wilmot Saddle in December 1930, climbing Sisyphus Peak on the way. They completed the loop descending the gorge in the East Matukituki, which they named Bledisloe Gorge [11]. Charles Bathurst Bledisloe had just been appointed Governor General of New Zealand the year before, but without doubt the name was given tongue in cheek as a pun for ‘bloody slow’.

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

Route description

Rating: Tramping track, easy (to Junction Flat), moderate (to Ruth Flat)     Feb 2010 

Cameron Flat is signposted off the Matukituki Valley road; a car park is available 100m past the gate. A good ford across the Matukituki River West Branch is found just behind the car park; if the river is high, a swing-bridge can be used near MacPherson Creek three quarters of an hour up valley. 

Once across the river, an old vehicle track is followed, skirting fences much of the way to the northern end of Cameron Flat. Where the vehicle track branches off near the old homestead, keep right. At the top end of the flat, a track marked with orange triangles leads through beech forest to a swing-bridge over the Glacier Burn, then sidles across the steep western side of the valley all the way to Junction Flat. Here, the track up the Kitchener River is signposted. 

The main track up the East Matukituki crosses the Kitchener River and the Matukituki River itself on wire bridges, then climbs to the bush-line 650m above the valley floor. The track gradually loses height while sidling high above Bledisloe Gorge before it reaches the river again south of Ruth Flat. 

The original route from Junction Flat to Ruth Flat followed the river through Bledisloe Gorge. This route is difficult and only goes when river levels are low [12]

Times: 3 hours from Cameron Flat to Junction Flat, 5 hours from Junction Flat to Ruth Flat 

The wire bridge over the Matukituki River East Branch at Junction 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] p97-127 in Hocken, AG (2007) The early life of James Hector, 1834 to 1865: the first Otago Provincial Geologist. University of Otago, PhD thesis 

[3] p160-162 in Moreland, M. (1911) Through South Westland. Whitcombe & Tombs Limited, London, 219 pages

[4] p28-37 in Aspinall, J. (1993) Farming under Aspiring. Published by the Aspinall Family, Wanaka, 267 pages

[5] Chapter 4 in Gilkison, W.S. (1951) Aspiring – The romantic story of the Matterhorn of the Southern Alps. Whitcombe and Tombs Limited. 80 pages 

[6] Conquest of Mount Aspiring. The Press, 18 December 1909 

[7] Handwritten account by Bernard Head of his approach to Mount Aspiring. MS-3184/001 in Hocken Library Archives and Manuscripts.

[8] A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain as well as the royal families of Europe. Person Page – 43543. Accessed 11 June 2010.

[9] Typescript account by Bernard Head of his expeditions to the Matukituki Valley. MS-3184/002 in Hocken Library Archives and Manuscripts.

[10] First ascents and explorations – Aspiring Group. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol IV, No. 18, 1931, page 155. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[11] Miller, E.: On the Spurs of Aspiring. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol IV, No. 18, 1931, pages 216-226. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[12] p84-85 in Spearpoint, G. (Editor) 2005. Moir’s Guide North, 7th Edition – The Otago Southern Alps. A tramping and transalpine guide from the Hollyford to Lake Ohau. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 260 pages

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