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Hector Col and Matukituki Saddle

17 June 2010

Hector Col                     44°23.805′ S, 168°40.497′ E

Matukituki Saddle      44°23.909′ S, 168°40.086′ E

Routes to Matukituki Saddle and Hector Col, Matukituki River West Branch. Photo D Hegg

Hector Col (1498m) and Matukituki Saddle (1596m) are two low saddles on the Main Divide of the Southern Alps, separating the Matukituki River West Branch from the Waipara River. They are less than 600m apart and are connected by a narrow ridge of vegetated broken rock, with a high point that is only six metres higher than Matukituki Saddle.

Neither saddle is a particularly good pass between the Matukituki and Waipara Rivers, and while both low points can be reached from the south (Matukituki), the northern (Waipara) slopes are composed of steep rotten rock. A high sidle from Matukituki Saddle however gives good access to Waipara Saddle and the Arawhata River (see route descriptions below).

Giant buttercups at the foot of the waterfall, Matukituki River West Branch. Photo D Hegg


The first crossing of the Main Divide between the Matukituki and Waipara Rivers was completed by James Hector, Sullivan and Rayer in February 1863. The party left their horses and stashed much of their food at Shovel Flat in the Matukituki River West Branch before setting off on their attempt to reach the West Coast. After climbing to the pass at the head of the valley (which they named Hector Col), they tackled a steep and dangerous descent, during which they compared themselves to “flies on a wall”. After a night spent on a rocky ledge some 250m above the valley floor, they had to cross the Bonar Glacier which filled what is today the Waipara Lake. To get across the crevassed glacier they helped each other with a rope, 24m long and 5mm thick, which Hector had used to haul canoes in Canada, and to make river crossings safe. Hector, Sullivan and Rayer continued their travels down the Waipara to the head of a difficult gorge, then crossed the Waipara Range over or near the Pommel and descended to the lower Arawhata River. They had to retreat before reaching the coast since they had well and truly run out of food [1,2,3].

It should be pointed out that while Hector Col and Matukituki Saddle are clearly identified on topomaps today, the distinction was not at all clear in the past, and both names where used interchangeably for the low section of ridge dividing the Matukituki and Waipara Rivers. The exact point where James Hector crossed the Divide is unknown, and it could well have been near or on Matukituki Saddle rather than Hector Col.

Matukituki Saddle was crossed again by J.H. Christie, W.A. Mowat, H. Green and A. Grant in early January 1933. The party crossed Arawhata Saddle into the Arawhata, then the ridge west of Bow Peak down to the valley floor of the Waipara River before crossing back over Matukituki Saddle into the Matukituki River West Branch. Christie described the climb to Matukituki Saddle as “stiff and not without difficulty in places”, but he also thought he could see a better route [4]

J.H. Christie and A.T. Shannon crossed the Main Divide from the Matukituki into the Waipara on December 30th, 1939, then followed in Hector’s, Sullivan’s and Rayer’s footsteps over the Waipara Range and down the Arawhata to the road on the West Coast, thus completing the trip started by Hector and party 77 years earlier. Christie and Shannon climbed to Matukituki Saddle then followed the Main Divide to the south west before dropping into the Waipara, on less steep terrain below the north ridge of Mt Barff. Christie described a direct descent from Matukituki Saddle into the Waipara as “very difficult, or possibly inaccessible”, and also mentioned that a sidle to Waipara Saddle “appeared to be possible” [5]. I do not know however who the first party were to complete this route.

Route descriptions

Matukituki Saddle and Hector Col Map. 1 grid square = 1km. Left click on map to enlarge

Scott’s Bivvy to Matukituki Saddle and Hector Col

Rating: Tramping, off track, hard / Alpine, Grade 1             November 2001

From Scott’s Bivvy (Matukituki River West Branch), follow the cairned track to the end of the scrub, then through tussock (on the true right eventually) to the foot of the waterfall at the head of the valley. Climb an easy shingle fan to the top of the waterfall, where a good crossing exists to the true left again. From here, there are two main options:

1) Climb the rocky slabs in the gut on the true left of the river, generally keeping 10 to 20m above the river itself

2) Follow a faint foot trail, which sidles out of the gut on the true left, then climbs vegetated slabs, near the edge of the bluffs for a while, before sidling back towards the river up high.

The two routes converge into a large vegetated basin at 1300m of elevation with good campsites; route 2) descends about 20m to get into the basin at the end. Both routes are steep and exposed, and neither is easy. Having done both I prefer the second, since it has a better foot trail and it is easier with a heavy pack – however, it would be difficult to find on the way down. Most parties prefer to abseil the gut when descending. There are bolts in place, but they are hard to find.

From the basin at 1300m, the route climbs a bouldery gully, from the top of which it’s a short easy scramble to Hector Col. Matukituki Saddle is well guarded by bluffs, the best way around them being on the east side (right going up), just under or over elevation 1602m.

Waipara Saddle to Matukituki Saddle

Rating: Tramping, off track, hard                                                  November 2001

Climb the ridge east of Waipara saddle to about 1660m of elevation, then diagonally up and across scree slopes to the left (north) to gain a system of ledges and ramps composed of pulverised rock, which sidle at the toe of Mount Barff’s north ridge. The main divide is reached again just below the 1700m contour south west of Matukituki Saddle. The ridge can be followed down to the saddle, deviating on the Matukituki side if necessary.

Waipara River to Matukituki Saddle

A direct descent route from Matukituki Saddle into the Waipara is described in Moir’s Guide North [6]. However, I am not convinced that it is a good route at all, and I highly recommend reading Christie [5] for a much safer alternative, which starts about 500m to the south west of the saddle itself. Christie’s route sidles 1km to the west at the 1300m contour, before descending a tributary of the creek that drains Waipara Saddle. The latter creek is reached just below a waterfall.

Frost after a storm on Matukituki Saddle. Tyler and Buncombe in the back. Photo D Hegg


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

[2] 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)

[3] 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

[4] Christie, J.H.: Arawhata, Waipara Headwaters. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol V, No. 21, 1934, pages 436-437. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[5] Christie, J.H.: Completion of Matukituki – West Coast Crossing. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol VIII, No. 27, 1940, pages 169-175. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[6] p81 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

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrew permalink
    17 January 2011 1:46 pm

    The climb up to the Matukituki saddle and Hector Col is excellent. The rock on the right of the waterfall as you ascend is easy to climb and this section is great.

    The section Matukituki saddle – Waipara saddle is more difficult. We did this in summer – no snow, and the rock is extremely loose schist. Due to the difficulty of the rock we proceeded on a ledge on the north side of the ridge – and this was both slippery and (possibly) taking us below cliffs preventing us getting to the Waipara saddle. We therefore had to abort and move down towards the lake (a hard bush bash, and routes back up can be unclear).

    Please email me (avea002 at if you do intend to tramp to the north of Hector Col towards the lake as I lost a pack containing gear and personal items that I would like back – I can give you a more precise location and discuss a reward for your efforts.

    • 28 January 2011 1:24 pm

      Sounds like you guys did not climb high enough before sidling to Waipara Saddle. You should have been at least 300m above the saddle itself. The rock (if it’s worth that name at all) is loose, but low angle and easy enough. The traverse between Matukituki Saddle and Waipara Saddle is by no means more difficult than the ascent to Hector Col – provided you get the navigation right. Sorry to hear about your pack.

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