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Arawhata Saddle

17 August 2010

Coordinates 44°25.353′ S, 168°37.945′ E  

Arawhata Saddle and Liverpool Hut from French Ridge. Photo D Hegg

Arawhata Saddle (1756m a.s.l.) is the low point on the Main Divide of the Southern Alps between Mount Liverpool and Mount Barff. It is the easiest and most direct pass between the Matukituki River West Branch (east) and the Arawhata River (west), and can be comfortably crossed in a day from Liverpool Hut to the Arawhata Rock Biv, or vice versa. A high level route sidles the western side of the ranges south of the saddle to the head of the Snow White Glacier.  


According to historian Irvine Roxburgh, the Arawhata Saddle was known to the Maori, who “many a time used both the valley [Matukituki] and this saddle as a route to the coast” [1]. To support his claim, Roxburgh cites J.T. Thomson’s map of the interior of Otago (1857), where “we see Makarora definitely placed south of Mt Aspiring, with its river valley running east to west […] the route corresponds geographically with the Matukituki River as now known” [1]. I disagree with Roxburgh’s interpretation. Thomson never had a chance to explore the rivers at the head of Lakes Wanaka and Hawea, and drew his maps relying on information supplied by the Maori. While he knew that the Makarora leads to a pass to the West Coast (Haast Pass and Maori Saddle), he did not know where exactly the Makarora is located. On his map, he used the correct name, in the wrong geographical location. According to Roxburgh, he would have used the wrong name (Makarora instead of Matukituki), in a valley that he drew in the correct geographical location. The Arawhata Saddle is an alpine crossing requiring alpine skills, and would have been even more so in more heavily glaciated times in centuries past. While the Maori may have scouted it, I very much doubt they would have considered it a practical route.

The first known crossing of the Arawhata Saddle was made by mistake – a story that is typical of the pioneering days, when maps had more blanks than lines. E. Miller, J.W. Aitken, H.W. Boddy, F. Hansen and R. Stokes set off from Pearl Flat in the Matukituki River West Branch on Christmas Day 1923, with the intention of crossing ‘Dart Saddle’ into the head of the Dart River. They climbed through the bush to the north of Liverpool Stream to reach a campsite near the current Liverpool Hut site. On Boxing Day they set up camp at the end of the long medial moraine at the head of Liverpool Stream, then scouted a route to the Arawhata Saddle. They chose a direct approach, which required some rope work up the steep 200m rock-wall that defends the pass. From the top of the pass they looked into the Arawhata River, which they still assumed to be the Dart [2]. While the ‘Dart Saddle’ (today Cascade Saddle) had been crossed once before, one should keep in mind that Bernard Head had died in war a couple of years later, and his diaries had not been published. Twelve years later, the first party attempting to repeat his crossing had pretty much no information at all.  

Steep snow gully on the way to Arawhata Saddle. Photo D Hegg

On 27 December the party of five climbed to the Arawhata Saddle again, this time with full packs, then descended into the Arawhata River. They continued down valley to Williamson Flat – it seems that they were now aware they were in Westland – then climbed to Mystery Col and crossed the Snow White Glacier to Whitbourn Saddle. Here they knew they were looking into the Dart catchment, but they were unable to find a way down. They thus retraced their steps into the Arawhata, and back to the Matukituki the way they had come [2].  

Ten years later, at the end of December 1933, an Otago party of six (R. Fraser, J.A. Sim, W.S. Gilkison, J.E. Strang, D.H. Leigh, H.N. Merrington) reached the Arawhata Saddle in an attempt to climb Mt Maori. They chose a route through the forest up the south side of Liverpool Stream, where they had to fight thick bush and one challenging bluff. Mt Maori retained its virginity on this occasion, but the party discovered a route through the bluffs which opened the way to the Snow White Glacier [3]. The route through the bush south of Liverpool Stream was repeated on rare occasion by parties wishing to avoid the river-crossing at Pearl Flat, but was completely abandoned once Liverpool Stream was bridged.  

In early January 1939, J.P. Cook, W.S. Gilkison, E.O. Dawson and A.R. Craigie were the first party to complete the circuit over Whitbourn Saddle and Arawhata Saddle. They walked up the Rees and over Snowy Saddle into the Dart, then into the Whitbourn. After first ascents of Pivot Peak and Mt Moriori (today Maruiwi), they completed the high sidle to Arawhata Saddle [4,5]. This was quickly accepted as the standard access route to the Snow White Glacier, and for many years it was even preferred to the gorges of the upper Arawhata River as a route to Williamson Flat. In 1949, Colin Todd wrote “Williamson Flats are probably the most inaccessible large flats in New Zealand. The two quickest ways of access are either across the Arawata Saddle and the Snow-White Glacier, or over the Whitburn Saddle and across the same glacier” [6].  

Route descriptions  

A crossing of the Arawhata Saddle requires basic mountaineering skills, as all routes to and from the saddle are alpine in character. The east (Matukituki) side of the saddle is steep and permanently snow covered, while the west (Arawhata) side offers a comparatively easy tramp on shingle and vegetated slopes.  

Arawhata Saddle map. 1 grid square = 1km. Left click on map to enlarge

Liverpool Hut to Arawhata Saddle  

Rating: Alpine, grade 1                       February 2010  

From Liverpool Hut, pick a good foot-trail, which climbs onto the spur immediately to the west, then sidles several hundred meters into a gully to cross a creek before reaching a grassy knob at CA11 545715. The trail now descends steeply through snow grass and rock slabs to cross the glacier-fed stream that drains the south face of Mount Barff, then climbs onto the very pronounced medial moraine on the true left of Liverpool Stream. Follow the crest of the moraine for 1km, then aim for a large cairn that marks the descent into the head basin of Liverpool Stream. This is where the climb proper starts.  

Liverpool Stream head wall - route topo to Arawhata Saddle. Photo D Hegg

The head-wall of Liverpool Stream consists of three rock steps separated by snowy/shingle ledges. Early in the season, the two lower steps may be under a snow field. The first, smallest rock band is easily avoided on snow/shingle hard under the face of Mount Liverpool. Beware of missiles from above. The second rock step is climbed in the middle, on the true right of the waterfall, where a ledge covered in loose debris leads to a natural staircase angling back to the left. At the top of the second step, veer right and diagonally up a moderate angled snow ramp (rock in late season) to reach a small knoll at 1620m of elevation, at CA11 527718. Climb easy snow slopes directly above the knoll to the 1800m contour, then sidle left across exposed snow to reach the south-west ridge of Mt Barff, 50m above Arawhata Saddle. If the diagonal snow ramp is cut off in late season, it may be better to climb a steep snow gully just to the right of the third rock band.

With some careful navigation, this route does not present any major difficulties even with a full pack. A rope is generally superfluous. Allow about 5 hours from Liverpool Hut to the saddle, in either direction  

Arawhata Rock to Arawhata Saddle  

Rating: Tramping, off track, hard               February 2010  

From the Arawhata Rock, travel up valley for 1km to a small true left tributary at C10 511731. Travel is easiest on the true right of the Arawhata River at first, where open leads make for fast travel through the scrub. Once the leads peter out, alternate between river travel and the scrub on the true right as convenient. The small tributary offers good travel until a waterfall is encountered, which can be avoided on its true right. Keep climbing in the creek bed or through tall tussocks to an area with large boulders at 1340m of elevation, where eroding slopes give access to a spur to the south at CA10 516726. Climb 100m up the vegetated spur to reach a wide terrace at 1500m of elevation. Follow the terrace to the south for 0.5km, crossing one incised creek on the way, until a route can be seen free of obstacles all the way to the Arawhata Saddle.  

Times: From the Arawhata Rock to the saddle, 5 hours. In the reverse direction, 3.5 to 4 hours  

On the medial moraine at the head of Liverpool Stream. Photo D Hegg


[1] p18-19 in Roxburgh, I. (1957) Wanaka Story: A History of the Wanaka, Hawea, Tarras, and surrounding districts. Otago Centennial Historical Publications, Dunedin, 274 pages

[2] Stokes, R.: A trip through north-west Otago. Christmas, 1923. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol III, No 14, 1925, p260-272. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club.  

[3] Gilkison, W.S.: Arawata Saddle, Attempt on Mt. Maori. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol V, No 21, 1934, p431-433. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club.  

[4] Cook, J.P.: Arawata Roundabaout. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol VIII, No 26, 1939, p46-57. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club.  

[5] p71-78 in Gilkison, W.S. (1940) Peaks, Packs and Mountain Tracks. Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 120 pages

[6] Todd, C.: Return to the Olivines. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol 13, No 36, 1949, p18-22. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club.

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