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Kitchener River / Wai-utu-utu

16 October 2010

River mouth coordinates 44°24.833′ S, 168°49.668′ E

Aspiring Flats, Kitchener River. Photo D Hegg


The Kitchener River is the largest tributary of the Matukituki River East Branch. It drains the eastern aspects of Popes Nose and Mount Avalanche, and after collecting the waters of Fastness through Rainbow Stream, it flows into the Matukituki River at Junction Flat. Two km upstream of Aspiring Flats, the Kitchener terminates abruptly in an impressive cirque of vertical bluffs, through which the main river tumbles down the 370m high Turnbull Thomson Falls.

The valley is a popular tramping destination, with a good rock bivvy (the Rock of Ages), giving easy access to Wilmot Saddle and Sisyphus Peak via Rainbow Stream. A more demanding alpine route leads to the Volta Glacier via Moncrieff Col. Climbs from the Kitchener River to Mount Avalanche, Popes Nose or Fastness are very difficult and rarely attempted. The east face of Popes Nose in fact offers some of the hardest alpine climbs in the Southern Alps, and has only been accessed by parties flying into the Kitchener Glacier.

Kitchener River: Aspiring Flats and Turnbull Thomson Falls from the ridge connecting Dragonfly Peak and Mount Eostre. Photo D Hegg


The Kitchener River was known to the Maori as Wai-utu-utu, “the stream where water was dipped up” [1]. The first written account of European exploration in the Kitchener River is by Bernard Head, who in November 1909 attempted Mount Aspiring from the east with guides Jack Clarke and Alec Graham. After setting up camp at Junction Flat, the party followed “an old track in places” as far as Aspiring Flats, where they realized that they had hit a dead end [2]. Head, Clarke and Graham baptized their camp “Disappointment Camp”; by no means disheartened, they gave it a second try from the Matukituki River West Branch and successfully completed the first ascent of the highest peak in Otago. Bernard Head returned to the Kitchener two years later with guides Murphy and Clarke, and partially explored the route up Rainbow Stream [3,4]. After his two visits to the valley, Head named the river after Horatio Herbert Kitchener (1850-1916), a British Field Marshal and proconsul who won fame for his imperial campaigns [4]; he also named Junction Flat, at the junction of the Kitchener and East Matukituki Rivers [2].

The “old track” up the Kitchener River mentioned in Head’s diary was probably cut by Hugh MacPherson in the late 1890s. Hugh MacPherson and his wife were the first settlers in the Matukituki River East Branch; according to Maud Moreland, Hugh “had once great ideas and believed these lonely valleys would one day vie with the Otira in drawings strangers hither. So he cut a trail and built a hut, but no one came, […] and in process of time the hut became a ruin” [6]. The hut, located in the flats between the Kitchener and East Matukituki Rivers, was described by Bernard Head as being “all to pieces” [5]. The Kitchener may have previously been visited by gold prospectors, who scouted the Matukituki Valley in the 1860s. Loggers may have worked in the valley when a sawmill operated on the north bank of the Glacier Burn (4km downstream of Junction Flat) between 1880 and 1892 [7].  

The exploration of Rainbow Stream, the Kitchener’s largest tributary, was completed by E. Miller, H. Boddy, J. Shanks and R. Pinney between December 1930 and January 1931 [8].  The head of the Kitchener Cirque was first reached by S. Gilkison, J.A. Sim, J.E. Strang and R. Fraser in December 1933. Their trip was infamous for being the first attempt by a climbing party at dropping supplies from the air – an experiment which failed miserably, with a parachute that refused to open and the resulting ‘explosion’ of the parcel of supplies on impact with the Kitchener Glacier. Gilkison and party reached the glacier after battling horrendous scrub on the south side of the Turnbull Thomson Falls (see route 2 on map below); after the failed air drop, they had to abandon their planned traverse of the Volta and Therma Glaciers, but were nonetheless able to climb to Parachute Col [9,10,11,12].  Another scrubby route into the Kitchener Cirque via Spurling Creek was scouted by Paul Powell and Bill Hockin in May 1956 [13] and is described in the NZAC guidebook to the Mount Aspiring Region [16] (route 3 on map). Paul Powell also reached the Kitchener Cirque from the Glacier Burn, after climbing to the saddle west of Duncans Knob [14]; the latter was first climbed via the north-east spur from Junction Flat by Bernard Head, Jack Clarke and Jim Murphy, but their route was steep and required a rope [5] (route 1 on map).

Paul Powell, Briam Wilkins and Arthur Tyers completed the last major exploration in the Kitchener in December 1951, when they crossed Moncrieff Col to the Volta Glacier [15,17]. During his many trips into the Kitchener, Powell named a number of geographical features, among these the Turnbull Thomson Falls, after J.T. Thomson, first chief surveyor of Otago, and Spurling Creek (“Spurling describes the way the creek comes down in a series of spurting bounds from one water table to the one below”) [18].

Route descriptions

Kitchener River Map. 1 grid square = 1km. Left click to enlarge. Purple lines are access routes to Kitchener Cirque: (1) Head, Clarke, and Murphy, 1911, very steep near bushline, (2) Gilkison, Sim, Strang and Fraser, 1933, very steep, thick scrub, NOT RECOMMENDED, (3) Powell and Hockin, 1956, very scrubby?, (4) Glacier Burn access route

Junction Flat to Rock of Ages

Rating: Tramping track, easy to moderate                          December 2010

From Junction Flat (see the Matukituki River East Branch notes), a good track climbs through beech forest on the true right of the Kitchener River until the beautiful Aspiring Flats are reached. Follow faint trails around swamps at the edge of the flats, keeping close under the hill, until where the river closes in against the bush edge again. Depending on river flow, it might be easier to cross a braid of the Kitchener and stay in the middle of the river flats (beware of quick-sands), or sidle through the bush at the toe of the hill. A cairn marks the start of the track to the Rock of Ages, on the true right of the Kitchener River, about 200m west of the Rainbow Stream junction. Follow the track up the hill and past a small but dry rock bivvy (sleeps 3 to 4) to reach the roomy bivvy rock, located in beech forest about 20m above the valley floor. Allow 1 hour from Junction Flat to the bivvy. 

The Kitchener River precipitates into the 370m high Turnbull Thomson Falls. Photo D Hegg

Rock of Ages to Turnbull Thomson Falls

Rating: Tramping, off track, easy to moderate                 December 2010

From the top end of Aspiring Flats, it’s another 45 minutes easy travel in the river bed to near the bush edge, where a good view of Turnbull Thomson Falls is obtained. If the river is high, cross to the true left just upstream of the Rock of Ages, then follow a ground trail through grassy clearings and patches of bush. A good deer trail (cairned at the start) leads through a belt of beech forest about half way to the falls.

The falls have been climbed on the true right – a real nightmare through steep, thick scrub according to Gilkison and party (route 2 on map). The best access route to the Kitchener Cirque is probably via the Glacier Burn and across the northern aspects of the Mildewed Meg [15] (route 4 on map).

Aspiring Flats and the Kitchener Cirque from the south ridge of Sisyphus Peak. Photo D Hegg


[1] p44 in Beattie, H. (1945) Maori Lore of Lake, Alp and Fiord. Otago Daily Times and Witness Newspapers Co Ltd, Dunedin, NZ. 150 pages.

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

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

[4] Accounts by Bernard Head of his expeditions, including the first ascent of Mount Aspiring. MS-3166/007 in Hocken Library Archives and Manuscripts.    

[5] Record book belonging to Bernard Head. MS-3166/009 in Hocken Library Archives and Manuscripts.

[6] p204 in Moreland, A.M. (1911) Through South Westland. Whitcombe & Tombs Limited, London (UK), 219 pages.

[7] p25-28 in Aspinall, J. (1993) Farming under Aspiring. Published by the Aspinall Family, Wanaka, 267 pages

[8] 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. 

[9] Sim, J.A.: A Bivouac by Aeroplane – An Experiment. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol V, No. 21, 1934, pages 300-306. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[10] Chapter 10 in Gilkison, W.S. (1951) Aspiring – The romantic story of the Matterhorn of the Southern Alps. Whitcombe and Tombs Limited. 80 pages 

[11] p96-98 in Gilkison, W.S. (1940) Peaks, Packs and Mountain Tracks. Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 120 pages

[12] Sim, J.A.: “A Mountain Flight” – The Sequel. The Otago Daily Times, 13 January 1934, p4.

[13] p120-123 in Powell, P. (1967) Men Aspiring. AH & AW Reed, Wellington, 183 pages

[14] p110-119, same as above

[15] p60-67, same as above

[16] p40-42 in Uren, A. and Cocks, J. (2009) The Mount Aspiring Region – a guide for mountaineers. 3rd Edition. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 162 pages

[17] Powell, P.: Advance on Aeroplane. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol XV, No. 40, 1953, pages 66-71. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[18] Powell, P. in OSONZAC newsletter, November 1968

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