Upper Wilkin River, Top Forks Hut

Upper Wilkin River, Top Forks Hut

18th – 21st December 2022

The Upper Wilkin is a beautiful valley to explore and made highly accessible by flying into Jumboland airstrip with Southern Alps Air.

After staying at Makarora Lodge for the night of 18th December, nine trampers waited for three scheduled flights at 7am, 7.30 and 8am, the plane carrying only three trampers and packs due to the short runway at Jumboland. After low cloud lifted, we enjoyed superb flights up the Wilkin, spotting the Siberia and Wonderland valleys on the way.

We waited until all nine trampers had arrived at Jumboland airstrip, a mowed strip on the true left of the Wilkin River, before following our pilot’s directions: “Walk up the slope between the beech trees, through the swamp, cross the river, and join the DOC track to the huts.” Finding a safe river crossing took some time, as the Wilkin was running high, but it was useful to practice our river crossing technique. The walk from Jumboland airstrip to Top Forks Huts took us 1 ½ hours.

NOTMC were the only tra

mpers at Top Forks, so we spread out comfortably between the two huts, (10 bunks, and 6 bunks), with grand views of Mts Pollux and Castor.

After settling into the huts and eating lunch, we set off to explore the South Branch of the Wilkin, up a track that leads to Waterfall Flat, where the valley ends in the cirque walls of Waterfall face. This is a rough track, high above Snow Bridge Gorge, and after 2 hours at 1100 metres we turned back, due to thick mist and rain. (Waterfall Flat is 4-5 hours from the hut, and we needed a full day for this trip.)

The next morning we headed up the North Branch in two groups, one leaving at 8am for Lake Castalia, the other group of five leaving later to lunch at Lucidus Lake. The North Branch is a wide valley, dramatic and magnificent. After the heavy rain of the previous night, the South Branch was running high, so more careful river crossings were practiced. It is a 1 hour walk through mossy beech forest, beside a raging Wilkin River tumbling over massive rocks, to Lake Diana above the bush line. From here it is an easy half hour walk through grasslands and over boardwalk to milky Lucidus Lake, surrounded by a high moraine wall on one side, and sheer bluffs with permanent ice and cascading waterfalls on the other.

After stopping for morning tea at Lucidus Lake, the lead group carried on to Lake Castalia. This took us another four hours from Lucidus, through magnificent herb fields, luxuriant in densely growing Mt Cook Lilies (in full bloom), native broom, speargrass, flowering celmisia, eyebright, native carrot, hebe, geum and tussock. Finally we scrambled high over boulders to Lake Castalia. What a stunning spot: still deep clear blue water reflecting waterfalls, ice and snow. Leaving the Lake at 3pm, passing thunderous, cracking avalanches swirling into Lucidus Lake, it took us only four hours back to the huts, moving faster downhill and finding the river levels had dropped.

It was up at 4.30am next morning to breakfast and pack, allowing for the 1 ½ hours walk back to the airfield for the first 7am flight. With the Wilkin River lower and the route familiar, we were back at the airstrip in an hour. What a welcome sight that little Cessna was as it flew round the corner!

A brilliant trip, made so accessible for everyone with the flights in and out.

Jenny Kitchin.