Sad, horrible and beautiful
he wide, open plain that is Edwards Pass in the Clarence Valley of southern Marlborough stretches before us. Mike Latty and I have a loosely formed plan which involves trekking in past Samoa Mound and onto Tonga Hill – a 1600m outlier of the St James Range, to reach Mt Sadd, 1798m, which is on the range proper.
We’ve chosen this relatively remote and little visited region mostly on account of the weather which is piling cloud cover onto the ranges to the west and sending the odd gust of wind into the valleys.
We hope to escape the bad weather thanks to the sheltering effect of the St James Range and pull off a summit attempt at the same time. The summits seem a long way off and I’m not so sure this will work, but we’re keen to try.
We have 5 kilometres of desertlike terrain to cover before we can even reach the base of Tonga Hill. It’s actually the start of the St James Cycleway MTB track so the going is very quick and we are soon fording the small but swift Edwards River to reach the base of the range.
From here it’s slog time – an 800m ascent spread over 3km of rough and sometimes steep ground to reach the top of ‘‘the hill’’, but this is not the hill we want to climb. It’s only a waypoint as the real summit, Mt Sadd, lies some 2km farther north along a ridge of indeterminate difficulty.
As we climb we try not to think of the names of the peaks here – Mt Sadd and nearby sister summit Mt Horrible. It’s all a little depressing and seems a good fit with the landscape, which is bleak, inhospitable, and barren.
That, of course, is the nature of much of this portion of the region, bordering southern Molesworth Station and taking a regular beating at the hands of the ubiquitous nor’wester. The result is a rather tired landscape and, yes, sad. For all that it is still powerful and evokes feelings of insignificance amid the power and raw beauty of nature.
Tonga Hill is close and so is the wind. Flicking its wings over the open ridge crest, the nor’west gale grips us as we pass over the summit to reach a rock outcrop at 1691m. In this tiny sanctuary we have lunch and take stock of where we are and, most importantly, where we might be going.
The ridge ahead is not welcoming – snowed-up, corniced in places, windswept. Mike voices the thoughts of us both: ‘‘There’s a lot going on along there, mate.’’ Understated to be sure, but clear nevertheless. Not one to give up easily, I head on by myself along the ridge to check out the difficulties and how we might negotiate them with the time we have.
Mike waits in shelter back at the rocks. I’m not gone long, though, assessing that the remainder of the route won’t go for us this day in these conditions and that, sadly, we need to descend into the valley of desolation where Horrible Stream will lead us home.
Tough going: Mike Latty on the ridge checks the safety of the route.