It takes around seven hours to reach the Welcome Flat Hut via a well marked track and there is the added bonus of the relaxing natural hot pools.
The hut is approximately 450 metres above sea level and 17.8 kilometres from the car park.
The dynamic geology of the Copland Valley has had a direct effect on both how the track was originally built and how it is maintained today. There are no other tracks on the West Coast that were built to such exacting specifications (the hind quarters of a donkey with two large saddle bags) and were solely for the use of tourists.
To the north the Copland and Navigator Ranges flank the Valley Track, in the south the Sierra and Kärangarua Ranges stand like a giant buttresses that funnel you to the Copland Pass. The Copland car park is signposted just before the Kärangarua River and is only forty metres above sea level.
You face your first stream crossing at Rough Creek just off the car park. Many people perform acrobatic arm movements trying to keep their boots dry, however, slipping on rocks and drowning yourself and your pack before the journey has even begun is just not worth it. Keep your boots on and focus on getting a good footing.
If it is raining and you are insistent on completing the walk there is a bridged wet weather option about half an hour upstream. Most of the large creeks up to Welcome Flat have a flood bridges, which makes the trip much safer however, there are still a number of small side creeks that become raging torrents even in moderate rain. Many miners drowned before they even got to their West Coast claims and even today the rivers and streams can quickly rise and take the lives of hunters and trampers who do not respect the West Coast waterways.
Look for the giant sized orange marker on the far side of Rough Creek and follow the well-formed path through the forest. The track is clearly marked and well benched through the lower valley forest sections thanks to the ongoing work of the DOC South Westland Wehaka Visitor Assets team.
After passing through some open farmland where you may find a friendly sheep or cow your first place worth taking a photograph is at the confluence of the Kärangarua and Copland Rivers. Hunters often head up the Kärangarua River to Cassel Flat in search of the “big three” hoping to bring back a deer, chamois and thar trophy.
The forest is made up of cedar, totara, rata and kamahi which crown the forest while holly, fuchia, akeake, ribbonwood and clemisias inhabit the under story. While hiking look out for fantail, silvereye, grey warbler, tomtit, bellbird, tui, pigeon and kea and for more information on the local birdlife look at the Birding West Coast website.
From the confluence to Architect Creek the track switches between riverbed and lowland forest with occasional grassy clearings. Again look out for the large orange triangles that direct you back into the forest.
There is an old routered wooden sign at Pick and Shovel Flat. This was the first major campsite for the track gangs and was used by the early unsuccessful gold prospectors. After another section on the river flats you will come to Architects Hut, which was built in 1984 on the site of one of the main track building camps from the early 1900’s.
Architects Hut is a great place to have lunch; take refuge from the weather and at certain times of the year take a break from ‘tribal’ sandfly-slapping dance. There are two bunk beds, a potbelly stove and a long drop toilet a short distance from the hut. You could even spend the night if you wanted to break up the trip. It is also comforting to know that the Westpac Rescue Helicopter can land at the huts’ helipad if anyone is unfortunate enough to need it.
After the Hut a re-route takes you up a short spur and away from the original track which followed the Copland River to the swing bridge over Architect Creek. Beyond Architect Creek the track climbs steadily towards Palaver Creek.
Approximately thirty minutes up the track there is an active landslide known as Slippery Face. This unstable slope requires careful footwork and it is recommended that you do not stop untill you return to the established track on the other side or attempt to traverse the area during heavy rainfall.
Palaver Creek has a well-crafted bridge; the first attempt was built in 1973 then replaced by the new version in 2008. In hot weather it is worth doing the river crossing and stopping for a swim in the waterhole on a hot day.
Just past Palaver Creek is the Punch Bowl Falls View Point, another great photographic opportunity with a 131 metre waterfall. The next noticeable track feature is the Shiel’s Creek Emergency Shelter, has been a life preserving rock bivouac for unfortunate hikers facing a swollen Shiel’s Creek before the swing bridge was installed. From the new bridge you can see waterfalls, look straight into the heart of an avalanche path and decomposing snow on the ranges even in December.
The last climb of the day is just beyond Shiel’s Creek, the track then heads gently downwards to the welcome site of the hut. The track passes through groves of fuchsia and ribbonwood before emerging into the Welcome Flat Hut clearing. The Hut sleeps up to thirty people marae style on mattresses that are laid out in lines on the second floor. There is a very productive coal fire, running water and lots of bench and seating space. For those who do not like to rough it you will be relieved to find two flush toilets that are kept very clean by the Hut Warden.
Please be kind to your Hut Warden and it is worth going to the 7pm “Hut Talk and Welcome”, as you may be able to find out information about other hot pools in New Zealand and from around the world.
You can continue on to the Douglas Rocks Hut the next day. The hut named after Charlie Douglas is three hours from Welcome Flat Hut and if you head in this direction on a fine day you will see stunning views of the Navigator Range and Copland Pass. However, be warned the going beyond the Douglas Rocks Hut quickly becomes treacherous and only well equipped and experienced alpine climbers should attempt the Pass. This area has claimed a life as recently as April 2010.
The Hot Pools
I am convinced that the“crockpot” factor involving the slow cooking of weary bones at the end of a day’s hiking is as welcome then as it was historically. Shiel’s Peak rises up beyond the Welcome Flat Rock Biv and the Seirra Range stands as a sentinel across the Copland River.
Ribbonwood, holly, creeping ferns and moss the fringe pools. As well as the usual avian population you may have your shiny things stolen by a weka, see the clown like kea or hear the soft bomb of a kaka in mating season.
The sticky mud in the shallow pools makes an excellent exfoliant, however, sticking your head under water can prove hazardous to your health. There have been no actual recorded cases of amoebic meningitis from these pools; however, there is no need to set your own precedent.
Before Europeans were in the area Hinetamatea, with her two sons T?t?wh?k? and Marupeka and their wives, had journeyed up the Copland valley, crossing over the Southern Alps/ K? Tiritiri o te Moana. M?ori from Makaawhio often travelled from Bruce Bay Mahitahi to Welcome Flat to visit the hot pools and snare weka.
In 1892 the government of the day commissioned an assessment of the Copland to “determine the practicability of a route for a mule or horse track from The Hermitage across the alps to the West Coast”. Despite two well known explorers and surveyors, Charlie Douglas and Arthur P. Harper, providing unfavourable reports on the suitability of constructing a route on the dynamic terrain, the government was determined to press ahead.
In 1901 New Zealand became the first country in the world to form a government department to develop and promote tourism. The Copland Track was constructed over a period of 12 years from 1901 to 1913, aimed at providing a tourist track linking the West Coast with The Hermitage at Aoraki/Mount Cook.
The name Copland was very likely bestowed to remember Dr James Copland (1837–1902) a former mentor to G J Roberts, Chief Surveyor and Commissioner of Crown Lands for the Westland Province from 1902 to 1909.
Alpinists or “Alpine Lunatics” as Charlie called them, were quickly mesmerised by the area and in February 1895, overseas guides working out of The Hermitage Mattais Zubriggen of Switzerland and Edward FitzGerald from London, completed the first east/west crossing of the Southern Alps.
In 1897 Malcolm Ross crossed the Copland Pass in reverse from the West Coast and the first crossing made by the “fairer sex” occurred on the 4th April 1902. The head guide from the Hermitage Jack Clark and Peter Graham led Mrs Thompson and Miss Perkins of Greymouth and Miss Bandicot from London over the Pass.
The route over the Copland quickly became hugely popular with the wealthy who headed to the Hermitage to be led by Jack Clarke or Peter Graham over the Pass.
Huts and Bridges
The first bridge at Architects Creek was completed in 1907 at a cost of one hundred pounds. Peter Graham found this bridge invaluable when he ran over the Pass in poor weather in late 1907 to see his sick mother in Franz Josef. He did not stop once and was heard to say that the trip was “merely a day walk if there was good moonlight at both ends.” Even by today’s multi-sport standards he was exceptionally fit.
The first Welcome Flat Hut was built in 1913 from off cuts and saw pit timber that was not used for the Welcome Flat Bridge and shell-shocked soldiers completed the Bridge itself in 1918. Douglas Rocks Hut had an even longer gestation period; it was started in 1917 but was not completed until 1931.
The Westland National Park was gazetted in 1960 and the modernisation of the Copland started. Peter King and Billy Brennan surveyed the area and directed a team of ten park rangers to re-establish the track and maintain the huts. It was then that people remembered the environmental values and adventures to be had up the Copland Valley.
In 1986 the New Zealand Army built the latest Welcome Flat Hut. Only one year later the wrath of the Valley sent a landslide through the Warden’s Quarters, which was the remodelled historic hut attached at the eastern end of the new hut. It was completely wiped out. However, no one was injured.
The Hot Pools
Charlie Douglas, Alf Dale and Rob Ward first formerly discovered the hot pools in 1901. The trio were forced to drink the entire contents of a whisky bottle so they could take back a sample of the spring water to the Department of Land and Survey. Charlie in his writings described the pools as “beguilingly comfortable” whether this was because of the hot water, the whisky or both we will never know.