Walk 19 - Welcome Flat

The Copland Track is one of New Zealand's best known alpine crossings - going from Mt Cook to the West Coast via the Copland Pass, a place where ice-axes, crampons, hardhats and ropes are de rigeur - consequently not one for the average tramper. Welcome Flat lies in a steep-sided valley on the west side of the divide and its hot springs have long been a welcome spot for trekkers descending from the crossing. It is also accessible from the west end of the Copland Track via a one-day walk 17km up the valley and this walk and a soak in the hot springs is rapidly becoming very popular amongst backpackers. Despite a couple of misgivings we joined the throng. The theme of this walk is water; rapid water, still water, frozen water, cold water, scalding water, clear water, blue water, grey water, water falling from the mountains and the sky - you cannot avoid its presence.

To the springs and back

As soon as we stepped out of the car at the Rough Creek trackhead we received our first welcome- by a horde of voracious sandflies! Luckily we had been forewarned and were heavily dosed with DEET to keep them at bay. However, once we started moving, they ceased to be a problem.

As soon as we left the park, we had to ford our first stream and, much to the disgust of kiwi trampers who would plow straight through, we debooted to cross the rocky bed of Rough Creek barefoot and set out dry-footed.

The sky was overcast, but as the sun only shines one day in three on the We(s)t Coast, we had used up our quota on Fox Glacier, so could not complain. The track began a winding course through humid West Coast rainforest along the sometimes stoney, sometimes sandy left bank of the Karangarua River. The forest was a welcome change from the beech-dominated forests of fiordland - with large tree-ferns, and tall vine covered rimu, totara and rata.


Karangarua River

West Coast forest


The cicadas were singing in the forest canopy as we crossed a myriad of small streams flowing down to the river (sometimes jumping them, sometimes using stepping stones and sometimes a fallen log served as a bridge), before emerging at a large open sandy flat with views of the broad gravel bed of the river.


Log bridge on a side stream


The track widened and headed straight across the flat, a series of narrow cuttings taking it gently down steepish banks to cross several sidestreams. On either side, dark still pools of water in the marshy sand reflected the shapes of the ferns and forest canopy.

A viewpoint off to the right revealed the confluence of the Copland and Karangarua Rivers, before the track continued its inland passage to emerge at the left bank of the Copland River 1.5 km upstream from the confluence.


Copland River

Narrow gorge area of the Copland

The Copland Valley is much narrower and the grey-green waters of the river rushed down carving the schist boulders into a variety of water-smoothed shapes. The sun occasionally peaked through the clouds and in its light the river water took on the hue of a lime milkshake, while the glaciers that fed it could be seen briefly at the far end of the valley in the gap in the clouds.

Looking downstream on the Copland

A brief glimpse of the Sierra glaciers

Conglomerate banks of the Copland

One of many rocky streams to ford

For a while, we boulder hopped along the edge of the river as we passed a very steep-sided section of the valley. The humidity of the forest was soon surpassed by the humidity in my left boot and shorts as I slipped (for the first time since we started) on a smooth wet rock while crossing a small cascade. For over 800km of tramping, I had kept my feet dry and it was my intention to prove that this could be done - bugger! Still, my right foot is still in contention.

Regaining my dignity, we climbed back up onto the higher bank and soon arrived at a grassy clearing near Architect Hut, a good spot for lunch and to dry out. Pushing on, we forded several more largish creeks flowing into the Copland (these all have flood-bridges higher up in case the water levels rise suddenly) before reaching the long steel span of the swingbridge over Architect Creek. Crossing it, we started a 300 climb over several kilometres of a rocky track toward the next level of the valley, crossing a wide area of unstable slip and several more side-streams that required a bit of care to ford (especially with my record for the day).

Striped water-tumbled schist boulders

Swingbridge over Architect Creek

The big slip area

Waterfall in the Punchbowl

Crossing Shiels Creek avalanche shute
Eventually, we crossed the wide stoney bed of Shiels Creek, an avalanche shute running steeply down from 2040m Shiels Peak behind it, to reach the high point of the track. From here, we descended gently down through a ribbonwood grove, the track covered in places with the delicate white blossoms of this tree, to reach a scrubby flat and, with the rain just starting to fall, the sight of the very Welcome Flat Hut.

Welcome Flat Hut

Welcome Flat

Copland River at Welcome Flat

Sierra Range from the pools

Only two other trampers were at the hut, so we had a quick coffee and hurried down to the goal of our 17 km walk, the Welcome Flat hot springs, a series of thermal pools of varying temperature and colour in a sandy flat below a steep lushly vegetated bluff, framed by the snow-capped and cloud-covered 2400m peaks of the Sierra Range.

It is very pleasant lying in a hot pool with the raindrops splashing on the water surface. With the water temperature ranging from scalding to lukewarm in the different pools, there is something for everyone here (for a pleasant hot and more natural experience, I recommend Pool No. 2).

Welcome Flat hot springs

Hot water run-off channel

Nello's recipe for thermal aquatherapy

Check out the top pool but do not enter
- its a source pool and hot enough to
make a cuppa!

Simmer well in Pool 2
- still bubbling

When well done, move to lower heat for
several minutes in the soft silt of Pool 3, a run-off pool

Finish with a long cooling soak in
lukewarm milk green Pool 4
- then repeat process

Forest near the pools

Old man podocarp

Cloud lifting to reveal the glaciers

As the afternoon progressed, the clouds played hide and seek with the glaciers and peaks of the Sierra Range and many more trampers arrived in dribs and drabs; four had come via the traditional route and thoroughly deserved their soak in the springs, others brought in their music machines up from the road and soaked in large noisy groups; we were glad that we had arrived early and were able to enjoy the springs in some serenity.

DOC have put in a brand new 30 bed hut, comfortable but full and noisy, especially with some groups deciding to soak until 3am and then return to the bunkroom at full volume. Welcome Flat was losing its appeal!

It is no doubt due to the popularity of this walk that DOC have put in a new larger hut. As of this season, they have also added it to the growing number of huts excluded from the annual backcountry hut pass, so the dilemma is, have they catered to public demand or sold out to make money from a new clientele that does not necessarily appreciate what they have. Either way, I suspect that, notwithstanding the beauty of its setting and the pleasantness of the hot springs, Welcome Flat has become a victim of its own popularity.

As the fair Nello so succinctly put it, its a long way to go for a hot bath!