Sometimes a poor weather forecast means the end of even the best planned trips, but thankfully with a good hut, the right gear and even better company, you don't have to stay home pretending like there's still things on Netflix you haven't watched. While the St James Walkway at 66km is one of the longer trips in the country, Cannibal Gorge Hut is an easy overnighter or day trip covering the first section of track. This was our second time visiting in winter after we had wandered past a few years back on our way to Ada Pass Hut. With a group of ten and the baby in tow, it made for the perfect location with snow in the forecast and shorter daylight hours to contend with.
With a name like "Cannibal Gorge" I'm sure you're wondering if the area had a somewhat colourful history and you wouldn't be wrong. The gorge is known as Kopi o Kaitangata in Maori and was where traditionally a slave would be slaughtered to provide food for the rest of the party of travelers. Thankfully the rest of us can make do with good old freeze dried meals these days but it certainly makes you consider how tough you had to be to survive living in that environment all those years ago!
2.5 hours from Christchurch and in the middle of the Lewis Pass, a large car park and shelter marks the beginning of the track. There is a toilet here just next to the shelter in case you decided to smash back a large flat white from the McDonalds by Pegasus as you were leaving town - or if you just need to pee that is. DOC puts the 8km walk into the hut at 3.5 hours and part of our group was almost exactly on this with a few breaks along the way. From the car park make your way along sections of boardwalk as the track winds its way downhill towards the first swing bridge. This is a bit demoralizing to climb back up on the return trip as the last 2km really gets you in the quads when you've already started dreaming of a hot shower.
Once across to the far side of the Maruia River, the track remains a little higher above the bank as it winds north towards the hut. The track itself is well maintained and easy to follow even in snow as we had on the second day. There are a few spots climbing down and back out of the side streams where it can be a bit of a scramble up crumbling banks but mostly this is a easy to navigate and very runnable if you're that way inclined. Obvious signs will point out several spots which cut across avalanche paths but these only present a problem after significant snow fall. If you're at all in doubt about the snow conditions talk to your local DOC centre to get some advice before going.
When the track eventually rejoins the river you're not far from the second swing bridge and the hut itself. We were 2.5 hours from car park to hut with no stops but some rather heavy packs so I would predict the super fit would fly through here in closer to 2hrs or alternatively if you're more of a novice expect to take the whole 3.5hrs. Cannibal Gorge Hut itself is a 20 bunk serviced hut with a fantastic coal fire and views out over a grassy clearing and back down the valley. There are two equal sized bunk rooms which makes it easy to split the snorers from the rest of the group or if you just don't like to talk to other people.
We arrived in the early afternoon knowing that snow was due to hit a couple of hours later and we weren't disappointed. Although we only ended up with a few centimetres it was enough to make the walk out the following morning pretty magical. DOC does a great job of keeping coal stocked up for this hut but it sounds like some visitors have had issues getting the fire going. This is a very cold valley to be stuck in if you can't get that cranking so maybe do some research before you leave if you're not confident with your fire making skills!
Total Distance: 16km
Total Time: 5hrs return
Pro tips: Mulled wine in winter is always worth the extra pack weight
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