Trip: Rimutaka Mukamuka Runaway

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The mighty Mukamuka River trickles through the lower parts of its catchment.

It’s Friday evening, and seven of us arrived at Catchpool Valley carpark at about 6.30pm. It’s quite a nice change to visit a place so near to Wellington, and getting into summer it’s quite light. After some brief orientation at the car-park, we’re walking towards the Orongoronga River: destination Paua Hut…. but outside, because nobody’s bothered to collect a key. Conditions are calm, but from the forecast I’m anticipating rain.

Dates: 14th – 16th November, 2014
Location: Rimutaka Forest Park, Catchpool Valley Road-end.
People: Alistair, Maarten, Bernie, Dan, Wei Min, Mister X and me. (I’m obscuring the name of Mister X for reasons that’ll become apparent.)
Huts visited: Paua Hut (1 night outside)
Planned route: In to Paua Hut for Friday Night, nav up to .797, then 1km NE to sidle across slip and SSE down ridge to west of Mukamuka, over .385 and down to confluence. Out to coast via Mukamuka, turn east and Corner Creek Campsite for Saturday night. Out via Mukamuka and South Saddle, main route to Orongorongo River and Catchpool Valley carpark on Sunday.
Actual route: From Paua Hut up to .843, then 800m NE and down scree gut into Tapokopoko Stream, then to confluence with Mukamuka.
Also see: Alistair wrote a trip report for the WTMC newsletter.
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This post is a trip report. You can find other trip reports about other places linked from the Trip Reports Page, or by browsing the Trip Reports Category.

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Dan and Weimin on Friday night.

We reach the Turere Bridge at about 7.50pm, then continue south-west along the main river bed in low flow to reach Paua Hut, looking for places to fly-camp outside. I hate trying to identify good places for fly-camping, but Dan and I eventually settle on a spot further down from the hut in the trees. In the end we have three 2-person flies, while Mister X sets up a tent some distance away.

It was soon dark, and with nothing much to do we drift off to sleep, listening to nearby Moreporks hooting. I’m anticipating rain to begin, and not really stop until midday Saturday, but that never happens. Instead there were some big gusts of wind overnight, showering leaves on the fly, but the structure itself barely rippled. It turns out not everyone’s been so lucky, though. Apparently the other guys have been up fixing tent pegs all night. I guess we got lucky…. I don’t even think ours was pitched very well.
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Thoughts about a Pouakai Crossing route

Recently my attention was caught by Radio NZ briefly publishing an idea about a “Pouakai Crossing” track in Egmont National Park, supposedly to “rival the Tongariro Crossing” according to the headline. On seeing that headline, my first thoughts were admittedly “why” and “how”?

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Mount Taranaki, spectacularly reflected in the famous Pouakai Tarn nearby this fabulous proposed new route.

It’s Taranaki, so it’s usually raining. I don’t mind this, myself. I think that getting out and tramping in the rain helps me to appreciate an environment in ways which many people often don’t see it. Unless it’s Taranaki, in which case getting out and tramping in the sunshine helps me to appreciate an environment in ways which many people often don’t see it. To be fair, I have once completed a slightly modified Pouakai Circuit walk, during which I recorded not a drop of rain at all. I wrote it up to preserve the memento.

There was little in Radio NZ’s actual article consistent with the headline’s claim of “rivaling the Tongariro Crossing”, so maybe it was artistic journalism in that case. Looking further, the Taranaki Daily News had also printed this more detailed article a week earlier. The more I think about it, it doesn’t seem as crazy an idea to me.

It sounds as if it’s mostly a marketing push, to promote the managed track which is already there and improve facilities at the ends, thereby providing something which appeals to tourists. This could result in it being at least as much of a local council thing as a DOC thing, because many of the initial adjustments mightn’t be on DOC-administered land. You can already easily walk one proposed variant of the route on existing managed tracks in the park right now. In fact, one of the main advocates, the Kiwi Outdoors Centre, already promotes a self-guided trip for which they’ll provide a transport service at each end. The Park’s Management Plan is due to be up for revision soon, so the idea will probably get some consideration as part of that process.

The route being described is the most obvious interesting route for a crossing of the Pouakai Range at present. It starts at the North Egmont visitor centre, up the Razorback, around past Holly Hut, across the Ahukawakawa Swamp to Pouakai Hut, and then down a relatively steep track to the end of Mangorei Road. From a tourist perspective it makes most sense to walk it in this direction, if only to avoid a steep grind of a walk up the hill from Mangorei Road to Pouakai Hut.

The idea is that it can be done in a day, which is probably where the comparison with the Tongariro Crossing has been derived.

The problem? Mangorei Road is basically a dead-end farm road. For the insanely fit locals in various Harrier Clubs of Taranaki, it’s feasible to park a car there, run up and around the side of the mountain (in the rain), swapping keys in the middle with a friend who’s running the opposite direction (in the rain), all between morning and afternoon milking sessions (which will also occur in the rain). But Mangorei Road’s current state is less enticing for someone on a one-way trip if it entails waiting for transport out of there, or needing to arrange transport once you arrive. Especially when it’s raining.

It’s usually raining.
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Recap on the recent Milford Track accident – DOC’s Review

Kathryn Ryan interviewed Allan Munn this morning on Nine to Noon (Radio NZ National). Allan Munn is the Department of Conservation’s Southern Region Services Director. The interview regards changes being made following the death, in May 2014, of a person who was swept away from the Milford Track.

This morning’s 20 minute interview can be listened to here. It’s also been reported on in The Press, and by Wilderness Magazine.

The incident which sparked this review occurred when the group were on the Milford Track out of the main tourist season, after many of the standard “Great Walk” style facilities are removed. It’s not uncommon for people to visit outside the booking season, whether to avoid higher hut fees or after having been too late to book at an earlier time. It remains public land with open access, and can be relatively safe with good preparation and advice, and an ability to assess conditions. The group didn’t seem to have been be prepared for the reduced facilities, nor properly aware of it. This combined with other factors probably led to bad decisions and eventually resulted in the accident.

I wrote down some of my own thoughts about this a few months ago.

DOC has now completed an internal review. It’s decided that safety processes are fundamentally sound, but certain things could still be improved upon. During the interview Mr Munn noted that DOC had “a range of contacts with that party” prior to the event. The party members either didn’t hear the available advice, or chose to ignore it and take their chances. In the face of this, there’s probably little that could have reasonably and immediately been done in that specific case.

More generally, though, DOC’s review has acknowledged that there are problems with getting key messages across to the masses in the face of modern forms of media, much of which is out of DOC’s control. It’s also noting higher numbers of visitors of limited skills and experience aiming to walk the Milford Track during the buffer zone between the end of the tourist season and when the most dangerous winter conditions set in.
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NZ Tramping History released

Last year I wrote about the upcoming publication of a new Tramping History book, researched and authored by Shaun Barnett and Chris Maclean.

The book finally had its launch last week, and is now available. I’m waiting for my copy (all 2.5kg of it) to arrive, and looking forward to browsing through it.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested, check out Kim Hill’s radio interview with the authors last Saturday morning, or the book’s Facebook page.

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More First Crossings/Intrepid NZ on Television

It’s great to see that Kevin and Jamie will be on-screen again soon, with Intrepid New Zealand: effectively the third season of what was previously First Crossings. The facebook page also has up-to-date info.

In previous seasons of First Crossings, Kevin Biggar and Jamie Fitzgerald have re-enacted many of the significant early adventurers’ expeditions into New Zealand’s back-country and other places. At times I’ve wished they’d take a step back from the characters and been clearer to viewers during the show about their re-enactments, but it’s still a great show to watch. Despite that fault (in my eyes), I find the show much less patronising than some others which purport to represent the outdoor environment.

Presently, for people in New Zealand, all 8 episodes of last year’s season two are still available for viewing, via TVNZ Ondemand. [Update 1-Oct-2014: Intrepid NZ screens Wednesday nights on TV1, starting tonight.]

In the upcoming episodes of Intrepid New Zealand, I’ve been especially looking forward to their re-enactment of the Sutch Search in the Tararua Range, which I researched from old newspaper clippings and wrote about several years ago (part 1). Also see part 2 and part 3.
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Stewardship Land: New Zealand’s To-Be-Filed Tray

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NZ’s “to be filed” tray, for the past 27 years.
[Map adapted from PCE Report with permission.]

You can read what you will from the Minister of Conservation’s recent statements. For me, one of the important topics he’s referred to is Stewardship Land.

Why is this important? Because right now, roughly one third of all conservation land, about 10% of the whole of New Zealand, is in limbo.

Stewardship Land is the to be filed tray of conservation land. Much of it is land that was handed to DOC during its formation in 1987, without already being a National Park, Forest Park or Reserve. The rest was obtained afterwards. The intent was always for it to be assessed and either given an appropriate legal designation or perhaps disposed of. Some is definitely well suited for National Parks or Conservation Parks, or various types of Reserves, and is often already being used as if it is. Some might be best disposed of and put to other uses, but 27 years later it’s still waiting for something to be done with it. Nobody’s ever prioritised the research and paperwork for deciding what it should be.

Stewardship Land is loosely protected, but only loosely. For management, DOC is required only to manage it “so that its natural and historic resources are protected“. In practice, much Stewardship Land is still managed according to what’s informally known of its actual value, even if this value has never been formalised in law. DOC will coordinate pest control if needed and as resources permit, and also maintain recreational tracks and huts if appropriate.

The diminished legal status, however, means diminished protection. Even if some land’s conservation value is very high, whether for environmental reasons or recreation reasons, the lack of status restricts criteria on which DOC and the Minister can consider applications for concessions. This is because the land’s not on record as being protected for any specific reason. Furthermore, as long as certain criteria are met, Stewardship Land can be sold or traded for other land. The trading clause was designed with the specific intent of enabling minor adjustments of land boundaries, but this intent was never written in law. Significant controversial land trades, which have nothing to do with shoring up land boundaries, have already occurred.

Recently, the Snowdon Forest monorail project (finally denied) was mostly about Stewardship Land. Meridian Energy’s desire to dam and flood the Mokihinui River catchment (eventually abandoned) was largely about Stewardship Land. Bathurst Resources’ application to open-cast mine the Denniston Plateau (permission granted) was also about Stewardship Land. The trading of the Crystal Basin for a private land block on Banks Peninsula, to enable a private company to develop a ski-field, was about Stewardship Land.
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Comparing two recent weather-related incidents

Out of everything that’s occurred in recent weeks, I’ve found a couple of incidents interesting to compare.

With the first incident, in mid-July, a group of 14 year-old school girls and two instructors were trapped by flooded rivers in the Kaimai Range. They contacted Police and informed them of the situation. Knowing they were well equipped with food and camping gear, Police decided the group were adequately equipped to camp and remain in place. As a precaution, SAR teams entered the bush to help the group identify the easiest way out. The group was well equipped for at least one more night if they’d needed to be.

“This was an example of a very well prepared group with all of the safety equipment you could ask for, making a very good call to ask for help,” senior sergeant Rupert Friend of the Waikato District Command Centre said.

“The girls were never in any real danger, but it was right not to try and push on when confronted by rising water.”

With the second incident, in early August, two women attempted a daywalk in the Tararua Range. They intended to walk between the Holdsworth entrance, via Totara Flats, and out to the Waiohine Gorge road-end. Weather was great when they left and they hadn’t thought to consider the forecast. Conditions worsened considerably, they were slowed by flooded track conditions, and they eventually found themselves trapped by a slip in failing light. The alarm was raised when they didn’t arrive at the collection point, and they were located by a LandSAR team early next morning having waited in torrential rain under survival blankets.

“We looked like drowned rats,” O’Connor said.

French said that, in colder weather, the incident could have been much more serious, but no-one gave the pair too much grief. “There was a bit of polite banter.”

If they hadn’t been trapped at a slip, they very possibly would have been trapped between un-bridged and flooded side-creeks over the track they were following.
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Signs of the Times

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Mid King Biv in the Tararua Range.

On Tuesday a request went out asking for people to point out “loopy rules and regulations”. I ignored it at first, with the politics involved, but soon after Federated Mountain Clubs asked via its Facebook page if this could be applied to some of DoC’s practices with signs in the back-country, especially safety signs.

I’ve written about the saturation of the back-country with safety signs previously, especially when writing about the Cave Creek Accident of 1995. 14 people died and 4 were seriously injured when a poorly constructed viewing platform collapsed. Many contributing factors were identified, but an underlying theme was that the 8 year old Department of Conservation had never been structured into a coherently functioning entity in many critical respects. This had contributed to design, approval and construction of the completely inadequate viewing platform by people who very possibly weren’t qualified to know that they didn’t know enough about what they were doing, or who had reason to assume that someone other than themselves was in charge. One consequence of the accident and follow-up investigations was a complete shake-up of DOC. In many ways, the outcome of the inquiry has helped to shape the modern back-country experience in New Zealand. An aspect of this shape which was noticed by users of the back-country in the years which followed was the sudden proliferation of signs.

The above photo demonstrates one of the more extreme cases of this standardisation. Mid King Biv in the Tararua Range is a 2 person shelter, in which it’s impossible to stand up. There’s a single door, which includes a giant FIRE EXIT sign. DOC’s other standard hut signs are also present. The standard DANGER sign warns about proper ventilation when cooking with gas, and another standard sign strongly warns naive visitors that the provided water is probably fine but visitors can choose to treat it if they want to. To rub it in, the “provided” water at Mid King Biv has nothing to do with the hut, and comes from a natural alpine stream nearby.

DOC’s standard Environmental Care Code sign is also present, but the limited space in the biv for posting signs seems to have resulted in the FIRE EXIT sign being attached directly over the top of it.
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The Walking Access Awards of 2014

If you haven’t heard, the Walking Access Commission (WAC) is requesting nominations for its 2014 Walking Access Awards. If you have any ideas for individuals, organisations or other entities to nominate, head over here and follow the instructions. Nominations close on 18th July.

The Walking Access Commission was formed with the Walking Access Act of 2008. Its main role is to provide leadership and coordination for negotiating (for example) access across private land and, where possible, aiming to facilitate trusting relationships between people on both sides. One of the coolest and easiest-to-appreciate things which has come out of the Walking Access Commission so far, however, has been the Walking Access Mapping System, also known as the WAMS.

In its early days, the WAC asked recreationalists what the most useful things were that it could do to help people access public spaces. A popular response was that it was very difficult to find out where we’re actually allowed to go, especially in the midst of private land that often surrounds the conservation estate. If you didn’t already know for some reason that there was meant to be public access in a certain place, it wouldn’t always be obvious to try and find out. In 2009, the responses caused the Walking Access Commission to commission creation of the WAMS as one of its first tasks.
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The Price of Great Walks

Last month an incident occurred, out of season, on the Milford Track. I’ll reflect on a few things before getting to it.

In New Zealand we have an enshrined legal right to enter most parts of the Conservation Estate. (I wrote more about how this works, over here.) By design in law, it’s difficult for people to be fenced out for their protection. In exchange visitors are considered responsible for their own safety. After all, one person’s dangerous place could be another adequately skilled person’s source of adventure.

Great Walks, however, don’t always fit nicely into this framework. Similar concepts have existed previously, but the modern idea of “Great Walks” began with the Department of Conservation’s effort towards its mandate of fostering recreation. The idea has been to consolidate and market several of the most iconic tramping trips, and make them relatively accessible for a large number of people of varying abilities.

Over time they’ve become intensively used. By the latter end of the 1990s, booking systems were being introduced to control overcrowding. A booking system can’t restrict anyone’s entry to the land, but tactical limitations of facility use (especially huts), combined with bylaws to disallow camping in certain areas, now makes it impractical to walk some Great Walks without booking ahead.

The Milford Track is one such Great Walk. In the booking season, between November and May, it becomes a beautifully iconic conveyor belt of tourists. The speed at which you might want to walk it doesn’t matter, because “the track takes 4 days to walk“. This is thanks to the requirement of booking all three huts at once for sequential nights, with these huts being the only legal place to stay. If this doesn’t work for you, you could either search for a way to camp further than 500 metres from the line of the track (difficult with the geography), or run the entire track without stopping.
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