We finally managed to get around this scenic loop in the Ruahines, which is almost entirely made up of tops travel. It was a weekend of very nice weather, even though a light easterly in the Ruahines meant walking through some clag. For me personally, it was the first time I’ve connected the dots between two different sides in the Ruahines, having reached the same place from two different sides, and this felt quite rewarding.
Dates: 5th – 7th December, 2008
Location: Ruahine Forest Park, Rangiwahia road-end to Heritage road-end.
People: Alistair, Dirk, Paul, Amanda, Harry, Steve, Roger, Bernie and me.
Huts visited: Rangiwahia Hut (1 night), Howletts Hut (1 night), Heritage Hut (0 nights).
Route: Up to Rangiwahia on Friday night. On Saturday, walk past Maungamahue, around the back of Te Hekenga, then to Taumataomekura and Tiraha, and down Daphne Ridge to Howletts Hut for Saturday night. On Sunday, continue to Taumatataua, Otumore, and Tunupo, then descend to Heritage Lodge and out at the Heritage road-end.
Levin is a good place to stop for dinner when driving north of Wellington up SH1 on Friday night. People often want to stop at Bulls because it has a kebab shop which some people like, but this time everyone agreed on Levin, and that suits me because I think there’s a wider variety of choices. There’s also a supermarket, which suited Alistair who was last back to the van, carting a 12-pack of toilet paper after he’d realised he never packed any.
We reached at the Rangi road-end at about 9.20pm, where a couple of hunters were waiting for their friends from Wellington to arrive before heading up the Dead Man’s Track. In our own group, there was a short delay due to technical difficulties with a torch not working, but that was resolved pretty quickly and we headed up and over the slip to Rangiwahia Hut, arriving after about 90 minutes at 11.10pm. This went the same as every other time, except that I noticed one of the Best DOC Signs Ever has disappeared, that sign being the “The Worst is Over” sign which used to exist at the top of the slip (see my photo from one of the earlier trips). A couple of hunters were hidden asleep at Rangi, and I think they were very polite considering the unassuming noise with which ourselves and another club group slowly filtered in without everyone realising they were there (oops!). They were up and leaving some time before 5am, and despite our entrance, they made an obvious effort to be as undisruptive as possible.
Saturday morning came, and those sleeping out on the balcony would have woken to quite an awesome view of Ruapehu lit by the rising sun. Alistair, meanwhile, realised that in the excitement of the night before, he’d once again forgotten to pack any of the 12 rolls of toilet paper he bought in Levin. In the end he made some kind of deal with evil Roger which netted him 1/3 of a roll. It’s not yet apparent which part of his soul Alistair sold, so we can only assume that will make itself more obvious in time.
Our group of 9 left Rangiwahia Hut at 7.30am, reaching the junction on the ridge of the Whanauia Range at 8.20’ish, which is very consistent in timing with the four previous times I’ve walked that stretch. The day was already becoming hot. At around 9am we passed a three people sitting in the sun at the top of the spur leading down to Triangle Hut, before sidling (left-side sidling) around the eastern side of point 1635 towards Maungamahue (1661). There were also a couple of hunters wandering around above Maungamahue somewhere, but we didn’t meet them close up as we sidled around it (left-side sidling once again), and towards point 1493 and onto the spur underneath the north-western side of Te Hekenga.
This was the fifth time in about two years that I’ve started at Rangiwahia Hut. Four of those times we’ve intended to get to Te Hekenga (1695) for some reason, and this was the third time we’ve successfully done it, so I’m starting to feel reasonably familiar with the area. Te Hekenga, on the north-western spur, is divided into about three main sections of climbing, between which it briefly flattens out. There are also a couple of tarns on the way up, or at least there were on this occasion in early December. I guess I’m reasonably fit and I found the first half of climbing Te Hekenga to be very straightforward. The second half was much more of a grind, although I’d attribute this to having drunk two cups of water from the tarn half-way up, mostly because I could. We left the bottom of the spur at 10.50’ish, and reached the top around 11.40 or thereabouts. More specifically, Bernie and Steve reached the top, but I don’t think anybody else bothered, and we sidled around the western side (yet again it was left-side sidling) to sit on a short east-west ridge at Te Hekenga’s shoulder and stop for lunch.
Getting over Te Hekenga is difficult, if even possible, without being an experienced rock climber. On reaching the top, the peak abruptly drops into a 10 metre vertical rock-face on the south-east, which makes it impossible to continue in that direction. Fortunately, by sidling around it and down the southern side of the ridge on the western side, there’s a very easy-to-follow goat track which crosses the scree of the slips on the southern side, and can be followed around to Taumataomekura (1682). Once again, this is left-side sidling.
I think the biggest problem I had on the entire trip was a short stretch of ridge between Taumataomekira and Tiraha (1668), which is at the southern end of Sawtooth Ridge. I don’t even remember this section the previous time I was here, but this time I panicked a little with it being one of those ridges that’s fairly steep and without much to fall onto. Everyone else trundled along the side of it without raising issues, but I was quite glad to get through that 10 metres or so. Alistair and Roger were waiting on the other end for me, almost laughing I think, but I get as much as I give so it was fair enough on their part. We reached Tiraha at about 1.30pm, and sat there for about 10 minutes, watching the clag from a light easterly roll in. It was still a very hot day, and very humid at that. The extra heat over the sea might have been a significant contributing factor to the clouds that were drifting into the eastern part of the range from New Zealand’s east coast, which isn’t too far away in the Ruahine Range.
From Tiraha, the final stage of our Saturday journey was to follow Daphne Ridge along to Howletts Hut for Saturday night. There were a couple of options at this point — several people in the group elected to sidle through the tussock on the inside of the ridge for some distance, but the rest of us followed another goat track along the ridge top. From the latter route, we had an impressive view of the profile of Sawtooth Ridge.
It wasn’t until 2.30pm that we actually reached Howletts Hut, but on that particular Saturday night we had it all to ourselves. This was fortunate in some respects because even though there were nine of us for a ten bunk hut, it’s not a large hut and there’s not much space to wander if everyone’s up and walking about. Despite its small size and perhaps partly because of it, Howletts Hut is one of the nicest and most characteristic huts I’ve ever visited. It’s looked after by the Heretaunga Tramping Club, which clearly takes a lot of care of it. So for Saturday, our walk added up to a total of seven hours, although this was at a reasonably brisk pace (though definitely not running). It was too early to prepare dinner, though, and some people were feeling a little drowsy, so we agreed on a schedule of “quiet time” during which nobody was allowed to talk, or something like that… which is not to say that anybody important really took any notice of the rules.
Preparations for dinner began at around 5pm, which was very organised thanks to Alistair’s insistence that all the relevant veggies be chopped up and prepared before we left. The recipe was reportedly from page 23 of Gourmet Tramping in New Zealand by Jon Sawyer and Liz Baker, which wasn’t of any immediate help since nobody had actually brought the book or the recipe with them, but Alistair seemed to know what he was doing and he was well armed and matched to the task with his full-body cooking underwear. He delegated Amanda to supervise the pasta cooking, and after much noise in the kitchen we sat down to a fantastic Saturday night dinner, which is a common theme on club trips. My only issue with dinner was that it broke my spoon, since the custard (more like scrambled eggs) was unusually thick… but it was a cheap spoon.
On Saturday night, I lay down to read more of my book, Roger and Steve beat Harry and Paul in a noisy game of 500, despite Harry’s claims that he and Paul had been playing the game the way it was supposed to be played, and eventually we went to sleep. The next morning I heard reports that some sod had been snoring all night, but I never noticed them so it was no biggie.
On Sunday morning I consumed my rolled oats with the head of a plastic spoon — the ultimate device for weight saving. It was about now when I noticed that very unusually for the Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Club, especially for a large trip, all nine of us on the trip were native New Zealanders. This meant that we had a group of people who weren’t all just wearing short shorts and gaiters, but were proud of it. It also meant there weren’t any “foreigners” with strange habits like having weird things for brekkie. It was an active morning, particularly because Roger and Bernie were having very noisy laughs. More specifically, Bernie was being as a perfectly constructed sphere of highly enriched uranium whereas Roger was being a detonator.
We left Howletts Hut at 6.50am, having risen early with the sunrise. There’s lots of noisy life around the Ruahine tops at the moment, unlike some times of year when it’s very quiet apart from the wind. In particular, there’s a lot of insect life which was evident whenever we stopped, and this is notably different from several other times when I’ve been on the tops in the Ruahines, so I guess it may have been symbolic of warmer temperatures at this time of year.
Our first stop, at about 8am, was at the bottom of the saddle between point 1431 at the end of Daphne Ridge, and point 1271 on the other side. The saddle would be an awful place to cross in strong wind, but today it was just the persistent light easterly which meant that most of the rest of our day would be spent in clag on the eastern side of the range. It was 8.30 before we reached point 1271, and then continued south along the new ridge towards Otumore (1519), and stopped for a few minutes on its shoulder to the north at around 9am, before sidling around passing the sign marking the junction where one would turn off towards Longview Hut (around 9.25am). From here we headed further south over the other point 1519 that’s not Otumore, but which does have the remains of an old trig station (9.35am). At this point the ridge juts over to the west, leading to the top of a major spur that ends up at Iron Gates Hut (we passed a sign at 9.50am), but we instead followed the main ridge further south-west to point 1505 — also a junction at the top of a spur leading down the opposite side, towards Top Gorge Hut.
The entire ridge along here is very broad and easy to walk on, and with almost no wind (except for that light easterly bringing in the cloud) we had a rather relaxing walk to our final destination on the tops, known as Tunupo (1568). Tunupo is a deceptive climb, and there are several occasions where the top doesn’t look far away until it’s reached, and then it becomes apparent that there’s still more to go. We reached it at 11am, however, and it was there that we stopped for an early lunch surrounded by insects which tended to blacken anything light-coloured and still, simply by their ferocity of landing on and crawling over things.
Now being near the end of the journey, we left Tunupo at about 11.35am, finally heading down the tracked spur towards Heritage Hut. An alternative, which we briefly considered, was to remain on the ridges for a little longer and head further south-west towards Toka (1519), but in the end by now everyone was too fixated on home, and nobody could be bothered.
The Ruahines are renowned for being surrounded by a ring of Leatherwood, such that it’s often very difficult to actually get to the tops without following some kind of cut track. It was helpful, therefore, that this route from Tunupo down to Heritage Hut was well cut. In fact, it appeared as if it’d been cut with the future in mind, because for most of the threading through Leatherwood plants, the track had been cut a good 2-3 metres wide, which I’d expect would keep it very walkable for at least a decade, since Leatherwood grows quite slowly. Having left Tunupo at around 11.30 and onwards, we reached the first significantly big trees about 40 minutes later, and after that we spent the rest of the rather long, shallow-gradient spur beneath the bush-line.
It might have been good timing to get below trees, too, because shortly afterwards we began to get recurring rain showers. They didn’t last for long, and Roger (who’d bounded ahead by a few minutes) claimed he’d never even been rained on, which I guess is a testament to how difficult it is to forecast weather in New Zealand when it can be so extremely localised. I managed to roll my ankle about 2/3 of the way down, but fortunately it wasn’t too serious so after about 5 minutes I was able to walk on it again, and we reached Heritage Hut (often called Heritage Lodge) at 1.30pm after passing 4 or 5 possum traps laid near the end. Heritage Lodge isn’t actually on the route, but is literally a 2 minute side-trip from the junction of the spur we came down with the main track that runs along the true left of Iron Gates Gorge, so it was a handy opportunity to wander up and get some water, as well as to check the hut book to see if another club group had been through earlier in the day as they’d intended.
We didn’t really leave the junction (2 minutes west of the lodge) until about 1.50pm, and after that we only had a brief, 25 minute walk to the Heritage car-park, ending a nice weekend that was very enjoyable.
In summary with good weather and a reasonably fast-moving group of 9 (albeit travelling in a relaxed fashion with several generous stops), we had a 7 hour day to get from Rangiwahia Hut to Howletts Hut (via Te Hekenga) on Saturday, followed by a 6.5 hour day to get from Howletts Hut down to the Heritage road-end, via Otumore and Tunupo.