Trip: Sparrowhawk, Maropea Forks, Colenso and Upper Makaroro

Easter of 2013 comes towards the latter part of a lengthy drought, especially in the North Island. Rivers are low or dry, municipal water use restrictions are in place, and total fire bans are active.

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Gareth approaching on the tops, from Orupu (.1475)
in the background towards Maroparea (.1511).

Visiting Wellington again for a week or so to go tramping, after frustrations like 10+ days in a row of temperatures higher than 35 (thank you Melbourne), I really am keen to see some rain, wind, snow, hilly and/or mountainous landscapes, anything relatively cold. Statistically the Ruahine Range, which is where we’re going, is good for four out of five of these, though the western Tararua Range still beats it hands-down for rain. Did I mention that the Roar is just starting? Hunters hunters everywhere.

Dates: 28th March – 1st April, 2013 (Easter weekend)
Location: Ruahine Forest Park, Makaroro Road.
People: Craig, Gareth and me.
Huts visited: Sparrowhawk Biv (0 nights), Maropea Forks Hut (1 night), Colenso Hut (1 night), Upper Makaroro Hut (1 night), Barlow Hut (0 nights).
Route: From Makaroro Road up to Sparrowhawk, along tops and down to Maropea Forks for Friday night. Then along marked track through Unknown Campsite to Colenso Hut. Follow river North into Mangatera River, and walk up creek towards Potae (.1312), drop into marked track and back to .1503, then down Totara Spur to Upper Makaroro Hut for Sunday night. Follow Makaroro River through gorgey section to Barlow Hut, then back out to Makaroro Road.
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On Thursday night, being the night before the public holiday of Good Friday, we pile into a van and drive to Carterton for a short dinner. It’s nice to see that Istanbul (a great kebab restaurant) is still going strong after a couple of years—it seems to have become a popular dinner stop for tramping groups who drive north. During dinner, we’re surprised to see a couple of other friends (Paul and Sharon) drop in, on their way to the Tarauras. They’re apparently aiming for Dorset Ridge over the long weekend. Back into the van, and Amanda, Richard, Craig, Gareth and myself aim for Dannevirke, where Amanda and Richard have managed to arrange a cabin for an overnight stay. This beats staying at the end of Makaroro Road, where camping’s not allowed, or walking until 2am to reach somewhere like Sparrowhawk.

Richard and Amanda had their own thing planned. On paper it looked similar to our own plan except they have, for some reason, decided to include additional circles to make the distances further between stopping points. On Friday morning, after about another hour’s drive, they’re out and walking up the Makaroro River. They’re sporting fluorescent clothing and pack covers, as they don’t want to be accidentally shot by an over-enthusiastic rifle-bearer.

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Gareth and Craig ready to go, more or less.

It’s a further 5 minutes before Craig, Gareth and I have managed to get things together. The plan, if we don’t see Richard and Amanda before then, is to meet here at 2pm on Monday for the drive home. With that sorted, we leave just before 8.30am. I’m again hoping to collect DoC asset numbers off the various structures that we see, and it’s disappointing to note that the information board at the end of the road is not stamped with a number to associate it with the Department of Conservation’s database.

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There’s water in there somewhere.

The first part of the trip from this road is a flat, fairly boring walk up the Makaroro River. It’s a wide river bed, easy to drive 4-wheel drive vehicles along, and doubtless this happens a lot. We’re following Richard and Amanda’s footprints, and at times we can see them in the distance. I’ve decided to focus as much as possible no navigation practice during this trip, and so I have my compass and map case out, trying to keep as close-an-eye as I can on where we are. (This is something I always need practice at.) It’s about an hour of walking (roughly 3.5 km) before we actually reach Gold Creek at 9.30am, temporarily marked by the two 4-wheel drive vehicles that have been left on the far side of the Makaroro River.

It’s not totally clear where DOC’s track up to Sparrowhawk Biv begins, but with some brief checking inside the mouth of Gold Creek we locate it quickly. A sign points to Sparrowhawk, and thus I have my first DoC asset of the day, snapping a photograph of asset 066374. The sign has many cobwebs on the back. In the heat of the moment, I completely forget about another sign that should be behind us, pointing towards Gold Creek Hut. For now it’s up-hill… with three nights of food and none of it is dehydrated. I’ll be glad when we get to start eating it.

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It’s typically steepish down either
side to begin with.

As with many spurs, this one’s steep near the bottom. There are times when I wonder how it manages to stand so upright and narrow on the top, especially as there must be so many people who follow this route. Within about 10 minutes it widens out, and there’s space to move. Now it’s just a steep climb. We stop for a snack break after about an hour, only to hear people approaching behind us, and surprisingly it turns out to be Richard and Amanda. They’ve taken a strategic detour past the mouth of Gold Creek, probably one of those superfluous circuits that I mentioned earlier, and so we’d overtaken them. In any case, the two of them are happy to press on up to Sparrowhawk in front of us.

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Richard and Amanda ready to go… again.
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Gareth circumventing the top of
the slip below Sparrowhawk.

We keep climbing. An hour later, I notice pass a branch fallen from a tree which strongly resembles antlers, just in case anyone wants any. Maybe it’s not such a good idea, but exciting times nevertheless. By 12.30pm, the trees are opening up. Not because we’ve reached the bush-line, but because the route takes us along the edge of a significant slip, giving us a window to more clearly see further out onto the range. This must also mean we’re getting closer to Sparrowhawk Biv, as it’s positioned above the top of the slip. We finally arrive a few minutes before 1pm, finding Amanda and Richard sitting outside for lunch.

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Sparrowhawk Biv.

Despite being labelled a Biv, Sparrowhawk isn’t the tinyist of structures. For example, it’s easy to stand up straight, and it even has two small rooms. The front room, which might be the size I’d have expected for an entire biv, has a cooking bench. The back room, which looks more like a trailing appendage in the biv’s design, has mattresses. The biv is the second addition from this trip to my Department of Conservation asset database—number 043530. The toilet, a short walk through a gauntlet of speargrass, doesn’t have its own number. They seem to be lazier about that sort of thing in the Ruahines.

We stop here for lunch, and a fairly long lunch. Richard and Amanda leave, informing us that they’ll probably just follow our route towards Maropea Forks for today. They eventually find the way to the ridge-line after a false start to the nearby helipad, and we follow 15 minutes later. At 2pm we step onto the Ruahine Main Range just above Sparrowhawk Biv. We’re about to start heading north, but 40 metres to the south I spot DoC asset number three: 068540 is a signpost that points straight into a wall of leatherwood. Anyone who tried to get to the biv that way would have their work cut out for them, but maybe the sign was installed during the time of an older track down-hill.

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Gareth and Craig aiming towards Orupu (.1475).

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Craig dreams his way to the top.

We can see the tiny figures of Richard and Amanda in the distance, slowly climbing in the direction of Orupu (.1475). I think they’ll probably beat us today, but that’s okay. This is one of those undulating ridges, but right now it’s undulating in a mostly upwards direction. Gareth in particular doesn’t seem to be taking it too well, and after 15 minutes we stop to lie back on the tops. There’s a fairly steep scree gut along this section of ridge, and by the time we reach it, we can’t agree on the best approach—either straight up the middle, or up the more tussocky slopes some distance away. We split up, but seem to converge all the same on the true left of the gut (pretend it’s a creek), about two thirds of the way up, reaching the top of Orupu at around 2.45pm. That’s the end of one of our little climbs for the day. The day is quite dry.

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Looking north, towards Maroparea, and the ridge (flowing left) towards Maropea Forks.
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Amanda and Richard in the far distance.

The next target is Maroparea (.1511), about 2 kilometres to the north-north-west, and for a while we can coast down and along some gently widening Ruahine ridge-line. We catch the tiny silhouettes of Amanda and Richard several times in the distance as they climb over Maroparea, and then later to its left on the ridge which we’ll eventually follow. It’s necessary to cross a few contour lines to the top of Maroparea, but we’re sitting near the top at about 3.40pm or so. I think Gareth in particular is looking forward to the downhill section.

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Craig climbing towards Maroparea.
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Sidling onto the south-west ridge to .1450.

There’s one more obstacle, being an unnamed and peak to the east-north-east of Maroparea. As we make our way through the loosely leatherwood-dotted slope down the far side of our recent high-point, I’m joking to Craig that these things often look much more ominous from a distance than they actually turn out to be. My dismay grows as we approach, because the side actually looks really steep. Fortunately Gareth (now ahead of us) calls back that there’s an obvious sidling route. It’s a small relief, and we sidle onto the south-west-facing ridge that leads down to Maropea Forks. One final ascent up to .1450, and from there it’s all down-hill.

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Craig in the lower-right foreground.
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Gareth dropping towards Maropea Forks.

At 4.37pm, from near the top of .1450, I look back towards Craig with the sidled peak behind him. To its right is Maroparea, with a backdrop of Te Auta Mahuru (.1534) between the two in the distance. To the left of the sidled peak is Remutupo (.1529), flanked on its left by a ridge-line towards Waikamaka (.1437) that diminishes into the distance. It’s down-hill from here, and straight down. There’s a roughly 650 metre drop in a horizontal space of less than two kilometres, and that makes an average of about a 33% gradient. I only stumble once, my compass flies, and it take a few minutes to find it again. By 5.55pm, and after a very short walk along the river, we’ve reached Maropea Forks Hut, having come across Amanda and Richard with their fly set up on the far side of the water.

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Maropea River.

We’d thought to have seen many signs of hunters in the range by now, but surprisingly we’d seen no other people up until this point. In hunting season, Maropea Forks could be very highly populated but instead of hunters, we found three air-force guys out tramping. Above the inside of the door, Maropea Forks Hut is asset number 043398. The man lying on the bunk inside looks at me strangely when I lean in to snap a photo of the orange formica plate. I also snap a photo of asset 087194, which directs people towards Wakelings Hut from outside the hut’s door. Before removing my boots and gaiters, I also hop across the river to snap a photo of 070935, which points up the track we’ll be following tomorrow, towards Unknown Campsite and Otukota Hut.

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Craig and Gareth outside Maropea Forks Hut.

The other two air force guys are outside working on chopping firewood, which is awesome. Not that we’ll need it, but it’s great to keep the huts stocked up. Gareth quickly grabs a bunk inside, Craig and I, neither of whom feel attached to sleeping inside a hut in such nice weather, argue about who gets the balcony and who’s sleeping out under the trees. I get the balcony, and with little prospect of rain Craig establishes his sleeping bag nearby, surrounded by several trees which sadly look to have been subjected to a very lazy hatchet job by a prior visitor. They’ve been chopped from about shoulder height, and left on the ground to die.

Dinner is a mixture that Craig and I (mostly Craig) prepare of sausages, veggies and various spices, in part using Craig’s 24 gram beer can cooker and stand. The pasta’s a little drowned, probably my fault, which is a shame, but it’s all there. The food critic is not impressed from his space on the mattress, but I figure you can only expect a quality consistent with the effort you put in. The critic does some washing up and I wander away for some sleep.

Darkness, and thus ends day one.

Some time after midnight, I’m thinking that I probably should have dragged a proper hut mattress onto the balcony. My thin 3/4 size thermarest isn’t very good at shielding my back from the wide gaps between the planks, and it’s not nice for my back. It’s nice to be sleeping outside, though. I don’t notice any whio calls tonight, even though Craig reckoned that they were tamely swimming around the hut when he was here a few weeks ago.

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Some of my stuff on asset 043398 before packing
up. Asset 087194 to the right.

Morning is a standard morning. I lie awake for a while, and eventually after the sounds of indoor rummaging, Gareth pokes his nose out some time after 7am, having put some water on to boil. Breakfast’s normal. With some time to spare, I hunt for more assets. With it being obscured by long grass, I’d walked straight past 084051, which directs people back towards the Main Range by the route we’d arrived. Amanda and Richard eventually drop in, having packed up their things, and they’re away by about 8am. They plan to go as far as ourselves, towards Colenso Hut, and then as much further towards the top end of the river as they can. It’s another hour before we leave, at around 9am. Having been up and awake for 90 minutes it now feels quite late, but we have plenty of time. The three air-force guys leave shortly before us, intending to walk along the river to, I think, Otukota Hut.

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Gareth after a few minutes’ climbing.

If you look at the standard route marked on a topo map, as it leaves Maropea Forks and heads north towards Unknown Campsite, you’ll see what appears to be a relatively straight, consistent climb of 450 metres towards .1293. The map doesn’t lie. It’s up, starting with a scenic drop looking over the top of a slip above the river, before the spur broadens. .1293 is not a very picturesque spot-height, but it’s identifiable under the trees as the main track sidles around slightly to its south. If you needed to calibrate an altimeter, you could consider bringing it here. We reach this point at about 10.11am, or thereabouts. 21 minutes later (11.32am), we stop for a snack at the track junction that requires us to decide between aiming towards either Unknown Campsite, or Otukota Hut. (We choose the campsite.)

This is a curious junction, notable for two very deep holes which mark the location of the posts on a former sign which appears to have been removed: an asset which must now be marked in the official database as having passed its time. It’s been replaced by assets 301428 and 301429, two shiny new looking signs. At the time of finding them, I think they’re the first DoC asset numbers I’ve seen which make use of six significant figures.

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A sea of dry crown ferns, withering away.
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Following a lazy snack, Gareth leaves to run down the hill on the ever-broadening spur towards Unknown Campsite, and Craig and I eventually follow him. This part of the track, while descending 640 metres (more than we just climbed!), does so in a more shallow gradient and with a broader platform. If it were not for the ground-trail and occasional markers, there would be a variety of places where it might be possible to lose oneself down an unwanted side of the spur. The ground trail itself is covered in crown ferns, and the recent drought has taken its toll. Forest like this looks as if it should be wet. There should be dampness here, but there isn’t. The crown ferns are a faded shade of green, and the leaves are more crusty and sharp than what I think they should be. In places where the sunshine makes it through the canopy, the ferns show definite signs of withering away in the heat. I hope it rains again soon, and I hope it’s proper rain that comes in a misty blanket of precipitation, gluing itself to the hills for days or more.

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Unknown Campsite.

At 12.38pm, Craig and I arrive at Unknown Campsite, marked with asset 084763 and a small collection of abandoned boots. Gareth has been waiting here for a few minutes. It’s a cute campsite, with a clearing to let in some sunshine, and a dainty river fork.

I could easily imagine staying here on another day, but it won’t be today. We give lunch 35 minutes, then press on.

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A big overhang, courtesy of a soft sandstone layer underneath a hard layer,
possibly marking the K-T boundary layer of Iridium that killed the dinosaurs according to my
totally unqualified assertion… or perhaps not.

From here, the route to Colenso takes us into one of the streams that’s entering the campsite’s fork to eventually feed the Whakaurekou River. It’s marked by the half-overgrown sign number 084761. The stream is characterised by ferns hanging on the slopes, Toi Toi and other grasses clustered on the flats, but from the geology alone it’s a fascinating stream full of miniature cave entrances and large rocky overhangs. My household geologist, after a later consultation, comments that it looks like a soft sandstone layer underneath, with a hard layer (possibly very thin) above it, which explains the impressive undercutting.

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Gareth and Craig.

I wasn’t expecting to see anything like this here, but the Ruahine is full of surprises. The stream itself is easy enough to follow. At first we were slightly confused because it seemed there was a start to a track on the true right, possibly remnants of a high water track, but if so it appeared completely overgrown by now. The stream was fine.

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Just below the track junction.

After 20 minutes of carefully watching compass bearings and side-creeks for comparison with the map, a big sign (070511) that we reach at 1.40pm highlights a muddy track that steeply leads up the lower part of the true right. Yes, Mud! This is the first mud in two days! It’s clearly a walked track, though typically scrambly for the first few minutes before opening into more crown ferns, the dry shards of which tell a story of their encounter with brittle sunshine.

The climb is roughly 250 metres, so not overwhelming. During this time, we come across a party of five, walking the other way. They’re a group from the Auckland Tramping Club, and intending to stay tonight at Unknown Campsite. Apparently there’s another rather large group of people from that club who intend to stay at Colenso Hut tonight, adding to three hunters already in residence.

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Craig blends in, Gareth in the background.

They discover we’re from Wellington and tell us how lucky we are to have so much tramping nearby. I make an ill-advised comment that Auckland’s not such a bad place to live, which sparks a totally unexpected lecture from an Aucklander about how dreadful it supposedly is, though it’s still something I disagree with. I mean, sometimes it’s people’s best option for all sorts of other reasons in life that are important, even if it’s less accessible for tramping leisure. Few places are ideal for everything wanted by everyone, and sometimes it’s necessary to live in a place that actually provides stuff you need.

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First views of Lake Colenso.

An hour later we reach the high point of this climb up and across a descending spur, and for the first time catch a glimpse of Lake Colenso, now less than a kilometre away, though we can’t get there in a straight line. The main route from here follows a long curve downwards before it doubles back and climbs another 100 metres, back up above the lake and dropping down to the nearby hut.

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Grassy flats along the shallow
climb towards Colenso Hut.

After some stopping time, Gareth heads down in front to find the next track junction, enjoying down-hill and spurred on by the possibility of a not having a place in a crowded hut. We meet again at 3.20pm, where the junction is marked by another high number of 301430. The LINZ map displays the remainder of this track as running along a tangent of a corner in the Mangatera River, and we have views for a moment but never reach the water level in a way convenient for (for example) collecting water. The climb is gradual and characterised by grassy flats. 35 minutes after we left the previous track junction, now 3.55pm, Gareth and I reach sign 301402, which splits the track between Lake Colenso and Colenso Hut. The hut itself is not next to the lake, it’s alongside the nearby river, which is probably more practical. From this junction, either destination is only 2 minutes away, and thus we walk up to Colenso Hut at 4pm. Craig arrives last, having diverted to look at Lake Colenso along the way.

Three hunters of an older generation are in residence, and they’re very welcoming. Apparently Richard and Amanda were here several hours ago, before they followed the river south-east to find a camp-site. A couple of others are sitting outside on the balcony, having come direct from Sparrowhawk by a newly-cut track that’s not on any official maps at this time. It comes down from Te Atua Mahuru and into the river, ultimately where Richard and Amanda are aiming for. So far there’s no sign of the other group from the Auckland Tramping Club whom we were informed would be arriving. No doubt they’ll be here soon.

As usual, my first action is to lean inside the door and snap a photo of what is, this time, a plate containing the number 042650. The man inside looks at me quizzically, until I explain that I’m re-building an independent copy of the Department of Conservation’s database. I find people are generally more accepting once they realise I’m performing a public service. Incidentally, the dunny at Colenso Hut is numbered 006434: it’s one of the selected ones in the Ruahine which also has its own number

With some lingering around, I decide to walk back to the Colenso Lake for a look, while it’s still light and before I remove my boots. It’s only a few minutes walk away.

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The easiest view of Lake Colenso.

The lake is tightly surrounded by trees and bush, and so it’s difficult to get close to the edge, except by following the limited amount of cut track. This track only leads to a point on the edge, and venturing further from here would be a challenge. I’m disappointed that it’s not easy to walk around, but that’s sometimes how things work. I take a few photos and return to Colenso Hut, intending to come back later in the evening.

The group from Auckland arrive, led by their drill sergeant, and settle in. Soon after the couple from Sparrowhawk choose to dissolve, up the river I think, to find a camping space.

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Colenso Hut.

There’s a water tank here, but we’re not keen to waste it. The river’s running so low that the bucket which resides at the hut doesn’t fit nicely under the water for filling, but the hunting guys have a hole dug out in the rocks below a section of the river, providing enough space to sink it. They’ve marked its location with a stick, a few metres along from their improvised refrigerator. I walk towards the river to fill bucket, passing a couple of the Auckland people setting up tents on the riverbed, neither of whom seem to appreciate my joke about an unexpected torrent of rain breaking the drought overnight. I probably didn’t present it very well.

As I break the surface of the water, some kind of amphibious spider reels and ducks and finds an underwater rock to hide beneath.

Some pages left in the hut offer some information about the surrounding routes. One in particular documents the route up the river from here, to the south-east, and eventually up towards Te Atua Mahura on a recently-cut track.. A similar note describes the river route in the opposite direction, noting it as rather slow and messy, but only as between the hut and the confluence with the Mangatera River. One further sign inside Colenso Hut notes that Waiokotore Bivvy has been “removed for repairs”, which sounds like a very optimistic way of putting it considering recent trends of removing facilities without replacing them. I note that DOC’s web page for that hut indicates that it “may be replaced at a later date, depending on funding“, but this news article from two years ago, which documents its removal, indicates it was extremely worn down and deteriorated, and it doesn’t seem promising that it will be replaced any time soon.

Dinner is busy with so many people in the vicinity, especially as each person in that other club has their own food and their own cooking gear and is independently cooking their own meal in their own corner. Craig and I get to work on some curry, with my chopping up a giant kumura as Craig constructs the Tiramisu for dessert in the background. Gareth supplies some hand sanitiser and waits. It’s too busy indoors, so Craig and I take the cooking to the deck, securing a space. One of the friendly hunting guys decides that my pocket knife is too puny, and offers a giant Crocodile Dundee knife to chop the veggies. It’s very helpful. With all the commotion our recipe goes missing, but with some improvisation we have some very nice curry, an improvement on last night. The food critic is almost impressed, but then discovers we didn’t cook any of his rice that he’d placed on the table inside. Oops. I suggest we could boil it up tomorrow morning, or at any time when we’re hungry. Alas, we never do. The curry’s great!

Later in the evening, the Auckland people have a mountain radio, but don’t seem to be listening into any regular skeds. Instead, it seems they’re using it to speak to their other groups, including those people we’d met earlier in the day who were aiming for Unknown Campsite. Returning to the lake in the evening, I snap some more photographs. I don’t think most of those here this evening have been very impressed with Lake Colenso, and I’ve heard comparisons with the likes of Blue Lake in Nelson Lakes National Park. I don’t think I could say the same.

I’m enjoying Lake Colenso. It’s yet another aspect off the diversity of the Ruahine Range. Blue Lake supposedly has the “clearest natural fresh water in the world” due ot the filtration process of water on the way from Lake Constance, and it’s hard to compete with in that respect. Colenso, by comparison however, is still teeming with noise and life. The water is a little grubby and less enticing for someone who’s hoping for a swim, but stand in silence for a few minutes, and everything that’s occurring there may become more clear. Also, if I’m going to find ways to bag Blue Lake, the standard walk to that lake, along an almost flat Sabine Valley, is topologically boring with very little up and down.

Inside the hut, Craig and I take a proper look at the map to plan for tomorrow. Earlier we’d thought we might stay at Kylie Biv and remain on top, but we seem to have been going more slowly than expected on this venture, and it makes more sense to aim for Upper Makaroro so as to have an easier walk out to the road on Monday. Tomorrow morning we’ll be starting low down in rivers, but should spend a fair amount of time climbing and a little on the tops, with a high point of crossing spot-height .1503. Under normal circumstances it’d be slushy underfoot, but we’re not too clear given the recent drought. Or maybe a totally unexpected blizzard will come through and there will be waist deep snow. We add up the hours, then add about another 90 minutes on account that we’ve taken longer than expected on both of the previous two days (and besides, we haven’t eaten any rice) and count to about 9.5 hours. It’s perfectly manageable, but we decide we’d like to be away by 8am.

I head back towards the lake near sunset, for what might be a final look before we leave tomorrow morning.

I’d hoped to get space to sleep on the balcony again, but things became confused with so many people turning up. It’s hard to stake a claim on a place when it’s full of people milling around, as they should rightly be able to. I’m surprised to learn that not only is nobody sleeping on the balcony (even Craig has found a nice sleeping bag sized gully under the trees), so many people are tenting outside in various places that there are still two spare mattress inside. When they discover what I’m keen to do, the accommodating hunting party very kindly shift several chairs they’ve been sitting on to make space for a mattress.

Lying in my sleeping bag in the dark, I find my glasses to get the sharpest sight available because, at least for a little while, the sky is clear and there’s a starscape above. Some slight shakiness in the stars implies a small amount of movement up in the atmosphere, but it’s a nice thing nevertheless. Whio, the endangered Blue Duck, are out in force, making lots of noise, but I don’t have a clear view of the river and very little chance of seeing anything.

The sandflies are out, too. Craig warned me about this, which is much of the reason why he preferred to find his own sleeping bag slot between some trees away from the high grass that grows near the hut’s balcony. Still, bites over my face and hands are a small price to pay in some respects.

Next morning after some more verbal sparring between the critic and the rest of us over that rice incident, we manage to be up and away by about 8.10am, only 10 minutes later than planned, waving goodbye to the there hunting guys who see us off. Yesterday Richard and Amanda had followed the river upstream, to the south-east, intending to ascend Te Atua Mahura (.1534), and then either trace back to Upper Makaroro Hut or alternatively bail straight back down to Barlow if they were running behind. Our plan is to follow the river downstream (for a short distance) before doubling back along the Mangatere River and climbing to Potae (.1312), across to the main range, then probably down Totara Spur to Upper Makaroro for the night.

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That note inside Colenso Hut had informed us that the first 600 metre stretch of the river, towards the nearby confluence with the main Mangatere River, is a little slow and gorgey, but hopefully with the river running so low we’ll be able to cope. As predicted it’s manageable, though there are still several places where it’s dammed up with debris and we find it necessary to climb up obstacles on the river bank. There’s one particularly awkward climb where I have trouble locating anything to take my weight, but I also think I made a bad decision on the optimal route in that case. It’s probably worse for anyone trying to carry a dead hind or stag on their back, and maybe that’s what the note in the hut referred to. Once we reach the confluence, around the end of a long knobbly bit of spur that divides the two tributaries, the travel upstream improves, and we reach our turn-off stream towards Potae at about 9.35am.

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The creek up towards Potae.

On my original Taoroa Junction BK36 Topo50 map, one of the first Topo50 editions printed, a track is shown for complete distance up an un-named stream towards Potae. On returning, I see that LINZ has chosen to remove the aquatic part of this track from its latest editions, probably appropriate. There’s still a definite ground trail leading up the stream, and two signs at its confluence direct people either towards Colenso Hut or Ruahine Corner Hut. (DOC has claimed the trees to which these signs are attached as assets numbered 301424 and 301418.) Unsurprisingly the ground trail doesn’t follow the absolute true left of the stream for the entire distance, as was indicated on my map. It criss-crosses frequently. It reminds me very much of Saddle Creek in the Tararuas, and if it was as accessible as Saddle Creek is to large groups of relatively inexperienced outdoor visitors, I’d expect a comparable number of accidents involving sprained and broken ankles.

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The surroundings of the stream involve characteristics which might not be obvious from the map, with interesting high cliffs and a rocky, sometimes clambery landscape between the typically dense vegetation. We’ve not been carrying water until now, and spend some effort keeping track of our exact location so we’ll know which of the diversions up the hill is unlikely to come down again. Eventually, having stopped to confer with the map and compass several times in the space of a few hundred metres, we decide to flag it and just carry the water for an extra few minutes. This is probably a good idea, because the creek has already become enough of a trickle that it’s tricky to fill the bottles.

Once again the details of a track on a LINZ map have let us down, though obviously it’s risky to trust details about any track marked on a map in this type of area. Where the stream splits around our target spur into a northerly direction and a north-easterly direction, LINZ documents the track as leaving the creek about 20-30 metres up the north-easterly branch. If this has ever been the case, it now enters the creek about that distance up the northerly branch instead. Not that it matters as it’s fairly clear to find, but it’s confusing as we cross a significant side creek that we didn’t think was meant to exist.

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Craig walks up a hill.

It’s shortly past 11am, and once again we begin to ascend towards Potae (.1312). This is another of those characteristic Ruahine up-hill grinds, that tend to recur during a sequence of days when a trip plan involves crossing tops between rivers. It takes 45 minutes for us to reach the scrub near the bush-line, where there’s a track junction. The junction is notable for the presence of assets numbered 084768 (pointing back to Colenso Hut), 084767 (pointing to the presently non-existant Waiokotore Biv), and a phantom asset bolted to a rock, pointing to Ruahine Corner Hut. This last one looks relatively modern, but has no numeric plate attached. We’ve spread out during this climb. Craig’s not keen to stop at the track junction, so I let him press on to find somewhere for lunch while I wait for Gareth who’s a few minutes back.

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First views of the tops, for today.

Not long after 12pm, we stop for lunch under a big rock about 100 metres from Potae, scanning the surrounding hills, and we’re away again after about 30 minutes. Despite the vegetation It’s a very rocky ridge-line, and not just underfoot. Parts of the ridge are marked with giant obelisk-style slabs of rock that look as if they’ve overbalanced as the earth around them eroded, snapped from their geologic layers and then pivoted in a way that leaves them looking uncomfortably overbalanced. (I may have this story completely wrong, but it looks interesting all the same.) I have trouble imagining how they’ve lasted here for so long without rolling down the hillside, but they must be fairly stable and hard rock, considering the elemental exposure that would be present on this part of the range.

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Craig in front of a slab of rock that’s taller than he is.
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Craig and Gareth bag asset number 084290.

15 to 20 minutes after we finished our lunch, we reach assets 084764 (pointing to a selection of places including Potae, Colenso, the non-existent Waiokotore Biv, and Ruahine Corner Hut) and 084290 (pointing to the Main Range). I’m finally back on red line, at least for a while, as I was here in late 2011, on the way to Ruahine Corner from the Main Range. From here, we find our way to the Main Range, via a route that descends into a wide saddle. We start by doing some squiggly sidling, gradually descending the contours towards a small creek that begins its journey from the ridge we’d just walked along the top of.

With all the squiggling it takes about 25 minutes to travel a straight line distance of less than a kilometre, despite a reasonable track. We’re glad to find water in the creek, because we’d been starting to get concerned about the availability of water for the remains of the day, considering this would be the only marked creek we’d planned to cross and we had no idea of the state of the tarns around spot-height .1503 later on today. The creek is still very low, and I can only fill my large bottle by scooping water into my smaller bottle and then transferring. There’s a lot of sediment and the water’s trickling so slowly that it doesn’t clear quickly after every scoop.

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Craig, shortly before he has to leap high
into the air to catch about 50 snakes.

We stay at the creek for 10 minutes, leaving at 1.30pm to begin a 50 metre climb up to a relatively flat plateau for a short distance, followed by a typical Ruahine grind in a straight line to the south-east that climbs another 200 metres. From shortly after 2pm I sit at the point where the track briefly turns to the east, take a couple of photos, then extract an un-opened pack of sour snakes from my pack and chuck it to Craig as he shows up. I can’t be bothered opening it myself.

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Spot-height .1503 is that way.

We’re here until 2.20pm, after which there’s still another 40 metres to climb before sidling around .1370 and dropping another 40-50 metres into another miniature saddle, then beginning the final climb towards the Main Range. It’s probably the last significant climb we’ll have on this trip, but much of it is deceptively easy, I think because it occurs in alpine scrub with an open top. It only ascends gradually, the air is calm and quiet, and the height for which we’re eventually aiming is now clearly visible in the distance, as are the surroundings of so much of the Ruahine Range.

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The final climb to .1503.

Spot-height .1503, surprisingly without an official name as far as I’m aware, is a significant landmark in the Ruahine. It’s a wide plateau on the order of 1,000 metres by 500 metres, covered in squishy tussock grass and tarns. It’s a meeting point for at least four, possibly five, major routes along or in the vicinity of the tops, and it’s the approximate location of Kylie Biv which is located down a minor spur off the south-eastern side. This is the end of my localised section of red line from last November. At about 3pm we pass asset 084765, identifying the route from which we’ve come, and we cross towards Totara Spur on the far side to go down to Upper Makaroro Hut.

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The drought has taken its toll on the tarns in this area. About half still contain healthy amounts of water, but the rest are crusty, cracked semi-dry mud. Right now it’s not especially hot, it’s not especially cold, and there’s no significant wind. It’s just quiet. As I place my foot, some kind of insect which I can’t clearly identify quickly buries itself. Our path through the alpine grasses and flowers takes us past a very weather-beaten sign number 068938, directing passers’ by in the general directions of some of the major routes away from here. There’s not much need for such a sign right now, but I could imagine that in low cloud, driving rain or snow, it might be of great benefit to someone.

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By 3.30pm, we approach the top of Totara Spur, augmented by a presently-superfluous sign number 068985. It’ll be sad to leave the tops, and I’m disappointed that we’ll not be visiting Kylie Biv on this trip, but a walk along the Makaroro River tomorrow will be something equally novel. I stagger my descent, checking out the Biv about a kilometre in the distance, as Gareth runs ahead. I’m also confused by my compass bearing, as it seems the poled route follows a different bearing from the near-straight line shown on my map, but it doesn’t really matter in the end. And then it’s down. Toe-blisteringly steeply down.

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Craig took this photo of me pretending to take a bearing on Kylie Biv.
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Craig dropping into Totara Spur.
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Upper Makaroro Hut.

By 5pm, we arrive at Upper Makaroro Hut, having dropped 650 vertical metres in the space of an hour. I’ve been up part of this track several years ago, on the previous occasion when I visited Upper Makaroro Hut. Craig was also there on that occasion, and when we’d arrived at the hut early in the day, he and Sam decided to walk down the river, find a separate route up to Kylie Biv and walk across the top to come down Totara Spur. Meanwhile, myself and several others would climb straight up Totara Spur to meet them at the biv. Hilarity ensued, but ultimately we only went part way up Totara Spur and then turned around.

Upper Makaroro Hut itself is a basic, bright orange 4-bunk Forestry Service hut. It sits on a ledge above the Makaroro River, and it’s flanked by two signs, numbered 068957 and 078464. As I approach, a woman sits outside, one of two hunters in residence. I say hello. She says hello. I say there are two more people. She looks a little concerned. I say that at least a couple of us will probably camp outside somewhere. She appears relieved. I mention that a further two people might also show up from another direction. She looks concerned again. I add that should they arrive, those two will almost certainly prefer to camp elsewhere. She looks relieved again, and walks inside. I step in, lean back and snap a photo of the number 043400 above the inside of the door. She looks confused.

There’s no sign of Richard and Amanda, so they’ve either decided to bail and go elsewhere, or they’ve yet to arrive. I’m guessing the former. What they’d planned would have been a mammoth day for them.

The other chap returns soon after we’ve all arrived, having been chasing a stag further up the river. The two of them head inside, as does Gareth who snaps up a bunk within the hut, while Craig and I hunt for good places to camp outside. While there might be some down closer to the river, I don’t fancy sleeping there in a bivy bag after last night’s encounter with the sandflies. There aren’t many obvious flat spaces on the same benched-level as the hut, but Craig sets up a fly in a small place near the hut’s meat-hanging box. I experiment with a couple of slightly flat areas nearby, although the best one happens to be directly underneath the hunter’s improvised clothes line where they’ve hung their socks. I re-hang the socks on another nearby line, and try putting my bivy bag there.

Some very light rain begins to drift into the catchment, though nothing significant enough to relieve the drought. After a few minutes I notice some of my things that I’d left parked outside the hut are beginning to get wet. There’s no space inside with three people and 2 weeks of hunter’s stuff so I pick them up, carry them 40 metres to where Craig’s set up the Huntech fly, and chuck it all under the end. It’s probably time to start cooking something.

Inside the hut, Gareth’s sitting on a top bunk and Craig’s already gotten started, so I grab some veggies, sit on the floor with my raincoat, obstruct the hut’s only fire exit, and start chopping. Tonight we have a recipe for Fish Kedgeree, which I’ve never had before, but it’s straight out of the WTMC recipe book. The two hunters stare, apparently bemused that we’ve carried around so much food for three days when their own meals consist of two weeks of dehy. We also remember to cook the rice tonight, and I can finally get rid of some hard-boiled eggs I’ve been transporting all this time—the first time I’ve ever tried to hard-boil eggs, but it’s worked. In the end it’s a nice enough dinner, despite a plate not big enough to contain all the rice. Even the critic doesn’t express any severe discontent that I notice. It’s stopped raining, and with so much crowding in the hut I go for a wander outside to catch the last of the daylight over the river as I eat. Gareth washes up.

We’ve had a chance to get to know the hunters during dinner. They’re great people to chat with but I’m sure that in such a small space, they’re probably hoping that not too many others show up during their two week stay. They work in deer farming in Dannevirke, and they’ve flown in for a planned two week stay. Apparently (and this is not a recommendation from me) blue is the colour in which you’re least likely to be shot by an idiot with a rifle, whereas people with bright orange and yellow are less successful in that respect. Amanda and Richard might have something to say about that: they’d made a special point on this long weekend to wear fluorescent orange and red with fluorescent yellow pack covers.

We’re not expecting an especially long day tomorrow, and have pre-arranged to meet Amanda and Richard by 2pm, but it’s not clear exactly how long it’ll take to walk along the Makaroro River. I think climbing up to Parks Peak and walking along the ridge, which I’ve done before, would be the fastest and most predictable way out, but the prospect of another 750 metre climb first thing in the morning causes my idea to be not very popular. Also in favour of the river route, however, is that it’s mostly red-line for all of us, it’s probably the easiest conditions we’ll ever get for following a potentially gorgey river, and it’d be interesting to see what’s there.

The Makaroro River from Upper Makaroro Hut is a windy river, and reportedly gorgey, although we’re hoping it won’t be so bad with less water than normal flow. The hunting duo reckon it’s fast, probably about 90 minutes from here to Barlow Hut, but I have trouble believing that looking at the map. As Richard and Amanda didn’t come here, it’s likely they’ve gone towards Barlow Hut instead, in which case it’s likely they’ll either wait there for us to arrive, or we’ll at least be able to read in the book that they’ve passed through. In the end, we decide we’ll just aim to leave about 8am, and six hours should be enough time to get back to the carpark before 2pm.

As the darkness descends, a mountain radio emerges. I’m sitting there absorbing the conversation, and suddenly have a bad feeling. I have to find my torch, invent a reason to excuse myself, and go outside towards my preferred bivy site. In darkness, I’m reluctant to use the torch too much as it might arouse suspicion from the hut window, I find the socks I’d re-hung, yank at them, then realise I probably shouldn’t be yanking at them, and reluctantly try to throw them over their original short clothes-line that hangs above my preferred bivy site. Hopefully I’ve escaped without notice. It might not have gone down well in the morning if it’d eventuated that I’d thrown their heavy socks onto the mountain radio antenna.

Back inside, the mountain radio sked is just starting. I’m not sure which sked this is, but it’s almost entirely full of hunters, and it goes on and on and on. I know the roar season is just beginning, but the operator must be going through at least 20 different stations! I wonder if people who reckon mountain radios are dead or dying haven’t necessarily spent much time in the hunting community.

There’s not much left to do, which probably means it’s sleep-time. I really don’t want to bivy under drying socks, so I ask Craig if he minds me borrowing the other side of the Huntech Fly (they can comfortably fit 2.5 to 3 people), which is fine.

On Monday morning we’re up at about 6.30, but don’t really get away until shortly before 8am, another lengthy wake-up. We wave goodbye to the hunting duo we’re leaving behind, and wander down into the Makaroro River that we’ll be following all day. Very soon after leaving, I hop up the far side of the river to bag asset number 068933, pointing up-hill to Parks Peak. As I climb back down, Craig and Gareth have stopped, staring up the river, and I soon discover that they’ve spotted a pair of whio swimming along the fast-flowing waters.

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A pair of whio.
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We follow the two whio slowly for about ten minutes, before they decide to turn around and swim back up-stream, and the three of us decide we’d rather walk a bit faster anyway. I spend most of the morning with a close eye on my map and compass, tracking where we are as exactly as possible. With the river low, it’s fairly regular walking for the most part, with a mixture of steep, close sides and wide river valleys. Throughout, there are recurring patches of debris, some substantial slips coming down from both sides, and there certainly are some areas where it’s necessary to wade through water about thigh-height. Craig recalls a swim having been necessary in one of these when he he visited in regular flow several years before. In the sandy patches, there are also a lot of footprints, which the people we left back at Upper Makaroro would have probably wanted to know about if we’d planned to go back that way.

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Gareth emerges from what was probably
the deepest unavoidable pool we encountered.

Within an hour, we reach a side creek that marks where Craig and Sam had walked to previously, before they climbed west towards spot-height .1065, and then straight up the spur towards Kylie Biv. I’m unsure if it’s a known route or not, but for what it’s worth, it was reportedly a fairly easy way up to Kylie Biv several years ago… as in not totally enveloped by the hellish Ruahine ring of dracophyllum and leatherwood. We stop for several snack breaks, and after about ninety minutes, I figure we’re no further than about half way to Barlow Hut.

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Further along, the deepest pool gets up to nearly waist height, but that’s about as bad as it gets. By 11am the river widens out for good, and we’re at Barlow Hut. It’s a very 1980s-looking design, as if it was lifted straight out of a 1980s Lockwood homes catalogue. Nobody’s home at Barlow, though from the book we immediately confirm that Amanda and Richard camped somewhere on Colenso Spur and have already been through earlier this morning. It’s a good time for an early lunch.

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Barlow Hut.

Confusingly there’s no asset number behind the front door at Barlow Hut, but I soon discover that its plate featuring the number 042321 is above the back door. The long drop is also another of those unusual ones in the Ruahine that has its own number, labelled as 042322. It’s only a shame that some people who’d stayed here recently apparently didn’t know how to use a toilet, and instead left various messes all around various sides of the hut. Knowing this really dampens the mood when you’re trying to sit on a step and eat, and a piece of toilet paper flutters past in the wind. Seriously, people. grow up. It’s disgusting!

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Gareth collects another cup of water.

We leave at 11.35am, back down to the Makaroro River. From Barlow Hut towards the road it’s a much wider valley, and an easier walk. Half an hour after leaving the hut, a few hundred metres north of where the Colenso Spur track reaches the river, there’s one narrow channel which I could imagine a fuller river might result in a potentially tricky negotiation. Even then it might be possible to circumvent, but I didn’t look closely enough at the time. At 12.10pm, we pass a big orange triangle that marks an entrance to the main track up Colenso Spur, and we continue along the river. It’s nearly possible to imagine 4-wheel drive tracks in the rocks, although if they come up this far then it’s probably not often.

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Soon, we spot other people hovering in the river. We stop to chat to a man walking to Barlow Hut with his daughter for a short hunting trip, and another couple who are fishing for trout in one of the deeper parts of the river… and there’s certainly something moving in there. By 1pm, we’re at the confluence with Gold Creek, and finally it’s a full circle back to where we hopped up to Sparrowhawk three days earlier. The two vehicles that had previously been parked across the river have now departed, but others are around the place. At this point, I remember that I completely forgot to bag another asset here, and I divert to take a photo of sign number 068928, which directs people up the opposing spur to the one we’d followed, towards Gold Creek Hut.

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Craig walks out.

From here it’s just a long, relatively uneventful 4 km walk across a very wide river bed, and although I’m disappointed that the trip is so near its end, I think we’re also keen to hurry up and finish it. At 1.40pm, we finally step up to the carpark, where Amanda and Richard are waiting with the van, having had a very cruisy final day. I take my boots and gaiters off, replacing them with regular shoes before walking back to the river to rinse them. I have to quickly remind myself not to step straight into the water with my street shoes on. I haven’t yet decided if I’ll try to clean these properly for returning to Australia, or if I’ll just leave them here for next time. Probably the latter.

I didn’t get the rain or wind that I was hoping for on this weekend, but there was plenty of steep climbing and clambering over landscape, and it’s also been great to catch up with some friends. I remove my hat and can see my reflection in the rear window of the van. I think I probably need a haircut.

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Day 3: A final look towards .1503, before dropping down Totara Spur.
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