We were supposed to be walking through rivers all weekend according to the original plan, but the weather was so good that we just couldn’t help ourselves, and ended up on the tops. Eventually, we found ourselves moving very slowly thanks to some very overgrown ridges.
Dates: 30th November – 2nd December, 2007
Location: Tararua Forest Park, Poads Road to Mangahao Dam.
People: John, Paul, Craig and me.
Huts visited: Te Matawai Hut (0 nights), Arete Biv (0 nights), Dundas Hut (1 night).
Huts seen: Herepai Hut.
Initial intended route: Begin at Poads Road, wander up the South Ohau River to the old site of South Ohau Hut, wander up past Te Matawai, then down the Mangahao River to Mangahao Flats Hut, and out via the Dam.
Actual route: With some really good weather, we went from Te Matawai Hut up to Arete, over to Dundas, from West Peak to East Peak, then around the ridge to Ngapuketurua, north-east along the ridge, and down the Puketurua Track to the dam.
The van was shared with the Easy-Medium rated Bacon-for-Breakfast group. They dropped us off at Poads Road shortly before 8pm, before carrying on further north to the dams. Friday night involved a walk for a little more than an hour, into a clearing just after the suspension bridge, which made a nice camp-site. To be more specific, Craig and I both set up our small Huntech flies under the trees nearby. John and Paul took a gamble that the weather would remain dry, and slept outside under the trees, with a vague plan to crawl under the flies if it started raining. I don’t know for certain what time John and Paul were stirring, but Craig and I, at least, were awake from about 5.30am on Saturday morning. Personally I didn’t actually get up until around 7, though, when Paul poked his head under my tent fly.
The original plan had been to walk along the South Ohau River for a while, then cross over to the Mangahao river and follow it back along to the dams, via Mangahao Hut. It would probably have been possible to do it in a single long day in good weather, and we had the entire weekend. Considering the apparently excellent weather, John proposed a different idea based on something he’d done about 15 years before. Specifically the idea was to walk around the tops, past Dundas, rather than going on our original planned route along the rivers. This was an attractive proposition, and we’d still have until Te Matawai Hut before making our final decision.
We were away shortly after 8am, and began wandering along the Ohau River. By 10.40am, we’d reached the base of Yeates Track, and began the climb up to Te Matawai Hut. We reached the hut at 12.20pm, which made it a good lunch stop. There was one person already at the hut, who was very quiet. He acknowledged us politely, but didn’t say anything for the entire time. He looked to be busy packing a daypack while we consumed our lunch to plan the remains of our trip, and eventually he left to wander up in the direction of Pukematawai.
John, meanwhile, pulled out a topo map and studied it closely. After some consideration, he estimated that it might take another 5 or 6 hours to reach Dundas Hut by that evening. Craig then made an independent assessment and arrived at the same conclusion, which was very encouraging. The walk on Sunday was a little less certain, as the map showed the route dipping into a few short stretches of light green, which likely meant Leatherwood. John’s recollections from 15 years earlier, however, were that there had been a good track cut through it all. This had been 15 years before, but Leatherwood grows very slowly, right? Still, the consensus for Sunday was that it would probably take up to 8 hours of walking along the ridges and down the spur to the dam. This was allowing a full hour to get between East Peak and West Peak, which are divided by quite a deep saddle, although there would only be a couple of significant climbs.
So the final consensus was that we would take advantage of consistent dry weather and go the longer way, around the ridges. We wandered from Te Matawai Hut at 1.20pm, an hour after arriving, and with the expectation of a further 5 to 6 hours of walking before we’d arrive at Dundas Hut. The first minor scare occurred 10 minutes later, when Paul accidentally tripped over a deceptively flat and safe piece of ground. At first we thought he might have damaged one of his ankles, but after a couple of minutes Paul was feeling okay. Craig and I used the time to rub it in by getting a photo of Craig triumphantly conquering the same piece of track without falling over.
The conversation on the way up the hillside was dominated by a discussion about rules for hut-bagging, and whether a hut should still count if it had been removed and replaced by a new hut. A couple of glider pilots were buzzing around us by the time we reached Pukematawai, shortly before 3. The quiet chap who’d left us at the hut was sitting on the top in the sunshine, eating snacks out of his daypack. He remained very quiet, and we left him a few minutes later to cross the saddle over to Arete, which was a quarter of an hour away.
Both Paul and John, having expected to be wading through rivers for most of the weekend, had only bought relatively small bottles for carrying water. That, as well as the simple desire to see a new hut up close, helped with the decision to wander down to the new Arete Biv. Given that it was so close, this was a surprisingly complex operation. If we’d just been wanting to stop at the hut it would have been simple, but nobody could be bothered to carry their packs all the way down, or to leave them on the top of the peak for that matter. Instead, we ended up walking a short way down Dundas Ridge to drop our packs, and it was 20 minutes of awkward sidling whilst carrying awkwardly shaped cameras and water bottles (for me at least), before we made it to the biv. Half an hour later, after noting that the new biv still leaks, we were back with our packs and ready to go. I looked at my watch and it was after half past four. I’m not sure where the day went, and we still had some distance to go.
It was quite a fast track walking along the ridges over the next couple of hours. The only person we met was a young chap who’d come over from Cattle Ridge, past Dundas, and was now heading towards Arete for the night. He hadn’t decided where he’d go from there, but was considering completing a northern crossing as he’d already done most of it. With the ups and downs, we reached the top of Dundas (the peak) by 5.40pm. We were aiming for Dundas Hut by the evening, although for a reason that none of us quite understand, Dundas Hut is not only a long way from Dundas Peak, but there’s even a higher peak (Logan) in between the two. Logically the hut should be called Logan Hut, or Pukemoremore Hut, but perhaps it’s called Dundas Hut for some kind of historical reason.
Our estimated time for reaching Dundas Hut had been between 6 and 7, but by 7 we hadn’t even even reached the top of the spur at which the hut was below. Paul in particular was very keen to get there, having been starting to get a bit sick of walking all day. He raced out ahead into the distance. I was probably a minute or two behind when I reached what I thought was the right place for the turn-off, but noticed that Paul had continued to run ahead. I took a look around and there were about 5 or 6 cairns scattered around the nearby area. I wandered over to the edge of the ridge, and sure enough, the small shape of Dundas Hut and its nearby dunny were visible on the northern side of the spur, 200 metres below me. By now Craig had arrived behind me, and a quick discussion confirmed that yes, we were actually supposed to be turning off here.
From my point of view this was great, because Craig and I now had an excuse to blow our whistles, and we did. There was no reaction from Paul though, and presumably he was too far away, now well down into the saddle on the way to Pukemoremore — the next peak on the ridge. I ran over to the top of the saddle and saw that in the time we’d spent bureaucratically checking things, Paul had managed to make it half way down into quite a deep saddle. I yelled out to him, and this time managed to get his attention. And if a million tiny landslides were triggered in the Tararua Range at precisely 7.12pm on the 1st of December 2007, they might all have been caused by one of the loudest expletives uttered in history echoing around the hillsides at that instant. It was all in good fun.
The hut was still 200 vertical metres down the reasonably steep hill, and so we still had quite some way to go before finally arriving a little after 7.30pm. The lack of recent rain in the Tararuas was quite evident on the way down, with much of what would usually be slippery mud instead being cracked and condensed, hard ground.
Dundas Hut is a nice 6 bunk hut, which probably only averages a few visits every month, judging by the hut book. Dinner that evening was pasta and some kind of tasty sauce, with a very random assortment of veggies. Notable points about Dundas Hut are that one of the bunks appears a little unstable, and the standard DOC mattresses don’t fit very well into the very non-standard bunks. It was actually quite a challenge for Paul and Craig to force the mattresses into a flat position, and I was thinking at the time that it’d be funny if they suddenly sprung upwards during the night, flinging their occupants against the ceiling. John and I didn’t even bother, and dragged our mattresses onto the floor, instead.
The estimation for Sunday was that it’d probably take about 8 hours of walking to get to the Mangahao Reservoir by the agreed collection time of 3pm. This meant we’d need to get going by 7am at the latest, but the earlier the better. As it turned out, we were all up and awake by sunrise at 5.30, and leaving within an hour of that. I filled my 2 litre water bottle right to the top, and I think Craig did the same. Paul and John hadn’t bought bottles quite as big, and Paul borrowed my spare 1 litre bottle to add to his smaller bottle, while John scavenged an old 750 ml bottle that someone had left at the hut.
In general, uphill walking tends to be my favourite part of walking. That said, I really hate steep climbs that come first thing in the morning. If there’s going to be a steep climb, I prefer to have a 20 minutes or so of easier walking to start off with rather than having to get into it straight out the door. Unfortunately, as Dundas Hut is 200 vertical metres down a steep spur, this was exactly what we had to walk into. We got it out of the way, though, and after 25 minutes or so, I was standing back on the main ridge with all the cairns.
The plan for the day was to cross over Pukemoremore, and then race along the ridge towards West Peak. After this we’d drop into quite a deep saddle and climb up to East Peak, and everything going to plan this should be the last significant climb of the day. From West Peak onwards there would be about a further 7 kms to the top of the Puketurua Track, and we’d have about 4 or 5 hours to cover it. The route did drop into a few light green zones on the map, particularly in the ridge that conneted Massey Knob with Ngapuketurua but John had done this route 15 years ago at which time there was a good track cut through it all, and leatherwood grows very slowly, right? Besides, something would have to be seriously wrong if we couldn’t average 1.5 kph.
We reached West Peak some time after 9am, and were walking into the saddle shortly after. Overall it was about 15 minutes down one side, and about 30 minutes up the other side to the top of East Peak, where we stopped again. For a few moments, it actually looked as if some classic Tararua claggy cloud was rolling in over the on the eastern side. Once we arrived there at 10am, we looked back to the west, and noticed that much of what we’d walked over that morning in the west was now obscured in cloud. It never quite fell on top of where we were at any one time, though.
From East Peak, we made our way north to Ruapae. One particular part of the ridge had almost fallen away, with large slips on both sides. In fact, the slim half-metre-wide piece of ridge on the top was already a little wobbly, and apparently only held together by the roots of the leatherwood on one end. Craig, who was walking with me at the time and had been over that bit a couple of times before, commented that it gets thinner every time. We stopped briefly for a rest on Ruapae, a little after 10.30. During lunch I noticed I was actually getting uncomfortably low on water. I’d begun the day with a full 2 litres, but looking at my water bottle, I now only had less than half of that. This was quite disturbing and I’d clearly been sipping water more frequently than I should have been. At the very least, there were no more major climbs, so with any luck I should hopefully be okay if I was careful from now on. The altitude was now dropping gradually, and we were getting into some slightly more overgrown vegetation. This became painfully obvious after Ruapae, however, when we had our first dose of relatively thick Leatherwood.
Leatherwood is an alpine shrub that’s common at certain altitudes in particular parts of New Zealand, notably in the Tararuas and the Ruahines. It’s the kind of shrub that would almost be thick enough to camp on top of, but not quite. It also tends to come in vast fields, meaning it’s necessary to either take long routes around it (not always possible), or attempt to push through it, which can become very tough, painful, and especially slow. This leatherwood had had a track cut through it many years before, and probably occasional weirdos similar to ourselves would come along and continue to push through the track, making sure it wasn’t completely overgrown. Unfortunately it didn’t appear as if any of the weirdos before us had brought chainsaws with them, and neither had we.
When pushing through leatherwood as part of a group, I think it’s most beneficial to be at least second, rather than first. This makes it possible to see how well the person in front is doing at finding a relatively pain-free route, and to try going a different way if it seems appropriate. The only down-side to this strategy is that as soon as the person in front wanders off in a bad direction and finds themselves stuck in some horrible cavity of stubborn thick tangley branches, it means that you end up being in front, and subject to the same risks to the advantage of the people behind.
Paul was the first person in front on this occasion, and the only person to have ended up taking one of the most unlucky routes which eventually forced him a rather long way out towards the side of the spur near a steepening drop, and without any obvious way of coming back to the centre of the ridge. This meant that for some time, he ended up quite a long way behind the rest of us, and it was completely due to bad luck and happening to have been the first person.
I think I remember John declaring after about 10 minutes that that we were probably through the last of the leatherwood. Suffice it to say that it did actually take another hour to finally bash our way up to the next peak, called Hines, only a kilometre or so away. By now it was shortly before 12pm, and John (as the designated trip leader) was starting to get nervous about the time we were making. He was out-voted when it came to deciding what to do, however, and this was where we stopped for an intentionally brief lunch. During this time, Craig found his phone and spent a few minutes sending a text message to indicate that there was a little leatherwood and that we might possibly get out a little late. Fortunately from Hines we could see along the next part of the ridge towards Massey Knob. Although it looked a little green, it also looked as if there were plenty of clear patches, and it’d be quick from here.
As Murphy’s Law might have predicted, the continuation of our trip around the ridge to Massey Knob was not as quick as we’d hoped. What had appeared to be a reasonably easy ridge from a distance was actually covered with very inconveniently placed shrubs (including the occasional patch of Leatherwood to be negotiated), and rocky out-croppings that needed to be climbed around.
It took about an hour to get to Massey Knob, and a little after 1pm we began bush-bashing our way over to Ngapuketurua, on the parallel ridge to the north-west. Once again this part of the route, approximately 1 km, consisted largely of leatherwood. There was actually a vague track through much of it after some searching around, but there were also some areas where the leatherwood completely dominated, and finding a way through resulted in many scratches and took lots of time.
By now I was beginning to get increasingly concerned about the amount of water I had. With the lack of rain in the range over the past weeks we’d passed quite a few dried up tarns, which were little more than mud. For me, it was like an oasis in the distance when we emerged from yet another patch of leatherwood to see a small tarn in the distance which actually still had water in it.
The other three looked at me a little strangely when I dropped my pack, grabbed my spare 1 litre water bottle (which Paul had now returned to me), and ran over to try and find a way through the thick leatherwood that surrounded most of the tarn. I finally found a way around the back, and leant down to try and reach into the water. It was suddenly apparent that there wasn’t much water in this tarn at all. At its deepest, it was probably only 3 or 4 centimetres deep. My right foot sank half a metre into the mud, and as I retrieved the bottle I had about 200 mls of some kind of stagnant brown mixture with floating things in it and a couple of insects flying around inside. I made up my mind at the time that it probably wasn’t worth trying to get more water than this into the bottle, especially since I’d probably be scooping in mud to do so. It was a bit demoralising after the initial thoughts that had gone through my head, and I stashed what I had back into my pack. With any luck I’d never need to drink any of that, but I’d at least keep it in case of an emergency.
At 2.20pm or so, we finally arrived at Ngapuketurua, and this was the peak above the final ridge we’d need to walk along. Ironically there was even a small cairn at our feet, marking the exact place where we should probably be turning off down the ridge. Perhaps one day in the past, this cairn might have been in the open, but today the entire peak was covered in thick scrub, naturally including the recurring patches of leatherwood We were in the middle of it all. There would be quite a bit to bash through no matter which direction we wanted to go. Fortunately we could see along the next part of the ridge towards the spur containing the Puketurua Track. Although it looked a little green, it also looked as if there were plenty of clear patches, and it’d be quick from here… just as soon as we’d found a way to negotiate the first 200 metres or so.
As Murphy’s Law might have predicted, the continuation of our trip down the remaining ridge to the Puketurua Track was not as quick as we’d hoped. In fact that first 300 metres was very difficult, and once again we ended up separated, with Craig and John being unlucky enough to find a bad route that went all over the place, while Paul and I managed to get further ahead before stopping to wait. Once again there was a glider pilot zooming around us, but this didn’t hold quite the same fascination as it had the day before. It seemed ironic to be up so high on a nice day and not be terribly inspired by the views any more.
By now it was quite obvious that we’d be late out, probably by several hours. It wasn’t clear if there would be a van there to collect us at all, although for me any concerns about that were eclipsed by my mounting concerns about the lack of water. I was down to taking sips of half a mouthful at a time, and I was expecting it to run out any time now.
In actuality, even though negotiating the ridge still involved a lot of pushing through some thick branches and sustaining lots of scrapes and cuts, there was actually a reasonably obvious route. Paul made up his mind that he wanted to get out quickly once again, and after some time we arranged that he should race ahead along the ridge, down the spur to the dam, and attempt to catch the others with the van before they drove away. I was almost considering following him for a while, but I was getting towards crisis point with the water situation, and very concerned about the risk of exhausting and dehydrating myself by going too quickly. Consequently, I gave up trying to keep up with Paul towards the end of the trip along the ridge, although my excuse for stopping at the time was that I wanted to double-check the bearing on the dammed lake, clearly visible below. It was reassuring to know that the intended spur was the next one along, and from there I continued towards the top of the spur at a slightly slower rate. The worst part, however, was seeing from close up just how long and shallow the target spur actually was. There was water at the bottom, 500 metres below, and at this point I’d love to be getting down as quickly as possible, but that didn’t seem entirely likely.
I actually almost missed the turn-off point, although the most obvious track along the ridge virtually stopped almost immediately after it, forcing me to back-track about 10 metres to find the junction that led down the spur. I began to follow it for a couple of minutes or so, before deciding that I should probably wait for Craig and John to catch up, both because it was feasible (though unlikely) that they might also miss the turn-off and we’d get split up, and because I wasn’t sure that I should be walking on my own, given the whole water situation and the possibility of ending up very dehydrated.
As I re-gathered myself in the place where I’d stopped a minute down the spur, I pulled out the 200 ml of dingy brown water that I’d earlier liberated from the tarn. The protein-rich wildlife that had been fluttering around earlier was now still, possibly due to lack of oxygen. The water was no longer as brown as it had been, but after a minute of watching the floaties slowly descend to the bottom of the bottle, I decided it might still be a wise move to find a treatment tablet from my first aid kit, just in case. The only tablet I had was intended for a litre of water, so if it was needed, this would be quite disgusting. I threw it back into the top of my pack, and wandered back up to the top, at which time Craig and John were just arriving to within shouting distance.
The three of us began trekking down the Puketurua Track at about 4.20pm, relatively slowly. The latest edition of the Terralink map of the Tararuas attaches a label to this track indicating that it’s “overgrown”. Ironically, this was probably one of the best tracks we’d had for the entire day. It was almost as if it was walked quite frequently, although I can’t understand what the incentive would be to walk up to a ridge that leads into 6 hours of leatherwood bashing. That would have to be by far one of the most frustrating routes into the range.
Personally I was starting to feel quite a bit of dryness in the back of my throat, and it was near the top of the spur that my water finally ran out. Similarly, Craig and John were on their last mouthfuls. At roughly the 600 metre mark, Craig asked if he could swig some of the tarn water that I’d acquired earlier. This was a convenient excuse to stop for a rest, and when I saw Craig wetting his mouth I decided I might follow his example. I have to admit that that was by a large margin the best disgusting stale chlorinated water I’ve ever tasted.
Finally, after a long time of shallow downhill and the occasional frustrating shallow uphill, the spur dropped off into a very steep descent. Shortly after this, we were at the river, and we stopped for about 10 minutes. I don’t know how much water John got through, but Craig and I drank through at least 2 litres each just standing there. John got started walking back towards the dam, by now not far away, although Craig and I stayed behind to collect more water for the last few minutes of the walk. By the time we left, my own pack was 3 kg heavier.
The river and the lake behind the Mangahao Upper No. 1 Reservoir was quite low, perhaps due to the lack of recent rain, and none of us were entirely sure which side of the lake was optimal to be walking along. The western side of the lake appeared to have a clear track, whereas the eastern side might have had a track above it in the trees, and offered a much more direct route to the dam. John crossed the river to walk along the other side, but Craig and I decided to try our luck on the nearby side. This decision was just a topping off of the day’s activities, and by the end of it I thought I might have been better off following John. The side of the lake was steep and although there were clearly footprints from others who’d been there before, there was no way up to any track in the trees above, even if it existed. Nevertheless, Craig and I reached the dam within about 10 minutes of sidling around the lake, and at 6.20pm, more than 3 hours after the arranged collection time, we were able to look over the top to see that the van was, indeed, waiting for us on the ground at the far end, with Paul and John already outside packing up.
Now that the whole dehydration issue was behind us, it was quite a relief that we wouldn’t be staying an extra night at the road-end. We discovered later that the people in the other group, not having had any idea of where we were, had spent 45 minutes driving the windy and nauseating road in order to get cellphone reception. At that time Murray had received a relayed message indicating that we might be late, and they returned. By the time they had arrived back, Paul was waiting for them. It might have been a combination of the road, the van, and the recent sculling 2 litres of water within 3 minutes that caused me to almost get sick on the way back to Levin, but I managed to hold it in.
It was getting late, and rather than go straight back to Wellington, we all stopped at Levin for dinner on the way home. Overall it was a really fun weekend, even though we were quite short of water for a lot of it. Hopefully I’ll learn from the experience to be a bit more careful about how quickly I’m drinking the water I have.