Trip: Aorangi Crossing, Pinnacles to Cape Palliser

I enjoyed the weekend about a year ago when we crossed Aorangi Forest Park from the Pinnacles to Cape Palliser… so much so that finding myself without much to do for the weekend, I ended up joining a group of nice happy people who were doing exactly the same thing all over again. Of these people, Sarah and Alistair had been part of the same trip a year before.

Dates: 7th – 9th March, 2008
Location: Aorangi Forest Park, Pinnacles Road End to Mangatoetoe Road End.
People: Sarah, Alistair, Sylvia, Jane, Kevin, Jackie and me.
Huts visited: Washpool Hut (0 nights), Pararaki Hut (1 night), Kawakawa Hut (0 nights), Mangatoetoe Hut (0 nights).
Intended route: Pinnacles up and over to Washpool, up and over to Pararaki to stay the night, up again and down again to Kawakawa Hut, then up the river, over the saddle and down to Mangatoetoe Hut and out via the Mangatoetoe River.
Actual route: Hooray.
[Photos]

This post is a trip report. You can find other trip reports about other places linked from the Trip Reports Page, or by browsing the Trip Reports Category.

The whole weekend is a DOC-endorsed orange triangle track, but it’s very steep in places. The first day involves two climbs and two descents, with one of the climbs particularly draining of energy. The second day also stretches out and involves quite a lot of climbing, as well as pushing through over-grown river beds. It’s a great trip for people who like hut-bagging. Over two days, the walk passes 4 separate huts. Each hut is placed on a separate river which leads out towards the coast to the west, and the popular way for hunters to access the huts is by walking (or driving) up the rivers. For our trip though, we were traversing the track from north to south between all four huts.

We began the trip camping at the Pinnacles road-end on Friday night, the seven of us fitting under three Huntech flies and a bivy bag. Up a little before 7am, we were finally packed and away by 8.15, heading towards the base of the Pinnacles to the west. There are a couple of orange-triangle routes up from the main river valley, which lead to either end of the main loop walk up to the Pinnacles lookout, but it’s also possible to walk right up the valley to the base of the Pinnacles, and re-join the loop track from there.

We reached the Pinnacles’ base after about 25 minutes of walking, and went for a wander up the middle where we encountered a small herd of frightened sheep which had probably escaped from somewhere. They backed further and further up as we approached before making a running charge down the edge to get past us. There are some very nice views looking upwards from this area, and after 15 minutes of walking around and taking lots of photographs, we cut back into the loop walk which leads up to the lookout at about 9am, through a signposted entrance.

After 15 minutes of climbing we’d reached the lookout, where it’s possible to see a completely different perspective of the pinnacles and it becomes more apparent what they look like from a distance, and from higher up. It’s an impressive scene, and we stopped there for about 10 minutes before continuing up the hill.

Within a couple of minutes of walking above the lookout, the track splits. Turning left (which is well signposted) returns along the loop walk to the coast, while turning right begins a gentle slope upwards for a short distance before reaching a 4 wheel drive track along the ridge in the approximate direction of Washpool Hut. The eventual climb is up to 700 metres, but from here it’s a relatively easy walk for quite a while with the occasional dip into a saddle.

At 10am, about half an hour after we left the lookout, the 4 wheel drive track ended and became something more resembling of a tramping track. As might be expected, the track is a little less even than the road and there are slightly steeper ups and downs, but this probably just makes it more interesting. There was a lot of sunshine around and it was a nice walk under the trees for a Saturday morning. We stopped for a snack in the sunshine at about 10.40am. From here the gradient became a little steeper for the final climb to the 700 metre mark, and the track had occasional obstacles such as fallen trees that needed to be creatively negotiated, but it was very manageable.

We stopped for 15 minutes and regrouped at the place where we thought the top was at about 11.30am, which was a good chance to sit down and snack a bit more of course. It turned out that there was still a bit more up before the track took a very obvious turn to the south-west and began to descend towards Washpool Hut. It was actually a really quick descent, too, and we were at the first hut within an hour. Unlike when we were here last year, nobody was set up and living in Washpool Hut this time, and the hut book implied that it hadn’t yet been heavily used this year. Most of the mattresses had become very mouldy on the tops, and didn’t look terribly inviting for sleeping on. Fortunately we weren’t planning to stay here anyway, and within a couple of minutes we sauntered down to the river just below for a 1pm lunch and laze around, which lasted a good 45 minutes.

The route up the other side of Washpool Creek, which we began at 1.45pm, is an official DOC orange triangle track. It begins with a signpost a short distance north of where the track leads from the hut down to the river. The first 100 vertical metres of this track is a real killer, however, and in my opinion it’s the worst bit of the entire crossing. It’s certainly not vertical, but there are many places where it’s necessary to be using all four limbs to get up, and finding appropriate hand-holds can take some time. After the first 100 metres the track becomes more consistently like a track, but it’s still a consistent slog up another 450 vertical metres to point 765, which can be a bit of a kick in the guts for people who are relieved to have just gotten past the first part. Nevertheless we did get there. Alistair and I, who were at the front, reached a good sit-down point near the top at about 2.40pm. Jane and Sarah showed up about 15 minutes later, and everyone else trickled in over the next 10 minutes or so. My altimeter was reading under by about 80 metres at this point, which was either a sign that the weather was continuing to improve, or that I just had a kruddy cheap altimeter.

It hadn’t occurred to me last year (but I think it was Alistair who pointed it out on this occasion) that it would actually be possible to walk all the way along the ridge from point 765, and down to Sutherlands Hut. We weren’t planning to do so on this occasion, but it might be an interesting trip for the future, even though the second half of that walk still looks to be a 4 wheel drive track — apparently common in the Aorangis.

We began our descent at about 3.30pm, and once again it was fairly rapid and without significant problems, stopping for snacks on occasion on the way down. At 4.40pm, Alistair and I had reached the hut, our destination for the evening, and everyone else was close behind. The first point of order was a good swim and wash down, and it wasn’t long after everyone had shown up that we were all rinsing off sweat in the river.

We were having great trouble on our trip with properly pronouncing the name of this hut, and for a while we just called it the ‘P’ hut. This seemed to be a running joke, even though I’m not sure if it was supposed to be short for the Pee hut, or the Methamphetamine hut, or more likely a combination of both. (If you feel strongly about correct pronunciation of this name, please accept my apologies.)

The actual name of the hut is Pararaki Hut, which it gets from the Pararaki River. Last year the entire field around the hut had had an unfortunate encounter with a cow suffering diarrhoea (just like all cows), but this year it was a lot better. It was fortunate too, because as had happened last year, there was a hunter in residence this year, too. The meat hangee shed thing outside Pararaki Hut unfortunately is in need of maintenance, and this means that hunters there tend to hang their kills inside… which officially they’re not supposed to do (I don’t think), but it’s quite understandable given the circumstances and the unlikeliness that other people will actually show up. On this occasion he’d managed to nab a baby Bambi and a small Piglet, and both were hanging up inside. Once we arrived though, he was very polite and put them away so they weren’t within head-banging distance with the limited space inside.

Sarah had been responsible for organising dinner that night, and chose yet another recipe from the excellent Gourmet Tramping in New Zealand. On this Saturday night we had a gourmet meal with fish and lentils, which was very rewarding, followed by custard and stewed fruity stuff. Our hunter friend had a gas-powered lamp which he’d kept stashed somewhere, and kept it going so we could have a decent feed without having to resort too much to torches, and settle in for the night. Washing the dishes resulted in a few scraps of lentils slipping into the river, and in the darkness, this unexpectedly tempted a couple of eels to come out from under their respective rocks for a feast. The only regret I had after the dinner was noticed later on Sunday evening, when I realised that I hadn’t properly wrapped the rubbish and ended up having to air out the scent of old fish from a lot of my things.

Sylvia and Jane had set up one of the Huntech flies outside the hut, and I was very tempted to do the same, but in the end after much umming and ahhing, I just couldn’t be bothered. In hindsight I wished I had, because it was quite hot and sticky with all six of us in the hut that evening, even with the windows wide open. I still had a reasonable sleep though, and I think everyone else did, too.

Everyone was gradually up the next morning a little before 7am, and we were packed and ready to get going by 8am. The track leading south from Pararaki Hut begins on the far side of the river, slightly to the right (southern direction) of where the hut sits. It’s nowhere near as bad as the climb south out of Washpool Hut, but it’s still a consistent climb for about 100 vertical metres before it levels off. Much of the climb involves sidling around steepish ground that involves quite a thin track and not many hand-holds. It’s the sort of climb which seem okay though as long as care is taken to put feet firmly on the ground (and maximise the surface area).

A year before, the second day of the trip had been plagued with Stinging Nettle (Onga Onga), and we were keeping a close eye out for it. This time though, even though it was evident, there was a comparatively low amount of it. What seems most likely is that somebody recently went along the track and cleaned out much of the most invasive Onga Onga. Even a particular gully which, last time, had been very challenging to cross without a lot of care, had almost no problematic Onga Onga on this occasion. What hadn’t changed was the amount of hook-grass, which was at least as bad as it’d been a year before.

The track continued twisting and turning through the trees and around the edges of the various ridges until about 9.40am, when we finally reached the top of one of the streams leading into the Otakaha Stream and towards Kawakawa Hut. This is a very nice and scenic spur to walk down. It’s thin along the top and it’s surrounded by landscapes of greenery ahead and towards either side. The descent to the stream below took about 15 minutes, and from there it was a cheerful 20 minute walk along the stream, avoiding the small herd of walking steak that was munching on the grass in the fields, to Kawakawa Hut at 10.15am, another good stop for a snack. It was here that we met three hunters relaxing with their 4 wheel drive and 4 wheel motorbike, both of which had presumably come up the Otakaha Stream from the coast. They’d been settled at the hut for a week, and surprisingly hadn’t met one of the other club groups that’d been scheduled to stay at Kawakawa Hut the previous evening. They had seen a group of people wander past that morning though, which made it sound as if the group had simply set up a fly somewhere further down the river.

The next stage of the trip would take us up a river, over a saddle, and into another river basin towards Mangatoetoe Hut. We left Kawakawa at 10.30am for the short romp up the river, taking two right turns as other bits of rivers came down to meet it. The route is still marked with orange triangles, but it’s certainly not a dry feet track. The final part of the stream was very overgrown, and it took some effort to find the optimal route through the growth and push further up the stream. There’s still an orange triangle route though, which can be followed with effort.

The track eventually veers off the river completely on its true right. It’s not difficult to find the place where it leaves the river, either, because it comes just before quite a steep waterfall which would be very difficult to accidentally negotiate without noticing the track markers leading up the edge. We began climbing it at about 11.40am. This part of the track itself was probably the steepest part since leaving Washpool Hut the previous day. It climbs for a couple of minutes, then veers off to the right for a short sidle, then climbs up further coming quite close to the edge of a slip. It’s possible to hang inside from the slip quite a way, although several of us actually missed that turn. Although the first part of it is steep, however, it doesn’t last anywhere near as long as the previous day’s climb.

Once it levels out, the track meanders roughly level for a couple of hundred metres, and we stopped here again to re-group at about 12pm, with several people in the group starting to feel a little exhausted. The plan was to have lunch at Mangetoetoe Hut. By now, however, Sarah was starting to consider whether we were likely to be out by 3pm, which had been our arranged collection time. This was particularly a concern with the tiredness that was showing after a weekend of repeated ups and downs. After some brief consideration, it was decided that Sarah and I would run ahead to make sure we were out by 3pm and find the other club group with whom we were supposed to be meeting and sharing a van. The two of us were away at 12.10, and after following the route down the other side of the saddle, and over a side-stream, we were soon following the Mangatoetoe Stream out towards Mangatoetoe Hut.

Sarah and I reached the hut a little after 1pm, with the idea of stopping for a quick lunch. We were starting to think about leaving at about 1.30pm, when everyone else rolled up. Having re-assessed the amount of time we had, it looked as if we’d probably still be out before 3, given that there was only another 4 kilometres to walk over what was essentially a 4 wheel drive track through a wide river bed. The two of us did get away again about 5 minutes later, however, just to make sure there was someone there to catch the other group. As it turned out, we were out at 2.30pm, found two vans and no sign of any people. It was a little confusing until the third van rolled up at exactly 3pm with the other club group – they’d been around the corner at the small village of Ngawi, sipping lattes. Coincidentally, this was also the exact time that the remaining 5 people from our own group emerged from the river bed.

So by the end of it, it was another successful and fun trip. I don’t care that I’d done the same thing last year. This year, there was a lot less stinging nettle and it was just great to get out again. From here we drove around to Palliser Bay to collect the third club group who’d been camping at Kawakawa Hut the previous night, and who’d been waiting for ages. They’d quelled their boredom by making kites from pack liners, and inventing some kind of tire-rolling competition along the beach.

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