Dates: 11th – 13th April, 2008
Location: Ruahine Forest Park, Rangiwahia road-end.
People: Alistair, Sarah, Illona, Jane, Amanda, Dirk, Paul, Harry, Craig and meeeee.
Huts visited: Rangiwahia Hut (1 night), Pourangaki Hut (1 night).
Route: Past Rangiwahia Hut to Maungamahue, over to Te Hekenga and around to Taumataomekura and Tiraha. Over Sawtooth Ridge to Ohuinga, then along to point 1632 and down the official track to Pourangaki Hut for Saturday night. Straight up to point 1614 on Sunday, then back along to Maungamahue, and out via Rangiwahia Hut.
We met at the Railway Station at the usual time on Friday night, except for Jane, whom we later collected with a short detour through Paekakariki. Everyone except Illona and Jane (the two vegetarians) had been on recent hunting trips through the respective chilled meat sections of their local supermarkets, and we were looking forward to a brilliant carnivorous dinner on Saturday night. It was going to be great. This wouldn’t help us for Friday’s night, though, and we stopped for takeaways at Levin. Harry quickly ran off to find his favourite Levin-based Chinese Takeaway joint, which he’d been raving about for the entire ride until now, and Fish & Chips was also a popular option. Sarah, Illona, Paul and I visited the Thai Taste Express restaurant a little further down the road. (They’re very fast and have great food, in my opinion.)
We reached the Rangiwahia road-end at about 9.30’ish, and split into a couple of groups at Alistair’s suggestion. We walked under a crescent moon with the lit-up metropolis of Palmerston North visible to the south, and were at Rangi Hut 90 minutes later. Three hunters were already in residence, but they didn’t seem to be too disturbed. Within minutes they were up and chatting with us about our plans for the next day, as well as correcting our bad pronunciation of “Pourangaki” (which has a silent ‘g’).
Alistair’s plan was for us to be up at 5.30am and out the door an hour later, and I quickly built my fort on the floor under the bench. Everyone else found a bunk except for Craig, who’d missed a lot of sleep lately due to a work-related call-out. He set up his things outside in hope of a good, isolated rest. I did sleep really well that night, but unfortunately it wasn’t so for everyone. Harry hadn’t been feeling well after the walk, and was reportedly up and roaming around on several occasions during the night, manifesting his illness outside in all its glory.
Sarah’s cellphone alarm awoke us at 5.30am on Saturday morning, and soon after Harry made a decision that he wasn’t fit to continue, and would instead stay at Rangi Hut. He might get to Pourangaki Hut via the short route to meet us in the evening if he felt well enough, and with any luck the meaty temptation of some great food would be enough to overcome his weakness. We divvied up the important things, however. At 6.30am, Jane began walking and within a few minutes we followed her lead towards the soon-to-be-rising rising Sun.
It took us 45 minutes to reach the route junction just north of Mangahuia. As we approached we gained our first views of the thick cloud that the weak nor-easterly had been depositing in the valley just below us. Our route north dipped into the hazy cloud giving perhaps 50 metres of visibility, sparking a debate about the likeliness of walking through this kind of fog all day. Alistair was enthusiastic that it’d be gone by 11.30am or so, but not everyone was so sure.
The cloud did visibly come and go around the range as we sidled around point 1635, but never completely disappeared. Sawtooth Ridge stayed covered in the distance. It was about now that Jane realised that she also wasn’t feeling well enough for the prospect of a ten hour walk, and after some quick discussions she decided she’d prefer to head straight down to Pourangaki Hut from Maungamahue. At 9am with a brief pause, Jane swapped some items with Illona, and waved goodbye as the remaining eight of us continued east along the ridge towards Te Hekenga, into fog.
Shelter from wind and sunshine above the clouds had kept us warm until now, but things changed heading towards Te Hekenga, which was exposed to a cold but annoyingly inconsistent breeze. I think I stopped three or four times to play with how many layers I was wearing. The second part of the route towards Te Hekenga dips into a deep saddle, and we stopped at the lowest point for some scroggin and snacks before the climb. It was also about now that Craig began to show some early signs of also not feeling quite right, having uncharacteristically fallen about 5 minutes behind everyone. We all wrote it off as minor ankle problems when going down-hill, and Craig himself thought it was probably just a consequence of not having done a lot of tramping in the immediate past.
We left again at 10.20am, and 45 minutes later we sat near the top of Te Hekenga. The next goal from here would be Taumataomekura (near the start of Sawtooth Ridge), but the most direct route would mean heading south-east over a vertical drop, and that wouldn’t be possible without suitable climbing equipment and experience. Fortunately Alistair had researched it, and knew that it’s straightforward to detour around it by heading slightly west for a couple of minutes, dropping down, and sidling over some significant (but stable) slips below the ridge. I was beginning to feel lop-sided because most of the morning’s sidling had been on the left foot, but that was a cosmetic preference compared Craig who was starting to have some real problems. We hoped it was just an effect of the sidling, the two of us fell back some way before getting to the top of the ridge at about twenty to twelve, probably 5 minutes after everyone else.
We reached Taumataomekura a few minutes after 12, about 1 km south-west of the beginning of Sawtooth Ridge, also known as Tiraha (1668 metres). The view was clear nearly everywhere except for the thick white cloud hanging directly over exactly where we were aiming. It was also becoming more obvious to Craig and everyone else that Craig wasn’t feeling too healthy, and we distributed around a couple of things from his pack in the hope that it’d help. We carried on to reach Tiraha, and stopped there at 12.30pm for lunch within the low cloud, and a very limited view down the ridge. We left into the misty grey clag of Sawtooth a little after 1pm, and with Craig struggling the two of us were already hanging back near the end within a few minutes.
I’d been waiting to walk along Sawtooth Ridge for some time, but hadn’t been sure what to expect. Sometimes names can be misleading, and I didn’t really know if the name came from the jagged profile view from a distance, or if it was as much to do with the close-up experience of walking it. In the back of my mind I was really hoping it wouldn’t be one of those horrible ridges which is 20 centimetres wide with steep sides in places, occasionally held together by nothing more than a wobbly clump of leatherwood. I’d asked a friend’s advice before we left, and he’d suggested that it was fine as long as you go over everything rather than around it. In any case, we discovered that it wasn’t too bad to walk along. The ridge certainly has the occasional jagged peak in the middle to which the LINZ-issued topo map doesn’t do a lot of justice, but the routes over these are fairly easy to negotiate.
The ridge itself lines up with a bearing of about 20 degrees. Parts of it were deceptive in the low cloud though, and I was glad I had my compass handy. Craig and I almost found a deceptive side-spur accidentally, having neatly sidled around the eastern side of one of the steep undulations. I felt quite pleased with myself to see the ridge continue on the far side, until I checked my compass for reassurance and ended up shouting over to Craig to ask if he knew of any strongly magnetic rocks in the area. Somehow we were a disturbingly long way out, with the bearing being almost directly over my left shoulder behind us, and no matter how much I tapped on and jiggled my compass I couldn’t get it to state otherwise. Looking more carefully, I finally saw three figures looking down on us from above, and it was suddenly obvious that we’d been deceived by the fog and the temptation to sidle.
At about 2.45pm we reached Ohuinga, at the northern end of Sawtooth Ridge. Craig and I were now behind by 5 or 10 minutes, with Craig feeling quite sick. As far as I was concerned, we were almost at our destination. We had another 3 km of ridge to cover towards point 1632 in the north east, and then we’d be going down a spur which I already knew was easy from past experience. I think everyone else was daydreaming in a similar fashion, and we stopped for a while before continuing.
Anyway, those 3 km between Ohuinga and point 1632 were the worst part of the day, and after all the satisfaction I’d dreamt up by getting over Sawtooth, I was about to find several of those bits of hideous ridge that I’d been dreading. We started it at 3.30pm, heading back down into the misty ridge ahead of us towards point 1584. The first section was fairly straightforward, but it gradually started involving thin ridge-tops which sat above steep drops without much margin for error. Some people quite happily scoot over the top of these kinds of things without batting an eyelid, and that’s probably an experience thing as much as anything. Personally I’m still at the point where I absolutely hate it, and I’d easily go without. This was why I tried to stay near Dirk for a while, because he’s one of these people who’s good at playing hopscotch on ridges and can find a good route really quickly.
After about 20 minutes, we noticed that Craig was really suffering. We all had long sleeved tops on by now, but Craig didn’t, and he was still feeling very hot. We kept going but I dropped back for a while, and within the space of a few minutes it was just Craig and I at the back of the group once again. The ridge was getting progressively harder which didn’t help, and this just added to the amount of time that it was already taking Craig and I to carefully survey the route ahead and get through it okay. (Craig probably knew what was going on in his head better than I did, but I was a little concerned that he might not be in an optimal state of mind for staying completely upright.)
On the worst occasion, I made a particularly bad decision about which side of the ridge to straddle, and we both ended up hinged on the edge of a fairly steep, rocky slope without much below us, balancing on rocks of dubious stability that hung over the top of the ridge. I reached the far end of it some five metres from where we’d begun, and looked back slightly annoyed to see a clear track on the other side, which I hadn’t noticed at all from the other end despite having spent a lot of time trying. Another concerning moment was when I actually did begin slowly sliding, and it was only when the logical part of my brain reminded me to place my one remaining limb somewhere on the ground for a bit of extra surface area, which stopped me sliding for long enough to decide what to do next.
At some point Craig and I straddled another peak which I think was about point 1584, though to be honest I wasn’t paying much attention. On the other side of this we followed an obviously walked route about 30 metres below the left side of the ridge. This confused me a little, until Alistair yelled down from the ridge 30 metres above us, shouting that we’d gone the wrong way. We weren’t supposed to be sidling this area at all, but should have instead been continuing along the ridge at the top.
By now it was near 5pm and we only had about thirty minutes of sun remaining in the day. Alistair was concerned, and once we reached the others waiting at the top, we pulled nearly everything from what remained in Craig’s pack and spread it around. Craig and I struggled on at the back, wondering in hindsight if perhaps we could have gone down one of the earlier spurs instead, which would have dropped us further from Pourangaki Hut but also gotten us off the top more quickly. Alistair’s point however, which made sense, was that at this stage in the day and in our condition, it was better to be going down a spur that we knew rather than one that we didn’t.
At 5.15pm, Alistair appeared in the distance ahead. He’d dropped his pack and come back to check how we were going. This was excellent news, and within five minutes we were standing at two glaringly obvious DOC signposts directing us down the spur. I reached out a hand to tap one, which in my own head symbolised my having reached this point from both directions, and it felt quite good. There wasn’t really much time to waste standing around, though.
By now Alistair’s only goal in life seemed to be that of getting Craig off the exposed tops, probably because if we ended up having to camp somewhere, it’d be much safer to do so below the bush-line, especially when compared to camping on a ridge exposed to a nor-easterly, which could potentially get stronger overnight. Craig was utterly wasted in his condition by now, and had a brief sit-down before Alistair convinced him that it’d only take another 15 minutes to get to the leatherwood at the bush-line and after that it really didn’t matter. Looking down the spur to the east we could see Dirk and his bright yellow coat, standing almost exactly at the point where we were aiming. It was a good beacon on which to set our eyes. We took 25 minutes to cover that distance and it felt painfully slow. I have to admit, though, that it was also really impressive having spent much of the day with Craig and seeing just how absolutely frazzled he was overwhelmed with headaches, high temperatures and legs that really didn’t want to move, yet still having the endurance to keep going – so far for eleven hours and with still more to come.
We finally reached the bush line at half past five and the prevailing leatherwood was conveniently well tracked, as I knew already. I paused to take a photograph of Craig hobbling ahead of me with Alistair following closely behind, and then turned to glance towards the final view of the Sun on our right. For a moment it had emerged from a gap just below the settled horizon clouds, and just as quickly it was absorbed. I looked back towards Sawtooth in the distance, with its visibly jagged edges now only partly obscured by a fluffy grey stream of cloud that was only dissipating after it had rolled over from the east. Glancing at where I stood, I was now surrounded by the same leatherwood that had been a welcome shelter from the wind last October, and I chuckled. This really was the nicest leatherwood in the world. It was briefly caught in a slight breeze and it chuckled back, and from then I knew that there would be no more problems from here on. Keeping this thought in my mind, I stood up and kept going after the other two down the hillside. We still had about 20 minutes to go, after all.
At ten to six on Saturday evening, Craig was clearly sick with a feverish temperature, Alistair was getting sick, and personally I was getting hungry. We stood just below the bush line on the final spur from point 1632 in the east down to Pourangaki Hut. I’d been here before and I was happy because I knew it all from this point on. It’d be easy compared with what we’d been through earlier in the day, and all that was left to negotiate was some mildly slippery down-hill for a while under trees. I confidently informed Craig that there wasn’t much further.
Twenty minutes along, the surrounding scenery hadn’t changed much and nor was there any sign of the river below. It was getting darker under the tree cover which was causing problems with the slippery tree roots on the steepish slope, and we stopped for a moment to find torches. It occurred to me for a moment that Craig’s head-torch might have been indiscriminately taken from his pack by somebody earlier in the day, but fortunately they’d been careful to leave that item behind. It’s a shame that it wasn’t until now that I finally remembered that I had some panadol in my pack, and I offered Craig a couple.
In any case, we were still walking down-hill and there wasn’t an obvious end to it. At some point Craig tripped from the top of one of the tree roots just as the track was switching. From where I was watching directly behind him, I’m positive he accomplished an impressive double twist before landing in the ferns. Realistically he was lucky to walk away without any obvious scratches, but I guess it was a reminder that we still needed to be careful, and fortunate that it’d happened now rather than earlier when there hadn’t been as much to land on.
We continued down-hill, and although I didn’t realise he was serious at the time, this was about when Alistair first suggested that he was also beginning to feel unwell. It was a full hour after we’d left the bush line before we finally made it to the river at the lower end of the spur. There’s a nice camp-site at the level of the river and we wondered for a moment why we hadn’t just decided to set up camp here. As it was, there was still some distance to go. Alistair took us around to the small swing bridge nearby before going ahead to find the hut, leaving Craig and I to get through the last part on our own.
If I’d bothered to properly consult the map I’d have remembered that there’s actually about another 80 or 90 metre vertical climb involved before reaching Pourangaki Hut, so even after reaching the river it still took longer than I’d expected. My main concern was that we might walk straight past the hut in the dark, which is in a clearing about 50 metres to the left of the track, and the last time I was here the short path through the trees hadn’t been marked very well. When we reached it, however, we found that DOC has now placed two very obvious signs smack in the middle of the main track, directing people to the hut in the opening on the left. We finally rolled into Pourangaki Hut at about 7.30pm, and it was a relief to see the end of the walking for the day. This final section was nothing like the relatively easy, muddy slide that I remembered from a few months before. It had been a long day.
Craig and I sauntered through the door of Pourangaki Hut at 7.30pm on Saturday night, to a anticlimatic welcoming. With a quick glance around the room I noted at least a couple of people from our group stretched out motionless on the bunks, with others sitting and standing in what space was available. Jane had arrived safely after her decision to take the short-cut earlier in the day, and had in fact been there for most of the afternoon. She’d even begun to worry about us, with our expected time having been an hour before anyone showed up. Harry wasn’t there, but we hadn’t really expected him to leave Rangiwahia anyway. Amanda, Sarah, Dirk, Paul, Illona and eventually Alistair had all shown up within the previous half hour. Craig and I expected everyone would be wanting to cook by now, and I quickly began pulling things from my pack, throwing them all over the floor in search of whatever dinner ingredients I’d ended up with. This included some of Craig’s chicken, some of Harry’s chicken, and a collection of miscellaneous vegetables, rice and lots of milk powder for dessert.
Preparing dinner ended up being less urgent than we’d expected, since everyone was feeling so exhausted. By the time the two of us had arrived, there wasn’t even any water being heated for a brew, and getting this started was the first order of business. During the moments when he wasn’t feeling too sick, Craig busied himself searching for his second bright yellow croc, the first of which had been handed to him by someone who it had been given to earlier.
We eventually got started on dinner, and it was a bustling time inside the small room. Pourangaki Hut has a good stash of cooking gear, and we also had three gas cookers between us. I chopped some meat and scrubbed a few utensils, but I wasn’t sad to end up outside for a while. With almost nowhere to sit in the hut, it was an opportunity to actually get away from the bustling efforts inside, and relax for the first time since arriving. Illona was also outside, and stretching out on the steps while absorbing the soothing and regenerating effects of green tea, we chatted properly for about the first time on the trip. I reminisced about my bad habit of underestimating times and distances. Before today, my net memory of the spur we’d descended had been a collection of a few slippery tree roots with a crazy-looking landmark tree about half way down, and in my head I’d come up with an estimated time that was quite inaccurate. If I’d taken a more objective approach and consulted the map, it might have been clearer that it was going to take longer.
This was all in the past by now, and for the seven meat-eaters who’d reached here, the Louisiana Jambalaya followed by cake and custard was awesome by the time we finally got to eat it. Jane and Illona, both vegetarians, had some time ago finished consuming whatever plants they’d prepared. They patiently waited for us to hurry up so they might have a decent sleep. As we found out later, back at Rangi Hut where we’d abandoned him, Harry was this night feasting on a couple of wholesome biscuits, while still not feeling the best.
We finally drifted off at 10.30pm, when I reached up from my position on the floor to extinguish the two remaining candles, forgetting that Sarah, Paul and Dirk were still hard at work outside washing dishes. They stumbled into a darkened and silent hut several minutes later, and quietly made their way to bed.
All nine of us spontaneously woke at 6.30am on Sunday morning. This was actually a couple of hours earlier than what we’d planned after being exhausted enough from Saturday. Amanda pointed out that she’d been lying awake for at least an hour but didn’t want to bother anyone, and a quick survey found that several others had also been quietly awake for the same reason. Being the only person on the floor, I pulled my things together to be out of the way, wandered outside for a stroll on what was looking to be a calm, clear day, and tried to identify the birds fluttering around high in the treetops.
Today was going to be cruisy after yesterday and we were essentially home-free, but it’d still take a while. Nobody was feeling very energetic and if anything, Alistair was beginning to feel worse. From here, we’d be following the orange triangle track up to Pourangaki (the peak), over a brief saddle to point 1614, and then straight back over Maungamahue, on to Rangiwahia Hut and down to the van. Jane left before everyone else at about 8.10am so she could get a head start with the initial climb, and everyone followed casually afterwards.
I ended up at the front after a while, probably because I prefer to get climbs out of the way and then recover at the top. Alistair still hadn’t gotten over whatever kind of sickness he’d contracted last night and I suppose that having gone ahead, I escaped the burden of being asked carry a bit more. I found out later that Alistair had off-loaded some of his gear to several other people — particularly Paul who somehow managed to cram the large club tent fly into his miniature pack, and Sarah who liberated Alistair of a heap of other things to the point that her pack was now reaching a full hand-span above the top of her head. Craig was fortunately feeling a little better, and back to carrying all of his own things once again.
From above the tree-line there was suddenly a lot to look at, and I slowed down to gaze at Sawtooth which now had its clear profile in the distance, in stark contrast to what we’d experienced when we were there. Ruapehu was clear and vivid on the other side, as was Egmont and Kapiti Island in the far distance. It was about 10am when I reached the top, and sat on the windy northern side of the ridge. Alistair, Paul and I had been exactly here on a nice day six months before. This time wasn’t obviously different, except that there was a shifty wind from the north east, and it was gradually shunting clag over the tops of the distant ridges. Even in the space of an hour, the teeth of Sawtooth Ridge were once again encumbered in mist.
Jane rolled up 5 minutes later, followed by everyone else not long after, and we hopped over to the more sheltered southern side of the ridge to consume a few snacks and catch up on gossip. From where we sat near the unnamed point 1614 we could easily see Maungamahue, which was where we were next headed, on the far side of a shallow saddle. Once we’d reached that, we’d be re-tracing our steps. Jane had already been here the day before, when it hadn’t been so clear. As we lazed around she explained how she’d almost missed the saddle in the cloud on her way down to the hut. It had all worked out nicely in the end, though.
We left again at 10.45am, following several parallel routes into the wide and shallow saddle and then converging at the base of Maungamahue about a kilometre away. I didn’t immediately recognise the familiar terrain from the other side, even though by now we were almost on to of where we’d been on Saturday morning. Somehow it looked different from the other side, and in the sunshine. My feet were also beginning to feel quite sore by now, which was distracting. The only reward at the top of Maungamahue was the sight of a short post which extended 30 cm from the ground. To rub it in, the silhouette of Dirk in front of the clouds below us on the eastern side indicated that he’d found a much more intelligent route to coast around the edge on a nice track without any extra climbing at all. If I found any satisfaction, I think it was from knowing that everyone else had come the same way as me, either because they wanted to or because they’d followed me. (Ha haaa, suckers!)
We invented a route down the other side, before negotiating the flat area (full of sink-holes) towards point 1635, stopping on its eastern fringe for an early lunch at 11.30am. Alistair was still feeling quite bad, and as I fused together my cheese, pita bread and other bits and pieces, Sarah produced some remains of last night’s dessert which she’d cunningly smuggled into her pack, and secretly handed some to Alistair. Our lunchtime chatter initiated a debate about the benefits of vegetarianism and Jane’s experimental raw food diet that she was trying, and from that the debate ensued for the rest of the day.
We left again at 12pm or thereabouts and headed towards Rangiwahia Hut, sidling around the eastern side of point 1635. If the wind had been coming from the south-west, we might have detected a wafting scent of Cash Converters much earlier, but it wasn’t until there was a direct line of sight at about 1.30pm that we finally spotted Harry in his faded red jumper and red shorts, leaning against the sign at the top of the spur which led down to Rangi Hut. He’d been waiting for a while. It turned out that he hadn’t made it further than a 10 minute walk on Saturday before deciding that he couldn’t continue, so he spent another night at Rangi Hut rather than continuing on to Pourangaki.
At Rangi Hut we stopped for another 30 minutes, using the gas facilities to heat more water for a well deserved brew, before settling down on the deck outside. Lazing in the sunshine, another exciting discussion ensued on the topic of raw food. The climatic event was when Jane passed around some real coffee beans for people to try. They went down quite well as a curiosity, but not as well as the chocolate that Craig passed around immediately afterwards. Having left the hut at 2.30pm, there was only a 70 minute uneventful jog down the hill to the van. As rewarding as the weekend had been, I was glad to finally be out again. It was especially impressive from Craig’s point of view, I think, who’d been feeling quite awful for most of Saturday and yet still gotten through it. All that remained was a happy drive home.