Rough & Rugged Ruahines - Palmerston North to Taupo Pt. I

May 21, 2014

The Ruahine (pronounced 'Ruaheenee') Ranges...the element of this entire walk that I had been anxious about since preparation. I knew that if there would be one section of my journey that would test me in almost every way, it would be this. I struggled throughout these Ranges, mostly because of one main factor that contributed to many others, I felt alone.

While I know I am someone who can thrive in solidarity, there is a big difference between being alone and feeling alone. Once again, somewhat like my experience in the Tararuas, I believe my time in that 8 days would have been completely different, and probably more enjoyable if I had a companion.

As far as physically demanding goes, the Ruahines takes the cake...or my fat. I lost 9kg since leaving Palmerston North about two weeks ago. I found it to be like the toughest section of TA on steroids. I've decided that this Forest Park needs it own word for the average steepness: Ruahinesteep, meaning a slope of at least 45° (generally much more) and usually covered in mud.

I had sent a message to Karla Anderson who completed a similar traverse in the opposite direction a couple of months ago about track conditions. She replied with some very useful information and commented on how she found the Ruahines to be very mentally challenging as well as scary.

Day 1 was Tuesday the 6th of May. I decided to skip the 2 days of road walking from Palmerston North to prevent making my knee very sore. Steve and Maria drove me to the trail head near Dannevirke and I set off exuberant with confidence...not. Firstly, I had to find the way as the only track with a sign I could find would lead in the wrong direction. Turns out I had to follow a 4WD track that had been washed out by a big flooding to get to a picnic area. From there I could follow a river route or a ridge track. I decided on the ridge track, which crossed a stream and led up the first wall of mud. I came out of bush at a quad-bike track surprised by how out of breath I was. I then followed the quad track for a couple kilometres as it climbed and descended along Homes Ridge until it turned into tramping track for the descent down to West Tamaki River. I arrived at Stanfield hut a few hundred metres upstream, sooner than I expected. The next hut was only 3km further so I continued on to make my next day shorter...and I'm glad I did! After heading upstream a short distance, the track climbed 'Ruahinesteep' for around 30 minutes. Once at the top, a nicely cut track through bush and shrub took me along the ridge until I needed to descend 200m down to Cattle Creek hut. The wind came in during the night; the hut shook and I was awake until 3am feeling anxious about the next day.

Karla said that the track north of Cattle Creek hut is overgrown and unmarked, but is still doable. Not really knowing her definition of 'overgrown but manageable' was a bit unnerving. Thankfully it wasn't terrible, although very slow. After climbing back to the ridge track, I turned north and began climbing along the ridge. Within a few metres the vegetation around my feet got taller and varied between shin and chest height throughout. Windfall blocked the track every now and then which required tangled scrambling to get around, under or over. I then descended into taller forest where the old track became more defined and down to a stream. I walked upstream for about a kilometre until I saw the big orange triangle indicating the Apiti track. I was glad to be back on marked track and hoping I would be able to make faster progress. Turns out that wouldn't be the case as I began a slow and tiring 500m ascent. Eventually the climb eased off for a while, but then got steeper for another 300m ascent. This time including walls (almost literally) of mud and roots to climb. Already feeling worn out and looking up an almost vertical hill isn't very motivating. About 3/4 of the way up my right leg began to cramp in multiple places, and the left followed suit shortly after. I stopped to stretch and rest while feeling very conscious of the time. With around 8km to the hut and no idea what the upcoming ridge track would be like, I slowly continued climbing while trying to avoid triggering cramp. The steepness eased as I got closer to a track junction with Leon Kinvig hut. The sign said 3.5 hours to Longview hut when I only had around 2 hours of daylight left. I didn't want to divert to a hut off of my course so continued along the ridge track with hopes that there wouldn't be too many undulations. Lucky for me the track was very well cut and there were only 4 sizeable climbs which slowed my pace because of threatening cramp. The final five hundred metres to the hut was topped off with some random wind and sideways rain gusting from the west. I made it to Longview hut when the sun was half set, and to my thrilling surprise, it had gas heating! Life at 1200m with a view to the east coast got better from then.

The following day was my favourite of the Ruahine Ranges. Firstly, I got to warm up my clothes on the heater before heading off, and the clouds dissipated as the sun rose. I left the hut and descended across Apiti Saddle, then climbed 350m to the Main Range ridge route. I took the climbing fairly slow to avoid yesterday's predicament. Mostly through a nice kind of tussock, the route was pretty hassle free to walk and offered brilliant views deeper into the Park and across the flats to the east coast. I decided on a shorter day and to only reach one hut in my itinerary as I wasn't sure if I'd make it to the one after. This meant I had plenty of time in the day, so I made a diversion trip over to Daphne Ridge and stop for lunch at Howlett's hut which has a fantastic view right from the verandah. From Howlett's I had a Ruahinesteep descent of around 800m vertical to reach Daphne hut.

The next day turned out to be the worst day... I decided to divert from the planned route which involved a big ascent and descent that would take almost 2 hours longer than if I followed the river. I followed the Tukituki River from the hut for around 3km until the valley widened and I came into farmland. I had seen on an old topographic map in Howlett's hut that a DoC track once existed right down to the river. According to my topo maps the track started about 500m 'as the crow flies' up the hill. I decided to climb up the river bank where I thought the old track existed. I was surprised to find it still exists, slightly overgrown and marked with pink tape five metres from where I climbed the bank. I ascended a few metres and rose onto a big grass hill that was marked with DoC triangles much sooner than indicated on the map. I had a 500m ascent through varying vegetation until I reached the forest bush line. The track then followed an undulating ridge to Hinerua hut. I stopped to have a late break before the short distance to Smith's Stream hut. I read Karla's hut book comment saying she was surprised at how steep the track was. I didn't think much of it because she made no mention of this section in her message. I saw a comment from a guy who had been through a few days before me saying 'The track from Smith's Stream is the roughest, toughest track I've done, and I love bush/gorge bashing!'...umm, but the track isn't near water according to the map and GPS. Wrong. I climbed a few metres from the hut to a ridge, then turned to descend. The track led down through ferns, sometimes right next to the edge of a huge slip that was fairly undercut. It then turned again to descend into the slip. Land skiing was the only way to get down the next 20m. I got closer to a stream and couldn't see another marker so I followed what looked like ground trail but ended when I came to the edge of a gorged out stream. I turned back and found the way...the way being through dense vegetation. I quickly accepted that I was going to be fighting/eating plants the whole way, but the track led to surprise after surprise. The gorge itself was up to 2m high and had many waterfalls of about 1-2m. The hill on either side of the gorge was so steep that any trees falling ended up in or across the gorge. When possible, the track climbed into the stream over boulders and climbed out to the most extreme slippery sidling I've done...on the edge of the gorge wall. There's no way to see what you're about step on, or not step on (hole) due to vegetation, so hanging onto bases of plants above head and lowering myself until something solid comes underfoot was the only way I felt comfortable. One part had me cross a slip a few metres above the gorge. The earth is hard, pebbly and so steep I could touch the ground in front of me with my hands while standing up straight. I used the occasional rock as a foot or hand hold, but had I lost footing, I would slide straight into the gorge. The highlight of this track was definitely the creative use of windfall by DoC. There were times when a big hole or gap in the earth was encountered, but conveniently with the ridiculous amount of windfall, a nice size 'bridge' tree had landed across them. The trees always landed on an angle, and after being there for a while, they have moss growing on them. Combined with water they become too slippery to walk on. So for the steeper ones, I found the only way to get down and retain balance with 24kg on my back was to straddle it backwards and slide down...it was a majestic looking movement I'm sure. Don't go down too fast so that you can't stop because DoC has put the track marker on the tree, meaning I had to lift myself over 2 nails not fully hammered in. Yay. After working my way across the biggest gap section in the track, I had to climb down to another piece of windfall that was stacked below the one I was on before being able to jump down a metre where there was a pool of water, rocks, grass and mud. With both feet on the lower windfall, I stood up feeling okay about underfoot grip. Just when I became vertical, the grip was lost as weight shifted and my feet flicked out from under me. I remember the first moment of falling before my head hit something and knocked me out for a few seconds. I had landed in the pool of water which was cold enough to wake me up. Touching where my head hurt revealed I was bleeding. I took a photo to see if it was bad but thankfully it was only minor. At this moment, I truly realised how alone I was, and if I hadn't woken up hypothermia would have kicked in very quickly. I continued down the gorge, experiencing plenty more of everything I've described. I felt huge relief when I emerged into Smith's Stream, and I spent 15-20 minutes working my way up the rapids to Smith's Stream hut. From Hinerua to Smith's Stream hut it's about 1.5km. 500m of it being in Smith's Stream. The first kilometre took 1 hour 45 minutes. Smith's Stream hut has a log book from the NZ Forestry Service days and dated back to '88 which made for some cool reading that evening. I got to make an entry on the second to last page.

Clear sky during the night made for a frosty morning...and long drop seat. From the hut I climbed a hill, and continued to climb up the edge of a slip and also next to a big crack in the earth where a slip is soon to be. After about 15 minutes of climbing I was wondering why the track wasn't descending to a stream by this point. The GPS showed that I was on a track leading to the top of a hill in the wrong direction. I hurriedly descended back down until I almost passed a small piece of timber with 'Smith's Stream hut' engraved on it nailed to a tree. I looked around and found the track I needed to be on almost parallel to the other, but not at all obvious. I descended steeply to a stream then walked upstream until I started climbing a side stream that had a few similar features to the one yesterday, but the track climbed away from it soon after. I climbed almost to a ridge but the track turned and sidled along the side of the hill. I eventually came to open shrub and grass track, then descended down the ridge. A few stream crossings and hill climbs later I followed a quad track to Waipawa River and North Block Road. Rather than follow the Waipawa River to Waipawa Forks hut I decided to go via the road to Triple X hut and consider whether or not climbing to the next part of the Main Range was appropriate. Part of me won't forgive myself, but the weather seemed like it was closing in and Karla had mentioned that part of the unmarked ridge route was very steep and dense with vegetation...I convinced myself that it was a bad idea to go up alone, so I called it a half day at 2pm and stayed at the hut with a toasty potbelly stove.

The next morning I walked out of the Park and followed North Block and Whakarara Roads to connect with a track leading to Parks Peak hut. It was cool being able to see the Main Range as I walked the road. I wondered what it'd be like up there and if I had made the right decision. I'll probably be back to find out another time. The track to the hut started with a crossing of the Makahoro River and then led up an old logging track through an area that was milled up until 1963, which made the vegetation growth very different to untouched forest. I then started an 800m ascent to the hut. The track was well maintained the whole way and I had great views in the exposed areas around 1300m before reaching Parks Peak hut: a seemingly brand new hut, it was super clean and fancy. The hut book was cool to read because I saw entries from Geoff & Lisa Mead, Dave & Clare Quested (the people that inspired a route through the Ruahines for me), Peter Mounsy and Karla, who received a bit of abuse from the person after her. This guy claimed that Karla used all the firewood, left cans in the wood stove and threw food on the verandah...despite the fact that there was about 2 weeks between the entries and that Karla didn't stay at the hut. I had a good laugh at his assumption.

The next day I went a bit crazy with frustration. A little bit of frost and snow on the ground as I set off. The track was much easier than expected and I made great progress.  After the junction with Aranga hut I descended and spent some time in forest before ascending out onto open tussock hills. The wind had been consistent all day but I was mostly sheltered until that point and I found myself fighting the wind by walking on an angle to keep a straight line. Combined with the lumpy kind of tussock terrain, I was stumbling every couple of metres. Unexpectedly, I became instantly furious at my situation when I tripped and fell, stood up and fell over again on the next step, then repeated that for a third time. I think it's quite funny now, but I just wanted to punch the wind in that moment. I continued the 'tussock two-step' over Ohawai (1368m) and to No Mans Road. A few hundred metres down was No Mans hut, which was actually one man's hut and not any man's hut...it was private. The door was wide open so I had a break inside where the wind couldn't annoy me. I then followed the road for around 4km to the unsigned track turn off which led down in Ruahinesteep fashion to Koau Stream where I experienced a brief Deception River-like experience on river boulders. After finally drying my boots the night before I wasn't overly happy about giving them a wash just 100m before my destination: Diane's hut.

The next morning I left the hut and immediately started a Ruahinesteep 350m ascent to reach the rocky shrub tops. Walking was mostly enjoyable despite when I lost the route and bush bashed for 30m through shrub that was taller than myself, then getting to the other side and stepping in a tussock hole, trying to save myself with the other foot but also falling in a hole and landing on a tussock plant base between my legs. Fellas. I could only laugh in pain and think how I couldn't finish the Ruahine section without something like that happening. I descended about 600m to Shutes hut, a sweet old hut. Alex Shute, one of the dudes who built the hut in 1926 lived there in almost complete solitude with his 3 dogs for 12 years until he died. The hut was opened to the public in 1956 and retains a photocopied and reprinted version of the first hut book which lasted until 1985. That book was replaced with a huge book almost two inches thick. It dates back to 1986 and my entry wasn't even a quarter of the way into the book. I spent an hour or so reading the history of the hut and some hut book entries. When I moved on, the track sidled high above the Taruarau River before descending to it. The ford was easier than it looked from the side, but the flow was surprisingly strong. With wet feet I then ascended for 700m which seemed to go on and on. Eventually I ascended around the high point of about 1200m and then descended 150m to Comet hut: a bare hut with 4 bunks, a bench and nothing else.

Feeling pretty exhausted from the Ruahines, I was keen to take a rest day. Steve and Maria drove up the windy Taihape-Napier Road to bring me more food, boot laces and a sewing kit the following day. They kept me company for the evening while I learned how to stitch my pack shoulder-tensioner-strap back on. No awards for beauty would be won, but it passed the strength test through the Kaweka Forest Park.

Each to their own experiences and abilities, but I found the Ruahine Ranges to be some of the toughest days of my life. Physically, I had no trouble through the Mt. Richmond Forest Park carrying the same amount of weight, whereas I felt drained most of the time in the Ruahines. Mentally, I felt very alone and didn't see anyone throughout. I think a great experience can be had in these Ranges during a shorter multi-day trip, but a solo traverse of almost the whole Range isn't an easy feat. I have a huge respect for anyone, solo or not who has taken on a route through these Ranges.

I'm going to put the second half of this section into another blog, but first: sailing Lake Taupo!

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