North Island Main Range
This is a story. It talks of where I went, and it talks of how it felt to be there.
It's a long story, it goes on a bit, and unlike most stories, there's not much in the way of a plot. We walk, nature does it's thing, and we walk some more. So if you want to read a story about a pom and a dog walking a long way - read on. But if not, no offence is taken.
If you just want a route-guide to crossing the Raukumaras, see the 'track' and gpx-file under 'tracks' and 'more information'. It's shorter - I promise.
Leg 1: The Raukumaras
Day 1: East Cape to Te Araroa
We park up for the night off the road at the western at the end of the beach before East Cape. Wake as the first light of day struggles through a cover of cloud. East Cape looms dark ahead, a black hole in a blue-black twighlight sky, an intermittent pinprick of light sweeping from its summit.
I drop back to sleep, awake to find shafts of grey-gold sunlight piercing the cloud - slow-sweeping searchlights over sea and land. A small island lies just off the eastern tip of the cape – white cliffs standing against a grey sea and sky.
The easternmost spot on East Cape lies somewhere on the beach below East Cape lighthouse. Somewhere there, one grain of sand or another forms the easternmost extent of New Zealand. However - there’s a good walking track to the lighthouse, and a far better view, so instead of splitting grains of sand, I call that the eastern end of my grand traverse.
Parking up 300m short of the roadend, we climb the steps to the lighthouse – a well maintained track, wooden steps all the way. I lose count somewhere after 300, promise to get it right on the way down. The view from the top is fitting. The small East Island lies below, due east from the point. Beyond, a steel-blue sea, textured by the shadows of clouds. The weather is kind, but the windswept location makes it clear that it is not always so. A fitting spot - it truly feels like the end of the world.
Mandatory photos are taken – the two travellers eager, anticipating the adventure ahead. Well – one of them, the other probably blissfully unaware this is anything other than a short dog-walk up a hill to the lighthouse. We descend again to the roadend, losing count of steps again well short of the rumoured total of 700.
West from East Cape the road hugs the coast for 15km to Te Araroa, passing three headlands separated by 2 long beaches. At low tide, a beach-walk with short road sections round the bluffs. At high tide, road all the way.
The first beach, Waipapa, is gently sloped, broad, firm and good walking – intersected about 2/3 of the way along by a small stream. The basic East Cape Campground lies in a paddock above – 100m from the beach. Looks out NE over the breakers to the uninterrupted ocean beyond. A small ablution block forms the only facilities – but it looks a lovely spot on a nice day -and today is a nice day. The creek cuts a small valley immediately the west of the camp, occasional stunted trees hiding in its shelter - limbs from which to suspend rope-swings over deep, still river pools.
Orotua Beach, 4km beyond, is shorter and steeper. Waves undercut rough pasture at its head, though at low tide it may be walkable. Further west, spectacular white-stone bluffs abut the sea – the road in places cut into their base. A handful of creeks cascade in waterfalls, small alluvial flats at their feet, sandwiched between bluff and sea. Perilously located farmhouses tucked below the cliffs, sheltering from the elements but seemingly exposed to falls from above.
The coastal shelf widens, and we round the last of the headland to broad flats and the township of Te Araroa. The first of three ‘towns’ on our walk – the next will be Woodville some 30 days beyond. There’s not a lot here – a four-square which opens around 10am, usually. A pair of self-service petrol & diesel pumps. 5 streets of simple, white weatherboard
housing, and the immaculate East Cape rugby grounds & anglers club. There’s a backpackers nearby, but the campground & takeaways are 6km west at the other end of the beach. I still have my drop-off lift and van to sleep in, and celebrate the real start of the walk with a hot shower at the campground and a last burger for 20 days.
Te Araroa to Waikura Stream.
My determination to walk the length of the ranges does not extend to trudging along state highways when a lift is available, and so I happily accept a lift from Sim over the hill from Te Araroa to the Kopoapounamu Road. We meet a herd of sheep being driven in our direction by a lone fella on horseback with a couple of uncooperative dogs. Rather than push through & watch the ensuing chaos (the road is unfenced on the river side) we decide to pull in & declare the real walk started. There are hugs, and more mandatory photos – the dog jumping eager – ‘let’s go boss’, ‘walks time’.
The riverbed is cloaked with low scrub and buddleia, but we push though and find the main flow has kept a gravel riverbed free on the southern side. Going is easy, if uninteresting between walls of invasive scrub, glimpsed farmland beyond. Pines appear on the southern bank, and opposite the farmhouse we pick up an old forestry track through the tall pines, still traversed by 4-wheelers. The easy-going is soon curtailed, however, as a thinning gang have considerately felled unwanted pines over the track, and we drop back to the riverbed.
In places the stream flows through sections of lush native bush, and it’s possible to ignore the presence of pines and post-forestry desolation on either valleyside. In others the shingle stretches wide over the whole valley, and the true, man-modified nature of the location is evident. An endless screech of cicadas accompanies us, amplifying by association the heat of the sun, reflected as it is of white river-rocks. Later, 2km short of the park boundary, ATV tracks lead onto the northern bank to a private hut – ramshackle, but standing. Smoko. Beyond, an old concrete bridge, left stranded 50m from the current course of the river – another reminder of the legacy of logging.
We enter the Raukumara Forest Park. Pines are left behind, cicadas quieten, the glare of the sun shaded by mature bush on the river banks. The stream gradient increases, becomes a clamber in places, the watercourse shrinking as each side-stream departs. The head of the valley is visible ahead – steep, sheer slips from ridgeline to valleyfloor, precarious knife-edges of bush separating each gash. We opt for a lower, gentler exit, and climbs the spur 2.5km due east of Taumaoteawhengaiao. This climbs NW to join a gently sloping ridge, hitting the main watershed 800m north of the summit. There are good animal tracks on the spur – mainly goat, but cattle sign is present. However, supplejack is ubiquitous, hooking on pack and exhausting patience. The last section to pt 853 is very scrubby, but once on the main ridge things improve. Wild cattle clearly travel frequently along the ridge, and good broad cattle-tracks are present, if not exactly direct. We enter a series of interconnecting clearings – the main challenge being figuring out precisely how they do connect. The last 60m to pt 1118 is a tangled climb, but at least it’s all over.
Office-fit, carrying a 12-day pack (plus dogfood). 1st hill and I’m buggered. How on earth I’m going to walk the length of the island, I don’t know. Having set such store in this trip it’ll be embarrassing to have to pull out. We’ll have to see how far I can get before I completely collapse.
The main N-S ridgeline is very thick, and there’s no chance of following it to a good spur, so instead I drop west onto the face, hoping to sidle. More scrub & supplejack, and I struggle south towards the descending ridge I’ve identified, but eventually spot a good grassy slip & descend it instead to the sidecreek. The water is a great relief – I’ve been drinking constantly in the unaccustomed heat and effort. The sidecreek is steep going to where it forks - several waterfalls require sidles, one involving a steep climb up the grassy face to the north, returning precipitously down a rocky chute in a shower of gravel. Below the forks things improve – thankfully, as we’re both exhausted – and at last we walk rather than scramble down to the Waikaru, promising myself a camp on the first flat spot encountered.
There’s a small flat at the main river forks, just big enough for my tent, but it’s a real scramble to reach water, and I can spy something better 400m downriver. As usual, when I arrive at the better spot it turns out to be unsuitable, and so we push on another 20 minutes right to the park boundary before finding a spot flat enough to camp. 3 red yearlings are grazing on grassy flats at the head of a river terrace when we arrive. Stand, stare and watch us approach, before trotting – puzzled – to the base of the scree slopes 20m away as we continue to approach. There they stand and watch as I unpack tend and start to erect it. Leave only when the dog’s exhaustion finally gives way to temptation of a chase.
The first real day of walking has pleasant moments: bushy, shaded sections in the upper Kopuapounamu, listening to the river & birdsong. But for the most part, the satisfaction of the day comes from the fact that it’s over, I can lie down, and never, ever have to cross that watershed again. It’s my third attempt to walk out of the Te Araroa catchment, and it’s a great relief to have finally achieved it. But hopefully in the remainder of the trip I can actually enjoy the tramping rather than just the arriving.
Day 3: Waikura Str to Te Kumi Flats Tent Camp
I’m sitting in a camp chair, listening to the sound of cicadas in the evening light. Visible beyond a band of mature bush the Raukokore flows slowly by. There’s a roof over my head, a cup of soup warming on the stove – and I can’t ask for more.
Another pair of red deer graze the flats downstream as I pack up my tent. 30 seconds downriver and the previous day’s damage shows through – blistered heels, and rubbing inside the big toes. Sore. A stop for plasters. Another to readjust boots. Another to add a second pair of socks. Frustrating – but better spend the time up front on prevention than later on cure.
The river flats are broad, and the river is soon lost in their expanse. On the park boundary hillsides of native bush transition abruptly to pines – later, to brown-dry hill country dotted with dirty-grey sheep. Finally, to green paddocks and cattle as we near Pakira Stn. Going is fast, but rounded river stones are hard on bruised, hot feet. We spook two more deer on the way to the road.
Eventually, the road bridge appears in the distance – boulder embankments across the riverbed, a narrow bridge across the main flow. Looking guaranteed to wash away in a good flood. A 6km road bash follows along Te Kumi Rd, the dog perking up at the smell of rabbits all round. Travel is flat and easy and soon the river swings west through a wide gorge, the road crossing again to reach Te Kumi station.
Instead, we drop to the riverbed, follow broad river flats downstream. A 4WD track winds down the riverbed, cutting out onto grassy terraces as we pass the gorge. 11am sees us at the Raukokore confluence, eating a much-appreciated lunch of last night’s left-overs – a harvest of bad, invasive, but delicious blackberries for dessert. The dog curls up and sleeps, exhausted.
The Raukokore is broad: shingle flats at the confluence. 1km upstream, a wide shingle fan sweeps down from the ranges to the south. Beyond, the Raukokore narrows, emerging deep and slow from a tight bush-clad gorge to the west. Wading through three thigh-deep crossings, we follow. Well, I wade, LD swims, complaining.
Beyond the short gorge, and into the mature native bush, good terraces appear on the true right. A short trail leads to a well used campsite – fire rings & washing lines attesting its use. Soon, the valley turns from gravel flats to boulders, and the gradient increases. A couple of kilometers of scrambling on boulder-covered riverbanks follow before, as suddenly as they started, the rapids end, a sea of fine gravel banked up behind them. The map shows some 10km from the Waikura/Raukokore confluence to Te Kumi Flat, but on the ground it feels much further.
The river twists its way between steep spurs. One deep pool spans the entire valley floor – water above the waist, but otherwise crossings are knee-to-thigh deep – the dog swimming most. Her whining increases with each crossing. There’s no sign of injury, but she’s clearly unhappy about something. I finally decide to abandon plans to reach Green Hut and to camp instead at Te Kumi Flat. I can’t stand her whining much longer, and it’s either stop early, or wear earplugs.
Eventually the valley sides soften, sheer walls of rock, trees clinging improbably to their sides, are replaced by bush-clad slopes. The surrounding ridgelines lower towards us. A few more meandering turns in the river follow, and we emerge at Te Kumi Flat. Without justification, I’d expected broad grassy flats – but instead Te Kumi is clad in a low, lush bush dominated by punga and fern-trees. I’ve been told of a biv located somewhere up the Raukokore, and looking at the map Te Kumi seems the obvious spot for it. We plod up the eastern bank, eyes pealed for signs of anything, but some 20 minutes later we’re reaching the far, southern end of the flats and there’s been no sign of a biv. I begin to realise that another night under canvas is looking likely, and make to cross the river to the western bank, which looks more open, to look for a good spot to pitch the tent. The dog’s protests at crossing the river come louder than ever, and I stop mid-flow and look back. She’s stood high on the bank, skulking because she knows she should follow, alternately eyeing me and glancing into the bush behind her. Beyond her a clear track leads into the trees, a glimpse of blue tarpaulin visible in their midst. I wade back across the river, congratulate the dog, and we enter Te Kumi Flat tent camp.
The camp consists of a 3-walled kitchen – tarpaulins over a native timber frame. A large fireplace of concreted stones dominates the open wall on the river side, a metal stand above it enough to swing several billies. Along one side of the kitchen is a long trestle table, the other 2 sides have broad platforms cut into the gentle slope. 3 camp-chairs provide welcome comfort. In addition to the platform in the kitchen, a large family tent pitched behind sleeps 12-or-so, and the forest floor around has been cleared for the pitching of more tents. By far, it’s the best designed tent camp I’ve met, and congratulations go to those who built and maintain it.
I brew a very welcome soup. The dog curls up in a corner, sticks her nose up her arse, and shivers. Maybe she was just getting cold from all the time in the water. At dusk, barking comes from the far bank, but I can see no people or sign of a camp. The dog doesn’t even stir.
Day 4: Te Kumi Flat to Huitatariki headwaters
A bloody tough day starts with a reasonable stroll up the Raukokore – looking for Green Hut. When I finally reach the site where the hut is indicated on the brand-new topo50 map, there are a few bits of rusting wire among the trees, but no sign of the hut; the clearing where it presumably stood, long-reclaimed by bush. Green hut is no more, and has not been for some time.
We head back some 300m to the mouth of Ohapua Stream, and the fun begins. The km-or-so to the first forks is not too bad. Both valley and riverbed are narrow, but the flow is low and we make steady progress over a creekbed of small rocks. Beyond the forks, the valley closes in yet further, and the creek alternates between short flats and a series of falls, pools and slot-gorges, all of which require sidling on the steep valleysides. Fun. We’ve been following intermittent paw-prints all morning, and on one small gravel flat come across a deer carcass – dragged into the creek, guts freshly eaten out. ‘Lost: One pack of pig dogs. Near Te Kumi Flat’?
Eventually we reach the last forks marked on the map, at the head of the main valley, and stop for lunch. The creek-bed of the fork to the south-east is steep, but graveled, and would be good going if it weren’t for all the fallen trees & tangles of creeper and lawyer that accompany them. Our struggles & clambers finally take us to the 600m contour where the open creekbed ends – a narrow trickle emerges from beneath the bush ahead – hopefully this is the spot where the map shows the creek ending. I need to head due south to the ridgeline, and am fairly sure this is the point at which to leave the creek. But I’m too tired to gamble, and so get the GPS out to double-check. Or would, if I hadn’t left the GPS sitting on a rock by the main river at lunchtime!
I’m too tired even to swear. There’s a moment’s consideration on the merits of leaving it there. There’s only 650km to go, and I don’t need a GPS. But in the end I simply down pack and jog off back down the hill, through all that windfall, to retrieve the bloody thing. The dog digs a nest and curls up next to the pack. ‘Bugger going back down there boss’. An hour later I’m standing back on the 600m contour confirming on the GPS that I am indeed where I thought I was.
After an initial steep climb out of the creek, going up the ridge to the saddle is actually quite good. Strong game trails lead along the main ridge towards Te Ranganuiatoi, and that may have proved a better route than the one I took. We drop into the stream to the south, then continue south, sidling the steep slopes at the height of the saddle. There are a lot of fallen, large trees, and (I repeat myself) the slope is steep. So the result is that fascinating game of snakes & ladders - trying to scramble over large, slippery trunks which lie on the hillside at a steep angle. With nothing to hold on to, every scramble comes with the possibility of ‘landing on a snake’ and finding myself surfing down a fallen tree-trunk, on loose bark lubricated by tree-slime.
500m to the south, we finally pick up a good spur leading to the saddle into the Huitatariki. The bush high up is clear, though the opposing spur down into the Huitatariki is vague, and we descend on a compass bearing. I find myself repeatedly dropping off the spur into the steep, tight head of the creek itself – little more than an impassible series of waterfalls and slips. Repeatedly, we are forced to sidle back south to pick up the spur again, and drop again on the compass bearing. Vegetation becomes younger, tighter and more tangled as we descend. I fight, slide & crawl my way down the last hundred meters to the creek – tearing lawyer from pack & clothes, unwinding myself from tangles of supplejack, and generally having a great time.
Even once in the creek it’s not over. Fallen trees block the riverbed – barricades of debris wall-to-wall across the narrow valley. The 1km trip down to the start of the pines is slow and hard. I promise myself a camp-spot on the first bit of flat land I find, but that does not come until right on the park boundary. A sign of my fatigue, when I do arrive, I’m unable to decide on a spot to camp – spend 15 minutes walking repeatedly between the several possibilities – at each deciding that the other was better. Eventually I tell myself to get a grip, and put up the tent where I first dropped the pack.
A day endured, not a day enjoyed.
The dog remains curled up where we first stopped – refuses to move for anything other than biscuits. Sympathy for her overcoming my own fatigue, I finally go over and spend a meditative half hour harvesting the day’s crop of hookgrass from her coat. She perks up a bit at the attention, rolls on her back. ‘Can you rub my tummy whilst you’re at it, boss?’
Day 5: Oronui Hut
Finally: a warm, dry hut. With a fire. And four walls. And MATTRESSES. Luxury!
An “easy” half day today from the Huitatariki headwaters to Oronui Hut – down the Huitatariki and up the Tapuaeroa/Oronui. The previous night’s flat grassy spot turned out to be the most uncomfortable yet. Clumps of grass proving lumpier and harder than any previous camp on shingle & stone. As a result, an early start seemed preferable to more time lying in discomfort. A few hundred meters downstream, now into the pines, the valley suddenly broadens. Wonderful flat campspots abound, each on a soft, flat bed of pine needles. The valley floor is broad and grassy – not the shingle of previous catchments. We spook several deer, grazing the lush riverside flats in the early morning light. However, within a couple of kilometers the valley narrows again, and the gradient of the now-large creek increases – dropping over rocks & boulders in a defined bed. An hour or so of boulder hopping and wading follow to the confluence with the Tapuaeroa.
Again, I anticipate broad shingle flats upriver, but the valley soon narrows to a bouldery gorge. In a tight rock slot below the pine-covered slopes, we a forced to scramble around rock bluffs and boulders to avoid deep pools and white-water rapids. Crossing, where required, are deep & swift – generally short pools with rapids below. I’d forced to drag / carry the dog as getting swept downriver would be easily fatal.
Beyond the park boundary, things improve. The valley opens to shingle flats – which continue all the way to the Oronui/Tapuaeroa confluence. Though there are a few more river crossings, they are on a flat gravel bed, not pools in bouldery rapids. We leave the Tapuaeroa and enter the Oronui proper – the valley swinging due west into what the map shows as a narrow winding gorge some 6km long. I expect the worse, but the river has lost the bulk of it’s flow at the last two forks and is no longer threatening. The valley floor is narrow but flat, and though we spend a lot of time in the river, it’s an easy, fast walk on a good gravel bed.
Soon, the steep valleysides start to turn from cliffs to slopes and the narrow constrained riverbed expands into broad shingle flats. A broad valley of white shingle & rock drains from the south – a small trickle nearly lost in it’s midst. Ahead another valley forks off to the north. Between the two a doc triangle on the southern bank marks the start of the track to Oronui Hut.
I’d imagined Oronui Hut sitting on a riverbank beside the stream, but after 20m through the bush, the track starts to climb, zigzagging up the steep valleyside. It’s in reality a short 30m climb to river terraces above, though at the end of the day it feels more. The first clearing above holds nothing but a couple of dog kennels, and I start to expect another night in the tent. However, beyond Oronui Hut sits in a second clearing. Both clearing and the deck outside the hut are strewn with rubbish, the inside likewise – plus a carpet of possum shit & urine. The hut is well built and rodent-proof, but the previous party had kindly left the windows open – presumable to ‘air the place’.
Resident possums aside, the hut is in good condition – 6 bunks, though such a large hut could easily fit 8 or 10 - a woodburner and sink. 20 minutes of cleaning has the place clean & hygienic enough for the Pom and dog. It’s barely midday, but between the two of us there are 6 sore and tired feet, and a half rest-day is well appreciated. The dog curls up & sleeps, whilst I spend the afternoon playing patience with a mixture of playing cards and offcuts of cereal box, and trying not to eat all of my supplies.
Day 6: Te Kahika Hut site
This trip should be named the ‘lost hut tours’. Another two empty spots where huts ought to be today: Mangatutara and Te Kahika. In both cases it’s hard to imagine anyone building a hut where the maps shows one – in the middle of what is clearly a floodplain. Maybe the river has shifted since they were built – but in both sites the entire valley is a wide, scrubby, sometimes-riverbed.
A bastard of a day too. The dog’s pawpads are blistered from all the river-rocks, and I’d loved to have given her a day off to recover. But there’s rain forecast for the day after tomorrow, and with the Motu ahead, and the danger of getting trapped between it and the Oronui gorge, there’ll be no rest for her until we’re safely on the other side. Poor bugger.
So, instead we hightail it at dawn, the aim to set ourselves up for a crossing to Mangakirikiri tomorrow morning. At first I fear we’ll have to turn back. The dog is hobbling stiffly, barely able to bend her legs. But within 5 minutes she’s loosened up, and is padding loyally after me up the Mangamauka. Tomorrow afternoon pup. Get us to across the Motu and to Mangakirikiri and you can have all the rest days you need.
The Mangamauka is ok, by Raukumara standards. The usual mix of flats with river stone and shingle; narrow sections in a river of slimy rocks, scrambling under or over trees fallen across the flow. Ok going – for the Raukumaras. Two deer fail to get the dog’s attention. She must really be struggling.
Reaching to forks where the map shows the track starting, there’s absolutely no sign of a track. No sign, and no track. We nose about in the thick scrub on the riverbank, and locate the spur shown on the map. Faint deer trails lead up it, and we follow. After a bit, a permolat marker is spotted on a tree, and later others join it. Eventually, as we get into more mature, stable bush, a track begins to materialise. Once on it, it’s reasonable to follow. Well marked, but overgrown in places, and frequently obliterated by windfall.
90 minutes after leaving Oronui Hut we’re standing on the summit of pass, saying ‘where now?’. The regular track markers stop abruptly, and there’s no onward ground trail. Every tree on the summit however, has been carved by possum and person alike. Initials, bark biting, ‘I woz ‘ere’.
Map and compass come out and stay out for the remainder of the crossing. Swinging south along the ridgeline, the track is almost non-existent. Occasional permolat markers indicate that once something ran here, but are of no help in indicating where next. The ridgeline where the track ran is scrubby, thick and in the end it seems easier to ignore the track than to search for it. The best going seems to be on the western side, and so we drop and sidle there below the scrub. We swing west where the maps shows, and start to pick up occasional track markers again. A constellation of arrows point right down into the upper Mangatutara, one spur before the map shows we should drop. We follow for a while, but lose the track where it crosses a gully, toss up between continuing down this spur, or sidling west to the spur where the map shows the track. I chose the latter, and spend the next 30 minutes regretting it. The ridge is tangled with supplejack, steep, and clearly never, ever has contained a track. All in all, it takes over 1.5 hour to descend the 2.5km from the summit. Slow going indeed.
The Mangatutara Stream is far better – good, broad gravel flats – many of them grassed over and easy walking. It takes about 2 hours to reach the spot where the map indicates Mangatutara Hut. The riverbed now is far broader than shown on the map – bare gravel flats occupying the entire valley floor, the bush-covered flats shown on the map long gone. And Mangatutara Hut with them. Ironically, DOC’s website showed the hut, and a photo of it, as recently as last year. I suspect no-one had been in to check. The only excitement of the trip and been an area composed entirely concretions. Meter-plus boulders composed of pebbles no bigger than 20mm, all stuck together, solid as … well, concrete. Oh, and 3 more red deer.
We finish lunch (well, I do – LD’s on once-a-day) and walk down the last of the Mangatutara Hut flats. The unnamed stream that leads to the saddle to the Waihunga is a few minutes downstream, easily identified by the sharp turn it makes at its mouth. It’s tight, choked with scrub, and uninviting – but uttering the words ‘2.5km: how had can it be’ I push on. The answer soon becomes apparent – the worst going in a day of hard going. It remains narrow and thick for all of the first two kilometers: tangled with scrub, blocked by fallen trees with their streamers of vines. As a result we’re almost constantly in the water – generally performing some contortion or other to climb under / over / through the obstructions. At least the route finding starts easy – obvious as far as the first, largest forks where we turn obediently right. Thereafter things become confused, numerous other forks follow, all offering choices between similarly sized streams, none shown on the map. It’s like one of those old text-only computer games. ‘You are lost in the forest. Creeks lead right or left’. We rely on the compass and dead reckoning, and come up with the answer right, right, left, left, right – which seems to take us where we want to go. During this time, the good news is that the scrub has opened up, and the valleysides are now clear and gentle enough to sidle. Bush changes to fern forest, finally the creek swings south, and we’ve reached the beginning of the track into the Waihunga.
Now – you weren’t really expecting a track were you? For some reason, I was. Some people are just slow learners. Following nothing more than a compass bearing again, we climb the brief, scrubby slope to the saddle and drop down the far side. The Waihunga is bluffed, and we’re forced to nose around, sidling until we find a side-stream which drops gently enough through the bluffs for us to scramble down.
Now in the Waihunga proper, things improve. The 1st 1.5km is not too bad, a broad wooded valley with good animal tracks through open bush. A gorge follows the 1st major sidecreek, wet feet again, but the valley soon opens again to flats of sparse, brittle buddlia scrub. In the Raukumaras this counts as excellent going. We alternate between the flats with their scrub, and the riverbed all the way to Te Kahika Stream (3 more deer, all up). It takes 3 hours to walk the 10km for the headwaters to the hut – the fastest progress in 5 days!
Te Kahiaka Stream is huge on the map, but on the ground smaller than the Waihunga and easily crossed. Two mandatory crossings of the combined flow follow before the hut site is reached, but cause no problems.
And we’re in the bush on Te Kahika Flats looking for the hut. Except there is no bush, and there is no hut. If either ever existed, they are long gone, replaces by shingle, river channels and buddliah. As such, we’re forced to settle for a tent in a grassed-over shingle channel, well above the main flow – but clearly not a spot to be in heavy rain. Speaking of which, the radio says heavy rain overnight for Bay of Plenty. The mountain forecast from Sim says just 10mm. Hopefully BoP’s rain stays in BoP and the Raukumaras cop no worse than Sim’s forecast because even more important than a damp night, tomorrow is the crossing of the Motu. And if it’s running high, it’s a bloody long way back the way we’ve come.
I spend the night trying to distinguish between the sound of sandflies trapped under the fly, and the sound of the forecast rain outside.
Day 7 – Mangakirikiri Hut
We made It!
We crossed the Motu. Twice-before we’ve been denied, but this time we were permitted to cross. Crossed it 19 times, as it turned out.
Rest you paws, Little Dog. We can stay here until you grow new skin.
An early start. Up with the first fain lightening of the sky after a restless night thinking about rain and rivers. The poor dog’s so stiff she can hardly stand, but she loosens up as we head off down the bouldery riverbed. I gulp down a couple of muesli bars – the breakfast of a man in a hurry. The BoP forecast is still saying showers in the morning, rain in the afternoon, heavy at times. An effective motivator to get moving and get this river behind us.
But first we have to deal with the big unknown. Make that The Big Unknown. Whilst the Te Kahika flows directly into the Motu a km-or-two down from the hut site, upriver from the confluence the Motu makes a large loop through a deep gorge with numerous rapids. Most trampers cut off the loop by heading a short way up The Big Unknown and crossing over a saddle to come above the point that the Motu disappears into the gorge.
So we head a kilometer downriver, and hang a lefty up The Big Unknown. At it’s mouth it’s a narrow, tight gorge – waded – but it soon opens up into the usual mixture of 30% river, 70% shingle beds. It’s raining, and I’m wishing we’d done this last night – we could be starting up the Motu proper now.
After about a kilometer, a stream joins from our left down a broad shingle fan: the signpost for us to take the next creek on our right. We find it – steep and scrubby, as always – even more fun than usual in the rain. Somehow, we miss the first forks where we should go right, and find ourselves a couple of hundred meters up the southern branch, and moving further from the saddle with every step. We cut north across the face to search out the correct route – pushing our way through 2m high toetoe – a delight in the rain. We encounter another creek, not shown on the map, and climb it, expecting it to be the dry gully that leads towards the saddle. Soon after, a DOC triangle adorns a tree in the middle of the gut. Searching all over, there’s no sign of the next one, so I return to the creek and climb. The compass is telling me something is wrong, as the gully swings SW – and so we sidle north again into tongues of mature bush, aiming for the basin which drains the saddle. A hundred-or-so meters from the bushedge we encounter a broad, well-cut, well-marked DOC track. God knows where it’s been for the last 1km, but at least it is here now. The remainder the climb is easy – walking on a clear track for the first time in the whole trip. It climbs the spur south of the basin, then sidles NW to the pass. Where, abruptly, it stops. There’s a tree on the summit adorned with 2 triangles – one facing each way – then nothing.
So we drop down the far side into the creekbed, and repeat the old, well-practiced adventure of supplejack, fallen trees, slippery river rocks and waterfalls. In the rain.
The rain stops just as we reach the end of the gully. A campsite with fire-ring, tarp and chair is tucked against the bluffs at its mouth – a spot to wait for the river to drop – for the Motu lies just beyond. The contrast to the other Raukumara rivers is complete. Big, deep and serene, the river flows silently down a well-defined bed. No tatters of scrub on barren shingle beds, just a river bank, a brief beach of rocks or shingle, then the river. The valley is deep and sheer – no hope of sidling if the river is impassible. Tall trees reach high seeking sunlight – the low scrub is gone.
We head a kilometer or so up the southern bank before we meet bluffs and are forced to cross, thigh deep against a strong but steady flow, working our way up a shingle fan to reach another stony beach on the opposite bank, some 100m upriver. A direct crossing is impossible as there are bluffs directly opposite, and the dog has no chance of swimming 100m against the current. So she gets carried, tucked under my arm. As the river gets deeper and the water close, her legs start instinctively swimming in mid-air. Cute! Later – I need my balance – I’m forced to drop her into the water, drag her against the current by the scruff of the neck. She doesn’t seem to mind.
After a couple of straights the main gorge starts, and its eight crossings later - several chest deep, most up-river – before we emerge from it. Above the gorge, we’re strolling down the grassy southern bank, dripping wet, tired, but happy (well I am). We’re past the worst of the gorge, and it is wonderful, at last, to be in this amazing place. To be here in peace, without that dogging fear of weather and water that has coloured the past few days. To finally enjoy the trip.
A track heads into the bush on the south bank, 3km below Mangakirikiri leading to a prefabricated cabin. One wall is failing, but the building still stands. No beds though – bring your own.
5 more crossings follow – making 19 in all – two of them almost-swims, bouncing on tiptoes along the bottom, hoping that feet touch down again soon. The dog is growing weary of the scruff-of-the-neck thing, and insists on crossing on her own – an obvious recipe for disaster. She has no concept of current, depth, or of choosing a viable exit point to head for. She just chooses the narrowest point (by definition the fastest) and swims directly for the far shore. Never mind that there was a good shingle fan 400m upriver that she could have walked most of the way across, gentle current beside it. Na boss – I’m going the short way. Twice she gets swept down rapids, ends up at the base of bluffs, and has to swim back to the opposite shore. I’m forced to return too, so that this time I can drag her by the scruff of the neck through slow-moving water where she can cross safely.
Suddenly, the valley ahead is small. The Mangakirikiri lies directly ahead, the main flow of the Motu entering from the south. One final river crossing and we’re standing by a large orange DOC triangle at the mouth of the Mangakirikiri Stream. Wet, exhausted, and pack weighing at least twice it’s usual weight with all the water in it. But so happy to have the Motu behind me. And happy to be here nearing the end of the most challenging, but most enjoyable morning’s tramping in a long time. It doesn’t quite make up to the previous 5 days of struggling over scrubby unmarked passes, and stumbling, sore-footed down broad shingle riverbeds choked with invasive scrub. But it has been a wonderful day.
The dog, who’s been struggling, limping along all day – picks out two goats on the face above the confluence, and is gone in a instant. Sprinting across the scree face in a shower of rocks. Regretfully, I call her off for the sake of her feet – goat curry would have been nice though …
The triangles lead 200m up the Mangakirikiri before turning abruptly to climb the southern valleyside. The track is steep and hard. Those extra 10kg of pack-water weighing on stiff, tired legs. The dog appears to agree, whining as she’s forced to scramble up loose gravel on blistered, river-softened feet. But the track is well cut and well marked, and eventually tops out onto a plateau, the escarpment of which it follows some 200m west to a clearing wherein lies Mangakirikiri Hut.
A tidy hut – 6 bunks, a dripping watertank, frequently found empty – but not today. There’s a Ministry of Works woodshed (I know because it says ‘Ministry of Works’ on it) and a lovely peaceful longdrop in the tall bush way beyond. And we’re here. At last. And it’s only lunchtime!
Kokako enchant with their songs at dusk.
Day 8: Rest day!
The dog’s paws were clean but blistered last night – but today are beginning to scab nicely over. I’ve always been told 3 days is all it takes for a dog’s paws to heal. Time to put it to the test.
Rain falls like fine flakes of silver. Each fine drop glistening in the sun as it drifts lazily down. Not good for drying the washing tough … At least the rubbish left behind in the hut gives me something to make the missing playing cards out of. Two days of solitaire and listening to the radio. Something to read would have been nice!
Boring! Hurry up dog!
Day 10 Whitikau Campsite
Whitikau Campsite, at the junction of Takaputahi Road and Otipi Road. A lovely pair of grassy flats between the Takaputahi River and the road, separated by a stand of redwoods. A dunny, two well built fireplaces, complete with billy-hanging-bars and grills, and a river with good swimming holes. The last 20m of DOC land before the end of the Raukumaras. And the whistling, booming of kiwi on dark. Nice spot!
With the crossing of the Motu comes a change in the entire landscape. The Mangakirikiri is not, as I had expected, another exercise in shingle flats, scrub & windfall. Instead we head of up a valley that is green, mossy and gorged, the river cutting a flat, narrow path along the entirety of its base. Pools are frequent – several deep enough to require swimming. But the gradient is gentle, the river placid: no rapids, no waterfalls. There are goats though, and a long day is made longer as the dog takes off after one, drags it down in a sidecreek, and I’m forced to follow and assist. We just finish dealing with that one – packing a feed up for the dog to eat that night, when she scents another and is off. A short chase this time and she has it down before I can call her off. Two goats in one day – the day we walk out to the road, and to the next food drop. Great timing!
After that I keep her close in behind. Which proves lucky as soon after we come a red deer, grazing tranquily on small grassy flats, unconcerned by our presence.
Finally we reach the Mangamate fork – another red hind grazing on the long flat at the confluence – watches us approach, trots off up the valley, stops, turns, watches then finally departs.
The Mangamate appears, at first, a smaller cousin of the Mangakirikiri – same landscape, but narrower. But, 800m in, the flat valley floor stops abruptly. Ahead, a deep pool, the river tumbling into it from a meter-wide slot two meters above it. That’s it. That 1 meter is the entire width of the Mangamate valley. The valleysides are sheer, and no easy sidle is apparent, so we swim up the pool, grab onto rocks at the base of the falls, and haul ourselves up into the canyon-cum-chute. That is, I post the reluctant, squirming dog up first, then haul myself behind her.
A narrow canyon follows, rarely as narrow as at its mount- but generally only two to four meters wide, it’s bed entirely occupied by the river. The flat bed is interrupted by frequent, thankfully small waterfalls – each preceded by a deep pool. More swimming! Large trees form wooden dams across the entire valley – the river sometime pouring over, sometimes through the blockade. Behind each lies a small, dammed gravel flat, a brief relief before we’re back into gorges, pools and more logjams. We spot 3 blue ducks in this section, each apparently nested inside the log dams.
Finally, after a couple of kilometers of slot gorge, we emerge into a broader valley. Sheer rock bluffs are replaced by steep, treecovered valleysides, and the luxury of bits of valley floor not occupied by water. We head west-north-west at each major forks, ignoring a flagging-tape track up the ridge towards the trig at pt707. Finally, where the main creek swings north, we exit and climb a steep, but well traveled ridge due east towards the road. We hit an old logging track 200m before the summit, and sidle south-west along that to emerge onto the Pukeiahonoa Track at the saddle, 1km south of where it swing west to the trig.
The Pukeiahonoa Track is excellent going – once a 4WD road, but now traveled only by ATVs. It meanders south some six kilometers along the ridgeline – neither dropping nor climbing. We pass twenty-or-so possums sitting patiently in their traps awaiting collection. A tarp-covered tent camp is tucked into one saddle – the possumer’s base? Finally we start to descent, dropping into pines as the road improves, broadens, gains a metalled bed. Not far from the river we finally meet the possummer, pottering up the track on a well-loaded 4-wheeler. Cheerful bugger, not much to say. Takes the carcasses out for dogfood as well as plucking them. As I say - a well laden 4-wheeler.
Hitting the pine-forested valley floor, the track swing briefly north-west to the junction with Takaputahi Road. Blackberries appear on the roadsides, and the dog sighs in exasperation as I stop frequently to harvest a feed. At Rawea we clamber over a locked forestry gate across the legal road, and leave the pine forest and enter a valley to tall, yellow grass – swaying gently in a slight wind. There are no stock in sight – we pass tumble-down woolsheds and yards – the plece feels abandoned. Later, more cared-for sheds & outbuildings appear, and fencelines start to look more maintained. A pump is running down in the Takaputahi, a couple of utes parked on te river flats. Dredging gold, here? Or what?
Beehives are everywhere and I scamper by each – a sting here would easily put an stop to the trip for several days. 6km later we come across a two trucks parked in the road. Bees swarm around them, the beekeeper and his mate busy at the hives. More bloody bees! 2km later, there’s the sound of a vehicle behind. A ute emerges round the bend, stops, rolls down the window, asks me if I’d like a lift. There’s bees swarming round the truck and drifting around the cab. I have 5km to go to the campground, 17 to the Motu Road, and a lift would be great, but there’s no way I’m getting in there with all those bees. I wave him on. The dog cops a sting on her back, yelps. Better you than me, mut. 3 more vehicles pass in the next five kilometers. The beekeeper’s boss in the next one – stops, rolls down the window, asks if his worker offered me a lift. Then another honey truck – different signwriting on this one, again with offers of a ride, another ute tailing him containing his worker. How many beekeepers are there in this valley?
So we walk, arriving at Whikitau late afternoon at the end of a long day of swimming and road-walking. But the campsite is flat, the grass soft and it’s the best night in a tent we get this trip. Dusk is filled with the ascending whistles of kiwi, the booming replies. Special.
We’ve reached the end of the Raukumaras. Crossing the bridge beside the campsite we leave the range. The two of us have a long way to go – first on into the Urutawas, then up the Wioweka, Urawera and on. Some ranges known only by name – Whirinaki, Kaimanawa. Others – Tararuas, Ruahines, Kaweka, Rimutaka so familiar that they count as home. Most will provide great tramping, amazing views, good huts. But none will present the challenge, the remoteness, the wilderness, and the uncertainly that we’ve experience in the Raukumaras. The remaining 600km of the walk crosses mountain ridgelines, deep rivers – but with experience and patience it can all be walked, problems circumvented. The Raukumaras - they are another story. You knock on their door. You ask nicely. And sometimes, if you are lucky, you are permitted to pass. And this time, we have had that honour.