Before I relate my experiences in the Kaweka Mountains, behind Hastings, I'll put you straight: Maori grammar dictates that you place 'nga' in front of any noun to make it plural. So, we should say 'Nga Kaweka' for the Kawekas. However, I believe that several forms of usage are acceptable. The Kaweka Mountains, or Nga Kaweka, or The Kawekas.
Almost 30 years ago my hunting mate Frank Saxton and I hired a small helicopter to fly us, my dog Defor, and a winter's worth of food and supplies into Rocks Ahead Hut, on the Ngaruroro River. We flew from the Napier/Taihape Road. We were there for the winter, to trap and poison opossums, shoot enough deer for our meat, and to enjoy our young lives. We were in our early 20s.
NOTE: Before you go into the Kawekas, make sure via DOC that all huts, tracks and bridges are still operational. And that you may still take dogs into the State Forest. It was almost 30 years ago since I was there. Also, please forgive me if I have misspelled any Maori names. Some of them are long names, and I don't remember the exact spellings.
We spent our first few weeks at Rocks Ahead Hut organizing ourselves, and trapping the odd opossum. Rocks Ahead Hut sits at the confluence of Rocks Ahead Stream, and the Ngaruroro River, and this was our base hut for the winter. Then, when we ran out of fresh meat and bread, we decided to take our furs out to sell in Hastings, and bring back fresh meat and bread. However, we had to go the long way out, via Studholme Hut, to enable us to collect our vehicle from the Napier/Taihape Road. The normal way in and out to Rocks Ahead is not via Studholme, but via Makahu Saddle.
We left Rocks Ahead early one morning and made the long haul up the totara-and-beech-covered spur to Backridge Bivvy. In the bivvy we spent a sleepless night, with snow around, and the dog whining outside all night because we wouldn't allow him in the bivvy.
Next morning we tramped through mountain beech forest and ankle-deep snow along the ridge to Studholme, arriving early afternoon to find Studholme Hut stocked with just enough tea and sugar for one brew. That was the very best cup of tea I have ever drunk. I was so cold and tired, I know I'd never have been able to continue to the road, without that brew. We lit the fire, made a brew, warmed up, and then arrived at the road just on dark.
After a few days in Hastings we drove to Makahu Saddle, parked, and climbed the long climb up to the summit of the range. Then down Backridge, past Backridge Hut. Along to Backridge Bivvy, then down the long spur to Rocks Ahead Hut. It was a seven-hour tramp.
This is sika deer country. Red deer live here too, but sika is the dominant deer, especially in the bush. A government hunter shot 17 sika during one working day, bush-hunting in Rocks Ahead Stream, in the 1960s.
We had an isolated but adventurous winter in nga Kaweka.
Our winter saw us tramping up river to Omarukakerekere Bivvy, where the opossums were thick. I put out a poison line one afternoon there; it took me about two hours to put it out, and next morning I had over 50 opossums on it.
Also, we tramped the track up to Venison Tops, staying in a very cold hut nicknamed " The Fridge". From venison Tops we tramped along to the next hut, Mangatutere.
It was a snowy winter. I hadn't realized that North Island mountains could receive so much snow. During one of our trips into the block from Makahu Saddle, the wind was blowing off the snow, onto us; and we had to stop, make a detour to a bivvy, and warm up in the bivvy, because we were on the verge of hypothermia. Summer is definitely the best time to tramp in the Kawekas.
Another episode saw a friend of ours lost on that same track when he tried to come visit us in deep snow. He underestimated the snow depth, and became lost in the dusk one evening. He dumped his pack with food and sleeping bag in it---hoping that because he'd dumped his load he'd make it to the hut before dark. He then lost the track, and he spent three nights out in the snow, without food or shelter or sleeping bag.
Yes, you're darn right he was lucky to survive. He was by some fluke wearing an army great coat. Well, he was a young fellow who had recently resigned from the New Zealand Infantry, so that's why he was using an army full-length woollen great coat, I guess. I mean, you just don't wear army great coats in the New Zealand bush. I have never seen or heard of anyone, before or since, wearing an army great coat in New Zealand's bush. Too heavy, much too heavy. But in this instance, a man did wear one, and I'm certain that it saved his life.
We launched a full-scale search for him, involving two RNZAF Iroquois helicopters, 40 searchers, and numerous coordinators. But before the search was into its full stride he found his way to the hut, and was flown by one of the rescue helicopters out to hospital. He survived okay, no serious damage done; his frostbitten feet cleared up in a few weeks.
We didn't eat opossum that winter, because we didn't realize just how delicious they are if prepared properly. I would rate opossums with rabbit, if prepared properly. The first thing you do is remove the scent glands from an opossum, before you cook it. Then allow it to hang in a cool place for a few days. Marinate it if possible, in sugar and water, or vinegar. It's very good meat. Defor lived on opossum all of that winter, and when we returned to town, numerous people exclaimed to me " What have you been feeding this dog on? Look at his coat! It's so glossy and thick!
I bagged a couple of sika during the winter, near the hut, and we ate fresh meat feasts for a few weeks. And we drooled each time we looked at the Ngaruroro River pools with their huge rainbows swirling around in them. We ate a hare Frank shot.that is, we tried to eat a hare Frank shot. You must leave hares to hang a few days or so in a cool place, before you eat them, otherwise you may as well try to eat your boots.
We had a good winter in the Kaweka Mountains.
We didn't explore much of the Nga Maunga Kaweka (The Kaweka Mountains), but we had a good taste of Nga Kaweka.
I hope the Kawekas haven't changed much since I was there. If you go tramping in the Kawekas, plan thoroughly, and have a good trip.
FOOTNOTE: The reason our young friend became lost when he tramped into the Kawekas to visit us that winter of 1974, was as follows. He made several mistakes, including the single most deadly and most common of all mistakes made in survival situations. Here's a review of what happened.
He didn't tell us exactly when he was coming to visit us, just "sometime during the winter." We did not have a two-way radio at the hut.
He was tramping towards Rocks Ahead Hut. He arrived at Backridge Bivvy at dusk, tired after a day of trudging through thigh-deep snow along Backridge. He knew he had about a 40-minute trip remaining from the bivvy down to Rocks Ahead Hut where, he assumed, Frank and I would be snug and warm in front of a fire. He should have stopped for the night in the bivvy. He didn't. He continued downhill towards the hut. After 15 minutes he realized he wouldn't make it to the hut, so he dumpd his pack and rifle on the track, thinking that his lightened load would give him extra speed for the final half-hour to the hut. He could return to fetch his gear next morning. He should have stayed there, with his pack and food and sleeping bag for the night. However,he didn't. He switched on his little torch and took off down the track. His torch failed after a few minutes; flat batteries. He should have stopped at that point for the night, but the thought of company in a warm hut drove him on.
He soon lost the track, so easy to do when you're going downhill on a sharp-sided spur, with limited visibility. Virtually unavoidable.
At this point he really should have stopped. He was lost. He was off down the side of the spur and off the track. He then, in a flash, made the most deadly and most common of mistakes in survival situations; he panicked. He allowed panic to take control of him, and he bolted like a mad elephant down, down, down into the darkness, farther and farther off the track. He should have stopped the instant he realised he was lost, and spent the night there. A cold sleepless night it would have been, walking in a circle around a tree to keep warm, but he would have survived it, retraced his steps through the snow next morning to his pack, then made it to the hut by nine in the morning. No, he panicked, and ended up spending THREE nights out in the cold, walking in circles trying to find the track. If you panic in any such survival situation you immediately reduce your chances of survival by AT LEAST 50%.
I'll finish by giving him some credit points.
We all make mistakes. He was young, early 20s, and relatively inexperienced in the bush during winter. (Winter in the bush is different to summer in the bush. If you make a serious mistake in a winter snow environment, you're chances of survival are much lower than if you make that mistake during a summer scene.)
Also, the reason he had recently quit the military was because during one of his recent military working days while repairing a machine, he had lost one of his eyes. So, he was running on one good eye and one glass eye, and was still trying to adjust to his new life of half normal vision. Cover one of your eyes and try to tramp a bush-covered track. Is it any wonder he lost the track? Nevertheless, panic was his demise in the situation, and, as I have emphasised previously, he was indeed a lucky man to survive.