Canyoning in the Ruahines

Waipawa Forks Hut • By touristiko.


Upon careful negotiation of the road in we arrived at the Waipawa River at 8:30am. Immediately the cold hit us, although sun was forecasted.


Luckily our feet remained dry as we used the farmer’s bridge across the river; he arrived in time to unlock the gates for our use on the bridge and leading up the hill. A DOC sign directed us to a very muddy road. A triangle pointing into the obliss at the top did enough for us to find a decent style in the fence. Ice very much covered parts of the track and snow was just above us at 900 metres, a very thick blanket that shrouded the tops did not look at all inviting.  The first stream seemed bigger than usual but our feet remained dry for the time being. Travel through the regenerating bush allowed for the sun to beam down on us. We found another sign above Middle Creek where we debated the worthlyness of the track times four hours to travel four kilometres sounded ridiculous! A rope down a decent sized cliff which you could just step down did little as we rock slided onto a root part way down before we could continue. Cairns marked the way down the old creek bed. Got to the head of an amazing gorge which just about made a tunnel as it loomed above our heads, the rock consisted of limestone containing sea shell fossils. It led us to look back upstream where we followed tape (only one piece) before a thigh deep crossing and a scramble up where access to the ridge was gained.


Up and up we went squeezing through the burnt over regenerating manuka attempting to follow waratahs hidden deep within. Came to a sidle unknown to the map makers which cut an extra 100 metre climb off. Another sign at a saddle which later proved to be correct told us another two hours to Smiths Creek Hut. The descent was short and sharp and soon we were in the creek. We must of made millions of crossings from deep to shallow, bank to bank which led to easier, faster travel. Before long the snow fed water made my feet numb and a lone triangle marking a climb out was a welcoming sight. The climb was a killer and it was great when it levelled off to a sidle to the ridge behind the hut.


Funny enough we were still able to bag Smiths Creek Hut which came close to burning down a few months earlier if a couple of hunters had not arrived one day after the last party as they fought the inferno which was slow burning the hut under and around the collapsed fireplace. Smith Creek hut is another rare example of what the culler huts were like-unlined, sackling bunks, open fire and I still had the 1987 New Zealand Forest Service logbook which is still being used, the hut was very much like Kakapo Hut in Kahurangi.


With countless sandwiches and the new chocolate Tim Tams as well as a hot drink under our belts and possibly pools of ice developing in our boots added with the possible hypothermia which may result as the fire was still out of order we hightailed it out of the valley destined for Hinerua to a warm, dry hut.


The sign at the river told us two hours so a track may in fact exist also unknown to the map makers. Travel down to the second side stream was thigh deep in places.  As I looked up the creek put me off going any further as it looked like an impenetrable mass of tute overhanging into the creek. My fear was much less when we found cut tute bushes at the start of the creek and it looked very promising and I recall timing how long it took to do 100 metres distance wise and it turned out to take ten minutes! Although this not look promising for the next 300m the steepness soon petered out so it was half as bad as before and we were no longer crawling under the remaining tute bushes. A triangle on the last tree left on a slip face was spied and father who was in front at this stage gunned it full throttle showering me in stones. He followed boot prints straight up to another triangle hidden off the slip face before he left me again heading for the top of the slip. I him shouting but could not make out what he was saying. I think I spent too much time in creek beds as I was hallucinating sounds of helicopters and aeroplanes from the sound as water cascaded over mini waterfalls thus resulting in engine sounds. At the top was a triangles DOC track and nearing the top my hip was screaming for mercy from the steer steepness straight up the hillside.

The hut was not far down the track running down the ridge top and just as we got there a snow storm signalled our arrival. The fire was soon fired up and roaring and after reading numerous hard case hunting stories our long awaiting meal of mushroom risotto, mash potato and garlic kransy rewarded us for our efforts. Managed to find room for stream pudding as well! We lulled off to sleep to the fading sounds of the snow storm, our wet clothes streaming above the fire.


Either my father sensed I was awake or he was talking to himself as I heard the faint murmur ‘what is the time anyway, 5:30’. At that I burrowed deeper into my sleeping bag trying to stay warm. Only to wake up not so long after to, ‘Breakfast is ready!’ I braved the cold and was informed about the stars so I went outside to see for myself. A beautiful array of stars littered the sky and ice covered the ground. A hot bowl of porridge fuelled our bodies as the desire to start walking took shape. Now daylight a quick walk over to the helipad situated on the edge of the ridge line gave impressive views of the snow-capped mountains up on the main range, looked not to dissimilar to the Southern Alps! Sunrise illuminated the top of the furthest ridgeline which may be the one Sunrise Hut is located on. Back tracked to the hut and our packs as we set off, the descent back into Smiths Creek seemed even more vertical than the ascent. We did not have any trouble to get down as we knew all the entrances and exits out of the creek. The river at the bottom was down much lower than he previous so travel was easier. At the confluence of the creek which we followed down yesterday the unknown last 300m may contain a gorge and bashing so ideas of travelling up that was scraped. After several more freezing crossings we had a great view up the valley to a very ugly looking mountain high up on the main range (Paemutu?) It was a quick climb up to Smiths Creek Hut followed by a very quick stop, ran the rest of the uphill trying to warm up the feet before the sidle then descent. We covered the next kilometre of creek at a good pace before climbing up to the saddle attempting to warm up the feet in hope to not lose any toes!

Topped up the water bottle at a creek we crossed before we broke out into the open ridge down to Middle Stream. Lay in the sun studying the map/surroundings and wondering why we even considered tops travel with no alpine gear, the mountains looked steep and covered in ice too. The rest of the descent into Middle Stream was very straightforward since we knew all the twists and turns. The creek had gone down 10cm or more, passed the impressive gorge again before the cliff needed a hands and knees job to get up. (Turning back was not an option!) Surprised some hunters up by the signs and after a yarn or two (mostly about the terrible weather, they lived just up the road and had eleven wet weekends in a row) the last two climbs on the old fence/pack-track/road was quickly demolished. Got the deck chairs out of the car and cooked up the pasta in the sun in the car park, feeling revived from the morning’s effort and not put off by the sign saying one hour fifty to travel two kilometres up the river to Waipawa Forks we set off after offloading some of our gear. The massive shingle banks made for fast travel but we had to cross the river linked up because we got pushed down stream with the shingle by the power of the water. In geologist terms traction (rocks pushed downstream b the force of the water or in this case people!) Only forty minutes from the road we found the hut deep in the bush on the side of the river. Once at the destination, we got a bonus bag in the form of the firewood box which was an old Bivvy. The main hut did not live up to ‘Lodge’ standard as the centre room looked and smelt like it had its own goat inhabiting the place. We made 30 minute record back to the car and more snow had melted so the river had risen. The trip worked amazingly well four huts, snow avoided (apart from the fact it goes into the rivers then into your boots) and some great weather for the first time in months!