31st October 2010

Ikawetea Forks Hut to Rockslide Biv

I stumble finally into Aranga Hut, stripping off my wet clothes, prizing the ice-encrusted laces off the eyes on my boots with my ice-axe. Crawl into my sleeping bag with a couple of muesli bars, curl up, and shiver.

The morning was overcast, but nothing more. There’d been persistent drizzle overnight hissing on the Perspex skylight of Ikawetea Forks Hut, but thankfully the river was still low. It was nice and warm in my sleeping bag, and took a real effort to convince myself to get up and start a day of river-bed walking up to Rockslide and Miistake Biv’s, the bush-bash climb to Aranga and long ridgeline walk out to Sentry Box. But there was bacon for breakfast, and amazing how that can motivate a fella to get out of bed.

A 20m waterfall lies a few hundred meters upriver of Ikawetea Forks, and a track sidles past this section of river. Climbing steeply from the hut it follows the ridge behind the hut gaining 300m before an arrow points left and it drops down a near vertical gut to the river.

Wet feet time.

The river rocks are slippery, a coating of red that rings warning bells. The valley is tight, and a good half of the time is spent in the water – cold, surprisingly cold. Deep pools just before the first major forks lead me to sidle onto the face. The vegetation is thick, young beech seedlings, flax, tall grass. All saturated from the night’s drizzle. Soon I’m soaked from the waist up, as well as the waist down. Fun day.

My sidle-path is soon blocked by bluffs, and the choice presented: back the way I came and swim the pools, or climb to the ridgeline 100m above. I choose the lattyer, and the going's good, sidling, then dropping to the first set of forks.

On tree-covered terraces just upstream there’s the remains of a substantial tent-camp or bivvy. Beech-pole structure laid flat on the forest floor, remains of tarpaulins, fireplace. Another sidle, past low bluffs this time and back into the river, before the valley widens and good grassy banks make going easier for a time, tightening again a couple of km before Rockslide. The thickly forested slopes begin to steepen, and the first of many slips are seen: lush green grass growing on them. A large red hind stands on the first, watching my progress, before trotting up the slope, pausing, turning, watching again.

It’s cold, and getting colder. An icy wind blows down the valley, and I’m soaked from head to foot after my encounter with the wet bush. The last km to Rockslide is an effort, struggling against cold, though the going gets progressively easier. Might have ot head for the tops from Rockslide, rather than push up the river to Mistake Biv. Too cold down here, soaked by rain, at times waist-deep in river water.

The cloud clears briefly, offering the first glimpse of the tops above. White: snow-covered tussock, that black-white mottling on the beech trees below - ice encrusted – mist and drizzle condensing, freezing on every leaf, branch. No wonder it’s so bloody cold!

Much consideration is given to pitching the tent and stopping to warm up, but the biv is close. I’ll push on, lay up there for a bit and warm up. Spend the night, if that’s what it takes.

Slips become more frequent, and the tight valley opens – gravel flats appearing beside the creek. A huge slip, some 600m long scars the north valleyside, white gravel and rock, with green grass on the higher slopes. And opposite a cairn of orange painted stones point the way to the biv.

I note that the Rockslide Biv has been renamed Rockslide Hut on the latest DoC publications – interested to see what upgrade has been carried out to warrant the change of name. What I find is a standard ‘dog-box’ bivvy, sleeping 2 on mattresses on the floor. To the door end of which has been attached a 3½ sided corrugated iron shelter, full standing height, complete with cooking bench and table. In one corner stand a pair of iron and mesh bunks, sleeping an additional two. At the rear of the shelter, another opening, also without door, leads to a river-stone fireplace outside, and provides through access for a strong, bitter wind.

It’s taken only 1.5 hours from Ikawetea forks, but I’m as cold as I’ve ever been after full days on the tops in snow and ice. I strip hurriedly out of my wet clothes, beginning to shiver now I’ve stopped moving. Grabbing the billy and stove from my pack, I throw my sleeping bag onto a mattress in the dog-box and crawl inside and curl up feeling the luxury of it’s warmth and dryness. A cup of soup is soon boiling, but it’s an hour before I’m truly warm.

Rockslide Biv to Mistake Biv

Hut book notes speak of a good route from the biv to pt1311 on the main range above. But the sight of all that snow has put me off that route. A 2km climb through wet bush in the still-persistent drizzle, then a further 6km through the snow, ice, mist above, Upriver it’s just 2 1/2 km to Mistake Biv, and from there 3km to Aranga – only two on the exposed tops. The risks involved seem more acceptable: short legs, broken by the biv at Mistake. A place I can curl up in the luxury of a dry hut, warm sleeping bag, rather than the choice of a tent on exposed tops or pushing on if things turn bad on the tops.

For a couple of km above Rockslide Biv, the slips are almost continuous. The valley broadens, then gorges again. Vegetation changes from thick bush, low manuka appearing, reminiscent of the Kawekas. Reds and yellows appearing in scrub on the bluffs. A red hind stands in a small clearing on one such face, watching my progress unconcerned.

Shortly before the forks at Mistake, the valley broadens to wide tussock flats. The biv lies just upriver of the forks, hidden behind a rocky outcrop, set back in the scrub. Neglected since its return to Maori ownership: the same design as Rockslide, but rough, rusting, mattresses holed with burn marks. Forlorn. But weather-tight.

It’s taken an hour from Rockslide to Mistake. Not as cold this time, the river shallower above Rockslide, soaked to the knees, rather than the waist. No pushing though wet bush to soak my new set of dry clothing. But I still crawl inside and spend half an hour warming up.

Mistake Biv to Aranga Hut

Energy and warmth restored, and after another soup and muesli-bar and it’s time for next leg. It’s only 3km from Mistake to Aranga, but I’m not looking forward to the wet bush, followed by two km on untracked tussock tops to the hut. The climb will keep me warm, but I know that once I hit the flat tops energy will start to drop, just as I hit the snow and icy wind. Not a combination I relish. A good, well traveled route starts from the face just downriver of the forks, climbing steeply through open beech. Good going. 100m above the river the face tops out, and we’re on the ridgeline proper. Stunted beech and windfall. Pushing between closely spaced saplings, trying to hold aside wet branches, to preserve dry clothing. And so it continues as the ridgeline steepens. The eastern face open to become a large slip, open, but uncrossable. On the western side the wet, close-packed stunted growth continues. I’m soaked again by the time I reach the bushedge. The climb continues – a loose scree face. The ice-axe becomes an anchor but as much effors is still used to push rocks down the face as to push me up it. Patchy snow cover begins, slippery, but not icy enough to bind the rocks together.

Snow is falling as I top the ridge, the expected icy wind greeting me on the tops. Strengthening soon to a blizzard. The tussock is mixed with woody scrub, waist high, covered in snow. I hug the eastern side of the plateau where beech trees lap onto the tops, a refuge if I need it, cold and snow covered, but better than these exposed tops. Visibility’s down to 50m, and I’m working again on compass. Thankfully, the ridge narrows towards the hut, and beech on either side come in forcing the tussock to a point. Hard to miss, at least.

My leggings are soaked, and legs becoming less supple, less responsive with the cold. I have a spare pair in my pack, along with my dry hut-clothes. But I’m keen to avoid getting them wet. If I’m to push on from Aranga today I’m going to need a dry set of clothing to do so in these conditions. And I’m not going to walk through this ice and cold in my hut clothes – what if I needed to camp for the night, take shelter with only wet clothes? Would be a suicidal decision.

I’m getting so cold by the time I reach the bushedge, that I’ve no choice but to do something. Either camp up and warm up, or put on dry clothing and continue to the hut. At only 800m from the hut, knowing that a dry place and warm fire awaits me, it’s easy to see how people make bad decisions. I have spare tramping clothes to put on, face only the prospect of an unplanned night at Aranga Hut whilst tramping clothes dry for tomorrow. But how tempting it would be, having no dry clothes, to either push on when your body’s beginning to shut down, or to put on those life-saving dry hut clothes and continue – only to have nothing to change into on arrival?

The last section through the bush to the hut is not easy – thick, stunted beech, waist high broad-leafed grass beneath it. All snow covered. I pick up an old cullers cut track, marked with tin-lids nailed to trees. It drops to the marshy creek 100m below the hut, and those final meters prove the worst, breaking frequently through into the cold boggy water hidden beneath 4" of pristine snow.

Aranga Hut (4 bunk) is another DoC hut lost to the Iwi as a result of the same settlement that handed over Mistake Biv. No maintenance has been done for years, as a result, but last time I passed through in 2006 it was still a warm, weather-right hut, if a little tatty inside. How much has changed in 4 years. The chimney has fallen down, peeling away from the wall and leaving a fire-place sized hole where it used to be – thankfully on the sheltered eastern side of the hut. Rubbish litters the floor, and the inevitable possum has moved in.

Thank god I wasn’t that imagined tramper, donning the last of their dry clothes to reach the hut, secure in the knowledge that warmth and shelter awaited. Knowing they could light a fire and warm up / dry off if only they could get there. I think of Waopehui Hut – relocated 1km up the ridgeline. Of the pair who died there 6 or 7 years ago, frozen on the old hut site. Did they make that choice? Push on to the hut when they should have stopped and sheltered before their warmth and energy dropped? Only to find the hut gone, no indication of its new location given? Terrible to imagine.

As for me, the hut is at least still standing. I stumble finally into Aranga Hut, strip off my wet clothes, prizing the ice-encrusted laces off the eyes on my boots with my ice-axe. Put on my dry hut clothes, and crawl into my sleeping bag with a couple of muesli bars, curl up, and lie shivering. It’s half an hour before I regain enough warmth for the shivers to die down, and to fall asleep.

When I wake, I’m pleasantly warm in my sleeping bag. Sunlight shines through the hole where the fireplace used to be. I listen to the sounds of dripping and crashing: the snow melts off the leaves above onto the ht roof, encrusted ice breaking off branches and shattering on the ground. Looking outside, the heavy skies that have accompanied me all weekend are replaced by scattered clouds. Patches of sunlight dapple the bush. I procrastinate longer, cooking myself some tea – a filling feed of pasta and mushrooms.

Aranga Hut to Sentry Box Hut roadend

In the feeble warmth of the late afternoon it’s not such a hardship to pull on my layers wet clothes, follow the well marked, cut track back along the ridge to the Sentry Box turn off. Dropping down through the beech forest towards Rocky Knoll I start to feel hot for the first time in the weekend, forced to stow wet clothes in my pack as the layers come off. The valleys and plains of Hawkes Bay spread out like a map below me, becoming closer and more real as I descend. A steep, slippery descent the last 200m to Sentry Box hut. The final easy stroll down across farmland to reach the van – bare arms and legs luxuriating in the evening sunshine.