Spine of the Fish  Day 25: leaving paradise

We near the end of the Ruahine Range and things get unpleasant.

Dianes Hut to Komata Hut

As usual it was misty when we woke. It had rained quite heavily in the night so we were a little worried that we wouldn’t be able to cross the possible hurdle of a high Turuarau River.
As we packed and ate breakfast we heard a whistle. Rushing down to the stream we also heard the growl of a female Whio…perhaps even two.

In the stream that we’d washed in the night before, a family of three ducks mucked about. One of them was a juvenile that sounded female. She growled in a less-practiced way than her mum. We weren’t just surprised to find Whio…we were amazed to find Whio breeding.

The Ruahine Ranges aren’t very big in the world of Whio management -they’re just considered a recovery site by the powers that be- which doesn’t carry much conservation mana or funding. The more time we spend in the area and the more Whio we find, the more we think that it’s worthy of a better classification.

Then again, we’re just a couple of trampers suffering from exhaustion and nutrient deficiency. We’re not the most reliable source of anything, including qualified opinions.

We left Dianes on a high that was nearly as big as the climb out of the valley the hut sits in. Not as gnarly as the descent the day before, it was still a gruelling hour long, seemingly vertical gut buster. But it did end.

We arrived on the red tinged tops again and made our way along for an hour until the descent to Schutes Hut.


The Bush and birdlife of the valley we walked down to was varied and interesting. The area is regenerating farmland that is covered in thick, mature manuka that lets plenty of light through to the forest floor. It really reminded us of the forest around Asbestos Cottage in the Kahurangi National Park.

There was an abundance of flax, cabbage trees, kowhai and fruit-bearing broadleaf. It was a microclimate that resounded to the song of bellbirds, while around us the tops were covered in cloud we arrived at Schutes Hut in humid and sunny conditions.

Alex Schute, who the hut is named after, had been a rabbiter on the Big Hill Farm that now acted as a natural native plant nursery. When we arrived the meadow surrounding the hut was littered with the rotting carcasses of the giant pines he’d planted many years before.

We had lunch while reading from one of the best hut books we’ve ever come across. Going back to 1985 it encourages visitors to have their say. It’s full of verbal meanderings and a rich history of life in the northern Ruahine Ranges. In the cover it mentions the previous hut book still being in the hut. There was no sign of it. Hopefully it’s tucked safely away in a museum somewhere.

Schute’s Hut

We left a valley that we could easily have set up camp in for a few days. We would’ve woken to a real dawn chorus of we’d taken the time.

Half an hour down the track we came to the Turuarau River. It looked fast and we couldn’t see the bottom on the other side so we dry bagged all our valuables, put on our river shoes and made our way across. The light gravel made it one of the easier river crossings we’ve done. To celebrate our symbolic, and possibly actual, exit from the Ruahines we got naked and had what we call ‘a chunky dunk’. The young folk call it a skinny dip…we would never flatter ourselves like that.

As we dried off I looked up and saw it: the unmistakable silhouette of wilding pines in the mist. During the day I’d been naively topping flowering ragwort, a horrible weed that chokes many of the tracks and hut surrounds of the ranges, in the vain hope that I might make a difference.

We’d found a wilding pine on the tips earlier in the day and proudly killed it…again thinking we’d made a difference…

But as we made our way up the steep climb to Komata Peak we found the devastating truth. Pinus Contorta, or Lodgepole Pine as it’s called in North America, was everywhere.

Everywhere.

We walked from the beauty and variety of regenerating Manuka forest right into the thick of pure ugly. If DoC sent a biodiversity team into this area they could count the species inhabiting a square metre on one hand…actuall, make that one finger.

The walk to Komata Hut was one of the most depressing we’d taken. Dark. Silent. Ominous.
The occasional explosion of bright red Fly Agaric toadstools only accentuated our bizarre surrounds.

Komata Trig surrounded by pines

The depressing darkness

At home we have a 1970s book about the country’s Forest Parks. The chapter on the Kaweka Ranges largely features the fight to stabilise the range’s erosion prone mountains. After an in-depth scientific study was done to find the best species of tree to halt the erosion, Pinus Contorta was chosen. Apparently native beech was found to be pretty good, but not as good as the foreign option.


Science was right. Pinus Contorta grows everywhere and reproduces better than rabbits. It even loves the inhospitable mountain tops that usually only play host to tussock and mountain flowers. In that book there’s an amazing photo of young people walking up the side of a mountain in the Kaweka Ranges planting contorta pines in nice neat rows.


If only they had known.

As we left the worst of the evil forest and moved down toward our destination we could see healthy Manuka regrowth stretching toward the horizon. Towering over the young trees, a rash of Contorta saplings spread their dark genes.

Our arrival at Komata Hut didn’t lift our spirits. It’s a roadend hut, with bullet holes to prove it.

We had a meal, exploded our packs everywhere and hunkered down in our home for the night. I slept the half sleep of a worried (and unqualified) scientist. Trying to figure out what it would take to rid these hills of an unwelcome visitor. Sadly I don’t think the answer is just one of science. Commitment is what’s needed. Yes, there is a lot of money being put into a control problem, but we’re not sure it’ll be enough.

I met someone who works in this area on Contorta control and he believes much of the area is beyond redemption.

If it was a traffic problem we’d find a solution and move mountains to achieve it. Call me a pessimist…but I’ve got a feeling that the Kaweka mountains are going to be covered in pine before Wellington decides anything useful.

Wilderlife