Taupo to Upper Matakuhia Hut, supposedly…
‘What did he just call me?
As I went up to the front desk at the backpackers the young English dude behind the counter greeted me with the soul-destroying title of ‘old fellow.’
‘You’d look heaps younger if you shaved off that big grey beard,’ replied Fiona after I told her off the life-changing incident.
We’d been marooned in a madhouse of youth for three nights and clearly none of the occupants’ freshness had rubbed off on me. We took our packs and sat out the front waiting for our trail angels to arrive. I’m not sure if old friends count as trail angels but I was feeling generous. Peter and Irene duly pulled up and promptly flew us up the Napier-Taupo Highway to our destination, the Waipunga Road.
The lift we’d received a couple of days earlier from Klint and Terry could be described as cheating as they’d picked us up ten kilometres before our goal of the highway. This had worried me somewhat but while we were in Taupo Fiona did some research. Peter and Irene were about to drop us off about ten kilometres south of where we had been aiming to walk to on the rainy day we left Oamaru hut.
I could draw you a map and go into some more geographical justification for our laziness but…yawn…I can’t be bothered. Plus we barely know the difference between latitude and longitude. Anyway…the ride was brilliant and the perfect start to a day that was about to get tricky.
The walk started fine. It was warm but not hot. The rain of the previous few days resided in the raging torrent beside the track and not in leaking clouds above the track and we were happy to be walking again.
There was one major washout through a culvert we had to cross but otherwise the pumice covered plains we walked over had drained into their streams and rivers well. We walked for about seven kilometres until Fiona’s GPS told us to hang a right.
(Actually it was Mad Pom’s GPS that gave us the info. Many of the notes and GPX files we’ve used throughout this journey have come from the Insane Englander’s Route Guide website. He got us over Sawtooth and Broken Ridge in two pieces – there are two of us – and we will be forever grateful.)
We made our way up a short path to the start of the Opureke Track, one of the worst tracks we’ve ever encountered. It soon became clear that Fiona’s concerns about it were justified.
The previous winter had seen one of the heaviest snowfalls in eighty years affect the area. The sheer weight of the snow had brought down countless huge trees and even more smaller ones. If a tree wasn’t toppled it probably lost a good many of its branches. Most of the local tracks had been cleared of the debris but many hadn’t by the time we came through. It’s an expensive and labour-intensive job and there is a possibility that some of the affected tracks will never reopen.
The Opureke Track is a good track that flows nicely over a fairly gentle route. It was originally formed by good track makers, but even before the big snow storm, it had suffered from neglect and poor maintenance. The snow storm may prove to have been the last straw.
The damage has been so bad that hunters report shooting deer that have worn the fur off their ears and rumps from all the crawling under logs they’ve had to do to get around. We weren’t doing much better than the local deer. We never got to walk more than three metres before being required to crawl under or climb over a branch or tree. Our full packs made the going particularly tough.
After an hour Fiona called time. We’d travelled 800 metres and had more than seven kilometres to go and running out of daylight became a distinct possibility. We quickly decided to turn back but as we very slowly made our way back out again we had no idea what we were going to do next. Back on the pumice road we’d left a couple of hours previously, we had a drink and a think.
Upper Matakuhia Hut was now out of the question.
Taupo? Nah. A seemingly endless and complex trail of logging roads? Yep.
It was really hard to tell how far we had to travel because our maps and GPS never quite knitted together but the road was straight and VERY smooth. As the afternoon went on we covered a lot of ground and it wasn’t long before we drew level – on the map – with the hut we had been aiming for.
On we walked. At about three o’clock we met a couple of off-road motorbike tourers. As they powered past we were oblivious to how valuable their existence would be later in the day. At three thirty we checked the GPS. Something was wrong. We’d missed a turnoff and would have to go back a kilometre. We were tired and had about twelve kilometres to go before nightfall.
‘Wait a sec…’ Fiona said.
‘Those motorbikes…they came down this road…look!’ She was right, there were fresh tyre marks. ‘The GPS says this is a dead end…why would they have come down here?’
We use a small screen GPS that can get really confusing to follow in complex geography so we also use an app called Viewranger on our smartphones. The larger screen and more basic topo information make it easier to understand where we are sometimes. It works just like a GPS but because phones are useful for other things like phonecalls and music, we only use their GPS functions sparingly.
‘If we follow the actual road we’ll soon find ourselves off the marked GPS road…which will mean that the topo map is out of date…which will mean that the tracks the motorbikes left will probably lead us to where we want to go.’
The logic is probably hard to follow, but it was an interesting moment. Following the virtual Viewranger we soon found ourselves walking up a hill that officially shouldn’t have had the large and beautifully maintained logging road on it that we were walking on in actuality. In the two hours we used it, it drained 30% of the phone’s battery.
If we hadn’t seen the motorbikes we wouldn’t have taken the gamble. Not that we weren’t slightly lost by this time. We now knew that the roads we were on had no relation to any of the maps we had. We came across signs that pointed us to the start of the walking track at Plateau Carpark, but we had no idea how far away it was and what it would be like and we had another problem.
Water. Or a lack of it.
The day had started with too much of the stuff but as we climbed to about 700 metres it became impossible to find. The whole area is covered in really well draining pumice and the roads are designed to stop water damaging them so the usual ditches and drains we’re used to just didn’t exist.
As nightfall loomed our thirst increased. We also walked up more hills, which took us further from any possible streams. Not that we could get to any if we found them…the road was hemmed in with thick plantation pine.
There were occasional muddy drainage ponds dug into the side of the road…we considered them…but walked on.
About an hour before dusk we heard the stream. It lay about fifty metres below a slip off the side of a sharp bend in the road. We dumped our packs at a likely looking campsite just off the road and grabbed our bottles.
Before we dropped off the bank a ute pulled up.
‘Do you want a lift?’ Asked Josh. He and Zac had come out from Rotorua to do some hunting. They were going to park up at the track-head we’d been aiming for only a few kilometres up the road.
We had water. We had a flat place for the tent. It wasn’t far to walk in the morning.
‘Nah. We’re tempted…but we’ll be sweet,’ I replied. “Thanks anyway.”