The side of a logging road to Upper Whirinaki Hut
The night was cold and we woke to a tent full of condensation. The day broke clear and blue but our little campsite remained in the shade as we went about the business of breakfast and packing up. It was a very chilly start to the day. As I prepared the muesli, milk and coffee, Fiona dried the tent. It’s a single skin, ultralight thing called a Tarptent. We try to keep it as dry as possible to take full advantage of its lightness and to keep it fresh.
Heaps of traffic had gone past throughout the early hours of the morning and because it was a Saturday we figured it was hunters heading into the forest. We expected to have a full hut that evening. But as we made our way down the road to the trackhead we realised we were in the midst of a big logging operation. Empty and fully laden trucks roared past all morning. Perhaps we’d have the hut to ourselves after all?
It was only a narrow road so we spent a lot of time listening over the gentle murmur of wind in the trees for clues as to when the next lorry was to come around the corner.
A couple of kilometres into the journey a ute came down the road towards us and stopped. A forestry manager with an important health and safety message?
After the usual introductions we got to the bit where we told him what we’re doing. Most people take a while to process what we say, before heaping praise upon us…it’s quite a nice feeling and is probably the only reason we do it…but not this guy.
‘I did that in 1988,’ he retorted.
He’d done a long walk with his brother in 1981 then got divorced and decided he needed to reset his life, by finishing what he’d started. Without too much planning, he ‘walked from the East Cape to the Cook Strait.’
This was a long time before trekking became trendy. Although he’d known about Rex Hendry and followed a couple who were traveling in similar fashion through the hut books.
We soon found that we had more in common with Pete. He’s a Land Manager for a wealthy Philanthropist and his work involves Whio and Kiwi management on huge blocks of privately owned land in the area. As well as fauna his work involves weed control and the rehabilitation of an ex-pine plantation into native forest.
He’d worked for DoC in the past but seemed to be relishing his work as a private conservation worker. He really knew his stuff and had plenty of interesting insights. The land he manages gets plenty of 1080 dropped on it as part of the country’s TB control programme and he sees it as a really good add-on to the hands-on trapping work that he manages.
‘The 1080 seems to completely reset the trapping programme we do,’ he said.
Trapping will take out a lot of predators but it also creates what’s known as ‘trap shy’ animals. Animals that may have witnessed the death of a family member aren’t going to rush off and jump into the next trap they see. They become cautious and particularly dangerous.
It is thought that trap shy mustelids recently killed several of Pukaha Mount Bruce’s rare albino Kiwi.
1080 takes these animals out and means that the next invasion of predators has no culture of trap avoidance. Pete’s traps also catch larger and more destructive ferrets, something we don’t have to deal with in the Ruahine area…yet.
‘Is that a Tasti Bar?’ He said pointing to the front of Fiona’s pack.
‘Er…yes…why?’ was the reply.
‘I work for the guy who owns Tasti,” said Pete.
“Is he a New Zealander?’ I asked slightly skeptically, thinking that most of New Zealand’s current big companies are part of some multinational, faceless and generally irresponsible business conglomerate.
‘Yep…and he’s funding all this because he can and it’s the right thing to do,’ was the matter of fact reply.
We were impressed and will be happily buying Tasti Bars for the foreseeable future.
After saying our farewells we continued our morning road walk. More trucks and a grader kept us on our toes. It’s the first time we’d witnessed actual track maintenance in action for a while and after the destruction we’d experienced the day before we were kind of chuffed with the slow repetitive encounters with the yellow monster.
When we’d walked the South Island hardly anyone stopped to ask us what we were doing. South Islanders like to think of themselves as a somehow old fashioned and friendlier ‘race’ than their northern counterparts, but the recent explosion of tourism down there means they’ve become kind of jaded to newcomers. In an interesting development Te Araroa walkers have actually split the trail into two sections…the picturesque south and the friendly north.
This is certainly becoming our experience.
It had only been twenty minutes since we’d left Pete when Jake and Darren stopped their ute for a chat. They were a couple of hunters from Papamoa and had just spent the night at a campsite ‘not far back.’ Before heading home they were checking the place out to see if it would be somewhere to bring the kids. They had good maps and heaps of advice. We got tips on alternative routes if the next track was buggered and some options for our upcoming beach walk from Whakatane to Tauranga.
The alternative track advice came in handy once we left the logging road. Our planned destination of Upper Whirinaki Hut was instantly put in doubt by a notice at the start of the track. Our intended track had been downgraded to a route…just like the track we’d tried to use the day before had. Looking at the map that showed the area affected we noted that two huts were stuck in the middle of it. The sign didn’t say that the regrading was temporary so we were left wondering what the fate of these places would be. Could we be witnessing yet more ‘removal by neglect’ of the country’s vulnerable hut and track system? Will these huts just become luxury hunting spots for fly-in hunters?
We thought we’d give the track to Upper Whirinaki a go anyway, and while it wasn’t nearly as bad as the nightmare of the day before, the snowfall debris was challenging enough for our weary bodies that we opted to chicken out…again.
We headed back to the turnoff and took the well maintained and beautifully benched track to Central Whirinaki Hut, a 25 bunk monster on the banks of the Whirinaki River three hours away.
The forest had been badly snow damaged but was lush and full of birdlife. Massive beech and podocarp trees filled the skies and a huge variety of plants choked the forest floor. Kereru noisily whoosh-whooshed about us and smaller birds were everywhere.
At one stage we took a small detour to have a crack at some beginner’s speleology.
Apart from the weight of our packs the whole experience felt more like a pleasant bush walk than a tramp. We crossed a bridge at one point and we were pleased to be warned off by a noisy male whio.
‘Whio! Whio!’ he whistled as we sat down for afternoon tea beside a stoat trap.
Whirinaki is whio central. Much of the work we do in the Ruahine is based on what’s been learnt in this area and one of the country’s leading Whio experts, Andy Glaser, is from these parts.
Not that it was all plain sailing. Pete had told us that the recent rainfall was the worst he’d seen since Cyclone Bola in the eighties. The river was really high and fast and all the tributaries were still emptying into it. About two kilometres from the hut we came to a major washout and slip. Our bushwalk soon became a bush-bash as we made our way up a fifty metre climb to avoid a steep fall to the valley floor.
In the forest of the deer-ravaged Kaweka, the detour would have been easy. But the thick undergrowth of the Whirinaki made the going painfully slow. Getting up was hard…finding a route down that didn’t involve an invisible drop-off was even harder.
Strangely, at the top of our detour, we came across several old permalat track markers. They proved to be a tantalising, but fruitless path to nowhere in particular, but we did eventually find our way back to the track and made our way to the hut. After a rejuvenating cup of instant coffee and some gingernuts we found ourselves gathering and chopping wood.
As I write this I’m lying on a squeaky DoC mattress in front of the hut logburner. The fire is thinking about roaring and Fiona is starting to fall asleep on one of the wide seats in the warm kitchen area.
We have the big hut to ourselves and a two and a half hour trip to Vern’s Camp the next day.
There’s a bright full moon outside and the local kiwi and whio are calling.
Things are looking up.