Good friend and eternal bushman Chris Mansell had completed a sub-24 hour crossing of the Kaimanawas and Kawekas, from Kiko Road to Makahu Base in 1983. His time was actually a remarkable 23 hours 59 minutes. I well recall Chris’s descriptions of the route and the exhaustion and my desire to try such a feat myself. Chris and I competed in three Mountain Marathons shortly afterwards, covering a similar distance through the Tararuas, Kaimanawas, then the northern Ruahines. We were not fast, rather sturdy and steady and used our cunning and experience to avoid navigational stuff-ups. We pushed out some good times. There was great enjoyment in cross-country racing, pushing ourselves against the clock as well as against others. Often, we would see (or just hear) other competitors all over the hills and bush, and sometimes numerous fresh footprints. We both particularly liked the idea of seeing large areas of interesting country in the central North Island.

The Kaweka Challenge was first held in February 1990 as a multi-day event designed to cater for many fitness levels. It was based on popular English fell running events and arose when people saw the popularity of mountain marathons. The Kaweka Challenge became an annual event and Hawke’s Bay institution for the following 21 years [with the Heretaunga Tramping Club playing a major organising role]. People spoke of the difficulties and enjoyment of the event, as well as the festive atmosphere. Many race marshalls wore fancy dress at check points, with costumes and language from medieval villagers, art deco era fashions, Dutch villagers wearing wooden clogs, Scottish Highlanders wearing kilts and Jolly Roger pirates. Considerable volunteer, sponsor, and of course competitor assistance made it a tremendous event, with many regulars returning every year. Prizes were often quite good too, which helped. Upwards of 500 competitors entered the various courses of the Kaweka Challenge each year. The crowds dissipated well throughout the terrain for most of the six courses (two overnight, four oneday courses), but became thoroughly congested at some bottlenecks along the track. There were generally few injuries, with the worst problems being blisters and dehydration. The many happy but tired competitors never failed to impress the spectators and organisers – and sometimes themselves. I competed every year from 2004 until 2011, and am happy to be able to say that I was one of the many satisfied competitors in the Kaweka Challenge.

The inescapable first section of all courses is Kuripapango Hill. This brutal 800m ascent through manuka, scree and tussock separates what would otherwise be a crowded field of competitors. Sunday’s one-day sprint and the duathalon descend to The Lakes carpark, then back around the Panpac pine forest to the finish at Kuripapango camp. Most courses lead north from Kuripapango Hill along the exposed Kaweka Range, through alternating beech and pine forest, scree, tussock, and clay pans.

Kiwi Saddle Hut is the first checkpoint and water supply, then it is off to Castle Camp. Much of the route here is windswept tussock tops dotted with patches of delightful beech forest. Terrain is undulating, with many relatively easy ascents and descents and plenty of well-graded running sections. Open country allowed competitors to see each other. Big scree slopes and areas of Pinus contorta, both dead and alive, take competitors in courses 1, 2, 3, and 4 up Kaiarahi, then to the check point on top of McIntosh spur. Courses 1 and 2 continue up Mad Dog Hill on the Kaweka Range, down to Makahu camp then back in a big loop to near McIntosh Hut. Courses 3 and 4 descend through the pines and muddy clay pans to McIntosh hut and camp. The final undulating section of the Kaweka Challenge can be tough for the oneday competitors, and fast for the well-rested overnight ones. It can be extremely fast for the one-day sprinters on course 5. Lovely running trails wind through manuka and pine forest.

Despite hundreds of competitors, there are several places where a person could get lost during the Kaweka Challenge. Age was obviously no barrier for some, and a fast time was not always the main aim – merely completing a course is satisfaction enough for many. It was a great training opportunity for other events such as the Speights Coast-to-Coast. Sadly, the final Kaweka Challenge was held during 2011 (a later attempt to restart the event also fizzled out…ed).

Many mountain-running greats competed in the event. Olympian athletes Andrew Symmonds, George Christison, Pim de Monchy and Phil Costley tested themselves in the Kawekas and broke many running records, leaving spectators marvelling at their speed and endurance. Many competitors in their 60s competed, as did many school-aged athletes, and of course a wide range of all who want to pit themselves only against the clock and the Kawekas.

Kaweka Struggle: the 2004 Kaweka Challenge

The weather was appalling and so was my condition. I realised a short way up the Kuripapango Hill that I was getting old. My pack was heavy and the hills too big. But I was still ahead of some others competing on my course. I struggled on. Kiwi Saddle came and went, and despite the storm, I had a few moments when I felt that I was doing OK. Past Castle Camp, up Kerri Bidmead and companion in sleety conditions on
the devastating Kaiarahi Hill, where the mist and wind gave us all a pounding. I overtook some competitors. I had already decided to avoid the appalling wind on Mad Dog Hill and reduce my event from Course 1 to a much more manageable Course 3. The McIntosh campsite was a much nicer place than Makahu camp anyway. I slid on the mud clay pans passing a few other competitors and feeling great. I had recovered slightly, and staggered into McIntosh Camp feeling very relieved.

All rivers were flooded on day two, so the course routes were altered accordingly. I felt in excellent form and ran well for much of the route, particularly along the attractive track around The Lakes. The mud on the hand-overhand rope descent at Waikarekare Stream was amazing after hundreds of competitors had stirred it up, and I slid past many who were struggling. I staggered to the finish line in 7 hours, 7 minutes and 54 seconds, determined to do it again.

Kaweka Crowds: The 2005 and 2006 Kaweka Challenges

Observing the Jumbo Holdsworth Trail Race through the Tararuas inspired me. Good friend Peter Kerr joined me for the 2005 Kaweka Challenge, and we both enjoyed it at a relatively relaxing pace. We completed it two precious minutes slower than my time of the previous year. We wanted to do better.

Shared leads were always fun. On day two, we were easily overtaken by a couple of young runners, one dressed in bright red shorts illustrated with yellow flames. We were fresh and our packs were light. ‘Flame Shorts’ and his mate were fast on the uphill, but Peter and I soon caught them on the downhill. We crashed past them, and others, and skittered away, utterly determined to keep our lead. The next uphill was brutal. Soon, ‘Flame Shorts’ and his mate powered past us. I knew the track well, so we conserved energy for our speediest section – the downhill. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the gradient eased, so our speed could increase. Once again, we powered past ‘Flame Shorts’. I’m sure we shared a few choice comments to each other then. We were certainly inspired to speed on the steep downhill sections of clay pans while others stalled. The outcome was however never in doubt, with both Peter and my stamina withering. ‘Flame Shorts’ and his mate out-paced us, eventually finishing a good five minutes ahead of us.

By February 2006, I felt like a veteran of the Kaweka Challenge. My brother-in-law David Olsen joined me on Course 4, and we complemented each other very well. He was a first-timer, very impressed with the course, and thrilled to finish first in our section, veteran men’s pairs, in 6 hours, 48 minutes and 32 seconds. David and I teamed up four more times.

Our day began like every other competitor – up the brutal Kuripapango Hill. At least the views were some consolation. The crowds thinned, and for a while, the course seemed rather lonely to us. We passed an injured person just before Kiwi Saddle Hut, where the first check point was located. Check in, grab a little more water, then hit what should be the fastest section of the course, over easy tussock ridges to Castle Camp. Somehow, we started to imperceptibly gain on a bunch of eight or so runners ahead of us. On each hill we could see them five or six minutes ahead, with the gap slowly shrinking. We were feeling good. Mt Ruapehu looked amazing to the west. The breeze cooled us a little, but it was very nice to reach the shade of the beech forest at Castle Camp. The three big uphill grunts onto Kaiarahi peak shortened the gap to the next competitors even more, so the race was on. We cruised through the Macintosh Spur checkpoint passing most of the bunch ahead of us, then down the Pinus contorta-infested ridge to Macintosh Hut campsite. We could swim, recover, and enjoy great camaraderie. With a warm, overcast night, we didn’t suffer too much from our limited clothing and thin sleeping bags.

Sunday looked like it was going to be another good day, and it was. Everybody was up early sharing route guide information and comparing notes. The speedy father-anddaughter team of Ross and Hazel Bidmead were off early, as we were too (it was a chasing start). As on both of the longer Kaweka Challenge courses, the route on the final couple of hours features a series of short but steep gullies to cross. There are several clay pans and clearings on the plateaux between these gullies where a person could easily get lost. We sweated our way along the track, feeling good, but once more feeling quite lonely. However, once at The Lakes checkpoint, we were back with the crowds. Some of the one-day Course 5 competitors sprinted past us. After good mixed terrain, the final hurdle is to ascend the aptly named ‘Wall’, a steep, scrub covered hill that leads competitors to the even steeper descent to the Waikarekare Stream. We did some quick time calculations, and pushed ourselves hard on the last kilometre or so through the pine trees. Like many competitors, this certainly wasn’t going to be our last Kaweka Challenge.