In February I was asked to join two back country veterans, Shaun Barnett and Joe Nawalaniec, on a four day trip into the hills. While the weather had been all over the place, with unusually high rainfall across much of the country, we could see a fine spell looming over the Ruahines, so this is where we headed. Shaun plotted a circuit joining many of the high points in the Ruahines in one 37km loop.
Our route started at the Mangakukeke Road end, which is surrounded by private farmland. Beforehand I called ahead to secure our permission to pass across Richard Gorringe’s farm on our way in and Colin Thompson’s on our way out. Not far above Richard’s farm is Purity Hut, beyond which we’d spend most of our time above 1,500 metres on an expansive round trip from the west to the east and back again. For me, along with the opportunity to finally get to know the Ruahines better, the beauty of our route lay in being on the tops for all but a couple of hours on the first and last days, and being able to camp out under the stars for three consecutive nights.
We set off across Richard’s farm about 11am and soon met the man himself, plus an impressive team of dogs, up on the ridge leading to the forest park, at about 800m. Richard has a bit of a reputation for being pretty blunt about access permissions. He’s suffered real setbacks, like loss of stock due to trampers passing through over the years. Understandably this has hardened his approach. But both times I’ve needed to pass over his farm he’s been helpful and very happy to have a yarn, which we did this time, while wiping sweat from our brows. It was sunny and humid and the access ridge is steep.
Once into the forest it was only another hour or so to Purity Hut (1,320m), which affords panoramic views out to Mount Ruapehu. Our destination for the evening though was Iron Peg at 1,703m, the route to which is very straight forward, lulling me into a false sense of comfort. As we progressed higher though, so the wind intensified.
By several tarns near Iron peg, where we strung up our tent and fly, we battled with fast moving cloud swirling about us. After dinner we sauntered off along the Hikurangi Range to tag Mangaweka, at 1,731m the highest point in the Ruahines. Through breaks in the cloud we enjoyed a blood red sunset.
It was actually a lot colder than we’d expected overnight, but dawn next morning was a photographers dream. A fantastic lenticular dome hovered overhead, catching the sun’s dawn rays in its alien-like, concave underbelly. Soon though, we were back in the murk as cloud again swamped us. This is how it remained as we undulated along the ridge into new territory for me, dropping off Iron Peg in a south easterly direction.
A little under 6kms away and about 550m of ups and downs lay Ohuinga (1,686m). As we plodded through the mist I felt a lot more like I was in the rugged Tararuas than on the gentle Ruahine curves.
By the time we reached Ohuinga the weather was clearing, revealing a north end-on, foreshortened view of Sawtooth Ridge. It didn’t look far but 3km and another 300m or so of ups and downs meant we were glad to reach the top of Tiraha (1,668m) at the far end. The wind still howled so we dropped off the west side of Tiraha in search of a sheltered bivvy spot on the eastern side of the saddle at 1,600m.
Joe, while never running out of energy, wasn’t keen on another cold night, so he opted for a 300m drop down to Howletts Hut on the Daphne Ridge. There he could read his newspaper and then charge on up to re-join us after breakfast next morning. This is certainly an option if the conditions don’t suit camping out but, as keen photographers, Shaun and I wanted to be in the best spot for sunrise. That night was not as cold and, in my bivvy bag, I marvelled at the night sky, clear and spray painted silver with galaxies of stars.
Dawn was another stunner and the weather had noticeably improved, boding well for the challenges of the day ahead.
On top of Tiraha, we shot frame after frame of a huge catchment of cloud, channelled between Ohuinga and Tiraha so it spilled, in slow motion, over Sawtooth Ridge. Ruapehu hovered above the cloud in the distance as the whole magnificent spectacle took on the changing colours of sunrise.
Soon Joe was back with us and we set off south westerly at first, over Taumataemekura (1,682m). Joe obligingly went back and forth while reflected, mirror-like in various tarns. Due to the high rainfall this summer season we came upon scores of tarns along the route.
It was a lovely morning but we did have something on our minds that kept us a tad on edge. Our crux was fast approaching – a cheval near the summit of Te Hekenga that Richard had warned us about. We’d seen Te Hekenga from various angles the day before and it had looked somewhat gnarly. Now, as we got close, it seemed to alternate between “yeah nah, no worries” and “hmmmm”.
At the base of the steep craggy section leading up to the cheval a trail branched off around the base of Te Hekenga on the southern side. The climbing option did look rather intimidating and Shaun decided that there was no good reason to ignore a perfectly good trail. Joe on the other hand was bursting at the seams to get onto the cheval.
So, up we went, both hands required. After a steep scramble of about 50m we reached a small platform, beyond which was our crux – a very narrow, exposed, eroded and broken section of no more than 15 metres. With our packs on and no rope, our resolve started to dissolve. But Joe took off his pack and tentatively ventured out, confirming that indeed it was dodgy ground. Once back beside me he suggested I go out for a ‘been there’ photo op. To my surprise, once out there I could see a feasible way across and said as much. And lo, the Cheval Kid was born. Joe perked up and soon crossed the cheval without his pack to see if the going was any better around the bluff on the far side. In a moment a huge smile reappeared confirming that “Thunderbirds are go, with packs.”
Getting across unprotected was at the edge of my comfort zone. Afterwards, on the summit of Te Hekenga (1,695m), where Shaun had come around and up to meet us, the two veterans agreed that the cheval was the gnarliest section they’d encountered on any non-volcanic terrain in the North Island. That made me feel better.
Even so, with our crux behind us we still had some work to do before our day was done. It was clear and calm. And HOT. Beneath Maungamahue we came upon two crystal clear tarns which were too inviting to go past.
So after a cooling dip, with replenished water bottles, we plodded up on to Maungamahue (1,661m) to enjoy an expansive view taking in virtually our entire route. From this south westerly aspect it looked big and impressive. And our intended campsite – a tarn at 1,440m, was under 3kms and 250m of descent away. Life was wearisome but good.
“Oh no, that’s not good news”. Shaun had just discovered, as we crashed our way through waist-high tussock and spaniards, that the levy was dry. Ironic it was that, after passing so many brimming tarns, the one we needed to be full was empty. Shaun’s theory was that the luxuriant tussock all around the tarn had drained it. He was actually able to extract half a litre of water by digging a hole beneath one of the tussocks, all of which sat bedded in quite soggy ground. Too arduous to stay and camp though, so only one thing for it, plod on down to Kelly Knight Hut a further 600 metres below us.
At about 1,200 metres, as we resignedly descended Shaun suddenly piped up again “That’s weird, I can hear trickling”. Indeed he had and soon, just before sunset, we’d strung up our fly right across the trail beside a tiny babbling brook on the ridge. It was a lovely way to finish the day.
We even had a picture postcard view out across the lowlands to Mount Ruapehu. Our water supply was sweet and so was life.
Our last day again dawned fine. After a good sleep, a leisurely breakfast and pack up we set off, knowing that it was less than 9kms to the car and mostly downhill. Beyond Kelly Knight Hut (660m), the last couple of hours were through native forest tracing the Pourangaki River and then across farmland.
It had been a wonderful round trip, dispelling any misconceptions I’d had that the Ruahines are a softer option than the Tararuas.