Living in Wellington, I’ve made many trips in to the nearby Tararua Ranges. I’ve spent much less time in the Ruahine Ranges tough, so I felt it was time to rectify that with a trip along a decent section of their tops. I’d arranged for Chris, a Hawke’s Bay-based friend to join me; but at the last minute, he hurt his hip.
Our plan had involved accessing the tops via Makaroro River and travelling south along the tops for about 13kms to Waipawa Saddle, then exiting via Waipawa River. Being the good man that he is, he offered to help me with logistics anyway – dropping my car at the exit point and then driving me up to the historic mill at the end of Wakarara Road. In fact, his 4WD genes kicked in at the old mill and he drove me about 3km further, saving me a good hour’s gravel bashing along the Makaroro.
My lift up the first section of the Makaroro River
As the sound of Chris’ Toyota Surf faded behind me, I continued west past the Sparrowhawk track junction. During the next hour there was no point trying to keep my boots dry, as I had to cross the river many times whilst keeping a watch for some indicator of the base of Colenso Spur.
This was not as obvious as you might expect. A large DOC triangle sat quite high above the river in the trees. I only spotted it while trying to find the old stone memorial to William Colenso, the first Pākehā to cross the Ruahine Ranges 1847. He made his first attempt, climbing up the spur to be named after him (in 1845). Back then there was no trail and Colenso survived his treacherous crossing attempt by eating cabbage tree tips and squeezing water from moss.
Further up river – no 4WD access here
It’s normal for the initial sections above rivers to be steep, but the base of Colenso Spur at about 500 metres is a small cliff. Above that the gradient relents a bit, but two hands were required often during the first hour of climbing. I made steady process as sweat poured like a river out of me. It was nice to emerge from the humid bush a couple of hours later beside an impressive bluff at 1,300 metres.
Looking north across the bluffs beneath Te Atua Mahuru (1,534m)
I sensed a sudden movement in my peripheral vision, then honed in on the sound of rattling stones as a large stag deftly plunged down the steep rocky slope. He dropped perhaps 500 vertical metres in what seemed like just one minute, then paused, looking directly back up at me. This was the Roar, so he was lucky the only shooting I ever do is with a camera. I had an unimpeded view and plenty of time to take several pictures before he resumed his descent into the trees.
A cautious stag pauses to make sure I’m not a threat.
I resumed my own upward progress to Te Atua Mahuru, at 1,534 metres, my first of seven high points along my intended route. By now I’d been walking for three hours and it was nearing dusk. I was engulfed in swirling clouds and hoped that this would change soon – both for navigational and photographic reasons.
Through a gap in cloud I spotted a small tarn a little to the south. It turned out to be the middle of three tarns nestled between Te Atua Mahuru and Maroparea, and proved an ideal spot to bivvy. The tarn furthest south is by far the largest, but middle tarn is best placed for photographers who like quick and easy ridge top access for sunrise and sunset.
That evening was beautiful as the setting sun played on the gradually clearing cloud.
Looking west from Te Atua Mahuru, to Remutupo (1,529m – right) and Papakiakuta Ridge. My bivvy spot is left, along the main ridge, southwest towards Maroparea.
The dusk view north, past Te Atua Mahuru to Tupari (1,527m – in cloud) and Rangiwhakamataku (1,505m – far left)
Dusk view south to Maroparea (1,511m – right) and further south along the main range, mostly hidden in cloud at left
Next morning dawned crystal clear, revealing my route south all the way to Te Atuaoparapara. Though foreshortened, it still looked like a long way to go. My topo map indicated a day of undulations, mostly between about 1,500 metres and 1,300 metres. That didn’t seem too onerous having become used to Tararua 1,000 metre plunges to rivers, then back up again to the tops. But topo maps can be deceiving, as I discovered as the day wore on.
A dawn view south, past Maroparea, to the route for my day – all the way along to Te Atuaoparapara 8 hours distant (1,687m – mid-left skyline)
My route was mostly unpoled open tops and visibility was perfect. To begin with the going was easy as I passed over Maroparea (1,511m) and then Orupu (1,475m). A hundred or so metre drop and a small eastward diversion saw me at Sparrowhawk Bivouac, where I’d hoped to top up my water supply. The tank was empty, but it was still nice to visit this charming little partially dirt-floored biv. South of the biv, just beyond Maropea (1,481m) lay a sparkling tarn where I replenished my camelback.
Sparrowhawk Biv (1,360m)
‘So far so good,’ I thought as I dropped off Maropea. Leatherwood. We have that in the Tararua Ranges too, but what I encountered here was a scaled-up version – hard work to puzzle and scratch through, and my topo map hadn’t even indicated descent into the green zone yet. It did, however, for the next dip beyond point 1476, which dropped to about 1,250 metres – the lowest point of my day – physically and mentally. This was to be my most intense leatherwood encounter yet.
Sadly for me, I didn’t spot the pink tape until about halfway across the dip, after much sweating and cursing. The tape certainly made things easier, but I still had to pay close and constant attention until emerging with relief on the south side.
Back on rock and tussock I soon reached point 1499, from which a great view of Sunrise Hut unfolded, along with a pronounced trail climbing from Armstrong Saddle towards Te Atuaoparapara, some 300 vertical metres above. It was by now 2pm and I’d been on the move for about six hours. Time for some lunch before taking on the final climb (plus another stretch of leatherwood for good measure).
Looking from Point 1,499m left to Sunrise Hut. Armstrong Saddle is hidden, but the trail from it heads right, dropping again to about 1,300m before the climb to Te Atuaoparapara (top right). Rangioteatua (1,704m) lies in the middle distance.
There were several spectacular slips along the day’s route and perhaps the largest of them all was south of Armstrong Saddle. Beyond it was another dip into leatherwood, before a relentless slog up on to Te Atuaoparapara’s 1,687 metre summit. Here I enjoyed the panoramic views in now ever improving light, before setting off to find my bivvy spot for the second night. Easier said than done!
South of Armstrong Saddle, the view from 1,400m, to the 1,300m saddle beneath Te Atuaoparapara
The south side of Te Atuaoparapara is steep, hard ground with a sprinkling of tiny gravel. As the terrain steepened, my view of patches of jagged rocks below me accentuated my aloneness, prompting several out loud comments to myself of ‘DO NOT SLIP’ as I gingerly edged my way down to safer ground.
Looking back from my bivvy site to the top portion of the steep descent route off Te Atuaoparapara
Back on friendlier ground it was just a short walk along to a tarn nestled in a small dip, at about 1,590 metres. A good water supply, sheltered from the strengthening nor’wester, and with a grand view out over Hawke’s Bay – life was good. Several steps up into the wind on the broad ridge afforded a view west to nearby Mangaweka and Hikurangi, and more distant Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe.
My bivvy spot, with the 1,625m highpoint above Waipawa Saddle to the south behind
Sunset and then sunrise at this spot reminded me how good it is to be in the digital era, because many photos were taken before packing up to depart. In fact all the way along to point 1625 above Waipawa Saddle had my shutter in pretty constant motion – a very nice part of Aotearoa.
Dawn, looking east to Hawke Bay, Te Atuaoparapara (left) and Three Johns (right)
Dawn, with Te Atuaoparapara right and the Hikurangi Range stretching left. Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe are right of centre on the horizon.
A closer look at Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe at dawn
The view north to Te Atuaoparapara and beyond, from the 1,625m highpoint before my descent to Waipawa Saddle
From point 1625 I was relieved to see friendly terrain down to the saddle at 1,326 metres. Shaun Barnett had warned me to take care entering a large band of leatherwood below the saddle, advice I was now taking seriously. Since he was last there though the trail has been improved and it was no problem finding my way down. Still, it was a long drop through some 300 vertical metres of leatherwood, followed by steep gravel bashing for a further 200 or so metres before the riverbed’s gradient relented.
Waipawa Saddle (1,326m), with Three Johns (1,569m) behind
At about 800m, beneath Waipawa Saddle
Four hours after departing, my bivvy spot my car came into view. While my undercarriage was ready for a rest, I felt well-satisfied about the fabulous new (for me, at least) Ruahine ground I had just covered.
Peter Laurenson is a member of the New Zealand Alpine Club and editor of FMC’s Backcountry. For more images and info about Peter, visit www.occasionalclimber.co.nz.