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May 2016 Issue
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Catching the sunrise

Photo: Ricky French
Car park to Sunrise Hut: 2-3hr; To car park via Te Atuaoparapara, Waipawa Saddle and Waipawa
Triplex Hut, 12 bunks; Sunrise Hut, 20 bunks
SH2 to Wakarara Road near Ongaonga, then take North Block Road to the car park
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Waipawa Saddle Circuit (gpx, yo 23 KB)
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Waipawa Saddle Circuit, Ruahine Forest Park / Moderate

For the North Island tramper seeking a weekend experience that encompasses all the necessary staples, the Ruahines is your range. Steep, crumbling peaks, exposed tops with gasping drops; neat, mountain passes with streams to follow rather than tracks, and a winter-coating that sets up challenges requiring care and skill. There are, however, many rewarding weekend trips that most trampers with a decent level of fitness can complete without hardship, and amongst the best of these is the Sunrise Hut-Waipawa Saddle Circuit.

We arrived on a Friday night under torchlight to Triplex Hut, only a 15-minute amble from the car park. It’s not an especially beautiful hut but it does have a remarkably efficient open-air cooker on the front lawn, on which dinner was cooked under a blanket of stars.

Sunrise Hut was the destination next morning. The track has been re-cut in recent years to make it as family friendly as possible. It zigzags with soothing predictability up a broad ridge through native bush and displays many diverting information boards along the way. ‘The higher you go, the lower they grow’ reports one such display, and sure enough we were soon walking among mountain shrubs and then tussock as we climbed the last section to the spur on which Sunrise Hut sits.

The most popular hut in the Ruahines, Sunrise Hut presides over a vast view of the Hawke’s Bay to the east, while a short scurry up the nearby mound provides a stunning and foreboding view of the route onwards along the tops. The hut itself is large, modern and architecturally rewarding, with bunks stacked high and alcoves leading up to skylights. The veranda provides views of the Hawke’s Bay hill country, laid out underneath like a luxurious landscaped rug. There is gas heating and cooking, meaning DOC expects you to cough up a generous wad of hut tickets, but it’s more than worth it. We were up at 5.30am for the display from which the hut takes its name. Breathtaking.

From here, a well-formed track goes gently up the ridge to Armstrong Saddle, named after a pilot who crashed his plane there in the 1930s and was never seen again (Triplex Hut also takes its name from the same incident; a shirt labelled ‘XXX’ being the only clue discovered). From the saddle we followed snow poles up and along a ridge completely eaten away by erosion on one side. The Ruahines have suffered much from erosion, and the crumbling tops mean sure footing is required in high winds.

The weather was holding as we dropped down into a small saddle, just low enough to allow a brisk tussle with subalpine shrubs. An undefined ridge climb led to the high point that looked so imposing from Sunrise Hut. From there the ridge flattens out and leads up to the summit of Te Atuaoparapara, at 1687m. It’s all downhill from here, but what a downhill. Immediately beyond the peak the ridge becomes a knife-edge, but it soon gives way to something much more benign – the scree slope from hell. Controlled sliding became the only useful means of propulsion. Eventually, we got the hang of it. The scree moved like a magic carpet under our feet and conveyed us down.

After another short climb, we picked our own route down through the tussock to Waipawa Saddle, happy to never see loose rock again. The route from the saddle was a bit of a tease, starting with a good track that soon dwindled out, requiring us to push through the creek bed, where Spaniards lay in wait. Solid, backcountry toil was in order to get down into the flatter section of the Waipawa River. We alternated between following the river bed and taking sidetracks that would sporadically appear. Waipawa Forks Hut is nestled above the true right of the river up a steep track and follows the Triplex Hut model of practicality over character.

From there we took an easy and contemplative amble along the river, crossing on many occasions, and observed the gradual re-introduction of civilisation. Spores of farmland started popping up, a gravel road met the river, an old concrete bridge squatted heavily on the stones. Eventually, a large triangular marker hammered to a tree – visible from a kilometre upstream – drew us to the finish, as the sun dropped shyly behind the scree.