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September 2014 Issue
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Kaimanawas loop

Looking east towards the Rangitikei River. Photo: Chris Curtis
2-3 days
Waipakihi Hut, 12 bunks
Kaimanawa Road off SH1, south of Turangi
BH35, BH36
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Waipakihi Hut via Urchin and Junction Top (gpx, yo 41 KB)
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Waipakihi Hut via Urchin and Junction Top, Kaimanawa Forest Park

“I don’t think it’s this way,” I said, looking over the precipice as the sun went down and the clouds rolled in.

It was our first tramp on the Kaimanawa tops and we had made a second blunder with route finding, going down wrong spurs. We actually needed to be north, not south, of Junction Top before heading down. We found our way back up onto and along the main ridge then down to the river in the twilight and darkness.

For years I’d been gazing up at Umukarikari while winter fishing for rainbow trout on the Tongariro River. The Kaimanawas were often dusted in snow, conjuring up a winter wonderland on the ridge tops. With a loop in mind, we watched the weather pack a large sad for the first weekend of the two we had ear-marked. But then there was a chance of snow on the ground for our trip and the forecast for our back-up weekend could not have been better.

We headed out early up Urchin Track, reaching the tree line mid-morning with beautiful weather allowing views of Mts Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. In fact, for most of our tramp we could see the volcanoes and at times Mt Taranaki as well as Lakes Rotoaira and Taupo and Mts Tarawera and Edgecumbe further to the north.

We cleared Urchin and then dropped steeply to the Waipakihi River. Without a continuous track to follow, it was about 40 minutes up the Waipakahi River before trying to find the sign for the Thunderbolt Track. After about 30 minutes of fruitless searching using our smartphone GPS apps we cut our losses and headed up game trails to get out of the Waipakihi Valley heading towards Motutere on the Middle Range.  It wasn’t until we stumbled on the trail proper, just 200m shy of Motutere that we realised a trail did, in fact, exist. We did some research later and found the topo map doesn’t accurately show the location of the trail out of the valley. The actual trail starts about 300m south-west of where it’s shown on the map.

We camped at 1500m in the saddle next to Motutere. That night, the wind threatened but never really assailed us, but it got cold, freezing my wet shoes by 11pm.

Next day, it was clear and icy and after a breakfast of hot coffee and oats we were off, climbing over Motutere and heading further east to Thunderbolt (1633m).

The views along this section of Middle Range were astounding. A falcon sighting and view of the sunrise striking the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park were worth the price of admission alone.

Forging east, we soon gained Thunderbolt and then turned north towards Junction Top with clear views down into the headwaters of the Rangitikei River. By this stage, our usually office-bound bodies were starting to tire from the ups and downs along the ridgeline. Most of the time, the path ahead was clear, but on occasion we found ourselves tackling alpine vegetation with no trail in sight. Having fallen a little behind schedule,we made the descent to Waipakihi Hut in the dark, which lead to us taking the wrong spur and forcing a backtrack. The skinny trail on the correct spur, with steep sides enveloped in darkness, kept us focussed but we were shattered from 11 hours on the move by the time we got to the hut.

On our last day, we walked out along the track over Umukarikari which was the easiest section, again mostly above the bushline but with a long descent from down Umukarikari Track where a friend had agreed to pick us up. If you don’t have transport here, there is a road walk of a couple of kilometres back to the car at the start of Urchin Track.

In the end there was no snow on our loop but the views and companionship more than made up for that. I have a trip planned for the Tongariro River later this year and am looking forward to a few fish but also the views and feeling of wonder I get gazing at the Kaimanawa tops, now with a sense of what it is like to be on them.

– Chris Bailey

Note: A permit is required from Helisika for crossing a corner of the East Taupo Lands block to get to and from Junction Top. Available free to FMC members. P: 07 384 2816