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January 2016 Issue
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A Tramper crossing the Taipo River cableway. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

As rivers pose one of the most formidable obstacles in the backcountry, trampers must treat them with due respect. In colonial times, death by drowning was so common it became known as ‘the New Zealand death’. So people built bridges.

It’s often forgotten now, but the New Zealand Forest Service and Department of Lands & Survey hut-building era of the 1950s to 1970s coincided with a huge backcountry bridge-construction effort too. Bridges changed the nature of backcountry tramping almost as much as huts, by allowing many trips to occur in bad weather without the risk of becoming stranded by flooded rivers.

Both government departments built a range of bridges, including walk-wires. Where a river was too wide or expensive to span using a conventional footbridge, they sometimes chose to construct a cableway. These consist of a thick wire cable strung between two winching stations on either riverbank. Those wanting to cross the river sit in an open-sided aluminium box, called a cage (or sometimes ‘boson’s chair’) suspended from the main wire on large pulley wheels, and are winched across using a smaller-gauge loop of wire.

While a large number of the standard Forest Service swingbridges remain in use today (now maintained by DOC), far fewer cableways remain in use. In the Tararuas, for example, cableways once existed across the Waiohine, Otaki and Waingawa rivers. Now, none remain. In Arthur’s Pass National Park, the Clough Cableway (named after a tramper who drowned in the area) spans the White River. However, it’s no longer operable.

Stories about use – or misuse – of these cableways are legion. When the river rages below, crossing in a cage can be unnerving. Solo trampers rely on the cage having an internal handle, and on occasions a lone person has leapt into the cage only to find the crucial component missing when the cage comes to rest at the bottom sag of the wire. The tramper is then stuck perched above the river, until someone else comes along to rescue them.

Some cableways have such a steep sag that even with the help of companions winding from either end, it’s still a big effort to wind the cage on the uphill section. My friend Steve Baker once had a nasty accident on the Rapid Creek cableway. His girlfriend was having difficulty winching him and his pack up the final uphill section. So Steve stood up in the cage, and used his hand to assist pulling directly on the cable. The inevitable happened; the pulley wheel rolled over his finger, almost severing the tip.

1. Kawhatau River, Ruahine Forest Park

Trampers often used to cross the Kawhatau River on this cableway, after parking their vehicle at Kawhatau Base, which provides access to the McKinnon Hut track and Hikurangi Range. However, access on the road through private land has been problematic in recent years and trampers must now walk 9.5km up the river from Rangitane Road bridge to access the park boundary, making the cableway somewhat redundant. Hopefully, access will be secured in the future, and the cableway restored to its former use. As one of the few cableways remaining in the North Island, it’s important it stays on site.

2. Taipo River, Arthur’s Pass

‘Taipo’ means devil, and fording this formidable West Coast river was often hellish for early Maori travellers, Pakeha explorers, prospectors and surveyors. Fortunately for modern-day trampers and hunters, this cableway spans the river south of Dillon Hut, providing access up-valley to Dunns Creek, Mid-Taipo and Julia huts.

3. Rapid Creek, Hokitika

This cableway spans the mighty Hokitika River, which even here in its mid-reaches is usually impossible to ford. It provides access to Rapid Creek Hut, and the Whitcombe Valley beyond.

4. Olivine River, Fiordland National Park

The Olivine Cableway spans the Olivine River near its junction with the Pyke River. It’s most often used by trampers tackling a Hollyford-Pyke-Big Bay round trip.