Home / Articles / Off the Beaten Track

Step, stab, sting, repeat

Image of the June 2020 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
June 2020 Issue

On a weeklong tramp through Kahurangi National Park, Shaun Barnett gets more than he bargained for.

Mt Petra. That had been the name that allured me, even though it doesn’t appear on any maps. An island-like peak on the Herbert Range in the heart of New Zealand’s second-largest national park and protected by layers of limestone cliffs, Mt Petra is accessible only by a cunning route through a crack in its formidable defences. I’d seen mesmerising photos of it taken by veteran trampers Arnold and Jan Heine.

We planned to approach Petra using the Wangapeka Track, Kakapo Saddle, and a route onto the Herbert Range. Then we’d exit via the Karamea and Baton Valleys. 

In the end, our party of four got nowhere near Mt Petra. Not even close.

Our ambitious route might have suited younger men and better weather. Regardless, the resulting tramp proved stimulating enough; one that would take us from the Wangapeka, over the Arthur Range to the Luna Ridge and Biggs Tops, then down the Karamea River and out via Baton Saddle and the Baton River. En route we’d climb Mt Patriarch and Nugget Knob, and we’d average over 26,000 steps a day, at least according to my stride-counting watch. 

In an effort to keep boots dry, Steve Baker, Peter Laurenson, Darryn Pegram and I walked gingerly through the Wangapeka River in bare feet. Despite it being late summer, the water was cold. Even before we could pull our boots back on, we had the reward of hearing two whio whistling away upstream. Pest control work is making the Wangapeka a valuable stronghold for the endemic white water duck.

Above lay a punishing climb onto the Arthur Range on Chummies Track, a slog of over 1000m carrying eight-day packs. The forest hummed unnaturally and wasps buzzed at every step. I pulled my gaiters tight, mindful of a mild allergy to wasp stings. 

We plodded and sweated, rested and chatted, our slow progress uphill mocked by bouncing robins. Somewhere on that climb, we quietly shelved plans of reaching the saddle below Mt Patriarch – we simply weren’t moving fast enough. Instead, we spent an amiable evening chatting with a Nelson Tramping Club party which was doing-up John Reid Hut. Built in the 1960s, and named after a local helicopter pilot, the hut sports a grand location on a shelf above the beech forest with the marble massif of Mt Owen beyond.

We cooked dinner, trying to keep the food and any shiny objects away from a prowling weka, then shouldered our packs for a last effort in the fading light. Above the hut, on a narrow perch, we found space for two tents and from there watched condensing blankets of cloud envelope the Arthur Range and its distinctive peaks. The prominent peaks called Sodom and Gomorrah offered a biblical warning, while Mt Baldy suggested lesser sins. The day’s total: 18,874 steps.

Campsite on Biggs Tops above the Karamea Valley. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

The photographers rose early to watch the first light wash over the great expanse of Kahurangi National Park. Lines of mountains, ridge after ridge, extended before us. To the north-west we could make out Mt Petra. At that point, we were still hopeful of reaching it.

On a day perfect for tramping, and well above the wasps, we made our way along the often-narrow ridge of the Arthur Range. I had last been along here 30 years ago and was now surprised at the existence of a well-defined ground trail. Pipits flitted among the boulder jumbles, and melodious bellbirds chimed from the forest below. Ahead rose the three-horned summit of Mt Patriarch, once a training ground for would-be Everest climbers.

At the signpost above Kiwi Saddle, Darryn and Steve felt the call of lunch at the nearby hut, but Peter and I decided we could not pass up so good an opportunity to climb Patriarch. Cairns marked the steepish ascent through limestone jumbles. From the 1701m summit, we watched fragments of high cloud steal over Mt Owen but otherwise all of Kahurangi seemed laid before us. While a view to savour, these sorts of detours were costing us the chance to reach Mt Petra.

When Peter and I reached Kiwi Saddle Hut, Darryn handed us welcome mugs of miso soup.

The clearing was so sun-drenched I had to seek shade in the lee of the hut. Post-lunch torpor meant sluggish progress on the track through beech forest towards the Luna tops and Peter and I were somewhat depleted by the Patriarch climb. We paused above the substantial Luna Lake, cupped in a hanging valley, and regretted we didn’t have time to linger. The Luna tops feature a narrow ridge, blade-like, which looked formidable but was easily negotiated, through to a saddle beneath Mt Luna itself. A campsite at the bushedge above Stone Creek tempted us, but stopping would have got us nowhere fast. The forest of Stone Creek was a place of mossy glory, but I couldn’t appreciate it, and we all arrived at Stone Creek Hut feeling tired and sore. Total steps: 33,959.

Nugget Knob requires scrambling and steep sidling. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Back on the Wangapeka Track, it was decision time. The smart plan would have been to use the main track to reach Wangapeka Saddle in little more than a day, instead of spending two traipsing over the tops. But we’d had glorious weather, and it would have seemed wasteful to squander it in the forested valley. The price was getting behind schedule; a salutary lesson that age and ambition are not always well aligned.

Stone is the last hut in the Wangapeka Valley before the track gently climbs to the forested Wangapeka Saddle. We finally abandoned any idea of reaching Mt Petra. That left the opportunity for a late start, and it was near midday before we reached the saddle. While we snacked, a cheeky robin danced around our feet. With a revised timetable, we could now afford another side-trip. Ditching packs, our foursome climbed unencumbered onto the tops of Nugget Knob, another of Kahurangi’s innumerable summits. It was not a climber’s peak, but gave more than enough challenge for trampers, with some scrambling and steep sidles. The summit opened up views of the park’s south-west, notably the Haystack and Needle.

From the opposite side of Wangapeka Saddle, a track leads through rustling groves of mountain neinei (Dracophyllum traversii) and by late afternoon, we were settled at a campsite on Biggs Tops. I’d been here on this horseshoe of tussock tops once before, but in dense fog, and only now could appreciate just what an outstanding vantage point it is. Cloud wrapped the summits towards the west, and at first the sunset looked weak. Later, however, a single beam of light stole through a gap in the cloud, like a finger of God, and then more and more beams fell, creating an apocalyptic scene of fiery light, smouldering cloud and deep shadows. You can tramp for a long time before seeing something like that. We managed 22,623 steps.

Light beams over the Scarlett Range from Biggs Tops. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Darryn chose to sleep in his bivvy bag and during the night found himself the target of a curious kea. The rest of us woke in tents damp from dew. We felt smug being perched above the cloud filling the Karamea Valley like the sea in a fiord. The ravaged slopes of Mt Kendall, shattered by the 1929 Murchison Earthquake, dominated the view to the north, wisps of cloud lapping its feet. Beyond, we could also make out the ramparts of Mt Petra, now well beyond our reach. Instead, we would descend into the Karamea Valley and make our way through the park using a network of huts and tracks.

A slippery and knee-jarring descent brought us to Trevor Carter Hut, at the centre of innumerable slips and boulders from the earthquake. We were pleased to be in flatter terrain now, with all the advantages and speed of a track. Apollo, Mars, Comet, Satellite, Orbit and Meteor Creeks, the Luna Tops and Moonstone Lake lend the locale a space theme and apparently originate with Lands and Survey draughtsman and Nelson Tramping Club captain, Dave MacMoreland, who coined the names during the 1960s at the height of the moon landing attempts. Our experience was decidedly down-to-earth as we traipsed through wetlands, a section of overgrown trail and the usual roots and mud of a typical tramping track.

The deepening Karamea River began to take on the emerald green it is so well known for, with exquisite pools shadowed by stately beech trees. A late lunch at Thor Hut – the last remaining Forest Service-era hut in the valley – gave respite from the sandflies. That night we spent at the new Venus Hut. From previous trips, Steve and I recalled the old two-storey Venus Hut that used to stand here. Total steps for day four: 29,947.

Darryn Pegram and Steve Baker making a soggy exit down the Baton River. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Hanging onto chains beside one steep section of the track above a ribbon of green water; filing through beech forest festooned with ferns and mosses; swimming, watching trout and eels – these are the simple pleasures of Karamea tramping. Autumn is the fungi season too, and the valley supports more variety than I’ve seen anywhere else: purple tobacco pouch fungus, blue toadstools, white-gilled shapes, tiny cup-shaped mushrooms, and large ears of woody bracket fungi. Steve spotted a live Powelliphanta giant snail, but to the frustration of the photographers, it retreated into its shell and refused to come out. At Karamea Bend, rain fell. Now the weather had closed in, we felt vindicated not to be camped on the Herbert Range. Today’s total: 24,231 steps.

We departed Karamea Bend Hut knowing we had a big day ahead; from the Leslie we would climb the Wilkinson Track over Baton Saddle, headed for Flanagans Hut. The Leslie is as lovely a valley as you can imagine, but at the Wilkinson Track junction a warning was scratched into the sign. It read ‘Horror’.

Mist gathered as we climbed the narrow track, which seemed to be directed toward a narrow gulch in the limestone cliffs on the lower flanks of the Arthur Range.

Wasps buzzed at each footfall and before long I’d been stung on the leg. This soon developed into a hard, painful lump which no amount of antihistamine seemed to help. But worse was to follow. Through the gulch, the track weaved between and over limestone boulder jumbles, the detritus of the cliffs above, and that required care enough, but now swathes of stinging nettles covered the whole mess. Using its sharp, white needles, ongaonga delivers a painful nerve poison that can linger for days. Using our walking poles, we bashed nettle away from the track, but at one impossible section we had to abandon it. No longer did we seem to be in one of our most beautiful national parks: this was an ugly place of boulders and nettles. And just to add to the stings, we ran into a wasp nest. The angry insects swarmed, sending us all fleeing. Peter bore the brunt of their attack, with several stings to his face and legs, and then had the indignity of a rotting log upsetting him into yet more nettles. He swore loudly, and I could not help laughing; this was a comically absurd way to spend a holiday.

Through the narrow gap, we reached gentler terrain, and nursing our stings, ate a subdued lunch. We’d hoped the weather might clear so we could traverse north along the Arthur Range, but sulky cloud soon soured that idea. Even so, as we approached the saddle, we consoled ourselves knowing we were above the stings. But Baton Saddle had one last nasty surprise for us – stabs. Emerging above the bushedge, armies of spaniards speared their leaves at us. On the steep descent into the Baton headwaters, we were even forced to hang onto the spiky leaves. Unable to see our feet in the thick vegetation, we found ourselves slipping into trenches and plunging down foot holes. Lower down, cutty grass added another vegetative assault, and with some relief we finally reached the beech forest. Nearby was a haven of safety and rest: Flanagans Hut.

Built and nicely maintained by the Motueka Tramping Club, it’s named after a butcher, Frank Flanagan, who ran sheep in this country. Dry and with food in our bellies, we could banter about the day’s hardships, although Peter looked beaten-up, one eye swollen almost shut by the wasp stings, and we all nursed various cuts and grazes. In the logbook, two Italian hikers had written: ‘The Evil Valley defeated us. Don’t go there. Evil grass. Evil nettles. Evil seeds. And it takes AGES.’ A Canadian tramper was more circumspect: ‘Not an easy track’. And so the step total proved; despite over eight hours of tramping, we’d done just 21,771 steps.

By comparison, our soggy exit down the Baton Valley seemed almost easy, although we had to link up for several fords. Two whio waddled down the track in front of us, clearly preferring this to the swollen river. By heading out one day early, we escaped the mountains just as a tropical storm lashed New Zealand, causing slips and road closures.

Our total step count was 182,000 steps. Not all of them beautiful, not all of them enjoyable, but they spoke of a satisfying passage through our second-largest national park.

Petra awaits.

Mt Petra

Mt Petra was the name given to the area by the so-called Hermit of Mt Herbert, Gerald Cover.

During the 1990s, Cover lived for years on Mt Herbert, a peak on the Herbert Range, fearing the end of the world – as detailed in Gerard Hindmarsh’s book Kahurangi Calling. Mt Petra’s curious topography does bear some resemblance to the famed cavity-city of Petra, in Jordan.

Cover died after a bike crash in 1999. Veteran Wellington trampers Arnold and Jan Heine were among the volunteers who cleaned up the site where Cover had lived. As a mark of respect to the solitary man, the Heines applied to the New Zealand Geographic Board to have the name ‘Mt Petra’ accepted. The isolated Herbert Range has few names, but their proposal was unsuccessful.

Wangapeka River to John Reid Hut, 4-5hr; To Kiwi Saddle Hut, 3.5-5hr; To Stone Hut via Luna Tops, 4.5-5hr; To Trevor Carter Hut via Biggs Tops, 4.5-5hr; To Venus Hut, 5-5.5hr; To Crow Hut, 3.5-4hr; To Karamea Bend Hut, 3.5-4hr; To Flanagans Hut via Baton Saddle, 7-8hr; To Baton Road end, 5-5.5hr
The Wangapeka River Road and Baton Valley Road – car shuttle between trailheads required
BQ23, BQ24