When you’ve got a spare week up your sleeve how do you spend it? If you’re Ricky French you cram three diverse tramps into seven madcap days
We tend to take tramping for granted in New Zealand. We forget that no other place in the world has our network of tracks and huts. No other country has as much information at hand to organise tramps. And no other country has such variety of landscapes in such a small area. The last point is what made our somewhat ambitious mission possible.
We would be travelling to three different forest parks in the North Island for three very different tramps. Three tramps in seven days, in the middle of winter. Our tight holiday schedule demanded it. We would face blizzards and snow, river-crossings and frozen water tanks, sunbathing, walking by torchlight, a hut so modern and plush you had to take your shoes off at the door, a hut with a shocking interior paint scheme, hot pools and hunters, streamers and ball gowns, dancing, cheese platters, soda streams, wind that knocked us off our feet, rats that scampered on our faces, and four trips through the Manawatu Gorge. Add to that we had no car of our own and would rely on trains and other people.
I’ve always loved the drive in to the eastern Ruahine Ranges. It’s not fashionable to admit, but hill-country farmland, with its creeks and little waterfalls and miniature mountains and bright green grass, is a soothing sight. Less soothing was the weather, or the fact we were doing the toughest tramp first. Westerly gales were forecast, along with snow down to some laughably low level.
The four of us began the sharp climb to the ridge which would lead us down to the Tukituki River and Daphne Hut. We paused briefly on the top of the ridge, before beginning the gradual decent through the storm-damaged bush, passing by one huge tree that had been toppled by the wind; its base and roots towering over us. Soon we were crouched down at the Tukituki River, lapping at its cold waters and preparing for the last charge.
The good thing about river travel is it’s hard to lose your way. There’s also something pioneering in knowing you’re following a natural feature rather than a track; picking crossing-points, peering round the next corner. Being winter though, the water level was high and a few crossings marginal. An overnight rise would potentially see us stranded.
Daphne Hut itself was gorgeous. The fire beckoned, and we set about sawing wood, arranging kindling and hanging wet socks. As night fell the orange glow inside the warm hut illuminated the classic signs of tramping life: wooden benches, makeshift clotheslines, billies on the fire, boots stacked by the door, waxy candles dripping down the necks of ancient wine bottles, and condensation dripping from the windows above the sink. The hut book warned of rats, so we hung our food from the rafters. The rats clearly didn’t like that cruel trick. Some time after midnight Andrew woke with a fright shouting: “Bloody bastard just ran over my head!” Karen was slower to wake but got the message two seconds later when the rat scaled her head as well. And so began the longest night. Talk about sleeping with one eye open.
The rambunctious rat wasn’t the only noise during the night. Rain bucketed down. By morning it had stopped but we had a dilemma. Originally we had wanted to climb to Howletts Hut, high on the tops. But doing that could mean we would be trapped if the weather prevented us from tramping out along the tops the next day. It would really throw a spanner in our three-tramps-in-seven-days plan.
So we decided to take on the Tukituki while we still could, and went instead to Longview Hut. Every item of clothing went on as we made our way back along the river and up the ridge with sloshing wet feet. Snow fell. We passed the giant fallen tree, now buried beneath a layer of white.
Out in the open we were hit with the full force of the wind. The prevailing westerly gathered speed as it whooshed down the higher adjacent ridge, hitting with incredible strength. Snow drove into us horizontally, turning my foolishly naked kneecaps bright red. We ploughed on. The broad ridge is forgiving to our wind-blown meanderings, and the ordeal grinds to an end as Longview Hut materialises out of the mist. We made a mad dash for the gas heater and urged it to life. It’s not a beautiful hut, but we decorated it with sodden gear and filled the air with delicious smells of curry while the water tank silently froze in the snow.
We woke to a surprising sight: blue sky. Longview lives up to its name, offering a view over the southern Hawke’s Bay farm country and to the Ruahine foothills – all blanketed a thick white.
If anything, the wind had increased. We packed up and prepared to be buffeted. We were not let down – the gusts dumped us into the tussock on numerous occasions as we stumbled along the ridge, lurching our way ungracefully towards the lee of the mountain and into relative calm. Our freezing, winter experience was soon over, with the ridge leading us through knee-deep snow back to the car.
There was no rest for the wicked cold though: tramp number two was already waiting for us.
New Zealand could well be the only country in the world where it’s not rude to expect guests to your 40th birthday party to strap a pack on and hit the bush. Fortunately, a ‘tramp’ through Catchpool Valley to DOC’s five-star Turere Lodge is about as cushy as tramping can get.
We drove from the Ruahines to Waikanae, stopping at Levin swimming pool to shower and soak, and the supermarket to stock up on outrageous luxury items. We then caught a train to Wellington and were picked up for the drive to Wainuiomata.
Turere Lodge is a sole-occupancy hut in the Rimutaka Ranges, located on a bluff overlooking the Orongorongo River. The afternoon saw 30-odd birthday guests walk the easy track. The atmosphere was relaxed, to say the least. Guitars replaced gaiters, lagerphones (beer bottle tops loosely nailed to a stick and banged on the floor) replaced staffs. The packs were still heavy though – it may have been something to do with the somewhat disproportionate amount of liquid that was deemed required for such a short walk to the party.
Turere Lodge is so plush that a notice requested trampers to remove footwear before entering. Soon a lavish spread filled the table, streamers and fairy lights were hung, music played and the party got started. For one night only, Turere Lodge was transformed into The Ritz. Guests changed into their outfits: ball gowns and fascinators for the ladies, op-shop suits and shiny black shoes for the guys. The fire was ridiculously efficient and combined with the incessant dancing, the hut door had to be opened to let in the cold air, something never heard before in a tramping hut.
A pot luck dinner was whipped up, a soda stream machine produced and the battery-powered speaker blasted hits of the 80s across the dance floor. For the highlight of the night, the birthday boy performed a handstand; his cake placed on his feet. It’s an unconventional finale to a weird and wonderful tramp.
We had our fun, but there was work to be done. We needed to move fast: we were due in a backpackers in Napier that evening. We latched onto the first people to leave and got a ride with them to the train station in Lower Hutt, where we caught the 10.15 to Wellington to pick up our seven-year-old son. Tramp number three would be for the kids. We grabbed the little blighter and swooped upon a train heading north, where we were picked up again in Waikanae.
Four hours later we were eating fish and chips on the Napier foreshore, ready for the Kawekas in the morning. There were now eight of us, including four kids. By midday we were at the start of the track and readying ourselves for the tramp to Te Puia Lodge, on the banks of the Mohaka River. For comic effect I got changed into my suit from the night before, telling the kids it’s traditional tramping attire.
The kids are strong walkers, and they have the time of their lives running along the track, using their walkie-talkies, munching on junk food, making up games, checking the stoat traps. It’s a perfect kids’ tramp and one we’ve planned for a long time. An easy two-three hour walk delivered us to Te Puia Lodge. We dubbed the nauseating interior paint-scheme ‘Institutional blue’ and tried to pretend we weren’t temporarily patients of a decrepit mental asylum of the 1930s. A game of hut cricket got everyone on their toes before we gathered the troops for our main trip objective: wallowing in hot pools.
The kids teared off in front on the 45-minute walk upstream to Mangatainoka Hot Pools. We’ve been coming here for years. It’s a precious New Zealand gift: running hot water in the middle of the bush. Decking and comfortable plastic tubs have been built at the thermal source, and we soaked in bliss, interspersed with occasional mentally-deranged dashes for the freezing Mohaka; our bizarre impulses possibly a result of our time at ‘Te Puia Asylum’.
The mad scene is compounded with four boisterous kids, but the adults hold the treats and it’s decreed a peanut slab will be awarded to the winner of The Silence Game.
The kids are silenced more during the night walk back to the lodge. It’s eerie in the forest under torchlight, but it’s also an adventure embraced.
We had some great news for the kids in the morning: a two hour slog uphill. More sugary incentives were doled out, but the adults found the steep scramble to Makino Hut a gut-buster as well. Makino is a classic, and cosy, orange deerstalker’s hut. Much too cosy for four adults and four kids, we send the kids outside to play where they amused themselves for hours, collecting bones and memorabilia from the surrounding bush and building a landscaped garden outside the hut, whilst making regular visits inside to replenish their rations.
We’re generous enough to allow the kids to sleep inside and we woke to the sound of rain on tin. A damp winter’s morning didn’t bother the kids, though, and once again they lead the charge, this time out to Makahu Rd and the cars, making a brief but compulsory detour to the road-end hot pools.
It seemed absurd to think that just two days ago we’d been dancing to Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in Turere Lodge, and the day before that we had been melting snow for water inside a frigid Longview Hut, while at that moment we were lying in hot pools in the middle of a beech forest. Such are the opportunities in this outdoors wonderland we are fortunate enough to live in.
Nothing remained but to pile into my uncle’s car, get bundled out at Waikanae, catch a train to Wellington, shower, pack, sleep and coolly catch a plane the next day.
I’ll keep saying it, there can’t be too many places in the world where you can live like this. It’s a gift we take for granted, but one that I am thankful for every time I pick up a map of New Zealand, point my finger at a random point and say “there”.