- Waipawa Forks Hut ($5, 12 bunks), Waikamaka Hut (by donation to Heretaunga Tramping Club, eight bunks)
- North Block Road, north of Ongaonga
There are some huts that you keep returning to throughout your life, not because they are especially close to home, but because they feel like home. Waikamaka Hut is one such hut. For a hut that offers a multitude of tramping options to explore the rugged interior of the ranges, it is easily accessible in a weekend and the terrain along the way is varied, challenging and never dull.
The car park was full when we arrived, but we figured most people would be heading to the popular Sunrise Hut rather than trudging up the Waipawa River, which was our plan. We left the farming landscape behind at the first bend in the river, which was running low. That didn’t prevent one of the kids falling in.
Waipawa Forks Hut sits up a bank above the river. We spent our first night there before making an early start the next day, continuing up the Waipawa River and over Waipawa Saddle (1326m) before descending to Waikamaka Hut.
The tramp to Waipawa Saddle is a joy. You alternate between crossing the river, walking straight up the guts, and picking up a few tracks through the scrub on its banks. It’s perfect for honing a beginner’s route-finding skills, and our kids proudly led the way a lot of the time. The climb up the riverbed gets progressively steeper until the river falls away almost entirely and a foreboding scree slope rears up.
At this point, the track leads up a steep spur coated with a small outcrop of old bush which has escaped the erosion that has scraped the surrounding hills bare. The final climb to the saddle pushes through a barely-there track sunken in the tussock, dotted with a liberal scattering of Spaniards.
From the saddle, we looked back down to where we had come from, always a proud and contemplative moment.
The descent along a side-stream into the Waikamaka River starts with an exciting drop-off down a rocky spur, before following a gorgeous valley of beech trees and the steadily trickling stream for about an hour. There are times on a tramp where you’ve had enough and you just want the hut to arrive. But walking down that fetching valley with the warm, dappled light streaking through the trees and the clear, fresh stream keeping to my heels like a friendly dog, I wished it could go on forever.
Waikamaka Hut is perched on a river terrace above the wide, open riverbed and is lovingly maintained by Heretaunga Tramping Club. We spent the afternoon making and racing boats down the river, conducting some high-level map and GPS training with the kids (hint: make your search target a bar of chocolate and they will really warm to the game) and bandaging up a head wound caused by a waywardly tossed stone.
By night, the fire roared and the hut glowed as orange as a furnace. We couldn’t believe we were the only ones here. We later found out there were over 40 people at Sunrise Hut that night. Our due diligence had paid off, and we smiled smugly as we settled in for a night in the best small-time hut around.
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