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Wander to Waterfall

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February 2018 Issue

On a rambling Ruahine route, Shaun Barnett finds what he considers to be the most delightful valley-head in the range

It’s summer and even in the mountains, the heat is sometimes relentless.

Four of us are wandering around the central Ruahine Range – Waterfall Hut is our destination.

The sun beats down; heat radiates off the rocks. We’re slogging our way up the greywacke staircase of the Waipawa River, headed for the saddle on the horizon that’s so clearly defined it’s like a scoop.

Above it rise the crags, screes and slips of Te Atuaoparapara, forming not so much a mountainside as a rock avalanche waiting to happen.

My son, Tom, has been tramping most of his 14 years, but I thought it was time to extend him a little, with some off-track travel. Joining us are Wairarapa trampers Joe Nawalaniec and John Rhodes.

I’ve been soaking my cap and neckerchief in the river to try to keep cool, but finally the heat proves too much. I dump my pack, then lurch into the deepest pool I can find. It requires a bit of manoeuvring before I can get myself fully immersed.

“Not much of a waterhole,” Joe says. “What’s it like?”

“Absolutely beautiful!”

The sweat washes off and afterwards that wonderful river-cool feeling surges through me. Joe and Tom plunge in too, each in turn because the hole only fits one. We emerge, dripping, ready for the final grind up to the saddle.

Tom and I reach it first, having edged our way up the useful little goat track that avoids the worst of the sub-alpine scrub dominating the final slopes. I point out the heinous band of leatherwood that I’d once found myself pushing through after missing the track. Not recommended.

Outside Waterfall Hut. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

On the saddle, we get views of the Three Johns – peaks named by pioneering tramper Norman Elder, who in the 1940s and 1950s used to take boys from Hereworth College into the hills. A botanist, mapmaker and tramper extraordinaire, Elder formed a tramping group at the college where he was a master. His boys used modified sugar sacks as packs and dressed in all manner of ‘weird and wonderful’ ways, as Elder recalled, ‘tending to take on an air of fancy dress’. He did strike some resistance from other schoolmasters, particularly those who coached rugby: ‘Horror of the ball-game conscious members of the staff at visualising a useful member of a team risking his precious ankles boulder-hopping up some mountain stream is not shared by the owner of the ankles, who is quite prepared to make the best of both worlds.’ On one trip, Elder tramped with three boys, all called John, hence the name of the peaks. We’ve only got one John, so he’ll have to do.

Tom pulls out his sketchbook and pencils and begins to draw the scene. Joe and John arrive, and we enjoy the cool breeze filing through the saddle. We debate camping on the tops. Is there any water up there? None of us fancy carrying enough for the evening’s meal, as well as tomorrow’s breakfast and the traverse over Broken Ridge. The day has got away on us, and there’s no point pushing it. A very comfortable Waikamaka Hut is only an hour or so down the valley, so we head for it.

Is there a more delightful valley-head in the Ruahine Range than the one leading to Waikamaka Hut? Waipawa Saddle separates two watercourses that could not be more contrasting. The Waipawa River is a place of open boulder riverbed, as well as exotic weeds like lupin and buddleia. It’s a gravel highway of easy tramping, but a pretty ugly one.

In contrast, the Waikamaka is a narrow, meandering stream, beginning with twin waterfalls, between which the track descends a narrow, poled ridge. The stream flows delightfully down a series of cascades, pools, riffles and rapids. Native alpine plants abound, notably among them the buttercup Ranunculus insignis and koromiko, flowering prolifically with its delicate white blossoms, tinged with purple. There’s something about the valley’s narrow nature, the mosaics of mosses, lichens and plants and the way the stream falls, that makes it the most pleasing of tramping routes.

Waikamaka Hut itself lies on a wee shelf above the confluence of Rangi Stream and the Waikamaka. Built in 1939 by the Heretaunga Tramping Club (of which Norman Elder was a  co-founder), it’s a comfortable and roomy hut, with a curious dunny that looks like a peaked hat. Both the dunny and hut have orange roofs and blue walls. Club members have ensured the hut stays in excellent condition, and we appreciate it.

The morning brings fine weather. We decide to head for Waterfall Hut over the tops. The shortest option would be to follow the river route up Rangi Stream and over Rangi Saddle to the Kawhatau, but that would only take three hours. Far better to make the most of the day. Retracing our footsteps to Waikamaka Saddle is no chore, and beyond we push up a barely discernible route towards the Three Johns.

The tops bring increasingly good views over the interior of the Ruahine Range. Unfortunately, Tom starts to feel ill, perhaps the result of a toothache. So we rest up in the warm sun, give him some painkillers, and wait to see what happens. Sometimes not making a decision is the best option. If the nausea subsides, we might be able to carry on. If not, we’re in a good position to retreat to the car.


Descending into Waikamaka Valley from Waipawa Saddle. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

John never lets an idle hour pass without boiling the billy, so we have a brew. Tom slowly comes right. We won’t have time, now, to traverse Broken Ridge into Tussock Creek, but perusing the map shows we can probably drop down to Rangi Saddle from Rangioteatua.

En route, the tussock proves surprisingly dense and deep, with some ankle-catching holes and a profusion of speargrass hidden like man-traps in the softer vegetation. Gaiters help ward off its spikes, but the slope’s steepness means we’re sometimes jabbed at chest height. Tom’s getting a sharp introduction to the nastier native plant species but seems to take it in his stride.

Easier travel arrives with the more open terrain, vegetable sheep and rocks mingling with moss and other alpine herbs. The mist comes in again and toys with us. Despite the loss of visibility, we welcome the relief from the sun. We climb to Rangioteatua; one of the higher peaks of the Ruahine Range at 1704m. A lone tussock in flower waves in the breeze, the terrain falling away into bluffs and the nothingness of mist.

Before, I’d suggested sidling straight across the saddle, but Joe pointed out the foolishness of that idea. He’s right, as we summit Rangioteatua, we can see the sidle would have been unpleasant and slow.

Tom sketches the view from the summit cairn, then we begin our direct descent to Rangi Saddle. It’s steepish, but not unduly so, except for one small section where we drop into a rocky gut to avoid a small bluff.

By mid-afternoon we’re on the track at the saddle, having done a curious loop that has brought us as close to our starting point, Waikamaka Hut, as it has to our destination, Waterfall Hut. Such are the vagaries of tramping.

A good track leads into Rangi Creek then onto the Kawhatau River, where we head upstream on easy river flats to reach Waterfall Hut. Built in 1961, it’s a classic Forest Service six-bunker. As one of the few deer culling huts in the Ruahine Range in near-original condition, DOC has been careful to keep it that way by retaining the bunk layout and open fire.

Just as we’re getting worried about John, who’s behind us, he appears, happy to have been alone with his camera to take pictures of the flowers, moss, boulders and other details that delight him. Rarely have I seen better results from someone who doesn’t even rate himself as a photographer.


Waikamaka Hut. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Waterfall Hut is ours for the night. It’s one of the remoter Ruahine huts,   but that’s not saying a whole lot in such a narrow stretch of mountains. Huts such as Ruahine Corner or Ikawatea Forks might be harder to reach, but I know people who’ve visited them in as little as a day. Nothing is too far from a road-end in this ribbon of a forest park, stretched thin between the considerably wider Tararua and Kaweka-Kaimanawa ranges.

Rain looks likely, even heavy, to judge from the billowing cumulus to the north-east. But in the end, it amounts to nothing more than a few showers.

Morning comes, and we retrace our boot-prints back to Rangi Saddle, then pick up the track into the Waikamaka. Sporadic poles wend through scrub and spaniards, crisscrossing the stream, then we reach beech forest and take the narrow track that leads back to Waikamaka Hut. After lunch and the climb over Waipawa Saddle, we’re back in the Waipawa River.

But it’s not the same place we left barely 48 hours ago. A fresh slip covers the base of the spur below the saddle, and a layer of dust covers the riverbed.  A few inches of mud curls around the boulders beside the stream in a sort of high tide mark. It gets deeper down-valley. There’ll be no swimming today.

Something has happened in the Waikamaka. We’re puzzled. I can only come to the conclusion that the light showers we had at Waterfall Hut were the very edge of a highly-localised deluge that washed down the steep faces of Te Atuaoparapara, sending silt and water swirling down the valley.

As much as we like to think of mountains as places where change happens gradually, such events highlight their dynamic nature. Mountains crumble, rivers surge, and plants realign themselves to the changed landscape.

And through it all we transient trampers travel, using huts as waypoints, and for a time enjoying the sense that – here at least – nature is in charge.

Total Ascent
North Block Rd to Waikamaka Hut via Waikamaka Saddle, 4-5hr; To Waterfall Hut via Rangioteatua 6-8hr; To North Block Road via Wakamaka Hut, 6.5hr
Waikamaka Hut (fee by donation, 10 bunks); Waterfall Hut ($5, six bunks)
From North Block Road end
BK36, BL36

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Waterfall Hut via Waikamaka Hut (gpx, 41 KB)

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