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March 2014 Issue
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Wandering the Wangapeka tops

On the tops above John Reid Hut. Photo: Pat Barrett
Three days
From Tapawera in the Motueka Valley. Take the Tadmor Valley Road through to the Wangapeka Valley Road. The track head for Chummies Track is 3km before the Rolling River junction car park
BQ23, BQ24

Heat shimmers over the river bed of the Wangapeka as Tim Hayward and I walk the final kilometres to Chummies Track under a flawless blue sky.

The track climbs over a long bushy spur to John Reid Hut, set in a tussock basin at 1260m on the flanks of the Arthur Range and it’s looking like it will be a hard won battle in the full heat of late afternoon.

Fording the Wangapeka grants us a welcome cool wade but not so welcome is the steep, loose and stiflingly hot sidle through the forest to access the crest of the spur. It’s sheer torture and we are feeling the pinch, so before long we’re bathed in a film of sweat.

“Whoa, this is a grunt,” I gasp to Tim, as he labours up behind me. “I never did like late starts to a hill climb,” he responds as we struggle on, determined to get some altitude on the spur before taking a break.

At 750m we pull up onto the crest, still in dense forest, though there are some encouraging ‘windows’ offering views onto the Arthur Range. We’re soaked, panting in the heat and hoping our water bottles will hold out for the five kilometres of ridgeline we have to traverse to the hut. But we’re out of the oven now and can enjoy just a whisper of breeze through the forest; it’s enough to push us on as we slowly tread the undulating trail. Bushy knolls come and go as we ascend the narrowing ridge until we arrive at 1200m and the forest opens, the breeze energising, and we can spot the rough location of the hut, still some 1500m to the west. Two trampers appear suddenly on the scene, marching down from the upper ridge, lightly clad in day gear, one of them clutching a radio signal finder.

Trampers on the Wangapeka Track

Trampers on the Wangapeka Track

They’re DOC workers who have been flown onto the range to scan for kea amid the bluffs and caves along the main range. We exchange a few comments on bird numbers and the efficacy of 1080. It’s a good conversation and although we don’t agree on the management of the problem, it’s good to see work being carried out to garner a greater view of the issues and how to deal with them.

Moving on, we exit the forest and begin a long and occasionally steep traverse into the attractive tussock basin containing John Reid Hut. Several hidden gullies descend from the ridge and require sidling to gain the final tussock bench, so it takes a good while to reach.

John Reid is beautifully set, providing a grandstand-like spectacle over the Wangapeka catchment and the riveting karst landscape of Mt Owen to the south. Small, snug and comfortable, the hut’s shadowy interior is a haven for two weary trampers and we sag onto the bunks before lighting up the stove for a pre-dinner brew. The stunning landscape beyond the windows keeps drawing me outside to take photos as the light slowly drains away to the west, drawing deeper and darker shadows over the precipices and prows of the Owen Massif.

As evening advances, I leave the hut, shoulder my camera and head for the top of the Arthur Range just 100m above. From the brow of the ridge I’m presented with an overwhelming vista of the Arthur Range peaks, backed by the complex watershed of the upper Karamea Valley and its plethora of ridges, streams and peaks. Near at hand, along the range, lie the great toothed summits of Mt Baldy and Mt Sodom, their bare rock profiles warmed by the lowering sun. To the west, Mt Kendall blocks off the horizon with an array of fearsome precipices and rocky towers. Searching the scene with my lens, I pick off some shots before retreating to the hut for a rest.

Swingbridge over Wangapeka River

Swingbridge over Wangapeka River

Our planned tramp is to follow the ridge west, past Mt Patriarch which we hope to climb, through Kiwi Saddle and onto Mt Luna and then descend to Stone Hut on the main Wangapeka Track. It’s ambitious, but not so difficult provided we spring an early start to beat the heat on the tops.

By early morning we have left the hut, now glowing in the clear light of dawn, cut across the tussock slopes above, and climb again to the ridge. A series of sharp stepped knolls lead upward, high above Taylor Stream which drains to the Karamea. As we ascend, a cloud cap forms on the crest behind us pouring into the Taylor like a great waterfall off the ridge, only to dissipate on the winds of the Karamea. It’s a dramatic spectacle but we eye it warily, hoping the cloud will not overtake us and obscure the route. A faint ground trail is visible along the ridge crest so we follow it carefully as it descends into steep gullies, crosses ravines and scree slopes, ascends minor peaks and finally tops out on the back of a small tableland. The cloud is still chasing and engulfs us, but it’s no bother: the heat of the day soon burns it off and we descend unhindered to the large saddle below Mt Patriarch.

The day has warmed considerably and as we begin the climb to the summit we chance upon another tramping group who are heading to John Reid Hut. They are at the end of a 10-day trip and have had fine weather on all but one day. They seem pretty pleased with themselves and accompany us to the summit of Patriarch in high spirits.

Up on Mt Patriarch even more of the stunning landscape of Kahurangi is revealed, including the twisting Wangapeka Valley 1300m below. It’s a great day to be on the tops.

We begin a long descent to Kiwi Saddle and its small hut tucked into a grassy clearing in the forest. We take lunch here in the oven-like interior and woefully eye the open tops running west to Mt Luna, now baking in the midday heat.

Needs must however, so we push on up the steep forested ridge to Luna Lake and into the large basin beneath Luna Saddle. The heat is intense, turning the basin into a giant bowl of reflective energy and sapping our strength as we cross and climb to the ridge leading to Stone Creek.

Historic Cecil Kings Hut

Historic Cecil Kings Hut

A rest in the tussock and a mouthful of carefully conserved water revives us for the descent off the saddle, through pleasant tussock clearings and copses of forest to reach the bush edge. It’s a magnificent valley; the headwaters dominated by the high rugged profile of Mt Luna and a post-glacial landscape of small cirques and bluffs. Campsites are few, however, and despite carrying a tent we decide to walk the full length of the creek to gain Stone Hut on the Wangapeka. It’s a good choice, confirmed instantly by the cool, peaceful embrace of forest and stream as we head down the track. Relief for us is being out of the heat, a good track under our boots and the prospect of a comfortable hut for the night.

A 500m descent and just three kilometres of travel brings us into the tall red beech forest of the upper Wangapeka and a delightful grassy clearing wherein resides Stone Hut – coveting a timeless view of river and thickly forested hillsides. It’s been a big day and we’re happy to kick back and enjoy the ambience of the place as afternoon fades to evening and night falls.

Just before last light, a lone tramper arrives. Barbara, a Canadian in New Zealand on her fifth visit, is revelling in the beauty and accessibility of such great places as the Wangapeka. We spend the evening and much of the next day on the walk out discussing the New Zealand and Canadian outdoors. From our discussions it appears that she has seen more of New Zealand than many locals and has plans to return almost every Canadian winter.

Another early start at Stone Hut sees us away just on dawn to cruise the Wangapeka Track, a well-constructed pack track cut into the walls of the canyon, some 50m to 100m above the river. It’s an easy walk, with little in the way of obstacles, having been constructed by surveyors in the 1860s to open up the area for gold miners and their accoutrements. For many kilometres, the benched trail hangs precariously above the emerald green swirl of the river, virtually in the tree tops, and granting a unique perspective of the river and forest. It’s a mesmerising journey but one that requires constant effort to remember where you are, lest you skip over the edge into the chasm. We pull up at historic Cecil Kings Hut, a slab hut built in 1935 by local identity Cecil King who prospected here for many years until his death in 1982.

The hut is open for use and is a well-preserved example of slab beech construction from the Depression-era. We rest here and top up our bottles for the last section of trail through the lower flats and high terraces of the Wangapeka.

There’s a surprise in store for us: the new Wangapeka Lake, not far below Kings Creek Hut. In January 2012, a mega-storm hit the region, along with much of Golden Bay, dumping a massive amount of rain into the catchment and setting off numerous landslides. One of these, descending from ridgetop level at around 1100m, completely dammed the river and created a large deep lake which extends about 2-3km up valley and has completely submerged the track in places, requiring a new rough track to be cut over the flooded section.

Though dramatic it presents little delay for us as we pull up over the hump and back down to the earth dam where we can survey the magnitude of the damage before continuing along the track. Our early start is paying dividends as we find ourselves, at a little after midday, pacing the final stretch of the Wangapeka where the river broadens and we can gaze up onto the massive buttressed flanks of Mt Patriarch, its triple-summitted crown slowly being absorbed into the growing cloud cover.

There are a few day trippers about now, with one or two resolutely heading up valley on a mission to the western side of the range, but for us there’s an easy ride out and the satisfaction of a grand wander around the Wangapeka.