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October 2012 Issue
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Winter on the Whanahuia Range

Heading towards the top of the Whanahuia Range
There is access to the car park across farmland off Renfrew Road. The car park has a toilet and information board.
Pourangaki Hut, Ruahine Forest Park

Serendipity is an under-appreciated quality when it comes to putting together a great trip. Late on a Thursday night after a stressful week at work, a trip to the hills seems like just too much hard work. But a fine forecast, a good snow base and new snowshoes mean the excuses can wait. A few hurried text messages confirm the trip.

We decide to head to Rangiwahia Hut on Friday after work. A large slip has ruined the perfectly benched track, but it is still a fairly pleasant walk by torchlight up to Rangi. It is cold, but there is not that much snow around the hut. A few others have had similar ideas to us, but there is still plenty of room in the hut – these larger huts on the edge of the ranges are so important to the Kiwi outdoor culture: they provide an opportunity for kids get into the outdoors, and for those of us who are really just bigger kids they open up a playground of wonderful back country.

I’ve done a number of trips to the Whanahuia Range, dozing in the long lush tussock in hot and dreamy sunny weather when you think that you never want to leave the tops; and slipping and sliding through it in heavy rain and strong winds when all you can think about is dry clothes and a roof over your head. On the Saturday morning as we glimpse the tops through a light mist the feeling is one of excitement: the snow cover looks good.

Quick progress on hard snow gets us up to the sastrugi-encrusted signpost on top of the range, just north of Mangahuia. The weak winter sun plays through a thin mist and we can’t put our cameras down as the shadows and light chase each other around, creating an ever changing texture on the snow. After a few steps one of us breaks through the wind-crust, painfully banging a shin and breaking our reverie with a loud curse. It is time to put the snow shoes on.

None of us have used snow shoes before, but the rolling tops of the Whanahuia Range are a perfect place to learn. We traverse north, with the clicking of our cameras interspersed with joyous whoops of delight.

The southern slopes of Maungamahue are steeper and the crust is a little icier and harder. We dispense with the snow shoes and kick steps up to the high point of our trip at 1660m.

The snow shoes are then put back on and prove their worth in some difficult travel. The day has warmed up and we regularly break through the crust, but the snow shoes make it a lot less frustrating.

By the time we begin the descent to Pourangaki Hut the sun is out and we wallow down the ridge through the frozen leatherwood. The distinctive Kaikawaka belt at the top of the treeline is what makes the Ruahines for me, and with a snow trail through it, it is stunning.

Pourangaki Hut is one of the wonderful facilities that the Department of Conservation administer. It gets plenty of use, but even so you’d be unlucky to miss out on a bunk. As it is we are joined by another three trampers much after dark. They didn’t have snow shoes and have had a hard trip across the tops. Some people worry about the future of huts like Pourangaki. I do as well, but I think the bigger concern is for places like Ruahine Forest Park. It is simple, cheap huts like Pourangaki that enable people to get in there, to enjoy it, to value it and this is what makes people want to protect the park.

On the Sunday, under a clear blue sky with views to Taranaki and Ruapehu across the crumpled hills of the Rangitikei and Whanganui country we snow shoe back to the car park via Rangiwahia hut. More than 30 people have been there on the Saturday.

The fact that other people love the Ruahines too, and a great snow shoeing debut put a smile on my face that lasted well into the next working week.

– Richard Davies