16-21/12/2019 - report

Participants: Tom Brennan, Rachel Grindlay

After mulling over a few options in Australia, we had finally decided on a 6-day trip along the Wangapeka Track, in Kahurangi NP, at the top of the South Island. The route of the walk follows the valleys of four major rivers, and crosses two passes, and during the middle section there are no easy exits in any direction.

We flew into Wellington a few days ahead to visit Rachel's family, and then did the short hop to Nelson the day before the walk.

The forecast for the week was not great. Actually, it was pretty bad. The Norwegians (yr.no) had up to 60mm of rain on Tues, and possibility of another 60mm of rain on Thursday night. In Nelson, we visited the DOC office to see if the walk would still be safe to do. They suggested not, and were offering up other possibilities, though none of them really worked with the weather forecast. In the end, we decided to go ahead as planned - we had a bit of extra time if there were issues with rivers rising or dangerous stream crossings.

Carrying a few niggling injuries, I felt quite nervous as we were dropped off at the end of the road at Little Wanganui, after a long 4 1/2 hour drive. Six days of walking would bring us out at Rolling River. While the walk follows a marked route, DOC no longer actively maintains the western end of the track.

The track was originally built between 1862 and 1899 as a pack track to allow for access from Nelson to the West Coast. Earthquakes and landslips have substantially altered the track in places; in others, the old track, largely cut out of the hillside, is still clear and easy walking.

Being late morning, and with showers having dogged us on the drive in, we decided to do morning tea at the road end while the rain had stopped, and then have a late lunch at Belltown-Mananui Hut. The sandflies quickly found us, and we set off through the wet grass, trying vainly to keep our feet dry. This was only temporarily and partly successful. We soon reached a wide stream crossing and it was fully wet feet from then on. There were a couple of landslips to cross, including one that looked relatively recent, undercutting the track above a 20m drop to the river.

Light rain returned, and the track passed through a number of clearings, with thick grassy vegetation to saturate us. We reached Belltown-Mananui Hut mid-afternoon, and caught a few rays of sunshine. The local hut weka got quite upset when another weka turned up, and a weka fight ensued on the boardwalk outside the hut. The intruder slunk off to hisses and squawks from the resident.

The weather set in, and the rain came down steadily for most of the night. Tuesday dawned drizzly, and being the longest day of the walk, we were away before 7am. The distance to Taipo Hut was only 10.5km, but the DOC estimate was 7 hours. We made slow but steady progress to Little Wanganui Gorge Shelter for morning tea. As would be the case for most of the trip, the track was covered with water in many places, and there were lots of smaller - and some larger - streams to ford. In some sections, landslips destroyed the original track, and slow detours needed to be made around these. At one of the swingbridges, a curious South Island robin studied me from the wire.

A slow 500m climb saw us emerge from the forest in the cloud near Saddle Lakes. We crested a rise above the larger lake, unable to even see it though it was less than 10m away! A brief lifting of the cloud gave us the opportunity for a good view of the lake, before closing in again. A short, steep descent to the open tussock fields at Stag Flat, and we opted for a dry lunch in the shelter there. It was a relatively easy walk from there to Taipo Hut, where we arrived at the same time as another party resulting in congestion on the small verandah. This was a family from Melbourne, heading in the opposite direction from us - the only time we shared a hut for the whole walk.

The rain came down again for the rest of the afternoon, and overnight. The family set off early, as they had the long day ahead. We set off in the drizzle, which soon cleared, allowing us a sit-down morning tea watching the bubbles on the Taipo River. A large weka eyed us balefully. At the next junction, I mistakenly concluded that the "Saxon Falls Track" would lead us to Saxon Falls. It did lead us to the junction of the Taipo and Karamea Rivers, but swimming up the whitewater coming out of the gorge was not an option! We had lunch instead. Still haven't found photos of Saxon Falls online, so does it really exist?

Other than a slippery chain crossing of a waterfall, the rest of the walk to Helicopter Flat Hut was fairly easy, and we optimistically tried to do a bit of drying. As it was wont to do, the rain started again and fell gently for most of the night.

The next day had several crossings of the upper Karamea River, which thankfully were still reasonably easy given the rain of the past few days. Lots more crossing side creeks and wading soggy tracks. The rain had again mostly stopped during the day, but the weather was much cooler. At the end of a morning tea stop on the river, we were lucky to spot a family of rare Blue Ducks (Whio). We watched the mum, dad and two adolescents for about twenty minutes as they paddled and ate their way upstream past us. A fortunate treat!

Unlike the Little Wanganui Saddle, where you climb into tussock fields, the Wangapeka Saddle just appears out of the forest. It was about lunch time and not raining, so we stopped for lunch. I wasn't fit enough for a trip up onto the tops, and given the cold, windy and occasionally drizzly weather, Rachel wasn't interested, so we headed on our way to Stone Hut. The hut in a pleasant location, set back from a meadow at the junction of the Wangapeka North Branch with Stone Creek. I heard a whistling noise outside, and after checking a couple of times, spotted another pair of Whio sneaking around the hut.

I was awake in the middle of Thurs night when the hut lit up in a flash, followed by an enormous crash of thunder. Rachel was sound asleep so had a rude awakening! The rain bucketed down for several hours, putting aside any thoughts of a possible venture up Stone Creek toward Mt Luna. Instead, we slept in and had a lazy day walking down to Kings Creek Hut in time for lunch. We passed the only other party we saw - a family of five with three small children - aiming to get to Karamea for Christmas. None of the kids looked any older than about 10, so hopefully they made it!

Kings Creek Hut had it local hut weka, and we watched from the window in astonishment as it chased a rat out of the bush, pecked it to death, picked it up by the tail and ran off with it. For the last time, the rain set in for the afternoon, and mostly cleared by the morning.

The final day was a 3 1/2 hour walk from the hut to the end of the track at Rolling River, and a further 8km walk to our pickup at Dart Ford, as the vehicle wasn't going to cross the ford for us. The pickup was at 3:30pm, which seemed like plenty of time, but given the weather we hadn't always walked to the estimated times, so we had given ourselves an extra hour and a half or so. The final day still had its challenges. Even though the track was much improved, there were still slow sections where the old track had obviously slid away. We made Rolling River on time for an early lunch, and finally saw a couple of other parties, which also gave us confidence that the Dart Ford would be, well, fordable! The last 8km was a slog, in the sun, and on the road, and I was quite happy when the ford was in sight, and happier that our pickup was there and waiting already, despite us being quite early!

Despite the rain, it was a good trip across a rugged and remote section of country.