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Thursday, 6 October 2011

Kicking Back in the Kaimanawas

For this weekend trip, the bulk of the drama happened before we even set foot in the hills. From a week out, the weather forecast for a Taranaki summit looked miserable. Achieving the summit of Mt Taranaki in winter was going to a hard enough challenge even on a blue-bird day. Despite the NZ weather websites declaring the Sunday of our summit attempt a write-off, I stayed optimistic and loyal to my trusted Mountain-Forecast.com that gave us a much nicer sounding day... but come Friday night the consensus was rain, and plenty of it, coming from the west...

'Run to the East brothers!' we said, and a last minute trip to the Kaimanawa Ranges was jacked up. Sheltered by his older siblings Ngauruhoe and Tongariro, we would escape the worst of Taranaki's rain dance. Up at 4am and out of town by 6am, we arrived at the gateway to the Umukarikari mountain range fuelled up on day-old bread from the famed Tokoroa bakery.

Once our fearless leader Tom Goodman had packed, and re-packed his pack, we began the five hundred metre ascent to the bush line through delectable native forest. Tramping in my New Balance MT101 trail shoes, I felt an irrepressible urge to break off the front into a run... pack straps tight, weight on the shoulders, my legs were free to shimmy and dance their way up the forest trail.

Lois at the bush line - that was easy
Marmite, cheese and chocolate (in that order) relieved our cravings as we absorbed the foggy view. From there we picked our way across the range towards Sharp Cone. The sparse, rolling ridge-line snaked its way into the cloud and out of sight. Blustery wind gave the place character; this was wild country. At first I didn't know if it was worth venturing into the Kaimanawas, thinking they were just another set of hills... but impressive hills they were! We flew our All Blacks flags from our packs on the summit of Umukarikari, proud to be Kiwis.

A patriotic Aidan near Umukarikari
I now know the Kaimanawas to be an place of inspiration - Malcolm Law credits a long tramp here for giving him the idea to run the 7 Great Walks in 7 days, and so he did it. While walking along the spine of the Umukarikari, wind slapping me in the face, my idea to run the North Island's twenty-one highest peaks became more realistic the more I thought of it... it will happen!

Five Kiwis and a Chilean

Scenery of Champions
Waipakahi hut appeared at the end of the range, and we enjoyed a good hour with the hut in sight before we finally stumbled onto the deck, to smell the fire. Hmm this must be good to be true, and it was. We had no business with said hut, we left the teenagers from Taupo to enjoy their comforts while we began on the great Waipakihi stream bash down river. By six o'clock we were rightfully tired after our crack-o-dawn start, so as soon as I walked across an old fire pit in an open tussock clearing, we dumped our packs for the night. This was a perfect place to camp alongside the river, while the girls put out the tents Aidan and I set ablaze to a ruthless camp fire. The petrol-doused tussock ignited with a blast, and it was a toasty inferno from that moment on, swallowing even the wettest logs whole.

All it needed was marshmallows...
Three AM, I woke to hear the characteristic pitter-pattering sound of....rain...I lay there for a few moments before realising that I'd left my pack outside not properly sealed. Foolish! I scrambled outside to drag my wet pack under the tent fly, cursing my assumption of a dry night. It was a hard task getting up when a soggy dawn came round, even harder when you have friends frying bacon and eggs for you, in the rain, dedication.

Get up Tom! ... but its raining...
Eventually we began our day's daunting stream bash down the Waipakihi river. There was no track but the river to follow, which made for some creative route choices... Will it be quicker through this deep section? Or maybe it will be faster to climb a bank, and bush bash to cut a corner... We trekked through thick fields of tussock, and made countless crossings back and forward over the river on our downstream journey. How good would this be in the summer, we thought - definitely a different place in the heat, with so many ideal turquoise coloured swimming holes just waiting to take a "sweet Mangere" bomb from an overhanging beech tree.

Stream bashing down the Waipakihi

After decrypting the intersections of spurs with predominant curves of the river, we decided we weren't far from the base of the climb to Mt Urchin so we pushed onto the junction for lunch. The little warmth that we had managed to grapple hold of while walking dispersed faster than I would have ever imagined from Newton's Law of Cooling. So we crammed our faces full, shouldered packs, and began the uphill plough to the bushline again. When I say plough, for one I mean penguin waddle, as one member's drenched shorts were causing major chafing issues - not humorous at all on their part!

Above the Waipakahi River

Above the bushline we were hammered with the worst that the Kaimanawas could throw at us, and all the more epic for it. Rain spat in our faces at we charged along the ridge towards the trig - just as the Haka transforms mere sportsmen into warriors, we fuelled our summit assault with chants of Maori mountain peak names....TAAHUUU-RAANGI....PARE-TE-TAI-TONGGGGGAAAAA!!!

Aidan celebrates triumph over Urchin
It worked incredibly - we felt invincible to the onslaught of the icy rain. A few token photos at the summit, before taking off for the finish - only five clicks down through bush tracks separated us from completing our journey.

Aidan and I decided to go ahead of the other four so that we could collect the car from the other car park. At the road end we analysed the map: either 4km taking the road...or about half that by straight lining it through a power station and down a steep gulley. No brainer! We followed some faint tracks past giant concrete surge tanks, realising they were maintainence ways to the power-lines. When the trail ended we were forced to begin an extreme bush crash down the slope, and finally emerging at a road - a quick jog to the cars, and before long we were cruising home after an exhilarating weekend.

Aidan galloping down to the power station
I was impressed with the Kaimanawas after my first visit, but after opening up the map a few more folds, it seems we were hardly scratching the surface. My eyes are drawn to one peak in particular, in the centre of the remote, untamed wilderness. Looking closer at the contours, I can just imagine the majestic 1,726-meter pyramid thrusting into the eastern sky. The Seventh highest peak of the North Island.


Kaimanawa Ranges

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