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Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Kaweka Challenge

It doesn't get much tougher than the Kawekas. Rated as the hardest mountain marathon in the North Island, the Kaweka Challenge Course #1 gained legendary status over the years that the Hawkes Bay Tramping Club ran the event every year in late February. Sadly, the smashfest had its last outing in 2011 when it was deemed too dangerous, too hard, and too difficult to organise.

The first ascent of Kuripapango

So. This Easter, Kristian Day, Ben Duggan, and myself, set out to end the drought, end the famine left in the wake of this awesome event's absence in twenty-twelve. Kristian scoffed at the DoC signs recommendation for "sturdy tramping boots" as he slipped on his Five-fingered Spyridons. I traced my finger over our route on the park map. We were excited and rearing to go.

6:52am at the trailhead beneath the imposing Kuripapango, basking in red sunrise, we began the long gallop. Into the Montagnes...

Five fingers clenching the trail

Above the clouds
The first of a long string of nutritional disasters began to emerge as we sweated our way to the summit of "The Hill" - Kuripapango. The first of many. 750m of climb burned into our cold calf muscles, a rude awakening. I was still half asleep after the pre-five-a.m. wakeup.

Trail-gasmic single-track spat us out of the plush pine forest and plunged us into the unknown. The morning was still unsettled, and mist blew us into a whiteout as we dodged tall rocky statues, struggling to negotiate steep switchbacks smothered in cinder scree. We arrived at Kiwi Saddle Hut still laughing and whooping.

Into the unknown
Back in the shelter of ridge-line bush, allowing us glimpses of "The Tits" (a unique rock formation on the next range) the layers of geothermal and ultra-core were stripped off. Just in time, the mist had cleared and we were now running across barren exposed tops. Classical Kawekas. Sun sprayed our backs with warmth, our only respite was that the April blaze had no chance of dealing out any sunburn, not today. A contrast to this time last April, Kaweka J was covered in snow by now! Weather at 1700 metres plays by its own rules. Especially on Kaweka J.

The lone runner
Kristian usually never considers lunching on the summit, gale winds often forcing him straight up and over - dashing for shelter. But today we chowed down on heavy-duty pizza, freshly baked by the legendary Ruby Muir. It does your soul a lot of good to escape the city push, to leave the rush behind you and get out in to the bush. And amongst the mountains, calories are the only currency.

Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe seemed so close ... only 100km of Kaweka and Kaimanawa lay between us. 
Home to the infamous Kaweka-Kaimanawa Traverse. That's another story, for another day.

The sun beat down on us as we tackled the tops
Off the tops and onto the clay pans, we were gifted a temporary refuge from climbing. Even so, I was suffering. My quads were obliterated after the four-thousand-foot freefall from Kaweka J and I was now paying for it. Also, hunger was starting to dominate my thoughts, all I could think of was the loaded slice of pizza left in the car... Minimalism is a balancing act. Minimalism can be the difference between the worst time in your life and just a pleasant bizarre nightmare. Too much gear? Too much food? A slow, heavy time. Not enough gear? Not enough food? A cold, hungry time. What is better? 

Ben sucking down a juicy Leppin energy gel
Ben and Kristian slogged on ahead, also suffering, starving, only a handful of leppin gels left to get them through the final 20km. We were now scrimping, saving and rationing.

Having a ball on the descent from Kaweka J
Soon we reached a decisive turn in our journey. We could clearly see our next trail marker, pinned to a pinus contorta only 1km away... on the other side of the ravine. All that lay in our way was the vast Donald canyon, a deep cavern measureless to man. The descent was steep going, the river was fast flowing, and on the climb our weariness showing.

Alive again - a wash in the Donald
But there was light at the end of the suffering. As we slogged up Kuripapango for the second time of the day, I remembered the bottle of Tui that I'd stashed in the bushes earlier that morning. Warm and fizzy - liquid gold. Energy that Leppin gels couldn't offer, we sprang down the 750m descent from K-Pong with only 3.5 short kilometres left to the car park... 9 hours 53 minutes, a long day.

It had been a dream of mine for over a year to visit the Kaweka Ranges. Its only when an event is cancelled that you realise that some opportunities can't be put off forever, or they'll disappear. Luckily, the mountains were still there, the same barren tops, the same deep river canyons, and the same brutal climbs. Bar a few hunters, we had the mountains for ourselves to enjoy on a rare day of perfect autumn weather.

Watch the dramatic short film of our dramatic long run, Kaweka Challenge - The Movie

Back at the car, we tucked into the long-awaited pizza, and all the hunger suffering was instantly forgotten. The only memories left were ones of awe and amazement, the Kawekas really lived up to their reputation! Like nowhere else in the North Island, I'll be back.

If the race is put back on in the future I'll be only too happy to enter... Summed up by Kristian Day from Eskdale, "It was a physical day, but, a good day, in the montagnes..."

See here the Garmin link to our route map, run statistics, and more...

The Kaweka Ballad

There's a trail, they said, o'er the range
But the way of it, none seemed to know
Yet the urge to try was upon me now
So I knew, I had to go

I leapt the dry stone wall
To the mountains I gave a call
We drank in the milk of paradise
Thats Leppin for those unaware
A speck, a mist, a shape I whist
This mountain range has days to twist

Cardomon and cinnamon
The taste of leppin from deep within

The mountains did decree
A cold and bitter symphony
Dealt out in torment thrice
Our only respite
A pot o' cream'd rice

Then shades stroll in of Kris and Ben
From out the swiriling fogs
Tales of tracks and other shacks
Of rivers, peaks and bogs

For I have watched the chamois leap
And seen the red stag run
And I have made the rifle crack
In the golden morning sun

Those far off ranges draw my mind
Of gorges, lawyer vine entwined
That unseen cord, umbilical
Attached to far off bush and hill

[Collaborated by Alastair McDowell]

Ben was so hungry at one point he tried to eat a deer


  1. World's most awkward poem. Its GREAT.

  2. The lurch you experience as you go from verse to verse simulates a pleasant stretch of trail running being rudely interrupted by a spasm of intense hunger pain

  3. Loved the pics, loved the blog, loved the video. Alastair you and your friends sure know how to savour the outdoors! Leigh

  4. Alastair, we are sponsors of the Kaweka Mountain Run this year, and would love to include your blog post on our site to show an awesome past experience! If you could, will you contact us at support@zonefivesoftware.com? Great blog!