“We’re turning back.”
Guide Graham Leech shouts above the angry roar of gale force wind as I and three others huddle behind a snow-covered bank high on the tops of Hawke’s Bay’s Ruahine Range.
Ahead ferocious winds tear across the exposed ridge we had planned to cross, prompting one of our party to retell the gruesome story of an early Māori taua (war party) who crossed these ranges and “were all lost to a man in the dreadful passes on the snowy summits where their bones now lay bleaching”.
“Follow me,” yells Leech as we urgently crunch down the snowy track through blowing rain and snow pausing only to note the memorial to Hamish Armstrong, who crashed his De Havilland Fox Moth in bad weather on this saddle in July, 1935. As huge gusts sweep over the track in waves we run for cover, huddling together, clinging to wind-stunted alpine shrubs.
This 90 km-long Ruahine Range is the North Island’s equivalent of the Southern Alps forming a formidable barrier between Hawke’s Bay and the Central Plateau.
In pre-European times, Māori regularly crossed these perilous peaks and between 1845 and 1852 missionary explorer and botanist William Colenso became the first white man to find his way across when he completed six journeys.
Today the Ruahine’s pristine interior remains largely unvisited and unheralded which is one of the reasons why experienced Hawke’s Bay tramper Graham Leech has established Afoot Limited www.afoot.co.nz. This is the first DoC-accredited, dedicated guiding company to operate in both the Ruahine and adjacent Kaweka Forest Parks.
Leech works with clients designing a trip that will suit their needs and fitness levels. In our case we planned a four-day, mid-October trek that would cross the Ruahine range from east to west, finishing at River Valley Adventure Lodge on the Rangitikei River.
But we hadn’t gambled on turbulent spring weather and a 140 km per hour winds!
“I can’t believe it. A week ago I was up here in shirt sleeves” says Leech as we continue our fast retreat from the windy tops.
We pass Sunrise Hut where we spent our first night, and zig zag down into a soft sylvan-like glade of snow-sprinkled mountain beech. By the time we reach the trail head, spring sun is warming our backs and Leech has come up with an alternative plan. We will trek north 10kms along farm access roads and re-enter the Ruahine Forest Park at the Makororo River.
After five kilometres pounding gravel like soldiers on a forced-march, we are set up Leech’s cooker to boil the billy when a bronze Ford Territory Ghia screeches to a halt opposite.
“Could you give us a lift?” I shout as farmer Steven Wilson checks the dog box on the Ghia’s tow bar.
“Sure. Where’re you headed?,” asks a friendly Wilson.
“Ummm … down the road you’ve come!”
“That’s alright,” he replies nonchalantly, “I was just heading into town for a coffee [town is Waipukurau 50-odd kms away].”
We squeeze into Wilson’s Ghia and drive to the road-end where his own farm Parks Peaks Station borders the Ruahine Forest Park.
“I call this the smoko shed,” he announces pulling up in the driveway of the homestead.
Over a cup of tea he explains he used to live out here, “but it was too isolated and now I’ve got another farm near Waipuk and commute to this one. Stay here if you need to,” he adds, “I’ll show you where the key is.”
An hour later, looking down at a brown, swollen Makaroro River, Wilson’s hospitable gesture is top of mind.
The Makororo is the Ruahine Ranges major eastern catchment and Leech is worried that if it is flooded here, it will be harder to get across higher up where it narrows into deep gorges. With only three hours of daylight left and at least two and an half hours of up-river tramping to Barlow Hut − our planned destination −, he decides we should de-camp to Wilson’s “smoko shed”.
Early next morning we set out in sunshine, crossing and re-crossing the Makororo’s braided lower reaches.
This is the route William Colenso took 162 years ago in February 1845, on his first attempt to cross the Ruahine to visit his flock at “inland Patea” on the Rangitikei.
On his treks, the Hawke’s Bay-based missionary counted his river “wadings” and to make sure of their number always tied a cord to the button-hole of his coat, “and every crossing made a knot in it”.
Two hours up the Makororo, a stream enters from the right. It is here that Colenso and his six barefooted Maori bearers left the river and climbed steeply towards Te Atua-o-Mahuru peak (1534m).
It is raining heavily and the river is rising fast as we haul ourselves up a sharp, slippery rock-face to where a moss-covered cairn erected by the Royal Society of New Zealand honours Colenso’s epic 1845 journey.
We climb straight up the sheer, now-named Colenso Spur, hand over hand to 700 metres. Puffing and panting beneath the dripping wet mountain beech, the determined and bloody-minded spirit of Colenso comes to mind.
Camping high up this spur, Colenso the botanist was ecstatic as he collected dozens of plant specimens: A new fern Alsiphila colensoi for example, the New Zealand edelweiss Leuogenes leontopodium and a “needle-leaved” speargrass called Aciphylla colensoi.
Colenso the missionary even conducted a church service up here. “We left the tent and retreated some distance into the dry woods, and here sat on thick moss, where we held Divine Service…”
After two hours of soaking wet and cold, we leave Colenso’s spirit at the top of the spur and descend to a warm and tidy Barlow Hut.
Our remoteness underlined when we discover the last entry in the hut book is September 8th – more than a month since anyone’s been here. .All afternoon rain thumps on the corrugated iron roof and the Makororo rises like a running bath; we light the pot belly, hang wet clothes around the hut to dry, and assess how many days we can stretch out our food supply.
As darkness comes, slugs of whisky and brandy and a competitive game of cards allay any anxiety about what the dawn might bring.
A collective groan ripples round the bunkroom at 6.00 am when Leech stirs us to action. “It’s stopped raining and the river’s down but we need to get moving before it rains again.”
Three hours later standing thigh deep in rushing water clutching a knotted rope end as Leech pulls me across the river, I am glad of his earlier insistence. We are nearly out but heavy rain is quickly making crossings dangerous.
Colenso suffered from sciatica for two months after his first Ruahine trip, wading in the “snow-fed waters” of this river. Like us he didn’t make it across the Range first attempt. Short of food, he camped near Te Atua-o-Mahuru summit and then retraced his steps. Two years later he successfully crossed the range and went on to make five more crossings. In 1866 when he became the first New Zealander elected a Fellow of the British Royal Society you can bet his extensive plant collections from his Ruahine trips played a significant part in that prestigious honour.
It is still raining heavily as Leech’s wife Wendy greets us at the track end with hot coffee and muffins. In the warmth of her car we joke about scaling snow-capped ridges, beating back gale-force winds, “knocking the bastard Colenso’s Spur off” and perilous river “wadings”.
“Yes” we decide, in the spirit of Colenso, we will be back.