If you live in the Central Plateau and you wait for the perfect forecast before heading into the hills you could be waiting a long time. Rain is common there, not just a little at a time either, it falls by the bucketful. I set out with a typical Spring forecast – Monday: isolated showers…Tuesday: rain developing…Wednesday: freezing level lowering to 900m, snow, strong to gale-force winds. “It could be worse,” I told myself as I threw a stack of warm clothes into my burgeoning pack before heading to the trailhead.
The tramp begins with a six hundred meter climb up to Mt Urchin, the altitude slipping away quickly and painlessly on the well-graded track. There are no huts in the lower section, and I camped in one of the many campsites next to the river for one night. The trip between the road end and Waipakahi hut can be completed in a day but I decided to take my time and fly camp en route along the lower Waipakihi River. The Waipakahi River cuts through the Kaimanawa Forest Park and is the source of the Tongariro River which feeds Lake Taupo. The water ultimately flows down the Waikato ending its long journey at the sea.
As I made my way uphill on the first day I startled another tramper on the track. “You’re the first person I’ve seen in three days,” she explained. “ You can really lose yourself in there, [the Wapakihi] it’s a great place to get away for a while.” I left her to enjoy the view in solitude and followed the gradually steepening track to the Urchin tops.
The tops are barren. Winds sweep unencumbered across the desert road and regularly batter the exposed hill. I passed over the open tussock covered hill and began the knee quivering descent into the valley below. An hour later I reached the tranquil Waipakihi River valley. It had only taken half a day to get here but the tramper was right, I felt a long way away from anywhere. That night I camped in a hunter’s camp on the banks of the river.
When I awoke in the morning rain had set in. I trudged up the valley reminding myself to look around and enjoy the beauty and peace of the place.
Beauty is subjective, but the Waipakihi River meanders through a wide valley that is undeniably one of the most charming/valleys in the North Island. The banks are surrounded by beech forest broken up by tussock filled clearings. On this trip,the falling rain soaked through the beech canopy and mist hung heavy in the valley. Even in these conditions,it felt idyllic – despite the fact that I was cold and wet through.
Rain slowly soaked through every layer I was wearing and I was glad to reach the shelter of the uniquely shaped Waipakihi Hut which is situated in open tussock on the bush line. The standard 12 bunk hut has a large middle section and two separate bunk rooms on either side, likely added sometime after the completion of the original. The main section has an enclosed fire, running water and the usual hut bible – just encase you need spiritual enlightenment while staying.
The hut book was filled with anti-1080 comments. A typical statement in the hut book read “stop misguided greenies and profiteers of the war of poison and terror on our wilderness. Stop 1080. We hate it and it supporters.” There where many similar comments throughout the pages. I do not like the idea of 1080 but it’s hard to imagine how to control possums and other non-native predators over areas as vast as the Kaimanawa Mountains without it.
One difference between here and other comparable areas in the South Island is the complicated land ownership. On the wall of the hut is a map outlining who owns where. The mountain range has been carved up and is owned by several entities. The Department of Conservation (DoC) administers the lion’s share while other owners include the NZ Defence Force, Helisika Charter Company, and a Māori land trust. From a trampers’ perspective,these lines on the map can be frustrating as they dictate where trampers can and cannot go.
Outside the weather had changed from a westerly to southerly and large snowflakes began to fall and settling on the ground. I put the hut’s small but efficient fireplace through its paces and kept it cranked throughout the evening.
After a comfortable night I walked back acroos the Umukarikari tops following a vauge snow covered path. Red marker polls stuck out against the stark white back ground. With deep snow drifts the walk out was gruelling and the 13 km walk took 7 hours.
Looking back, this is one of the most impressive valleys I have visited, not just in the North Island, and it makes for a pleasant three day trip. If you live up North, feel like a slice of the South Island but have little time to spare, I would recommend the Waipakihi.
Access: Access is from the Kaimanawa Road south of Turangi, Central North Island
Time: 2 – 3 days
Accommodation: Campsites are plentiful in the lower Waipakihi. There is a 12 bunk hut (Waipakihi Hut) at the river’s headwaters.
- from back issue 187