An obituary for backcountry huts: Te Urewera
When it was announced that the backcountry huts of Te Urewera were to be removed, we couldn’t resist having one final valedictory tour…
Ka hanga whare te tangata, ka hanga tangata te whare
A people builds a hut, a hut builds a people
Te Urewera, a land of rugged mountains cloaked by dense forest, often shrouded in stubborn mist. Homeland of Ngāi Tūhoe, Te Urewera maintains a fearsome reputation for its isolation and difficult country. In 2014, following the signing of a Treaty of Waitangi settlement between Ngāi Tūhoe and the Crown, Te Urewera ceased to be a national park, instead becoming its own legal entity represented by Te Uru Taumatua (TUT). In October 2022 TUT announced that it would be removing 48 backcountry huts from Te Urewera. These huts had been built by the New Zealand Forest Service when Te Urewera was a national park, to provide shelter for hunters and trampers in the isolated ranges. To me it sounded like a good opportunity for a final round of hutbagging. What I didn’t expect was the level of self-reflection that occurred along the way.
The week prior to labour weekend Regan had been on the phones ringing around to find out which huts hadn’t been burnt down yet. You can’t bag a pile of ashes. Once he had ascertained which huts were still standing it was a matter of planning a feasible route, no mean feat when information available online is about as current as my 2001 Suzuki Grand Vitara. With a plan in mind we set off on Thursday night for the long drive to Rotorua. On the way we mused the unique ‘opportunity’ we would have to do some “scorched earth” tramping, burning huts when we were done with them. They were going to be ashes within the week anyway. To the lay reader this may sound like unrestrained blasphemy, and it was, we were simply going through the stages of grief before we had even begun.
Friday: Te Pakau to Otanetea Hut
It was a miracle we even made it to Te Urewera, with Regan demonstrating navigational skills equal to a headless homing pigeon. After a full loop of Rotorua and some rather tasty custard squares from Pantry D’or we finally managed to locate one of the largest tracts of native forest in the North Island. Winding alongside the Tauranga awa we passed horses, marae and headless deer hitching a ride on a ute, jealously guarded by kurī bouncing around on the bonnet. We took Regan’s station wagon as far as we could before parking up and setting off down the road through Tauwharemanuka. I shouted a happy “kia ora” to a kaumatua trotting past on his horse. In response he let flow in Te Reo, to which I managed a shaky “up the river” before he shrugged and continued on his way. The wind whipped furiously down the valley as we headed deeper into Te Urewera. From Tauwharemanuka our route took us along an old dray road and into the forest.
After three kilometres on the well kept track we reached the turn off to our first hut, Te Pourewa. A steep path lead down to the awa where a swingbridge used to span its length. That being absent, we were forced to ford, much to the bemusement of a watching wild mare.
The hut was well hidden from the awa, we had to climb several terraces till we gazed on the sight of the classic NZ Forest Service design. Inside was tidy enough, although it could have done with a clean up. We sat outside and enjoyed our lunch in the sun, pondering the life of this hut. Before our departure we said a few words, well aware that we might be the last visitors to this hut before its cremation.
After a scramble back to the old dray road we continued on our way upriver. After another kilometre or so we reached a striking blue whare with a rusting red roof, which stood proudly at the hamlet of Tawhana. This marked the end of the dray road and the beginning of the “Six Foot” Track…
The Six Foot Track was cut to provide a better link between Tawhana and Maungapohatu in 1925. The old trail had become so worn that sometimes the packhorses would get wedged in the deep muddy ruts. Following the sale of some of Tūhoe’s best lands the settler government had promised to help the iwi develop the region by building roads and providing capital. Other than the Six Foot Track no other roads or tracks were constructed, leaving Te Urewera isolated and Tūhoe’s people destitute.
Or at least it should have. Regan sternly said we had to follow our planned route along the Six Foot Track to our next whare, Te Panaa. Not five minutes into this plan it became apparent that the track was overgrown and we retreated down through the bush to Tawhana awa. On reaching the awa it became apparent why the track was overgrown, a colossal slip scoured the side of the range the track once sidled. No climbing over that!
Luckily the awa was easy going, especially as it was in fairly low flow. Taking the awa had other advantages, we were treated to the sight of our first (and certainly not the last) whio for the trip! We made good pace and soon we were climbing up the hill on which Te Panaa Hut sits.
As with Te Pourewa, Te Panaa had seen better days but it was by no means uninhabitable. A carved wooden map hung on the wall depicting the tracks in the area and the boundary of the former national park.
Created in 1954 from a large proportion of the land Tūhoe had sold to the Crown, Te Urewera National Park soon grew to be the largest national park in the North Island. The jewel in its crown was Lake Waikeremoana, the sea of rippling waters. From the 1960’s the Crown relentlessly tried to acquire the remaining Tūhoe enclaves within the park. When this failed the Crown restricted the activities that could be undertaken on the land. In this way the national park came to symbolise the dispossession of Tūhoe’s people.
Up until this point our route had taken us across well travelled paths, but from Te Panaa we would be going bush to reach Otanetea Hut. From Te Panaa we dropped into the Ohaki awa. The awa itself made for reasonable travel, that is where it was not choked with ongaonga (native stinging nettle). I was the first to fall victim to what would become our nemesis for the rest of the day. Weaving in and out of the awa we progressed, occasionally taking shortcuts between its bends.
This was hard yakka, sometimes requiring matrix like maneuvers to avoid the stinging tentacles that enveloped nearly every open space. With battered limbs and itching skin we finally made it to the ridge up to pt 727. With sighs of relief we left the ongaonga behind and began the steep climb, which at times required us to wade through dense patches of scratchy piupiu (Crown fern). Nearer to the ridge line we started to become entangled in an intricate lattice of kareao (supplejack). It was all still better than that bloody ongaonga though! From pt 727 we traveled directly to the west, before beginning our steep descent to the Waikare awa. Other than Mat flirting with tempting knobs on trees we made it down with no incidents. With Mat leading the way we followed the awa down, eventually ending up in it as it became choked with logs, high cliff sides rising around us. This was sub-optimal to say the least, so we decided to consult our route notes to be safe.
“Do not follow the Waikare River down, it gorges out and becomes impassable around the 400m contour”. Safe to say we reconsidered out route choice. Instead we climbed out to the true-left of the awa, climbing up to a bank that overlooked the confluence of the Waikare’s tributaries. From here the ground dropped steeply away and we were hesitant to go down, lest we never make it back up if it were a mistake. We took the risk, and on the advice of a solitary piece of tape on a tree, we dropped ourselves over the precipice and down some near vertical cliffs. Arriving in a heap at the bottom we could see the issue with our previous route choice, an impressive two-story high waterfall.
Our route notes left us with a decision as to how we continued: “a rough sidle track runs from Otanetea to the confluence, but it probably would have been easier to stay in the river!”. Indecisively we decided to follow the awa as far as we could, but soon its steep banks and deep pools pushed us into the bush. Twilight enveloped us as we picked up faint traces of a trail and the odd track marker, but in the gloom it didn’t take us long to lose these. My eyesight failing me in the darkness we put colour-blind Mat in front to lead the way. Literally the blind leading the blind. He led us into a steep sidle above the river, and with a great sense of relief we soon emerged into Otanetea Hut’s clearing.
It became apparent from the assortment of luxuries scattered across every available space in the hut that there was already someone there, although they were absent at the time of our arrival. We took bets as to the number of occupants, as it was no way discernable by the amount of shit in the hut. Nothing would prepare us though for what actually came through the door.
After dinner we heard footsteps approaching followed by two old blokes dressed to the nines in camo. The larger and louder of the two let out an expletive under his breath before giving us all the silent treatment for the next two minutes. This was unsettling to say the least, given we were to spend a night packed into small confines with them. Regan (unsuccessfully) tried to lighten the mood by informing the pair that the hut they were staying in was due to get burnt down on Tuesday. The icy front began to thaw after several beers and soon we couldn’t shut the lead joker up. In between objectionable jokes that are too foul/racist/sexist to repeat we learnt that the pair had been staying at the hut for two weeks, hence the venison back straps hanging from the roof. I felt safe in the knowledge that at least he wouldn’t waste a bullet on a skinny tramper like me. However, this illusion was shattered when he let us know he reckoned he could line us up and take us all in one shot. Efficient. Even when his outrageous novelty wore off on us and we retreated to our sleeping bags he wouldn’t shut up. Spare a thought for poor Hugh who had to sleep on the bunk next to him!
Saturday: Otanetea Hut to Mangatoatoa Hut
At 5am one of the pair went out for a hunt, leaving the snoring ringleader behind. We tried to be as quiet as possible in the morning, as not to disturb the sleeping bear. Strangely when the beast did awake it appeared he had rather warmed up to us and I think he was sad to see us depart. We were not sad. Our route for the morning took us back along the sidle track on the true-left - in the daylight it was a lot easier to follow! Rather than dropping to the confluence we stayed high above the awa, following its right branch for a further kilometre or so before emerging out onto its banks.
From here we followed the Waikare’s twists and turns, crossing when necessary to continue our way upstream. We were treated to two pairs of whio, who weren’t altogether thrilled to see us.
The sun came out and golden reflections danced on the surface of the water. Splashing onward we enjoyed the relative lack of ongaonga, that had plagued us so badly the day before.
A large orange triangle marked the steep track up to Taurawharona Hut. The hut itself sat in a football pitch sized clearing about 50m above the Waikare. The roof bore the hut’s old New Zealand Forest Service number, R1672. Inside we found another hunter, although this one was far more tame than the last. He lamented the immanent loss of Te Urewera’s huts, especially when the New Zealand Deer Stalkers Association had offered to adopt many of them.
Before we left he mentioned that he saw a marked track running up the ridge just to the north of Otamakore awa. This unvalidated navigational tip was all it took for us to ditch our original plan of going up the Paetawa track. From the hut we dropped steeping down to the Pariri awa before climbing up the narrow ridge separating the Pariri and Manakino. Once on the spine we climbed steeply, following a relatively well marked track up towards the Six Foot Track. After nearly an hour and a half, 400 metres of vertical ascent and a lot of sweat, we stumbled onto the gloriously benched Six Foot Track.
The going was unbelievably quick along the track, only slowed by the odd treefall or dense patch of fern. We spent the next 5 or so kilometres in our own heads, marching along the snaking path. The Six Foot’s greatest strength was its flatness, but as a result we had to wind our way into every nook and cranny on the hillside. After what felt like an eternity we eventually stumbled upon Makomako Hut, which sits proudly above a vast clearing.
Makomako Hut had originally been called Savlon Biv №2 and sat on the far side of State Highway 2 before being relocated in 2001 by DOC ranger Colin Traill. The chimney and foundations of the original Makomako Hut sit next door, a ghostly reminder of the fate that would soon befall the newer hut.
After second lunch we debated our next moves. There was a serious risk of mutiny, with a few vocal advocates for spending the night here. They of course knew what my thoughts would be before they even brought the idea up. Tired as I was, it made more sense to get some more distance under our belt so we would have route options the following day. Through sheer charisma I convinced the others of my case and so wearily we set off again, this time heading due east through undulating forest. Soon a steep valley opened up to our left, the upper catchment of the Tauranga awa. As we stumbled through the undergrowth we witnessed a native species of parasitic wasp carry away a vagrant spider. Regan cheerfully informed us that the wasp paralyses its prey before laying its eggs inside of it. There was no reception to fact check this information. Pink tape marked the beginning of a sheer drop into the valley. Thankfully the path through the bush was well marked meaning it took us less than an hour to reach the lush valley floor.
We were not so fortunate for the climb out, as track markers were hard to come by. Multiple times we retraced our steps or cautiously ventured onward in the vain hope of finding another marker. True to the topo the track climbs a spur to the south of Whareraurekau, steeply climbing through the bush and the odd bit of treefall. At the top we collapsed on a soft couch of moss, panting heavily and in serious need of chocolate. Above the 800 metre contour the track was kind to us and cut a straight line east rather than squiggle towards Whareraurekau. From here we followed the ridge through open bush before dropping down to Mangatoatoa Hut.
Each hut had been better than the last and Mangatoatoa was no exception. A large ranch-slider let light pour into the interior of the hut and enabled us to look out over the surrounding bush. There were all sorts of odds and ends inside the hut, including a box of old books and a whole bucket of milk powder (more on that in a sec). Perhaps it was the long day, or maybe it was the rum, but after dinner the hut antics really began to crank up. Regan managed to roll his ankle running away from a “soap man” of his own creation (Joey with a mountain of frothing soap on his hands). Given the ample supply of split firewood we decided on having a campfire outside. Mathew then brought out the milk powder and tried to get rid of his eyebrows with hilarious effect.
Regan, a qualified firefighter, attempted to extinguish the blaze with a healthy dose of coal, a feat he was almost successful in. As the night wore on someone deposited a moldy copy of a book called “the last of us” on the fire. As the cover curled under the heat and the pages caught there was a poignant moment of reflection. Having backcountry huts is by no means a given thing, and is a privilege we should fight to protect for future generations. However, on further thought I surmised that TUT probably have their own dreams for how their mokopuna should experience Te Urewera, one that perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss.
Sunday: Mangatoatoa Hut to Te Pakau
Another beautiful bluebird day greeted us when we woke. We weren’t entirely sure where our destination was for the day, just that it would be in the direction of Te Pua Hut. With this in mind we set off up the hill behind the hut. About 500 metres into the endeavour Regan exclaim “oh no, I’ve left the InReach at the Hut!”. Mat was duly sent back to retrieve said InReach, whilst Hugh hailed Mat’s pack further up the hill. On reaching the top of the next rise Regan sheepishly admitted that he had the InReach in his pocket. Mat did return, complete with a piece of coal to remind Regan of his sins.
Travel along the ridge was decent, being reasonably well marked and not too overgrown. A highlight of the track was an enormous Northern rātā which towered over the surrounding forest. Centuries prior a rātā seedling sprouted in the canopy of another tree and had slowly grown into the monstrosity before us.
The track down to the Tauranga awa was not so easy to follow and basically led us down through forest that verged on being within the definition of a cliff. At the bottom we were spat out at a confluence, a perfect spot for a snack.
Post-snack we climbed sharply away from the awa along a sidle track. This was a track by name only, as it took a fair bit of detective work to move from one marker to the next. That being said there was no ongaonga so we were not complaining.
It was stinking hot by the time we rejoined the river some 3 kilometres later. We had first lunch on the bank of the awa where we looked with eager anticipation at its waters. We didn’t bother with trying to find the ‘track’ marked on the topo, instead we happily splashed downriver.
The travel was good, aided by the fact the awa was in relatively low flow. The sun cast aggressive rays down on to us and we were glad for every shred of shade we could find, savoring every moment our boots filled with cool fresh water. Around 100 metres south of Te Pua we climbed out of the awa before a brief stroll through the trees revealed the hut.
It became immediately apparent that despite the cobwebs Te Pua saw a lot of love. Walking inside the hut was like walking into someone’s home, in the most inviting way. It was neatly arranged, an LPG cooker sat at one end and at the other were plastic crates full of mountains of food and a new stove. The identity of the hut’s hermit could only be “Jessie the trapper”, who appeared on nearly every page in the hutbook. The last entry even invited visitors to share in the kai stashed in the hut. It was pretty clear that Jessie was a Tūhoe local, making a living off maintaining the traplines around the otherwise abandoned ‘Te Urewera Mainland Island’. Where he would stay once the hut was destroyed is anyone’s guess.
The Te Urewera Mainland Island Restoration Project was started in 1996 to protect the rapidly dropping population of kōkako, which had dropped to only 8 pairs. It also sought to protect other threatened taonga such as kiwi and whio who lived in the surrounding valley. In 2009 the project was identified as one of Australasia’s top ecosystem restoration projects, with 112 pairs of kōkako in the area. However, following the 2014 settlement the project basically ceased to exist, with DOC pulling out its staff and TUT deciding to spend its Crown funding elsewhere. TUT asserts that “permanent possum and other trapping infrastructure remains in the Mainland Island area and is regularly maintained and serviced, along with additional seasonal rat knock-downs.” This did not match up with the kilometres of unbaited stoat lines we saw walking down the valley, which looked like they hadn’t been set since DOC left the area way back in 2014.
Over second lunch I studied a 2014 map of trap lines in the area. It was generally accepted that we had abandoned any ambitious plans for the rest of the day/trip, but my curiosity was peaked by a dotted black line snaking down the river. It was all the proof I needed to declare to the others that we should abandon our plan to walk over the Kairaka Range and instead follow the awa to Tawhana. It wasn’t hard to convince the others, anything to avoid a big climb on a hot day.
We were all surprised at how easy the going was once we set off. The awa was relatively wide and shallow, with stony banks and overhanging fern. The forest offered much appreciated shade as we sloshed our way downstream. Every so often we would sight a reassuring yellow or pink triangle which marked the trapping line.
On the two or three occasions that we had to leave the awa, well-marked routes lead us back to it on the other side. Much to everyone’s surprise it only took us 2 hours to reach the Waimana Valley where we celebrated with a swim.
What remained was a simple march out to Te Pakau and our car. After days of travelling on paths that barely resembled tracks it was hard not to find the walk out monotonous. In our boredom we began singing “what do you do with a drunken sailor”, which eventually became “what do you do with a big fat racist” in honour of our company from the first night. Memorable verses included:
Send him back to get the In-Reach
Squeak his chair cause he thinks its fun-ny*
Tell him we call blue duck ‘whi — o’
Take all his sachets of racist mi-lo
Spill his milk on his bis-cuits**
*Yes he really did this when we were trying to get to sleep
**This was the first thing Joey did when we got to the hut, and we didn’t even know he was a big fat racist then!
With weary legs and broken voices we finally reached the car at 7:30pm, just in time to start thinking about where on earth we were going to sleep that night!
Te Urewera truly deserves its wild reputation. Are huts built by the Forest Service symbols of colonial aggression, or are they important shelters for Tūhoe and manuhiri to foster manaakitanga for Te Urewera? It isn’t my question to answer, it’s for the people of Tūhoe to decide. I can only hope for a future where Te Urewera and Tūhoe thrive, one full of the call of the ghostly kōkako, and one with a place for manuhiri like me.
Te Reo used in this article:
awa - river
kurī - dog
kaumatua - elder
whare - house/hut
mokopuna - young person / grandchild
kai - food
manaakitanga - to support, take care of, give hospitality to, protect, look out for, show respect, generosity and care