Misadventures of Mon’s mountain muppets

Makaroro/Ikawetea circuit, Ruahine Forest Park

Sam Harrison
16 min readMay 9, 2024

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As the sun rose over Wellington my ANZAC weekend tramping plans disintegrated. Arranging a tramp can be like herding anarchist cats. When you can’t beat them, join them. I leapt off the sinking ship of my own tramping plans and latched myself onto a last-minute 7am invitation from Regan on a WTMC trip led by Mon to the northern Ruahine Range. By 8 I was hurtling down Transmission Gully in the car with Regan, Mon and Daniel. One closed road and a 40-minute detour later we neared our destination. The plan was finally divulged to me. It would be a hutbagging bonanza. Sentry Box, Parks Peak and Upper Makaroro would be our targets for the first day. We would then climb up to the Main Range, duck down to Kylie Biv before sauntering along the tops to Ruahine Corner. Day three would take us across the Ruahine plateau before dropping to Ikawetea Forks and up the river to Rockslide Bivvy. Our final day would take us further up the river to Mistake Biv before climbing out of the valleys to Aranga and returning to the car by Sentry.

Rocky Knoll

1. On guard and on edge

Mangleton Road to Upper Makaroro Hut, via Sentry Box and Parks Peak

A cold wind licked at our shorts as we set off up the farm track away from the car. We soon entered into the bush and after a few twists and turns we arrived at our first bag, Sentry Box Hut.

Sentry Box Hut

Sentry Box Hut is a classic four-bunk Forest Service S81, built in 1959. It takes its name from an earlier hut which was constructed by local shepherds in the 1880s as a base to keep wild animals out of the nearby station, hence the name. In the 1920s the hut was moved up the hill to a warmer site before it burnt down in 1945. The roofing iron was salvaged by a government culler and a crude hut was constructed that lasted until the late 50s when the present S81 was built to replace it.

Although listed as a historic hut Sentry Box looked cosy enough. However, our day was only just beginning. After filling up our water bottles we started off up the hill. What followed was an impossibly steep climb up a smooth hard-packed mud. The ascent was unrelenting, only punctuated by a single gunshot ringing across the valley. Respite from the climb finally came after 400 vertical metres in the form of Rocky Knoll. Here we found two Indian men who professed that they hadn’t seen any animals so they had decided to clear the chamber of the rifle by sending a shot across the valley. This didn’t fill us with confidence, so after a few polite salutation we set off at pace, eager to get out of range. The climb to the 1300m contour was a blur of tree roots and heavy breathing. From here we turned to the south, enjoying the relative flat in the shelter of stunted beech trees. After a brief climb we reached our second hut for the day, Parks Peak.

Parks Peak Hut

Parks Peak Hut was neat and tidy. In fact, it looked as if it had just been built despite being 16 years old! Somewhat confusingly the hut isn’t named after the Ruahine Forest Park. Rather it took its name from the nearby trig at Pohatuhaha, which itself was marked on some early pākehā maps as Parks Peak after Robert Park, the first Surveyor General in the Hawke’s Bay. Regardless, it offered much appreciated shelter from the rising Antarctic winds. A 4pm lunch was devoured in the relative warmth before we began the final leg of the day.

Not far from the hut the route to Upper Makaroro descended steeply down a spur. Twisting and turning, the stunted trees soon grew far above our heads, throwing a deep twilight onto the forest floor. The spur curled to the south. We followed it for some way before dropping west toward the Makaroro River. The others wussed out and donned headtorches, I soldiered on in the gloom. As the sound of the river grew, I startled a deer before almost steeping over a bluff myself. Maybe that headtorch would have been a good idea after all I thought. I could just see the beam of the orange hut some ways below.

A loose track skirted around the bluff, before careering down to the river’s bank. I slipped and slided down, and soon I found myself on the river’s edge listening to the distant whistle of a whio. I contemplated waiting for the others, but being so close to the hut I decided to plow through the river and wait at the hut. Remarkably my boots remained dry following my crossing. On the far side I pushed through a mess of flax and scrub, somehow finding myself at the hut as the very last of the day’s light disappeared. After settling in I finally put on my headtorch and ventured back to the river to guide the others to our sanctuary. I watched three lights traverse the top of the slip before appearing opposite the river to me. Together we wandered up to the hut, happy to be done for the day.

2. Over the top

Upper Makaroro to Ruahine Corner Hut, via Kylie Biv

The world outside was illuminated in a moody twilight when we set off from Upper Makaroro. We had risen early in a hope of beating the worst of the forecasted weather. The morning’s climb hit us suddenly as we clawed our way up the foot of Tōtara Spur. As we climbed higher up the spur the wind rose and ominous black clouds rolled closer. The temperature began to plummet, forcing us to stop to don our raincoats, with pack covers equipped as a precaution. Misty rain began to fall through the treetops onto us, but soon blew off. By the time we emerged from the bushline it almost seemed like the worst of the weather might have passed over.

This hypothesis proved to be incorrect. By the time we reached the flat top of the main range the wind had picked up to a fierce gale accompanied by the occasional showers. A thick mist blanketed the landscape making navigation in the featureless terrain difficult. We fought our way south, Regan and Dan’s pack covers soon being sacrificed to Huey. After battling through two saddles a sign post materialised out of the grey — the turn off to Kylie Biv. The descent to the biv was swift, its blue form soon becoming visible among the tūpare.

Kylie Biv

I arrived first and threw myself through the hobbit doorway, seeking shelter from the raging storm. The others soon joined me in the little bivvy. Dripping and cold we huddled together, dreading the thought of having to venture back out onto the tops. Yet this was inevitable, so after some snacks we fastened our britches and set off once more. The storm had not relented, pounding us as we traversed the ridge. Walking took careful foot placement, so as to ensure solid bracing existed should it suddenly be necessitated by a gust of wind.

We soldiered along the tops eagerly awaiting our exit to the bushline. Our over eagerness almost led us down the spur to the west of pt 1503 but judicious use of the NZ topo app redirected in the right direction. With great relief we left the windswept tussock for the shelter of the tūpare. This soon transitioned to stunted beech before the forest proper began. We stopped in the shelter of the trees where Regan dealt out copious amounts of snacks which Dan happily lapped up.

The track followed the spur down before climbing next to a large slip as it headed up to pt 1370. This short grunt was not appreciated, but anything was better than the ordeal we had just endured. The sun made an appearance as we descended to the saddle underneath Potae. This did quite a lot to improve party morale.

We stopped in a puddle of sunshine to eat our lunches. How the day had turned around! Post-lunch we crossed a plateau near the saddle before dropping briefly into the headwaters of the Ikawetea. The climb toward Potae involved a series of slippery traverses, crossing a number of streams as we curled upward. Regan ended up on his ass multiple times and managed to bend his walking pole. It was with elation that we reached the ridgeline to the northeast of Potae after a short but steep ascent.

The ridge itself was most curious, consisting of a series of limestone scarps clad in thick bush. Passing under these we progressed past pt 1276. Here we passed above a huge slip that slumped into the valley below, a testament to the of the colossal potential forces of the wild. On the far side of the slip the track began to lazily head north, leading us to the edge of a vast Mangohane Plateau.

The distinctive shape of Te Rakaunuiakura can be seen in the background.

This was stark juxtaposition to the incised and eroded valleys we had just traversed, the savannah stretching out to the horizon. With dark clouds threatening to shut out the sun once again we raced towards Ruahine Corner. From a distance Te Rākaunuiakura watched our plight with some amusement. No sooner had we reached the sanctuary of the hut the weather packed in. Thankful is an understatement.

Ruahine Corner Hut

Not only did we have a solid roof above our heads, but the woodshed was also full of dry wood. Hurrah! Regan soon had the fire roaring, making the hut feel like a home. A true shelter from the storm.

Ruahine Corner Hut

3. Back to the trenches

Ruahine Corner to Rockslide Bivvy, via Ikawetea Forks Hut

Mist cloaked the plains when the sun edged over the horizon. Fog hugged the impressive stands of Pauhautea behind the hut. A golden glow fell over the landscape as the fiery orb of the sun ventured higher. By the time we left the hut a beautiful day had blossomed. A 4WD snaked along the plateau away from the hut, leading us past a series of impressive “dolines”.

The Makirikiri Tarns glistened in the sun as we headed north. We crossed the Waiokotore next to a private hut before climbing to the edge of the Mangohane Plateau. From here we could survey the expanse of the sprawling expanse of the Ikawetea. In the distance Toimaru and Mangaohane rose out of the haze. An impressive series of limestone bluffs guarded the edge of the plateau. Their grandeur took us all by surprise.

From the ridge we followed a rough trappers track through the tussock. I briefly managed to lose the others in the undulating landscape but we soon reunited next to a grove of trees. From here we climbed to pt 1206 through a spectacular mess of limestone tor. The summit proved to be a convenient spot for snacks in the sun.

We were unsure what our route from here would yield. Our plan was to bushbash down the spur from pt 1206 to pt 953 before plunging down to the Ikawetea in the valley below. Imagine my surprise when I dropped over the escarpment to discover a well-marked and freshly cut trapper’s track descending into the scrub. Following along this trail into the forest we bumped into a solo tramper who seemed just about as surprised to see us as we were to see him. He told us of another trappers track up from Rockslide Bivvy, a tempting alternative to our existing plans.

We parted ways and began a gentle descend to pt 953. From there the topography steepened dramatically as we descended toward the river. The track spat us out at the confluence of two of the tributaries of the Ikawetea, a little under 100 metres from Ikaweatea Forks Hut. Following a short climb we discovered the cheerful orange SF70 standing proudly in a large clearing above the river.

Ikawetea Forks Hut

Lunch was a quick affair outside the hut as we were toying with the idea of bagging Mistake Bivvy that night. A track lead out behind Ikawetea Forks Hut and through another clearing with a helipad before beginning a steep climb to avoid a 20m waterfall in the river. This was a real gut-buster, soon we were all sweating under the midday sun. The track climbed to the 800m contour before it began a vertical descent back to the river. A large overhung boulder marked the end of the track and the start of our river walk.

The river worked its way between steep rocky gorges and more open sections where camping would have been possible. A highlight of this section was definitely stumbling across several pairs of whio.

Whio are a rare and iconic species of waterfowl only found in New Zealand. Proudly featured on the $10 note, there are less than 1,000 breeding pairs.Populations are patchy and isolated. They have low reproductive success, and there are more males than females. Compiling this they are vulnerable to flooding and introduced pests like stoats. In places like the Ikawetea they are doing well due to the intensive trapping in the region.

After two and a half hours of splashing across the Ikawetea we found ourselves in a gravel choked section of the river. Turning a bend a large slip etched a dramatic scar on the hillside to our left. Just upstream of this we found Rockslide Bivvy on the true-left tucked into the trees. We had a brief debate about whether to go on to Mistake, but given the limited daylight hours, the unknown impact of Cyclone Gabrielle and the foreboding name, we opted to save that for the next day.

Instead I occupied myself in the evening by having a brief swim before messing around trying to light a campfire. Thankfully there was a great abundance of dry material to burn so despite my ineptitude the fire was soon roaring. We sat around its glowing embers as we lost the light of the day, simply content with being out in the bush.

There was no worry about being cold that night as we managed to squeeze three of us inside the two-man bivvy whilst Regan opted to take the snorers bunk in the lean-to. Shot Regan.

4. Mistakes avoided and lessons learned

Rockslide Bivvy to Mangleton Road, via Mistake Biv and Aranga Hut

In the night I was roused by Dan attempting to cuddle me whilst saying Bernard. Luckily for his wife Megan and I he proceeded to roll over and that was the end of that. Captain Regan Sparrow woke us ‘cave worms’ up before the sun rose the next morning, Our intention was to rise early so as to get back to Wellington in good time. Regan tried with his faffing to prevent any early departure so it was nearly half 7 by the time we left up the river in search of Mistake Biv.

We were keen to get moving as all of our feet were bloody frozen in our boots, our fingers close to dropping off with frostbite. Travel up the river was good, with all sections being easily navigable till the river turned to the south. Not long after this did we get confronted by the first of our ‘unskirtable’ deep pools.

A piece of pink tape and a bit of creative problem solving briefly led us away from the river on the true-right. This was followed by a little shimmy on a dodgy piece of rope to reach safety on the other side of the pool. All in all pretty manageable. Despite the potential wades, this upper section of the river had an air of magic to it. Tight rock walls hemmed us in to this slice of whio paradise. The only thing we wanted for was a bit of sunshine to warm ourselves up on! This wish was granted when we turned to the north, the valley widening just enough to allow gorgeous rays of sunshine to penetrate to our frozen bones. From here it wasn’t far till we found Mistake Biv on a terrace on the river’s true-right.

Mistake Biv

Compared to Rockslide Bivvy this biv had certainly seen better days. The mattresses were tatty and bird droppings covered the interior of the shelter. We wrote in the hut book before retreating to some sunshine to enjoy some snacks.

Post-snacks we departed from the sad little biv and rejoined the magic of the river. The return trip was quicker than the trip up and we certainly enjoyed the extra sunshine.

Rockslide Bivvy

It was nearly noon by the time we reached Rockslide again. The hut was aglow and we decided to have a bit of an early lunch before our big climb up the hill to Aranga. Snacked and satiated we set off up the steep gradient behind the hut. Climbing was hard work, only punctuated by clearing the occassional branch off the rough trapper’s track. Our reward came when we reached the bottom of the slip around the 1100m contour. Here the trees ceased, revealing a bluebird day. Ruapehu shimmered in the distance. It was glorious.

When the bush resumed it was stunted and mossy, tendrils of lichen dangling from the gnarled branches. We continued in the forest to the north of pt 1311 before eventually emerging into waist high scrub. This was not the easy tops travel I had been promised!

Wading through we eventually broke out into the open near the unmarked high point. It was a simple matter of following the ridge from here up to pt 1396, popping through the odd patch of bush in the process.

Finding the track at pt 1361 was easier said than done. After a bit of scouting we found that a rough route led down on the bush edge before meeting a large orange triangle. What a beautiful sight! The track took us down to a saddle before climbing up to the broad tops surrounding pt 1406.

We crossed this savannah as the day’s heat began to evaporate. At one point or another it looked as if someone had attempted to burn this land off, probably for grazing, as old trees stood petrified over the tussockland. The centre of this expanse was water-logged and boggy. care was needed to avoid being sucked in. On the far side we re-entered the bush for a short time before emerging at Aranga Hut.

Aranga Hut

As with Mistake, Aranga has seen better days. The hut is no longer being maintained by DOC, as it sits on Māori land. A sign on the door proudly proclaims that the facility is closed although the hutbook showed that despite its delapidation it was still seeing some use. We took the opportunity to eat the last of our snacks before heading off to the east along the track.

We soon passed the junction with the Golden Crown and No Mans tracks, here we turned south. The path was wide and shaded, few views presented themselves. It was clear that the heat of the day had gone and our minds were occupied with the thought of McDonalds in Dannevirke. We dropped rather rudely to a saddle before climbing up the flank of Pohatuhaha. I left the others on the track to race up to the trig where I was treated to views out over the Hawke’s Bay, the landscape beginning to be cast in orange.

From the trig it really wasn’t far at all until the unrelenting descent to Mangleton Road began. I’m not sure what was more tedious, the constant pressure on my knees or Regan’s lectures on politics. Maybe I was just getting hangry as all the snacks had run out.

I was surprised by the steepness as we dropped over Rocky Knoll, surely we had not walked up this? But yet it continued. I lost the others for a wee while as I raced ahead, but we reunited at Sentry Box Hut for the final trek across the paddock as the sun set on the day and our ANZAC adventures.

Sometimes the best adventures are the ones least expected. An impromptu decision to visit the North Ruahine lead me to discover one of the North Island’s most unique landscapes. There were no crowds here, only friends.

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Sam Harrison

Tramper with something to say about tramps (of the walking variety).