Thursday, 4 April 2019

Mitre Flats

Memory is a fickle and unreliable thing, perhaps even more so when it comes to tramping. The hut is always "just around the next bend, I'm sure of it," and "I swear this hill wasn't so high last time." Memories of tramping always seem to paint over any of the less pleasant aspects of the trip, and so it turned out to be with Mitre Flats.

 The sun was high and the sky more or less clear as the car pulled up at the deceptively named Pines carpark on Upper Waingawa Rd near Masterton - the carpark being a slightly wider patch of road lined with gum trees.
For the first 2km, a farm track winds it's way across open farmland, quickly reaching the park boundary.

Shortly after, the track begins to climb above the Waingawa River. The track is slippery and narrow, at times rocky, covered in roots, or seemingly about to fall off the side of the hill.
Initially, the track is fairly open as it wends its way around the hill sides, often allowing views down to the river or further in to the ranges.

It was at about this point that the differences between reality and over-5-year-old memories began to become apparent. What I remembered as a fairly straight forward hillside sidle was somewhat more technical.
The going was slow, with much attention needed for foot placement. Short climbs and descents (often in and out of creek beds) are common and steep, and there was much scrambling on hands and knees.

One of the tamer sections of track.
There were, mercifully, easy going sections between having to use tree roots as ladders.
Perhaps the most insidious thing was not the narrow, slippery track or steep scrambles, but the annoying hook grass. Incidentally, I had also opted not to wear gaiters on this trip. This was a poor decision.

Eventually, the track drops steeply and spits you out in patch of tussocky grass by a suspension bridge over the Waingawa River. After crossing the bridge, it's a quick jaunt over to Mitre Flats Hut. We reached the hut after 5 hours, a time that turned out to be fairly consistent across most of the other hut occupants I spoke to.

Mitre Flat from the hut verandah.
Mitre Flats Hut sits on the edge of a small grassy flat. The serviced hut is somehow small but open and airy at the same time. The hut was almost full when we arrived, and we claimed the remaining two of the huts fourteen matresses. By the time people stopped showing up there ended up being two sleeping on the verandah and 6 (ish) in tents.
Needless to say, the hut's cooking and dining area was crowded, so we opted to relax, cook and eat on the spacious verandah.
Following a tasty stew eaten out of a hollowed out bread loaf, it was time for a well earned sleep. Luckily, everyone else was pretty quiet and considerate, so I managed to get a pretty decent nights sleep.

The next morning, a heavy fog sat over the flats as I sipped a hot beverage and contemplated the meaning of life and other such things.
After a bacon-based breakfast that was over all to soon, it was time to pack up and roll out.

The walk out was, unsurprisingly, much the same as the walk in, albeit slightly drier and thus less slippery. No shortage of scrambles and hook grass though.

Mitre, possibly

There were plenty of birds out and about, the squeaks of fantails and song of the grey warbler a near constant companion, interspersed with what might have been tui and/or bellbirds. The fantails, and a lone kereru made themselves visible. The rest of the bird life kept out of view.

About 5 hours later we were back at the carpark. Scratched, mildly bruised, a tad achey but satisfied and happy. And if that's not the sign of a great tramp, I don't know what is.

GPS Data: (inbound)
Distance: 8.47km
Overall average speed (including stops): 1.6km/h

 GPS Altitude Profile:

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Do the Roar... ing Stag Hut

Through some convenient rostering shenanigans, I ended up with a free Saturday. So, instead of catching up on chores or other such productive pursuits, it was time for a tramp.
In our usual fashion, the destination was one that caused the least trouble for my licence-less companion - in this case Roaring Stag Hut.

I was a bit surprised to arrive at the end of Putara Rd in the early afternoon to find an abundance of cars parked up.After adding my own car to the collection, we headed of down the track.
Part way up the track, Cody and I were discussing how it looked different, settling on the conclusion that we had become so used to seeing the area during or shortly after rain, that seeing it sunny and dry was quite unusual to us. The track was littered with bright yellow-brown leaves and golden sunlight filtered down through the forest canopy.

As it always is, the climb up the ridge from the swingbridge was a slog that pretty much never lets up until the track begins to level out among the spindly beech forest and sparse undergrowth at the top of the ridge. A couple of hours, and much sweat later, we had arrived the track junction, which was partially blocked by a fallen tree.

Taking the left-hand track, we then headed south toward the hut. Coming down off the ridge, the track meets a picturesque stream that it then follows for a distance before crossing it shortly before the hut.
The track contains fairly frequent patches of boot-top deep mud, but is mercifully flat, aside from brief steep up-and-down bits to cross the two streams before the hut.

As an interesting aside, the track sticks very close to the true right of the stream, veering away slightly before crossing that same stream. The Topo50 maps, however, show the track being some distance from the streams true left bank. Memory-Map shows a track (allegedly from DOC data) to the true right of stream so I had assumed this was correct and LINZ were wrong. My GPS data instead show that the LINZ track is correct - the maps actually have the stream in the wrong place.

Second stream crossing
Shortly after crossing the first stream, a second stream, shallower than the first, is crossed. It's perfectly possible to cross both streams without getting wet, although you could fill your boots if you really wanted to.

We arrived at the hut to find a large family group sitting around a fire. Lucky for us, as children go, they were fairly tolerable.
With plenty of daylight we were able to hang out around the river, eat cheese and crackers, cook and eat dinner, all before sunset.
Late evening Ruamahanga River

After a very restless night I was woken from the one patch of decent sleep I had by the sound of rustling sleeping bags and flatulence. Assuming it was still the middle of the night, I was surprised to roll over and see daylight through the window.
The weather had regressed to the mean, and a familiar misty rain was drifting down the valley.

According to the hut book, some NZDA volunteers had given the hut a though cleaning about a year back, so the hut was in particularly good nick. The same can't be said for the longdrop, which, although surprisingly clean and free of spiders, did not have a particularly long drop. Disturbingly, daylight was seeping in below the toilet, courtesy of bizarre opening to the shit pit next to the crap shack.

Longdrop quirks aside, Roaring Stag is in a fantastic location, situated in a clearing above the Ruamahunga river. In fact, many of the comments in the hut books were something along the lines of "Great spot!" and "nice place!" which are simultaneously both accurate and cromulent yet woefully inadequate descriptions of this fine place. But hey, I couldn't describe it any better and I'm not limited to a small box in a DOC hut book.
Also in the book was an entry from a party that included tramping luminary and writer Shaun Barnett and Wilderness Magazine editor Alastair Hall.

Eventually we plodded out into the rain, the track now looking comfortably familiar glistening in the rain, the golden hues of the first day long gone.

The trees seemed a particularly bright shade of green and the bird life was particularly active. The song of grey warblers and squeaks of fantails and possibly riflemen followed us all the way from hut to roadend. The rain had pretty much given up by the time we got to the swingbridge, and the remainder of the walk was a pleasant amble alongside the Mangatainoka River to the carpark.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Tongariro Northern Circuit

Day 1 - Whakapapa Village to Waihohonu Hut
The dull grey clouds were hanging low in the sky when I set off from the Whakapapa Village carpark at 11:30am. Somewhat embarrassingly, I was already breathing heavily when I got to the start of the track.
Luckily for me, the track is top notch - even, well-graded and well maintained. The track meanders through the tussock and scrub, on a clear day the open landscape would provide great views of the mountains, but even in the gloom it was still a sight to behold.
It was a fairly short 45 minutes to the Taranaki Falls junction.

The base of the falls is a quick (but steep) detour off the Tama Lakes track, and well worth a look. The 20m falls plunge dramatically over the edge of an old lava flow.
Once back at the junction, the well-marked track continues through the windswept landscape, slowly climbing toward Tama Saddle.

As Tama saddle is neared, the landscape gradually becomes more dramatic as the flanks of Ngauruhoe to the north-east and Ruapehu to the south come into view. The mountains themselves remained illusive, mostly hiding behind a thick veil of cloud.
7.2km/2hr 10 min from the start, I reached the signposted junction for Tama Lakes, a pair of old craters now filled with water. I only went as far as the Lower Tama viewpoint, which was a great place to sit and eat for a few minutes.

From the junction, the track across Tama Saddle becomes more rugged, having left the world of touristy day walks behind. After the saddle, the track begins to descend slowly into the broad and open Waihohonu Valley.
Tama Saddle

Waihohonu Valley from Tama Saddle

The views over the Waihohonu Valley are initially inspiring, and then a bit frustrating when I realised how far away the hut still was.
Eventually, the track meets the Waihohonu Stream. From then on, the track is never far from the stream as Waihohonu Hut draws closer. I was slowing down at this point, not used to covering this kind of distance in a day. It was also about now that the rain, which had been coming and going all day, now began to properly set in.

The volcanic landscape is endlessly fascinating, which provides an excellent distraction the growing aches, suspicions of blister formation, and persistent rain.
16.8km from the start, and not far from the hut, a signposted junction gives direction to the original Waihohonu Hut, built in 1903.
Shortly before reaching the current hut (it's 3rd incarnation) becomes visible. The swanky hut was a welcome sight after a long, and now quite damp, day.
I reached the hut after 5hr 50mins (17.7km).

"Welcome to the Chateau Waihohonu" - Sam, DOC Ranger
The hut is warm, spacious and very well designed. It was very nearly full, but never felt crowded and there was always space to cook or sit and eat. The hut is also very well appointed, with solar powered lighting and hot water(!), and a very friendly DOC ranger named Sam.

Day 1 GPS data:
Total distance: 17.7km. Total time: 5 hr, 47 min. Overall average speed: 3.1km/h.
Day 2 - Waihohonu Hut to Oturere Hut
There was plenty of cloud still hanging around as I hobbled around the hut, getting breakfast and packing up my gear. Thankfully the forecast was looking alright, and the tramp to Oturere much shorter than the previous day. With the weather currently holding out, and my pack ready to go, I decided to head out early, leaving the hut at around 8:15am.

From the hut, the track almost immediately enters beech forest reminiscent of parts of the Tararuas and drops down to a footbridge over the Waihohonu stream, then passing the camping site before beginning to climb up a ridge.

Section of track could easily be anywhere in the Tararuas

The track leaves the forest near the top of the ridge, then re-enters it when descending down the other side. At the bottom, a bridge crosses another significant stream, then begins to climb again.
Once the ascent is over and done with, the track follows a fairly direct path to Oturere.

I stopped briefly at a convenient sitting boulder at the top of the second ridge before heading on. The rest of the track is pretty easy going (as far as volcanoes go), undulating around the 1200m contour, crossing open gravel slopes with the odd rocky patch.

The track itself is inherently indistinct, but regular and abundant marker poles make it easy to follow. To the east, the desert road and nearby electricity pylons are visible, and Ngauruhoe looms to the west. With no need to hurry (and joints still aching from the day before) I dawdled through most of this day.
Not far from the hut, a jagged and rocky land form (an old lava flow) makes a stark contrast to the relatively smooth slopes the track has crossed until the point. The track climbs steeply onto this old lava flow, and the hut is reached just under 1km later.

The welcome sight of Oturere hut appears relatively suddenly, nestled in the tussock at the end of the Oturere Valley lava flow. I reached the hut bang on 12pm.
The hut is cosy (read: small), with plenty of bunks but limited communal space. Like Waihohonu, the hut has solar powered lighting and a wood fire. Lucky for me, I was sharing the hut a good bunch of people, and a different friendly DOC ranger by the name of Jamie.
As an added bonus, there's a pretty cool waterfall that can be seen from just north of the hut (but can't be seen from the hut or the track). A narrow trail can be followed to the top of the waterfall (and also apparently to the bottom, but the climb back up put me off trying that out).

Day 2 GPS data:
Total distance: 8.1 km. Total time: 3 hr, 44 min. Overall average speed: 2.16 km/h.
Day 3 - Oturere Hut to Mangatepopo Hut
After having plenty of time to rest up at Oturere, I felt quite refreshed as I departed. That, and the good forecast weather, had me in high spirits as I walked up the otherworldly Oturere Valley.
It's difficult to describe this place, because there isn't really anything to compare it to. Bizarre rock formations surround the track; lumpy, jagged boulders litter the ground; the landscape is barren and alien - the result of ancient lava flows. It's a surreal place, and the mostly pretty flat gradient makes it all the more easy to enjoy. It's a landscape that could just as easily look at home in Doctor Who or Star Trek as it would in Lord of the Rings.

The indistinct form of Tongariro awaits at the head of the valley. It's a steep, but thankfully short climb up from the valley to central crater. The clearing cloud afforded excellent views back across the Oturere valley and towards the mountains, giving me ample excuse to stop and catch my breath.

As I got closer to the top, the ant-like forms of walkers on the Tongariro Apline Crossing became visible.

All of sudden the track crests the top of the incline and arrives at one of the Emerald Lakes, and a completely different world to that of the Oturere valley - the fairly flat basin of the central crater surrounded by the snowy peaks of Tongariro. It feels cheesy to describe something as magical and breathtaking but I can't think of better words. In fact, I distinctly remember saying something along the lines of "woah" and "holy shit that's magical."

The track moves around the lake and meets the TAC in the snowy central crater. The circuit heads south toward Red Crater, with the crossing continuing north across central crater to Blue Lake and Ketetahi.
I decided to take a brief sojourn through the snow to blue lake.

It was an incredible place to be, and words and photos don't really do it justice, but suffice it to say that it was one of most spectacular and beautiful places I've ever been.

After returning to the junction, I ran into some fellow trampers from Oturere Hut and began the climb past the other Emerald Lakes up to Red Crater. It's quite a steep climb up loose scoria, although not as narrow as it looks from the bottom. There were also a great many TAC walkers coming down, so much patience and tourist-slalom skills were required.

Once again: absolutely beautiful and defies description.

The highest point of the track, Pt 1868, above red crater offers breathtaking views of the Tongariro Mountains and surrounding area.
By this time, it had been 3hr50/6.77km since Oturere Hut, but I was far too lost in the views to notice how long I'd been walking.

From red crater, the track descends steeply over rocky terrain down to South Crater-that-technically-isn't-a-crater, the near perfect cone of Ngauruhoe looms constantly.

After the last bit of up and down, South Crater is mercifully flat. The track then zigs and zags down to the Mangatepopo valley.
Near the top of the valley, the soda springs waterfall is worth checking out. From there it was a fairly straightforward walk to Mangatepopo hut. Although by this point I had begun to notice the aches and pains seeping back into my legs.

The track (much of it boardwalk), wends it's way between lava formations and tussock, alongside a small stream that would be aptly described as a babbling brook.
Mangatepopo hut can be seen long before it is reached, and lies a short distance off the main track.

It took me a lot longer than the DOCtime of 5 hours to get to Mangatepopo - almost 7hr all up, but to be honest it still feels like I didn't spend enough time just soaking it all in.
Needless to say I very much enjoyed a lie-down and hot meal before getting a good nights sleep.
Mangatepopo was a comfortable hut with two bunkrooms off opposite sides of the communal cooking/dining area and a bit more space than Oturere. Like the others, the hut has solar lighting and gas cooking, but gas heating rather than a woodfire. The tussocky Mangatepopo valley and Ngauruhoe are visible from the large front decking.

Day 3 GPS data:
Total distance: 13.8 km. Total time: 6 hr, 47 min. Overall average speed: 2.03 km/h.

Day 4 - Mangatepopo Hut to Whakapapa Village
Low cloud and misty rain greeted me when I woke up. Someone had fired up the gas heater so the hut was nice and warm though.  

Layered up warm and dry, I headed out on what would hopefully be a short tramp back to Whakapapa Village. I had read that the track was in bad shape, heavily eroded and such, but it's really not as bad as all that. Sure, it's not up to the same Great Walk standard as the rest of the circuit, but it's otherwise just a fairly standard tramping track.
The track is indeed quite eroded and rutted in places, particularly badly in a few places, which can be annoying - but nothing to ruin your day.

The track heads roughly south over the flanks of Pukekaikiore and crosses a number of small but deep stream gullies (almost all of which were completely dry). Getting in and out of the gullies was often a bit of a scramble. At one point, the track briefly follows a tiny creek down one of these weird little gullies, which was pretty neat. Closer to Whakapapa, the track improves a bit, and crosses a few streams, most with the aid of bridges and stairs.

Not far from Whakapapa, beech forest starts popping up, and the track crosses a bridge over the Wairere stream and intersects the lower Taranaki Falls track. From there, it was about 20 minutes back to Whakapapa Village.

Although I was walking slowly at times, it was pretty much non-stop 3 hours back to Whakapapa and a comfy night at the Chateau.

Day 4 GPS data
Total distance: 9.31 km. Total time: 3 hr, 3 min. Overall average speed: 3.04 km/h.

Without doubt, this was the single most spectacular tramp I've ever done. Not to denigrate the humble Tararuas, but there's something so unique and incomparable about crossing through and over an active volcanic landscape. Equal parts dramatic, awe-inspiring, rugged and beautiful, there's very good reasons why the Tongariro National Park is as popular as it is. A Great Walk indeed.

Total Distance: 48.9km.
DOC - Tongariro Northern Circuit
Wilderness Magazine