Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Blue Range, Cow Creek and the Ruamahanga River - 14th-15th November

Inspired by nostalgia and the desire do a tramp that's a bit more challenging than the 3-4hr chump-fests we usually do, Cody and I decided to return to Cow Creek Hut.
Also wanting to explore somewhere new, we decided to make the Ruamahanga River track our exit route.

We set of from the Kiriwhakapapa camp ground at about 11am, cruising through the redwoods and soaking up the mid-day sun that bounced through the canopy.
The peace was inevitably broken by the uphill slog toward Blue Range that begins a kilometre or so from the start of the track.

We reached the Blue Range Hut/Cow Creek Hut track junction after about 3 hours. Having eaten some lunch, we then proceeded onwards. From here, the track gets a little more wild - narrower, bumpier etc - and climbs gently towards the Te Mara peak (side note: there's a crusty metal sign nailed to a tree indicating an unofficial route to the peak that looked to have been marked with pink ribbon). After skirting around the edge of Te Mara, the track begins to follow the ridge toward the Waingawa river.

Blue Range

View near Te Mara

Eventually the track reaches the point where it drops down to the river. At this point, the track also splits. An unnoficial but well-trodden path heads off in a notherly direction to Cow Saddle; this was the old official track to Cow Creek, but is no longer maintained or marked by DOC and doesn't appear on current maps (side note, it appears on the map in Cow Creek hut as "track not maintained"). Interestingly, I've heard that this rack is 'better' than the official one. In fact, it's so well trodden that DOC have installed a piece of DOCware to indicate which path is their official one.
DOCware sign pointing out the official track to Cow Creek hut
The descent is steep and slow, and even then I somehow managed to horf my knee into rock, which made downhill walking very uncomfortable for the rest of the trip. After reaching river level, the track sidles along side the river, crossing a stream or two before reaching an old slip. Last time we were here, we had to cross the slip in the dark, which was an interesting experience. this time, the track across the slip seemed to have fallen off, so we dropped down to the river bed and re-joined the track at the other side. From there it was a short walk to the big suspension bridge and Cow Creek Hut.
Approaching the slip

Where we went and where the track is probably meant to be.

Once at the hut, we ate too much food then went to bed too early, waking up at around midnight, unable to get back to sleep for another hour or two. It also pissed down the entire night, and was still raining the next morning.
Thanks to this rain, the river was swollen and dirty, which would have been less of a problem had it not been the water supply. After another meal that was far too large, and sanitising our water bottles with my handy steri-pen water purifier, we set off in the misty rain for Cow Saddle.

Swollen Waingawa River
By the hut there's an old wood sign pointing northwards toward the river saying "Cow Saddle" - in good weather you can just stomp across the river coming out at the bottom of the old Cow Saddle track on the true right of Cow Creek. However, we followed the mapped track back across the bridge. From here, the track is meant to head north across an old slip to the confluence of Cow Creek and the Waingawa, on the true left of the creek. Instead, the track climbed up above the slip, probably due to the mapped route subsiding. The deviations didn't end there though, in fact, it was only the start.

Rather than following the creek up on the true left (as marked on the map), the actual track (as marked by DOC's orange triangles), crossed over cow creek to the other side of the ford mentioned earlier. From their, it follows the creek up on the true right, which I imagine is the old 'track not maintained' that can be seen on the poster in the hut. There was absolutely no sign of any track at all we the map said it should be, and no explaination for this discrepancy, which is still irking me now.
Thankfully, it's a lovely track with brilliant scenery. Eventually, the track crosses back over Cow Creek to the side the map says it should be on, and shortly after we reached Cow Saddle in high spirits.
Crossing back over Cow Creek
The old cow sign at Cow Saddle

Cow Saddle

Cool old sign at Cow Saddle

After a quick break, we began heading down to the Ruamahanga river. I'd read in a trip report from a few years ago that this was a nice, trouble free track down the side of an old slip. This turned out to be mostly untrue. A couple of hundred meters from the saddle, the track enters an old, washed out, tussocky river bed, and follows it down hill. I remembered seeing an area like this on the map and there was orange markers showing the way, but I soon realised that this didn't add up. Consulting the GPS revealed that the mapped track crosses over the gully thing we were in, and then sidles along the edge of an old slip further north-ish. God knows what happened to that track, but the orange markers now take you down the gully.
Then end result is the same, however, with the track eventually meeting an unnamed creek on it's true right. The map showed the track as staying on the true right, shortly meeting cleft creek, but no signs of any such track were visible. Instead, an orange triangle led us across the swollen creek, where the track immediately disappeared. And it gets better: we saw a couple of markers leading back toward the creek from a north-west direction, but no signs of a trodden trail, or markers pointing the way we needed to go. It turns out that these markers were for the 'track' that heads up to cow saddle via that slip I've been mentioning)
We bushwacked for a bit, reaching a cliff above cleft creek, then circled back to the creek crossing, and hunted around for signs of a track, eventually finding a big orange marker nailed to a log down stream a little. There were still no signs of an actual track, but vague signs of people having walked there. So, we followed the edge of the creek, past it's confluence with cleft creek, dropping down to the creek bed after 100m or so. We noticed an orange marked on a tree on the other side of the creek where the track should be, and there was much rejoicing. The track appeared to start again straight out of the creek bed, so whether there was ever a track on the other side of the creek is anyone's guess. It's possible, I suppose, that the track in this part is badly mapped, because the 1:250000 scale map on memory-map places the track on the same side we were (and the opposite side to the 1:50000 scale map on memory-map and the Topo50 map). This, and the other deviations are shown on the map at the bottom.

Anyway, the track from here to, and along, the Ruamahanga is mostly in pretty good nick. It's actually very flat, with not nearly as much up-and-down as river sidle tracks usually have. The only problems we had were fallen trees across the track. In one place, a pile of fallen trees made us lose the track for a few minutes, but there were no major issues. In a number of places, we tidied up some of fallen trees to make the going easier for any future travellers.

I later found out (through a google search) that DOC were planning to close the track back in 2012, which involved removing the track markers. God knows what's going on then because we followed the OT track markers the whole way, including what would seem to be relatively recent re-routes.

The scenery was absolutely stunning along here, and had it not been taking us so long we would've slowed down to soak it up for longer. There were a few stream crossings, but nothing major. The only significant one was a cool mini gorge type thing, that involved a steep walk in and out, but was a pretty cool place. If it was in flood, it would probably be very hard to cross because it's very narrow and fast flowing.
About 5kms from the end, the Forest Park ends and the trees start to thin. The track widens, and sidles along the edge of the hill though kanuka scrub, eventually coming out onto farmland. The map shows a 4wd-type track here, but it's actually more like traipsing across open paddocks for an hour or two. Markers are pretty scarce. About 30-45 mins from the road, a farm track appears after following a confusing mix of orange and blue markers. The trail heads inland from the river, climbing steeply over the hill and dropping down even more steeply on the other side, where it's a quick, flat walk to the carpark.

It took us over 10 hours to get to the roadend, covering (according to the GPS) 21.7km. This was by far the biggest day either of us have ever done, and needless to say we were exhausted at the end. This was much longer than we expected, in part due to the deviations and bushwacking, but also due to our lack of fitness. The posted time on the poster in the hut was 6-8 hours.

At the time I vowed to never return to "that shit-show of a track," but if, at some point on the future I find myself fitter and in another state of tramping nostalgia, I can imagine wanting to do it again, to re-visit the interesting places (mini-gorge!) and investigate (and maybe, with the aid of a machete, make clearer), the weird missing patches of track.

GPS Data:
Day one - Cow Creek Hut via Blue Range:
Distance covered: 13.63km
Average walking speed: 2.2km/h. Average overall speed: 1.8km/h.
Moving time: 6:20. Stopped time: 1:15. Total time: 7:35.
Map showing the GPS trail
Day two - Cow Saddle and Ruamahanga River:
Distance covered: 21.67km
Average walking speed: 2.4km/h. Average overall speed: 2.0km/h.
Moving time: 9:00. Stopped time: 1:41. Total time: 10:41.
Map showing the GPS trail
1:25k scale close-up of the confusing bush-wack area. Black dashed line is the LINZ Topo50 data, purple is allegedly the more up-to-date DOC data - both are wrong.

We filmed another episode of Vaguely Dangerous Wilderness on this tramp, watch it below:


  1. Thank you for writing your trip up, it was good research reading for my trip this weekend (same route, opposite direction). We had a blast. If you're interested in a couple of photos from some years later!