The phone rang. A voice from the past. Ruth Parnell, ex-Chief Guide. I hadn’t seen her for years. “Can I come on your trip down the UpperOtakiRiver?”, she asked. “Sure”, I said. “Who else is on it?” she asked, worried; “I hope they’re not too fit!” “Well, actually you’re the only one so far,” I explained, “and I’m not fit either!”
In the end it was just the two of us, despite the fact that on the Wednesday before the trip Jim Hickey was promising us two big yellow suns. Two suns! In a row! In the Tararuas! I couldn’t believe it! I was almost tempted to go out and buy a Lotto ticket on the spot.
On Friday night when we were walking in to the old Ohau Shelter site to camp it was still daylight and the sun was shining. I don’t think that has ever happened to me before. Something was definitely wrong! I think I really would have bought a Lotto ticket if there had been an outlet on the way.
On Saturday morning we set off up the river. The last time I went this way was a number of years ago on a three-day Northern Crossing led by Alistair Young. Sarah Young, our newsletter editor, was also on that trip although she was Sarah Cartmell in those days. Quite a lot of water has flown under the bridge since then – and there was quite a lot of water flowing in the river now! It was up on its normal level and we took it carefully while I silently worried what the Otaki would be like. I was glad it was daylight; I remember once years ago going up the river to South Ohau on Friday night, in the dark. We spent ages blundering around trying to do the river crossings by torchlight and didn’t get there until about 4 in the morning. I’ll never do that again, ever. There used to be a tricky little section just upstream a bit from the junction with the North Ohau in those days but the river seems to have changed and it’s gone. I think Dave Humm led that trip and we were doing a NorthernMainRange.
After just under 3 hours we reached South Ohau. I hadn’t seen the new South Ohau hut before. It’s a nice hut, but a bit soulless, lacking the character of the old one. Lots of DOC’s new huts are like this: new, neat and tidy, spacious and functional, but soulless, lacking charm and character, cosiness and warmth. Bland, austere, functional, rectangular barns, without the personality, the character, the history, the wear and tear, the charming Jerry-built irregularities and idiosyncrasies of the older ones. And of course there’s never an open fire, an essential requirement of a good hut. Whoever invented those ugly pot-belly stove monstrosities should be taken out and shot! There was no need to pull the old South Ohau hut down; it was just DOC paranoia in the wake of Cave Creek.
It had been overcast and drizzly on the way up the river and it now started raining lightly. So much for Mr Hickey’s suns, I had never really believed in them anyway. It was probably brilliantly fine in the entire rest of the country but this was the Tararuas, and the Tararuas constitute a separate universe.
The start of the Yeates 500 track behind the hut was blocked by a large treefall so we had to bash up the hillside and fight our way through a small patch of supplejack to regain it. When we reached the top we turned left towards Te Matawai. Apparently there was an old track somewhere along here heading down into the head of the Otaki. After 10 or 15 minutes we had failed to find it and I worried that we had gone too far, but then it appeared, the start of it clearly marked by yellow plastic arrows on a tree at the top of a rise. Bits of tape around trees and the occasional old white permolat marker indicated the route. Alistair Young told me later that he was responsible for the tape. I have been down the Upper Otaki twice before but it must be well over 20 years ago and we just bush-bashed down from the saddle. I don’t think we knew about the track, or maybe it wasn’t there then. I remember some difficulty getting into the river at the bottom of the hillside. In contrast the track proved to be straightforward and we stopped for lunch beside the river at the bottom.
After lunch we headed off down river. Unlike the Ohau, the Otaki didn’t seem to be up. The water was crystal clear. We had to wade long stretches and continually criss-cross the river, but mostly there was no need to link up. It was mostly just pleasant, straightforward travel down the remote, silent valley, past steep, ferny hillsides and easier bush-covered banks.
After three and a half hours we came to the old Upper Otaki Hut site, where there is a large crescent-shaped grassy flat. Here we discovered a wooden picnic table in the middle of the flats – obviously somebody must have choppered it in! I toyed briefly with the idea of continuing a bit further down river, to make Sunday a bit shorter, but it was hard to pass up such a good campsite, or a picnic table – especially when you were sitting down on the soft grass with your pack off! As the saying goes, a nice, flat, grassy campsite in the hand is worth two rough ones in the bush. Later we found the site of the old hut on a raised terrace just in the bush edge but there was no sign of the hut itself; it was removed long ago and the whole area is now a Remote Experience Zone.
That night we had a period of slightly heavier rain, although by morning it had returned to an overcast state, as if unsure whether it was supposed to drizzle or whether the sun was supposed to come out. It didn’t look a particularly long way down to Waitewaewae on the map but Amanda and Richard had been down here a few weeks previously and had told me it took them five hours, so we were away just after 7.00.
Five hours and one minute later we walked into Waitewaewae Hut. We were a minute slow – Amanda and Richard had obviously had better conditions than us! We had been following the river most of the way, although there were a few places where we had taken to the bush to avoid rough sections of river. There had been some deep pools on the way, including a couple where I was walking on tip-toe and Ruth must have been floating! They were superb pools and if it had been a sunny day and we hadn’t been pressed for time I would have stopped for a swim.
Twenty-five years ago Waitewaewae was a different hut in a different place. It was an old, run-down place located on a small flat just upstream from the bridge on the true right and I think it used to flood. The new hut is clearly an improvement over the old one but I’m afraid it still feels a bit like a soulless barn to me.
All we had before us now was the walk out to Otaki Forks. It had been years since I had done the Waitewaewae track – I think the last time was on a tubing trip down the river from Waitewaewae with Lyndsay Fletcher. On that trip we had walked in to the Plateau and camped on Friday night. On Saturday we set off down the river and camped overnight on the true right a bit upstream from Penn Creek, but it rained overnight, the river came up, and it would have been suicidal to continue downriver, so we bush-bashed out over the ridge behind us and down to the track in the Waitatapia. I remember easy travel through superb huge trees on the top of the ridge, followed by a long, horrendous descent down a hillside of solid tangled supplejack on the far side. I’ve never seen supplejack like it, before or since. It made the small patch of supplejack Ruth and I went through behind South Ohau Hut pale into complete insignificance. I remember being forced to crawl under it in places, dragging our packs behind us. If we had been able to call up a helicopter to lift us out I think I would have done so! I still remember the relief when we finally emerged out of the jungle onto the track.
Today Ruth and I were due out at Otaki Forks at 5 o’clock. I couldn’t remember how long it took out from Waitewaewae to Otaki Forks but I estimated at least four hours and by the time we had had lunch it was ten to 1 so we put our heads down and did it at a good steady pace, with only a couple of short rests along the way. Coming out down the Waitatapia the track climbed up around the top of a huge slip that hadn’t been there last time I passed this way.
When we reached Otaki Forks we discovered more changes. I was surprised to find the track no longer went across the upper terrace and down the little spur the way it used to – instead there is now a vehicle track winding down the escarpment behind Parawai Lodge. There was also a new bridge across the river from when I was last here; the old one was destroyed in a large flood about ten years ago. And of course Parawai Lodge originally used to be on the other side of the river from where it is now.
We reached the car park at ten to 5. It had taken us exactly 4 hours. Alistair Young’s trip turned up in the van about 5 minutes later so it was perfect timing! It had been a good trip, and had brought back some memories for an old codger. And speaking of old codgers, just as we were packing up to go who should come walking across the bridge but another figure from the past – John Rhodes! He had been in to Snowy Creek Hut. That’s somewhere I’ve never been and must visit before I’m finally confined to a wheelchair.
It’s funny how memory plays tricks on you. I don’t remember much about my previous trips down the Upper Otaki 20 or 25 years ago. I remember John Booth led one of them but I don’t remember who else was on it. I don’t even remember who led the other one. I remember bush-bashing down into the head of the river, I remember the crescent-shaped grassy flat we camped at, I vaguely remember going through a few pools in the river, but I don’t remember much else. I don’t really remember the large number of hours of wading and criss-crossing the river but obviously we must have done it. I’m sure I remember more flats than there actually are. I don’t remember the Waitewaewae confluence, although we must have passed it. I seem to remember lots of sidling in the bush on one of the trips – perhaps the river was up
I doubt I’ll be doing another trip down the Upper Otaki in another 25 years time so it was a good chance to do a trip down a beautiful river – and down Memory Lane.