Hut bagging in the Kawekas

It was hot hot hot in the Kawekas on Wellington Anniversary Weekend!

The Medium group commenced their trip into the Kawekas from Makahu Saddle. Ahead of us was the climb up Kaweka J. Minutes into the trip I was sweaty enough to pick up a fine dry coat of Kaweka dust all over my legs. The steep incline meant my nose was permanently pressed to the ground under the weight of my pack. Every time I looked up there seemed to be a cloud of flies buzzing around me as if they thought I was on the edge of extinction and were preparing to land. Somewhere up ahead of me Maarten and Emily had stopped for the umpteenth time to allow me to catch up. I started to wonder if I was on the right trip!

Aimee struggles up Kaweka J. Photo credit: Maarten

Earlier that morning we had dropped the Medium-Fit group off at the Mackintosh carpark with a grander mission than our own – to bag as many huts as possible in a long weekend in the kawekas. My own personal mission on the medium trip was to walk at a medium pace – very mundane by comparison. I had “broken in” to the medium grade with the Southern Crossing trip at the end of last year, and was full of confidence about how far my new found fitness could take me. Sadly expectations did not match reality!

From the Makahu Saddle carpark there are two tracks heading up the Makahu spur. On the way up we took the left track, which I have called “the straight up” track (as opposed to the right track, which we called “the highway”). About 15 or 20 minutes into “the straight up”, we encountered a little scree slope about 20 meters wide. This was a rude surprise. I felt like I needed a rope to get up it! It was very steep and the pebbly ground felt like it was rolling away beneath me. However that was the worst bit of the climb. From there “the straight up” converges with the “highway”, and the climb continues to Dominie Hut where you can rest on some flat ground. The final push to the top is more climb, with little rocky bits to navigate. With me dragging the team average down, the climb took us three hours.

Kaweka J summit. Photo credit: Matt.
Memorial Cairn at Kaweka J. Photo credit: Matt.

I tumbled over just before the trig point and demanded a rest. Some raro and marmite and cheese toasties revived me and we carried on to our next waypoint, Back Ridge Hut. The going was a bit easier here, with the track being a reasonably gentle descent. Soon a little orange hut in the valley popped into view. Emily through the zoom in her camera worked out that there were a couple already at the hut. We thought it might have been one half of Medium-Fit who had presumably zoomed past us so quickly we hadn’t even seen them! However, on closer inspection we discovered the couple were skinny-dipping and decided that was a bit too risqué for a club trip!

From Kaweka J to Back Ridge Hut. Photo credit: Maarten.
Back Ridge Hut an orange dot in the valley. Photo credit: Matt.

There was quite a sharp descent in the track shortly before the junction which leads down to Back Ridge Hut. After the shock of Kaweka J, Maarten had to help me skidaddle across this scree slope. We eventually got over it, and Emily used the spare time while she was waiting for us to nip down to Back Ridge Hut to fill up collective water bottles and confirm that it was not Medium-Fit skinny-dipping in the river!

After a short rest at the junction, we continued onto waypoint number three: Back Ridge Biv. In hindsight, this part of the track was not particularly challenging, and in fact was quite pleasant under a canopy of tree cover. However my perceptions were utterly skewed by this point – to me if felt like the initial 200 meter climb up to Maminga was another Kaweka J! With nose to the ground, I again noted the density of the fly population in the Kawekas (bizarre). The climb ended quickly and then came an easy descent. We meandered along, with my pace getting slower and slower, until we finally reached the junction with the Rocks Ahead track. Here we had to make a decision. It was at the very least another two hours to Rocks Ahead Hut, our destination for the night. My energy levels were very low and I felt that Maarten and Emily had probably had enough of my “stop-start” pace. We decided to head down to Back Ridge Biv for the night.

Somewhere between Back Ridge Hut and Back Ridge Biv. Photo credit: Maarten.
Back Ridge Biv. Photo credit: Aimee

Back Ridge Biv was occupied by a friendly hunter and his son. They had flown in by helicopter so had wonderful accessories like camp chairs and a chilly bin. We pitched our fly in the only flat spot and got busy making dinner. When I say “we”, I mean Maarten and Emily, who very kindly made up the vegetarian pad thai. We had a number of excellent garnishes with this meal – mung beans, peanuts and flaked coriander. Unfortunately the noodle to vege ratio was a bit out, and Emily had the task of carrying (and eating) the leftover noodles for the remainder of the trip. We were in bed before 8pm, despite my best efforts to stay up.

We had a leisurely start to the next day – we were still in sleeping bags at 8am! As we were packing up and making ready to leave, Medium-Fit came down the hill to bag Back Ridge Biv. I thought they were doing exceedingly well to be tramping that early. They didn’t stay long, and we also left our little campsite soon after. The track between Back Ridge Biv and Rocks Ahead Hut “undulates” for about two thirds of the way, then drops very, very steeply for the last third. While this was definitely easier going than the climb, I still found it tiring in the humidity. Maarten lent me his stick, which helped. We arrived at Rocks Ahead Hut at around 11.15am. We were surprised to find Medium-Fit still there, although I couldn’t blame them. Rocks Ahead Hut is an idyllic little hut with a cool (in both senses of the word) river below. Team Medium immediately jumped into the river to cool off, while team Medium-Fit crossed the river to bag the nearby Rocks Ahead Biv. We were all sad to leave this little hut, and start the horrendous climb up to Tira Lodge.

Going down to Rocks Ahead Hut. Photo credit: Maarten.
“Cool” river at Rocks Ahead Hut. Photo credit: Matt.
Rocks Ahead Biv. Photo credit: Matt.
Looking back at Rocks Ahead Hut from Rocks Ahead Biv. Photo credit: Matt.

In my dilapidated state I blindly followed Emily over a “walkwire” – an acrobatic obstacle for tired trampers, when I could’ve walked through the river like everyone else! Our next section of track was of a similar height to Kaweka J, but with nicer terrain and tree cover. Maarten very patiently stayed with me while I “stop-started” my way up this hill. It truly never seemed to end. I was reduced to focusing solely on the next orange marker and getting to it. I can safely say it was a painful experience for both trampers! But of course it did end, with a nice flat bit known as “Venison Tops”. The sight of a backpack in the distance in front of us spurred me on, and we reached Tira Lodge to find Medium-Fit resting and poor Emily trying to lighten her load by eating day old noodles.

Uta on the walkwire. Photo credit: Matt.
Aimee actually reached Tira Lodge. Photo credit: Maarten.

Throughout our various encounters with Medium-Fit, there had been some light-hearted teasing about whether they would make it to their destination for the night – Makino Hut. Maarten declared that the amount of time they spent resting at Rocks Ahead and Tira meant that they would not make it to Makino, perhaps lessening the grandeur of their Kaweka traverse. I suspect he was also trying to spur them on so that we would have bunk beds for the night!

I left Tira Lodge about half an hour before Maarten and Emily, so they could rest and walk at their pace, and I would could walk at mine. They soon caught me on the flat just after a short 200 metre descent from Tira Lodge. Eagle-eyed Emily had noticed that I had left my washcloth at the Hut, and suggested she might hold it for ransom, but when I told her it was for wiping the sweat away she gave it up pretty quickly! We carried along the track for an hour before we hit the last climb of the day – the “pinch” before the descent to Ballard Hut. I foolishly thought that the climb would end once we popped out of the forest but no – it continued on exposed and rocky terrain. Rain began to fall and still we marched on. Any piece of dry clothing I was wearing was then thoroughly drenched. After an eternity (probably about 40 minutes) we reached the junction to Ballard Hut. Needless to say I was very relieved, only to find that the descent down to the hut was steeper and longer than I thought. Maarten and Emily tried to stay with me, but they were getting cold and carried on down to the hut. I arrived some time after, a little bit dazed from the long day. Medium-Fit were already there, having decided to cut their day short and spend the night at Ballard with us because of our excellent company (nothing to do with rain or tiredness at all).

Rain sets in at Ballard Hut. Photo credit: Matt.

Medium-Fit had very kindly reserved three bunks in the four-bunk hut for Maarten, Emily and I. Tramping rules would suggest that they got first dibs, but I think they may have felt sorry for us (or me at least – because at that stage I looked like a drowned rat). Kevin pitched a tent and camped outside, Matt slept on the floor, and Jessie did something I have never seen before. He slept under one of the bunk beds. This may not sound extraordinary now, but it was possibly the highlight of the trip. To me, there looked like a gap of about 30cm between the floor and the bottom of the bunk. I did not think it was possible for a human to squeeze in there. But Jessie did it with all of us watching and giggling. The fit was so tight he had to release some air out of his blow up sleeping mat. Apart from one comment about the smell down there, he settled in and we did not hear a peep out of him until he wriggled out the next morning. Extraordinary.

Dinner for Medium was another example of haut-cuisine in the bush – quinoa and chickpeas with preserved lemon and molasses. Medium-Fit were having something equally nice. All were in bed by 8.05pm.

Next morning I left at 7.30am, uncertain of how long it would take me to get back up the hill to the junction. The rest of Medium followed half an hour later, and the timing turned out to be perfect – we all converged on each other just after the junction. Unlike the beautiful hot weather we had had for the last two days, Monday morning was cloudy and misty with a little bit of rain. We couldn’t see much so kept reasonably close together. A couple of times the cloud lifted just above a saddle and we could see the four backpacks of Medium-Fit just in front of us. From the junction at Ballard to the Makahu Spur probably took about 2 hours of solid marching. We had one short stop on North Kaweka before the cold drove us on to just below the Spur.

The mist lifts for a moment on the march back to Kaweka J from Ballard Hut. Photo credit: Aimee.
Going down Kaweka J. Photo credit: Maarten.

I had been dreading the descent down Kaweka J after the climb on Saturday, however I was surprised by how quickly we lost height, even at my inching pace. We were soon at Dominie Hut where we caught up with Medium-Fit who had just finished lunch. We all continued on down the spur, with Medium-Fit taking “the straight up” track, and Medium taking “the highway”. While “the highway” is slightly longer, it zigzags across the hill so is a much gentler descent. We had an excellent view of Medium-Fit ahead of us on the neighbouring spur. It was at this point that Kevin demonstrated his pioneering nature and forged a new track down Makahu Spur – neither “the straight up” nor “the highway”. However I can’t say too much about this. I have been sworn to secrecy.

Eventually we all met up at the carpark, tired but satisfied. Maarten had a surprise ginger beer ready for team Medium, and then shouted both Medium and Medium-Fit a real fruit ice cream on the way home. This continued a theme of gourmet treats from Maarten that had much of Medium-Fit threatening to decamp to Medium throughout the trip.

While my post-Christmas fitness left much to be desired, I enjoyed my first venture into the kawekas. Most pleasing of all is that having “bagged” Kaweka J, I have no need to do that climb again!

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