Kaweka Hot Pools – June 2008

“Hey Justin, doesn’t the fuel gauge say we’re on empty?”
“No, the fuel indicator needle is just having a little rest below the ‘E’. We’ll be fine”.
“Are you sure about that?”
“Um, not really, but you weren’t supposed to ask that question. I’m sure we’ll be, um, fine. Maybe we’ll make it back. . You guys might have to push for a bit…. Um, anyone got any chocolate??”

And so began our trip back into civilisation after three hard days tramping, at the beginning of a very long gravelly access road (60km long) with no service stations, no working cell phones or cell phone network, in heavy rain with very tired punters and no chocolate – not a good sign!

A small group of us had signed up for what was to be a nice medium / easy trip out to the Mangatainoka hot springs. The springs are in Kaweka Forest park, located out at the end of a very long gravel drive from Taradale, and we were looking forward to a quiet trip in the bush over Queen’s birthday weekend, in winter.

I ended up being (voted? Forced? Coerced?) volunteered for the job of trip leader after the two trips heading out that way (an Easy and a Medium) were cancelled at the last minute. We’d all done an Easy trip before and we were ready for our next challenge, an Easy-Medium, so we now had the chance to make it our own trip. After much poring over the maps, we asked the (former) Medium trip leader what she thought of her planned Medium trip up to Ballard Hut: “it’s really not that hard, it’s more of an easy walk up a hill, then a bit of a slog across the tops, and then you’re there. No problem at all. You’ll be fine”, and pretty much made our first mistake.

What I’ve come to learn is, that when a Medium fitness tramper says ‘it’s really not that hard’, what that really means to an Easy tramper is “it is mind blowingly knackering and you have to be insane to do it”. Luckily having experienced this problem in translation before we had an escape route up our sleeves just in case we couldn’t make it to Ballard Hut, which would be to stop half-way at Middle Hill on the first night and then cut straight through to Te Puia Lodge and the hot Springs from there the next day. We’d be carrying big packs, including four season winter tents just in case, plus gourmet food (although I found out about that bit later), but hey, we had our escape route, so we’d be fine.

Friday night we spoiled ourselves with a station wagon being provided for transport courtesy of WTMC (since there was only four of us), and accommodation at the Hastings Top 10 holiday-park for the night. (Um, yes, we were supposed to be camping at the road end, but some concerns had been expressed about the dangers of driving at night along gravel roads…. and besides which, a nice comfy warm bed sounded much more appealing).

The drive-in to Kaweka Forest Park is awesome in Autumn. Long rolling hills, with a light coating of frost and the autumn leaves amongst the trees made everything look very picturesque. Saturday morning was bright and sunny, and we travelled for what seemed like hours along a very windy 60km gravel access road through rolling countryside out of Taradale to the tramp / road-end.

Did we check the fuel gauge? No. But we’d only driven up from Wellington and it was with a full tank, and besides which my car is able to make it to Taradale and almost back again on one tank, so surely all other cars are roughly the same??

One of our punters had volunteered to sort dinners for us, and it was with some surprise that heavy, raw chicken and vegetables, along with garnishes and everything you’d expect for a full course meal at home, was handed out among the group. (What’s wrong with instant noodles and vegemite!!!). I looked at my pack, already bursting at the seams and up at the steep hill in front of us, wondering how the raw chicken might hold up, and my legs and the rest of the group as well…

Our destination was Ballard Hut which is a four-bunk hut that sits just down from an exposed gravel ridge. A Google search told us winds can be in excess of 100km up there, so we’d all packed monster packs with heavy winter tents and the warmest gear we could find. All this extra gear seemed a little silly, when we were standing there in the baking autumn sun, already sweating and looking up the never-ending steep slope that would take us towards Ballard hut. But we thought about the google warning of possible 100km/h winds, shouldered our packs and headed out.

From the road-end to Middle Hill hut it is only 2-3 hours, but it is a steep climb amongst scrub and farm-land, and then an even steeper climb amongst beech forest for a further 2-3 hours to Ballard Hut. When you are carrying heavy packs, it seems more like 2-3 days. It wasn’t long before the full ferocity of the mid-winter sun was bearing down upon us, and after many unscheduled ‘photo’ stops, Plan B (to over night at Middle Hill hut) started looking pretty good.

We emerged through low lying scrub onto a small table-land with Middle Hill hut, a small squat little 8-bunk hut sided with orange corrugated iron, set out before us amongst a clearing of tussock grass on the edge of some very pretty beech forest. Lazy smoke coiled in the sky from the hut’s fireplace and a father and son were busy chopping wood, and were the only other occupants. With guaranteed bunks and no more hill-climbing for the day, we couldn’t possibly turn it down and decided Plan B was the best option.

The gourmet chicken dinner drew envious stares from the father and son, and more than made up for the effort of carrying it earlier that day. Later after dinner we were just settling down for the night when suddenly, sometime after darkness, the door flew open and we were surprised to be joined by a large group from another tramping club. They were just as surprised to see us, and had just made it in from tramping along our ‘Plan B’ and looked absolutely exhausted. They told us that while the track looked good on the map (and there was no info otherwise), the track was massively over-grown in places, not well maintained and very up-and-down. They heavily advised against doing it. (Not only that, but they weren’t tramping with four season tents and gourmet food, and looked like pretty fit trampers).

Our group had a think and decided we would back-track to the carpark the next day, drive the short distance (5km) across to the other road-end (the blue gum car-park) and then tramp along the river to Te Puia lodge and the hot springs via that way.
It meant a bigger day then Plan B, but it would be 2-3 hours downhill and we could also lighten our packs by dumping all surplus winter clothing and the four season tents before starting the 3-hour “easy” walk along the river to Te Puia lodge.

That night we ended up all squashing into the hut with every available inch of floor space taken up, with the late-arrivals crammed in front of the fire-place and enjoying the heat, and the rest of us squeezed into the bunks. Before long, gentle snoring filled the hut and about 1am, after tossing and turning for a few hours and trying to ignore the sounds of rustling sleeping bags, I ended up grabbing my pack and pitching my tent outside on the cold, hard frost covered ground for a bit of solitude. I was asleep in seconds – and also happy to have used the tent after lugging it up a very steep hill!

The next morning I got woken by a gentle tapping on the tent frame and to a cup of tea from one of my punters. Nice. Frost had caked into ice in some places on my tent, but otherwise it had been a very good sleep. Before long we were skipping back down the hill we’d climbed so arduously just the day before.

Jumping into the car we had travelled only 100metres when one of the punters noted the fuel gauge. “Did you know we’re about to run out of petrol?” “No”, I said, “we’re not going to run out, and everything’s fine”.
“But the fuel gauge is on empty”.
“Nah, that’s because we’re on a hill”.
“Yes, but we’re sloping downwards, so that should mean the tank should be reading that we have even more petrol”.
“Oh right”, I said, “I guess we might have a small problem then”.

With the car parked in the middle of the track, we debated for over half an hour as to what to do. The choices were to push on with the planned trip and hope for the best, or turn the car around and see how far we could get back in day light to Taradale, so that we would have all day to be ‘rescued’ if need be by passers by on this remote track.

Eventually, we decided we’d give it a go. We’d park the car pretty much back at the closest road-end, and walk the 5km to Blue Gum car-park and then tramp into Te Puia lodge from there. Luckily one of the punters from my group had run into a friend the previous night from the other tramping group (who lived in the Taradale region), who had agreed she would come find us with extra petrol if needs be. The major concern was the intermittent cellphone coverage.

All of this had added another hour delay to our day and I was beginning to wonder that after already having done 3 hours down from Middle Hill, with an hour to walk between car-parks and then a further 3-4 hours to get to the lodge, as to what time we’d finally get to Te Puia Lodge, whether we’d be tramping in the dark, and whether it was such a sensible idea after all. By that stage we’d all ditched what extra gear we could, as the lodge took 24 bunks and was not exposed like Ballard hut. Very quickly a small pile of gear was sprawled across the back seats of the hire car. We’d also had the chicken last night and so with our packs somewhat lighter, we headed off for the next part of our trip.

We passed blue gums car park and started along a wide gravel path that meandered along the river. The bush was exceptionally scenic and travelling with lite packs along the mostly flat path was idyllic compared to the hard slog of the day before. As the day wore on and the light was beginning to fade, tired muscles, aches and pains began to emerge and just as we were all wondering whether our torches would provide enough light to get to the hut, we rounded a corner and there it was! Te Puia Lodge.

There were only four others in the hut, including a small dog, so we claimed some mattresses as fast as possible and then grabbed our gear for the hot pools, urging tired and aching muscles to take us the remaining 45 mins to get to there. The hot pools are well worth the effort. A large fibre-glass tub (from a fishing boat) has been placed where the hot springs emerge, with a pipe that carries the hot water into the tub and which can be removed in- and out- of the tub so you can control the temperature. It’s all surrounded by wooden decking and set in a nice beech forest clearing. Since we’d arrived so late, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. It was absolute magic, especially for weary bones and tired muscles.

The trip back to the lodge was uneventful, although one of our punters had a shock awakening when the other party’s dog made a bee-line for her upon being allowed back into hut early in the morning. Although it was only to be covered by slobbering dog kisses, when you’re fast asleep it comes as a surprise!

The Sunday morning tramp back along the river was also good, and we all turned to thinking about whether the petrol would last for the trip back out again. The skies had begun to amass thick, dark grey clouds and were threatening rain all day – not a great prospect for a car with no petrol. We finished at the blue gum carpark and were half-way to the car at the next car park when suddenly the heavens opened up. Luckily we were only in it for a few minutes before a passer-by in a large 4WD took pity on us and gave us a lift to our hire car.

The next couple of hours back in the car along the road-end consisted of long periods of coasting, very slow driving in some places and a very light touch on the accelerator, lots of anxiety, along with furiously scanning the cellphones as to when we would next be in coverage (which seemed very intermittent), and watching the fuel indicator dip firmly below Empty. To add to the excitement we only had two cellphones between all of us and the batteries were very low on each one. Thankfully the trip back to Taradale was mostly downhill, and after what seemed like a life-time we managed to limp into a service station with the engine still running, despite having travelled well over 60km on a less than empty tank.

The lynching party for the trip leader was cancelled and instead we had a small celebration feast at McDonalds – after we’d refuelled the car.

So these days, I always check the fuel gauge whenever I pass the last petrol station on a trip, and assign a second person in my group the responsibility to check, too.

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