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Tramping the Wangapeka

Day 1

by Pamela Blalock

Back in July, Cara, Aria, Simon and I did a short tour by bike out to the Rolling River Hut at one end of the Wangapeka track. I must mention now that many tramping tracks in New Zealand are located in the middle of the wop-wops, accessible only by a gravel or 4 wheel drive road which is some significant distance from the nearest point of civilisation! While it makes the logistics of doing a tramp awkward, it can make for a nice overnight bike tour...

Anyway, as you can read in that previous report, we did a bit of walking on the first part of the track. Since it is in a National park, cycling is not allowed on the trails, so we just rode out to the hut at the beginning of the track, and walked from there. Our brief day walk was quite pleasant and left me wanting to come back and see the entire track. There were some nice views up to the mountains, as well as a nice track through mostly native bush. This trip took place while John was travelling around the world, so he returned to hear me all enthused about tramping (kiwi for backpacking) out to the west coast on the Wangapeka. I'd found a website with a good description of the track, as well as having skimmed through the section covering it in the Lonely Planet book. I must emphasise now that I apparently only skimmed these articles and did not take the time to carefully read and reread and then read in between the lines, or I might have realised that this wasn't such a simple walk in the park!

Or possibly not... because to be fair, what made this a real epic for us was our timing and the weather. After being in New Zealand for almost a year, my life of leisure is coming to a sudden halt on Oct. 6. I got a job! Take that exclamation mark whichever way you will... I managed to delay starting for a few weeks so I could get in some last minute playing before I have to do what most of the rest of the world does and spend my days toiling away at something other than riding a bike and walking on trails (and supervising home renovations). Unfortunately, it is early spring here in NZ, and the weather is a bit, shall we say, unsettled. OK, it rains a lot, and it does so with gusto. And speaking of gusts, the wind makes its presence known. The wind chime on our deck that barely made a peep in the summer has been working overtime recently!

Anyway, with that as background, and the fact that I am actually writing this article, you may surmise that 1) the weather was a big factor, and 2) we did actually survive it!

We had stopped in at DOC (Department of Conservation) the day before we headed out, to pick up their guide and see if there were any updates on the track or conditions. When we said we were planning to do the Wangapeka, the gal there asked, "Why would you want to do that?". This should have been a big warning sign! She mentioned the high water section and the storms over the past weekend. We'd read about the high water alternative at the far end of the track. It is apparently a bit of a scramble. But it was 5 days away, and presumably the weather of the previous couple of days would not be a factor by the time we get that far! And indeed, that was the case, it was the weather that occurred while we were actually on the track that would make things tricky!

Ah, but you may be wondering about the storm of the previous weekend.. As a little aside here, John and I had travelled up to Golden Bay for a mountain bike race a couple of days before. It absolutely hammered down with rain on the Saturday night and made the trail more like a series of long deep puddles connected by a few boggy spots. John took part in the race, and I, apparently only having a single functioning brain cell, took my non-suspended single speed cruiser and did the recreational ride. The difference between the race and the rec ride was that the race included a section of single track, while the rec ride stayed on 4 wheel drive. Well, I am slowly learning that 4 wheel drive tracks here are pretty darn technical, and we descended a rocky stream bed that was called 4 wheel drive, while the race went off on its single track section. The rain did stop for the race, and in fact the sun came out and the views were incredible. But no one had any brake pads left at the end of the day, and we all were coated in mud. In the end, I don't think gears would have made any difference for me. I was going to have to walk either way, and the single speed is lighter than my geared bike, so it's easier to push. Suspension on the other hand might have helped me some on the descents. I ended up walking quite a bit of the downhills. So I figured if I could walk 6 km. pushing my bike, I was ready for a real tramp, carrying my gear on my back...

Ah, but as is my style I've gone a bit off the subject. The point was that it had hammered down with rain over the weekend, and it might be necessary to use the high water tracks in places. That seemed OK.

As I mentioned earlier, like most kiwi tramps, this one has its logistical difficulties. Like most, it is not a loop, so getting back from the finish involves some not insignificant travel. We looked into various bus options and finally determined that the half hour aeroplane flight did not cost much more than the all day bus ride, so we arranged to drive out to Tapawera, take a shuttle into the trail head, hike through, then take a shuttle from the far end to Karamea, where we would spend the night at the Last Resort, then fly back to Tapawera and drive to Nelson. Flying to Nelson was actually pricier than flying to Tapawera, so it simplified one thing on one end for us, sort of!

We booked everything on Monday and headed out Tuesday to start the tramp. Our first day was a 3 1/2 hour walk, according to the various guides, so we could have a leisurely start. We arrived in Tapawera at 11:00 AM and got the shuttle for 30 km out to the start of the track. It was overcast as we drove out and soon it began to drizzle. We decide to have lunch in the shelter of the hut before heading out on the track.

The weather was quite changeable that first day. I started out in rain pants and jacket over wool tights and top. I quickly got out of the rainpants, and at some point even got out of the jacket, but drizzle returned and so did the jacket. My feet were doing well in the boots, but I was still eager to see the hut at the end of the day. I was a little bit concerned when we came upon what looked like a hut kit by the side of the track. Apparently it was a former shelter than had been taken down! Fortunately we arrived at the actual hut building not too long after the pile of parts!

The first part of the track is quite pleasant, well marked, benched, lots of boardwalks and logs in boggy sections, wooden bridges as well as these wonderful swing bridges. Swing bridges do actually swing as you get out in the centre, but they are fully fenced in, and so even with my fear of exposed places, I had no problems at all traversing the rivers on the swaying bridges! If only the entire track was as easy as the first part.

One thing we learned when we visited DOC beforehand was that the track is not very popular (or rather it doesn't get high numbers of trampers), and as a result, the gas cookers have been removed from the huts. It was good to have this updated info, as both the guides we had mentioned these cookers. The guides had also mentioned that this track was not terribly busy, and that we might not see many other trampers, which was an attraction.

Of course it is also early spring and not a popular time for tourists. When I looked in the log book at the Rolling River hut, I noticed only a few folks had stayed there in the 2 1/2 months since I'd last been there, so I wasn't too worried about crowded huts along the way.

By the time we reached the large and completely empty Kings Creek hut, it had been drizzling for a while, and I was quite content to call it a day. I had read that there was another rustic hut 10 minutes further down the track, but it's quite hard to pass by a sure thing in the rain.

The hut was rather large, with a common area, and two separate bunkrooms. The setting was quite nice, is an open area, just above the river. We brought in some firewood, and John went down to the river to get water, and we made some soup and tried to start a fire. I don't know whether it was the wet wood, or the type of stove, but no heat ever came out of this stove. It seemed to have some extra piece in the top that prevented it from drafting well, and you could literally hold onto the sides even after the fire had been burning for several hours. We spent quite a bit of time trying to get warm, and eventually gave up. The hut was pretty nice otherwise. It was weathertight, with no drafts or leaks.

We eventually made some dinner and enjoyed coffee and dessert, and read for a while before calling it a night. The next day would be a much longer one.