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Hiking in the Ruahine Range

When I went to New Zealand after my trip to New Caledonia in late 2015 I went to stay with a very nice hospitable couple in Hawke’s Bay that I had met in England decades ago. I didn’t really know them that well, but after connecting on Facebook Clayton invited me to visit them when he found out that I was going there. Clayton and Michelle were marvellous hosts, and as an outdoor enthusiast Clayton made a point of ensuring that I made the most of my time there with plenty of advice and assistance. He recommended one of his favourite destinations to me, the Sunrise Hut in the Ruahine Forest Park, and actually drove me all the way to the entrance car park.



I was chomping at the bit to do some hiking and get up into the mountains, but unfortunately when I woke up the next morning in the first hut on the trail it was raining and I had a nasty cold that Clayton’s family had just had. It’s a very steep ascent up to the Sunrise Hut and the last thing I needed was a debilitating cold and wet conditions, but I was too eager to get some altitude for it to hold me back. The main problem was that the cold affected my breathing and I had to keep drinking water. I was enthralled by the lush vegetation and observing how the beech trees gradually got smaller and more stunted as I plodded up the ascending path that had few breaks in its steepness.


There are signs along the path that give information about the different trees and conservation measures such as the chicken-wire enclosures around any mistletoe to protect it from the destructive possums, one of many invasive species that have decimated the native flora and fauna of New Zealand. I had already had a good introduction to this hotly debated problem because Clayton’s son Sam was working in pest control on a reserve on Cape Kidnappers where they are trying to create a safe haven for key native species like kiwis. He took me there to have a look around and the first trap that I picked up had a dead hedgehog inside. They were introduced by British immigrants who wanted to recreate their home environment without any due consideration for the possible impact that they could have on the native environment. The worst invasive species include red and fallow deer, stoats, possums, hedgehogs and of course the ubiquitous cats and rats.

Apparently hedgehogs have had a big impact on reptiles, and skinks in particular. It seems so ironic that UK species like hedgehogs and many species of birds have almost disappeared here but are thriving in New Zealand; if only the hedgehogs could be caught alive and shipped back here to control the slugs and snails in our gardens rather than eliminating important native species in New Zealand. I was amazed by how many familiar UK bird species are thriving there but disappearing from the UK. I saw large flocks of goldfinches around the vineyards in Hawke’s Bay but you will be lucky to see a pair of them here anymore. I could write a lot more about this issue now, but will save it for my posts about the forests that I hiked in where the impact of invasive species is so noticeable.







It was a relentless 5 km plod up to the Sunrise Hut, and the information board suggested that it would take 2-3 hours but I did it in 1 and a half hours so the heavy cold didn’t slow me down. I’ve always been a fast walker and push myself regardless of the conditions or how I feel. It was a great feeling to reach the hut and be up higher than I had been for a very long time. The nicely renovated spacious hut is perched on a ridge with a steep rocky slope plunging down the opposite side from the stunted forest that I had walked up through. There are two outdoor toilets firmly fixed to the ground with steel cables giving a good indication of how windy it can get there! It was still wet and overcast on my first day there but on the following morning I was able to experience the hut’s great vantage point for a dramatic sunrise. I then explored the ridge behind the hut up to the Armstrong Saddle and the higher vantage points around it. The Armstrong Saddle is named after Hamish Armstrong, one of the first private aircraft owners in New Zealand, who disappeared, and after an extensive search the wreckage of his Gypsy Moth was found there with no trace of him. It’s one of those places where you are so aware of what happened there and try to visualise all of the events that unfolded there from the crash to the extensive search for him.

















I then hiked beyond the Armstrong Saddle along a breathtakingly beautiful ridge to the Top Maropea Hut where I spent a very cold sub-zero night with an inadequately lightweight sleeping bag. The firewood in the hut and in the woodshed was very wet, and it took so much effort to get a decent fire going and my eyes were ravaged by the smoke. The next morning I descended into the deep river valley and hiked along it for a while. It was the first time for so long that I felt completely immersed and isolated in pure wilderness; a feeling of solitude that I was accustomed to in my life in Southeast Alaska but very rarely since then. I just wanted to keep walking but I had a limited amount of time because Clayton was returning to pick me up at the car park after a week. The hike back along the ridge to return to the Sunrise Hut was one of the most beautiful I can remember. I had to keep stopping to look all around me and take photos because of the mercurial lighting, clouds and mist. It was the first time probably since when I hiked across the mountains on the Small Isles on the west coast of Scotland over ten years ago that I had that euphoric feeling of space, so much space, so much panoramic perspective. It felt like my eyes had expanded to the size of dinner plates to take it all in, and my mind was as sharp as the flaking rock faces around me. Beneath me I was mesmerised by the colourful alpine vegetation and bonsai trees stunted by a harsh existence in the fierce biting winds. Mist was blowing up the valley and swirling around the craggy rocks and pinnacles, saturating the vegetation to a higher intensity of colour. I love walking along high ridges like that and that one is perfection.















As I was walking along the ridge my eyes started to plot a route up to the highest point just to the north, Te Atuaoparapara at 1687m. I could see a good waterfall below it and the possibility of some good photos. The next day the wind had really picked up and if common sense had prevailed I wouldn’t have decided to hike up such an exposed narrow ridge to get to Te Atuaoparapara, but I always prefer to ride my luck than just stick to common sense. It was well worth taking the risk in the scintillating sunny and windy conditions. There were a few tricky steep ascents to make up slippery grass slopes to get to the main ridge, but from then on it was breathtaking stuff with the fierce wind roaring up the side of the ridge vibrating the grass and my eyelids making it quite difficult to take photos, which I had to do from a sitting position for stability. I was so energised by the high-velocity wind and the sweeping vibrating landscape around me that I wanted to flap my arms and take off in the wind. What a day! What a hike! Back at the Sunrise Hut I could really appreciate the power of the wind going from the sheltered side to the wind elevator on the steep side. I ran the gauntlet along the exhilarating narrow ridge track leaning into and being accelerated by the wind. On the forested side of the ridge, which must also get its fair share of wind, the stunted trees are all locked in a tight scrum to deflect the wind. One minute I could be buffeted and deafened by the wind, and then drop down into the shelter of the trees in absolute stillness.











On the way back down from the Sunset Hut I took a diversion to stay at the Waipawa Forks Hut next to the Waipawa River, where I had my first company for the week. The first night there was an elderly group of well-equipped hikers. I had already noticed how much outdoor activity retired people in New Zealand engage in from hiking to mountain biking. It’s very inspiring…not that I need inspiring; I will be hiking and biking as long as my legs will carry me! The next evening two deer hunters arrived with a young buck; not a deer that they had shot, but the enthusiastic son of one of them so excited to be out on his first big hunting trip. Finn is his name and a very funny little fellow was Finn haha. After being so disenchanted with the obese sedentary gadget obsessed younger generation today it’s so refreshing to encounter children like Finn. Good on ya mate!!







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