24 December 2016 – Christmas Eve
What was meant to be an early night, early start, drive to Whakapapa Village and start walking early, turned into a very late night (1am), getting up four hours later, load everything in the car, drive the two and half hours, sign in, get sorted and only start walking at 11:11am. (Looking back at our previous trip, it would seem that old habits die hard.)
We opted to circle Mt Ruapehu anti-clockwise this time. The first few kilometres is reasonably flat and easy, mainly in the forest and sheltered from the wind. We hardly saw any other hikers, probably because it was the day before Xmas?
Passing through The Chute and Slippery Gully, in and out of the forest consisting mainly of beech, cedar and cabbage trees, we reached the Whakapapaiti valley floor. Our main goal was to get through this hazardous river safely, as another women’s life was alegedly claimed when swept away by the strong stream not long ago. After heavy rain, the stream can become impassable, which is exactly what happened on our previous Round the Mountain trip. We had to take a detour and missed this section of the track.
When we finally reached the stream where we had to cross after a long walk in the valley bed, all the warnings suddenly made sense. It is a formidable stream and you will be swept away in an instant (when in flood). Luckily we could get across about knee deep, but was it not for the fact that we went together side-by-side with Gerry upstream from me, the pull of the water might have washed my feet from under me and I might have had more than just wet feet. We had to go through boots and all as bare feet would not have coped with all the rocks and stones, carrying a heavy pack, and crocs would have been washed away in a second.
We reached the Whakapapaiti Hut at 3pm and decided to have a late lunch before pushing on for a few more kilometres. A 15 minute walk brought us to the junction where The Goat trail run links up with the Round the Mountain track, via Scoria Flat coming down from Bruce Road. The trail run starts at the Whakapapa ski field and finishes at the Turoa ski field near Ohakune, and is about 20km long.
By 6pm we’ve been up and down a few more valleys and through more streams, of which three more were knee deep. We could rock-hop all the others and once up on a fairly flat bit, we started searching for a spot to pitch the tent. We found a lovely spot right next to a small waterfall, and with the snow-capped Mt Ruapehu in our view, we spent a quiet and peaceful Christmas Eve, cooking dinner, having a tipple and finishing the evening off with Christmas cake.
25 December – Christmas Day
No rain so far, and despite patchy strong wind, we couldn’t complain about the weather. Sunny for the most part and not really cold.
We had a good sleep-in and recharged with coffee and breakfast, we packed everything and were off at 10am. After another wee stream crossing, we launched into the first of many uphills (and downhills) for the day. Two significant valleys (Manganui-o-te-Ao and the Makatote) had to be crossed before reaching Lake Surprise. It has to be said that the erosion on this track is still quite bad, making the going very tough. Another steep downhill on technical terrain brought us to the Mangaturuturu Hut at about 4:30pm. Filling water bottles, we pushed on and up the Cascades before finding a nice spot to pitch the tent for the night, with Ohakune Mountain Road in the distance. Another fantastic view of Mt Ruapehu, no wind – just peace and quiet while we settled in for the night, ate and be merry (with the last of our Christmas cake).
We were nearing the end of the official Goat trail run (still on the to-do list in the near future) route, which is tough and technical, no doubt. But a fair bit more difficult if you have to slog a heavy pack across the valleys and ridges.
As I lay back in my sleeping bag, I realised that my ears were so sunburnt, they almost glowed in the dark. Despite constantly adding more sunblock during the day, it must have rubbed off as I wiped my runny nose, with my watery eyes washing away the rest.
I also started showing cold-like symptoms – something that usually also happens after a long-run. The theory is that your body and system takes a knock and therefore you get cold-like symptoms. But I’m starting to think that it is more a case of not being used to exposure to nature, especially the sun. Not that hiking with a heavy pack would not give you a knock, but “exposure” to me, seems like the more likely culprit. We humans are really a bunch of wusses when it comes to dealing with nature. When you’re been out on a long-run, what do you do? You jump in a warm shower, put on dry clothes and spent the rest of the day indoors and sheltered from any natural elements. But when you have little more than a tent and some bare neccessities, you somehow have to make do with wet shoes, limited or no water for washing, sleeping on the ground, being cold and still being outside and exposed to whatever nature throws at you.
Although the Round the Mountain track is about the same distance as the Kepler track (a ranger from Te Anau once told us that it is 67km and not 60km as the brochure claims, and I’m sticking to that), this is twenty times tougher. It is no walk in the park, especially if you do it in a self-sufficient manner, carrying everything you might need. There is an easier way, off course: do it over six days and stay in all the huts. That also means you are close to your water supply overnight and don’t have to carry your full supply with you from the last hut. With only 4 and a half litre capacity and poor Gerry already carrying in excess of 20kg initially (my pack hovered between 10-13kg), we did not heed to DoC’s warning about not using the water from the streams. It tastes fantastic and I’m sure it is some of the cleanest water around. With the exception of the stream in the Lahar valley, which smelled of sulphur.
What makes a tramp like this so tricky, is that you have to be prepared for heavy rain, sleet, cold wind, and anything else the mountain can bring, and therefore carry a lot of stuff that you might not use. As was the case this time – it never rained and wasn’t really very cold, so a lot of the down jackets ended up being used as pillows and was never worn. Same goes for the heavy and bulky rain jackets, gloves, pack covers, etc. With the food getting less each day, at least our packs got a bit lighter over time.
With heavy packs, a buggered hip and (wet!) boots we haven’t worn for two years, the blisters were soon piling on. But the fantastic scenery, great weather and just being there, more than made up for any discomfort.
26 December – Boxing Day
This Christmas will long after be remembered as one of the greatest Gerry and I have had.
By 9:20am we started on the uphill towards the Ohakune Mountain Road. Once at the top, we had to walk about 3.5km of the Round the Mountain track along the sealed road. Going anti-clockwise, meant a very steep downhill until we reached the carpark to continue on the track. A few day trips or side-tracks can be done from this point: Blyth Hut, the old Blyth Track, seeing a mistletoe, the Waitonga Falls (at 39 metres the highest in the area) and the Rotokawa tarn.
Staying in the forest for roughly two hours, we were sheltered from the sun. Another beautiful day which made for fantastic views of the mountain whenever we reached an open area. At one of these spots, next to a stream, we had lunch and from there it was another hour to reach the Mangaehuehu Hut. We again filled all our water containers for the night and walked another two hours before finding a nice spot next to a stream shortly after 5pm to pitch the tent.
Although our bodies were taking a beating, we were slowly making up for lost time (planning to finish in five days) from the slow progress in the first two days. I felt terribly weak and out of breath the first few days, and it was only late that night that it dawned on me that it was probably the change in altitude having a small impact? Granted, we were only walking between 1000 and 1600m altitude, but when you live, for all intents and purposes, at sea level it makes a difference. It must have. And I know I’m unfit, but this lethargy felt different. Luckily by day three, I’d sort off acclimatised (I guess) and was starting to manage better.
We spent yet another absolutely fantastic night at the foot of the mountain with practically no wind, star-filled skies and complete peace and quiet.
By 7:30am we were packed, had breakfast and coffee and were ready to go. With the two dangerous stream-crossings behind us, as well as the Cascades, the main obstacles ahead were the Waihianoa Gorge and the Whangaehu River lahar valley.
After a bit more than an hour, we reached the Waihianoa Gorge. Standing on the edge, the sheer volume of the vast expanse in front of you is almost overwhelming. Being just a tiny speck in this rugged landscape makes one realise how insignificant you really are. The massive, snowy mountain towering above and the abyss of the valley below looks like an impossible task to get through.
It took us about one hour and twenty minutes to cross the valley, from rim to rim, which was much faster than I expected looking at it from above. The downhill was still manageable and fairly gradual, but the uphill was very slippery, more steep/straight up and quite scary.
After about three and a half hours we reached Rangipo Hut and filled our water bottles. The water at this hut tasted like it came through the chimney – it had an almost “smoky” taste to it, really unpleasant. We ended up exchanging most it for stream water. From the hut we saw about 12 other hikers (often solo walkers) coming from the front. Only one other guy that we chatted to, was tramping with a tent.
This stretch is my favourite part of the track. The beautiful, dusty, dry, rocky, rugged desert landscape, makes me feel right at home. I absolutely love this type of environment.
Although every step you take is either on the way up a hill, or going down a hill, the terrain definitely gets easier the further you go (going anti-clockwise). And as is always the case during these sorts of things, being away from everyday life, phones, internet, etc, you have lots of time to think. So over the course of the hike, we concocted another running challenge for ourselves. 🙂 Depending on a few things of course.
During the afternoon, a Nor’wester started to pick up, and by 4pm it was blowing a gale. We started searching for a sheltered camping spot and found a lovely place in a dry river bed. Unfortunately it wasn’t very sheltered after all, but at least it wasn’t on top of one of the sand dunes. It was about 5pm and the gale was making pitching a tent quite a challenge. We anchored the corners before lifting the poles and adding the fly-sheet. In addition we covered the flat bits of the fly-sheet, that would usually be covered with snow in very windy conditions, with river sand and rocks, which worked a treat. Our snow-tent has been through quite a few desert hikes over the past 18 odd years, including this one – twice. The poor old tent really needs an overall, as all the seam-sealant has come off and there are tiny holes here and there. But it is still the greatest piece of equipment we’ve invested in.
We cooked in the cowl in front of the tent where it was a bit more sheltered, but the sand still got into everything. I was often awoke during the night because of the wind plucking at the tent. Just before dawn the wind magically died away and we were greeted by the calmest of days.
Another early start, but within two hours the Nor’wester picked up again and for the rest of the day we were blown across the ridges and sand dunes and through the valleys. We covered about 20km in total, but luckily it was fairly easy going. At least compared to the previous days. My buggered and blistered feet were not all too happy by that stage, but we made good progress. Passing the Ohinepango Springs, the Waihohonu Hut, Upper and Lower Lakes Tama and finally the Taranaki Falls, we reached Whakapapa Village by 3:30pm.
It was another very sunny day and I managed to get myself (ears and nose) even more sunburnt. The Nor’wester kept us cool, but the moment you reached a valley or a spot sheltered by a ridge, it was boiling hot.
As we were walking, a runner came from the front, stopped and introduced himself as Callum – someone Gerry had only known through Facebook before. Always nice to meet a FB friend in person.
Overall my hip was very well behaved, despite swollen and bruised hip bones from carrying the heavy pack. I have a couple of theories about my hip-problem which I am exploring. Hopefully we will manage to make it to, and through, our own new challenge towards the end of 2017. It allows for enough time to see where my hip is going, and what I can and can’t do. Only time will tell.
This is not an easy walk – the terrain is very challenging (in addition to soggy, wet, mushy, slippery, eroded terrain, you also have to deal with scoria, rocks, steep gradients and swing-bridges) and the flat-ish sections only make up for about one kilometre of the track. You go around a significant mountain and I guess it is fair to say that up and down valleys, crossing streams – wet or dry – is what it is all about.
Another Xmas in the mountains. Beautiful, sunny days and mostly calm, quiet nights, not too cold. It is, and remains one of the most beautiful parts of the country. But it is very rugged and very tough terrain. I am glad we did it anti-clockwise as this might be my favourite direction. I think. Might toss a coin next time.