The intrepid trapper: Week four – 30 Jan – 2 Feb

Day 10 – Knights Track, Toka Peak to near Tunupo Peak

It was a beautiful Sunday morning when we set off to Limestone carpark for another trip along Deerford and Knights Tracks, and up the mountain. Jonathan came up from Wellington, and Gerry offered again to help carry traps up the hill, both as volunteers. Since we only had three frame packs to carry traps, Gerry took my two traps, and I carried  all our snacks, water, warm clothing and safety gear.

The weather forecast looked favourable, and since we still needed to ground-truth the ridge between Toka and Tunupo Peaks, this seemed like a good opportunity. During our previous attempt, it was drizzly, super foggy and quite cold. And that was only three weeks ago. That is the nature of the mountain beast in NZ.

The steep uphill hasn’t miraculously flattened one bit. The relentless hill just goes up and up without respite to the top of Toka Peak, and beyond. Walking up the mountain with a heavy pack is, of course, slow going. It took a couple of hours to reach the place from where we had to start dropping off the traps (trap #15-10) and bait them. Some of the traps we set out were above the tree line already, in the dense leatherwood.

Once we got rid of the weight of the traps, we moved a bit easier as we headed further up the mountain. Another kilometre or so, brought us to the top. Once on the ridge, it is another few hundred metres to reach Toka Peak. The temperature immediately dropped, and I had to add a couple of layers, especially since we were soaking wet from sweating going up. The wind was also quite cool, which didn’t help. But, all things considered, it was actually very good up there – no adverse weather conditions.

We started ground-truthing when we reached the ridge and set a waypoint on Topo maps every 100 metres as the crow flies. A good few climbs on the ridge kept our hearts pumping and lungs burning. And a few steep clambers up and down on steep, tricky terrain, really engaged the attention. The ‘track’ is almost non-existent and unmarked, with leatherwood and tussock to walk through and over.

By the time we had marked twenty spots, we decided to turn around. It was already two in the afternoon, and we still had to make our way back along the ridge and down the mountain. After a quick snack (we left our sandwiches in the car), we started heading back the way we came. We were going at a reasonable clip, and it still took more than three hours (without stopping) to get back down the mountain. Every single step is a step down. Apart from a couple of super small and short wee uphills, there’s nearly nothing that is not a quad buster.

On the way up, I managed to go through both streams dry-footed, which was a welcome change to a usual day. But going back, I stepped on a loose rock at the last stream about half a kilometre from the car, and managed to get both my feet soaking wet. Yet again. No mercy for the wicked.

We arrived back home a bit before seven, and after sorting the animals, I was ready to go to bed. But of course we still needed to make dinner, finish cooking the preserve I was going to do during the day, get ourselves clean and myself sorted for work on Monday. I only managed to get into bed by midnight, and with the heat and wind, sleep wasn’t very flash, so I knew I’d be starting the new new week tired already.

All up, we covered 16km, with 1600m elevation.

Day 11 – Cone Creek

We met at the usual spot in Ashhurst, where Ian picked us up to collect 17 new traps from Ryman Residents. Afterwards we drove out to Ian’s farm to check that everything was working as it should, and spray-paint them with our logo.

It had been overcast when we woke up, but by the time we met in Ashhurst, the clouds dissipated and the mercury started rising already. By midday it was blazingly hot. Even with all the car windows open, we still arrived in a dam of sweat at Jim’s place in the small town of Apiti.  Driving out to his farm, some clouds started to roll over the mountain from the east, but they were few and far between overhead.

We drove all the way to just above Jim’s private hut, named Edelweiss, from where the trail starts. Luckily Jim offered to help carry traps and show us the way. Despite having been up the creek to ground-truth some of it, I wouldn’t know be the best route to take.

The four of us each carried two traps, and Ian had an extra one under the arm that was dropped at the first spot. Luckily most of the walk is in the forest so we were sheltered from the sun. I was a bit sunburnt from the day before, and was happy to be under the canopy of the trees.

Slowly but surely we were making our way up the creek, criss-crossing through the water. One by one we dropped the traps off, until the first nine were all in place. On the way back for a second round we baited, tagged and recorded them.

Back at the ute, we had a quick bite to eat, before setting off with another batch of two each, so another eight traps. This time we had to pass the first nine traps before we could start dropping off the new batch.

It is quite slow going, as the track is rather technical with heaps of fallen trees to clamber over. Not to mention all the stream crossings, slippery rocks and other obstacles. I managed to step on a slippery rock in one such stream-crossing and gave my shin a good knock on a sharp rock, which developed a massive bump and turned all shades of purple by the evening. Finally we reached the spot for trap number 17, our final destination for the day. We turned around and on the way back, baited, set, and tagged all the traps.

It was after six before we got back to the ute. Nina and I checked two traps on the farm (we checked the previous week) that was en route, and found a hedgehog in the one. After Nina cleared it out and reset the trap, we were on our way. The hilly drive through the farm also takes a bit of time, before we headed home, dropping off Jim in Apiti and driving back to Palmy.

Another very long day, and quite challenging to boot.

Day 12 – Jocks and Pohangina Base

I have not met farmer Jock before, as I only started working at ENM after Ian and Nina had already met with him.

Nina and I met bright and early (7am) on another beautiful, warm, day, got a cup of take-away coffee before we were off to the farm to check the traps. Despite roadworks, and slow speed limits on the way, we arrived a few minutes earlier than agreed at the farm. Farmer Jock heard us coming, so came down on his quad bike from the house to where we parked.

Nina introduced us, and while I was still thinking we might be walking around the farm to check on the traps, farmer Jock offered to take us around with his quad bike.

With bait, gloves, spanners and tongs at the ready, we were off. I haven’t been on a quad bike much (and have never driven one) before, but sort of knew what I was in for. Some of the places we went seemed quite steep or at too much of a lean, and if you’re not used to it, it feels a bit scary at times. But it was obvious farmer Jock knew what he was doing, so I needed not worry at all. And he is very entertaining, as well as knowledgeable about farming and the environment.

We started checking the traps, and quite a good few of them had killed something. Mostly it was hedgehogs, but also a few rats. In one of them, only the head of the rat remained. Something else got hold of the body and ate everything – bones, guts and all, or dragged it away.

Being on the slope of the mountain, we went further and further uphill, until we reached his private (hunter’s) hut. From here it did not seem too far to the top of the mountain, and Jock offered to take traps as high as he could with his quad bike, for the line on top of the mountain. This will save us a lot of effort, which I for one am very grateful for.

The hut has a beautiful view down the mountain, and is well equiped. Jock showed us around while we checked the two traps at the hut. The firewood for the hut comes from a huge old fallen tree (totara?) that they dragged up the mountain. Each year they saw off a ring to split to provide wood for the year. I quickly used the loo – with a lovely view! – before we started heading down the mountain through paddocks, and towards a more sheltered, forest area. Jock has quite a few trees and sheltered areas for his sheep, including streams and wetlands to ensure his stock is well looked after.

Some steep ups and downs, a few lessons in tree identification, and weeds and feed, and we had made it back to the farm house a bit after lunchtime. Jock gave us a few faulty traps that needed fixing, and showed us his fridge with deer that was shot recently.

A good day, great weather, entertaining company and a good few kills. Roughly every third or fourth trap had some or other pest and all up we got 10 hedgehogs and 2 rats.

After finishing up at Jock’s, we drove to Pohangina Fieldbase to check the trapline there. Over the 15 traps, we ended up with another 5 hedgehogs and 2 rats.

This trapline follows the edge of the bluff, and at one point, Nina showed me a viewpoint in a clearing, with Ski Station just across the gorge from where we access the Mid-Pohangina trapline. The latter was on the agenda for the following day.

Unfortunately this trapline is also somewhat overgrown (which seems to be the norm), but one can’t really get lost; you with either end up in the gorge or in the road.

Near the end of the trapline we took a shortcut out to the road for the walk back to the car.

Day 13 – Mid-Pohangina

Back to the Mid-Pohangina trapline to check the traps for the first time after deploying them some three weeks ago. Arriving at the farm gate, some sheep were being mustered into a different paddock, and we had to wait a couple of minutes before getting access. The rough 4WD road through a few gates took us to the furthest point we can drive to. The walk from the ute across the farm and down into the valley to the start of the Ruahine Forest Park is about 1.6km, with some decent elevation.

Since we deployed traps along the river in the last few hundred metres towards the park, trap-work started as soon as we crossed the river. With the lack of rain the past few weeks, the river is even lower than when we deployed the traps.

This track is fast becoming a familiar sight, but some of it remains a bit nerve-wracking. One particular scree slope looks like it has become a way for deer to dash down the mountain, exacerbating the erosion. My worst nightmare is slipping on the slippery slope and sliding off the mountain. Sidling up the valley remains a steep and exhausting climb, including some hairy bits.

A couple of traps were set off which could have been due to tree branches falling on them, or deer kicking them accidentally, or whatever other random reason. In some, the bait disappeared mysteriously, so we had to rebait them. But a few had killed rodents – four hedgehogs and two rats. One was still quite fresh. Poor bugger.

The rope we attached to a tree the previous time, was luckily still there. The trees hanging over the track was unfortunately also still there, and with a cap on, I could not see that it was perfectly positioned at the exact level of my head, so I walk straight into it, knocking me back on my arse. I heard something that sounded like a crack and hoped it was the branch. A couple of days later my neck was still sore, probably (hopefully only) from the knee-jerk reaction, causing some tightness in my neck muscles.

I was quite surprised at how steep uphill the last few traps were. Somehow I had wiped this out of my memory. Once at the far end, it was just a matter of getting back to the ute. Servicing traps take up quite a bit of time, so going back was a notably quicker.

Back at the ute, it was very warm, as it has been the past few weeks. On the drive back to Palmy, we had lunch. We finished a little bit earlier, which was a welcome change to our routine.

I will not be working the following day, which will be Nina and Ian going back to Knights track to deploy the last few traps up the mountain, and checking the trapline as a whole so far.

The intrepid trapper: Week two – 17-19 January

Day 5

The week started off with another trip to Mid-Pohangina Track. The goal was to distribute a few more traps, particularly in the flat section on either side of the river, as well as the newly cut track, and to collect the monitoring cards from the middle section of the trapline.

For the task, it was only Ian, Nina and myself. We decided that both Nina and I will each carry two traps from the ute down and up the river, from where Ian will ground-truth, place and bait the traps. In the meantime, NIna and I made our way up the mountain again to collect the monitoring cards. 

When we parked in the paddock, it was super windy. The sun was out though, and the gloomy weather prediction from the previous week, was fortunately a miss by MetService. As we walked down the farm track, it became evident that it might be a hot day. Down by the river, criss-crossing, getting properly wet, we got to the point where Nina and I had to start following the track. We dropped the packs with traps and were on our merry way.

The newly cut track is so much easier to navigate and made for a far more enjoyable trip to the start of the Ruahine Forest Park. 

Thankfully it didn’t rain and things dried out since last week, which also made the going more comfortable. By now I’m getting used to the sketchy bits, and try not to look down the ‘straight down the mountain’ stretches. Unfortunately, I had yet another brush with Onga Onga. This seems to be my nemesis – I manage to get zapped by this pest way too often.

I also carried a rope in to attach on a tree at a gnarly spot that goes straight up/down on eroded soil. We’ve thus far managed to clamber up by hanging onto the grass next to the eroded bit, but a rope to hang onto will make it far easier, especially going down. Fingers crossed it stays there, and someone doesn’t decide to take it down for whatever reason.

We reached the far end in about two hours, collected the monitoring cards (near traps 20-24) before turning around to walk back the way we came. The day just got hotter and the wind less, so an enjoyable walk in the valley.

Back at the ute, we packed up and was ready to make our way out on the rugged farm road. Ian had to speak to a couple of farmers, so we drove to a neighbouring farm to catch up with Travis and George. They seem keen and are on board with the project, and also offered to help distribute traps with their four wheeler. So all good on this front.

Now just to get enough traps made so they can be distributed in the project area. While we can build the wooden boxes, the trap mechanisms are manufactured in Auckland, and due to COVID-19 restrictions, they have not been able to keep up with the demand. This is somewhat problematic, but at least Ian still has quite a few ready and waiting at his place. Carrying traps into the mountain at only two per person, is in any case slow and hard work, and not something that can happen overnight.

Day 6

The evening after our day in Mid-Pohangina, Ian was painting the Ruahine Kiwi logo on the remaining traps at his place. With this job done, the next step was to check the traps. The traps are made for free by some folk at the Ryman retirement village, which is awesome, as every trap they make is a huge task taken off our hands, for which we’re grateful. Before the traps can be distributed on the mountain, they need to be checked and tested to make sure everything works perfectly. The occasional adjustment may be required.

In the morning, we all (Nina, her son, and myself) met up with Ian in Ashhurst, from where we took his ute to his farm in the Pohangina Valley. Rows and rows of traps were laid out on his front lawn, which we wheelbarrowed to the shed for checking and adjustments. Every so often, the mechanism of a trap would be too close to the side, rendering it useless. But moving it a wee bit solves the problem in a tick.

By lunchtime we were ready to get 40 of the traps into Knights Track, at the furthest northern edge of the project area. On the way, we stopped at local farmer Jim and Sandy’s. Sandy also run a horse trekking business in the area. Jim offered to take us through his property, which borders on the DOC land, shaving off a few hundred metres of carrying traps. Jim also offered to carry a few traps up to the junction on Knights-Shorts and Deerford Tracks, which was very helpful. We did three trips and managed to take 30 of the traps to the junction. The others we left at the forest park entrance.

The walk starts with a short stretch downhill, after which we cross a stream before going up a steep little hill. Parts are narrow, with fallen trees across the path and of course a little Onga Onga bush right at my eye level. Luckily Nina warned me about it, so I could miss it with each trip out and back. She tried to break it off with a piece of stone to no avail. Will have to bring secateurs to get rid of it.

The day was super hot, and we spent half of it in the sun. But the part in the forest park was mostly shaded and a lovely, albeit steep, walk.

Day 7

While the weather gods remained kind, we decided to go back and start moving the traps up the mountain. Gerry had a day off, so he volunteered again. We left before seven in the morning to pick up Nina in Feilding. After buying a quick coffee to go, we set off driving out to the Limestone Road carpark, a kilometre or so past Sixtus Lodge.

We collected six of the ten traps we left at the park entrance the previous day, for the trip up the mountain. And boy is this mountain steep. From the stream-crossing we walk the first very steep stretch to the junction (the same stretch we did the previous day multiple times), before heading left around the Deerford track. Although the track still goes uphill, it is not as steep as the first bit. But after this short respite to the junction on the other side of Deerford Track, the mountain climb starts in all earnest. The relentless uphill had us puffed (pooped!) and winded. It makes for slow going with the weight of the traps, but I think we did well, moving 15 traps into their resting places. Nina made three trips, and Gerry and I did two, while also baiting and setting the traps, and signposting their positions. A numbered pink triangle goes on a tree where the trap can be found, to make future check-ups and documenting easier. Each time something gets killed, it is noted on a website containing the network of traps, to keep up-to-date stats on the killings and progress. Quite cool, really.

Another good, full day of hard grafting in the mountains. If I can keep this up, I’ll be fit and strong in no time.

For this week, I covered about 30km and 2180 elevation.