The view from the top of the Ruahine Range is a good one to wake up to.
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A track that pays tribute to optimism and folly on the West Coast.
One of the most important historic buildings in the New Zealand mountains.
Howletts Hut lies in a sheltered hollow on Daphne Ridge, an offshoot of the main Ruāhine Range. An appealing hut with an orange roof and blue walls, it has fine views of Black Ridge as well as an expansive vista of the Hawke’s Bay hinterland. In summer, it’s a place of golden tussocks, khaki beech fringes and rugged mountains streaked with grey scree slopes. From the hut, an hour’s tramp along Daphne Ridge leads through a stunted patch of mountain beech, over scree and tussock slopes, and up to a knoll beneath Tiraha, from where there is a stunning view of the Sawtooth Ridge. From this angle, the ridge certainly earns its name, with a broken spine that drops sharply to very steep, eroding gullies. During winter, after a southerly has dumped snow and an overnight freeze has cemented it in place, the ridge resembles the Southern Alps more than the Ruāhines. The hut takes its name from Hawke’s Bay schoolteacher and botanist William Howlett. Originally from England, Howlett came to New Zealand in 1875 as a remittance man (often a later-born son, not in line for any land or significant inheritance, who was paid by the family to go the colonies). He was an eccentric character. His strong interest in alpine plants drew him into the range from Mākāretu, where he taught at the local school. Naturally enough, the weather severely compromised his ability to explore the area, so in 1893–94 he and a companion built a hut on what he called Daphne Spur, named after the native daphne (Pimelea buxifolia) that grows there. In 1902, he even brought his young wife up the ridge to spend their honeymoon at the hut. Howlett’s construction lasted until about 1930. In 1938, a replacement hut was built, but by the 1970s, it had seen better days. The Heretaunga Tramping Club embarked on a major rebuild, and has maintained it ever since, with continual improvements. The hut has a distinctive design, with a steep gabled roof, and is cosy—especially on a winter’s night with the pot-belly stove glowing. Getting to Howletts is possible on several routes, all of them quite strenuous. The most direct route goes up the Tukituki River to the base of Daphne Spur, where a very steep grunt leads up to the hut (allow 6–8 hours). The Tukituki is impossible when flooded, but fortunately there’s an overland route that avoids all fords. This begins from Kashmir Rd, climbs onto the main Ruāhine Range past Longview Hut, then traverses the tops over Otumore and Taumatataua to reach Daphne Ridge. It’s a good summer route (allow 7–9 hours), but is exposed and can be slow-going in the snows of winter. A third option is to approach via Rosvalls Track, Black Ridge and the Sawtooth. Most parties attempting this route stay at Tarn Bivouac on the way in (allow 9–12 hours). Whatever way you reach Howletts Hut, you’ve earned a good rest in a fine spot.
Of all the Great Walks, the Kepler is the only one that was deemed ‘a classic’ from the moment it was conceived. Opened in 1988, it came about when the Department of Conservation joined several infrequently used routes on the Kepler Mountains to make a well-constructed track, with the aim of easing the number of walkers crowding onto the Milford and Routeburn tracks. That it failed in this intention and instead offered another high-standard multi-day track to walk in this wonderful part of New Zealand was entirely predictable. But its popularity seems to prove that a track doesn’t have to be an ancient Māori greenstone trail or a place of colonial history, or even feel the decades-old reverberations of explorers, hunters, trampers and their ilk to have poignancy in a world overwhelmed by humans. The well-conceived Kepler Track cuts a daring line across some spectacular Fiordland tops and links many disparate natural features—caverns of limestone, meadows of alpine plants, forests of lowland beech and two lakes of monumental size. Furthermore, it neatly returns to its start at Te Anau like a giant ouroboros (the serpent of creation that swallowed its own tail), having led you across a wild edge of Fiordland. It takes between three and four days to walk its 60 kilometres, and can be done clockwise or anticlockwise. From Te Anau to Brod Bay, the Kepler starts out gently enough through a forest of red beech and mountain beech on the edge of Lake Te Anau, the largest lake in the South Island. Whether you wander in silence or converse with a companion, these first kilometres help to clear the mind of the recent hectic past and other unnecessary thoughts. The harder work begins with the climb up the east-facing hill from Brod Bay to the bushline through an entrancing forest covered in lichens. From Luxmore Hut, the next day’s tramping is spent almost entirely above the bushline, winding around easily travelled mountain faces and ridges. The track zigzags a few times, then climbs gradually before commencing a long sidle under the northern faces of Mt Luxmore. The rocks around Mt Luxmore sparkle with crystals and mica, their grainy, gritty texture splashed in strong dark reds and blue–greys. Indeed the Kepler Track, of all the walks described in this book, has the most interest for those with a geological bent. Here it’s possible to point to the ground and roll your tongue knowingly around such expressive words as gabbro, dunite, pegmatite, diorite and gneiss. This second day, no matter what the weather, will etch long-lasting images into your memory. When glancing down to place your feet you will see rocks and alpine tussocks, flowering herbs and mountain grasshoppers; when you look out you will see huge Fiordland vistas, and may even experience an almost vertiginous feeling of spaciousness. By making an early start the following day you can walk all the way to Rainbow Reach carpark (allow seven to eight hours), or to the Te Anau outlet in 10–11 hours. But most prefer the five- or six-hour stroll down the Iris Burn to spend a third night at Moturau Hut on the shores of Lake Manapōuri. Beyond Moturau Hut, a boardwalk stretches out above a superb kettle bog, a soggy mire where tiny purple bladderworts, deep blue swamp orchids and diminutive sundews waver amongst rustling wires of rush and green sphagnum moss. After several swamps are traversed, the trail reaches the Waiau River where, at the Rainbow Reach bridge, you can catch (in summer) a shuttle bus to Te Anau. Otherwise the track continues for a further three hours of forest and riverside walk to complete the circle back at the Lake Te Anau outlet.
Fiordland is severe country with an uncompromising climate, which makes the Milford Track all the more remarkable for the relative ease with which it conveys people into the heart of this rugged wilderness. Not that walking the Milford Track is an effortless undertaking—it’s more that the Milford’s well-constructed path belies Fiordland’s severity as it comfortably steers trampers along two immense glaciated valleys and over a high pass within a spectacular landscape of mountains, snowfields and deep-green forests. In effect, walkers of the Milford are granted all the rewards of tramping in this exceptional mountain area, yet spared the struggles necessary to tramp in most other Fiordland valleys. What many aren’t spared walking the Milford is wet weather. It rains frequently (on average 7–10 metres a year) and torrentially, rapidly transforming the landscape as waterfalls formed in an instant career down previously blank rock faces, gentle watercourses become seething torrents, and water flows across the valleys—taking everything in its path like the mythical Assyrian army. Water is thus a dominant motif on the Milford, although not one that should deter you because the experience of a Fiordland storm—seen from the safety of a bridge—can be just as exhilarating as the stupendous vistas of a fine day. Beyond the immediate and awe-inspiring effects of a Fiordland inundation, water also works in more subtle ways, sustaining the luxuriant coatings of moss and epiphytes in its forests, and filling the pools, cascades and waterfalls that have added so much character to the Clinton and Arthur valleys. Gigantic Ice Age glaciers of frozen water carved the walls of these two valleys, and even today frozen snow released in mammoth winter avalanches continues to alter the landscape and vegetation. That water forms a major theme on the Milford Track is dramatically confirmed by the 580-metre Sutherland Falls, among New Zealand’s highest waterfalls (its status as the highest waterfall was only recently eclipsed by discovery of a higher one, also in Fiordland) and also by the fact that—uniquely for this country—reaching the track requires passage across two large bodies of water—Lake Te Anau and Milford Sound.
Two contrasting landscapes are likely to linger in your mind after you’ve walked the Heaphy: one, a high, silent, tussock plateau; the other, a loud coastline where waves reach brashly towards groves of tropical palms and flowering rātā. These contrasts often accentuate divergent emotions of fear and attraction, awe and intimacy—it is all part of the appealing variety you experience on this traverse through forests and ancient geological structures in the northwest of Kahurangi National Park. Once beyond the first paddocks and scrubby spurs, the track enters a diverse forest that includes huge old red and hard beeches, rimu and miro, with distinctive mikimiki and toro trees in the understorey. The track crosses streams at regular intervals, and windows in the forest open towards the granite summits of the Lead Hills and Mt Olympus across the Aorere Valley, and beyond to the Dragons Teeth on the Douglas Range. The downs immediately make an impression by their strangeness: the high rolling plateau of open tussock and occasional forest contrasts with the rustling patches of mountain neinei and silver beech. Perhaps the downs landscape catches you off guard because mountainous country isn’t meant to be so smooth and flattish, and forests aren’t supposed to sit above alpine tussocklands. For whatever reason, it’s queer country and nearly everyone feels something of its eeriness, even if only retrospectively, once down in the semi-tropical forests of the Heaphy Valley. As you move over the downs the track traverses tussock flats where rivers like the Big cut raw into the old peneplain and begin coiling and curling in slow meanders before their sudden descent into mossy beech forest. Heading downriver, the track wends between exquisite avenues of nīkau palms and tree ferns, and massive northern rātā clear the surrounding canopy, festooned in perching and climbing plants. Kiekie and supplejack vines make much of this forest quite impenetrable, and warmth-loving species like kawakawa, rangiora and kōwhai complement the forest’s exotic nature. Further enhancing this section along the river’s final meander to the coast is a dramatic array of limestone landforms, including a rank of bluffs that not only walls in the southern bank, but also provides intriguing track-side architecture. A large surf invariably runs hard into the river, as it rushes across the swollen face of the sand. After three or four days walking, the almost violent power of the place seems paradoxically to create a sense of inner peace and contentment, especially at dusk when the sun boils into the western sea behind the rising spray of breaking waves.
The Routeburn Track is a high mountain traverse of the Ailsa and Humboldt mountains, two spectacular glacier-sculpted sandstone ranges wedged between the granite peaks of Fiordland’s Darran Mountains and the crumbling schist ranges of Mount Aspiring National Park. If you start the Routeburn from its southern end and climb to the grand viewpoint of Key Summit, you almost immediately gain an impression of the impact that glaciers had on the southern South Island landscape—in fact everywhere you look is a postscript to the last Ice Age that peaked 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. Below, the Hollyford Valley describes the classic U-shape of a glacier-carved valley, and its steep sides retain the classical imprints of a post-glacial landscape: hanging valleys, headwalls, cirque basins and aquamarine tarns. Across the valley, where remnant glaciers persist on the highest Darran summits, are fine glacier-honed ‘arete peaks’ like Pyramid and Christina, while northwards lies the beautifully rendered Emily Peak above Lake Mackenzie in the Ailsa Mountains. If morning cloud has filled the Hollyford to the bushline you can imagine that cloud as a huge glacier, fed by numerous side glaciers, and so start to comprehend the enormous drama that took place here when the ice was on the move. Indeed, the glacier that filled the Hollyford was so deep that it flowed over Key Summit (today a forest-fringed mountain bogland) and dispersed tongues of ice into the Eglinton and Greenstone valleys, while the main flow continued down the Hollyford to well beyond the present shore at Martins Bay. The glacial imprint appears so fresh because the granites and sandstones of these dramatic mountains are more resistant to the weathering forces that elsewhere have worn away the glacial record. At any time of year, even in midsummer, walking the Routeburn can become a meditation on the language of glaciers as you move beneath sculpted faces and ridges, past Lakes Howden, Mackenzie and Harris—created when the ice retreated—and past large boulders sure to be heavily scratched and serrated by broken rocks dragged over their surfaces while embedded in ice. The Routeburn is most often walked in three days, with evenly spaced stops at Lake Mackenzie and Routeburn Falls.
Mt taranaki is the sort of mountain you never tire of looking at, and one of the best places to view it from is the neighbouring Pouakai Range. This excellent weekend tramp accesses the Pouakai Range using the northern part of the Around-the Mountain Circuit, and ends back at North Egmont. It’s a great round trip, traversing all the varied terrain in this northern part of Egmont National Park. From the North Egmont carpark near The Camphouse, take the Veronika Loop Track, which plunges into forest immediately, beginning a steep climb onto a razorback ridge. At a track junction (where the Veronika Loop Track branches off) keep heading uphill. After crossing a couple of gullies, you intercept the high level Around-the-Mountain Circuit, where you should head right. The track passes beneath the angular columns of the Dieffenbach Cliffs, then continues sidling around to cross Boomerang Slip named for its shape. About halfway to Holly Hut, past a signposted turnoff to the Kokowai Track, the benched track sidles across a series of gorges cut by numerous streams radiating like spokes from Mt Taranaki. Finally, there’s a long but gradual descent to Holly Hut. From Holly Hut, head back to the track junction and begin a gentle descent towards the Ahukawakawa Swamp a long series of boardwalks lead across the swamp to the Stony River. After crossing the Stony River on an arched footbridge, a series of steps lead up through forest to the exposed tops of the Pouakai Range. Increasingly good views of Mt Taranaki expand as you gain height. Once on the range crest, the route to the Dover Track branches off to the west. Head right for about 20 minutes along the range, until a five-minute track branches off to Pouakai Hut. Beyond the knoll above the hut, the track leads across a flattish section of tops, past some small tarns, which often reflect Mt Taranaki in some splendour. More wooden steps descend from Henry towards the forest encasing the lower slopes. After crossing a stream near the shelter, the track sidles across more forested slopes intersected by some deep gullies before descending to the Waiwhakaiho River, which is spanned by a swingbridge near the confluence with Ram Stream. From here the Ram Track ascends a spur towards the road. Either end at the Kaiauai carpark (about a 2-kilometre walk along the road up to the carpark); or continue up the Ram Track to North Egmont.
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