This trip had been on my list for a few years. I had been on the Routeburn a few times recently and did a Rees Dart family tramp as a teenager.
I had met a few folks who had done the route, all raved about the amazing country. After reading Geoff Spearpoints “The Great Unknown” a gift from my father in law I was inspired to reach deeper into the backcountry. The 5 Passes doesn’t come close to Geoff’s incredibile trips but we all have to start somewhere.
We booked this trip in 11months out so had a long time to enjoy the planning and anticipation which is one of the things I enjoy about adventuring. I read lots of trip reports, talked to a few folks, watched trip videos, studied google earth and used my father in laws Moir’s guide book. It was great fun 🙂
I even had to do some map coordinate conversions from NZMS 260 map reference to New Zealand Geodetic Datum 2000 to record the exact locations for the rock bivi’s at Park Pass and on the Olivine ledge. If you need to do the same here is a link to help https://www.geodesy.linz.govt.nz/concord/index.cgi
Here is the trip planning information Google Earth project
At one stage we had 6 of us confirmed to go but this shrunk to 2 due to broken ankles, a lawn mower vs finger, pregnancy and a cycle adventure. In the end 3 of us jumped on the plane to Queenstown with our COVID masks on. We had a quick stop at the airport village Torpedo 7 store for the smallest gas bottle available and the $40 fly.
The weather was looking ok with a small clear window that might fit the time we would be most exposed on the tops, but it was going to get a little cold which turned out to be a little uncomfortable 😦
We headed to the Routeburn shelter past a group of local tourists enjoying a swim in Queenstown, it looked lovely.
As soon as we got to the road end we were attacked by the sand flies, did anyone bring any repellent? Some nice ladies turned up after a day’s walking and gave us some spray, we didn’t see any more insects until a few hours before getting back.
This was a fast packing trip so we were travelling light, aiming for about 8kgs so we did the last minute car pack cull of things we didn’t need to double up on. We took Grant’s fancy new Jet Boil and gave mine a rest. One of the heaviest things in my pack was my supply of cossients full of avocado, cheese and salima. I can justify heavy yummy food.
I had estimated travel times based on the planning and allowed 5 hours to get to Theatre Flats for our first night. We left the road end at 4.30pm and headed up over the Sugar Loaf Pass 1154m, I was surprised how rough it got once we dropped into the Rockburn. It was a lovely afternoon to be heading into the mountains and soon we arrived at Theatre flats and saw the big rock bivi that would provide some sheater for us. Anthony made a huge boom fire and we lay on the grass and admired the mountain and speeding cloud theatre.
This was my first night on my fancy new sleeping mat, normally we have huts for our multi day adventures so I bought a mat. Actually I bought two mats, one was an impulse facebook ad purchase for a cheap mat the other a well researched purchase from my favorite Bivavoic store. It felt uncomfortable paying the extra money for the thicker 10cm mat but it was worth every cent being comfortable and warm that night.
As forecast we got some light rain in the morning, the rock bivi kept us out of the rain just. The dips were starting to reach us as we packed up and headed for Park Pass. It was good conditions for tramping, light rain but clear skies so we could take in the country. We were now off track and following the route, sometimes we saw a few markers and cairns sometimes we just headed up the valley. It got cold going over Park Pass 1176m, we spotted one of the good rock Bivi’s that are a great feature of this country. Going down to hidden falls was a good challenge, we found the route to the bush line but lost it soon after. We bush bashed for a while and tore our legs on the ferns. The sun came out as we climbed to Cow Saddle and then it started snowing as we hit the snow slopes below Fiery Col 1546m. The Fiery rock in this area is super grippy and good to travel over.
As we travelled down from Fiery Col the sun came out again and we got views out over the Olivine ledge river and surrounding country. It was impressive. The day was starting to drag on and travel on the Olivine ledge was hard work, lots of rough travel and a few more rain showers. I wanted to check out the rock bivi at the end of the ledge so we didn’t head up the short route to the Fohn Lakes. The rock bivi was amazing and the sun came out again. We sat there and pondered what to do, option 1 stay in this dry warm safe bivi, option 2 climb another 400m to the amazing alpine lakes and sleep under the stars. Option 2 was risker but potentially offered next level mountain vista’s. It was 5.30pm and the forecast was good so we headed up.
The vista’s were next level, it was gorgeous. I went for a quick dip in the lake and enjoyed my hot raro watching the sun set over the lake edge with the Durans in the background.
The wind was blowing a bit, Anthony set up the fly but it was taking a beating from the wind and didn’t last long into the night. It was forecast to be cold and made for a long uncomfortable night, a set of sit ups and a set of star jumps at 4am wasn’t enough to get warm enough. We had frozen shoes and drink bottles in the morning.
Because we were making good progress we wondered if a visit to the Unknown Lake was possible. I led us off in the wrong direction which gave us a good view of the Merkl Glacier at the head of the Beans Burn.
We saw the first people we had seen in a few days before first flat and soon after Grant rolled an ankle. The forecast was for rain later in the day and the climb to the lake looked gnarly. So we flagged that plan. Anthony thought we could make it to the pub to watch the AB’s starting at 9.30 so we matched on across the Beans Burn river, beside the Dart, across the Rock Burn and passed Lake Sylvan.
The beer at the pub tasted good and the breakfast the next morning was amazing. Our gear dried in the sun and we had some fun shopping in town before returning home. Looking forward to exploring more of this area soon.
- Routeburn Shelter to Theatre Flat 3.45 https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/5887437658
- Theatre Flat to Park Pass 2.30
- Park Pass to Fiery Col 5.30
- Fiery Col to Fohn Lakes via rock Biv Olivine ledge 3.30 https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/5887442204
- Fohn Lakes to Split Rock Biv 3
- Split Rock Biv to First Flat 4.30
- First Flat to Rock Burn shelter 3
- Rock Burn to Sylvan campsite 1.45 https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/5887446340
- Total travel time 27.30
Trip planning information Google earth project
What makes a great adventure?
- A quest
- An unfamiliar environment
- An element of risk
I turned the big 50 in July and to celebrate I planned a ski touring adventure with my good mates Anthony and Andrew. None of us had ever been ski touring before but we have been on lots of great adventures in the backcountry.
Ski touring looked like a great way to explore Alpine country and spend time in the mountains. As with many adventures a bit of Youtube inspiration is a good starting point. I found a great clip showing a trip on Mount Sibbald, after a message to a mate in Christchurch a plan to stay at Macauley Hut and explore that area was hatched. We booked a week into our calendars and the excitement started.
I started to get a bit nervous about the plan so I signed up for an Alpine skills course, I also explored a few guided options. While my backcountry experience has grown we had never been ski touring and had none of the Alpine gear.
I found a few options that looked nice but most looked like they were aimed at a slightly different type of adventurer.
I was looking for a quest, unfamiliar environment and some risk. I phoned Axel from Alpine Recreation to see what options he could recommend, after a short chat on the phone he suggested we could do a ski touring trip to Caroline Hut / Ball Pass. With this warning on the website it looked perfect for an adventure. “A solid level of fitness with aerobic training prior to the trip is expected. Ability to carry moderate to heavy backpacks (8-10kg) for 6-9 hours if required. Expect ascents of 800-1200 vertical meters. Some discomfort expected due to long days and exposure to elements. Prior multi-day hiking/trekking/tramping trips through rough untracked terrain are recommended”
As we got close to our trip it looked like there was going to be a short window of clear weather after some fresh snow then all hell broke loose.
We didn’t think much about the fire station alarm when it started in Tekapo on Sunday, nek minnit there was a huge forest fire on both sides of SH 80. This closed the road.
We came up with lots of options: do we fly to Mt Cook from Tekapo, do we get a chopper from the east side of the lake. We waited and waited, watched a great film by the Alpine Rec team https://vimeo.com/ondemand/symphonyonskis that got us more excited to get into the hills. We watched a few instructional videos on how to do kick turns and then the snow arrived.
Tekapo transformed from a dry 20 degree summer holiday location to a winter paradise. We hit the road hoping for a mid day road opening. The focus now was the avalanche danger going to stop us from heading to the hut?
Wednesday morning we were on the move! This was one of those days you dream off in the mountains. Clear skies, no wind and heaps of fresh snow. The landscape is so extreme, it is mesmerising.
We had a full on day to get to the hut, 11 hours of walking, crawling, bush bashing and ski touring. After the first 5 hours Andrew announced he wouldn’t be attending my 100th birthday adventure. We did get time for one beautiful ski run in the fresh snow. A taste of what was to come tomorrow.
Caroline Hut is very cool and in a great spot. I have no idea how they got permission to put a private hut here, but pleased they did. The hut has everything which helps to keep the pack weight down given all the ski touring gear. We are fast packers so big packs are not our thing.
Thursdays is best summed up by our guide Mark’s comment, I think that was the best days ski touring I have had. It was awesome! The snow was perfect, weather beautiful, an excellent day in the mountains. We enjoyed a hot dinner and a whisky to celebrate.
The weather was forecast to change on Friday so we potted our route down to Cove stream, this is where we had a few scary moments. The wind picked up and we had to break out the ski crampons, after a few technical issues we were able to ski up the ridge and across the crust to safety. It’s interesting the mind game when you get in these situations, I keep reminding myself that we had all the gear and we just needed to keep calm and follow the plan. Hard to do when the adrenaline starts pumping.
As we got back to the car Andrew confirmed he was definitely not coming on my 100th birthday adventure and we reminisced about some of our mellower adventures.
When you look at the map of the North Island there is a huge wilderness area East of the desert road all the way out to Hawkes Bay.
A few years ago I tramped a magic loop on the edge of this area up the Waipakihi river and back over Umukarikari.
The Big Sunday Run crew had done a few missions in the area and there was chatter about a trip in February. We circled a weekend in the calendar and started to plan.
I found a route in my Classic Tramping book, a gift from my father in law that inspired our Tararua SMR trip two years ago.
The classic Kaimanawa Kaweka traverse has a big block of private land in the middle of it. Thanks to the generosity of the land owners there are permits available when the hunting blocks are not being used. https://wilderlife.nz/2017/04/kaimanawa-ranges-access/
We found an account of a tramping group that had done the trip and started to map out our plan.
My father inlaw connected me with one of his tramping friends in Turangi to find out about possible transport options. Kevin was incredibly helpful, not only did he offer to provide transport, his son Robert had done the trip a few months earlier and was able to help with the trip planning.
After getting all the info we could, we made a plan.
We would set off from Kaimanawa Rd on Friday afternoon and if the weather was good we would bivi next to the Rangitikei river est time 7 hours. Saturday we would cover the rest of the Kaimanawas including the the island range, the high point Makorako, the river valleys of the Mangamingi and Ngaruroro and spend the night at one of the huts in the Kawekas, hopefully Te Puke to keep Sunday as manageable as possible est time 15 hours. Sunday out to the road end at Makahu Saddle est time 9 hours.
We had a group of 4 adventurers who were keen and available that weekend. Marta was keen for some more god zone training, Al is a true explorer and loves new country, Anthony was very excited about the route, one of his relatives had trekked it when they moved to a Hawkes Bay school back in the olden days. I was stoked to be doing a big adventure in new country.
The weather thumbnails were looking promising as we did our final packing, cyclone gita was going to hold off until we finished. This was my first two night fast pack trip and getting our gear and food right was going to be helpful for a successful trip.
I found a freeze dried back country adventure food pack and added my normal muesli bars, chocolate bars, 10 Kransky sausages and lots of tailwind for my drink bottles.
We meet Kevin at the Kaimanawa Rd turn off and set off up the Umukarikari range. There were two school vans at the car park.
It was a beautiful afternoon to be on the volcanic alpine tops of the umukarikari range. We had views for miles. I caught my first view of the steep rocky cone shaped Makorako, the high point in the Kaimanawas that would dominate the horizon for the whole trip. The school group were at Waipakihi hut, they had traveled from the far north that morning and were enjoying the last of the sun from the deck.
The climb to junction top 1600m was one of the most awe inspiring outdoor experiences I have had. The sun was setting behind Ruapehu as we climbed the lovely alpine ridge, the vastness of the area was starting to make its presence felt. Standing on the top we looked down into the steep Rangitikei valley, it was dark and ominous, the lights of Taupo were our last glimpse of civilisation for two days.
This is the start of the private land we had a permit for and the end of the marked track. We had a gpx provided by Robert but he hadn’t followed this route due to hunting activities that meant his permit required he cross the Rangitikei further south. We dropped down into the valley under headlamps trying to follow the gpx path. It was rough and lots of scrub meant we were bush bashing quickly. Soon we were stuck in a creek and bluffed out by a 10m waterfall. We got on our hands and knees and crawled through the scrub until we finally got back onto the spur which meant we could stand up. Marta announced rule no1 for the trip, if we have to crawl we turn back and find a better path.
Bush bashing in the dark.
We continued to bush bash down to the Rangitikei it was hard slow progress and finally we got to the river. We could see a little island up the river that looked promising for bivi spots. We found a nice spot to sleep and boiled some water for a late dinner. Sitting there in the middle of nowhere after a tough few hours brought on the magnitude of the adventure we were on. Halfway into tomorrow (Saturday) we would be about as far away from civilisation as you can get in the North Island.
We didn’t get much sleep, it was cold and we were travelling light. My experiment of not bringing a sleeping bag was a failure. My Bivi bag was fine for a hut but not for being outside at 1,000m. I setup my camera in the night to capture the stars, when I got the camera from the river bank it had been moved by some animal and was sitting upright no longer facing the stars. I hope I got the shot!
We set off with the fear of more bush bashing, the river was beautiful, so clear and blue ducks playing in a magic looking swimming hole. No time for swimming yet. We wandered down the river hoping to pick up the sign of a route where the gpx left the river. All of a sudden Al appeared at the creek we had come down last night. Al had been delayed leaving town and was planning to sleep on the tops and catch us at some point this morning. It was great to see him arrive safe. We found a cairn and to our surprise a good route out of the valley on to the island range. Today we would cover the moist alpine island range, the range with Makorako the high point in the Kaimanawas that dominates the horizon, the sub alpine scrub areas of Mangamaire, In the heart of the area we have the river valleys of the Mangamingi and Ngaruroro. We would finish the day entering the Kawekas in the beautiful beach forest with moss edged trails and tussock covered valleys.
Anthony spotted a red deer looking at us from the next ridge, the tops section were spectacular, easier climbing than our Tararuas and nice wide runnable ridges. We got caught in a rough patch of scrub heading down to the Mangamaire, I had to put my over trousers on to stop the leg pain from the sharp scrub. I had a nice dip in the river before we headed up the next hill. Anthony stepped on a wasps nest that lead to a furry of Italian swear words and some sprinting to get away. A few stings later we settled into our afternoon rhythm of crossing rivers. It was about this time I realised I had been wearing my tee shirt back to front and inside out, the brain was clearly working slowly this morning!. I got to try one of my new smoothie packets, that was a real winner, note to self always pack those.
We reached the lovely Tussock hut at 6pm and pushed onto Harkness, Robert had warned me about how slow this section was, river cross after river crossing in thigh to waist deep water on slippery rocks was tough work. It was great to find Harkness was nearly as nice as Tussock hut. We ate and crashed it had been a big day.
It looked like we had 24kms to cover on the last day and were getting picked up at 3pm. It ended up being 31km lucky we left at 7am, thanks Al. My timing estimates are often optimistic which can be problematic.
The tops sections in the western Kawekas are a nice mix of greywacke and alpine scrub.
Finally the barren loose rock of the Kawekas range that looks like another planet. In between are the beautiful beach forest trails lined with pretty moss verges.
The only people we saw from Waipakihi hut to the end were a Dad and his sons who had helicoptered in to do some hunting. We ran lots of the ridges and had our breath taken away by the views.
There is a special feeling that comes from an adventure like this, a mountain adrenaline that makes you feel fantastic.
Huge thanks to Kevin and Robert for their help and to my fellow adventurers.
The trip took us 28 hours hiking time including the odd quick water stop. We started Friday afternoon and finished Sunday afternoon.
We had planned our Dragons teeth Adventure, spending hours researching the high traverse.
Flights were booked based on a good long range forecast and the excitement was building. This trip has been on the wish list for a few years.
Then the forecast took a turn, 77mm of rain for Friday night, not what we needed.
Time for plan B, going back to the Kaimanawa’s and doing a high loop of the 1,600s, the 3 peaks in Tongariro or a loop of the 1,600s in the Ruahine.
The forecast looked ok in the Ruahine so we researched Al’s mission in January where he covered all the 1,600s and 1,700s over two days!
We packed for two nights, three days and headed north. The Renfrew Road end entrance to the park is fabulous, very nice access to the tops. We had clear skies and warm conditions, perfect for being on the tops.
This is roar season so we expected to see a few hunters. We bumped into our first near Mangamahue, they were loaded up with a big stag trying to get it out.
As headed east to saw tooth we heard our first roars from what we later named the zoo. It was amazing to hear what sounded like a few stags roaring for hours.
We reached saw tooth and headed north. The roaring continued from the valley below. Soon darkness feel and we marched on under head lamps.
Hoping to get to Waikamaka hut for a sleep, we had a few 1,600s to cover to get there. The ground was familiar from our Sunrise to Limestone trip last year. We decided to drop straight off pt 1635 to the hut. This route is pretty gnarly in the dark and we did a bit of crawling 😦
After a hut experience with the loudest snorer ever we woke to rain and changed plans, heading to Waterfall hut, this was great travel over the Rangi saddle and down the Rangi creek, at Waterfall hut we meet hunters scraping the meat off large sets of deer antlers, they had seen 35 deer over there week and were taking 4 home. This was alot better than the guys at Waikamaka who had seen 1 deer!
The hunters suggested a route up the spur on the north side of Trig creek to get up to Mangaweka and the Hikurangi range where four 1700’s were waiting. This was good travel after the first steep bush bash.
We bagged the peaks on the Hikurangi range and pt 1632 above Pinnacle creek then we had the long downhill to Pourangaki Hut which hurt my knees. We followed deer tracks for the first half that had run down in front of us.
Pourangaki Hut is fabulous well worth a visit, the next morning we headed up our final hill to Maungamahue 1661m to finish our loop and headed back to the Renfrew roadend. A great few days in the hills 🙂
At 2885m (9,645 feet), Mt Tapuae-o-Uenuku is the highest New Zealand peak outside the Southern Alps and is a popular three-day hike for experienced groups with good navigational skills.
Tappy, as the locals call it, was the springboard for legendary mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary’s climbing career that took him to be the first person to reach the summit of Mt Everest.
With a clear forecast for the night we headed up hoping to catch some photos of the night sky. I lay under the star lit sky for a few hours until it got too cold.
Chasing the perfect full moon mission we headed north on August 4th and had a cool adventure starting at 10pm and finishing the next morning at 7am.
Get away from the crowds on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, do it under the Full Moon. This trip we did a loop of Tongariro. With the moon reflecting off the snow we barely turned our headlamps on.