by Terri-Ann Scorer

The Medium Group was the biggest party of the Anzac Day weekend at 7 trampers. Leader Margaret Law was joined by regulars Chris Pooley, Suresh Nanu, Teresa Janssen and Grace Yong. Natasha Grondin joined for her first multiday trip with ATC and Terri-Ann Scorer her first for a long while.

After a photo in front of the Lakes car park DOC sign, the Medium Group headed out into the forest and over the feeder stream which runs down into the Tutaekurī River. We were well into the climb up Rogue Ridge when the Fit Group surprised us and, despite leaving the car park well in advance, overtook us from behind. Margaret led our team on with a steady-not-sweaty pace uphill as the ridge track steepened towards the bushline.

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After some teamwork on the gravelly ground involving people and packs, Suresh announced the tip of his water sipper tube was missing. Oh dear, day one! Down and back up the slope Suresh and Chris searched for the said item but in vain.

Meanwhile at summit of The Rogue, the waiting group were confronted with raging wind. And so the battle began for the next few hours. Margaret led on valiantly, navigating us to and through The Tits. The unwanted Wilding pines along the lee side of the ridge provided a welcome guardrail as the wind buffeted us relentlessly.

Several stops were required to hunker down and regroup between forays into the full force of Tāwhirimātea. Chris demonstrated his Kaweka hunter skills by retrieving a pack cover which blew off in a flash of orange. We later discovered a foam mat had also been pick pocketed by the wind. Thankfully though Suresh’s sipper had miraculously re-appeared during an earlier break, having been caught and dislodged by another pack on the way up The Rogue.

The gusts peaked around the high point of Kaiarahi, true to the Niwa forecast of extreme gales up to 110km/hr for Kaweka J. Some linking of arms was needed to withstand the wind as the group progressed as if crossing a swift-flowing river. Despite trying to lean into the wind, Terri-Ann was literally picked up and blown off her feet. She luckily came to ground on a vegetable sheep which provided a soft landing. Others were likewise battered.

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After a steep descent down rough ground and scree to the newly relocated Studholme Saddle hut, the party once again met the Fit Group who had also retreated from the gales approaching Mad Dog Hill.

The camping was good and luckily so as the small 4 bunk hut already had 2 occupants, Flynn and Jake, teenage boys from Hastings. Arriving the night before us, they were the first occupants of the ‘new hut’. One was a member of Heretaunga Tramping Club that apparently, like ATC, has a lot of old people as members. Rather than shunning the oldies, the boys were sociable and Flynn shared his considerable knowledge of the Southern Kawekas.

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The night was breezy for the campers and the clouds were still moving quickly on Friday morning. The team met over breakfast and options were considered. Climb Mad Dog Hill and continue over Kaweka-J? Not with rain forecast on another gale-force day! Down to Macintosh hut through the pine? A well-known escape route but, according to Flynn, “yuck”. That plan did not find favour as it involved later re-climbing the yucky route to connect back to the tops. Eventually the lure of a lazy day won out.

Typical hut conversation ensued over cups of tea. First aid kits were compared, wind ravaged shell pants repaired, and there was heated debate about why New Zealand Motoring Club members get better discounts with DOC than members of FMC.

After lunch the sun was shining so we made a brief sortie up to the former Studholme Saddle hut site. 20 minutes of criss-crossing upstream took us through carpets of green moss among the mountain beech trees. Soon the obvious bare ground showed us where the hut had left via helicopter not 2 weeks earlier.

The two routes leading up to Mad Dog Hill were scouted, with Margaret concluding the Western route looked good outside of the trees and Suresh concluding the forested route, on the opposite side of the stream, looked steep and gnarly with a slip to cross not far up from the old hut site.

As the teenagers had left earlier on Friday for their pickup by mum, the hut was fully taken over by the Medium Group. Teresa led a hut crossword to keep our brains engaged. The exclusive use was however short lived, and the corner nook taken up by a solo tramper, pharmacist Kat, who arrived late in the afternoon along with a rain shower.

Early dinners were cooked. Two made use of free food in the hut, sharing a tin of Irish Stew mixed with Uncle Ben’s fried rice. “I’d eat that again” said one, “not me” said the other. The Fit Group had also made use of the hut pantry on Thursday night, with the Irish Stew and cans of tuna among their picks. Alex returned Mexican tomatoes and fried rice on Friday morning asking for a store credit.

By 8pm on Friday evening the hut was quiet and dark beneath a cold, clear and starry sky.

Saturday began with Kat taking a group photo for us outside the hut at 8.29am before we left right on Margaret’s appointed time. We zigzagged up the steep scree apart from Chris who bounded straight ahead. Being moist underfoot, it was easier travel than on our first day and we reached the turn off to Mad Dog Hill within half an hour.

With only mild wind and a blue sky, we enjoyed regaining our high point of Kaiarahi and sauntering along the ridge to Castle Camp. The little orange hut we’d made our home was now far below us, surely a welcome sight for future travellers.

At Castle Camp we met Christine, Keith and Stephen on their day trip to Kaiarahi from Kiwi Saddle Hut, our destination for the day. We chatted and left in opposite directions, our packs a few kilos heavier from taking on board as much water as we could. The tank at Kiwi Saddle Hut was apparently low.

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We carried on admiring the views and trying to photograph the stunning silhouette of Ruapehu with its fresh coat of snow. Natasha taught us how to take action photos by rocking back and forth with your feet.

The track to the hut was fairly easy going apart from one patch of scrub where the track markers, and the track, were overgrown. Crashing ahead in the right direction we eventually found the markers again.

Arriving at the hut, Margaret felt like a queen with a bottom bunk reserved for her. Well deserved! Chris and Suresh carried on back to the bus to join Jennifer, but not before checking that Sallie was back safe at the hut. Indeed, she had found a sunny spot outside. After drinks and snacks most of our remaining party also gravitated towards the sun.

The idea of a fire was too hard to resist. With the combination of kindling collected by Terri-Ann, Teresa’s fire starter and the wood chopped by Christine’s group, the pot belly got going. Soon the hut was smoky and warm, and full of bodies as the various ATC parties and others converged for the evening. Natasha chose to camp and Grace pitched her tent too but was then persuaded to take the loft space above the hut door.

The warmth of the fire waned but a full house kept the sleepers warm enough, just. Dawn broke on Sunday to another crisp blue-sky day. The Easy, Medium and Fit Groups had all decided on an 8.30am departure, resulting in a colourful trail of leggings, packs and jackets heading straight uphill.

Ruapehu was soon in full view and Ngāruahoe revealed itself slowly as we climbed to the junction for Cameron Hut. The groups criss-crossed as we progressed through the forest. There were patches of beech providing a delightful carpet on the trail, while other areas were overtaken by Wilding pine.

The peak of Kurīpapango created some discussion, “was that it we just passed?”, but without a trig sighting we were never quite sure.

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It was a morning for taking it slow and enjoying breaks. The Fit Group let us pass as they soaked up the sunshine.

A long way into our final descent we passed through an attractive stand of ferns, with views to the lakes through the greenery. Within minutes we spied Big Blue and popped out into the Lakes car park.

Thanks to Margaret for leading us and sharing your wisdom, and to the rest of the group for great teamwork and camaraderie throughout.