Hiking Safety in New Zealand

Most of the time the hike you’ve planned works out fine, with few issues or problems. However, sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s the time you need to rely on what you’ve learned in all the years before. This happened to me and four friends on our last hike into the Ruahine Ranges.

My co-organiser and I had been talking about it for a while, and both of us felt like visiting a hut we had not been to before. We’d discussed another hut (Parks Peak), which required some distance to travel to. Personally I did not want to travel far, so pored over maps of the Ruahine Ranges to look for huts closer to home which might fit the bill, and could be done as an overnight hike. My eye fell on Leon Kinvig hut, and immediately I thought, hmmm, looks do-able! Got the magnifying glass, and studied it in detail. The distance looked about 9km one way, which I reckoned we could do in 5.5 to 6 hours comfortably. Ran it past my friend, and we agreed to give it a go. I sent the usual email around the mailing list, asking for interested persons to let me know.

I checked the weather forecasts from a week before the time, and it seemed to be in our favour. To cut a long story short, the Saturday morning saw the five of us setting off on the Apiti Track (starts from Ngamoko Road behind Norsewood) at 9.30am, full of anticipation and smiles. It was a glorious, if frosty, day – a great day to be out in the bush!

For the first few hours all went well – good track conditions, with lots of photo opportunities. Ran into some hunters who had had a good morning, and were carrying some venison out, no doubt looking forward to a good meal later that day. As we tramped deeper into the bush, however, track conditions deteriorated. It was obvious that the track had not been maintained for a year or two, with some tricky sections and tree falls to traverse. All these conspired to delay us, and every minute’s delay meant it was taking us longer than anticipated to reach our destination. At one point we arrived at a deep gully where the track had been virtually washed away, and it took us a good 20 minutes to get across this dangerous section. Following this we searched out a sunny spot for lunch before continuing. About 45 minutes later we arrived at the turn-off to Makaretu Hut, and from looking at the map, realised we weren’t going to make Leon Kinvig before dark, walking at the speed we had been doing up to this point.

After some discussion, it was decided, in view of the sign saying ‘Makaretu Hut 1.5 hours’ that it would be a better and safer option to divert to Makaretu Hut. On the info panel at the start, this trip was described as a route, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that it was in better condition than the Apiti track. It took about 30 minutes to get down to the Makaretu River South Branch, where the track crossed the river and continued to follow the true left bank downstream. Another 20 minutes further on, the track dropped into the river bed at the confluence with a tributary stream from the west. Not seeing any track markers on the banks anymore, we assumed that the ‘track’ was now the river itself, which is what it turned out to be. The going was still reasonably good, but now we all had wet feet – not pleasant in winter! Two of our party were not used to these conditions, and soon started feeling tired, questioning why they’d ever decided to come. Not long thereafter came some difficult sections requiring traversing of logjams, where one of the party fell through some rotten wood. Fortunately no injuries, but it added to her sense of frustration and anxiety at being in unfamiliar bush, with no reference points, and no idea where the hut was.

Eventually someone spotted an orange ribbon tied around a tree on the left bank, and then a track marker – five minutes later, to everyone’s relief, we were at Makaretu hut. Wet gear was quickly taken off, and a fire made in the very efficient woodburner, and soon all the hardship was all but forgotten.

The intention was to retrace our steps the next morning. However, during the night the weather took a turn for the worse, and gale force winds and drizzle met our gaze at first light. The previous day my friend and I had discussed the option of walking out via another route, which both of us knew well. We now discussed this with the other members of our party, and felt that this was the safer, and shorter, option. After a short discussion with the others, we agreed to take the alternative route out. Thus at8.30am, we set off downstream, destination Awatere Hut, 4 hours distant. All went well, and we had a relatively pleasant, if wet, tramp to Awatere, arriving there just on12.30pm. Lunch and a hot drink were eagerly consumed.

My friend and I had discussed the way out from Awatere, which was 200m up a spur, followed by about a 1 km tramp along an exposed ridge, before dropping down to the car park at Moorcock Saddle. I’d mentioned to her earlier that in strong wind conditions this ridge could be dangerous and very difficult to traverse, and so it proved. Everyone in our party got bowled over at least once, and progress was very slow – half crawl, half run at a crouch when the gusts subsided for long enough. Two of us were literally blown off our feet, and it was very difficult to stand, even with the support of a walking pole. I estimated the wind speed at well over 100km p/h. at times. Usually it takes a fit person about 1.25 hours from Awatere to the car park – it took us twice as long. My friend managed to call her father from the ridge to pick us up at Kashmir farm, so it was with relief that we bundled into the car at4.30pm, for the ride home.

At the end of the day, all was well, but it could have turned out much worse. Several lessons were learned from the mistakes made, as well as right decisions made:

Bad DecisionsGood Decisions
I had a gut feeling that we should have gone to Parks Peak – learn to listen to your gut feelings. The track to Parks Peak is shorter. We decided to divert to Makaretu hut. Had we decided to press on to Leon Kinvig, we would have been in a far worse situation.
Don’t take people with limited tramping experience on tracks you have not walked yourself before – take only experienced trampers.We decided to walk out via Awatere instead of retracing our steps to Apiti Track start (which would have taken us a lot longer than what it did via Awatere).
Estimated walking times on tracks you have not walked before are inevitably a lot shorter than they actually turn out to be, most of the timeWe took two locator beacons – we didn’t need them, but they would have made a huge difference had someone been injured to the extent they could not have continued.
Don’t trust walking times posted on DOC signs – from extensive experience, they turn out to be wrong 95% of the time, usually considerably shorter that actual times.I took a tent fly, in case we were forced to camp in the bush – not required, but would have made a big difference if we had to camp.
Ask your local DOC field station for the latest info on tracks you have not walked before, if taking a group. We did not do thisWeather forecasts are just that – forecasts. Have a back-up plan in case the weather doesn’t pan out the way you thought.

Tell someone where you’re going, and when you’ll be out. Also tell them your back-up plan.

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