Ruahine-Lake Colenso, 21-25 April 2023
I was attracted to Lake Colenso as a destination, because it is the only lake in the Ruahine.
Anna and I did a recce for this area over the Christmas holiday, coming in from the East via
Sunshine hut and walking out the Makaroro river: a very nice and reltaively relaxed 7-day trip we
enjoyed tremendously. Recent weather events, closed roads and/or limited access forced me to look at ways to come infrom the West. Due to the terrain, options were limited anyway, a squeeze even in a 4-dayweekend. To reach Lake Colenso (the only lake in the Ruahine) in that time there was really only one way in and out: the recently re-opened access through Mokai Station.
Lorna had sent me some very useful route information with comments from the Backcountry
Trust. I also had found out that the Waikato TC had planned a similar trip for the Easter weekend;
they chose another destination due to the uncertain state of tracks in the area.
In the week before our trip was due, Lorna sent me some other news which was way more
disturbing: the Auckland TC was in the same area that same extended ANZAC weekend, 3
groups with a total of 22 people ! After contacting their organizer and exchanging further
information it became clear that Otukota hut would become the bottleneck on the first night (15
of them + us) and last night (22 of them + us).
This made me and Wendy rethink our options. We chose to push on the first day to the next hut
and camp out the last night on the way back to Otukota. Lorna by the way had to pull out due to
injury. Which reduced our numbers to 5: me, Wendy, Ying, Ian and Matthew. We all just fitted in
one car with our packs.
Day one saw us leaving around noon on Friday in Ian's car to Wendy's place, where we swapped
to Wendy's (actually her husband Bryce's) vehicle. She drove us to Taihepe where we stopped at
the end of the day for some shopping before going to our accommodation for that night: the Rusty
Nail backpackers. A character place showcasing an absent owner (texting instead), one bunk
room and a couple of other rooms, almost fully booked it appeared.
We met up with Lorna and her husband Bruce for dinner in the Rustic Steakhouse. Not cheap, but
great meals. I tried one of the (dry) aged steaks. A good start to a hopefully great weekend !
We left early on day two to be at the start of the track at the end of Mokai Rd before the ATC.
Just as we were struggling up the first steep farm hill, straight up from the carpark, we saw their
bus arriving. As many orange markers as we saw along the farm track before reaching the
carpark, fewer markers were to be seen further along in the paddocks. Access through the station
only via a poled route. Most of them white painted timber poles and in need of a re-paint. On the
last and steep climb up a big farm hill in several stages up to the Mokai-Patea range, Matthew
'blew' himself up going straight up it too fast and had to take rests every next short section. The fit
group of the ATC overtook us halfway up and that was the last we were to see of them.
Shortly after having arrived to the top of the range we took a well deserved morning-tea break in
the lee of a small hill. Windy but warmish weather. Further along the tops for a while and then
down into the actual Ruahine Forest Park. The descent became steeper and steeper over
sometimes slippery narrow tracks, either mud or gravel. Attention and perseverance were
required to get to a stream at the bottom, then up stream and up again sidling along and down to
the Otukota hut for lunch.
We had taken 6.5 hours (DOC: 4-5). Matthew had cramp in his upper legs and the decision was
made to leave him behind in the hut, with the advice to tag along with one of the two other ATC
groups or do his own thing from the hut for the following days.
The Maropea river was way too big for river travel as initially thought to be the fastest way, we
had to follow the track to Iron Bark hut. First a tricky river crossing, that we attacked in pairs.
The water was brownish and very swift, but not very deep except for the main channel, only a short section. Ying needed some encouragement (and lift) to get through that and Ian lost his balance (and one pole) and pulled Wendy with him down into the water, but we made it across safely. A steep climb followed, then an undulating ridge, a gradual descent (last steep bit) along a relatively easy track and 3 hours later we arrived at Iron Bark hut, that we had to ourselves, which made us feel really good after such a long day.
Wendy not only looked well after Ian, she was also an excellent wood stove operator !
Heavy rain fell in the evening and night.
Day two next morning a sleep-in: only 4-5 hours to Colenso hut.
Just before 9 a helicopter landed right next to the hut, vibrating the roof overhang dangerously.
A welcoming committee was sent out for the 3 hunters coming out of the chopper.
The rainy weather yesterday and the night before had delayed their trip, so we had been lucky!
We 'took off'; retracing our steps over the swingbridge over the Maropea and then over a solid
wooden bridge with a barrier on one side over the Unknown stream, also a bit too big for river
travel (thought of as an alternative route back). A long and grunty climb up, undulating ridge,
sidling and steep down and up followed: do you recognize the rhythm ? Although we took it easy
and took our time taking photos etc, there's nothing easy here:
the sidling had a few tricky parts over partly slipped away tracks, culmulating in a detour around
a very big slip with cut steps by some volunteers joining the track from Unknown campsite.
At the end of the day, two smaller hills and three boggy stretches saw us arrive after 6.5 hours at
Most of the day the weather had been fine, but it threathened to rain now so the visit to the lake
(10 minutes away) was postponed till tomorrow. Instead there was more time to warm up the hut
to dry some of our clothes. It's a nice hut on a good location and we had it to ourselves again !
Day three and it's rainng as we start off with a visit to the lake, not spectacular but a nice tranquil
spot. Looking at the slow progress we had made in the previous days we decided to drop all other
options and return the same way, knowing we had to get as close as possible to Otukota hut
today. Same way doesn't mean you see the same things. We felt stronger, but still needed about 6
hrs to get to the bridge near Iron Bark for lunch. As the day dragged on progress was again slow,
but good enough to find a good campsite around 4.30pm, about an hour away from what we
expected to be a full hut and tent village.
Matthew told us the next day that there had been only 3 people there and that most of the ATC
had left the park one day earlier due to bad weather forecast for the tops.
We had nonetheless a good, but cold night out camping sheltered in the bush with no rain to
Day four and it was 1 hr downhill to the hut where we found nobody else and a hutbook entry
from Matthew saying he had joined 2 others going back out that morning.
We took our time getting up to the tops again, with regular breaks and photostops, some great
fungi here and there.
At 3.30pm, 6 hours from the hut this time, we got back at the carpark where Matthew had put up
his tent in waiting.
After changing our clothes we hopped back into the car with sore legs but in good moods:
we had done what we came here to do ! So congratulations to everybody. Matthew learned to take
it easy, Ian struggled but persevered, Ying conquered a wild river, I learned to cope with
adversity and Wendy was the rock everybody could rely on (especially Ian!).
The Rangitikei river provided some impressive scenery and Fast Lane restaurant some filling
meals on the way back.
Michiel van Dijk