The Invitation

By Lee Glogoski

The hot pools are fabulous and we will probably do some walking. How could I resist? Queen's Birthday weekend in the Kawekas — where are they? — somewhere along the Taupo/ Napier highway. It was easy; we were taking the club bus, converted, so we could just sleep in the back. No worries.

We left Auckland 6.30pm, sort of, and arrived Kaweka's 4.00 am, sort of, and so slept some more. Any bangs crashes and lost ways were part of some disjointed dream!! Looking at the map over breakfast the first tingling of apprehension started to appear. "Hey Pete, it looks like a reasonable walk, and those white bits — they're snow right? Oh and maybe we've overshot the start. You think?" So back in the bus and back down the road. It was a wonderful winter's morning, long shadows in the valleys, sunshine on the hills.

We walked through frozen fields whose feathery tops glistened in the sun with the last of the morning frost. Over a couple of stiles and somewhere way ahead in the distance, forest and snow covered mountains."Oh yeah right, like that's where we're going!!?" And so we started, up through the beech forest until we reached Middle Hill Hut — aptly named because there is a hut on a fair sized wee hill somewhere between the flats and the mountains. And lunch was fabulous, lying out on the grass, feeding our faces, in the wonderful warmth from the sun. Doesn't get much better than this. What? Who was that masked man? Lunch over, we lifted our packs and decision time. Four tracks from the clearing, the one we arrived by, one went to the loo, one to the hunter's safe and the unknown middle one? mmmm difficult choice.

A thousand metres to climb that day, and from here the track continued steadily and steeply upwards. Every hopeful hilltop clearing revealed yet another ever upward ascent. Only when the legs were too tired and the breath a little laboured, did we stop for a brief respite. The soft sponginess of the undergrowth was a pleasure for our feet, the bright green ground moss, a bed for the small delicate ferns — oh yes, there was a lot of looking at the ground. But to lift our spirits and keep our eyes skyward the mellow call of the bell bird, the happy fantail encouraging us forward, the clear blue sky at the top of the ridge and Bill's butterscotch candy. Snow, pure white snow, everywhere, on the ground, in the trees, on the branches and Bing Crosby singing "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas", only it was the wrong season, and Bing Crosby wasn't there for anyone else! Perhaps, a winter wonderland in the middle of the Rockies and Bambi would appear any minute now, uh uh - definitely time for more fluids. At last we broke free of the forest and before us our inimical mountain. Sometimes it makes you wonder and then you just have to do it. We reassessed.

Could we possibly take a short cut across the mountain and not follow those annoying poles which seemed to be taking the long route to the top? Pete figured the poles followed a ridgeline up the mountain and if we were to deviate, we might find ourselves in very deep snow. We found ourselves in deep snow anyway, but there was a rock or tuft of grass for a handhold and every now and then somewhere firm to put our feet. We scrambled shakily over those last few rocks at the crest and now we were on top of the world. You just had to be there. We were standing on a flat plateau, the sky lifted, separated above us, slate grey, pale gold and the slightest touch of blue. Directly in front of us but far away across many lesser mountains, we could see Ruapehu and Ngaruhoe, sentinels of the ski fields. Away to the right the Ruahines, where the boar and the hunters roam, to the left Napier, a village nestled in the arms of the Mahia Peninsula, and us wind swept, cold and happy. We all took photos, of the scene, of all of us, of each of us. It was too cold to stay for too long, and still a long way to go. Though we would have other ridges to climb that day they felt like the gentle undulations along some sleeping giants spine.

At day's end came the challenging decent down to Ballards hut. Every kids dream slip sliding down a snow-covered mountain. The reality was a little different. Steep decline with heavy snow cover meant our front leg would crunch through the surface layer sinking then sliding forward trying to find grip at the same time our back leg was stuck in deep snow somewhere behind us. Trying to slide on our butts left us pretty much in the same situation, at some point the snow would give way and we would once again find ourselves doing some kind of weird split thing with our legs. We arrived at Ballards hut with not a sprain or break amongst us. We were happy to be there. Ballard's is a hunters hut; not the luxurious huts of "round the mountain" no sounds of talking or laughter, just a small orange deserted corrugated hut –desolate. And that's why we were there, to make it alive again. We left lighting the fire to a very capable Bill, helped by Paul when he wasn't assisting Pete come up with some culinary delight for dinner and so nice to have a cup of tea. Sandra and I did the dishes – not glamorous but in the moonlit snow, finder the shelter of the trees it was beautiful. Bill told a few tales around our camp stove, we all snuggled into fairy down and did I mention the port? Purely for medicinal purposes, takes away some of those aches and guaranteed for a good night sleep! Well we did sleep in a little bit, after all it was a long weekend.

After breakfast, a general tidy up, then on with the packs, and hit that slippery downward slope only this time going upwards. We had to re-trace our steps back to a junction at the top of the ridge and from there we would start our descent to the Makino Hut and Te Puia Springs. There were times on the ridge when it was quite scary. But if you didn't think about it, kept walking across the snow covered scree slope, carefully putting your feet into steps made with the help of Pete's ice axe, and didn't look down, it really wasn't so bad at all. Kind of fun really and nobody slipped so there was no story to tell. The wind, ever heard of Caladhras - LOTR, seems to be a mountain wind thing!

Going steeply down hill, you use those other legs muscles that you didn't use coming up, so really a very balanced work out. We were once again very grateful to DOC for planting those tough little plants and placing those really cute rocks in all the right places to stop you from going down the mountainside at twice the rate we intended. It had been a tough but fabulous walk along the wind swept mountain peaks but sheltered out of the wind we stopped for a cup of tea — good on ya Bill. It was a shame but also a bit of relief to leave our exposed  mountain and head back into the beech forest, a different kind of beauty to greet us. Many of the trees were showered in soft lacy fairy moss and the tree roots covered in the many layers and shade of lichen green. Exposed twisted roots of over turned trees sculptured like miniature castles, darkly coloured in a dappled green world.

Somewhere far off the sound of gunshot, a timely reminder that we shared the forest with others. When we arrived at the Makino hut, rifles hung from the hut wall, and evidence of the hunter's success, was layered in the hunters meat safe. Light rain was falling and the verandah was a welcome stop for lunch. We were joined by the hunters and a couple of keen young trampers who had run up from Te Puia lodge. After lunch the hunters headed back out into the bush,

our young trampers were running back down to Te Puia. Just another routine Sunday in the Kawekas. Back on the trail again and all down hill to the river. Te Puia lodge for the night and hot pools for the body. Dam, but no, Queens Birthday and every one decides to holiday at Te Puia for the weekend. No room, getting late for walking, about 5.00p.m. But we decided to continue on and join the rest of the team at Manatutu, where there just happen to be more thermal springs. We estimated about 3 to 4 hour walk depending on terrain. We followed the river through the gorge which was not difficult but not as gentle as we would have liked in the glooming of the evening. We stopped when Bill spotted a suitable site, level, close to the river, plenty of wood for a fire. We all set to, Paul and Sandra put up the only tent - for Sandra and me, Peter and Bill did that crazy fly sheet thing, I think I was taking photos. All settled, dinner, port, camp fire burning, the thousand stars of the milky way and the sound of the Mohaka River — it really doesn't get much better than this.

An easy hours walk out the following day, and at last we found our hot pool. A steaming waterfall caught in a small pool, just big enough for the five of us. No idea how long we spent just soaking away our fatigue and talking. A glass of Chardonnay and it would have been perfect. Our last lunch together, with the rest of the team and then back on the road and back to Auckland.