“If Gandalf can do it…”: Backpacking the Whanahuai Range

It seems like a crazy idea: hey, take this bag. Fill it with all the clothes you might need for the next few days, plus food to last you that long. Oh, and take a tent. Did I mention you’ll be carrying all this? Now take it up that mountain. Hope you have a good pair of boots!

Believe it or not, it’s more fun than it sounds. This past week, I spent three days backpacking in the Ruahine Forest Park, situated in the Whanahuai Range of mountains and about an hour northeast of Palmerston North. I had been on campus for a week, and was ready to get out and into the country I’d heard so much about. My friend Joe, a fellow Iowa State student, had arrived on Sunday and was also eager to put his Lonely Planet New Zealand Tramping & Hiking Guide to use. He had friends that were traveling through our area on Wednesday, so we agreed to meet up and take our trek together.

Chris and Amy were doing what I suspect many dream of: quitting their jobs, moving to another country, and seeing as much as they could through a few months of travel and work. They had been WWOOFing (Google it) around the North Island, and were passing through Palmy on their way to Wellington and, after, a ferry for the South. On Wednesday, we piled all our gear into their newly purchased (but hardly new) red station wagon, and set off.

En route to Ruahine Forest Park

En route to Ruahine Forest Park

After an hour of gravel roads, hairpin turns, and countless sheep pastures, we arrived at the park and set off. The first leg of the trip was a short one, only 4 kilometers with a 470 meter ascent. It was my first time carrying so much gear—my first experience backpacking, in fact—and after only a few minutes of hiking I was out of breath. If this is how the whole thing is going to be… I’ll admit, I was worried. And it quickly became apparent that the day was going to be entirely uphill. But the scenery was more than enough distraction from my fatigue: we were looking out across the hills. crossing rivers, and ascending into the alpine grasslands.

View from the trail up

View from the trail up

Our night’s accommodation was the Rangawahi Hut, located at the top of a peak and at the end of the day’s walk. The Department of Conservation maintains these small cabins on trails, which can be used for as little as $5 a night. They have beds, a wood stove, and usually a source of water. Also staying that night was a retired couple making their way back to Wellington, who gave us some insight on other hikes (“Well, Mount Holdsworth is nice, but it’s the only place I’ve been literally blown off my feet! No kidding.”). We watched the sunset over the Tongariro volcanoes, played cards, and slept in preparation for our second day—or so we tried. The wildlife tended to get a little noisy; Joe, who had attempted camping in his $17 Kmart tent, eventually took refuge inside from both snarling opossums and a biting wind.

Rangiwahia Hut

Rangiwahia Hut



We slept in the next morning, ate lunch at the hut, and then began our second day of travel totaling 8 kilometers. This took us higher, ascending an additional 335 meters to the Mangahuia High Point. Joe likened our journey to Gandalf’s, and deemed it totally doable because it was so much shorter. The scenery was alpine, with nothing but tall grass and rolling hills all around. From there, we descended 775 meters all the way into the a valley on a path that was often treacherous. Sometimes, the track was as wide as my foot and as tall as my waist—I found myself clinging to the tussock just to keep from slipping (not that I didn’t take a few falls along the way). The ecosystem changed dramatically with altitude: windswept grass gave way to hardy bushes, which then turned to tall, mossy forest. As we carefully stepped down the steep inclines, the sound of running water got louder until we made it to the source: the Oroua river, with Triangle Hut on its banks.

Our fearless leader/navigator

Our fearless leader/navigator

Chris fording the river

Chris fording the river

The third day threatened to be the most challenging. We had to backtrack out of the valley, which meant going up all those impossible downhills. I dreaded it the day before, and wondered if I’d be able to make it the whole way. 12.5 kilometers, 723 meters ascending, 753 meters descending. Surprisingly, I found the climb back up to be easier—turns out that pulling yourself up is a lot easier then trying not to slip and fall. The scenery changed in reverse this time, and before I knew it we were eating lunch on a mountaintop again. The second part of the day was working our way back down via Deadmans Track, a namesake it owes to the precipitous drops that meet the trail edge. Surprisingly, this was the easiest part of the trip; the descent was (relatively) gentle and before we knew it, we were back at the car. I was happy to finally take off my pack, unlace my boots, walk on flat ground—but getting off the trail was sort of sad. Mostly, I was looking forward to our next trip.

Feel like you're in a movie yet?

Feel like you’re in a movie yet?



There’s only so many pictures you can take, and only so much to capture in an image—and I know I can’t give justice to the amazing views and incredible things I saw. It seemed surreal that we were only an hour out of the city, and that farmland started as soon as forest ended. If New Zealand is known for anything, it’s incredible natural beauty; even in this nondescript park, that fact was immediately apparent. Now, I want to spend as much time as I can out in the backcountry. Move over, Cheryl Strayed! I’ve got some great hiking ahead of me.


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