Otaki Gorge Approches
6 March 2019
The stretch of gorge between Otaki Forks and Penn Creek, says Merv Rodgers, ‘is a pleasant journey on a summer’s day.’ Not exactly pleasant when I came down most of it on a drizzly afternoon 11 years ago, but rewarding, yes. But how do you start? Or, if coming down the Otaki, finish? If you have been over the swingbridge on the Waitewaewae Track you’ll remember the long slow pool looking up-river. And around the corner is at least one more pool impassable without swimming. So you have to start – or finish – before the river flows into those pools. Eighty metres vertically above the river at that point are terraces and tracks, but you still have to negotiate those steep 80 metres. I knew of one solution on the TR, and Merv in his old Guide describes a second. Both routes go across a very attractive grassy terrace, worth a visit on its own. (The Tararua Tramper’s Guide section 14.4 on the Club’s website tells you how to get there from the Waitewaewae Track: it is an update of Merv’s Guide). Colin Cook and I thought we’d check it all out, and perhaps clear the track a bit as far as the terrace clearing.
It was a full day: we found neither track beyond the clearing on first attempt. The aim is somehow to drop the 80m down to the river-bed below. One way, which Neil Challand showed us a decade ago, is to go out under trees nearly to the westernmost point of the terrace, where the remains of a small hut need to be found. Nearby is a large rimu on the edge of the terrace, still marked with a big piece of orange. We dropped down the obvious trail below it, soon to be entangled in kiekie and finally brought to a halt by a sheer drop. After a sideways struggle to the rocks below, we looked for the track we had once been up. There was only one possibility, just up-valley from where the river flows between two tall, massive bluffs, guarding like the pillars of Hercules an impassable pool between them. Sure enough, the very occasional cut end and daub of paint indicated an old track which had had no attention for quite some time, probably since hunters and fishermen stopped using the hut above. The trick going down from the top end is to ignore animal trails and find the old track which starts diagonally down from the big rimu. Not too difficult and at least no kiekie.
Back on the river rocks where we had left our packs, we contemplated the second option. From below, the advice is to go up a small creek, which was clearly visible 500 metres up-valley from where we were sitting, and after going up it for 100 metres find a track scrambling up on the TR to a good trail leading along to the grassy terrace. A small bluff rendered the creek out of reach for us without a double crossing of the Otaki – not difficult, but wet. So instead we scrambled up into the bush to find Merv’s ‘good trail’, conscious of the danger of crossing it unawares but thinking a good trail would be hard to miss. We missed it. And continued the fight up through thick supplejack on steep loose rocky shingle for far too long. Tougher than leatherwood on Table Top a week ago, Colin remarked. Eventually, a horizontal animal trail suggested we might escape that way. It was still a slow struggle getting back to the terrace, for by now we were 80m higher. Back on the grass, and after a snack: since we’re here, shouldn’t we try again? So along to the end of the grass clearing (some lovely stands of raupo) where the start of the track Merv described was easily found, and easily followed to the edge of the bush before the creek. Here, strange formations created by old and new slips stand between the bush edge and the creek, passable, probably, but not easily passed. And, given the slips’ continuing activity, not to be recommended as a route. And coming up the creek from the riverbed below, it would now be hard to pick where the track in the bush begins.
A third option for avoiding the deep pools is to use the TL of the Otaki, following the Penn Creek sidle track until past the grass clearing visible across the valley, and just short of that first creek. Here, as Franz Hubmann has recently done, you commit yourself, trackless, to supplejack and kiekie as you make your way down to the river beach below.
The first option is the easiest, the second might now best be left alone, while the third is the toughest but no doubt the quickest.
- Party members
- Colin Cook, John Thomson (scribe)