NZ Life & Leisure - - On The Cover -

Life’s twists and turns

along the Ran­gi­tikei River

PETER MCIN­TYRE, FA­MOUS World War II artist, cap­tured the spirit of the Ran­gi­tikei val­ley where he spent so much time in wa­ter­colour land­scapes and words. He wrote: “The river is so deep be­tween high papa cliffs that at the bot­tom where the river runs it is merely twi­light even on a sunny day.” Trav­el­ers in the cen­tral North Is­land may ad­mire the white mud­stone cliffs (papa) that rise along­side the Ran­gi­tikei River and are a fea­ture of State High­way 1, but the up­per reaches of this his­toric wa­ter­way are in­ac­ces­si­ble to most.

Born in tus­sock lands south­east of Taupō in the Kaimanawas, the river runs 185 kilo­me­tres to the sea, flow­ing from the cen­tral plateau to reach the Tas­man at Tangi­moana, near Bulls. The Up­per Ran­gi­tikei re­gion was most likely first pop­u­lated at Mōkai Pātea by for­bear­ers of Ngāti Te Whiti who roamed the foothills and forests for food and had a num­ber of walk­ing tracks over the Ruahine Range. One of these was the route of the mis­sion­ary and botanist, Wil­liam Colenso, who pro­vided the first writ­ten record of the area; few peo­ple today know where these tracks were.

A de­ter­mined tram­per might reach the rugged and re­mote up­per re­gion in three or four days, but the al­ter­na­tive is to take a he­li­copter and fly north­ward 30 kilo­me­tres in a di­rect line up­stream.

This route tra­verses a patch­work of his­toric sheep sta­tions – Orua­matua, Erewhon, Bare Acre and Nga­matea – to un­known ter­ri­tory. It can be a scary ride, zig-zag­ging the tor­tu­ous bends of the win­ter-rag­ing river but ul­ti­mately land­ing where the wa­ter has be­come a com­par­a­tive trickle. Here an ex­pert in quiet pools can land three trout in 25 fish­ing min­utes.

A short dis­tance from Grav­ity Canyon in the mid­dle river – a place known for its gi­ant swing, bungy and ex­treme fly­ing fox above a 100-me­tre, sheer-sided gorge – is Tarata Fish­away Lodge. Set in a grove of na­tive trees are two chalets, each with panoramic views of the waters be­low. It’s a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for fisher folk and those seek­ing the peace and quiet to ab­sorb the time­less spir­i­tu­al­ity of the river.

River Val­ley, an ad­ven­ture lodge 30 kilo­me­tres east of Tai­hape, is a hide­away that’s sur­pris­ingly busy with young and old voy­agers who come from around the world to raft grades from calm to ex­treme. The spec­tac­u­lar reaches down­stream can be ex­plored for many hours as the river ne­go­ti­ates sev­eral easy rapids past patches of vir­gin for­est – white pines, to­tara, gi­ant tree ferns and old kanuka. Na­tive or­chids and sel­dom-seen na­tive ox­alises cling to rocks within a pad­dle splash as wa­ter­falls drop down per­pen­dic­u­lar cliffs clad in moss and ferns.

More than a drop to drink

The Ran­gi­tikei River has sus­tained set­tle­ment for a long time. A pri­vately or­ga­nized ir­ri­ga­tion sup­ply near Hun­ter­ville, us­ing river wa­ter, was com­pleted in 1984. This scheme is now run by the Ran­gi­tikei Coun­cil and test­ing is done on a weekly ba­sis. Com­put­er­ized and re­li­able, us­ing pumps and grav­ity, it feeds ap­prox­i­mately 12,000ha of the cen­tral Ran­gi­tikei area cheaply and ef­fi­ciently. If you drink tea or cof­fee, or wa­ter straight from the tap, in this re­gion on State High­way 1 you are drink­ing river wa­ter. Hun­ter­ville’s sup­ply is treated.

The river gorge is so deep and so iso­lated that there are few glimpses of the sur­round­ing coun­try­side. Some cliff faces are cu­ri­ously marked by time and the rav­ages of wind; lines of ‘rim rocks’ de­not­ing an­cient sea shores stud the en­tire dis­trict.

South­wards, just past the rail­way ham­let of Ohin­gaiti, the re­gion’s golf course, Ran­gi­tira, set in pic­turesque coun­try­side, has sweep­ing views of the river. An elec­tric ca­ble car, the only one in the coun­try, con­nects the course’s three ter­races.

Nearby, the White­cliffs Boul­ders are a lit­tle-known nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non. They can be reached by walk­ing in off Otara Road, a kilo­me­tre north of Ohin­gaiti, or tak­ing a jet boat ride up­stream. This can be an ex­cit­ing ex­pe­ri­ence as some boats need as lit­tle as 10cm of wa­ter to op­er­ate; they skim over shal­low stretches of gravel and duck alarm­ingly close to the cliffs. The boul­ders are a short stroll across a pad­dock – they’re an en­thralling sight, evok­ing won­der at their an­cient ori­gins. Count­less cylin­dri­cal forms (some small, some gi­gan­tic) nes­tle among na­tive trees. Some are split in half, some cov­ered in moss and lichen, while oth­ers are grasped and en­closed by tree roots. Known as can­non­ball con­cre­tions, they are be­lieved to be be­tween two and three mil­lion years old.

There are many pri­vate fish­ing cab­ins as well as com­mer­cial lodges along the river and fur­ther down­stream the rugged land gives way to sheep and beef farm­ing. At Utiku, there is a cabin that was built 100 years ago by pioneers cut­ting the bush. This lit­tle build­ing on the river­bank re­tains many of its orig­i­nal fea­tures – doors, win­dows and an un­usual coved tim­ber ceil­ing – that re­call the long his­tory of set­tle­ment.

Fur­ther south, Rath­moy Lodge, just north of the town­ship of Hun­ter­ville, is one of three lodges on the mid­dle sec­tion of the river and of­fers good pheas­ant shoot­ing. It’s just op­po­site the Vine­gar Hill Re­serve, known among the gay com­mu­nity since the 1970s for its New Year fes­tiv­i­ties when a new ‘Queen of Vine­gar Hill’ is crowned an­nu­ally.

With spec­tac­u­lar white cliffs, deep canyons and mul­ti­tudes of can­non­ball con­cre­tions, the river ap­peals both to the thrill-seek­ing and more con­tem­pla­tive vis­i­tor. From source to mouth, it’s an ad­ven­ture like few oth­ers.

The up­per reaches of the Ran­gi­tikei River run be­tween ver­ti­cal fern- clad cliffs which give way lower down to white mud­stone (known as papa) – the out­stand­ing fea­ture of the river.

Nicola Megaw (right) man­ages the horse trekking part of the River Val­ley op­er­a­tion. “I’m so for­tu­nate to be able to do this get­ting up very early to start the day,” she says. Her horse ‘ Brave’, which she rides with no bits and no shoes, was res­cued from the Kaimanawa mob that range the North Is­land hin­ter­land. Au­tumn Lawlor rides ‘ Te One,’ also a Kaimanawa horse. They guide par­ties on rides out over the farm, which in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors love.

The White­cliffs Boul­ders are a nat­u­ral won­der said to be mil­lions of years old. The moss- cov­ered cylin­dri­cal boul­ders of mud stone are clus­tered in a na­tive wood­land, a mag­i­cal, in­trigu­ing place. Although on pri­vate land, ac­cess is ob­tained for a small fee at the carpark off Otara Road, Ohin­gaiti.

ABOVE: An­drea Vi­jande Grace (seen here with her daugh­ter Naiomi) came from Ar­gentina to Rath­moy. Her Ar­gen­tinian bar­be­cue in­cludes de­li­cious, slow- cooked em­panadas. LEFT: Rath­moy Lodge, along­side the river on a sheep and cat­tle farm, is owned by Mark and An­drea Grace. It of­fers ac­com­mo­da­tion, pheas­ant shoot­ing and is a wed­ding venue.

LEFT TO RIGHT: When a golf course spans three lev­els de­scend­ing down to a river, as at Ran­gi­tira, just south of Ohin­gaiti, an elec­tric ca­ble car is the an­swer – it’s the only one of its kind in the coun­try; mist set­tles into the chasm at River Val­ley.

Time for trout The up­per reaches of the Ran­gi­tikei River are catch- an­drelease ter­ri­tory. Throw­ing back a 3.2kg rain­bow trout (or as fisher folk say, “it’s a seven pounder”), fish­ing guide John Gor­don ex­plains: “I’ve caught that one be­fore. For many peo­ple that would be the catch of a life­time; there aren’t too many places you could walk a few steps and catch a trout. But that epit­o­mizes this river.”

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