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Big views. Kaweka J is the highest point of the Kaweka Conservation Area and on clear days summon views of Hawke’s Bay, the Kaimanawas and volcanoes of Tongariro National Park.
Always check weather forecasts and road closures, as snow is particularly prevalent in winter.
The start of the track is signposted from the carpark at the end of Kaweka Road.
This walk involves a climb of around 800 vertical metres, including some steep sections of open scree. It’s a challenging walk and not suited to the unfit or faint hearted.
From the carpark follow the signs to Makahu Saddle Hut (5 minutes), which nestles in a glade of black beech. A toilet is located nearby. Shortly after, the track forks with options to ascend left via Makahu Spur or right up Trials Spur. A brief reconnoitre up the hillside shows the two spurs surrounding a scree filled bowl and their meeting point on the top rim. Both take around 30 minutes. As the Makahu Spur involves a short steep section on scree, it is better to ascend via this track and descend on the more even graded Trials Spur.
Notice the work DoC have carried out to reduce the spread of Pinus contorta, originally planted in an attempt to stabilise the slopes. After a few zigzags the Makahu Track arrives at an unvegetated slip and the poled route to the top of the range begins. These metal poles lead straight up the rubble smothered slope, but it is best to zigzag. Choose your footings carefully. The rubble is like marbles if you don’t dig your feet in and there is northing to catch a fall should you slip. The exposed ash and clay soils beneath provide good grip, but are sometimes too steep for a foothold.
The top of the unvegetated slip arrives at a rocky outcrop, which once clambered over, glimpses the ridge you will ascend. After meeting the track from Trials Spur, continue over the exposed outcrops. The track is narrow and well-formed as it weaves over and between the pinnacles of greywacke.
The sub-alpine vegetation is a hardy mix of tussock, lichens and herbfields. Mountain daisies also brave the severe conditions. There is a gentle palette of colours exhibited by the vegetation on the bedrock. There is also a change to strong winds, frost, mist and the rapid advancement of weather.
After 20 minutes the orange outhouse, anchored with cables, and the small hut of Dominie Bivouac come to view. The gain in altitude now presents some extensive views, the detail diluted by the haze.
The rugged scenery continues to the top of the range (40 minutes), with Don’s Spur to the south and Pinnacle Spur to the north providing the most immediate views. Note the Pinus contorta on Don’s Spur and how it exploits the gullies. Pinnacle Spur shows how the unconsolidated soils avalanche down the precipitous sides of the ridge.
The summit of the range is flat and the poled track continues left for 5 minutes, arriving at a memorial cairn to those of the Heretaunga Tramping Club who died in World War 2. The remains of the footing of Kaweka J Trig (1724 metres) are a little further.
Empowered, return via the same track to Trials Spur and Makahu Saddle carpark (1 ½ hours).
Since the mid 1960s large tracts of land were planted with Pinus contorta, especially in the south and east of the park. This misguided attempt at soil stabilisation has resulted in the invasion of the species over huge areas, with the consequent displacement of native species, especially above the bushline. Since the 1980s intensive control measures have been implemented, involving clearance of ridgelines to arrest its downslope propagation.
Even from a distance, the most discernible features of the Kawekas are the erosion scars texturing the scrub covered hills. The jagged peaks are skirted in slips, where the top soils has been scoured off to reveal the bedrock.
The basement rock is shattered Jurassic greywacke with an overlying and tilted blanket of younger Tertiary sediments on the southern and eastern slopes. Most soils are composed of volcanic ash, derived from the Taupo ash shower of approximately AD120. These light soils have little structure or zonation and can hold large quantities of water. These characteristics thus contribute to the large scale erosion, which is part of the natural cycle of rock renewal in the Kawekas.
The shallow, skeletal soil composition exhibits low natural fertility, thus cannot support prolific vegetation communities. Roots cannot penetrate to depth and leave soils prone to erosion from high winds and frost shatter. Kaweka J is drenched with torrential rain (nearly 4000 mm annually), experiences gale force winds and heavy snow. The rapid changes in temperature and magnified extremes accelerate rates of weathering. From June to October, when the tops are covered in snow, frost shatter is the main agent of weathering. The expansion of water on freezing levers apart rock fragments, weakening the soil structure and inducing further erosion.
Unsurprisingly, the Kawekas never supported a permanent Maori population, the main reason for visiting being to hunt for kiore or birds. Obsidian has been unearthed in the Black Birch Range and fire scars in the Mohaka and Ngaruroro Valleys are evidence of a Maori presence. The ranges were traversed as an east-west access route, the main route to the north travelling via inland Patea and the Mohaka and Oamaru Valleys. The southern route exploited the Kuripapango Gap.
With Maori guides, the eminent botanist William Colenso crossed from Hawke’s Bay to inland Patea via the Ngaruroro and Kuripapango Valleys. His detailed descriptions were the first European accounts of the area. Other botanists were among the later explorers, including Norman Elder, who contributed much to the botanical understanding of the region.
Following the Government purchase of 20,000 hectares in 1850, land was leased to Hawkeston and Mangawhare Stations and high numbers of merino sheep were run over the southern part of the range. In the 1860s and 1870s large tracts of land were cleared by fire to remove the unpalatable native grasses. In 1882 2 hotels were built either side of the Ngaruroro River and the settlement at Kuripapango became a thriving town. Wealthy runholders from coastal Hawke’s Bay visited the retreat and spa until the early 1900s when both hotels burned down. In 1908 a rail link through the centre of the North Island obviated the need for a communication link across the range, and the tourist traffic declined.
Accelerated rates of erosion were compounded in the early 1900s when rabbits were released, which browsed the low vegetation cover. The introduction of deer, pigs, goats and possums aggravated the already erosion prone hills and the frequency of slips increased. Grazing was abandoned on the main range and the last of the great fires to conflagrate the forest burned in 1918 south of the Makino Hut.
After World War 2 the dramatically high occurrence of slips prompted the New Zealand Forest Service to set up an experimental station at Makahu Saddle. They researched revegetation techniques and measures to control erosion. The centre closed down in the 1970s.
From 1968 The Water and Soil Division of the New Zealand Ministry of Works established the ‘Ngahere Representative Basin’ to provide datum levels on hydrological data including precipitation levels and stream flows. The attempt to devise measures to curb the erosion levels included the planting of Pinus contorta.
Vegetation in the park is a reflection of the fact the Kaweka Range is the driest of the ranges on the North Island mountain axis. The altitudinal range has a determining affect on what grows where and the sequence evolves from indigenous forest on the lower slopes to alpine grasslands on the tops. The south and east of the range were most affected by fires and grazing and are now in the process of regeneration. Manuka and kanuka scrub is dominant with occasional pockets of broadleaf forest and red/mountain beech forests. There are large area of bare eroded land. Above the bushline modified and true alpine grasslands thrive with indistinct subalpine scrub.
The northern forest tends to be dominated by red and mountain beech. In the extreme north of the park mountain beech replaces silver beech, which reaches the southern limit of its distribution here. The Makino and Mangatainoka Valleys have some luxuriant podocarp forest (rimu, miro, matai, and kahikatea) with broadleaf species (lacebark, five-finger, kohuhu and kowhai) below.
Long-tailed bats flit through the sky at night and rare bird species such as the North Island Brown Kiwi, whio, New Zealand falcon are occasionally witnessed. Uncommon inhabitants include the whitehead and yellow-crowned parakeet. The Wellington Green Gecko (Naultinus elegans punctatus) is among the invertebrate representatives along with Powelliphanta snails and peripatus.
In 1974, 52,000 hectares were gazetted as the Kaweka State Forest Park. Many of the tracks now used were developed for animal control measures and the huts used by the forest service. The network of tracks is extensive, often following the ridges of the exposed tops.
North Island ▷ Hawkes Bay ▷ Napier
Hard climb, trials spur washed out in a couple of spots but still plenty of room to get around and up. Worth the effort; woudl rate it at 2-2.5 up 1.5-2 down. As mentioned in the above text Makahu up and trials down is the sensible option (I went the other way around, shingle slope is hard work to go down)
Road is 2WD suitable; wouldn't go following heavy rain as it drives like a farm track/gravel driveway and the edges would be very soft (single lane)
Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍