Along Deadman's Ridge

Exploring the Ruahine Ranges

Triangle hut is a jerry built thing of plywood sheets, with a steep roof and verandah like an old villa. It sits beside a shallow but fast flowing river, catching the sun, and inside are all the necessities of bunks, table and stove. It seemed like the archetypal hut when I stayed there, only occasionally visited but perfect. The type of hut I’m always hoping to come to, but so far none have been quite like that.

It was in the Ruahine Ranges, and we walked out along golden ridgelines. Deadman’s Ridge was one, and it’s still the best name I’ve come across in the bush, although I probably wouldn’t have thought so if the weather had been bad. Missionary and botanist William Colenso had once traversed those ranges, desperate to find heathens to convert. His first attempt was an ordeal and a failure, in that he never actually found anyone to preach to, although he did manage to stuff plant samples down his shirt as he went.

As well as Triangle, we stayed at Rangiwahia Hut, near what had been a ski field way back. That, on a summer day, was as hard to imagine as Colenso trotting along in his frock coat. We went out to watch the sunrise and someone produced a bottle of whisky made from honey, weird stuff with hippy nonsense on the label about its qualities and powers. It had a rotgut burn, but then as that faded, a delicious, sweet aftertaste, it really was like drinking honey.

It had only been a tiny segment of that park that we visited. They stretch for 100 kms, long skinny ranges that go straight up, and which were once a home to shepherds, loggers, deer cullers, and George Fulcher. He, his wife and two daughters tried to make a piece of it their own during the depression, living for three years in a shack of native timber, tin and malthoid. Pictures show the most miserable shanty, and yet in 1983 at age 85, George, his daughter Ngaire and her family, came back to stay for a few days. The Ruahines still holding a draw after all those years, just as they had for Colenso too. He crossed them another half a dozen times before he was defrocked for adultery, a failure as a missionary, but a success as an explorer.

I’ve been back too, and I’ll go again. But I won’t expect things to be the same. Our last trip proved that – we staggered around in the rain, and came across deer guts all heaped up at points on the sodden track, before retreating from our tramp and spending a night in a cold hut. Exactly where that was in the park, I don’t remember – I’ve blocked it out maybe. The tops were dirty, grey mounds that time, blurred by the fog. It was as if we were in a different set of mountains altogether.