Kaweka Traverse: Middle Hill, Ballard & Makino Huts

22-25 March 2015

It had been a few years since I last visited the Kawekas. My last trip was a week long hunt at Mangatainoka Hut with my mate Scotty and brother-in-law John in 2012. Prior to that I had done several other trips into Ngaawapurua, Harkness and Gorge Tops.

For this trip I chose to walk a loop beginning at Makahu Road and linking up Middle Hill, Ballard and Makino Huts along the way. Taking a break from the bush stalking, the plan was spend time glassing the open country and hopefully pick up an animal or two as they made the most of the last days of summer.

En route to Middle Hill Hut. The first section of the track is somewhat of a leg stretcher...

Leaving the Makahu Rd/Middle Hill car park around midday I puffed and panted my way up the ridge track. While walking along the plateau leading to the hut I met local hunter Rod Knight and his mate Mark, who were heading back down to the car park. It was good to meet Rod as I have read about his hunting exploits on the FishnHunt Forum and in Jeremy Hanaray’s ‘Sika Country’ series of articles featured in Rod & Rifle. Rod is the real deal when it comes to hunting.

It took me just over two hours to reach Middle Hill Hut, where I stopped for a late lunch and a short rest. The hut is your typical ex NZFS accommodation featuring six bunks, rainwater supplied water tank, an open fireplace (this hut is one of the only ones to still have this, most have an enclosed wood burner), meat safe and long drop toilet. I was impressed at how well it had been maintained and looked after. Originally built in 1963, it was refurbished in 2003, with the addition of a large veranda.

Ihaka Spur runs parallel to the Middle Hill Hut to Ballard Hut track.

Continuing up the track, my plan was to reach the tops and fly camp opposite Ihaka Spur where I could spend the evening and morning glassing into the gullies and faces. At the summit I made camp at the saddle just below Whetu, the highest point at the Northern end of the Kaweka Range. No animals were seen but I did hear a couple of territory calls from way down in the main gully.

Time for a breather, and a late lunch, at Middle Hill Hut.

A rusty waratah marks Whetu (1650m), a high point located at the Northern end of the main Kaweka Range. Te Pukeohikarua is visible in the background just to the left of Nik's pack.

After spending the morning glassing with little success, I made my way up and over Whetu and continued on towards Ballard Hut. On the way along the ridge top track I met a young guy by the name of John who was based at Ballard with a couple of mates. We got talking for a while and he offered to watch my gear so I could go and check out the hut and fill up on water.

Ballard Hut has long been on Nik's list of huts to visit.

Ballard Hut (built 1958, upgraded 2003) is located on the northern side of the ridge that leads to Venison Tops. It is a fairly cosy four-bunker with many of the same features you find in most backcountry huts. Oddly, the water tank has been placed in rather close proximity to the chimney resulting in smokey flavoured water! There is a small spur near the hut that gives a commanding view of the upper Makino River. I took the time to sit there for a while and enjoy the scenery.

Back along the ridge where I had left John, I found a suitable spot for my tent and set up camp. That evening I found a nice little spot to glass from, looking into the large and steep sided gully directly south of Ballard Hut. Beech, manuka, and scrub littered clay pans make up much of the terrain – ideal sika country. As the evening wore on a heavy mist began to fill the gully reducing visibility, however as quickly as it appeared it moved on, but just as it became too dark to glass I spotted a sika hind on the bush edge. She was only in the open for a moment before disappearing into the bush.

The next morning dawned fine and I was up just as it became light enough to see. As it happened, one of the guys from the hut had decided to enter the scene on his way along the Ballard/Venison Tops Track. We had a quick chat and I mentioned to him my plan for the morning. As I dropped over the side of the ridge he followed and made himself comfortable just up from where I was sitting... Oh well, two sets of eyes are better than one! John also turned up and they both sat up above me glassing.

The sika hind photographed with a Canon SX60 HS at 930m.

Ten minutes later I picked up a hind and yearling feeding in a very steep shingle gut across the gully over 900 metres away. The boys hadn’t seen them so I motioned for them to grab a seat and pointed the two deer out to them. I had my new Canon SX60 HS, which sported a 60x optical zoom and filming the deer at this distance proved to be no problem for the camera. The deer hung around in the open until the sun began to fill the gully.

With the gully slowly warming I felt confident about seeing some animals emerging from cover to sun themselves, but nothing turned up. All good, at least I had managed some photos and film.

At midday I packed up and began heading towards the area of open tops above the Makino Hut track. Instead of walking back up over Whetu I opted to drop straight down into the gully between Ballard Hut and the track. This allowed me to fill my water bladder with water that didn’t taste like a BBQ, and also check out a couple of small guts on the large, open scree face along the way.

Along the track at mid-afternoon I found another spot to camp at and again set myself up for an evening and morning of glassing some primo country... however, nothing showed up.

Makino River – Nik looking towards the upper section of the Makino River on his way down the Makino track.

Eager to get on my way, I shouldered my pack early that morning and began the walk through the beech towards Makino Hut. Along the way I came across a small section of the track that was quite literally covered in deer prints, near to a small spur I’d noticed leading off the track on Google Earth. I dropped my pack and cautiously headed into the bush and almost immediately got onto some animals. A fawn stood motionless not 25 metres from me while another deer, presumably the hind, took off deeper into the bush. The fawn calmly held its ground while I rattled off several still images in between video footage, a neat little encounter.

A sika fawn caught standing amongst the Beech just off the track to the Makino Hut.

Time to move on – next stop, Makino Hut (built 1959, upgraded 1993). It was around 11am when I pulled up at the front door, another great little six-bunker. I was really impressed with the condition of all three huts, each one was clean and tidy, no visible rubbish around the sites or graffiti on the interior, a real credit to both the hut users and those who help to maintain them.

Lunchtime at the Makino Hut. All the huts Nik visited were tidy and in great condition, good to see!

A quick coffee and feed, then it was back on the track, briefly stopping at the Makino Bivouac, which consists of a few rusty old corrugated iron sheets in a tent-styled formation.

Makino Bivouac and the remnants of hunts gone by...

The track continues to wind through the bush, slowly descending towards Makahu Road. Along the way I pass some primo looking guts that “scream” deer, including a short, grassy section amongst the manuka where you can’t help but expect to see a deer standing in the middle of the track.

As the feet begin to feel the kilometres walked, I reach the steep section leading down to the Makino Hut car park, and upon reaching that, it’s not too far along the last stretch of gravel road to the Nissan.

Another great hunt in some premium sika country.

ACCESS:
From Taupo, head towards Napier until you reach Glengarry Road, drive to Puketitiri Rd and then on to Makahu Rd. From Napier, head straight to Puketitiri Rd and again on to Makahu Rd. Enter the Kaweka Forest Park from either the Middle Hill or Makino car park entrances. Track condition is generally pretty good and well marked. A reasonable level of fitness is required.

HUNTING PRESSURE:
The main Kaweka Range is only a short drive from Napier and Hastings so a fair amount of hunting pressure is to be expected. Reading through the hut books there appeared to be hunters (and trampers) coming through on a weekly basis. However, deer can be found in reasonable numbers if you’re prepared to put in some leg work.

WEATHER:
Late March usually provides fairly settled weather and I was fortunate enough to experience four days of light winds and, for the most part, sunshine. The long days up on the tops mean plenty of fluid is needed, and be wary of having enough water for back at camp also. The weather can pack it in surprisingly quickly, even during summer, and at altitudes of 1400 metres and above, it pays to be equipped for any eventualities.

HUNTING TIPS:
Late March is considered pre-rut for sika. Stags will be fairly mobile and possibly still squeezing in that last bit of nutrition before the rut kicks in. This provides an opportunity to possibly catch a stag feeding away from cover, out on the bush edges or amongst the scrub choked gullies and faces. With big country like this you’ll definitely need some binos. I chose this option primarily because I wouldn’t be returning for the roar. During this time the stags will also be ‘limbering up’ in preparation for the rut by beginning to locate or establish a new or existing territory, creating or revisiting old scrapes and rubbing small trees and bushes. Wallows will also receive some attention. Due to this fact, putting some time in the bush to locate a stag’s territory is also worth a consideration, particularly if you plan hunting it again over the main rut period. Up early and out late is the permanent status quo and proven once again by the sightings of animals at both first and last light. The benefit of fly camping near potentially productive areas, yet far enough away that you don’t spook the area out prematurely, allows you to be in position at those crucial times.

NEXT ISSUE:
Back to an old favourite, the Southern Kaimanawas and visiting a new hut this time, the Waipakihi Hut. Heading in from the Kaimanawa Rd carpark, we spend 4 days hunting along the Umukarikari Range with a chance of locating both red deer and sika.

Cheers,

Nik

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