Southern Kaimanawas: Waipakihi River

5-8 June 2015

I first hunted the Waipakihi in my late teens with a trip over the Urchin Track down into the valley. Although tent-bound for a couple of days due to heavy rain, during the one fine spell I managed to shoot an 8-point red stag just inside the bush edge directly opposite Thunderbolt Creek’s confluence with the river. Apart from that trip, I have only hunted the lower reaches of the Waipakihi on two other occasions.

The Waipakihi River flows through the western flank of the Kaimanawa Forest Park. Here large open tops, bush clad valley sides combined with a tussock, grass and scattered scrub valley floor, provide premium hunting opportunities to suit everyone.

Waipakihi River – Waipakihi Hut can be seen in the centre of the pic.

We begin this trip from the Kaimanawa Road carpark and head along the Umukarikari Track to Waipakihi Hut. A brief stop there and then straight up the Waipakihi Middle Range Route to spend the next three nights hunting along the Te Hiwiokaituri Ridge. From there it’s a simple bush hunt down to the river followed by another hunt up through the native and onto the Umukarikari to Urchin link track.

Reaching the road-end carpark I take notice of the DoC sign and in particular, the 14km hike into Waipakihi Hut, a decent walk but one that will offer some great scenery en route. Leaving the 4WD at around 10.30am I begin the uphill section, which passes through lush beech forest for around 4.5kms before breaking out on to the open tops. Another shorter uphill slog brings me to Sharp Cone where the track splits off in a SW direction, heading towards the Urchin Tops.

An old and weathered track sign post points in the direction of the Umukarikari Track.

From the Umukarikari Track you can see directly into the Waipakihi Valley and as I draw nearer to the hut the excitement of reaching new country creeps in. About 10kms in I stop for a breather and am rewarded with a sika stag territory call from the opposite side of the valley, awesome! While it isn’t uncommon for sika stags to continue calling well into the winter months, I have only heard calling on a few occasions.

My original plan was to stop over briefly at the hut and then continue on up to the Te Hiwiokaituri Ridge. However, the weather had started to pack it in so a night at the hut it was. It was a pleasant surprise to see that the basic structure was identical to that of the original Oamaru Hut. A 12 bunker, 6 beds per side room, with a large kitchen/dining area in the middle. I’ve spent many nights in the Oamaru Hut and the sense of nostalgia I felt being in the Waipakihi Hut was comforting, I soon forgot about the rain outside and enjoyed a night on my own with the fire going, a feed under my belt and a hot drink in hand.

The Waipakihi Hut provides accommodation for up to 12 hunters or trampers.

I woke early the next morning to heavy rain on the roof and mist blanketing the valley. Regardless, I packed up my gear, took a quick bit of footage of the hut and began the short climb up the Waipakihi Middle Range Route. The rain began to ease as I neared the bush edge and by the time I hit the tussock it had stopped. In between the track end and Te Hiwiokaituri Ridge there is another smaller ridge that runs all the way down to the Waipakihi River, which is where I stopped for a coffee and bite to eat.

The mist is lingering, and due to this, and my unfamiliarity with the area, I opt to wait it out and hope that it clears; it isn’t until late afternoon that it finally begins to lift. With the day almost over and little achieved I find a flat area to pitch my tent, then head off down the ridge for an evening hunt.

View down the upper section of the Waipakihi River en route to the Te Hiwiokaituri Ridge. Open river valley, beech forest valley sides and open tops, primo!

The terrain is fantastic, huge open faces and scrubby guts fringed with beech forest. Almost everywhere you look you expect to see an animal! There is deer sign right out in the open as well as along the bush edges. Satisfied with what I have seen, it’s time to head back to camp and see what the next day brings.

Awake well before the sun is up, I peek out of the tent to see a clear sky overhead. It’s a chilly morning with a good frost on the ground. As soon as it is light enough I head off towards the side ridge to where I had heard the stag calling from during the walk in. Fly camping has put me right on the spot and as I crest the ridge I see two red deer out feeding. My tent is less than 100 metres away as I set up the camera to film. They are low down in a gut and it isn’t yet light enough to begin capturing footage so I settle in and wait for the sun to creep out.

TOP, MIDDLE & ABOVE: A red hind and yearling out feeding in the early morning sun. Both animals appeared to be in decent condition.

As light hits the face the deer have reached the ridge top and are feeding towards the bush. I film them for a while before following them in to check the area for sign of the stag. The bush is tight, I spend 10 minutes looking around before heading back to the tent, packing up my gear and heading off towards Te Hiwiokaituri Ridge.

The going is easy and along the way I get an opportunity to look over the Thunderbolt Creek headwaters. The creek and adjoining side streams are steep and gnarly and look like real tiger country, in amongst that though are some prime looking hunting spots. A hunting mission around Middle Range, which borders the entire creek, is definitely on the cards!

Looking towards the Thunderbolt Creek headwaters, serious country during the winter that should not be taken lightly.

Continuing along the ridge I pass some steep-sided open faces with numerous game trails etched into them, I decide to spend that evening glassing them. A little further on I reach the highest point along the ridge which is a small cone at 1600m. This offers a commanding view of the entire upper section of the Waipakihi River as well as the full length of Thunderbolt Creek, and also towards Ngapuketurua and Makorako. At moments like this you really appreciate the effort involved in venturing into the back country.

Setting up camp just below the high point, I make my way back along the ridge and settle in for an evening glass. The area screams deer so it is a bit of a surprise when nothing shows. All good, I still have one last morning to hopefully catch something out. Morning arrives and I waste no time getting into position looking over another tidy little gully that winds its way towards the Thunderbolt, but again, no deer!

A sunset view towards Mt. Ngaruahoe from a fly camping position on Te Hiwiokaituri Ridge.

At 8.30am I pack up for the last time and begin the descent through the beech down to the river. The ridge is easy going with a fair amount of both red deer and sika sign. A little way down I come across a decent antler rubbing which looks to have been done by a red stag during this year’s rut. As I drop down I hear a few red deer barks directly above me, cheeky bugger!

Not long after that I reach an area where the ridge drops off steeply to the side, allowing the sunlight to beam through into the forest interior. The amount of sign increases and moments later a sika yearling moves off in front of me. The wind is ideal and the young hind is unsure of what I am, so I began filming this inquisitive little deer.

A young sika hind photographed at 25m.

As I lose height the bush opens up and it isn’t long until I reach the forest edge and tussock covered river flats. Time for some lunch, some quick footage of the area and then it’s the last grunt up the hill to the Umukarikari/Urchin loop track. By the time I hit the hilltop and hustle across the tussock, bypassing the track junction just below Sharp Cone, my legs are starting to feel it and the downhill section to the vehicle is definitely welcome.

It has been a fantastic trip into one of the most scenic sub-alpine areas of the North Island.

ACCESS:
The Waipakihi River is situated directly east of Mount Ruapheu about 20 minutes south of Turangi and around 30mins north of Waiouru. There are several options for hunting the area. Kaimanawa Road brings you to the beginning of either the Umukarikari Track or Urchin Track. The Umukarikari Track provides access into the upper section of the Waipakihi River, while the Urchin Track will lead you into the middle section; these options require a decent level of fitness. Another option is to head in off the end of Waipakihi Road, this provides access to the lower reaches of the river and offers less demanding hunting opportunities. The Waipakihi Hut can be reached either way. The Umukarikari Track offers a direct 14km/6-8hr walk to the hut, while the Urchin Track requires a 4-6hr river traverse, and the Waipakihi Road end a 8-10hr river traverse.

HUNTING PRESSURE:
Due to the easy access, pressure remains high and the rut sees numerous hunters filtering into the valley. However, during the winter months generally only the keenest hunters are there. Animal numbers could be considered moderate with both red deer and sika present. Putting in the hard yards to hunt the less frequented and more remote sections should see your chances increase dramatically. Pressure directly off the Waipakihi Road is very high with numerous campsites located at the road end.

WEATHER:
Factoring the weather into hunts in this area is particularly important. Having hunted off the Desert Road for the last 25+ years I have witnessed some pretty extreme conditions. Wind chill on the exposed tops must be considered and I can’t emphasise enough the need for decent gear if you’re going to hunt this area in winter. The river adds another dimension and caution needs to be taken here also. This trip was early June with relatively mild weather; however, don’t underestimate the Desert Road region.

HUNTING TIPS:
Personally I would put in the extra effort to hunt the upper sections of the Waipakihi River – Urchin Track onwards for example, primarily due to the reduced hunting pressure. There’s a huge amount of country on offer providing hunting opportunities on the open tops, in the beech forest, or along open river flats. It would be a fairly simple task to combine a couple of those options or a combination of all three to maximise your hunting time. At this time of the year the deer won’t have completely shifted into winter mode and should still be fairly mobile within their range. I noticed a decent amount of sign out on the tops and would hazard a guess that the red deer frequent this open country more so than the sika. As mentioned, timing your hunt to include either an early morning or an evening stalk is the way to increase your chances of encountering deer. But glassing the open country, with a bush hunt in the middle of the day, can also put you in the right spot at the right time.

NEXT ISSUE:
Time to hit the Northern Kaimanawas once again. This time with a trip into where my passion for sika hunting really took off – Oamaru Hut. Heading in from the Helisika carpark, we make our way to Oamaru Hut, continue on to Tussock Hut via the Otorehinaiti Stream and finish up at the very well known Boyd Hut.

Cheers,

Nik

SIKA HUNTING TIPS & INFO:
 
The NZG&H sika hunting column featuring tips & information on hunting methods, areas to hunt, huts & campsites to check out, weather
and terrain.