Kaweka Ranges: Back Ridge

4th – 7th November 2016

One of the main attractions for me when I’m chasing sika is the exploration of the country they live in, Nothing beats it. since I first began hunting sika, I have always wanted to cover as much of the Kaimanawas and Kawekas as possible and visiting every established public hut and bivvy is part of this attraction.

With our wee girl Ruby now a year old and things at home more settled, I had discussed with Amanda the possibility of writing another series on sika hunting. Long story short, it was on!

For this 4-day trip the plan was to once again hit the Kaweka Ranges to visit an area that would arguably be one of the most popular in the park – Back Ridge. Beginning at Makahu Saddle carpark, I would head up to Dominie Bivvy, then over to Back Ridge Hut before continuing to Back Ridge Bivvy, crossing over to Studholme Saddle Hut, and then back to the carpark.

Day 1
It was with a sense of excitement that I headed off for this hunt. It had been over a year since I had stepped foot in sika country and I was really looking forward to it. Leaving Tauranga mid-morning I began the 4-5 hour drive to Kaweka Range foothills.

My rifle for this trip was our older Sako M591 chambered in .260 Rem and shooting Barnes TSX 130 grain projectiles. I always like to stop off at the NZDA Range in Taupo for a quick zero check; three sub-MOA shots an inch high at 100 metres later and I was ready to roll!

The starting point – Makahu Saddle Hut. Be prepared for a gruelling uphill slog to the top of the range.

I reached the Makahu Saddle Carpark in the late afternoon. It was very windy and judging by the pace of the clouds I imagined it was going to be cranking up on top of the range.

After a quick nosy at Makahu Saddle Hut I began the climb up towards Dominie Bivvy which turned out to be a lot steeper than anticipated! I’ll admit that my pace up the hill was slow, the lack of cardio and hill time over the winter months had me puffing!

The wind was getting stronger by the minute and by the time I reached Dominie Bivvy, just on 6pm, it was absolutely howling. I decided to hunker down at the bivvy for the night and used the remaining light to glass into the “sheltered” gullies adjacent to the biv. Dominie Bivvy is tiny wee hut that sleeps two and features tanked water and a long drop toilet. Built in 1968 it is positioned on a small terrace roughly halfway up Makahu Spur.

Dominie Bivvy – a quirky 2 bunk hut located roughly halfway up Makahu Spur.

After about an hour and a half of glassing with nothing spotted, I headed back to the biv, had a bite to eat and settled in for the night. Just on dark I heard someone turn up and was joined by local hunter Andrew York and his tiny little dog Indy. They were on their way to Back Ridge also, so we decided to head up and over together the following morning.

Day 2
We woke the following morning to high winds. Andrew took the lead and graciously waited at the top for me as I took more than a few breathers to reach the summit, jeez my fitness was down! After a couple of photos at the rock cairn, which sits at the highest point on the Kaweka Ranges, we began the descent down to Back Ridge Hut. The weather was beginning to clear a little and the wind was dropping off also.

Main Range Track – West to Back Ridge and the Manson, South to Studholme and Kuripapango, North to Ballard Hut and the Makino River.

Heading down the ridge towards the hut gave me a chance to survey the countryside and I was really impressed with the terrain – pockets of beech with vast open areas, ideal deer country. I get a real buzz whenever I visit new sika country and with such a long spell since my last sika hunt I was amping to get amongst it. My priority though was to get to the hut!

Looking towards Back Ridge Hut...

Back Ridge Hut is located in the bottom of a large gully tucked into a little bush section, it’s a great spot. Built in 1957, it sits just below the main Back Ridge Track and features four bunks, a fireplace, long drop toilet and meat safe. A small creek runs right past the hut.

Back Ridge Hut is a popular destination for the weekend sika hunter.

Andrew and I grabbed an early lunch and hung out at the hut for a while before heading off towards Back Ridge Bivvy. Showing an eagerness often seen in youth, Andrew took off ahead and said that he would meet me there. I was keen to take my time and take in the surroundings along the way.

There are a couple of small sections of track that pass through the beech between Back Ridge Hut and Back Ridge Bivvy, and prior to the trip I had heard reports that large areas of the Kawekas had been ravaged by the big snow dumps towards the end of winter. In some areas, tracks were ruined and the bush interior was hard going with huge amounts of windfall prevalent. As most of this trip was too be spent traversing the open stuff, however, I was unsure if this would have much of an impact on my travel times.

As it turned out, there was very little damage to the track, in fact I couldn’t really notice any. There was also hardly any windfall and all in all I was easy going, mint! It was a bit of a relief as the traverse from Back Ridge Bivvy to Studhlome Saddle Hut involved a steep bush bash across Kiwi Creek.

As I neared the bivvy I spotted Andrew and Indy making their way back along the track. It turned out that there were two other guys already there and as he was planning to sleep in the biv he had left his tent at home. He was a little disappointed but decided to spend the rest of his trip hunting around the hut. I was really impressed with Andrew, he had a great attitude towards hunting and you could tell he felt right at home in the bush.

Back Ridge Bivvy tops offer some premium hunting opportunities.

Breaking out of the beech in the early afternoon I was presented with what can only be described as awesome sika country. Back Ridge consists of a lengthy ridge bordered by beech forest and large, North West facing broken terrain – ideal deer habitat. The weather was settled now and I was looking forward to an evening hunt.

I quickly dropped down to the bivvy to check it out and fill up on water. Back Ridge Bivvy (circa 1962) is a small, two-bed shelter that is purely that, a shelter. You can’t stand up in it, so if you’re planning to be there for any amount of time, make sure you pack a tarp or tent fly to make things a little more comfortable.

Back Ridge Bivvy sits amongst a series of interlocked clearings and puts the hunter in the middle of some premium sika country.

Back up on the ridge I found a suitable spot to set up camp before finding a nearby vantage point to glass from. The weather had settled and I was confident of catching something out feeding. No sooner had I raised my binos and glassed down the ridge when I noticed a person waving out to me. It was one of the other two hunters and they were heading back along the ridge right through where I was planning to spend the evening glassing. No problem, first in first served.

I thought it was best to catch up with them so I stayed put. They turned up about 20 minutes later and we had a chat about hunting, as you do! They were flying out the next day so I mentioned to them that I would try my luck glassing from the same spot in the morning.

Day 3
Just after daybreak the following morning I headed back to the vantage point only to find that the two other guys were positioned in the same spot I was sitting in when I met them... Oh well, that’s public land hunting for ya!

Early morning at Back Ridge, picture perfect.

So unfortunately, my preconceived strategy had been stumped and so wasting no time I gapped it over towards Studholme Saddle Hut. This involved an awesome stalk down into Kiwi Creek and then back up again onto a leading ridge towards Mad Dog Hill. The bush either side of Kiwi Creek consisted of open beech forest which thankfully had managed to escape all the snow damage. There was ample sign and the deer appeared to have been holed up in the creeks quite a bit. I also found a freshly cast antler which looked like a sika/red cross.

A possible sika/red cross cast antler found in Kiwi Creek.

Breaking out of the bush and with plenty of time on hand I cruised up the ridge, found a suitable campsite and then ventured down to the hut for a quick look.

Studholme Saddle Hut is situated in a steep-sided beech-filled tributary of Kiwi Creek. Built in 1969 it contains four bunk beds, an open fireplace, meat safe, long drop toilet and nearby water supply. The surrounding terrain had a mix of everything, it was like a “compressed” valley offering all the Kawekas had to offer. There was something about this spot that struck a chord and I would definitely be adding it to my list of places to revisit. After filling my water bottle I began the short haul out of the creek and back up to my tent. I was hopeful of an evening and morning hunt, but it was not to be, the wind picked up once again followed by the cloud and mist, gutting!

The track leading down to Studholme Saddle Hut. To the right of the picture is Castle Camp and beyond that, Kiwi Saddle Hut.

Day 4
The wind and rain howled over the tops that night and as soon as it was light, I quickly packed up and began the walk back to the truck. So not a single deer seen on this trip, funnily enough the same outcome as the first sika hunt where I headed into the Southern Access Corridor off the Desert Road in the original Sika Hunting Tips & Info series! Still, a great trip into an awesome area of the Park.

There are several options available if you are looking to hunt this part of the park. East Kaweka Helicopters can drop you off and pick you up wherever you choose to go and I thoroughly recommend their services. Chris is more than happy to work around your trip requirements. If you’re beating the feet, you have several access points to choose from; Makahu Saddle Carpark, Cameron Carpark and The Lakes Carpark. These all involve a pretty hefty 3-4hr ascent up on to the tops, so be prepared for that.

Apart from the roar, the summer holiday period will see the highest amount of hunter activity in the park. However, by the end of January almost everyone is back at work or school so you can expect the park to be a little quieter. I didn’t bump into any hunters and checking through the hut log books revealed that the area had been pretty much void of hunter traffic over the last few weeks – a good time to be in the hills. Note that while almost every tramper will enter details into the hut books, hunters are not always so forthcoming.

Hot and windy! If the forecast is clear you can expect plenty of heat and a lot of sunshine. It is important to consider the effects of the sun, especially when hunting the tops. Pack sunscreen and consider the need for extra water top-ups along the way. Water will be scarce up high, but there is tank supply at most of the huts and if you are prepared to drop down into a head gut or two you’ll eventually find a trickle to fill your bottle with.In general, the weather at this time of the year has become a little more settled so I would use this opportunity to spend a few days fly camping, getting away from the huts.

The advantage of a drop-off at one spot and pick-up at another is that it allows the hunter to cover a fair amount of ground without retracing his steps. With a network of tracks and huts that are for the most part all linked together, the Kawekas easily caters for this kind of trip. It doesn’t necessarily have to be by chopper either, there are a number of access points and tracks (along the main range) that loop around and back onto each other. Adding to that is the varied terrain you can plan your hunts around. You can quite easily combine several different terrain types and hunting techniques within the one trip. Open tops, bush edges, bush interior, clay pans, slips and scrub country, it’s all on offer. On the hunting side of things, one thing to remember is to not pack up too early from your morning glassing sessions. Give the deer time to move out of the forest interior, particularly if you are glassing a face, slip or clearing that doesn’t get the sun until later in the morning.

We head into the Thunderbolt/Rangitikei (for real this time!) area of the Southern Kaimanawas for a pre-rut hunt!



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