A trek in the remote Ruahine Range turns into a religious experience for Tess Redgrave.
"We're turning back," tramping guide Graham Leech shouts above the angry roar of gale-force wind as we huddle behind a snow-covered bank high on the tops of Hawkes Bay's Ruahine Range.
Ahead, ferocious gusts race across the exposed ridge we had planned to cross, prompting one of our party to tell the gruesome story of an early Maori taua (war party) who crossed these ranges and "were all lost to a man".
"Follow me," yells Leech as we urgently crunch down the snowy track, pausing only to note the memorial to Hamish Armstrong who crashed his De Havilland Fox Moth in bad weather on this saddle in July 1935.
The 90km-long Ruahine Range is the North Island's equivalent of the Southern Alps, providing a formidable barrier between Hawkes Bay and the central North Island interior.
In pre-European times, Maori regularly crossed these perilous peaks and, between 1845 and 1852, missionary explorer and botanist William Colenso became the first white man to find his way across, completing six journeys.
Today, the Ruahine's pristine interior remains largely unvisited and unlauded, which is one of the reasons why Leech, an experienced Hawkes Bay tramper, has established Afoot Limited, the first Department of Conservation-accredited guiding company to operate in the Ruahine and adjacent Kaweka forest parks.
Leech works with clients designing a trip to suit their needs and experience. Our group of four had planned a four-day, mid-October trek that would cross the Ruahine Range from east to west, finishing at River Valley Adventure Lodge on the Rangitikei River. But we hadn't gambled on turbulent spring weather and 140km/h winds.
"I can't believe it. A week ago, I was up here in shirt sleeves," says Leech as we continue our fast retreat from the windy tops clinging to alpine shrubs as huge gusts threaten to bowl us over.
We pass Sunrise Hut where we spent our first night and zig zag down into a sheltered, sylvan glade of snow-sprinkled mountain beech. By the time we reach the trail-head, spring sun is warming our backs and Leech has come up with an alternative plan.
We trek north along a gravel farm access road like soldiers on a forced-march and, after 5km, have just paused to boil the billy when a bronze Ford Territory Ghia screeches to a halt.
"Can you give us a lift?" I shout as farmer Steven Wilson gets out.
"Sure. Where're you headed?" he asks.
"Ummm, down the road you've come."
"That's all right," he replies nonchalantly.
"I was just heading into town for a coffee [town is Waipukurau 50-odd km away]."
Wilson drives us to where his farm, Parks Peaks Station, borders the Ruahine Forest Park at the Makororo River.
Over a cup of tea at his vacant homestead, he explains he used to live out here "but it was too isolated. Now I've got another farm near Waipuk and commute to this one. I call this the smoko shed", he says of the three-bedroomed house.
"Stay the night if you need to. I'll show you where the key is."
An hour later, looking down at a brown, swollen Makaroro River, Wilson's hospitable gesture is top of mind.
The Makororo is the Ruahine Range's major eastern catchment and Leech is worried that, if it is flooded here, it will be harder to get across higher up where it narrows into deep gorges. With only three hours of daylight left and at least two hours of up-river tramping to Barlow Hut - our planned destination - he decides we should de-camp to Wilson's "smoko shed".
Early next morning, we cross and re-cross the Makororo's braided lower reaches. This is the route Colenso took 162 years ago, in February 1845, on his first attempt to cross the Ruahine to visit his flock at "inland Patea" on the Rangitikei River.
Two hours up the Makororo, a stream enters from the right. It is here that Colenso and his six barefooted Maori bearers left the river and climbed steeply towards Te Atua-o-Mahuru peak (1534m).
It is raining heavily and the river is rising fast as we too clamber up a sharp, slippery rock-face to where a moss-covered cairn erected by the Royal Society of New Zealand honours Colenso's epic 1845 journey.
We follow in the missionary's tracks, grabbing tree roots and gasping for air as, dripping wet, we haul ourselves straight up the sheer "Colenso Spur" to 700m.
Camped higher up, Colenso the botanist was ecstatic as he collected dozens of plant specimens: a new fern, Alsiphila colensoi; the New Zealand edelweiss, Leuogenes leontopodium; and a "needle-leaved" speargrass called Aciphylla colensoi.
Colenso the missionary also conducted a church service up here.
"We left the tent and retreated some distance into the dry woods, and here sat on thick moss, where we held divine service."
After two hours of wet and effort, we leave Colenso's trail and descend to the dry Barlow Hut, our remoteness underlined when we discover the last entry in the hut book was a month earlier.
All afternoon, rain drums on the hut roof and the Makororo swells like a running bath. We light the pot belly, hang wet clothes to dry and assess how many days we could stretch out our food. As darkness comes, slugs of brandy and a competitive game of cards allay any anxiety about what the dawn might bring.
At 6am, Leech stirs us to action.
"It's stopped raining and the river's down but we need to get moving before it rains again."
Three hours later, standing thigh deep in rushing water clutching a knotted rope-end as Leech pulls me across the river, I am glad of his earlier insistence. We are nearly out but heavy rain is quickly making crossings dangerous.
Like us, Colenso didn't make it across the range at the first attempt. Short of food, he camped near the Te Atua-o-Mahuru summit and then retraced his steps. Two years later, he successfully crossed the range and went on to make five more crossings.
It is still raining when Leech's wife, Wendy, greets us at the track-end with hot coffee and muffins. In the warmth of her car, we joke about scaling snow-capped ridges.
And yes, we decide, we too will be back.
Further information: Contact Graham Leech on 027 355 5641, email: email@example.com or visit afoot.co.nz.