Six Whanganui trampers, including LAUREL STOWELL, tackle a remote route through Waitōtara forest.
"Is this paradise?" a German visitor to the Waitōtara Conservation Area wondered.
"I came in from Trains Hut, and while the track is a bit harsh in places it is also utterly beautiful to follow along the sunlit ridges," he wrote in the DoC intentions book at Tahupō Hut.
That hut is right in the middle of the huge and rugged forest to the west of Whanganui National Park. This vast area has one remaining tramping route, from north to south.
For a group of Whanganui walkers it was one foot after another, step, step, step, for five days. We were six from the Wanganui Tramping Club, out during a pleasant week in late April. Our leader was the amiable Brian Doughty.
We set off from Puniwhakau Rd in inland Taranaki about lunchtime. The landowner at road's end was happy about us parking. Our track was first a vehicle one through pines, then it headed gently uphill through scrub and regenerating bush.
We stopped at "the letterboxes" junction for lunch, where there are old house sites. Then our way wended gradually up past a slip and a dodgy bridge and big old pine trees to Charlie's Clearing, a magical piece of high grassy ridge with views in all directions.
The farmer Charlie was German, the story goes, and was made to leave during the war with Germany. He never went back, but the pines and cherry laurels that mark his house site are still there, grown huge.
It was a fine afternoon, then a night with a half moon, stars and jet trails. Brian made a fire and we scrambled into a gully for water and organised ourselves under flies and in bivvy bags for the night.
Next day we had some difficulty finding the turn-off to Pūteore Hut. Mark had a GPS, which helped, and we passed the site of a collapsed former hut and headed off down a long ridge.
The scrub and regrowth changed to bush and there were windfalls to clamber under, over and around. The track sidled the ridge, and we often had to stop and to cast around for track markers.
Brian and David are avid talkers, and what they don't know about Whanganui over the past 50 years is not worth talking about. We were treated to an intermittent stream of history, anecdote, speculation and club politics.
There was ribbing about the snoring heard overnight, and about who was the best path finder. Robert got himself in front most of the time.
It took twice as long as expected to get to the hut, a small, sound six-bunker. We cooked indoors with gas and it was much warmer than the night at Charlie's Clearing.
Next day was the middle one of the trip and truly the middle of the bush. The forest was magnificent. Lots of rata, both mature and emerging, tawa, rimu, kamahi and Hall's tōtara. The ridge track is narrow in places, and wanders up and down.
There weren't many places to get a view. When we did, what could be seen was more hills, covered in mature forest. The track was better and the going was quicker.
Tahupō Hut was a twin to Pūteore, on a ridge top. It was moved two years ago, after a slip got close to it.
South of Tahupō the ridge is skinnier and bonier, without much soil, and the vegetation changes to black beech with kamahi, rewarewa and mingimingi clinging to shellrock.
The forest gets lush again as the track plunges down to the Waitōtara River, with nikau in the valley bottom.
At the swing bridge over the clear river there was a whio (blue duck) on the bank. Not far downriver are the Terereohaupa Falls, where water surges over a shellrock ledge.
The hut was similar to the others, and had one occupant, a visitor from Australia. Also in its clearing was a small tent with a sleeping bag, clothesline and stored food. The hut book contained a cryptic entry from someone called "Old Mate" who said he would be staying "as God wills". There was no sign of him.
We had a bit of light rain that afternoon and Shane put up a fly and slept outside. During the night a possum tried to pluck the woolly hat off his head.
Trains Hut is named after a farmer who acquired the land as payment for a debt. The track onward stays in the valley, with swing bridges to cross side streams.
At one point there's a tunnel cut through papa rock to avoid a tricky stream crossing, and later is the site of the farm William Von Asch started in 1894. It once had its own hydro scheme, a big house and a tennis court. The house was trashed by squatters and all that's left is an open space with camellias and a chestnut tree, the remains of a garden.
The final hour is on the often-muddy "beehive highway" of Makowhai Station.
Waitōtara Conservation Area is huge, and with Whanganui National Park is the second largest area of lowland forest in the North Island. It's a heartland for the Ngā Rauru iwi, who visit Trains in their annual hikoi.
The forest is flanked by scenic reserves and the scrubby remnants of abortive attempts at farming.
The route we took isn't frequently used, and is not a full tramping track. Walkers should take GPS equipment and personal locator beacon.
Difficulties aside, Whanganui DoC ranger Jim Campbell says the track is a gem.
"It's probably one of the unsung heroes of Whanganui National Park. There's beautiful water down below, and good hunting. There's deer and pigs there, kiwi at night, and there's blue ducks on the river banks."
Now that Mid West Helicopters will fly people to the three huts, it's more widely accessible.
"People can fly in, and walk out. That's what I would do. I'd spend two nights at Tahupō Hut. There's a great view, a great veranda. It's set up beautifully now."
And the five-hour walk to Trains Hut from the Waitōtara road end is another opportunity, Jim says.
"It's really achievable as a simple tramp for learners or for people who want to get quite remote but aren't experienced."
Parts of the forest had aerial 1080 baits laid in spring last year, and DoC would like to extend that. The birdlife seemed pretty good. We saw North Island robins and tomtits, two native pigeons, and we heard a lot of bellbirds.
Goats need to be culled, which is expensive.
DoC would like the windfalls between Charlie's Clearing and Pūteore Hut cleared, but it keeps falling off the priority list.
"Every time we book our staff in to do that, which is probably every six months, something has happened. Hopefully this winter we can get in there," Jim said.
You work this steep hill country from the ridges, people say. How clever was it to find a ridge that goes north to south across the forest, without difficult stream crossings? Trip leader Brian was one of those who helped scope it out in the 1970s, before there was a DoC.
He remembers trips led by Harry Stimpson and Trevor Ruscoe, and many a futile walk down a side ridge that ended in a gully. The first markers used were painted can lids, and some remain.
But European trampers were not the first to use those leading ridges.
Jim says Māori used them, and Ngutuwera's resident historian Basil Hooper has been told they sought a stone used for tool making that was only found at Whakaihuwaka/Mount Humphries.
He has another story, about someone who reached under a shellrock ledge at Terereohaupa Falls and pulled out a greenstone mere.
Ngā Rauru woman Kathy Tahau, now 89, can give a partial picture of life in the valley for Māori 80 years ago. She spent part of her childhood living at Piraunui with her great-uncle, in a ponga hut with a dirt floor covered by woven mats.
She's never been to the falls because they were tapu (forbidden) to women.
At Piraunui the walls of the ponga house were covered with flour and sugar bags, and newspapers. The fireplace was big enough to burn whole logs. Food was kept cool by a spring and everyone washed in a creek. Used fruit tins became cups, and mussel shells were cutlery.
Kathy remembers how native pigeons (kererū) were served, one to a plate.
"When they killed a pigeon they put a pigeon in each plate. All that should be left on the plate was just the bones and the seeds."
She was taught to boil up native plants for medicine. She and her friends would fill mugs with kahikatea berries, then sit under a kahikatea tree to eat them.
"We used to eat a lot of berries in the bush. Whatever berries [were] edible, we would eat them."
From a modern perspective, she can see the lifestyle was "really primitive".
But: "We enjoyed that life," she said.