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Mt Matthews from the hills above Wellington
Mt. Matthews from the hills above Wellington
Country: New Zealand
Location: Rimutaka Forest Park
Accommodation: Wellington City and Lower Hutt are nearby. There is a motel in Wainuiomata.
Transport: Trains up the Hutt Valley from Wellington. Buses travel over the Wainuiomata Hill from Waterloo Station.
Maps: Parkmap Rimutaka & Haurangi (1:100,000) Topomap R27 - Wellington (1:50,000).
Trip Date: March 1994
Also See:
The Tararua Tramper - trip reports from the Tararua Tramping Club.
A description of Mt Matthews from the Department of Conservation.
A description of Mt McKerrow from the Department of Conservation.

Mount Matthews is the closest big peak (rising to 949 metres) to Wellington City. It lies at the southern side of the Rimutaka Forest Park across Wellington Harbour (Port Nicholson) from the city. As the crow flies it is less than 20 kilometres away from the city centre but nearer to 40 kilometres away by land. In the photo above the mountain does not look very high - until you realise that the ridges to either side are well over 800 metres high. The green ridge descending from the left in the middle distance drops down from McKerrow (705m) and is a popular route into and out of the area.

The Rimutaka Forest Park consists of the ranges either side of the Orongorongo River in the south (to about 5 kilometres from the river outlet) and the slopes above Lake Wairarapa to the Rimutaka Hill Road in the north - at this point the Tararua Forest Park starts. Note that a large portion of the headwaters of the Orongorongo River and the neighbouring Wainuiomata River are in a water catchment area with entry prohibited. The main entry to the park is via the Catchpool Valley about 9 kilometres from Wainuiomata along the tar-sealed Coast Road. At the entrance to the park there is the ranger headquarters with lots of information and a small shop. This is where you can book one of the bush cabins (gas cooking and lighting, pots and pans supplied, all with either an open fireplace or pot belly stove). The ranger headquarters also has a telephone. It is worth a stop here for the display about the history and features of the park.

There is a good tar-sealed road that follows the Catchpool Stream for a couple of kilometres to a large carpark with a number of short walks radiating away. There are picnic and camping areas all along the road. This is the area most likely to be crowded in summer.

The other entrances to the park are from Wainuiomata along either the McKerrow or Whakanui Tracks; along the Rimutaka Incline Track from Kaitoke in the north or along a couple of tracks from the Wairarapa. There is also a four-wheel drive track up the river from the coast - it is used by hunters and fishermen coming up to use the private baches (huts) in the valley and scientists staying at the field research station.

From the Catchpool there is easy access to the Orongorongo via the Orongorongo Track (1.5 to 2 hours). There is a picnic area here (may be crowded) and a couple of camping spots further up the river. Fit trampers can bag Mt. Matthews in a long summer's day from the carpark - this can take up to 10 hours in a rather rushed day. I took the alternative of walking in one day, camping at the foot of Mt. Matthews and doing Matthews the next day before walking out to Catchpool. Another alternative is to overnight in one of the bush cabins.

Sunny Grove to the Orongorongo Valley

The start of the Whakanui Track into the Rimutakas is at the top of Sunny Grove, Wainuiomata. However if you use the bus to travel to Sunny Grove or want to leave your car then there is a carpark at the top of Hine Road, a little past the junction with Sunny Grove (the bus also stops near here). From there you can either walk up the street or go over a field to another start for the track.

From the top of Sunny Grove, the track follows a stream up a small valley and then crosses the stream to rise up the other side of the valley. Soon you walk around the end of a ridge to a T-junction where you should turn right. Just ahead is a pair of offset fences forming a sort of kissing gate - the Rimutaka Forest Park begins here.

From the field at the top of Hine Road, the track starts as a bulldozed fire-break that climbs up above the houses on Sunny Grove. After about 10 minutes the track climbs up a final steep bit and enters into real bush. Soon you contour around the head of a gully to a T-junction where the track from the other entrance is reached.

After the track enters the park, it climbs steadily along the side of the ridge for less than a kilometre. The water you can sometimes hear below you is Skerrets Creek. The track is dry with fresh gravel on it and well-benched into the hillside. Eventually the track leads onto the ridge top and continues uphill for another kilometre (not as steep but a little muddy on some flat sections). Then it sidles along the side of the ridge leading to McKerrow. Just before the junction with the McKerrow Track, there is a viewpoint with vistas over Moores Valley to the hills of the Hutt Valley and over Wainuiomata to the harbour. Wellington City can be seen through a gap in the trees a little further around to the west. The height of the track (640m) means that the surrounding hills no longer block the views.

McKerrow Track is quite rougher than the Whakanui Track with more varied views and plenty of windfalls to scramble through. It can be overgrown and has mud patches even in the driest of summers. However it ends up at either Catchpool Stream or about an hour downriver from where we want to go. A mandatory detour is to walk up the McKerrow Track for about 20 metres where a clearing gives you a panoramic view over the harbour and Wellington.

The Whakanui Track goes straight on from the junction to a saddle at the head of the Turere Stream. A route departs to the left back down into Wainuiomata. The track now swings south to contour well above the stream for over a kilometre. This section can be done fairly fast (30-40 minutes) due to good footing. Where the track crosses over the top of slips there are occasions to have a look west to the McKerrow ridge or downstream to the river. The path gains the top of the ridge about 300 metres after a bit of a zigzag. Here a choice of routes can be made.

If you want to get to the river fairly fast then continue southwards along the ridge (the Whakanui Track). This is a fairly good track and easy to follow (especially since it just goes along the top of the ridge). Near the end of the ridge there are a couple of patches where the track drops down steep and slippery banks that need a little care in the wet. One time that I went this way (18 August 1996) there were a couple of trees across the path on top of the ridge (easily walked around) and a tree down just around the final zigzags down to the river (this had to be scrambled through but had been cleared by September 1998). Expect to take about 2 hours down to the river.

For the more adventurous and experienced trampers, there is a route down the east Whakanui ridge that provides a longer, rougher and more rewarding few hours. Note that this route follows the boundary of the water supply area where entry is prohibited. Head north along a thin path marked mostly with ties on the trees (look for a yellow tie on a tree just north of the Whakanui Track for the start of the route). The path rises gently for 500 metres to a point marked as 711m high on the map. One hundred metres further on, you come to a junction where a path branches to the right. There are some small hand written signs on the trees saying that ahead is a route down to Wainuiomata, to the right is the east Whakanui ridge route and behind you is the Whakanui Track. Turn to your right (east).

The bridge at the end of the Orongorongo Track
The bridge at the end of the Orongorongo Track (over Turere Stream)

The route drops about 100m to a clear patch at the saddle between George Creek and Whakanui Stream. Southwards there is a glimpse of Mt. Matthews over the stream and ridge. Ahead you can see the ridge up which the route travels - this is about a 200m climb. To the north stretches the valley of the Wainuiomata River and its bush-clad slopes. Go straight on and up the ridge (sometimes steeply).

After about an hours fairly hard walking the route tops out at the 800m mark (just). By now the bush around you is fairly primeval - smallish twisting trees covered with moss. Larger and more elegant trees await you as the route descends along the ridge. It takes about 2 hours from this point to get to the river. At about the halfway mark there is another route that drops down a spur to the stream and (I assume) follows it down to the Orongorongo. As the route gets close to the river there is a nice viewpoint showing the river in its gravel bed wandering down the valley. There is one last bit of difficulty as the route drops over a cliff - overcome by scrambling on tree roots before descending right down to the stream. You end up just across the stream from the end of the Whakanui Track.

The next objective is to find a campsite for the night. The best place is actually beside the Mt. Matthews Track. Ford the river just above the Whakanui Stream - usually no more than knee-high. Then follow the river upstream along the bank (if the river height and vegetation allow) or if you feel better following a track, drop downstream a few metres and stroll among a clear section to the 4-wheel drive track. Either way, the next stream meeting the river is the Matthews Stream with a clear path leading into the bush and to the private Baines Hut. Go straight past the hut to where the path continues through a fine stand of trees. After about 10 minutes walking (and an easy ford of the stream) the path reaches the campsite. This is a large grassy ledge big enough for 2 or 3 tents with a fireplace blocked out with stones.

Alternatively you can camp by the Orongorongo River. The nearest official campsite is half an hour downstream - follow the river (forded a couple of times) or cross the Whakanui Stream to the Big Bend track (this provides dry-foot access up and down the valley).

Mt. Matthews and out

If you have camped by the Orongorongo then walk up river to Baines Hut and join the Mt. Matthews Track. Just after the other campsite the track crosses the Matthews Stream and wanders up to a small creek. Nikau palms and kiekie vines adorn the forest. The track meets the foot of a ridge beyond the creek and starts to climb steadily (about 200m over the next 500 metres) through red beech forest. It is a bit steep in sections but nothing to worry about. Once on the ridge proper, the track crosses a small knob and is fairly flat over the next 400 metres. You are now at the foot of another climb - slightly steeper than the first but with plenty of tree roots providing steps and handholds.

Less than 2 hours from the river the track meets a junction where a branch leads off to the South Saddle. This can be taken if you want - the ridge up from the saddle back to the track is easily climbed. However the usual track continues steeply upwards until it gets to a clearing on a knob above the saddle (you are now at the 600m mark). This is a good spot for a break since there are good views back into the Orongorongo and over the saddle down Mukamuka Stream to the Cook Strait. There is even a glimpse of Wellington if the weather is clear enough.

The Orongorongo River from above South Saddle
The Orongorongo River from above South Saddle

Take a good break because the steepest section of the track is ahead. Follow the track up the ridge to where it disappears back into the bush. Here the track is full of gravel from the eroded sections higher up. Struggle up a clay and rotten rock bank to a chest high enclosure. There are enough tree roots and branches to either side to give handholds and allow you to haul yourself to the top. Beyond this obstacle the track takes a small zigzag and then heads straight up the ridge - climbing 200m over the next 400 metres. It tries to zigzag a bit but since it is constrained by slips on either side of the ridge, these are not very large.

Eventually the slope levels off at the 800m contour and you can now enjoy the delightful moss-clad silver beech trees as the track winds and ascends along the summit ridge. A sign that the summit is near is an frustrating drop off the side of the ridge and a final steep climb back up. You can see the big slip this avoids by bush-bashing carefully a few metres down the ridge. Another few metres up the ridge and the bush vanishes from the left revealing the summit (marked by a metal pole). There is enough of a clearing here for a small group to have a sit down for lunch. You should have reached the summit about 3 hours after leaving the river.

If the weather permits, the views are great with the green-clad hills of the Rimutakas spreading northwards and the Wairarapa Plain (and lake) extending to the east. A better view can be seen be walking a little along the ridge, clambering through and around the surprising large fallen trees (probably a legacy of the big storm in 1936). There is a larger clearing here with a marvellous view of Palliser Bay and Lake Onoke backdropped by the Haurangi Range. See the photo on the right. I was lucky enough to catch a break in the clouds in an otherwise overcast day.

Palliser Bay and the Haurangi Range from Mt Matthews
Palliser Bay and the Haurangi Range from Mt. Matthews

After lunch, return to the knob above the South Saddle and then continue down - possibly detouring to the saddle if you did not pass that way before. Your knees may take a bit of punishment as you descend the steep track but there is always the nice cold Orongorongo River waiting to cool them down. Plan on a 2 hour descent. Remember to pick up your camping gear and then head off down river. The quickest (1 hour) option is to head down the river using the 4-wheel drive track where possible. This involves 3-4 river crossings (depending on where the winter floods have moved the river). Alternatively, you can ford the river just once and pick up the Big Bend Track for a drier, slower (1.25 hours) walk.

The junction of the river and the Turere Stream is easily recognised by the impressive bridge - see the photo above. This is a good spot for an afternoon break with some picnic areas (seats and fireplaces with metal hangers to boil the billy) and nice modern toilets.

Leave the river along the Orongorongo Track (start by crossing the bridge). The track is reasonably level after the initial zigzags up onto the ridge top (much better than the old "Jacob's Ladder" track). If you really push it you can get to the Catchpool carpark in less than an hour. However the walk is nice enough to encourage a slower, more enjoyable pace. The track is well-laid out with good bridges and steps where needed (intended to give families good access to the Orongorongo valley).

If you need to walk down to the rangers HQ (e.g. to use the telephone) then you can cut off a lot of the road walking by crossing the Catchpool Stream on a bridge and following a nature walk along the north of the stream to about 500 metres of the building.

Rimutaka Forest Park

Here are some comments about the other tracks I have done in the Rimutaka Forest Park.

{short description of image} Whakanui Track - Sunny Grove to the Orongorongo River.

A good track taking 3-4 hours to get to the upper reaches of the river.

{short description of image} McKerrow Track - Sunny Grove to the Orongorongo River or Catchpool valley.

A nice track taking 4-5 hours. A bit rougher than the Whakanui but with better views across the hills and harbour to Wellington. It divides just after McKerrow (705m) with a steepish track down to the river or a less steep stroll down a ridge to Catchpool.

{short description of image} Orongorongo Track - Catchpool carpark to the Orongorongo River.

A walkway (much better quality than a track) rather than a track (1.5 to 2 hours). Gives easy access to the Orongorongo valley. Good stands of nikau palms at the start. Good bush views and an interesting stream.

{short description of image} Butcher and Cattle Ridge Tracks - Catchpool carpark to the Orongorongo River.

A more interesting but tougher access to the Orongorongo valley (3 hours). Starts with a steady but not gentle climb up a good track that zigzags beside a stream up to Baker (465m - good views). The views may be restricted soon as the surrounding pine plantation grows. The walk along Cattle Ridge is slightly less well marked and travelled but passes through a variety of bush. There is one nice viewpoint over the harbour to Wellington just before the climb to the final knoll on the ridge. From the knoll there is a gentle descent to the junction with Brown's Track. The badly eroded Brown's Track is no longer used to rejoin the Orongorongo Track. Instead a new track continues along the ridge until it meets the Orongorongo Track at a bridge just above the old Jacob's Ladder. Another choice is to head down the other branch of Brown's Track that drops directly to the river with a walk upriver needed.

{short description of image} Old Whakanui Track (now a route).

The old Whakanui Track is a harder start to the modern track but has some interesting route-finding and views. It makes the time from Sunny Grove to the Orongorongo River close to 6 hours.

For an even longer walk (an additional 25 minutes), start at the bus depot on the main street, walk back to the Wainuiomata River and follow a path through a reserve at the back of the houses to a sports field. There is a footbridge crossing the river at the far end of the fields (together with the pipe that takes water from the Orongorongo and Wainuiomata Rivers into Wellington). Continue across a field and up to a tarmac access road to the Wainuiomata dams. Two hundred metres upriver there is an invisible bridge in the dip to your right and on the other side proper bush walking starts. The same point can be accessed from the carpark and bus stop at the bottom of Sunny Grove.

Head upriver along a nice track to a fork just before the stream running out of the next valley to your right. Turn right (south) down a few steps to follow a good track through bush for about 10 minutes. The route off from the track is clearly marked if you know what you are looking for: an old mossy cairn on the track, a strip of yellow tape and splashes of red paint. Paint splashes are used intermittently to mark the route. The track that you are on actually comes to an end 10 minutes further on at a wooden seat.

The route quickly crosses the shallow stream and heads steeply up the valley side - the next 180 metres are climbed in less then 300 metres. The gradient relaxes when the ridge crest is reached and this is steadily climbed for the next kilometre. An indistinct junction marks a steeper, rocky section - the thinly padded path to your right sidles across to the main track and the saddle at the head of the Turere Stream. The rocky section above the junction brings you to a good viewpoint north to Moores Valley and the hills beyond. A gentle ascent of 100 metres brings the route to a well-marked junction. The path to your right again heads back to the Whakanui Track meeting it about 10 minutes beyond the Turere Stream saddle. A couple of minutes further brings another junction with a path heading east over a saddle to the East Whakanui route. The main Whakanui Track is another 15 minutes along the ridge crest.

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