Rangitikei Trekking

Jack Kós tackles the Upper Rangitikei on foot

The further you walk the more removed you should become from society and all its trappings. A few hours is usually enough to enjoy relative wilderness, and a day’s walk all but guarantees it. There is, therefore, a certain irony in spending nearly two days walking in to a river that receives almost daily heli-fishing attention. And yet that’s just what Tim Angeli and I did last December. Some plans are born of muttered utterances of distant rivers filled with big trout, secrets shared amongst friends. Yet others are the result of scouring maps and walking on a whim. But this was different. We’d always known about the Rangitikei. To be fair, everyone does: it’s legendary in the annals of New Zealand fly fishing history. I’d dreamed of its emerald pools and unmatched clarity, of wily trout and long inspections. I knew I had to fish it. What I didn’t know was how I would get there. I took my first helicopter trip in April 2016 whilst filming an episode of Pure Fly NZ. Choppering in was novel, exciting and it allowed us to access water we simply couldn’t have got to in the time period we had available. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling as though I’d cheated. I felt I hadn’t earned it. And with that, there was really only one option for getting into the Rangitikei – to walk. Tim and I already had plans for a week-long mission in the works, so when he expressed an interest in the Rangitikei a plan was born. Months of research, scouring topo maps, chatting with folk who had fished it, ordering our Backcountry Cuisines and deliberating whether it would be feasible to carry in a bottle of Lagavulin (it was – Tim carried it) brought us to mid-December and the Rusty Nail backpackers in Taihape. To our astonishment, in the midst of what was the worst season I’ve ever experienced, we’d been granted a near perfect forecast for the week. Tomorrow it would begin. THE LONG HARD WALK With a hearty breakfast of two pies a piece, and packs bordering on oppressive, local guide Russell Anderson dropped us at the trailhead with a promise to meet us back here in one weeks time, cold beer in hand. All that we needed we carried on our backs as we began the immediate ascent to the tops. After several hours of cresting ridges and dropping into valleys, only to repeat the process, we arrived at an alien landscape, barren, and with a thick blanket of fog clinging to every crevice. At this point the poled route disappeared and we spent a fruitless half hour with just 20 metres of visibility searching for the fleck of orange that would mark our route. Eventually, having decided to put our faith in a small electronic arrow on our GPS unit, we descended through the fog to the comforting sight of a line of poles stretching into the distance. It was only now, having come out of the fog, that we became aware of the sheer scale of our landscape. As far as the eye could see ahead of us was dominated by sub-alpine tussock-land with an occasional tree holding fast in the sheltered heads of valleys. We followed a small creek for several hours, before climbing a hill so steep that we gave it a four-letter name not fit for publication. Our campsite waited welcomingly for us by a small creek in an expansive valley at the base of XXXX Hill. Upon arrival we quickly set about pitching tents in the lee of a small hummock before tucking into the delicacy of a dehydrated ‘roast chicken’ dinner. Pleasures are simple in such places. We rose with the light and began our final climb on to the tops, which we followed all morning before dropping straight down a beech-lined ridge into a Rangitikei tributary. Seeing the deep, boulder-strewn pools with their overhanging trees after a day and a half of nothing but exposed tussock was a profound moment, and the environmental transition was testament to the sheer effort required to get this far. Our excitement turned to concern when, only a few hundred metres downstream from the track junction, we were confronted by a succession of impassable waterfalls. This concern was exacerbated by the fact that one group we’d chatted to had previously attempted this route and turned back upon finding the falls. Noticing what appeared to be a plateau in the bush, ten metres above the river, we engaged in a decidedly dicey climb straight up the side of the gorge. We followed the plateau for a distance, dropped back into the river down a small side creek, and finally found salvation in the form of a rising trout – we knew we could make it down now. We hiked five exhausting hours downstream, attempting to maintain balance in thick hiking boots on slick river rocks with the weight of a medium-sized child fixed stubbornly to our backs. The forecast rain arrived when we were still hours from camp and ensured that parts of us that weren’t already wet from deep crossings would not stay dry for long. Conversation ebbed and we entered that introspective state, simultaneously thinking of nothing but the next footstep and giving ourselves over to every deep musing of our minds. Then, after nearly two full days of walking, we saw it for the first time: the Rangitikei River resplendent in the afternoon rain. QUINTESSENTIAL RANGITIKEI It was with mixed emotions that we realised we shared the campsite with three others. To walk so far only to be met with more anglers than you’d typically encounter at a roadside location was a bitter pill to swallow. But, having duly swallowed it (and washed it down with a brief swig of whisky), we realised that our intended plans did not impact the other group. With the rain lifted and a fire lit, we all huddled around to dry off. Waking to a clear sky gave the morning coffee an added richness, and our excitement to fish ensured tents were rolled in record time. Bidding our new friends adieu we rigged our rods and began the jaunt upstream. Though we spotted fish in the first pool, they had our measure rather thoroughly, and it wasn’t until an hour into the day that I opened my account with a fit Rangitikei rainbow of around 4.5 lb taken on a deep nymph (Tim snuck a fish in during the previous evening rise). The river flowed through a tight section of valley, resulting in inordinately deep pools and the challenge of fish cruising many metres under the surface. Through sheer perseverance we caught fish, though our progress upstream was slow. It was not till lunchtime, with the sun now high in the sky, that we first saw the quintessential Rangitikei experience. At the head of a deep and slow flowing pool we counted eight fish parked across the lip in water between a foot and three feet deep, all rising to a prolific hatch of small mayflies. For a while we simply stood and watched, taking in the scene and letting our excitement reach a crescendo. It was Tim’s turn on the rod, but I honestly didn’t know which of us was the lucky one. It is one thing to fish in a situation like this, and quite another to see the magic unfold as a spectator. Thus it was that I saw the drift of Tim’s Purple Haze interrupted by a heavily kyped set of jaws. After being thoroughly towed around the pool Tim succeeded in bringing to the net a cracking green backed and pink striped rainbow jack. PURE AND SIMPLE We managed a few more fish that afternoon, but the fishing slowed as the river grew tighter still and the light dropped. Increasing our pace, we made for the campsite Russell had recommended and upon arriving set about gathering wood for a fire and preparing dinner before venturing out for the evening rise. Opposite camp was an immense pool with water so still that daytime presentations would be challenging, yet perfectly suited for the evening rise. Backcountry Cuisines in hand (roast lamb this time…) we sat by the water and waited. Like clockwork, as the last rays of light fell behind the ridgeline, the trout began to show. Though slow at first, as the hatch ramped up, so did the rises until the trout became targetable — holding station and letting the emerging mayflies simply come to them. After releasing each fish we’d rest the water, take another bite of dinner and a swig of whisky, and let the next fish give away its position. Fishing like this was pure and simple. No fly changes, no stress: willing fish, deep in the wilderness, doing just what they’ve been doing since their introduction. Knowing we would camp at the same spot for two nights afforded us the luxury of ditching the contents of our packs the next day and taking just the bare minimum. It seemed the energy of the day’s fishing mirrored our own in the face of unburdened packs. From the start of the day the sun shone bright and by mid-morning we found a comfortable rhythm throwing large terrestrial patterns to fish sitting high in the column, glowing under the summer sun. Fish after fish rose to the dry and each blended into the next in my memory. Such was the experience that at one point I forgot about the fishing and took the opportunity to strip naked and dive into the frigid waters, washing the grime from the hike off me in the process. Thankfully Tim was too busy fishing to a rising trout at the very head of the pool to photograph the moment. The final cast of the day, at the furthest upstream point we’d reach, saw a thickset rainbow rise to a CDC Stimulator in the fast water at the head of a deep pool. A fine way to cap off the day. INTIMATE WATER The next day we began the walk downstream en route to the road. Rejoining the tributary we’d followed down, our progress upstream was far more enjoyable as we now had rods in hand. The smaller water of the tributary made for a more intimate experience, although the fish proved challenging. That evening we set up camp beside a small pool that we knew was home to four fish. Tim proceeded to catch one of these fish with a deft piece of fishing made awkward by the overhanging vegetation. Three left. After dinner I made my way down and sat at the head of the pool, while Tim ventured upstream. As with the night before, and the night before that, when the sun set, the fish began to rise. I sat on my rock and caught the three remaining fish in the pool, one by one. The final fish turned out to be the fish of the trip. Slate bodied and reminiscent of a steelhead, it was a good inch longer than anything else I’d caught and in prime condition. Low light robbed us of the opportunity to photograph it. In some ways I like it that way, as it’s still vivid in my memories. Our trip was nearing its conclusion, and it was with a little reservation that we packed our rods back into their tubes. The hike back up the ridge, gaining 600 vertical metres in the process, was grueling but the view we were greeted with on the tops made it all worthwhile. As we rounded a corner on the hill above our final campsite we were met by an unimpeded view of tussock land all the way to Mt. Ruapehu. The clarity of the sky signalled a cold night, but I was still surprised to wake to discover that the condensation had formed a sheet of ice on the fly of my tent. With one final ‘cooked breakfast’ in our bellies we hit the tops and began our walk towards Mt. Ruapehu, knowing our ride and a cold beer were waiting for us at its base. Few things can compare to that first sip of frosty cold beer after a week in the hills, and Russell officially earned the title of ‘Good Bastard’ for bringing a chilly bin full of them with him to meet us. Hindsight can offer the best perspective on a trip, but in this instance I feel as though we achieved clarity at the time. As we sat around the fire one evening, a mug of Lagavulin in our hands, we remarked on the simple pleasure of what we were experiencing. The fishing had been exceptional, no doubt, yet no more exceptional in objective terms than fishing we’d each enjoyed far closer to the road. The fish had been no bigger, no more numerous and the methods of catching them no different. So why did the trip resonate with us so much? The fact that we’d walked to a river that most only get to with the help of a helicopter intensified our sense of achievement. That we had hiked so far, all the while carrying our lives for the week on our backs, and enjoyed superb fishing, had resulted in an experience that was altogether greater than the sum of its parts. The conclusion we reached was one that we were both acutely aware of in planning this trip – sometimes it’s about a lot more than just the fishing.

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