A Big day out
Mt Matthews is the biggest peak in the Rimutaka Range, standing majestically within view of Wellington city.
- Kiwi: North Island brown kiwi were released into the area in 2006.
- Views: The views along the way add up to 360 degrees over the course of the climb: south to the south coast, west to Wellington City, north to the Wairarapa plains, east to Lake Ferry.
- Huts: There are a series of DoC huts along the banks of the Orongorongo river. These are well equipped, well maintained and a delight to camp in – especially if it means making a weekend out of the adventure. Research online to consider booking a bed or a whole hut.
Distance: About 27 kilometres return
Elevation: 940 metres
Difficulty: Intermediate to Advanced. Pack your gear sensibly – there are suggestions below. While you don’t need mountaineering equipment, you do need to plan and to tell people your plans.
Estimated time: This route is a long day climb and takes about 10 to 12 hours.
Start and end point
Access is via the Rimutaka Forest Park Catchpool Valley carpark. This is about a 45 minute drive from Wellington city, via Petone and Wainuiomata.
Department of Conservation says: “Catchpool valley is 12 km south of Wainuiomata. Follow the Coast Road for 10 km to the Rimutaka Forest Park entrance, then follow the Catchpool valley road for 2 km to the car park and information area”. At the time of writing the carpark gates are open summer 6 am–8 pm; winter 6 am–6 pm.
Notes and advice
We used to live in an apartment that gazed out toward the harbour with glimpses of the water. The Rimutaka range was the backdrop with rounded peaks reaching into the sky and where the sun would rise from. The biggest of these mountains is Mt Matthews. Chris was captivated by this and we committed to hike it – one day. When that one day isn’t “today” it can take a very long time to get to it. In this case five years.
This wasn’t a gentle picnic walk. It was variously described in our research beforehand as “a hard day’s grind”, an advanced tramping track, technical back country terrain, 10 hours if you really work for it. We knew that it would be an adventure mission for a summer day with long daylight hours (for contingency and safety) as well as fine weather (mainly windless, ideally dry, nice if it was warm).
The route itself is an out and back walk that starts in well-known trails and ends in a hard summit. We found it somewhat enigmatic due to the sparse information out there and we still got lost despite our previous research and planning.
I know a lot of people have expressed interest in completing the route, so I hope these words save you from that same getting lost, give you the structure of information you’re looking for and bring you joy in the achievement of the walk too.
If you read one thing, let it be this: BE PREPARED. Plan your day carefully. If conditions aren’t right, be happy to give up on the day you might have planned and try again another time. (The mountain will be there a long time and we had abandoned a year ago based on a windy weather forecast). That said, when you do set off, be prepared and careful, so you will have a bloody beauty of a day out.
We packed day backpacks to bring with us, as well as bags for in the car. In the car we had: four bottles of water, bananas, crisps/potato chips, chocolate, a coffee thermos, a first aid kit, jackets, blankets. We drank a lot of water on the journey there and had a lot of water (plus the snacks) waiting on our return. This was mid-summer but things can change quickly. In our backpacks we had each: 2L of water, a long sleeved merino jumper, a survival blanket, a whistle, a mobile phone (for photos – no reception but available if we needed to walk out). Combined we had: mixed nuts, dried fruit, chocolate, homemade bread/peanut butter, muesli bars, electrolyte tablets, and a lot of dense sugary food – energy gels, jelly beans, licorice, etc. I wore gritty trail running shoes, merino socks, shorts, tank, my GPS watch, a hat, sunglasses, and about a litre of sunscreen. I didn’t see any bugs for insect repellent. This gear worked well for us. If anything, overestimate how much food and water and gear you might need. It was a picture perfect day when we went, but if we were to do it again I’d take more water, more of our first aid kit, a jacket and consider a personal locator beacon (PLB).
I’ve split the description of the day into the following sections: 1) start, 2) the Orongorongo track, 3) the Orongorongo river walk, 4) Mt Matthews stream and 5) Mt Matthews track to summit and 6) return. We chose to do a run-hike mixture, running the flats there/back and then hiking all the Mt Matthews section up/down.
We left Wellington city after 7am. It was late December so the sun had been up for a long time and we expected sunset about 9pm. We were in the carpark ready to set off at 8am. There are toilets here as well as maps / information boards.
Orongorongo track (5km)
There are multiple tracks in this area. You’re looking for the Orongorongo track, an idyllic little streamside track that weaves 5 kilometres from the carpark to the rainbow bridge of Turere Stream (where it meets the Orongorongo river). This was gorgeous, cooling bush and with an easy gravel pathway. There are little ups and downs. We ran this part and it flew by.
Orongorongo river (4km)
You’ll know you’ve joined the riverbed by the end of the rainbow bridge. The river is off to your right, past camping toilets. You can choose to either walk on the river bed (4km long) or on Big Bend Track (about 5km long). We walked in on the riverbed which was pretty dry. We chose to wade through sections getting wet feet rather than care too much about finding dry crossings. Keep a watchful eye on your right hand side / the south for a bright orange triangle affixed to a tree after you’ve been walking for 4km on the riverbed. The orange triangles are your friends. Found the orange triangle? Congratulations! This is it! Confused there’s not a bigger sign, or one that says Mt Matthews? DO NOT KEEP WALKING UP THE RIVER, thinking that this wimpy triangle can’t possibly be it and it doesn’t match up with your photos / track maps / instructions. Cool, now that we’ve got that sorted, you won’t get lost in the same way we did. The best part of our getting lost was that we knew something wasn’t quite right and took ourselves back to that original orange triangle to start over. Oh, and we had an awesome day after all.
Mt Matthews stream (600m)
You’ve hit your first orange triangle. Walk in 600 metres straight ahead along the Mt Matthews stream bed. On your right hand side, you’ll see another orange triangle. This takes you straight ahead into the bush where you then turn left. You will continue to see these triangles for the day. If you don’t see one for more than 30 seconds – look around, turn back, go to your last one, check in all directions.
Mt Matthews track (4km)
This follows the stream bed for another few hundred metres. You’ll see actual green DoC signs along here. The path changes from river bed into gravelled and soil trail. I would quietly suggest that you might like to top up your water stores if you have iodine tablets when you get to this point. We took the risk in drinking from the stream on the return minus the iodine tablets but in favour of conquering dehydration. The trail from here is 4 kilometres of up, up and some more up. It is well marked and also very steep in places, with a lot of tree roots and tricky surfaces. Take your time, stop every so often for a snack and to look after those hard working legs. You’ll see across valleys to the other ranges and slopes peeking through bush. Don’t underestimate the “4km” part of this section; you’ll be climbing the entire 940m peak here so you go up and steeply a long way.
The two most interesting stops and lookouts are half way up (a grassy knoll with views) and the top (we’ll get to that later). Before half way you’ll pass a signed option off to the right which is to the South Saddle (about a further 15 minutes each way) and, should you choose to, all the way to the coast (over 2 hours). Hang in there. Another 15, 20 minutes upwards and you’ll be at the grassy knoll of halfway. This point was pretty special. The grass was plush. It was warm. We gazed over towards tiny, tiny Wellington through a gap in the mountain range between us and the city. What looked like a line of hilltops that we would gaze toward when home, turned out to be a series of peaks in a complicated, beautiful formation. We were now inside that.
Keep on keeping on. The track here continues a steep upwards. I was surprised here that the Mt Matthews track was entirely bush. For some reason I expected a lot of rocks and gravel. The bush track made it easier in feeling controlled and less ‘slippy’. There are a series of false summits in where you’ve gone up, then go down a little bit, then up again. Knowing and expecting this helps. When there are little lookouts on either side, take the opportunity to look out through them with careful footing. These are spectacular. You’ll be rewarded with views in all four directions to Wellington, the South Coast, Wairarapa and eventually (HELLO TOP!) – you get a view towards Lake Ferry in the east too.
The view on this day was beyond words. The sky had a hundred tones of blue which faded into each other before exploding into the green patchwork of the land. We sat here for a little while; not long, the sharpness of the sun chased us back down the hill.
From here it’s a repeat of the up. Watch those ankles, step carefully, use your hands. I found going down harder than the up. Afford yourself little breaks to eat every so often and keep drinking water. I started tripping when I hadn’t had enough to eat. Once we were back down the summit, back onto the river bed, we walked the return route on Big Bend track (5km) rather than the Orongorongo river bed (4km) again. This was a sweet little track alongside the riverbed which we found an opening to by accident and either track works. I do suggest you keep an eye on distances and timing so you know when to turn in from the riverbed back to the Orongorongo track. Once back at the Orongorongo track, we slow-ran back to the Catchpool Valley carpark. We were back at the carpark by 6pm. My GPS bleeped at me in low-battery warning greeting once I made the carpark. Nice work, watch! If you have one, it would be worth bringing on the day.
The good thing about doing this in the long, long days of summer was that we had plenty of contingency for a) when the carpark gates would close at 8pm and b) the sun going down . One option to explore is to stay a night or two in one of the Department of Conservation huts at the river bed. That way, you can walk in along the Orongorongo track, stay, then up / down of Mt Matthews in a day, stay, then walk out the following day. It’s quite a little playground of other walks and swimming so it could be made into a weekend.
Worth it? Heck yes. Plan well. Enjoy everything. Celebrate those summiting achievements. The day was a combination of such varied tracks, views and countryside. We’ll be heading back there for other walks and trail running events that they occasionally run in the area. It’s pretty neat looking back at Mt Matthews from this side now, knowing what a tiny speck Wellington is when seen from those giants.
Point to point distances
- Orongorongo track (Catchpool carpark to Turere Bridge/Orongorongo River): 5km – possibly a touch over at 5.2km
- Orongorongo riverbed (Turere Bridge to Matthews Stream): 4km
- Matthews stream (first orange triangle to second orange triangle of track entrance): 600m
- Mt Matthews summit (stream to summit): 4km
Total: 5 + 4 + 0.6 + 4 each way, making 27km return.
There is a carpark at the entrance way of Catchpool Valley. This includes facilities of a campsite, picnic tables, some information and toilets. The DoC website has information on the area: check prior for any alerts or updates.
You’ll need your own transport to get to Catchpool Valley.
There are multiple additional walks in the area, if you decide to stay a night or two either camping or in the huts. The river was proving popular for swimming in a couple of spots at the height of summer.