I'm staying in Wellington and am determined to do a walk in the Tararua Range, a noted tramping range. It's an area that can be access via public transport, though it will requires decisions about how to best link up the walk in and the available routes. Catching the morning train requires an early start from the backpackers and while making my way to the train station I become less certain about where I want to start the track. Studying the map I decide that I should be able to walk in from Matarawa, a small train station where I’ll be able leave my excess equipment and walk into Totara Flats Hut. I’ve decided that a round trip is best as this will allow me to travel lighter. Matarawa offers centrality but will require a long walk along country roads before reaching the trails. As the main road is one way I don’t mind having to share with occasional traffic. The prospect of getting a lift adds to the attractiveness of the idea.
Long distance train services in New Zealand are an endangered species and these are not likely to make a comeback. The train service has its own ticket collector which makes much more sense than having attendants in the isolated rural outposts. The conductor informs me that the trains are not running over the long weekend and alternate plans have not been locked in. This is useful information and makes me wary of the possibility of being abandoned at a station on Saturday afternoon.
To my surprise Upper Hut is a mid sized city with taxi cabs waiting at the station. I could get transport to the very start of the track but I’d either have to carry all my gear with me or return to a spot 10 kilometres away from public transport. Matarawa really is an outpost. It has a small shelter in which I’m able to separate superfluous gear which can be secured in waterproof bags and hidden in the long grass underneath a thorny bush. Before I have travelled far sweeping rain arrives from the direction of Wellington and I’m thankful about being able to pull on a full set of wet weather gear. Traffic is as sparse as I anticipated and each vehicle is memorable. A small bus, packed to the rafters with equipment and people, groans by and turns off at the gorge road leading to the park. They will almost certainly be making their way to Totara Flats.
After a long stretch of rural area the road turns to dirt and the scenery merges the agrarian and the wild. Rain showers require several stops to put on wet weather gear. A road sign admonishes pig shooters who slaughter house pets, mocking the laziness of the alleged hunters. The road winds over hills and delves into the forest near the Waiohine River. Between the branches there is the impression of a steep gorge and I’m content to stay on the gentle inclines of the graded road. The walk in takes about three hours and finally I reach the final steep corner and begin the descent to the Walls Whare Camp Site, car park and the monstrous swing bridge across the river.
The track sign provides a range of options. At the moment I’m aiming for the Mt Holdsworth track which will take me into the mountains but this is in a fine weather plan and the constant shower sweeps suggest that conditions will remain marginal for the next few days. The guide suggest there are options to select from an undulating forest track and the river route. While the river route appears to offer straightforward travel in reality it involves boulder hopping, careful foot placement and the surety that exposure to rain will be total. The forest route makes a virtue of climbing high then dropping precipitously but it is level underfoot and the canopy cover is appreciated in the squally conditions.
At last I arrive at thickly grassed flats which seem to last forever, leading to thoughts that perhaps I’ve walked by a hut hidden in the forest. Totara Flats Hut turns out to be at the very end of the flats. It is reasonably late in afternoon when I arrive and there is no prospect of pushing on and making the next hut before nightfall. As I unshuck my pack in the outdoor laundry area I’m greeted by an endless line of residents. As expected the Polytech group is present and their group leader explains that they would have stopped for me if only they had the room. A piece of luck like that would have allowed me to push on to the alpine hut but I’m not overly upset with how the day has panned out. There are a number of alternate routes from Totara Flats and I’ll be able to select something appropriate for the days ahead.
Also taking up bunk space is a group of hunters who invite me to stay in their room. They have been here for a week and made little progress on the hunting front. They can hardly grumble about interlopers using their hut as they have based themselves at one of the most used huts in the park. Tall tales about wind preventing them from hunting are used to explain much sitting around and domestic male bonding.
Out of wet clothes I can enjoy the bonhomie of the hut. The polytech youngsters are the usual crew of brawny boys and feisty girls. At least this group contains several Maoris for as I’ve experienced with Waipatu, these guys know their stuff. The hunters stoke up a roaring fire, so much so that I’m reduced to walking around in shorts and a single polythermal top and sitting by an open window so I can get some relief from the oven. From here I can stay out of the way and watch the interactions occurring in both the cooking area and at the tables. The Polytech boys spend a fair bit of time on the broad balcony before coming in and playing cards while the hunters cook exotic meals.
As the evening progresses the fire dwindles to a pleasant heat keeping the encroaching cold at bay rather than torching it with furnace like blasts. Just as a lull ensues two trampers burst into the room, having arrived after a self described mission from Wellington. They had left after work and then plowed their way along the track. Their stated intention appears to be to hunt but as they will be leaving early in the morning this seems fanciful. After stoking up their stove they have a late meal, engage with the other hunters and then go to bed. True to their word they are up and away before dawn.
The Polytech group is also up early but this appears to be for an education session as they are put through their paces regarding map reading and the identification of plants. They are encouraged to learn about one plant per trip and gradually build up their knowledge. It is wise counsel as I have been travelling through forests for ten years and have no more than a rudimentary knowledge of the plant-life. I could not identify anything beyond ferns, tussocks, beech and Spaniards. It is a disappointing failure to teach myself the basics.
While the education session in occurring the rest of the occupants keep quiet and absorb what it is going on. Only after the map reading lesson do I realise that the laminated map I found on the track the previous day must belong to this group. When I hand it into the leader he comments that “our friend” has found a map. It’s a curiously layered reference and I’m not sure how to interpret it. Does he mean that he thinks I stole the map and now curry favour by returning it or is this patently insincere reference to friendship somehow meant to suggest an instant community of like-minded souls?
The weather is still poor, the river up and the prospect of further rain over the next few days high. I want to stay at an alpine hut in the evening and if I go over the top of Mt Holdsworth I will almost certainly have to keep going and camp in the valley. An alternate route suggests itself. If I make my way to the Cone Ridge I will be able to drop into the Hector River and then make my way onto the main Tararua Mountains, following the famous route to Kime Hut and Alpha Hut. Good weather will be required for this to be successful so I’ll be taking a chance but if conditions become diabolical I’ll be able to backtrack to ensure I don’t get trapped.
The only flaw with this plan is that it replicates the route taken by the Polytech group so I decide to wait for half an hour to let them get ahead. They will be following the Cone Ridge all the way and aiming to camp out. They won’t have any option as the huts in this area are too small to accommodate such a large group. The delay in leaving allows me to observe the hunters undertake their domestic chores and getting the hut ready for the next group. They aren’t going anywhere just yet, but nor do they have any intention in attempting to hunt.
The climb up to Cone Saddle is harder work than I anticipated and I feel curiously uncommitted about making good time. Instead I take long breaks to absorb the views of the forest and the river. The forest is an interesting blend of gnarled tree branches and hanging moss. It feels ancient and vulnerable. At no time does this part of the ridge break out above the tree line so that I have to speculate about the topography of the mountains towards which I’m heading. At least the turn off to Neil Forks Hut is well signposted. The track drops steeply through the forest and a familiar descent through tree roots and boulders provides engaging travel. After an hour the Hector River can be heard thundering through the valley. Its sound promises an imminent conclusion to the descent but having experienced this sort of route before I know that it will be some time before the valley floor is reached.
The valley track is a challenging navigational task, flirting with the river before backing out and sticking to nearby ledges. After a brief walk I arrive at the modest Neill Forks Hut, a corrugated iron and wooden floor board four bunker. Regrettably the hut is lacking a hut book making it impossible to get an idea of how long it will take to climb the imposing hill between here and Maungahuka Hut. Digging around in the cupboard area underneath the cooking area I discover the 2003 Otago University Trampers Club report as well as several Alpine Club reports. These go into the pack as they will make excellent reading over the next few nights.
With water collected from the Hector River I embark on the start of the climb towards Maungahuka. Just getting off the swingbridge is a bit of a task as it involves climbing down some deep set concrete. The track to the west is a knee trembler, involving many sections requiring hand holds on tree routes and step like climbs. It is hard work and requires frequent breaks in order to rest and refuel with a muesli bar. After several hours the tree line is reached and I’m able to check out the tree dominated mountains. Instinctively I scan the head of the valley for a glacier but then I have to remind myself that I’m not in the South Island.
As I approach the top of the hill I have to accept that I’m at the top of Concertina Knob and am a considerable distance from point 1330 and the final approach to Maungahuka Hut. There is only an hour of daylight left and what is worse is that a pall of fog is cloaking the mountains. The mountain ridges appear to run in a jumble of directions and the location of the hut does not appear to be immediately apparent.
The track from Concertina Knob drops back into forest canopy and is protected enough to recommend itself as a camp site but the only problem is that there are no streams, no sources of water. The ridge leaves the confines of the forest and begins to climb along a series of sharp rock outcrops. From here there are sweeping views of the mountain ranges to the east and west but these are being closed down rapidly by the rising mist. For the first time I’m exposed to the prevailing wind and what a cold blast it is. Fortunately I’ve put my wind jacket on and have the hood on to provide some protection from the chill. Track markers are rare but fortunately there is a reassuring marker halfway up 1330 which provides certainty about the general direction. There is another marker shortly after and it is only later that I realise this is to prevent people from following the gentle looking ridge leading to the south east.
The wind is now providing a severe buffering which at least eliminates giving in to the urge to find a camp site in order to gain immediate shelter. As I reach the absolute peak of 1330 the day’s light is in its last stages although the fog has made judging the route from visuals impossible in any case. Dropping off the ridge there is the semblance of protection of the western side of the peak but it is here that I face the major quandary. It is here that the track reaches the juncture with the route over the Tararua Mountains. It the mist there is no way to be certain about direction without getting out the compass and utilising the map. This suggests that I need to travel to the west along the sharp, knobby ridge. Even though it is hard to imagine how this route could lead to a hut it remains the best option. I’ve learnt to trust the compass in most situations where there are no visual markers.
After ten minutes I arrive at a high point from which it is possible to make out a large tarn and a large hut located nearby. I can enjoy the final approach to the hut, knowing that the uncertainty has been removed from the navigation. Plan B had been to examine the track in the other direction and then try and find a small patch of level ground on the western side of the ridge. It would not have been easy. I’m forewarned that the hut is occupied from quite a distance as candle light flickers in the window like a metaphor of welcome. It is almost certain to be hunters and I know that I could not reasonably expect the hut to have been vacant during the roar.
The hunters are almost a caricature of their kind. Though there are only three of them they have commandeered almost all of the space inside the hut. Their arrangements are remarkably domestic and they have brought a number of luxuries with them. Though they have been here for a week they have had little success hunting and appear to be living a sedentary, relaxing life. Their names appear in no hut book, almost as if are contemptuous of the government agency providing the facilities that make their stay in the mountains not only possible but comfortable. Even so they complain bitterly about the cold as if the hut should be centrally heated. They are generally taciturn but remarkably crude when they do choose to speak. They’re surprised to learn that I’m Australian but when this is established I’m in for some ribbing, though behind the rough exterior it is good natured. As far as I can tell the hunters live in Wellington but this is made vague by their reluctance to admit that they are city dwellers. They refer dismissively to a German group who had come through several days ago, though they were attempting physical challenges beyond their own capabilities.
In a letter to Christine I described my encounter with the hunters in the following terms:
There was a window of opportunity with the weather the next day so I used it to travel towards Maungahuka Hut, set in a protected hollow amidst a particularly jagged ridge line. The day involved 1,800 metres of height gain and by the time I got above the tree line visibility was down to fifty metres with a gale blowing. By the time I reached a three way fork on the ridge I was close to thinking I might have to find a protected spot on the lee side and camp overnight but after checking the map I got lucky with the navigation and stumbled on the vague form of the hut just as night fell. There were three hunters in residence, and I say that advisedly for during the roar they tend to spend a week at a time in the huts with all the gear they can load into the helicopters that drop them off. There's always an element of antipathy between hunters and trampers which can be sourced back to class, city/rural divides and nationality; and also the fact that one group has guns and knives while the other has sticks. The differences often don't stand up to much scrutiny, helicopters aren't cheap and a lot of hunters are sedentary types from the suburbs. Often the hunters never fire a shot in anger and the guns are more a prop for spending time with old mates in the mountains and doing some nature walks. I've always regarded the groups as being on a continuum and regard the grizzled exteriors and gruff manners as an entertaining facade. That was until I met these guys.
Soon after I reached the hut a snowstorm closed in for a couple of days so we got to see a lot of each other. Entertainment amongst my new friends often centred on comparing bouts of flatulence or expressing culinary satisfaction with rounds of belching. Conversation consisted of strings of expletives interspersed with the occasional noun, the subject generally pertaining to the fact that coldness is one of the qualities of unheated alpine huts in blizzards. Inquiries were made as to when I intended to vacate the premises and walk off into the storm. I was quite happy to wait it out in my sleeping bag and read the good books I'd picked up by kiwi authors in a second hand shop in Wellington.
In talking to the lead hunter I discover that I’m on the famous tramping route that crosses the steepling Tararua peaks with the assistance of a chain ladder. This is one of the routes described in Classic Tramping, a superb pictorial guide of some of the most scenic backcountry routes in the country. The strength of this book is that is has provided inspiration to thousands who might not otherwise have considered themselves able in going off track. The weakness of the book is probably the same thing, though on balance it has to be a good thing that people independently explore the wilderness areas on foot. The hunter provides reassurance that the ladder climb is possible but I’m also reminded that I’m in a challenging, unfamiliar area and I need to respect the conditions.
We wake the following morning to a transformed landscape. It has snowed heavily overnight and the tussock tops have been glazed over with a deep layer of frosting. The tarn just below the hut has iced over and throughout the day the ice line advances and retreats as the temperature hovers at freezing level. Low cloud obscures the full extent of the snow storm as visibility is limited to about 100 metres of murky fog. Snow flurries punctuate the day making the prospect of going anywhere a very marginal prospect. I could return to the Hector River valley where the snow would be falling as rain but I know that once the front passes the alpine views will be spectacular. If this requires toughing out the day with rough and ready companions then it is a small price and in any case they are entertaining enough. A radio report leads them to a spirited discussion about whether Mallory made it to the top of Mt Everest in 1923. Late in the day they use their radio to request a lift out as soon as the weather clears. The helicopter company makes it clear that there is no way they will be getting taken out today.
The water tank has frozen over meaning that we need to get our water from boiling snow. The hunters put up a reasonable argument that the tarn is exposed to sewerage run off and there is little justification for taking a chance. Alternating between several books which are perfect for the situation I find myself in the day passes pleasantly, enhanced by the occasion hot drink.
Late in the afternoon, half an hour before dusk I rouse myself to go for a walk. When I joke with the hunters that if I’m not back in an hour they should start looking for me, they retort that they’ll let the searchers know where I went. I want to check how deep the snow is on the track and see what the prospects are like for completing the ridge walk the following day if the weather is good. The main difficulties of tramping in the Tararuas are usually poor visibility and the accompanying variable weather that accompanies it. If the front has passed tomorrow then viewing conditions are likely to be extremely good. Whether the route is clear enough to follow when under two feet of snow needs to be examined. Returning to the location where I had to make navigational decisions the previous evening I’m relieved that I made the right decision as there is little level ground off the ridge line and no water.
The snow is soft, requiring steady steps to push through. My hands quickly become numb and the fact that I don’t have gloves with me suddenly becomes important. In truth I hadn’t anticipated being faced with snow at all, not that I’m complaining about the beautiful scenery. The light is too poor to waste my limited camera battery capacity on but I hope to be able to take a handful of photos the following morning. I have not been able recharge the battery all trip so I have no right to expect more than a few shots.
The most elderly of the hunters is a physical ruin, missing teeth the most noticeable of his battered features. It is easy to imagine him in town, drunk and getting assaulted. He breaks out into strange mutterings several times during the night and elects to fire up his roaring gas cooker in the sleeping quarters. I open my slat window to ensure a steady supply of clean air. After nearly 36 hours of lying around I’m bursting to get a early start and put the enforced slothfulness behind me. I’m up before the sun has risen above the horizon and already on the ridge leading alongside the tarn when the light floods onto the slopes.
The storm has been a fierce one for there are long icicles on every twig and blade of grass, all leaning to the north are the continual addition of snowflakes being etched to the leeside. Returning to the hut I pack quickly, saying goodbye to the hunter still present and making the steady climb beyond the long drop and onto the spindly ridge. The hunter believes travel should be safe in any direction and I am determined to utilise the eleven hours of daylight available to reach Kime Hut and then possibly Alpha Hut. I’m not certain this is a realistic ambition and the problem is that if I run out of time the walk out the following day might be lengthy to allow me to catch the bus to Wellington.
Route finding problems commence almost immediately once I make the turn to the south and attempt to descend off the ridge towards the main Tararua Peaks. The track is buried under snow and snow poles are intermittent. I find myself floundering on a stony slope that drops steeply between small bluffs. After fifteen minutes of taking too many risks I figure I must have come the wrong way and retreat back to the last confirmed route marker. A scan of the nearby area locates a distant orange pole at the base of the bluffs but it is apparent that the usual route to this is buried. Conscious of the time getting away and intimidated by the sight of the jagged Tararua Peaks ahead I retreat to the ridge leading towards the Hector River.
From here however I can see the entire route to Kime Hut and it looks like a compelling adventure. Returning to the route juncture I attempt once more to find the way down to the lone orange pole. Again I’m wary of the snow and ice obscuring the steps that would mark the way down. When I locate a fallen pole it is apparent that there is a steep track through here but following it is going to require care and patience. It is well over an hour since I’ve set out from the hut and the indecision is eating into the available daylight. With no experience in this region and little information about the feasibility of climbing an icy ladder discretion must overrule the desire for adventure. I at least have had an hour of superb scenery and been able to take many photos as the camera battery has been robust and energetic.
Once the decision has been made the rest of the day is straightforward. The snow has fallen to about 1,400 hundred metres so within half an hour the snow line has been left behind. The track to the Hector River is well marked and the steep drops have a step like quality that don’t produce any difficulties. The snow shows deer prints at several points and I note that I’m being watched by one of the hunters on the peaks. He is no doubt frustrated that I am travelling in a direction guaranteed to scare any lingering deer deep into the forest. I imagine being used as target practice in lieu of any hoofed animals but soon enough the human figure disappears from the ridge. Nonetheless I makes sure I maintain a steady pace for the rest of the morning.
At Neil Forks Hut I return the reading material I have taken with me to Maungahuka Hut then set out on the climb to the Cone Ridge. Progress on the upslope is considerably slower than the descent and I take my time to observe the bird life and blend in with the scenery. At last I return to the ridge and begin the easy stroll through the forest. Several rock outcrops require nimble footwork in order to stick to the designated route but the variations in grade are engaging and maintain interest in the walk. At last the track breaks out of the forest to a stretch of wetland leading to a tussock covered knoll. This is the only section of the ridge that is clear of canopy and the obvious campsite. It is so obvious that I stumble on a large tent set up close to the track and in what appears to be the best spot. Cursing my luck I veer to the east and am pleased to discover several alternatives.
Though it is tempting to establish camp on the crest of the knoll I opt for a ledge that provides protection from the elements. The views to the south include large sections of the Tararua Forest Park and the farmland beyond it. From this vantage I’m able to appreciate the jagged nature of the Tararua Peaks. If the name Dragon’s Teeth wasn’t already being used to describe a mountain range in the Kahurangi National park it could well be applied here. With a better idea of the difficulty of the route I’m placated with my decision to backtrack to a more straightforward path.
There are several hours of daylight still available and if I pushed on I’d be able to reach a small historic hut some kilometres away. I know however that this is likely to be full with Easter trampers and it would lack the alpine views to be enjoyed amid the tussock and snow. From here I can see both Mt Holdsworth and the Tararuas and it is an ideal location to absorb what is new country. The early evening is ablaze with a multi hued sunset that fades from blazing reds to fading pinks and pastel blues. The open skies bring a autumnal chill that makes me content to slip into my sleeping bag and begin the day’s main meal. It caps a day that has been highly enjoyable despite retreat being required from the main ambition.
In the early hours of morning a breeze begins to kick in and this is the last of sleep that I will know as the tent receives quite a buffeting. In the dark it easy to imagine that a gale rages outside but emerging in the early hours I discover no more than a blustering breeze. Nonetheless dismantling the tent is a challenge and there is no lingering once it is stuffed into the pack. A thick band of cloud hangs over the Tararuas which belies the clear skies and sun provided a glow to the dappled patchwork of tussock and snow on the Cone Ridge.
The morning’s task is straightforward, follow the well established track towards Cone Hut and then use a side track that heads directly for the Walls Whare Camp Site. After an hour I encounter a father and son team who ask me if the Cone Ridge Saddle is in their capabilities. Although the boy is overweight and working up a sweat I reassure them that they will have no trouble making their way to Totara Flats by following it all the way. Farther on I meet a couple who are making their way to Cone Hut, despite it being only several hours away and there being many hours left in the day. I guess that’s what Easter tramping is all about.
At the camp site numerous campers and tents are set up and after readjusting my pack I don’t linger despite there being several other tramping groups who have just finished their walks. Though I’m hopeful of getting a lift out I can’t depend on it and need to push on to Matawara train station and figure out what the transport options are. I haven’t been walking for more than twenty minutes when I’m offered a lift by a trio of Wellington trampers. They are new to the area and just making their first exploration of the Tararua’s.
Their main interest appears to be triathlon and it is easy to make small talk. When I mention that I do a lot of tramping in the South Island the girl in the back comments that I do more tramping than most New Zealanders and should write a book. The few books on tramping I’ve read by foreigners have been insipid accounts of the Great Walks made to look like gruelling adventures rather than the tourist trails they necessarily are. I hold my tongue. Though my benefactors are returning to Wellington they are visiting a friend in the local town and I don’t really want a lift all the way.
The lift to Matawara saves several hours and my day improves when I find that the plastic I’ve packed my excess gear in has successfully held at bay all the elements have thrown at it over the last few days. The thought of passively waiting for five hours to catch a bus that might not come goes against the grain and I decide to follow the train track 8kms to Carterton, a small town to the north. The beauty of following the train track is that it is exactly as the crow flies while the roads tend to follow the paddocks requiring many extra kilometres of travel. It is illegal though and I attract the interest of a group of teenagers at one farm who ask questions about who I am and where I’ve been. It is no more than the country curiosity Brett had recognised in Napier.
During the walk along the track I’m on edge, not from the zero probability of a train coming but from the slight chance that I could encounter a country cop. After an hour I can leave the track and complete the walk to Carterton on endlessly straight roads. It is a Saturday afternoon so I have only one thing on my mind, going to the local rugby game. The I-site lady is surprised by my question and has no idea whether there is a side, let alone whether they are playing. She provides me with the location of the ground in any case and speculates that there might be a soccer game on. I need not have worried, the rugby game holds court to a rousing crowd of several hundred locals.
I take my place on the side line between several old ladies and a number of pacing Islanders who are bellowing out instructions to the referee and the side they support. Carterton are playing a side from the coast, I’m surprised that it is the West Coast as I’d have thought the east was closer. The play is spirited but not polished and both sides rely on penalty kicks to advance their score. By the end the visitors lead 12-6. It is a perfect way to end my holiday and I exit the ground in a good mood. This is made even better when I locate an excellent pizza shop on the main street run by a German who sets me up with a table outside, probably in order to act as an advertisement for potential customers.
I arrive half an hour early at the train station and am reassured to find others also waiting. The bus arrives late and does make the trip to Matawara. I could have stayed put where I was but it would have been a dull afternoon while I’ve had a entertaining time risking a fine making my way to Carterton. Soon after paying for my ticket I fall asleep and wake up on the outskirts of Wellington. The overnight bus to Auckland is due to leave soon so I don’t have time to rush to the bookstore where I’d hoped to buy the second part of a trilogy I have started. In fact I only have time to buy a newspaper and some fruit before stashing my pack on the double-decker and locating a seat. The passengers are mainly islanders and Pakeha teenagers heading to town parties.
After ten uneventful hours we arrive in Auckland and after several hours catching up with Australian news on the internet I catch a bus to St Heliers Bay where I sit writing postcards. St Heliers is a suburb I used to come to when I lived in Auckland 18 years ago so to be able to write to Robyn and Marguerite from this location has some resonance. Rangitoto Island is exactly as I remember it, ironic considering how much I’ve aged since my last visit. Postcards from Auckland used to take five days to reach Sydney and I’m heartened to discover several days later that this is still the case. And so ended a different kind of trip, more varied than I’m used to, pushing a few boundaries and quite satisfying because of this.