It had taken six months patiently waiting for a forecast spell of fine weather to align with my days off but finally the opportunity to escape into the Tararuas had arrived. But instead of a balmy summer trip or even an autumnal escapade it would have to be in the depths of the winter equinox in the dog days of early July.
Part of the delay had been waiting for my tramping equipment to arrive via boat. There were a few items to add before I could safely venture into the hills.
I had managed to get out to the Tararuas once during summer, walking in from Woodside Station over the Mt Reeves Track and exiting via the Wiohine Gorge. My exit strategy had been to quickly walk out to Matarewa Train Station but by the time I added the hour and a half required to reach Cone Hut to the three hour trek to the road end the time taken was roughly the same. The big difference was that the walk from Wiohine Gorge to Matarewa Train Station is 13km, much of it up hill rather than the 3km scoot across flats needed to reach Woodside. So I missed the 1108 train, even though a kindly homestead had offered to drive me to the station. I decided that next time I would come with a bike.
The other thing that I needed was a larger pack as my 30 litre day pack allowed no more than a sleeping bag, a book and a few snacks. While this was adequate for a summer overnighter it wouldn't cut it on a four day winter trip.
Things came together remarkably quickly. On E-Trade I was able to purchase a 50 litre pack for $50 and after adjusting the straps I had myself a nifty and comfortable pack. Its diminutive size meant that I could only fit in about 10 kilograms of gear, enforcing a discipline I didn't naturally have. I was also successful in buying a hybrid bike, essentially a road bike with a T handlebar. It was in terrific condition and though better suited to city riding it was sturdy enough to handle the dirt roads of the Wiohine Gorge.
As I was planning a tops walk I would require an outstanding forecast for days 2 and 3. After weeks of truly miserable weather the god of all things meteorological, Huey, lined up four days with benign conditions. Despite my wavering it would have been sacriligeous not to go.
Initially I aspired to tackle the most ambitious of Tararua Tramps over the Tararua Peaks. This is a precipitous series of peaks and ridges that requires a head for heights and a steady nerve on ropes and ladders. The only other time I'd been near them it snowed heavily and I'd sensibly backed out of an attempt. That decision has only felt more correct as the years have gone by. I wouldn't attempt to traverse the peaks if they were under snow. Although there was little snow around a layer of treacherous ice started at about the 1,400 metre mark.
The other traverse that appealed was the Southern Crossing via the Neil Range. This needed navigation from Mt Hector along the undulating range before eventually dropping back into the valley. I decided that I wouldn't over commit and would instead just go in to have a look. The beauty of living in Wellington is that I can always come back in a few week's time if conditions don't suit.
I popped into the DOC office and as it was the first day of the new financial year I was awarded the Annual Hut Pass No 1 for 2018. It felt serendipitous. From one of Wellington's many camping shops I bought a canister of gas and opted not to buy any of the pricey dehydrated meals that had been such a feature of my trips as a tourist. Instead, I was going to following the lead of so many travellers who I have encountered who have been having cous cous. At the time I've regarded these people as hippies but a renewed interest in healthy food has made me reconsider many previously held views.
Cous Cous would be the staple of the my meal, augmented by a few noodle backs, a few cloves of garlic, tuna tins and turmeric For breakfast I would be having Oats seasoned by cinnamon. Lunch-time would consist of OSM bars, the only processed eating additive of the trip.
The evening before the scheduled departure I was considering whether to delay the trip or shorten it but somehow it felt like the right thing to do and I found the urgency to put my pack together and race down to the train station for the 12.55pm departure. In my haste I omitted to pack a water bottle, toiletries bag, OSM bars or watch. I couldn't find room for my crampons and I added one book too many. But I had all the essentials and there was no reason not to push on.
Had I known that the train had been replaced by a bus I probably would have used this as an excuse to back out but the driver didn't bat an eye and just opened up a compartment for me to put the bike into. With minimal fuss I was onto the back of the bus and we were on our way to Upper Hutt. It felt so exciting to be going in that in my distracted state I left behind the bike gloves that that had come with the bike on the seat of the bus. I was momentarily annoyed but figured that if the gloves were so unwieldy that I needed to take them off I may as well lose them sooner rather than later.
The other pressing issue was that we were behind schedule and the designated 2.05 arrival time at Matarewa was quickly blowing out. Every minute of daylight would be valuable for the three hour walk to Cone Hut. Soon I was counting down the stations, Featherston, Woodside and finally the tiny outpost of Matarewa where I jumped down onto the bare platform and collected my bike. The train pulled away and I looked out to the distant mountains of the Tararuas silhouetted in the setting sun.
After riding down the road for fifty metre into a biting wind I stopped to put on my all weather jacket before continuing the surprisingly strenuous ride in. It had been seven months since cycling had been a daily feature of my life and this period of inactivity seemed to have sent my leg muscles into a slumber. The term used by physiotherapists to describe this is dormant; if unused muscles switch themselves off. The process for turning the cycling power muscles back on was somewhat painful and what had previously been an effortless activity now required considerable exertion.
To add to my troubles the headwind was unrelenting, the gradient ever upwards and the gravel somewhat chunky and unstable. Add to this I was getting used to an unfamiliar bike, had ten kilos on my back and the ride had a more epic quality than I was expecting. The rough road required an alert eye, lest I hit a gravel patch or rogue rock. The downward sections were a little unnerving though the compensation was to be making good time.
Further along the Wiohine Gorge Road the hills and bends became sharper and several fords involved smooshing through small streams. Several times I had to walk the bike because I wasn't getting any grip on the tyre and about a kilometre from the gorge I encountered a road closed sign and a chained gate. As I lifted my bike over the final barrier I had a grim moment of satisfaction that there'd be very few trampers in the park.
The camping grounds were deserted and after giving brief consideration to leaving the bike behind the toilet bike I decided to walk it into the forest where it would sit exposed to the elements for the next few days. Fortunately the forecast was benign. I'd skipped lunch and was hungry, keen to have an OSM bar before I started the energetic walk into Cone Hut. This was when I discovered that the bars were nowhere to be seen, left behind on my kitchen bench. Improvising, I gobbled down on a few sheets of seaweed which made for a very light late lunch. It was about 3.30pm, at best there would be two hours of light available and after that I'd need my headlight to guide me home.
Months of constant rain ensured that this popular track had many muddy stretches and large bogs. It wasn't Dusky Track swamp but by previously pristine Marmot boots were given an thorough initiation with New Zealand mud. Though the track to Cone doesn't reach the heights of the Reeves Track it still involves a 500 metre climb that requires a sustained effort.
My optimism about the light soon met with the reality of bush dark, the early dusk that is encountered under the shadowy veil of the forest. By 5pm I'd reverted to the headlight and was a little unnerved when it gave off a weak glow that barely illuminated the way ahead. As conditions deteriorated however the light strengthened and cut a steady beam of the way ahead.
After a couple of hours the track flattened out a little before commencing the quick drop to the valley containing the Tauherenikau River. A marker indicated the routes to the Cone Saddle and to the hut and I began the greasy descent. Encountering a stream that cut the track I was able to enjoy a first drink since leaving Wellington, using my hand to cup the icy water.
A further track turn off indicated that Cone Hut was not too far away and after limboing under some old tree fall the ghostly edifice of the slab hut emerged in the distance. No candle light illuminated the window indicating that the hut was unoccupied. I stepped inside and had my look at the rather barren and uninviting space. Cone Hut certainly wouldn't win any interior decorating awards. Two large buckets were obviously meant for the storage of water. I grabbed one, emptied it out and began the rather fraught trip down a wire rope to a small stream. Concentration was required to get back with a full bucket of water but one I'd managed this I could turn my attention to the evening meal.
There was a dampness and uninviting quality to the hut. Perhaps it would have been greatly improved with a burst of a warming fire to clear the air. Animal droppings on the bench suggested that there would be night visitors and I wasn't to be disappointed. What was most disconcerting was the eerie scrapping noise that awakened me in the deadened hours, like a shovel being dragged over concrete. That's a very dextrous possum, I thought, one I wasn't inclined to meet. On the upside there was a discarded water bottle for me to add to my pack, making the prospect of the following day's climb much more inviting.
After the disappointments of the postponed lunch I soon delighted in an entrée of spicy ramen noodles before turning my attention to the main course of cous cous, embellished with garlic cloves and tuna. While being far from a taste sensation the meal was nourishing and filling and happily settled into my sleeping bag. A fire would certainly have kept the draughty chill at bay but I opted for donning my full cold weather wardrobe of gloves, beanie, thermals, and scarf. Tea, chocolate and spicy cashews made for a pleasant evening and I read until quite late.
On waking my plans for the day weren't overly ambitious, a five to six hour walk to Alpha Hut, situated on the Southern Crossing at about 1,300 metres. The last time I'd been to Alpha had been a few years ago with Chris and we went via Tutuwhai hut up the rather unrelenting Omega Track. This time I'd be going via the Bull Mound track. I had hoped that there would be a bridge across the river but I was soon disappointed. There actually was a bridge in the form of a large tree that had fallen into the river making an above water bridge. It seemed to good to be true and after looking at the icy layer that had settled on the trunk I sensed that it would be very easy to slip and fall into the river at its deepest point.
The early morning ford was not pleasant, however much I tried to think of it as a bracing dip. I emerged from the strong flow with numb feet and cast a regretful look at the tree trunk option. Perhaps I'd dismissed it too quickly and if I came back this way I could give it a go. But I've had much worse crossings in stronger flows and colder water so once I'd put my socks and boots back on I was quickly on my way.
The track climbed quickly but was relatively straightforward travel on a well marked and frequently used route. Treefall was rare and the few times I wandered away from the designated trail the rules of ridge walks quickly asserted themselves.
After several hours walking in the beech forest the track emerged on the attractive grounds of Bull Mound, a bucolic plateau that provided a good view of the more rugged peaks of the Tararuas. There were a few moisture laden areas of sponge-like flora to skirt and an icy crust of the handful of tarns. A dog leg on the track changed the course from Nor-west to Sou-west. At the 1,100 metre mark there were patches of white, an unusual mix of ice and snow. Combined with the white lichen colouring the rocks it made for an aesthetically pleasing garden.
Soon after the track began undulating along the ridge, passing through the fancifully named Hell's Gate, a dip in the trail that marked the start of the steady climb towards Alpha Hut. In preparing for the trip I'd read about a couple of trampers who had been overcome by hyperthermia on this section of the track and never reached the hut. There are few areas in New Zealand where the difference between the best and most severe weather conditions are so great. Strong winds on the exposed tops makes for very unpleasant travel, encouraging retreat to the safety of the valley floor. The unfortunate walkers to lose their lives had also been wearing inadequate jackets with minimal insulating qualities. The wind and rain would have cut right through them and due to inexperience they didn't understand the critical necessity of pushing onto the hut.
My own walk was idyllic and even though the final few kilometres took me longer than expected an extended time spent amongst the beautiful, sunny scenery felt like a bonus. Finally the solid structure of the sturdy Alpha Hut presented itself, well protected in the forest but forbiddingly chilly on a winter's day.
The steps to the hut were iced over and the bench on the water tank was coated in a large, impenetrable ice block. The handle for the water tank faucet appeared to have either been removed or had snapped off. Ridges make for great walking but often do not have natural water sources. There were no nearby streams to dip my water bottle into so I would need to have a think about where to get some liquid. A perusal of the hut book revealed no tips or suggestions at all, I was on my own.
There was a lot of snow around the hut but it wasn't fluffy blanket snow but the crispy thin variety. Most of it was close to the ground and a few cursory attempts to scrape together a bucket captured too much soil and grass to be worthwhile. As I'd already seen what was below the hut the only way to go was up towards Mt Alpha. The sun was in its last throes of the day, bathing the west facing hills in a welcoming light. It was dimming quickly however and it promised to be a long night.
I set off up the hill and was surprised to find a marker detailing a track to the Quoin Hut. Much of my time was preoccupied with gazing to the north trying to work out which was the Winchombe Peak/Neill Saddle Track. It didn't look all that easy with several rather steep climbs. I guess the use of the term peak was speaking an ominous truth. Also of concern was what was underfoot, a rather treacherous underlay of rime that made for a few slippery moments.
My most immediate concern was the lack of success with finding running water. On my way back to the hut I noticed a sturdy, firm leafed plant on which large star like icicles had shaped over the large leaves. I could pull these off the plants and because they were well above the ground they were free of soil and grass. Each icicle contained a substantial glob of water, so much so that I quickly filled my billy. I quickly returned to the hut and collected my plastic bag so that I could carry away even more of my ice harvest. By the time I'd picked my crop it was nearly nightfall and time to get back to the scanty charms of the cavernous edifice.
It was cold enough to leave the ice that I didn't need outside. It didn't take much to melt my bounty and have the evening meal underway. It would again be cous cous, garlic, cashews and tuna, preceded by the taste sensations of spicy ramen noodles. I made so much cous cous that I couldn't get through it all so I certainly couldn't complain about going hungry.
The temptation to start a fire was strong but so large was the hut that it would be impossible to make much of an impression on the inside temperature and it really would have been a waste of precious wood. Instead, I settled in for a comfortable sleep in my multiple layers, well rugged up and insulated against the cold.
Adding to my sense of comfort was my decision to not attempt to complete the circular walk via Mt Hector and Neill Saddle. It seemed that beyond 1,400 metres crampons would be very reassuring gear. The only reported time provided for the trip from Cone to Alpha via Neill Saddle was 11 3/4 hours, completed at a time of year when such extended day light hours were available. Although the forecast for the following day was good I wasn't going to push my luck in anyway. It seemed obvious that this was a leg better broken up by staying at Kime Hut. It would have to wait.
When I got up the following morning I knew that I had a couple of hours available to me before I would need to back track. I turned my mind to a pack free clime to the to of Mt Alpha. The track itself had lots of icy patches so I often found myself walking in the softer snow on the unformed sections. The day had started off brilliantly clear but as is often the case on crisply pristine mornings conditions were transforming rapidly. Low lying mist was rapidly rising along the ridged flanks and streaming towards the natural pass located between Alpha and the Dress Circle. Fortunately I was making good progress and by the time I'd crested the peak the coast to coast vies remained in tact. In the distance the Tasman Ocean sat in stately silence, soaking up the sun and slowly plotting. I genuflected my supplication and gave thanks for the kindly conditions. In many ways I'd finally arrived.
After melting more of the ice kept in my overnight bag I enjoyed a hearty breakfast and quickly packed away my gear. I enjoyed a magical afternoon in which the underappreciated joys of the backtracked walk presented themselves. In this direction I was able to get a much better perspective of the challenging Neil Saddle route but to also compare and contract the Omega track with the Bull Mound. When I reached the tussock plateau I discovered a herd of six deer lingering on the edges of the tree-line. Even though my camera was within reach they were far too quick for me, silently disappearing in a manner that might make me question whether they were ever there. It was one of those moments where the fleeting glories and lasting joys were readily apparent.
One of my favourite tramping truisms is that a large mountain is often best viewed from a nearby small mountain and this was rather obviously on the extended traverse of the plateau as I was able to contemplate the contours of the imposing Tararua Peaks and examine the routes over Mt Reeves and Cone Pass. Such was the stillness of the day and the sensual pleasure of a sun-warmed back that I enjoyed an extended break before the final descent to the Tauherenikau River.
I was very much looking forward to the decisions to be made about the impending river crossing, so much so that I regarded the tree trunk sidle as being my preferred option, as long as I was able to scramble onto the trunk. This I managed but standing above the river I lost my nerve and discussed to straddle the trunk and shimmy across.
It wasn't as easy as it seemed and my overpants hitched up my legs so that my skin rubbed raw against the trunk. A fork in the trunk stalled my progress and as I was by now very close to the nearby bank I decided to throw my pack onto the shore. Ignoring the multiple ways this could go wrong I launched the pack, only to see it bounce up on the incline and tumble into the water. The urgency of the situation didn't seem to reach me until the pack started to float into the deeper, stronger channels of the river. Panicked into action I jumped into the water, scooped up the pack and stepped onto the bank. It took all of three seconds but it was enough time to drench my boots and soak my pack. All semblance of equanimity left me as I ululated a multi-voweled expletive.
I had three options and in my timidity I'd chosen the worst one and executed it poorly. It was a classic late day stuff up, all virtually within site of the hut. To make matters worse I quickly discover that the water proofing qualities of my pack could best be described as porous, or perhaps sponge-like. With the forecast for the trip being so benign I hadn't given pack protection the attention I should have, even though I was carrying a pack cover. The only consolation was that it was a very good reminder to use a pack liner at all times which will at least save me some discomfort in the future.
This damp end to the day resulted in the extensive use of the drying lines above the fire, though I still didn't bother with a fire itself. The worst of it was the water logged sleeping bag had lost much of its insulating qualities and the humidity factor made for a fractious night's sleep. The scurrying rodents and eerie shovel scrapping possum returned, along with some seriously frenzied activity in the wall caverns.
To cap off the indignities, the two sources of the time that I'd brought, my phone and my camera had both packed it in so that I was relying in variations in the light to tell me when it was early morning. At the first hint of lightening I roused myself for the trip out but such was the depths of the valley it seems the day was quite advanced by the time I left. Although I arrived at Matarawa Station thinking I'd be catching the 1108 train to Wellington I was well of the pace and after confirming with a local a couple of hours later that it was mid afternoon I sheepishly rode into Carterton for a dodgy junk food meal and a brief wait at the train station.
I was soon offered a beer by a man in a trench coat and we got to talking about how he had returned to New Zealand after 13 years living in Brazil. We discussed the Brazilian drug cartels and the murder rate of this sprawling country and how it compared to his home nation. These kinds of random chats a quite a feature of Carterton train station and always make a memorable addendum to any trip to the Tararuas.