The treacherous Tararua Peaks Circuit

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Apart from running the Jumbo-Holdsworth Trail race in 2018 we are for all intents and purposes Tararua virgins. We have never ventured into the Tararua Ranges in the almost ten years that we’ve been living in it’s foothills at the northern-most part. This was mainly due to being scared senseless from all the news items of people who die in the mountain, and sometimes following a rescue mission with varied outcomes. Just last year a gentleman’s body was found only after eleven days of searching, after he fell down a waterfall in the Arete stream.

The Tararua Ranges are known for it’s inclement weather. According to Barnett and Brown (2010) the mountain has around 200 days a year of storm conditions. That is more than half of the time, meaning that on a five day tramp one is more than likely to get a few bad days. Luckily we had only one semi-bad day. Murky and a light drizzle at times on our second day, but the wind was probably as calm as it gets in the Tararua Ranges for the biggest part of our trip.

We were keen to tramp over Christmas and/or New Year, so were closely following the weather forecast for a good window. The days between 29 December and 2 January looked quite attractive, so we made the call to just do it.

As with everything else this year we were behind schedule. When we finally packed our backpacks the night before at 8pm, we discovered that we only had four hut passes. We needed at least eight, and preferably more incase we need to stay put somewhere due to bad weather. So our plan to start at sparrow’s fart went down the longdrop as the earliest we could buy hut passes was at 9am in Otaki (at Hunting & Fishing). Palmy’s i-Site only opened at 10am.

When the clock struck 9am we were in the door at Otaki’s H&F. With hut passes and a last cup of coffee in hand, we were heading into Otaki Forks for the carpark. Day one’s breakfast, which we thought of having en route of day one, turned into a quick down-down’s in the carpark. By 10:20 we were all signed in at the warden’s hut and were on our merry way.

29 December – Otaki Forks to Kime Hut, via Field Hut: 11km (time – 6:45)

Otaki Forks is at about 150m above sea level and we needed to go over Hut Mount (1440m) to reach Kime Hut, that is located between the latter and Field Peak (1483m). It is fair to say that you climb just about all the way without respite to Field Hut. There might have been one or two short little flats or slight downhills on the way only to be forced back up the relentless hill.

We reached Field Hut (the oldest and most historic hut in the Park, built in 1924, at 866m) by 13:30 for lunch before pushing on at 14:10. Another good climb through alpine scrub and then we were on Table Top (1047m). It is a lovely wide, flat grassland area for easy walking, only to get much more climbing shortly after in the final couple of hours to the hut.

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Even though the day started off sunny and hot, the mist started rolling in and out of the valleys. By late afternoon, and well above the treeline, a light breeze cooled us down nicely. But as we were nearing the hut, the murk got more and the wind also picked up a bit. We reached the hut by 5pm to find quite a few others there. Actually, the whole day was very sociable with lots of people walking the Southern Crossing (also the course of the Tararua Mountain Race 35km), and a girl training for an AR who ran it. Some came up from Kaitoke side, while another pair did a loop via the peaks and Cone Ridge. At the hut we also met a couple who were doing the same circuit we were doing, but going clockwise and therefore spending their last night in the wilderness at Kime Hut. They actually took seven days to complete the loop as they spend an extra day (Boxing Day) at Anderson Hut just for fun, and also had to drop down to Aokaparangi Hut as the wind got too strong to stay on the ridge.

Mountain runner Michael Stuart stumbled in shortly after we arrived for a quick refill, before heading back into the wilderness, wind, murk and elements as the night time started to approach. Michael was the first person ever to successfully complete an SKS (Schormann to Kaitoke to Schormann, a distance of more than 168kms) in one push. It took him 61-odd hours.

All up we were 15 people in the twenty bunk hut. It is a well insulated newish hut, but I was still fairly cold during the night. I slept in only one of my two lightweight/AR sleeping bags, and didn’t feel like making a noise in the middle of the night to get out the second one. I cannot imagine how cold it must get up there certain times of the year, and the hut is without a fireplace.

The wind picked up during the night, accompanied by a light drizzle.

30 December – Kime Hut to Maungahuka Hut: 8km (time – 8 hours)

We woke up to solid murk and a light drizzle. The wind had died down for the most part, so we thought we’ll push through to the next hut. Also, according to the weather forecast on various weather prediction sites the murk and drizzle was meant to subside to make way for better conditions during the course of the morning. This unfortunately turned out not to be the case. But if the wind was too bad, we would have stayed put as this section is the most treacherous.

Starting just before 9:30am we thought of taking the first turn-off to the track which cuts short a 15 minute walk back to the junction at Bridge Peak (1421m). After following the lack of the clear track for a few hundred metres in the murk, we wimpered out and went back to where we could see the poles. So we ended up doing the 15 minute detour after all.

The track follows the ridge ascending and descending a relentless repeat of ups and downs all day long. The first few bumps or knolls are named after some of the pioneers of Tararua mountain tramping, namely Boyd-Wilson Knob (1138m), Vosseler (1198m), Yeates (1205m) and McIntosh (1286m). The murk was almost a blessing in disguise as it would have been far more nerve-wrecking to see the sheer drop-offs and narrow ridges we were traversing.

We were going slower than I anticipated, and after 2.5 hours I couldn’t believe we still haven’t reached the turn-off to Penn Creek Hut.

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It was only by 13:30 that we decided to stop for lunch in a fairly sheltered spot. Walking on the ridge is rather exposed and with the murk also came a light drizzle on occasion. The light breeze was nice to cool down on the uphills, but was actually quite cold when we stopped, even on the lee side of the mountain. With the prevailing winds coming from the west, the east side is generally less windy.

Within a couple of minutes we were shivering from being fairly wet by then and so exposed on the ridge and in the cold wind. That’s when I realised once again how quickly things can go pear-shaped. We quickly finished our lunch to get going again.

Once we were walking up another uphill we warmed up and were fine. Turned out our lunch stop was just short of the turn-off to Penn Creek hut. Soon after we reached a sign that read 2km to Maungahuka hut. We’ve done 6km by then in about four hours.

What followed is something I would not want to experience again any time soon. Bear in mind the murk already made the whole experience more ominous than what it would have been on a sunny day. Add to that the fact that everything was wet, muddy and slippery. Little streams were trickling down paths and the gloomy weather compounded the experience as a scary ordeal.

We were told that if we could get over the first rock/knob, we will be okay. This was also not the case, especially considering the wet conditions. The first knob went straight up a huge rock (about 5 metres high?) with not much to hold onto. Bearing in mind that there are ridges all around and one slip of a foot can be fatal. It is a super gnarly, challenging and dangerous section which is best not attempted when wet. However, we have been going for the best part of the day and turning back would mean that we would only arrive very late back at Kime Hut. Also, that would have meant that two days later we would have had to negotiate the ridges in windy conditions.

About three metres up the rock, I got stuck – ON a rock AND in a hard place. I couldn’t go up, nor down. My nerves (or lack thereof) got the better of me and I couldn’t move. The fight, flight or freeze scenario literally had me paralysed with fear. Gerry managed to get to the top to drop his pack, came halfway back down which stressed my out too, to try and take my pack. Problem was I was hanging on for dear life and couldn’t see any way how to loosen the straps so that Gerry can grab a hold. Eventually I managed that, but he battled to reach that far down. With the loosened pack, I was completely stuffed. If I let go of the pack, it would certainly fall to the bottom of the mountain – the same reason I was frozen stiff. Finally Gerry could reach down far enough – a very risky move – to grab my pack.

Just for the record, doing these kinds of hikes with a heavy load where the straps cuts into your shoulders and bruising your hip bones, as well as sturdy boots, is challenging at best. Gnarly terrain in wet conditions just worsens the situation exponentially. It will be far “easier” with trail shoes and a lightweight pack, I think. And even then it remains a challenge at best. In wet conditions? Not a good idea whatsoever. Don’t do it.

Truth be told, after that experience I had completely lost my nerve. I was functioning on adrenalin which caused the shivers. I am not too good with heights, and unfortunately, that was only the beginning of what was another two hours of similar experiences. It should not take two hours, but if you are completely overcome with fear it is hard to move faster. It was utterly exhausting. Eventually we got to the point where some ropes were attached to the rocks to hold onto. Which, on hindsight, was just a minor consolation that one might not fall down the cliffs.

Rounding another cliff, hanging onto a rope, the ladder suddenly appeared. A 15 metres (5 storey high) drop was made passable with the installation of the infamous aluminium Tararua ladder. Going counter-clockwise meant we were going down the ladder instead of up. Needless to say, I was too scared to look down. I had completely lost my gumption by then, and was one giant ball of nerves. My stress-levels and anxiety were through the roof, short of breath and the slightest challenging bit got the better of me.

But there’s more. After the ladder we had to sidle around equally treacherous rocks and cliffs which were made “easier” by chains that were attached to the rocks. Unfortunately, sometimes the chain didn’t reach far enough and one still had to negotiate a very slippery section on very dangerous terrain. It was likely due to erosion and so many people going across this section that the chains often ended up a couple of metres short.

A few times I froze and had to recompose myself to get beyond the obstacle. This carried on for another hour or so while the adrenalin was pumping, I was shivering, scared shitless, getting a headache, which subsided with the next adrenaline rush, needing to pee, and repeat. It didn’t stop. There’s nowhere to take off your pack, nowhere to pee, no respite from the unforgiving terrain. It crossed my mind that this could be it, the end of me on the eve of 2020. All along the murk made everything more ominous, the drizzle got heavier and the wind also felt a bit stronger.

In my 30 years of tramping, traversing all sorts of terrain and scaling various mountains (including Mt Kilimanjaro where deaths also happen frequently), this was by far the most gnarly and nerve-racking hike I have ever done. The fact that I completely lost my nerve on the first rock, didn’t help as the least bit of challenging terrain following that had me on all fours. In fact, I spent the biggest part of a kilometres on all fours or hanging on to tussock (thank heavens for tussock!). Once, both my feet slip as I tried to hang onto a rock, while my heavy pack were pushing me against the rock. Eventually I could manage to find some footing with my knee to propel myself further up the rocky area.

I’ve always wondered why there aren’t any photos of the area around Tuiti (1310m) and Tunui (1325m) peaks. The ladder is located between the two peaks and the ropes and chains are on either side. But I now know that it is near impossible to try and take a photo in the treacherous terrain.

We scaled yet another and another hill on the edge of the world before finally heading downwards to see a toilet appear in the thick murk and drizzle. Never before was I so relieved to have made it to a hut in one piece. Maungahuka Hut (just below the peak at 1330m) is located next to a tarn on the ridge in a breathtakingly beautiful location.

What I thought was a tramp, was almost more of a mountaineering expedition. Yet, six of us made it through without incident on this day (and many, many before us, and no doubt many will do so after us). I am happy to finally have seen the peaks area and although it is too early to comment, I might consider going back on a sunny day when travelling more light-footed is perhaps possible. If only some maintenance can be done on the cliffs sections with much needed ropes or chains, that would make for a far less dangerous traverse.

In the ten bunk hut, we were six, even though we didn’t see anyone else during the course of the day, which made the lonely traverse even more scary. I had my extra lightweight sleeping bag inside the other one, and was warm during the night even though it was freezing outside with murk coming in sideways and a reasonably strong cold wind. At two in the morning the murk had dissipated to make way for a beautiful starry night. And in the morning we were made welcome by sunny blue skies until 7:30am when the murk started to move in again.

31 December – Maungahuka Hut to Anderson Memorial Hut: 9km (time – 9 hours)

The ordeal from the previous day was still vividly fresh in my mind and I felt somewhat anxious at what might lie ahead. We still had a full day and a half of traversing the ridges and who knows what adventures await. Every muscle in my body was sore from the previous days’ effort. Even the ones in my armpit which I noticed as I tried to pull my shirt over my head. After some rusks and coffee we were on our way down an easy hill.

The murk that started to roll in, rolled out again and we had beautiful views across the ranges. When I looked back after a short walk from the hut, I could see the ladder and twin peaks of Tuiti (meaning narrow) and Tunui which were the cause of all my stress and anxiety of the previous day.

Luckily the weather was good – again just a light wind and mainly open tops. Strong wind is the last thing you want when walking on the ridges.

Not to go into too much detail, but I ended up on a rock yet again hanging on for dear life. There were a few spots during this day’s traverse that proved to be too much for my already exhausted nerves. Gerry took my pack at one such spot so that I can get up a massive rock, and at another I froze midway again. Problem with the latter was that it was right at the top of a gigantic skree slip. Should one slip on the rock, you would shoot down the slip which would surely mean ill fate. It was one of those where you know that only momentum can get you to the top, but one misplaced step would mean the end.

Apart from a few dodgy spots, this was one of the most beautiful days I’ve experienced on a hike. One could see to Otaki, Kapiti Island, the Wairarapa and of course all the big peaks up ahead and toward the east each time the mist lifted: Jumbo (1405m), Holdsworth (1470m), Bannister (1537m), Arete (1505m), Dundas (1499m), Pukemoremore (1474m), Logan (1500m), Pukematawai (1432m), Lancaster (1504m), Carkeek (1435), Mitre (1571m), McGregor (1540m), Angle Knob (1510m), etc.

While we were having lunch with the most gorgeous view, the mist suddenly came in fast from the west, covering the ridges we just came down from. It eventually lifted again a long while later and we could see where we’ve been again and where we were going. It makes such a huge difference when you can orienteer yourself. I am always amazed to see how far one has come over such adverse terrain. These experiences make you feel like the tiniest of specks in this vast universe.

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Compared to the previous day, this was a stunner. It was nonetheless a slow arduous task to get over a couple of massive hills. We traversed Simpson (1174m), Wright (1196m), Aokaparangi (1354m) and Kahiwiroa (1320m) before reaching the treeline for the final 1.5km to the hut (lowest point at about 1095m). Every millimetre of my feet was killing me. They felt completely battered and bruised. A few hotspots started to develop, but the general wear and tear was far worse.

The hut was at the top of the treeline which meant a slight uphill again in the final few hundred metres. But what a magical place the “enchanted forest” is. I’ve seen similar such forests (e.g. on Round the Taranaki Mountain track, as well as on the Pouakai Crossing), but this one was in a class of its own (our wee camera does not do it justice whatsoever). It took another hour to cover the approximately 1.5km through the forest so we eventually only reached te hut around 6pm.

Anderson Memorial Hut is a small six bunk hut with a fireplace. Neither of the other two huts had fireplaces. I started the fire soon after we arrived as we were in need of washing/rinsing and drying some clothes. We could also clean ourselves somewhat as we were all alone at first. At around 8pm another tramper who was fast-packing the SK (Schormann to Kaitoke) arrived. With the murk and rain and wind of the past day and nights, it was nigh impossible to clean oneself in the full huts. Changing clothes had to be done inside my sleeping bag, or the longdrop. And at Maungahuka Hut with rain coming in sideways, just getting to the longdrop had one quite wet.

It was New Years eve so we opted to cook our curry and rice. With the fireplace going strong we could also soak our dried veges and legumes for the vegetable curry on the fire which was an added bonus. No need to worry about running out of fuel.

1 January – Anderson Memorial Hut to Waitewaewae: 8km (time – 7 hours)

Waking up in the morning it was somewhat murky again. Luckily not too bad and we could soon see where we were going and where we came from. Every time I looked back at Tuiti and Tunui I got shivers running down my spine. From a distance these two, together with Maungahuka (1330m) and a knob in-between, form my initial “W” which I found curious.

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From the hut it is a steady climb up to Junction Knob (1375m). The wind picked up and by the time we were approaching the knob, I started to walk next to the track for fear of been blown over the edge. It wasn’t that bad really, but just enough to have me off balance every now and again, especially having the foam mattresses on the back of my pack. They are like flags in the wind and I was worried about unexpected gusts.

It took us about 1.5 hours to get to Junction Knob (which is also where the Te Araroa Trail walkers joined the track from the North), and from there it is just a short walk to Shoulder Knob (1310m). Past Shoulder Knob the track goes back into the forest and down the mountain on a spur.

This part of the track includes a few very steep sections, clambering down and over fallen trees on a never-ending downhill. The vegetation changes to show that you have made progress, but apart from that all you have around you as far as the eye can see is forest. On a relentless downhill.

Every muscle in my body was sore so our progress was slow. But even so, the times on the DOC signs are, in my opinion, way off. According to them it should take two hours from Junction Knob to Waitewaewae Hut (colloquially written as YTYY) (at about 320m), but it took me five hours. Granted, I was taking my time and we had a lunch break, but two hours is really fast for that stretch of the track. You would have to have very strong knees and quads to make it down in two hours. Especially with a heavy load on your back, and after three and a half days of mountainous terrain.

It was another longish day. Luckily not too many scary sections, and when we arrived at the hut by 4:30pm there were already a few others. Many who walked in from the Otaki Forks carpark to spent the night. While we were treating our tired and battered feet with the cold water of the stream, more people trickled in. One who did the same track as we did who arrived shortly after us (but had a longer day), others who are doing the Te Araroa Trail, and some who just did three days of the TA, starting from Levin and finishing at Otaki Forks.

Eventually the hut was overflown and some opted to sleep outside on the porch. Dogs are allowed at this hut, so three dog all up also spent the night. There is a fireplace, but it was warm enough that no-one bothered with a fire.

2 January – Waitewaewae Hut to Otaki Forks: 12km (time – 8.5 hours)

Some of the comments in the overfull visitor’s book pointed to the fact that maintenance on this track is not a priority. This also goes for the visitor’s intentions book (long overdue for a new one), the toilet (almost full) and as mentioned the track, or rather lack of a track, itself.

This days’ walk cannot be called walking. Rather it is clambering for eight and a half hours (in our case) over roots and rocks, up and down steep inclines, over and under many, many, many fallen trees, through numerous streams and muddy patches. It is very technical and slow going and far more hilly than I anticipated.

According to DOCs predictions, it should take about 6 hours to complete. Perhaps this might have been the case on the old track? Apparently, a large slip (in the last three or so years?) took out a huge part of the original track, and the alternative route is to make your way over the slip which involves some massive climbs up and down. But even so, the terrain is unforgiving and takes time.

We had a relatively early start (7:30am). By 13:15pm we stopped for lunch, and only a short while after we finally reached the old tramline which made the going significantly easier. Still a few fallen trees to clamber over/under, some stream crossings and some steep ups and downs, but overall a walk in the park compared to the rest of the hike. We reached the car by 4pm.

Back in civilisation the first thing we bought was fresh cherries and carrots to snack on on our way back to Palmy. Also a cooked chicken and salad ingredients for dinner. At home and after a shower, we made a campfire outside, poured a glass of bubbly and contemplated life. I still think it is a good idea to force oneself out of your comfort zone. It is not nice to be uncomfortable, whatever the situation, but much needed. In my opinion, of course.

We were well prepared for all eventualities. I even carried a small tent, just incase we got stuck between huts. We had enough warm clothes, maps, compass, PLB, and food for at least eight days. Only problem with being stuck between huts is that there is no water. Were it not for the huts, this circuit would be extremely difficult. One do pass a few tarns which could be utilised (I also had water purification-type tablets), but overall there’s not a lot of water on the ridges.

This is no walk in the park. Once my nerves have settled I might actually consider doing it again.

2 thoughts on “The treacherous Tararua Peaks Circuit

  1. Pingback: Marshalling on Mt Holdsworth (Jumbo-Holdsworth Trail Race – 25 January) – Jog around the Blog

  2. Pingback: Taihape Gumboot Gallop recce – Jog around the Blog

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