Date: 20-21 February
Distance: 40.5km (or 36km according to the guide books)
Tramping or running or fast-packing parts of the Tararua Ranges means you often need someone else to help with transport. There are various loop options, but a lot of the better known routes, like the Southern Crossing, Northern Crossing or the S-K (Schormann to Kaitoke) are all point-to-point. With these point-to-point routes you can potentially arrange with mates where each of you park at the trail head on either side, and meet somewhere along the route for a key swop, or you can leave a car at each end and walk together. Or simply get someone to drop you off, and/or pick you up. Either way, it is a bit of a performance to get it all sorted and means you often have to allow extra time for travelling.
Nina mentioned that she wanted to tramp the new Tararua Mountain Race* course, which was a good opportunity for us to also see that part of the mountain trails. Previously, the TMR followed the Southern Crossing which we have always been keen to do, but with the massive slip on the Otaki Gorge Road closing off that access point, the organisers decided to use the trails on the Wairarapa side between Kaitoke and Holdsworth Lodge as the new course. I was uncertain whether I would want to do this as the event, but was still keen to experience this part of the Tararua Range.
We opted to do the perhaps more challenging direction starting from Kaitoke. Not only do you have an extra hours’ drive and an hour later start, but you also have the shorter, easier day on the first day, followed by a longer, more hilly day two. Even though it makes sense to have the shorter day coupled with longer traveling time, having a longer day two means the tramp gets a bit toucher as you go. Overall, the route also gains elevation going in this direction and has some steep climbs following the Tauherenikau River upstream.
Shortly after 8am we met the others at the Holdsworth carpark where we left our car and drove Suzanne’s to the Kaitoke trail head from where Gerry and I started walking just before 10am. From the start (250m) the route gains about 210m in elevation over the Puffer Saddle (460m) before dropping down to Smith Creek shelter at 195m. A bit before the shelter, we encountered one of the big slips which has to be avoided by taking a detour over or beneath the slip. We did not see any signs to indicate that there might be a detour, so we just followed the quite prominent trail and ended up right in the middle of the slip. It was one of those steep, slippery slopes where once you reach a certain point, it is equally impossible to go back up or continue on down. Gerry managed to slip-and-slide to a semi-safe spot where he could leave his pack. I unclipped mine and lowered it down to him to make the scramble down a bit more manageable. Once we were on the other side of the slip looking back, there was a DOC sign that indicated the route goes over the slip. However, someone stuck a tape arrow on the sign to show the best way to be below the slip, and presumably next to or in the river. Similar signage from the Kaitoke side would have been useful, but we certainly did not see anything indicating that we should divert from the route over the slip.
The track follows the Tauherenikau River upstream on the true right over gentle undulations for the first few kilometres. Crossing a swing-bridge it continues on the other side of the river on a reasonably flat area, slowly gaining in altitude. We reached Tutuwai Hut (310m) shortly before lunch, and decided to walk a bit further before stopping for a quick lunch next to the river in the forest. For the most part, this part of the trail is in the forest and shaded. The stretch we walked after lunch is more open with smaller trees (Kanuka) and grassy patches.
The hook sedge (Carex uncinata, thanks for the ID, Ruth), however, was a real nuisance, as it grows everywhere and you cannot avoid walking through it. We did not bring gators (as we only have small running gators anyway) and this prickly bastard grass has a way of getting into everything. And it is not easy to pull out either. Lots of time was spent trying to get rid of hook sedge from leg hair (Gerry’s!), socks, shoes, pants, t-shirt, jacket and backpack.
One of the issues with the valleys route compared to the peaks route is that it is wetter, muddier and there’s heaps of stream crossings. One such stream had a cable to hold onto for balance should the water be too high, but none of the others had anything. If it was during the rainy season, or a rainy spell shortly before, some of these streams will be very dangerous and perhaps even impossible to cross. Luckily we went on a very dry and warm time of year so could manage to rock-hop without getting wet feet. A steep downhill section had a rope attached to a tree to hang onto which almost looked like someone who uses the trail often tied it in that spot to make life a bit easier for him/herself.
Apart from a few fallen trees to scramble over or under, the route is fairly easy going when dry, but a lot of boggy areas coupled with the heaps of stream crossings can quickly turn it into much more of a challenge I would imagine.
We reached Cone Hut (350m) at about 5:30pm, a distance of 17.5km as per Nina’s GPS watch. With the gorgeous warm, sunny and windless weather, I assumed the huts would be full, but when we passed Tutuwai Hut at 4pm there was no one there. When we arrived at Cone Hut (6-bunk), it was again not occupied, apart from Nina and Suzanne. We carried our tent in case the huts were full, so decided to pitch it at the beautiful campsite which was next to the river, about a five minute walk from the hut. We were keen to try out the MSR Mutha Hubba tent which we bought just before lockdown and have not had a chance to test yet.
Gerry fired up the camp stove to boil water for some cup-o-soup, and to soak our dried veges. Shortly before 8pm we had our meal of (rehydrated) instant dried potatoes, veges and tuna, finished off with tea and chocolate.
Neither of us slept well that night. Even though we tried to pitch the tent on the flattest area, there were still some bumps to negotiate during the night, but more so we were on a slight angle which made us slide to the one side of the tent. On top of that it was rather cold and was it not for the hot water in my water bottle which I had with me in the sleeping bag, it would have been too cold for me. Gerry sleeps warm, so he was okay, but also had to don his beanie and thin down jacket during the night, which says something.
To be honest I’m somewhat disappointed with the tent. Even though it is roomy and reasonably lightweight, the top third of the inside tent comprises of netting only (which seems to be the thing with most lightweight tents these days), and coupled with the flysheet that is about 15cm off of the ground, a fresh breeze keeps things cool all night long. Too fresh and too breezy for my liking. There were many times camping in Africa in sweltering heat where this tent would have been perfect. But for wet, cold and windy NZ weather, I do not think it is a good idea. At least not for me and my idea of a shelter in a mountain where changeable weather is imminent. Despite all the airflow, the fly was still wet from condensation in the morning. Perhaps because there was no wind. But I cannot imagine how cold it would have been if it was windy and/or rainy.
The next morning at 6am Gerry made coffee which we had with rusks, before packing up for the long day ahead. Back at the hut, we learned that Nina and Suzanne made for an early start, so we missed seeing them. Instead we got to meet Glen and Mary who are also part of the Wellington Big Sunday Run FB group. Finally we could put a couple of faces to names. A few others in the BSR FB group were busy doing the S-K valleys route and came past Cone Hut at about 11pm after their 3:30am start at Putara Road end. Two of them made the magical 24-hour club for the 70 km trail, and even though the third narrowly missed it, just completing it in one go is definitely no easy feat and one I would not mind to attempt one day. Perhaps not in 24 hours, but still in one push.
From the hut the trail heads uphill to a high point, dropping down in Cone Saddle followed by another climb over a second hill. A reasonably strong wind accompanied us all the way. The route markings were quite lacking on this section, resulting in us going off course a few times. Luckily it only takes a few minutes of exploring different routes that usually fizzles out in various directions before backtracking to find the route again. Cone Saddle is at 440m and the highest points are at about 570m. Not a major climb, but still enough to lose some sweat. At the junction on the downhill from Cone Saddle we chatted to two guys who had been camping in the Totara Flats valley, and were on their way out to the Waiohini carpark. Talking about the big slip up ahead for us, they suggested we take the route that follows the river underneath the slip, saying that the route over the slip is dangerous and we should not do it. I briefly remember that Nina and Suzanne also mentioned that there is a route below the slip which is safer. It would appear the route going over the slip is really only in case of life and death, when the river is in flood and you have to get out of the valley. Glad to not have to face another scary traverse where I can see myself falling off of the mountain, we instead followed the river in Totara Flats valley (180-200m).
The vast valley is a beautiful, grassy area next to the river and the perfect spot where one can spent days in a tent away from it all.
At Totara Flats Hut (200m), which like Tutuwai Hut was completely deserted, we topped up our water bottles (2.25 litre between the two of us) for the big climb ahead. On hindsight we should have taken more water. We were fine and did not really feel like we were running dry, but we did drink too little and were quite dehydrated by the time we reached the car.
The hill from Totara Flats back to Holdsworth is relentless. From 200m the trail goes up to 570m, down to 480m before the last big push up to 770m, which is the highest point on the trail. On the first hill there were some up and downs which made us think we had done both the climbs already. We stopped in the middle for lunch thinking we’re halfway up the mountain. Big was our surprise when we kept going up and up, later thinking we must have missed a sign and were on the wrong track. I turned on my phone to check our position on the Topo maps app, only to see that in fact we were still on the right track but still had some way to go to reach the top. At that point the camera battery (like my battery) also went flat.
When we finally reached the junction with Gentle Annie, it was already late afternoon. From there we still had 5.7km to go, according to the DOC sign, but if there’s one thing I know it is not to trust the DOC signs. It ended up being about 5km back to the carpark which we reached at 5:30pm, with a total day 2 distance (again as measured by Nina) of 23.5km.
I am arguably at a rather low fitness point in my life, but this is a tough little walk. This stretch of the S-K valleys route is normally tramped over three days, and by doing it in two days resulted in very long days. The event organisers anticipate the finishing times to vary between 4 and 10 hours. Having now walked the trail I’m definitely curious to see how participants will fare at this event, and if there will be many people struggling making the cut off. One thing I am sure of is that the conditions on race weekend will certainly play a significant part.
PS. WordPress changed their product settings and I didn’t realise you now have to add captions BEFORE inserting the album. I can therefore not explain some of the photos in more detail, like the giant rimus, its patterned bark, the huge trout we saw on day one, all the unusual signage along the way, old signage so high up in a tree that you can easily miss it, the big and the giant slips, all the stream crossings, the wire across one stream, the rope, the natural ladder formed by tree roots, what the pesky hook sedge plant looks like, and so on.
*And as things go in times of a pandemic, the race has since been cancelled for 2021.