Walk 5 - Hard yakka in the Tararuas

During a pleasant night in a hut near Taranaki, our tramping acquaintances, Glenys and Vicki, told us about their favourite tramping area - the Taranuas. This low mountain range north of Wellington has claims as the birthplace of tramping in New Zealand and has a fearsome reputation as a bad-weather magnet. Its narrow, steep and exposed ridges form a barrier to the roaring 40s air stream, leading to sudden weather changes, dense fogs and gale-force winds. Apocryphal stories abound of people wandering aimlessly on the zero visibility ridges or crawling along them to avoid being blown off. Even the walking guides warn trampers to be experienced and well-prepared before tramping in these mountains. We had the impression that anyone can do the Milford Track, but real trampers walk in the Tararuas. It was time to find out for ourselves.

Day 1: Holdsworth carpark to Powell Hut

We only arrived at the start of the walk in the Holdsworth Recreation Area of Tararua Forest Park by mid-afternoon due to unavoidable commitments in Wellington. The distance to our destination for the night, Powell Hut, was only 7.5 km, but 850m higher and an estimated 4 hours away. Distance is relatively meaningless for estimating trip times in this terrain and since, for the first time we were setting out in less than ideal weather, a hard push would be necessary to arrive before sunset.

We crossed the bridge over the wide Atiwhakatu Stream and set out up the well-formed Gentle Annie Track at a fairly fast pace under grey skies. Gentle by nature as well as by name, the track climbed steadily up through the mixed podocarp-broadleaf forest towards the cloud-shrouded crests of the Tararua Range. A loud shriek overhead alerted us to a small flock of kakas flying by - a rare sight to see this endangered species in the wild. Eventually we levelled out and soon reached the boardwalks crossing swampy Pig Flat, before a short descent brought us to the Mountain Hut Shelter - a good spot for a scroggin-break and protection from the light drizzle that had developed. We were making good time, but the hard part was about to begin - a 580m climb up a tree-covered spur to Powell Hut in less than 2km.

Atiwhakatu Stream

The Gentle Annie Track

Silhouettes in a misty forest
The character of the forest changed as we gained altitude - the trees became more stunted and mosses, ferns and lichens increasingly covered their trunks and the ground beneath - we were entering the "goblin" forest zone. The drizzle stopped and for a brief moment, the sky seemed clear, but soon we found ourselves climbing up into the mists that shrouded the mountain tops. Goblin forest in a deep mist is a very eerie place. After several "false" crests, where the anticipated hut did not appear, we finally saw a very welcome Powell Hut perched on its narrow ledge on the Mount Holdsworth spur - it had taken us 3h 20m to reach.

Track climbing into the mist

The welcome sight of Powell Hut

Five other trampers were warming themselves by the gas heater when we arrived and two more arrived soon after us. It would be a night of pleasant company in the warmth of the hut as an icy wind swirled the mist about outside - definitely a 3 dog night! Luckily we had three dogs. New Zealanders often tramp with their canine companions and three of them were huddled patiently out on the freezing deck. Compassion ruled and we invited them in.

Can you spot the goblins in the goblin forest?

Day 2: The ridge crossing - Powell Hut to Jumbo Hut

The forecast had promised a clearer day and the red glow through the foggy window pane, as the sun rose in the eastern sky, added credance to it. Below the hut, morning shadows reached out across the wide expanse of the Wairarapa Plain and far to the east, the sun glinted off the Pacific Ocean. It looked good, but a stiff wind was still blowing and those with local knowledge advised an early start to our day; a climb up to Mt Holdsworth followed by a crossing of the exposed tussock-covered ridge to Jumbo mountain and a descent to Jumbo Hut on its leeward spur. How strong the wind would be on top and how much we would see remained an unknown. The Tararuas hide what they hide and, in our clear and sunny sheltered spot, it was not obvious that the mists of the Tararuas were already hiding the mountain tops.

Sunrise at Powell Hut

Early morning at Powell Hut overlooking the lower ranges and the Wairarapa Plain

Climbing Holdsworth Spur

We climbed steadily up from the hut along the tussock covered spur, the waving grass golden in the morning sun, the wind whipping around us. The fair Nello's visor soon made an unexpected journey far into the steep valley beneath us and I tightened the strap on my hat. While the skies above the plain were open and sunny, a dense band of low cloud hung about the ranges above us. Just how low became increasingly obvious as we climbed up into a zone of mist. I was glad that I had entered waypoints for the route on my GPS, though the well-worn track was fairly obvious and easy to follow.

At first the sky was clear ...

... but soom a mist began to appear ..

... until the fair Nello disappeared into the fog
just below Mt Holdsworth

On Mt Holdsworth

Part of the sweeping views from Mt Holdsworth

Alpine plant community
Out of the mist a trig appeared, heralding our arrival at the peak of Mt Holdsworth, famous for its sweeping views - we saw nothing! However, to experience a Tararua fog was a bonus in itself and, as we descended to the razorback ridge connecting the two mountains, the wind seemed to strengthen and the mist cleared, first exposing the steep tussock-covered slopes below us on either side, then revealing the ridge itself, with its marvellous communities of alpine herbs and cushion plants, and finally lifting high enough to see the outlines of Jumbo and the crests of spurs, saddles and mountain tops. Our path undulated over knolls and saddles, passing several beautiful little tarns in their ridge-top hollows.

Looking back to the razorback ridge

Tarns of the Tararuas

Finding a bit of shelter on the leeward side of a narrow rocky knoll, we sat down for a drink and bite to eat and appreciated the extremes of the weather here. Five metres away, with the wind whistling over the ridge, it was 6ºC - here in our sheltered spot we watched reflections of the racing clouds in the peaceful waters of a tarn in a sun-soaked 14ºC, while two harriers overhead treated us to a superb display of their mastery of the blustery currents of air.

On the ridge from Holdsworth to Jumbo

Tararua landscape

An unexpected visitor to Jumbo Hut

One last climb up the western side of Jumbo and a descent down the narrow and rocky leeward spur soon found us out of the wind and at Jumbo Hut, 4 hours after leaving and in time for an early lunch. Our companions of the previous evening had decided to push on to the end of the track, but we opted for a lazy afternoon, taking in the mountain landscape and enjoying the sweeping views over Masterton and the Wairarapa Plain. Our serenity was disturbed by the distant but growing sound of a helicopter - "'if I hear The Ride of the Valkyries I'm out of here" I thought, but it was only the flying gas man, landing to change the gas bottles at the hut - an interesting and welcome distraction.

View from the verandah of Jumbo Hut

Tararua sunset

That night we were joined by Katka from Slovakia - she had been tramping in New Zealand for several months and, in the warmth of a coal stove, shared some of her many experiences with us often walking alone and carrying all her possessions in her pack. I thought of all our extra clothes and gear back in the car - and we have been calling ourselves nomads! Well done, Katka.

Day 3: Down, down and more down

That night the wind whistled and shook the walls of Jumbo hut - we understood and appreciated the steel cables anchoring it to the ground. However, another glorious sunrise greeted us and we were soon packed and ready to leave. Farewelling Katka, who was heading up to the ridge for an even more windy Tararua experience than we'd had, we quickly crossed the remaining tussock flat to the edge of forest and its gnarled and wind-sheared trees. Entering the shelter of forest, we lengthened our walking poles by a good 15 cm and commenced the 700m descent down the Dali staircase of weirdly warped root and rock runners, otherwise known as Raingauge Spur. This is what our knees had always feared, though I am convinced that the jar-cushioning effect of the walking poles greatly reduced the stress on them. After 90 minutes, we reached the bottom and a pleasant rest on the steps of quaint little Atiwhakatu Hut on the banks of the fast-flowing Atiwhakatu Stream.

Early morning at Jumbo Hut


Forest landscapes on the descent from Jumbo


Atiwhakatu Hut

The final section of the circuit was a relatively flat walk along the stream on a well-graded track, crossing a range of wooden and metal solid- and swing-bridges over the numerous sidestreams that flowed down off the mountains. Sometimes the track followed the stream's edge, sometimes it climbed high up the steep valley and past cliff edges overlooking the stream. Wandering along in my goretex lined boots, breathable fabric clothing, and weight-spreading high-tech backpack, I reflected on the trampers who first came to this area in the early 19th century. No bridges or clearly marked paths for them,as they struggled over streams and up hills in leather hob-nailed boots, woollen shirts and trousers and heavy canvas sacks hanging from their shoulders. This had been a relatively hard walk for us, but hard is certainly a very relative term.

Several Atiwhakatu Streamscapes

Finally, a sunny clearing in the forest announced the imminent end of our trek - we soon rejoined the outward track and retraced our path across the bridge over the Atiwhakatu and back to the car. It had been a hard couple of days walking, but we had been lucky enough to experience many of the different facets of the Tararuas - fog, wind, steep climbs and descents and wonderful views. Its reputation as a great tramping region is well-deserved.

One of the many bridges on the track

New Zealand tomtits

At last a forest clearing