Te Araroa Part 10: the Tararua zigzag
At some point in time, the Te Araroa trust must have decided that spending nearly a week dozing on a canoe would make hikers lazy and complacent and in need of a rude awakening. So they planned the stretch from Whanganui to Palmerston North: a good 100 km slog on roads, including a day on State Highway 3. Nice try, TA trust, but we are too smart for you! We hitchhiked. The trailnotes did not inspire any confidence whatsoever that we would have a good time on this stretch, and I did not want to destroy my feet on the roads (the ankle still twinges a bit every now and then).
First, we supplemented the leftovers from the snack barrels with some new supplies from the Pak ‘n Save in Whanganui. We had a lot of leftovers, so our resupply was mostly candy plus of course another Christmas cake (they are on sale in January). The checkout lady felt she needed to give us some advice about it our food intake: “If you are going hiking, I recommend high protein nuts rather than all those lollies” How about you mind your own business? After stuffing the candy and Christmas cake into our backpacks (where they just fit due to the presence of many kg of high protein nuts), we stuck out our thumbs and were immediately picked up by two guys who were going to Palmerston North (aka Palmy) to get new paddles for their Whanganui canoe business. They were slightly disappointed that we had hired our canoes from another company but gave us a ride nonetheless. We whizzed by Valeria and Courtney, who were hiking on the shoulder of State Highway 3. It was a fairly broad shoulder but I would not have been comfortable hiking on that road.
Palmy is generally considered to be a dull and uninspiring city. John Cleese once said that if you were considering suicide but hadn’t quite got enough nerve to follow through, a visit to Palmy would surely push you over the edge. In response, Palmy city council decided to name their rubbish dump after John Cleese. Perhaps because we had extremely low expectations, we were pleasantly surprised by Palmy. It has trees. It has good food. Best of all, it has a mountain hut. Yes, there is an actual mountain hut right in suburban Palmy. Anthony and Fiona hiked the TA a while ago and wanted to do something cool, so Fiona built a hut in their garden: the Whiowhio hut. TA hikers can stay here for a small donation (and all the money goes towards conservation projects to protect the blue duck, the whio). It’s an absolutely awesome hut! There are even orange trailmarkers showing the way down their street! Helen and Malcolm had caught the bus to Palmy and were staying at the Whiowhio hut too. Late in the afternoon, Adrien and Emeric turned up. They had walked the roads from Whanganui, and looked half dead. I was very glad that we had hitched ahead. If these two were knackered after the roadwalk, then we would have been destroyed (it was crazy hot, too).
We had a really nice evening with Anthony and Fiona at an Indian restaurant and they gave us lots of advice for the next part of the hike: the Tararuas. Most importantly, they told us to bring enough food because if the weather was bad we might have to wait a day or two in a hut. We had counted on seven days of food from Palmy, which was what Anthony recommended. However, we hadn’t really spent a lot of time actually counting how much we ate every day so we probably had food for eight or even nine days. The packs were the heaviest they had been on the entire trip. We still set a good pace out of Palmy. A woman on her morning stroll had to run to catch up with us: she said she set herself the challenge of catching up with the hikers that came through. Jasper was particularly challenging because of his long legs. I have trouble keeping up with him sometimes! We also met a small kid on a bike. None of the kids we’ve met so far in NZ have been shy. This kid rolled right up to us and stared curiously at our massive backpacks.
“What are you doing?”
“We’re going hiking!”
“Oh.” (Brief pause) “I’m getting ice cream.”
Not a bad idea, kid. It was still unbearably hot and the heat wafting up at us from the asphalt threatened to cook us alive. There was a fair bit of roadwalking left to get out of Palmy and into the Tararuas, and both of us were wearing new shoes. We had started our TA with Altra Lone Peak 4 trailrunners, but they were falling apart so over the Christmas period we had picked up our spare shoes in Hamilton. I had a pair of Altra Lone Peak 3.5, the older model (it was on sale and I couldn’t find the 4), and Jasper had Salomon X Ultra 3 of which he had bought about a gazillion pairs before we left the Netherlands. Our feet were still getting used to the new shoes, and combined with the asphalt, the heat and the heavy packs, it made for a slightly uncomfortable day. We are two doctors, and I’m pleased to say we have managed to scrape together some gleanings of medical knowledge so that we can now say with some confidence that the bit of foot that hurts me most is my plantar fascia which is a tendon or muscle or something like that. The hiker’s cure for this is to roll a small ball under your foot every morning, lunchbreak and evening. I’ve been carrying one since Kerikeri. It’s called the Magic Ball and it’s the most important thing in my pack apart from Philip. The Magic Ball saw a fair bit of use in the days after Palmy.
As the day wore on, the asphalt roads became narrower and then turned into gravel roads. We passed a sign that congratulated us on being halfway even though we weren’t (1480ish km down, out of 3000). After a steep climb through a mountain bike area, we reached a small campsite at a place called Toko Corner. Anthony had advised us to continue further, if we could, to make the next day to Makahika shorter. However, it was nearly seven o’clock and we were exhausted so we decided to stop. We knew the Tararuas we going to be tough, but we had not expected the approach to the Tararuas to be so hard. Both Emeric and Adrien continued walking, while Malcolm and Helen were somewhere behind us as they were planning to take three days rather than two to Makahika. So we had the campsite to ourselves.
Knowing it would be a long day, we got up early the next morning. We were walking before seven and a good thing, too, because it took us around fourteen hours to reach Makahika. There’s not a lot to say about that day, except that it was hot and the path was rough and muddy. We hiked Burtton’s track in the morning, and the Makahika track in the afternoon. The sign before the second track said the trail was mostly well-graded and -maintained. In Guthook, people had commented that it took them 4 hours including breaks rather than the 6 hours it said in the trailnotes. I think both the sign and the comments must be old because it was mostly rough and muddy. The last part involved about 50 crossings of the same stream. And when we finally got out of the bush, there were cows. And then there was a road. It was getting dark when we reached Makahika. This is an outdoor centre where school groups come and do outdoorsy stuff. TA walkers can pitch there tents there and use the outdoor kitchen (also: hot showers, woohoo!). Thanks, John and Sally! We got a slight ego boost when we heard that Adrien and Emeric had only reached Makahika an hour or two before us, despite having had a shorter day.
John and Sally are extremely knowledgable about the Tararuas. This mountain region is notorious for its rapidly deteriorating weather, perhaps even more so than other mountain areas because it lies right in the path of all the strong westerly winds that dominate NZ weather. Many Kiwis had warned us about the Tararuas. Basically, if we would die on the TA, it would be of hypothermia here in the Tararuas. In the morning, John brought the latest weather forecast. It did not look good. Wind and heavy rain for two days. The TA through the Tararuas typically takes three days and stays under the treeline for the first day, and parts of the other two. John reckoned it would be doable, although it all depended on how many times we wanted to be blown off our feet (preferably, none), and warned us that there would be no views because we would be walking in a noisy cloud. Adrien and Emeric set off, but we decided to take a zero day in Makahika. That way, we would have bad weather on the day we were in the bush, and good weather for two days when we were up on the ridges. This was especially important for us because we didn’t want to do the Te Araroa route. It looked a bit boring on the map, because it basically skirted the western edge of the Tararuas and didn’t go over the main ridges further inland. So we had cooked up a slightly ambitious plan. We wanted to do the Northern Crossing (3 days) to the eastern side, and then the Southern Crossing (2-3 days) to get us back on the western side on the TA. Both are classic tramps and because they go through one of the oldest tramping areas of NZ, we were very keen to do them (and curious to see how they compared to classic hikes in the Alps). The Northern Crossing in particular is considered to be challenging. It’s unmarked, so if you end up in a noisy cloud it might be tricky to find your way. John got some maps for us and we had a good chat about our route. In the afternoon, Helen and Malcolm showed up but they were not heading into the Tararuas. They had had a rough time on the Makahika track with all the river crossings and wanted some time in Levin. A few other hikers showed up, including Cosimo who we’d met after the Timber Trail. Then there were three cheerful Americans (Andrew, Troy and Sydney) and a British guy named Patrick. We would hike the first day together, and then on the second we would go onto one ridge and they onto another.
We were the first to leave in the morning, and as we trudged down the gravel road to the trailhead in the rain I wondered how the Tararuas would be. I must confess, after a few hours on the trail I was feeling a bit underwhelmed. This classic NZ tramping ground reminded me of the walks we used to go on at my Norwegian primary school. There were some differences but they were minor:
1) My raingear is a lot fancier now.
2) We got wet feet from mud rather than bog.
3) The walk went on for a bit longer.
4) Our packs were heavier.
5) It was a lot warmer.
6) We did not have to draw the view during our lunchbreak, or identify different species of trees or collect beetles.
7) We did not eat any Kvikk Lunsj.
Other than this, it was like being ten years old again and trudging through a cold, rainy day in September in Norway. The resemblance to a Norwegian primary school trip lessened somewhat as we got closer to the treeline. There were gnarly, stunted trees covered in moss. Unfortunately, the quantity of mud increased too. We were glad to reach the first hut, Te Matawai, where we could have a very basic wash. The mountain huts have rainwater tanks and these were quite small so we didn’t want to waste too much water. It was definitely not the nicest NZ hut. Many of the mattresses were mouldy and there were signs of mice. It was also quite a big hut to rattle around in with only seven people. After dinner, we all decided to hang our foodbags from hooks in the ceiling. None of us knew how structurally sound this ceiling was, and we were a bit worried it would come crashing down and turn out to be covered with mice or rats, like in the movie Ratatouille. Luckily, the ceiling held. Cosimo decided he might as well use his own sleeping mat, and we followed suit. The other four selected the best mattresses and made plans to sleep in the main room rather than the bunkroom because they wanted to leave early and catch the sunrise from the ridge. They got up at four, poked their heads outside, saw it was cloudy, and went back to sleep. Although I don’t think any of us got a very good sleep that night. I was kept awake by gnawing and scratching sounds.
To my great relief, none of the gnawing and scratching creatures managed to reach our foodbags so the next morning we had our usual breakfast of oat porridge with M&M’s. On a side note, I really miss my old colleague Ru-Pan’s stash of M&M’s. I love eating the little chocolatey buggers but it’s not nearly as much fun when you have to carry them. The packs were still fairly heavy when we set off, with the Americans not far behind. It was still very cloudy and foggy, so we stayed nice and cool for the morning’s climb.
As we reached the crest of the ridge, the sun broke through and we got our first real look of the Tararua ridges. Absolutely stunning. The TA veered sharply south here, going downhill along a ridge that soon became forested again. We were going onto a ridge further east, which was above the treeline. Troy was a bit jealous when he reached our viewpoint because he reckoned our ridge looked waaay cooler than theirs. We cheerfully agreed and said goodbye to them, before heading off onto “our” ridge with smug grins on our face. There were still lots of lowhanging clouds racing around which made navigation a bit tricky, as the Northern Crossing is unmarked. There were some remains of marker poles but that was it. In most places, the trail is very obvious but here and there it was badly overgrown with tussocks and we had to watch where we were going. It took us about half an hour to realise there was something very odd about this trail. There was no mud. Instead, it was rocky. This probably has something to do with the fact that we were up on the ridges, above the treeline. But I think it definitely helped that we were off the TA (“the brown highway” as John called it). We quickly made it to the tiny 2 bunk Arete hut, where we stopped to dry out our tent and chat with a Kiwi guy who was spending a week in the Tararuas to photograph alpine plants. Then we continued towards Tarn Ridge across the Waiohine Pinnacles. The climb was easy, and we had a long lunch break on the top before tackling the steepish descent. This involved a bit of scrambling and using hands rather than trekking poles, but it was never really difficult. Not a patch on that ghastly ridge above Briancon on the GR5c. That thing still gives me nightmares whereas this was a fun little scramble. With the reputation that the Tararuas have, and the Northern Crossing as well, I had been preparing myself for something extremely challenging but this path was really, really good. If you added trailmarkers and a few steel cables here and there, you could plonk it down in Austria and it could just as well be a section on the Adlerweg. Probably rated black, but not the most difficult section by far. Actually you don’t need steel cables in the Tararuas because you can just hold on to the tussocks. They are surprisingly strong. You wouldn’t want to do the Northern Crossing in bad weather though: strong winds would make that scrambling dangerous and in the fog you might lose the path. But that applies equally to, say, the Birkkarspitze. We tramped happily on across Tarn Ridge until we reached Tarn Ridge hut in late afternoon. This is probably the nicest hut we’ve seen so far in NZ. Big but not too big, glorious views, modern enough to be comfy and with no sign of mice. We were the only ones there. As the evening wore on, I kept expecting people to show up. After all, this was one of the main huts on the Northern Crossing, one of the classic tramps in this classic tramping area. But no one came. We had the hut to ourselves. The hutbook, too, was surprisingly empty, with only a handful of people staying here each month. What a shame. Still, it meant we could take our pick of the fourteen mattresses. After half hour, I decided I wanted my own mat because I was a bit cold. We have quilts rather than sleeping bags, so an insulated mat is no unnecessary luxury. DOC mattresses are not really up to the task.
The weather forecast for the next day promised sunshine, with gale force winds in the evening, so we knew it was time to get off the ridges. The forecast had neglected to mention the morning cloud and reasonably strong winds that were already present in the morning. We set off wearing raincoats against the wind and I soon got extremely hot climbing. We could not see very far but the trail was obvious and anyway, all we had to do was follow the ridge. The clouds disappeared as we approached Mitre, the highest peak in the Tararuas so we did get some amazing views. We then plunged down again into the forest, and saw the trees around us increase in size and shed their layers of moss as we descended rapidly. There still wasn’t any mud. We met one German guy about halfway down the hill, he was on his way to Tarn Ridge, but otherwise the forest was empty. Only after Mitre Flats hut did we start really meeting people (about six in total, which seemed a crowd after the emptiness of the last two days). They were going to Mitre Flats hut for a weekend trip. The track from Mitre Flats to the carpark at the trailhead was surprisingly rough given its popularity, but we made good time and then faced the challenge of getting from the carpark to civilisation. It was a couple of hours walking to Masterton, so we tried to hitchhike. The trouble with hitchhiking is that you need a car to pass you and the carpark was nearly deserted. Jasper had a chat with some guys who were swimming in the river to see if they could give us a ride. They would have liked to, but there were four of them in a tiny car so we wouldn’t fit. As a consolation, they offered him a “cone” which we learned was Kiwi slang for a joint (Courtney hadn’t told us that one!). We decided to start walking in the hope that a car would show up, and within half an hour one did! This was a big car so we fitted easily, and were dropped off outside what we were assured was the best place for burgers in Masterton. We had burgers and beer to celebrate our successful Northern Crossing, then headed to the holiday park for a well-deserved rest in a cabin.
Before tackling the Southern Crossing, we decided to have a rest day in Masterton. This was not only because we wanted a rest, but we had to wait for a good weather window. One way to minimise the risk of dying of hypothermia in the Tararuas is to not go up on the ridges if you know the weather is going to be awful. This is also known as common sense. Masterton is in the Wairarapa area, which is famous for its vineyards. We’d been here briefly about five years ago and thought we’d gone winetasting in Masterton. Turns out, all the winetasting is in Martinborough whereas Masterton is ogling Te Kuiti’s “Sheep shearing capital of the world” title. They have world championships in shearing, and I really want to go but unfortunately we’ll probably be halfway across the South Island at that time. So we decided to go winetasting instead, which meant catching the bus to Martinborough. The people at the iSite assured us there was a regular bus service which in NZ means five buses a day or so. The next one was soon, so we decided to do our bit to support local public transport. This turned out to be a mistake. About halfway there, the bus stopped at the Featherston train station and then just stood there. We were apparently waiting for a train from Wellington, but the train was delayed and our bus was supposed to connect. Good service for those on the train, but not so nice for us. Half an hour later, the train finally showed up and nobody got onto the bloody bus. We had waited for nothing. Come on, NZ! It’s not hard! This is what you do: the conductor on the train asks who needs the connecting bus in Featherston. If someone needs it, then contact the bus driver to let them know the bus should wait. If no one needs it, contact the bus driver to let them know they don’t have to wait but can be on their merry way. The bus and train are run by the same company, so this should be possible in the 21st century. Anyway, with this stupid unnecessary delay we finally reached Martinborough and had some delicious Pinot Noir. We would have loved to buy a bottle or two (or ten) but wine bottles are a bit heavy. We have hiked with a wine bottle before, but that was on a three day hike in Australia that did not require a lot of warm clothing. So, wineless but cheerful, we headed back to Masterton. Unfortunately, a regular bus service in NZ means the last bus leaves at 3 pm so we decided to hitchhike back. We got a ride to Featherston in about two minutes, and from there it took about five minutes before someone stopped who would take us all the way to Masterton (and dropped us of at the supermarket).
It looked as though the weather in the Tararuas would be reasonable for the next two or three days, so we decided to start on the Southern Crossing. This involved some more hitchhiking, either to the official start at Kaitoke Gorge at the southern end of the Tararuas, or to Waiohine Gorge more to the east. We stuck out our thumbs but for the first fifteen minutes or so we had no luck. Then I decided to get Philip out and let him do the hitching. Sure enough, people stopped for his flipper. The guy who picked us up was on his way to Wellington but instead of dropping us at the junction to Waiohine, he took us all the way to the trailhead because “you shouldn’t waste any good weather in the Tararuas”. What a legend!
From Waiohine Gorge we hiked to Cone hut, then crossed a river (manageable, despite the recent rainfall), and climbed up to Bull Mound. Soon after, we joined the official Southern Crossing and continued on to the dramatically named Hell’s Gate, which turned out to be nothing more than a nicely forested saddle. It wasn’t far to Alpha hut, the first hut on the Southern Crossing. Once again, it was a nice hut that we had completely to ourselves. The hutbook showed that it was slightly more popular than Tarn Ridge hut, but not by a big margin. If you hiked the Southern Crossing, you might be alone or at the very most find four or five others in this hut. We got an early night and got up early, even though we had only planned a four or five hour day, to the next hut: Kime. But it would be almost an entire day in the ridges, and we were hoping for long snackbreaks with extensive views.
The weather had other plans. It was drizzling at Alpha, so we put on our raingear and headed out. Once we got above the treeline, the drizzle turned into horizontal rain with visibility only until the next marker pole. We kept going because despite the wind and the rain we were more than warm enough. The path was mostly good and well-marked. Unfortunately in some places it was badly overgrown and had clearly been hollowed out by a stream. Our feet were slipping a bit on the mud while we were up to our hips in tussock. The ridge went on, going up and down but never really becoming very steep or dangerously narrow, and the wind was not strong enough to blow us off our feet. It was not a place for snackbreaks though, so we kept going. With such low visibility, we had no idea we had passed over the Beehives, two rocky summits on the ridge that are some of the most challenging of the entire Southern Crossing. We just kept going until we collided with Kime hut, where we had a welcome lunchbreak out of the wind. Kime is one of the colder huts in the Tararuas because there is no woodstove. This is because it’s above the treeline so there isn’t any wood. Her we finally met some others. About eight hikers, in groups of two and three, had hiked up to Kime from the western side, hoping for some nice views and a chance to climb some summits. Most turned back because of the weather. With zero views and a fridge for a hut, we decided to push on rather than spend the night here. It was three hours to Field hut, situated below the treeline, and another two or three to Otaki Forks where there was a hut and campsite, and most importantly: the TA. As we descended from Kime, the sun suddenly came out and burned the clouds away. But only at lower altitude. The ridges were still covered in swirling clouds. We took off all the raingear and continued in shorts. The path was surprisingly fancy. There was boardwalk, and from Field hut, it became an easy tramping track. That means broad (two can walk beside each other!), flat (no treeroots) and gravelled (no mud). We whizzed down and headed of to Parawai lodge, the hut at Otaki Forks. What we thought would be a quiet evening turned into a sort of TA reunion party. Courtney was there, as were Iben, Laine, Ralph, Valeria and Rock Steady (we still have no idea what his real name is). Their Tararua section had turned into a bit of an adventure. A storm forced them to wait an entire day in a hut; 13 of them, and the hut had 6 bunks. We counted days and realised that this was the day we were in Martinborough having wine. We congratulated each other on our impeccable planning, had a nice swim in the river, and then shared our Whittaker’s hokey pokey chocolate with everyone. Because we had counted on a three day crossing and it took us only two, we had some snacks left. Ok, more than “some”. We really need to plan our resupplying better because there is no way we can carry what we think is 11 days worth of food in the Richmond ranges on the South Island. It’ll probably end up being food for twenty days. Although, that means we could sell couscous at outrageous prices to hungry ultralight hikers who were banking on not having to wait out any weather. Hm...