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A great Tararua adventure

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May 2023 Issue

It started with a question and ended in a 41-day thru-hike of the Tararua Range, visiting every hut and bivouac.

By Anna Watson

We were lounging around one evening when James spoke up: “What if we bagged every hut in the Tararua – in a single trip?”

Tararua Forest Park is wonderfully underrated. It has huts sprinkled over its forested valleys and windy ridges. Its mountains are steep, the ridges jagged with pinnacles. Trailhead signs warn of pea-soup clag and spiteful winds. On a good day, the park’s rivers offer emerald-green swimming holes. From the tops, it’s possible to see the Kaikoura Ranges and Mounts Taranaki and Ruapehu.

My husband James and I live in Upper Hutt. We’ve been into the Tararua a bit, enough to get struck by dehydration on Marchant Ridge and battered on the notorious steel ladder near Maungahuka Hut. We have a dog, Boo. He’s orange and white with a delightful nature and he loves tramping with us. He’ll even carry his own doggy backpack. Due to its classification as a forest park and its lack of kiwi, Tararua is Boo-friendly.

The exact number of huts in the park is debatable, as the forest hides a few unofficial ones in quiet corners. We decided to aim for the 49 huts and bivs named on the Topo50 series of maps plus Winchcombe Biv which was built after the maps were last updated. It would have been easier to arrange pick-ups and have the occasional night out of the park, but we wanted to get to every hut under our own steam with no vehicle transfers. We planned to stay within the boundaries of the park until we’d bagged all 50 huts back-to-back.

A route was mapped in week-long blocks, veering to the park’s edges each Saturday so we could meet friends for refills on food and morale. Late into the night before our departure, we weighed our packs: 26kg for me, 28kg for James and 2kg for Boo.

Anna takes the final strides up Pinnacle Spur, one of the toughest climbs of the trip. Photo: James McKibbin

A tough start

After all the build-up, it was with relief and a wash of excitement to set off. It took two hours to the top of the Tokomaru forestry block where we collapsed under the weight of the packs. We’d never tramped for longer than seven days at a time; our estimated route was 50 days. It was ambitious.

The next day we set out for North Mangahao Biv. It sits all alone on the northern edge of the park. There’s no track to the biv and the last 500m is a wall of thick scrub. We were ripped by bush lawyer and ended by crawling undignified on hands and knees, pushing packs through the thickets to one another. When we eventually popped out into the open again and spotted the biv, I hugged it in glee.

By Day Four, we’d bagged two huts and Boo was power napping during snack breaks. It was a sunny day, the clouds were racing across the sky, and we were on an unmarked ridge heading towards Herepai Hut and soon climbing high enough to feel the full force of the wind.

The wind came in explosive gusts. We were repeatedly knocked off our feet, falling sideways to be cushioned by the tussock on either side of the pseudo-trail. We were forced to plan advances in 20m intervals, which was slow but comforting. Sometimes the ridge narrowed to the width of a footprint and we’d waste minutes bashing around the scrub lower down, trying to find a less exposed route.

It took 11 hours, but eventually we spied the bright red roof of Herepai Hut. With the relief of being so close came a realisation of how hungry we were. We hunkered down above the hut and polished off a box of crackers with hunks of crumbly cheese. Later, as we flopped onto the bunks we consoled ourselves with a somewhat grim thought: at least we weren’t getting any false ideas that this trip would be easy.

Tackling the Pinnacles 

By the second week, we were feeling stronger under the weight of our packs. The ranges responded accordingly with a new challenge: pinnacles. Some pinnacles are friendly knolls, others are jumbles of jagged rock with steep drop-offs on either side. The map can be deceptive, not quite giving away a true sense of exposure.

So we didn’t appreciate what we were in for when setting off from Arete Forks Hut to climb a section of ridgeline called Pinnacle Spur. It was a steady grind straight up from the valley floor to the tussocky tops. We emerged from the forest sweaty and panting. Route markers had stopped at the bushline but the ridgeline was easy to follow.

Below, Arete Stream glinted on the valley floor. Ahead was a series of ever-higher pinnacles. The closest barely registered on the map. It was here that James abruptly stopped, not sure how to haul himself over the lumpy rock. I enjoy the challenge of high scrambles so I took over, grabbing handfuls of tussock and willing my muscles to defy gravity. At the flattish top of the pinnacle, I dumped my pack and returned for James’. In those moments we developed a good system: quiet, calm commentary, pointing out foot and hand holds, unhurried and moving together.

I like heights, but I noticed  Boo, while a champion tramping pal, is no goat. Several times on this section we had to lift him over the rock. And, he’d skid down a rock ledge as though heading for the valley floor. At other times he’d stare in disbelief that I was coaxing him down such a steep drop.

Happily, with low winds and clear skies, we chipped away until we reached the spur’s high point, where we treated ourselves to a brew and a packet of waffles. Boo plopped in the tussock for a power nap and some dog treats.

James navigating the rocky tops on the descent to Triangle Spur. Photo: Anna Watson

Testing our endurance

By the middle of the third week, we’d bagged 22 huts. The crux of that week was an up-and-down march that looked longer than our estimated eight hours. The starting point was Maungahuka Hut, perched on the Tararua’s Main Range. We planned to drop almost 1000m into the valley to Neill Forks Hut, then climb straight back up the other side to Cone Peak to follow a long ridgeline to Kime Hut, ticking off several peaks along the way.

I felt slightly uneasy. Heavy rain was forecast for the early evening – just when we’d be approaching the unmarked ridges of Winchcombe Peak and Mt Hector.

It took us seven hours to reach Cone Peak and it was bucketing down. A DOC sign pointed towards Hector Peak, grimly proclaiming it to be nine hours away. The initial rush of excitement at being above the bushline again was quickly squashed.

We trudged on and by 5pm had reached our self-appointed check-in point: the end of the route markers at the bottom of Winchcombe Peak. We had 1.5l of water left, not enough for three when the dull ache of dehydration had already set in. It had stopped raining, but the skies were heavy. There was about three hours of daylight left. We reckoned it would take at least that, if not a couple of hours more, to reach Kime Hut. I was stumbling on the rocky terrain. I knew pinnacles awaited, perhaps accompanied by knife-edge ridges.

I feared I wouldn’t have the strength to haul myself over the trickiest part of the day. James was worried we would get badly   dehydrated if we stopped now. A tough (and at times circular) discussion ensued. Should we push on to Kime Hut or should we camp for the night?

In the end, we camped just below the bushline in the middle of the track. We ate a pitiful dinner of cabin bread and cheese, not wanting to use our water on a dehy meal. The rain came down in earnest an hour later. I was flooded with relief that we’d camped. Still, we were both haunted by dreams of deserts and woke up dry-mouthed and thirsty.

Breakfast was a sorry affair; one measly protein bar each. We set off in silence, making about 300m before James stopped. A sign pointed to the left. Snug on the bushline sat Winchcombe Biv, bright orange and welcoming. It’d been built in 2021 and wasn’t yet marked on the topo map. We’d camped in the miserable rain for nothing. Frustration quickly gave way to gratitude as we settled down for gulps of water and a hot meal. Much later, I read about two trampers who had died of exposure after underestimating that very section we’d decided to leave until morning.

Raining cats and dogs 

Rain-wise, Tararua let us off the hook for the first five weeks. By then, we’d bagged 34 huts. We’d been soaked plenty of times, but never in river valleys where a nasty flood might be just around the corner.

On day 29, our luck ran out. We’d spent a delightful evening with two friends at Waitewaewae Hut and then headed up the Ōtaki River to Mid-Ōtaki Hut. On the topo, travel looked fine. The reality was quite different. It rained all day, lifting river levels. We couldn’t cross the river and were forced up the valley’s slippery sides.

Near the end of an eight-hour day, we reached Kelleher Creek, by now a telltale brown. Boo isn’t good with rivers. He tries to cling to rocks jutting from the water, then lunges ahead, causing whoever is with him to lose their balance. James and I interlinked arms, I grabbed Boo by the scruff of his neck, and we made our way across.

By the time we reached Mid-Ōtaki Hut, we’d been soaked to the skin for hours. The hut’s ‘shelter from the storm’ produced such a feeling of relief. We hung our gear on the veranda, accepting we’d be wriggling into wet clothes next morning. This was our most gruelling day yet and we popped open a tube of Pringles in celebration. Boo flopped onto his mat and didn’t move for 12 hours.

The thought of struggling back down the river next day didn’t appeal and I wracked my brains for an alternative. Luckily, I had notes of a bush bash to the next hut along the seldom-used Oriwa Ridge. This redeemed me from failing earlier to register the location of Winchcombe Biv.

A sunny lunch break at McGregor Biv, the 43rd hut bagged. Photo: James McKibbin

Days to the end

The next week whizzed by. Tramping became a way of life. Food drops were still a highlight; my sister and her whānau greeted us with hot chicken buns that were snaffled in minutes.

It was day 40. Suddenly the end was in sight. We had just four huts to go.

We’d been pleasantly surprised by a well-trodden route to the supposedly remote Mid King Biv. The hut book was sodden but the biv was cosy and we had an afternoon nap. By 5pm I poked my head outside. The rain and wind had ceased, revealing a beautiful evening. We packed up and pushed through the leatherwood to the tops. We reached Tarn Ridge Hut at dusk. Thirty minutes later, the hut had been swallowed by clag.

The clag left us a farewell present, sticking around the next day. Boo wore his rain jacket; it was one of the coldest days we’d experienced. The night before, we’d paused during the dusky sunset to name all the peaks in view, tracing ridges and valleys we’d travelled days and weeks ago. Now, we could barely see 10m ahead. Not for the first time, we started down a spur only to check our topo app and realise we were being lured the wrong way.

Finally, after a 10 hour day we reached Holdsworth Lodge, our 50th and final hut. We’d covered around 450km, and about 27km in elevation. When we started out, bagging 50 huts in one continuous trip seemed a tremendous task, perhaps an impossible one. But, we did it.

It felt odd, taking a selfie of our last hut. But we were hugely proud of ourselves. We’d tackled the Tararua wind, rain and clag with cool heads and solid decision-making. And just like that, our adventure of a lifetime was over.

Boo atop Mt Dundas on Day 12. Photo: Anna Watson

Thru-hiking with a dog

Tip #1: Practise makes perfect

We’d done plenty of multi-day hikes with Boo before this trip. We knew he could handle off-track topography and wouldn’t take off to chase an interesting smell. This meant we could plan a long thru-hike with confidence he’d be a great companion.

Tip #2: It all weighs up

Boo tolerated carrying about 2kg. Still, we ended up carrying a lot of his kibble ourselves. We took his lead, but rarely used it. Boo also had a rain jacket. Usually we wouldn’t bother, but knowing how exposed the Taraura gets, it was worth it. Lastly, we carried a polar fleece mat for Boo to sleep on at night.

Tip #3: Kai and wai

Boo often refused to eat breakfast, so we started feeding him at lunch after he’d worked up an appetite. Sometimes we sprinkled a little cheese through the kibble, a bribe Boo soon took full advantage of. Streams and puddles sufficed for water. For dry spur or ridge climbs, I’d fill a spare bladder and fill his bowl every so often.

The logistics 

We created a detailed meal plan for each week, then headed to the supermarket to buy all the dry food. Oats and brown sugar for breakfast; OSMs, beef jerky, and jelly beans as snacks. About half of our dinners were trusty recipes of our own, including our favourite: instant mash with dried peas and gravy. We supplemented our food supply with dehydrated meals bought online.

We found friends and whānau  who were willing to give up a weekend to drop food off to us. The day before setting out, we spent about eight hours divvying the dry food (including 100 servings of dog kibble) into boxes. We drove the food boxes to our friends’ houses, together with a short shopping list of fresh food like cheese, eggs and cabbage.

Every Saturday, we met a new set of friends at a road-end. We gave them our rubbish, then tipped the new lot of kai into our packs. We’d also receive a gas bottle and freshly charged batteries for our headlamps and battery packs. We were treated to baking, cold pizzas and chocolate milk. Food Drop Day became a highlight of each week.