With an excellent mix of terrain, views and huts, the Holdsworth-Jumbo Circuit may be the best family-friendly tramp in the country.
Given the forecast, it seemed incredible that we would be standing on the top of Mt Holdsworth in the Tararua Ranges, about to step off and venture north across the snowy, exposed tops to Jumbo Hut in the middle of winter. But the weather was holding out, the kids were keen, and the ranges had that enticing, benign glow. It would be a different story a few hours later when we next stood together as a group in the hut. A lot can happen in a short period of time.
If popularity equates with quality, then the 24km Holdsworth–Jumbo Circuit in the eastern Tararuas would probably be the undisputed champion of family tramps in the country. But does the reality live up to the hype?
Tramping with kids requires much consideration to route and logistics, finding a good mix between comfort and interest, while being challenging enough for the adults to get their kicks, too. This tramp ticks off all that and more. It takes in bush, a river, tops travel, a mountain climb, snow (if you’re lucky), dramatic views and comfortable huts. It’s also a loop and it can be done in a weekend. Most Wellingtonians with only the smallest interest in tramping have heard of it. Mad sods can do it in a day. There’s even a mountain race over it. But as we were to find out, it shouldn’t be underestimated.
From the road-end at Holdsworth Lodge, the wide zigzagging track called (slightly sarcastically) Gentle Annie, climbs steadily. Our party of seven, spanning three generations, including three kids aged under 11 and one grandmother, spread out and small alliances formed, the kids chatting as they trudged, sometimes running ahead in bursts of youthful energy, calling to each other on two-way radios: “Dorian to Finley, come in. Obstacle ahead. Tree on track. I repeat: tree on track!”
Sometimes a tired kid would try to break down a parent to get them to lavish sympathy, sugar or special favours, like pack carrying or lengthy rest stops. Chronically overdressed by fretting parents, kids would constantly stop to take off a layer of clothing, throwing it to mum or dad, who would hang it from a strap on their pack, ready to give it back 10 minutes later when the kid inevitably complained of being too cold. It’s why you should always budget extra time and extra patience for uphill toil. Allow a good four hours to get to Powell Hut.
Needless to say, the best part of the climb up Gentle Annie is the end, not least because we reached Rocky Lookout, a huge platform from which the view of the daunting hulk of Mt Holdsworth is unveiled. And just above the tree line, high above the plateau ahead at an altitude incontestably loftier than our current one, was the tiny dot of Powell Hut. It elicited awestruck cries of, “Woah…” from the party, denoting excitement and trepidation in equal measure. Specially-prepared calming chocolate was duly dished out.
It was a short and mercifully flat trot over the boardwalks of Pig Flat to the final climb to Powell Hut. Grunts and heavy breathing flowed down the line as the party hauled itself uphill. The kids seemed to be doing better than the adults, their young legs and light frames seemingly defying the cruel tug of gravity. The hut has seen better days and will be rebuilt this summer, making it the fourth Powell Hut on the site.
Kids have a seemingly innate ability to claim mattresses and sleeping positions immediately upon arrival at any hut, which I assume is a clever evolutionary trait developed over millennia to out-compete later-arriving rivals. That night, we tuned into a weather forecast on a transistor radio (okay, I lie – we went to the Metservice website on our smartphones) and the news wasn’t good. A southerly was due the next afternoon, bringing snow and high winds. Looking out the window before going to bed, we saw the clouds had already gathered, and Powell Hut became a cosy, fire-lit oasis cut off from the outside world. We decided to reassess things in the morning.
Dawn brought a surprise: sunshine. The adults mulled over the options, which included a descent to Totara Flats Hut – never a bad option – and decided to continue with the plan to cross the tops. Another good thing about this circuit is there’s an escape route between Holdsworth and Jumbo if things turn dire up there. We just hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
Emboldened by the thought of knocking off the summit of Mt Holdsworth, the kids got rugged up and were straining to get going.
It was a wonderful ascent of Mt Holdsworth, with views opening up as we climbed. We looked across to Mt Hector and the Southern Crossing route to the south-west, and north to the Mitre, the highest peak in the ranges. The kids got a taste of mini-mountaineering as we hit snow near the summit, and energy levels saw no signs of depleting – in the kids, anyway.
The trig on Mt Holdsworth is an iconic landmark, and the view to the car park where this all started spurred the party to continue onwards along the ridgeline to Jumbo.
So much of the best of tramping is on the exposed tops of mountain ranges, but what makes the Holdsworth to Jumbo section so good is that it’s within reach, both geographically and physically, of nearly anybody – kids included. We dropped off Mt Holdsworth and picked up the defined track that follows the ups and downs toward a final climb up Jumbo Peak. This was the gauntlet; the place where you don’t want anything to go wrong.
Again the party spread out over a large distance. Dorian and Finley had surged ahead as usual. Finley’s younger brother Miles was having a tougher time near the back with his mother, but was stoically making progress.
Almost imperceptibly, the clouds slowly enveloped us, darkening the hills like an ash cloud. Rain started to fall. I pulled out a spare down jacket from my pack and gave it to my mum, who was struggling under the weight of her pack on the uphills. She looked decidedly like a true mountaineer now, as she picked her way around the rocks on the climb up Jumbo, hood pulled tight.
The kids were getting wet, but they weren’t cold, nor were they complaining, which surprised me. Dorian and Finley were so far ahead we could just make them out as ghosts in the mist. We wouldn’t catch up to them, but that was fine. They could read signs and after many tramps were experienced enough now in the bush. They would see the track leading from Jumbo Peak to the hut, but they wouldn’t put the billy on when they got there.
The weather was turning more Tararua-like every minute, with stinging rain turning to snow and then back to rain. But it wasn’t ruining anyone’s fun. There’s nothing like a warm hut to spur you on.
Jumbo Hut was a welcome refuge, in a nice spot just above the bushline. But three of the party were still out there. Dorian got the two-way out and called back up the mountain. The reply delivered dramatic news. Young Miles had fallen and hurt his leg. He was crying. It sounded bad. Hearing the report of his younger brother’s situation, Finley, from the comfort of the hut, offered a frank assessment: “He’s probably just whinging.”
Sure enough, about 20 minutes later, Miles walked through the door with sodden pants but a warm grin.
It’s amazing how arriving at a hut can perk up spirits and infuse a group with energy. The kids went straight to the bunks and put the vinyl mattresses through a gymnastics resilience test, piling them on the floor and leaping onto them from the top bunk. It’s a well-known fact that these standard-issue DOC mattresses are indestructible and will survive both the gnawing of rats’ teeth and bouncing 10-year-olds.
Jumbo Hut was a wonderful hut. I use the past tense because just a few days after we stayed there it was inspected by DOC, declared unsafe and unceremoniously closed. I hope it wasn’t the tough mattress tests our kids conducted that compromised the foundations. There are plans to build a replacement and let’s hope it gets done soon.
It was a slow, damp decent in the morning through the dripping moss-covered beech forest, with Dorian and Finley once again leading the way. There’s something about the last day of a tramp, walking out to the car, with all the excitement behind you and no more cheesecake or hut cricket to look forward to, that brings a sense of impatient brooding. You want to hurry up and get to the car, dump your pack in the boot and get stuck into that packet of chips you stashed on the back seat.
Atiwhakatu Hut marked the end of the descent and the beginning of the last leg out. It’s a funny hut; not really a tramping hut at all, more of a destination lodge for families and people who can’t or won’t venture further into the hills. The track from Atiwhakatu Hut to the road-end is so wide and manicured it’s practically wheelchair accessible, although a section has recently been washed out and now requires an interesting and muddy slip-crossing, which I count as an improvement.
As we approached the road-end, day-trippers, dog-walkers and babies in backpacks popped up along the gentle Donnelly Flat, perhaps surprised to encounter a party of seven tired, wet people, lumbering under packs hung with discarded children’s clothing, like strange prayer flags. It’s another indication of the popularity of this corner of the Tararuas, where so many people get their first taste of tramping, and where so many return time and time again. For good reason.