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November 2012 Issue
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Park Valley viewed from Pukematawai. Mounts Thomson and Lancaster in the background
Poads Road, off Gladstone Road, Levin
BN33, BN34, BP33

To mark Wilderness magazine’s 30th anniversary, current and past editors and contributors scoured the archives for the 30 best trips we’ve published over the decades. This story, original published in November 2012, was included. You can find all 30 of the greatest Wilderness trips in the October 2021 issue.

Mark Watson finds some new track and old memories on a six day trip in Wellington’s Tararua Forest Park

The incessant rain batters the forest canopy. Water droplets strike leaves and branches, explode and scatter into the bush, glazing everything beneath with spray and making the forest gleam. The trunks of distant trees loom out of a thickening mist and I check my watch, fooled into thinking darkness is coming by the gloom of a stormy sky.

My autopilot is too fast under a six-day pack, filled with food and photography equipment, and I have to force myself to keep my pace in check. I’m home after eight months of full time cycle touring in South East Asia and after 13,000km my legs have adapted to a different kind of activity. Gore-Tex is no match for mid-summer humidity in the northern Tararuas and I’m wet through. I consider taking the jacket off, but a growing wind nips the ridge as it narrows and I shrug into the jacket, water dripping off my nose, and press on hoping Te Matawai Hut is not too far off.

I’m redlining.

Back in the early 1990s some of my Victoria University Tramping Club friends would hit the Tararuas every weekend, logging huge distances as they systematically traversed the range. They called it ‘redlining’ because an old Forest Service map for the range denoted tracks with red lines. Their mission was to tick off every section of red track; a goal that sometimes entailed grovelling on overgrown – and sometimes non-existent – hunter’s trails that had fallen into obscurity.

By my early twenties I’d redlined most of the range, but now, living in the South Island, my Tararua trips are an occasional treat and I still have some ‘easy ticks’ to get out of the way. The need to reacquaint my legs with walking seemed like a good time to tick off some unwalked track and shoot photos of a mountain range that has held an attraction my whole life.

Though popular, Gable End Ridge to Te Matawai Hut is redline for me, and it’s nice to be covering new ground. Butcher Saddle and the Yeates Track junction – names that echo from a time when I used to gaze over the map, daydreaming – pass by and soon I’m kicking the mud off my boots on the steps outside Te Matawai Hut.

There’s a couple of local trampers in residence. They don’t say much and spend a lot of time staring at the wall. Over the hiss of my stove we begin a stilted conversation and I figure out I’m not the only one redlining. The next morning they’re off to try and find some old hunting routes.

The rain stops overnight and shortly after daybreak I’m off. My pack feels lighter already and I’m no longer squirming under the shoulder straps. I make quick time to Pukematawai, covering more redline, but by the time I get there the cloud’s building and threatening to obscure the views I’ve been yearning for. From the top of Pukematawai I peer down the tussocked slopes into the gently U-shaped Park Valley – the only valley in the range to show evidence of past glaciation.

Beyond, in the billowing clouds, is Arete. I’m walking fast and loving the breezy space of the golden summer tops. The last time I was on the Arete-Dundas ridge was in a whiteout and storm and in the near dark we’d struggled to find the turn off to the bivouac. Now a sign at the vague junction takes the decision making away and after a short distance in cloud the new bivouac looms into view. DOC has spent well and I’m impressed with the new structure. I eat morning tea in silence, and remember the last time I slept here, on damp plywood, as wind battered the hut and seemed to squeeze water through the joinery.

On my feet again I pass the Waiohine Pinnacles and then the flatter expanse of Tarn Ridge, its lone pond rippling in the breeze. Shortly before Tarn Ridge Hut, the looming cross of the grave of Basil Blatchford appears on the skyline. Basil died of hypothermia here in 1959. The cross has stood ever since; a grim reminder of the harsh conditions these ranges dish out. At 48 he was an experienced tramper and had continued in dire conditions despite warnings.

Waohine River just upstream of Mid Waohine hut

Waohine River just upstream of Mid Waohine Hut

I’m happy to have Tarn Ridge Hut to myself on arrival, but just before I head out to photograph in the evening light some trampers arrive. They’d shot a deer on the ridge between here and Jumbo and got the best of the meat off it. I’m grateful for the steak they share with me.

The westerly wind’s kicking in a lot of cloud the next morning and there’s a long day ahead, with Mid Waiohine Hut my destination. On the summit of Girdlestone I’m enveloped in a duotone world of grey mist and brown tussock. It’s disorienting and I follow bearings for a while to keep on track. Pushing on towards Adkin, with some peeks through to the Wairarapa as elevation is lost, I’m envious of the sunny day down there, just a few kilometres distant. Opposite Mitre, I’m awed by the steep landscape; the twinkling creeks dropping into South Mitre Stream and the rich medley of subalpine plants. I stop and photograph now and then.

I pass the Three Kings and climb the vegetated gendarmes of the Broken Axe Pinnacles head on, pausing on the top to check out an ancient steel stanchion that has been used as a rope anchor in the past. Coming off the top of McGregor, the next peak along, the cloud has lifted enough for me to spot the old Angle Knob Hut site. I was lucky enough to have visited this hut back in 1980, as a nine-year-old, on one of my family’s summer tramping trips. My parents were keen enough to tramp with two young kids and I recall it being a very long day from Atiwhakatu Hut to Angle Knob. The small six-bunk hut was battered by strong winds and heavy rain the night we spent there and if that wasn’t spooky enough for two youngsters, during the night I rolled off the top bunk and crashed to the hut floor, winding myself and bruising my ribs. The following day the weather relented enough for us to scuttle back down to Atiwhakatu Hut, but on the way my sister fell 10m down a steep bank; fortunately virtually unscathed. Our escape from Atiwhakatu was thwarted by a flooded Jumbo Stream, but we finally made it back out to Holdsworth only a day overdue. Some months later I heard that the hut had been blown away in a storm and totally destroyed.

It’s late afternoon when I reach the top of Mt Holdsworth. From here I have to traverse over Isabelle and drop 1000m to Mid Waiohine Hut. After two days among the tussock and leatherwood I’m looking forward to the river and a change of scenery. The bushline beckons and finally I enter a twisted world of green.

I’m stoked to see the hut is still much as it was when I last visited in 1989. DOC’s policy for this classic NZFS hut is to preserve it as is, with any maintenance in keeping with the hut’s original design. After a busy night at Tarn Ridge the previous evening I enjoy solitude among the ancient forest of the hut’s surrounding flats.

In the morning I’m slow to get going after the previous three days. My pack’s lighter now, but I’m heading straight back to the tops again, to Maungahuka Hut and maybe Kime, via Aokaparangi. I’m loath to leave the bush behind when I emerge onto the tops into a buffeting wind and low visibility. Once past Aokaparangi the wind threatens to blow me off my feet and the constant effort required to keep moving sucks at my energy and its good to finally arrive at the sanctuary of Maungahuka Hut.

It was half my life ago last time I was here, with my friend Connan Bolitho. We’d slept at the original hut on this site, an old NZFS six-bunker, and then the following day arrived on the summit of Mt Holdsworth in typical Tararua wind and mist. We took a bearing before heading for Powell Hut, but because the bearing appeared to be the opposite direction to where we thought we had to go we ignored it, thinking the trig might be affecting the compass. An hour later we arrived at Jumbo Hut. I’ve never since been able to figure out why we didn’t end up wandering off into the middle of the range. That was the last trip I did with Connan. In 1991 he disappeared enroute to Mount Cook from Julia Hut and has never been found.

 Mitre (1571m) the Tararua's highest peak. Head of the South Mitre Stream

Mitre (1571m) the Tararua’s highest peak. Head of the South Mitre Stream

The intervening years have seen the old Maungahuka Hut reach the end of its life too and now the hut has been replaced with an impressive, modern DOC structure. From inside I watch the wind whip spray from the surface of Maungahuka’s tarn and remember how it had been impossible to match Connan’s furious pace as we’d climbed through the bush to Isabelle all those years before.

The strong wind puts me off continuing and I pass the afternoon with cups of tea and reading.

I wake early the next day, excited at the prospect of some more redline. The wind has dropped, but it’s wetter and dressed in storm kit I head on. Once past the impressive twin peaks of Tunui and Tuiti and their fixed ladder I have my head down and count off the bumps: McIntosh, Yeates and Vosseler as I approach Kime Hut.

After a short break at Kime I’m soon on the top of Mt Hector, sussing out the next leg. Neill Ridge is a spectacularly up-thrust bit of country and is a section of redline I’ve wanted to walk for a long time.

Off the apex of the range it’s less windy and the travel’s pleasant along the undulating ridge amongst the swirling clouds. I startle two deer and track their flight for a minute, marvelling at their speed and grace, and wishing I had a rifle.

Once off the tops and into the bush there’s a lot of up and down, but at an average height of around 950m it offers some of the best of the Tararua’s subalpine beech; gnarled trunks and stocky boughs with dense wind-shaped caps, all draped in a coat of moss and lichen. Each tree seemingly has a character of its own. My imagination runs wild.

I’ve been walking 12 hours when the final climb to the spartan top of Cone comes – the terminus of my redline. iPod on, I blaze down the rooty trail to Cone Saddle as the sun sidelights the ridge, throwing a golden lustre into the bush. I pause at the saddle for a few minutes; for some reason magnetised by this middle-of-nowhere junction. I don’t know if it’s the old signposts – nailed unfeasibly high on a beech tree – that have been there since I was a kid – or this place’s memories of untold people passing, pausing and picking the left or right path. Do places have memories? Do they capture a little of the spirit of those who have passed by? I can’t decide, as I practically run down the track to Cone Hut, a welcome sight after a long day. Built in 1946 it’s the second oldest hut in the park, after Field.

I drop my pack on the dusty dirt floor, grab my photography kit and head to the river to take some photos in the last of the light. Shadows deepen in the bush and birds make their last calls. Trees shudder in the breeze and overhead the clouds pulsate orange and purple. Tripod set up, I compose some shots of the river and click away. My sense of souls past, carried from the saddle to here, deepens enough that I’m compelled to turn around a couple of times, feeling as if I’m not alone. Sandflies, clouded around my legs and biting, snap me out of my thoughts and – finished shooting– I walk back to the hut, still half expecting to see someone standing there.

There’s no more redline tomorrow, my last day of six; it’s an easy walk down the valley to Kaitoke where Dad will be waiting. I’ve got what I came for, and more. My search for the new has elicited forgotten memories from my past and deepened my sense of place and connection to this humble range of untold ridges and tussock clad tops.

I set my alarm for a sleep in.