David Murphy goes in search of the famous Tararua ladder, but instead finds a whole world of pain
I’ve loved the Tararuas ever since I moved to the Wairarapa 10 years ago. They’re wild and unforgiving, can be deadly, but also offer stunning beauty and immense rewards. In the last decade I’ve become very familiar with them. Perhaps over-familiar; a wee bit careless.
On a sunny summer’s day when all seemed right with the world the Tararuas taught me how one wrong step can turn an ordinary tramp into a near-tragedy.
There’s a spine that stretches along the southern Tararuas from Bridge Peak above Otaki to Dundas Ridge, which looks down on Mt Bruce to the east and Levin to the west. The southernmost part of that spine holds a special fascination for many trampers because of the 25m-high steel ladder used to scramble between Tunui and Tuiti, the Tararua Peaks. I’d been talking for years about visiting those peaks, and with each successive year it seemed like an ambition that ought to be realised sooner rather than later.
It was to be a simple Tuesday to Friday return trip. Holdsworth Lodge to Neill Forks Hut via Totara Flats for the first night; Kime Hut via the Peaks and the ladder for the second; back to Neill Forks Hut for the third; and out on the fourth. As always I left a detailed trip schedule with friends, took my cellphone, a personal locator beacon (PLB), map, and emergency foil blanket. I’d write my intentions in every hut book and notify by phone any changes to my schedule. I’d been looking forward to the trip for weeks. My only worry was fitness because I’d been too busy over the summer to get enough tramping miles into my legs.
I felt surprisingly good on the climb up Gentle Annie Track, but on the nasty root-strewn drop to the Waiohine River my thighs began to burn. I was clearly in for a bit of initial pain, but was happy to be in the bush with a pack on my back, thumping out a steady pace with the songs from Oklahoma! swirling around inside my head.
‘Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day, I’ve got a beautiful feeling everything’s going my way…’.
By lunch-time I’d crossed the Waiohine and begun the 700m slog up Cone Ridge.
Half way to the summit, cramp hit both thighs. After I’d screamed blue murder I popped a couple of dehy tablets and hoped the electrolytes would help. But it hit me again on the vicious descent to the hut which made for slow, painful going. It was late afternoon when I finally arrived at the wonderful old six-bunk Neill Forks Hut.
I realised I needed to revise my plan. Given the unhappy state of my thighs, the climb to the tops the next day, followed by the ladder, the Tararua Peaks and a tough walk to Kime Hut, felt too ambitious. Instead, I would overnight at Maungahuka Hut, take a quick trip up and down the ladder, and still achieve my main objective. I’d have time to get back to Neill Forks, and with a lighter pack I should have no trouble walking out to Holdsworth as scheduled.
It’s a wonderful climb to Maungahuka. When I emerged onto the tops, I was presented with a fabulous reward: a view of the Tararua Peaks and much of the spine of the Tararua Range to rival anything in the country.
After a companionable night at Maungahuka Hut with a couple of DOC rangers, I set out on Thursday morning towards the ladder. But I was worried. My thighs still felt as if they might cramp up at any moment. With such weak muscles I might not be able to maintain my balance. I’d read about the via ferrata chains that help with the scrambling near the Maungahuka side of the ladder, but the rangers had said there were none on the Kime side – and a sheer drop if you slipped.
I stood for several minutes on top of Maungahuka looking into a steep gully which then climbed fiercely. I was thinking about my chances of making it there and back in my current condition. One stumble could be very serious, especially when walking alone.
Having come so far, I hated the idea of turning back. The weather was superb and there might not be another chance like this all year. But I also hated the idea of breaking a bone or worse, and being the cause of a search and rescue. Fifty years ago I wouldn’t have hesitated. Now, I thought, ‘There’s always another day. The ladder will still be here next year.’
I bit my lip, cursed myself for a coward and turned back towards Neill Forks Hut.
Feeling depressed, I phoned home to report a revision to my schedule before I re-entered the bush. I’d stay at Neill Forks Hut that night and might also stay at Totara Flats Hut on Friday night. Only start to worry, I said, if I’m not out by Saturday afternoon.
When I woke on Friday morning my spirits rose. My legs felt cramp-free, my body strong. I’d eaten well the previous night and slept right through. I had a big breakfast, washed in the river, filled my water bottles, looked up through the bush at a clear blue sky and felt ready to conquer the world. I hadn’t made the ladder, but it had been a great trip and I was ready to finish it in style.
I walked easily up the spur I’d floundered down two days before and reached Cone Ridge with no sign of cramp. I’d begun the descent to Totara Flats with my head down, too busy crossing root-strewn terrain to look where I was going, when the track suddenly became indistinct, its lack of presence threatening. I realised I couldn’t remember when I’d last seen a track marker. I stopped, retraced my steps, found the marker, turned again and went on, thinking there must be another marker soon. There wasn’t. I went back again, but couldn’t find the marker. Or the one before it.
I took off my pack, sat down and had a drink. I knew where I was, knew I was heading north-east. The ridge was flattish but sloping away from me ahead and to right and left. I took out my map. At Maungahuka Hut one of the DOC guys had said there used to be a track around the Waiohine Gorge from Hector Forks but it had long since become overgrown and impassable. I didn’t want to turn left and get stuck above the gorge. If anything, I wanted to err on the eastern side of the ridge which would eventually take me down to Totara Flats. I was lost. But I knew where I wanted to be and how to get there.
I began to sidle across and down the slope through thick and difficult bush, hoping to pick up the orange flashes that would tell me I was back on track. The terrain became steeper, the ground cover loose and fragile. Hand holds became rare and those I did have just came away in my hands. On especially steep sections I faced the hill and slid down, using my boots as brakes and grabbing hold of whatever I could.
Then I was sliding too fast, my fingers scrabbling for something to grip. I was falling through the air. I landed hard and blacked out.
When I came to I did a body check. Nothing seemed broken, but everything hurt. I could feel blood around my head and in my eyes. My legs and arms were bleeding. But I was alive!
I looked up and saw I’d fallen over a bluff of about nine metres. There was no way back.
I thought about activating my PLB but wasn’t ready to give up yet. Apart from possible concussion, all I had was cuts and bruises. I wasn’t seriously injured, it wasn’t yet midday and there was a cleft in the spur I was on that looked as if it would become a creek. If so, it could only lead to the flats.
I’d never followed a creek before. I imagined it would be difficult going, clambering over boulders and deviating around rapids, but not impossible. It was dry to begin with, but as it was joined by other creeks it soon became a busy stream. Fallen trees blocked my way, forcing me to squeeze and duck painfully beneath and between them, clamber over them, or divert around them. I crossed the stream constantly and made detours through thick bush. And then there were rapids and waterfalls and car-sized boulders with skating rink surfaces.
By late afternoon I was getting tired, chilled from several waist-deep dips and it was clear I wasn’t going to make it out before dark. But I still wasn’t worried, a night in the bush would be uncomfortable but not fatal. I pushed on.
I was perched one-footed on a fragile tree root 30m above a boulder-strewn gorge when I realised things were getting beyond a joke. It would be a fall too far, one I would not survive.
It was time to activate the PLB. But it was in my pack and my pack was jammed behind me against the bluff. I cursed my stupidity; I should have had it strung around my neck.
After delicate, tongue-between-the-lips maneuvering, I managed to extract the PLB. But I couldn’t make it work. There were no clear instructions and nothing intuitive about what to press, lift or turn. I looked down at the boulders and wondered whether this would be where my life came to an end. Just as quickly I thought, no, bugger it, I’m not ready to go just yet.
I inched around to face the bluff and reached for a half-buried root with my left hand. I hauled on it with all my weight, knowing if it came free I was finished. It held. I grabbed another with strength I didn’t know I still possessed. And then another. And then I was on a shelf wide enough to feel safe.
I used my backpack liner for a groundsheet, got into my sleeping bag fully-clothed and covered myself with my emergency blanket.
I spent a damp night plotting my survival strategy. I was way, way off track. If I couldn’t activate the PLB it might take days to find me. I was almost out of food, but there was plenty of water. I wouldn’t die of starvation. But my gear was soaking wet. If I had to stay out another night and it rained, hypothermia would be a possibility.
But I had dry matches, a cooking stove, and a gas canister. I could make smoke with damp leaves and twigs. And maybe I could still make it downstream to Totara Flats. All was not lost.
On the Saturday morning it was immediately clear I wasn’t going anywhere. I was log-jammed between sheer bluffs. No way forward, no way back.
LandSAR wouldn’t begin to search for me until the afternoon at the earliest. I was in for a wait of hours, possibly days. Unless I could get that damned PLB to work.
I made coffee, sat on a rock, and fiddled with it. It belonged to my best mate, so I didn’t want to break it. But there just had to be a simple answer. After half an hour of fiddling I decided to force the reluctant plastic cover away from the body. Peering beneath, there seemed to be something written…crack! The cover flew off. An aerial unfurled. I pushed a button. Lights flashed.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Leonard Cohen came to mind – a welcome change from Oklahoma!
Two hours later came the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard: the whirring of chopper blades. I waved my aluminium foil blanket. A guy waved back.
He put me into a big plastic nappy and gave me a sky-ride to safety high above the Tararuas. After a check-up at hospital, I was home by mid-afternoon with little more damage than cuts, bruises and wounded pride. All of which would heal.
I did some stupid things on that tramp. Made mistakes I’ll never make again. We all make them; what matters most is that we learn from them.