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August 2019 Issue
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When darkness falls

Darryl Ward is a little bit wiser after his tricky trip to Atiwhakatu Hut
How a routine trip off the tops turned into a potentially perilous situation. By Darryl Ward

This is not a dramatic story of crawling off the tops in a blizzard with a broken arm, but it is a reminder that we always need to be prepared to deal with unexpected challenges when in the outdoors.

Following a late morning climb of Tararua Forest Park’s Jumbo Peak, I was at Jumbo Hut contemplating the route down to Atiwhakatu Hut.

Raingauge Spur Track was a short distance away and, until last night, that was the route I intended to take. But that evening, with 17 souls crammed into the hut while a gale raged outside, a group of strangers had sat discussing the tracks in the vicinity and the alternative route off the tops, just to the north of Raingauge Spur Track. A seasoned tramper who knew the area well said it had a much easier grade than Raingauge Spur and was a considerably nicer walk.

So, with a mist rolling in but with plenty of daylight left, I decided to give it a go.

The first section of the track, through misty goblin forest, was stunningly beautiful. For most of the track, the grade was pretty good, although it steepened towards the bottom. But the occasional fallen trees blocking the track became more frequent obstacles as I descended. I scrambled over and through increasingly bigger trees, often to find there was no obvious sign of the track on the other side. I had not planned for this. And it really slowed me down.

This meant it took me far longer to make the descent than I had intended. By late afternoon and with darkness closing in, I was still two kilometres from Atiwhakatu Hut on a track that was nothing like the tourist grade walk I had come in on. There were three decent stream crossings – one more waterfall than stream – and quite a few steep climbs and scrambles, with what appeared to be some precipitous drops in places. Normally, these wouldn’t have been an issue, but with little light reaching the valley, it was scary stuff.

Hidden in the mist of the goblin forest was numerous tree fall, which made progress difficult

I knew the most important thing I needed to do was to keep calm and collected. I was not where I wanted to be, but I needed to keep going, watch my step, and stop periodically to discern which way the track was heading.

I switched on my headlamp and stowed my PLB securely in a jacket pocket. I kept warm, regularly scoffed liquorice allsorts and drank water.

But every now and then, my mind would play tricks on me. Several times, I thought I saw the outline of the hut when it was actually only trees.

I had kept a rough tally of my steps and eventually figured out I must surely be getting close.

When I finally saw the junction with Raingauge Spur Track, I knew I had arrived.

Atiwhakatu Hut was in total darkness, but in almost no time I had changed clothes, got a fire going and cooked up a feed which I wolfed down while reflecting on my experience.

Though every trip into the wilderness carries some form of risk, I realised that by taking an unfamiliar and unplanned route off the mountain, I had increased that risk.

What really concerned me, was my decision-making. I am usually extremely careful about planning my trips to avoid running out of daylight, but on this occasion I had let that happen. And I had broken one of my cardinal rules: I always thoroughly research my trips but I had allowed myself to take a route I knew nothing about solely on the basis of a conversation I had had the night before. (At least I had advised people of my intentions.)

But I comforted myself that I had remained calm, focussed on my survival and had made a plan that got me safely to shelter.

I learnt a lot from this trip, including a lot about myself. I’m a little bit wiser because of it.