It is hard to capture in a photo what it is that makes the Tararua Forest Park tracks so difficult. The paths are generally either straight up or straight down; switchbacks haven’t yet reached this part of the country. The paths are tree-root lined, which does mean there are always plenty of steps for your feet, but also requires constant concentration, since every step is completely different. Some are above knee height, requiring hauling yourself up using your hands, and opportunities for broken ankles on the way down are plenty. Pretty much every track in the forest looks and feels the same, so there’s little variety to keep your brain busy. And then there’s the weather. Being the first mountain range on the bottom of the North Island, the Tararuas receive all the treats that the weather from all directions has to offer. The forecasts are usually helpful, but there are plenty of highly publicised stories of people being caught out by sudden changes and huge washout downpours.
So attempting to scale the highest peak in the Tararaus in the final days of Autumn was moderately ambitious, I concede. Add to that a two month gap since the last tramping trip and you have a recipe for a seriously difficult tramp.
We had a good forecast for the time of year: a freezing level of 2200m meant zero snow, wind chill was a moderate -2 degrees at high altitude and there was little rain heading our way. We set off from the Kiriwhakapapa Road End at 11am on Saturday, in high spirits. Within 15 minutes we were heading up a steep uphill, which didn’t really let up for two hours. We had lunch at around 900m, but could only stop for 15 minutes as it was pretty chilly even on this unusually clement Autumn weekend. You can tell you have reached that height because the forest turns into a weird magical wonderland, with lumpy moss all the way up the tree trunks. After that we enjoyed about half an hour of cruisey flat ridge (sub-bushline) before commencing two hours of a hard steep downhill. We had hoped to hike to Mitre Flats Hut via Cow Creek but arriving at Cow Creek at 4pm we realised we’d have a long, dark, damp evening on our hands if we continued walking. So we settled in at the hut there, a cute 6-bunk hut at about 500m, and had a cosy hot night thanks to the hut fire.
On the Sunday we decided to head up to the ridge line and see how far we could make it towards Mitre (1571m, the highest peak in the Tararuas). Two hours of constant uphill (carrying our full packs) took us to the edge of the bushline, where we wrapped up warm in preparation for the winds on the ridge. Lucky we did as there were gales at the top. Above the treeline there was not much track to speak of, and bouldering took on a new definition now that it involved heaving yourself up on tussock and grass rather than rocks. It was exhausting after the difficult ascent already made, with the added bonus of gale force winds, oncoming clouds and drizzle, and diminishing views. We made it to the first peak on the ridge, the catchily named 1390m (a tiny number of kilometers but an ascent of almost 900m from the hut), before deciding the conditions were not worthy of continuing (‘it’s not really that pleasant’, noted Jacob in a classic understatement). We returned to the hut a little dejected but enjoyed a happy afternoon of fire-making, possum-spotting and a hut charades-playing (a wonderfully geeky new invention of Kristy’s, where films/books/TV shows are replaced with NZ huts, peaks and tracks).
On the Monday – the first official day of winter – my body ached and craved fresh vegetables. Our walk out was no less challenging than the first few days, being as it was the first day’s journey in reverse. Another two hours of up followed by another two of down pretty much took it out of me, though we had a wonderful lunch break at Blue Range Hut. This cute hut’s hospital ward theme is quite apt for how I felt about our decision to spend our weekend here (you don’t have to be mad to tramp here, but it helps). Once back in Wellington, I recovered at home with the aid of beer, ice cream and scrabble.
So it was a good lesson about trip planning and expectation management. Even despite our good weather this weekend really challenged me. I’m happy to have experienced taking the decisions of changing plans mid-trip and of turning around before the top, particularly the emotional side of letting go of a plan or an ambition. The goal-orientated part of my brain said keep going whilst my sore body and the safety orientated part of my brain said go back.
Please forgive me for all the mean things I said about tramping without summiting peaks. I take it all back. I see why people like it now. From now on I will not moan about tramping without peaks, if it means I can exit the weekend without my body aching in every direction.