I have longed to explore the Tararua ranges since my early 20s, but through a lack of knowledge, company and the semi-regular deaths-of-the-ill-prepared, they have remained out of reach. Not anymore! This entry covers my first tramp – the Southern Crossing.
Often snow-covered in winter, the Tararua Ranges are a seductive untamed wilderness so close to home. My new friend S suggests I join her and some friends overnight to do the Southern Crossing, and excitedly I say ‘yes please’.
I talk to Dad before I go. ‘We’re going to do the Southern Crossing this weekend’ I say. He walked it in the 80s.
‘How many nights?’
‘Oh you’re not are you?’ he says. ‘Not with these daylight hours’. My nervousness is not assuaged.
The day comes and we are in the car, heading north to Kaitoke, just outside Upper Hutt on the southern end of the ranges. S is chill, a seasoned tramper keen to finally ‘do’ this popular tramp in the Tararuas having criss-crossed it may a time before. A drives the car; a veteran tramper who’s also super chill. Their laid-back, no stress approach is comforting; I should just relax. They help me by explaining their four types of tramping fun:
- Type 1 Fun – you’re having fun.
- Type 2 Fun – you aren’t having fun, but you know you’ll look back on it as fun
- Type 3 Fun – you’re having a shit time but others are having fun
- Type 4 Fun – it’s a living hell. Hopefully nobody died.
My concern grows. I ask about hunters. ‘They avoid tramping tracks, we’ll be fine. Probably.’ They then explain we’re not exactly doing the Southern Crossing; we’re going off piste a bit. Just as well I left my warm and comfortable deer-coloured jersey at home.
So with thoughts of no fun, being hunted and death in my mind, we start up Norbert Creek. S leads the way; A hangs back. We’re making progress, getting our momentum, when A casually asks ‘you know this isn’t the track right?’ We’re off to a flying start.
It’s a hands-on scramble from the go. But this is fun (type 1). I’m heading into the Tararuas!
The morning light is beautiful. Golden rays of light lance through the trees, making the moss on the trunks glow. The forest is quiet though; silent at times. I realise I am spoilt for birdsong with all the residential pest-control in my neighbourhood.
We scramble up the Norbert Creek track to join a council access road which meanders down to a council hydrology tower hidden in the bush.
I get a wet sock crossing Phillips Stream, one hour in; good job. We fill bottles from the stream and use the bridge to cross the Eastern Hutt river and head west to the Hutt Forks. I’m loving it – the Hutt river’s an ever-present part of my world, it’s neat to see where it starts.
Downstream begins the Hutt water catchment area, where the regions water comes from – off limits.
We begin to climb to Quoin Ridge via an aggressively steep ascent. Trees have slid down the slopes to the track, taking the orange marker pegs with them. The climb is eased by our three-person track-finding efforts every 5 metres. We’re glad the last person through was a blunt instrument; the silver underside of battered ferns often showed the way.
Quion Ridge is 500metres above us, and the trees change as we climb. Soon we are in ‘the goblin forest’; a world of soft moss and moisture. The track carves between balls of moss and small fern, perfect circles left to grow and expand over who knows how long. It’s a delicate world, undestroyed by our visits. The few who go this way have stained the landscape; the only trunks not covered in moss are the small patches in useful hand-hold locations. It’s not an obnoxious impact and I find comfort in them; we’re heading the right way.
Unmolested, the moss grows into wonderful shapes. There are balls and towers an arborist dreams a bush could hold; Edward Scissor Hands would have nothing to do.
As we near the plateau, the foliage changes again. Patches of tussock, rock and leatherwood. I am initially enamoured with leatherwood, ‘it’s just like leather!’. Battling through bushes of it shortly has me change my tune.
A surprise sign tells us to keep to the track for the next 300 metres. ‘Avoid delicate alpine vegetation’. The next 300 metres of track are impossible to find, and we trample all over the delicate alpine vegetation. We stop for lunch.
We continue up, spending time to find the track in places.
Soon we are on the ridge. A lifetime of following the track to avoid delicate plants redundant here, on this trackless expanse.
We scramble from Quion (1206) east toward Alpha (1360). There is no ridgeline track, and we scramble along steep slopes, face-in-trees as we criss-cross either side of the ridge. As we clear the brush again and get back into the open tussock, A hurries ahead to scope out the way. We will be finding Alpha Hut in the dark – and by we, I mean A.
Stopping on one of the many small summits for a wee break between Quion and Alpha, A spots a deer on the track ahead of us. S longs for a rifle; I wonder what we’d do with the deer.
Summit follows summit; Alpha seemed closer than it is. We are above the cloud here, and I slow to look upon most of the lower North Island. The light makes silhouettes of the landscape, closing the distance and dragging the horizon closer. Mt Taranaki pokes up by Kapiti Island; the Kaikoura ranges of the South Island seem to tower above Wellington. I can see the shape of the landscape from here. It’s magic, I am glad we were running a bit late to enjoy the dusk on the top.
We head down from Alpha to Alpha hut, a route we’ll backtrack tomorrow.
Alpha hut is tucked in the tree line. The orange glow of candles through windows beckon us in with promise of warmth and comfort. We arrive at 7, and taking off the boots is a joy. My feet are wary – apparently they’ve taken 33,000 steps according to the fitbit, before it ran out of battery. I know tomorrows steps will be untracked; it makes the thought of leaving meaningless.
Alpha hut is about 40m square, the kitchen and dining area flanked by a raised set of bunks for 20. There’s about 14 of us there tonight. S&A’s friends are comfortably positioned playing cards around a candle stuck in a bottle. I do my best to mingle, by staring at the wall slack jawed. The cookers come out and a curry is thrown together; it’s delicious.
Mercifully we quickly retire to the mouldy mattresses. Despite my tiredness, I don’t sleep well; we seem to all go to the bathroom in 5 minute intervals. Someone’s always up with a headtorch shining; the light, noise and unfamiliarity do their work.
The morning coffee is a welcome substitute to sleep. We have curry for breakfast, and a second coffee. Our party trade keys with the other and fare them well on their scramble down Quion. Before they leave they give us a ‘bovvy’ to borrow; it’s a bag us three can throw over our heads, sit down and have a reprieve from the wind if it gets bad enough on the tops. We tidy up and head back up to Alpha; the weather is mixed.
We’re on a ‘real track’ now, it’s easy to plod along, despite the wind. We round the Dress Circle, looking back to see the red of Alpha hut’s roof amongst the trees. We cross the beehives before arriving at Mt Hector (1529).
Dropping now, Kime hut appears out of the cloud (1420). We stop in for lunch. It’s a new hut, opened in 2014 – it lacks the personality of its elder peers but we enjoy a pitiful effort on a mountaineering quiz; I have much to learn.
After lunch we continue on, dropping down to Field Hut (860), a historic hut. Built in 1924 by the Tararua Tramping Club, it was intended to open up the Tararua ranges to less capable folk – to make the Southern Crossing a bit easier. It’s a living piece of history.
The smell of weed wafts up to us as we approach. The smoke drifts from the lips of a lone French tramper, set up camp for the day. He was to head up to the tops tomorrow; A checks the weather and suggests he heads to Kime hut today to enjoy better weather. He has no bar of it. ‘It’s a shit hut’ he states.
‘Not a shit hut.’ says A. They are at an impasse.
After a quick bite and a flick through the visitor book, we pop in – it’s a time capsule. On the upper level are sleeping quarters; the wooden ladder shows every bit of it’s nearly 100 years of tramping tales. A big wood stove heats the place, and information panels share some of the history. I love that the history is there, still to use. Tramping hasn’t changed; there’s more bright high-tech plastic than wool, but it’s still porridge in the morning – a warm room is all you need, and wood is still the fuel of choice. To use and be comforted by this old stuff, it’s cool. And being so far from the reach of idle teenagers, it’s safe enough from wasters’ destruction.
As I sit down, it is time to go. We plod down Field Track, 700 metres down to Otaki forks (156). My knees bitch and grizzle. A races ahead, and we catch him having a kip in the grass. ‘The track from here, you could push a pushchair’ he tells us, and we begin. My knees scream for stairs; the ceaseless graded slope is a misery. Having a track graded by machine doesn’t feel wild, and we’re nearing the end of our journey.
When we reach the open grass of Otaki forks, we pop by Parawai lodge, a wee hut and five minute detour. Two surly young hunters lounge, drying their camo gear on the deck. It’s about 5pm, maybe they’re bummed to share the space. We drop packs and relax a moment.
A makes small talk. ‘Where are you from?’
‘America’ one replies.
‘That’s a big place’ A says. He gets nothing in response. A and I share a look – they’re a friendly duo.
We cross the river and we’re at the car. A fills in the intentions book and we’re off, heading home. I am good for nothing; zombie-like I stare ahead. But beneath my lifeless exterior, I am glowing; I’ve had a tramp! It’s a proud weariness. What a great adventure.