Bringing in the New Year in the Tararua Ranges

Day 1: Thursday 30 December 2021. Kaitoke car park to Alpha hut, Tararua Ranges

I’m not going to record my pain in the head status during this trip, because I had the glorious experience of no migraine attacks at any time – for five whole days. No night-time niggles, no morning maladies, not the tiniest sniff of a headache. It was most surprising – even more so because I’d had a relentless rain of pain in the previous six weeks, since my doctor decided to change my HRT medication, for no good reason, and as it turned out, no good consequence. But back to hormonal balance, and back in the wilderness, I felt astonishingly good. I wondered, as I often do on my good days, is this how other people feel all the time? Is this how I could feel all the time, if I didn’t have a migraine brain? Being able to think clearly and effortlessly, and converse without struggling to identify words and concepts; being able to move without pushing through fatigue and inertia; being able to view the world without the drag of pain and nausea? Every day like this is a day of gratitude.

Having a good day

Started 9.40am, finished 4.40pm. Ok, to be exact, 9.38am and 4.41pm. But who’s going to niggle about a few minutes?

Word of the day: Moil. (verb) to work hard; OR to move around in confusion or agitation

We had a leisurely start to the morning, in holiday sleeping mode, and drove from Wellington to Upper Hutt and onwards to Kaitoke, to the car park by the youth camp, which was lined up with cars but we squeezed in beneath a row of trees. While readying up, I discovered that one of my walking poles had developed an aversion to extension while lying dormant at home and had to be abandoned. Hence, I spent the first half hour or so plodding up the Marchant Ridge in a state of lopsided wobble, until I got used to the single-pole walking experience.

It was a solid, steady climb up the ridge, where we punched out of the bush for views down to Wellington, then slipped back onto the bush, with patches of gorgeous goblin forest. Some cloud, a bit of wind, but high on the enjoyment scale. I breathed in the familiar smells of tramping with deep-rooted nostalgia – the wet sheep odour from my sodden merino T shirt, the salt sweat scent from my skin, the various fragrances of the bush – wet earth (known less affectionately as mud), decomposing leaves, wafts of pine and floral sweetness. It felt like coming home, and such a welcome change from the moiling of the past months.

The last hour or so was the most mentally and physically challenging – with legs now humming from the constant climbing and undulating ridge, we then reached the down-up-down section unkindly designated ‘Hell’s Gate’. Dante obviously never had the opportunity to experience the root heaving, branch swinging, rock sliding perambulations of the Tararua ranges, but perhaps if he had, he would have included it in his description of the torments of the afterlife. But here we were, willingly if not cheerfully traversing Hell’s Gate, passing another tramper who was so drenched in sweat he looked like he’d just stepped out of the shower, and reaching our destination, Alpha Hut, without resorting to curses and only requiring a modest dosing of dishonest pep talking (e.g. ‘the hut’s just around that corner’, ‘if you get to the next marker you can have a rest’, ‘it’s not far now’, ‘you can have ice cream when you get home’ – all bar the last are blatant lies which I fall for every time).

At the hut was an infectious diseases physician doing the Southern Crossing on her own, with whom I found a kindred spirit to discuss public health, failings of the health system, medical training, work-life balance and, of course, tramping. The sweat-drowned fellow turned up, then the other young man we had passed (not that I’m boasting or anything), who had the widest squarest pack I’d ever seen – so wide that he struggled to squeeze through narrowest, tree-bound passages of track. Just before 9pm, three young women rocked in and rustled and crackled around in their packs long past my bedtime. They had left Kaitoke car park late but had still taken a lot longer to walk the track than we had. Not boasting. Just putting it out there that people in their late 40s can totally crush those young ones when it comes to tramping.

Day 2: Friday 31 December, 2021 Alpha hut to Kime hut.

Started 8.45am, finished 1.10pm.

Word of the day: Rapproachment, establishment of cordial relations

Our journey today along the tops of the Tararua Range was cool, due to overcast conditions, and occasionally misted in cloud, but nothing significant enough to hamper navigation. Unusually for this area, there was very little wind so we trundled along without having to engage in any excessive core clenching or to buckle down over our poles (pole, singular, for me) to combat the battering gales. It made a pleasant change from our last Tararua top experience.

I become crippled with hunger within ten mintues of leaving Alpha hut, perhaps because of the immediate uphill slog or perhaps because I was not full of beans, as I usually am on a tramp. However, our decision to go on this adventure had been made less than 24 hours before the adventure began, which left no time to dehydrate our dinners, and barely time to scrounge some freeze dried rice and vegetables from the outdoor shops in town. So we’d had satay vegetable rice for dinner (and every dinner hence), sans beans, which my body clearly thought was unsatisfactory. But all was put right with half a muesli bar, and my body begrudgingly accepted this was the new reality, and stopped sending bogus starvation signals. I say bogus because since I finished Te Araroa, I’ve developed extra padding around my hips, stomach and thighs, much like a flotation device, and there is no way I’m about to succumb to famine in five days of tramping. My body just doesn’t want to let go of this comfy buoyancy aid.

After a slow grind to the turnoff to Elder hut, the track become markedly unpleasant. Simultaneously rutted, overgrown, muddy and exposed, combined with brutally deep undulations, made for slow and slippery progress. We hadn’t brought our gaiters, thinking it would be too hot (which it was, on every day but this), and our boots and socks and legs had a thorough mud bath. But eventually we peaked at Mt Hector, one of the high points of the park, with its extremely specific memorial to trampers and mountaineers who died in World War 2. Non-trampers and non-mountaineers not included.

After a quick chilly lunch on the lee side of Mt Hector, we blasted on to Kime hut via a much easier trail, where the likelihood of losing a foot down a void in the track or tripping yourself up through terminal tussock entanglement was much diminished. This 20-bunk Kime hut is the latest in a string of huts, and despite constant complaints that there is no fireplace there (because there is no wood to burn), it was surprisingly cosy, especially when it filled up to capacity (it ended up housing 19 trampers and 3 dogs that night). The black mould on the walls suggested an issue with damp in the colder months but at least the toilets weren’t overflowing as was the case at Alpha hut (until some idiots dumped their rubbish down the toilet the next morning – if I’d seen who it was I would have asked them to take it out with them).

After some initial aggression from one of the dogs, we reached a rapproachment with this canine, were drooled on by another and ignored by the third. After cleaning off the results of the Mt Hector mud spa, we pottered around the hut doing some botanising and then I read a book. Happy new year.

Day 3: Saturday 1 January, 2022. Kime hut to Neill Forks hut

Started 7.45am, reached junction to Penn Creek at around 10.30am. Reached Maungahuka hut around 1.20pm, departed around 2pm to reach Neill Forks hut at 5pm.

Word of the day: Deus ex machina, agent that appears unexpectedly to solve an apparently insoluble problem.

The day was fine, clear, warm – barely a breath of wind. The perfect conditions to tackle the Tararua Peaks and the steel ladder. If you haven’t heard of either of these things, all will soon be revealed.

We could see for miles. However, because we were walking along a ridge like a concertina, we could only see the peak ahead of us, not the peak beyond that, or the peak beyond that, or… the peaks revealed themselves to us slowly, one by one – Hut Mound, Bridge Peak, Boyd-Wilson Knob, Mt Vosseler, Mt Yeates, Mt McIntosh. It was like endlessly peeling an onion and always finding another layer.

Apart from a bit of mud and a section of swimming through head-high flax and scrub, the track was pretty good. Until… we reached the Tararua Peaks. These are two sharp points, topping 1300m, called Tuiti and Tunui, very close together, with a very steep V shaped gulch between them which would be impassable to anyone without mountaineering equipment… except for a dues ex machina in the form of a steel ladder. The ladder is marked on the Tararua park map with a purple dot that carelessly obscures the frightening density of the contour lines around it. Intrepid fools that we were, we marched blithely towards it.

To be honest, the steel ladder was not the issue. It wasn’t an issue at all. I loved the steel ladder. I would go down, or up, or up and down, the steel ladder any day, any time, if it meant I didn’t have to actually get to the steel ladder. The steel ladder was solid, secure, steady, with double rungs that my boots fit firmly, snugly and comfortingly into. The sections before, and after, the steel ladder were where the heart exploding, hyperventilating, ‘I’m-going-to-die’ meditations happened. We started out clambering up a crumbly, sheer rock face with a thousand metre drop to the valley floor below. Up until then, we’d considered the weather an advantage – Tony now observed that some murky mist would be a welcome happenstance, as then we wouldn’t see the depths we would plummet to if we lost our grip.

I don’t have photos of the worst of it, because I was too terrified to get out my phone, and ended up butt-sliding down more precipitous slopes, until we got to some parts that must have been considered marginally more dangerous than what we’d already traversed. Here, there were chains and ropes screwed into the rock, to provide us a modicum of reassurance, although it still required some adrenaline-fueled inching and sidling across miniscual ledges to actually reach the chains. Finally, it was over. We stopped on an unnamed peak for lunch, emotionally exhausted and adrenally depleted. I christened the peak Mt Post-Terror (or Mt Pre-Terror for trampers coming the other way). We’d conquered the Tararua Peaks. We’ll never ever ever do it again.

Up and over Mt Maungamuka, we detoured to Maungahuka hut, with a well-deserved reputation for being one of the most scenically located in the park (on the 200 or so days of the year when it’s not covered in cloud and rain). We topped up our water bottles and chatted to a lazy tramper who was sunbathing by the tarn, and were passed by a lady with green hair who was out for a run. She’d started from Holdsworth carkpark at about 4.30am, had chugged up Mt Holdsworth (a measly 1470m), dropped 1,000m or so down into the next valley, then another 1,000m up to the Tararua Range and along to Maungahuka, then she was heading for the hut we were aiming for tonight, but would carry on to the next hut, then back out to Holdsworth, planning to get back to her car at around 9pm. I’m tired just thinking about it. I’m gobsmacked at how happy and fresh she looked.

We let her get ahead, then commenced a more leisurely descent off the tops, steeply down through bush, to Hector River and Neill Forks hut. We broke out the tent as the hut was a bit manky, with mattresses shrouded in black mould, but there was a lovely campsite next to the hut and beside the river – lovely if you discounted the thistles and sandflies and ongaonga (which gave me a spiteful sting as I was heading down for a wash in the river). But the dip in the river was divine – rinsing away the sweat of the last few days, and the mud that caked my legs like a rhinoceros’ sun protection. Dragonflies darted around in entertaining flight, the sun dried our clothes and satay vegetable rice had never tasted so good.

Day 4: Sunday 2 January, 2022. Neill Forks to Tutuwai hut.

Started 8.30am, reached Cone peak just before midday. Left Cone peak at 12.40pm, reached Cone hut at 2.35pm, then Tutuwai hut at around 4pm.

Word of the day: Umbrageous, affording shade, spotted with shadows; OR inclined to take offence easily

The effects of yesterday’s unintentional and involuntary dabbling in free climbing became apparent when stumbling out of the tent to check on the long drop. Significant leg pain, in almost all muscle groups, and some less significant, but still noticeable, shoulder stiffness from gripping rocks for dear life. However, I’m of the belief that the best treatment for DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness, the pain you get after a workout) is to keep on moving, so today’s schedule of a 7 hour walk, including a 700m climb and 700m descent should be just the ticket.

We caught up with a young man who had been staying at Neill Forks hut at the Cone ridgeline, after the 700m climb (there weren’t any young people for us to pass yesterday as none of them were brave or stupid enough to do the route we did). It was another glorious day, and we were able to look across to the hideous contour of where we had walked yesterday, incluing the vicious dracula teeth of the Tararua Peaks. We lunched on Mt Cone, admiring the view, drying out the tent and testing out the legitimacy of our sunscreen.

It was so meltingly hot it was a relief to drop back into the bush, down a gentle (for the Tararuas) umbrageous trail to Cone hut, notable for being the second oldest hut in the park, built by the Tararua Tramping Club from totara slabs in 1945 (and opened in 1946). We rested our legs and rehydrated there for half an hour but our desination for the night was Tutuwai hut, beside the Tauherenikau river. The final piece of track was flat and easy going, but we were tired and had to concentrate or there could be consequences – such as when I dazedly walked into another patch of ongaonga. At least the stinging took my mind off my feet.

It was a little discombombulating that none of the DOC signs mentioned Tutuwai hut, and the sign marking the turnoff to the hut had been shot to pieces, but we were confident of its existence, as we had been there before, and sure enough, we found it, although the previous track to it had slithered away in a landslide. We were welcomed by a panting husky (Big Fudge) and a passed-out German (Patrick), who was so overcome by his walk in along the river from Kaitoke car park that he’d strewn his boots and shirt around the hut and collapsed onto a bunk. He regaled us of the difficulties of his 16k walk, seeming to expect us to be impressed, but all I could muster was a grunt and a raised eyebrow. We escaped down to the river for the best swim I’ve ever had in my life. So cool, so sweet, so utterly delightful. Oh the joy of being clean, fresh and well-exercised.

Day 5: Monday 3 January, 2022. Tutuwai hut to Kaitoke carpark, and home.

Started 7.15am, finished 11.50am.

Word of the day: Comedogenic, tending to block pores of the skin and cause blackheads or acne

We were roused early by Patrick and two other young fellows who wanted to crack on with the river track before the heat of the day. We gave them a decent head start, to make catching up with them more of a challenge, then set out to discover the tribulations of the track that Patrick had been so vocal about. There was a slip or two that required a bit of scrambling and heaving, a few windfall diversions, but nothing much to write home about. The most disturbing part of the walk was finding a fresh dog poo, that I almost trod in, courtesy of Big Fudge. This elevated the pursuit of the young man from a mild amusement to an outright act of umbrage. Patrick was not going to get away from me before I gave him a piece of my mind, and not a happy piece.

Still, we took time out to enjoy the final muesli bar of the day, and practise cricket manoeuvres at an unexpected memorial pitch, before a small slog up the aptly named Puffer Saddle and down to Kaitoke carpark. My legs had recovered from the DOMS, and were so full of fire and energy that we left the two young men from the hut in our dust. We found Patrick collapsed under a tree and he looked vaguely contrite when I rebuked him for improper disposal of Big Fudge’s excrement. That accomplished, it was back to Wellington for a well-deserved ice-cream.

From every tramp, there are always important lessons. From this one, I learnt that I should take the non-comedogenic sunscreen, even if it is a few grams heavier. That man, and woman, can live on rice and vegetables, especially if seasoned with Pic’s peanut butter and coconut cream powder. That if seasoned NZ tramper Shaun Barnett describes a route as ‘a challenging traverse that requires a good head for heights’, that’s probably one to avoid. All valuable wisdom that I will take into my next wilderness experience. Which is planned for February this year, kicking off with the Paparoa track in Westland, the only Great Walk I have yet to complete, then various adventures in the South Island. I’m hoping the tramping with migraine will be dwarfed by the tramping without migraine, which is infinitely superior, but will take what comes.

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