The Tararua Ranges are the first real mountain section of the trail before starting the South Island. They are notorious for their rapidly detoriating weather, their steep ridges, and their high amount of altitude difference along the path. Almost bordered by the sea and overlooking the southern half of the North Island it is a beautiful place – if you get to see anything.
Excellent training for what lies ahead we thought. We decided to divide the stretch into four days: two long ones and two short ones; and to take whichever whenever depending on the weather.
On the first day we had a big push from the end of the Mangahao trail to the second hut en route: Te Matawhai. It’s only 15km to get there from the start of the track, but in the ranges it is not the distance that matters. Everything is stated in the number of hours it will take to get there – and the amount of height meters that will be covered during those hours.
We emerged from the bushline at Waipehu Hut, for the first time witnessing the clouds rolling in and out of the valleys below. From Twin Peaks we got a glimpse of what was to come – the high ridges of the range, with their peaks mystically hidden in the mist. Eleven hours after the start we reached Te Matawhai and reunited with Marylène.
The weather was drizzly and foggy the next morning too, so we were somewhat in doubt about what to do. The highest point from the hut was above 1400 meter – 500 higher than where we were – and we would follow an exposed ridgeline for a while. Things didn’t seem too bad though, and with Dracophyllum Hut being only four hours away we pledged to get there and re-evaluate then.
As soon as we set foot on the peak of Pukematawai the situation turned. The wind picked up, the rain intensified. For the first time in a long time I felt scared. If the weather would worsen to the same degree in the next snap second we would get in trouble. There was absolutely nowhere to hide on this steep, narrow and exposed ridgeline.
Driven by a nervous rush we made hasty progress to the hut and its protective beech forest. The only reasonable things to do seemed to wait it out, so we settled in this tiny but cosy two-man bivvy.
A couple of hours later Wayne arrived. He had fallen a couple of meters of the trail, injuring one of his ribs and bleeding by his ear. When it became clear to us that he was in quite some pain we set up our tent on the small patch of grass in front of the bivvy so he could enjoy a bed and a quiet night of sleep.
We spent a lovely evening together, talking about everything from conservation to politics to the trail to New Zealand’s history. We were happy that we could keep him some company, and he seemed comforted by not being alone.
Right before going to bed we decided to take a last look at the landscape from the helicopter patch. The sunset we witnessed blew our minds and left us staring at it for over an hour. Golden clouds drifted and rolled into the valleys, leaving only the peaks out to sight. They tried to engulf the peaks, they failed, they rolled on. They were gold, then orange and red and then finally turned white again in the twilight of the set sun.
We felt on top it all, projected into one of those National Geographic pictures you stare at in the local bookshop. It was one of the most extraordinarily beautiful things I have ever seen. Sharing it with PJ, just the two of us on top of that lonely peak made it just perfect. The fog returned in the morning but gave way after a few hours to the same spectacle of rolling clouds. I was happy that we stopped the day before – the ridge was even steeper and narrower. We went up and down, up and down, over countless peaks and saddles and knobs until we finally reached the highest peak en route: Mount Crawford.
Again we were treated to a spectacular view of the ranges and its main ridge. From the top you can literally see the water from the sea evaporating, forming into clouds, bumping into the mountains and dumping their load on the way or rolling along the peaks. No wonder this place is notorious, although it is a beautiful spectacle.
From the peak we began our long descent to the Waitewaewae Hut. The way down took longer than we anticipated and it was steep – very steep. I broke my personal descent record that day , over 1900m downhill, and had to pay for it too: when I took my shoes off it appeared that I had been enthusiastically skinning my left foot.
The skin on the heel and big toe were completely gone. I have some eh, very visual pictures of it from which I’ll spare you. It hurt surprisingly little on the way and surprisingly a lot the next day. We had to stay put in the hut and hope for it to get better the next day – walking was just simply impossible.
It wasn’t the worst place in the world to get stuck: it’s a beautiful hut, with big windows looking at the bush and a place to swim in the river. The next morning the foot looked a lot better so walked out of the ranges to Otaki Forks and on the next day to Waikanae.
Of all the little towns we passed so far, Waikanae is one of my favourites. Everybody there was so friendly. We had a delicious meal in the cosiest pub we’ve been at so far: fish’n chips for main course and pizza for dessert. The next day we filled our bags with goodies from the local bakery and continued down to Wellington. Glorious days!
– by Eef De Boeck