Trip: Penn Creek Hut on a rainy day

Last weekend we went to Penn Creek Hut in the western Tararuas.

Dates: 1st – 3rd August, 2008
Location: Tararua Forest Park, Otaki Forks region.
People: Craig, Fraser, Peter and me.
Huts visited: Field Hut (1 night), Penn Creek Hut (1 night), Parawai Lodge (0 nights).
Intended Route: Otaki Forks to Field for Friday night, then up to Vosseler and navigate down spur to Penn Creek Hut for Saturday night. Out to Otaki Forks via Table Top on Sunday.
Actual Route: Straight to Penn Creek Hut via Table Top on Saturday (due to heavy rain), then back up to Table Top on Sunday via spur starting at S26 025307, due to a flooded side-creek blocking the usual track.
Related bits: Craig also wrote about this weekend.

This post is a trip report. You can find other trip reports about other places linked from the Trip Reports Page, or by browsing the Trip Reports Category.

Saturday night, prior to which we didn’t do much at all: There’s a little mould on the Penn Creek Hut mattress that I’m sitting on as I write these notes. We’ve been here for 5 hours now, since a bit after mid-day. Water drips from the skylight into a bucket. There’s also water dripping into the fireplace, thwarting efforts to get a fire going. We even tried to burn some of Peter’s marshmallows, but that didn’t work either. Did I mention that the trees are dripping? And so is the sky. The bucket was nearly full when we arrived and we’ll need to empty it before we leave.

There were supposed to be six people in our group, but two bailed on Thursday, citing correlations between the reputation of the Tararua Range and the weekend’s forecast. This meant that before we arrived, we only had Craig’s small billy in which to cook. Fortunately there’s some quite good cooking and cleaning gear at the hut. Craig organised the trip. He looked impressive earlier today, sporting his Oringi Jacket — “the jacket that keeps you and your shorts dry” — just like that guy inside the back cover of every FMC bulletin. Peter’s on his first ever club trip, having arrived a few weeks ago from Scotland. Fraser’s also on his first club trip although he’s been tramping in New Zealand before, particularly in the Orongorongo Valley, and has some interesting stories. Last night I asked Fraser about his pack, which looks about as old as he is and far more worn down. He told me he found it in a dumpster and had to argue with his friend about who’d get to keep it.

It’s almost dinner time, I think. There aren’t any pure vegetarians or vegans on this trip, but we’re all what I’ll call “transitive vegetarians”, which means that it’s okay to eat meat as long as the animal it comes from was itself either a vegetarian, or a transitive vegetarian. As I write this, Peter’s busy cooking us some kind of sausages, which are a good bet for transitive vegetarians even if we don’t know exactly which animal or animals they came from. Fraser’s directing the pasta cooking, Craig’s fighting with the smoke pouring out of the fireplace, and I’ve been assigned the noble job of trip historian which is why I’m here writing notes.

We might have had nothing to do for the whole afternoon, but luckily a thoughtful nomad has passed through and left a copy of The Calling by Paul Block. It’s a work of literary genius that we assumed was published by Mills and Boon until we looked more closely. Three people (the original owner, the second-hand dealer, and the person who paid a whopping $2 to the dealer) have wanted it already, and that’s only for this particular copy, so it must be in high demand. Previous visitors to this hut have already used parts of the book as fire-starting material, and who could blame them? Its pages look much more flammable than the copies of FHM and New Zealand Pig Hunter magazine that were hidden above the doorway. This book is very practical.

Since we arrived, Fraser’s found yet another use for its remains, proving once again that it was money well spent by someone. We now have a deck of cards made by cutting up the pages, and he’s gone to a great effort to accurately represent the royalty. Cuts of the cards also caused random words to be removed, sometimes changing the meanings of sentences in intriguing ways. An hour ago we played Last Card with some adjusted rules that included reading inspiring out-of-context passages as we played our hands.

6 of Diamonds: He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close.

Last night, a slip on the road prevented us from reaching the overnight parking area at Otaki Forks. The slip was the usual one, about 30 minutes walk from the end of the road. Our rental van arrived at 8.15pm, and Fraser showed up in his own car shortly afterwards. Fraser had already been here much earlier, but ended up ferrying two people back to Otaki soon after he arrived. The couple had reportedly spent 2 hours walking from Parawai Lodge, in the rain, in complete darkness, without torches, and without much useful walking gear. They were optimistically aiming for Otaki Beach, but had unexpectedly found themselves in trouble and were by then simply struggling to avoid stepping off the edge of the road. They were extremely relieved to have met Fraser, and to be given a ride back to civilisation. They also stressed to Fraser that conditions were just horrid, and that if we intended to go anywhere we would definitely need “spikes”. None of us were sure exactly what that meant.

Alistair and Steve, who were sharing our van, left on their Fit trip immediately to get up to Field Hut. We’d also planned to walk to Field Hut last night, then continue to Vosseler from this morning and navigate down the nearby spur to Penn Creek Hut. That idea no longer seemed likely with the forecast, since rivers would probably be up. Consequently, Craig proposed last night that we should only walk to Parawai Lodge, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. None of us had “spikes” with us, but we decided to take our chances on that one and assess the ground conditions as we met them.

Having reached the picnic area and crossed the new bridge, we could see the torches of Steve and Alistair high up on the hill to our right. With the new bridge in a new location from the old temporary bridge, and with it being dark, we had some trouble actually figuring out how to get to Parawai Lodge, and after a minute of thinking we decided to just keep going to Field, especially since we were already enjoying the walk.

The two hitch-hikers were probably exaggerating or badly informed, but it was true that the track up to Field was badly damaged by the recent storm. Finding trees over the track was frequent, often requiring scrambling over and under branches, or major detours. Even so, walking to Field Hut at night is so common that we didn’t have any concerns about problems getting there. Actually, it’s very common, and the likeliness of anything going wrong was next-to-nothing, especially getting lost. If anything had gone wrong, we should have been very embarrassed.

8 of Spades: In his early thirties, he was raggedly handsome with a firm jaw, thick brown hair, and penetrating pale blue eyes.

On a related topic, somewhere within 30 minutes of Field Hut I was surprised to hear Alistair swearing quite loudly from not far ahead, and Steve’s voice wasn’t far behind. Hearing Alistair swearing doesn’t usually bother me, but the two of them should have been at Field Hut by now. Actually it sounded as if they’d met Fraser up ahead, and that Alistair wasn’t happy to see us. Was the track really so bad that we’d caught up? Should we have brought our tramping “spikes” after all?

What had actually happened was that two minutes from Field Hut, Steve and Alistair had found their way around the outside of another big pile of broken trees, only to have ended up walking back the way they came. They must have gone for about 10 minutes without actually noticing the inverted effect of gravity on their trajectory. Alistair’s reaction at meeting Fraser was probably one of gratitude in helping them to realise the error, but maybe it just came out wrong. To a chorus of mocking, all six of us arrived as a group of happy trampers at Field Hut at about 11.30pm last night, and went straight to bed. Nobody else was demented enough to visit Field last night.

Steve and Alistair left quietly this morning before the rest of us had properly woken up. They’d decided there was a good enough weather window to get past the Tararua Peaks and to Anderson Hut by tonight. For ourselves, we barely heard them leave at 6am, and weren’t up until two hours later. There wasn’t much point, anyway. We probably could have gotten up Vosseler and navigated down the spur to the NNW without a problem, but the constant rain and forecasts of more rain meant we’d have to expect a risky river crossing at the bottom, or a very bad camping experience, literally a few minutes from where we are. We decided during this morning’s breakfast that we’d be better to come straight here via the track from Table Top. It was sad because it meant only three hours of walking on what was supposed to be a Medium-Fit trip. Still, having seen Penn Creek when we arrived here, I’m glad we didn’t bet on being able to cross it. I’m a closet hut-bagger, and at the very least this one is another hut to tick off my list.

So we left Field Hut at 9.20am this morning, and there’s not really a lot to talk about. The track down from Table Top was very muddy, indicating (as Craig pointed out) just how much water was still waiting to drain out of the hills. A couple of side-creeks and a lot of down-hill later, we reached where we are now. That was at 12.30pm, now it’s closer to 6pm, and there’s been a lot of sitting and lying around in between. The room’s becoming increasingly smoky because the fireplace doesn’t seem to be venting very well. I think we’ll give up on the fire.

4 of Hearts: “If you refuse to perform, I’ll be forced to take invasive measures.” He did not elaborate but held up an enormous pair of ominous-looking birthing forceps.

To summarise, we’re stuck in a hole and it’s raining and the roof leaks. I should add that there’s also an annoying tree branch near the door of the long drop which is hard to see when wearing a raincoat. I’d already hit my head on it twice, and the third time I was certain that I wouldn’t, but somehow I still forgot about it two seconds before it mattered, and now my head hurts. On the positive side we have sleeping bags, a deck of cards, an enlightening copy of New Zealand Pig Hunter magazine full of high quality articles to interest today’s up-and-coming hunting community, and dinner’s looking tasty.

Sunday night, prior to which we were cold and wet: That was a very exhausting day, for me anyway, even though we didn’t really spend long walking by fit trip standards. I think everyone else handled it better than I did. Steve dropped me at home back in Wellington tonight and my head was still spinning enough that I grabbed his pack from the van instead of my own. They do look kind of similar in the dark, even though Steve’s pack was much cleaner and nowhere near as saturated. I think I’ll go and collapse soon. I’ve developed some kind of cold, and felt the day really badly.

Last night I spent long periods of time lying awake in the bunk, and can confirm that while the rain went away for a few hours and I hoped we might have a typically clear and sunny Tararua day, it started bucketing down from about 4am and was still going during breakfast. Last night I was on dish-washing duty (the trip historian doesn’t gain much prestige when others are cooking), and after looking at the rocks near the river this morning, I think Penn Creek came up by another 5 centimetres overnight.

We left Penn Creek Hut just before 9am this morning, heading back to Table Top, and we almost lost the main route out straight away. It climbs up the bank for a while shortly after leaving the hut, but we kept going along the edge of the creek for a few minutes without noticing the junction. I’d stayed behind for a minute to sweep the place out and if I hadn’t gone the same wrong way as everyone else, we could have had a confusing beginning to the day. We figured it out, though, and all was well for the next 25 minutes until we reached the second side-creek that crosses the track which has a fairly large catchment. This is the creek which crosses the track at about point S26 025307, but you can also identify it as the part of map S26 with the contour line that looks like a wonky piece of string. 5 centimetres in Penn Creek translated to much more in this side-creek. Instead of the dainty waterway we’d waded through yesterday, it now looked more like a rapid ready to drag away anyone sorry enough to dampen their toes. We decided not to dampen our toes, at least more than they were already, and instead figured out an alternative plan.

3 of Hearts: “I love this child!” Rachel exclaimed, kneeling and hugging the surprised little girl. “You could have been born a salmon!” she added, kissing her cheek.

There appeared to be a really nice looking spur that might offer a good alternative route up to Table Top. It’d start heading up to the west from almost exactly where we were standing, then briefly north-west to join with another spur that comes down closer to the hut, then west again before heading into the dreaded light-green zone that symbolised things like leatherwood. We set off on a compass bearing, and within a few minutes a nicely made track became very obvious. After twenty minutes we were only checking bearings every so often to confirm it was still leading us to where we expected. Presumably this spur is a commonly used escape route from Penn Creek Hut during heavy rain, or at least from where that side creek crosses the track. Fraser aptly referred to the route as the “Tramper’s Superhighway”, not to be confused with the “Hiker’s Superhighway”, which is the Abel Tasman Coastal Track and is far less interesting than any random spur in the Tararuas when it’s raining.

Despite the clarity of the track we were following, there were no artificial markers until we reached what we think was the junction with the other spur at point S26 018308, or thereabouts. (You can also identify it as the part of map S26 with the contour line that looks like a flattened paper-clip with a dent in it.) Somebody had gone to a lot of trouble to nail white tags on about 15 trees at this point. They were all facing up-hill for people coming down. The only casualty during this section was Craig’s Oringi raincoat, which now has a small tear in the back. The Tramper’s Superhighway only lasted until we reached the line of thick scrub and leatherwood, and then any illusion of a pre-existing route stopped very suddenly.

We must have missed a better route, but never found it after a lot of searching. Ultimately we spent the next 2 hours travelling at a snail’s pace, clambering and pushing and yanking and kicking and dragging and scraping our way through some very stubborn and very thick and very waterlogged vegetation, which annoyingly made very little effort to keep the water to itself. Personally I was sopping wet, having made a silly decision to remove my raincoat before we reached it, and the slowness with which we’d had to move ensured that my fingers were very numb, and I was finding it difficult to perform any delicate actions. Fumbling through my pack to find mittens and over-trousers took a good 5 minutes, most of which was very slowly trying to put them on. It was 1pm before we’d escaped into the liberty of a slightly more tussock-laden landscape from which there might have been a reasonable view if it hadn’t been in the cloud, and it was finally possible to start moving and get blood flowing again. Even then, we still had another 30-40 minutes of negotiating around recurring patches of leatherwood before reaching the actual peak of Table Top, marked by a triumphantly white pipe poking out of the ground.

7 of Diamonds: The deafening roar of the crowd was punctuated by dozens of explosions as additional rockets hurtled aloft, setting the sky ablaze with colour. Aidan and Rachel, sharing both the statement of the moment and their own private joy, continued to embrace and kiss.

Until now I’d never considered Table Top as anything except a flattish area that might have been similar to the top of a table. The idea that it was actually a mountain peak with a pointy bit poking out of it hadn’t crossed my mind. Arriving at this peak from the side opposite what I’m used to was confusing. This was a state of mind more than anything else, and to be fair to everyone else in the group, I think it only applied to me. Standing in the cloud with next to no visibility, feeling cold, damp and tired and in a confused state of mind, it wasn’t obvious where to go from here, even though we knew exactly where we were and exactly where we wanted to be.

The map made it clear that the main Southern Crossing track we wanted was literally 50 metres south-west of exactly where we stood. With limited visibility, though, the bearing looked as if it was just leading into another steep leatherwood-laden hell-hole. I personally had trouble convincing myself to go that way. It’s a good thing that people other than me were in the group that weekend, with minds that were working much more rationally, and we eventually found a way down the small spur to the north-west, finally locating the main track towards Otaki Forks via Field Hut. That was a really good feeling.

By now we were already going to be at the van at least 2 hours late, but were still hoping that Steve and Alistair wouldn’t be waiting too long. They had several rivers on their route, and we’d been seriously considering the possibility that they wouldn’t make it back by tonight at all. We had the keys for the van, however, and felt a responsibility to get them down as soon as possible just in case. So we split the group, with the idea that Fraser and I would run ahead to try and get down sooner while Craig and Peter would follow behind. Despite my state of mind, I was also convinced that the only way I could keep myself sane after freezing in the Leatherwood was to actually try and go somewhere quickly.

We stopped briefly at Field Hut so we could get something to eat (until now we’d skipped lunch) and so I could replace my completely saturated clothes with something dry, and then hopped on. Actually Fraser did most of the hopping, since by that point I felt as if I was carrying an angry elephant on my shoulders with sharp needles poking out of its hooves, and not even the good kinds of needles that pump in stimulants. The state of the track didn’t help much, either. Seeing it in the daylight just re-inforced how much it’d been pummeled by recent storms, and in one instance it took us a good 5 minutes of searching around in circles to figure out where to go next. It still took us more than 2 hours to get down, mostly thanks to me and my pack-elephant that refused to walk anywhere on its own.

6 of Hearts: “If only I had my full surgical kit”, he mused as he removed the scalpel from its box and used it to cut away the man’s pants. He felt a fine spray of water against his face and looked up.

Fraser and I left via Parawai Lodge, and also via the Ranger Station, writing in both intention books in case Steve and Alistair would check them when passing through, assuming they weren’t already waiting in the rain outside the van 30 minutes up the road. Actually, Fraser wrote in both books while I took a chance to collapse outside, not feeling too well. We hoped the Ranger might be at home so we could exert our charm and beg for a lift back to where we’d parked, but there was no such luck. By the time we reached the van 30-40 minutes later, we found that Craig and Peter had overtaken us, probably during our detours via the intentions’ books. Craig was ready to send Peter and I back to Wellington in Fraser’s car while he slept in the driver’s seat waiting for Steve and Alistair. In a coincidence of timing, however, Steve wandered up the road just as we were re-packing our gear.

So I suppose the whole weekend worked out well, apart from me planning to take at least tomorrow off work. As I’ve already said to several people, this is one of those trips that I’ll be appreciating much more tomorrow than I have today. Right now I think I want to go to bed, just as soon as I’ve figured out what to do with Steve’s pack.

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