I had a free weekend and I realised that I hadn’t been to the Tararuas for about six months! Don’t ask me how this happened because it’s my favourite mountain range. Since I had the time, I made up my mind to get back and visit them again. The weather forecast was changing every hour leading up to my leaving home on Saturday morning, which was probably because the Met service forecasters weren’t very certain about exactly where a particular system was going to hit. It looked as if it might get very rainy, but I guess you can’t really beat the Tararuas when it’s raining. They’re fantastic.
Dates: 2nd – 3rd May, 2009
Location: Tararua Forest Park, Holdsworth road-end.
People: Just me.
Huts visited: Holdsworth Lodge (0 nights), Atiwhakatu Hut (0 nights), Mitre Flats Hut (1 night).
Route: Start at Holdsworth Lodge, walk straight to Mitre Flats (via the track), then walk back.
Being on my own and with the forecast, I made up my mind not to do anything too dramatic, and settled for starting at Holdsworth Lodge and walking north towards Mitre Flats, which would let me red-line the section of track between Mitre Flats and Atiwhakatu Hut. Having driven up from Wellington, I left the Holdsworth road-end at about 10am. From here it was a matter of following the Atiwhakatu River north-west for a while past Donnelly Flats, where about 30 people, all with tents and open flies set up, seemed to be doing some kind of bushcraft or first-aid training involving a mountain radio.
This entire section of track up to Atiwhakatu Hut at the base of Raingauge Spur is part of the very popular Jumbo/Holdsworth loop, and the track is kept in very good condition. It was even much improved on what I remember from about two and a half years ago, when we were occasionally clambering over tree-stumps and so on. Now, nearly the entire track is flat. Every significant side-creek is bridged, and every insignificant side-creek or muddy patch is board-walked. It might almost have been a Great Walk track, except that I saw several twigs that had been loosened from the trees above and not immediately swept away by the lurking wardens of the park.
Atiwhakatu Hut is sign-posted at 3 hours, but for me walking by myself on such a flat track, it was about 90 minutes, possibly slightly longer. The track has been maintained this way the loop is so popular, but I couldn’t help thinking that maybe it was an expensive prank by DOC to lure unsuspecting trampers deep into the Tararuas before unleashing on them the up-ward horrors of Raingauge Spur. I could sense the evil chuckle of the perpetrators as they rubbed their hands together with glee at the approach of another victim whilst they hid in the trees. This time, though, I had one over on them, because I knew that I wasn’t heading up Raingauge at all. I might be wrong about this, to be fair. I haven’t been up in a couple of years and the track up Raingauge could now be far more walkable. Perhaps DOC has installed handrails… and an escalator…
The rain started to fall lightly, which wasn’t much of a bother at first because the tree canopy sheltered me from most of it. I eventually wore my rain-coat over my shirt, mostly to protect it from the loose water coming off bushes that I pushed through from time to time.
Atiwhakatu Hut is currently closed. In fact, it’s about to be pulled down in favour of a new hut due to be opened at the end of May. Smoke emerged from the trees as I approached and the old Atiwhakatu Hut was inhabited. Despite being officially closed, the old hut is currently occupied by the people busy building the new hut, right next door. This is the first time I’ve seen such an event taking place. It was an interesting scene, although at midday Saturday there wasn’t much more than a floor.
Having passed Atiwhakatu and the turn-off up Raingauge Spur, I continued into the red-line jungle. The track this way is still marked, but being off the Holdsworth/Jumbo loop, it suddenly became much more rough in comparison. In practice, this meant less bridges over side-creeks, more mud, more wet tree roots, more slippery rocks, and more undulation. The track is also less direct. The straight line on a map represents a less-straight line in the real world. All of this added to taking about twice the time to cover a similar distance through the rest of the day. Actually it was typical Tararuas under trees.
My nice LINZ S26 Carterton map shows a second track leading up to Jumbo Hut that turns off north of Raingauge Spur track. I loosely kept an eye open for this, but I wasn’t paying attention the whole time and I didn’t see anything obvious. I’m wondering if maybe it’s not a maintained track any longer, but it could be an interesting navigation exercise some time.
The area further on from Atiwhakatu Hut includes a couple of nice campsites. About an hour after leaving it, which had included a brief sit-down for some lunch, I arrived at the swing bridge over the Atiwhakatu River, and this point more or less marks the end of anything that could be said to resemble flat-ness, despite what anyone might say about the track between Holdsworth Lodge and Mitre Flats being flat. It’s only flat compared with the rest of the Tararuas. Immediately after this swing bridge, the markers lead away from the Atiwhakatu River valley, up about a hundred metre climb to the saddle below Baldy (1325). The track then leads down into the Waingawa River valley, half way down a spur on the other side before sidling around and around and over side-creeks, a couple of which I thought might flash-flood in heavy rain. The track finally finds a spur to get down to Mitre Flats.
The first stream after the saddle below Baldy was confusing. My map indicates that the track happily sidles around and crosses the stream. On first reaching it and stepping over, I almost walked straight up a seemingly obvious parting in the trees on the true left which I’m sure people must have been up before, but suddenly this didn’t feel right. Backtracking, I noticed a marker down-stream a little. What actually happens is that it meanders around one of the side creeks for about 30 metres before lifting up on its true right, following beside it for another 20 metres or so, then dropping back from the true right into the stream, which joins another stream coming down at that point from the far side.
As I arrived at this point in the stream, marked by two of the giant orange triangles that DOC uses for entry and exit points, I was still confused. By now I was thinking that perhaps I still needed to continue further down-stream, and I double-checked my map which still implied I should expect to see a way out the other side anywhere near here. 15 seconds later, I found it. A large orange triangle sat in a tree on the true left, at the top of a 2 to 3 metre high steep-ish slope of scree and rock-face, which was not rich in obvious hand and foot holds. This could be awkward, especially given that climbing has never been a big interest of mine. I did manage to clamber up, but only after struggling to find any reasonable hand-holds. Glancing back, I had no idea how I’d get down the following day without blindly kicking around for thin foot-holds that I’d be unlikely to find before slipping, and thoughts of this concerned me for a long time afterwards.
Still, that was tomorrow’s problem. From now I could only hope that it wasn’t a sign of more to come and I bounded up the hillside to put it behind me. The route up this way actually passes through a very pretty moss-covered stream, up part of which it’s necessary to walk. I hadn’t seen anyone since leaving Atiwhakatu Hut, and it was awesome!
For a marked track, I did occasionally think it was a bit thin on the markers. I must have wandered off the track about three or four times, although it was obvious when I had, and it simply meant back-tracking a little and carefully trying alternative routes until I found something that looked very obvious. (I’ve felt more lost in bush on the Tinakori Hill in down-town Wellington than I was on that track.) I never had to resort to trying to use navigation skills.
My LINZ map shows that in the last section towards Mitre Flats, the track briefly splits into two, with an alternative section called Barton Track leading higher up the spur before coming back down and re-joining the track that sidles around the side. Although I noticed several possible places where routes might have led off to the side, I never saw an obvious track split off. At the time I wasn’t paying enough attention to whether I was predominantly climbing or sidling, and I’m still unsure which of these two tracks was the one I followed. Presumably the other is unmaintained, but maybe the higher one is a part of an alternative and more direct route up to Baldy from Mitre Flats.
The final swing bridge over South Mitre Stream was mildly confusing. I walked off the end of it and kept walking along what I thought was a track that evaporated into not much at all 30 metres later. Back-tracking, I discovered I should have doubled-back and walked underneath the bridge. I coasted into Mitre Flats Hut at about 3.10pm, where a couple of other people had also just arrived. They were expecting another four in a family group behind them, having walked in from The Pines. I quickly grabbed a mattress and hauled it out onto the deck for the best bed in the hut before anyone else would have a chance to snatch it.
We waited and we waited for the other four, and after two hours, another couple finally arrived and began pulling off gaiters and boots. Apparently one of the remaining two, who hadn’t arrived, had been having some problems, and they’d decided to bed down on the track under a fly for the night, so it was only the five of us. I read my book, we played 500, we played about four rounds of Last Card during which I only ever picked up a single 5!
For a while it rained outside, but the rain stopped and as darkness fell a crescent moon poked through the clouds from time to time. I heard two gunshots ring out in the distance that night, implying that some hunters were out nearby. Meanwhile the thought of getting down the slope into that stream near Baldy was still playing on my mind, and I was still very concerned. There wasn’t anything I could do about it, though, short of walking out somewhere completely different. I decided that it was likely I was blowing it out of proportion in my head, and that it’d be perfectly okay because people would be going that way frequently and not have any problems. That night on the deck and I had a wonderful dream. Strangely it was all about writing this trip report, having no recollection about anything on Sunday before Atiwhakatu Hut, and concluding that everything between Mitre Flats and Atiwhakatu Hut must have been completely eventless, insignificant and unmemorable, and nowhere near as bad as I was imagining it was going to be. Then I opened my eyes in the face of a bright sky at 7.15am, and I was both happy and sad.
I had everything outside on the deck, and was able to pack without being of much disturbance to those inside (I hope). I poked my nose in to say goodbye, though, and to return my mattress, then I walked away at about 8.20am, returning towards Holdsworth Lodge, taking a slight detour to stand half way over the main bridge over the Waingawa River for a look, before returning around the corner to the other bridge over South Mitre Stream, and from there straight up the spur.
Within a few minutes, a violent fwoo fwoo fwoo fwoo fwoo fwoofwoo fwoofwoofwoo fwoofwoofwoo came from the trees ahead of me, as a Kereru (aka New Zealand Pigeon) distanced itself from my approach. I find Kereru quite amusing to watch. They always come across as being clumsy fliers, and for their size, they tend to land and sit on branches that appear much too small to support their weight. The branches bend a lot but a Kereru will hold on and look at home.
I found that I barely walked off the track in this direction at all — contrasting the previous day when I’d walked off it several times. I spent much of the next 90 minutes, however, wanting to hurry up and get to this problematic stream, at the very least so I could happily discover that it wasn’t a problem at all, perhaps adjust my plans, or otherwise just put it behind me. Within five minutes of it I could hear the water running in the distance, and when I saw a goat track head off beside the main track, I was tempted to follow it on the pretext that perhaps it linked up to a more accessible crossing point. I decided not to do this on the grounds that it wasn’t a very logical course of action, especially as I hadn’t even been back to assess the drop properly and weighing that against following a random goat track, my original intention easily made the most sense. Thus with complete trust in the Department of Conservation, I followed the markers for another 3-4 minutes down to the stream.
And that was when I realised what I’d been hoping would be true all day. It really wasn’t that bad after all. I probably should have taken a third or fourth glance backwards a day earlier, and I might have realised it wasn’t as vertical as I remembered it. Solo tramping is great. There was still need for care, but I could actually see some foot-holds to slide myself into and lower myself down. From there it was one two three over a little scree, and I once again stood on the edge of the stream. It was insignificant and unmemorable, just like my dream had foretold.
And suddenly, for no particular reason, the music of Tom Jones broke into my head. Tom Jones and I celebrated my success with a jelly bean. Then we celebrated with another jelly bean. Then I walked across the stream, and the two of us celebrated once again. I eventually needed to convince Tom Jones that I couldn’t afford to let my teeth fall out before I’d had a chance to munch, crunch and digest my lunch.
“Sure thing!”, said Tom Jones, as he relented, and let me put the jelly beans away.
“Aren’t you getting a bit to old for this?”
“No Way!”, said Tom Jones. “I love tramping, and I love singing!”
And thus he launched himself up ahead and did a twirl on a slippery rock with his microphone in hand. Then I enjoyed, accepted, tolerated and eventually reviled repetitively singing together with Tom Jones as we powered up the hill towards the saddle below Baldy:
It’s not un-u-su-al to be loved by anyone
It’s not un-u-su-al to have fun with anyone
But when I see you something a some–thing anytiyeeeiiime
It’s not un-u-su-al, to see a fryyyy… a wanna yaaaaahhhh
Tom Jones was singing badly out of tune. Twenty repeated first verses later it was clear that he couldn’t even remember the words to his song that he’s been singing for 44 years — a definite sign of senility. I left him deleriously spinning on a wet tree-root, and as I glanced back at the sound of a fwoop fwoop fwoop, I think he was being pecked at by an angry and unappreciative Kereru. There was nothing more I could do for him at the time, but if anyone’s looking for Tom Jones, he was last seen in the Tararuas, in the vicinity of grid reference S26 177367.
The rain had held off and at 10.30am when I stood on the saddle, I briefly considered heading up towards Baldy for a look, but decided it would be something for another day. Therefore from here, it was a 20 minute down-hill slide back to the bridge over the Atiwhakatu River. I’d been meaning to look out for that side track up to Jumbo — the side-creeks around it are easy to identify, and supposedly it starts opposite a substantial slip on the other side (ie. true left) of the Atiwhakatu River. Unfortunately I forgot to keep my eye open at the critical time, and once again didn’t notice any obvious track leading up a spur. Having returned, Amelia (a friend) has already shown me a photo of the giant sign that existed a couple of years ago. I’m reasonably sure I didn’t walk past that, although it wouldn’t be the first time I’d looked through something obvious. I’m curious now if DOC may have de-commissioned maintenance of the track in favour of encouraging everyone who does the Jumbo/Holdsworth loop up Raingauge Spur, but so far this is just me speculating.
I stopped and sat at one of the camp-sites along the way for about 15 minutes since maybe I don’t do enough sitting, and arrived again at Atiwhakatu Hut at almost exactly 12pm.
The new Atiwhakatu Hut looked different! Compared with the previous day, it now even looked like a hut. I was impressed with how quickly it had changed overnight. I guess they must be working on it fairly intensively. It was about lunch time, so while the builders hammered behind the trees, I wandered to the flats in front of the hut and had a quiet lunch in front of the river.
Well that was nice, but by now I was starting to feel as if I was ready to get home, so I didn’t waste much effort in making my way back along the well-graded loop track to the Holdsworth road-end. And the Sun began to come out — at first on the far side of the river, but soon it crept more closely into where I was. From here I finally began to see more people again — typically a mixture of people who looked to be aiming for Jumbo, and several day-walkers and dog-walkers, although there was no way any of the day-walkers could be hoping to complete the loop in a day with remaining daylight. After an hour at 1.15pm, I stopped for a couple of minutes contemplating whether I might want to head up the hill to Mountain House, just to see it again for the first time in a while, but I decided against it reasoning that the detour would probably add at least an hour. So at 2pm I walked out past Holdsworth Lodge and back to the car, and that was the end of a nice overnighter.