Trip: Up Hector. Down Hector.

Labour weekend of 2013 is meant to be a three and a half day treat from Otaki Forks, up to Hector and around a loop involving Neill-Winchcombe, Maungahuka and the Tararua Peaks. The weather forecast doesn’t look that great. Some rain, but more significantly there’s strong alpine wind predicted at speeds of between 70 and 110 km/hour as the weekend progresses, potentially getting worse. No doubt Tararua tramping at its best. Uhh, yeah…. We may need a backup plan.

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Craig climbing Field Peak.

Dates: 25th – 26th October, 2013
Location: Tararua Forest Park, Otaki Forks.
People: Craig, Debbie, WeiMin and me.
Huts visited: Field Hut (1 night), Kime Hut (0 nights), Parawai Lodge (0 nights).
Intended route: (From Friday to Monday) Otaki Forks up to Hector (Field Hut on Friday night), then Winchcombe, Neill, and navigate down spur direct to Neill Forks Hut for Saturday night. Up past Maungahuka, Tararua Peaks and back to Kime for Sunday night. Return to Otaki Forks on Monday.
Alternate route: Continue beyond Hector to Aston, then to Elder Biv for Saturday night. Past Renata and Maymorn Junction on Sunday, then up to Kapakapanui for Sunday night. Follow ridge along and past Pukeatua (.812) on Monday, back to Otaki Forks via Fenceline.
Actual route: Up Hector (almost). Down Hector.
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All four of us convene at platform 9, after work on Friday night, and we’re away soon after. There’s already some dissent about the planned meal for tomorrow night. Debbie doesn’t much like the taste of kumura and WeiMin just doesn’t want to carry four of them. During our Waikanae dinner stop, WeiMin rushes away to New World and buys a 500 gram packet of rice. That’ll be enough to replace about half of the former ingredients.

I think WeiMin’s brought his own dinner from home. Debbie, Craig and I wander back to one of the fish and chip shops—the one that’s furthest away from where we parked, but which also has the most customers. It’s been a while since I’ve had fish and chips, but going tramping is a good excuse to pig out. Besides, we have to climb up 700 vertical metres before sleeping tonight.

Otaki Forks is a busy place on the Friday before Labour Weekend. There are many people around with children, who look like family groups. Hopefully there will be space up at Field, and there are several directions people can go from here, but with the overnight car-park as it is, we’re not sure.

We’re away shortly after 8pm. Debbie and WeiMin race ahead, expecting Craig and I to catch up after. There’s been rain in the past few days, which admittedly is not a statement to narrow down potential time-frames in the Tararuas. The Waiotauru River, however, is in enough flood that it’d be bad to be caught in the middle. I carefully make my way across the water-logged parts of the riverbed to take some water from the fast-flowing torrent nearer the centre. Craig is high above me on the bridge and I yell out to ask if he can wait on the far side. He doesn’t hear me above the noise. No matter. I get things sorted, run back up to the bridge, over to the far side, and soon enough I catch a reflection of my torch-light some way ahead of me, from the back of his pack.

It’s dusk, and we’re already walking in torch-light. Craig has a new torch which he bought this afternoon and which hasn’t been tested. This has potential to become an interesting escapade.

Despite relative calm this evening, the forecast wind is still a question on both of our minds, and in particular how it might affect our weekend. Neill-Winchcombe ridge, east of Hector, is really an idea which needs adequate weather, certainly where wind is concerned. In unfavourable conditions at the wrong point in time, there’s really nowhere convenient to go. Craig’s suggested a plan B as an alternative, in which (with enough of a weather window) we could get over Hector and scoot around the Dress Circle, then down to Elder Biv for Saturday night. Then, over Sunday and Monday, we could casually make our way back to Otaki Forks via Kapakapanui and Fenceline. It’s perhaps not as interesting as the Maungahuku/Tararua Peaks idea, but plan B is seeming increasingly inviting if tomorrow’s wind is anything other than really really nice.

We catch up with Debbie and WeiMin, who have stopped to wait for who-knows-how-like as Craig and I have been yakking. Somehow they end up getting ahead again, regardless. Craig and I aren’t going especially quickly, but we happen upon Field Hut at about 10.40pm, after a little over 2.5 hours of walking. Not the fastest ascent to Field in history but perfectly adequate. I’m unsure how long Debbie and WeiMin have been here… probably just a few minutes. Debbie asks if anyone wants a brew, but nobody’s keen, so instead the billy is just filled with water to be ready for heating tomorrow morning. Most conveniently, however, nobody else is home. All those people at the Otaki Forks car-park must have stayed there, or camped, or gone to Parawai Lodge, or to YTYY, or who knows… But they’re not here, which gives us some flexibility to be more noisy in arranging ourselves.

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Field Hut on Saturday morning.

It’s a great sign of a real tramping hut to have more mattresses than there are spaces for them. It’s an acknowledgement, from the people who provide the hut (or at least foster it—thanks TTC), that a hut isn’t “full” simply because there are enough people to fill its designated number of beds, and that nobody has a monopoly over others who turn up. Generally anti-social as we are, Debbie and WeiMin take the big wide downstairs sleeping platform. Craig takes the entirity of upstairs, and I drag a mattress across the floor until it’s under the kitchen bench. Nighty night.

Friday night melts into Saturday morning, and I hear little or no wind outside during the occasions that I lie awake. Maybe it’s a positive sign for the upcoming day, but I can’t help but think that Field Hut just happens to be nicely sheltered from the nor-westerlies. Debbie likes a good 90 minutes to prepare for leaving, so our planned 8am departure results in a 6.30am alarm. It was light outside anyway. Debbie gets the billy boiling, which I make use of by combining the water with some rolled oats. The biggest annoyance, for me, is when I discover I’ve left my overtrousers behind. Crud. That could be annoying on the tops if the wind gets up. Hopefully I can get by with stripey long johns.

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After discussing with the others, I optimistically write our plan A, for Neill-Winchcombe, into the book. Underneath it, I pessimistically write our plan B. I can’t be bothered to write plan C, which would be to be back here before night-fall. Then I glance at what used to be 2 litres of water which I’d filled up last night, added to another litre elsewhere in my pack. By this morning it’s only down to about 1.5 litres, so it perhaps wasn’t the most efficient way to hop up to Field Hut. I guess I’m still affected by the time I ran out of water in a drought several years ago, and I top it up again to a full 2 litres, from Field Hut’s tank, for a 3 litre total once taking into account the secret water which I have stashed elsewhere…. just in case we have a long day ahead of us.

I take a look around in the daylight as we assemble outside. That sign, which has been there forever, stating that “people have recently been rescued from the Penn Creek track”, is no longer standing. Somebody’s uprooted it and it’s happily lying on the ground.

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WeiMin, Debbie and Craig.

Craig and Debbie emerge, looking as if they’re having an embarassing fashion moment where they’ve both decided to wear the same thing. They haven’t noticed it yet. I’m more than happy to point out that they have the same brightly coloured polypropolene stripes between Debbie’s top and Craig’s rolled-up balaclava. Classy. My own polypropylene long johns have more originally-coloured strips, which is much less embarassing than Craig and Debbie must be feeling right now. With everything in hand, I hope, we commence our ascent towards Kime Hut The Third, which has recently replaced Kime Hut The Second. We’ll need to assess the conditions as we go, but hopefully after that we’ll be continuing on towards Hector.

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Field Hut isn’t far below the bush-line, so within about 20 minutes we’re walking through a tussocky landscape. I take a sip of water, but ewww, it’s disgusting. I really should have remembered this—Field Hut water is often disgusting. The roof of Field Hut, from which the water drains into the tank, is often covered in soot. Maybe topping up my own water with Field Hut tank water was not the smartest thing to do, but at least it’s not one of those days where I’m especially thirsty. Normally I expect mountain water to taste good, but yuck. It’s disgusting.

Cloud is coming and going, but so far travel isn’t too hard. The ground’s slightly slushy in places, not that it makes much difference along the boardwalked sections of Table Top, which is boardwalked simply because someone decided that people walking along here in slushy conditions wasn’t doing much to help the surrounding environment. 35 minutes after we left Field Hut, we reach the junction of the main, marked track down to Penn Creek Hut. Our rate is reasonable enough, if not super-fast, but more worrying is that the wind is becoming more obvious as we reach higher and more exposed elevations. Something to keep an eye on.

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Craig climbing Hut Mound.

Today we’re heading towards Kime, but if we’d been aiming for the Tararua Peaks, there are a couple of possible turn-offs. Coming up from Field, there’s a poled route which leads off in that direction, but sidles around the climb of Hut Mound. It’s marked with a big orange triangle, but (presently at least) no signs to indicate which poles are leading to where. I guess if someone didn’t know the area or wasn’t keeping track of where they were going, they might accidentally follow those poles on the presumption that they led straight to Kime. Further up, at the top of Hut Mound, is a sign-posted junction which also leads off towards the Tararua Peaks and Maungahuka.

WeiMin and Debbie have gone ahead, once again. Craig and I catch them up at Kime Hut III. From the top of Hut Mound at 10.15am, we waltz down the hill to arrive at about 10.20am. The new Kime Hut is rather gloomy, just barely visible in the clouds. No matter, though. Unlike the 1970s-built Kime II, which had often been dubbed as the refrigerator (Craig, in 2009, measured the indoor temperature to be 0.6 degrees celsius warmer than the outdoor temperature), we have it on good Department of Conservation authority that the new Kime Hut III is fully thermo-wrapped. It has full insulation, and large double-glazed windows that are oriented to face the Sun. If it’s not already toasty inside, you could bet it’d warm up quickly once people arrive. Yep, no doubt.

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Mmmmmmm. I bet it’s warm and toasty in Kime Hut III.

Kime Hut III is not yet officially opened. It doesn’t have a Department of Conservation asset number stamped on the inside of the door. There’s no clearly labelled Fire Exit, and several signs of various sorts are still lying on their side inside the hut, waiting to be placed somewhere outside. Without all this signage and labeling of fire exits and potentially dangerous water, it’s not particularly safe by New Zealand government standards, so use at your own risk. There’s nothing preventing entry, however, and a hut book demonstrates that a continuous flow of people have been through.

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One of two sets of platform bunks
inside Kime III.

Kime Hut becomes an ad-hoc snack stop, and also a place to assess how we’re going. What it apparently isn’t, however, is warm on the inside. Craig immediately begins his temperature experiment which he began on the previous incarnation of Kime, placing a thermometer outside for ten minutes to measure a balmy 4.7 degrees Celsius. Then the thermometer is brought indoors and placed on its own. While this is going on, he makes a point that the bunks at Kime III are no longer made from slats of wood, so unlike Kime II, people won’t be able to remove slats from the beds to use for firewood.

We generally decide that we’ll be looking at plan B, towards Elder Biv, and there’s no urgency to get away. Immediately after I arrive, I find all my disgusting Field Hut water, tip out the remaining 2.8 litres (apparently I only drank 200 ml on the way up to Kime), and fill it back up to the top with some nice, non-yucky Kime Hut water. Once again, 3 litres, just in case we have a long day ahead of us. Before long, four people have been inside Kime Hut III for the better part of an hour. The interior temperature? 4.2 degrees C, or a good 0.5 degrees colder than it is outside. Maybe we should be sitting out on the deck in the clouds for our snack?

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Craig, Debbie and WeiMin returning down Hector.

We’re away again from about 11.30am, towards the top of Field Peak within about 15 minutes, then hopefully up to Hector and around the Dress Circle. Unfortunately as we begin to drop of Field Peak, however, the wind starts to become more apparent. It’s magnified even more-so as we climb up the side of Hector. After a couple of occasions of people being blown off their feet, we start getting concerned about the far side of Hector, which incorporates some especially exposed rocky areas where there might not be much to hold onto if the wrong gust shows up at the wrong time. Reluctantly, at 12.20pm and after a short discussion, we turn around below the summit of Hector.

It’s probably a good decision, and we can tell as we back-track that the wind is really only getting worse. Jaunting back up the south-eastern side of Field Peak, I momentarily get bowled over and have to seek some shelter inside the half-metre deep ditch which conveniently makes up much of the Tararua Southern Crossing route. Searching behind me, WeiMin and Debbie have had to brace themselves against a rock, facing into the wind. They’re poised there for a good 3.5 minutes, and I’m lying in my comfortable ditch for just as long. It’s rather amusing, but the gust eventually lifts off. We can proceed up and over Field Peak, then down and around the corner back to Kime. After a few photo-stops, Craig and I wander in at about 1pm, some time after the others.

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WeiMin and Debbie, bracing themselves during a strong 3 minute gust from the west (right).
Very amusing.
Meanwhile I’m lying on the southern side of Field Peak with a camera, where I fell over.
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There’s no rush under the circumstances, but this time we only remain at Kime for 40 minutes. Craig is opportunistic, once again, to take another reading. The result? 5.2 degrees C outside, 4.9 degrees C inside! For now at least, the new Kime is acting as more of a refrigerator as the old Kime. I check my water—I’ve barely drunk any at all, but I still top it up again to 3 litres… just in case we have a long day ahead of us. Besides, if we stay at Field tonight, I want to be drinking as little of that Field Hut water as possible!

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Debbie and WeiMin waiting.

Without being able to go forwards, we are in an uncertain mind-set of what to do next. Penn Creek, maybe? We could doubtless get there, but with some heavy rain forecast overnight there would be no guarantee we could get out on Sunday. We leave Kime, shortly before 2pm, dissapointedly making our way over Table Top, back towards Field Hut.

On the way down, we pass a lone man on his way to Kime. He plans to stay the night. We wish him well, and wonder if he might find himself trapped there, in an ice-box surrounded by extreme winds, until at least Monday. Some time around now, when hanging towards the back of our group with Craig, my foot goes the wrong way, and WHAM… knee slams straight into a rock. Ouch. It’s hurting, and takes a minute or two for me to pull myself together. Hopefully it’s nothing serious.

From the tail-end of our group, I glance towards the west, between gaps in the cloud, and mentally trace imaginary lines down the dominant structure of Rae Ridge. If I’d seen the wispy clouds highlighting its magnificence before we’d left Kime Hut, I might have proposed the idea of dropping down that way. Sadly it’s too late and we’d not informed anyone or written any intentions anyway. We’ll see what’s happening at Field Hut.

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Rae Ridge, from near Table Top.

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A tree.

Below the bush-line again, we see more people making their way up. “The Hut’s Full”, says a woman, with an intonation in her voice which suggests we obviously can’t stay there. It’s about 4pm.

Full, you say? Uh, okay. Never mind that it’s a tramping hut, with more mattresses than bed spaces. I’m sure we’ll fit. But hey, that’s why we bring portable shelter even when others don’t. My knee still hurts, but I can’t see what’s happening through the polypropylene long johns. It looks as if there’s some blood.

Closer to the hut, though, we’re not so sure. It’s not just full… it’s full of people who really seem to be there for different reasons to ourselves. It’s full of people who are clearly out for a long-weekend outing, a short distance from the road with the family. It’s great to see so many children in the hills.

We sit on the deck outside, deciding what to do. Maybe we’ll just go home, which would be a shame. We haven’t even cooked up one of our meals yet. WeiMin’s carried 2 kumura and half a kilogram of rice all this way, for no reward.

Maybe we could cook up a meal here, at Field, before walking down to leave tonight. That could work, except there’s a risk we’d not feel like doing much after eating, despite being stuck at a hut jam-packed full of people who are getting to do what they chose to do when we’re not. It’s a shame we couldn’t get to the interior.

Hmmm.. perhaps go downstairs and cook something up at Parawai Lodge at the Forks? That might work. Let’s do that, and if we don’t feel like cooking, we can just leave. We agree. Debbie and WeiMin get going, while Craig and I are distracted chatting with two women who’ve turned up on a hopeful Southern Crossing attempt. It’s unlikely they’ll manage it, but they’re keen to keep heading to Kime, so that guy probably won’t be there all on his own. Funnily enough, however, they don’t want to stay at Field tonight. I check my water… still 3 litres. Good thing I don’t need to top anything up with disgusting Field Hut water. We all wave goodbye and at 4.30pm we go our separate ways.

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Our walk down is a fairly standard jaunt from Field to the forks. We pass one chap close to Field. I’m not sure I’ll tell him what’s in store, but he’d probably have a vague idea. Further down, we meet a younger German guy, propelling himself up the hill with a pair of shiny walking poles and what looks to be a relatively tiny back-pack. Good luck to him.

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Debbie and WeiMin are waiting for Craig and myself near the lower end of the stairs, about where things flatten into the lawn-mower track. It’s about 7pm by now, fairly late for dinner but we’ve resolved to do some cooking.

Within 15 minutes we’ve followed the weaving routes around the Forks and arrive at Parawai Lodge, which is also full of people but where we also meet a few other friends from the trampey club whom we’d not expected to see, including Anna and Barbara. With the hut being such a bustling place full of families with young children enjoying their time here, we base ourselves outside on the deck, chopping up veggies in preparation for what eventuates as a very nice, improvised curry that incorporates elements of both our planned nights’ meals. Somehow we manage to do away with WeiMin’s 2 oversized kumura, and 500 grams of rice, all of which has now completed a round trip to Mt Hector and back. It tastes good.

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Parawai Lodge.

During our meal preparation, the German chap with the shiny walking poles returns. I’m not sure why he turned around… maybe because he’d not arrived at Field Hut by a certain time. He’s apparently new to Wellington, and keen to get outdoors, but he’d previously been stationed in Christchurch and misses the Southern Alps, which he thinks is the height of the kiwi experience. I guess I won’t agree with everyone on this, but I personally reckon that if the Tararuas were in the South Island, everyone would think they were awesome.

The air’s quite calm down here, but all evidence suggests that, upstairs, the wind’s doing nothing but picking up in strength even more than what we’d seen. I’d not be surprised if the three people we saw heading towards Kime Hut will find themselves trapped in a refrigerator for two nights in a row, if not longer. Tuesday’s forecast looked fabulous before we left… that would be the Tuesday after Labour Day’s Monday. Sitting on the deck of Parawai Lodge, I take another look at my knee. I think that’s definitely blood coming through the polypropylene. Water? Still 3 litres.

Would anyone like 3 litres of Kime Hut water?

[silence]

I trundle around to an area of darkness somewhere behind Parawai Lodge, upturn it, and listen as 3 kilograms of water drains into the ground.

Craig’s kind enough to drop each of us at home. It’s only when I step out of the van that I discover I’m hobbling. I can barely walk. That knee whacking might have been worse than I anticipated. I’ll have to check it out.

It’s been difficult for a long weekend, given we had just a single night before going home, but it’s also Labour weekend which has a reputation for unsettled weather. Sometimes that’s just how things go, and there’s always an up-side to getting out in the hills. Maybe we’ll do something else tomorrow or Monday, and then the weekend will feel more complete, if my knee improves. At least the long johns were an okay substitute for my lack of over-trousers on this occasion. It could have been more annoying if things were colder or snowier.

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