I think the Holdsworth Jumbo Circuit (AKA the Powell Jumbo Loop, the Jumbo Powell Loop, the Jumbo Holdsworth Loop, and so on), is by far the most popular tramp in the Tararuas. The circuit is typically walked over a couple of days, and the three back-country huts spaced around it are supposedly responsible for some insanely high proportion of hut ticket revenue for all of Tararua Forest Park. (Higher than 50% at least.) The Holdsworth road-end is one of the Tararuas’ most accessible, and the loop attracts people from all sorts of backgrounds. For many people it’s their first experience outdoors.
Date: 15th May, 2010
Location: Tararua Forest Park, Holdsworth Road-end.
People: Megan S, Megan B, Richard, Christine, Katja and me.
Huts visited: Holdsworth Lodge (0 nights, camping nearby), Mountain House Shelter (0 nights), Powell Hut (0 nights), Jumbo Hut (0 nights), Atiwhakatu Hut (0 nights).
Route: From Holdsworth road-end up to Powell Hut, over Holdsworth to Jumbo, down to Jumbo Hut, down the alternative track north of Raingauge Spur, then past Atiwhakatu Hut back to the Holdsworth road-end.
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We walked the Holdsworth Jumbo Circuit as a daywalk, which is very feasible if you’re reasonably quick, and easier if you’re taking daypacks rather than tramping packs. We’d heard of others walking the loop in about 8 hours, but without much context to go on. With nobody being certain exactly how long it’d take, we drove to the Holdsworth road-end on Friday night to camp in preparation for an early getaway — staying at Holdsworth lodge would have been preferable, except that it’s closed for maintenance at present.
It’s amazing how much extra junk it’s necessary to take just for camping overnight, or perhaps it simply spread out because we didn’t have nice structured packs to stuff it all into. At least we were able to leave it behind in the morning. Christine and I both still forgot to bring inflatable mattresses in any case, so had to get used to sleeping on the harder ground, although it fortunately wasn’t too cold.
By morning we still hadn’t finalised which direction we’d walk the loop, the choices being to either head up past Powell and get onto the tops immediately, or to stay in the valley until Atiwhakatu Hut and then head directly up to Jumbo Hut at the bush-line. The weather systems were fairly complicated with a couple of fronts on the way through, the first of which hit overnight with some rain. We hoped to avoid too much wind, though, and when the rain held off for a while in the morning we elected to go straight up to Powell in the hope that we might get through the section on the tops during a break in the weather.
After a wake-up at six am (ten hours of time to sleep but it’s never quite enough), we managed to get away and walking at around ten past seven, passing Holdsworth Lodge a few minutes later in it’s partly-renovated state. With the doubt about how long it might take, we also took torches just in case we were walking out in the dark. As-ever pessimistic, I personally threw in my bivy bag, but never expected to need it.
The track up the hill is very well maintained, sidling around as it climbs slowly. We reached Rocky Lookout a few minutes before eight, having overtaken a collection of happy guys on their way down to Totara Flats for a hunting exhibition. (We heard them and smelt the cigarette smoke five minutes before catching up.) They were having a great time and were fun to chat to briefly. With another twenty five minutes up the hill, we reached the sign-posted track junction that splits off to Totara Flats. It’s a few minutes after this where things flatten out to Pig Flat, and DoC has installed some lengthy boardwalks… not always the nicest things to walk on, but I guess it makes sense with the amount of people this track gets. Pig Flat was also the first view of Powell Hut, perched as a small dot up on the spur ahead of us, chaperoned in a way by the dominant shape of High Ridge out to its left. We passed Mountain House (just a shelter these days) at about eight forty.
From Mountain House, the track up to Powell becomes more steep. It’s still well graded at first, but eventually it’s necessary to clamber up a few small rock faces that require a moment’s consideration. The rain had begun again, too, which meant that by the time we reached some of the more exposed rocky out-croppings, we began to get decidedly wet. No matter, though, because Powell Hut wasn’t too far away. We walked in at twenty past nine. The hut is sign-posted at four hours from the road and this is probably a realistic time for many groups who walk to Powell Hut, but with daypacks and generally being reasonably quick, it was a little over two hours.
Nobody was home, although the book indicated some people had left earlier in the morning on the way down to Mid-Waiohine. Sitting in Powell Hut and regrouping, we spent about half an hour deciding what to do next. Rain was coming through intermittently and the wind outside was icy, not strong overall but every so often coming in ominous gusts that caused the windows to rattle. We also had one member of the group feeling a little queasy, with the climb apparently having made it worse.
In the end we put on full storm gear to deter the wind and carried on, with possible bail-out plans of either heading back the way we came, or going down the East Holdsworth track. Mt Holdsworth itself is about a 270 metre climb from Powell Hut, which we thought could possibly take nearly an hour going by standard metrics, but it was surprisingly fast. We stood at the trig on the top at half past ten. Perhaps the speed was due to the wind lashing us for much of the way up, but I bet the daypacks helped. Then a funny thing happened, and the sun broke through the clouds.
The wind was still cold and occasionally gusty, but with everyone covered up that wasn’t too much of an issue, and the walk along the tops towards Jumbo became an increasingly nice jaunt. It’s very well marked simply by the amount of people who walk it, especially in these conditions when there’s no snow around. One thing I regret is that I forgot to look out for the plane wreckage on Shingle Slip Knob, which is supposed to have been placed back in its original location after having been illegally and bizzarely removed last year by the New Zealand Sport and Vintage Aviation Society and Wairarapa Helicopters. (For a more complete explanation see:     and  .) It must have been clearly visible from Mt Holdsworth, but by the time I remembered we’d walked too far, and the site was hidden by the jutting-out shape of Angle Knob. Oh well.
From Holdsworth to Jumbo (Peak) took about an hour of procrastinated walking between half past ten and half past eleven, which we tried to spread out because we didn’t want to leave the tops too early. After ten minutes of hanging around on Jumbo in an increasingly nice weather window, we veered to the east back down to Jumbo Hut (about thirty minutes away), to find three pot-smoking guys sitting around having a good time. I don’t think I’ll ever understand the pot-smoking thing (or even the smoking thing) but they were out having a good enough time — they’d walked here from Powell Hut this morning, in worse conditions than we’d done. They commented on how covered up I was, which I’d completely forgotten about until this point, so I sat down to remove my beanie and my balaclava and my mittens and my raincoat and my overtrousers, and suddenly my daypack was much more full. As they left to head down Rainguage Spur to Atiwhakatu Hut, where they planned to stay the night, the six of us settled into lunch.
Checking out the look book at Jumbo Hut demonstrated just how popular-a-circuit this is, and why it’s responsible for so much hut ticket revenue. The past couple of weeks had seen two large groups (one school and one scout, I think), as well as countless other casual groups of visitors in between. These huts must be packed to overflowing at times, which I think makes me more glad we were walking the loop as a daywalk.
The thirty minutes of sitting around for lunch gave us more time to consider options. The “official” Holdsworth Jumbo Circuit (if there’s such a thing as official) follows Raingauge Spur from Jumbo Hut. It has a reputation of being one of the stinkiest worst steepest and most horrible climbs in the Tararuas, although I think this may be a combination of it being fairly steep, and having so many people walk it — I don’t personally remember much about Raingauge Spur from last time I went up in late 2006. With time on our side, it still being merely twelve forty, we elected to head down the alternative track that’s north of the main Raingauge Spur track, which has a reputation of being a much nicer walk, although it drops to about two kilometres north of Atiwhakatu Hut rather than going there directly.
The alternative track is sign-posted from just behind Jumbo Hut, although it almost looks as if the sign is pointing down Raingauge Spur when the track actually leave directly behind the sign. It is a nice track, too, with pretty goblin forest near the top. I’ve come to dislike Crown Ferns in general (the knee-high ones that hide the ground underneath), but this particular track showed me they can actually be very nice when there’s a good track through them. The walk to the camp-site on the Atiwhakatu River at the bottom of the track took about an hour, after which we commenced following the more yucky (but still walkable) track for the remaining two kilometres to Atiwhakatu Hut, arriving shortly after two pm. Despite having walked past this hut during five separate stages of its being re-built last year , this is the first time I’ve had an opportunity to visit it since its completion, and it was nice to see it. After a year the hut’s still vaguely sterile — it’s not yet covered with ad-hoc clothes-lines and other bits and pieces that people have brought in, but it’s getting there.
The timing was going really well at this point — we’d been walking for about seven hours, not especially rushing, and completed the better part of the loop with only a flat walk out remaining. The three smoking chaps we’d met up at Jumbo were already relaxing on the picnic table out front, and they greeted us happily. A few others were also hanging out in the hut, including a group of young children having a great time spreading out on the platform bunks inside. As we were there, another group of people showed up and carried on towards Mitre Flats, before yet another couple of small groups drifted in. It must have been about that time of day.
We left Atiwhakatu Hut at about half past two, and from here the track out to Holdsworth is really well graded and hard… not such a good thing for tramping boots or feet, but probably much better for the track’s ability to cope with the amount of the people it sees. This section of track must also be very interesting for a person who wanted to see a variety of different kinds of New Zealand back-country bridges. Nearly every tiny side-creek is bridged, and there are a plethora of different styles, including the odd bridge that looks quite out of place but does the job perfectly well.
On our way out, we passed a couple of other quite large groups of adults and children walking in. Needless to say, the twelve bunk Atiwhakatu Hut was going to be very packed this Saturday night. It’s a very accessible hut, though, and a great target for such groups since the original hut was replaced last year. I guess the main thing to take into account, which of course applies everywhere in New Zealand, is that you should definitely be prepared to camp outside if you visit a hut like Atiwhakatu Hut.
It was ten to four as we arrived at Donnelly Flats, which would have been a great place to camp if we’d intended to take all our camping gear with us. Twenty minutes later, we arrived back at the road where the cars were parked. Not a bad day in all — almost exactly nine hours, although from that experience I’d expect it could be done in a couple of hours less by someone who didn’t bother so much with stopping, and a crazy mountain runner would probably knock it off in half the time. On the other hand, it also makes a pretty good overnight weekend tramp.