Tararua Adventure Guide, by Jonathan Kennett (a few thoughts)

Cover picture of Tararua Adventure Guide, by Jonathan Kennett

The Tararua Adventure Guide, by Jonathan Kennett, was recently published in August 2010 by the Kennett Brothers. It’s available in a bunch of places such as outdoor shops, probably some bike shops given who’s publishing it, a few online bookstores if you search around, and allegedly good book shops. (I couldn’t find it in the likes of Whitcoulls or Borders, but no surprises there.) It cost me about $21.25 after an FMC affiliation discount, and for that I got a 152 page paperback handbook, including a 3 page index. The price was right!

Bivouac in Wellington was sold out when I first visited to snap up a copy during September, but they had another shipment coming in the next day, and sure enough about 10 copies were displayed on the counter a day later. I guess it’s been a popular book. This should be expected because the Tararuas are on Wellington’s doorstep, and there’s not been much of an attempt at a decent route guidebook for ages, possibly not since Merv Rodgers’ Tararua Footprints of 1996. Please post a comment below if you think I’ve missed a recent good one in the past 15 years. I’ve not been on the scene long enough to be sure.

An unlikely twist to my purchase was that I’d only just managed to track down my own copy of the 1996 Tararua Footprints about a week earlier, after several years of trying. The reason for this lack of guides that specifically target the Tararuas is probably the relatively localised market that is the greater Wellington region combined with the small proportion of people who often get into the outdoors to the extent of being able to benefit from such a guide. Few people beyond the lower North Island would buy such a book, and it’s a risk for a publishing company to run off the thousands of copies likely to be needed just to break even. The initial print run is 2000 copies, which is probably on the low side for most publishers. The Kennett Brothers have a recent history of publishing books to similar localised and niche markets, especially around mountain biking, so my guess would be that they’re probably in a better position to understand the audience and distribution channels, and could manage the risk better than less specialised publishers.

About the book

The Tararua Adventure Guide is a description of all the main things to do in the Tararua Range. It’s not restricted to tramping, and is more of an adventure guide as the title suggests. The author has filled about a third of the book with “classic tramps” of the Tararuas, and another quarter towards the end with additional popular tramps and less common routes. The rest is filled with ideas for short walks and daytrips, several good river explorations, a single canyoning adventure (Chamberlain Creak), a few pages on mountain runs and mountain bike rides, and two pages about hunting and fishing opportunities. That last one is more as an explanation than a guide for hunters, and only a paragraph of the section is actually about fishing. The book has photographs scattered throughout, as well as brief history notes here and there, helping to give a better feel for the areas being described.

A small scale map at the front of the book indicates the main road-end access points, and with a splattering of numbers over the map there’s an approximate indication of where the activities listed in the facing page’s table of contents occur. A lengthy introduction describes the main access points of the Tararuas, and explains some basics of tramping in New Zealand such as things about huts, water quality, general etiquette, and common terms unlikely to be heard outside New Zealand. There’s also a “Hut Bagger’s File” at the back, listing 48 huts of the Tararuas and their basic characteristics. The table has a few omissions such as the mysterious Snowy River Hut, the emergency-only Eastern Hutt Hut, and also (as someone recently point out to me) North Mangahao Biv—the northernmost hut in the Tararuas. I’m sure all of these can be excused, however, because they’re not on many people’s radar. 🙂

The longer descriptions in this book (generally for “classic routes”, river adventures, mountain runs) are all described with a short introduction that roughly indicates what to expect, an elevation graph to show how much climbing and descending to anticipate, a rating such as ‘Beginner’, ‘Intermediate’ or ‘Experienced’ and variations as appropriate, a list of maps required, the starting and ending points, and a route description divided into segments on the order of about an hour or three per segment, give or take, with the approximate times clearly indicated in the margin next to the description. Except for a few references to park maps, all referenced maps are from the current Topo50 map series.

Some additional tramping routes towards the back get most of the above elements in their descriptions, but without elevation graphs. A few additional pages describe “seldom travelled ridges and rivers”, giving about a paragraph for each, and approximate times.

Before getting into criticisms, I should state that I don’t think my criticisms really have much to stand on if one goes into the book with the right expectations. If you’re reading this review to find out about the book, you’ll hopefully have a better idea of what to expect. The expectation should be that this is a guide book primarily for specific full-length trips, with some good ideas of stuff to do in the Tararuas. It includes lots of information that will be handy to have on the shelf for reference, but most route detail in the book is described as a consequence of explaining a larger trip from start to finish. As long as you’re already up with the basics of getting outdoors and partaking in your chosen recreational activity whether it be tramping, mountain biking, kayaking or tubing, or mountain running, this book will give you some good ideas about where to go in the Tararuas, along with detail about how to do it.

Possible criticisms

Of the detailed descriptions, most are written to a verbose level of detail that describes characteristics of specific signs and track markers. The book could date quickly in that respect if it’s not replaced by new editions, but anyone reading it in years to come could probably work around this by applying some intelligence in the obvious places. Before taking this criticism too seriously, it should also be noted that the detail is a strength.

A small number of the informal comments are also quite out there. Usually they add colour to the description, but sometimes they may come over as over-enthusiastic. For instance, in the introduction to the Holdsworth/Jumbo Loop after expressing how stunning it is, the author states “Don’t be surprised if DOC classifies this as a Great Walk one day.” To take this example, I quite like the Holdsworth/Jumbo loop and doubtless it’s a very accessible loop for many people, but I’m not personally sure it’s Great Walk material, or will ever be. Even if taxpayers funded giant escalators along the 750 metre 1:3.3 gradient climb up Raingauge Spur, and even if a special purpose 4 kilometre tunnel were commissioned and dug between Powell Hut and Jumbo Hut to ensure the tourist conveyor belt wouldn’t pile up every time the exposed tops were taking a battering, I still wouldn’t think of it as a fantastic Great Walk and I’m not sure I’d want it to be one. 🙂 So far everyone I’ve asked seems to think along similar lines. One attraction of the Tararuas is that it hasn’t been overrun by a tourism industry that tends to make places more sterile and less accessible for locals.

Overall impression

The Tararua Adventure Guide is a nicely constructed book. Once you’ve picked it up and flipped through a few pages it’s obvious what you’re going to get. The information is clear, well formatted and easy to find and re-find. The language is fairly informal, and the author’s excitement and enthusiasm often shows through. Editing is also done professionally, and unlike some books of a similar nature I didn’t keep finding myself distracted by mistakes in spelling and grammar. I’m really glad someone’s managed to find a way to get a book like this published, and do it well.

The author’s used every opportunity to add useful pieces of information about things like campsites, states of tracks, and little things to look out for that can help one find their way through a route in the Tararuas. Later in the book my attention waned and I tended to flick through the descriptions more often than read them in detail. This was not because of the quality so much as the type of book. Most text is in detailed track descriptions, and it’s a book that’s better to read for the relevant details once you have an idea of what you want to do. I think I’d be likely to come back and consult particular parts of the book if and when I’m planning to visit certain places.

Through its focus on what’s most popular, it’s probably also of most immediate interest to people who have not seen much of the Tararuas. Due to the diversity of types of activities covered, few people will find every part of the book relevant. For me, my own main interest was in tramping rather than something like mountain running or mountain biking. For people who have visited the Tararua Range already, and are continuing to do so, this book can also act as a tick-list to help verify that one’s covered all the main things they might want to make sure they do in the range without missing anything obvious.

When I first heard there was a new Tararua Guide Book out, I bought it in hope that it might be comparable with, or even a replacement for Merv Rodgers’ 1996 Tararua Footprints book. Jonathan Kennett is a former member of the Victoria University Tramping Club, and (to unfairly apply a stereotype) that club has a reputation of spinning out people who know the Tararuas extremely well, and have been virtually everywhere there is to go, both off-track and on. Reading the book, it’s clear that Jonathan Kennett knows what he’s on about, but the book itself is not a drop-in replacement for a route guide like Tararua Footprints because the Tararua Adventure Guide isn’t written to cater to such people.

While the 1996 Tararua Footprints by Merv Rodgers is a systematic in-depth guide of short and specific routes through specific places described in terms of “river systems” and “vicinities”, both on-track and off-track, that might be consulted or strung together to make a longer trip in a bottom-up fashion, the 2010 Tararua Adventure Guide by Jonathan Kennett follows more of a top-down pattern, primarily as a collection of “complete trips” described from start to finish. It’s more like a book of “stuff you could do when you want to do something in the Tararuas” than a guide to designing your own adventure. In other words there’s a different target audience, and while it’s not a complete introduction to tramping, it is an introduction to the Tararua Range.

To finish, here’s the table of contents, complete with page numbers to help give an idea of how things are spread out. Enjoy.

Table of contents

  • Introduction (page 7)
  • Main Access Points (page 21)
  • 10 Other Access Points (page 31)
  • Classic Tramping Routes
    • 1. Holdsworth—Kaitoke (page 34)
    • 2. Holdsworth—Jumbo Loop (page 39)
    • 3. Southern Crossing (page 43)
    • 4. Northern Crossing (page 48)
    • 5. Tararua Peaks Loop (page 54)
    • 6. Kiriwhakapapa—Holdsworth (page 60)
    • 7. Schormann’s—Kaitoke (page 65)
  • Short Walks and Day Trips
    • 8. Four Otaki Forks Walks (page 69)
    • 9. Five Holdsworth Walks (page 71)
    • 10. Three Kaitoke Walks (page 75)
    • 11. Two Kiriwhakapapa Walks (page 77)
    • 12. North Ohau Hut (page 78)
    • 13. Kapakapanui Loop (page 79)
  • Classic Mountain Runs
    • 14. Jumbo—Holdsworth Trail Race (page 81)
    • 15. Tararua Mountain Race (a.k.a. Southern Crossing Race) (page 82)
    • 16. Carkeek Picnic (page 83)
    • 17. Dobson Loop (page 85)
  • Mountain Bike Rides
    • 18. Waiotaru Valley (page 87)
    • 19. Tangata Maunga (page 89)
    • 20. Mikimiki Tram Track (page 91)
  • River Adventures
    • 21. Lower Otaki (page 92)
    • 22. Otaki River (page 94)
    • 23. Lower Waiohine Gorge (page 98)
    • 24. Waiohine Gorge (page 99)
    • 25. Tauherenikau River (page 102)
    • 26. Hutt Gorge (page 105)
  • Classic Canyoning
    • 27. Chamberlain Creek (page 107)
  • Hunting and Fishing (page 111)
  • Main Camping and Swimming Sites (page 113)
  • More Great Tramping Trips
    • Otaki—Renata Loop (page 115)
    • Tauherenikau Loop (page 117)
    • Dundas—Cattle Ridge Loop (page 119)
    • Mitre Loop (page 122)
    • Ohau Loop (page 125)
    • Te Araroa Trail: Tararua Section (page 128)
    • Upper Otaki River (page 130)
    • Burn Hut Loop (page 133)
  • Seldom Travelled Ridges & Rivers (page 134)
  • Hut Bagger’s File (page 146)
  • Club Contacts (page 148)
  • Future Plans (page 149)
  • Index of Place Names (page 150)
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