A Crossing to Remember: A Tararua Southern Crossing in 1920

Several days ago, I noted that it’s almost 100 years since the Southern Crossing Track was completed, which is pretty cool. This, however, was only the beginning of a significant tourism venture for both the Otaki and Wairarapa regions. At a time when the northern parts of the Tararua Range had barely been explored, the next phase of the project would be to market the walk across the southern end to potential tourists, convincing people that a visit to the Tararua Range could be a relaxing escape into the outdoors, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Earlier, in 1907, Willie Field and Frank Penn (editor of the Otaki Mail) had combined with a botanist, Bernard Aston, to enthusiastically promote and raise funding for the cutting of the track. The track was completed in 1912, and committees were formed on both sides of the range to plan for building of huts specifically so that walkers could stay the night. The committee on the Wairarapa side was more successful in raising funding, with the original Alpha Hut complete by 1915 and Upper Tauherenikau Hut in 1917. Tramping clubs soon began to form—the Tararua Tramping Club (TTC) having its inaugural meeting in 1919 thanks to the efforts of Willie Field and Fred Vosseler. Young members of a fledgeling Victoria University Tramping Club were also exploring, with an allegedly less mature attitude than a more “refined” TTC.

In 1920, to fan the potential of the Southern Crossing as a major tourist attraction, particularly for his own Otaki region, Frank Penn produced a 40 page booklet, forwarded by Fred Vosseler. The first part of the book was titled Across The Tararuas and explains the wonders of a Southern Crossing in detail and with photographs. The second part was titled Beautiful Otaki, and describes a history of the Otaki district. The complete book was designed as a marketing tool to entice tourists to visit the district, then to take advantage of the excellent railway transport on both sides of the range by walking the amazing route across the range between them. Scattered throughout the booklet, especially during the latter section, are a variety of enthusiastic advertisements for local holiday businesses and the New Zealand Government (“a holiday once a year is a good investment!”) Tourist Bureau.

Across The Tararuas, the first half which I’ve reproduced below, is one of the very early comprehensive descriptions of a typical Tararua Southern Crossing in existence. The text is clearly written with a marketing intent, from the perspective of an anonymous protagonist being guided in a group by an anonymous guide. The wonder and glory of the Tararuas is expressed repeatedly, albeit with caution regarding how to react in situations of potential bad weather. It’s likely that the photos and descriptions are collected from several experiences. The remainder of the book, although not reproduced here in text, can be read via scanned pages in the gallery below. My personal favourite feature is the one digit phone number in the advertisement for the local Motor Garage and Livery Stables, on page 36. (Phone 7—Otaki.)

The Tararua Southern Crossing suffered some rocky publicity in the first years following publication of this booklet in 1920. In 1922, the Tararua Tramping Club organised its first official club crossing of the mountain range, after a much more cautious approach to exploring the mountains than the nearby university club. It would have been a fabulous event except it turned to tragedy with the death of Harold Freeman during the trip, attributed at the time to heart failure. Months later, Esmond Kime died, soon after rescuers found him alive, 5 days after he collapsed in tussock on the exposed Tararua tops near the Beehives. It’s very likely that exposure (AKA hypothermia), combined with the general lack of experience and safety equipment, contributed to both these deaths, although it was not well understood at the time.

Whilst continuing to be extremely popular for locals, the Tararua Southern Crossing remains exposed to hazardous weather. Even today with improved equipment, knowledge about the range and conditions and rescue response, it still occasionally results in death and close calls. Combined with the increased accessibility of alternatives for visiting wilderness around New Zealand, this is probably a contributing factor towards why it never became the tourism juggernaut for which its promoters initially hoped.

Across the Tararuas and Beautiful Otaki
Published by FRANK PENN, “Otaki Mail,” Office, Otaki


Beautiful Mountain Flowers
in the Tararuas

Photographs can only show in monotone the physical facts of nature—they cannot convey the spirit, and they cannot reveal the great beauty that is everywhere. Somehow in the mountain tramp which this book attempts to describe, the winds, the moss and lichened trees, the cascading waters, the steel-cut stars, the distant views, the mountains, and the birds, all bring their sermon, preached as no preacher can preach. There is a feeling of aloofness, of being alone with nature, and the grandeur, the vastness is over everything! You must and will feel it, and will surely retain some of the feeling of reverence that enters.

The solos, part songs and choruses on those very rare and precious occasions when the bell-birds and tuis give forth their praise to Creation are glimpses of Heaven—fortunate indeed is the favoured tramper.

One cannot go the trip across the Mount Hector Track without experiencing new feelings and new thoughts, or gaining knowledge about nature. It makes fresh blood, brain and nerve—it cleanses and tones the system in a thorough and exhilarating fashion, and one is certainly the better for the experience.

If you are of those who find no pleasure in aching muscles, in early rising, in hard beds or hard knocks; in fact, in roughing it and in finding joy in the unconventionality and in living for a brief space much as a neolithic man, well then, stay at home—the mountain rivers and forest do not call for you. This is only a just price to pay—there is no profiteering, and you get the fullest measure your soul is capable of absorbing.



That imposing range of snowclad mountains called the Tararua Range, which lies at the head of the Hutt and Otaki valleys, and which adds so greatly to the picturesqueness of the Wellington Province, is part of a large forest reserve, and is likely to remain a scenic spot and an enduring sanctuary for bird, animal and plant life. Under certain conditions all are free to roam here, but not at liberty to shoot, light fires indiscriminately or destroy trees—they must regard the whole as a park and respect it accordingly.

The best route at present to this delightful territory is over the Mt. Hector Track, which connects Greytown with Otaki. This booklet is intended as a guide to those who care to make the trip, and an especial warning note is struck to observe faithfully the various hints that are given as the outcome of experience.

The journey across from the Wairarapa to the Manawatu can be accomplished in two very strenuous days, although to get the fullest enjoyment four days should be taken. As there are four huts on the route good shelter and sleeping accommodation is available. At the present time it is recommended that Greytown should be the starting point. In the coming summer a new hut will be built in the vicinity of Mount Field or Hector, after which Otaki will afford just as good a starting point. From Otaki, however, as matters are now, there is too much hard climbing before the top ranges are reached, and one is rather too fatigued to enjoy the glorious scenery and novel surroundings. More important still, should adverse weather conditions be met with, shelter is not readily obtainable at present. To be caught in a gale of wind or blizzard, particularly when fatigued, can easily be a serious matter.

Starting from Greytown, it is not difficult for a fairly fit person to make the ALpha hut (3600ft) in the first day. A good night’s rest in the snug little whare, and one is ready to continue the journey across to Otaki, making a very early start—say, 6 a.m.—7 a.m. should be the very latest. The crossing from here must on no account be attempted unless the weather conditions are good and likely to remain so for five hours. To make the attempt should it be foggy or windy is merely to invite disaster; better remain at Alpha until good weather prevails, or if time will not permit return to Greytown. The outing will not have been wasted, and the delight of crossing merely deferred—there is nothing to be gained by foolhardiness.

Beginning the Tramp.

One who has crossed Mount Hector Track many times, thus describes the journey :—

We arrived at this picturesque town (Greytown) on Friday evening and put in a comfortable night at one of the several good hotels. Feeling very fit we started off most quietly at 5 a.m. with our swags on our backs—we scorned hired conveyance—for the six-mile tramp to Bassett’s Hut, from which the track proper commences. Reaching here a little before 7 a.m., we boiled the billy, had a light breakfast, and after seeing the fire was properly out, crossed the creek and made over the flats past the Greytown reservoir straight up the hill to the track. This is harder than following the track round and zigzagging, but is quicker—it is quite a climb, and one is apt to perspire freely and feel short of wind—still it is a good pipe-opener and quite the stiffest pinch on the whole journey. Once on the track there is really no danger of getting off, as it is well defined and sticks to the top of the spur. An hour after leaving Bassett’s, we reach the bush, and from now on until the Tauherenikau Hut we only leave it for short periods, when on spurs where trees cannot gain a footing and only the hardier of shrubs survive. At first the bush is rather light—mostly beech or birch—but soon the more familiar New Zealand trees are met with. Looking backward on the way up, the scenery is grand. One gets a fine view of most of the course of the silvery Waiohine, from Holdsworth to where it runs across the Wairarapa plains to join the Ruamahanga. Featherston, the Military Camps, the Lake, Martinborough, Greytown, Carterton, are all in the clear view—even the surf breaking at Palliser can be seen. Resting and viewing must be resisted if time is limited. Our guide has a trick of making us walk twenty-five minutes and then giving us a five minutes’ spell—the walking period feels like an hour and the rest but a few moments. Someone remarks regarding rests, “Tempus jolly well does fugit!” Our next stop is at the old camp just below Reeves’, where there is water. The two water holes by the track side are positively unusable—better water is available further in the bush. The guide decided that the party could not make Alpha without undue fatigue to some of its members, and that the afternoon and evening had better be spent at the River Hut. In conseqeunce, tome was not so pressing, so we boiled two billies of tea, had some biscuits, a good rest and a smoke. Half an hour later, going very steadily, we were on top of Reeves.

3000 Feet Elevation.

On the Tararuas in Mid-Winter.
Mt Hector Centre Picture.

This point, which is nearly 3000ft high (about five times as high as Mt. Victoria, Wellington), is bare of live trees and allows an unrestricted view in every direction—we could see right down to Wellington Heads, out to Palliser, and every township on the Wairarapa Plains up to what we judged to be Eketahuna. We were rather surprised to find that a fine pigeon had been preening itself about twenty yards away the whole time we had been there. This bird had not the least fear of us, and flew off in a leisurely fashion when we approached too closely. From Reeves the old track used to run almost north along the high ridge round to the Cone, but a better and more direct route has been cut—your map probably shows the old route—you merely drop over Reeves a very little way and turn to the left, then the track runs for a very short distance almost west—soon, however, taking a north-westerly direction. This part of the track is along a burnt spur, is easy-going, and well-graded. There are a few steep pinches, but nothing too difficult for a mountain pony. It does not take long to reach the bush, and from now on, until the river is arrived at, we are in a forest of the old time—the closer we get to the river the better the timber, and there are many magnificent specimens of trees that would gladden the heart of any old-time sawmiller and, I am afraid, make envious a younger and ambitious one. The birch here is extraordinarily large, and rimu, kahikatea, totara, tawa, miro and maire are of fair size. The track through has been made by an expert, and is nearly equal to most that obtain in rough domains and public parks of natural bush. An easy hour from Reeves brings one to the Tauherenikau Hut. Personally, whilst admitting its comfort and utility, the writer regards its modernity with a little aversion. In such surroundings a slab whare built on bushy lines, or in the picturesque way of the wood cabins of Canada and California, would be more in character with the surroundings. We would do well from an aesthetic view to ape our American brothers, who have evolved a style that appeals to the artistic sense and fits. However, what it lacks in beauty it makes up in comfort and utility. There are six bunks capable of holding twelve or even more, and there is floor space where some six others could find sleeping room. The hut is partitioned off so that mixed parties can use it. There is a big wide fireplace capable of burning heavy logs, a small table and a rough seat complete the equipment. Water is close at hand. Beyond an old billy or two and a camp oven, there is nothing for the use of trampers—blankets, cooking utensils, food, etc., must now all be swagged. The Tararua Tramping Club, however, has in mind the equipment of the huts when funds permit.

Deer and Wild Pigs.

Mountain Huts on the Track.

The guide takes us along the track to the north and enjoins strict silence, in the hope that on the river flats we shall surprise some deer or other game. We soon get to where the bush ends, and acting on our leader’s hand signals creep noiselessly forward to a club of bushes. From there we can see several fine does feeding quietly. As they cannot get our wind and we remain motionless, we watch their movements at leisure. Unfortunately no one has a camera handy and a picturesque snap is lost. Suddenly an unsuspected stag, with a magnificent-looking head, comes into view, slowly feeding. After watching for some time we leave the deer undisturbed and quietly go back to the hut. We are soon sitting down to a satisfactory dinner. It is rough but wholesome, and consists of a large steak grilled at the end of a stick over wood embers, toast and tea. We top off with a little buttered nut loaf, and emphatically decide that we have never dined better. From the hut another track leads down the river to some large flats. Taking it easily we wander down, making no noise, and are rewarded by finding a mob of a dozen or so “Captain Cookers”—wild pigs—busy rooting. We are only to watch them for a few moments, when up go their heads and they look up windward in our direction with suspicion, remaining perfectly still, and amongst the bushes we are undetected, by sight at any rate. Suddenly there is a stampede and the pigs are off like a shot. They were all sizes, from full-grown to inviting young suckers. We wander down the river and beyond a screeching kaka or cooing pigeon or two see no further game. The bush and river scenery is fine and primitive, something that is, alas, becoming very rare in the Dominion.

Strolling back we come across a young opossum crouching for some reason on the ground. Whilst the sun is still hot we have a delightful bathe in the river. The Tauherenikau is born and nourished in the snows, and spends its brief infancy flowing swiftly through shaded forests so that it is always, if not icy cold, very cool and refreshing. A dip in it bites, so with a few splashes and hurried “ducks” one is glad enough to wade out. Then comes the real preasure—a brisk rub down, the consciousness of cleanliness, and the glow of reaction. After all the perspiration the bath should not be missed, and if you are wise you will change immediately into your fresh undergarments. We then gather firewood for the night, arrange our bunks get tea, smoke, yarn and turn in. Just at daybreak the guide gives us a cup of tea and a slice of toast and turns us out. Whilst he is preparing breakfast we pack. It is very cool, and the air has a nip in it that induces movement. Breakfast consists of boiled rice, condensed milk, tea, toast, and a grilled chop each. Whilst the guide packs, some of us wash dishes, others gather and stack firewood, then the swags are put outside and all hands tidy up. After a final look round to see that nothing is forgotten, that the fire is quite out and doors properly shut, we start on the up track to the river. The river is very low, and we soon clamber up the bank on the other side. We go down a little way, twist and turn a few times and soon reach the foot of the spur that runs all the way to Omega. As the Alpha Hut can be reached in six hours,’ easy going, there is no occasion to hurry. Our guide keeps us moving steadily for fifteen minutes and then gives us a full five minutes’ spell. In this way the journey does not seem very terrible, and we have time to admire the scenery and to note the signs of deer, cattle and pigs, to which our leader frequently calls attention. Arriving at Bull Mount we visit our first tarn, and nearby discover a number of very thin-shelled mountain snails. One of our party gathers a few—which he regards as a “find”—for some entymological friend. Here too we come across a few of the small yellow ranunculus. Bull Mount was named by early-day wild cattle hunters from Greytown. These hardy gentlemen were camped near by, and desiring water sent one of the party with the billies to the tarn. Here he found a large bull who would not be “shooed” away and showed distinct signs of displeasure. Water was imperative, so his lordship had to be shot. From Bull Mount a real good view of the Tararuas is possible. Usually one has to be content with vistas of snowy peaks glimpsed through leaden wrack of storm. A track to Omega has been cut through the bush on account of the swamp over the top, which is really impassable to laden horses.

A Lofty Watershed.

As we have no fear of wet feet and prefer the view, we take the top and are soon on the old camp site of the track builder. Good water is close at hand. The camp is rather interesting, and again affords evidence of the skill of the track-maker. Leaving here, in a very short while we are on to Omega, and our botanical friends find their first edelweiss, celmesia and ligusticums. Just a little over and we leave the spur we have been on so long, and are now for the first time on the main Tararua Range. We drop a few hundred feet into Hell’s Gates, and when we reach the lowest part of this we are on an interesting razor-back which is the watershed between the Eastern Hutt and Tauherenikau Rivers. These rivers have their sources very close together, and one is standing between them. WHen we have climbed out of here we quite realise the appropriateness of the name Hell’s Gates—undoubtedly we should have been more strongly impressed had we come through all the way from Bassett’s. Another half-hour or so through gnarled and lichen-festooned birch and Alpha Hut is reached. This is a snug little whare of iron, and except in midwinter, when on occasions it is snowed under, and some of the melting snow is apt to find its way down the chimney, is perfectly dry. We find a pile of kindling wood and soon have a cheerful blaze and a cup of tea. The hut is a small one-apartment affair—still, on more than one occasion it has accommodated as many as eight tourists in its five bunks. We settle down to a general tidy-up and a gathering of firewood, which we stack up close handy.

Meeting Wild Cattle.

Having done all the work necessary, we stroll upwards and passing Hugh Girdlestone’s old camp, come to the edge of the timber line. Here is another alpine meadow and flowers bloom most profusely—indeed all along from here to Table Top are hidden alpine meadows—the haunts of timid and beautiful wild flowers. A steep climb brings us up to the trig, and squatting down we pick up points of interest in all directions. Soames Island stands out well, and the hutments at Trentham look something like the surf breaking on the sea beach. Some of our party prove quite romaneers and see the unseeable. Down in the direction of the Quoin, however, we see small specks that the “boss” declares are wild cattle.

Early next morning the guide awakens and stirs up the fire, whereat allegedly slumbering members begin to take notice. On goes the billy and each man is presented with a hot cup of coffee and a slice of buttered toast, and told to get out. We do not relish a wash in the cold, but we feel quite virtuous over the light baptismal stunt and the very vigorous rub-down. The guide has already been to the track for a glimpse of the range, and announces a moderate northerly blowing, and unless matters improve he will not go across, whereat some of the party seem rather more cheerful than is seemly. However, we breakfast on rice, toast, and grilled steak, and are told to do ourselves well, as until we reach the Otaki bush we shall merely munch a few prunes, biscuits and chocolate as we walk. Having packed, tidied up and replenished the wood stack, etc., we shoulder packs and mount the 700 odd feet to Alpha. We find the mist is much lighter and the guide informs us that at any rate we will make an attempt at the crossing. As he has been over quite often we wonder at his hesitation, but later we are thankful of his knowledge and accept his dictum without question. Our morning view from ALpha is unfortunate—we are in the clouds, and vision is limited. Still the mists as they swirl only werathe the mountain tops and bush and have a distinctive beauty of their own. We are soon up to the finger-posts, and skirting the side of Alpha descend to the Dress Circle. Here in a sheltered nook one of the party discovers a a small patch of snow and announces his discovery by snow-balling his companions. Punishment for this attack is duly inflicted. The edelweiss here grows profusely, and for a while one is tempted to step carefully so as to avoid trampling upon the blooms. Soon, however, this feeling wears off and one places one’s foot just where it is most convenient. We are now in the Dress CIrcle, which, too, is aptly named—for the time being we are in the Family Circle, but as it is early morning there is no show on. Really it would be worth the trudge from ALpha to visit this spur on a calm moonlight night, when surely the fairies would provide us wiht unimagined joys and visions of loveliness. This reminds me that a trip at night to the top of ALpha from the hut is also well worth while, particularly if one is favoured either by one of these clear calm nights or by a howling storm. If one is an egotist, try it! You gaze in wonder, become contemplative, and suddenly feel very small and insignificant. You get for once, at any rate, the correct perspective, and discover that your ambitions, petty successes and yourself are merely pinpoints in immensity. The mountains have a corrective power on mental perspective which compels inward acknowledgement.

Mount Hector.

Typical Scenery on the Otaki River.

Table Top.

From time to time we notice pointers—some prone and some upstanding. We make it a duty to re-erect those that are fallen and to see that the pointer is correctly aligned—those that are still upstanding are firmed. Right along until we reach the Beehives is easy going. They guard Hector and act for some time as a delusion that at last we are reaching the highest point. As soon as the first Beehive is surmounted another sets up defiance. They are not so very dreadful, and in time we are clambering up a steep face and to a rounded knob. Here is a small cairn of stones with a few upright sticks, and at last we are on Hector. Casting off our packs we sprawl for a breather in the snow grass. As a reward for our effort the fog, which has never been heavy but quite sufficient to restrict distant views, lifts, the welcome sun bursts through, and we feel that we are very handsomely rewarded for our aching shoulders. Time passes quickly, so putting a card in the bottle we descend the saddle leading to Mount Field or West Peak, as it is called in the map. Here a series of tarns present themselves and the idea suggests itself that they can be linked up and form in winter an ideal pond for skating. Other tarns in the next saddle between Field and, as our guide has renamed it, West Peak, may possibly prove better for this purpose. This is a matter that can be attended to when the new hut, which is to be built during the present summer somewhere in this vicinity, has been sited. This latter saddle appears to be a fine skiing ground, and when well snowed over should afford some very nice, albeit short, runs, as well as some excellent jumps. In a few years this must undoubtedly become a haunt for those red-blooded people who find joy in winter sports.

Leaving West Peak we have a last look at the Wairarapa, and also endeavour to fix topographical features in our minds, as this is one of the danger points, and from Hector it is quite easy to go astray. We leave the main Tararua Range, and it is imperative that one should keep well over to the steep cliffs on the left or western side. From West Peak we descend sharply with just a few upward pinches to vary the monotony. Dennan proves the last steep pull, and we spend a few minutes in a well-earned rest. This knob bears a sign carved “Mount Crawford,” to which is quite an error. At the present it is just as well to climb over Dennan rather than skirt it. Later, however, when the track from Otaki has been completed the climb will be saved.

From Dennan to Table Top proves very trying, and is pretty nearly what one expressive member of the party called it, “Hell!” The whole distance with a few acceptable short breaks, has to be forced through mutton-bird scrub, amongst which is a substantial sprinkling of tough, well-nourished Spaniard. Use your eyes as you will, you must surely be well spiked before you are through, and swear words come easily. A good day’s work, perhaps two, with a grubber from the bush below Table Top to Dennan would make quite a decent track and obviate the only really exasperating bit of country in the whole trip.

A Glorious Walk.

From Table Top to the Forks is another ramble through primitive bush—a botanist’s and scenic lover’s paradise. Almost every variety of tree grows to perfection. Kaka, pigeons, tuis, whitehead and even that brilliant vocalist, the makomako, will be seen and heard. This is truly a glorious walk, and it is well worth anyone’s while to motor up the picturesque Otaki Gorge and spend even a day there. There are few spots like it left in New Zealand, and certainly no other so readily available to the people of Wellington and the Manawatu. Done in this way ther is nothing over-strenuous for the middle-aged or the active-aged, and if fortunate in the day it is something that will live in memory. Our younger generations lack the spirit and enterprise if they fail to visit here, even if only to vision the glories of the past that their pioneering forefathers so frequently speak of. Towards the end of the bush track, but still high up, is the new slab hut built by the Otaki Track Committee. It is a really comfortable whare, and situated in a fairyland of rare beauty. Bird life seems fairly plentiful, and their songs are an added joy. Fifteen minutes from the hut and we leave the bush, reaching cleared farm land and obtaining a panorama of the upper Otaki, Waiotauru rivers, and the Gorge—something to be seen to be appreciated, and well worth the journey. The trip from Otaki to the Forks is too little known, but there is no gorge that can compare with it in beauty anywhere on the coast.

In a short half-hour or so we cross the suspension bridge and are soon on the main road. As it is too late to enjoy the scenery of this gorge and the beautiful river road we, by the courtesy of Mr Alf Knox, ring up Otaki for a taxi, and motor the remaining thirteen miles.

The Mountain Track.

Waihoanga Suspension Bridge,
Otaki Gorge.

Taungata Suspension Bridge,
Otaki Gorge.

The track over the Tararuas, connecting Otaki with Greytown, first attracted public interest in 1895, when committees were established in both Greytown and Otaki with the object of forming a track. These committees have done good work, and are still in existence. The Tararua Tramping Club was recently established in Wellington. The first party to cross the ranges comprised Messrs Murry, C.E., Hobman and Johansen, who walked from Greytown to Otaki early in 1896, taking ten days on the trip. Their return journey only occupied three days. Messrs Herbert Walkley and A. A. Clark, of Otaki, accompanied Mr Murray’s party from near Table Top to Greytown, they being the first to cross the mountains from the Otaki side. Many trips over the Tararuas have been made of the latter years, and in every case those who walked across have been delighted with their experiences. So far as we have been able to ascertain, the record trip from Otaki to Woodside was made by Messrs W. H. Field, M.P., B.C. Aston, E. Atkinson, and Frank Penn, who walked from the Taungata bridge to Bassett’s hut in two days (21 hours 20 minutes actual walking). This was in March, 1912.

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