March of 2012 will be a quiet 100th anniversary in the Tararuas, in a sense. It might as easily be very windy and rainy. This March, if you’re attempting a Tararua Southern Crossing, or maybe if you’re competing in the Tararua Mountain Race
which could be about that time (Edit 6-Feb-12: actually the next race won’t be ’til March 2013), consider taking a moment to remember that 100 years previously, the Tararua Southern Crossing track had just barely been completed and followed from end to end for the first time. (It’s only arbitrarily significant if you like counting in base 10, of course.)
Between the 30th and 31st of March 1912, Messrs W. H. Field (local MP for Otaki), B.C. Aston, E. Atkinson, and Frank Penn successfully crossed the range on foot between Otaki and Greytown, walking from the Taungata bridge to Bassett’s hut in two days. It involved “21 hours 20 minutes actual walking”, just in case you were wondering. They were all members of the track committee, which had just completed building of the Tararua Southern Crossing Track intended to make the route feasible for regular people. They were the first to use it, and it’s what made all the difference. Their time over two days was a record for the day. They were the first people recorded to cross the range at all since investigations for a stock route in the mid 1890s.
The initial success was buried as part of the Local and General News on Page 4 of the Wairarapa Daily Times. There was no headline, and the section had begun with a paragraph noting that the local carpenter’s daughter had broken an arm having fallen from a swing. Publication had come nearly a week after the event:
The feat of journeying from Otaki to Greytown across the Tararua range has been accomplished in two days by a party consisting of Messrs W. H. Field, P. C. Aston (Government chemist), E. Atkinson (assistant chemist), and Frank Penn (proprietor of the Otaki Mail.) Starting on Saturday morning they reached Mount Hector at 3.20 p.m., and journeyed on till half way between Mount Hector and Mount Alpha, where they camped. They broke camp on Sunday morning at 7.20, and reached the summit of Mount Alpha at 9 a.m. They rested half an hour and then left for Mount Omega, which was reached comfortably at 12.45 p.m. Lunch was partaken of and at 1.50 the journey was resumed, the party striking for Tauherenikau Gorge, where they’arrived at 3 p.m. Half an hour’s “smoko” and the ascent of Mount Reeves was commenced, and the summit reached at 5.50 p.m. The descent was made at 6.10 p.m., and on a point near Harrison’s the night’s camp was pitched. On Monday morning, the party leisurely made their way to Greytown, where they arrived at 11 a.m. in good health and spirits.
Dreams were abound of eventually building a road across the range to link the two districts that were already so close if it weren’t for a mountain range in between, but for now the track remained a tourist attraction. Soon after the successful crossing, tourism committees on both sides of the range commenced plans to build tourist huts . One would be near Table Top (eventually becoming today’s Field Hut), and the other in the Tauherenikau Valley (roughly near where Tutuwai Hut is today). It was anticipated that the track could become one of the most popular tourist tramping tracks in the entire Dominion, considering how accessible it was to railway transport on both sides. There’s more about this tourism push in a separate post .
Two weeks before the success, an earlier attempt had been made by two parties to leave from either side and meet in the middle. It was thwarted by the weather. At that time the same newspaper had more enthusiastically published details of the failed attempt. The lengthy article was likely a carefully crafted publicity campaign to attract attention to a new government-supported tourist attraction for the Otaki and Wairarapa regions, and to entice local people to have their friends and family visit the area.
The other day, an attempt was made by two parties of mountaineers, one from Greytown and the other from Otaki, to meet on Mount Hector, a peak towering up to 5ooo feet among the Tararua Mountains. A heavy snowstorm came on, and they were forced to turn back when within four miles of each other: but the accounts of their journey that have recently been published show that, in other respects, their climb over the Tararuas was quite successful. They proved that the track that has been made by tho Otaki and South Wairarapa people over the mountains via Mount Hector is now practicable, and, if improved, may be used as a bridle path. A direct connection between the Wairarapa and Otaki districts—which at present are separated by only some twenty miles of mountains—would have considerable commercial value: and the experiences of the mountaineering parties referred to show that, as the work of exploring the mountains goes on, the possibility of a route for a good road being discovered becomes less remote. But the published accounts to which we refer suggest something more—and in this connection there is no doubt that the Tararua Mountains are being neglected. Many people come from other parts of the world to climb our mountains; many others, from our cities, spend their vacations in the same pastime. Wellington residents often go off to the Southern Alps to indulge in mountaineering, unaware that, almost at their back doors, lies a wilderness which will provide them with mountain climbing at once as strenuous and exciting and as full of adventure as any to be had in New Zealand. In midsummer, there is no snow and ice on the mountain tops, but in other seasons the ranges are covered. A party, setting out, say from Kaitoke, on the Rimutakas, might easily spend a week in tho Tararuas, travelling all the time among wild and beautiful scenery. Here, as an instance, is what may be seen in the lower levels:—
But what can be said to describe the glorious scenery of the Tauherenikau Valley. No words can adequately describe this beautiful place—a valley which can be traversed tor about six miles in summer without wetting your feet, hemmed in on both sides with precipitous mountains clothed from bottom to top with most profuse vegetation and heavy bush, including giants of the forest—rimu, with straight truuks running up clear 80 or 90 feet before they show a branch; matai nearly as large, and quite as straight even as the red birch, which in some cases are from eight to nine feet through, and with boles as straight as the rimu, and running up to sixty feet.
And here, again, is a description of what may be soon from tho Omega Trig:—
“From this a very beautiful view can be obtained, embracing the whole of the Wairarapa, and out to tho Coast, including the Lake and the sea at Palliser Bay, and each town in tho Valley can bo easily distinguished; then sweeping along tho Rimutaka range you can get a lovely view of tho Mangaroa Valley and the Hutt Valley, the river, tho houses, and the farm buildings being easily seen with the naked eye. Here, too, can be obtained the best view of tho range extending from Alpha on the one hand, over Hector and tho Pyramids and Holdsworth, and a bird’s-eye view of the lower ranges, including the Cone, Reeves, etc.”
Wairarapa people should endeavour to make the attractions of the Tararua Mountains more widely known, for if tourists know what a trip into the mountains offered them, and how easy it is to get from the Wairarapa railway line into tho mountains, they might come to theso districts in much larger numbers. Considerable sums of money have been spent at different times by people on both sides of the ranges in making tracks over Mt. Hector and Mt. Holdsworth, and in building mountain-houses, and this money is not likely to give a great return unless the mountain-trips are more widely advertised. Journeys into the Tararuas have, at different times, been described in the “Transactions of tho New Zealand Institute,” , and a copy of one pamphlet, “Botanical Notes Made on a Journey Across the Tararuas” (by B. C. Aston, F.I.C., F.C.S.), has been kindly placed at our disposal by Mr A. Morris Jones, of Masterton, who accompanied Mr Aston on one of his excursions. This booklet shows that the mountains abound in quaint and rare forms of plant life, the collection and classification of which must be a delight to the enthusiastic scientist. On this account alone the attractions of the Tararua Mountains should be more widely known.
The crossing described in both these articles is the more original route, which followed from Alpha down into the Tauherenikau Valley, and out of the range via Reeves Track into Greytown, rather than continuing along Marchant Ridge to Kaitoke as many people do today for reasons of transportation practicality. I’m ashamed to admit that I still haven’t walked the Tararua Southern Crossing during the daytime, but there’s a trip report of an overnight Moonlight Tararua Southern Crossing here  (following the Marchant Ridge variant).