Trip: Cone, Alpha, Quoin, Eastern Hutt

Going tramping on a trip organised by Sam is quite a lot of fun. Generally you end up setting something on fire.

Sam collecting water
on Bull Mound

This weekend we went for a trip into one of Wellington’s two main water catchment areas. For some confusing reason, the Tararuas were in the middle of experiencing several very fine days in a row, which perhaps makes the trip quite rare.

Dates: 16th-18th November, 2007
Location: Tararua Forest Park, Walls Whare Road-End.
People: Sam, Marie, Eddie, Lee (a friend of Sam’s visiting from the Otago Uni Tramping Club), and me.
Huts visited: Cone Hut (0 nights), Alpha Hut (1 night), Eastern Hutt Hut (0 nights).
Intended route: Begin at Walls Whare, walk via Cone Hut up to Alpha, continue along Quoin Ridge down the spur, and out via Pakuratahi Forks.
Actual route: Similar until Quoin Ridge, at which point we split up. Marie and Lee continued down the ridge and ended up drowning (accidentally) in the Western Hutt River. The rest of us followed a spur to the Eastern Hutt River.

This post is a trip report. You can find other trip reports about other places linked from the Trip Reports Page, or by browsing the Trip Reports Category.

We used the club bus for the first time in a while, now back having had some rust removed (I think). I think the only down-side of going to the end of the Tararuas closer to Wellington is that you don’t get to stop at somewhere like Carterton for dinner, which has some very nice food places. Instead, we settled for Featherston, where we ambushed the local fish and chip shop. By now I was at the state of trying to empty some of the left-over shrapnel from my wallet so I wouldn’t have to carry it around all weekend, and I almost managed to do so except for an annoying $2 coin. It’s actually not a bad cafe and sells some other things too, but I was too pre-occupied with my weight saving that I didn’t notice some of the other things on the menu before I ended up with some very salty fish and chips. I wasn’t really sure if this was what I should be eating before embarking on a trip, so half of my chips survived being obliterated by my digestion, and ended up in a nearby rubbish bin.

Having arrived at the Walls Whare, we still hadn’t fully decided whether we wanted to walk anywhere on Friday night. It would have been completely feasible to walk in to Cone Hut, but doing so would have complicated things by dramatically shortening what we could really do on Saturday. Shortly after Alpha, we’d be turning into the water catchment area, where it’s illegal to stay the night. In other words, we’d either have a relatively short walk and then have to stop, or we’d have an uncomfortably long day and arrive at the collection point a day early. So in the end, we camped at the road-end.

Cooking breakfast in bed

Naturally, being a trip organised by Sam, we began with a tent fly that had nothing to prop it up, and nothing to tie it down except the single tent peg which Sam had packed (doubling as a billy-hook, I think). This was all intentional, and we (referring to Sam in particular) improvised by running around and finding a few sticks and logs to hold up the fly and also to tie it to. He then set up his cooker and boiled some water, which made for a nice brew. I don’t usually bother with tea or coffee on trips, but I’d actually brought a mug this time so I could be social. Unfortunately I’d left it buried in the bottom of my pack somewhere under the fly, and I missed out on this occasion.

Lee spent much of the evening trying to convince us to play checkers or backgammon on his fancy fold-able plate and cup set, which had the board designs for these games printed on the plastic, as well as including the appropriate pieces. Nobody was really interested sitting in the wet grass in the dark to play checkers, and nobody really knew how to play backgammon, although we eventually learned when a couple of the girls from one of the other groups wandered over to our camp-site and explained it to us.

It was a very calm night in the end, and went really well, although Eddie reported some trouble getting to sleep having had some mattress or sleeping bag issues. We awoke with the sunlight and some very noisy birds, some time before 6am. After some brief wandering around having a quick breakfast for myself, I made a feeble attempt to dry out the tent fly, since it was me who was carrying it. It was covered in dew on both sides, and really didn’t want to dry in the cool morning shade. In the end we folded it up and settled for it being somewhat heavier than it should have been.

If New Zealand’s great walks are like tramping motorways, then the track to Cone Hut is at least a State Highway. To be fair, it’s perhaps a little more like a South Island State Highway, because it dips into the occasional muddy bog. Other than that, it was a very flat and easy track. We passed one person who walked in the other direction during this phase of the trip. He was a hunter on his way out, dangling a gun from his waist and with what looked like it was probably a deer over his shoulders. It was hard to tell because he’d wrapped the corpse in a pair of polypropylene long-johns, which I wouldn’t personally have wanted to wear afterwards, but which probably made some sense.

We were making very good time, effectively too-good time, when we reached Cone Hut at 9.20am, especially considering that we couldn’t really go past Alpha until the next day. We used that excuse to sit down at the historic hut, for a while. The sunshine was just beginning to make its way through the trees and onto a small patch of ground near the hut, so I pulled out the large fly in an attempt to dry it out again. Meanwhile, Sam, who was thoroughly enjoying inspecting the hut, got a fire going inside to heat some water for a mid-morning brew. We were a bit short of cooking gas at the time, and when Sam’s around, I think he’s always keen on an excuse to light a fire. This time my social-ism mug was readily accessible, and I pulled it out so I could enjoy the brew with everyone else.

It was probably about now that Marie started commenting that she needed a fork, having left hers behind. Nobody had a spare one, of course, but Marie still rested in the confidence that she would find a fork deserted by someone else at Alpha Hut. Important things usually tend to work out, after all.

The large tent fly, by now draped over the picnic table, hadn’t noticeably dried at all as far as I could tell, although Lee officially declared about 5 square centimetres to be completely free of moisture. This wasn’t really enough to bother with, however, and we packed up to resume our walk shortly after 10am. Marie was first to bound across the Tauherenikau River, and we resumed our walk up the Bull Mound Track, towards Bull Mound. By now the state highway had degraded in quality to something more representative of a Provincial State Highway, with a rather steep gradient and the occasional tree growing in the middle of the road. On the few occasions where we stopped, Sam pulled out a small plant identification pocket book, and was experimenting with identifying some of the species. My only dilemma at this time was that I couldn’t get a stupidly annoying Shania Twain song out of my head. This had begun back at Cone Hut, when Lee had made remarks about high property values in Queenstown. Yet another case of Pierce’s Unlimited Semiosis in action.

Marie, leaving Bull Mound,
shortly after lunch

Although not quite at Bull Mound, we reached a small out-cropping above the tree-line at about 11.45. Lee decided it was a good time to pull out his lunch, and given there wasn’t much further to go, we ended up sitting around in the sunshine at this point for about 40 minutes. In fact, the main motivation to get up and keep moving was that we had previously decided we wanted to be at Bull Mound for lunch. 10 minutes later, we were there, and we loitered around the area for an hour, at least, lying down and lazing around for a proper lunch. There were plenty of tarns all over the place, and people who needed to filled their drink bottles. Apparently, as I discovered later, Paul and his medium-rated club group were looking over at Bull Mound from Cone at about this time.

It was during the final leg of the day, towards Alpha Hut, when we met a lone runner with a daypack. He had made his way over from Otaki Forks that morning, and (I think) was on his way out via the standard Southern Crossing route down Marchant Ridge. We reached Alpha Hut at 2.50pm. As I approached, a group of about five or six guys were crowded around the hut discussing their progress so far. They were also making a day-trip of the Southern Crossing, and by the looks of them they were more a group of friends than a group of running enthusiasts. They were doing quite well, and made a point of how much they were looking forward to massive servings of pizza and KFC once they made it out the other end. They were doing it as a brisk walk rather than a run, and probably had about another five or six hours to go.

Nobody was home when we entered the hut, and contrary to some people’s predictions, Marie did find that somebody had left a spare fork behind, so good for her. I helped with some token searching for firewood, but there wasn’t any loose dead wood anywhere near the hut. In the end, Sam and Marie resolved to empty their packs, and went out on a firewood-hunting mission for about 30 minutes. Marie then went for a walk up to Alpha Peak on her own, while the rest of us lazed around.

Another party of five people arrived at about 3.45pm or so. They were a family group from Levin including three men and a couple of teenagers, who had on this day walked over to Alpha from Field Hut, on the Otaki side. It turned out that they were quite ready to stop, and after about an hour or two of sorting things out and cooking their dinner, they were all in bed and more or less asleep. It wasn’t even dark by this point, or anywhere near it, but we did our best to be reasonably quiet for them. Meanwhile, we prepared and sat down to our planned meal of Macaroni Cheese, except with that twistee pasta instead of macaroni, which was almost all prepared by Sam and very tasty. Marie somehow managed to lose her fork again at this point, possibly between dinner and the custard dessert, and it was only now that Lee piped up and claimed he had a spare fork she could borrow.

Lee had dragged a mattress out under the verandah of the hut, with the intent of sleeping outside, but eventually decided he’d be more comfortable on one of the top bunks. Somehow Eddie managed to end up with a couple of mattresses on the floor in front of the fireplace, but I think I was mostly asleep at the point in which that happened.

Marie and I woke first on Sunday morning, up at about 5.50am thanks to the Sun having risen combined with some typically cheerful birds. Marie went back to bed for a while, but I couldn’t really sleep, so I sat at the main table in the hut and browsed more of the FMC bulletin which a thoughtful person had left behind, munching on my muesli bar breakfast to get it out of the way.

With the exception of Sam an myself, most of the people in the other group were up and about before the majority of ourselves. The previous evening, Sam had stated a guideline leaving time of about 8.30am, and we were still nowhere near it. I passed some of the time chatting with a couple of the older guys from Levin, who were both quite strongly involved in the Land Search and Rescue in the Tararuas. I found them very interesting to talk to, and they were quite concerned that there don’t seem to be many younger people getting involved in SAR these days, which is becoming a real problem.

Despite our attempts to stretch out our preparation for as long as possible, we were all ready and leaving by 7.50am. Marie bounded off in front, as happens so often, and everyone else followed at their own rate of packing themselves up. We still hadn’t decided exactly where we were going, but basically had resolved to either walk the complete length of Quoin Ridge, or to follow the early spur off the southern side of the ridge, down to Eastern Hutt Hut, which is marked as being for emergency use only.

Quoin Ridge seen from
near Alpha Peak

We re-grouped at Alpha Peak at 8.15am, which I think was the highest we would be on this trip, at 1316 metres above sea level. Being very clear, there was a terrific view around in all directions. I was quite impressed to see Kapiti Island from this perspective, from which it was much clearer how its shape fits geologically into the entire Tararua Range. Egmont was clearly visible in the distance. Sam and Lee thought they may have been able to see Ruapehu, although I wasn’t able to pick it out myself. It was about this time, as Sam was rubbing sunblock into one of the many tears in his pale yellow t-shirt, that he declared that his shirt might finally be past it, and he wouldn’t bring it on another trip. 15 minutes after our arrival, we began our descent along Quoin Ridge, into one of Wellington’s two major water collection areas.

We reached the first major spur heading south very quickly, and an answer was immediately required as to where we actually wanted to go. The discussion lasted for a couple of minutes, but we decided that nice days don’t come too often, and that we should make the most of the opportunity to spend as much time on the tops as possible. This, of course, meant walking along the length of Quoin Ridge. Marie did raise the question of how on earth we were actually going to be at Kaitoke at the scheduled pick-up time of 5.30 in the afternoon. The only answer we could honestly think of was to make as many unnecessary stops as possible along the way.

Lee climbing towards
Quoin Peak

After a short dip into the trees at about 9.45am, we finally reached Quoin (the peak) a little after 10am, slowed only by having had to climb around the occasional formation of rocks. One interesting find of Sam’s along the way, but quite near to Quoin itself, was an old sling from a helicopter, which was by now quite rusted and had probably been lying there for some time. We still had far too much time on our hands, and sat down again to enjoy the surroundings some more.

Being the keen hut-bagger that he is, Sam was still trying to find a method and an excuse to visit Eastern Hutt Hut — tempting both due to the illegality of staying the night there, and also due to its funny name. When studying his map again, Sam noticed that although we had bypassed the most obvious route down to the Eastern Hutt River, we might still be able to follow a less obvious spur down from peak 1133, which wasn’t far away from where we were sitting. This new spur headed east-south-east off the peak for about 400 metres, and then split into a couple of other spurs. If we kept following a bearing between the two splits, however, we’d still be on a slightly less obvious spur, and end up almost exactly at the hut. If we were careful about following the right bearings, the only uncertain factor would be how much vegetation we might have to bash through. Being on the eastern side of the range, though, which receives far less rain than the west, it was a reasonable bet that the vegetation would not be too difficult to push through.

Sam proposed his idea to the group, and it sounded quite interesting. Lee in particular was still keen to have a lazy day and enjoy the sunshine. In the end, we decided to split the group. Marie and Lee would continue down Quoin Ridge, whereas Sam, Eddie and I would attempt the alternative route down to Eastern Hutt Hut. Both routes would converge on the swing-bridge at Hutt Forks. We devised a plan for the first party to leave a rock on the end of the bridge as a signal to the others, so that either group would know whether the other had already passed the swing bridge when they arrived. Presumably there would be no other groups in the area using the same signal.

Sam and Eddie heading
down from 1133

So Sam, Eddie and I continued into trees, leaving Marie and Lee behind at Quoin Peak. We started from point 1133 at roughly 11am, and I calibrated my altimeter. Sam was correct in his prediction about the vegetation, and it was very easy to push through. The undergrowth from the beginning was extremely soft to walk on, and for something that went so steeply, it was quite easy on knees and ankles.

The topo maps suggest there are some very steep bits there, but we didn’t find them. Sam basically took the front position and followed the roughly south-east bearing (130 degrees give or take to begin with) on his compass. In fact, he took a couple of guesses about our altitude compared with my altimeter. The first time he was correct within 4 metres, and the second time he had it exactly right. This was very impressive. I think the only obstacle we actually encountered was a big fallen tree to climb over at the 670 metre mark, and I’d be tempted to suggest this tree as a landmark in future traverses down this route. We reached Quoin Stream at almost exactly 12.30pm, 90 minutes after leaving the high point, even having found a couple of unofficial track markers that somebody had tied to trees near the lower end. From there, we quickly reached Eastern Hutt River by pushing through the trees.

We didn’t find Eastern Hutt Hut immediately, but an entrance to a small clearing on the far side of the Eastern Hut River became more apparent after we’d wandered back and fourth along the river for 20 minutes. I must say that the Regional Council went to great efforts to make it clear to people that they were not allowed to stay the night. There were several signs that were very obvious.

The hut book itself was an old book that went back to 1986, and which has so far survived the reigns of the New Zealand Forestry Service, the Wellington Regional Council, DOC, and now the Greater Wellington Regional Council. Some smart cookie has scribbled “What next?” on the front of the book. Indeed, from 1986, only half the pages have been filled, so there may be a few more management bodies to come if this hut survives. We flipped though the entries, which included quite a few groups of people who had wandered up the river for daywalks. I did note that the Victoria University Tramping Club seems to be represented in the book quite a lot — maybe every couple of pages or so.

Eastern Hutt Hut

Eastern Hutt Hut was very well kept, with neatly cut firewood piled outside and along the path leading to it. Its design is very similar to other Forestry Service 6 bunk huts that I’ve seen, but instead of the glaring fluorescent orange colour, it’s now painted dark green, perhaps to help it blend into the surrounding vegetation.

Eddie was getting very hungry, and the first to suggest going back to the river to get some lunch. He eventually managed to drag Sam and I away, and at 1.15pm we sat down in a little bend in the river, shaded by an overhanging cliff. Lunch was a 45 minute sit-down, and we then realised that with the pick-up 3.5 hours away at 5.30pm, we should probably get started walking down the river.

Eastern Hutt River,
shortly after lunch

It looks very possible to walk directly down the Eastern Hutt River without too many problems, but for most of it we did actually find unofficial tracks along either side of the river, sometimes climbing 100 metres or so up the hillside before descending back down again. At 3.30pm, we finally reached the big, official sign announcing the beginning of the marked track back to the road-end.

Unlike DOC, which these days uses orange triangles to mark its tracks, the Greater Wellington Regional Council seems to use orange discs. I’ve seen these discs in several other places outside of Forest Parks, such as over farm-land all over Belmont Regional Park. It caught me a bit by surprise to see them on an overnight trip in the Tararuas, but I guess it makes complete sense if it’s the Regional Council which administers that particular catchment.

The marked track climbed a couple of hundred metres up a hill before descending about the same amount down the other side, apparently to step around some rather gorgey bits of river. The only drama in this short section was when Eddie and I started following an unmarked track off the main one. Sam followed the markers up the hill and then shouted down to us, and during the sprint up the hillside towards him, I managed to grab an old tree that didn’t hold very well, and rode it for a couple of metres down the hill. (It probably could have been a little worse, but turned out okay.) It was a shame I didn’t have a cowboy hat at the time.

Crossing the swing bridge

We reached the swing bridge over the last part of the Eastern Hutt River, and were quite relieved to find a rock, indicating that Marie and Lee had already passed through. This simplified things, because it meant we didn’t have to get concerned about where they were. The trip was now over as far as I was concerned, but this was only because I hadn’t been properly paying attention.

From the swing bridge was a 4-wheel-drive track, which went for about 200 metres before hitting the fold of my map. If I’d bothered to turn the map over, it might have occurred to me that it was an incredibly boring 4.5 kilometres, and in that time it climbed 300 metres and descended another 300 metres. The sign on the other side of the bridge basically points along the road, and states that it’s a 2 hour walk to the road-end. By now it was 4.20pm, and we didn’t have 2 hours. In addition, not being mentally prepared, I basically resolved to get this out of the way by cramming it into as little time as possible, so that maybe later on I could convince myself that it was only 200 metres that I’d originally seen on my map.

The three of us all reached the pick-up point at Pakuratahi Forks just barely after 5.30pm. In fact, I walked around the final corner at 5.30 and 39 seconds, and could hear the beeping of the door opening on the club bus as I approached.

During the walk, Sam had received a text message from Marie to indicate that they had actually been about an hour ahead of us, and they were in fact there to say hello when we arrived. It turned out they’d had their own little adventure, having accidentally come off Quoin Ridge a little too early and ended up in the Western Hutt River, which has a bit of a reputation for things like waterfalls and other gunky stuff that makes it awkward to walk along. They managed though, despite Marie having had to dive into the water to chase her pack at one point. (I’d love to hear more about that story later.)

It was was very enjoyable trip in the end. The only down-side, I think was the weather, which I know a lot of people wouldn’t agree with at all. This is only a personal thing where I tend to find perfectly fine weather (without a blemish) a little bit boring, but I’m happy to put up with it from time to time, and it does help to put the entire mountain range into perspective.

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