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Watery, windy & wicked Tararuas - Waikanae to Palmerston North

When I say watery, I mean it rained if not hailed everyday; when I say windy, I mean winds so strong I genuinely feared being blown off a ridge; and when I say wicked, I mean that when the clouds briefly lifted enough for me to get a glimpse of the Tararua Ranges, I was blown away by their rugged beauty. Even with short days, this section has been without a doubt the toughest so far.

I caught a bus to Waikanae on the afternoon of Tuesday the 22nd and stayed with a family that lived in what used to be a school. The next morning Paul (the father) gave me a lift to the Pukeatua track trail head, about 3km from where my knee buckled (I missed that 3km for the sake of my knee). I started the track with the hope that uneven terrain would be more pleasant on my knee than the same motion of road walking. The trail ascended on a 4WD track until it met with a ridge where I started climbing through bush. As I got closer to the Pukeatua top the clouds closed in and blocked any potential views. The descent back down from 800m to 300m became pretty rough for my knee. About half way down I met a tramping club having lunch on a grassy area overlooking some of the Otaki River valley. Despite not being at all hungry or wanting to carry extra weight, one of the ladies insisted that I eat some of her food after I tried to politely decline. Once I was down the hill, I had a 1km road walk which brought pain within a few metres, so I instead limped my way down the road and across a swingbridge to reach Parawai Lodge. The sun came out for the late afternoon so I was able to get my clothes dry. That evening I was accompanied by a father and daughter with their obese dog that had no idea of its size.

My knee was still suffering the next morning as I set off towards Waitewaewae (pronounced YTYY) hut. The trail started off quite casually as it followed a track high above the Otaki River. A couple of massive slips (the ground cracking and then falling in, leaving a half crater-like hole in the side of a hill) required some steep and slippery scrambling directly above the edge of the slip. One slip must've been around 100m wide which meant scrambling through rough trail for some time. Once on the other side though, the trail became very well cut and smooth because a railway once ran through there. I walked past an old rusted engine on the side of the trail and some railway tracks. The trail then slowly ascended up a stream. Climbing in and out to ford it became somewhat tiring after a while, and I was glad to reach The Plateau: a forested hill that offered flat walking for a few hundred metres before descending back down to the river and the hut. The rain was coming in as I reached the hut and I decided a 1240m ascent to the next hut wasn't going to be enjoyable with a sore knee after descending. I embraced the opportunity to dry my clothes with a toasty fire before being joined by a group of 4 later in the evening. They kindly played cards and occasionally yelled in celebration until 11:30pm.

I set off from the hut the next morning in a soggy forest. Just a few hundred metres from the hut I crossed a swingbridge and immediately started ascending steeply. I was a little bit shocked at how steep the first part was, with nothing to grip or pull myself up on; I spent a couple minutes on the hill climber machine...take a step up and slide back down. The climbed eased into a more reasonable/less slippery gradient as I got further up and found the lunging motion of climbing to be easier on my knee. I noticed the wind moving through the forest when I started to near the bush line. It was apparent that I wasn’t going to get any views on this day, but I wanted to keep making progress. When I climbed out of the bush and ascended on the ridge the wind picked up more and started to push me a bit whenever a gust came along. Although I couldn't see for more than around 20m, the ridge walking seemed smooth and wide so I was happy to continue. When I came to the junction with the North and South Main Range tracks and turned towards Mt. Crawford (1462m), the wind consistently got stronger, the rain and sometimes hail started to pelt the side of me and the ridge got narrower. I can’t say I was expecting the ridge to literally be a metre wide with very steep sides, meaning that if I was blown off the ground trail, I would be falling into the unknown mist below. The wind swirled in the saddles and had enough force to spin me whichever way it was going. Four times I could only get down on the ground to stop myself being blown off the top. After slowly making my way over Mt. Crawford and back down, the hail, rain and wind chill were starting to have an affect on me, and I could tell I was beginning to go hypothermic. By then, I only had about a kilometre to Nicholl’s hut, so worked hard to fight the wind and kept myself focussed. Eventually I got to the small side trail that led down to the hut just below a saddle, but still in an exposed area. I arrived completely soaked through all my wet weather gear, got dry and spent the afternoon and evening trying to warm up in my sleeping bag while the hut shook as if there was a mild earthquake occurring. This day really put into perspective the reality of tramping alone in New Zealand, and how much of a different experience I would have had if there was someone with me.

The next morning I felt precarious about the weather and it took until 11am for me to decide to atleast give it a go and make it to the next hut. My clothes were still dripping wet and made my extremities go numb within seconds. I almost ran back up the side trail in an attempt to get warm. Once back on the trail, the wind was still pushy, but not as strong and I knew I would be below the bush line shortly. The trail climbed over Nicholl’s peak (1242m) and descended into the bush, then followed a ridge track that was rife with big wind fall. Every one hundred metres I found myself scrambling over, under or around one or a few trees blocking the track. There were two exposed peaks that I had to cross for the day. The first was the Shoulder of Kelleher (1142m) which was rocky and slippery but manageable in the wind and rain. There was one particularly sketchy step on a ledge scramble above a 5m cliff face where what I thought was a solid piece of ground gave way and almost sent me falling. The second exposed section over Puketoro (1152m) was straightforward. After descending into the bush line, it took around 30 minutes to reach Dracophyllum hut and the sun made an appearance, but not for long enough to dry out any clothes. I embraced the opportunity to see what the Tararua Ranges looked like from the helipad near the hut as the sun set.

Because Dracophyllum hut was a tiny two-bunker, it was more bearable to climb out of my sleeping bag as my own body warmth kept the hut warmer than outside in the morning. I was nervous about the next section because the clouds had come in again, and there was a breeze similar to how it was at the same elevation on the day leading up to Nicholl’s hut. It had me wondering what the exposed climb up to Pukematawai (1432m) would be like. I followed bush track along the ridge until the bush line and stopped to assess the wind. While it seemed calm, I promised myself I would turn back if the wind picked up before I reached the peak. The climb was slow and slippery, but the mild wind stayed consistent and the clouds even parted as I climbed; giving me a view of a river well below and even across to where the next hut sat. After making it over the peak I had a slow and wet descent down to Te Matawai hut. My knee was very sore by the time I got to the hut, so I called it a day and got warm again.

The following day turned out to be a nothing day. I woke up to strong winds and bucketing rain, so decided to stay in the hut. I’m glad I made that decision as the weather was incredibly sporadic. From hour to hour I couldn’t tell what was going to happen... Heavy rain, light rain, sunshine, hail storm, sunshine, hail storm, heavy rain and so on. The ground outside went completely white with ice during one of the hail storms.

My last day in what the trail notes defined as the Tararuas was very cold, but much calmer. Leaving the hut, I followed bush track that undulated a lot. I was surprised at how much it was wearing me out. The sun came out just as I began climbing towards Richard’s Knob (985m). I loved the views looking back on the ranges and out to the coast. I noticed that Mt. Crawford and the Nicholl’s area now had snow on it. Just before I started climbing the Twin Peaks I walked past a DoC sign informing me that the next hut: Waiopehu hut was about 3 hours away which seemed odd, considering I was about 2km from it. Looking closer, someone had scratched into the sign ‘No, more like 1hr 5mins’, which was appropriate. I enjoyed the climbs and descents over the Twin Peaks before reaching Waiopehu hut. I took a short break to rest my knee and then began the long, slow and muddy descent to Poads Road. Once at the road, it rained: a goodbye present from the Tararuas. I then had a 5km road walk to the Makahika Outdoor Pursuits Centre which was somewhat painful. Along the way I met Alex: a French girl travelling around NZ by horseback. We were both very interested in each other’s lifestyles and spent almost an hour asking questions. A few kilometres more of road walking and I found the Outdoor Pursuits Centre. I met Sally the owner who welcomed me as a complete stranger, told me to get settled in their 46 bunk house and eat whatever I wanted from the fully stocked pantry (dangerous thing to be telling TA walkers!) and then invited me to have an amazing dinner with the family. I was glad to be through the main section of the Tararuas and wearing dry clothes again.

Sally drove me into town to resupply my food the next morning, and had even said I was welcome to stay another night if I wanted to rest the knee, but her brother and his family were visiting and it felt like I was intruding on their time, so carried on at 12:30pm. I had to keep my pace up through the Mongahao-Makahika track if I wanted to make it through and find a place to camp before dark. The track was pretty good, just involved around 15 stream crossings, 3 windfall scrambles, lots and lots of mud and a 600m ascent. Somehow, I smashed through 17km of tramping track in just over three and a half hours and found a sweet camping spot next to an old shearing barn under some pine trees. Thanks to Pat & Sue, a couple of SOBO’s I met on the South Island for that recommendation.

It rained on and off all night which kept me awake, but I climbed out of the tent to find the sun gleaming through the valley. I was able to half dry my t-shirt while I packed up which made me very happy to be only ¾ cold as I started walking. Burrton’s track started off really nice when I found it. It seems that someone has removed the DoC sign marking the start of the track. I followed a combination of quad bike and single tracks before eventually reaching the halfway point, where the track became less obvious, and not very well marked. I ended up crossing a river in the wrong place after a marker pointed me in the wrong direction. A few slips and windfall scrambles and I reached the end of the track. The trail then followed a road through a forestry sector where people and machines were operating. No one said anything to me so I wandered through until I came to Scott’s Road, which wound its way to the Back Track. Easy walking led down to Black Bridge and a nearby carpark where I camped under some pines.

The next day was 20km of almost all road walking which got the knee very sore by the time I came into Palmerston North. I’ve had a physiotherapy session for my knee and a couple days rest at Steve and Maria’s since.

The Tararuas were the toughest section for me so far, both mentally and physically, and I only expect it to get tougher. I’ll be heading into the Ruahine and Kaweka Ranges soon, with an insane amount of food for what will be my longest section. If I stick to a schedule of two huts per day, it should take 16 and knee dependant!

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