Written by Lorelei and Jacob.
The SchMcelwees have a few different adventure challenges on the go. One of them is to ‘bag’ all of the huts/bivvies in our local tramping adventure zone, the Tararuas.
The Tararuas are pretty cool given how close they are to Wellington, but a lot of local trampers actually have a bit of a love-hate relationship with them. They are pretty but not as amazing as other parts of NZ and they are rather rugged. There are around 50 huts in the park, many the legacy of a big manual deer culling program that took place in the 60s. Many of the huts are now managed by the Department of Conservation (DoC) but some are still maintained by the ex deer cullers group. An aging group of generous and badass ex deer-cullers from back in the day.
Anyway, we have hit up most of the lower hanging fruit in the park, with mostly weirdish, remoteish huts to visit left. For this reason we decided to work hard to smash out a couple of bivvies. The bivvies are little two person huts with little more room inside them than for two DoC mattresses and they are not high enough to stand. We have heard them called ‘dog boxes’ before.
With a decent forecast we decided to take on the challenge of bagging two bivvies in a weekend. The general rule in the Tararuas is the smaller the hut, the more remote it is and the less often it is visited. Bivvies are probably the least visited huts in the Tararuas. The two we were aiming for had no marked track to them and we would be accessing both of them from “the tops” – a term describing the ridges and peaks above the tree line in the Tararuas.
We had nana Lynely lined up once again to take care of Shirley. We took measures to leave work early that day, did a few quick chores and headed north. As we drove we had our customary transport related discussions and later we tried to figure out a dinner plan.
It turns out when you arrive in Carterton at 6:30pm on a Friday night there are quite a few people around trying to get dinner. We spotted a weird/cool looking pizza cart in a random carpark and they told us it would be a 20 minute wait for a pizza. Rather than waiting for pizza we decided to get kebabs, surely that would be quicker. Oh so wrong. It turns out that approximately everyone in Carterton that wasn’t eating carpark pizza was at this kebab joint. To make matters worse it seemed like even though about 20 people worked there, for some reason only one very overworked looking woman was actually involved in making kebabs. So our kebabs took forever.
As we drove from Carterton to the Holdsworth carpark we soon discovered our long awaited kebabs were approximately 65 percent iceberg lettuce.
Feeling a little disappointed we began our short evening hike to Atiwhakatu Hut in fading light. We needed our head torches for around half the hike and arrived at a bit after 9pm. Thankfully some of the occupants were still awake and the new hut has separate sleeping quarters anyway, so our late arrival didn’t cause any dramas. We had a quick dip in the river, chatted with the other trampers in the hut, and then went to bed.
In the morning we could already hear wind gusts blowing through the river valley, which made us a little nervous about the wind strength on the tops. Not dissuaded, we set off along the often rough, but well marked, track up the valley. We started to see glimpses of the ridges above and so far the weather was clear.
After following the rugged track for a while, which seemed to go in and out of existence, Jake suggested we just follow the river instead. The only problem was we didn’t actually want to keep following the river and needed to cross it to find a track up to a peak called Baldy. It turned out we actually needed to cross the river to the other track right around the time Jake had transitioned to river walking. Luckily Lorelei was also on to it and figured this out before we went on a detour up river.
The Baldy track was brutally steep, but easy enough to follow. As usual Jake enjoyed the uphill challenge early in the day, while Lorelei struggled and needed frequent breathers.
After not too long we reached the tree line and were immediately greeted with sun, wind, and views. We continued up the ridge for a little while until we found a sheltered and viewful place for some snacks. We had great views of the Three Kings and Mitre Peak, which was especially exciting since we so frequently can’t see anything on the tops in the Tararuas! We put on some sunscreen, our jackets, and continued up the ridge towards Baldy.
We had another short rest on Baldy to take in some more views and then pushed on to South King. By the time we reached South King the wind was becoming ferocious as we reached the exposed side of the ridge line. The NW wind was howling. We looked along the ridge line north to Mid King and felt nervous about how narrow and treacherous the route was given we could barely stand upright. However, when we looked south the route over the “Broken Axe Pinnacles” looked even more terrifying given the wind, which we would be doing later in the afternoon.
We followed the treacherous route north, scrambling over and around various rocky peaks and eventually made it to Mid-King. At the peak we found a faint route down to the bivvy. It was ridiculously steep, full of nasty ‘spaniards’ (an alpine tussock with leaves that resemble small daggers), and leatherwood (an alpine shrub with heavy duty serrated leaves that resemble tiny saw blades) tearing our legs apart. It was torturous.
It look us some time to find Mid- King Bivvy, which was nestled in a sheltered basin below the tree line. We were sure glad we took our lunch down, because we definitely needed an energy top up. The thought of the brutal climb back to the ridge was sufficiently off-putting that we briefly flirted with the idea of sleeping at the bivvy. We both knew that wasn’t going to happen so instead we ate our cheese and crackers, gathered water from the nearby stream, and made our way back to the ridge via the lower body cheese grater of Spaniards and leatherwood.
We were soon free of the cheese graters, but were instead confronted with full exposure to the gale force cross wind on the tops. The wind was sufficently strong that, instead of being a helpful balancing aide, Jacob’s very narrow lightweight hiking poles were effectively just increasing the surface area of his body and getting caught in the wind. He was having a lot of trouble controlling them, which meant his pole placement was erratic at best. This meant the carbide tips invariably found soft bits of trail to get buried in or got caught under the roots of alpine plants. It was utterly infuriating, such that, not for the first time, he began to question the value of having them in the Tararuas.
We made it back to South King and began the adventure south over and around the Broken Axe Pinnacles. Some of the route was pretty ridiculous, but we were really thankful the sketchiest parts were on the sheltered side of the ridge. In places the narrow footing that sidled around the Pinnacles with a big almost sheer drop below was not for the faint hearted. Some of it appeared to be little more than flattened moss on the edge of a cliff.
Eventually we made it to McGregor and began the descent to McGregor Bivouac. As we dropped off the ridge the wind eased and we spotted our accommodation for the evening. We were elated to discover we had the tiny bivvy to ourselves and despite being just above tree line it seemed to be completely sheltered from the wind. What’s more it had a long drop, a rain water tank, epic views and was even getting some evening sun. There was even a view of the main range from next to the long drop, which made every trip to the toilet a bit more exciting.
We settled in, cooking and eating dinner and washing ourselves using a little water from the water tank and some weird soap slime we found next to the water tank. Jacob became obsessed with monitoring the view of the main range, and in particular whether Mount Crawford would ever escape the cloud hugging it. Despite a fairly big day in the Tararuas he found the energy to make approximately 57 trips to check the view next to the long drop. After much research he can confirm that Mount Crawford is either extremely fond of clouds or very very secretive…or both. All of the other mountains were perfectly happy to let us see what they were up to, but not Mount Crawford.
As the sun went down we retired into our dog box to settle down for bed. Jacob continued reading “The Bushman’s Bible” – a self-published book by a local tramper that we’ve found in almost every hut we’ve been to in the Tararuas. Meanwhile Lorelei worked on some blogging. One of the weirdest/coolest features of McGregor biv is a fairly large illuminated ‘Exit’ sign above the low door. It is sufficient to light up the small dog box.
During the night the weather deteriorated, and we woke for our respective early morning toilet adventures to find that ‘clag’ had enveloped the mountains and we needed our jackets to go outside.
The next morning we mostly ate breakfast and packed everything up in the Bivvy, which was no easy feat since it is was not much bigger than a tent. After some close-quarters gymnastics and a little procrastination with putting on our hiking clothes, we began the climb back up to the ridge.
Somehow the wind was even stronger than it had been the day before and with the clag there were no views whatsoever. We were able to locate the route towards Angle Knob and our next stop, Jumbo Hut. So if we thought the wind was strong on McGregor, it was downright insane on Angle Knob. Somehow the peak caught even more wind that the rest of the ridge and it was difficult to even stand up as we climbed it, let alone walk.
Things briefly improved on the sheltered side of Angle Knob, but as soon as we were back on the exposed ridge the wind was back to insane mode. The bizarre thing was we were now heading approximately due east, which should have meant the howling northwest wind was mostly at our backs. Somehow it still felt like we were walking into it. Jake’s poles were flailing around like crazy and we both started to feel like we would need psychiatric help if we didn’t get off the ridge soon. The wind was so strong our jacket hoods were flapping in our ears approximately 200 times per minute and straps from our packs were whipping us in the face constantly. It was mental and physical torture.
Jake was so desperate to get off the ridge he had almost broken into a run he was moving so fast. Lorelei couldn’t keep up and gradually fell behind. Thankfully Jake eventually came to a section of the ridge where he could actually get out of the wind, so he waited there for Lorelei to catch up. Upon arrival she told him off for getting too far ahead, and he apologised – explaining that he felt like he was going crazy from wind exposure. We both agreed we felt like we were going to get blown off the ridge at any moment, having to lean into the wind constantly just to stay on our feet. Given how sketchy it was we agreed to stick together a bit more.
We continued along the ridge until we finally reached the climb up towards Jumbo. We have never been so happy to be confronted with a steep climb up to a peak, because it meant we would soon be out of the wind.
Upon arrival at Jumbo we took a couple of quick photos and headed down to the hut. As soon as we started descending to the hut we were out of the wind and started to feel like we might make it back to society without completely losing our minds.
We had snacks at Jumbo Hut, which was thankfully still a bit warm from a fire made by previous occupants. Before long we were tramping our way down the delightfully steep Rain Gauge Spur Track towards Atiwhakatu Hut. The track was particularly delightful because of the absence of psychosis inducing wind. Jacob was no longer fantasising about plunging/being blown head first off the side of the steep ridge. He was no longer thinking “imagine how pleasant it would be down there, it would be sheltered from the wind…”.
Despite being out of the wind, we did start to question the sanity of our plan to spend seven days tramping on the Tararua Main Range over the upcoming Christmas break. What if the wind blows so hard that it does us irreparable psychological damage?
From Atiwhakatu Hut we followed the easy trail back to the the Holdsworth road end. Enroute we had a quick stop next to the river to make grilled cheese with our remaining food and power us the last couple of km to the car. Upon arrival we quickly changed out of our wet clothes and headed back to see Shirley and relieve Lynley.