Parental freedom goes wrong in the Tararua Ranges

posted in: Mini Adventures | 0

The excitement of our first weekend away without parenting duties was too much for Lorelei to handle. It was Friday night, time for bed with an early start in the morning when Jacob’s amazing mum would arrive to take care of Shirley while we went tramping. Lorelei hopped into bed and scoured topographic maps and tramping blogs for inspiration. She got too excited by the possibilities and didn’t nod off to sleep until after midnight. #Fail

The next morning Nana Lynley arrived at 8am and we gave her some parting instructions before loading (the oh so generous) Steph Coutts’ adventure car we’d borrowed and setting off.

We were headed in the direction of the Kiriwhakapapa Road end in the Tararuas and were loosely planning to tramp to Cow Creek Hut via Blue Range. However, with Jake behind the wheel Lorelei was free to further peruse topo maps and tramping blogs.

We had already identified the possibility of pushing on past Cow Creek to reach Arete Forks Hut and Lorelei was doing further research. In one tramping blog the author claimed quite confidently that the track to Arete Forks Hut was “the worst track in the Tararuas”. Despite looking like a fairly short distance on the topo map apparently it would take 5 hours. We are kind of sick of the deeper huts of the Tararuas always eluding us and for some reason we found the prospect of taking on the worst track in one of the more rugged tramping destinations quite alluring.

The start of the track climbing to Blue Range had a magnificent stand of old growth Red Woods. Despite being completely out of place in a New Zealand forest park we loved the sight of them and both secretly wished we would be camping under them that night.

Redwoods, we don’t mind that you aren’t native because you sure are pretty

Other than that the climb to Blue Range was a pretty standard Tararua tramping experience. Plenty of mud, root ladders, and steep terrain. As usual Lorelei bemoaned her lack of fitness as Jake enthusiastically climbed all the steepest sections.

The descent to Cow Creek got steeper and steeper the further down we went. Lorelei was all too aware that we would be making our way back up the same track the following day.

We arrived at Cow Creek Hut at around 4pm (we didn’t leave the car park until after 11) and we had a decision to make. Lorelei made lunch and gathered intel from the hut book while Jake filtered water. It was just like old times. Some of the hut book entries stated things like, “whoever cut the track to After Forks is a moron who should be shot” while others reported that, “it’s not really as bad as they say”. After some brief deliberation we decided we would push on to Arete Forks Hut. Somehow we convinced ourselves it was the right thing to do – after all what other opportunity would we have to bag such a remote hut. We needed some more sensible friends there to intervene (we promise we would have stopped and played cards with you).

The Cow Creek Hut, otherwise known as the “Waingawa Hilton”
Arete Forks Hut – why not? We soon found out

The first hour from Cow Creek was ludicrously steep both up and down (mostly UP). The fact that every root and rock was soaking wet (it had been raining all day) made it that much sketchier. Our hiking poles were no use as we had to often grab onto tree trunks and then lower/hang off them to go down. The poles were soon put away. Also we had to walk backward around one-fourth of the time to lower ourselves down the sketchy sections. Jake was actually enjoying how gnarly it was, and said as much. There was no room for error and almost endless opportunities for error. Going for a walk in the bush started to feel more like an extreme sport. Then, sure enough, on a particularly steep and wet root ladder Lorelei took a tumble. Sliding several metres almost straight down and banging her knee in the process. When asked if she was okay Lorelei said “I think so”. Jake carefully scrambled down and we reassessed our ambitious plans – we had only gone about an hour from Cow Creek, it wasn’t too late to turn around.

It is hard to capture a steep track by photo but in this one Jake is trying to descend. Most of the track to Arete Forks looked like this…or worse

For some reason Lorelei wanted to push on, largely because she hates turning back on any adventure and she had just climbed so much damn up! Interestingly after that decision the track only got worse. There were numerous moments where we had no idea where the track even was and were confronted with huge drops into ravines in which we both said “how the hell are we supposed to get down there?” Each time we made it down to a creek bed we had the joy of climbing out on an equally steep and non-existent track.

To make matters worse it started to get dark. The already ridiculously sketchy track only got harder to navigate. Luckily Jake had recently bought Lorelei a ‘Campsite Finder 2000’, replacing her barely functioning head torch, so we were equally well equipped for night hiking. However, night hiking on the Arete Forks Sidle Track is not quite the same as night hiking on the PCT. There’s a lot more time spent saying “where the hell is the track?” and “what are we supposed to do here?” and (even though the PCT is 4200km long) “will this track ever end?”

(Not pictured: hiking and swearing in the dark)

The moment we stumbled into a clearing and the beam of our head torches struck a bright orange building we were probably the two most relieved people on the planet. It was now 10pm and our sense of relief was complete when we found the hut empty.

All that was left to do was have a quick dip in the river, cook, eat dinner, filter water, and pass the f$@k out. Oh…and one more thing…we still had to get back to the car somehow and drive back to Wellington to relieve Nana Lynley from Shirley duty, unpack, and go to work the next day. Sigh.

Knowing we had another big day ahead of us we had set an alarm and were woken by it all too soon. It had been bucketing down during the night but gradually the sky was clearing to reveal some magical peaks above the valley.

Jake prepares to depart Arete Forks Hut for another big day of tramping

We had read that there were a few weird options to avoid the horrendous sidle track. You could swim/walk down the cold river or climb way up above the sidle track to the tops of Table Ridge then decend all the way back down to Cow Creek. The river sounded sketchy and wet, plus with all of the rain, possibly flooded, so we made the call to ascend all the way out of the valley up to the tops and traverse Table Ridge before dropping all the way back to Cow Creek. We figured it couldn’t be any harder than the Arete Forks Sidle track, and besides we might even get some views if the pause in the rain lasted a little longer.

So up and up we climbed. We were extremely grateful that someone had put some white markers on trees, since there was no track to Table Ridge. Once we reached the tree line we started to get our reward with views of surrounding peaks, and the rewards only got greater the higher we went. While there was no track and no markers above tree line it was fairly easy to follow the spur leading up to the ridge line. We must have crested about 20 false summits before we finally reached Table Ridge, it was a huge climb.

Jacob crests one of the 20 false summits
Above the tree line and the views were oh so good

Once atop the ridge the views were fantastic. We caught glimpses of nearby Mitre Peak, Tarn Ridge Hut, Mount Holdsworth (we think), and we could even see Kapiti Island at one point. The traverse across Table Ridge was not as easy at you might imagine. There were some extremely steep sections that strongly contradicted the name.

Bow-chic-a-wow-wow. If only these inner Tararuas weren’t so hard to get to
Tararua Hiker Trash
Mitre Peak – the tallest in the Tararuas – so close, yet so far. We will be back for you!

The next challenge was figuring out which spur would lead us down to Cow Creek. There were a myriad of options to descend, but we knew one of the spurs would lead to a DoC track that we had heard was actually pretty good. We started to follow some sporadic cairns in hope they would lead us to our goal. We were heading down a particular spur when Lorelei became convinced she could see a cairn on the spur immediately east of us. We traversed some more wicked steep terrain and sure enough found a cairn and continued down the new spur.

Just as we hit the tree line the weather started to turn. We knew rain was coming and were thankful it waited until we reached the shelter of trees. Anxious about the rain, Jake thought he saw a vague track so plunged into the tree cover only to discover he had got himself into yet another insane situation. There was a deep and incredibly steep ravine to one side, and the other side was hardly more inviting. So he called out to Lorelei that he had made a huge mistake, and would sidle along until he found the track. Lorelei soon heard tree branches snapping and Jake’s voice below saying “holy sh!t this in insane!” Meanwhile Lorelei was taking a more conventional approach and had found what looked like a track. Jake bush bashed his way to join her and we had a fairly uneventful hike down the well marked and easy to follow track to Cow Creek Hut for lunch.

At this point we were both pretty well spent, but knew we still had at least another five hours of hiking ahead of us. The hike over Table Ridge was not really any quicker or easier than the sidle track, but was certainly less soul destroying. The views gave us something!

Jake gives shakas to Table Ridge – the superior option to get to Arete Forks

So we set off in persistent and quite heavy rain to start the climb back up to Blue Range. For only the second time in Jake’s life he started to consider renouncing his membership to the uphill lovers club. What he and Lorelei craved most was some flat ground to walk on. Alas, in the Tararua Ranges flat ground is a rare commodity.

Jake became desperate to see the sign for Blue Range Hut – and was convinced numerous times it was just ahead. He kept seeing mirages – shapes in the forest down the trail that he swore were DoC sign posts. When we finally reached the sign we were sorely tempted to skip bagging Blue Range Hut – even though it was definitely part of our mission. We were uncertain how far it would be, and were worried it could add an hour to our already stupidly long hike out.

Well by now you probably know what we decided…”well we’ve come this far – we have to go bag it”. So we dropped our packs and hiked as fast as we could to go find Blue Range Hut. We found some Germans were in the hut and had a fire going. When we opened the door and stood there soaking wet, refused to enter the hut when invited in, and requested the hut book they must have thought we were insane. We made our entry in the hut book and took a couple of photos of the hut and then hurriedly set off back to our bags for the final descent to the car.

The aptly coloured Blue Range Hut

We arrived back at the car at around 7pm and began the ~3 hour drive to go relieve poor Nana Lynley. There was much stiffness and limping atcwotl the following day but you will be pleased to know that we decided we deserved the day off from exercising (other than our bike commuting of course)