The Tararuas: Paradise on a Hillside to Waikenau
I just looked up, and there it was.
I found my spirit in the alpine.
The Tararuas were causing me a bit of anxiety. They are a range of mountains on the southwest coast of the North Island and they had developed a certain reputation. Before Christmas the consistent news was that they were wet, slippery and cold. And that the conditions were worse than what we had seen in the northern forests. There was also the oft-repeated story of the hiker who had to be rescued off the mountain in the week before Xmas.
The challenge of the Tararuas is not the km you travel. The challenge is the vertical meters you climb – and descend. It is a four day walk to get through this mountain range.
Having spent an hour fussing over my feet the morning of January 18th, applying ointment, I was a still a little anxious about all this – the terrain, the conditions of the trail, my ability to walk alone in this terrain for four days, the question mark that was the infected blister on my right baby toe.
Stephanie and I enjoyed a brief breakfast at Paradise on a Hillside, and then I headed out. She seemed concerned about my foot too, and offered to come pick me up if I found my foot sore when I started the formal track, some 6 km down the road. I appreciated this kind concern.
My toe was feeling 70% when got to the far end of the valley and the foot of the mountains. The foot (mine, not the mountain’s) was sensitive, but the sky was overcast and the weather looked somewhat promising for the coming days.
After a brief wait as a dog finished his job of corralling cows between pastures, I set out on the climb. The trail was jungle, mulch and root-covered. But, owing to the recent dry weather, it was friendly compared to the wet trails I had marched through in November and December – substantially better than what I had imagined.
It was a very steep trail, but I was strong. This first day went very fast. I started relatively late, but still made it through the drizzle and thick clouds to the Te Manakau Hut just shortly after 3 pm. Even after a leisurely lunch break at another hut along the way. There were other hikers staying at the hut that evening: John (NZ) and his two sons and an American couple from Northern California. After a couple of hours of conversation and some peanut butter with ramen for dinner, however, I was beat and I left them to their card game while I had an early night.
My goal the next morning (January 19th) was Nicols’s Hut. I left ahead of the others under a misty rain and thick cloud. The cloud and rain did not last long, however. By mid morning I was walking grassy ridges and summits – alone – with views in 360 degrees of the surrounding mountains, the valleys and rivers below. In the alpine, there were no trees or jungle to obscure the view. Such a welcome relief! I stopped very regularly – every two hours – to rest my still tender feet, but also to simply soak it all in. To enjoy the solitude and the freedom of not having audacious goals of 40+ km to complete. To savour once again the taste of freedom from the weight of a schedule or expectation. A midday stop at the Dracophyllum Hut was a chance to bask in warm sun and gentle breeze and relax in the moment.
The scenery and my spirit got better and better as I approached Nicols Hut. Coming around a crest I looked down a grassy slope to see the red roof of the hut and the backdrop of the entire valley behind. I was home. For the night. I really liked the Nicol’s Hut. It was cozy, and clean and warm. Intense wind blasted hard all night, but the hut stayed in place, perhaps owing to the guy wires fastened at each corner. I had the place to myself: 10 km away from any other soul.
This quiet time alone at the Nicol’s Hut is when I spent some time flipping through the pages of the Visitors Book. The book represents a connection of people with place. People I have met on the trail who have passed through this same hut. who have listened to this same wind howl against the walls of the hut. Notes are left telling the story of the weather each day and intentions for the rest of their journeys. They each passed through this hut, stopped a while and shared a note: Jorg, MaryLene, Serina, David, Rob and Joss, Nicholas, Andreas, Moritz, Chris and Tony, Faby, Rory. They were all here and the dates and comments they each left each tell a story of how they have progressed, what weather they endured, how they were feeling and where they might be at this date. I reflected for quite some time on each name I recognized as I flipped through the book. In this age of social media and the streams of information we share, there is something about these handwritten logs that is honest and true in a way that social media falls profoundly flat. I left my own particulars and then returned the book, but not before taking photos of a few pages to record and recall these stories another day.
I slept soundly through a blustery and howling wind that night, then headed out at 6:30 am on January 20th climbing up through light cloud and heavy gusts of wind towards the summit of Mt. Crawford. Reaching the summit, the clouds cleared and the wind abated, as if on cue. Laid below me – and me alone – was the horizon, the sky, the mountains, the valleys, the rivers, and an endless blue sky. Knowing that ahead of this climb was an epic 900m, steep, descent I stopped and absorbed the moment, three times in fact, before reluctantly carrying on with a long and quad-numbing technical descent to Waitewaewae Hut.
After another lengthy sun-drenched break at this hut (and a quick scan of the Visitor Book) I continued under the canopy of forest and along a detour in the trail. Due to a slip on the riverbank, this detour was less than a month old and the trail was accordingly crude and marginal for several kilometers. Tough on the feet, but shaded in the forest canopy enough to block the harshest of the heat of a hot sun on a blue sky day.
A couple hours later, the trail got flat, following the grade of an abandoned tramline. At this point the forest began to receed as I approached the open valley of Otaki Forks and a series of swing bridges to cross the rivers that met there. There lay Parawai Hut, the final hut in my Tararuas crossing.
That evening I was not alone in the hut.
There was a rat to keep me company. I heard him in quiet moments as I unpacked my gear, prepared supper and got ready for bed. Scratching sounds. Intermittent ones. Always from the same spot: a high bunk near the rafters. He seemed happy where was. He didn’t move around. He simply went about his business as I went about mine. As it turned dark, I lit some candles and settled into my sleeping bag on the lower bunk, immediately below the rat’s home. The interesting thing to me is that the noise of the rat did not keep me awake. It was the opposite: when I didn’t hear him is when I got anxious. His rustling was a cue that he was in his place. Away from me, my gear, my food.
In the middle of the night, I stepped out for a pee. First listening up for the, now comforting, rustling of the rat. Stepping outside I was once again stopped in my tracks by the carpet of stars that is the southern sky. This never fails to inspire awe. I stood there for a good 20 minutes, soaking it in, before returning to the hut and falling asleep to the comforting rustling of the rat.
My walk out of the Tararuas on January 21 was relaxed. I started early because when I awoke at 4:50 and I couldn’t hear the rat, so was not about to get any more rest until he got busy again. He must have been sleeping at that point. The altitude was lower throughout this walk, the trail was a steep ascent initially in the cool morning air, then a gradual downhill through pine forest, a 4WD track and finally country road into Waikenau.
It was all over pretty early in the day. I checked into the motel across from the supermarket, threw on my sandals and wandered to the local pub and relax in the hot sun with a beer and give my feet some space.
I love the alpine. I love the climbing. I love the reward the alpine always provides. I love the irresistible pull to stop and soak it in. You earn your views in the alpine, but you also earn the right to stop. To pause. To rest and ponder. To look out on the world from a perspective you have earned.
This spot on high from a mountain top is not a place to speak from. It’s a place that you earn the right to be. A place to be quiet. A place to listen. A place to reflect. A place to consider the people you have come to know.
A place to find your spirit.