Tramping (Trekking) the Length of New Zealand (MAIN PAGE)

Section H: Levin to Wellington

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Section Summary: Section H traverses the rugged Tararua mountain range from Levin to the upper Hutt Valley, through dense and challenging bush routes reminiscent of forests farther north, and along open, exposed range tops that are difficult or impossible in bad weather. The maximum elevation reached is Mt. Hector, at 1529 meters (5000 feet), but the route involves about 3400 meters (11,200 feet) of vertical ascent and descent over its length. The route includes the well-known "southern crossing" of the Tararuas from Otaki Forks to Kaitoke, perhaps the most classic of North Island tramping routes. At Kaitoke, the highway must be walked for 10-km to reach the Hutt river valley, where a riverside track leads to Wellington Harbor. Wellington is reached via ferry from Days Bay, a further 7-km walk along the harbor shoreline from Lower Hutt.

Section Journal: Wellington, New Zealand, January 12, 2004

Section H quickly entered the Tararua mountain range just 10 kilometers along rural roads from Levin. The Tararuas were expected to be my most challenging tramping so far, given the rugged terrain and exposure to the common bad weather and high winds on the range "tops." "I've had to crawl along the tops on hands and knees for hours when the winds get really strong up there" I was informed by a local tramper. "And visibility can go to zero and you can't navigate." Daunted and apprehensive before the section, the tramping turned out to be challenging and hard work, but the weather was exceptionally beautiful for the first part of the Tararuas, three-and-a-half days to Otaki Forks.

The tone of the tramping through the Tararuas was set early, when I met a couple in the parking lot (carpark) and we walked the first half-hour of the track together and talked, before my track diverged. Later that morning, another group of day-hikers overtook me and I managed to stay with them for an hour until their track diverged. Arriving at Waiopehu Hut for lunch, another day-hiker appeared for a chat. Later in the afternoon, I ran into a group of overnight trampers heading up to Te Matawai Hut from another track, and we hiked the remaining 45 minutes to the hut together. There were six of us in the hut that night, plus two outside in a tent. Believe it or not, I met more people on the tramping tracks that first day in the Tararuas--18 in all--than I had met (cumulatively) on actual tramping tracks in my entire hike of the length of North Island the previous three months! This is actually true. The weather was clear and beautiful, and given it was New Years Day, I suppose the number of people was not surprising!

The second night, Tom was staying at Nichols Hut and we hiked out together during the morning. Arriving at Waitewaewae Hut for the third night, there were three other couples there, one with their young son whom they had carried in a child-carrier backpack for the 4-5 rugged hours along the track from Otaki Forks to reach the hut. I hiked most of the way out to Otaki Forks from the hut with one of the couples, for an enjoyable morning of slipping and sliding along a stream, which the track crossed and re-crossed dozens of times, and climbing up and down steeply over roots and rocks.

In general, tramping through the Tararuas was back to the "strength hiking" mentioned in earlier journals (Section E), as opposed to the "aerobic hiking" I favor. Even travel along the exposed tussock rangetops involved more hands-on climbing than, for example, the Kawekas of Section G. Much of the climbing and ascending involved large steps up or down, jumps, and a variety of motions, like: hold-on-to-tree-and-swing-body-down, turn-around-and-step-down-backwards-while-holding-onto-root, grab-roots-or-rocks-with-hands-and-pull-oneself-up-the-chest-high-step, go-over-the-edge-sitting-sliding, and make-sure-foot-not-caught-in-root-before-moving. All these movements require muscle strength and bursts of effort, not just aerobic capacity. They prevent one from being able to simply walk, one foot in front of the other, keeping a good continuous stride. In the Tararuas, I became much more experienced at these motions, and in fact learned from others I hiked with. I realized I had never actually seen anyone else tramp in the New Zealand bush before the Tararuas (i.e., following them along a track), and doing so for the first time helped me learn how to do it better. I also discovered that on steep sections, my trekking poles were more hinderance than help. On the steep 1000-meter vertical descent to Waitewaewae Hut (over a distance of just 3000 meters), I stowed my poles on my pack and descended without them. It was much easier, my body balance and orientation to the ground changed markedly, and my hand-contact with trees and the ground greatly increased. It was much easier and faster, I discovered! Only after following behind and learning from Tom earlier that day was I inspired to try the steep descent without the poles. Then I tramped the challenging "southern crossing" part on par with the published time (my time was 15 hours of walking over two days), and felt like I had finally become a real tramper!

After coming out at Otaki Forks for five days to await better weather and rest my legs, I returned to Otaki Forks to continue with the "southern crossing" (see the footnote below for a discussion of this section's sequencing). I felt really good and strong, and ready for a challenging first day of 1700 meters of climbing and a traverse over exposed alpine tops to Alpha Hut. Still apprehensive that the weather might not allow passage, I started at 5:30 am. The first stop was Field Hut, at 8:00 am, where two people were still lounging in bed. At 9:00 am, four "trail runners" passed me in the opposite direction. They had come from Alpha Hut, my destination for the day, that same morning, and reported a good crossing across the tops. So that bolstered my confidence. (Trail runners are common on the southern crossing, and there is an annual race; apparently the fastest time for whole 32-km route is less than five hours.) At 10:30 am I reached Kime Hut, where a woman had spent the last three days trapped due to the bad weather, and was finally able to leave that morning. There was also a man who had walked from Alpha Hut that morning, after spending three days at Alpha due to weather also. Even the day before I was there, he had tried to walk across the ridge tops from Alpha and had been blown off his feet several times before retreating to the hut. He was also finally able to leave the morning I was there. At 2:00 pm, another group of four trail runners passed me going in the opposite direction. At Alpha by 3:00 pm (8 hours of walking and 1.5 hours of breaks), I was the only one there. Strange--given it was a Saturday night with fine weather. From Alpha, the remainder of the route is in the forest, so from that point, "the weather can do whatever it wants" as my Tararua tramping adviser put it, and I was "home free"!

(Actually, the "southern crossing" track is so well-defined (from much use) and easy to walk along the exposed tops, that it seems to me it could be followed even in zero visibility, despite the warnings given me by everyone. In good weather, it was quite enjoyable the first day, although the endless stepping-over-roots march along Marchant Ridge the second day was not!)

(On a continuing philosophical musing, "tramping" actually is different than "backpacking" as the term is used in the United States ("backpacking" as used in New Zealand is very different again--and used to denote bus-bound urban tourists.) Tramping and U.S.-backpacking are NOT synonomous as my very first journal for Section A claimed. For one thing, tramping usually involves staying in huts, which makes it a very social experience. Most trampers go to a hut, stay for a night or two, and then hike out. For another thing, the motions and "strength hiking" (see Section E journal) involved, more akin to rock climbing, mean it is really a different activity. For the most part, backpackers on trails in the United States simply walk--even if going steeply up or down--and don't need to climb using their arms. And there are no huts so they tend to camp in tents in solitary groups. Actually, New Englanders in the U.S. hiking the rocky White Mountains, which do require strength hiking/climbing and have a few huts as well, might be the closest the United States has to "trampers.")

The Tararuas were the most challenging hiking so far. Perhaps because of the warnings about potential weather conditions on the tops, and some early rocky sections that I climbed up OK but wouldn't want to have to climb down, I had some sense of foreboding as I went up the first day from Levin, and must admit that a few times on the way up to the exposed tops I considered going back and not doing the route. There was one "dangerous passage" in the Tarauas. This was number five for the whole trek. The passage was across two rocky "knobs" (Puketoro and Kelleher) along the main Tararua range (otherwise forested in that area). The rocky outcrops stood up, making travel along the exact ridgecrest impossible for short sections. At the first knob, there was one gully that cut across the ridge--the ridgetop ended abruptly in a cliff overlooking the gully. The track "descended" down into the gully via a sheer dirt face with a few bushes to grab here and there--with the steep rocky gully falling sharply downward at the bottom of the dirt face. Then to climb up the other side of the gully, the track had to sidle along a dirt ledge out of the gully, and ascend from that ledge a rock face mixed with dirt that was higher than my head when standing on the ledge. Bellow, the gully fell away sharply. There were no clear footholds or handholds, just little bits of rock and tufts of grass. I climbed up that rock face with hands and feet and knees as if my life depended on it--it did! This may have been the most dangerous bit of the whole three-month trek so far, as by the time I got up, I was hyperventillated and started sobbing.

Once across that first knob, there was no way I could ever re-cross it going the other way, so at that point I was committed to facing whatever lay ahead. My confidence in the reasonableness and viability of the track was shattered and I viewed the second knob ahead with apprehension. It wasn't as bad, but when the track disappeared down a sharp cliff-like drop-off my breath caught until I saw how it negotiated down a steep dirt-covered route (some of it done sitting-sliding) back into the forest far below. In all, the hour-and-a-half spent crossing those two knobs became a psychological matter of survival rather than recreation--a rare line was crossed. I would never knowingly take a track with a section like that again--which partly influenced sticking to my earlier decision not to cross the main Tararua Peaks, also with rocky sections and a steel-wire ladder up a rock cliff. Happily, the rest of the Tararua route was in forest or along open slopes with no sharp drop-offs. And I had a hiking companion the next morning over the open tops, which helped me regain morale and confidence.

After coming out of the Tararuas at Kaitoke, I walked along busy Highway 2 for about 10-km to the start of the Hutt River Track at the junction of the Hutt and Akatawara Rivers. This track leads 25-km down the Hutt River to Wellington Harbor. The track was a flat, scenic, enjoyable walk, with others out walking their dogs and jogging along the track. The final part of Section H involved walking 7-km along the Wellington harbor shoreline--quite scenic--from Lower Hutt to Days Bay and then taking the Dominion Post ferry across the harbor to Wellington. The North Island half of the trek is completed! To relax and celebrate, its time to go see Lord of the Rings...

Footnote. Section H was hiked like movies are made. That is, I hiked different parts of it out of sequence and then put it all together at the end so it appears as one continuous hike. This was the first time I have done a section this way, but it seemed necessary. If the five parts of Section H were labeled a-b-c-d-e, then I hiked those parts in the order b-a-d-c-e. Still, by the end, I had walked "every step of the way" along Section H, from start to end. The reasons for the out-of-order sequence had to do with both weather and rest. When the weather turned fair, I wasted no time in heading into the Tararua mountains, the range I had been warned about avoiding in bad weather, not even hiking the 10-km of road to reach the trailhead. Then, once at Otaki Forks, almost two-thirds of the way across the Tararuas, I decided not to continue with the "southern crossing" portion of the route just then. This was partly because I wasn't sure that the weather would hold (it didn't), and partly because my knees and leg muscles needed rest after probably the toughest tramping thus far on North Island, including the psychological jarring of crossing the rocky knobs mentioned previously. So after coming out at Otaki Forks, I hiked the first part of Section H, the road to the start of Tararuas, and also the last part of Section H, the Hutt River Track. These flat sections allowed me to "stretch my legs" and rest sore knees and muscles. Then I went back to Otaki Forks and hiked the southern crossing with vigor and resolve (and a super-light backpack with no stove, camera, trekking poles, etc.). Finally, on the morning of January 12, I walked from Lower Hutt to Days Bay and from there across Wellington Harbor by Ferry to complete Section H. Shuttles to and from intermediate points along the section were by car, bus, and commuter train. While on the subject of movies, here is a question I've pondered: with these journals and photos, am I documenting what I am doing, or am I doing a documentary? The answer, perhaps, is both!

Page updated January 12, 2004