For hundreds of kilometers, we'd been hearing about the mountains before Wellington from other hikers. "The Tararuas? That's supposed to be the hardest section of the whole trail," they'd say. Our notes cautioned us to carry extra food and be prepared to spend whole days in the huts if bad weather struck. We heard horror stories of gale force winds blowing hikers off ridgelines and many hikers were skipping the section altogether.
Needless to say, we left Palmerston North with great anticipation (and 7 bags of potato chips).
Though the Tararuas have a particularly infamous reputation, the trail only takes a quick dive into the range, about 60km (~40 miles) total. Normally, that would be about two days of hiking for us. Here, we planned for three full days while many of our peers planned for 5 or more.
We spent the first day climbing up into the range, gaining over 3000ft in elevation. The climbing was steep and muddy at times, but nothing we hadn't encountered before in Ratea forest or near Mt. Pirongia. Though it was cool and windy all day, it did not begin to rain in earnest until we reached our home for the night at Te Matawai Hut.
In New Zealand, it's common practice for wilderness signs to give approximate times for travel between huts along with -- and frequently instead of -- actual distances. This is incredibly irritating, since we tend to move faster than most hikers and regularly beat the recommended time allotments by an hour or more. However, the time frames listed can sometimes help give an idea of how difficult the terrain is expected to be. When we left our hut on day 2, a sign warned that the next 5km (~3 miles) was expected to take us 6-7 hours. Ouch!
Though we didn't move quite as slowly as the sign projected, the second day in the Tararuas proved to be one of the hardest we've had on the trail so far. It took us 12 hours to do 20 kilometers (just over 12 miles). We were lucky to have great company for the day: Charlie was still traveling with us and we were also joined by another Brit, Andy, as well as an Italian, Alessio, and another American, Justin. We've rarely hiked with so many others on this trail, but the tough terrain was much more fun with a merry hiker train making jokes and swapping stories.
Climbing up from Te Matawai, we summited a small peak, then followed a ridgeline for several miles. The ridge was narrow and instead of a rocky spine, the trail was a deep, muddy trench with steep little dips and dives and slippery tussocks along both sides. It was ridiculously slow going, plunging down into knee-deep mud with no escape.
As we reached the next hut, Dracophyllum, the scenery changed dramatically. We dropped into deep forest of gnarled, ancient beech. Moss covered every surface, so thick that we could plunge our trekking poles into the ground and find no resistance. The air was suddenly damp and cool, and the shade was complete, even under a bright midday sun. We breathed in the earthy smell of rain and soil and green, growing things, and felt like we had entered another realm.
Between patches of forest, we slipped and scrambled our way across rocky, sometimes muddy slopes to Nichols Hut. Te Araroa has large swaths of trail that are really not maintained as trails at all, but that remain footpaths simply because they are used by trampers. In this case, large sections of trail were completely crumbled away, so that we'd have to hold on to roots and clumps of grass as we hauled our packs up and down through gullies and over piles of downed trees. Luckily, the weather was clear and the final climb up to Mt. Crawford was a steady ascent on (gasp!) actual trail.
The final descent to Waitewaiwai Hut was ridiculously steep, like some sort of near-vertical forest obstacle course. We arrived at the hut completely exhausted, but still brave enough to jump into the freezing river to rinse off the mud.
What a day!
The final few kilometers of the Tararuas were much like the rest, but we only had one more peak to climb before reaching town at Waikanae. It was a tough section, but left us stoked for more hard mountain trekking as we came closer and closer to the South Island. Onwards to Wellington!