I know I’ll miss the van. Three or four times the size of my tent. No set up required. Able to cover large distances in under a day. Doesn’t snap in the wind. I won’t miss the rising price of diesel. The constant threat of an unexpected mechanical fault. Today is an off day. A chance to catch up, to not fall so far behind. I race against the weather to get my hiking gear and bedding washed and dried. Making the bed is still a pain but after all this time I’ve got a system that work. Next to me a father and his two young sons pitch a tent. “You might enjoy this,” dad says to me. They get it erect with ease. “You’ve done that before,” I tell them. I listen occasionally to the boys playing, with a football, on bikes. Not once do I see a screen. I’ve been attached to three since I checked in. I work on getting the Whanganui River Journey planned. Things start to come together far quicker than I imagined. The dates Iain and I were hoping for are available, which is one of the many benefits of being willing to camp. I send my enquiries, book nothing and consider that a step in the right direction. Time for a cup of tea. A holiday park is now one of several environments I’ve learned to treat like home. Into the kitchen, put the kettle on. Knee high humans waddle behind parents. Even in the school holidays there seems to be more long term stays than those on vacation. Chatter of voices mixes with the cheeping of birds. The wind ruffles leaves and needles. I can smell the bubbling of fat on a gas powered barbecue. The threat of Covid-19 is close but not yet close enough. From my chair behind the van I can just see the rounded (from here) tops of the Tararuas. I’m ready to go back in. Mentally, not literally. I’ve still to buy food, and gas, and pack my bag but that can always wait until tomorrow.
With the tramping plans for the Tararua Forest Park it’s worth checking the forecast almost daily. Things are always, always changing. I end up staying at the Mawley Holiday Park for another night. This way there’s a chance I get one, maybe two good days for some travel along the tops. Leaving late is a lot easier when you’ve planned to do it. In my second day off I could have gone food shopping, bought gas, packed my bag but I didn’t. I relaxed and enjoyed every hour. Sitting in the sun, ignoring the nothing happening on my phone for a while. That did mean having to do everything as well as start walking on the same day. I know I’ve got around 6 hours on the trail so I tell myself as long as I’m moving by 12 everything will be ok. I’m on the trail at 11:30. I watch a mountain of cloud slide across the tops of the actual mountains. After today, strong winds and heavy rains are forecast. I’m holding out hope for a clear Thursday with not too much wind, despite knowing that’s hoping for an awful lot. If I can get in to Mitre Flats Hut dry today then I’m in. Once I’m in there’s no room for excuses. Getting on in bad weather is easier when you don’t have a choice. I could have parked a little closer to the first hut but I set out from Holdsworth Road end again. I’m aiming for an obviously longer, and likely more challenging way in. I could sleep walk the section from here to Atiwhakatu Hut. It’s a good warm up and a fair reminder that the time on the Department of Conservation signs is more important than the distance. For now I’m clocking in under the guidance. The next section, while similar in length, is set to take almost twice as long. The shift in quality is immediately noticeable. Overgrown, narrow. The first creek I come to isn’t bridged. None of them are. There is a lot of wind-fall, which adds time, adds distance. All the while the wind is huffing and puffing. I end up with B*Witched’s C’est La Vie stuck in my head. If I wasn’t spending so much time checking my foot work, looking for trail markers I’d be annoyed. I hardly notice it playing on repeat. I cross one wire swing bridge which feels very exposed. The wind swirls and howls through the valley. I can hear it coming before it slams through the tree tops. The streams seem to scream back. The world is very much alive today. I bump straight up over a saddle, into a new catchment area. The track disappears into a stream which becomes two streams. Some investigation eventually gets me back on course. I really must start studying the map in more detail. I sidle around the edge of Baldy. Section by section the track is manageable, mostly dry too. One more bridge at I arrive.
The pit toilet at Mitre Flats Hut has something of Reading Festival 2008 about it. I note this is the first time since then I’ve found myself thinking about not using the provided facilities. Unfortunately, or otherwise, I’m not 19 anymore. When nature calls, I’m not inclined to make it wait. There’s plenty of wood but I still gather more. Surrounded by trees on all the sides, the small meadow home to Mitre Flats Hut makes it an easy job. Gathering wood is satisfying too. Fuel for the night, not that the hut is particularly cold. And I’ve come in dry. It feels important, necessary. Unlike almost every other job. I have a look at the Waingawa River as it passes close by. There is a beautiful almost blue pool beneath the bank. I’m not there yet, I like the idea of a dip but it’s already cold out. There’s an attitude that still needs some work. Above I spot the black weight of cloud I’d mistaken for blue all day. I don’t want to be around when that breaks but I almost certainly will be. I tuck myself back inside, listening to the steady flow of water, the gentle crackle in the fire. There’s a ruru nearby, yelling its own name. The wind catches the hut at times, creaking like footsteps. Nobody comes through the door.
The almost blue bathing pool I thought all too briefly about last night is gone. The Waingawa River now high and brown has washed it away. I hope the fact it isn’t raining right now means the worst of the weather passed by in the night. I’ve counted 7 streams on the map between here and my next destination, Cow Creek Hut. Two of them are big enough to have names, big enough to be a problem. I’m going to have to cross what I find. The first few are probably unmarked, fast and clear. A step over is all that’s required. All signs indicate I’ve anywhere from 3-5 hours ahead of travel upstream. Being 6km away, I know I can’t trust the straight line on the map. The river has already laid claim to the fastest route. The streams won’t be flowing over land, they’ll have cut deep trenches into it. The track, at least, is obvious. Orange markers appear often, although with the amount of fallen trees I find some of them on the floor. Roots glisten, wet rocks are an open invitation to slide. The weight of the rain has crept in to the ground. I pull a Phil Jones face as part of the Earth collapses beneath me. I slide to a comfortable stop on my feet, still on the track.
The further upstream I go, the clearer the waters of the Waingawa become. The flow remains fast. I slalom down a spur to the first serious stream. I smell death before I see the exposed ribcage, the rotting fur. Too far gone for me to recognise. Pig, or goat maybe? Peggy Stream threatens to be a problem. The water is so thick I can’t see the bottom. A prod with a pole suggests no worse than knee deep. The force of the water gives me a push. Not enough, but a warning. North Mitre Stream comes next. Wider, deeper, faster. I stop to put my phone in the top of my pack. I am learning from my mistakes. Once you’e accepted you are going to get wet feet, getting wet feet isn’t so bad. The four times the size of normal orange triangle on the opposite bank saves me from struggling to re-join the track until I realise it’s pointing in the wrong direction. Sometimes all it takes is turning around, seeing the arrow nailed to the tree behind you and you find your way again. Other clues include the squared off with a chainsaw logs, the footprints and impressions in the mud of those who came before. When I do realise I’ve gone off track, I turn around, go back to the last orange triangle. When I get there, I see the track as obvious. How did I lose that? Often after tree fall, seemingly always after a stream crossing. With North Mitre Stream now behind me, I’m through the worst of the crossings. All I really have to do is keep the river on my right and eventually, I’ll arrive at Cow Creek Hut.
Worse than the streams are the standing pools, the hollows in the track that have held on to the rain. Below the water, the mud sinks as deep again. By now I’m squelching, regardless of whether the track is wet. Above me I hear the not quite enough time to prepare warning of rain. The droplets bounce first off the leaves before they reach me. This one passes as soon as it starts. The second comes and I throw my cover over my pack. The third hits a little different. Hail bounces off my t-shirt which gives me slightly more time to pull my own jacket on. Up ahead the hill through the trees have grown misty. This might be with me for a while. Putting my waterproof on was wise. if the rain is now falling as hail then it’s colder out than I think it is. The waterproof’s primary job, I’ve learned, isn’t actually to keep you dry but to keep you warm. Mine still does that. I’m glad I’ve only committed to a short day. I know the hut can’t be far away. First comes the swing bridge, then the small orange box over the toilet and then the bigger orange box of Cow Creek Hut. This is my first former deer culler hut, one room with six bunks lining two of the walls. There’s a bench in the corner and a wood burner in the middle. There’s no sink, not even a water tank. There’s plenty of firewood, and a bucket of water filled from the stream. I get out of my wet clothes and get the fire on. Knowledge is knowing heat rises. Wisdom is finding somewhere above the fire place to hang your boots out to dry. By now the hail is pounding on, sliding off the single sheet of clear corrugated plastic skylight. I can avoid going outside for as long as possible. During one break in the weather, I dart down to the river for a look-see. There’s a cute campsite. I must remember to fill the bucket before I leave in the morning.
I wake up in the night too hot. I shuffle around in my sleeping bag and open both of the windows. Some hours later, the temperature drops enough to wake me and I repeat the motion. This time closing the windows. When I wake up for the final time the hut is cold, which doesn’t encourage me to get up. The trail waits. Today will be another short in terms of distance, long in terms of relative time day. I’ll later read that the Cow Creek to Arete Forks Hut track is widely regarded as one of the worst in the Tararuas, making it also a candidate for worst in the country. But I don’t know that yet. I’ve convinced myself the first part will be the worst. The launch straight up on to the valley wall. I’d started in my rain jacket, by the time the track turned the only part of me still cold were the tips of my fingers and the ends of my toes. I took my jacket off. Within 5 minutes the rain started up again so I put it back on. I notice my GPS has failed to record any tracking points. Be that the dense tree cover or the thick layer of cloud I don’t know. I suppose for now it doesn’t actually matter. I’ll get there when I get there however far away it is. The track is little more than a narrow edge walked into the hillside. Wood is slippery, rocks are slippery. The travel is slow. I counted 5 (or was it 6?) side streams on the map. One and two came early. A drop down to the water, a climb back up the other side. A fallen tree cuts me off. Do I head up and over, or down and under? Enough people have passed this way for a new route to emerge. Easy enough. Pick up the orange triangles once more and carry on. A pole thrust goes straight through the ground. Each step becomes careful, measured. Make sure the first foot isn’t going anywhere before moving the other. What happens when you don’t pay attention? Where I put my foot moved. My other foot is also, already but deliberately on the move. The additional weight of one whole albeit small adult human was too much. I’m on my arse before the slide really gets going. Embrace the fall. The first stop isn’t really a stop, a moments pause before I drop a little further. Stop again, for real. I look up, there’s an orange triangle on the tree. I’ve saved myself two turns on the way down. I pick myself up, shuffle some things around. Move a bead out of the jar of luck and put it into the jar of experience. Keep moving forward. A near miss helps to narrow the focus.
At the next stream I find windfall has either combined with or caused a slip. The track is gone. The earth is loose. Smashed fern stumps and broken wood litter the fall. No step is certain. Sliding might actually be the best way down. How anyone would come up the other way is beyond me. I hope I don’t have to come back this way. Keep following the rises and falls. Across an open slip I get my first and only view of the surrounding mountains. The ridge tops are under a wave of fog but I can sort of see them. A dusting of white from yesterday’s, or maybe today’s, snowfall. Fantastic. I remember seeing the slip on the map. I’m getting close now. The shift down hill turns the moss back into ferns. Tree trunks get thicker, taller. The roar of the Waingawa River grows louder and there’s an unusual smell in the air. Surely not woodsmoke. Nobody else would be stupid enough to come out today. I decide I can smell the river. Through the trees the bright orange of Arete Forks Hut is unmissable, which is probably why they settled on the colour. Smoke is billowing out of the chimney. Somebody is home. There’s paint tins and a garden chair out front. I don’t remember reading any notes or warnings about active maintenance work. Inside the open fire is roaring. A man is sat before it, black billies steaming above. Gear spread everywhere, worse than me even. Derrick, I learn, is an ex-New Zealand Forest Services deer hunter. Arete Forks Hut has been one of his second homes since the 60s. He’s a care taker of sorts. Does some maintenance now and then. He warns me the top half of the inside walls are still wet with fresh paint. Then he slips outside to continue cutting wood to keep the stores up. “Not many people come through here,” he tells me when he comes back in. He sets about making his dinner. He’s still an active hunter, having shot a deer on his way in. Venison goes into a camp oven with onions and carrots. The open fire might be better for a pot roast but Arete Forks Hut is a long way from warm. I get my socks and shorts up high and edge my boots as close to the fire as I dare. “Where are you headed from here?” he asks. “I’m hoping to go over the tops tomorrow and back to Mitre Flats Hut.” He says he’ll get me an updated forecast for the morning.
Over the course of the evening we get to know each other a little. Derrick’s grandson was born in the maternity ward of the Basingstoke Hospital of all places. He’d spent some time in a B&B in Hook. The world gets a little smaller. I wonder if the open fire will be relit in the morning from last night’s ashes. Derrick comes in with handfuls of thick wood, throwing it in the hearth. I might learn something here. Derrick then picks up an empty can of peaches, fills it with kerosene and throws it over the wood. One struck match and the whole thing is ablaze. Lesson learned. “Snow to 800 meters today, it’s going to be grim up there.” Snow, for me, means no. Not yet anyway. He’s out cutting wood again while I pack away. “Are you some kind of minor celebrity in these parts?” I ask when he pops back in. “Maybe in this very specific hut,” he says with a smile. He offers me some venison before I go but I’ve got no way of cooking it so I’m forced to decline free food for maybe the first time. I shake Derrick’s hand and head back the way I came. From what I can see, things to do look to be grim up high. Stunning though, snow has come right the way down the head of the valley. I disappear back into the bush. The track isn’t as bad as I remember. I’m feeling confident, having already walked the worst track in the Tararuas once. I still manage to get lost. Not that it’s really lost. More, not on the track anymore. No orange triangle for a while. Up or down and I’ll find it again, and I do. I slip a few times but I tell myself they’re controlled falls so it’s fine. The branch that wraps around my ankle and sends me in to a forward roll is a lot less controlled. No judge would give me a good score and none was around to see. I swear at myself, pick myself up and carry on. The crack of a stick makes me think Derrick has caught me already but he hasn’t. More snaps up the hill catch my attention and I watch the white flashing bum of a deer disappear higher in to the bush. I hit the sign post that sends a trail further up to Table Flat above the bush line. I’ve made it back in four hours. I have a tiny celebration. I have to force myself to slow down as I’m again sliding, stumbling and falling. The orange of Cow Creek Hut shines bright through the trees and I’m amazed to see smoke already chuffing from the chimney. Two fellas are already settled in for the night. “Don’t worry I’m not staying,” I tell them as I bundle in to have some lunch. “There’s a bloke called Derrick on his way though.” “Derrick Field?” one of them asks. “Yeah,” I say, “is he like a big deal?” “He’s like the Tararua Man,” I’m told. I knew it! I take off again.
The sun has arrived, despite the forecast suggesting otherwise. Nothing I can do about it now. I’ve made my plans. The Waingawa River is flowing smooth, inviting, almost blue again, sometimes green. The jukebox in my head is playing all songs I’ve ever heard on shuffle. Linkin Park into Hell is for Heroes, and then the Backstreet Boys before C’est La Vie returns again. I hit North Mitre Stream, three quarters of the way now. The inside of my left boot feels weird, like something is hanging out. Half my foot may as well be. A tear has split open from laces to sole, stretching out towards my ankle. I guess new boots are on the menu after all. I’m feeling good but I can also feel fatigue setting in. The track stretches out. More streams, another slip. I want to be done. Then, between the trees I can see the walls of Mitre Flats Hut. There’s a family inside already and another arrives while I’m taking my boots off. I grab a bunk as the hut slowly reaches maximum capacity. A full hut is a more complex living situation. You can’t simply strip off in the middle of the room, or maybe you can. Nobody does. if you have to get up in the night you risk disturbing everyone else. There’s suddenly a lot less room in which for me to spread out because other people already have. Bryce tells his family to move down to make room for others. “Don’t worry about it,” I tell him, “I’ll sit amongst you.” And I do. They teach me how to play Presidents and Arseholes for the ninth time. I am given serious trash talk by 9 year old Cameron who backs it up by winning every time. My friends for the night are from Otaihanga and we can’t quite believe we don’t recognise each other. Me having spent the first lockdown running up and down the river running through their local patch.
At least several other occupants move before me in the morning and I tell myself to join in. The plan has already changed a few times. I should be walking out today but the company have assured me the forecast for today is fine. I could make a trip up Mitre Peak, the highest point in the Tararua Forest Park, then I could come down and walk out to Holdsworth. Maybe I could take a trip across the tops and come down further along. In any case I have to get on with it. The initial 200 meter climb on Mitre Track turns out to be the hardest part. A short climb, overgrown and then everything settles down. Up to the bushline is easily the best track I’ve walked this week. Reasonably wide, across firm ground. Even the gradient is quite pleasant considering I’m going close to a kilometre up. That’s not to say it’s easy. There’s no wind but I make up for it by doing the huffing and puffing instead. Before the trees end I find pockets of ice. There’s another push through overgrown tussock and then I’m on to the rocks. The wind picks up a little, only a little. The sun takes the lead today and I stop to put sunscreen on before it’s too late. A few minutes later I Stop again to put my rain jacket on because the wind is still cooler than the warmth from the sun.
I scramble up over rocks, following a string of cairns. My first target is the unnamed peak sitting at 1330 meters, which is close to the edge of my comfort zone. The ice is more like snow now, sitting in drifts which I find to be anywhere from ankle to knee deep. The hole in my boot swallows it up. I change the plan again. I don’t need to rush out. I check my phone, out of the trees, at this altitude of course I have signal. I confirm with Jason I’m coming out tomorrow instead so he doesn’t send out search and rescue later. Up, way up, I can see what I think is Mitre Peak shoulder deep in cloud. Enough wind pushes the clouds along and I get my first glimpse. A serious piece of rock but it isn’t Mitre Peak, it’s the slightly lower Peggys Peak. My next goal. I am going up there. My confidence is running high, I’m making good time. The route remaining surprisingly straight forward and straight up. Peggys Peak begins to look a little like a monster. Mitre Peak must be tucked in behind. The trail sweeps around and up. The narrow ridge becomes wider the closer I get. There’s a small face of steep snow covered rock. The tussock here frozen in the wind’s direction of travel. I put my hand out for support and find an old friend, the horrid spaniard; spear grass. I haul myself up the rock and walk up to Peggys rounded summit. As the saying goes, the views go on for days, or only as long as it takes for the next wave of cloud to swallow them whole.
I get my first view of Mitre Peak. A rising bell with some kind of marker on the top. The remaining distance from here to there troubles me. The ridge beyond looks scary too. I pace across my current high point. Doubt comes in with a bang and the earlier confidence makes a run for it. This is steep, and high, and icy, and my boots are wrecked, and that’s enough excuses for me to say enough is enough. I retreat safely and comfortably to Mitre Flats Hut. I think that’s my second biggest summit in New Zealand after Avalanche Peak. It’s possible some of the passes I’ve gone over are higher but I haven’t bothered to check. I’ve got my spare (or emergency) food for tonight and tomorrow morning. There’s still a few teabags and a scoop of coffee. I have run out of toilet paper though. That’s Iain’s fault for not bringing his own on the Holdsworth-Jumbo Circuit. It’s a 6 hour walk out to Holdsworth Road end in the morning. There’s toilets there and toilet paper in the van. I’m going to have to hold it. I dip my feet in the river, deciding again that it is definitely still too cold to fully submerge. I gather and chop more firewood. Last night was busy and it was a Thursday. I’m expecting tonight to be busier. By the time I’ve got the fire on and started to think about dinner nobody else has arrived. That doesn’t mean nobody will. At almost bed time one other solo walker comes in and we exchange the vital hut pleasantries. Where have you come from? Where are you going? Then I crawl into bed. By the time I get up the other visitor has already taken off and I even got up early. He’s travelling light, all of this stuff is still here. For the first time in forever I’m on the trail by 8am. The sun hasn’t yet entered the valley. This is how it’s supposed to be. Making the most of the day. It’s got nothing to do with the fact that I need the toilet and the nearest source of confirmed toilet paper is 13 kilometres away. I’m definitely not thinking about that when I wonder if I can get out faster than I got in. My pack is lighter, my legs are warmed up but I am feeling a long way from fresh. I know I should have gone for a full dip in the Waingawa River but it was cold and I am soft.
The initial climb wipes me out. Relatively speaking, the track levels out after the first stream and I begin to settle in to a decent pace. I don’t remember anything from the way in until the stream below the Baldy Track turn off. It’s not one crossing but four, and a bit of time spent in one. I’m so focused on a branch around my waist I don’t notice the one above my head and now I’m stuck. The limb is between my head and pack. If I go back down I’m going to end up with the other branch in my bum which is really not ideal. I have to lie down, thankfully not in the flow of the stream, push the branch up and wriggle through. Since arriving in New Zealand I’ve become a lot more accustomed to walking without using my feet. I’m free. There’s another burning climb to the top of the saddle and then it’s all downhill and then uphill again and again from there. I start getting ready to see Atiwhakatu Hut. Once I’m there it’s quite literally easy street to the car park. Nothing is ever round the next corner, or over the next stream, or beyond the next ridge but it does eventually appear. I’m moving slightly faster than my arrival. The final exit happens without any attention required on the floor. Every effort is put into pace. I make a dash for the van, drop my pack and cut back to the toilets. Finished, I look back one final time, the tops now completely emerged from the clouds, dusted in snow. Next time, maybe next time. There will be a next time of course, definitely one more. Possibly two if I can get these boots replaced and open a good weather window.