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The Tararua Ranges can make a claim to be the home of New Zealand tramping, and when New Zealand's oldest tramping club (The Tararua Tramping Club) was established in Wellington in 1919, it was possible that the dark blue silhouette of the Southern Crossing filled the horizon beyond their first meeting.
It was equally possible that the ranges were shrouded in cloud. In fact, you would probably have your money on that one, as the ranges are shrouded in cloud over 200 days of the year. Your map and compass will be especially helpful for guiding you through the soup if this happens, despite a reasonable ground trail all the way across this popular tramp.
Day 1: Otaki Forks to Kime Hut (4-6hrs).
The warden's house at the Otaki Forks car park is an opportunity to fill in your intentions in the Intentions' Book, after which you can make your way down to the Waiotauru River, a popular swimming and camping spot in summer. A bridge crosses the Waiotauru, and then the track climbs onto a terrace, where the naming of the area becomes apparent, as you see you are on the corner between the fork of the Waiotauru and Otaki Rivers. Most of the first hour elaborates on these views as the track winds backwards and forwards up a shrubby hill. The clay underfoot can get slippery when wet, but on a good day there are some nice snack spots from which to get your breath back and admire the ranges into which you are gradually being enveloped. The track then enters some typical Western Tararua bush, larger trees crowded with a tangle of vines and ferns, supple-jack and ponga, as it starts to head up the spur proper.
The bush smells rich, especially when damp (and it can often be damp), and remains largely unchanged for the second hour to Field Hut. It is a steady, rather than steep, uphill, with enough mud to make a Tararua enthusiast feel at home, but not so much that those who run down this hill in the annual Southern Crossing mountain race, might lose their shoes.
Field Hut is an historic, Tararua Tramping Club institution, with old schoolhouse windows, but a new firebox (and second storey Fire Exit). It's a charming spot, with a small but tantalising view towards the Main Range, but in the interests of keeping the second day shorter, most people will continue on to Kime Hut.
The rewards of continuing are quickly realised. After a climb through a short section of bush and over an old slip the climb sidles a knob on the ridge, and rounds the corner onto Tabletop, a plateau with panoramic views in all directions. You have reached the limit of the bush, and on days when the nor-wester rampages across the tussock, dragging angry black clouds in its wake, it's best to leave the tramp for another day, as it is at least another two hours before Kime. In sunshine however, with a full water bottle from the tank at Field, the climb can pass swiftly, as you weave in and out of small rises like the lumps on a crocodile's back, ascending ever upwards into the mountains.
Kime Hut is sited in a tussock filled hollow. Again, an older-style hut, painted in cream and brick red, it can be popular with school groups for overnight tramps, so it may be necessary to squash up on the platform bunks. It has no heating, and its popular nickname is Kime Fridge, but the views from behind the hut are magnificent. The Kapiti Coast, away to your west, and as evening falls, the cities of the Hutt Valley and Wellington picked out in lights.
Day 2: Kime Hut - Alpha Hut (4 - 6 hrs).
If you haven't climbed Hut Mound already, to get a more generous perspective on the view, the track up will warm your legs in the morning. The route then descends into the saddle between Hut Mound and Mt Hector before climbing steeply up to the summit, marked with the Hector Cross, which is a memorial to tramping club members killed in war. Mt Hector (1529m) is the highest point on the tramp and around 45 minutes on from Kime. It attracts quite a few day-trippers, but you will leave them behind as you continue around the Beehives and the Dress Circle on your way to Mt Alpha.
This section of the tramp crosses the lofty ramparts visible from Wellington City, and gives plenty of time to reflect on how far you are from its bright metal busyness, and the deep heart of the ranges North. It is possible to while away a fair amount of time trying to pick out places from your map, and on a good day the South Island is also visible, sneaking up beside the North Island on an overtaking manoeuvre.
On a stormy day you will see nothing but white, and the toggles on your coat hood as they slap against your face. Benign and relatively easy to follow in good weather, this part of the route is nothing short of deadly in bad, with some confusing ridges which splay in all directions, making careful route finding necessary.
After the short slog over Alpha Peak the track drops back towards the bush, and a short section of wizened leatherwood and beech takes you through to Alpha Hut. Large and modern, the most disappointing aspect of Alpha (and there is very little disappointing if you have just fought through a nor-wester to get here) is the lack of firewood. People have exhausted much of the ground wood nearby, and it may be necessary to roam further to find any.
Day 3: Alpha Hut - Marchant Road End (7-9 hrs).
Day Three starts relatively flat, amongst the beautiful goblin forest (beech trees draped in moss), before descending steeply into Hells Gate, where the tree roots beside the track are much appreciated. Hells Gate is the saddle between Alpha ridge and Marchant Ridge and upon climbing back up to Marchant Ridge there are several options. Heading north from here onto Bull Mound allows a steep but direct descent to the Tauheranikau River where it is possible to ford the river to Cone Hut, or, following Marchant Ridge south, there are several old tracks created for hunting use (some, such as Block XVI, now well marked with orange triangles) which also descend into the Tauheranikau. This also allows the option of a third night at Tutuwai Hut (allow 4-6 hours to get there from Alpha and the same amount of time out down the Tauheranikau the following day. There is a bridge to cross the Tauheranikau to Tutuwai Hut).
Marchant ridge itself is not steep, in fact it undulates so regularly that some trampers declare crossly that it is "uphill both ways." It has wonderful a mossy goblin forest to begin with, and on windy days the forest floor can lift beneath your feet as the tree roots cling for dear life to the ground. Gradually the beech trees increases in size, but fire and logging mean that the lower end of the ridge is shrubby, and eventually you will walk between thickets of gorse as you start closing in on the car park. The last section of track, from the well-named Puffer Saddle down, gives a glimpse of the rural farmland of the upper Hutt Valley, and it is not long from here to the highway which feeds you back into Wellington city.
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