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Tararua Peaks and Maungahuka
Tararua Peaks and Maungahuka.
Country: New Zealand
Location: Tararua Forest Park
Accommodation: Upper Hutt is nearby. There is the Black Stump Youth Hostel at Kaitoke.
Transport: Trains travel the Hutt Valley between Wellington and Upper Hutt. Taxis available from Upper Hutt. Weekdays a bus travels to/from the Wairarapa.
Maps: Parkmap Tararua (1:100,000) Topomap S26 - Carterton (1:50,000).
Trip Date: April 1994
Also See:
The Tararua Tramper - trip reports from the Tararua Tramping Club.

This hiking trip was my first long journey into the Tararuas. I had planned on a 6 day hike from Kaitoke into the Tauherenikau valley, over Cone and down to the Hector River at Neill Forks, up to Maungahuka Hut and walking out via the Tararua Peaks, Mt. Hector, Alpha and the Marchant Ridge. However I managed to twist my knee in the descent to Neill Forks - enough to make the steep climb to Maungahuka doubtful. So I rested up for a day and then returned via Totara Flats.

Kaitoke to Tutuwai Hut

I took a taxi out from Upper Hutt to the top carpark at the end of the Marchant Road (which leaves State Highway 2 just before it starts to climb over the Rimutakas). The tarmac on this road runs out about 500 metres before the carpark at a smaller carpark and the Kaitoke Shelter - a sturdy, three-sided structure useful when waiting for outward transport.

The day was a bit dull and overcast as I loaded my rucksack onto my back and started up the wide dirt track that leads into the park. The track climbs a little to a stand of pine trees and then levels out as it enters proper bush 200 metres from its start. Once in the bush, it becomes a nicely benched track (still fairly wide) and sidles below a ridge until it meets Puffer Saddle (480m) - a gentle climb of 160m in 1.5 kilometres.

However I branched off after about a kilometre, along the track directly up the ridge. This is a rougher, tougher alternative via the site of Dobson's Hut (now dismantled) and a steepish descent back down to join the usual track just before Smith Creek Shelter. A quick 100m is climbed up before flatter slopes are reached on the crest of the ridge at 529m. For the next kilometre the track travels through open bush with views down into the farmland to the left (only occasional glimpses down into Smith Creek on the right). The last kilometre up to Dobson's is through thicker bush with some larger trees. All that is left of the hut is the concrete fireplace and a couple of planks laid out as seats. The height climbed from the carpark is 330 metres spread out over 3 kilometres.

A bit of a rest and then I continued down the narrow and slightly overgrown track down to Smith Creek. This started with a little drop and then rise to the top of a knoll - a good viewpoint in clear weather. A relentless drop of 460m in the next kilometre certainly cleared the cobwebs out of my knees. The junction with the Puffer Track was a welcome sight. A few metres along the track, over the dry bed of Canyon Creek, and I reached the shelter for a well-earned lunch break.

The next 6 kilometres up the Tauherenikau River can be done by walking up the river itself (though it is more common and easier to walk down the river). However the track is good quality (dry, well marked, fairly flat) and stays close to the river except for a couple of diversions over slips. The stream crossings are easy - one has a wire strung across it (on the other hand another stream has steep eroded banks). The biggest hassle is after the footbridge where there is a 10 metre high clay bank to navigate down. Even if you travel up the river, consider a short diversion up to the top of Blue Slip where there are good views. It takes about 2.5 hours to get to Tutuwai Hut.This is a good modern hut with gas cookers and a good hot potbelly stove.

Tutuwai Hut to Neill Forks

The next days weather was not promising - low clouds and a hint of rain in the air. The track upriver to Cone Hut is quite good if muddy in places. It took me about an hour and a half to get to the hut. The hut itself is worth a look around as a prime example of bush carpentry (recently renovated but using old techniques). There is a picnic table by the hut that is handy for a morning break.

Past the hut the track takes a direct route up the slopes by a stream. After a climb of 70m, it ducks down to cross a side-stream and rises again. Between here and the next stream crossing there is another track that heads directly up a ridge to join the Cone Saddle to Waiohine River track (a useful short-cut if walking in from the Wairarapa). After the second stream there is a steady 30-45 minute plod up to the saddle at 566m - there is a total climb of 226m in about a kilometre. The saddle is a minor crossroads with the Cone Saddle Track continuing on north to Totara Flats, the track to the Waiohine River heading east and the Neill-Winchcombe Route climbing west to Cone (and beyond).

I took a little rest stop here and then wandered up the Neill-Winchcombe Route. This is a route but the path is clear on the ground. It rises 514 metres over the next 1.75 kilometres with a lot of the climb concentrated in the beginning and end of the ridge that you follow. The Block XIX Track (an alternative route from Cone Hut) joins the route at a level spot after the first climb - I didn't spot the turn-off but you might. About halfway up the ridge a small slip by the path gives good views back down the Tauherenikau valley. I reached the bushline after 1.5 hours and broke out into the level, tussock-covered tops. Unfortunately the low clouds cut visibility down to a few hundred metres. On its few fine days Cone should have glorious views of the Main Range of the Tararuas (see the top photo), Mt. Holdsworth to the north and the Wairarapa Plains to the west. The view down the Tauherenikau valley is also (probably) special. At the bush-edge there are several clearings that are often used for campsites (water is found nearby or from the tarn about 200 metres NE).

Cone from Bull Mound
Cone from Bull Mound (Mt. Holdsworth to the left)

The visibility was not low enough to cause any navigation problems so I took the slight detour to the trig site on Cone (1080 metres) to the right - the top of Cone at 1118 metres is 10 minutes to the left. There is no clear track or markers connecting the Neill-Winchcombe Route (which continues to the west) with the route along Cone Ridge. If you head NE from the path (north from the trig site) and follow the crest of a small rise then the first of 2 small tarns is met. Continue along the rise, past the second tarn and the bushline is found. I just walked a few metres down the east side of the rise and then beat the bush as I walked back westwards until I found the path right on the top of the rise.

The route for the next kilometre is straight forward - just keeping to the crest of the narrow ridge and over the top of a small knob. The path is indistinct and I don't remember many (if any) markers. This seems to be a fairly forgotten route - perhaps a more usual way to Neill Forks is via the Neill-Winchcombe Route to Neill and then following a long ridge down to the forks. Over the knob, the ridge widens dramatically and the path descends gently over a kilometre to the Totara Flats - Neill Forks track through moss-cloaked trees.

I found the drop down to Neill Forks the hardest part of the day. Not only is it 580 metres descended in roughly a kilometre but halfway down it began to rain quite heavily. I think that I rushed too fast (to get out of the rain) and managed to give my right knee a good twist. By the time the track bottomed out, my knee was certainly making its presence felt. I took a much slower stroll along the flatter last 100 metres to Neill Forks Hut.There I shared the hut with a couple who had just come down from Maungahuka - they found the descent 'good and interesting'.

Rest Day
Hector River below Neill Forks Hut
Hector River below Neill Forks Hut

The next day I slept in until about 10, waking only to say bye to the couple who were heading out. I stayed around the hut until after lunchtime even when I got up . A bit of a feed and I felt a lot better but my knee was still giving a bit of a twinge. This did not prevent me from taking an after-lunch stroll down the Hector River as far as I could without getting my feet seriously wet. Apparently quite a few groups leave Neill Forks via the river (according to the huts logbook) and pack-float through the gorge below Hector Forks. This sounds like fun but really needs a group to be safe.

I found a large sun-warmed rock and had another snooze and sun-bathe. The peace and tranquillity of the river lasted until about 3 pm when a helicopter flew overhead and landed next to the hut. So I got up, plonked my boots back on and wandered back up the river to meet the newcomers. These turned out to be a couple of hunters who had got their guts full of the howling winds up on the tops and had called up the helicopter so that they could hunt the valleys. They stayed the night and sportingly shared their beer with me.

Neill Forks to Totara Flats

The next morning was fine with a clear blue sky. I took off around 8 am for a steady climb up Cone ridge taking about 3 hours to get to the top. The fine weather gave glimpses of the surrounding mountains through the trees. The best views were from a bit of a clearing about 20 minutes from the top. Most of the tops to the west were visible - the green bush-clad slopes of Neill, the brown tussock of Mt. Hector in the distance and the long ridge leading to the Tararua Peaks. More to the north, the route up to Maungahuka via Concertina Knob could be traced up a ridge (even though hidden under the trees).

The Tararua Peaks -Tuiti and Tunui
The Tararua Peaks -Tuiti (1325m) and Tunui (1310m) - with Maungahuka (1330m) to the right.

There is a good signpost at the top of the ridge making sure that people make the turn along the ridge. I had been told that if I was in a hurry to get to Totara Flats then the quickest way was to bush-bash down one of the ridges down to the Waiohine River and the hut. I had the rest of the day to fill in so I took the track.

The track descends gently for about a kilometre before the ridge begins to narrow a bit. Somewhere in the next kilometre there is a small clearing that gives a good view up the valley of the Waiohine River and the peaks of the Main Range - a good spot for a break. Beyond the clearing the descent becomes a bit more steep until the slopes above the Waiohine River are reached. The track becomes quite overgrown for a couple of hundred metres as it sidles above the river and then clears up as it drops to the riverside.

I met the Totara Creek track (over to Holdsworth Lodge) at the swingbridge across the river and turned right past the site of the old Totara Flats Hut - now totally demolished. Half an hours easy walking and I reached Totara Flats Hut tucked up under the trees at the edge of the flats. That night I had the hut to myself which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand you are free to spend heaps of time lying in the grass looking up at the stars and then hog the stove to get warm again. On the other hand the good-fellowship, noise and activity of a hut full of people is special.

Totara Flats to Tutuwai Hut

A good morning to start the day with - a few clouds floating around Mt. Holdsworth but clear blue skies along my route downstream. The actual track over Cone Saddle starts at the far end of the flats with a distinct path through the grass leading to it from the hut. However the day was so good that I decided to walk down the river as far as possible. I started by walking straight across to the riverbank and then heading downstream along the bouldery sides. At the end of the flat I got my feet wet with the first crossing and from then on just trotted down the river (mostly in it but sometimes on gravel banks).

Looking up Totara Creek to Mt Holdsworth and Pig Flat
Looking up Totara Creek to Mt. Holdsworth and Pig Flat

There are no difficulties along the way with the water no more than knee-deep. I reached Makaka Creek after an hour and took my only deep plunge across a pool that turned out to reach my hips. I was just being lazy since I could have backtracked a few metres for an easier ford and then bush-bashed to the track. There is a big boulder by the creek that gave me a chance to dry off and have a long morning break. Then it was back on with the pack and I wandered a few metres up the creek to where the track crosses it.

The Lower Waiohine Track branches off after 100 metres while the Cone Saddle Track takes a direct route up a ridge to a knoll (370m in a kilometre) with most of the climb in the first 500 metres. The track turns north for a while as it drops 70m to an unnamed saddle and sidles south again to Clem Creek. The power of the creek in flood is amply shown by the wide expanse of gravel compared to the trickle of water. The gravel provides plenty of resting places for lunch.

After lunch I continued on along the sidling track and then up a couple of zigzags to Cone Saddle. The descent from the saddle passed quickly and easily. Cone Hut gave me an excuse for a break as I had another look around. The 3 kilometres to Tutuwai Hut also went quickly and I arrived there about 4 pm after 7 hours lazy walking from Totara Flats. I stayed the night with a couple of hunters in for the week, one of whom had bagged a fine stag up the Tauherenikau River from Cone Hut.

Tutuwai Hut out to Kaitoke

Yet another fine day - the only bad weather I had was (of course) on the crossing of Cone and the descent down to Neill Forks. I decided to continue yesterdays theme of river-walking. I didn't start walking down the river from the door of the hut but followed the track down to the swingbridge first. I got my boots wet just down from the bridge and immediately found a nice little swimming hole just big enough for one. I couldn't resist so had a quick dip.

Swingbridge over the Tauherenikau (below Tutuwai Hut)
Swingbridge over the Tauherenikau (below Tutuwai Hut)

A quick shake to shed the excess water and I started off down the river. In the next couple of hours (I wasn't hurrying since I was going to be picked up at the carpark at 6 pm) I made easy progress down the river. Just across from Blue Slip I made a small detour along an arc of flats hoping to see deer that sometimes frequent this area (none seen). I left the river just before Marchant Stream (after a scrub-covered flat) and joined the track for its final flat section to Smith Creek Shelter.

For lunch I went out to the riverside again and boiled the billy where the river sweeps east into the gorges as it makes its way into the Wairarapa. In the bend there is a big pool just right for another swim. The chilly water certainly refreshed me for the few minutes I was in the swimming hole - keep it in mind if you have the time on a warm summers day.

The track from Smiths Creek Shelter keeps a little above the creek (always within earshot, sometimes there are views down into it) as it climbs less than 200m in the next 2.5 kilometres. It then rises more steeply up a ridge on a path that is sometimes very eroded. Once the bush turns into scrub, the path is better maintained and soon flattens out. As you go along the ridge there are a few nice views back into the Tauherenikau valley. Puffer Saddle is reached all too soon and then there is a very good track down to the carpark.

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