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Powell Hut
Powell Hut covered with the first winter snows
Country: New Zealand
Location: Tararua Forest Park
Accommodation: Hotels, motels and camping sites in Masterton
Transport: Trains and buses to Masterton from Wellington. A taxi is available for local trips.
Maps: Parkmap Tararua (1:100,000) Topomap S26 - Carterton (1:50,000). Or look at my on-line map here.
Trip Dates: 15-16 June 1996
Also See:
The Tararua Tramper - trip reports from the Tararua Tramping Club.
Special note should be made of the book 'The Tararuas' by Chris Maclean. It is full of great photos and has many details of the history, geology and ecology of the Tararua mountains.
Introduction

Powell Hut is one of the better huts in the Tararuas. It is big (sleeps up to 40), well constructed and has great faculties - a good pot-belly stove (coal provided), gas cookers and probably the best long drops (toilets) in the park. There are great views from its veranda out over the Wairarapa Plains. At night the lights of Masterton are a feature of the landscape.

The track up to the hut is of high quality for about four fifths of its length - gravelled, about a metre wide and no extremely steep sections. The track up to Mountain House was upgraded several years ago while this year (1996), a new track going along the side of the steep ridge above Mountain House was opened. The last hour or so hiking up before the hut is up a rougher track.

The quality of the track means that many people use it as a day hike up to Mt Holdsworth (a 7-8 hour round trip). If you are hauling a weighty pack up the track for an overnight stay at the hut, don't get too frustrated as the day-trippers and mountain runners pass you.

The inspiration for constructing this page was a hiking trip that I took up to the hut just after the first snowfalls of winter 1996. This is the reason that there is a lot of white stuff in the photos in this page.

Route

The track to Powell Hut and Mt Holdsworth starts at the carpark at the end of the Mt Holdsworth Road. Pass through the kissing gates and follow the vehicle track up beside the Atiwhakatu Stream for about 100 metres until you come to the Holdsworth Lodge. This hut can be booked at the caretakers house back at the carpark but is open during the day. There is an intentions book in its foyer.

Looking along the ridge to Jumbo
Looking along the ridge to Jumbo (in the centre) from Rocky Lookout. Baldy is the nice peak in the background.

The track continues past the lodge and crosses the Atiwhakatu Stream on a big sturdy footbridge. Just on the other side there is a turn-off up to a forest lookout (1 hour away) and a large sign with the times to various huts (Powell Hut 4 hours).

Follow the wide track straight on until a junction is reached (about 10 minutes). There is a bench here - good for resting weary feet on the way down. If you followed the track straight on then Donnelly Flat is soon reached. This was the site of a gold claim by Fred Chapman and Tom Donnelly during 1906 to 1907. Chapman pulled out during the first year and Donnelly has the dubious distinction of being the first known European casualty in the Tararuas when he died of exposure following a fall on Mt Holdsworth in 1907. No commercial quality gold has been found in the Tararuas (a few traces were found in quartz reefs).

From the flats, a interesting track (the Loop Track) can be taken over a river terrace and through stands of large trees back to the route.

Take the left turn at the junction instead and hike along a nice bushy track - the Gentle Annie track. This is quite level until it meets the Loop Track (from Donnelly Flat) on the right. From there it starts a long steady climb up above a creek and generally below the ridgeline on the left. There are some nice steps to help you up the few steep parts. After climbing 120m (over 700 metres walking), the track crosses the headwaters of the creek and starts sidling over ridges in a westerly direction.

There are some small ridges to cross with a total climb of 80m (easy walking). Around the last ridgeline the track turns sharply uphill through low-lying scrub to a side-track to Rocky Lookout - a large, 3 metre high rock on the ridge crest. This is well worth the minute it takes to get to the rock and its sharp top. There is a clear view up the Atiwhakatu Valley to the clear top of Baldy with the high range containing Jumbo and Mt Holdsworth forming the valley's west wall and a lower bush covered range on the east.

A rainbow arcing over the Tauherenikau Valley
A rainbow arcing over the Tauherenikau Valley

If you look carefully to the NW then Powell Hut can be seen on the ridge leading up to Mt Holdsworth. On a fine day, the sun can be seen gleaming on the roof of Jumbo Hut (look down the ridge falling east from Jumbo).

Drag yourself away from the view and and hike along the track for 40 minutes to another junction (about 2.5 hours from Holdsworth Lodge). The track to your left drops down the ridge, into Totara Creek and eventually gets to Totara Flats Hut in the Tauherenikau Valley - part of the popular Holdsworth to Kaitoke walk. Straight ahead the track takes you gently uphill through thinning bush until it breaks out onto Pig Flat (just short of 800m high). There is a little alcove to one side that you can use to inspect the steep ridge up to Powell Hut without blocking the track. This also gives a glimpse into the Tauherenikau Valley with Totara Flats spreading out beside the river.

Pig Flat is about 500 metres across. It is covered with sub-alpine scrub - the result of a pre-European fire - which is regenerating back to mature bush. The track crosses much of it on a boardwalk to protect the delicate ground. At the end of the flat there is a short descent before an eroded side track is reached (signposted). If you head straight on for a little further there is another junction with signposts marking the alternative route out along a steeper and rougher track straight down to the Akiwhakatu Stream. The site of the old Mountain House Hut is a couple of minutes to the left from the second junction.

The boardwalk across Pig Flat
The boardwalk across Pig Flat on the way to Mountain House

The first junction drops down an eroded section reaching a saddle in about 50 metres. The saddle is the site of the original Mountain House and the clearing now is often used to drop supplies from helicopters for track maintenance. It also contains the new (as of 2003) Mountain House Shelter.

The new track starts at the other side of the saddle and climbs up the side of the ridge - initially quite steeply. The old track took the direct route straight up the steepest slope of the ridge (it is now extremely eroded). The gradient of the new track soon eases and it climbs steadily along the ins and outs of the ridge. An advantage of this route is the chance of views into the Tauherenikau Valley through the large trees at track-side.

The track just below the Sentinel
Looking back down the track just below the Sentinel - note the red marker on the middle tree

After about half an hour you come across a small pond and then the track rises up onto the ridge crest and joins the old track. This leads through a mixture of rimu and kamahi bush with plenty of scrambling over tree roots. An hours walking takes you to a small dip before a steep climb up a bank. At the top of the bank, the track turns to hike along a narrow ridge and then climb out to the Sentinel - a rocky outcrop with clear views. The gully on the other side of the Sentinel is the headwaters of Totara Creek with the slips on the far side rising to High Ridge (a route sometimes used to and from Totara Flats).

The track continues up the ridge, sometimes through tussocky clearings and other times through patches of bush. In some places the track is quite rough - there are big steps to clamber up and rocky patches that are tricky in icy conditions. In 20 minutes you get to the top of a rocky clamber and Powell Hut reveals itself, tucked into its niche in the tussocky slopes ahead.

My recommendation for day trippers and people staying the night is to drop your packs at the hut, have a brew for afternoon tea and then continue upwards (weather permitting) to Mt Holdsworth. The track is a bit steep for the first quarter of an hour until it meets the junction with High Ridge but is fairly easy going from there on. Expect to take an hour up to the summit and a lot less coming down. From Mt Holdsworth, there is a magnificent panorama from Angle Knob and McGregor to the north and along the Main Range to Mt Hector in the south.

The way down can be the same as the ascent or varied in a couple of ways:

From Mt Holdsworth itself, there is a route down a ridge - some navigation skills needed and it is probably fairly rough and steep (I have not travelled it). To get to it, follow the track to Jumbo steeply down to the east and then NW over a low knoll to the bumps of East Holdsworth (past an often dry tarn). The northern top has a ridge dropping slightly south of east - follow its crest down to the bushline where the route starts. The route drops down the ridge coming in from the left on the second photo of the page and meets the valley track above a gorge on the Atiwhakatu Stream. Donnelly Flat is 20 minutes downstream and the road end a further 15 minutes away.

From Mountain House, take the alternative track straight down to the Akiwhakatu Stream (300m of fast descent). This is rougher and wilder than the Gentle Annie track but has a comparable gradient overall. The track gets fairly steep as it finally drops down to the stream with well-constructed zigzags taking the pain out of the descent.

From above Rocky Lookout, you can have a look at the old Gentle Annie track. Note that this is unmarked, eroded and prone to windfalls. To get access to the route, stop about 100 metres before Rocky Lookout where the track is at the head of a gully with a knee high bank to your right. Get on top of the bank and follow the overgrown path on top of it - this is the old track. The bush opens up after a few metres and the very bare and rocky path continues to the top of the ridge (good views). The path drops down the other side of the ridge (still bare, rocky and awash with water in any rain) and soon enters the bush. There is a sidetrack to the original Rocky Lookout. After entering the bush the track turns right (take care not to miss this) and follows the ridge crest down to an old junction (signposts still on the trees). At the junction continue to follow the ridge. Eventually the new track appears to your left - bush-bash a few metres to it and continue down. This little excursion will certainly make you appreciate the new track!.

Once back at Holdsworth Lodge you can relax with a hot drink - the lodge has a Zip water boiler. In warmer weather, you can buy a can of drink or chocolate bar from a machine at the caretakers house.


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