9-11 May 2014
It was a quiet Friday afternoon at work when an email came through from Lorraine inviting me on a ‘Tararua death mission’ (defined by Lorraine as a “long walk which would have been nice if it had stopped four or five hours before it actually does”). It was to be Friday walk in, with a longish day on Saturday and home on Saturday night. Why not I thought, seize the day? It’d been two weeks since my last tramp and I didn’t have any plans until 9pm on Saturday. We’ll be back in time and I’ll have plenty of time to catch up on things on Sunday.
So I dashed home, stuffed a few things into my pack and headed back into town to meet Lorraine, a quick visit to the supermarket (and a short detour back down the road because Lorraine had forgotten her sunglasses and sunscreen, which turned out to be unnecessary) and we were off over the hill heading for the Waiohine Gorge road end. Lorraine filled me in on the proposed route en-route, selling it as covering the most scenic part of the southern crossing
We were surprised on the way in that there were few slips across the road and the fords were a bit rougher than expected. The big surprise was that just past the first car park, there was a large rock blocking the middle of the road, so we left the car and began walking. It quickly became apparent that the rock had been deliberately placed; a bit further along the road had slipped away and was badly undermined.
It was a beautiful moonlit night for the walk in, and before we knew it we were at Cone. It was my first visit, and I was delighted to see an authentic old style hut rather than the rather soulless modern DOC huts.
The next morning we made an early start to head up the hill to Alpha. The first challenge of the day was the relatively high and fast river flow. We spent about 30 minutes scoping out the best approach to crossing, eventually setting for a relatively deep (almost waist deep, on me…), but less swift and less rocky spot down river from the track. We managed to avoid the “tree crossing” that Footprints and the Alpha Hut book suggest some are currently using in times of flood.
We were making good progress up when we saw an exhausted looking woman ahead. It was an intrepid Tasmanian in her 70s carrying 10 days worth of food (she estimated that her pack was 20kg!) planning to head over the crossing. We reached Alpha for an early lunch, and left her a forecast.
When we got above the bush line beyond Alpha the weather started to deteriorate; it was claggy with light rain and a nippy southerly wind. Within an hour of the hut, we saw some very cold people heading down to Alpha (and one tea drinking Aucklander, complete with brand new ice axe). We had second lunch in the lee of the wind just below Hector at around 2pm.
Now came the navigation challenge, finding the track down Winchcombe in the clag. The GPS came out, replete with fresh batteries, but it was initially fairly straightforward, if a touch scrambly, on the pinnacle-like ridge, with a ground trail and a number of cairns. Lorraine soon turned the GPS off as the batteries appeared to be fading at a surprisingly fast rate, and it was just on point 1398 when things got slightly complicated as we briefly diverted down a false spur, before retracing our steps, having been alerted to this by the absence of a ground trail and the anticipation of a directional change at that point. The light fading fast, it occurred to me that I probably wouldn’t be back in Wellington for Karaoke by 9pm.
As we continued descending past Winchcombe Peak into the bush, the trip began to take on an increasingly dreamlike quality – as night fell, we could see the bright spot of Lorraine’s torch ahead along with the diffuse light of my own head torch diffracted by the mist and rain, which was thick even in the forest. Our world was ruled by the darkened footpad and trying to spot the orange triangles (it could be useful to make them out of high viz material, as the lichen shows up much better in the dark!).
Navigating the clear patch on Neill was a challenge with which the GPS did not assist, as we accidentally headed straight up Neill instead of sidling it where the map shows the track (retracing our steps to find that a focus on the map led to a rather straightforward route marked by cairns). At some point we decided to head back to Cone Hut rather than out to the road end after I raised the folly of driving back to Wellington under the influence of fatigue. (It’s almost as big a killer as speed and alcohol, but much harder to make a snappy advertising campaign about …)
Lorraine had saved the remaining portion of the first set of GPS batteries (the second set having died on the way to Neill Saddle), to allow us to move fast through the clear section on Cone. This proved interesting with the GPS dying just when we reached the other side of the clearing. Having used the GPS rather than the map, we needed to make sure we were not accidentally heading to Neill Forks Hut, so we retraced our steps for a minute, only to find a sign making it clear we were on the Cone Hut track – the blackness of night playing tricks on our spatial awareness! We continued our descent through the night, much more cheerily, as Lorraine found this section of the track very distinct and therefore easy to follow in the dark. We reached Cone again at around 11pm, where we fell gladly into bed.
The next morning we had a more leisurely start, eating some of the remaining (but increasingly unappealing) muesli bars to sustain us until we could get a more appetising breakfast in Greytown. As if to taunt us, the weather was clear and sunny, with beautiful views. Once in Greytown, fed and with dry feet, we were able to look back and reflect on what we would do differently next time. Next time we’ll probably attempt it in summer when there are slightly longer daylight hours.
- Party members
- Helen Chapman (scribe), Lorraine Johns