There was animated discussion recently amongst a group of Wednesday trampers about the When and Where of tracks from Kaitoke into the southern Tararuas.
My personal knowledge dates from the early 1950s, when there were three established tracks. The Puffer took you to the Tauherenikau Valley, another separate track led to Dobson Hut and the Marchant Ridge, and a third climbed from the Kaitoke Waterworks road over to the Hutt Forks and then up the spur to Quoin. I first used the Puffer in 1954, the Dobson track in 1955, and the route to the Hutt Forks much later.
Joe Gibbs gave us the Puffer track (1), which, with its zigzags for pack horses at each end, was used into the 1950s. To get to it from Marchant Rd, you walked past a farmer’s house, more or less where Kiwi Ranch Rd now runs, and on up the flat valley floor to the foot of the spur which leads up to join the present Puffer track as it sidles the last 250 metres to the saddle.
I have less clear memories of the track (2) to Dobson Hut. It was distinct from the Puffer, as is confirmed by the maps of 1936 and 1950. It began at the end of Marchant Rd, 300 metres on from the present Kiwi Ranch Rd, again on private farm land. I used it, probably twice, in 1955, and have a memory of seeing it sidling, not too steeply, up towards the ridge top where the present track runs. It was over grass at first and higher up no doubt ran through manuka scrub.
The Forest Service, which in the 1950s had responsibility for the Tararua Forest Park, gained legal access to this part of the Tararuas in 1957, by acquiring 25 hectares of hilly land, of little use for farming, between the bottom of the two tracks. A road (4) was then bulldozed up the spur as far as the ridge top overlooking Smith Creek. A quite large open-sided shelter (5), to which trucks could drive, was built in 1958 a short distance up from Marchant Rd. The new road continued further, more suitable now for cars, to a much larger flat parking area (3). A little further still, at a sharp corner, a short flat stretch began. This was the point to which Kiwi Ranch, now the YMCA Outdoor Education Centre, made a track (6), with often giant steps, from the valley below, and to which DOC’s route to both the Dobson hut site and Smith Creek now also comes.
The flat stretch did not go far, and was followed by a very steep 4WD road to the top of the ridge. Some people managed to get 4WD vehicles right to the top. That was a struggle, and trampers found it just as hard. At the top, you could turn left and follow the new road, past where the now redundant Dobson track reached the ridge. Or, if you turned right (7), you fairly soon dropped 60 m to Puffer saddle.
Soon after the construction of the shelter, the Forest Service organised what was the obvious next step: a wide-benched track which started at the bottom of the steep 4WD, sidled to the right, and continued on up to the saddle. This is the present route. Work on it began in 1958, and it may have been ready for use by late 1959 when I left Wellington for ten years. A short link (8) was made to connect this track with the ridge-top track to Dobson Hut.
A minor variation was Joe’s track (9). Once the use of the Kaitoke side of the old Puffer was no longer allowed, Joe Gibbs realised that it made sense not to start up the zigzags on the Smith Creek side but to carry on up the stream a little and climb directly, if steeply, on to the top of the new bulldozed road. Even after the benched sidle track was constructed on the Kaitoke side, Joe’s track would have been a quicker route for the fit, but gradually the road at the top became overgrown.
There was a third route available into the Southern Tararuas: the one which took you to Hutt Forks and Quoin Ridge. By 1950, when the second trampers’ map of the Tararuas was published, the present road for the Kaitoke Waterworks had been built. Older routes were abandoned in favour of the present climb from the Ranger’s Office up and over into the Eastern Hutt, just above the Forks. This may already have been a bulldozed 4WD road – the map isn’t clear about that.
In 2012, I went to look for the old Puffer. Once on to the spur at the bottom, its initial zigzags and later scoured gulches were, despite the thick scrub, unmistakable. Since then, Barry Durrant, Grant Timlin and others have been clearing a route on or alongside the old Puffer. Soon we may be back to where we were 100 years ago!
(Thanks are due to Colin Cook for adapting the map. A fuller version of this article, with more historical information, will appear in Tararua 2020.)
Joe Gibbs’ Puffer track, 1925 – 1957. The approximate route of the old track to Dobson Hut, used until 1957. The large car park at the top of the Forest Service road. The line of the 4WD bulldozed to the top of the ridge near pt 529 (the current Alpha (and Dobson hut site) track uses the last part of it). Position of the large shelter hut. The point where the Kiwi Ranch/YMCA and now the DOC track meets the old Forest Service road. The old bulldozed 4WD along the top of the ridge to the Puffer Saddle. The point where the Alpha (Dobson) track turns off from the current sidle track to the Puffer Saddle. The approximate route of Joe’s track from the foot of the Puffer on the Smith Creek side to the top of the old bulldozed 4WD.
John Thomson (scribe)
More on Kaitoke Tracks
Historic tracks in the Kaitoke area have been in the news recently, with articles by John Thomson in the June 2020 Tramper and the 2020 Annual. In the March Tramper, Peggy Munn describes yet another route out of Smith Creek and our editor, reasonably, has requested clarification.
In September of last year Marg Pearce, Dave Reynolds and I traversed some of the tracks mentioned in John’s articles: #1 (Joe Gibbs’ Puffer Track), #7 (the 4WD bulldozed ridgetop track) and #9 (Joe’s track from the foot of the Puffer to the 4WD track). We can report that numbers 1 and 7 are in good nick and frequent use by club members. No. 9, (referred to in Peggy’s report) appears to be much less frequently used but remains a strong ground trail. Especially clear are the junction with #4 at Bump 529 and the section from there through open country to the bush edge. Approached from the valley, and as reported by Peggy, creek travel is rough, there is no signage at the foot of the spur and the climb out onto the spur includes a few metres of steep scrambling.
The topo map indicates tracks 1, 7 and 9. Peggy’s route continues up the creek, beyond the #9 turn off, to ascend the spur at the upper forks.
I believe that the reason why Joe made his new track is this. When the original Puffer Track (#1 – see map in Tramper June 2020 or Tararua 2020, reproduced below) was closed off on the Kaitoke farmland side, the Forest Service bulldozed a steep 4WD (#4) to the top of the ridge dividing the Kaitoke and Tauherenikau catchments, meeting the ridge close to pt. 529, and then continued bulldozing along the ridge to the Puffer Saddle (#7). Joe saw that a much shorter route for trampers would now be an almost direct line from pt. 529 down to where the old Puffer Track first meets and crosses a branch of Smith Creek. Look at the map, and you’ll see that, going up, you follow that branch of Smith Creek for 200 metres to a fork (clearly indicated by the contour lines) from where you climb directly to pt. 529 (#9). Joe’s route reduced the distance travelled by more than a third.
Colin Cook (scribe).