A classic northern with a twist (Tararua Ranges)

The plan: a two day traverse via an interesting looking spur from Bannister to the Ruamahanga. 

4.30am Saturday – the cell phone buzzes. Mike has dragged himself out of bed and is heading my way. It’s pleasant to have company for the trip to Poads Road and good to be walking by 7am under lights.  It’s calm, misty and no sign of the forecast gales.

At 8.30 I’m at the North/South Ohau River junction. I’ve seen one hunter on the way and managed not to take a skate in the drizzle slick riverbed.

Deception Spur climbs steeply from the junction. It’s a bit messy at the bottom with rata and kiekie, but the ground trail strengthens and leads up through mist and drizzle to the mossy cairn on the ridgeline (865m).

I drop towards Girdlestone Saddle on a good ground trail and pick a promising spot to leave the ridge where it flattens – just above 720m. It starts dropping too steeply so I sidle right, cross a wee creek and gain a spur – it has a blue triangle trail which leads down to the Mangahao River.

It’s about 11. Pairs of piwakawaka flit from the beech trees. Next is the long grind up Triangle Spur to Dundas (900m odd).

This is a well-known though mostly unmarked route. The trail is not so clear in a few places just below the bushline, but it’s straight forward (we won’t mention that time I ended up bashing down a creek by torchlight).

Out of the bush, the temperature drops and the wind starts to pick up; time to rug up.

A near gale wind is whipping across the ridge to Arete with stinging rain and clag. Progress is slow but eventually the sign for the hut emerges from the flying mist. 

The trail is not that easy to follow down through the clag onto the wide face. I keep the tarn on my left then follow my nose until the hut pops out from the dip it is hiding in. A few trampers have trouble finding it in bad conditions.

At 4.30 it hasn’t been a long day but I’m wet, cold and tired. It’s a relief to close the door, get soup on and sopping clothes off. No one else arrives and I settle into my sleeping bag with a VUW tramping club yearbook. 

The gale becomes severe during the night, shaking and lashing the hut with sheets of rain. However, it eases by morning with just a few drifts of rain. The clag is trying to break from the east and a warm glow from sun on the Dundas slopes seeps through.

I’m cautious about the exposed climb to Bannister so delay ‘til 8.30. A trail past the loo leads down a wee spur to an old hut sign. Then a few cairns and a foot trail lead diagonally up slope before sidling onto the ridge to the Twins.

Topo map of Northern Tararuas
Arrows to Arete Hut and pt 953

I take it easy, the clag periodically breaks, giving glimpses of sun on Table Ridge and briefly the bright dot of Arete Forks Hut, way below.  Around 9.40 on Bannister the rugged ridge to Waingawa is appearing and disappearing every few seconds.

The clag dissipates as I drop onto my spur – Bannister Basin is down to the right. There was a Forest Service hut in there once, but I can’t discern the site.

Bannnister in the Northern Tararuas
Ridge south east off Bannister

The spur is good with some ground trail – mostly deer – but if you keep your eyes open there’s a good route through the tussock and patches of low scrub. A bit over 1000m a band of thicker scrub slows things down a little.

The spur flattens with some clearings and low knobs. Someone has set up a trail camera pointing at a wallow – naturally I stop and give it a wave. There’s also a rain gauge – I’m hardly the first.

10.50am at pt 953 there’s patches of sun. It feels remote, the ramparts of Cattle Ridge, Bannister Ridge and the Main Range circle the horizon. 

The main reason for coming here is that I’ve been ticking off Tararua spot-heights, and this is my last one. However, I’m more focused on how to get out than on the 650 odd spots preceding this one.

Tramper pointing at a spur he climbed
Last one!

I follow the spur down to the river junction – not recommended; it’s steep, rotten and slippery. With shaking knees I scramble out at the water’s edge almost an hour after 953.

The river drops into the dim start of the upper gorge, but I’m looking for a route upwards. I bash up from the junction – also not recommended; there’s a thick, healthy and steep scrub band to contend with.

Around 1020m I pop onto animal trails in scrub and tussock. As with a lot of the Tararuas, there is a ridiculous amount of deer sign. I plod up taking almost three hours from the junction to Pukekino.

It’s cold and clagged in again by the time the spur rounds gently onto the flat expanse of Pukekino (2.50pm).

Overlooking a ridge while standing at Bannister
Pt 953 and Ridge from Bannister

After a snack break I take a bearing and head into the gloom. It’s easy going compared to the rest of the day.

Descending to Cow Saddle the clag squats on the landscape making everything slippery. About 5pm, I’m dropping my pack in the saddle to study the map.

An old trail leads from the saddle to the marked track over Blue Range from Cow Creek Hut. From the junction in the saddle you head towards Cow Creek a very short way to a tree with a large tin sign and look for a ground trail through saplings.

It gets dimmer as I climb, but the trail is pretty good. At around 820m it’s torch time.  I mostly manage to stick to the trail up to pt 970 and along to the track. The clag is thick among the trees; the drifting droplets reflecting the light. Moreporks are starting their ‘good evening’ calls.

About 1 hour 15 minutes from the saddle the sign to Waingawa River appears reassuringly out of the dark.

Waingawa River sign at night time
Phew, I’m going the right way

The track out is good but slippery. At last it bottoms out by the wee creek and I can amble comfortably along the old tramway through ghostly redwood trunks.

At 8.45 a near full moon greets me at the road end. A few minutes later headlights sweep across the carpark heralding the arrival of my pick-up and a flask of hot soup.

4 thoughts on “A classic northern with a twist (Tararua Ranges)”

  1. Oops, sorry for the silence, I’m not a frequent website user. The rot set in three or so years back when I noticed I’d visited all the interesting looking features in an area except for this little black spot with a number beside it… If you were systematic you could knock them off far quicker than me. Thanks for sharing the blog Harry.

  2. Since Andrew hasn’t responded to Tony’s query (he’s probably too busy grovelling around in the leatherwood in the Tararuas searching for an overlooked spot-height), I’ll just note that he has a blog where you can read all about his adventures (spot-height bagging and others). See http://tararualite.blogspot.com/

    His Tararua spot-heighting challenge took him 6 years (I think) and included:

    Epic trips, such as this multi-day crossing through the middle of the range

    Concentrated mopping up operations in local areas

    Short jaunts to accessible points

    I don’t know if I would describe it as “insanely cool” though. Why use two words when one will suffice? I think I’d just go with “insane”…..

    And while it is a first, I don’t know that it will be the last. Just think of the SK – fifty years ago it was a challenge to do it in a weekend and now people run it in under 20 hours. A few decades from now there will probably be some crazy person around trying to do the Andrew Bichan Spot-Height Challenge in under six months….

  3. That is the most insanely cool Tararua challenge to date. But Andrew – how about some more info. How long did it take you – how many trips – what routes? We need a more detailed write-up on what must surely be a first – and probably a last.
    But it’s got me thinking – what else is there? How about all the junctions of the named rivers/streams? Sounds great – I think I’ll get started this weekend – should be done in 5 years or so ….


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