Snowy crossing, goblin sunsets and a once in a lifetime Aurora

You would be forgiven for thinking this is simply a well-trodden run-of-the-mill loop in the Tararuas – the usual open tops, goblin bush and cute huts. This loop is fantastic and has a bit of everything, but this weekend it was spectacular. There was a dusting of snow on the tops, which made going over the southern crossing breathtaking, we had a stunning sunset in the goblin forest AND experienced a once in a lifetime Astro event. I had not anticipated just how magical this weekend would be, as a first time trip leader.

We set off from Wellington Train Station at 4:30pm, drove to the Otaki Forks emergency car park and began walking – over the bluff and up to Field Hut for the evening. It would be interesting to know if the city council plans to open the road to Otaki Forks again soon and how they are going to manage the slip there. Going over the slip from the new carpark, it only takes about 45 mins to reach the start of the track.

It took about 3 hrs to walk up to Field Hut from the emergency car park. We spotted a huge spider and battled some drizzle and cold rain on most of the ascent. It was a cold night. As we were walking in the dark, we didn’t know how much snow was around – and what we’d be greeted with in the morning.

On Saturday morning we left Field Hut at 7:30 am. We planned to head over to Kime Hut and tramp over the Southern Crossing to the Elder-Renata turn off. There was some high cloud which looked to be clearing and we could see a dusting of snow on the tops. Over the hills we could see a small rainbow. I was very excited to see the snow and also quite surprised to see snow so early in the season!

We were greeted with soft ethereal snow as we climbed and got to Kime Hut at around 10am. I ate my lunch there and the rest of the group had snacks. We decided to see how we’d go, and have a low threshold for turning back if anybody felt uncomfortable. We couldn’t really see the surrounding ranges, due to low cloud, but we had good visibility in front of us. The wind was not bad, however it was very very cold (which we had anticipated from the forecast).

So off we went to Mount Hector (about 1 hr 20 mins from Kime Hut) – and snapped obligatory selfies with the memorial cross (which and a light crusting of rime ice). Walking down Mt Hector, it was a little more blustery (enough for Josh and I to have to run after our pack covers, that had decided they’d now prefer to be kites! which eased as we descended).

The snowy Southern Crossing was nothing short of magical. The snow was soft, and there was minimal ice. And despite not having the bluebird day we thought we may get, it was just perfect tramping in delightful snowy conditions.

Over the Beehives, Atkinson, and the Dress Circle we went. We stopped by a tarn for snacks and felt taunted by the sun trying to break through, but never fully emerging. We reached the turn off to Renata Ridge and Elder Hut at 1.20 pm – so the timings were 6 hours from the start of the tramp and 3 hrs 20 mins from Kime Hut.

We descended the ridge towards Elder Hut, which was steep and tricky with the melted snow and mud – usual Tararua ridgeline travel. However, as we descended the sun emerged and the clouds started to shift, revealing the Tararua Ranges around us. We could see Kapakapanui in front of us and Mount Hector and the Crossing we had just done to the right of us.

As we dropped further into the bush, we were greeted with the beautiful goblin forest that dominates the sub-alpine bushline (typical of these ranges and my favourite part of tops travel). Travel through the bush was easy and we reached Elder Hut at 3:15 pm (2 hrs from the turn off, and 5.15 hrs from Kime Hut). We had flirted with the idea of staying at Elder Hut, but decided to fuel up and carry on despite our initial horror at seeing a DOC sign signalling it was another 4.5 hrs to Renata Hut. Being the hardy souls that we are, we decided we would rather be out in the bush for a while longer, and we set off towards Renata Hut at around 4 pm. This would turn out to be the best decision ever!

Travel through the goblin forest was blissful. The sun setting through the trees peppered the forest with dappled warmth. At around sunset time, the bush was transformed into ‘fire’ as the sun descended behind the hills. A wonderful time to be on a ridge. Further along we were treated to open views of the crescent moon and a band of gold. Luckily this part of the ridge has some very open sections, allowing views as we traversed the spur. At around 6.15p pm we hit Renata Peak, and had views towards the Hutt Valley.

As we descended, one of the group commented on the strange pink glow in the sky to our left. Pausing to work out what it was, at first I thought it was air glow. But seeing the depth of magenta and that it was accompanied by visible beams, I worked out it was the major Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) and auroral substorm that had been predicted. To be able to see this with the naked eye is a once in a lifetime event (for those who understand Aurora forecasting: the KP index was 9 and the nT (Nano teslas) index was over -450. Insanely strong Aurora – the last seen in NZ of this strength was in the 1930s.

As an avid Aurora hunter and photographer, I was incredibly excited. Ordinarily I take my DSLR on every tramping trip, however this time I had not, opting to take less weight. However, being able to capture the Aurora on my phone was just as good, proving the old adage that your best camera is the one you have with you! Every opportunity was taken to snap as many images as possible.

As we descended, the clouds rolled in, and we entered the bush for our final section to Renata Hut. This was easy and fast travel, even in the dark and we reached Renata Hut at around 8.30 pm – a solid 13 hour, magical, perfect day.

Renata Hut has had a makeover in recent years and is lovely with a big open fire, plenty of space and sleeps 6 (but could easily sleep more on the floor). We were toasty warm through the night.

We woke the next morning to a foggy start, which was wonderful as we set off in the bush towards Maymorn Saddle and the turn off to Waiotauru Hut (DOC estimated time of 45 mins). The track down to Waiotauru Hut is fantastic – 4 WD, wide, easy and fast. We reached Waiotauru Hut for morning tea at 10.20am (about 3 hours from Renata Hut). Waiotauru Hut has also been refurbished in the last couple of years and looked nice enough. It is mainly frequented by hunters who arrive in 4WD vehicles from the Akatarawa Road end. And the Hut is currently home to a couple of young fellas and their dogs, out hunting for pigs (a collection of which were stashed just outside the hut).

After Waiotauru Hut, the track continued as a wide 4WD track, and there were a number of other tracks off to the left and right very close to the Hut. The tracks marked with orange triangles, we worked out, are diversions from the old track where there have been washouts and slips. A couple of unmarked tracks near the Hut, that were not marked on the topomap, we assumed, were hunters’ tracks.

We kept following the 4WD track till the orange triangles led us down to a river, near Waiotauru Forks, and a swing bridge that takes you across to the other side. After the bridge, the track narrows out, but is nice to travel on, with gentle undulations following the Waiotauru River.

Towards Otaki Forks there are around 4 slips that require navigating. However, there are clearly marked (taped) diversions and some had ropes placed to help you scramble up. As you venture nearer to Otaki Forks, there are some flat grassy expanses and the historic mill site, which are wonderful picnic spots. From the historic mill site, it is about a 1 hr walk back to the road end/car park. We finished here at around 4pm. A solid 8.5-hour day and a fantastic, unforgettable trip!

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