The Tararuas Diaries: Otaki Forks Loop Walk via Elder Hut

The glorious Tararuas (photo credit Rasmus Altenkamp)

It has been awhile since my last blog post. It was first the summer which is always busy when you find yourself living in a city that has written all over it that “…is the city of action, the world headquarters of the verb”.  Then it was the unspeakable COVID-19 lockdown period. We were lucky here in New Zealand to have lockdown over in only a couple of months and most of us had the luxury of either going to the beach or bush or both for a walk throughout the entire lockdown period.

If anything, it was remarkable how quickly lockdown came and went. Not long after maximum lockdown measures were lifted and bubbles allowed to be burst, I started bumping into lockdown lost friends from the Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Club (WTMC), one of three outdoorsy clubs in town. New Zealand is an absolute heaven for the outdoors lover and has its fair share of avenues to meet with like minded outdoors enthusiasts.

One day as I was striding along Lambton Quay in town I crossed paths with Katie from WTMC. After a polite exchange on how lockdown had been for us we got talking about tramping and how we had missed it. We both wanted to put our tramping boots / trail runners on and go out and explore what our local area had to offer. Katie told me that she had a car and was happy to keep a seat for me when she went tramping next. We parted and agreed to be in touch again soon to organise a little weekend adventure locally. I had been eyeing the Southern Crossing and Kime Hut tramps in the Tararuas, from the Otaki Forks side of the ranges, and wondered if Katie would be interested. Soon after we had met I messaged her and she was keen but preferred to do a loop walk rather than an unidirection or back and forth one – a lot less complicated to organise logistically and more interesting. That’s how we ended up picking the 41 km Otaki Forks loop tramp via Elder Hut.  Katie had been talking with some other WTMC trampers, Tereza and Rasmus, and they were both keen on joining us too.

Arrangements were made without any delays and our group of four headed off on a Friday after work in Katie’s cute little bumblebee of a car which impressed by accommodating all four of us and all of our gear too. We stayed the night at the Parawai Lodge at the start of the track so we could have an early start the next day. We had the lodge / hut to ourselves for the night. The lodge is situated only a little over 100 meters above sea level, snuggled right in the Otaki valley at the foot of the Tararu ranges. The lodge was super drafty and as cold as a freezer. It was around 6 degrees Celsius when we got there. It made me shiver at the thought of what it would be like once we got to higher grounds the next day.

The Waiotaruru River bathed in the morning sunshine

The weather forecast for the weekend looked absolutely splendid, dry and windless. On account of the weather being better on the Sunday we decided to do the loop in an anticlockwise direction, saving the higher grounds and better views for that day. I was quite glad we were going this way as the elevation gain looked a lot less brutal (which does not matter so much as a hill is a hill is a hill, right). I was also reasoning to myself that it’d be better to do it that way as it was the longer day of tramping in terms of distance so better to do this on day one while still fresh.

Bright and early at the beginning of the track, from left to right Rasmus, Katie and Tereza

We made a start around 8.00 am on Saturday morning.  The first section of the track out of the car park goes along an unsealed road for quite a while before getting on to the Waiotaruru River track. This track is quite high up above the river so no wet feet but is slow going as it is very narrow, in some places it is pretty much a one-step foot track. It was an opportunity to test balancing skills with a heavy backpack on. The track got much wider once we reached the Waiotaruru Hut and was quite easy going up to Maynmorn Junction. It was just past midday when we made it to Maynmorn Junction so it was a fitting time for a lunch break and an opportunity to put heavy backpacks down (that was the best part for me at this point).

From left to right Rasmus, Katie and Tereza at the Waiotaruru River track

From Maynmorn Junction we headed right into the bush and found ourselves traversing a space inhibited by mystical mossy sculptures and mud. Heaps of mud! We came and went past Renata Hut and continued slogging through yet more mud.

The mystical mossy Tararuas (photo credit Rasmus Altenkamp)

We lost and gained elevation and through openings in the bush had our first glimpses of what the views would be like once we were above the bush line – fuel to keep us going. As we were making our way along the Renata Ridge track darkness started descending upon us and we had to use our head torches for the last hour of the tramp (tramping in the dark is something I am still getting used to and not at all keen on). That last hour was a steep climb. At this point we had been walking for over 8 hours so my legs were feeling a little full with tiredness so I got to use my hands to pull myself up the track,  holding onto roots, branches, grasses, twigs whatever I could get. Don’t think I have ever before in my life felt as clumsy and heavy footed.

A bush opening somewhere along the Renata Ridge track

We made it to Elder Hut (which is named after the super cool Norman Elder) around 6 pm that evening. Once we stopped I started feeling how freezing cold it was. The temperature dropped to around -2.5 degrees Celsius that night. I would have loved to sneak into my sleeping bag and stay there until the morning but dinner had to be cooked. We had agreed that we cook a shared meal (right out of the hot off the press new edition of the WTMC recipe book).  I was only too glad to get rid of the can of chick peas and three baked kumara I’d carried with me all day. Elder Hut does not have a fireplace but is a snug little four bed hut. Unlike Parawai Lodge (which had massive gaping hols all over it) it has excellent window frames, trapping all condensation inside which in turn grows into mould.

Our home for the night, Elder Hut  (photo credit Rasmus Altenkamp)

Mould or no mould I was quite happy to be inside and had to use all my will to go outside and wash my face and brush my teeth before going to bed.  I was rewarded for my courage and bravery for venturing out to the water pump by the skies above. The night sky was studded with million stars and constellations which was one of the most insanely, intensely beautiful night skies I had ever seen. Tereza was quite adamant that the mould situation was less than ideal (completely agree with her – mould is unacceptable) and had brought her bivvy bag and slept outside on the deck (between cold and mould I’d choose the latter so long as I am somewhere warm). I have zero tolerance to mould in my normal life but somehow in the circumstances it did not seem to bother me in the slightest. Physical bodily discomfort and tiredness were massive contenders for my attention so I tended to those needs first and foremost.

Breakfast time (photo credit Rasmus Altenkamp)

The next morning we woke up to magnificent views. It was a bright, clear morning and the spectacular landscape of ocean and mountains was in full view for us to enjoy for breakfast. Bright and early after a classic tramping breakkie of porridge we were out on our way ready to tackle more mud and elevation in our wake. The first hour or so of the walk out of Elder Hut got us back in the bush and mud. It was a pure climb for higher ground.

Elder Hut

After we emerged from the bush, we walked along the long, exposed spine of the Tararuas for what felt like an eternity.  Luckily, there was no wind and not a single shred of cloud in the sky. This made the walk a pure enjoyment for the eye and soul (legs and knees still had to work pretty darn hard and hurt like hell). I think we had it absolutely 100% perfect weather-wise which is a super rare occurrence in these parts. The Tararuas are known for the notoriously changeable weather conditions and I would certainly not like to be on any of the tracks above the bush line in poor weather conditions. It took a few hours to cover the few kilometres along the Dress Circle section of the track from Aston to Field Peak (the last point before it all started going downhill).

The Dress Circle (photo credit Rasmus Altenkamp)

The Dress Circle is a fairly gently undulating track but being so narrow and there being some invisible slippery icy sections meant that I had to put in a fair bit of concentration which invariably made it even slower going and more tiring. We got to Mt Hector (which stands at 1529 above sea level) after midday. The memorial cross, which commemorates mountaineers and other climbers killed in the Second World War, was covered in icicles.

The Memorial Cross at Mt Hector (photo credit Rasmus Altenkamp)

We kept on going and by the time we made it to Field Peak I was feeling fairly tired and could not help but ponder how in my pre-lockdown life I would have even considered it possible doing this whole 41 km loop in a day. A month on since this tramp and this is still beyond me. Mysterious are the ways of how hard earned fitness disappears in thin air before you know it and how the brain holds on to past, long gone states of physical ability.

Me going up one of them hills (photo credit Katie Mattera)

After we had a well-deserved lunch break at Field Peak we were back onto our feet trudging down to Kime Hut. From here on it was all downhill – my knees took the brunt of it. Thank goodness for frequent breaks, though! We treated ourselves to another break at Kime Hut soaking some more of the gorgeous rays of the winter afternoon sun. That felt good. The track from Kime Hut gets progressively better and better and allows for a more carefree walking; however, carefree did not mean it was pain-free. At this point I was sending mental apologies to all the people I love dearly and who have come with me on allegedly easy walks over the years. I am sorely sorry everything I have made you do has been ill-informed and unintentionally mean.

Our next break was at Field Hut which is the oldest hut in the Tararuas. I had a little look inside and it definitely has a lot of character. The track from Field Hut to the car park at Otaki Forks is super pleasant which explains why it’s so super popular. On our way back we came across several people (haloed by a loft of fresh smelling clothes around them) who were on their way in which was a little unusual as it was Sunday afternoon. Well, we live in unusual times, I guess. We kept going downhill and eventually got to the car park around 5 pm. Here we got to part with our boots (which was very welcome albeit terrifying moment) and locked them in the boot of the car. We put on some fresher clothes and boarded into little Miss Bumblebee for the drive back to Wellington.

I reckon this is as satisfying as life gets! See you again soon, Tararuas!


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