Off Track in New Zealand: Jumbo, Broken Axe Pinnacles and Mitre in the Tararua Range

↻ Distance Time Route Hiking date
↻ ~ 42 km 3 days 1st Day (1’20”): Holdsworth carpark → Atiwhakatu Hut
2nd Day (12 hours): Jumbo → Broken Axe Pinnacles → Three Kings → Girdlestone → Tarn Ridge Hut
3rd Day (11 hours): Mitre → Mitre Flats Hut (lunch) → on Barton Track to Baldy junction → Atiwhakatu Hut → Carpark
15-17 Dec 2017

When the three of us stopped to take our 101st break of the day, desperate to get a few drops of water from our near empty bottles, I gazed over towards the northeast and there lied this giant mass of rocky earth. “That’s Girdlestone,” I murmured almost silently, partly because I had little energy left, partly as I knew clearly my friends had this same voice in their mind: “last big climb!”

It was around 5pm. We had been up and walking since 7am from Atiwhakatu Hut down in the river valley. Now you may wonder how much distance and ascent we have covered in this solid 10 hours in our life, the answer is I don’t know, but for the condition of that day and honestly our abilities, too much.

The sun was staring at us three tiny human-beings from above with intense curiosity. While we were stopping on the ridge before the next ascending movement, trying to motivate our muscles and more importantly our mind, I felt a flux of emotion as if water was surging from a newly-dug spring. Every piece of my muscle fibre was protesting, but my brain obliviously turned its thought away, muting the pain signals. The corners of my mouth shifted upwards. My eyes gazed once again towards the direction of where we were heading, this time with a fresh feeling of happiness.

Girdlestone on the left, with Mitre and Peggys Peak further on the right

It is a strange thing, how at such challenging moments happiness can just creep in like that. Perhaps my physical body had discovered its limits, and from the low-key dehydration/heat stroke and increasing discomfort in my knees, my mind connected to my body in a never-seen-before level. This mindful moment drove all my mental chatter away. It was like a hut suddenly lit up in the middle of nowhere after hours and hours of night tramping. Such a powerful moment that you want the world to stop right there, and just be with it.

So I claimed aloud: “I feel happy NOW.” Tom and Mats both stopped moaning and looked at me as if I came from another planet. “What? Are you enjoying it now?” “YES!” with the biggest smile was my declaration.

At the same time I realised I have long forgot to appreciate the beauty of these mountains in our surrounding. We were at the foot of Girdlestone, after traversing half a dozen of 1,500m peaks along what felt like the most remote Tararua ridges. This one would be the last barrier between us and Tarn Ridge Hut, where our feet can finally say see-ya-later to smelly boots. The following day we would be backtracking a wee bit from the hut then tackle Mitre of 1,571m, the highest peak in the Tararuas.

None of us expected this tramp to be so hard. The previous weekend when Mats and I were hitchhiking back to Wellington after a Taranaki trip, our driver mentioned to us his favourite spot in the hills, Broken Axe Pinnacles. He chuckled while saying “I hope you are not afraid of heights!” I listened half-heartedly thinking nothing can be that bad. It was only until we reached the pinnacles did I realise they were something for real…

We followed the unmarked route to Angle knob and the rest of the day was spent under fierce sunshine on the ridgeline

But back to the start. Holdsworth carpark is a popular entry point to the Tararua ranges from the east side. We reached there on a Friday night in December, then walked quickly (1’20”) through the forest for 7km to reach Atiwhakatu Hut. We were pretty lucky to have a whole room to ourselves (the spacious hut is separated into three rooms). After cooking up a warm soup and lying on the river rocks silently with only stars and wind, we tip-toed back to our home for the night with help from the moon light, curled up next to each other and wished for a good next day.
[This hut can be booked online during summer, but from previous experience, be prepared to sleep on the floor as it is super popular on weekends. A roll-up mattress wouldn’t be a bad idea especially on public holidays.]

We woke up early with the sound of wind howling out the window. It was a bit worrying as we were anticipating a whole day of open-top ridge walking which I wouldn’t recommend in bad weather condition. A month before, when we tried southern crossing of Tararuas, I nearly got blown off the track – if you are light in weight, carry some big rocks or hold on to your mates for dear life!!! But somehow rain and wind always sound more intimidating when you are inside a shelter. It turned out to be the opposite weather of what we feared.

The day started with a steep and steady 1’30” climb up to Jumbo Hut, 900m above the riverbed. A very fine open-top view was awaiting us there. From here the journey would take us along the ridges to the pinnacles. Golden tussock tops were stunning, gentle breeze was blowing along the track and we were a very happy team. But that was not going to last long…
[Because of the exposed location, Jumbo Hut has been badly damaged due to strong wind earlier in 2017 and only construction workers could stay there. Always check on DOC website or call a regional office to find out about conditions of your intended track. NZ wilderness is so accessible but so remote and relentless sometimes.]

After hopping over a couple easy peaks we got tangled in the leatherwood-tussock shrub wonderland where no track was traceable. Mats our mountain yeti whacked a way out and wa-la we found ourselves in front of some skittish-looking ridges – here come the pinnacles! I don’t know how to describe them so here is a picture for you:

Neither to the left nor to the right, but on top of the ridgeline – it’s a balancing game that you can’t afford to lose

This was the highlight of the day! I could still picture our team of three giving this piece of track our best focus, choosing each foothold and handle carefully and proceeding steadily. The gentle excitement from risky behaviours was swelling inside me with each up-and-down completed. For many sections where ridge top was impassable, we had to engage four limbs. I’ve never done rock climbing but it reminded me of blue sheep hopping on narrow tracks in Tibet. Now I could understand our kind driver’s words: don’t come if you are scared of heights!!

On the map the pinnacle section is no more than 2km in distance. However it was around lunchtime, and the strong sun was directly above us. It felt like forever until we got to a very tricky descent. I remember there was a metal knob embedded in a rock on the way down, for roping people or backpacks downwards. We didn’t have any ropes with us, so I tried to descend facing forwards – my backpack was in the way; or backwards – my feet couldn’t reach any stable piece of rock. Very awkwardly I decided to throw my pack down, and with that decision the next 60s I stared at it tumbling down the slope, with an odd sense of relief – no worries! After we all landed safely, I fetched my pack and climbed back up the leatherwoods. We were so exhausted from the concentration and heat that we decided to nap right there.

Mats pointing at where we came from – where’s the track?

The 20min nap was energising, but it didn’t help with what waited ahead. Somehow all the clouds went on holiday and our chocolate melted into drinks. Next came the Three Kings, each king was a steady climb up then down. I felt grateful there weren’t more kings in the world. We had actually covered a fair distance judging from the map, but we were only half way til our shelter for the night, and our water level was running low. The rest of the afternoon consisted of numerous small rests as we dragged ourselves along the ridges towards Girdlestone. We met a happy man around Adkin with a tiny day pack and two hiking poles – he was challenging all the 1,500m peaks and started his day from Mount Bruce. The next day we ran into two of his mates and heard that he finished his tramp at 2am at night, a bit more than 24hrs as he planned.

So when we finally gathered enough strength to tackle our last ascent of the day, I was blessed with my new found happiness. We napped for half an hour on top of Girdlestone — I guess our napping ability was increased from having dry mouth most of the afternoon. Only water source of the day was at Jumbo Hut from the rain water tanks. The huge amount of sweat we had because of the heat meant dehydration was a real risk, and we were glad to be on the way down to Tarn Ridge/Water-is-so-good Hut. However when we saw a leaky tap there it was surely alarming — if weather continued like this with no rain for a few days, I didn’t want to imagine if someone came this far like us, only to find an empty water source.
[For a backup there’s a Dorset Ridge Hut to another direction and a bit further from Girdlestone.]

We topped up our water bottles, cooked Uncle Ben rice for dinner and quickly jumped into our sleeping bags, before 8pm while it was still bright outside. That was the only time I couldn’t care about a sunset in the mountains!

A view from the deck of Tarn Ridge Hut, before sunset

The next day we were up before 6am, watched the mountain tops glowing red while having breaky, and set off for Girdlestone again. The black roof and red walls of Tarn Ridge Hut looked lovely from a distance with our fresh energy, and I was still grateful for sharing a night with it. It was much easier to climb Mitre after our advanced challenges the day before, and we took our time appreciating the landscape on top of the ranges – another stunningly fine day which is rare to find in Tararuas. “The rest of today should be easy, it’s mainly downhill aye.” All agreed, but we were wrong once again…

At least it was easy in the start. I was leading the team and had fun running downhill through the lovely forest with lots of bird songs. We reached Mitre Flat Hut around lunchtime, cooled our feet in the river and filled our bottles again from the river, traumatised by the experience the day before. We set off again on Barton Track towards the junction with Baldy, a small peak just after the pinnacles, which makes bypassing this risky section possible. The 300m gentle ascent seemed impossibly arduous at 2pm and when we finally saw the signpost to Baldy, we were pretty dead like this:

It hasn’t finished yet. But we were faithful as the heat started to fade. Not long after, we saw a sign pointing to Jumbo, and that stirred great joy among our team — the climb to Jumbo was only a couple minutes away from Atiwhakatu Hut where we stayed the first night! 10min passed, then 30min passed along the river, and we became increasingly confused as if we were walking the bush in darkness like Friday night. Later we realised that was another ascending track, quite a way from where we started climbing up.

When finally we saw Atiwhakatu Hut again, we were exhausted to say the least. Mats and Tom jumped into the river while I watched our afternoon tea cooking – another Uncle Ben rice. If you don’t mind the weight and the rubbish, it’s a convenient camping food, the pre-cooked flavoured meal only takes 2 minutes to warm up.

We had to push on as Mats and I were catching a 7pm train back to Welly to start work the next morning. Buddha knows how we managed the last 7km in less than the time we spent when we came on Friday night. When finally we made it to the car park, we met a guy with doggies who could speak perfect mandarin and said he was from Northeast China. Clearly he went for a leisurely day walk, while Tom was almost going to boast to him “Did you summit 12 summits over the weekend?” But we were on a mission to catch the train so farewell to this white Chinese guy.

On the drive back to Masterton, I checked my phone only to find that we had got the wrong timetable, no more trains on Sundays! Relieved just like when my pack dived downhill, we drove straight to the supermarket and bought a 12-pack Heinekens, together with the cheap-but-divine Domino pizzas. Not sure whether it was allowed to drink in public in this city, we took our trophies to the local park nonetheless, as Tom was prepared to debate any policemen with our summiting history over the past 48hrs. To this day, t’was still the best pizza-beer combo in all three of our memories.

(Photos by Tom Fish-Burger and me Emma the Squatter)

About the Author

Emma Chen
For a while I felt guilty for how privileged I am, but later I figured it's not about “me”, it’s about how to help the world with all the resources you’ve got. And luckily most good things in life are free: water, oxygen, mountains and friendships. Going bush reminds you how little you need just to be happy.

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