While Maggie was busy finishing up some work and taking a final Justin and I buckled down and tried to plan a trip through the Tararua mountain range for the weekend leaving the next morning. I found train tickets to Masterton and then a taxi that would take us from the station to the trailhead. We then went by the Docsite (Department of Conservation) and picked up hut tickets and maps, stopped by the train station to buy our tickets and then over to New World to pick up food for the trip. And in just a few hours we had a 4-day trip planned leaving the next morning at 8:25am!
We were up at around 630 and made the 30-minute trek to the train station with full packs. We met Maggie at McDonalds to grab a hunger buster and then headed into the train station to begin our journey. It was an hour and a half ride to Masterton. We passed through lower and upper hut, continued through farmland and beautiful countryside, passing small mountains covered in shrubs in full bloom giving the hillsides a beautiful yellow hue. A few trees had turned orangey yellow and were the only visual hints that autumn was upon us. We passed by the vast green fields of deer farms stopping only at tiny little roadside train stations, which consisted of only car parks and a platform, before reaching the end of the line in Masterton. As soon as we exited the train and grabbed our bags someone poked their head out of a door and said, “are you going to Holdsworth? Aiden right?” We hopped in the van and half an hour later we were at the trailhead!
We started up along the river passing over a large wooden bridge. The trail was very well developed and the foliage was unlike any I had seen thus far. It was a vibrant green with thick moss covering large trees that had an old powerful presence. Ferns were everywhere, small ground ferns were interspersed between the trees and massive tree ferns pushed up creating beautiful delicate circular patterns that brought a unique vibrancy and life to the canopy.
The trail split and we headed up the hillside towards Powell Hut. A little ways up we joined two trampers at a rocky overlook. They were long time friends. One had moved to the UK for 15 years and had just moved back to New Zealand. He had called is high school friend to tell him he was back and asked him what he was up to on the weekend and the other already had a tramp planned so they decided to go together on a tramp they had both walked many times but 15 years had passed since their last adventure together. This was their reunion hike. They were incredibly friendly and showed us gps gadgets on their phones and pointed out things to watch out for on their map. They headed off a different direction after wishing us luck on “the endless stairs”.
As we continued up the temperature dropped and thick mists and light rain started making its way through the thick mossy trees (Photo 1). The trail narrowed and the pitch increased dramatically. The cold light rain matched the feeling of the forest perfectly, every plant seemed to be in exactly where they wanted to be. All the moss was turgid with water and the forest felt robust and full while simultaneously seeming to relax into the cold day. After some time of steep climbing the endless stairs began. First just a few sets of 8 to 10 stairs. All the stairs were all roughly knee level and this repetition almost immediately gave my legs a deep burn to fight the cold. After a kilometer or so we hit the real challenge, the endless stairs our friends below had spoken of. As we looked up the trail we could see staircases stacked one after the other heading straight up the hillside before disappearing over a false summit or simply softly disintegrating into the mists above. The burn was ever-present and deep creating the beautiful opportunity to challenge my mind and not give credence to its false claims of true exhaustion. Each step was a new challenge that allowed me to push through the pain and fully own my bodies true ability. After some time the canopy gave way to an exposed ridgeline the light rain began to bounce off of our bodies and packs as it turned to sleet and hail. The winds picked up hinting that we were probably atop a mountain range but the mists held us close allowing us to see only a few meters around yet keeping the staircases above in full focus. We pushed on up the snow-covered ridgeline and were passed by a man with a small dog heading down the mountain he simply said that he had a fire waiting for us above. We continued up stairs for another 15 minutes or so and then rounded a corner to see Powell hut perched on the side of the mountain. Though we had only been hiking for two and a half hours we had gained more than 900 meters of elevation over only a few kilometers of track. This made the hut a lovely site to our tired bodies. We excitedly took off our wet gear and stoked the fire to warm up and relax. A little while later two other trampers and their lovely border collie Lexi (Photo 2) joined us. We sat by the fire all night taking breaks to look out over the far off city lights whenever the fog would clear, before heading off to sleep.
We slept in until about 8:30 and had a leisurely morning and a large breakfast of wheatbix with scroggin, apples and peanut butter. We then packed up, took a moment to see the view that had been obscured the day before (Photo 3) and headed up the ridgeline towards Jumbo hut. The entire hike today was along a snow-covered ridgeline. We had been warned that this trail was marked but not very clear and mist and fog could almost completely obscure the trail from view. Another tramper warned us that the ridgeline gets very narrow, 2 to 3 meters wide at times, and winds can get up to 120 km per hour. With all this said it was a gorgeous clear day. We hiked up through the snow and to the Mt. Holdsworth summit at nearly 1500 meters. Holdsworth had a huge metal structure marking the summit covered with 3 or so inches of windblown ice. We continued on enjoying a day that seemed perfect for tramping with warm sun, frigid air and crisp vivid views. We happily scampered down the trail stopping only for stunning views with the exception of the time when we were stunned by MEGAWORM! This thing was by far the largest worm I have ever seen stretching out roughly a foot long. (Photo 4) We continued on and paused for an apple break at the summit of Mount Jumbo where it was shockingly cold (Photos 5 and 6) before heading down the ridgeline to Jumbo Hut. The whole hike took us 2 hours instead of the estimated 4 so we had tons of time left in the day. We had lunch and spoke to three girls who stopped in on their way up to Powell Hut. We decided to simply have a relaxed day and sit by the fire all afternoon. After an hour or so Lexi and her parents joined us at the hut and just after they arrived brisk winds and sleet began pummeling our little hut. One more lone tramper with a brilliant red beard joined us for the night. We got the wood stove crankin to fight the cold, had a lovely pasta dinner and then climbed the small ladder up to our little loft for the night. The winds were incredibly loud and powerful. They screamed down from the snowy peaks and over the roof less than a meter above our loft pelting the siding with snow and sleet. The wild cacophony wrapped our little cabin with a wild wonder that made our warm little loft all the more cozy and ushered me into a deep restful nights sleep.
We slept in again today and had a leisurely breakfast sitting by the fire. It was just the three of us left in the hut as we packed our belongings and tidied up the hut (Photo 7) before hitting the trail once more. Today would be an even shorter day, as we only needed to go down roughly an hour and a half to the river and Atiwhakatu Hut. We descended down the incredibly steep mountainside using roots as steps and handles to keep us from falling. The forest quickly went from frozen alpine shrubs and ice covered grasses to thick lush green mosses and endless ferns. We made it down to Atiwhakatu Hut very quickly and dropped our packs and had lunch at a table near the river. After lunch we gathered and split wood in preparation for the nights fire and then headed up a different trail along the river for a day hike while the daylight lasted. We found a nice spot in the river with large mossy boulders and tree ferns (Photo 8). We sat for a while chatting and then decided to set up small rocks atop the boulders and tried to snipe them off by throwing the river rocks at our feet. After successfully knocking them all off we continued up through the very overgrown trail pausing for a few beautiful views, a tree throne and to allow Maggie to recover from giggle attacks brought on by Justin and my unbelievably chortlesome quips and general jocularity. We turned back to beat the darkness back to our hut. We were incredibly lucky to have the 26-bed hut completely to ourselves that night. After some time and a full team effort of scavenging for small dry kindling we finally got the damp wood to light and got a roaring fire going. The darkness filled the hut leaving almost nothing visible except the three amber specks from the incense I lit. I decided to light the candle I had found in a previous hut and the whole space came to life with a warm amber glow. We were all sitting on a mattress I had dragged in front of the wood stove. While sitting here we had the brilliant idea of lining tables up with each other from the back wall towards the fire to create a back support for another mattress to act as a makeshift couch. We lined up two long tables and then two benches perpendicular to them and it was exactly the right distance to make our couch. We sat down and all three of us immediately burst into uncontrollable giggles, as this was the most perfect, comfortable couch we had experienced. We opened the stove door to reveal stunning coals and sat there all night mesmerized by the perfection of the moment we had collectively created. We had dinner, hot chocolate and tea and the conversation would effortlessly flow from ruckus laughter, to quite contemplative confabulation, to silent wonder with our attention fixed on the stunning bright colors of the coals. This was one of the most perfect nights of my trip. All my senses were at peace and joyfully relishing the moment. The incense, the warmth from the fire, the light from the candle, the couch holding our tired content satiated bodies, and the deep feeling of belonging and companionship that I felt without question in the silence from the two delightful and profoundly inspiring people who I was lucky enough to share this night with. (Photo 9) After all drifting off to sleep on our couch we rallied enough to bring three mattresses to the front of the fire allowing us to sleep in the literal and figurative warmth we had created.
We woke up had a hearty breakfast of wheatbix with apples, peanut butter, scroggin, hot chocolate mix, and chocolate bars. We then went to the river where we stood out on rocks and soaked up the sun and our surroundings for half an hour or so. We then tidied up the hut, set up some incense for the next trampers and headed back down the trail along the river towards the car park.
It was a stunning day with bright clear sunlight beaming from above. The track took us through thick lush forests that were almost tropical in feel. Through tree fern forests and passed massive moss covered trees that towered above us. (Photo 10) It took us on single person swinging cable bridges over beautiful mountain streams, across winding slatted wooden walkways through marshy valleys and then up to a sunlit ridgeline trail (Photo 11) looking down on the river before emptying us back into Donnelly flat and finally the car park. We sat in the sun by the river and had an apple and peanut butter as we waited for our taxi. We were then whisked away back to the Masterton train station and then back to Wellington. We gathered our bags and went up to D4 to grab a dirty beer before going our separate ways to unpack and clean up. We reconvened for fish n chips at the Mount Vic Chippery to feed our tired bodies and give a wonderful end cap to our journey. Thank you Justin and Maggie for being genuine incredibly people, I feel honored to have you as friends. And thank you to everyone else who showed interested in my life by reading this.
Photo 1 - Mossy Misty Forest
Photo 2 - Lexi
Photo 3 - View From Powell Hut
Photo 4 - MEGAWORM
Photo 5 - View From Mt. Jumbo
Photo 6 - Us Atop Mt. Jumbo
Photo 7 - Jumbo Hut (With Our Loft)
Photo 8 - Our River Spot
Photo 9 - Atiwhakatu Hut (Maggie Sitting, Justin Sleeping)
Photo 10 - Me With A Gian Tree
Photo 11 - Trail Back To The Car Park