Te Araroa ventures into New Zealand's oldest tramping ground,
and has to call in a rescue chopper.

Te Araroa Trust's trail blueprint outlined two alternative trails between Shannon and Otaki.

One through route was on the existing Tararua trails, which began at Shannon.

The Tararua Range was New Zealand's first Forest Park, and is the oldest tramping ground in the country. By reputation it's a beautiful, but also a potentially dangerous place. Storms sweep the Tararua tops on average 200 days a year and over 40 hunters and trampers have perished there this century.

We'd therefore proposed also developing a less rigorous, all-weather route to run parallel, but lower, and further west of the Tararuas, along the Arapaepae Range.

That trail plan wasn't plucked from thin air. We'd studied the New Zealand Walkway Commission archives, and the Commission's Wellington District Committee had once proposed just such a trail, as part of a north-south walkway. A tramper going south on this route was above, but never far from, the three Horowhenua towns, Shannon, then Levin, then Otaki. A tramper would need to pack no more than a day or two's food, unlike the four and five day supplies needed for the Tararuas, and could drop down to safety if the weather disintegrated.

View over Levin and Lake Horowhenua

So far as we knew, that trail was just a paper plan, but I found, after walking into Shannon, that an offshoot group of the Levin-Waiopehu Tramping Club was marking up just such a low through-route to Levin.

Okay - I'd test it. I walked a few kilometres up the road from Shannon to the Mangahao hydroelectric dam, branched off onto Mangaore Road there, and walked onto farm, into pine forest, out onto farm again. The trail was a relatively safe and scenic route, and within four hours I was through to the hills overlooking Levin and Lake Horowhenua.

Yet my gaze strayed constantly east where even on this blue day the higher hills were pulling the cloud down. Now and again, here and there, the cloud parted and a bolt of sunlight struck a sub-alpine summit.

I hit Levin, and with a few more farming permissions I could have continued on the foothills route right through to Otaki.

But when you got down to it, you couldn't ignore the long tramping history of that interior range, nor the tug of its sub-alpine tops. You couldn't just admire the Tararuas from afar. You had, finally, to go there.

Bolt of sunlight

You could pick the Tararua trampers the moment you rolled out the maps. The maps practically rippled into life under their stern attention. They traced the ridges with their fingers, and the names sparked on their lips - Girdlestone, Mitre, Broken Axe Pinnacles, Mt Hector, the Dress Circle.

Take Kevin Penberthy, from the International Pacific College at Palmerston North.

"Now," he said, head down over the map, rubbing his hands, "you want challenges?"

"I don't want challenges Kevin," I said. "I just want to get through."

But he was hardly listening.

"The leaves of the leatherwood either side of the track can freeze solid at this time of year," said Kevin with happy nostalgia, "and you have to hack your way through."

Okay - I was happy to have all the hazards of my proposed four-day tramp through the Tararuas outlined, but I also wanted a tramping companion. It wasn't going to be Kevin, who'd busted his ankle so badly in the mountains he was having trouble right then even walking.

I rang Tararua trampers by the dozen, but the older ones, who had the time, were scared off by the winter rigour, and the younger ones couldn't take the time off work. All I got was the catalogue of hazards - streams that turned into nasty torrents after a fresh, mists that cut visibility, winds that could pick you off your feet, and, particularly in this northern entrance to the range, warnings of a confusing topology.

"Signs? Maybe you'll find a small cairn to mark a turnoff, but you won't find signs," said Dave Ditford of the Levin-Waiopehu Tramping Club.

"DOC has tried putting up signs, but the Wellington hard core uproots them. There's people who believe you should be able to navigate through the mountains, or you shouldn't be there."

Ditford was a busy knitwear executive in Levin. He couldn't afford the time. He suggested Maria Clement.

Maria's dining room was hung with her photographs of the Tararuas - the memorial cross on Mt Hector rimed with ice, the green goblin forest trunks colonnading the mist.

I shook open the map, and the Tararua tramper fell into the usual trance.

"I realise winter is the worst possible time to go into these mountains..." I began, in apology.

"Oh no, it's the best time," said Maria, looking up briefly, eyes alight "We build snow caves up there, fly camp under the stars, cook on an open fire..."

She laid out a photo montage of the main divide.

"This is what you'll see, standing on Pukematawai. It's the main range. Butcher Knob here, a bush stretch through to Puketoro and Kelleher, Mt Crawford away at the back there."

"Why don't you come?"

"Honestly, I've got a heap of work on."

We went back to the map. She was my last chance and I was exerting the same pressure a dog does when it wants to haul you for its nightly trot around the block. Sheer mental insistence boiling away.

"I'd love to do it," said Maria finally, "but I'm on a two-week fencing contract with the Horowhenua District Council. I've just got to complete."

"Look, you must do it," I said. "You're the right one."

"Even if I didn't finish the fencing, it'd at least have to be stock-proof before I could take time out," she said. "Five days work maybe."

"Okay. I'll wait until you're ready."

"Usually I'd time a tramp to go in just after a southerly blow," she warned. "You get clear days then. The weather is okay right now, but if we just name a day and go, the weather may have chucked it in."

"Let's just take that risk."

I stayed five days in Levin, walking up to where the bush trail began, to ensure my own North Island hike remained continuous, but the rest of the time with my feet up. The August days were fine and clear, and then as departure date approached I watched the weather disintegrate. The TV weather graphs showed low pressure systems as densely wrinkled and slow-moving as a group of browsing pachyderms. Trains howled past in the night just 10 metres from my motel unit. Their big lights strobed across the room, and the concrete block walls shook. It rained and rained.

On the first day in, it was raining still, bush-heavy drops splattering onto Waiopehu Hut's ramshackle roof. Night had fallen, Maria had built a roaring blaze, and we hung over the warmth of it, awaiting a rendezvous with the third member of our party.

"Tell me," I said, "how you came to tramp the Tararuas."

"I can remember as a three-year-old standing in the yard and looking up to the snow behind Levin. My grandfather was with me and I looked up at him. I said: Take me there.

"Yeah," said Maria, staring at the fire. "It's always been there."

Following the traditional pattern of the tramping clubs, she'd had an older mentor who'd taken her through. Now she was a member of Horowhenua Mountain Rescue and ran her own Tararua guiding company, Back to Basics. It struck me that anyone who could coax fire from wet wood using only snipped pieces of inner tube as fire starters had earned the right to call her company Back to Basics.

The door of Waiopehu Hut crashed open. A dripping, headlamped Steve Purchase came in and swung his pack down. Steve had worked extra hours on his truck run to get time off, and we were expecting him, but I hadn't expected Ziggy. The black half-Labrador, half-Rottweiler cross, padded into the hut carrying her own panniers of dog biscuits. Steve removed the harness and Ziggy snugged down by the fire to warm herself. She was sopping wet, and when she got up again she was walking on three legs. Everyone joshed the animal about putting on a Hollywood.

Next morning the hut floor was a lake of water that had come under the door, and the cloud outside was brushing through the trees.

"My God," I said as we tramped out, "this bush is so dark."

The Tararuas had been the shining edge of the world for Maria, the child. I had the feeling it still was. She was not about to let such treasonable comment pass.

She stopped and held first me, then the dull horizon with a steady gaze.

"Hmmmnnnn. I'd say the weather is brightening from the east."

"That would make you, " I said, "a raging optimist."

"Yeah, well everyone gives me shit about that," said Maria, "but in this place you've got to be, otherwise it would be all gloom and doom."

A little later as we broke out of the bush, she pointed to the sky.

"Look there's a patch of blue sky up there - almost."

I tried hard. I couldn't see the blue patch.

We were tramping east, headed deeper into the range, and higher. We passed the hewn wooden cross that marked the grave of Ralph Wood, a Manawatu Tramping Club member who had perished here, literally crawling on the exposed mountainside, in a 1936 storm. The same hurricane had knocked down whole ridgelines of bush. It blocked the tracks so they couldn't get Wood's body out, and they'd buried him where he lay.

Something was wrong. I didn't know what it was, only that Steve seemed tense. We were considering a shortcut across the Otaki River and we needed to know what the weather was doing. That meant getting a forecast. Every time we hit a ridge, Steve rang on his mobile, and a Telecom operator informed him that he couldn't access the weather number on his mobile without a special credit permission to dial 0900 numbers.

It was an astonishingly stupid argument. Steve had a landline account with Telecom, and given the nature of the Tararuas, a swift agreement to give access to a known customer might have seemed a simple thing, but the operator required him to ring back and back, the mobile battery ran steadily down, and we still couldn't get access.

I put the strain in the air down to that, but there was something I'd missed. Ziggy lay down in a puddle, panting, and Steve stood over her.

"That dog is in real pain," he said.

We kept pace with Ziggy from then. Steve took the dog's pack and we limped on to Te Matawai hut. I gave the dog a Voltaren anti-inflammatory tablet, but she was desperately miserable. No-one quite said it, but the trip seemed to be in jeopardy, and the mood was sombre.

Miserable Ziggy

"I don't know what it'd be like if I couldn't take her tramping," said Steve. "She's always been a very energetic dog, she's been on some very long tramps with me, and she's inspirational."

He bent down to the dog and rubbed her ears. "Look. She's a member or our party and you'd treat her the same as you would any other member of the party. You can't expect any more from a dog than from a person, and if a person was suffering as much as she was suffering today, you wouldn't ask them to go on."

He went outside, and through the window I saw him pace about to get reception as he made calls on the mobile.

Evening began to fall, and only Maria, the optimist, stayed on patrol.

"Hey! Hey! The tops are clear! Geoff !" she yelled from outside the hut.

I grabbed my camera and raced through the door. My boots slid away and I sailed straight off the edge of the slimy verandah, landed backfirst on the steps, and rolled off, with a groan, onto the frozen ground below.

I got slowly to my feet. I stood there like one of those comedians faking a passionate embrace, my arms wrapped around myself, fingers rippling up and down my back to see just what broken bits of shoulder blade might be sticking out there.

Stood there staring. Maria was right. The mists had drained into the valleys, and the tops were clear. A full moon rose slowly behind Pukematawai. The Tararuas were making their first dark show of magnificence, but laced, as was proper no doubt, with pain.

Chopper rescue

The next day dawned clear, and at 8am you could hear the beat of the approaching rescue chopper. The pilot, Brendan Cahill, put the machine down on the landing zone above Te Matawai. He'd brought a chaperone, Andrea Swan, and we loaded Ziggy aboard and waved her farewell. The dog would later undergo an operation for a ruptured tendon.

And then it was a fresh start. Up on the first major summit, Pukematawai, the wind had shifted out of the wet and stormy north-west, and a chilly southeast breeze was shuffling lighter, intermittent clouds across, opening the mountains to deep and distant views.

"That's Waiopehu, we came over yesterday," said Steve pointing west. "Twin Peak, Richards Knob, Butcher Saddle on the Dora track... "

Every yellow summit, every tawny ridge, had a name. Every shaggy spur was a potential route to these two.

Maria pointed. "We would have dropped down that spur there, just off Butcher's to cross the Otaki yesterday if Ziggy hadn't gone lame," she said. "We'd have fly-camped down-river."

"Then headed up to Dracophyllum," said Steve.

Ah, the names, the names. I'd heard the litany before, recited over the 1:50,000 maps. Up here I was getting it again. My companions were at play now upon the biggest map of them all, scale 1:1, and I just stood there and let it all expand in front of me. The main range stretched away as a single rugged rollercoaster ridge in front, and all around me was the great geological heave of the Tararuas.

We set off south across rock and tussock. We made good time, pulled up at Dracophyllum Bivouac for lunch, fingered a wrecked helicopter rotor blade there, then pressed on through goblin forest. The wind was swinging further and further south, driving a fine snow through shafts of afternoon sun.

Maria and Steve kept dropping mind-expanding bits of detail as we tramped on. The bush-bashing routes from ridge to ridge. The remembered storms that had trapped you in the huts. The rescues and dramas that seemed to overtake anyone who came often enough into these hills. Maria's husband for one.

"That's where Colin was coming across from Dracophyllum," she said pointing across into pure wilderness. "He dropped down into the Park River then up that spur onto Carkeek Ridge, and he ran out of fuel. He was just going for it, seeing the end in sight - Carkeek Hut. He should have stopped and eaten, but he's stubborn. He's a hunter. He crashed out totally - just a big heap on the ground."

Maria's birthday

We pushed through summit tracks where the serrated leaves of the leatherwood yielded stiffly to our passage. Unfrozen leatherwood leaves, but the wind and cold were steadily building, and Nichols hut looked very good at the end of the day.

It was Maria's birthday. We stoked the fire with green leatherwood. We lit a candle and sang a rousing happy birthday. We made a special jelly - I mean, how often do you get both the pineapple and the lime flavours mixed together in an aluminium pot? - and put it outside to set. That took just half an hour.

The night temperature had plunged to five degrees below zero, and the snow was blowing in on the back of the southerly. Maria and Steve exchanged glances. A strong southerly is the most dangerous Tararua wind, and can trap trampers in the huts for days.

But we got lucky. A southerly also brings in its train the Tararua's most pellucid days. In the morning, the weather was still and the sky vividly blue. We were on the shining edge of the world.

Tararua Peaks

"That's Kahiwiroa then Aokaparangi, and then the Tararua Peaks - there's a chain ladder up the side of those" said Steve as the dawn light touched the tops. Then, as usual, the two friends began the more arcane discussion of their 1:1 map.

"And that looks like the back of Shingle Slip Knob is it?"

"Yeah. With the crashed de Havilland Devon."

"And the fliers' graves. Is that Angle Knob?"

We followed the ridge south and steeply upward to Mt Crawford, sited almost dead-centre of the Tararuas and at 1462 metres the highest point of our tramp. The view had now opened right out, and Wellington shimmered in the distance, a fabled city hung between blue sea and sky. The white spade shape of Tapuaenuku, the great peak of the Inland Kaikouras, reared behind it.

Maria and Steve

We gathered leatherwood from the snow-bound slopes, and boiled a billy on the summit. Maria supervised the construction of a windbreak, using my Leki sticks and her big silver survival blanket, and we sat out of the wind, drinking coffee in the sun, absorbing views that now stretched forever.

Then we left, down past a frozen tarn to Junction Knob. At that moment we were turning to leave the tops, and the three of us stood there quiet for a long time. The main range stretched away south still like some vast animal tunneling toward Wellington under a khaki sheet. It stretched away lazily, invitingly, tawnily, with the small specks of the tramping huts, high up on its flanks, glinting in the afternoon sun.

"It seems a shame to leave it," said Steve.

"We could fly-camp," said Maria. "It'll be a clear night. The whole range will be moonlit. "

We didn't. Steve was what the Tararua fraternity call a hisser. Timings, and the speed of the tramp mattered. He liked the bush, and the scenery, but he also liked to get places, and wanted to keep moving.

And me? I wanted to keep going, but I suggested to Maria if she really wanted to camp, I'd stay out.

"No, it is better to head for the hut. It's just - when I get to the tops I hate to leave it."

We headed down into the bush and Waitewaewae Hut, then out the next day, crossing the Otaki on a long swing-bridge, and walking finally across grassy river terraces to the trail's end.

One last gap in the foothills opened up as we came, and beyond, another bolt of sunlight lit some anonymous Tararua top.

Maria and Steve stopped suddenly. The great 1:1 map had now become frustratingly crumpled at its margins, they couldn't quite see enough, and the two veterans argued amongst themselves.

"That's McIntosh."

"Or Vosseler, Vosseler I think."

"Well look, that's Shoulder Knob up there," said Steve.

"No that's Shoulder Knob. And that must be Pakihore Ridge. It's quite flat where it hits the top."

Back in the carpark, while we waited for our ride, the Tararua friends pulled out the map and worried away at the same problem.

"Yeah, I don't think it was McIntosh," said Maria. "Pakihore hits McIntosh closer to the Peaks, and the ridge is on the southern side."

"We should have taken a compass bearing, " said Steve, not quite ready to concede, and then in a moment they diverted away, their fingers jabbing here and there onto the 1:50,000.

"Hey, I wonder what it'd be like," said Steve, tracing the route, "dropping into the Waiotauru River from Kapakapanui."

He looked up at me and grinned.

"Don't worry. It's just carpark fever. I'm not interested in doing the tramping things down south that everyone does, or the overseas circuits - you can spend a whole lifetime just exploring this range."

"It's why I've lived in Levin all my life," said Maria. "People say I'm crazy, but it's all here - the Tararuas, on your doorstep."