Men carry out the body of Peter Langer, who drowned in the Ngatiawa Stream in 1964. Fifty-five people died in the Tararua Ranges between 1900 and 2003: drowning accounted for 23 and hypothermia for 14.Barry Durrant
Covering well over 1000 sq km on Wellington’s back door step, and high and rugged enough to be challenging, the Tararuas are the real home of North Island tramping.
In our Wellington house, one window frames a view of the Tararua Range. During summer, when heat haze renders the hills as indistinct as an impressionist’s painting, they don’t appear substantial—just a distant blue ridge, a smudge sometimes merging with the sky.
On a winter’s day, however, when a southerly has cleared the air and breathed its icy residue on them, the Tararuas look like real mountains. Snow lends them a lofty grandeur that belies their modest stature. Then, I can clearly make out the line of the Southern Crossing, a three-day tramp that takes a dog’s-leg route over bush and tussock ridges in the southern part of Tararua Forest Park.
The Tararua Range begins at the northern limit of the Rimutaka Range—where State Highway 2 cuts a meandering path between Wellington and Wairarapa—and stretches north to the Manawatu Gorge. Essentially, it is a 100 km segment of the North Island’s 500 km-long backbone, which extends from Turakirae Head, south of Wellington Harbour, right up to East Cape. As well as the Tararua mountains, this spine includes the Rimutaka, Ruahine and Kaweka Ranges, the Kaimanawa Mountains, and the Huiarau and Raukumara Ranges. I like to think of these as New Zealand’s Northern Alps.
But often I can’t see the Tararuas. Even when Wellington is fine, a heavy bank of cloud often envelops them like a grey fungus. In his book Waking to the Hills (1985), tramper Geoff Spearpoint calls them “the traditional home of rain and fog”, and it’s hard to argue with that.
Savage weather batters the range to such an extent that even those familiar with the higher and harder mountains of the Southern Alps have sometimes underestimated it. As Spearpoint notes, the problem with the Tararuas is their exposure to weather from all directions, particularly the fierce winds channelled through Cook Strait. “Southerlies bring the snow and freeze them; westerlies bring the rain and wet them; northerlies blow until it is a marvel there is anything left.”
In January 2005, over a 12 hour period, some 230 mm of rain poured out of the sky into the Otaki catchment. The deluge resulted in flash flooding that wiped out a 46-year-old footbridge at Otaki Forks and gouged out many side creeks to bedrock. On the nearby Southern Crossing, rescuers waited three days for a break in the weather while they nursed a solo tramper suffering from hypothermia. Eventually they gave up waiting and carried her down to where a helicopter managed to slip in under the cloud base.