The Karpet members are getting older. I have a baby, Richard has gone and got himself a proper job, and Cam is doing his Masters thesis (which is, like us at so many road ends, overdue).
So while our enthusiasm for the Tararuas is undeminished, our availability is much-reduced. But we still try. Cam and I decided we could shoe-horn this quick overnighter in, and tick off a bucket-list item: Eastern Hutt Hut.
Avid readers of the Karpet Blog might recall that our last trip, to Jumbo, was also shoe-horned into a busy schedule with hopes of reaching a different bucket-list location, ‘the airplane wreck’.
That one failed too.
Eastern Hutt Hut is, as the name might suggest, a hut in the headwaters of the Eastern Hutt River. It is notable for not being notable.
It’s nestled away in the Greater Wellington Regional Council water collection area. Staying the night in the area is prohibited, except in emergencies, relegating the 1970s Forest Service hut in Eastern Hutt to a novelty of a place that you’re not allowed to stay unless you’re really buggered. It is, thus, largely unused and reportedly well-preserved.
The plan was to start on Saturday lunchtime from Waihone Campsite (nee Wall’s Whare), hop over to Cone for a snack, and crank up Baldy to be at Alpha Hut for dinner late Saturday.
And then on Sunday to come down the untracked Quoin Ridge, leaving it just after point 1308 to drop down to the hut, before walking out down the river and getting picked up at Kaitoke in time for tea.
Best laid plans and all that.
Saturday went well. We got away late, but shaved half an hour off the marked time to Cone Hut. The track to Cone from Waiohine is nice, kicking off with a sharp climb before levelling out to cruise over Cone Saddle and dropping down to Cone Hut. It’s very runable and we passed a woman doing just that.
Cone Hut has had a bit of work done since we were last there and now has a floor. Luxury. Still looks neat though, recalling tramping huts from when men were really men (ie, pre-Karpet).
In residence at Cone were a couple of young blokes and a dog. They said they were hunting but confessed they had no real intention of getting anything. They had plans to head up the Tauherenikau the next day. And an unlikely duo called Vinnie and Tony from Upper Hutt. More on them later.
After a brief stop and a chat Cam and I dropped down from Cone Hut straight to the river, to eye up a crossing. Neither of us had been up Baldy before and without checking assumed that the track took up directly over the river. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t, it takes up about ten minutes South of Cone Hut).
The river was up, and we pissed around for a while trying to find a spot to get over. In the process we found the remnants, still marked, of a track on the True Left of the river, which I assume is what’s left of the old track down from Cone, before it was diverted via the Saddle. But I’m not sure.
Anyway, we decided we couldn’t cross, and thought the game was up and we’d be spending the night at Tutuwai. Until Vinnie and Tony said that there was a downed tree that allowed crossing just a ways down the track.
That might have been more credible if Vinnie and Tony hadn’t told us that it had taken them three hours to get to Cone from Tutuwai, and if they weren’t wearing jeans and sneakers and dangling their food in a Mad Butcher plastic bag off the outside of a schoolbag.
They were right though.
Just down the river, next to a chopper landing spot, is a fallen tree which allows straightforward access to the other side of the river and the track up Baldy.
Getting up Baldy is a grunt, with not much to commend it. No views, no respite, just good old fashioned Tararua hill climbing. Until you get to the top. The climb levels out while still in the bushline, and you get to stroll the last bit before bursting out onto some rocky outcrops which turn into rolling meadow. The views are fabulous. We got there just on sunset, so decided to eat tea and enjoy the view before carrying on to Alpha Hut.
After a more than satisfactory free dried curry we rolled on. Pretty knackered at this stage.
As we slowly carried on by torchlite we wondered about Vinnie and Tony. We had caught up with and overtaken them on the Baldy climb, they were struggling in inadequate footwear and clothes. One of them, for reasons unknown, had a 50 litre watercooler water bottle dangling empty from his pack. As we passed them, noting it was still quite a way to Alpha, they said that they had just realised that they’d left their frying pan at Cone. We never saw them again, so I hope they went back for it.
Tramping by head torch is slow going, so in the end we didn’t make it to Alpha until after 9. A bit of port (specifically, Porto Cruz Especial Reserve) and cheese was consumed chatting with those still awake in a nearly full hut.
Sunday dawned but Cam and I were a bit late getting going. In the end, after eating and chatting to a family with teenagers heading north on the Southern Crossing, we got away about 9.
It was a magnificent day. Sunny (it would reach over 30 degrees as the day wore on) and without a breath of wind.
Confidence was high. We topped out on Alpha pretty quickly and turned south, bypassing the warning signs about the water catchment area and following the ridgeline.
It was scrubby going, with no formed track, and we both wished we’d packed proper gaiters. Cam had none, I had baby ones.
Confident of our direction we made steady progress to point 1308, and stopped for a snack. We could see where the spur we wanted carried on south as Quoin Ridge proper turned right, to the south-west, and continued to Quoin.
We started dropping down into the Eastern Hutt river headwaters, and the going got tougher. Leatherwood was everywhere, making it hard to stay on the ridge, so we made a zig-zag down the steep spur towards the bushline. There was the odd cairn, so we were confident we were heading in the right direction. So we carried on, and kept our eyes peeled for an entrance into the bush.
But we didn’t find one.
We boxed on, but started getting the uneasy sense that time was ticking away and we weren’t making enough progress to get to the road end for pickup.
I checked to see if I had a signal, and got a message out to Lindsey to say “hey, we are taking a lot longer than planned, all well but let’s flag pickup and I’ll call you when we’re out.”
Time elapsed, we made no progress. We poked around in the bush for a bit but could find nothing that suggested that this was ‘the way’. I was hungry, and frustrated, and had run out of water.
We sat down to eat, and assess our options.
Option 1: carry on down, bash through the bush, see what happens. This appealed on a number of fronts, but mostly because it was ‘not giving up’. Downsides: lack of water, lack of a clue how long it might take, lack of a path to follow, risk of ending up in tributary headwaters and getting very cold, tired, and lost.
Option 2: regain Quoin Ridge, turn left, follow ridge to road end. This option carried the most uncertainty. There was tarn water on Quoin, but we didn’t know what the forwards path on Quoin Ridge was like, and we ran the risk of ending up in the same situation much later in the day and with many fewer alternatives.
Option 3: retreat to Alpha Hut, exit via Marchant the next day. The prudent option. Safety first. This was the obvious answer, but with the frustrating downside of letting down my family, who were expecting me home.
“What,” I said to Cam, “if there was Option 4: get a chopper ride out?”
“Hmm, I dunno about that.” Cam replied, no doubt weighing up the indignity of a ‘rescue’, the possible cost, and the fact that he doesn’t much like heights.
“I just want to go home now.” I said. And I had a signal, so I sent a text message to the Kaitoke Park Ranger. In it I said where we were, that we weren’t lost, but that we had bitten off a good deal more than we could chew, and all forward options were both hard and time consuming.
“Are you in trouble? If so call the Police straight away.” He messaged back. I reassured him we were fine, just interested in his suggestions.
“Well I do have a machine on standby for fire duty today. Want me to see if he’ll come and get you?” DOC people call helicopters ‘machines’.
“That would be great,” I said. “Happy to pay.”
“I’ll let you know.”
And shortly thereafter he said his guy was happy to collect us, and at 3.30pm just south of point 1308 our ride home turned up (but not before surprising another party further down Quoin who had not called for a lift).
Pilot Jason had us back at Kaitoke about ten minutes later, reflecting on how rapidly things can change in the bush.
I felt like a bit of a dick getting lifted out. Jason was having none of it, saying he would much rather do easy pick ups like ours than chopper out bodies like he did when the poor blokes from Xero froze to death within cooee of Alpha last year. Point well made Jason, point well made.
In fact, Jason from Amalgamated Heli in Masterton was an all round champion. He made us feel like we had made a sensible, prudent, decision to take a ride rather than pushing ourselves on the basis that taking a lift was some kind of failure. I appeciated that from him. Also, to date, no bill has been received. I appreciate that too.
Chatting to Ranger Steve Edwards in his office he said of the route we were attempting “people usually go up, it’s not easy coming down.”
Quite. Wish we’d had that chat on Friday instead of Sunday.
Still, all’s well that ends well I guess. The first mission abort in the Karpet oeuvre. Not quite the bucket-list item we were hoping to tick off. Eastern Hutt Hut, like the plane wreck, will have to wait for another weekend.