The worst track in the Tararuas?
The Bannister Crossing and the Arete sidle track
I had repeatedly heard the sidle track from Arete Forks Hut to Cow Creek Hut being called ‘the worst in the Tararuas’. A quick search online finds that common words used to describe it include horrid, notorious, non-existent and horrendous. I did however know that the track had recently been recut a few months ago, so how bad could it be… I didn’t need any more enticement to plan a trip to the Northern Tararuas. As I suspected Mat was as crazy as me, so together we devised a crossing of the range over Bannister and back via the sidle track, with the bonus of four huts to bag.
Kiriwhakapapa to Blue Range Hut
We strapped on our gaiters as a thin mist of rain fell. It was 7:30pm on a Friday and we were aiming for Blue Range Hut for the night. The track followed an old bush tramway to begin with, 5 minutes of bliss that did not last as we were suddenly confronted by the Blue Range. Powered by greasy pizza on an even greasier track we slogged our way upward at breakneck speed. I could barely breathe, sweat pouring out, shirt soaked by the cloud we were immersed in. Undeniably Type II fun. Within an hour the sign that marks the turn off to the hut emerged from the gloom. Darkness was falling, we hustled. A quick sidle and then a slip and slide brought us to the door of the hut. Wafting smoke filled my nostrils, we would not be alone that night.
Inside the hut we found four men and two dogs. As it turned out they were from a rival gang, ‘the Tararua Terrors’, a bit of an overdramatic name if you ask me, nothing on our prestigious ‘Wellington Outdoors Club’. In their defense they did share their whiskey, an act of kindness they soon regretted as I proceeded to not shut-up for the rest of the night. Mat sat politely in the corner soaking it all in after skulling the remainder of the whiskey. By 10pm we were in our pits, attempting to get to sleep before the self-professed snorer went lights out. We were not successful.
Blue Range Hut to Arete Forks via Bannister and Arete Hut
Blue Range Hut was built during 1957 and 1958 by members of the newly formed Masterton Tramping Club, and staff from the NZ Forest Service. The Club organized a trip at fortnightly intervals for 18 months to carry the materials up, with regular races to see how many return trips could be made in one day, it is nearly a 700 metre climb. Source: https://tarhc.org.nz/our-huts/blue-range-hut/
Perhaps the most distinctive thing about the hut are the many curious signs afixed in every nook and cranny. The signs originate from Wairarapa Hospital, a testament to the employer of many MTC members past and present. A personal favourite was the ‘social workers quarters’ sign on the wharepaku!
Snorers were the least of my issues. I narrowly avoided becoming a human crashpad in the middle of the night when the dog on the top bunk decided it wanted to come down with a thud. With the prospect of sleep illusive we set off from the hut at 7:30am. From Blue Range Hut we climbed towards Te Mara before marching along the undulating ridgeline in the direction of Cow Creek. Clouds were hanging around the hilltops, but were gradually lifting. Rather than following the signpost down to the creek we headed off the main track towards pt 970 and 890. We knew an old track was once cut through here, all the way to Cow Saddle. Some sections were overgrown to say the least, but with a bit of crashing and smashing we soon found ourselves atop Cow Saddle.
Having walked about 2 hours since the hut we were well and truly overdue a snack. Ahead of us we had a 700 metre climb up to Waingawa which had just shaken its cloak of cloud. The first 300 metres of this climb was gruelingly steep until we broke out into the ‘leatherwood zone’. This label denotes the up to 200 metre band above sub-alpine forest of often dense leatherwood (tūpari) and other alpine shrubs. Luckily for us the track was well cut, giving us a free pass up to the tops.
When we reached pt 1360 the weather was variable to say the least. For the past hour I had watched as the cloud hanging over Mitre began to drift in our direction. Sure enough it soon enveloped Waingawa. Rather than be disheartened we took the opportunity to have a rest. To our right the broad Cattle Ridge stretched out, whilst to our left we could see the humps and bumps that lead up to Bannister. It didn’t exactly look inviting.
By the time we started going again I was getting cold. I didn’t have time to dwell on this as Mat was charging on ahead. If I didn’t have the cooker I suspect he might have left me behind. As we progressed the ridgeline gradually got sharper, the tussock falling away to exposed rock. Crossing pt 1385 Bannister Basin was laid out before us. A hut used to live in the basin, built by the Department of Internal Affairs in the 50’s before the New Zealand Forest Service took over wild animal control operations. It wasn’t favourite with cullers as wood for fires had to be lugged up to the hut’s upper basin site.
The commute of a culler to Bannister Basin would have left something to be desired if our experience was anything to go by (although the views were fantastic). The ridge dropped down to another saddle before we began climbing the buttresses of Bannister. Observing the ridgeline no path was apparent, only when my face was inches from the rock and scrub did the way forward revealed itself.
Our research online suggested that there was a grade 8–10 rock climb between us and Bannister. Soon enough a rock wall presented itself, devoid of any handy tussock.
Mat scrambled up this without a care. It took me a few abortive attempts, but by approaching from the righthand side of the wall I managed to work my way up to the safety of the tussock above. “Phew” I thought, “that’s the note-worthy shit-yourself section completed”. We passed some nutcase runners as we climbed up to pt 1513, they were kind enough to offer us a sherbet fizz. Continuing on the ridge was narrow and rocky leading to Bannister, but the worst of the scrambly stuff was over.
The day was long from over however. From Bannister we dropped down to a saddle before climbing along the Twins. Older maps name the Twins as the Dromedaries, a much more appropriate name for a set of rather rude humps if you ask me. From the Western most hump we could almost smell Arete Hut, yet we still had to drop and climb 100 metres before we got there at 2:30pm. By this stage I was not a happy chappy - mildly dehydrated and sick of Mat’s poor chat.
Arete Hut is one of the most beloved huts in the park. Sitting on the 1360m contour, it is the highest hut in the Tararuas and has some of the best views, out over Bannister. The current hut is the third to occupy the locale, the first being a two-person dog-box bivvy built by Forest Service hunters Paul Gush and Brian Simpson, who commuted up Pinnacle Spur from Arete Forks to build it!
After taking on several litres of water I had reconstituted into something vaguely resembling my tramping self. From Arete we climbed pt 1389, traversing above the idyllic Upper Waiohine towards the hellscape of Pinnacle Spur.
A signpost on pt 1470 marked the almost suicidal descent onto the spur. Thankfully the initial extreme gradient only lasted about 80 metres before the going got more sensible. The annoying thing about Pinnacle Spur was that it had, well, pinnacles. These required climbing over in most instances, a task I was not altogether that pleased with.
I had thought that once we reached the track marked on the topomap after pt 1295 that things would get more pleasant. This delusion was shattered as I found myself careening down through a half-metre wide gap in the leatherwood, my hands reaching out for anything to slow my descent.
I had thought that once we reached the bushline that things would get more pleasant. I should have learnt. The track was overgrown and the ground was slippery underfoot. Our weary knees buckled and protested from the torture we were putting them through. Mat and I agreed that this was no place for quadropeds like Regan. The only thing stopping me from packing a hissy was the thought of Paul and Brian doing this as their daily commute. The bush spat our broken bodies out on the bank of the Waingawa River. From here we limped across before crashing inside the cheerful tangerine coloured Arete Forks Hut. It was just after 5pm.
Arete Forks hut was built in 1960 by the Forest Service during the hut building program that followed the Forest Service taking over responsibility for deer culling operations nationally in 1956. When the NZFS took over the control of deer, Tahr, Chamois and other wild animals, a massive hut, track and bridge building operation was launched. Initially huts were designed and built by individual regions and on the West Coast field officers had begun to develop standard designs that would later be adopted though out the country. Standard huts were designed for four bunk and six bunk huts and a two person “bivouac”. These were named S81, S70 and S86 respectively. Eventually, over 300 four and six bunks huts, and 130 two person bivouacs were built by the Forest Service, often replacing tent camps in the same locations. Source: https://gwbn.org.nz/history/the-deer-culling-huts/
My legs felt absolutely cooked. The only thing left to do was to wash off all the sweat that I had accumulated over the course of the day in the river. After that was done we made ourselves at home in the hut, passing the time before dinner. Mat’s dehydrated peas and onions were boiled in the water with my ration pack whilst it reheated. The water was then used to make my mash in a master class of efficiency. With full stomachs we battled heavy eyelids as the daylight slowly faded…
Arete Forks to Kiriwhakapapa via Cow Creek Hut
Without the snorers or the flying dogs I got a great sleep. Now I get to the part of this article that you’ve been waiting for, the Arete Sidle Track. Straight away the track started with a near vertical 100 metre climb above the Waingawa River. We encountered a number of unmarked streams before reaching the first one marked on the map. All around us we could see the handywork of the track cutters. The track sliced straight through large tree fall and charged through area previously dominated by fern. A personal favourite was a tree we found in a stream that had been sculpted into a makeshift stairway. True to form the track had its fair share of ups and downs, but it was nothing compared to the slippery mess we had encountered coming down Pinnacle Spur.
One, two, three, four… the marked streams were flying by. Every time we dropped into a stream we stopped to drink, pouring the cool water over our faces to cool ourselves down. Wind whistled through the trees and on more than one occasion I commented it was a good thing we weren’t on the tops, despite the bright blue sky. The only issue with the now impeccably cut track was that the work was done so efficiently that whole markers that had once denoted arduous detours over treefall could be skipped — the problem was deciding which marker to follow ! Mat discovered this, but justified it as wanting ‘the true Arete Sidle Track experience’.
Soon we had notched five streams under our belt and crossed the 800 metre contour. From here we descended into the final stream before a steep drop down to Cow Creek Hut. Despite the gut-busting nature of it, the sidle track had only taken us 2 1/4 hours. A more reasonable estimate for sane trampers would be 3 to 4 hours so long as you are comfortable negotiating reasonably steep terrain. I suspect it is no longer the worst track in the Tararuas, sincerest thanks to the ex-NZFS team who recut the track!
Cow Creek Hut was the first S70 hut built, being constructed in 1960 before Arete Forks, and is in close to original condition other than the new(ish) pot belly stove. It’s tangerine walls were a welcoming sight, and with our new found spare time we relaxed under the canopy for a snack before continuing on our way.
From the hut the track crosses over the Waingawa River via a substantial bridge, this is a far cry from the number 8 wire bridge that spanned between the banks when the hut was built. On the otherside we made good time through the open forest, taking the opportunity to refill our waterbottles from a stream before our next climb. After a kilometre following the river downstream the track swerved abruptly uphill. It was a challenge I wanted to rise to, and so with legs firing like pistons and sweat pouring out of me like a sieve in a sauna I pushed upward. In an unexpected twist I was now the one charging along with Mat lagging in the back. It was satisfying for my ego. After what seemed like an eternity we were reunited with the signpost that had marked our descent to Cow Saddle. From here we cruised along the ridge which was relatively easy going compared to the last day and a half of gut-busting. Passing the turnoff to Blue Range Hut we flew down the hill, feet barely touching the ground. It is a miracle that we made it to the bottom without serious injury, although our knees were screaming. Somehow we had turned what was meant to be a full day’s tramping into a midday jaunt and neither of us were complaining, minds firmly fixed on the allure of food in Masterton.
The easy path along the old tramway gave me time to reflect. If our last outing to Te Urewera had been an obituary for backcountry huts and a critical analysis of the Forest Service’s legacy, this trip must be a celebration. For all their condemable actions, the New Zealand Forest Service left a unique legacy the length and breadth of the country. We have the employees of the Forest Service to thank for spreading the culture of backcountry shelters across Aotearoa, along with the extensive tracks and bridges that they built. An S70 always feels like a home away from home, whether it be deep in the mountains of the West Coast or nestled in the Tararuas. Each Forest Service hut was caste from the same mould, yet now display a beautiful patina of character. Something to be thankful for.