Whilst Wellington is reasonably well known as ‘the Windy City’, it’s probably lesser known that the nearby Tararua Ranges are also renowned for the wind and rain they attract, thanks to their proximity to the Cook Strait which acts as a funnel.
Our trail included four days in the Tararuas and during this time we were able to sample some of the strength of these weather systems. The trail notes encourage you to sit it out in a hut if the weather is not conducive however how does one know when its ‘normal Tararuas windy’ and ‘dangerous windy’? By the time we’d made the assessment that it was possibly the latter it was too late to turn back.
On the second day we found ourselves high up on a ridge, staggering with legs and poles spread wide for maximum stability. Standing fast when the gusts were high, and staggering forward a few more paces when they eased off a bit, we moved from one semi sheltered patch to another. As we moved from the knife ridge to a slightly wider section the wind went to a whole new level and I actually got pushed over a few times from the force (luckily only from a low crouched position to my backside). The force was incredible, flapping hard against my waterproofs like I was skydiving, and forcing the high top of my jacket into my mouth like some vacuum sealed packet. The wind screamed in my ears and my eyes streamed with water rendering me with low vision. I just stood there, hanging on, feeling slightly surreal and knowing that we were probably on the limits of what we could handle. I still had ‘sitting down’ to go as a last defence against being blown off the mountain so that made me feel a little bit better!
In any event it would have done us no good to turn at back at this point as it was a shorter distance to move forward and get down into the trees.
Thankfully day three dawned clear and bright and whilst the wind still whistled around the hut it was far better than the day before and we enjoyed an amazing walk along the Main Ridge with views across the vast Tararuas and out to sea in the distance.
The descents off this huge range, even though sheltered in the trees, were not much easier and I took several decent falls on the way down. The first was unimpressive but painful – slipping on a mossy rock and landing on my backside on another rock with the full weight of my body and pack. The second was way more impressive but less painful. My feet slipped out from underneath me and when I crouched down and leaned forward to correct it I found myself falling face first down the steep slope thinking ‘hmmm…this isn’t the way you’re supposed to go’. I’m not entirely sure what happened next but there was a lot of flying dirt, walking poles and sunglasses and eventually I found myself sliding to a halt about 4-5 metres down the slope. Another couple just ahead of me on the track would later tell me they heard someone sliding for ‘a while’ before the call, “I’m okay!”.
Important lessons learned for the South Island though. Take it slow and don’t push things!