History

The Tararua Range has a rich history of human endeavour. Over the centuries the summits, dominating the skyline seen from Wellington, the Hutt Valley, the Horowhenua, and the Wairarapa, have proven irresistible attractions to the more adventurous residents of these lowlands.

The historic Cone Hut in the Tararua Forest Park. Photo: Richard Nester.
The historic Cone Hut in the
Tararua Forest Park

Maori settlement and exploration

Most of the names of Tararua Range peaks and streams are Maori, bestowed by the three long-standing iwi occupiers of the region; Muaupoko in Horowhenua, Ngäti Kahungungu in Wairarapa, and Rangitane around the Manawatu Gorge.

Although all three iwi share links to ancestors who arrived on the Kurahaupo canoe, they have different traditions relating to the origin of the name ‘Tararua’ itself.

The Kahungungu version stems from an ancestor, Rangikaikore, who broke his spear tip (tara) into two (rua) while hunting; the Muaupoko and Rangitane tradition is that the name refers to the two wives of their ancestor explorer, Whatonga. Popular folklore has ascribed the name to two specific topographic features; the dramatic steep double peak on the main range, the Tararua Peaks (officially named Tunui and Tuiti); and the double peak of Mitre, so-called by Europeans because its shape resembled that of a bishop’s mitre.

There is plenty of archaeological evidence, in the form of adzes, obsidian flakes and an umu [oven], that Maori regularly travelled through the range. This was particularly so as inter-tribal warfare intensified during the 1820s and ’30s, following the incursion into the region of Te Rauparaha and his Ngäti Toa tribe (and their Waikato and Taranaki allies).

One site of refuge, Punanga Pā near Holdsworth roadend, was built by Kahungungu fugitives from the invading Te Rauparaha.

European exploration and survey

During the early years of European settlement, the catalyst for the exploration of the Tararua Range was the need to survey the plains to the east and west of the range for occupation by new settlers. This required triangulation using sight lines from the highest peaks (on which were placed ‘trigs’). The best known of the early surveyors was Morgan Carkeek, who explored the range from the early 1860s on, producing the first map in 1875 (from Mount Hector in the south to Mount Dundas in the north). The surveyors were followed by a succession of adventurers (such as Charles Bannister and his two brothers) and naturalists (the most notable being Leslie Adkin, followed by Norman Elder). Many of them were interested in achieving greater protection for the range, while at the same time encouraging rudimentary development for tourism.

The rise of tramping and outdoor recreation

By the mid-1890s, public concern at the rapid loss of natural landscapes had increased. These concerns motivated communities on both sides of the range to attempt to open the Tararua Range to people to visit for “scenery and aesthetic appreciation”. In both Otaki and Greytown separate track committees were set up in 1895, each committed to the development of a coach road or high quality tourist track. A leading figure who became a lifelong recreation and conservation advocate of the Tararua Range was the MP for Otaki, W.H. Field. Willie Field was subsequently honoured in the name of the first hut built by a tramping club - Field Hut, which was built in 1924 and is still used even though it is the oldest hut remaining in the range. But the Greytown-Otaki ‘tourist track’ had to bide its time, for the first tourist huts built in the range were on the Wairarapa side of the range.  Mountain House and Bannister Hut (near the present day Holdsworth Lodge) each quickly popularised the climb of Mount Holdsworth from Masterton.

By 1912, a track had been cut from the mouth of the Waiohine River over Mount Reeves to the Tauherenikau, and then over Omega to the treeline on the slopes of Mount Alpha. In 1915, Alpha Hut was built—the first of four huts to occupy this key site in Tararua tramping folklore. In 1917, a second hut, Tauherenikau, was built by the Greytown committee. The ‘Southern Crossing’ of the Tararua Range was now established. Yet, during the early 1920s, at a time when the tourism potential of the range was being promoted, few people seemed concerned at the loss of one of the scenic gems of the northern Tararua Range, the Mangahao River flats–destroyed by inundation from the Mangahao Power Scheme.

The major impetus to wider recreational use of the range was the formation of the Tararua Tramping Club in Wellington in 1919, the first of many tramping clubs to be formed in New Zealand. This club was soon followed by others; the Victoria College (University) Tramping Club in 1921, the Hutt Valley Tramping Club in 1923, and the Levin-Waiopehu Tramping Club and Masterton Tramping Club a few years later.

Throughout the 1920s, trampers from these clubs penetrated to most parts of the range, gradually improving the maps, tracks and huts.

A milestone marking the increasing popularity of the Southern Crossing with the tramping clubs was the building of the original Kime Hut in 1930, one of many hut projects managed by the legendary Tararua bushman, Joe Gibbs.

The second wave of interest in Tararua Range tramping came after the cessation of World War II when a number of new tramping clubs were formed and many new huts were built and others renovated. During the war years, the population of red deer had built up to alarming numbers and the controlling authority, the NZ Forest Service, had sufficient evidence of serious leatherwood shrubland and forest deterioration to embark upon a major campaign to eradicate them.

NZ Forest Service, deer cullers, and Tararua Forest Park

The idea of turning the Tararua Range into a national park was proposed, unsuccessfully, in the late 1930s to mark the 1940 centennial of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. The ‘Tararua National Park’ idea surfaced again in 1952 with the passing of the National Parks Act but the idea was not fully endorsed by the Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand and the local tramping clubs. Instead, the NZ Forest Service, made a ‘multiple-use’ counter-proposal to the National Parks Authority in 1954; this was for a ‘forest park’ which would allow the Service to foster recreation at the same time as concentrating on protecting forests, water supply and soil conservation. The key ingredient in the eventual acceptance of the Tararua Forest Park idea by the clubs and other users was the Forest Service’s innovation of a Tararua Forest Park Advisory Committee to guide it in its management priorities.

A major scientific survey during 1958/59 clearly established the extent of deer and goat damage to the vegetation of the Tararua Range. The most seriously affected communities were the montane silver beech forest, slip faces, leatherwood shrublands and the alpine tussock grasslands. The detrimental effect of possums was also becoming clearer, particularly their influence on the rimu/rata/kamahi forest where their browsing accentuated the damage already caused by deer. The Forest Service began a comprehensive hut-building, bridge-construction and track-formation programme to make all the affected habitats readily accessible to ground hunters.

As a result, the hut and track facilities of the Tararua Range increased dramatically during the early 1960s. In 1958 there were 26 club huts throughout the range but only three government huts for wild animal control; during 1960-62, the Forest Service built 10 new huts and by the end of the 1960s the figure stood at 14 new huts and 10 two-person bivouacs. In addition, scores of new tracks were cut, most giving access to the tops via subsidiary spurs and ridges. The Forest Service also reversed the policy of restricting private hunters; instead, recreational hunters were encouraged to use the new ‘culler’s huts’ and build a few of their own. The proliferation of new huts and tracks was not universally welcomed by trampers, many of whom resented the loss of wilderness character in the core of the range.

However, they faced a dilemma, for deer were destroying the forest and shrublands in front of their eyes and there was little doubt that most of the government deer hunters needed huts spaced no more than 3 hours distance apart.

By the early 1970s, the era of the government deer hunter was largely at an end. The ground-hunting campaign had reduced the deer population significantly and the advent of helicopters had opened the range to commercial deer capture. With the collapse of the helicopter deer-hunting industry in recent years, the risk of an increase in deer numbers is an environmental threat that needs careful management. Helicopters are now used by recreational hunters for access to remote huts and campsites, although this conflicts with other remoteness-seeking visitors, a situation which is being monitored.

With the passing of the Conservation Act in 1987, Tararua Forest Park became a ‘conservation park’ (section 19 of the Act), with day-to-day management becoming the responsibility of a new Department of Conservation (DOC).

DOC and visitors

The Department of Conservation took over the management of Tararua Forest Park in 1987 when the Forest Service ceased to exist as a result of the government’s restructuring of its environmental agencies.

As a consequence, the park’s former ‘multiple-use’ policy was replaced with a greater emphasis upon conservation of natural and historic heritage. Much of the vast network of huts and tracks inherited by the department was in acute need of maintenance. The extensive network of back-country huts and routes established during the 1960s were of limited interest to park visitors who only wanted day trips to the front country periphery of the park. The need for better roadend picnic facilities, and short walks was recognised, as well as the need for upgrading huts along some of the more popular tracks.

A comprehensive national ‘Recreational Opportunities Review’ of the track, hut, and bridge network of Tararua Forest Park carried out during 2004-2005 concluded that some low-usage huts and tracks should be phased out, primarily to restore a remote core to the Tararua Range. Other tracks and huts will be progressively upgraded to acceptable standards. Hut fees will continue to be pooled into a fund managed by the Tararua-Aorangi Huts Committee (representing the hut owners and DOC) to ensure the upkeep of the hut network according to a work programme determined by the committee.

Historic sites

Cone Hut

Cone Hut in the upper Tauherenikau valley was built in 1946 from local totara timbers, adzed into framing and split into slab walls. The interior has a character all of its own, with an earth floor and adzed wooden sleeping platform. Cone Hut is one of the best surviving examples of a ‘slab hut’. Its restoration by Tararua Tramping Club volunteers in the early 1990s is a credit to them and their predecessors who had the bush carpentry skills to fashion such a durable haven. See Cone Hut.

Field Hut

Field Hut is the most historic hut in the park, displaying the pioneering work in 1924 of Joe Gibbs and Jack Fisk who cleared the site and pit-sawed the timber from local trees. Over the years much of the original material has been replaced but the hut remfains an important recreational and historic attraction because of its external resemblance to the original, its illustration of early hut construction methods, and its sentimental value to generations of trampers who had their first experience of the rigours of the Southern Crossing while shivering in mist-shrouded Field Hut. See Field Hut.

Relics of the logging industry

Virtually all the valleys around the margins of the park were logged for rimu (and other merchantable podocarps) before the park was created. Most of these relics have decayed away long ago. Some, such as the tracks up the Waitatapia or the Kiriwhakapapa–Mikimiki loop, follow old logging tramways.

Some of the best logging relics are in the vicinity of Otaki Forks. The Waitewaewae Track can be followed along the old Waitatapia tramline to the remains of a loghauler 10 minutes upstream of Papa Creek. There is also a boiler and other machinery at the site of Seed and O’Brien’s sawmill, 20 minutes along the Waiotauru Track. There is also a route (2.5 - 3 hours return) up Sheridan Creek to the site of the Tararua Timber Co sawmill that operated from 1928 to 1938. The route crosses the Waiotauru River at the campground and follows cairns to Sheridan Creek which has to be crossed often, so this tramp should only be attempted in fine weather. During 2005, DOC staff and volunteers uncovered and stabilised a curved section of steel tramline with a colourful history (locally known as ‘Frank’s Folly’).

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