A Total Tararua Traverse

Tararua Forest Park

  • 8 – 16 days one way
  • Medium

The length of the Tararuas via the pointy bits, from the Manawatu Gorge at Woodville to the Rimutaka Hill Road summit.

A true watershed traverse would head from Punga Hut over Ngawhakarara to the Mangahao Road summit (a nightamer of thick leatherleaf) and then over the Camelbacks to Girdlestone Saddle.

We instead take the 'highest range' at each point, rather than the true watershed - heading south via Burn Hut and Mt Dundas.

A Total Tararua Traverse: Key information
Walking time
8 – 16 days
One way
One way
Several days of exposed tops travel. Good weather (light winds) required. Routefinding skills required for roughly marked routes at northern end - alternative tracked route also described. Grades explained
No bookings — open access
No — open access
A Total Tararua Traverse: Find it
Woodville (Ballance Reserve)
Rimutaka Hill Road Summit (SH2)
60m – 1,529m
Altitude change 1,469m

This was walked as part of the north-island leg of an 'east cape to west cape traverse': East Cape to West Cape - the length of NZ's main divide. Feel free to walk it on it's own though!

A shorter walk along just the tracked section of the Tararuas is detailed here:  Tararua main ridge



Woodville to Pahiatua Track. 25km, 6 hrs, Road / 4WD track


As usual, the state highway carves a gap of private land through the uninterrupted bush and tops of the main divide.  The result here, as always, is a long walk along roads and 4WD tracks.


Leaving Woodville campground, we head west along the state highway to the Balance Bridge, crossing the Manawatu. The Totora Rerserve on the left on the opposite side has a picnic area, and a bush track which winds its way to the Bridge Café.  They don’t open until 10am, but for a last coffee and slice before the Tararuas, it might be worth the wait!


Back on the road, the start of Hall Block Road is 100m back towards the bridge from the café. The gravel road climbs slowly, twisting and winding in and out of each side creek - the distant roar of wind turbines, increasing as you climb. On reaching the tops, you could close your eyes and imagine yourself on the boundary of an airfield – the roar of hundreds of turbines sounds like several jet engines on idle. 


North Range Road drops over the west side of the range, where it sidles for a couple of kilometers before climbing back to the summit. The road is broad, graveled and uninteresting, the views down over Palmerston North and the Manawatu plain are the main reward. 


Finally, after 8km on hard metal, 1km north of Tarakamuku high point, the legal North Range Road and power-company access road part company, and we leave the gravel and windmills and start to sidle the west face on an old 4WD track.  The track was clearly surveyed and constructed, rather than cocky-built - as it is in places blasted into the hillside, angling upwards dead-straight gradient. 


Sheep paddocks below change to pines. Above, the windmills shrink, become 2 bladed, and are now painted blue, not white. And, I can see Mitre 10 Mega shining bright orange on the far side of Palmy. Exciting stuff. 


We cut to the east face for a coupe more kilometers, and the finally rejoin the graveled power road for the last 4km to the Pahiatua Track.  One last windmill, a radar dome, and at last ahead stretches nothing but farmland and distant bush.


I can’t see any obvious options for accommodation on this leg – I walked down to Aokautere for a night at a mates place.  There are a few clearings beside the track where you could pitch a tent, but no obvious water supplies. 


Pahiatua Track to pt622. 4WD track, permission may be required from Palmerston North City Council. 11km, 2.5hrs


If you walk this track south to north, the signs say ‘keep to the track, no unauthorized access to the land west of the track’.  If you walk it north to south, they say ‘no unauthorized access’, period.  The land is PNCC owned, and part of their water catchment area.  The road forms the boundary of this area, hence the confusion over whether it is in or out of the restrictions.  Either way, I’ve met quite a few people up there, mainly mountain bikers, so either a) permits are readily given, or b) no-one bothers.


There’s not much to say about the walk along South Range road.  It starts off on a steady, slow climb, but later sidles, twists, climbs and falls over several knobs and saddles.  There are good views over Palmerston and the Tararua District, but after 2.5 hrs they get old.  The surrounding vegetation starts as pine blocks, but rapidly becomes regenerating scrub – the area has clearly been logged in the past.  Pt 622 is the high point, and the start of undisputed crown land.


South Range Road (pt622) to Arawaru summit, 7km, marked routes / traplines, 2.5 hrs


This section follows a mixture of stoat trappers lines, and (2014) partially complete walking tracks.  The following tracks are shown on WAMS as tramping tracks, and I’ll endeavour to put a GPX file here too in case they get removed North Tararua (Hardings Park) Tracks


An alternative to the following is to continue along South Range Road, and turn right along the Platinum Mines Track (signposted) 100m before the park boundary. From here follow signs to the carpark. Pass the mines, and drop to the Kahuterawa Stream which you follow to the roadend at Black Bridge. From there, take Back Road to Scotts Road and reach Punga Hut or Burttons track that way through PNCC forestry.  This forestry has been closed ‘for logging’ (but open weekends) for several years.  Occasionally, they really are logging, too!


At pt622, a 4wd track continues briefly south off South Range Road, soon leading to a large triangle marked H1 (other similarly marked tracks, such as one end of ‘Old Hunta’ are also present, but we take H1). 

- H1 - drops down the ridge SW towards Otangane Str. 

- H1 becomes H10, and we follow it over the creek

- Beyond the creek, we hit ‘Old Hunta’ and follow it right

- Turn left along H4, crossing the next river and climbing to the ‘loop track’ – a partially complete PNCC tramping track

- Turn left along the loop track and follow it 1.5km over pt 628 and start to climb to pt664

- Continue straight on where the loop track swings left (ESE) before pt 664. The junction was obvious, but unsignposted (2014)

- Follow the Arawaru Track as it swings west round the head of the creeks to Arawaru Summit.  This track was only cut through the worst of the scrub (2014) and whilst it had been previously well marked though bush sections, some kind soul had pulled much of the flagging tape down in 2014. 

-  The Arawaru Track joins the Quartz Creek-Arawaru Track just south of the summit. At the junction follow the track north to the trig for your 1st named Tararua peak.




Arawaru summit to Punga Hut, 8km, 3hrs, ridgeline / forestry tracks.


From Arawaru Summit, returning to the track junction, we head west down the Quartz Creek track.  The cut track runs through the leatherleaf, but only a marked route exists below in the bush, following the ridgeline towards pt624.


Half-way between Arawaru and pt624 the map shows an unnamed, unnumbered peak.  Here, a track forks off west towards pt600. This junction is marked on the ground by an excess of flagging tape. The tape-marked, roughly cut track heads east along the Main Range of the Tararuas.  After about 200m a branch drops south to the unnamed stream, where the remains of an old tent camp are present - and water is available.


Staying on the ridge the track continues cut and marked (though vague in places) swinging slowly south as it nears pt600. 


From pt600 it is possible to continue along the main range to the saddle south of pt604.  This route has been cut in the past, and is intermittently marked, but hard to follow.  From the saddle it _may_ be possible to continue south, keeping east of the high leatherleaf country around pt782 to reach the ridgeline between the Patupaiarehe and Miro Stream. From there I would sidle the mid-slopes upriver to reach Punga Hut.  This would keep the entire trip on crown land and out of the PNCC forestry. However, I’ve not tried this yet, so don’t blame me!  The route I took is that detailed below:


From pt600, the cut, roughly marked track swings first west then north-west towards pt510.  Shortly before reaching pt510, the cut track ends at young pine trees. A grassy forestry track continues from there to pt510.


At pt510 turning left, you can head south west along the spur.  The forestry track ends, but a tape-marked route drops down the open spur through first pines then native bush the to forks of Kahuterawa Stream. Scrambling up the far (southern) bank you pick up an overgrown forestry track swinging east then south to join a maintained track. This area has been felled in the last few years, so should be free of the logging which closes the lower section of the PNCC forest.


Following forestry tracks, cut west across the next two streams,  reaching the eastern-most of the three main forest tracks which the map shows heading up towards pt686. Following this track up, you eventually reach the ridgeline and back boundary fence 500m short of the high-point.


I head to Punga Hut for a good night’s sleep. If you don’t need that you can continue straight from here to Burtton Track.


The Punga Track starts immediately over the fence, on the top of the ridge.  It’s thick with tall tussock at first, and takes some nosing around to pick up the track, but is clear and well cut (2014) through the low regenerating bush beyond, once you find it.


Once on the track, it’s easy going.  The track is well cut, though not marked.  After about 300m (halfway to pt686) the track forks.   Taking the left fork, the track soon exits the bush and is well cut through thick shoulder-high scrub to pt686.  Here it swings due east along the ridge for a further 500m to ‘the rocks’.  It then drops back into native bush, heading steeply down the ridge between the first two creeks draining into the Miro.  The track is well marked for this descent all the way to the creek, which it crosses before following the small ridge on the far side for a short distance east to the hut.


Punga Hut to Tokomaru Rd (Burtton Track)


From Punga there’s no real choice except to climb back up the hill to pt686, and follow the track back to the boundary of the PNCC forestry.  2km, 45 mins


At the fence, we turn left, and follow the old 4WD track, overhung with toetoe and scrub down the boundary between the DOC and PNCC land.  The track remains in the native, and so forestry activity should not be an issue.


The start of the Burtton Track is signposted with the usual DOC signs, and a stile is present over the fence.  You can’t miss it, even if it isn’t shown on the map.  The track is broad, well marked and well cut through now-tall regenerating bush.  Heading south along the ridgeline to pt505, it then swings west towards the Tokomaru.  As we drop, the regenerating bush is replaced by tall, mature podocarp.  Real trees – the first in a long time.


The track drops to the side-creek south of the main spur, hitting it 200m up from the forks.  There are good campspots here, if you didn’t fancy the side-trip to Punga Hut. Crossing the creek we climb and sidle a bit and drop to the main Tokomaru river.


After a brief section in the riverbed – a few crossings required, a good poled, marked track starts up on the western bank.  This follows the river, sometimes on the flats, sometimes sidling, until it hits the 4WD track shown on maps. We follow this upriver through rough sheep-pasture for another kilometer or so, to where a tidy bach sits on the western valleyside.  Just before this the tramping track crosses the river (no signpost, look for markers opposite).  Once on the far bank, the track is vaguely poled as it heads up grassy river flats, but becomes cut and clear once it hits the bush again.


This is now the true Burtton Track, benched into the hillside and sidling the valley all the way to the forestry at Tokomaru Rd.  Half way, the old site of Burtton’s Whare is marked and has information panels. Interesting history and clearly he was a tough old bugger, but on the ground there’s not much to see.  The valleyside alternates between sections of low regenerating bush – presumably the areas that were farmed, and bands of beautiful mature bush – tall totora reaching for the sky, an understory of fern trees below. Later, we sidle on an ATV track below forestry, before finally climbing to meet the Tokomarru Road.  The signpost at the junction has been destroyed – just the post remains – beware if you are heading in the reverse direction.


Tokomaru Rd to Mangahao #2 Dam, 9km, 2hrs, gravel road


From the end of Burtton Track to Mangahao #2 Dam is an easy, if uninteresting walk along the graveled Tokomaru Road and Mangahao Road. 


Starting in post-forestry wasteland, and later entering regenerating bush at the park boundary, there’s not much scenery-wise, but fear not – the start of the ‘real Tararuas’ is just ahead.


Mangahao #2 Dam to Burn Hut


The Burn Hut track starts by crossing the #2 dam, to a well tended ‘lawn’ on the far side.  The track then meanders down the Mangahao valley in tall, mature bush. Sometimes by the river, often climbing and sidling, narrow, slippery.  In low flows the riverbed is faster – if you don’t mind wet feet.


We cross another Rangiwahia-style arching bridge, and reach the start of the climb.  As with the Ruahines, the climb starts very steep, real effort required to get up and over the truncated vertical face of the spur.  Once on the spur proper, things improve – the track being now merely ‘steep’.  300m of constant gradient follows to where the spur flattens off. Then a descent – hard-won altitude discarded – before another gentle climb to the tops. Vegetation thins to scrub then solid leatherleaf, the hut now visible at the saddle 2km to the south.  The track, however, continues east – a wide canyon carved through a sea of leatherleaf. Climbing to pt798, we then finally swing south towards the hut for a long, gradual descent to the saddle.


Burn Hut is relatively new, sleeping 8 on 2 platforms, double-glazed, lined and insulated – plumbed water inside and out.  There are views down into the Mangahao and Ngapuketurua Stream to the west, and glimpses of the coast. However, the wind howls over this ridge at any excuse, and there’s no fire (what would you burn?  Leatherleaf?) – so it can be an exposed, cold spot. Whilst the hut is well insulated, it contains a lot of air for 1 person to warm with bodyheat alone!


Burn Hut to Alpha Hut vis the main range


This section of the Tararua main range is well described in the following article: Tararua main ridge



Alpha Hut to Cone Hut, 6.5km, 2.5 hrs. Cut, marked tracks


The true Tararua Traverse would follow Marchant Ridge all the way to Puffer Saddle, and rejoin our route-guide there, omitting the Tauherenikau valley and Smiths Shelter entirely. However: a) I’ve walked that long,  undulating, forested, root-infested ridgeline enough times for one lifetime; and b) I need a place to stay that will allow me to walk on into the Rimutakas tomorrow. As such I choose to drop Block XVI track and visit Cone Hut, Tutawai Hut and spend a night at Smith’s Creek Shelter instead.

Either the block XVI or Dobson Loop Track would suit equally well, and be shorter.


From Alpha Hut, the track drops through mature beech to reach the low-point of Hells Gate.  There follows a 200m climb to Omega.  There are brief clearings on the Omega summit, and small tarns – though they don’t, by the appearance, invite drinking unless you’re desperate.


Turning left – briefly north-west - along the Bull Mound Track, we stay high on the ridgeline for a kilometer, passing a series of clearings that appear to be dried up tarns and marshes.  Then the downhill starts: 700m of ever-steepening steady descent. The track is well cut and marked, and the spur obvious. But whilst not a navigational challenge, it is certainly tough on the old knees!


The downhill stops when you hit water – the Tauherenikau River. There is no bridge, but this high u the river is small and crossable unless there has been heavy rain.  There is a marked, cut, signposted track on the far bank, which head 200m upriver, climbing slightly to the historic Cone Hut.


Cone Hut is worth a visit – a historic 1946 slab hut constructed from material sourced on site.  It has one large platform bed, and an open fire.  There’s also a picnic table outside, and water from the creek.  6 mattresses have recently been installed, after being absent for some time.


Cone Hut to Tutawai Hut 3.5km, 1hr, good, flat riverside track


After all the bushbashing and narrow ridgelines, the track down the Tauherenikau is wonderful. Broad, flat, well marked on a good surface.  Travelling through a mixture of tall, mature bush and open river flats, it makes a short, easy trip to the flats at Tutuwai.  A signpost on the grassy flats points left to the hut, hidden above.  A steep, short, crumbling track climbs up the bank to another terrace where the hut sits.


Tutuwai is a large, busy hut with 2 bunkrooms and a central kitchen.  It has a wood burner (fuel provided) and plumbed water.  Due to it’s size, it is popular with large groups after an evening in a hut, and at weekends can be quite full.


Tutuwai Hut to Smiths Creek Shelter. 8km, 2hrs. track


From Tutuwai downriver, the track starts good – a broad well marked and cut track down valley flats, sometime climbing to terraces, sometimes down by the river. However, for the last couple of km above the current swingbridge, it’s a narrow tramping track – slipped away in places with rough detours.  Note that the previous swingbridge further upriver has been replaced, and the bridge is back where it used to be, opposite Marchant Stream.


Crossing the bridge to the west bank, we are back on a good, wide, well traveled  pack-track, following river flats all the way to Smith Creek Shelter.  Note that Marchant Stream can be impassible after very heavy rain.


Smith Creek Shelter receives a lot of bad rap, but in reality is still a solid, functional shelter. It sits 20m back to the west of the track, and the signpost was missing last time I was there, but the avenue to it is obvious and it can be seen through the bush.


Smith Creek Shelter is almost a hut. It has 1 large sleeping platform (top one has been removed), and no mattresses – though there are often sleeping mats left there.  There is no door in the doorway, and no glass in the windows – including those above the beds, so choose your spot with care.  The fire has been removed. Water is from the river, 50m away, where there are usually pools you can bathe in too.  The hut is shaded by thick bush, and so is a nice cool spot on a hot day, and a wet freezing miserable one on a bad day.  It can suffer from abuse from drinking parties in from the nearby Kaitoke roadend – maybe that will stop now that DOC are relocating the roadend an extra 3km away to the Kaitoke campgroud.


Smiths Creek Shelter to Rimtaka Hill Rd summit (SH2)


From Smith Creek Shelter, a good, benched track runs to Puffer Saddle.  First sidling Smith Creek on the west, before dropping, crossing it and starting to climb to the saddle.  The steep bits are zigzagged, and it’s an easy walk. You know you’re getting there when the beautiful podocarp bush changes to gorse-dominated scrub. 5km, 1hr


Where the track hits the ridgeline at puffer saddle, an old benched track runs south towards pt545.  This soon changes from old benched track to marked route – an assortment of bottletops, flagging tape, tin lids show generations of marking.  The marked route follows the ridgeline, or sidles just to the north of it, all the way to pt750.  A steady climb on a well marked route. 2km, ¾ hr


The track emerges at the top of a steep bank onto the pylon track, maybe 50m east of the summit.  A single permolat marker indicates the start of the track for those walking the other direction, and can be hard to spot.  However, heading to the summit and dropping towards Puffer saddle, you’ll pick it up in the end.


Heading west, maybe 400m along the pylon track, you soon encounter a junction. Take the left fork leading to the nearest pylon, rather than the right one which starts to drop towards Kaitoke. From the pylon at the end of the track, the tramping track to the Rimutaki Hill Rd Summit starts.  It is cut through the gorse, but overgrown and unmarked for the first hundred meters until hits the bushedge.  Again, there seems to be amateur track cutting keeping the track open, and whilst it;’s not up to DOC official standards it’s easily followable.  It emerges from the bush back into gorse for the next summit – clearly it takes more than volunteers to keep this aggressive pest plant in check, and the track is again overgrown.  The views down the Hutt Valley all the way to Wellington, are good, however, as are those down to Featherston and the Wairarapa.  The scar of the Rimitaka Hill Road is obvious across the hillside in front, and – crossing one more summit we are there, at the end of the Tararuas.  Sadly, the café burnt down years ago, or we’d have a celebratory pie and bottle of fizzy.


For those heading on into the Rimutakas, Back Road starts 1km down the road on the western side, providing foot access to the Railtrail Summit.  It is 6km from the Rimitaka Hill Road to Summit where there is a shelter, a basic campground and water.

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ID 10279

About this track

Added 11 June 2014 by madpommadpom. 3 revisions, most recently 11 June 2014 by madpommadpom.
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