Tackling the Jumbo Circuit, North Island

Into the Tararua Mountains

New Zealand’s department of conservation is caretaker of over 950 huts located across both islands. These huts enable your average hiker to get further into mountains and experience overnight adventures that they may otherwise not. For a small fee a bed in a hut can be purchased and the popularity of huts varies by location with the most popular hikes generally having the best facilities.

The Tararua Mountains in Spring

The huts are heaven to me, allowing me to head out solo or with a friend to stay away from civilisation which I crave. An empty hut is a welcome opportunity to soak up the peace and tranquillity of the outdoors while a full hut brings like-minded people together in a cosy hideaway. 

Hut-to-Hut Hiking

Jumbo Circuit is a popular hike in the Tararua Mountains, just north of Wellington. On this well-trodden path you have access to both the snazzy Powell Hut (complete with its own solar power and clean water!) and Jumbo Hut which is a more rough and ready but nonetheless characterful.

A girlfriend and I decided to do the circuit during an early spring weekend, opting to stay at Jumbo Hut on the comically named ‘Jumbo’ (mountain) and leaving the decision of which direction to traverse down to weather. On the Friday evening we drove to the car park at the start of the hike where we slept in the back under a cold clear sky.

Having checked the forecast for the weekend we opted to leave the longer traverse section to the second day when the weather appeared more settled, taking the shorter hike directly to the hut on day one. As we stretched our stiff limbs I started a conversation with the campers next to us who were hiking the 7-8-hour traverse that day.

We wished them luck as they headed off on their way, seemingly quite late in the day for a long hike. Knowing the weather in the mountains can be unpredictable, we agreed that the option we had settled on felt like the best thing to do. So we locked up the car and headed off.

Heading off on the Hike

The first section of the hike is a simple track along the river to Atiwhakatu Hut which is one of the more accessible huts for those who aren’t keen on steep hikes. You follow the riverbed along the valley, walking through lush native forest for a couple of hours on a well-formed track until you reach the hut.

Here we stopped for a lunchbreak and happened upon some of our soon to be hut buddies – a hiking group from Wellington comprising of an older female guide and three young guns in tow. As they sat down to their sandwiches, we packed up our bags and headed off up the steep track to the hut, noting the 3-hour time the sign suggested we allocate.

Hiking up Rainguage track to Jumbo Hut

This section of the hike is a steep hike upwards through the bush to the alpine tops. As a Brit, I find myself in my element in damp, green climates. The mossy bark of the spiralling tree trunks feels like I am in a childhood fairy tale fantasy and the magic was all the more enchanting when we encountered our first snow.

While patchy and shallow, the white snow in amongst the green, misty woodland was a reminder that winter was not yet over in the mountains. Stopping occasionally for photos we steadily made our way up with our overnight packs.

We Arrive at Jumbo Hut

After a respectable one hour and forty-five minutes we were first to arrive at the hut in mid-afternoon in time to stay goodbye to the last occupant form the previous night. As we emerged from the bush, we found ourselves in red and orange tussock grass with a good smattering of snow and low cloud creeping over. Our first objective was to settle in and get a fire going.

Easier said than done without kindling but with some help from the next person to arrive, a twenty-something guy from the coast, we gathered enough to get a fire going which kept us cosy all evening long. Soon after our arrival the heavens opened and we breathed a sigh of relief to have arrived in the dry.

Gradually the hut dwellers arrived in soggy twos and fours, three middle-aged women and a young man, a middle-aged couple, a pair of young women.

Hut Camaraderie

As we took it in turns to sit at the table to eat our rehydrated meals and chat, I found myself watching the goings on with a warm satisfaction. In the glowing light of the fire I observed that the majority of the hikers were female and of them the majority were over 50. Each of them hiking up the mountain unperturbed by their age, they took their time not worrying about speed knowing journeying is the goal and arriving is the achievement.

Drying off in Jumbo hut

These women were full of life: bringing sweets to pass round; a cooking pot of dehydrated vegan curry; a torn-out crossword puzzle from the paper. These women filled me with joy. We cosied up in the firelight, venturing out to use the long drop or sink, and hit rudely by the cold air each time. Our warm abode provided a wonderful rest as the long early spring night lulled us to bed around 8:30pm.

Greeting the Dawn

At 6am I found myself awoken by the glowing orange light through the small windows. The draw to get out to see the sunrise was greater than the desire to stay cosy in my sleeping bag. So I crept out, awkwardly extracting my camera from my backpack next to a snoring woman. I was well rewarded.

The morning was crisp and clear, the light of the dawn illuminating the huge expanse of the horizon in front of us – the Wairarapa region. The glow of the dawn gave the illusion that the red and orange tussocks were on fire between the patches of glistening white snow. I inhaled the scenery, feeling uplifted by the embrace of nature.

Sunrise over Wairarapa and Jumbo Hut

Heading for the Summit

Well rested, we set off to traverse in bright sunshine while we slid and crunched through the remaining ice and snow. Navigating the ice, bogs and few short climbs we arrived three hours later at our next destination: Mount Holdsworth summit. Here we stood breathlessly taking in the panoramas, seeing the snow-capped peak of the Taranaki volcano far in the distance. How well rewarded we were for our decision to traverse that day!

As we descended the short distance to Powell Hut, I conversed with some women who had stayed there. They told me that a hiking group had not made it that previous night, being forced to abort mission and head home. My friend and I gave each other knowing looks. We knew these were our camping neighbours, thankfully home safe and sound but no doubt having had a rough day.

Descending from the Mountain

On our descent through the magnificent podocarp forest we met group after group of middle and old age hikers of all shapes and sizes. Before long we stopped for a brief chat with an elderly gent, perhaps in his 80s, who was traversing in the opposite direction. Keen to know the conditions we let him know that he was in for a treat, noting he was well prepared with crampons on his pack. Once again, my heart was filled with appreciation for an adventurous soul.

After another three hours we were back in the car park, feeling disoriented by the cars and the dog walkers. Had we just watched the sunrise over the snow and seen coast to coast from up high? What a magical trip it was full of inspiration and awe.

I am full of gratitude to see so many older women who are still heading into the mountains and refuse to give in to stereotypes. They have no idea they are role models; they are just other hikers enjoying a weekend adventure but to me they are glorious, kick-ass and inspiring, a reminder that there is no best before end date on the spirit of adventure. Here’s to many more adventure to come.

About the Author

Follow more of Jen’s outdoor passion and adventures on Instagram @wellwildwanderer and @lenna.on.an.adventure for photography.

 Photo Credits:  Jen Rose


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