The Tararua Range forms part of the North Island’s backbone. It consists of parallel ranges interspersed with deep river valleys. The Tararuas cover 3,168 square kilometres from the Manawatū Gorge to the Remutaka Range, 100 kilometres to the south.
The Tararua Range is renowned for the wind and rain it attracts. This is due to its proximity to Cook Strait, which acts as a funnel. Prevailing westerlies are boosted into north-westerly gales, which dump up to 5,000 millimetres of rain on the exposed western slopes every year.
Different vegetation grows either side of the range. On the west it is often a tangle of conifers, ferns, shrubs and vines. On the east, where it is drier, beech predominates and the forest is more open.
Arete Peak and Mt Hector
The range consists of two distinct regions, each dominated by a central peak – Arete in the north (1,516 metres), and Mt Hector in the south (1,529 metres). The latter is the highest of the southern peaks, named after the scientist Sir James Hector. Its Māori name is Pukemoumou, or ‘hill of desolation’.
The uniform height of the Tararua summits (most are between 1,300 and 1,500 metres) shows that they were once part of an ancient plain. About 10 million years ago, remnants of this low-lying land were squeezed upward. Erosion has since worn away most of the original plain, leaving the mountains we know today.
The severe climate and rugged landscape of the range make it a challenging but rewarding area for recreation. The Tararua Tramping Club was formed in 1919, the first of its kind in New Zealand.
Today this is one of the most frequented alpine areas in the country. Surveys suggest that between 120,000 and 150,000 people visit Tararua Forest Park each year. The popular trip across the southern Tararua peaks is known as the Southern Crossing.
The southern Tararua mountains lie between the Wellington and Akatarawa faults. The Akatarawa River follows the Akatarawa Fault south, joining the Hutt River north of Upper Hutt.
Akatarawa means ‘trailing vines’, probably referring to the dense supplejack vines that often make these forests almost impenetrable.
Today a narrow road follows the Akatarawa River from Upper Hutt to the Kapiti coast. To the west of the road, a vast area of native forest is cut by vehicle tracks. This area, once the last refuge of the now-extinct huia bird, is popular with trail bikers and four-wheel drive enthusiasts. An annual cycle race, the Karapoti Classic, is held there, and also an annual four-wheel drive endurance contest, the Deadwood Safari.
Between Upper Hutt and the southern Tararua Range lies Kaitoke, the northernmost of a series of depressions east of the Wellington Fault. Here the Hutt River’s headwaters are captured and carried by tunnel to large storage lakes at Te Marua. These supply much of Wellington’s water.
Roads built in the 1950s for this scheme now give access to Kaitoke Regional Park, 12 kilometres north of Upper Hutt. The park covers 2,860 hectares of forest and bush, and is a popular picnic and camping spot. It is also the starting point for trips down the Hutt River Gorge.