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Jumbo Circuit Track

I can remember during my first week working in Wellington, I was chatting with my co-worker about some of the Great Walks we had done during our initial 6 week roadtrip around New Zealand. She handed me a ‘Wellington Tramping’ book and after breezing through the options, I landed upon the Jumbo Circuit in the Tararua Forest Park. It was a perfect weekend tramp as it was close to home and a loop track (thus not requiring more than one car for transport).

Funny enough, it has taken us nearly a year and half to have a weekend free that lined up with decent weather. The Tararuas are notorious for having unpredictable weather, and rain and gale force winds are a near everyday occurrence. So when we had a weekend free in February and the weather gods were somewhat cooperating, we decided to jump at the opportunity to finally take in a local tramp in our backyard.

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Just a short 1h45m drive from our home in Wellington, we drove over the Wairapa range and into the Holdsworth carpark Saturday morning to get an early start on the track. A 21km, 1-3 day track, there are two options for huts to stay at depending on the direction you’re heading. Since Jumbo Hut is not on the booking system, we decided to book Powell hut and were lucky enough to snag the last 2 spots!

With three 4 hour sections to the track, based on the forecast for gale force winds, we decided to delay the walk along the ridge to Sunday and start with a short day up to the hut. We headed off on the track just after 10am and made our way down the wide, well made path. The first few kilometers were quite easy – a popular day walk for many locals in the area. As we started to make the climb towards Rocky Point, we finally made it through the trees and into a beautiful view of the valley below. With a large group of teenage school girls not far behind us, we decided to make it a quick stop for a few pictures before moving on up the track. The hut was in sight atop the mountain, but still felt like it was still quite a ways away.

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The rest of the track darted in and out of the bush, providing a sneak peak of the stunning view surrounding the area. Twisting through the rough, root filled forest floor, we eventually reached a series of steps that had been installed the last few years. It definitely made the climb a lot easier as the footing was much more secure than the stories I had heard of the track from years ago. With Jordan carrying nearly 20kg of camera gear (and I the rest of the stuff) it still made for a challenging climb through the forest.

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As we neared the 3hr mark we felt like we were getting close, but the stairs just kept appearing up ahead. Finally we reached the last set and the hut came into view nestled on the side of the mountain. Surprised to be the first to reach the hut, we had our pick of bunks so threw our bags down and quickly started cooking something to eat. Funny how food becomes so simple when you’re out tramping – powdered soup is the best thing you’ve ever tasted and dehydrated meals are considered a delicacy. Love that simplicity of being out in the bush.

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Just as we were finishing up our meal, a few more folks started to land at the hut including an American couple, Jill and Travis, who had recently moved to New Zealand. To our surprise Jill was actually 5 months pregnant and despite her disappointment in her slower than usual pace, I was quite impressed she did it at all!

Initially hoping to run around to grab some time lapses (since we carried the gear!) the clouds quickly rolled in and the gale force winds picked up leaving us confined to the hut for the next few hours. That beautiful view we had just been admiring had suddenly vanished and was replaced with a blinding white fog. Two young girls who had initially pushed on to try to reach Jumbo Hut came back a couple hours later having had to turn around due to the strength of the wind and risk of being blown off the mountain!

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Just after dinner the clouds finally started to part and we were once again greeted with a beautiful view of the valley below. Jumping at any opportunity to get some photos, Jordan and I braved the strong winds to setup a few time lapses of the fast moving clouds. We’ll see how well they turn out though as the camera was shaking pretty bad despite our attempts to shield it!

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Returning back to the hut, we had some great conversations and Jill and Travis along with Victoria who was one of the mothers of the group of teenage girls. They were on an ‘expedition’ as a part of their ‘Education Outside the Classroom’ program in school. I really love how much Kiwis prioritise getting kids outside and gaining an understanding and appreciation of the backcountry – something I think Canada and a number of countries around the world should adopt. Too many kids are glued to their smartphones and computers and are loosing that knowledge and love of the outdoors.

The next morning we headed off up the track, making the steep climb towards Mount Holdsworth through the morning clouds. With the sun trying to break through it added to the mystery as we really weren’t sure what was surrounding us as we made the climb to the 1500m peak. Surprising the track was fairly easy, although it lacked the usual markers for many parts. Known for its steep ridgelines and exposed sections, I wondered when the intensity would increase as we walked along the thick tussock grass trails shrouded in clouds.

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Finally after a couple hours we made it to Mount Jumbo and stopped for an early lunch. With the clouds starting to part and the wind completely gone, Jordan was eager to get the drone out to follow me along the ridgelines. This was what we had been waiting for! The jagged rocky ridgeline went on for a couple hundred metres, providing that exposure we had heard so much about.

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It reminded me of our day along the ridgelines of the Kepler Track, but there was something about this section that I really just loved. Jordan of course chased me with the drone as I made the careful steps along the track, but disaster nearly struck when the drone went rogue and began ascending on its own. Jordan cut the power to the transmitter so the drone would return to it’s home point (which was actually 200m back up the track) and began sprinting back up the hill towards the top where we had calibrated the drone. We would later learn there is a feature to enable to allow you to recover control of the drone which ended up saving our drone from a watery grave in Auckland a couple months later. Unable to help and only look on from afar, I saw the drone and Jordan go out of sight over the top of the range just as he caught it. Crisis averted! Needless to say we decided to pack up the drone but at least we were able to get the shots we wanted!

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Just over the final ridgeline the Jumbo Hut could be seen in the distance. Nestled into the side of the mountain, it was perched there just above the tree line. We carried on down the last sections of the ridge and enjoyed another snack at the hut while we chatted with some local Kiwis.

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The final descent towards the Atiwhakatu Stream passed through a beautiful goblin forest of green moss-covered trees. It felt like a scene out of a Disney movie – at any moment I felt like Bambi or Snow White would come walking out behind a tree. Although the scenery was beautiful, the steep drop did a number on my knees and after 2hrs I was never so happy to see flat ground. The one eyed tree man greeted us at the bottom, brightening my spirits, as we walked the last stretch of the track to the carpark.

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A pretty awesome tramp, the Jumbo Circuit was a great weekend escape to the mountains, offering some beautiful views and epic ridgelines. Having had our first taste of the Taururas tramping I know we’ll be back for more soon!

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