On account of its unpredictable and tempestuous climate, the Tararua Range gets a fair amount of negative press, even from those who fiercely love the place. But no one can deny the singular attribute of Tararua Forest Park that sets it out from virtually any other tramping ground in the country its wonderful gorges.
From the overnight parking area at Otaki Forks, a short track leads down to a grassy picnic spot where a substantial footbridge spans the Waiotauru River. Across the bridge, a brief climb leads to a grassy river terrace and a track junction. Ignore the track signposted to Field Hut, and take the one indicating Waitewaewae Hut. After sidling the grassy terrace for a bit, the track descends to a long swingbridge over the substantial volume of the Otaki River. You’ll exit the river about 100 metres upstream.
The next part of the tramp follows an old tramline built for extracting timber logs during the 1930s. Shortly beyond, the track begins an ascent up Saddle Creek through lush forest with a dense understorey of tree ferns. An eroded section of track climbs steeply up the final pinch onto the Plateau (530 m), where the track flattens out—but can be muddy. A short descent beside Arapito Creek brings you to a junction.
Near here the Otaki River makes a large sweeping curve. When river levels allow, the quickest route to Waitewaewae Hut involves descending the informal track beside the remainder of Arapito Creek, then heading up the Otaki River for 15 minutes or so (wading is required for a few sections). Otherwise it’s a fairly tedious climb and sidle above a substantial slip on the track around the bend.
Waitewaewae Hut commands a bush terrace, set back from the Otaki River, where a few podocarps emerge through the otherwise beech-dominant forest. After a night at the large and functional hut, you’re ready for the main adventure: tubing the Otaki.
The first half of the river is the most heavily gorged and features the most rapids. Mostly the rapids are easy Grade 1 cascades. There is a certain excitement as the current quickens, pulling you downwards into the maw of whitewater, then spitting you out the bottom—sometimes even on your tube. Be aware, however, that floods can change the nature of the river, so if in doubt, scout ahead on foot before running a questionable rapid. As the Otaki curls around a final bend, the long swingbridge comes into sight. Exit the river about 100 metres upstream of the bridge, where a short track climbs the bank to rejoin your inward track. No matter how enjoyable the tubing has been, you’re probably fairly pleased to see the end by now, and grateful for the opportunity to walk the short distance back to the carpark, even though at first you are likely to be a little wobbly on your feet.