Community Contributed

The big storm 1936

Kete Horowhenua2020-01-27T18:36:38+00:00
In which a group of Manawatu and Horowhenua youths were caught in the Tararuas on a tramping trip and Ralph Wood died.
User reference2004.018

The Evening Post of 4 February 1936 reported:

The storm which raged on Sunday was responsible for the death of a young man and five others had a narrow escape. They were members of a tramping party who were out on the Tararuas behind Levin. The victim was Ralph Wood, married, aged 29, an optician, of Manapouri Crescent, Palmerston North, and the son of well-known Palmerston North residents. Mr. Wood succumbed to exposure and exhaustion on the top of Twin Peak, where the full force of the hurricane was felt.

The other members of the party were Andrew Fuller, who acted as leader, Tom Arlidge, Ralph Dawick, Harold Ramsay, and Albert Waters, all of Palmerston North. The party set out shortly after midday on Saturday on an excursion to Te Matawai hut, which was reached at 6 p.m. During the night the storm broke with such force that they decided to return by the same way as they had gone into the hills, but the flooded state of the Ohau River prevented this. They then took the route over to Waiopehu.

While going over Butcher's Saddle they had a terrifying experience. Trees, uprooted by the hurricane, were falling all around them, and none of the party expected to get out alive. The track was completely obliterated at times. They felt that all hope of getting out had vanished, and were soon feeling the strain of the heavy going. Progress was lamentably slow. Coming on to Twin Peak, however, the absence of large trees removed a great deal of the danger, but Wood was seen to be failing and died soon afterwards from exposure and exhaustion. Waters and Fuller, though both exhausted, tried to drag Wood with them over the peak to the other side, but they had insufficient strength. They lay down in the shelter of some scrub about 50ft from the top, unable to get over.

The other three men succeeded in crossing to where the Waiopehu hut should have been, but it had disappeared. They camped the night. Arlidge set out in darkness, and after an allday battle came out of the bush and reached Levin. Meanwhile Fuller and Waters in the morning crossed Twin Peak and rejoined Ramsay and Dawick at Waiopehu. The quartet could not get back down the Waiopehu track, but eventually they waded down the flooded Akaretu Stream, following the same route as Arlidge, and got out safely.

The Evening Post of 6 February 1936 reported:


(By Telegraph—Press Association.)

The party from the Waitopehu Tramping Club which left Levin at 4 o'clock on Tuesday morning to bring in the body of Mr. Ralph Wood, who died from exposure and exhaustion on the Tararuas on Sunday night, arrived back at 10 o'clock this morning.

The party, after making a survey of all the ridges and outlets from where the deceased was left, considered it quite impossible to bring the body out.

A grave was dug in the rock just above the track on the western face of Twin Peak. After a short service, the body was laid to rest.

The grave is marked, being surrounded by a ring of stones with a cross at the head, on which a bunch of wild mountain flowers was tied.

The party experienced an arduous trip by reason of the damage caused by Sunday's cyclone.

For the greater part of the time they were scrambling over fallen trees.

Owing to the absence of water, the party had to depend on mudholes.

One tramper who has had experience of all the most important Dominion mountains considers it was the hardest trip ever accomplished.

All parties are expected out today.

The Evening Post of 22 February 1936 reported the storm:

The cyclonic storm on Sunday, February 2, 1936, has left its mark on the Tararua Range and, from the present state of the bush in the damaged lacalities, it appears that the range has not encountered a storm of equal violence for some 25 to 100 years.

It is remarkable, of course, how quickly and effectively the bush can heal its scars but it is thought that traces of a similar visitation, if one had previously occurred, would still be obvious. In the bush, especially if the party is moving about, it is difficult to judge weather conditions such as strength and direction of wind, but it appears from the accounts that the wind rose during the night, reached its maximum about 10 a.m. on the 2nd, and moderated about 7 o'clock that evening.

Needless to say, flooded rivers were also in evidence but not seriously. For instance, the Otaki River was seven feet lower than during floods last Labour Day and last January and the flood subsided quickly enough to allow trampers to cross the Otaki above the Upper Gorge on the Monday morning.

Fortunately the damage is limited in extent, being confined to the western flanks of the range. Reports to hand indicate that the eastern valleys and ridges escaped entirely.

A party in the Waingawa River had no wind troubles and the Mitre Hut and bridge were undamaged. Another party, who were camped at the Renata Forks on the Western Hutt River, climbed out on to Quoin (3905 feet) and found the rain and wind conditions too bad to face on a descent to the Hutt Forks to the south. Crossing to Alpha (4467 feet) they were on the exposed top at 10 o'clock during the height of the storm and found it extremely cold with the wind and rain going right through oilskins. The descent to the Alpha bushline was successfully made after a certain amount of trouble in finding the spur. The Alpha Hut was found to be undamaged as also was the track from Alpha to the Pakuratahi via the Marchant Ridge apart from a couple of trees down at the top of Hell's Gates and about three more further down on the Marchant. It is surprising that this high ridge to the west of the Tauherenikau Valley escaped as the ridge ranges in height from 3000 to 3500 feet in a north-south direction for many miles before turning east and west roughly from Omega to Alpha.

Other parties have been into the Tauherenikau Valley from Pakuratahi since the storm and report that no trees are down on the track and that the large Tauherenikau Hutt is in good order. Similarly a party which wentto the Totara Flats over Sayers Track from Dalefleld to the Waiohine found no traces of wind damage.

Turning to the damaged western flank, it seems that the storm penetrated as far south as Paekakariki and that the Levin and Otaki areas suffered considerably. I have no reports as to the Palmerston and Shannon portions of the range but I think that we can assume that this portion did not escape.

Immediately behind Paekakariki are the headwaters of the Whakatikei River which flows in an easterly direction towards Trentham. A party which was camped in the Upper Whakatikei left at 7.45 a.m. on the storm Sunday to follow the river to Trentham. Steady rain set in during the night but the camp site was sheltered and did not have any wind. A short way down the valley (at approximately 10 o'clock) when on a bush ridge about 100 feet above the river, then in flood, the worst buffeting by the storm was experienced. Within a few feet of the party a fully grown beech was blown out of the ground and in the same hectic moment within the restricted view available several forest giants were blown flat either out by the roots or snapped midtrunk. For about two hours, the snap and crash of timber was frequent and about 7 o'clock that night the rain lifted and the Wind moderated.

Up in the Otaki Gorge things were far from pleasant. The farmers and sawmillers suffered considerable loss and inconvenience, in many cases losing their roofs and bridges. Some of the houses had very narrow escapes from falling trees. The Field Track from the Otaki Forks to Mt. Hector was practically obliterated for large stretched

A party was at the Field Hut on the day of the storm and descended the track after the worst had passed. Looking up the ridges from the upper Otaki Gorge to Tirotiro and Field's a fortnight after the storm, long lines of brown, over two thousand feet in height, show the effects of the wind on these ridges which have a northerly aspect. Immediately opposite the southern ridges the Waitatapia Block showed signs of very bad damage.

A working patty from the Tararua Tramping Club made some impression on the Field Track last weekend but much remains to be done and arrangements are in hand to clear this much used track at an early date. Fortunately the Field and Kime Memorial Huts escaped damage, and as these huts represent an investment of some £900, local trampers are somewhat relieved.

The Kime Hut must have survived an incredible tempest. Situated on' Field Peak at a height of 4600 feet and well above the shelter of the bush, the hut speaks well for faithful construction. The sacrifice of appearance to strength has been strikingly endorsed and much credit is due to the contractor who wired the hut to deep-seated piles.

The Waitatapia River flows into the Otaki from the north and the western bank of this fiver has been badly knocked about, the bush in the spurs having been flattened in many places, Although the eastern side of this valley escaped in the main, the Saddle Creek which flows into the Waitatapia from the north-east provides one of the worst examples of the wind's destructive mood. For a thousand feet or so this creek valley has been filled in from both sides by fallen trees and the route to the Plateau and the upper Otaki River has disappeared as far as this creek is concerned (a cross-country track has since been cut from the Waitatapia tram line to the saddle at the head of the creek). Some of the spurs to the creek have been completely denuded of bush and a party descending the Saddle Creek about midday on the Sunday, immediately after the worst part of the damage had been done, considered that they could not have survived had they been caught there at ten that morning. Even at midday trees were still crashing higher on the spurs above the Saddle Creek and the force of the wind felling and snapping big trees was only too obvious. Apparently the wind worked up the Plateau Stream from the south-east, crossed the Saddle, and played on the tops to the north of the Saddle Creek with terrific force, flattening the bush to a battlefield effect, and then descended the Saddle Creek from a north-easterly direction.

As a result of the diversion of the wind in this manner, the upper part of the Plateau was comparatively sheltered for the space of the mile to the Arapito Saddle, although it was noted a fortnight later that the southern slopes of the high knob to the northeast of the Plateau were battered badly. The party in this area, on the fateful day, spent most of the morning in the Plateau and so were not troubled to any extent when the wind was at its height about 10 o'clock.

For a short time, however, about this hour the party was on the spur leading from the Arapito Saddle to the Arapito Creek, which flows north-east to the upper Otaki River below Mount Crawford. Consequently this spur was very exposed to the south-west, and was a very dangerous place with trees crashing continuously. The wind was of steady violence with gusts about three to the minute and shelter was taken at every opportunity.

Down in the Otaki below the Arapito Creek, another party noted that at 6.30 a.m. the river had risen seven feet and that the wind had changed to the south. Being in a sheltered position the wind was not felt to any extent, but moving up river at 7 a.m. the wind was nearly strong enough to blow a man over and seemed at its maximum between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. Big trees were crashing about two every minute at the height of the storm. Being in the upper part of the Gorge on the Saturday night this party was cut off by the flood and sheltered in an improvised bivouac opposite the Arapito Creek until they were able to cross the river on the Monday morning.

At Levin the storm was responsible for the loss of Ralph Wood, whose death came as a great shock to all trampers, who join in expressing their sincere sympathy to the late tramper's relatives. Returning from Te Matawai, the safety of which refuge is still assumed, the Manawatu party of six met the full force of the wind on the Te Matawai-Richards Knob Ridge, which runs in a north-east to south-west direction between the head waters of the Qtaki and Ohau Rivers. Situated within a great bowl of surrounding hills, sloping ridges, low saddles, and river valleys, this ridge was probably subjected to an intensified wind effect funnelled by the country at the head waters of the Otaki River. Crossing through Butcher's Saddle they had a terrifying experience. Trees uprooted by the storm were falling all round them and none of the party expected to survive. Progress was very slow, due to the obliterated track and exhaustion was aided presumably by intense cold and exposure.

At Richards Knob, which is above the bush line, the danger from falling trees was removed, but the exposure would be increased considerably. At this point the track junctions. The route towards Waiopehu (3588 feet) took the party into the teeth of the gale, and some have wondered why the route to the north down the Gable End Ridge to the Ohau Hut at the Blackwater Fork on the Ohau River was not used. This route would have had the advantage of the wind at the party's backs and would have avoided the struggle with the wind to Waiopehu.

However, with the prospect of shelter at the Waiopehu Hut on the bushline of that peak, and with the thought of another ordeal in the bush down the Gable End, we, who were not on the spot, know that the correct and only possible decision for all the circumstances was taken by a very experienced party. The tragic death of Ralph Wood in the vicinity of the Waiopehu Twin Peak has been fully reported, and it is with some satisfaction that we can record that the balance of the party, who gave of their best, were enabled to reach Levin in safety.

The Waiopehu Hut was found, to have completely disappeared and the track; to the Ohau Pipe Bridge, which track followed the long Waiopehu Ridge in a south-east to north-west direction, can probably never be reopened. All the big trees oh the long flat ridge are piled in tangled masses for miles, and are thought to be unclearable. The Ohau Hut has been crushed between two huge trees and the Ohau, Ohauiti (BlackWater), and Makaretu Rivers are all badly blocked With fallen timber.

One of the Waiopehu relief party stated that the bush was smashed to an incredible extent, and that when the broken debris had died it would show up pretty badly. The first signs of it are now visible on the Square Knob Ridge to the north of the Ohau River as seen from the vicinity of the Ohau Pipe Bridge. All the sides of the spurs from some 1500 to 2000 feet vertical on the south-east aspect are turning brown, making a remarkable contrast with the green bush on the north-west slopes.

It is to be hoped that, when final accounts are to hand, it will be found that the reports of destruction will not be augmented. In particular we trust that Te Matawai has survived. With so many parties in the bush during that abnormal weekend it is indeed a miracle that more lives were not lost, and we trust that such another occasion will not arise for centuries.

On 27 April 1937, The Evening Post reported on the erection of a memorial to Ralph Woods:

The memory of a fellow tramper was honoured during the weekend when members of the Manawatu Tramping Club erected a memorial near the grave of the late Mr. Ralph Wood, who lost his life in the Tararuas during the storm of February, 1936 and was buried where he died, near the summit of Twin Peak, behind Levin.

At the time a simple cross was erected over the grave, a more substantial monument not being possible owing to the tracks having been obliterated.

During the weekend, however, ten members of the club carried up a trig of stainless steel and erected it on the summit of Twin Peak at a height of 3500 feet.

The grave is about 50 yards away.

A tablet of bronze bolted to the trig bears the following inscription:—"In memory of Ralph Wood, aged 30, who lost his life here on February 2, 1936.

'Under a wide and starry sky, dig a grave and let me lie.'

A brief service of dedication was held before leaving the spot.

The trig photographed in 1981.

Members of Tararua Tramping Club spent many weekends cleaning up after the ‘big storm’. Here are some photos of them at work:

Laurie Jackson outside Ohau Hut, Labour Weekend 1936.

Laurie Jackson clearing bush track, Labour Weekend 1936.

Members of tramping club standing on a fallen tree,
Labour Weekend 1936.

Clearing the bush track, October 1936.
Jim Lambert (left, back) and 18 year old Ken Dawick (right, front).
Labour Weekend 1936.

Members of tramping club at campsite in bush, 11-12 October 1936.
Left to Right – ...?..., Joan Bowen, Margaret Ekstedt (Eckested?), Ngaire Coup, Ken Dawick, Laurie Ingles, Laurie Jackson.

Andrew Fuller rebuilding Ohau Hut, October 1936.