Day 14: I woke up first, around 7, when the rain had stopped, but the drops were still falling from the trees. As we ate breakfast, the German couple passed us, and were very surprised to hear our story about James, because they had nothing but good things to say about him, his hospitality, and his campground. Perhaps this was because they paid him upfront? Probably not, but our experience made me wonder. Once we were packed up and walking, it didn’t take long to get to the road, but when Sarah and I stopped to stick our thumbs out, Magnus was still undecided about leaving the Te Araroa. However, when the first car to come by stopped to pick us up, he said “screw it” and hopped in with us. The woman that picked us up was refreshingly friendly and told us she hoped that this one experience would not taint our opinion of all kiwis. She brought us into Whangarei, bought us all some coffee, then bid us farewell at the Information/Travel Hub. We used the wifi to figure out where we would stay that night, and I wrote a very long email to the CEO of the Te Araroa explaining our issue with the Ngunguru River crossing and why we were leaving the trail. We walked about 2 miles to the Department of Conservation building to ask about the 6-month all access hut passes for the really high quality shelters that are scattered all across New Zealand, but when I was told that camping is allowed on almost all public land for free, excepting the Great Walks, and some designated campgrounds next to high traffic huts, I decided that it was not worth the $90. I also learned that there is no permitting process for running rivers, which is encouraging, considering I will soon be getting a packraft for river running. We went across the street to try to get some wifi from the McDonald’s, but the wifi was down. It took us a while to get a ride, but finally we were picked up and dropped off back in town at the grocery store. We all resupplied on food, then went to the other McDonald’s in town where the wifi was working. We caught up with family and friends, I worked a little on blogging, and we found a trail right outside of town where we might be able to stealth camp. We leave after dark, hiking through a private lot and up a hill above town, red lights on our headlamps. Just before the top, I saw some lights just ahead of us on the trail, shut mine off quickly and kept quiet. Instantly, I realized that what I was seeing were not artificial lights, but biological ones. They were glowworms! Hanging under a fallen log and radiating bioluminescense! Just around the bend was an astounding view over Whangarei, all the lights of town shining brightly on the steep hills that surround it. We set up on a flat section of trail and I set an alarm for 5:30
Day 15: Wake up with my alarm, we pack up really quick, hike down the hill, and back to the McDonald’s for more wifi in true hiker trash fashion. Some more map work and blog stuff, then we migrate to a hostel that used to be a jail. Really quaint and amazing place, lots of plants in the outdoor courtyard, free tea and coffee, comfortable couches and chairs, lots of free food in the free box, soap in the bathrooms, and very heavy steel doors. We spent the first half of the day jamming, Magnus playing guitar, Nuthatch on the hand drum, and me on the tambourine. The second half of the day was spent creating routes on our topographic mapping apps, which we put into a common dropbox folder and shared with each other. When we pieced it all together, we realized that there were hundreds of kilometers of fantastic backcountry trails that seemed ideal for our hiking goals that the Te Araroa didn’t even come close to. Despite our strong companionship, mapping out all this trail stressed me out a bit, feeling like I could cover more ground on my own and have more freedom to focus on hiking and packrafting routes that they were not equipped for. I was also feeling that sitting here at the hostel and being in town was driving me crazy and that I should be out on the trail hiking hard and fast right now, crushing miles. I reminded myself that the companionship was worth far more than the extra miles that could be covered, and that this was an invaluable exercise in compromising my own goals for the extra fulfillment that comes with sharing experiences with people that feel like family. Magnus made an awesome dinner that night- veggie hotpot with buttered bread and yogurt on the side. I ate until I was stuffed, and then had a couple more bowls. Just before bed, we sat in our room, listening to the Ramones, laughing our heads off and openly talking about feeling stressed being in town. Life is good and these are not really problems at all.
Day 16: Woke up around 7, drank coffee, worked mapping out more routes, and played lot of jazz to keep myself present and content through the stress of feeling stagnant. We took our time leaving the hostel, utilizing every byte of wifi we could for our maps and downloading all the files to each of our phones. When we did leave around noon, we headed straight for Abbey Caves by recommendation of the hostel owner. A couple of hours trekking up the road to Abbey Caves and we learned all about the Swedish language from Magnus in our wayward ramblings. When we got to the trailhead/parking area, we made our way down to the hostel at the bottom of the hill first to ask if we could leave our packs there while we walked through the caves, but the owner was very short and a little rude when he told us no and goodbye before shutting the door in our faces. back up the hill we went, then stashed our packs among some rocks a hundred yards or so into the forest before walking down towards the caves. When we finally descended into the dark, dank subterranean depths, I was absolutely mesmorized by the world we had just entered. The glow worms along the ceiling and walls of the thin, twisted vertical chasm glowed a faint green, looking like the milky way in their multitude of thousands and thousands. These creatures are actually fly larvae that excrete stick globules of digestive goop on short silky threads that hang from every rock overhang, luring smaller insects towards them with their bioluminescence. The adult flies grow large enough to avoid being caught in these traps, thus preventing cannibalism. Surrounding us were so many varied geological features that I could hardly contain my excitement, letting our many “WOW”s and “My God”s and “Holy Shit!”s that echoed through the cave system, with a chuckle from Magnus and Nuthatch in response. The sheets of limestone formed tilted and warped parallel layers in beautiful artistic form, reminding me of the sandstone in parts of Utah like Leprechaun Canyon. Intrusions of black, glassy igneous rock formed blobs and twisted columns within the slanted layers of limestone from magma that pushed its way through the surface. Drips and drops of water fell from overhanging rocks, forming stalactites (from the ceiling) and stalagmites (on the floor) from the small concentrations of dissolved minerals within each drop, sometimes minutes apart; a visual representation of the deep geologic time that is necessary to carve out stack up such masses of rock. Some stalactites were thin and closely bunched together, like fingers, or the inverted pipes of an organ. Some stalagmites were smooth, rounded, and a solid tan, as if they were molded and polished by hand, typically covering the face of a slanted wall or fallen boulder. The water running at the bottom was cold and anywhere from ankle to waist deep, and it was sometimes necessary to crawl over and under the boulders and slabs of stone that had broken away from the ceiling, constantly in and out of the water. There were springs that bubbled up from below in small inner caverns, and cascades that poured out of mysterious cracks leading to who knows where. At the back of Organ Cave, the tunnel seemed to just end at a spring pool with tiny cracks leading to an improbable escape. As I reached this pool, a gigantic eel, perhaps 4 feet long and as thick as my forearm, scared, then stunned, then delighted me before it slowly swam back into the murky depths of the pool a few feet away to total obscurity. This was exactly what I needed to be recentered- a physically demanding, brand new sort of experience in a unique and fascinating ecosystem. My worries were gone, and our post-spelunking yoga and calisthenics session in the sun afterwards was the icing on the cake. Just before heading to our stealth camp, we met Annie from Baltimore who offered to drive us to Auckland tomorrow so that we may meet up with trail angel Denis for a few days. Life is good!
Day 17: Woke up 25 feet above the ground in my hammock. I had climbed up the slanted grippy trunk of a puriri tree and slung my hammock from 2 perfectly oriented branches where I could sleep among the flowers and the Tuis. After breakfast and a quick pack-up, we walked to the hostel we had been denied from yesterday, where Annie had stayed, rerigged the bed in the back of her van so that we could have seats, and crammed in. The car was noticeably heavier than she was used to, but the drive and the conversation was easy and pleasant, and we listened to reggae all the way to Auckland.
When we finally got into Auckland, she went to make a U-turn and popped her front left tire on a curb. With high morale, and good company, this was a minor setback. The spare was put on in no time (though that was also quite flat), a new tire was purchased for cheap, and we even got coupons for free coffee! While the tire was being sorted out, I walked over to the post office to pick up my brand new packraft but was disappointed to find that it was not yet there and was still being held by customs at the airport. We met up again for a burger, then went to use our coupons at the circus themed coffee house. We had a long, deep, and wide ranging conversation about everything from politics, feminism, mindfulness and yoga, new romances, time spent in nature, hiking diets, and expectations about the future- you know, the things that those god damn young hippies are always talking about. She dropped us out at Queen’s Harbor in downtown Auckland where we caught the jetboat ferry to Buckland Beach (Magnus, a former member of the Swedish Navy, and I geeked out at the precision and power of this gigantic jetboat), where trail angel Denis lives. He met us at the harbor, and we went back to his place for a lovely dinner of ratatouille with ice cream and coffee for dessert, then picked his brain about hiking routes, maps, and plans for the next few days. We decided to take a day to get some needed tools, clothes, and materials, which in this part of the country meant a trip to the mall, then to spend a day in the Waitakere Forest, West of Auckland, then be dropped of at the edge of the Hunua Forest, East of Auckland.
Day 18: Showers in the morning, because we’re going into society today. Denis’ wife Allison brought us to the Sylvia Park Mall, and what a shock to the system that was. First of all, the smell of the soap shop by the entrance was overwhelming. After weeks of being stinky hiker trash, it was almost too much to handle. Secondly, despite working in a mall a few years ago selling gear for The North Face, I had nearly forgotten about how malls make me feel- like a person born and raised in the crowded hustle and bustle of Tokyo would if they were air dropped into the heart of Panama; that I do not belong here. The materialism and excess within such a place seems to be the antithesis of my lifestyle within the past 4 years. Naturally, the first place we went was to the outdoor store section of the mall, where I bought the most modest pair of tiny scissors I could find for clipping my horribly long toenails that were nearly cutting into my socks. Afterwarda, I split off from Nuthatch and Magnus to try to find a new watch, but was put off by the prices even at The Warehouse, a store equivalent in some ways to Walmart. Got 2 bananas and a $1 baguette from the grocery store for lunch, then took a train to Orakei, just outside Central Auckland, to make my way to a kayak rental shop in search of a broken paddle to salvage for when my packraft arrives. I walked for half an hour or so from the train station, and ran one of the downhills hills and my legs felt excellent. If I wasn’t on a mission to get chores done today, I really would have loved to go for a long jog. No dice at the kayak store. Unsurprisingly, they don’t hold onto broken paddles and weren’t sure where to direct me to find such a thing, but recommended I go to a dump or “transfer station” to search for some raw plastic I may be able to craft some paddle blades from. Took the train back towards Bucklands Beach and walked back to Denis’ house, after some minor confusion about which bus to connect with. Navigating around Auckland via public transport without a cell phone provider proved to be more difficult than navigating bush tracks without looking at a map. Shortly after I arrived back at Denis’, Magnus and Nuthatch showed up too and we went to the store to get some ingredients for dinner, which we offered to cook for their family. I had a really hard time watching the ingredients drop into the cart and check out at the counter, as every fiber of my being told me that spending this much money on a meal for 8 people was preposterous, but Nuthatch quietly reminded me that normal human beings value the quality of their food and feel that the price generally reflects that. When we got back to cook dinner, I also felt at a total loss for what to do. Even when I have been sedentary and had access to a wide variety of ingredients and kitchen utensils, I rarely had to cook for a group of people this way, and have never tried to split the job between 3 hiker trash chefs. So I did whatever I was asked, but ended up feeling most useful when simply serenading. Thankfully, Magnus has a knack for cooking, and Nuthatch is a far more useful second set of kitchen hands than I am, and when dinner was served, it was spectacular. Glad that we (and by we I mostly meet Nuthatch and Magnus) were able to say thank you to Denis and his family in this way. Tea and conversation kept me awake after dinner and I did something I hadn’t done in weeks- read the news on my phone before bed. Probably won’t do that again on this trip, but by choice instead of circumstance.
Day 19: Went to Waitakere today. Felt really tired from lack of sleep and zoned out in the car on the way there. We got a little lost at first, wandering through cow and sheep pasture near the visitors center before finding the Hillary track, named after famous kiwi mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary. We started on the Fletcher track, which took us up nearly vertical climbs of tree root systems, and gave us a chance to quietly appreciate the presence of a New Zealand pigeon that landed on a branch right over the trail. The Puriri Ridge track had a few stunning views over the range, with its shear cliff faces covered in the same green foliage that abounds on their summits, and a far off ocean vista of the rough tides at the mouth of Manukau Harbor. As we approached the beach, the track became very steep with 300+ foot drop offs to the rocks along the water’s edge, and chains to hold onto to climb over the conglomerate rocks near the tops of the hills, which we didn’t need to use. We chatted about the apparently sketchy channel that ships must cross through to enter Manukau Harbor, with its unclear navigation and rough surf. Sure enough, when we reached Whatipu, there were signs that told the story of the greatest shipwreck in New Zealand history which happened in this channel over 100 years ago. The signs also explained how the black sand beaches form from volcanic deposits that are washed into the sea by rivers, then brought up here and deposited by ocean currents. These sands pile up and are worn away in long cycles, portrayed by an interesting historical map of the changing shoreline using records from as far back as the 1880s. Extensive Kauri logging took place in Waitakere for decades before the industry collapsed from overzealous practices, and tourism took over. We stopped on the edge of the coastal marsh, another highly unique ecosystem, to watch some black swans with their adolescent youngins, and I caught a glimpse of a rat scurry across the trail. We climbed up the hill to a bench that overlooked the beach and stopped for some pictures. I fell asleep quickly lying on the bench, and we decided to go back down to the park for some yoga and calisthenics and to have a snack. I introduced them to acroyoga and we took turns trying it out, then did a half an hour yoga session from an app on Nuthatch’s phone. Felt amazing afterwards. We went to the giant caves where dance parties used to be held when the logging industry was booming, and went for a quick dip along the beach, seeing some of the endangered New Zealand Dotterel, along with many mussels, abalones, and other shells. Soon enough, Denis met back up with us, joking about how we didn’t do very miles today for thruhikers. But we’re not thruhikers anymore, we’re just hikers! Hikers that take time for yoga and swimming and naps and type one fun only! Another lovely dinner of kebabs, sausages, and salad with blueberry apple pie for dessert, and discussions about linguistic differences in New Zealand and American English, as well as stereotypes that Kiwis have of Aussies. Much earlier bed time tonight, looking forward to our first long stretch of track off the Te Araroa.