Day 9: We wake up early, eating and packing up quickly from our stealth camp so we can get out of there before being noticed. Mosquitoes were pretty bad last night and really chewed up my legs, so I thought for a few days that I had walked through some poisonous plant. We resupplied at the grocery store first, waiting for the McDonald’s to open again so we could squat there and use their unlimited wifi, which is a hard thing to find here in New Zealand where wifi is rarely free or unlimited. Displaying our hiker trash with pride, we rebagged our food outside the front door of the grocery store while people stared out of the corner of their eye, wondering what we were up to and where we might be going. We stop over at McDonalds, post on our blogs, make our last wifi calls and send our last messages for a few days, then head out of town around 10AM. I learn that in addition to the back to back Long Trail and PCT thruhikes she completed just before starting Te Araroa, she has also done 2 hikes of the AT, the first at a pace of 22 miles a day, and the second in sections, much slower with a dog and a boyfriend. Her experience is evident when we begin hiking and without ever pushing ourselves or taking breaks, manage to knock out twice the miles of most other Te Araroa thruhikers in half the time. She identifies many birds along the way, referencing the field guide she carries in her backpack. We saw Yellowhammers, Australasian Magpies, either a Little Shag or a Pike Shag, California Quails, the Common Pheasant, Fantails, and Tuis to name a few.
The trail took us through pine forest on wide, graded dirt roads- former logging lands. We saw the memorial for the first miles of trail designated as part of the Te Araroa, and stopped at the Mt Bledisloe overlook for a beautiful view of Onewhero Bay and a neat monument listing the direction and distance of major cities and landmarks around the world and across New Zealand (including an arrow pointing down towards the ground labeling London as being over 7,000 miles away through the center of the earth).
We walked through a golf course, and down the road a bit into the coastal hamlet of Paihia, checking in at the Holiday Park (campground in town), and asking about work for stay. Checked with a few other backpackers hostels in town for overnight work for stay opportunities, but they either did not offer such opportunities or were looking for people for at least a month. So, we went back too the Holiday Park, paid the camping fee, set up tent and tarp, and cleaned ourselves and our clothes. We had noticed some sort of event being set up and cross the street and were told that there would be a free concert of Christmas carols tonight at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, the location of the signing of New Zealand’s founding document between Maori chiefs and the British Crown in 1840. After a quick backpacker stove dinner, we went over to the Treaty Grounds and found some lawn chairs close to the stage. There were maybe 200 people in attendance, including members of the kids talent show, the Waitangi performing arts group Te Pitowhenua, Bella A Capella, the Paihia school, the Paihia Fire Station who served sausages and had an inflatable maze for kids to practice fire evacuation, and community elders who all sat under a large tent close to the stage. The host and almost everyone in attendance were Maori, but there were people from Tonga, Hawaii, Chatham Islands, Fiji, Samoa, and probably a few other islands as well. The atmosphere was relaxed and fun- kids of all ages running around playing tag between the lawn chairs, teens sitting in cliques chatting and laughing amongst themselves, parents watching over the kids with one eye while casually conversing with other parents between acts, and the elders attentively listening to each act, nodding in agreement with the Maori prayers, and gently clapping or tapping a foot to the beats. After a version of Jingle Bells all in Maori, one of the members of the a capella group said a few prayers and talked about the history of these Treaty Grounds, pointed out the Pouwhenua (carved wooden posts not unlike totem poles) and briefly went over their significance. There’s a great article here that discusses the Treaty Grounds and their history. It was such a great time, enjoying the music, feeling immersed in this new culture with the face tattoos, different slang, kids with haircuts they did themselves, and laid back atmosphere, and simply looking over the stunning view of the Bay of Islands. When we went back, I stayed up for a while talking to a German girl who had just graduated high school and was now hitch hiking and catching buses across the country as part of her gap year. When I went to bed, it was warm and the skies were clear, but during the night, it poured torrentially for hours and hours with howling wind. My tent stakes, which had barely any grip in the hard ground, came out on one side around 3AM and I scrambled to push them back into the ground, walking through a puddle that had filled the lawn around my tarp. I slept alright despite the rain, but we were in for a surprise in the morning.
Day 10: Power was out for all of Northland this morning, not from the storm, but apparently from someone that shot a transformer with a shotgun. It was still raining and we took our sweet time getting out of camp, waiting for a lull in the rain to pack everything up, then spending spending a bunch of time doing a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, talking to a Scottish dude about Angus Young and how he was a river runner in Scotland and Norway for a long time. We decided that we would just migrate to a hostel in town and take and off day without having town sleep in a puddle. A dude named Russell picked us upand brought us to his buddy’s hostel in town, pointed out the catamaran he sailed around the world in, and told us to say he sent us for a good discount, so the hostel owner gave us a private room for the cost of 2 bunks. Power came back on in the afternoon and we spent the day playing chess, talking to friends and family, drinking tea, playing music, and had couscous with veggie stir fry for dinner. First zero day on the trail and it was so needed!
Day 11: Ate breakfast, packed up, talked to Nova who I met on the Appalachian Trail last year, visited me in Moab last month and is now coming to New Zealand for a month to adventure with me!! Then we hike out along the beach, spying cormorants, oysters, and mussel shells on the rocks during low tide. The track undulates in and out of the forest along the coast, where we cross paths with a number or morning dayhikers, and soon spits us out into the town of Opua, where we catch the short ride on the vehicular ferry across Veronica Channel. The $1 vehicular ferry was an alternative option to the Te Araroaa’s recommendation of hiring a water taxi for over $100, so the choice was easy for us. A short road walk led us to the Bay of Islands walkway, a short track with wonderful little unobtrusive signs providing wilderness interpretation; identifying and describing the native trees and their ecological and cultural importance. We stopped to read each one, making remarks about the distinguishing characteristics of each species and creating pneumonic devices to help remember their Maori names. As we came to a road crossing, we met the head maintainer and fundraiser for this track, Chris, as he was struggling with his old and shoddy weedeater. We talked to him for quite a while, commending him for his work in creating such and lovely and informative bush track, and listening to story after story of his global travels as an ecologist and recent restoration, predator management, and fundraising efforts. Mid-conversation, we paused to listen to the call of the rare North Island Weka, which he happily and non-chillantly identified for us. Help Chris in his efforts by donating to the Bay of Islands Walkways Trust here. We crossed the road and re-entered the forest for a short time, jogging down the hill before emerging back onto the coast, where a short boardwalk, surrounded my mangroves and high above the water during low tide, gave us an astounding and technicolor view of the pastoral hills and coastline of Orongo Bay.
With Nuthatch’s binoculars and my camera, we watched a few Welcome Swallows wiz around and perch momentarily on a bench, and a couple of Pied Stilts unabashedly wading through the thick and goopy mud of the marsh.
Boardwalks took us over the marsh for a couple kilometers, and we saw many mud crabs, Yellowhammers, and Kingfishers.
We were so captivated by the spectacle of the landscape and the wildlife that we didn’t notice that we had been following the wrong route for almost 10km. We realized our mistake when we arrived in Russell at the end of a peninsula, rather than at the base of the Russell Forest hills, but managed to get back to Waikare, the remote hamlet we had intended on going to, with one hitch. We walked up the road through the poor community of stilt houses along the Waikare River, past a number of rusty and broken car frames with plants growing through the open hoods, crossed a stream, then washed and brushed our shoes with disinfectant and a stiff brush to remove the dirt and a prevent Kauri Dieback Disease before starting on the forest track. We didn’t stay on the track for long, because wading up Papakauri Stream, which parelleled and overlapped the track, was far easier and more scenic. The walking was blissful and incredibly scenic, with large, swirling, crystal clear eddies in the stream, steep walls and dense tropical foliage on either side, but without ever having to go more than knee deep in the water.
Just before going back onto the forest track, we took a quick dip to cool and clean off and filtered some water for the kms ahead. The last part of the day had us on the road and we just happened to see the girl that had given us the hitch out of Russell. Stealth camped off a logging road after progressing 40km forward on the trail, but hiking around 50km with our unintentional detour. Started drizzling, then raining steadily in the night and I half slept with my tarp draped over my backpack an I
Day 12: The sun emerged from behind the clouds between 6 and 7AM, so I was at least able to catch a solid hour of sleep before getting up to eat and pack my things. Long road walk today to get to the Morepork track, which is named after the endemic owl species of New Zealand. On the way up, we stopped to knock on the door of an older couple to ask for some water, and ended up sitting and chatting with them for an hour or so. There were many Tuis in their yard, eating the flax nectar and singing their loud and complex songs from the puriri trees above us. They told us that they also like to eat bottlebrush, or Rewarewa, which we have seen many of since the Northland forests. We talked about the Kauri trees which used to dominate this landscape, rugby culture and the rivalry with Australians, how New Zealand’s prime minister just quit, and oh by the way what do you think of Donald Trump? Our conversation was a reminder of how easy it is to be insular and uninformed in the US, despite our incredible abundance of resources and diversity. From day 1, it was made clear to me, in a spectrum of subtle to more obvious ways, that the US has an incredible influence over global culture and politics, and that my understanding of the scope of this impact fell far short, as I’m sure can happen with many people that are never afforded the chance to leave the country, or never seize the opportunity to learn from the multitude of cultures we have domestically. Small talk like this, the type I have encountered multiple times a day since my arrival, is at the same time quite unremarkable in its depth, and humbling in its implications; that every little conversation I have with someone from a different corner of the world teaches me a small lesson about how infinitely complex and varied our human experiences are at a the scale of over 7 billion. With fresh water and refreshed spirits, we trekked up the gravel road through the rolling sheep and cow pasture, imagining what the kauri forests of old might have looked like and venting about missing and yearning for the people that we can’t get off our minds that are half a world away.
We did some yoga and calisthenics at the trailhead for the Morepork track after a snack, and just as we set off again, the rain swooped in, hard and fast. It poured for hours and the dripping ferns that encroached the trail corridor ensured that we stayed as wet as possible the entire time. And yet, we flew down the track, jogging the downhills and powering through the uphills, slipping and sliding on the fine clay which years of heavy rains had eroded into a thin canal winding up the center of the trail, and being undaunted by the three false summits- this wasn’t our first rodeo. Near the top, a break in the pine forest gave us a distant foggy view of the coast and we stopped for long enough to appreciate it before the chill made us push on. Quickly crossed crossed a cow pasture, getting covered in the sticky seeds that shed themselves from the tall grass, crossed the paved road, then walked a short track along the Whananaki Inlet, watching a pair of Teal presumably fighting over a female. We arrived at the Whananaki Holiday Park and sat under the Pavillion for a couple hours to dry off and eat some more, talking with some more of the campers there and being entertained by the imagination and overwhelming excitement with which the kids played played a made up game. Talked with an older English bloke about the methodologies, the ups and downs, and some specifically memorable moments of backpacking: what foods to eat, gear to use, etc., hiking in the rain and the sunshine with equal pleasure, and the hills and dales and pubs of the Scottish Ways. We talked about jazz and I played him a few of his favorites like ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ and ‘Body and Soul’. The famil that had recently moved from Auckland to Ngunguru, asked us all about out plans and daily routines, and upon hearing that we’d be passing through Ngunguru and needed to find a way across the river, offered to ferry us across on a paddle board. Sweet as! We’ve never hitched a ride on a paddle board before! We left during a lull in the rain with the agreement to meet at the grocery store around 3 tomorrow afternoon. Crossed the bridge, ooing and ahhing at the large blue Trevallys swimming just beneath in the clear blue water, then it began to rain again, this time with a cold wind. We walked onto the beach, watching surfers and paddle boarders catch a few waves, then climbed up the coastal track, gently talking some cows out of the way of our stile crossing, and camped in a small patch of trees in a currently unoccupied pasture next to the road. I set up my hammock and tarp for the first time in a while and slept like a rock, exhausted from lack of sleep and and a long day in the rain.
Day 13: No rain through the night, so my tarp, which had been wet since the super storm 2 nights ago, was now dry. We were walking by 8AM, following the winding, narrow road above the sprawling coastline into Matapouri. Quick stop at the dairy (small local convenience store) for a banana, cup of coffee, and a pie. Quickly, a few words about coffee and pie. When one asks for a cup of coffee in New Zealand, and probably most other countries in the world, it is not implied that a cup of filtered coffee is what you are asking for. In fact, filter coffee is usually not an option, and instead, espresso drinks are the norm; short black for one straight shot, tall black for 2, cappuccino, macchiato, and latte are the standards, with syrup, mocha, and all the other standard sugary fixings as additives. Pies, on the other hand, are just pies, but they can be purchased at every Dairy across the country in single servings and with breakfast varieties like bacon and cheese. The bacon that New Zealanders know is not exactly the bacon that I have known, though. I know it as ham, where bacon is in thin, crispy strips. One popular flavor of pie is mince and cheese, mince being what I would call ground beef. And lastly (I can feel myself slipping into the rabbit hole), cheese goes by a variety of different names, my personal favorite being “Tasty” cheese, which is akin to a sharp cheddar. No matter what you call the food items that I consumed, my craving for caffeine, salt, and fat was satisfied by what I had purchased. Did some morning calisthenics next to the dairy to keep the upper body in shape, and read in the newspaper that the weather would continue to have intermittent, but inconsequential rain all day. A man with a data plan on his smart phone, a luxury that I am too cheap to pay for, confirmed this forecast. A short stretch of road walking led us to a gently hilly track through pine forest. We hustled up and jogged down the largest of the hills, a stunning view of the coast, and the river town of Ngunguru below, where we would soon meet up with the kind family that would help ferry us across the river. Upon arriving at the market, Nuthatch and I displayed our hiker trash selves proudly by sitting, backs to the wall, in the alley next to the market, spooning Nutella and granola onto bread or tortillas, the passing clouds providing momentary relief from the merciless and powerful rays of the sun. Right around 3PM, when we had agreed to meet up with our trail angel family, Magnus shows up! It had been 5 days since I last saw him the day we got into KeriKeri, and almost 2 weeks since Nuthatch had seen him on 90 mile Beach. Turns out he had been just behind us, had met the trail angel family shortly after we left, and arranged to join our unusual river hitch with us! Then, coincidentally, the trail angel family pulled up just then! Just as our unofficial ferryman, Ian, was unloading his paddleboard, he noticed that an older couple with sea kayaks in their yard had just come outside to see what we were doing. A quick exchange of words and the dude agreed to let us borrow his sea kayaks instead, as it would be much quicker and easier. So our unorthodox paddleboard hitch thus became an equally unorthodox sea kayak hitch, and after tying up our packs into contractor trash bags, then strapping 2 of them onto the sterns of the kayaks, we set off on our awkwardly overloaded and tippy watercraft. With one person paddling and another sitting in the shallow, open topped gear hatch in the bow, the nose of the kayaks would dip under the surface unless we leaned forward, nice and close into the personal space of the paddler facing us. I sat in front of Ian, Sarah in front of Magnus, and we all laughed the whole way at the silliness and adventure of the whole thing. The water was crystal clear, but mostly shallow, thankfully for Ian and I, because we did briefly tip ourselves, but not my pack, overboard. The tide was going out and the wind was steady but not very strong, making the progress slow. Just before reaching shore on the other side, Ian and I spotted a gigantic stingray in a shallow cove and it quickly swam away from us. It must have been 3 or 4 feet across what a graceful swimmer it was! Like a heron in the air, the stingray flew through the water with long, powerful, and majestic strokes of its flaps, and by the time I made an exclamation of surprise and excitement, it was gone. Magnus and I got off at the beach, unloaded my pack and Nuthatch’s pack, then Nuthatch and Ian paddled back to do the last shuttle, this time for Sarah and Magnus’ pack. Lots of names and packs to follow here, I know, but the key is that Ian would paddle Sarah and the last pack across in one kayak, then paddle back and our shuttle would be complete. Once they had made it halfway back, James, the owner of the beach campground where we had been dropped off, walked down the ramp to put his motorboat in the water, as there were some hikers that had called him ahead to hire his boat shuttle services and planned to camp at his campground. Upon seeing us on the beach, he welcomed us with a look of confusion on our face, then asked how we had managed to get across. We told him about Ian and the sea kayaks in brief, and he was visibly, but understandably surprised to see us. “Did you read the trail notes, or see the signs in town, or the ones at the Holiday Park about my ferry service?”, he asked. “Well yes we read the trail notes, no we did not see the signs, but we met Ian and found another way across”, we told him. Growing more flustered, James asked why we hadn’t called him about his ferry service and we reiterated that Ian had offered to take us across for free, and that I didn’t have a cell phone plan to call him with (Magnus did but did not say this yet). Pulling his phone out, James showed us the trail notes and pointed out the part that mentions his ferry service and the $25 fee for shuttle and camping, but we again told him that we had found our own way across and didn’t intend on camping there. Now clearly frustrated, he said “Wouldn’t you normally call someone before walking across there land? There is a $10 fee for crossing the property. Do you have $10?”. When we both told him that we don’t have cash with us, he asked if Nuthatch had cash, we told him we didn’t know, and I think something snapped in his brain at that moment. He continued to ask, now apparently to himself, “Don’t have cash? Don’t call? The only ones out of 284 hikers…” Recognizing that the money was what was probably his chief concern, I asked if he had wifi so that I could transfer him money online.but of course, he did not. He tried to give me his bank number, and got Magnus’ phone number, then seemed to realize that we still might blow him off, and asked where Nuthatch was. We pointed across the river to the sea kayak which was now almost to the opposite shore, and he quickly got into his boat and rode off towards them, full throttle. When he left, Magnus and I agreed that even though it was entirely unreasonable that he would charge us to walk across his land, that it would be the only thing to appease him, and if Sarah had already been on the beach with us, we would’ve just walked further down the beach and crossed someone else’s property with no issue. We couldn’t see what was going on across the water exactly, but we could tell that James had stopped to talk to Ian and Sarah while they were still on the water, then soon after, James came back to us with Sarah in his boat, both wearing life jackets. “You know, you guys didn’t even have life jackets on!” He asked Sarah if she had $30 for him, and she did, so she payed him. As if flipping a switch, he became extremely amiable and offered us bananas, asked if we needed water before we left, and suggested other campgrounds to check out and trail angels to contact. We were all pretty pissed about the situation, and when James went back across the river to pick up the other hikers, Sarah told us that he had tried to physically pull her off the sea kayak, that she told him she would get in his boat, but only under he own power, and that he had gone back to shore and chewed out the guy that had let us borrow the sea kayaks, claiming some sort of propriety over the shuttle services for hikers. We took James up on his offer for water, unpacked our bags from the trash bags, then got out of there are quickly as we could. Just before we left, the other hikers that had hired James’ shuttle showed up, and they were a German couple that Magnus had met before. They mentioned that they had been doing 10-20km days of hiking, and that they caught up to us because they had been hitching on all the road walks. Walking out of James’ property, we saw that his facilities were very nice, quaint, and a true haven for hikers. The $25 is really a good deal, but not as good as free. We vented on the road walk up to the next track. It was bulls hit that he charged us $10 for what claimed went to “trail maintenance”. There was not even a trail, just a short patch of grass above the boat ramp, then the road. If every private property crossing cost us $10, the entire trail would be prohibitively expensive for almost all potential thruhikers. And this ferry crossing was the 2nd official water crossing on the trail that charged an unreasonable amount of money where very cheap or free alternatives existed, and our maps showed us that there were many of these to come. The most irritating part was his change in demeanor once he was paid. This seemed to us to be representative of the way the Te Araroa was routed at large- as an opportunity to capitalize from the tourists that come to hike the trail. This left a bitter taste in our mouths with regards to the trail in general, and as we walked onto the Mackerel Track, we talked about how the German couple was managing to avoid all of this by creating their own adventure, using the Te Araroa merely as template. They stopped to filter some more water, and I pushed on, looking for the ‘possible campsite’ listed on the trail notes, but soon felt like I had gone too far. I stopped to take a shit, surprised that Nuthatch and Magnus had not caught up yet. When I emerged, Nuthatch was running up the trail after me without her pack, trying to tell me that they had found a spot that might work. I was so humbled that she would run to catch up with me. I thought that they stopped and assumed I pushed on, even though I was about to turn around to find them again. In the end, we ended up pushing on a little farther to find a flat, wide section of trail to camp on. We talked at length about our reasons for coming out here and I declared that I was done with the Te Araroa. That I had been through this sort of thing with the American Discovery Trail (though that was quite different and my take on it may be different if I did it again), and that from now on I was going to navigate my own adventure. Nuthatch was quick to agree with me, but Magnus said he would have to think about it. That night it drizzled a bit and for the second time in a week, I just threw my tarp over me and didn’t sleep well.