Day 20: Woke up around 6:30 to a great breakfast spread at Dennis’ and made arrangements with him about picking up my packraft. We all went out to the Te Araroa Trailhead in Hunua Ranges and started hiking along the Wairoa River, feeling a bit slow to start, tempted by chilly swimming pools all along the river, but quickly gaining speed and we were flying down the trail the rest of the day. There were many people on the well groomed and graded gravel Massey Track, with an excellent view of Hunua Falls along the way.
There were many birds to be seen, including a morepork that flew out of the canopy, a silvereye that posed just right for a photo, and the complex songs of tuis and the loud wing flaps of the NZ pigeons could be heard. I saw two rats, one living in the bushes near camp, and one dead on the trail. Around lunchtime, we stopped in a small grove of colossal kauri trees for a quick snack and some yoga and light calisthenics. I noticed my balance had improved and was hoping that flexibility would soon follow. Bellies full and minds clear, we ran for a couple hours down the Wairoa Cosseys Track, crossed the suspension bridge, met up at a water source, and again at a sweet hut at the head of the Challenger Track, where we ended up staying for the night. Nuthatch and I played chess, we did another hour of yoga through the biting sand flies and mosquitos, I played some guitar, and I reflected on my time spent hiking across the US and felt content.
Day 21: It was chilly and foggy at 6:30 in the morning, so I slept for another hour. Magnus shared some of his coffee with us and the privy was henceforth demolished. As we pack up the skies look overcast and it began to drizzle once we got to hiking. The “Challenger Track” is actually a mountain bike trail, and is therefore quite easily done on foot. When we connected to Ernie’s track, there was a trail crew doing maintenance on the most heinous section of trail I’ve ever seen. It was thick and boggy and they were building puncheons over the mud. Kudos. Needless to say, the puncheons did not last long and we too were trudging on the muddy, root covered trail for about 2 hours but coasting right along. We got some water at the wide and quickly flowing Mangatawhiri River leading into the reservoir and there were some neat looking plants on the water’s edge: one sort of pink reedy grass and some trees with conical bunches of many little white flowers that fell and covered the surface of the goopy, but not really sticky mud. I had given up keeping my feet dry at the beginning of Ernie’s track, so I wasn’t shy about stepping right through the mud. We pushed ahead after chugging some water in the steady rain, huddled under a thick pine branch near the river, and made a steep and long climb straight up to the ridge. Despite the lack of a view because of the clouds, I was very satisfied with the feeling of climbing big mountains. Tall grasses covered in millions of small beads of water soaked my running shorts as I hiked through them and we were met with mud along the ridge as well. By the time I got to the junction, there had been one or two brief moments of sunshine through the clouds, so I ran down to Piggotts hut while there were wind and clouds but no rain. There was a bench just after the junction with a view of the reservoir, clouds surrounding the mountaintops, and tropical trees all around.
I descended many stairs to reach Piggotts hut and read the informational signs from the Department of Conervation about about the rare but recovering Kokako, and Nuthatch and Magnus were each less than 5 minutes behind me, and totally soaked as the rain came back with force. We took a long lunch, Nuthatch cooking, Magnus making some dank tuna burritos, and I had crackers and cheese. We did some yoga, stretching, and calisthenics and I played some soothing guitar while they power napped, watching the rain as it blew by. Just after they woke up we saw the Kokako! With its long legs it hopped under the picnic table, at some berries in the tree, then hopped off into the bush. How cool to see such a unique and beautiful bird. We talked and laughed a bunch, sharing stories and all jamming on body drums together. More yoga in the evening and a gorgeous sunset casting orange reflections from the ferns and leaves on the trees, with a rainbow stretching across the mountains above us to gently send us resting right into sweet dreams.
Day 22: There were kakas flying around this morning, calling with coarse voices from the treetops, but I didn’t see them. I know they were kakas however for two reasons: chiefly because there was a bird census group with a ranger who confidently identified the birds, but also because their call is harsh and distinctive and I had woken up to it a few other times already. I showed them pictures of the kokako we had seen last night and the ranger elaborated a bit on their recovery projects. The twitchers (kiwi term for birders) tramped on ahead of us as we finished breakfast, but we caught up with them soon after climbing back up to the ridge. They reported seeing many more kaka, but while I continued to hear them all day, I couldn’t get a photo or even a great look at one. The trail was tough today- tight climbing up and under massive branchy blowdowns, pushing through underbrush, and steep rooty uphills on a seldom traveled and unmaintained trail. I noticed many different kinds of mushroom and moss today (at least 5 different kinds of moss), and a variety of native trees, including tree ferns, puriri, kauri, puawhananga, and plenty more I still have to learn.
Nuthatch, Magnus, and I met up again just before the Kohukohunui lookout and we chilled on top for a while, sunbathing, snacking, and chatting. There’s another tower soon after, and we did our first calisthenics and yoga session of the day, but we don’t stay there for long, because we all need to get water soon. The view is stunning Firth of Thames and the mountains across the way in Coromandel, Table Mountain standing out clearly and all of them looking steep.
We hustle down to the 1,000 Acre Clearing Camp, which has a water tank, and we head down to the stream for some swimming in perfect glorious sunshine. Some more yoga here, then we haul ass to the Workman camp and share food for dinner. Played some guitar as the stars came out, but there were lots of sand flies, so I put my headnet on, and watched for shooting stars from my cowboy camp until I fell asleep.
Day 23: It’s the longest day of the year today. Chow on a bunch of almonds before heading down from the mountains towards the west coast of the Firth of Thames around 8AM. I felt congested presumably from all the pollen in the thick humid air, and symptomatically tired. Just before reaching the road along the coast, we saw about 20 Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo. They squawk loudly and fly clumsily in families, perching themselves high in a dead tree overlooking the open stock fields in the foothills.
From here, we were determined to make our way over to Coromandel, and we hiked along the black rock beach for a mile or so until we found a good spot on the road to hitch from, or so we thought. We were there for around 2 hours before we got a ride, but we met a dude on the road that Magnus had met weeks earlier. Joel was clearly identifiable by his Zpacks gear head to toe, his fanny pack DSLR case, his GPS tracker, and his clean cut smile. He works for the Department of Conservation, and has a tremendous knowledge of the flora and fauna, backcountry navigation, and hunting here. He talked about the trip I wish I had organized before I came out here; he’d mapped out his own route of the most awesome, remote and rugged stuff both islands had to offer and would even be spending a few weeks bushwhacking with a rifle to supplement his food needs between resupplies a few hundred kms apart. He gave us many recommendations and we chatted for while. Just after parting ways with Joel, we were picked up by a dude name Rengi who brought us to the bar for some pints. He was meeting up with his underwater welding and construction crew to buy a round after a hard day on the job. We talked about kiwi bands like Fat Freddy’s Drop, about some of the things we’ve seen while tramping, and as Rengi brought us across the wide delta and towards Coromandel into Thames (which was way out of his way) he told us about naming his company Orca after getting to swim with them during a dive once and how it was one of the greatest moments of his diving career. We stopped to get some food and wifi in the mall next to the Pak n’ Save, catching up on calories, friends and family and refilling on water.
When we hiked out of town, we followed Karaka Stream past old mine sites and signs warned us about vent shafts that one could fall into if hiking off trail. My congestion was making me feel exhausted but we all pushed on until dark when we reached an exposed but beautiful campsite looking in toward the mountains while the sun set. A monstrous first day out of town dinner of couscous, potatos, garlic, carrots, sausage, olive oil, and cheese for dinner tonight and it was soooo good. We cowboy camped knowing that there was rain in the forecast later in the morning, and I was rewarded with more excellent starscapes to gaze at through the night when I would wake up to drink some water.
Day 24: Wake up to an amazing view of Table Mountain around 6:30. Flies were buzzing my face immediately after the sun came up and I couldn’t continue ignoring them, so I just got up. Coffee and hot muesli for breakfast feel like luxuries after rationing food for a couple days before the resupply. We were fortunate to have dry weather during breakfast and packing up, but it began drizzling just as we left camp, but passed within the first few hours of the day. The track here is pretty easy and I feel so much better than yesterday, especially with a little coffee in me, and we quickly make it to the Crater Mountain Viewpoint, a bumpy little patch of partially cleared brush on top of a great cliff overlooking inner Coromandel. Dark, ominous clouds came and went over Table Mountain as we sat there for an hour, laughing and sharing stories over a snack. We could see the ocean to the Northwest and it was perfectly clear. We rushed in an effort to beat the clouds to Crosbie’s Hut, but got caught in the rain just before getting there. We were in for a real treat however, because Crosbie’s Hut was at this point the nicest wilderness shelter I have ever seen. It had 10 bunks with foam mattresses but could sleep 25, had a half covered large wooden porch around 2 sides, had a tank-fed sink, large windows, informational books and a well filled log inside on one of the picnic tables, a wood and coal furnace, benches outside, and a small lawn area, all with excellent views of the surrounding area. We ended up chilling there all day, doing lots of yoga and calisthenics, including headstand practice, and the human climbing wall. I played lots of jazz, read from the little library inside, ate a ton of food, and found a new pair of shorts the aren’t ripped across the back. We laughed a lot and I was greatly appreciative of being in the wilderness with these amenities and with such good hiking companions. A couple people came in later in the afternoon and one guy, who turned out to be a pretty good classical guitar player, knew all about the Te Araroa because his wife is hiking it in non-purist fashion mostly on the south island. He an nuthatch bonded over the fact that she worked as a speech pathologist and his brother is severely autistic and he worked at a special education school. We all sat outside to watch the sunset, and after we went to bed it stormed very heavily all through the night.
Day 25: We talked about our dreams in the morning, having all slept deeply despite the wicked storm outside. I put some instant coffee and nutella into my muesli this morning and it was delectable. I talked to Nuthatch about speech impediments during breakfast after hearing them talk last night and it’s interesting to think about all the complex systems that work in the brain. We left with rain covers on our packs, but it cleared up pretty quickly and we wound along on the track with occasional epic views of table mountain. These mountains have, as Magnus said so well, a “unique character”. They are sheer, pinnacled, covered in varied and dense brush, and with a complex topography in between. Trail conditions were muddy from the rain, so I tried to be careful walking along slick rocks and roots in the narrow canals that had been eroded in the center of the trail about 6 to 12 inches deep. My camera batteries had all died, which was a bummer because of the stellar views and because we saw a Weta today, which is a group of insect species endemic to New Zealand that sort of look like giant burly crickets, about 3 inches long and heavier than a house sparrow. No water at the campsite when we got to the road, but there was a river crossing just a mile up the road where to stopped to fill up as the rain moved in and out in intense waves 10 minutes apart. We stood under a tree, pack covers and jackets on until a sunny lull, when we rushed to get water from under the bridge. We decided to take the “experts only” Moss Creek Track up and around to the Pinnacles Hut, and had to move carefully across the slippery rocks and roots and ducking and climbing over fallen trees. The suspension bridges were pretty sweet, but the chain link fence tore a hole in my pack cover. When we got to the junction with the Kauaeranga Gorge Track, which was not blazed because the track didn’t really exist. There was simply a sign stating that the gorge began in half a kilometer, so we started bushwhacking along the rivers edge toward the gorge. Many stunning waterfalls cascaded into pools, into and down the river, the tallest of which was a small creek maybe 10 meters tall feeding tons of moss on the rocks around it. I tried to avoid the bushwhacking by traversing across the wet mossy rock along the river, but it was too slick and I pushed back into the bush after a few meters. Very soon after, I must have stepped directly onto a bees nest, because I was very quickly stung a couple dozens times. I yelled and cursed and brushed them off my legs, seeing their stingers in my skin and the sticky venom trailing from them. When I caught up with Magnus and told him what happened and that I was OK, a few more bees appeared, perhaps attracted by pheromones, so we jogged a bit through the thick underbrush to avoid them. As we pushed higher up on the hill to go up and around them, we heard Nuthatch yell, then say in a shaky voice that she was ok, and I instantly knew that she had slipped on the rocks I had tried traversing across. I cringed and cursed as the pain was becoming shockingly intense. Not enough to mess with my speech or my rational thinking, but searing and constant like needles poking into a very bad sunburn. Nuthatch reappeared and she had indeed slipped off the rocks, falling into a deep part of the river over her head, swam over to a rock where she recovered, then again back to shore after realizing she was ok. I tried to keep her talking to keep my mind off the pain, and felt my muscles cramp and tighten inside my left knee where I was stung a few times. My legs felt tight in general and I hobbled to the first pool of water I could find and soaked my legs for a minutes, which only eased the pain a little. I put my shoes back on and we hiked back tothe Moss Creek/ Pinnacles Hut Track junction. Even after half an hour I was still really in pain, but as soon as we hit the long staircase of rocks leading up to the pinnacles hut, I pushed ahead and nearly ran up the entire mountain, passing scores of tourists along the way, who gave me odd looks for running with no shirt, a big pack, and a grimace of pain on my face. Running up the mountain eased the pain quite a bit, but it didn’t leave entirely until the following morning. There were breathtaking views of the pinnacles and Table Mountains, which were formed by eroded volcanic plugs and a lava lake within the last million years when the volcanoes, which had been around for around 8 millions years, became dormant. I stopped at the last overlook near the top to try to get a photo with my phone, but the wind was cold and my phone died right away when exposed. I waited a minute or two to see if Magnus and Nuthatch would catch up, but kept moving to keep the pain off my mind and to get to the hut where I might be able to soak in some cold water and take some antihistamine. I was surprised to have to pay for a campsite, having thought that camping near the huts was always free, but this hut was no ordinary hut. This was the grand daddy of huts. It has 80 bunks! It is one of the most popular huts in the country, so they charge for the upkeep and there’s a caretaker there all the time. I tried to be cheerful, friendly, and vague about my hiking intentions and where I had camped, because I knew we had stayed at Crosbie’s hut without paying and didn’t want to mention that. Nuthatch and Magnus showed up and paid for their campsites, but as Nuthatch and I went down to set up camp, Magnus was taking a while talking to the caretaker. When he finally came down, he told us that he had accidentally let it slip that we stayed at Crosbie’s hut while conversing with the caretaker and had to pay him $15 a piece, which was actually pretty cool because he could have fined us. I set up the tarp in an A-frame and made dinner. Nuthatch sat next to me under the tarp and we faced Magnus as he sat in his vestibule and we talked about how the history of the Te Araroa and how it encouraged people to spend more money on tourism at the expense of being in more remote places and about what an equivalent of the Hayduke Trail in New Zealand might look like. We also talked about pieces of gear we had carried with us on every long hiking trip: she has a town shirt, I have a watch that I’ve had for years, and all of Magnus’ gear is at least 2nd gen. I talked about the feeling of getting rid of my original guitar from the coast-to-coast walk and how it felt like going through a hard breakup, even though it was cracked and warped and water-logged. It was still a symbol of how far I’d come and how I had really grown up fast and it still much we had both been weathered by that trip. But ultimately it is just a piece of wood and it is the experiences that let me grow up and weathered me that are the valuable things represented by the guitar. It taught me a great lesson about removing my attachments to people as well, and aided my grief after my grandmother died, reminding me that our bodies are mutable and impermanent like my guitar, but the experiences she had and the ones I had with her are captured in time forever. Magnus and Nuthatch went up to the top of the Pinnacles as the sun was going down, but I stayed in camp, still sore for another 6 hours, my lymph nodes were swollen and the skin around the stings was red and blotchy. They showed me pictures of the insane views and the high winds, but I’m glad I stayed here to work on journal entries. Lots of type 2 fun to capture lately.
Day 26: Packed up quickly after another dank muesli/nutella/marmite/instant coffee breakfast and did a little yoga on the porch of the hut while waiting for Magnus to finish packing up. We talked to the caretaker before leaving and he told us with a smirk that some crazy dude had just come up that trail with a bike, leaving us to figure out what that meant exactly. We started down the track towards the gorge along the powerlines, then down very steep and long steps down tiny ledges of slick clay, eroded into a narrow and deep wash that meant using your hands was necessary. There were patches were large flat rocks that had fallen into the wash, but they deceptively provided no better traction, and both at the top and bottom of the hill were wet muddy bogs that kept the shoes wet and heavy. No wonder the caretaker got a kick out of a dude coming up here with a bike. It was impossible for him to ride these 2 or 3 miles of trail and he must have carried the thing up this wicked terrain to ride down somewhere else. Crazy kiwis. We crossed the river at the bottom of the hill and climbed up the other side of the gorge, which was just as long, slick, and difficult as the descent. Finally after a few hours, we arrived onto a scenic access road for the powerlines that lead down to the east coast of Coromandel with great views of the coast and the thickly forested hills along the way. You could the road winding far off in the distance and that it was nice and wide and graded and mostly downhill all the way. Time to open up the wheelhouse. I took my shirt off and ran down towards the ocean with my heavy pack for about an hour until I reached the last river crossing, where I filled up on water, switched into my crocs and waited for my friends. They didn’t take long, and we all snacked together. We continued to walk quickly down the gravel road past a house here and there until it turned into pavement, where we walked between large kiwi fruit farms, then ended at a junction with the highway and we got a ride with a dude towing a very small diesel tanker behind his Land Cruise for work. He dropped us off at the “On the Beach” hostel in Whitianga and we checked in with the lady at the front desk who was delightfully friendly, a little cheeky, and a great host. Tomorrow is Christmas Day, so we booked two days here so we could celebrate the holiday in town and “on the beach”. The hostel was pretty sweet. Lots of outdoor hanging out, free access to sea kayaks and boogie boards, good wifi and large kitchens. It was a bit windy though, so we did all of our town chores first so that the rest of our time could be spent just relaxing and having fun. I got caught up in a conversation with a couple that was staying in the same bunk room I was in. He was from the Netherlands and she was from Sweden- a really cute couple. We talked about skiing, rafting and how he’s been here for 9 years on and off and that she just came 9 months ago. Nuthatch, Magnus and I walked to grocery store, joking about the “Christmas tents” set up in peoples yards to accomodate visiting friends and family for the holiday, and I alternated between flip flops and bare feet on the walk. I resupplied for 5 days and got some beans, ingredients for jalapeno cornbread, and beer for 2 days, then walked across the parking lot to get the right phone charger for the first time since I’ve been here, and walked back to the hostel just as it was getting dark, thinking that Nuthatch and Magnus had already walked back. Just before getting to the hostel, they picked me up with a dude they had hitched with who told us about a sweet spot by Shakespeare cliffs where you can jump through a pothole arch into the ocean. Stayed up late that night sharing food, drinking, and schmoozing with the Europeans who celebrate on Christmas Eve, and went to bed later than I had in months.