Day 27: Christmas Day. 75 degrees and sunny on the beach in Whitianga, New Zealand. I made jalapeno cornbread and a ton of salad as my American dishes to share with everyone tonight, then spend some time catching up with friends and family who were still on the 24th. I hung out with the other Swedish couple that is in the same bunkroom I’m staying in, then started an early Christmas dinner with everyone there and we all talked about our different Christmas traditions. I realized that although I had cleaned all my clothes, I had forgotten to wash the dirty socks that I had left drying out on the outside of my pack, still caked in mud and funk, so I spent some time hand washing them. I made sure all my batteries were charged, learned a lot about the indigenous peoples of Sweden and how pickled herring is a festive meal in Sweden and how alcohol is very expensive there and yet people still drink a lot. I watched a movie with my bunkmates and worked on blog stuff before bed, having missed my chance to spend as much time on the beach as I would have liked, but having met some really cool people and gotten all my work done. So grateful to have had Christmas with such cool people in a place with such a positive atmosphere.
Day 28: Woke up early to pack up all my stuff, which had exploded out from my backpack upon arriving at the hostel, said goodbye to my bunkroom mates, and called my mom and dad just before leaving to say merry christmas to them. I struck up a conversation with Derreck the Dutch dude about working remotely as an engineer, designing CAD stuff while his business partner does all the face to face stuff back in the Netherlands while Nuthatch caught up with her folks. When we were ready to go, Derrick dropped us off at the New World grocery store to get some last minute snacks and to bring us to the outer edge of town. While walking out to the road to hitch, we were briefly talked at by a dude who was really trying to get us to agree that Donald Trump was the best thing for America, but I decided to end the discussion respectfully by changing the topic to my guitar and I played him some blues. I played some and they danced as we were trying to hitch out, and got many smiles, waves, and laughs, but still took a little less an hour, when an Italian dude picked us up. He explained that he and his girlfriend were here, working and renting an apartment on Air BnB for cheap. He works at the pizza shop in the winery and doesn’t make great money even though their pizza is expensive and they use him to advertise that they have a REAL Italian chef. We talked about economic disparity and war and big revolutionary things- the same things the Trump guy talked about but from totally opposite perspectives. He dropped us off, then came back and picked us up again, deciding he’d go to get gas anyway. His girlfriend in a movie director who doesn’t speak any English and had a hard time finding a job, and although they’ve wanted to travel the whole country, they had to get some money first, but now he thinks that the magic of being in a new place has started to wear off. Super nice dude. Full of warmth, stories of woofing and meeting his girlfriend while they were both part of Hari Krishna. Soon after he dropped us off, a pompous rich dude in a BMW picked us up, joking about how we used the Maori pronunciation of town names and calling his car a toy, getting hard over a Maserati that drove by, then mocking the driver for not driving recklessly fast and using the horsepower he had. He told us about the crazy “riot party” that the young people throw in Whangamata on New Years Eve, likely exaggerating about the violence and debauchery that takes place. He dropped us off at a corner store where we got ice cream and ate it at the picnic tables outside. A sweet old lady asked me about my guitar and wished us well. Then a dude named Lawrence and his wife picked us up in their Subaru with a playlist of Snoop Dogg, Coolio, and Tribe Called Quest blasting on the stereo all the way to Karangahake. He brought us through Whiritoa so we could see his home town and after a quick stop at the beach, he drove us very quickly through the Karangahake Gorge. Funny dude full of jokes. We also stopped at a sweet waterfall where Magnus and I took a dip in the frigid waters and some photographer lady snapped all these photos of Magnus in his underwear. Then we went to a cliff jumping spot right off the road by the old rail tunnel and the bridge and we all jumped in. It was about 30 feet tall, the water was cold, and it felt awesome. A million thanks to Lawrence, then we continued down the Windows Walkway. I didn’t stop to read all the informational signs, but generally I learned that this area was used extensively for gold mining and the track used to be the old tramway. The “windows” were cutouts in the face of the cliff above the river where the rail tunnel lead 50 feet above the surface of the water. Part of the tunnel had to be crouched through and the ground was always wet from being partially taken over by the river.
We ended up at Dickey Flat Campground, where some young dudes called us over to their camp and we ended up playing cards against humanity with them all night. They were a group of early 20’s bros trying hard to be obscene and indecent, drinking and smoking their fair share, but there were lots of hearty laughs from the belly, shared party favors, and good times. They were here for a week and have more friends coming to their site with its big tents, high canopies, and big inflatable bag-chairs that weren’t very comfortable. It got late pretty quickly and they gawked at our primitive cooking setup and our cowboy camps before we all went to bed.
Day 29: Wake up breakfast, coffee and light chat with the first 2 of the bros to get up, including the commercial pilot with braces and no drivers license. We walked through the rest of the campground then turned off towards Waitawheta Hut via the Mangakino Stream Track and Waipapa Track. The first part on the day spent following the Mangakino Stream Track was on easy track above many waterslides and pools, then a steep climb up to Daly’s Clearing Hut, where a man was bringing his 18 month old daughter to her first hut and his 100th. I did some yoga and calisthenics in the sunshine before we moved on. I led the charge out from the hut as the clouds filled the sky once again. Just after starting our descent back to the Waitawheta River, I nearly stepped on the body of a giant dead mountain goat in the middle of the trail and it scared the shit out of me. I stopped and looked at it for a second, first laughing at my fright, then in awe of how such a creature could be roaming around in these hills. I turned around to meet up with Nuthatch and Magnus, not sure that I was going the right way, which I was, so we walked down and they were surprised at it out too. We pushed on through cold but light rain and high winds along steep track with lots of blow downs until we got down to the Waitawheta River and followed the swift and dark river along its twisted slides and pools all the way to the Waitawheta hut. We stopped for a few minutes for a dip in a small pool with a waterfall flowing into it and the water was freezing! I did some more calisthenics and yoga at the hut and could do pullups in the rafters of the roof overhanging the porch. When we left the hut, the weather was decidedly going to stay foul and we were wet the rest of the day, crossing the river a few times and struggling to find a camp spot with the rocky, dense, and steep hills along the river. Eventually we decided to camp right on the trail in the only flat spot we had seen for miles. I made up my mind then that I would part ways from the group, but waited until the following morning to tell them.
Day 30: We started this morning slowly, talking about how Swedish government and politics work, and I told them I’d be splitting off today. It was hard to bring up, but they were understanding and they knew it was coming. Now flying solo, I hiked down the trail to the Wharawhara Road and got a ride in KatiKati with a young dude on his way to work. Soon after, I was in a truck with a disgruntled old gold miner driving through Waihi who didn’t speak much, but complained about the dying mining industry when he did. Waihi is famous for having had an entire mountain that was moved during the gold rush. It’s just not there anymore, but the mine still is. On the other side of town, I got a ride to Paeroa in a van full of avocados, driven by a young French guy who was Woofing here and selling produce for the farm and we talked about skiing, about how Princess Leia died, which confused me at first because I thought he was talking about the character when in fact he meant the actress Carrie Fischer. After he dropped me off, I got picked up by 2 women and brought all the way to Botany outside Auckland, where they dropped me off at the Rebel Sports Store. It was a long hitch, and we talked all about whitewater rafting, Donald Trump, the difference betweens kiwis and aussies and their perceptions of each other, and all of our travel plans. I got a life jacket at Rebel sports for pretty cheap, walked to the McDonalds to get wifi so I could send a message to Dennis that I was in the city and could pick up my packraft when he had the time, and that I was going to go over to the Bunnings hardware store to look for supplies to make a paddle, then head back to McDonalds to get wifi again and receive a return message from him. As I am trying to explain to the sales associate at Bunnings what kind of material I am looking for, Dennis shows up with a smile and says “hey there!”. He got my message and immediately drove over to the Bunnings to find me and help me out however he could. He ended up calling his brother, who owns a recycling center, and we stopped by there to search for materials I could use. I found a rigid but light plastic recycling bin that would do the trick. We then went back to his place where I paid him for the customs fee he had fronted for me, thanked him a million times for being the coolest dude in the world, then blew up the packraft for the first time. It’s awesome and small and lightweight and my world of adventure just grew tenfold. It also fills out the bottom of my backpack well and allows the hipbelt to fit flush with my lower back, distributing the weight better. I spent the rest of the night designing and making the paddle blades, based on a design by Forest McCarthy, which ziptie to the handles of my trekking poles and when the trekking poles are ziptied together creates an ultralight modular packraft paddle. Went to bed that night totally ready to hit the river ASAP.