Day 37 to 40 – Highs and lows, mountains and caves
Thursday 22 November – Sunday 25 November
Whatawhata to Waitomo
Day: 37 – 40
Cumulative Km’s: 855km / 3,000km
The back half of week 6 was packed with highs and lows, both physical and emotional.
The highs; we were fortunate to catch a clear, blue sky day to summit the highest mountain of the trail to date, Mount Pirongia. Add to that, warm hospitality of local Kiwis, picturesque countryside walking, magical rainforest tramping and an adrenalin rush of an adventure blackwater rafting the Waitomo caves.
The lows; New Zealand has been struck by 2 big bouts of bad weather. The first coming off Antarctica, the second moving over from Australia. This has meant a few cold and soggy trail days for us.
We are well and truly into the groove of trail life and while we have experienced a few tough days over the last short while, we are constantly amazed by the incredible beauty New Zealand has to offer and are loving life on the TA.
Day 37 – Thursday 22 November, 23km
Whatawhata to Kaniwhaniwha
Waking to the sound of rain on the roof we felt extremely greatful to have spent the night in a cabin. Not keen to start the day soggy, we had a sleep in hoping the rain would stop. By 7.30 the weather had cleared so it was time to start moving. With so much moisture in the air nothing had dried over night. Not even our rain gear. We put on wet pants and wet socks followed by heavy sopping wet boots.
With the summit of Mount Pirongia coming up we checked the weather forecast. It appeared as though the hiking gods were on our side, we had been granted a 2 day window of dry weather to get to and summit Mount Pirongia. It would be our highest summit of the trail so far at just under 1,000 metres.
Today we would walk to the base of the mountain, camp overnight at Kaniwhaniwha campsite and summit the following day. We spent a large portion of the morning walking along a highway. As far as highway walking goes it was fairly pleasant without too much traffic. The further we got out of town the greater the space between houses became until we were once again walking along side farmland.
Along our way we met a lovely goat who was unfortunately tied to a fence on the side of the road. It seemed like a cruel place to house an animal, I felt very sorry for it but presumably someone was looking after him with buckets of water and a shelter in access. He took a great liking to Adam. Wagging his tail while running around him in circles he managed to wrap his chain around Adam’s legs. I would have helped Adam out but I was too busy filming it all to assist.
Not long after meeting Mr goat, the trail veered from the highway through private farmland. At the trail junction, there was confusingly a padlocked gate marked with ‘private property – do not enter’. We triple checked our maps and decided it must be right and climbed over. We followed the GPS and after not too long trail markers began to appear.
The farm we walked through was a beautiful big sheep farm with a sprinkling of cows. The paddocks were lush and green and as the track climed we had spectacular views over the valley below us. I felt like we were in Ireland with the green grass and rocky cliffs surrounding us.
It felt as if we had 1000 eyes on us as we walked with the sheep staring down on us from on top of the cliffs.
We were almost through our first section of farm land before the trail rejoined a forest track when it started to rain again. I looked up to check the clouds above when all of a sudden I heard a loud whosh from behind. I looked up again and directly above my line of sight was a Magpie bearing directly down on us. The sound playing in my mind was that of a bomber jet in a war movie. This bird meant business, hurtling towards us beak first it was coming down fast. I couldn’t remember what you are meant to do in Magpie situations so I instinctively did all the things. I threw my hands in the air and waved them above my head while screaming and running. After 100 meters or so of this I stopped to take stock. My charade had apparently worked, the Magpie was nowhere to be seen. Relieved that no one had witnessed our ordeal, Adam and I recovered, climed over a final stile and into the safety of the forest.
Over the stile we entered a beautiful stretch of rainforest, well graded with grand trees stretching tall above us. It was magical under the canopy with the afternoon light filtering through.
Before long we had to leave it. It was onto more farmland and country roads until we hit the turn off for our campsite for the night, Kaniwhaniwha.
Pirongia is a popular mountain so the track into camp is well maintained. A beautiful stretch of rainforest path winding beside a wide stream. A sense of peace and tranquility instantly washed over me walking alongside the stream.
We arrived into camp late in the afternoon. The sun remained shining just long enough to dry out the remaining moisture in our socks and boots ready for the big day tomorrow.
Day 38 – Friday 23 November, 23km
Kaniwhaniwha to Bartlam’s Family Homestay, Puketotara
With one day remaining in our fine weather window and a storm threatening to hit tomorrow we would be summitting and descending Mount Pirongia the same day. It would be a big day so to give ourselves maximum daylight hours to get through it we set off walking at 6.30 am.
The sun had well and truly risen by the time we started hiking but as we made our way into the forest the vegetation grew so thick in parts that it felt like we were still in the early hours.
It was 8km to the summit with the first 5km beautiful dense rainforest. The track was steep but in relatively good condition so were were able to walk at a steady pace. The higher we climbed the thinner the forest became until we had glimpses out to the valley below us.
As the sun shone down on the track we could see the morning dew evaporate infront of our eyes. It was set to be a beautiful sunny day.
We had a snack break at a view point overlooking the valley below us with a windfarm in the distance. From there it wouldn’t be too much further to the summit of Pirongia. The last 1.5km were the most challenging section of the climb, the track became quite muddy in parts with no option but to plow straight through. There was some scrambling up the steep slopes before we were ejected onto a beautiful boardwalk which would lead us to the summit. We felt incredibly lucky to have brilliant sunny blue skys and magnificent views from the 959m summit.
A few selfies later we continued on to Pahautea hut for a lunch break. It was glorious basking in the afternoon sun. My bagel and cream cheese couldn’t have tasted better!
We had made it to the top in 4hrs, which gave us the opportunity for a long lunch break to dry the dew off the tent and air our our feet before the descent. Pahautea Hut was incredibly well appointed, I was a little sad that we wouldn’t be staying the night but as Adam said, we will have plenty of hut opportunities on the South Island.
After lunch we begrudgingly donned damp boots and headed down the mountain. The word ‘down’ can be used loosely when describing the way off Pirongia, it felt like the most climbing up I have even done whilst trying to get off a mountain. From 959m it is a series of up and downs before exiting the track at 539m, higher than where you first start.
From Pahautea Hut the Hihikiwi track dropped down quite suddenly by way of a thoughtfully constructed boardwalk and stair case. It then forces you to climb up again to the summit of Hihikiwi where the beautiful boardwalk abruptly ends, ejecting you onto what the kiwis term ‘tramping track’.
The way down was 4hrs of picking our way through boggy mud patches, twisted roots and rock scrambles. The forest was stunning, tranquil rainforest but our eyes were mostly downcast, looking out of the gnarled roots that seemed to be reaching out for our feet as we walked past. If felt as if they were trying their best to leave us rendered with twisted ankles.
Our Swiss friend Robert had summited Pirongia the day before us, spent the night atop the mountain and had started making his way down that morning. We were about half way down the mountain when we received a text from him advising us of road closures at the bottom. A car rally was being held along 3 of the roads we would need to walk tomorrow to make it to Waitomo. To get through that section by the end of the day would mean an additional 20km out of way. We wouldn’t have enough day light or energy to achieve that so we dialled the number of a local homestay. Lynn and her husband Scott were saviours. We would tent at their place that night and they would shuttle us around the road closures the next morning. Lynn kindly offered to pick us up from the trailhead but feeling guilty about having to skip some of the roads tomorrow we decided to walk the additional 7km off trail to their house. After a snack break which was more like a second lunch for me, we continued the remaining 2 hours off the mountain. My knees were telling me they’d had enough so I was thankful to reach flat ground. Our boots were soaked through and we were covered in thick black mud to the shins. It was a big, challenging day but we were proud to have made it and to have coped so well.
At Lynn and Scott’s we were greeted with chairs, cups of tea and slice. Truly terrific people with a beautiful young family we were very grateful for a hot shower with fresh, clean full size towels! I almost hugged her when she pointed me to the shampoo and hair dryer. I had been trying my luck with a shampoo bar I found in Waipu called ‘dirty hippy’. The idea of it is great but I was unable to get it to lather through a weeks worth of grease and it had left me looking true to name, like a dirty hippy. Hair clean I came out of the shower feeling re-energised, a new person. Back to the tent I shoved some wraps down the hatch, called it dinner and was out like a light when my head hit the pillow.
Day 39 – Saturday 24 November, 35km
Bartlams Family Homestay, Puketotara to Waitomo
We were hoping to be packed and on the road before the storm hit this morning but it wasn’t to be. We were woken with rain before 5am. Trying to be as stealth as possible we packed under the shelter of the tent before whipping it down as fast as we could. We then repacked our bags under the shelter of the Bartlams porch.
After a morning cuppa and a chat, Scott had us down the road, bypassing the closures of the rally and back on trail by 8am. It was hard to imagine rally cars screaming around the corners of these peaceful country roads, cows chomping on grass in the background. Scott mentioned that the road their property is located on gets closed off once per year for the local car club to do hill climbs on. One year, a car ended up through their fence. Not ideal when you live in an area because of its beauty, peace and tranquility.
We said farewell to Scott and started our days walk through farmland. I imagine that in fine weather it would have been a pretty walk. Initially we walked through a rolling fog and spitting rain. We commented that if the weather stayed this way we would both be content, knowing that the worst was ahead of us. The further we moved along the trail the more the weather progressed and the worse the trail became underfoot. A few hours into the morning strong winds had picked up and my rain skirt had failed once again. My hiking pants were soaked and the water was wicking up into my shirt.
As the kilometres went on the winds picked up and the fog intensified. We had to cross over a hill on the farm, the visibility was so bad at the peak of the hill we could only see 10m ahead. The winds were pushing us around with our packs on and I was getting very cold very fast. The conditions made it slow going.
Though it was only 5km through the farm and to the Waitomo track turn off, it felt like 10km. This was the lowest point for me on the trail yet. My hands were beyond cold, I had started to lose mobility in them and was worried about getting any colder. A few kms through the farm we dropped a little in height and the conditions eased up. The fog cleared a little and the winds dropped. The rain would continue on and off all day but nothing like we had experienced that morning.
The bush track to Waitomo was soft and unsteady underfoot, overgrown with ferns so you couldn’t see what you were stepping on. I was walking with my hands in my pockets trying to defrost them. This meant I had less balance and fell over twice on this section of trail alone. At one point Adam and I tripped in quick succession on the same jutted point in the path. I went down first, face into the ferns. The contents of my packs pockets went sprawling down the hill and I was pinned down by the weight of my pack. Adam came down behind me, pole first, straight into my upper thigh. It was a comedy of errors. After this I could do nothing but laugh. Another 50m down the track we came to a large landslide. I couldn’t believe it, what else could go wrong today? We detoured around the gaping big hole in the earth, the soil spongy underfoot. I wanted nothing more than to be out of that crater. I had the heebie jeebies and could imagine the earth we were standing on falling away too.
I was just about to stop for a wee break when a couple of hunters went walking by. I didn’t spot them at first, their camo gear working it’s intended magic but I’m glad I spotted them when I did. I was just about to unbutton when I quickly backtracked. I spotted their guns first. Huge rifles with silencers over the muzzle. They were workng with DOC’s goat control program. They had taken 11 goats that morning alone, They even had the goat tails to prove it. When the hunter pulled the tails out of the pocket of his cargo pants, I developed a picture in my mind of this man mailing each of the 11 goat tails to DOC as proof for payment. I assume this is what the tails were for, a price per goat killed?
With the thought of hunters fresh in our mind it wasn’t long until we hit the turn off to a beautiful forest track. It looked magical with low hanging cloud in the trees above us. We still had 13km to go at this point. The weather was still pretty poor and I was too cold to stop for lunch so I shovelled food in my mouth as we walked. I was hoping the trail would give us a little reprieve and the grade would improve allowing us to pick up the pace. It wasnt to be, the forest floor was clay covered in leaf litter. Perfect conditions for a slip and slide, as Adam discovered. As he proded his way downhill with his hiking sticks, his feet slide out from under him. It was as if I was watching a cartoon. His body made an arc through the air as his feet went up and his bum went down. He slid down the slope on his back. I could do nothing but laugh (After checking that he was ok of course). It was a hard fall. Audible. His trashbag rain skirt had proved itself in this situation. It had protected most of his beige pants from the thick black mud. The same can not be said for his pack, the bottom of which will never be the same again.
After having a good chuckle and taking the obligatory mud covered arse shots we pressed on. We had 2 rivers to cross, one of which the trail notes warned us not to cross in heavy rain due to it’s potential to swell. As we approached the river the colour didn’t look good, it was murky and obviously swolen but it wasn’t moving too fast. We couldn’t hear any rolling rocks and it didn’t look above knee height. I took one of Adams poles for comfort and tested it out. My boots were already swimming pools by that point so I did as the kiwis do and waded in boots on. The river was fine, shin deep and no danger to our safety.
What we encountered on the otherside was a different story. I dubbed this section the tandoori mile. The clay was a vibrant orange colour that when stired up by rain, hikers and horses, turned into a bog resembling a huge vat of tandoori.
The trail wound in between this clay ‘road’ and a narrow bush track. We were able to move a lot quicker on the bush track, the promise of pizza and beer in Waitomo spurring us on. It was a relief when we finally hit the the tar road into town. At the trail head I got chatting to a local man who was interested in where we had traveled from. He said to me ‘not a very nice trail is it?’, not today I said but I imagine it would be lovely on a fine day. ‘Nah’ he replied, ‘its’s not a nice trail’. I had to laugh.
It was 5km of road into Waitomo and we had a room waiting for us at the backpackers. To have a hot shower, a bed and a roof was a luxury. We washed off the mud from the day and headed to the pub for dinner and a well earned beer.
Day 40 – Sunday 25 November, 0km
Blackwater rafting Waitomo caves
Over 40ml of rain had been forecast for today. Rather than suffer walking through it we decided to make the most of it and our location. We spent the afternoon underground on a Blackwater Rafting Company glowworm cave adventure.
A big dump of rain hit just as our adventure was kicking off. It was perfect timing to make our afternoon that bit more challenging (read fun). We were picked up by a shuttle bus which dropped us off at Blackwater Rafting Company HQ. The team got us kitted out with wetsuits and hardware and it was into a wet bus to transport us to the cave.
After some instruction the adventure began with a 35m abseil down a shaft. It was an hourglass shape with a narrow section in the middle which rquired contorting your body through. Off rope at the bottom of the cave we could start to see glowworms. It looked magical, like thousands of fairy lights strung all over the cave ceiling and walls.
Our guides took us though some narrow sections of cave with beautiful crystalline formations dripping from the ceiling. It was adventure perfectly punctuated with natural beauty. We still aren’t sure whether it was intentional but our guides didn’t warn us about what was coming up on the tour, keeping us guessing and the sense of excitement heightened. We were clipped onto a zipline and in complete darkness surrounded by the twinkling of glowworms, hurtled into the depths of the cave.
After a delicious snack of ANZAC slice and hot chocolate (5 star underground service!) we got thrown a tyre tube each and jumped from a cliff edge into the underground river below. The water was icy cold. To keep warm we kept moving, pulling ourselves along in our tubes using ropes attached to the wall of the cave. We then formed a tube conga line and with torches off, were towed back down the river in darkness. It was a relaxing and unique way of appreciating the glow worms.
In the time we had been floating around the water level in the cave was rising. Done with our tubes we had a few swims ahead of us along with what our guides referred to as the drunken stumble. Water that we were walking through at knee high was ankle deep the day before. The current was strong and it took all our strength to push against it but it made for an exciting afternoon.
Water was now gushing into the cave, we could hear a waterfall in the distance and as we moved closer it became deafening. We were told that the waterfall was the normal exit from the cave but today it was too dangerous to climb. Our guides took us in to have a look and it was pounding. The water was foaming violently and we had to scream at each other to hear anything. It gave us a very respectful appreciation for mother nature.
Our alternative exit from the cave was a little less exciting but beautiful all the same. We had a short scramble up a series of rocks where the cave opened into a cathedral of rainforest ferns. A low fog hung in the air, it looked magical.
It was a short walk back to the van, we were swiftly shuttled back to Blackwater rafting HQ where hot showers, soup and bagels awaited us. It was after 7pm by the time we finished up so I called it dinner and had 2 bagels. Adam, bless him, had a malfunction when attempting to toast his bagel. I had walked over to butter my bagel, fresh out of the toaster I leaned over to pick it up when I smelt smoke and spotted flames coming out the front of the machine. It was one of those big hotel rotisserie style toasters so of course I panicked. I screamed for help, the lady on the front desk knew what was going down and told us how to turn it off. We blew out the flames and with the assistance of a coathanger one of the guides managed to pull the charred remains out of the machine. Meanwhile a long que of fellow cavers stood shooting agitated glances at us, eagerly awaiting their turn to toast their bagels. To limit levels of embarrassment by association I tried to distance myself from Adam, sat down and enjoyed my soup and bagel. Alas, it didn’t work, we will forever be remembered as the Aussie’s who burnt their bagels.