Day 58 to 64 – The Mountains Are Calling
Thursday 13 December – Wednesday 19 December
Palmerston North to Waikanae
Day: 58 – 64
Cumulative Km’s: 1,597km / 3,000km
This week we ventured into the Taurarua’s for our first taste of New Zealand’s mountains. The Tararuas were tough, tempremental but beautiful and extremely rewarding.
We are looking forward to a break over Christmas before making our way to the South Island to immerse ourselves more of New Zealand’s beautiful mountain ranges.
Day 58 – Thursday 13 December, 18km
Palmerston North to Kahuterawa Reserve
We took a long morning in town, planning and organising our remaining couple of weeks on the North Island. With Christmas fast approaching accomodation and ferry transfers to the south Island were booking up fast so we spent some time piecing together trail logistics and making bookings. After the Tararuas we will base ourselves in Wellington for a week and use the train line to slack pack the final sections of trail. I am really looking forward to being in one place for a little while after two months of moving every day. We got the idea from a couple we met in Tongariro. They are section hiking the trail and did the same when they hiked the Wellington section.
With everything booked we resupplied at the supermarket and headed out on the trail at 1.30pm. I think it was our latest start to a trail day yet.
It didn’t take long to get out of the city. We passed through local parklands, bypassing the university before spending the afternoon walking through Palmerston North’s green corridors. With thunderstorms forecast for the afternoon we had been watching the sky as we walked, the clouds were becoming grey and angry as the afternoon wore on.
We were passing under a grove of trees when the heavens opened and the rain started to pour down. I had stopped to put on my rain jacket and was just about to continue walking, out of the shelter of the trees when a huge clap of thunder sounded, promptly followed by a shock of lightning which hit near by. I turned on my heals and back tracked to the cover of the trees. Both Adam and I stood still for a few minutes, waiting to see what the storm would do next. Another terrifying clap of lightning struck extremely close by. It felt like it was only meters away. We both hit the deck. I told Adam that I loved him and bequeathed to him all remaining hiking snacks. Being so practical in such circumstances he replied ‘well if you die, im going to be die too. We are too close together’. I could picture our charred bodies, still steaming from lightening strike, being discovered by the next hikers who passed through.
We waited out the storm for about 15 minutes. There was a distinct point in time where the last rumble of thunder sounded and the birds started singing again. I felt it was safe to trust nature, that given the birds had started singing again we should be safe to start waking again. We were pretty wet and soggy but the rains eased as we walked.
The last section of trail was on farm road. We were just starting to dry off when the rains started to threaten again. About 4km out from the campsite a girl in a car passed us. It was a narrow winding road and both Adam and I startled like two deer caught in headlights. Not 5 minutes later the same car came driving back in the other direction. Her name was K.D. A local trail angel in the area. She offered to drive us the rest of the way to camp so we didn’t get stuck in the storm. She even apologized for taking so long to turn around! We couldn’t turn her down after the effort she went to to give us a lift so we jumped in. It was a short ride to camp but we thoroughly enjoyed our chat with K.D.
We hurried to set up the tent and source water before the rains hit. I was going to wait out the storm until eating dinner but it didn’t feel like it was going to ease so I opted to eat a lunch instead of a cooked dinner. After dinner we quickly fell asleep to the sound of rain on the tent fly.
Day 59 – Friday 14 December, 29km
Kahuterawa Reserve to Shelter, Tokomaru
Despite the storm over night we woke to a surprisingly dry tent this morning. We figured it had been blown dry from the strong winds. We were up and walking later than usual which turned out to be a poor idea, we had a longer day ahead of us than initially expected due to my misinterpreting trail notes.
It was a few kms of gravel road walking until we hit a bush track. We crossed back and forth with another group of hikers we met in camp the night before, a dutch couple, a German girl and an American girl. It wasn’t long into the morning before we hit an official TA half way marker. It was however a few Kms out because it was based on last years trail rather than this years trail which is a little shorter thanks to all of the forest closures.
The walk took us through pine forest and alongside private farmlands. The pine forest reminded me that Christmas was soon approaching. Being so removed from the normal facets of life I only remember it’s Christmas time when we are in a supermarket resupplying. I can’t wait for pudding and mince tarts!
The trail took us along Back Track and Burttons track. Burttons is a beautiful forest trail crossing over many streams. It was super enjoyable walking. We passed through private farmland and a historic Whare site where old Mr Burtton had cleared and farmed land back in the day. The trail was named after him as he had created much if it as a dray track back in the 40’s. Unfortunately he died after falling from his suspension bridge which broke while he was on it. Poor Mr. Burtton. We had a snack break at the Whare site and continued onwards.
The afternoon was a long one and we didn’t know exactly where we would be spending the night. We were aiming for the dam but weren’t sure if we could access the water there so we opted for an on trail dinner close to a water source.
After dinner we made our way off the forest track, out of the gully and onto a farm road. We had seen a site marked on the map as ‘abandoned shelter’. When we got there it was anything but abandoned. It looked like a farm shed. Tina, the German girl we met the night before was sitting there waiting for her friends. We had a quick chat to her, updating her best we could as to the potential whereabouts of her friends and continued towards the dam.
We were little than a few hundred meters down the road when we ran into the owner of the property. He was a lovely guy who told us we were more than welcome to stay in the shelter we had seen. Apparently the army had restored it. I had assumed it was his so I thanked him profusely as we back tracked to the shelter.
When we arrived Tina was setting up camp. She had also met and spoken to the land owner. It turned out that there was a guest book inside. It had been signed by the defense force people who built it and a few TA trust representatives. It had been finished only days earlier and our group was the second to sleep in it. Before too long the rest of the heard turned up. We rearranged ourselves so all 6 of us fit in the tiny space. There was some concern over metal shavings on the ground and the potential for pierced sleeping mats but we braved it anyway. There was threat of a thunderstorm over night so the shelter of the hut was worth the risk.
Day 60 – Saturday 15 December, 18km
Shelter, Tokomaru to Makahika Outdoor Pursuits Centre
With only one tiny window the shelter we slept in overnight was devoid of light. At 7am when people started stirring it felt much earlier. Sleeping in such close proximity to so many strangers I slept on and off all night.
We weren’t out on the trail until 9, with such a late start the sun was already out and out in force. It was going to be a hot day. We had about 5km of road walking ahead of us, through private land then past the local dam before we turned off onto the forest track. It would put us officially into the Tararua Forest Park.
The minute we stepped onto the forest track I was taken by its beauty. Lush green New Zealand rainforest. The trail climbed to 690 meters where we stopped at a lookout for lunch.
After lunch the trail quickly descended down to 300m. It was a slippery walk down but the forest was picturesque, crossing back and forth over many streams and rivers. It rained on and off during the afternoon but with the cover of the canopy we never needed rain jackets.
By the time the track opened up to a grassy field the sun was out and shining again. We passed a group of tents belonging to some young people doing their duke of edingborough award. They were being lead by a guide from the Outdoor Pursuits Centre, where we would be spending the evening. We had a brief chat and continued on our way.
Out of the forest it was a short 3km through farmland and along country roads before we arrived at Makahika Outdoor Pursuits Centre.
Makahika is a beautiful big property owned by John who allows TA hikers to camp and use the facilities for free. It is very generous of him. We had a quick chat about the upcoming couple of days through the Tararua’s. Unfortunately the glorious 4 day weather window originally forecast had shifted and we were now facing strong evening winds and potentially bad weather on the 4th day coming off the range. To get around this we plan to start early in the mornings to avoid the winds and hopefully push through one day earlier.
Day 61 – Sunday 16 December, 17km
Makahika Outdoor Pursuits Centre to Te Matawai Hut
We ventured out into the Tararuas today. With a big climb ahead of us we were up and out of camp early. The sun had only just shown it’s self above the tree line as we started the 4km of road walking to the start of the trail. After signing the intentions book we headed out onto the trail, winding our way through farmland before entering the forest. The gradient started out quite gentle, gradually rising as we wound our way through the beautiful forest vegetation, passing over quaint streams and gullies. We had over 800m to climb so we were waiting for things to gear up a notch.
As soon as we hit the turn off for the Gable End Ridge Trail the gradient got serious. The track went straight up! The next 6 hours of walking were just the same. Scrambling up steep track, over tree roots and through mud. The forest was beautiful but it was eyes on feet as we climbed, making sure we didn’t slip and fall.
Reaching about 500m in elevation we came out above the tree line and into alpine scrub. With fantastic views across the valley and town below us it was the perfect spot for a lunch break and a rest. During our lunch break another group of hikers came through, John a kiwi we had met weeks ago when we were summiting Mount Pirongia. He was walking with his son Tom who is joining him while he completes the final section of his Ta section hike.
Onwards we tramped to Te Matawai Hut. Now above the tree line we had spectacular views of the Tararua mountain range which we would be walking through over the next couple of days. Although the vegetation had opened up the going was still quite tough.
We were spent when we made it to the hut but the views more than made up for the hard work we put in to get there. We sat on the balcony of the hut, watching the colours change over the mountains as the sun went down and the clouds moved in. We had spectacular views to the peaks we would be climbing tomorrow. Beautiful but intimidating. From hut heigh it was hard to imagine that in a days time we would be climbing more than 1,400m to the summit of Mount Crawford.
The hut was almost to capacity that night, 12 of us in total would be spending the night in the bunks together. Two neat rows of humans. Once complete strangers, hikers tend to bond quickly over the struggles of the day, bad food and foul smelling feet. There must have been something in the mud we had all walked through that day because the smell of everyone’s feet was like nothing I had smelled before. I was overwhelmed by even my owm feet let alone an additional 11 sweaty, dirty humans. Everybody had the same stench coming from their socks and feet, white and wrinkled from a day in the mud. It was beyond what any wet wipe could fix.
Day 62 – Monday 17 December, 21km
Te Matawai Hut to Waitewaewae Hut
It was another early start today, we had a big day ahead of us if we were going to push through to Waitewaewae hut. While 21km doesn’t sound far we had over 1,000m to climb up and the same to climb down. It would mean walking from sun up to sun down, our biggest day of hiking since starting the TA. From the time we left Te Matawai hut to the time we arrived at Waitewaewae hut it would be 16 hours. A long day tramping and a long day on our feet.
It is always a struggle waking up early but the spectacular morning light over the mountains totally made it worth it. By the time we had packed and eaten breakfast most of the other hikers were still in bed.
We were thrown straight into a steep climb up the spur to Pukematawai, it was 532m straight up. As we climed I kept looking down to Te Matawai hut below, watching it grow smaller and smaller amongst the trees below us. I thought back to yesterday, to how daunting the climb had looked from the hut but now, only a few hours into the morning we had climbed so far. As we neared the top of our first summit I was moved by the beauty of the mountains. There is something special about being amongst mountains, the beauty, the expanse, the feeling of being so small in a world so big. The power of mother nature becomes extremely apparent feeling like you are the only 2 people in a space so big. It’s a feeling of freedom.
I was also extremely proud of what we had achieved. It was around 8 in the morning on a Monday when ordinarily we would be rushing to work, dreading the Monday morning grind but we had just climbed a bloody big mountain. We stopped to reflect and have a morning tea break. With such a magnificent view we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
From here it was another few hours walking along the exposed ridgeline to Dracophyllum hut. It was still tough going, dropping into and popping up out of the tree line. We had to be careful of each step, focus on where each foot was being placed. It felt like the moment my eyes were off my feet I would end up on my bum.
We reached Dracophyllum hut just before mid day, a cute little shelter built for 2 with a small water tank and bunk bed. We topped up on water, checked out the digs and had a bite to eat for lunch. Both the hut and toilet were bolted to the ground with tensioned metal cable. With extreme galeforce winds predicted for the following day it was a little ominous to think the wind could get strong enough to take a hut and toilet off the top of a mountain.
It had taken us a little longer to reach Dracophyllum than we anticipated so we were feeling doubtful about pushing through to Waitewaewae but decided we would make the final call when we got to Nichols hut. The next 5km of walking was relatively easy going. We had some exposed ridgeline walking but were mostly beneath the shelter of the treeline. We made it down to Nichols in good time. It was only 3pm so there was plenty of daylight left.
We walked down to the hut, had an early dinner, topped up water and decided to press on. A Finish couple who we had stayed with a Te Matawai the night before were also at the hut but had made the decision to stay put. There would be 8 people in a hut built for 6 but the extra 2 would be able to squeeze in on the floor. It is always daunting to go against the grain, to stray from the majority but every time we had in the past on this trip it has worked out well for us. Sometimes you just have to back yourself.
Dinner was done by 4pm and it was back up the hill to the track junction to continue our journey. I was second guessing our decision on our way up the hill. My knees were feeling sore and my legs tired. It wasn’t the climbed to the Mt Crawford summit I was worried about but the decent. We would be descending over 1,000m over the course of 3km on our journey down to Waitewaewae. A very steep downward journey. After a quick chitchat about it Adam managed to get enough reception at the top of the ridge to recheck tomorrows weather forecast. While it had improved somewhat the winds were still classed as galeforce all day tomorrow and clouds were predicted. Fuck it I said. Lets do it. “that’s the spirit” replied Adam. I also had a little thought in the back of my mind that if the weather for some reason turned earlier than predicted, 10 people could be stuck in that tiny 6 person hut for days. I imagined horror scenes playing out as everyone got in each other’s personal space and the food and toilet paper began running out.
Once the legs and knees got warmed up again we motored up the climb to the summit. We were used to climbing by now so our bodies knew exactly what to do. We made great time to the summit and were extremely proud at what we had achieved. A summit selfie was obligatory. The views along the ridgeline and across the mountain range were phenomenal. As we had been promised by the trip notes we could see the Kapiti Islands and Mount Taranaki out in the distance. There was some cloud out towards the horrison but we were otherwise lucky to have spectacular views to reward our effort.
There was nothing left to do but to start our decent from the mountain. It was slow at first, we had another couple of km to go along the ridge before we dropped down the side. This section was also easy walking, we had done it in less time than the DOC markers indicated. So we were feeling good, confident even when we started the descent at 6.30pm with DOC having indicated it should take 2 hours. It ended up taking us 3.5 hours to hobble the 1,000m down the mountain. The forest was beautiful but the track was slippery with a lot of downed trees and scrambles which made us feel more like we were climbing than hiking. We were about ¾ of the way down when the sun finally hid its self for the day at around 9pm. It would be another hour of walking in the dark before we made it to the hut. It can be slow going and a little demoralizing walking at night but we knew we had a warm hut waiting for us and we were determined to get there.
About 1km before the hut was a huge, kinda sketchy to be walking at night, swing bridge. Thankfully the ‘maximum 1 person at a time’ sign was luminous under torch light. Adam crossed first, I could feel the metal cables bouncing more and more the further across he walked. I was next up. It was nerve wracking to walk across that thing in the dark, im not going to lie. The river and large boulders below were illuminated by torch light which only made it worse. I decided it was best not to look down and kept moving.
Thankfully it was only 1 more km on fairly flat ground to the hut. The trail markers were reflective and became invaluable in the pitch black.
By the time I reched the hut Adam was already there. I saw him unpacking his bag on the balcony and thought oh thats not a good sign. We were hoping the hut would be vacant but alas it was fairly full. There were 8 people already there. We were thankful that a kiwi couple had also come in late, about an hour before us and they helped us get situated. People were spread out in the bunks in every which weird way. One guy was using 2 mats, 2 people were sleeping sideways and in the only reasonable space left on the top bunk 1 girl was sleeping square in the middle of it. I pulled some mattresses out as quietly as I possibly could which probably woke up all of the 6 sleeping souls there and Adam and I slept on either side of this poor girl.
I was thankful to be resting but it was a restless nights sleep. With time to take my magnesium tablet or stretch my legs were aching the whole night. It very much made me look forward to our private little cottage in Wellington.
Day 63 – Tuesday 18 December, 9.4km
Waitewaewae Hut to Parawai Hut
After the big day and late night yesterday we were hoping for a sleep in this morning but it wasn’t to be. People were moving about shortly after 5am. I was wide awake just before 6 when I gave up trying to sleep. I had eaten breakfast and nagged Adam out of bed, by 7am everyone was up.
I had a good chat to Viv and Roland, the Kiwi couple we had met last night on our way in. While they weren’t TA hikers they were training for a section hike of the south Island in 1 months time. Wellington locals, Viv gave me her number for any tips for a good night out while we were in the city. It was 8.30am before we bid them farewell and head off for the day. We were surprised to be off so early having such a lazy start.
We had decided to take it easy and only walk 10km to Parawai Hut today, give ourselves a breather and our bodies a chance to repair. As luck would have it the track was badly damaged so what was originally noted as a 4 to 6 hour walk was now noted as potentially a 7 hour walk. Regardless of whether or not we had pushed through yesterday it looked like we were destined to have one big day anyway so I was glad we made the decision we did.
The track had been badly damaged in recent storms. Part of it even had to be re routed due to a land slip but the re routed track was slow going. We were climbing up and down all day over huge fallen trees, slogging through muddy patches and watching our step the whole way. We passed many streams and beautiful little waterfalls. One of which we stopped at for lunch.
It wasn’t too long after lunch where we hit the junction to an old tramline track. We had heard it was easy going so I was expecting flat firetrail. While it was easier walking that the last 2 and a half days it wasn’t as easy as expected. We had to climb uphill on what felt like a goat track. I was thankful when we reached the suspension bride to take us across the river.
From here it was an ambiguous km of walking through a grass field before we found the track to the hut. It wasn’t easy to find, well hidden down a narow steep path in a little valley. By the time we reached the hut we were thankful that the days walking was over. Surprisingly none of the 6 other TA hikers who left before us were there as we had expected them to be. It was nice having the little hut to ourselves for the evening. It gave ourselves a chance to spread out, get situated and have a wet one bath.
Day 64 – Wednesday 19 December, 25km
Parawai Hut to Waikanae
As it turned out we enjoyed a peaceful night’s rest with Parawai Hut all to ourselves. Rain started falling heavy over night and we awoke to continued rain fall as forecast. Although we would be walking all day in the rain we were thankful to have a dry space in which to pack our bags and were very pleased that we didn’t have to pack down and carry a wet tent.
Wearing our rain gear we begrudgingly left the hut at around 7.30, crossing the Otaki River on a suspension bridge before walking the few kms of road to the Pukeatua track turn off.
Along the Pukeatua track we would climb to 812m to reach the top of Mount Pukeatua. After 3 days on incredibly steep, difficult tramping track, the track up to Pukeatua felt like a walk in the park. We well and truly have our mountain legs now so we powered up the well graded track.
I was wearing the new rain pants I had bought in Palmerston North. While my jacket is still letting me down the pants kept my lower half relatively dry until my jacket let rain in from the top. I enjoyed being able to walk through dense vegetation without becoming absolutely saturated from the waist down.
It rained constantly all morning and as we climed we bgean to walk through the clouds. It made for terrible views but gave the forest an intriguingly eerie feel. We hoped we would pop put out above the rain clouds when we reached the summit but it wasn’t to be. We were greeted with cold damp winds, standing within the clouds on the summit.
With cold winds, rain and whited out views there wasn’t much to stick around for so we headed straight down the mountain. The track had been inundated with rain so it was slippery going on the way down, navigating puddles and muddy bogs which have now become synonymous with the TA. Both Adam and I are due for new shoes in Wellington so descending mountains is now a little painful on our feet. The boots I have been wearing were my hiking boots from home, they were comfortable and well worn in before I started the trail so after 1,500km they don’t have much spring left in them. They are heavy and seem to be taking on water way too easily with the seals gone and holes in the leather. I can’t wait to pick up some lighter weight boots and fesh socks in Wellington. It will be a treat for my poor feet.
The forest on the trail down the mountain was as beautiful as the forest on the way up. At one point, seemingly in an instant we dropped below the clouds and the fog disappeared around us. It felt like putting on eye glasses for the first time, the colours and shapes becoming vivid.
As we exited the forest park the trail took us through private lands. At first much of this private land was like the rest of the forest but after a couple of kms we were spat out onto a decsimated logging forest. After 3 and a half days in the spectacular mountains of the Tararuas it was anticlimactic to end this section of trail this way. It looked as if the area had recently been felled and the track bulldozed. Not only did it have a vibe of devastation about it but the road was not easy to walk on. The ‘road’ was incredibly steep, recently churned up and covered in scree. It was such a shame because it was such a pretty area with a lovely stream running through the middle of it. You could picture what the forest would have looked like if the trees hadn’t been chopped town for the production of cheap pine. We were keen to get out of there as soon as possible and legged it the rest of the way.
Out of the creepy tree graveyard it was a little over 10km of road walking to Waikanae township. Luckily for us there was a pottery shed and cafe a little over half way along the stretch. After a week of dehydrated meals we were both extremely keen to check the place out. It was a little pottery shed/ animal farm/ cafe run by an elderly couple. They were lovely and doing a great job with the place but it did have the feel that things may be getting a little away from them in their old age. It was impressive that they were still running the place on their own. We had a second lunch, Adam had a lasagne while I opted for a devonshire tea with fresh scones. This lady was my type of lady, serving the scones with butter and cream! It was a struggle to leave the warm house and put all of our wet gear back on but the promise of a hot shower spurred us on. It would be only our second shower in over a week. The stench levels were high having worn the one set of clothes for the whole week without washing. There was a whole lot of mud and a whole lot of sweating through the Tararuas and you could smell every bit of it on our clothes (particularly our socks).
It was only an hours walk into town, after so many hills we practically flew into town on the flat road. It was straight to the supermarket. We
Stocked up on the essentials, dinner, shampoo, beer and chocolate and jumped on the train down to Paekakariki.
We have rented a cute little cottage in town where we will base ourselves to walk the remaining section of the North Island into Wellington. The cottage was built before the war (it even has its own bunker!) and was recently refurbished for holiday rentals. We are its first guests so we received the royal treatment with fresh fruit and chocolates on arrival and a fridge stocked with coffee, tea and juice. Staying put for more than one night, having a fridge and access to fresh food and daily showers is an absolutely luxury, let alone in such a beautiful little house. Im not going to want to leave!