Day 6 : Ahipara – Kaitaiai Walkway Junction / Tramp Inn (21.9 km / 13.6 mi | Total: 123 km / 76.4 mi)
Day 7 : Tramp Inn – Raetea summit (21 km / 13 mi | Total: 144 km / 89.5 mi)
Day 8 : Raetea summit – Apple Dam campsite (30 km / 18.6 mi | Total: 174 km / 108.1 mi)
Day 9 : Apple Dam campsite – DOC Puketi campsite (25 km / 15.5 mi | Total: 199 km / 123.6 mi))
Nov 14 – Nov 17
Total days: 4 | Walking days: 4
Section distance: 97.9 km / 60.8 mi
Average distance per day: 24.5 km / 15.2 mi
Total distance : 199 km / 123.6 mi
(Thanks again to Speedy for letting me use and edit her pictures of this forest section, despite me having a replacement phone – the next blog will tell all about the small (huge) disaster that ensues which has me ending up without a phone and lose all my pictures, once again!)
The Te Araroa trail begins with two rites of passages. The first is the beach, the battle with the monotony of pervading views and the slow progress of walking a surface of sand for days on end. All that alongside the fight with the tides and the exposure to the elements. Then there are the muddy forests. Three Northland forests made of nothing more than a jungle of trees and mud. An enclosure of green, ceaseless brush with steep inclines and descends. It’s an introduction to bushwhacking more than anything else, with rivers to replace eroded tracks but mostly, it’s a cruel initiation to mud. Slippery, deep, thick, relentless mud. Whether it rains or not, there is mud. Mud is the one thing you will remember after fighting your way through these forests.
This is usually where people start to re-evaluate their time on trail, and quit, or decide they don’t need to hike the entire thing really, and start skipping portions of it. My aim is to keep a continuous line going down the country, so after my rest day at Ahipara, I was happy to hit the road and begin the walk to the first muddy forest, Herekino.
As usual, I appeared to be the last one to leave the holiday park but I felt rejuvenated. After losing my phone to the sea, I had bought a new one in Kaitaia. I’d downloaded the Guthook app with all the maps and I was finally able to take pictures again. I was ready for it.
The roadwalk was scenic and the light beautiful. Everything was green and fresh. It took almost two hours to reach the entrance to the forest, where I saw some sticks leaning against the back of the large sign. Large wooden sticks someone had clearly used for hiking. I wondered if I should pick one up – I didn’t have any hiking poles. I was worried about wading through the upcoming rivers, but as they were still some days ahead, I decided against.
I entered the forest and began the immediate steep ascend, a perilous collection of wooden steps covered in mud. It only took a few slippery attempts up to turn around and pick up the biggest wooden stick before heading up again. Start two. Now I was ready.
The journey up was taxing. I ploughed through the dense trees, the narrow path cut from slippery roots, a continuous up and down and up and down through never changing layers of thick mud. The tree roots were as treacherous as the muddy track, and the combination painfully time-consuming and arduous.
Along the way I met my first fellow hiker of the day. Colin ‘Curly’ appeared out of nowhere and walked with me for a while, chatting away. He was friendly and easy-going and his pace was quick. Curly was a trail runner who was running the trail in an attempt to set an unsupported FKT (Fastest Known Time) for the TA. We walked together and he slowed down a little, but soon enough I struggled to keep up. I still remember him saying he enjoyed the slower pace for the while being. The moment he ran off, I diverted back to my more moderate slog through the mud.
Then the weather turned. First the sun hid behind a layer of grey clouds and rain began to fall. By the time I reached the highest point, it was raining steadily. As I descended I realised the way down was even muddier than the way up, and the trail became ever more untrustworthy and rather ungodly with the lathering of rain. My timing was clearly bad. Every single step required attention. I was as careful as possible, but I still slipped and fell several times. For the first time I had thoughts of quitting the trail. And I don’t mean the first time since starting the TA – for first time ever. It surprised even me. I’ve done some very long, lonely trails with endless challenges and little rewards, but I never once considered quitting. But here in Herekino Forest, I was acutely aware of the fact that I didn’t need to be there, that I didn’t need to put myself through all this.
By the time I reached a steep, bare downhill slope, I was in a proper downpour. I stood at the top and looked at the scene in front. A wide section of mud with a rope dangling all the way down. It was so wet and slippery that using it looked a lot more dangerous than not using it. Instead, I clung onto the branches to the side, the small roots and bushes that stuck out from underneath the mud. It took all my strength not to slip all the way down. I grasped onto everything wet and muddy and got bashed in the face by everything around me. The whole thing couldn’t have been more miserable.
Not long after I suddenly found myself on the outskirts of the forest, next to a dirt road. I hadn’t made any plans for where to stay that night as I’d expected to see someone I knew during the day. I hadn’t. I checked my phone and saw there was some sort of accommodation nearby and spotted the one building in the surrounding farmland: an old crumbling hut in a large field. Then someone waved from inside and I made my way across. I wondered who it was – it had to be Just Drew, or Tim or René?
I opened the door to possibly the most shocking interior I would encounter on trail. The hut was old, the interior made of two rooms with a somewhat terrifying concoction of corrugated steel, old thick wood, and dirt. There was no floor, the mattresses were covered in plastic and filthy fitted sheets and everything was damp. A large table with a few ripped stools took up the centre of the main space, and I absolutely knew that I wanted to touch nothing inside.
Two people were inside, Curly and a girl called Bea I hadn’t met before. I was surprised to see Curly but liked that he took it easy despite his goals for the trail. I remembered seeing Bea at the holiday park in her awfully cute green Six Moons tent, and I’d thought she was Asian. She wasn’t. In fact, she was from London, like me. They had both chosen a bunk and seemed surprisingly comfortable despite the cold and being surrounded by filth. Everything I had was absolutely soaked but I dreaded putting anything down in the hut as it would just mean getting it covered in more dirt. Still, setting up my tent in the rain outside wasn’t really an option, so I was there to stay.
Despite our surroundings, the hut had soon turned into quite a fun place to be – all of us chatting away while I carefully baby wiped one mattress before deciding the entire bunk was well beyond my comfort limits and moved over to baby wipe another. I made sure to unpack only the necessities while trying to touch nothing that was actually attached to the hut. Meanwhile, I looked on in absolute disgust how Bea had set her wet, muddy pack on the offensive floor and seemed to hold no anxiety over the ever-increasing collection of filth. I couldn’t believe it.
Later that afternoon two others arrived. The rain outside had turned to a torrential downpour and we had already heard their screams of frustration bellow from inside the forest. When Mary and Harry made it inside, the hut was soon overwhelmed with their fuming energy while they hung up all their wet gear to dry. They shared their stories of navigating the forest during the increasingly disastrous weather – something that really should not be recommended. On top of everything else, they seemed to have quite heavy packs and Harry carried a 2.5 kilo drone on his chest. I couldn’t imagine navigating up and down steep inclines with such excessive gear.
The next morning Curly sped off first and I left not long after. There was a bit of a road walk until the second forest, Raetea, but the morning was beautiful. A mist hung low over the hilly farmland and the roads were quiet, picturesque and surrounded by fresh overhanging leaves. It was like slowly entering a rain forest.
Once in Raetea I continued through the jungle of vines and the steep inclines of endless roots. The trail was even more difficult and muddy than Herekino and parts were so overgrown I could hardly differentiate between the trail and the bush, which was covered in thick vines that populated every square inch. The climb to the summit proved the longest five kilometres imaginable.
Closer to the top, Bea caught up and we continued together. It didn’t get any easier. At one point we found ourselves in a struggle to climb over a huge fallen tree until we realised we weren’t on the trail anymore. It took some time and disoriented checking of our GPS and maps to backtrack and find our way again.
When we reached the summit we set up camp on a grassy patch next to the com station. The views stretched out across the hilly forest while dark clouds moved in. I was happy to be in my tent again. At night I heard a large animal run around outside. Something that seemed larger than the expected possum, but I never found out what it was.
The next morning Bea left first. As I headed back into the shaded woods to find my way down the mountain, I ran into René. Finally! I was happy to see him. I’d been wondering where everyone had ended up when I was the only one of us at the Tramp Inn. Tim had left a note in the trail book saying he got through the forest so quick that he moved on to the next, but no one else had added anything to the book. René told me he’d passed the Tramp Inn and when the weather turned for the worst, got a hitch to Kaitaia where he stayed the night in a hotel. Last night he had camped in the forest, not far from us.
We continued together but it didn’t take long for me to fall behind. The mud was even worse than it had been up until now and I had to stay alert not to fall with every step. I held onto tree trunks, spinning around, trying to edge around the endless sludge disguised as a trail. It was horrible. The mud was thick and would suck you in until you got stuck and fell over. It was dreadfully easy to loose a shoe. I hurt my knee and slipped in the mud over and over. I was frustrated because I was progressing so slow. It seemed to never end – it took hours to get down.
When I finally got to the bottom, I had another obstacle to worry about – I’d read warnings about a bunch of barking working dogs at the farm through which we had to exit. Farm dogs terrify me, so I was hugely relieved to find Bea taking pictures just out of the forest. I asked her to walk with me, and we filed right through the midst of about eight terrifying dogs, all chained up and foaming at the mouths, ready to attack.
Once we got though, Bea took a break. I already knew she was a bit like me – keen to hike alone. There was another road walk to the start of the next forest with a small shop along the way. I was looking forward to getting some treats. I caught up with René just before hitting Mangamuka Dairy and we walked up together, finding the dairy closed. We were devastated. There had been an electricity cut and we weren’t sure when it would come back on. Nevertheless, we perched on the picnic table in front and René fixed me a hot coffee on his stove, a most welcome little treat to someone who backpacks stoveless.
Soon Bea joined and we all took it easy. I was exhausted after the forest and the road walk, and had no idea how I was going to make the final 12 kilometres to Apple Dam campsite, which set at the foot of the final forest. We stayed long enough for the dairy to open again and we started to buy snacks and drinks. I was out of luck – I didn’t have any cash and my foreign card wasn’t accepted. René wanted to give me some cash and I finally relented. He insisted he didn’t even want me to return the money. René had been generous from the start and I liked his personal approach to this hike – always staying in cabins where possible, and always with a glass of quality wine.
Soon René went ahead and left Bea and me to spend the last of his money on hokey pokey ice cream. After the long break, I felt surprisingly refreshed and power walked all the way to the campsite. I even managed to catch up with René just before arriving. I knew I wasn’t very fast going up and down the mud in the forest, but at least I was fast at something.
The final forest was a whole other animal. About 3.5 kilometres was actually a walk through Mangapukahukahu River itself and the three of us decided to walk together to make sure we were all safe. It had been raining quite a bit recently and we were worried about the water levels. There was one spot where the approach road bridged over the stream – if the water flooded the road, the river was too high. We were happy to find it wasn’t, and we continued down the official route.
It proved to be a nice and varied day. The weather was warm and mostly sunny and the river walk wasn’t an issue. Some spots were deep and slippery and we zigzagged from one side of the river to the other. We ran into Just Drew who was camped on a pebbled bank. I knew we would run into him – I had already recognised his footprint in the mud on the way to the river.
Towards the end of the river section we jumped up on a track sidling alongside the stream until we faced a wide intersection of rivers that we needed to cross. We’d heard of people having to swim, but we found the shallow spot and crossed. It was quite far and a little unnerving. One across we jumped onto a track alongside the river, a dangerous sidle along an eroded path with fallen trees that plummeted into the river below, along with the path itself. It was testing and took another bout of constant concentration and acrobatics to get through. But then we exited onto a beautiful swimming spot next to the river.
I started to take a load of pictures, while Bea went for a swim. I was happy to relax in such a beautiful spot, although I felt rushed to get to camp in time. I often felt too rushed to relax on trail. When Just Drew walked up he shocked us with the time. It was late afternoon and we still had to ascend out of the forest and walk another 9 kilometre road.
Suddenly we were in a hurry again, and we made our way out of the forest. For once we were granted an easy, well groomed trail, which wasn’t as steep as advertised. It passed through thick kauri trees and it was a nice ending to the crazy Northland forests section. It wasn’t until we reached to road that we realised Drew had been wrong – it was only early afternoon and we had rushed out for no reason. Bea was pretty annoyed. She’d wanted to spend some time swimming and enjoying her day, but we were now too far to go back.
We continued our way along the quiet forest road. I did another power walk until I reached the DOC campsite and entered the hut. There I found the last surprise of the day, which was Tim, relaxing at the hut. I hadn’t expected to see him again – I’d already nicknamed him Fast Walker because he had a good pace and had gone through the first forest in record tempo. Apparently, his foot had been giving him problems so he was forced to slow down.
It didn’t take long for everyone to gather at the hut. We’d all got through the Te Araroa’s second rite of passage: the Northland forests were behind us!