Day 27 : Auckland – Ambury Park (19 km / 11.8 mi | Total: 614 km / 381.5 mi)
Day 28 : Ambury Park – Bunkhouse / Brookby Road (37 km / 23 mi | Total: 651 km / 404.5 mi)
Day 29 : Bunkhouse / Brookby Road – Hunua Falls (22 km / 13.7 mi | Total: 673 km / 418.2 mi)
Day 30 : Hunua Falls – Mercer (47 km / 29.2 mi | Total: 720 km / 447.4 mi) (actual distance walked: 36 km / 22.4 mi)
Day 31 : Mercer – Rangiriri (26 km / 16.2 mi | Total: 746 km / 463.5 mi)
Day 32 : Rangiriri – Hakarimata Range (27 km / 16.8 mi | Total: 773 km / 480.9 mi)
Day 33 : Hakarimata Range – Hamilton (28 km / 17.4 mi | Total: 801 km / 497.7 mi)
Day 34 : Zero day
Dec 5 – Dec 12
Total days: 8 | Walking days: 7
Section distance: 206 km / 128 mi (official trail miles only)
Average distance per day: 29.4 km / 18.3 mi (official trail miles only)
Total distance : 801 km / 497.7 mi
Out of the entire 3,000 kilometre TA, I was about to hit its most unpopular section. Everyone who was already cherry-picking and skipping sections, was definitely going to skip this. And those who hadn’t, were considering it.
The trail after Auckland was a collection of farmland, few forest tracks but predominantly, roads. These weren’t quiet gravel roads heading further inland, but long, desperate stretches of tarmac. The roads were all marked with exclamation marks on the Guthook app, warning for little to no shoulder and heavy traffic commandeered by lorries. It wasn’t fun. Most hikers skipped until Mercer, some even Hamilton, and Bee and I walked.
After a rest day in Auckland I left my private room at the YMCA at checkout time. My main focus for the day was not the trail – it was an easy enough walk. I needed to leave behind my stick. My wooden walking stick which had accompanied me for the past 500 kilometres, and which I’d grown so emotionally attached to, that leaving it was probably going to shift into a major psychological event in my life. My wooden stick which I’d unofficially nicknamed Mr Pointy, a fact so uncool, it was clearly time to let go. I had picked up a cheap trekking pole from Bivouac which was much more convenient as I could collapse it and fix it to my pack when I didn’t have a need for it. And that day out of Auckland was the day I was going to let go of Mr Pointy.
The question was, where? The TA followed many parks out of Auckland, which was as nice as it was frustrating, as the route kept swirling and meandering around all the different streets, curving from one park to the next. Ideally I’d leave the stick behind in a forest, where it had come from originally, but I wouldn’t pass one for days, so I decided upon a park. As I walked, none of them seemed to suit: one park was too touristy and the next too manicured and the one after that didn’t seem wild enough. I kept leaning my stick against a tree, judging if it would fit in, if it would be happy to stay there for the rest of its life, then deciding against. It wasn’t until I hit One Tree Hill that I saw potential.
The park had a nice feel and some large trees spaced within the undulating grass. One of them I liked – the trunk had a wide opening with lots of tiny branches growing inside itself. This was a good spot to hide the stick. The chances of maintenance taking the stick and it ending up as landfill were small (or so I desperately hoped). The tree would protect the stick and I decided this was the spot. I took some pictures to commemorate the moment, placed it inside the trunk and got hit in the eye by a small branch. I tried not to take the abuse as a sign. Then I walked away, and almost cried.
With my newfound freedom I continued on my way. Slowly the route moved out of Auckland and I followed the coastal pathway to Ambury Park, where Bee had already approached the campsite. It wasn’t manned, so she called the DOC to book spots but they told her the campsite was full: it was booked up by Boy Scouts. When I passed, I saw it was impossible to ever be full. There were no allocated sites and there was hardly anyone there. No matter how big this group of scouts was going to be, it was impossible that two small hiker tents wouldn’t fit.
But it didn’t matter. We were not allowed to camp there so Bee walked back to meet me at a small structure next to the water, a covered rest area in the midst of grassy fields that appeared secluded enough for us to set up quietly. It wasn’t ideal, and possibly not allowed, but there were no affordable alternatives nearby. We had no choice. We set up our tents inside and left early the next morning. When I passed the DOC campsite, it was still empty – those Boy Scouts never turned up.
Soon enough I caught up with Bee and for the first time, we spent the entire day walking together. While we’d been matching our days and nightly camping spots, we hadn’t actually walked together much: Bee rose early and in no time sped off. I would take my time, but invariably ran into her on one of her breaks, as I took less. Solo hiking was ingrained in both of us, and us walking together worked out about as much as it didn’t: her early departure stressed me out and made me feel like I needed to hurry, while me leaving late made her feel bad for leaving me behind. It was interesting to see these emotion popping up during a thruhike, where we are free to do whatever we want. Somehow we still managed to make our lives difficult for ourselves, even though there was no reason to. Despite our own useless inner conflicts, we got on really well and our approach to hiking the trail was similar. It was during this section that we also began to walk together, because it was simply too boring not to.
Around lunchtime we passed the small shopping centre near the airport, and sat on the benches in front of the supermarket enjoying fizzy drinks and juice and expensive Puhoi yoghurts. We looked entirely out of place, most people dressed up for the office and hurrying around to grab a quick lunch. Just as we left, our packs hoisted onto our backs, trekking poles in hand and me holding a coffee cup, a lady in a clean, patterned summer dress approached us.
‘This might come across the wrong way,’ she started, intriguing us both, ‘but if you have time, there’s a really nice lake in that direction.’ And she pointed somewhere, away from this collection of office buildings and shops and civilised life.
Just as we politely tried to thank her, being quite British and all, and tell her we had a lot of walking to do, she briskly walked off, leaving us behind, somewhat perplexed. Then we realised what had just happened – she thought we were a pair of bums and essentially told us to take a wash.
The comment rejuvenated us. It officially put us on the map as hiker trash and placed us on the very edge of society. It was our motivator for the rest of the day. This lady was our hero.
We continued our day in stitches. It was hot and we took break after break as we passed the many roads, trails and a fancy botanical garden. We ended at the road of all roads – the busy Brookby Road that was deemed terrifying, and while it was busy and not ideal, we walked on the narrow shoulder and made it to the Bunkhouse where we would stay the night. This was a cute little guest house that only recently opened, perfectly placed for TA hikers as the only alternative was to knock on people’s doors and ask to camp in their garden. The Bunkhouse was a small hostel meets chalet, and the hot day had made me a bit delirious so I lay on the bed and started shouting to Bee for unknown reasons: ‘I’m an alien Bee, I’m an ALIEN. I’M A SUPER ALIEN.’
And that’s how I became Cosmo the Super Alien.
The next few days the trail was supposed to take us through the Hunua Ranges, but the track had been closed due to landslides. An alternative road walk was our only option. We’d been talking to Chris, an American hiker who had only just begun the trail in Auckland. He found out that the first part of the trail into the Hunua Ranges was in a walkable condition. It meant we could stay on route for the day: follow the roads and join the Wairoa River Track until we got to Hunua Falls. The next day however, we’d have to do the alternate: a long road walk instead of two days hiking the Ranges.
That first morning, Bee and I set off late. We planned to wild camp at Hunua Falls, and as it was a touristy location, we wanted to arrive when most of the tourists had already gone for the day. We walked the roads to the nice town of Clevedon before finally joining the trail. It was hot. The riverside track was a nice change from all the roads we’d been following and we spent some time resting out feet in the water. As we got closer to the Falls, the track got rougher – it was washed away in several spots and I could imagine the trail further up in the Ranges being a lot worse.
That evening, Chris, Bee and I camped on the grass near the Falls and enjoyed the novelty of eating at a picnic table, taking full advantage of an amazing public toilet building nearby. We rose on time again – before the first tourists would arrive – venturing into a long day.
I’d been dreading this section. In my mind I prepared for an endless, monotonous day, so I put in my ear plugs and just went, walked and walked, the fast road walking that I can sometimes do. It was luckily not too busy and I didn’t stop to rest until I’d walked 18 kilometres. The day was going well. I was flying through it. I couldn’t believe how good I felt, until I hit the last ten kilometres before Mercer and entered the trail from hell.
Bee and I ran into each other when we left the road, and entered a long stretch of farmland where we walked across an exposed stop bank in the heat of day. The grass was long and the footing uneven and I was soon covered in hives and then we both collapsed. We lay in the bumpy grass and furiously wanted it all to end. The final two kilometres the route turned into an overgrown trail through the bush, and I desperately wished I was walking on the road again, which frustratingly ran parallel to us.
Mercer wasn’t much: lots of highway and a few industrial buildings, with a pub that let hikers camp in the garden for free. There were no other options, so we stayed at the pub. Chris was there as well, and two American couples who were rather exuberant and told crazy stories involving beer and weed. It was somewhat overwhelming. But the pub had showers and pizza and a little garden where we set up our tents. It was one of those places that all the hikers were raving about, but I didn’t understand why. The pub was run down and the patrons reflected this. The pizza was not the mind-blowing pizza everyone made out to be, and as kind as it was for the owners to welcome in hikers and let us stay for free, I felt somewhat uneasy staying there.
The strange night in Mercer proved a fitting setup for the worst day on trail: the section between Mercer and Rangiriri. Just as the previous days it was sunny and extremely hot, but I wore my leggings to protect against the tall grass, which had been giving me hives. The trail out of Mercer first cut through overgrown land, inundated with small hills, and soon the trail faded away. I didn’t know where to go, the trail was gone and the GPS made no sense. I was at the foot of a small but pride hill and all I knew was that I needed to be on the other side. The vegetation wouldn’t allow me to go around, but there was no clear way to go up. I couldn’t understand why none of the hikers who’d left before me, weren’t still here, confused, raging, with no idea where to go. It seemed utterly impossible. How had they managed to get through?
I had no choice but to bushwhack right over the hill, so I did, the grass high and marking my arms and cutting my leggings over and over again. It was a true hell. I pulled myself up on tree branches, seemingly treading on top of thick shrubs and barely made it to the top, where I found what looked like the trail, just to head down again on the opposite side.
When the trail crossed a busy road, I was back on farmland again. I already knew I didn’t enjoy these type of tracks, but I had no idea what pure torment lay ahead. It was obvious the idea of trail maintenance was a joke: I walked from stopback to riverside tracks that were so overgrown I had to crawl underneath thick bushes that cornered me right against an electric fence. It was evident no one had bothered to take one look at this route after placing the first trail markers here, years ago. It was downright atrocious. I found myself climbing over fences because the trail behind was simply not passable, and at the far end of every section of land I could only hope to find a way back across the electric fence. It is a wonder I didn’t get electrocuted that day – most others did.
When I finally reached the road for the last eight kilometres into Rangiriri, I found that I’d run out of water. There were no streams nearby and it was hot and I was desperate. The only option was to take from the Waikato River I’d been following all day, but it didn’t look very good. I’m not sure how safe the water was – it had an odd flavour which stayed in my filter. I was more than done with the day when I approached Rangiriri, where Bee and I camped for free once again – this time behind a pie shop that served great food with a huge public toilet out front, which spoke to us in an American accent.
Luckily, the next day offered some relief. Hardly soon enough though – the day began with a long walk along another exposed stop bank. The ground underfoot had been ruined by the endless shuffle of heavy cow feet, creating a hardened surface so uneven that I stumbled forward, and my ankles were in constant pain. Some of the fields were populated with cows and they were scary: huge and heavy, and some so stubborn they wouldn’t move an inch to let us through.
The stop bank went from cow fields to a golf course where I was completely in the way, and didn’t quite realise I was supposed to get off the stop bank altogether and skirt the edge of the course instead. But at the end I reached the Hakarimata Ranges, and finally I left the section of hell behind, and everything changed.
This was what I’d been longing for. I left the horrible stop banks, farmland, questionable rivers and roads behind and ascended steeply into the forest. These were the right kind of ranges. The weather had been dry and there was no mud, but I found a plethora of tree roots which had formed into a fun path to hike. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
High up along the ridge I found Bee, ready to set up camp at a glassy clearing. The spot seemed perfect until a black possum visited us at night. I tried to chase it away but it was thoroughly unimpressed. It finally ran off and left me in a dreamworld full of nightmares, half-awake and half-asleep. The next morning, Bee told me the possum had sat itself right on top of her tent, sagging the fabric right next to her head.
In the morning I continued through the forest, and I finally felt as though I was doing a real thruhike, waking up in nature and walking a wondrous trail, never minding the possums and terrifying nightmares that had haunted me all night. It took a few hours along the backbone of the ranges to reach the summit, and suddenly I found myself on a busy trail, populated with local joggers and tourists going up and down the newly constructed stairs.
Somehow, I flew down. I didn’t just walk, I half-ran and I felt great. This is my day. This is my thruhike. It took half an hour what should’ve taken an hour and a half, and I was sad to find myself at the bottom of the hill, the end of the ranges, back on the road with a neat walkway leading all the way to Hamilton. The path was paved and easy but long and soon enough I struggled again, failing to find the motivation to keep the pace. I forced myself to rest along the way instead of stubbornly pressing on, and made it to the town of Hamilton I’d imagined to be picturesque, but instead was rather ugly and industrial with an unfriendly backpackers where I’d booked a private room for a day of rest.
Nevertheless, my rest day was great. I had breakfast twice: pancakes and French toast, and I went shopping with Bee. We visited Trek’n’Travel where I picked up a hut pass in anticipation of the huts coming up and the South Island, and I got a water bladder to help me drink more. I even found a new Sawyer filter as my old one still tasted like Waikato River.
When Bee left, I found Bivouac and Torpedo7 where I bought new hiking clothes. My current clothing wasn’t working out for me – New Zealand turned out much hotter than I’d expected. I bought thinner layers and new shorts and then got new mesh stuff sacks and a little tripod for my phone. I went all over town to find the Salomon Speedcross I really wanted to try, the shoes of choice that year on trail, but no one carried them. I ended up ordering them online and guessing the size, and had them send to Taumarunui post office, less than 300 kilometres ahead. My Brooks Cascadias were still in decent condition, although the salty water had been tough on them. But everybody was buying new shoes, and I wanted some too.
At the end of the day, I had a stack of old things to send back to my parents, and I was excited about my new gear. More than anything, I was happy to leave the worst section of the TA behind me, and was curious to discover what the trail would throw at me next.