Day 35 : Hamilton – Karamu Track (27 km / 16.8 mi | Total: 828 km / 514.5 mi)
Day 36 : Karamu Track – Pirongia / Pahautea hut (20 km / 12.4 mi | Total: 848 km / 526.9 mi)
Day 37 : Pirongia / Pahautea hut – Oamaru Reserve (22 km / 13.7 mi | Total: 877 km / 544.9 mi)
Day 38 : Oamaru Reserve – Te Kuiti (37 km / 23 mi | Total: 914 km / 567.9 mi)
Day 39 : Te Kuiti – along Mangaokewa Road (25 km / 15.5 mi | Total: 939 km / 583.5 mi)
Day 40 : along Mangaokewa Road – Ngaherenga campsite (31 km / 19.3 mi | Total: 970 km / 602.7 mi)
Day 41 : Ngaherenga campsite – Harrison Creek Shelter (25 km / 15.5 mi | Total: 995 km / 618.3 mi)
Day 42 : Harrison Creek shelter – Mystery Creek shelter (26 km / 16.2 mi | Total: 1021 km / 634.4 mi)
Day 43 : Mystery Creek shelter – Ongarue Road shelter (28 km / 17.4 mi | Total: 1049 km / 651.8 mi)
Day 44 : Ongarue Road shelter – Taumarunui (26 km / 16.2 mi | Total: 1075 km / 668 mi)
Day 45 : Zero day
Dec 13 – Dec 23
Total days: 11 | Walking days: 10
Section distance: 274 km / 170.3 mi
Average distance per day: 27.4 km / 17 mi
Total distance : 1075 km / 668 mi
After Hamilton, the TA made its first strides towards the sort of trail I’d been waiting for. There were more forests and mountains, littered with just a few sections of frustrating farmland to ensure the typical North Island TA experience.
In Hamilton I had bought some new gear and thinner clothes. It felt good to wear something that absorbed the searing heat a little better. On the first day out I passed a post office and sent a kilo worth of gear home.
Then I continued to follow the roads out of town. It was a bit of everything that day, the roads, a trail, a crazy scramble down to a corn field because Bee and I had noticed the turnoff too late. We followed the trail in the midst of the corn until it suddenly disappeared, right around the time I lost Bee and I had to barge right through the corn, and crawled through a fence to get back to the same road where we’d started. It was one of the many spots where the TA had been diverted off the main road, only to follow an impossible track through farmland, right next to it.
At the end of the day we ended up on picturesque and hilly land, where we set up our tents in a strong wind. I worried a little, until it calmed again late at night. Everything was fine. I felt a bit sick – something that would stay with me for days – probably because of the heat that wouldn’t let go. At least my new water bladder worked great, and I found myself drinking so much more. Despite the hassle of filtering water and carrying the heavier bladder, it seemed like a much better solution for me.
The following morning I couldn’t stop getting lost. For the first time, the farmland was pleasant and charming but I kept missing the waymarkers, having to backtrack and climb stiles onto different roads. I even had a farmer in the far distance yell at me, pointing out the right direction when I moved straight up a small hill, instead of curving around. It became a busy area: lots of sheep and dogs and farmers moving about and I was afraid I’d be caught in the midst of it, but found the trail curving around the commotion perfectly.
After a short section on the road, which was remarkably enjoyable, the real fun started. I reached the Pirongia Mountain and the trail was so nice that I didn’t even realise I was ascending until I was halfway up. The mud had mostly dried and the tree roots were abundant, curving beautifully and lavishly. My pictures mostly failed in the low light but everything was covered in moss and the old trees on top seemed to grow from the rocks.
It got tougher as I got higher. The backbone of the mountain afforded grand views from between the high shrub and the air felt cold which was a relief after the hot days. I moved slow until I got overtaken by a young local, who was headed to the same Pahautea hut at the top. We started talking as we moved across the crest, me speeding up to match his packless, swift pace while he told me about the birds he was there to watch. He also explained why these forests are so muddy, as the volcanic rocks below don’t allow the rainwater to drain.
At the hut I found Bee and Isha. We’d been overlapping with Isha for a long time. We sat in the new, luxuriously spaced hut, and discussed the days ahead, as some logistically challenging sections were coming up. Christmas was ahead of us and we would spend the days leading up to it in the town of Taumarunui.
Taumarunui was key to organising the Whanganui River canoe journey, as this is where all the canoe hire companies were based. But after town, we’d first walk the week-long Tongariro section, and only then we’d start the canoe journey, which was an official part of the trail. It seemed like a huge hassle to organise all of this, getting groups together and approaching the canoe hire companies. This river journey was one of the reasons Bee and I had made sure to still line up our days together – from what we’d read, you had to share a canoe with another person, and we wanted to do that together.
What we didn’t know yet was that this was a misunderstanding altogether: it was very possible to get your own kayak instead of sharing a canoe with someone else. What wasn’t possible, was starting the journey alone. That was nothing to worry about though, the companies and the i-Site information centre would group people together anyways, but this information was unclear and it had made the whole organising seem a lot more difficult than it was. But more on that when we get to it.
Taumarunui was our first worry: we’d been told accommodation filled up quickly around Christmas, and as we’d planned a zero day we weren’t keen on staying at the campsite, which was a decent distance out of town. Worried we’d be left with no place to stay, we calculated how many days it would take to reach town and used the limited phone reception to book a motel for two nights – the first time we would be sharing a room.
With everything sorted I set up my tent in one of the allocated spots outside the hut. I was the only person not staying in the hut. I preferred my privacy. There was only one downside to staying outside which became apparent soon: it was absolutely freezing cold.
The next morning I was one of the last to leave and I was prepared for a tough morning hiking downhill. Isha had spoken to a northbound section hiker who’d advised the way down was almost as bad as Raetea, the worst of the muddy forests. I advanced through the mossy trees, haunting and elvish and the views infatuating. I felt good. There were some steep bits and the trail was muddy and narrow, but not as bad as it could’ve been, and a world of difference from when I hiked through Raetea. I took my time descending and leapfrogged with Isha, and found the way down hugely pleasant.
Then suddenly, it was over. I stood at the side of a gravel road, where Isha was ready to hitch. Isha loved hitchhiking, hilariously so – she also loved staying in towns so even though I walked all the roads and she hitched ahead, we saw each other a lot.
The next stretch counted twenty kilometres of road walking but it went by surprisingly fast. I had descended back into the heat, but I felt the weather slowly cooling down again. Perhaps that’s why I felt so much better – the temperatures were changing. When I hit the next forest I was fresh out of water. The road walk hadn’t had any water sources apart from a stream near the start, which I’d missed, and I had emptied the entire water bladder without even realising it. I crawled down to the very first, tiny, stream in the forest and filled my soft water bottle.
There is one huge downside to water bladders and that is having to spend a lot of time filtering to fill up the bladder. Doing it at camp at night isn’t that bad, doing it on the side of the trail when you want to be walking, is somewhat frustrating. I was supposed to meet Bee somewhere along this forest trail to find a spot to camp and I had no idea how far ahead she was, if she was waiting, or or if she was setting up camp somewhere already. So I stuffed the water bag in my pack without filtering and kept on walking.
The forest was great – the track was spacious and there were lots of beautiful camping spots. I wished I could’ve stayed at one of them, but the following day would be long, so it was best to find a spot as far ahead as possible.
It didn’t take long to find Bee, sitting next to the track. She’d only been waiting for fifteen minutes so I’d done a good job in catching up. We kept on walking to get further ahead, but at the same time we knew we couldn’t go too far – the trail would soon pass through Oamaru reserve where we weren’t allowed to camp. The Guthook app mentioned a wild camping spot right at the start but we knew some other hikers were already planning on camping there. While we were ahead of them, we didn’t want to take their spot in case it was too small for all of us. And that proved to be a good thing, because at the end of the forest, the trail opened up into spacious farmland overlooking the valley below, and we found a beautiful spot for our tents. It was our best site so far.
The next day was a long day into Te Kuiti, and the entire trail would pass farmland alone. I had already read about hikers having bad experiences on this section and I was sure it would be the same for me. Farmland with all the stiles and electric fences and hardened muddy paddocks that twisted my ankles were not my forte. There would be no relieve in the way of roads, and there were only a few short forest tracks, some in better condition than others.
The weather started out chilly in the morning but it got hotter during the day. Surprisingly, my progress through the farmland wasn’t too bad, although many things aggravated me: having to climb over or under electric fences because I couldn’t find anywhere to undo the rope and safely walk through, having to walk a hugely overgrown and eroded track even though a gravel road ran right next to the trail on the other side of the fence and fighting tunnels of gorse that punctured and scratched my skin and clothing. After hours of fighting the trail I had a short stop in the tourist town of Waitomo, and got horrifyingly lost once more because of incorrect GPS and almost gave up. I was just about to walk the road into town, when to my dismay I found the trail at the very last minute – progressing right though the farmland once again.
When I finally reached the town of Te Kuiti, Bee and I found the local campsite deserted – it no longer existed. Our only option was to go to the backpackers three kilometres out of town. Three very long kilometres out of town, and off-trail. We tried calling as they often pick up hikers from the town centre, but no-one picked up. Our only option was to walk. It was the longest three uphill kilometres in my life.
Our start the next morning was better. They gave us a ride back into town, and we did our resupply and sipped coffee at the local café. In two days we would start the Timber Trail, a supposedly great track through a forest that everyone loved. But the route there was up in the air – we were supposed to walk the eight kilometre Mangaokewa River Track, but according to warnings on the Facebook group, this was completely washed out and too dangerous to attempt. The trail wasn’t officially closed and we were hesitant to divert from the official trail, but we didn’t want to risk getting stuck either.
We made our decision at the last minute, and decided to walk state highway 30 instead of the official route, and we planned to reconnect back to the TA at Mangaokewa North Road, after the washed out section. The trail notes mentioned a campsite nearby, where we would stay the night.
When we left town it was almost noon. The heat was overwhelming but the state highway proved a pleasant surprise. It was pretty and quiet. We took lots of breaks throughout the day and it helped to deal with the heat.
When we approached Mangaokewa North Road we were exhausted. My feet were throbbing from the tarmac and I was relieved to be done. I couldn’t take another step. But then we realised the campsite wasn’t actually there. It was three kilometres back towards the river track we hadn’t taken. The road we were on now had nowhere to camp. There was no option but to keep on walking and hope for a hidden spot somewhere along the road. Or, worst case scenario, knock on someone’s door and ask to camp on their land – something we really weren’t comfortable doing.
As we walked we found everywhere around us fenced off and private. A few times we considered going up to someone’s house but both chickened out. I’d wild camped a lot before and I was sure we would find something at some point, but Bee was getting more worried. After an hour we passed a small parking spot across the road from a house, which was mostly hidden from passing cars by trees. Weren’t quite sure we wanted to set up our tents there, until we found an opening into the dark, dense wooded area that descended steeply to a river down below. Everything seemed quite muddy, as though it had all been washed out years ago in a huge flood, but we just about managed to squeeze our tents into two tight spots, and found access to the muddy water, which tasted like chalk.
That night we went to sleep relieved we’d found a hidden spot, but it wasn’t long before I woke up – more terrified than I’ve ever been.
I woke in the deep of night to a darkness that was so immediate and absolute, that in one overwhelming moment I knew I had to escape. I envisioned ripping through the tent, fight my way out, but I knew it was useless. I wasn’t afraid of the intimate enclosure of my shelter, but the overgrown canopy of trees that held me in an embrace so thick and wild it wouldn’t let through a speck of light. I considered putting on my shoes to scramble up the hillside in search of the faint glow of moon in the sky, but I knew the way up was too rough to find in the black of night. There was nowhere for me to go. I turned on my solar light and tried to calm down, focusing on the interior, the items strewn inside, the fabric of the tent. When it ran out of power I switched on the screen of my phone. I tried to sleep and kept waking up, still surrounded by darkness, still in a panic.
My fears finally thwarted with the emergence of light. At once, the darkness was behind me. I went about my morning chores and left with Bee. We followed the road until we suddenly ran into Sunshine, who was camped right next to the road. She told us about the Mangaokewa River Track we’d just skipped, and said she did it and it was fine, she’d enjoyed it even, apart from a few washed out spots where she simply had to be careful.
Bee and I realised we had missed out on a good track because of just a few people’s bad experiences that didn’t apply to us – everyone has different expectations of the trail, different comfort zones and does the sections in different weather conditions. This trail was clearly not something that should’ve been deemed dangerous to everyone, a general warning based on a bad personal experience would’ve been much better. Knowing Sunshine had been fine, we knew we would’ve enjoyed it too. Not only had we gone off the official TA, we had substituted the trail for more road walking. We felt pretty sore about the whole thing.
At least the day moved forward well. The weather had cooled down significantly and felt refreshing, and we walked the road until we got to the start of the Timber Trail, where we stayed at the official campsite. We had given ourselves three days to hike the ~80 kilometres, and then another day to walk to Taumarunui, where we had booked our motel with Isha. We didn’t know how difficult the trail would be, so we thought our timings would prove a good middle-ground.
The first day of the Timber Trail I unintentionally slept in and started late. At night it had rained and thundered and during the day, the weather was still cool. The moment I started the trail I was overcome with how marvellous it was. All the trees and moody moss. The trail was agreeable and it was a great easy day of walking.
That first evening Bee and I ran into two hunters with a collection of dogs on a tractor. They terrified me. They reminded me of the characters in ‘Of Mice and Men’ and they kept chatting to us, asking all sorts of questions. I was happy when they finally moved on but just as we found our campsite for the night and set up our tents, they returned, asking more questions. I was relieved when after dark three male thruhikers joined us in the clearing.
We heard worse stories about hunters though: some other hikers found a woman shooting right by them. Clearly a lot of the hunters didn’t pay any attention to their targets. The Timber Trail is used by hikers and cyclists, and knowing hunters were near, was worrying. I was glad I never actually heard anyone shoot.
As we moved through the forest at a leisurely pace, we soon realised our days were way too short. The next few days included some gravel roads but mostly the trail was an idle walk through the forest. The terrain would’ve easily allowed us to do it in two days. In fact, I itched to go faster and hike a little more, but annoyingly we were tied to our motel booking.
After three days we reached the end of the Timber Trail, and we camped with the French couple and a group of hikers we hadn’t met before. There was just one more day of road walking into Taumarunui, but as we were leading up to the weekend and Christmas holidays, word on trail was that the i-Site information centre and canoe hire companies would close early on Friday, the day we’d be walking into town. So that Friday morning, I set my alarm before 5, and Bee and I started walking in the dark for the first time. I’d never fancied hiking that early, but soon the colours in the sky changed, and morning gave us a fresh start.
We hiked into town fast and light. My pack was empty but for one single small bar. I loved how there was a concave in my pack – there was hardly anything left without food. I was ravenous. Somehow, I miscalculated my resupply and I had been low on food for the past few days. I walked as fast as I could and when one of the other hikers, Silvio, passed me walking even faster, I sped up to chat with him as we crept closer to town. It was a quiet road, at least, and we reached Taumarunui just after ten. I couldn’t believe how early it was.
In town I visited the post office first. Somehow, lots of hikers were at the post office, and I picked up the Salomon Speedcross shoes I’d bought online. They were a bright blue. I tried them on, and they seemed to fit. Then Bee showed up, and we decided to prioritise food as it was still early. We found a café where I ordered a bowl of flat white and French toast. It was gorgeous.
While we poured over our food, it was time to figure out our river journey. I studied the trail notes and the Guthook app, then I made a mistake. I calculated eight days between Taumarunui and the start of the river journey, which included one extra day in case of bad weather in the temperamental Tongariro crossing. It would take us days to realise the mistake: both the trail notes and app show Mangapurua Landing as the start point of the river journey, which sits in the middle of nowhere, somewhere along the river you can only reach on foot.
What I didn’t realise is that this wasn’t the place where hikers actually start their river journey, as Mangapurua Landing has no road access for trailers to deliver the boats, and it would be a costly organisation to arrange for the canoe companies to paddle them down the river. What most people do is start the river journey at Whakahoro, a small town with a population of about eight, two days earlier. Even today, the trail notes and the Guthook app still show the walking track continuing until Mangapurua Landing, and I have no idea why this still hasn’t been changed.
But we didn’t realise this when we approached the I-Site, when we asked how we could organise this trip. To our surprise, booking the canoes was actually a lot easier than we’d heard: the i-Site would do it all for us. There was no need for us to call the canoe hire companies ourselves, and there was no need for us to form groups, as they formed the groups for us. In fact, there had been no need to hurry into town at all – the i-Site would be open every day, apart from Christmas. As usual, the advice we’d been given had been wrong and we had worried needlessly.
We were soon getting comfortable at the i-Site. We scanned the visitors book, and we noticed Tim the Fast Walker and Pockets in it – they were just a little ahead! The guy helping us explained they were doing some sort of flip flop, and for a moment we hoped that might help us run into them again, although that never happened.
When we said we wanted to start the river journey in eight days, the guy almost hugged us. Everyone had been overwhelming him with dates starting five or six days from then, and he really thought we’d all be best to take more time. It confused us too. Surely not all these people walked so much faster than us?
When he told us who was starting the same day, we were happy to find us grouped with the Japanese couple Nobu and Kei. Nobu and Kei were great. Even the guy thought they were great. It was clear they were the most charming people on trail, everyone loved them. While we were never going to be as charming as Nubu and Kei, we did manage to make the guy laugh. Our double act was so on a roll that he thought we’d been friends since childhood, not just the past 700 kilometres. He couldn’t believe it when we told him we’d be ‘breaking up’ after the river journey, this being that final major obstacle we wanted to do together, before freeing both our solo hiking hearts again.
Once we’d booked the trip we found Isha and checked into the motel. It was just a few days before Christmas, supposedly a busy time – yet the motel was pretty much empty. Nothing was fully booked at all. Again, we had taken advice from people and found it didn’t apply to our situation. Clearly no-one wanted to spend Christmas in Taumarunui. We could’ve gone through the Timber Trail faster. Isha wouldn’t have had to wait for us – she arrived in town on Wednesday, and I couldn’t even believe she was still here. I would’ve forgone the money spent on the motel room and called it a loss.
The day was so long that we decided to do our canoe journey resupply that afternoon. The supermarket was the busiest I’d ever experienced and we almost gave up because it was unbearable, but in the end we stayed and bought all the food we fancied. Our trolleys were filled with all the heavy foods we’d been craving. Canned fruit, chocolate and twice as much of everything else. The i-Site would keep our resupply until the canoe company picked it up. They would supply us with barrels which fit onto the canoes.
We were so excited about all the heavy food that once we had paid, we realised there was no way we could walk the one kilometre back to the i-Site. We didn’t have our packs and we couldn’t lift the cardboard boxes if we wanted to. First Isha went back inside to ask if we could take a trolley, which wasn’t allowed. Instead, they offered us a ride. It was as embarrassing and hilarious as you can imagine: a member of staff soon came and loaded us into his car and drove us up the road. We left our shopping bags at the i-Site, and then we were done. Just one more day off.