Day 58 : Whanganui Holiday Park – Whanganui (6.8 km / 4.2 mi – Total: 1404.1 km / 872.5 mi)
Day 59 : Whanganui – Koitiata (29.2 km / 18.1 mi – Total: 1433.3 km / 890.6 mi)
Day 60 : Koitiata – Mount Lees Reserve (40.1 km / 24.9 mi – Total: 1473.4 km / 915.5 mi)
Day 61 : Mount Lees Reserve – Palmerston North (34.5 km / 21.4 mi – Total: 1507.9 km / 937 mi)
Day 62 : Palmerston North – Scotts Rd (24.3 km / 15.1 mi – Total: 1532.2 km / 952.1 mi)
Day 63 : Scotts Rd – end of Makahika Track (32.5 km / 20.2 mi – Total: 1564.7 km / 972.3 mi)
Day 64 : end of Makahika Track – Te Matawai Hut (23 km / 14.3 mi – Total: 1587.7 km / 986.6 mi)
Day 65 : Te Matawai Hut – Nichols Hut (12.1 km / 7.5 mi – Total: 1599.8 km / 994.1 mi)
Day 66 : Nichols Hut – Otaki Forks / Blackgate campsite (18.4 km / 11.4 mi – Total: 1618.2 km / 1005.5 mi)
Jan 5 – Jan 13
Total days : 9 | Walking days: 9 (~1 Nero into Whanganui)
Section distance : 220.9 km / 137.3 mi
Average distance per day : 24.5 km / 15.2 mi
Total distance : 1618.2 km / 1005.5 mi
After almost 1400 kilometres, I had reached a pivotal point on the TA: I was going to say goodbye to Bee. Bee and I met at the Tramp Inn, the farmer’s hut right after the first muddy Northland forest, Herekino, and we’d mostly been lining up our days ever since. We quickly got on and had a similar approach to walking the trail, but we both still preferred to hike solo. We mostly stuck together so we could tackle all those inconvenient North Island obstacles together: the low tide estuary crossings, the long sections of hiking through rivers, the boat crossings and the Whanganui canoe journey. We’d just reached the Whanganui Holiday Park after our four day canoe from Whakahoro and there was nothing left ahead of us that we felt required company. After almost 1300 kilometres together, we were ready to set free our solo hiking hearts.
But our dramatic parting wasn’t as easy as I’d thought. First we had a bit of a false start when I left Whanganui Holiday Park. Bee took a rest day after our river journey but with all the unnecessary days off in the past few weeks, I was energised to keep going. Our goodbye was marked by me walking the seven kilometres into town, anticipating to immediately push on with the next three days of road walking to Palmerston North. As I passed Whanganui I visited a few shops and did my resupply – only to find myself outside of the supermarket, barricaded by a solid grey curtain of rain. I waited a little, pacing up and down the sidewalk underneath the awnings. This rain wasn’t going to give. I knew I could continue but I’d soon grow sick of walking through it, and I’d be wet to the bone by the time I reached my destination. I checked into a hostel instead, failing at my first day of hiking solo again.
The next day I felt great. I was free to go as I pleased, not tied to camping in any particular spot or meeting someone somewhere along the trail. Despite the road walking I felt adventurous until I ran into Bee halfway through the day. Ha! I reached the village of Koitiata early, and with that I was back on the beach again, and back on the west side for the first time since the 90 Mile Beach, all the way back at the start.
I sat at a picnic table and caught up on my journal entries while I pondered continuing – it was still early enough and I wanted to wild camp, something I’d done so little so far. I’d been surrounded by people so much that I longed to be somewhere quiet, away from others. Soon Bee arrived and then the hikers we’d met during the canoe journey – Gina and Martin. Everyone set up at the small campsite (which was free for TA hikers) and so I ended up doing what was easiest – staying, and regretting it, of course, when the next morning I walked the black beach and followed the trail through a forest, the first part of which was public and would’ve been the perfect hiding spot for a little tent. Another missed opportunity. I was really going to have to listen to myself a lot more.
So instead I gave myself a challenge for the day: to continue to the town of Bulls without stopping. It was thirty kilometres from Koitiata and an easy walk on the beach, gravel roads and some quiet sealed roads. I walked and walked and didn’t stop until I made it. I did thirty kilometres in six hours, without a rest. My previous record was twenty kilometres. While I wasn’t the best at walking long distances every day, I was quite good at continuing without needing long breaks, and excelling at my own little challenge made my day.
The remaining journey into Palmerston North remained quite uneventful. The next day was a long stretch of road walking and just before reaching Palmerston North I bought so much resupply I had to carry an extra plastic shopping bag into town. I lost Gina and Bee when we were trying to find accommodation and I ended up at the local holiday park on my own, quite furious at everything, on a huge campsite for just my tiny tent.
The road walk to Palmerston North had been warm, a significant change after the inclement weather of the Tongariro and Whanganui River sections. But as I left the town and the roads behind me, the adverse weather caught up again. After Palmerston North, I snuck my way into a corner of the Tararua Range, hugging the edge of the forest, and for two days I moved through the misty gravel roads and forest tracks.
The first day I passed (two) halfway points, marking 1500 kilometres completed of the Te Araroa trail. As it got later, the weather closed in on me, and when I spotted Bee, Gina and Martin all set up at a deserted parking lot preparing dinner, I was happy to call it a day. It wasn’t long before it went misty and rainy so we soon moved away from the picnic table to hide in our tents. I took a while to find a camping spot, as there was little space in between the tough bushes, and I ended up across the road from the others, hiding behind a fence.
I woke to fog and rain, and although it was only 6 am, I already heard the others packing up to leave. It was miserable, everything cold and damp, and I struggled to pack my things and leave.
The day was a succession of trails, first the Burtons Track, then the Mangahao-Makahika Track, both incredibly muddy with lots of stream crossings. Finally the TA had gone off the roads, but now the weather was acting up. The conditions worsened and everything was saturated, both the trail and myself, the rain penetrating everything. It seemed as though nothing was ever going to be dry again.
In the afternoon I found Bee camped at the start of the Makahika Track, and she was planning on going into Levin the next day, a town a little off-trail. I was going to move further into the Tararuas, which meant we would now officially end up on different days. This was our goodbye.
As I moved along I felt the day wearing down on me. I also searched for a campsite along the trail, giving up on making it to the end of the track. I was less successful and had to walk until late, unable to find any flat and dry spots at all, everything muddy and wet, and I only spotted the first grassy patch about 500 meters before the camping site at the far end, and I set up desperately and immediately. The rain had only just started to ease, and I was finally starting to dry up a little. I thought the weather conditions of the past few days had been tough, but I had no idea how much the Tararua mountains were about to destroy me.
The next day I walked the roads to the start of the real Tararua section, where intimidating signs called for caution and discouraged solo travel, and a police officer and search and rescue team stood at the trailhead. The volunteers were about to head into the mountains to search for two hunters whose emergency beacon had been activated. I quickly chatted with them, and told them was headed up Waiopehu Track to the namesake hut, but I hoped to get much farther that day. They advised that some people take an entire day to get from Waiopehu hut to the next hut, Te Matawai, which was disconcerting to hear. The distances weren’t big and that section was only 5.5 kilometers. How difficult could this trail be? I could only hope that the usual faster thruhiker pace was going to apply to the Tararuas as well.
I bade the rescue team good luck and entered the Tararuas to continued my own journey. It was just before noon when I set off, and I followed the farmland, dodged the cows and cow dung until I entered the forest. The sign promised five hours to Waiopehu hut, a long journey for a trail that’s only about 9 kilometres. As I ascended everything around me was fresh from the recent rainfall. It was misty but alive and dramatic, moss hanging low with heavy dew, the trees hunched, hugging the trail. It was like walking through a rainforest after a tropical storm. While the scenery was like a movie set, the thread was adverse: it was slippery and muddy with constant steep ups and downs and I held onto everything around me to carefully advance upwards. It was a slow progress but I felt good, and after four hours I found myself above tree line, at the very first hut.
I quickly went in, and scrutinised the empty interior inside. It was 4 pm and I was the only person there. I ate a few snacks and wondered if I should continue. If I could continue. Would it take all day to reach the next hut? Would it take five hours like the sign outside said? Or would I be faster than both of those? Either way, it would make for a long day, something I hadn’t anticipated. When I’d planned my days I thought I could make it to the small Dracophyllum hut, which was far beyond Te Matawai hut, but this was clearly an enterprise beyond me. The Tararuas were much slower than I’d expected.
I checked the hut book and saw Martin’s entry just before mine – he’d passed through at 3 pm, an hour earlier. If he could make it to the next hut, so could I. I quickly left, and felt the fog chilling my skin. Out there it was exposed, and the air more crisp than before. I kept just warm enough to not put on any more layers, and as I walked the sea of mist lifted just in time, affording me the great views over the mountains that would make this hike worth it.
But it wasn’t easy. The trail was demanding and draining. It moved in and out of wooded areas, and the short ups and downs continued, while the mud worsened. The trail was littered with fallen trees and huge rocks that I had to climb over, and tough bushes that barricaded the trail. The Tararuas were entirely indifferent to my suffering. It took four hours to hike the 5.5 kilometres between the two huts. It was 8 pm when I arrived.
I set up my tent in between the small trees outside, and in the morning I heard everyone from the hut leave before me – Gina and Martin, and a few northbounders who I met the night before. I didn’t leave until 9 am, and continued my way up Dora Ridge. The fog higher up moved in and out but cleared to the outstretched views of the peak ahead. The ridges across the range reminded me of the ribcage of a mountain. I got stuck only a kilometre and a half in, taking hundreds of pictures of magnificently green folding views undulating in every direction around me.
It was almost midday when I reached the first high point at Pukematawai, where the TA forks south towards Butcher Knob. It was only three kilometres from Te Matawai hut, but it had taken me just as many hours to hike, not just because of the terrain, but because of all the pictures I was taking. Almost more surprisingly, Gina was sitting right at the top. Apparently, she’d found herself some obscure phone reception and had been calling people for the past two hours. I passed and followed the ridge into the fog that thickened and lifted again, while I continued to take pictures at every turn. Gina soon sped past, agile and fearless, while I carefully considered my every next step. At this rate, this mountain range was going to take me all week to get through.
But it didn’t quite matter. Getting these views made the rough track worth it – this was what I liked about hiking. But it didn’t take long to drain me. The spine brought me down into the most enchanting mossy trees, bowing and begging and haunting. The trail would dip in and out of these forests, breaking above treeline, where tussock lined the paths, then back into the delicate moss covered tree trunks, the trail consistently unconvinced of it own direction or elevation.
I reached Dracophyllum hut at 4 pm, but wanted to continue to Nichols hut. The last stretch made all the difference. I began to get lost in the forests, the trail so overgrown that suddenly the path would end and I realised the trail was long gone. I would bushwhack through the thick brush, angered, moving up and down the side of the mountain. It helped to remember the trail continued along the crest, and if I found the highest point I would find the trail, but by now everything crept along: my stamina, my footing, my mind, and of course – the trail, the constant rocks or trees blocking the path, the relentless obstacle course that refused to offer one simple step in front of the next.
As it got later, the fog thickened and a strong wind picked up. I climbed up the rocky ridge while the drop alongside me began to scare me. There was a tricky rockslide where I had to negotiate a short but tricky scree slope, up a steep incline that seemed almost impossible to climb. There was no escape at this point. Nowhere to hide or to camp along the way. Nowhere to offer respite from the exposure, the tussock and rock the only thing near. I was almost happy when it got so foggy that I couldn’t see beyond the trail, and the steep falls down remained obscured. I kept my eyes focussed on the trail until I reached Nichols hut. Finally. The day was a mere 12 kilometres that was supposed to take 8 hours – it had taken me almost 11.
Gina was at the hut, it was just the two of us. Martin had decided to get through the range faster and had probably moved on to the next hut hours earlier. It was small and it was bitter cold in the fog, both outside and inside. I wondered if I should stay inside the hut that night, until a mouse ran around and I quickly decided against. I set up for the night in a small clearing away from the hut, a location that would receive grand views on a clear day.
The next morning I woke with an odd feeling. I’d hidden my rubbish deep inside my pack in the vestibule of my tent and I’d put in ear plugs to drown out the noise from the mice scurrying outside. I hoped they hadn’t eaten through my pack, but I was even more unlucky: I moved the stuff sacks that lined the inside of my tent, and found two mouse-sizes holes right on top of each other, right behind my snack bag. The holes continued through the stuff sack, the mesh gnawed through, just like the sesame snaps and walnuts that I found strewn around my tent, even in the far back. Mouse droppings were everywhere, even on top of my pack outside. I couldn’t quite believe this mouse had had a party in my tent while I was asleep.
It felt strange and unclean and for one of the first times, I packed up quickly. But first I cleaned the holes in my inner tent and patched them up with the clear Tenacious tape I’d been carrying along. It seemed to work. I was desperate to clean my tent thoroughly but in the cold and fog without warm water or soap, it was useless. I told Gina about the mouse when I saw her at the hut – she had hardly slept herself with a mouse running around. She’d almost gone outside to set up her tent as well. Now she could be glad she hadn’t.
That morning I made good time up to Mt Crawford, the highest point of the range. I took an hour and fifteen minutes to move up the rocks, glad the fog still obscured the steep downhill views. The wind was so strong I hunched low and tried to keep close to the ground, so I wouldn’t get pushed off the ridge. I kept my eyes simply on the rocks in front, and pulled myself up and up, until I reached the top, much sooner than expected. There was no visibility, everything shrouded in a blurry white view of just a few meters ahead. I quickly descended and got below the clouds, gaining the few last views out of the ranges, then meandered into the forest once again.
I was happy to be back in the shelter of the forest, but the trail was slow. The downhill was a steep drop and I was careful as always, negotiating the endless roots and rocks. Just before I hit Waitewaewae hut a hiker caught up from behind. He walked fast and reminded me of Jordan from our canoe journey – American, with similar looks and indistinct salt and pepper hair and a bearded face, a lightweight setup and quick pace, and quite serious about the whole thing. He’d started from Dracophyllum hut that morning. I couldn’t even imagine doing that myself. The Tararuas had destroyed me, and I wasn’t even out of the range yet. Both physically and mentally this trail was a killer. The time it took to progress through the shortest of distances was absurd. There was little walking, just a constant deliberation of where to place the next step, or how to move around whatever was blocking the path. The stretch from Nichols hut had taken me almost 6 hours, the signs had promised 5.5. It was 8 kms. I was clearly not keeping a quick thruhiker’s pace.
Gina was at Waitewaewae hut as well. The hut was new and comfortable and situated at a beautiful spot in the forest. I wished I could stay there, but it was still early. Too early to stop. We ate our snacks instead, quite bemused at the very stereotypical US hiker’s behaviour. As he lay out his cuben fibre tent to dry, Gina and I discussed the final stretch ahead. Apparently, there was a large slip along the trail and there was an alternative route to take. I hadn’t heard of this before, but Gina had heard rumours and wasn’t sure what the correct information was. She didn’t have the Guthook app and so she often relied on other hikers for information. I quickly looked at the map, the red line making a district right-turn. This slip was there since the year before, so I assumed the red line was correct. And so I told her. Go right. Whatever you do, the right trail is correct. And so she set off.
I followed a little later, aiming to walk for a few more hours and wild camp along the way. I was now at low elevation and the trail meandered, dipping in and out of small streams. I hit a fire ring and a beautiful spot to camp after just a few hours, but I felt as though I had a little more strength in me to keep going. Then I hit the junction.
A vague sign suggested two directions – I almost missed the whole thing, curving to the right as the signs seemed more prevalent. Then I backtracked. Faint writing seemed to suggest I needed to go left, so I checked the Guthook app again, this time reading all the comments in detail. I was confused why the trail on the map was still indicated to go to the left when the slip happened at least a year before. It took some time to understand the correct detour track was the left one. Then I realised this was the spot where I told Gina to go right.
I followed the trail left and kicked myself for telling Gina the wrong thing. I wondered where she was – had she gone right, or had she read the notes on the waymarker and gone left? Was she okay or was she facing a dangerous slip, getting hurt? While I worried more and more, the new trail’s conditions became apparent. The path had been bushwhacked out of the side of a hill, and it was an accumulation of fallen trees and giant tree roots that I had to crawl over. It was the most infuriating and ridiculous track I’d ever come across. Meanwhile my feet were throbbing in pain and my shoes caused even more irritation: the insoles of my new Salomons were flimsy, and moved about, bunching up when wet or when going downhill. I’d taken them out of the shoes but now everything rubbed, and the insides were hard and uncomfortable. It’s was a constant headache. Along with my physical struggle, I kept thinking about Gina, and the horror stories in my mind began to wear heavy on me. The whole situation annoyed me as much as it terrified me – I didn’t set out to be responsible for someone else’s safety. Why was this happening?
The track took forever. When I was finally out I got clear views over the river, and the track turned wide until I reached the end of the Tararuas at Otaki Forks, where I watched tourists leisurely wandering around. I decided to pass by Parawai Lodge because it was just off trail, which was the last hut on the edge of the Tararuas. I shouldn’t have passed it, as I ended up camping at one the tourist campsites just next to the road, a definite anti-climax after having been so deep in the mountains those past few days. This wasn’t how I wanted the Tararuas to end. Worse, it also meant I didn’t get to check the hut to see if Gina was there, to make sure she was fine, that she hadn’t followed my direction and headed straight into a dangerous trail.
I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d killed Gina.