Tuesday, 20 August
Paihia to Russell Forest (35 km: 14 on water; 21 on land)
We set the alarm for an appallingly early hour and blundered in the dark to the jetty. There was a light rain. High point of the day was experienced at 5.55 am as we once again passed gorgeous Paihia’s wee toilet. It is illuminated by one of those lights that changes colour every ten seconds or so. Aw bless!
The launch arrived in the fog. Micaela said she takes about 70 trampers across per month in the dry holiday season, but generally with about 12 or 24 hours between each small group. Today, the boat would go slowly due to the poor visibility and we might have to do some reversing if we took the wrong turn in the mangroves. In places, we saw darkly vegetated bluffs dimly frowning through the fog along the edges of Waikare Inlet, but mostly we could see nothing. I have no idea how Micaela found the landing in the mangroves. We took no photos on this day, due to the weather.
We strapped on our packs and headed along farm roads to the Russell Forest trail section. From this point on, the day was no fun at all. It is hugely frustrating that trail signage varies in frequency, quality, type and visibility. We knew that at some point we had to enter a river and walk upstream for four kilometres, because this is specified in the online trail notes. What they do not say is that the place where you turn parallel to the river before entering it is marked with yellow triangles, not orange ones. So of course we missed the turning and spent an uncomfortable hour wandering through private Maori homesteads and retracing our steps.
Another detail, somewhat odd in context, is that the trail notes say you can ford the river – before reaching the place where you walk upstream – without wetting your shoes, if you cross on a strategically placed concrete pole. Why bother, when in a very short time you’ll be spending hours more in the water than out of it?
Anyway, we worked our way upstream for a very long time, wading in water ranging from ankle to thigh deep. There were some scary moments. The river section was much longer than 4 km because we had to braid our way, looking for the safest, least slippery and rocky line through the water. There were no trail markers along the river banks to reassure us that we were still in the right section. The only thing that helped was the occasional footprint in the few sandy sections we crossed. We had to believe that these were the prints of a tramper from a day or two ahead of us.
After about half an hour, it started to rain again, so we were dripping from the top down as well as marinading from the bottom up. With rocks often turning beneath our feet, some sudden and unwanted bidet experiences were inevitable. I fell in three times. At times like these, my language becomes very very simple. Hannah fell in once, at the last minute, in the excitement at seeing the miraculous orange triangle denoting our exit point from the river. We so nearly missed it! You have to watch your feet all the time, or a sprained or broken ankle in very thick native forest, far from help and with no cell phone reception would be the scenario. Missing the trail marker, though, would have been truly grim. Some trampers walk this trail alone. Are they courageous or crazed? Without two pairs of eyes we would not have coped.
After the river exit, we saw more trail markers but doubt remained. There was one very clear Te Araroa chevron indicating we should take the left turn at a fork, heading towards a hut. Someone had used a black marker pen, crossed out the chevron and written “South” next to an arrow drawn pointing in the opposite direction. After some agonising, we decided to follow the arrow written by a fellow tramper. This was the right decision.
It was now drizzling. Not mentioned in the trail notes is a long, very steep climb, and the absence of suitable places to camp. However, our main emotion as we ploughed on was relief that we would not be doing the upstream walk the following day. Thank God! The river was pretty ADHD when we were in it; it would be impossibly and inconsiderately exuberant after the rain took full effect.
Despite being determined to get out of the forest by nightfall, after nine hours of wading and walking, we simply had to stop. Samson was deployed in a thoughtfully renewed heavenly downpour on the only piece of relatively flat, open ground we could find. However, it was not elevated and comprised mud and gravel surrounded by gorse.
Twit camper’s notes to self:
- It is almost impossible to plant a tent peg in gravelly ground.
- Do not attempt to relieve yourself anywhere near a gorse bush, especially in the dark.
We shared Hannah’s sleeping bag because mine was too wet. It is seriously uncool for a 15-year-old to share a sleeping bag with her mother. Fortunately for me, my daughter is not cool. She is a rock, capable of enduring the genetic and sartorial misfortune of her parenthood.
It was a huge comfort to eat our reconstituted freeze-dried trifle with hot custard. It is amazing how, when all other physical comforts are gone, a pudding becomes strangely healing. It is almost sacramental. After this, there was only one other thing that would soothe our ruffled souls: more Adrian Mole. It was Hannah’s turn to read aloud. She rifled through her pack, searching for her headlamp. She thought she’d found it but when trying to switch it on discovered she had a small plastic bottle instead. “I’ve retrieved ‘The Thing’!” she howled. “That *@#+!* useless bottle of *@#+!* seawater!”. An unintentional but accurate metaphor: the grimness we carry with us is not at all helpful with the everyday practical realities of life, but sometimes, that’s what we end up holding in the dark. On the edge of hysteria, we both laughed inordinately.
During the night, two things obtruded: lovely morepork calls and unlovely bladder urges. At home, in my comfy bed, I hate getting up and going to the bathroom. I lie for ages in discomfort, wishing my old weebag would detach itself, plop onto the floor, heave itself like a walrus into the loo, elevate itself with abseiling equipment onto the seat and simply do the decent thing before returning to its original lower abdominal location. Suffice to say that in a tent in Russell Forest, afloat in a cold mud puddle surrounded by gorse, the nocturnal tribulations of an Auckland suburban boudoir seem somewhat trivial.