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Wednesday, 21 August
Russell Forest to Oakura turnoff (7 km) (Plus another 5 km of off-trail walking)
Desperate to leave Russell Forest and reach Oakura for a recovery night, we packed our sodden gear early and marched. We were about 4 km from the exit, and landslips in a few places blocked the path, but we got through. We knew the tarred road was near when we started passing illegal and rather sad-looking domestic dumping sites in the forest.
Turning off the trail to reach Oakura, we fantasised about hot fresh food. We had rejected our breakfast muesli bars as loathsomely inadequate after the previous day’s experience, and with the happy expectation of gastronomic fulfilment in the settlement. We walked largely in silence, occasionally shouting meal titles at one another to exhort brisker locomotion. “Barbecued chicken!…Nachos!…Tiramisu!…Cheese burgers!… Mochaccino!” (Hannah). “Macaroni cheese!…Roast beef!…Vegetable curry!…Chocolate mousse!” (me).
On our way into the village, we saw this real treat of a garden feature, a tree decorated with old beach sandals. The sign said “Jandal Paradise”.
We also encountered the first other backpackers of our walk. They were leaving the village as we entered it, and briefly greeted us with unsmiling civility. They were tall, male, blonde and German.
The Oakura sea views and beach front are exquisite; old trees and a manicured grassed park lead to the water’s edge, with islands in the distance. After admiring this, we started sniffing around for food and accommodation. Oh calamity! This was Wednesday, and the one and only café adhered to winter hours: it was open from Thursday to Sunday. Maybe the solemnity of the Teutonic trampers was not cultural but café-contextual?
Luckily, there was a small grocery shop with normal hours, and so we bought a frozen meal to heat at a self-catering unit. We had to find somewhere with enough space to wash and dry all our kit. The beach motel was too far from the shop for our convenience, so we opted for a privately-run residence as the only remaining choice.
Oakura may be seething with souls during summer, but at this time of year it seems almost deserted. There are some very lovely-looking homes, but not many owners appear to be year-round residents.
On the phone, the unit’s owner assured us he was offering “Beaut accommodation”, hired out for $240 per night during the high season, but for us, it would be $130. We moved in. Major plus factor: it had a bath. Apart from that, eish! We were both stunned, and it takes rather a lot to stun a teenager – ideologically and spiritually opposed to housework – with mess. The unit was very neat; the mess comprised dirt, mould, a stale smell, shabbiness and dysfunctional appliances. The mould was everywhere, even all over the toilet (Eeeww). The oven was caked with ancient fat. There was food (and in one place, a substance that looked like blood) splashed on the walls, a front door secured by an iron bar due to the lock being smashed, and there was only one bath/basin plug that fitted. I won’t bore you with the rest of my self-righteous list. However, we got our stuff clean and dry in the end, even though I had to wash our bras in the bath. The last time I did this I was a student. I don’t mean my underwear has remained unwashed since 1984; I mean I’ve used a basin with a plug since then.
High point of the day: Hannah found a live earthworm in her sock! Deeply meaningful questions with which we wrestled: 1) How did it get in there? 2) How did Hannah not feel it wriggling around? 3) How did it retain its wormy little grasp on life when it hasn’t got any hands?
As we worked, our main topics of conversation were music, gay marriage, the Spanish Inquisition, puppies, and the 1692 Salem witch trials. We haven’t managed to bore each other on the trail so far; I think we’re doing rather well, actually!
Thursday, 22 August
Oakura turnoff to the intersection of Kaiikanui and Mimiwhangata Rds (14.5 km, plus about 7 km getting confused and another 3km off-trail, looking for a campsite)
Thursday! This meant the café would open at 10.30 am. Goody gum drops. We would have a lavish and leisurely breakfast there, followed by easy road margin tramping to the start of the Morepork track. No. We are in New Zealand where, depending on the circumstances, the “She’ll be right” attitude is sometimes a charming alternative to hoity up-toity-tightness and at other times a poignant pain in the pooperture. Today it was one of the other times. The café opened at 11.08 and we got toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches at 11.20, which we ate as we walked.
We bought food for the next few days at the small shop: Uncle Ben’s rice, peanut bars and chocolate. Finding suitable tramping food in villages and small towns is difficult. Tinned and frozen stuff cannot be packed, so our diet is rather boring and unhealthy. Cafés generally offer fast food instead of fruit and salads, however, the diet is a small price to pay for a big adventure; missing the family and pets is a larger personal expense.
Trail conversation today centred on insane things we had done. I have rather a lot of saucy material from my university life, but I did not expect Hannah to have much with which to surprise me. But this only goes to show how little we know about the gifts of our gonads. Hannah went with a friend to the Warehouse where they hoped to buy only three items: a Barbie doll, a rope and a tube of lube. The idea was to see if this combination elicited any facial reaction from a bored-looking teller. Unfortunately their pocket money did not permit such extravagance so a beautiful insightful moment was lost to experimental social psychology.
We also saw this beautifully crafted bridge. I would have liked to get a closer look at it, but it was on property behind a fence with a sign rather inhospitably promising 24-hour surveillance.
Less appealing was a bull, wandering at large. He had mean little piggy eyes and moved with a heavy deliberation that caused his peach-coloured, distressingly intact testicles to sway gently. We walked slowly away and were relieved when he lost interest in us.
We took the turning to Teal Bay and climbed a hill. At this point, the tribulation of the day began. The trail notes said we should continue on the road margin until reaching the junction of Kaiikanui and Mimiwhangata Roads. However, we suddenly noticed a stile and an unmistakeable orange trail sign pointing across the pasture at a farm called The High Chaparral. We were squinting at the map and the GPS when a woman stopped her car and offered help. She said this was indeed the trail, which, although she had never walked it, “kept changing”. This is to be expected as greater numbers of private landowners generously agree to allow a public path over their property. So over the stile we went and up through some very pretty pastures with sweeping views.
At the base of another incline, we came across a trail arrow that had been written on with a black marker pen: “Track end at top of hill. (Incomplete sign)! 25-11-12.” The writing looked similar to that which we saw correctly indicating south in Russell Forest. Should we continue? We dithered, but after coming so far, decided to keep going. The hill was very steep. We climbed another stile and entered a scrubby section that was equally steep, but had a few orange triangles directing us higher. Then we saw a post with two damaged triangles both pointing back the way we had come instead of one pointing the out southbound route and the other the northbound route. Again we paused, because the path appeared to have petered out too, but triangles higher up indicated that the route continued. Finally we reached the hilltop, and there we saw the makings of a stile lying on the ground and behind these a rather unfriendly notice saying “Track Not Yet Open. PRIVATE PROPERTY. Please Keep Out. WARNING: Pest control in this area includes use of firearms.” We wondered whether trail trampers were classified among the larger species of pests.
Thoroughly disheartened, we sat on the rejected stile poles. What to do now? I dumped my pack and went for a recce. The path appeared to resume in the bush, veering away from the pest control area. I followed it for about 800 metres. I could see no more trail markers in this section. There were also no other human footprints on the muddy path, just plenty of cow tracks. And it started to rain…. Returning to Hannah, I asked what she wanted to do. “Let’s stick with what we know,” she said. “We know we can reach the Morepork track if we go along the road.” So back we went, arriving at the road short of energy and two hours’ walking time.
We wondered, if that part of the trail was a blind end, why it was so well trodden in its earlier section. Potential reasons: 1) Cows also walk the paths within their paddocks and 2) It would be very well worn if all trampers walked the path twice, retracing their steps.
On the road margin, an hour later, a cheerful farmer stopped his car, climbed out and spoke to us. “You know you need not walk this road? You can take the trail path through my farm,” he said. “But we did!” we wailed, comforting ourselves with his lovely soft border collie, who was pressing against us and patting our legs with his plumy tail. Our tragic tale splashed out everywhere. “Oh, you can just ignore that sign,” said the farmer. “You should have kept going.” He then told us about New Zealand trail blazers, including a man who did the distance from south to north on a penny farthing bicycle. “But he kept mainly to the roads.” I looked up the story when I got home. Wearing Victorian clothing, this cyclist completed his quaint but epic trip early last year. You can read about him here.
We were now in brown teal territory. This bird is endangered and we saw a few of cautionary signs. Aw bless! We don’t mind living anywhere that cars have to give way to ducklings.
At the top of Mimiwhangata Rd is this large DOC sign advertising camping. It mentions closing at night but says nothing about seasonal variations. Camping is not permitted on the Morepork trail, so we decided to make the steep, 3 km descent to the beach park. Oh calamity! When we arrived, shortly before dusk, worn out and in pelting rain, we discovered that camping is not allowed at this time of year. Gro-o-a-a-n. Fortunately, a really nice person allowed us to have a hot shower and sleep under cover.
The day’s setbacks gave Hannah a knock. Anxiety is exacerbated when you follow conflicting instructions and unclear rules as best you can, but still end up doing the wrong thing. She began a 24-hour period of feeling dreadful, and we were out of cell phone range for the crisis numbers we had been given for emergencies. That was a bad night, despite our being warm and dry. She lay with her face in the crook of her elbow. I fed her blocks of chocolate under her armpit until she managed a chuckle. After that, there was no other resource than Adrian Mole, so I read aloud to her. “My sanity hangs by a fragile thread,” says Adrian in The Wilderness Years. This got me thinking about my own sanity. It does not hang so much as swing past on a liana, shrieking “Yeeeeeaaaah!” as it passes me. Oh no! It is penduluming back now! I feel so much better when it’s gone.