Leg 10 – Hamilton to Waitomo, day 4

Day 4

Tuesday, 22 October
Pahautea hut to Kaimango Road (14.5 km)

P1020642To lure Hannah out of bed, I told her with almost tearful excitement that we’d be starting the day’s trudge on the Noel Sandford Boardwalk south of the camp. You have no idea how brilliant it is to walk on a constructed pathway suspended well above the bogs, even if this thrill lasts for only a couple of kilometres. Noel Sandford, whoever you are, we blow kisses in your general direction.

Today, the mist was like milkshake. When we reached the Hihikiwi lookout point, we could see absolutely nothing, but the trees through which we braided our way were spectacularly mossy. They were Lord of the Rings props for Rivendell.

On the trail, Hannah walks behind me. She does this to see what route I take through the boggy bits and repeats my movements if I do not do an involuntary breakdance spin in the mud. Blessed is the daughter who learns vicariously instead of experimentally; she shall go to the Armageddon Nerdfestival at the weekend.

We both needed an incentive to keep us walking; this section was rough and dirty, taking us four hours to cover the five kilometres to the road. “Cream puffs,” I groaned. “Steak and hot chips,” replied Hannah. After this came a long list in which Christmas pudding with white sauce, marshmallows, cheese, fried eggs and bacon were the most desired items. The cheese at least we knew would be on the menu today, because we were going to detour to Otorohanga for supplies.

We emerged from the forest into undulating open farmland where a few trees point their P1020650leaves and branches in one direction due to the prevailing wind. The road gravel is white, making a flashing contrast to the relentlessly green turf and fence posts stained with red lichen.

A man in a truck pulling a trailer with a quadbike on it stopped for a chat. “You need a bike!” was his diagnostic greeting. “We’ll have yours, then,” I replied. We walked quite a long way on the tar road before getting two lifts. First, a man and his nephew made room for us. He asked why we were walking so we told him about the thing. He said his mother had been mentally ill, in and out of institutions for years. He had slipped through the child welfare cracks and stayed home, mainly alone, from 12 to 16 years of age. How hard it must have been, that young, to press through the loneliness and find self-sufficiency. When he dropped us on the highway he said, “Be careful, now. Someone really crazy could pick you up.” “We know,” I replied. “But we’re counting on being crazier than he is.”

Our next lift came from Erica, who took us directly to Otorohanga. She was on her way to a ceremony to commemorate the first anniversary of her husband’s death. He had been diagnosed with cancer soon after they had been forced to leave Christchurch due to the earthquake. It is amazing how some people can find the energy to be kind to strangers when they are themselves enduring something overwhelming. Thanks, Erica.

Staggering under supplies including cream puffs and cheese, we went to the town campsite, where we moved into a cabin and had a hot shower instead of setting up the tent. Real sheets and pillows! An electric light! Milk in our tea! Glee.

When Hannah was a baby, I loved blowing cheek-slapping raspberries on her little round belly. She would coo and chortle and pull my hair. Looking at my child lying on the motel bunk I suddenly had the urge to do it again. She is bigger than I am now, so this seemed a tad foolish, but hey, we’re both cracked. “I’ll make you a cup of tea if you let me,” I bargained, so she laughed and raised her t-shirt a few centimetres above her waist. No Mom ever forgets the special scent of her baby and the warm velvet feel of baby skin under her kisses. Ah… to renew these sensations is bliss. But years on from my happy baby, whose little toes were so gorgeously plump they looked crooked, my daughter is striped with scars everywhere, and I could feel these now, under my lips. She is my tiger child.

Leg 10 – Hamilton to Waitomo, days 2 and 3

Day 2

Sunday, 20 October
Te Pahu Road to Kaniwhaiwha Stream (15 km)

P1020580The day started well. We found two appaloosas near Old Mountain Road. One of them had a particularly beautiful spotty bottie. When I was a teenager, I also had a spotty bottie; unfortunately, they were the wrong kind of spots.

Old Mountain Road involves a long climb. We were looking for trail signs leading to the left through paddocks, but saw none at the point where the GPS indicated we should turn. At an unmarked gate, a with track bore in the correct direction for Limeworks Loop Road. So we took this route. After about 400 metres, we found a trail sign, but it pointed further up the mountain instead of further along the farm track. We consulted the trail map, but it did not clarify matters, other than to indicate that the trail wriggled in a red line southwards. We were puzzled, but the sight of more signs higher on theP1020589 mountain drew us upwards. Here, the view was spectacular. Valleys scooped away from the peaks with viciously green grass broken through by scabs of pale rock.

Two dark figures approached from ridge above us. Deep within, I felt a frisson of alarm. A vestige of Africa still squirms in my guts. In an isolated South African place, to be wary is to survive. However, the figures morphed into two cheerful and elderly American ladies. One of them was carrying a rock the size of Gideon’s Bible. I wondered how long, on such a steep walk, she would remain attached to it.

Puzzlement continued when the track took us back to Old Mountain Road. But a sign indicated that the track beyond the road was part of the Te Araroa Trail. The trail notes did not say that the track re-crossed this road, but the trail notes are so often inaccurate that we trusted the orange triangles this time.

P1020597It was high and windy country, grazed by sheep and with rock layers that sat up, jostled from the horizontal by a massive and ancient force. Faintly, in the distance, we could see a smudge that was Hamilton. The sheep maintained a constant bleating transmitted to flock after flock as we passed. The older ones were clearly warning the younger how dangerous we were. Like humans, each sheep had a different voice, from soprano down to baritone. Great Aunt Ethel’s bleat was deep and hoarse, and it became particularly quavery when she related the scary bit about gra-a-a-avy and mint sau-au-au-auce.

“I keep getting the feeling that we are heading north instead of south,” I said to Hannah. P1020599“But I must be wrong.” We consulted the map again but could not work out where we were on the red line. What we could hear in the distance, though, was a motorway’s unmistakeable Doppler shift.

Tramping through the grass towards us came a lady. “Where are we?” I asked her, as if we were Victorian damsels just surfacing into consciousness from a swoon. It turned out that we were way off course. We had indeed come north and we were now close to the SH23, which could take us to Raglan or (O’Dea!) back to Whatawhata. It was so depressing to know we had lost a day’s walk. And then, the beautiful lady unfurled her wings, took her halo out of her pocket and placed it on her head. Yes, Elizabeth is actually an angel. (You see, Hannah? Again, we have evidence of God!) She turned back from her afternoon’s walk, accompanied us to the SH23 where her car was parked, and drove us to where we should have been by now, the DOC picnic spot on Limeworks Loop Road. What a relief.

And meeting Elizabeth was serendipitous. She is also a writer, and her book of short stories, After, is just about to be published in Wellington. The stories are linked with the theme of grief and some of the material emerged from her own bereavement nine years ago. I’m going to buy a copy of After when it hits the bookshops.

We had a short walk to the DOC campsite at the Kaniwhaiwha Stream. Here, dustbins were provided! Excuse the excitement, but this is the first time we’ve found dustbins for campers. At all the other DOC places, we’ve had to carry our rubbish out with us, so we happily shed our small bag of junk.

We decided that the distance we had walked on the trail marked in the countryside as part of Te Araroa, and not updated on the official map as an alternative route from Whatawhata, would substitute for us for the section of the Kapamahunga Walkway from which we had been diverted. The distance is equivalent.

After dinner we took comfort from Adrian Mole. “I’ve got some filthy habits, cocker,” Bernard confesses to Adrian, “like turning my underpants inside out on alternate days.” We laughed. “It sounds just like us when we’re camping,” said Hannah. Too right! My glamour quotient is very low, but Hannah’s is now subliminal. Although she remembered her backpack on Saturday, it was an exertion of mental vigour insufficient for the inclusion of her toothbrush. But more important problems lay ahead of us. Tonight, we finished The Prostrate Years, the last book in the series. How can we possibly continue on the trail without Mole?


Day 3

Monday, 21 October
Kaniwhaiwha Stream to the Pahautea hut (7.5 km)

P1020618Today took us to the 959-metre summit of Pirongia Mountain. The distance was only 7.5 km, but it took us about six hours. In some places, we could see a path, but for much of the distance we had only the orange trail triangles to guide us. The GPS told us we were about 120 metres east of our actual location. In open country, such inexact information is annoying but not dangerous because you can see where you have been and where you are going. In thick bush, losing the trail could be serious.

Large sections of this track were waterlogged. The muddy sections held some comfort, because we could see the reassuring bootprints of trampers who had preceded us. However, the mud was deep, and the steep ups and downs of the track meant we both frequently hit the ground with a squeal and a meaty thump.

The undergrowth on the lower mountainside here was not as dense as in the Hunua P1020614Ranges, but it was thick, so on only about three occasions on our way to the summit was there a sufficient break in the vegetation for us to see some of the view.  But we couldn’t determine how far we were from the top, and that was demotivating. The climb felt endless.

Two incidents enlivened the day. 1) I threw up. 2) Hannah sat in a red ants’ nest. When we rested on a mossy rock, she felt something nipping her back. Her pack had to be hurriedly dropped and her clothing shifted radically as her mother slapped off all the feisty little insects. They were set on world domination, invading even her underwear. At such times you are grateful for a time and a track where there is almost no chance of hearing “Well, hello there, ladies!” from another tramper offering to share his packet of mandarins with you in the friendliest way.

P1020629We realised we had reached the summit when we came upon a sign and a metal platform above the path. There was no other way of knowing this was the place to plant our pink girlie flag, because the vegetation is too thick. I leaned against one of the platform poles and slowly subsided to the ground. “You go up and take a picture of the view to prove we were here,” I cravenly told Hannah. “I am really too tired to give a damn what it looks like.” Hannah reached down into her bowels of endurance and found a handful of something sufficient to act as a counterweight to haul herself up the steep metal stairs, while I lay pathetically below with my eyes closed, breathing shallowly. “Pissy shit tits!” I heard her scream. OK, I had to climb up too. And yes, the 360-degree view is indeed compulsory viewing. Luckily, the sun had emerged that afternoon, so although there was a haze in the distance, visibility was good.

The very thick bushy growth at the summit is broken through by tall, leafless silver trunks. P1020621These trees are all long dead – nibbled to death by possums.

By mid-afternoon we reached the DOC hut and we were the only souls at the campsite. It was fantastic to have a roof instead of a tent for the night, well worth the $10 honesty donation. Hannah found a quarter of a bar of chocolate which a previous occupant had left behind, so she promptly ate it despite my yelps of protestation. (Child Youth & Family, if a staff member is reading this, you will be interested to know that my child now has to scavenge to survive.) “But how old is it?” I asked. “Meh! Only expires in 2014,” she said with a flick of the wrist.

This was our first Moleless night. I had suggested that Hannah bring Roy’s The God of Small Things with us for this inevitable moment, but she said she didn’t want any serious stuff after walking, so as we left home I had snatched up Sharpe’s Wilt. This book is farce, but too many rude bits render it unsuitable for reading aloud at bus stops. In the wilderness, it wouldn’t offend anyone, but I did wonder how good a role model for virtue, vocabulary and literature selection I was being for my child, even though she sees and reads much more startling stuff online. Hannah had a simple solution for the problem. “We’ll read the rude bits to each other in foreign accents,” she said. “That will make everything all right.”

Leg 10 – Hamilton to Waitomo

Day 1

Saturday, 19 October
Hamilton CBD to Te Pahu Road (17 km)

This leg was meant to start yesterday. We discovered at dawn, half way to the CBD bus stop, that Hannah had forgotten her backpack at home. She thought “someone else would have put it in the car”. She is not a morning person. So we were not tramping people that day. When we got home, we discovered Rimsky Korsakov in the lounge, sharpening his claws on Hannah’s pack waterbag. I threw a toilet roll at him. Growling, he immediately disembowelled the paper. Luckily, the waterbag was not punctured.

Take two: dawn on Saturday. Rimsky, his tail tip twitching slightly, watched us depart. I’m certain that if he were much larger, he would play with us for a long time before eating us.

This time, we caught the bus to Hamilton and continued the city traverse from the point at which Marius and Hannah left it the week before. At the lake, we walked the gauntlet of P1020535emotional assault by coot babies and pukeko adolescents. Aww…too sweet! What can possibly beat coot feet? A gaggle of geese grazed on the shore. “They remind me of Vicky Pollard and her bullygirl gang,” said Hannah.

We worked westwards through the suburbs, where swans sat in someone’s garden. These were sculptures constructed from car tyres. At another home there was a weathered gate sign saying “Beware of the dog. The P1020539bugger bites.” This amused me enormously. It is the first time I’ve seen evidence of an owner ostensibly on the side of the intruder.

A Maori man approached us. “Excuse me,” he said. “Where you from? What country?” Our backpacks make us look like tourists, I suppose, and we still sound like South Africans. “We’re from here: New Zealand,” I replied. “You citizens?” he demanded. “No,” I said. “Soon, though,” Hannah added. The man pressed a hand to his heart. “I’m glad,” he said. That was really nice of him.

Then we were stopped by two pleasant and very pretty Mormon missionaries. After a short conversation, they asked if we believed in God. “I do,” I said. “I don’t,” Hannah said, “because it isn’t logical. I don’t see any evidence.” The missionary said the evidence is all around us. I agreed with her; we’ve seen both heaven and hell flash past on this trail. They offered to share a scripture and pray with us, but we declined, and continued out of town. Our impression of people in Hamilton and further south was of warm friendliness, with only one exception, encountered later that afternoon.

Dogs were out in force for walkies with their humans. One lovely black Labrador had the end half of his tail in a special plaster bandage. A tragedy had befallen his waggy bit, but at least the tail was still all there.

P1020550At the arboretum we encountered helmeted guinea fowl and three peahens as well as some rather assertive bantams.  Here, and elsewhere in west Hamilton, we saw signs prohibiting golf. Err… Do golfers need nothing more than a stretch of grass for them to whip out their clubs and start whacking away? Is Hamilton the only place with rogue golfers?

We had to find O’Dea Road. I asked Hannah if, considering our track record, a route including a section that sounded like an exclamation of dismay was an ill omen. “And in about 70 kilometres’ time, there’s a road called Orongo,” I added. “But I think I would be more suspicious if it was called Orightgo.”

The Waipa Walk traverses farmland and passes rural residences. There were a few P1020561Highland cattle and their teddy bear-like woolly calves as well as some deer along with a preponderance of bovines, painted to indicate breeding status.

The excitement of the afternoon came from crossing a marshy section. The water appeared shallow and clear, with darting insects above and below a surface broken with grass clumps. Hannah splashed across first, and yelped when she sank so the water went in over the tops of her ankle boots.  The ground had hidden depths of mud. I wanted to keep my shoes dry, so removed them to cross in my slip-on sandals. “Move quickly, Mom,” advised Hannah, “or you’ll sink.” Almost immediately, I was in it to the knees. Hannah had a good laugh. “Your expression!” she hooted. I threw my shoes across ahead of me, but could not do the same for my 15-Kilogram pack. Nor could I extract my feet, so had to plunge my arm down to the elbow into the goo to grasp my sandal upper and pull each foot out for every step. It was a bit like playing Twister alone and minus the fun and companionship component. Hannah squatted in the grass among the mob of buttercups under an azure sky, and had a comfortable pee. Then she took a few photos of me. “How can you do that while your mother is drowning?” I cried indignantly. She opened her pack and found the biscuit box. “Fruit digestive or malt?” she offered, holding out the container from 15 metres away. “So now you’re having a picnic?!” I shrieked. “You’re taking too long, that’s why you’ve sunk so deep,” she reminded me through chomps on her digestive. “Leave me. Go. Save yourself,” I said ironically as I floundered out at last.

We emerged onto the rural road near Whatawhata. It was a lovely, normal Saturday afternoon of unhurried activity. People were mooching in their garages and cutting their P1020572lawns and the air was filled with bruised pennyroyal. In one garden, two serene sheep grazed near their own kennel-like A-frames and in another, a girl walked with a half-grown lamb on a leash. Three heavy horses cavorted endearingly up to the fence to solicit caresses. Best sight of the afternoon, though, was in a beautifully-raked dressage arena. Two speckled hens were officiously re-arranging it by having a particularly vigorous sand bath.

In Whatawhata, a man standing in the back of a truck shouted at us in his own language, which we did not understand. The tone was lascivious and abusive, however. “How quaint,” I observed to Hannah. “He must be making an ancient and traditional fertility greeting.” Hannah made him a rude sign. She doesn’t believe in receiving without giving back. Unsurprisingly, the man became more abusive, this time with words we did understand. I was right. He was referring to reproduction. Sometimes I am in awe of my own insight.

We camped next to the Waipa River, beneath a hunchbacked tree. Dinner was two packets of Watties’ Mexican Fiesta Beans. The beans were rather tasty, but we had some reservations about the anticipated alimentary results. “These are fiesta beans,” said Hannah, “so we can only fart if we’re wearing sombreros.” “Yes,” I said, “and if we sing ‘Hola senorita!’ at the same time.”


To see our distance updated on the NZ map, click on the “Progress” page.
To view additional photographs, click on the “Gallery” page.
To receive e-mail notifications of blog updates, click on the “Follow” button (lower right hand corner of the screen).
To donate to mental health recovery organisations or to our walk costs, click on the “Support us” page.
To read our thanks, click on the “Thanks to our supporters” page.


Leg 9 – Rangiriri to Hamilton

This blog entry is written by Marius, because he wanted to have some Dad-and-daughter time on the trail. I stayed at home to watch TV, eat pink cupcakes and file my claws. I also washed the dog’s bedding. I am a domestic goddess.

Day 1

Thursday, 10 October
Rangiriri to Huntly (20 km)

The bus driver cheerfully announced that passengers do not so much disembark at Rangiriri as get tossed out at speed on the SH1, because there is no other reason to stop in this little town. We achieved a decent rolling fall, dusted ourselves down and set off.

This was the start of my first trek with Hannah and I felt energetic, striding ahead like Gandalf. Behind me, my daughter’s laconic comment was that I wouldn’t last very long if I carried on like this. “Conserve your energy, Dad!” was the first of many bits of trail-wise advice from a hardened veteran of 630 km of North Island trail.

The first section was on a kind of causeway through farmlands. Accompanied by some bullocks swinging their wedding vegetables ahead of us, we walked at a pleasant pace, Hannah wearing the new hiking boots that her grandmother had sponsored. The Bivouac salesman warned that the boots had to be broken in gradually – one hour at the start of the day, one hour at the end.

Conversation picked up and with it, the pace as Hannah enthused about new friendships and reflected on the vicissitudes of the past year. After climbing over numerous stiles (some with steps missing and one with steps actually collapsing as we climbed over), we finally got to Huntly’s golf course and had the target firmly in sight: Huntly’s twin towers: the two orange smokestacks of the country’s largest thermal power station. Its service includes Auckland. I’m typing here by means of electrons that have travelled more than 100km.

Soon after the golf course, we put on rain jackets against the squalls. Past the power station, we still had a few kilometres still ahead to find the camping ground where we were supposed to spend the night. Sore and exhausted, we crossed to the Waikato River’s east bank, over a graffiti’d footbridge. The inviting river bank was a possible campsite because the official camping ground was too far a limping distance. We sat on the bank and consulted maps, notes and GPS.

A group of preadolescent boys from the nearby Maori community clustered around us. “Where you from? Where you going? What are you of each other?” they demanded. Trying to explain in our oxygen-deprived, befuddled way who we were and what we were doing, we asked if they knew certain roads indicated on our notes. No, they didn’t know these roads. Eventually they lost interest in us and drifted off. I heard one explain cheerfully to an onlooker: “They from Auckland and they walking to Hamilton but they don’t know what the f*** they doing!” That wasn’t an bad summation, actually.

We headed out of town along the trail to find a camping spot; light was failing and we were getting decidedly hungry – father and daughter think alike when it comes to food. On Riverview Road, Hannah set up kitchen on a picnic table while I searched for a reasonably concealed spot to pitch Samson. After wolfing down the cooked freeze-dried lamb and fettuccini (surprisingly tasty) we put the tent up under the overhanging branches of a willow tree.

Unfortunately, there was a gentle slope to the ground, and we spent a restless night gathering ourselves up from pooling at the foot-end of the tent. I was all the while thinking about the warning in the trail notes that the river bank could be a treacherous place to camp, as flooding could happen very quickly in the wet season. Finally I got to sleep, only to wake up (minutes? an hour?) later to a whooshing, rushing sound. I jumped bolt upright in stark panic and shook Hannah. “Hanny! Wake up! The river! We’ve got to get out!” And then I realised the sound was a train on the nearby railway line. Well. Not much sleep after that, especially when the wind gathered strength and made ominous, low, whistling sounds through the willow branches.

Day 2

Friday, 11 October
Huntly to somewhere in the Hakarimata Range (11 km)

We groggily broke camp under kitchen window scrutiny of an elderly couple, Dorothy and Peter. They invited us for coffee and biscuits when I went to beg for some water to top up Welshour 2-litre container. Peter showed us his Welsh answer to Maori blessings and rituals: the words mean (more or less) “Welcome and God bless you”. By the way “Welcome” in Te Reo Maori is “Haere mai”.

After a few footwear changes, Hannah settled with her supportive and waterproof boots, just as we got to the Hakaramita reserve and started climbing the very well-maintained stairs up the northern end of the range. And we climbed. And climbed. Luckily, we were offered some views as we progressed vertically, although a clear day would have permitted better photographs.

We finally got to the spot where Te Araroa parts ways with the scenic reserve and immediately all path maintenance disappeared. “This is more like what Mom and I are used to!” was Hannah’s comment. Boy oh boy. Mud, more mud and Jacob’s ladders of tangled roots that served sinister stairs. I was seated very abruptly a number of times, much to my daughter’s mirth. I had my revenge by torturing her with silly songs and groan-inducing puns.

I am amazed at how Hannah has cultivated vasbyt. This South African term literally means “to bite tight”. It comes from the days of conscription in the SA army, where you were given gruelling exercises and circumstances to cultivate physical and psychological toughness. Today, where I was sweating and groaning up the Jacob’s ladders, Hannah was scaling them with seeming ease and control. I guess walking Ninety Mile Beach and wading upstream in Waitangi has to put some marrow in bones that are not made for wishing.

All the while I was hoping for a clear space to set up camp, but the nikau palms, kauri and ti trees formed a gauntlet that pushed us ever forwards, with the occasional break where we would sit balanced awkwardly on a jutting root and have a jelly sweet. I was also not too keen to pitch the tent within felling distance of one of the trees which might give up its struggle against the ever-present wind.

Eventually, at mid-afternoon, we came across what seemed like a firebreak that bisected the trees. It was wide enough to pitch Samson comfortably. No sooner had we put the tent up and settled in, when the rain began. We felt snug and smug and feasted on our Mexican rice meal with cheese mixed in. It’s amazing how wonderful a simple meal like that can taste when you have only had some nuts for breakfast, some jelly sweets for lunch and a few cookies for morning tea. I complimented Hannah on being the best cook ever, especially when the meal was followed by freeze-dried trifle. I was thoroughly impressed at the way she managed our camp and assumed the Trail Boss role, which is normally Mairi-Anne’s.

After dinner, Hannah read me some Adrian Mole, said goodnight and was asleep at 4.30 pm. I tossed and turned until well after dark, listening to the high-pitched calls of the fantail and another bird which I used to think was the silvereye (very much like the SA Cape white-eye). However, listening to various birdcall websites since coming home, it seems I’m mistaken and the cheerful, randomly tuneful little call will have to belong to an anonymous avian for now.

Later, I was woken by the sound of a V8 doing burnouts in the treetops, roaring around the neighbourhood like a boy racer hoon. Luckily, the stands of ti trees on both sides of the firebreak sheltered us from this gale, so the tent didn’t flap too much. In the wee hours there was distant thunder and lightning, but only a smattering of rain.

Day 3

Saturday, 12 October
Somewhere in the Hakarimata Range to Hamilton (25 km)

The morning started with our first glimpse of sun since Thursday, but again with the roar of thunder in the distance. And of course more wind. Mairi-Anne texted us the weather forecast, which included “gales in exposed places” and admonished us not to expose our places. Despite the din, I also heard a plate of bacon, eggs and chips calling my name from Ngaruawahia, so we got going promptly.

After the previous night’s rain there was even more mud and, to our surprise, the fresh bootprints of other trampers! We wondered who would be so crazy as to venture out in this weather. We were only there because Mairi-Anne made us do it.

Today we employed the foot version of mountain bike “granny gear”. This is the lowest gear on the bike, one which allows you to pedal up steep hills using less energy and at a slower pace than the high-ratio gears. We took short steps up the steep bits instead of the “let’s get this over with” strides of the previous day, and it actually worked: we got to the tops of these climbs without feeling totally puffed out. A great thing about this section of Te Araraoa is that it is extremely well signposted: whenever the track disappears, there is a very clear triangle pointing the way.Ranges view 1

On one of the climbs, a tramper who was going in the opposite direction told us he’d started on the track “at the bottom of the stairs” 40 minutes ago. Yay! We thought. Nearly Ngaruawahiathere. Of course he wasn’t carrying a 15kg pack, but we let the illusion of “nearly there” motivate us and presently we came to the helipad with the viewing platform, from where we could look back in astonishment to how far we had walked. We could also see how far down the steps the little town with the funny name was.

So we started the descent. According to one website, 1,349 of them. It certainly felt like Stairwaythat much, and we welcomed the simple luxury of a handrail to aid the burning knees in bearing the impact of breaking gravity bit by bit, stair by stair.

Eventually we reached a pleasant valley of gushing streams, waterfalls and fit-looking ladies jogging in pink trainers, before exiting into the town of (OK, here we go) Ngaruawahia (got that?). The sky made a real commitment to rain as we searched for an eatery (I was so sure of that meal calling my name). Then… heaven: the Bakery & Café with seating inside and exactly the breakfast of my fantasy.

The last of our water had run out on the trail that morning so we topped up at the public toilets and got a few provisions for our last shift. It started with a long trek along the SH1 with more rain. Three Fonterra milk tankers passed us and gave us a thorough spraying of our undercarriage. It is strangely beautiful how you can get sodden from both north to south and south to north. On three occasions sympathetic motorists stopped and offered us a lift. With real anguish, we declined. Hannah offered, “We’re doing it for fundraising” as our reason. I’m glad she didn’t say, “We’re doing it for mental health awareness”, because to that the response could only be, “I can see why!”

Pukete Road led us through some equestrian lifestyle blocks (plots, as we called them in SA) to the bank of the Waikato, for the start of the Riverside Walk in Hamilton. On the opposite bank we could see the houses of the fabulously wealthy and some stormwater pipes gushing from that bank into the river. My killer pun of the day: “Affluent effluent.”

Hannah riverwalkThe riverside pathway is a long stretch of beautifully manicured parkland and smoothly-paved walkway shared by cyclists, joggers and pram-pushing parents. [Blog interruption by Mairi-Anne: Beware of pram-pushers! First, they let you push a pram with absolutely no obligation. Then you start to buy prams. After a while you have nowhere to hide all your prams and the perpetual monkey-grip position of your hands tells the world you are a pram handle addict. To hide your shameful habit you have to make babies to fill all the prams and you are trapped in a terrible, vicious cycle!]  We were greeted with canine effervescence by some dogs and slight disdain by their attendant humans.

We hadn’t expected to come this far today, but Hannah was insistent that we get to the CBD (tomorrow’s destination for catching the bus). There was nowhere to stealth camp, so we had to push on but Hannah’s feet were sore and my legs froze up every time we stopped to rest.

After 7.00 pm, we finally found a backpackers’ inn that wasn’t fully booked. We gratefully had a proper shower (not a Fonterra tanker one) and then bed. A real bed. Good night!

Manurewa to Rangiriri, day 5

Monday, 7 October
Hall Road to Rangiriri (8.5 km)

P1020500Oh goody gum drops: our last day of the leg. It was a short trot through more dairy farms along the river bank.


We were going to catch the 12.06 Intercity bus home, but it broke down near Hamilton, so we had a very long wait in Rangiriri. What to do pass the time…? Oh yes, inspect the public toilet – and gosh, it is another electronically controlled one. They are not all the same, though. This one has the added feature of an automatic paper dispenser. Yes! It makes one think. The consequences of a power failure could be grim indeed. And a lounge lizard-like recording of “Strangers in the night” starts playing as soon as you sit down. (OK, a power failure would not be all bad.) Looking up, I realised the toilet is self-cleaning, too. It has spray attachments which sluice out the cubicle, probably at a given time each day. My need for a shower remained strong. If I stood very quietly, would the electronics detect my presence and decline a cleansing deluge?

You may wonder if there is a mental illness involving excessive blogging about toilets. I checked my Diagnostics and Statistics Manual; it is on the shelf next to my Bible and Dictionary of Archaic Terms. No, there isn’t. In the DoAT, however, are “alack”, “yoiks” and “wanion”. These words mean “alas”, “yippee” and “rotten luck”, respectively.

The Intercity arrived at 2.25. I subsided next to a woman who was in a window seat. She had her head hidden under the curtain. “Hello,” I said to the curtain. “Are you shy, or is it cooler under there?” Her face emerged briefly. “I just hate having people watch me sleep,” she replied. Now I can identify with that. Only fluffy animals and children under the age of 10 look fabulous with a collapsed face and a stalagtite of drool.

After only 30 minutes of travel, the bus broke down again. The passengers were particularly annoyed because when it broke down previously, a new bus had not been sent to fetch them. The defective bus had simply been started again by an electrician, and now the electrical fault had repeated itself. One woman abused the driver – a pointless venting – it is the company, not the driver, who is at fault concerning repair and replacement decisions.

We all sat around on the pavement, waiting for yet another electrician to arrive. As luck would have it, the bus had died next to a Subway takeaway. A boy, who looked well-nourished and about 10 years old, lifted up his T-shirt and pointed to his pink, round tummy. “This tummy is hungry,” he wailed at his mother, who had been resisting his pleas for food. The poor woman gave in at this point.

Bus passengers are generally interesting. Two little Korean brothers were fetchingly dressed as superheroes. One was Batman and the other was Superman, complete with capes. Aw, bless! No-one thought of asking them to fix things, so clearly we all deserved our fate.

A very tall, lanky, spotty youth mooched around. As with most blokes his age, his jeans sagged at the back, revealing an island of underpants. I have often wondered what on earth keeps such trousers up, and if they ever fall right off, and today was my day for finding out. As I watched (yoiks), his pants slid down his thighs (wanion), but he just hitched them up again with absolutely no sign of embarrassment (alack). He then started to pick his teeth. Gotta love teen savoir faire.

At 3.38 a few of us were able to transfer to a Naked Bus and go on to Auckland. I don’t know how long the other souls waited to end their journey.

As I hugged my son hello at home, I noticed he was wearing the same tracksuit pants he had had on five days previously when we said goodbye. While I lay in the wilderness, dreaming of hot baths and clean clothes, he had not changed his trousers! There was an abundance of  food stains, three of which I recognised from the previous week’s menu. There was nothing else to do but boil these pants. They yielded into the water what Florence Nightingale would have described as a good, supporting broth. Din-dins!

Manurewa to Rangiriri, day 4

Sunday, 6 October

McIntyre Road to Hall Road (19 km)

We woke to the sight of three slugs shmoozing their way across the inside of the tent dome. Ick! The first section of the day’s walk wasn’t too nice either, as it took us through tall weeds on wet ground in close parallel to the motorway.

At the Mercer service centre we bought liquids: a bottle of guava-flavoured Blue V (Hannah’s choice), and a 1.25L bottle of water (mine). I wanted something extra to wash with when we stopped. Hannah does not share my horror of sleeping sticky. She cheerfully goes without washing while tramping, but she did make a faint noise of disparagement when we read about Rosie Mole confessing to Daisy and Adrian that she had not washed her hair for a year. “Doesn’t Rosie know she can achieve the perfect P1020483unwashed look with gel?” was her critical response.

The walk improved after the stiff hill climb behind Mercer, where we had our first view of Waikato. It was a morning of moods; occasionally windy with cloud clumps pulled roughly apart, allowing through occasional handprints of light.

The track undulated (this is understatement) through fields of sheep before descending to the Whangamarino Wetlands track. We followed the Waikato River bank from this point until the end of the leg.

It is impossible to complete the riverside sections in wet weather, but even after the sunny spell which preceded our tramp, it was unpleasantly muddy. We traversed cattle paddock after cattle paddock with abundant muck sucking our shoes. Laugh of the day was an orange triangle-marked stile which offered to take us over a barb wire fence situated a metre beyond a two-strand electric fence. The path had brought us to the wrong side of the electric fence. Dear me! It was a bit like an emergency exit key being secured in a boxP1020498 of smash-proof glass.

We saw some enormous fish jumping; one had the colouring of a koi carp, which we later discovered is an introduced pest species. The big plus of the walk, though, was the spectacular yellow irises flowering thickly along the length of the banks.

By this time it was hot, and Hannah, who had not checked her water bag at Mercer, discovered it was empty. She started on my bottle of certified purity. “Hey!” I protested. “You’re drinking my bathwater!” She has no shame. She knew I could not leave her in a Waikato field to die. Forty-two years ago (this is not strictly a non sequitur), when I was at boarding school, a small girl called Annetjie gained kudos of the horrified variety in our dorm, by piddling in her bathwater and then drinking it. She grinned broadly while slurping and I recall that she had only a couple of front teeth.

At Meremere we passed the dragway from where the complaining and irritated whining of scramblers could be heard for miles.  South of here, we walked a long distance on the stopbank. This section is described in the trail notes as easy tramping, but it is not. The grass length varies between ankle and knee height, thus making walking an effort: you really have to pick up your feet. The ground is flat, but cow hoof-pitted dried mud provides an ankle-wrecking uneven surface.


A tramper misses an orange triangle, with tragic results

Somewhat sinister was the number of cattle and sheep skulls we counted. We even found an entire skeleton, with a small amount of flesh yet to be prised off it by insects and birds.

A rough transcript of the afternoon’s conversation:
She: I want to stop walking the trail in a few weeks. By December, actually.
Me: Why?
She: I want to get my hair done. It is my December tradition. I want to have another Death Mohawk and dye it purple.
Me: You can have your hair done and still walk, but you’d have to put sunscreen on the shaved bits.
She: But I can’t maintain “the look” on the walk.
Me: So, if the hairstyle is spectacular, it doesn’t matter if the brain underneath it is woo-wah doolally? Dad and I could drop you off at the psychiatric ward and you’d be the best groomed patient there.
She: Yup. That’s about it. That’s what Patsy would do.
Me: Patsy?
She: Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous. She’s my role model. I hope I have a body like hers when I’m her age.
Me: Well, you can certainly tone your body by walking the length of New Zealand.
She: Oh shut up Mom!

When we reached Hall Road and set up the tent, I discovered that Hannah had actually finished my sparkling bathwater. She laughed at my annoyance and went to collect 1.25L of replacement water from the river. It had things floating in it. Now Patsy wouldn’t bath in water like that. Pffft!

In the darkness, we listened to a hissing possum fight and a cattle choir. Somewhere across the river, a herd of bovines was seriously disturbed. Muted and slightly distorted by distance, there was a fugue comprising a bass drone overlaid with shrieks and trumpeting made on both the in-breath and the out-breath. They sounded like souls in the fires of damnation. Maybe these were cows newly and forcibly separated from of their calves. Horrid thought. Horrid practice.

Manurewa to Rangiriri, day 3

Saturday, 6 October
Wairoa Dam to McIntyre Rd

We woke with enthusiasm at a very low ebb and feeling pathetic after Friday’s exertions. I had a large, technicoloured bruise on my knee so I asked Hannah to kiss it better. She gave me her lime-segments-for-eyes look. In our family, everyone gets injuries kissed better by the relative in closest proximity at the time of anguish. The problem is that at 15, my daughter views this civilised healing practice as incredibly stupid. After only a moment’s consideration, she savaged my arm with her teeth instead. She also made some growling noises. Hastily, I reminded her to take her medication.

Wairoa Dam wall

Wairoa Dam wall

What were we going to do about our walk now? Luckily, still being within reasonable driving distance of home, we could call on our man slave once more. We decided to walk out of the debris-strewn hills to a road that runs roughly parallel to them and eventually joins with Lyons Rd, the exit for which we would be aiming anyway if we were doing the southern part of the ranges trail. Marius would drive to meet us with our bikes so we could cycle the tarred road from wherever he met us until this connecting road joined with the next cross-country trail section.

Oh the joy when he arrived bearing Brown’s Bay boerewors rolls from Fred’s Fine Foods! Fred’s boerewors has a restorative effect; consumption becomes an almost spiritual experience.


Near Lyons Rd

Temporarily relieved of our packs, we cycled to the end of Lyons Rd where we again exchanged our bikes for the backpacks. Here, there was a strong silage smell on the wind. Unfortunately, it verged on a parmesan whiffiness, but we left before it permanently disabled our passion for cheese.

As we started the Mangatawhiri River Track, I limped pathetically and cast Marius the same mournful look that Manuel gave Basil Fawlty when Basil tried to deprive Manuel of his Siberian Filigree Hamster. “Man up!” shouted the husband and father of Amazons, as he drove off in the comfort of the family vehicle.

P1020471After the Hunua Ranges, the stopbank (embankment or levée) walk along the Mangatawhiri River is a great surprise. Instead of steep hills with almost impenetrable vegetation, P1020478there is a massive, flat open space. There is no sound apart from the pattern of your shoes on the grass. I felt my spirit expanding joyfully into the sky and pressing out against the distance.

P1020481It must be lonely to live permanently in such a place, though. The only human we saw for the entire afternoon was the driver of a tractor. He was towing what looked like a lime-dispersing trailer across a distant field.

We emerged onto a road leading through swamps belonging to game bird hunters. Signs promised us we were under CC surveillance, in case we had the evil urge to snaffle a duck.

In summer, vigilant posses of mosquitos probably make this area unbearable, but the insect levels seem fine in spring. We camped close to the Kellyville Road turnoff, where, throughout the evening, we heard a bird call that sounded similar to the African hornbill. It spoke a single, deep, round-sounding note, as if breath were blown over the top of a big, empty bottle.

Leg 8 – Manurewa to Rangiriri, day 2

Friday, 4 October
Wairoa River to the Wairoa Dam (14 km)

Because we’d had a break since last carrying packs, we’d got soft again. Both of us woke up feeling sensitive; Hannah’s shoulders and my hips were bruised from the weight of yesterday’s pack straps. The day was thickly overcast, gloomy and the morning was smeared with mist. The trail notes told us the Wairoa River Track would not have trail signs, but that information is outdated. The section is well marked with triangles and we were in no danger of losing our way. The path was muddy but we were relieved to see shod horse tracks. If horses have been ridden along a track, you can be sure it won’t be a path that forces you onto hands and knees and simplifies your vocabulary.

We then entered the Cossey Gorge Track, which took us through more bush and ended at P1020449Cossey Dam. Here, we noticed that the track triangles were different: they had a reflector section in the middle. Is this a special Hunua Ranges characteristic? Surely not even a prize muppet would walk these particular tracks at night with a headlamp? There must be a good reason for the reflectors, but we don’t know what it is.

About a kilometre in, we found the track blocked by a fallen tree. You can’t simply go around such an obstacle when there is a steep uphill on your left and a sharp drop on your right. We P1020450removed our packs, I climbed over first, Hannah passed me the packs and then she climbed over. When we emerged from the path section at Cossey Dam, we discovered the exit of the stretch we had just walked was screened off with two orange cones, a bar and a sign saying “Dangerous Area. No Access”. Well, OK. We had just done something for which the Department of Conservation was going to smack our little botties. “But what about the other end of that track?” I asked.

Cossey Dam

Cossey Dam

“Why didn’t they block that off?” Hannah replied that she remembered seeing a piece of orange tape lying to one side, on the ground. Maybe that had originally been strung across the path.

The weather remained dull, with occasional light mizzle as we went further into the Hunua Ranges, heading for the Wairoa Dam. We saw no other DOC warning signs or tape.

There was a persistent odour in the air; it was somewhat herbal and unpleasant. I think the source might have been the spring flowers of a particular indigenous tree found throughout the area. Interesting, though, was a bird call we had not heard anywhere before. It went “Ooon”, in a three-note, glissando descent, something like a sigh.

There was no view from the path, apart from at the lookout platform, because the vegetation is very thick.  It was at this point that the steep trail became most unpleasant. As we discovered afterwards, the ranges had been mugged by the big storm of 24 September, which had inflicted some GBH on the area. Ah, so that accounted for the trail being littered with debris. There were also about six more fallen trees to get over, usually with our pack-passing manoeuvre. One tree we could not manage and so had to go around. That was difficult because of the vine-like growth which was everywhere. A machete would have been welcome. There was a lot of mud, and we both fell several times. It was not in the least bit fun, and our self-pity soared to merit level.

We also struggled to synchronise the trail notes and the trail signage. Orange triangles are no help when they point in three directions at a T-junction of paths. But we eventually arrived at the Wairoa dam despite our Will To Live having subsided to 50%. We were looking forward to the toilets promised by the trail notes at the dam’s picnic site. This ablutionary excitement was because you’re prohibited from approaching the dam shore or water, so if you want to replenish your water packs, the toilets’ hand basin taps are the only place to do so, unless you find a suitable stream en route. What the notes do not say is that there are two picnic sites, one above the dam wall and one below. It is the one below that includes the toilets and taps. The one above has only benches and tables. We arrived exhausted at the upper site, from which we could not see the lower one. Our WTL level dropped another 10%.

Luckily, cell signal here was good. Marius phoned to say he’d spoken to someone at the DOC and that we were advised to bypass the next section of the Hunua Ranges trail. More parts of the ranges than simply the Cossey Track were closed because of the fallen trees, and the Mangatawhiri section is very tough even without storm debris. According to the trail notes, there are markers here but no formed path, so “very good navigation skills” are required. You can probably hear me whimpering. I desire strongly to travel in a helicopter, but not ignominiously, after being rescued from stumbling stupidly around in the mountains. It has to be graciously, after being picked up by Prince William, who would fly me to an elegant soirée, where, wearing my purple leopardskin body stocking and a blinding amount of bling, I would sip creamy cocktails served with weeny little umbrellas.

Leg 8 – Manurewa to Rangiriri

Day 1

Thursday, 3 October
Totara Park to the Wairoa River (24 km)

En route to our start in Manurewa, we stopped briefly at the Albany shopping complex for supplies. We parked outside Bivouac, where we bought freeze-dried food before going to Pak ‘n Save for the other stuff. “We’ll drive there,” said Marius, easing the car 300 metres around the parking lot, “because it is too far to walk.” At this, his wife and daughter emitted pious shrieks of indignation and abused his manhood. “I can’t compete,” he protested. “I can’t help it if my women are Amazons.” Hannah quite liked this new identity. “Well, I am the taller and stronger one,” she staked her claim. “Yes, but your mother is the scary one,” he replied, thus very adroitly saying the only thing that could mollify his outraged wife. He is much too clever.

From Totara Park, we did the 13-km road margin connection route to the start of the next Te Araroa Trail section, the Kimpton’s Track. We don’t look forward to road connections. They are hard on the joints and sometimes dull, but we cycled this section and the second half was pretty  where it passed through farmland. Spring oak leaves, in their yellowest and softest green were a treat and the lambs, as ever, were delightful. Best view of the day was a ewe with twins, one all-black and one all-white baby. They were on their knees, suckling simultaneously, with their tails waggling. At the lower end of the field, four sheep lay quietly in the shade under a trampoline.

At the stile over the farm fence where the trail departed from the road, Marius, who was our man slave of the day, took our bikes and brought us our packs, which we strapped on with a sigh. Oh for a permanent back-up team and maybe a Sherpa or two for the areas beyond daily vehicle access…

This section was extremely steep and there was no path until about 3 km in. We had to rely on the orange triangles to keep on track. Clearly, not many people walk this bit. At the highest point of the trail, where we climbed yet another stile into a pasture, we saw a sign saying “Dogs will be shot”.

Towards its end, the trail joins the well-constructed Clevedon Reserve Circuit. This path is gravelled and stepped, making it easy walking. There are also  information plaques, one of which explains that the kauri tree is now endangered partly because its gum used to be “much sort after” [sic] as a component of varnish and paint. It is my opinion that people earning salaries to write and check such information signs should be shot. I would then be able to squirm self-righteously into a vacancy. I need the salary. First, though, I have to identify the grammar culprits, entice them into wearing Scooby-Doo suits and take them up to the high pastures for a happy release.

P1020447As we walked through Clevedon, we saw cheerful, life-sized child portraits hanging on the school fence. We were both keen to stop in this village, but decided to push on for another 6 km of road margin connection tramping to get to the start of the Wairoa River Track. There was more pretty farm scenery here, but also an increasing number of threatening signs. “Press the bell at the gate and wait,” one advised, “Dogs will bite.” These signs are not common north of here; so maybe this area has had trouble? Time in NZ has taught us not to expect the ubiquitous beware-of-the-dog signs we had in RSA.

We camped on the roadside next to the river, above a bank of snowdrops. If grass is green hair, then snowdrops are a really vigorous case of dandruff. You only need pitch your tent near them to be olfactorially reminded that they belong to the onion family.