Leg 11 – Tongariro Crossing and Santoft Track, day 7

Day 7

Friday, 15 November
Brandon Hall Road to Ngaio Road (19 km)

P1020904The dawn chorus was great. Best were the tuis, who sounded like a group of grannies cooing over a new baby in a pram. I sat up. “It is going to be a reasonably easy walk, today,” I said. Hannah was still horizontal. “From this angle you look incredibly old,” she murmured, “very wrinkly.” Pffft. “The first gruesome lines appeared while I was grimacing in anguish, pushing you out of my genitals into the world,” I retorted. My referring to her birth never fails to animate my child with annoyance. Animation is good when you have to get going in the morning. “I did not come out of your genitals!” she shouted. “I was a Caesar baby!” This is true, but I refuse to abandon the moral high ground provided by real or fabricated suffering.

The tarred road to Bulls is very long, flat and straight. The main excitement it offers is a slight bend at about the halfway point. However, the P1020894farmers that live on Brandon Hall Road take a real pride in their post boxes. We particularly liked a giraffe, a horsebox and an ancient camera. The back of the horsebox, which faced the road, had two lovely bottoms and tails hanging out of it. The camera was on a tripod and had “Zeiss Nikon” painted on the front and “Made in China” on the back. I love that humour. It had an ancient flash bulb and a lens on a concertina pop-out. My grandfather had a camera of similar structure in the 1930s. As we entered Bulls, we also found a post box fire engine.

P1020906P1020905Bulls is proud of its name and groaningly awful puns abound. Businesses tout themselves as incredibull or adorabull; the Town Hall is listed as a place to be sociabull, the library is readabull and the pharmacy is indispensabull. Signs on large litterbins (recycled milk churns) exhort people to be responsibull with litter. Best (or is it worst?) of all is the sign outside the public loo, which tells us how relievabull a visit to this public convenience can be. There are also murals depicting locals as anthropomorphic cattle. The police station has a garage door decorated with constabulls dressed in blue. Cowed, we were udderly relieved to depart.P1020910

At this point our trials of the day really began. There is a Rangitikei River track, through some private land, which is meant eventually to bring the tramper out onto Ngaio Rd. Our usual saga of an inadequately marked trail boringly played itself out yet again, but even if the trail did have an abundance of orange triangles, we would have missed them. This walk is hugely overgrown with wild fennel, weeds and brambles. It was impossible to negotiate and so we ended up involuntarily trespassing and climbing into paddocks of livestock simply to escape.P1020912

Eventually and by chance, we found a black and white trail sign far too modestly placed on a rock on the other side of a multi-stranded fence. The fence was set up for electrification, but was it activated? Hmm. Getting over it without touching it would be difficult, maybe impossible. Now, I have a heart condition, so playing with electrical currents is even less a sensible option for me than it is for the average soul. “Please would you touch this to test it for us before we try climbing?” I asked Hannah. I asked her very nicely, too. “I’d rather walk all the way back to the main road,” she replied sleepily. I knew she was lying. She was sitting very comfortably on the grass and she never takes a single extra step unless she is guaranteed food. I considered mentioning my genitals again, but dismissed the thought. It is not wise to deploy the same weapon twice in one day. “Greater love hath no Mom,” I said nobly, “than to risk her very life for her daughter’s uncaring laziness. Moreover, you are a wuss!” and I reached out my age-spotted sacrificial hand. Nothing happened. So over we went.

Once across the fence, we still had to get over the large rock, along the exit side of which ran what looked like a nylon string. As I discovered, while lowering myself into thigh-deep weeds, this string was the electrified item. My bottom was the recipient of an agricultural stimulus that I cannot relate without blushing. If I were vindictive, I would have allowed my heartless daughter to discover this unpleasantness on her own. But I am a nice person. I now have a pink fence around my plot of moral high ground. It even glows in the surrounding darkness of filial ingratitude. Prominently positioned is a sign saying “Beware of the Blog”.

The path then led us along a cliff top on the wrong side of a fence, where the space between the fence and the void was too narrow for safety. So back into the paddock we climbed. We were sick and tired of the stupid track by this time. All we wanted was to get the hell out of it and onto the road to Feilding, but we were led astray for another hour through farm fields before our final release in the wrong place.

I’m sure farmers in the Bulls district must have female cattle too. Maybe someone at some time has seen them? However, for our entire walk, we saw nothing but bulls of varying ages. Is this settlement Evil? Are The Stepford Cows kept in oppressed seclusion?

We could see a road in the distance. Oh joy! The problem was that yet another field of bulls lay between it and us. On the whole, the bulls we encountered were young, curious, but nervous. They wanted to inspect us but posed no real danger while we walked slowly and quietly along the fence line. In this particular field, however, one mature male looked like a very mean bugger. He was thick set, with small rolls of flesh at the butcher’s joins. Two small eyes glared out of a fat, flat face and stalagtites of drool from his lower jaw quivered in the breeze. He had a statuesque and truly menacing stillness. We detoured his paddock.

As we crossed the last field, where the bulls were young and frisky, I said to Hannah, “Look, it probably won’t happen, but it is possible we could be charged. Unclip your hip and chest straps now, so if we are indeed charged, you can easily drop your backpack as you run, in the hope that…” “…That the bull will be distracted by you and not pulverise your valuable possessions,” Hannah interrupted. It is because she makes statements like this that I do not entirely disown her.

On reaching Ngaio Road, we decided to hitch hike to Feilding. We’ll have to come back another time to complete the road margin tramp. Meanwhile, we knew Jean would be only too delighted to find us deposited on her doorstep in the expectation of luxurious accommodation for the weekend. Old friends wearing the same clothes they’ve sweated into for the last three days can only be embraced with delight, right?

Leg 11 – Tongariro Crossing and Santoft Track, days 5 and 6

Day 5

Wednesday, 13 November
Mangahuia campsite to National Park Village and Turakina to a country graveyard (11 km)

P1020856A thin layer of ice crackled off our tent as we unzipped it that morning. We put on our waterproofs for warmth and made coffee with some difficulty over a gas cylinder which sulked and spat. Ordinary gas doesn’t like sub-zero temperatures. The more expensive cylinders containing a different mix of gases always light and heat like a dream, so we’ll stick to those in future.

We walked along State Highway 47 from Mangahuia to National Park Village, where we were to catch the Intercity bus south to Turakina for the start of the Santoft Track. It was a singingly clear day and we kept turning to look back at the mountains.

Every now and again I get a rush of blood to the head, and go all didactic on my daughter. “We’re going to do vocabulary today,” I informed her, “it’ll enliven our road walk.” She could scarcely contain herself. “I’m soooo glad to be in school instead of walking in the wilderness,” she said sweetly. I am cruel, but fair. “For each word I teach you, you can teach me the meaning of a contemporary youth slang expression,” I offered. Deal!

“Vicissitudes,” I started. “It’s a noun!” she replied – brilliantly. Pffft. She gave up on the definition. My other words for her were entropy, apogee, quotidian, metafiction, septuagenarian and prurience. She confused entropy with atrophy and the only one she got right was septuagenarian, but I’m happy to report that she responded really positively to prurience.

Her list for me comprised dank, hipster, YOLO, snapback, swag and gains. “I’m giving you only the most basic words,” she explained kindly, “because you’re not ready for the more complicated ones.”

Me: Dank: Something damp and skanky, it could be a place that is wet, dark and horrid, like a dungeon.
She: Dank is a stoner’s word and a stoner is someone who smokes a lot of weed. Dank means really awesome or potent, for example, “Mmm that dank potato,” meaning “That really delicious potato”.
Me: Oh …. But potent and delicious describe very different qualities, although a liqueur could have both.
She: That’s what it means. You can’t question it logically. Now for hipster.
Me: A pair of trousers that…
She: Not the 1960s trousers version. Hipsters are people who act like they’re really cool because they “like something before everyone else likes it”, but in fact the majority of the population is the same way, so they’re not unique, they just think they’re unique.
Me: We-ell, we would call people “avant garde” if they liked something before it became fashionable. And “hip” meant “cool” way back when.
She: Yes, but hipsters don’t realise how pathetic they are.

And here are the other definitions. Gosh, the innuendoes are legion. Each slang term of my youth could be explained in about three words. Life is more complicated now. Or maybe it’s just more pretentious.

YOLO: You only live once, so you have an excuse to do stupid/dangerous/gross things and post them on the Internet so that they can ruin your future.
Snapback: A kind of hat that people called “swagfags” wear. Swagfags are male versions of hipsters. The hat is a kind of cap with a very stiff, round brim and a dome-like crown. It looks totally wuss.
Swag: Street-cred. A guy with swag will wear snapbacks (see above) and wear his jeans below his bum, and will walk around like he has something up his arse, because that’s “cool”.
Gains: A lifestyle in which you go to the gym, eat healthy shit and act like you are really tough, but made of seriously holier-than-thou stuff.

Now I know.

When we arrived at National Park Village we bought supplies at the petrol station and discovered that in this settlement, nothing at all happens between 9.00 am and sundowner time. Only one café is open for lunch; the rest offer breakfast and dinner to skiers. Many of the businesses are operated by local farmers as a second income, so they’ve got other priorities during the day. Residents are serious about litter, though. This is the only New Zealand place I have seen which provides a public rubbish bin every 40 metres on the street. Usually, you have to hunt for a bin.

We found a giant kiwi sculpture, made from uncut driftwood, next to the main road. It P1020857was fabulously assembled, especially its face. The eyes were natural holes in the wood and were uneven, because no two natural holes are the same. This created a rather measuring, speculative avian squint.

When we climbed off the bus at Turakina, it was after 5.00 pm and we had about seven kilometres of road walking before the beach trail began. After doing less than half the distance, we decided to stop. A fierce, grabbing wind had joined us and we knew it would make beach camping horrid. So … where to pitch Samson? The perfect place was a rural graveyard. We set up camp as discreetly as we could behind the church.

“Well, this is another first for you,” I said to Hannah. “Yesterday it was skinny dipping in the mountains and tonight it is sleeping in a graveyard. Clearly, your mother is providing you with a socially defective role model.” “Child protection services might want to remove me from your care,” she said (without any noticeable signs of distress). “Nah, I’ll argue that I’m teaching you career survival skills. You never know when you may wish to pursue a future as a vagrant or a vampire. A really dank one, that is.”

We had freeze-dried curried chickpeas for supper and slept early. The great benefit of our location, location, location was that the permanent campers were silent, so we had our first undisturbed sleep in four nights.


Day 6

Thursday, 14 November
Country graveyard to Brandon Hall Road (23 km)

We didn’t want to offend anyone, so we were more than usually careful about checking we left no evidence, not even a tiny shred of tissue paper, of our camp in the graveyard. Before leaving, we walked around, reading the headstones. Despite being a century old, it was a very small cemetery, but a couple of people had been buried there each decade. A mound of clay which had not yet settled showed how recently someone’s coffin had been lowered into the earth.

Children’s graves always pull at the heart but two headstones from 1915 had particularly poignant inscriptions. There was one for a 5-year-old boy. How wrecked his parents must have been; how reluctantly they must have surrendered his small body to the clay. Then there was a mass grave: a man aged 28 together with his four young children. What dreadful fate had overtaken them? Was it a house fire? Was it a family murder? The date is too early for the Spanish flu. Strangely, the four children are not named. I wonder why not? Maybe a cultural taboo was involved, or maybe there was insufficient money for a longer inscription.

I thought of how close Marius and I had come to losing both our children in 2012, one to physical illness and the other to the fallout of mental illness. Also of our friend, Tristan, a truly special man in the UK dying now of pancreatic cancer, and far too young to leave. Death and loss are at our shoulder all the time. If we obsess about these inevitabilities our lives are crushed. If we detach ourselves or are complacent, our lives have no savour. All we can do is use both hands to reach for the flashes of joy that fly before us.

The road to the Koitiata settlement is quiet. Only a couple of vehicles passed us that morning. We passed one, a small truck, parked on a farm verge. The keys were in the ignition and the engine was running. No-one was in sight. How extravagant. How trusting!

We heard a peacock meowling and saw a peahen fly heavily across the road ahead, landing among yellow-flowering shrubs. At first we thought these were more gorse, but they weren’t. There were no thorns and the flowers had a strong, soapy scent, something like gardenia.

Koitiata is a tiny village with about 100 residents. However, it is a place of seriously pissed off people. On every household’s fence were red or blue signs registering annoyance with the Rangitikei District Council. “Small town services; big town rates. Thanks RDC” or, “RDC rates rip-off zone”. It reminded me of South Africa, where in Hilton, during our last two years before emigrating, the council had put our rates up to match those of Sandton, the most affluent suburb in Johannesburg. We lived in a house with a septic tank, in a street without streetlights or a pavement. Wherever we go, we find likeness of being.

P1020882As we headed south on the beach, two women with their four dogs warned us we had chosen the wrong time to walk. “It’s high tide and you’re going directly into a head wind,” they said. The beach was amazing, though, well worth the rough going. I often wondered where artists found the driftwood for their massive sculptures, and now I know. Here is the ultimate tree graveyard.

Wood vertebrae and ribs

Wood vertebrae and ribs

Trunks and branches, leached and weathered silver, contrast sharply with the black sand of the volcanic beach. Something about this coastline’s position and the angle of winds and tides conspire to capture the trees. Wood wrenched from its roots and washed down to the sea is cast back upon the black breast of New Zealand. And there it remains, like the bones on an ancient battlefield of giants where not a soul was left alive to bury the dead. P1020870There are plenty of people who enjoy rearranging the remains, though. Children must have great fun playing here. We found two of their driftwood forts. These wooden ribs and vertebrae are definitely flashes of joy.

The dunes are bleak, partly colonised by the hardiest of grass which has its own kind of sheen against the sand. But such is the drive to live, even a tree uprooted far away and roughly replanted here by the sea, rallied and tried to grow again. Drawing on stored resources it could now never replenish, it pushed out hundreds of brave little shoots despite its forced removal to a place where it could never survive. I found its obstinacy, in the face of its certain extinction, strangely moving.P1020889

Leaving the shore after seven kilometres, we walked on forestry roads back towards the farmlands. Here, we heard more birdsong than anywhere other than at Wenderholm, and we also had the pleasure of seeing a hare with its brilliantly powerful hind legs and radar ears as it raced away among the trees.

Hannah was too tired to continue on to the settlement at Bulls, so we camped under the pines just short of the tarred road. The medication controlling her anxiety makes her unusually sleepy. It is something of an obstacle when we’re trying to complete a trail.

During the night, we heard some strange sounds. There was a scratchy, creaky call from some creature close to our tent, and from further away came noises that sounded like rusty industrial machinery going through its motions. It was some time before I realised these sounds were from cattle. Whoever invented the original onomatopoeic “moo” did not listen carefully enough. Moo simply does not do justice to the falsetto squeals, baritone drones and occasional howler monkey oohoos which these beasts can produce. So it was another disturbed night, but preferable to the sock saga of Dylan and Jocinda.

Leg 11 – Tongariro Crossing and Santoft Track Days 3 and 4

Day 3

Monday, 11 November
Mangatepopo to Whakapapa (9 km)

Not snow in the foreground. It's dense, white groundcover

Not snow in the foreground. It’s dense, white groundcover

With the convenience of a DOC campsite come certain disadvantages. Here, a tramper in a neighbouring tent snored the night away. Now, my husband snores voluptuously, but I’m accustomed to his nocturnal tones and timbre. It took me ten searing years to acclimatise but I got there in the end. However, any new kind of snore derails my sleep. This fellow tramper sounded like a calf with an ever-tightening noose around its muzzle, while seriously trying to communicate matters of bovine emergency. Snoooo-hrrrrm – Gnnaaaaar-hup – Flrrrrrr-bah – Gaaaaang-Grrrroooof. The syllabic variety would have been fascinating if it hadn’t incited resentful bloodlust in my semi-vegetarian, PETA-oriented, Geneva Conentionesque and Green Peacicle buzooms.

When I staggered, utterly destroyed, out of the tent at dawn, the guilty party was doing healthy stretching exercises in the golden light. He had a great big fuzzy beard like a garden gnome and a serene smile. His ambience came with having had a refreshing night’s sleep and he greeted us with a tourist’s happy affability. There are times when a tent peg shouldn’t be driven into the earth. No, a more appropriate location awaits it.

There is always a DOC warden at the Mangatepopo Hut. It was the last morning of Sylvie’s five-day stint when we were there and she had to carry out a large cardboard box of junk. Despite the strict rules about leaving nothing but footprints, some trampers still think other people are honoured to pick up after them. I asked her how often DOC had to rescue trampers who found they could not complete the walk. DOC hadn’t, during her time, but she said many walkers were seriously underprepared when they did the crossing. “The weather can change in minutes, but they don’t even take a long-sleeved top or waterproof jacket.” “We saw!” I replied. “Yesterday we encountered people walking without water, or in skimpy shorts and vests. They must have got badly burned.” There were also many morbidly obese folk and one woman who looked like she was seriously dropsical. Mind you, we passed her a few kilometres from the end, and she looked like she was going to make it to the car park with the help of her partner, despite her being in rather a bad way.  And an elderly bloke overtook us during our final descent; he was wearing canvas slip-ons, the type we used to call sandshoes. He must have been pretty footsore that night.

We had an easy walk from Mangatepopo to Whakapapa, the base camp for skiers. The P1020768path was badly eroded in places, but it was only a nine kilometre distance and mainly flat. After climbing Red Crater, this section was a doddle. There was an amazing alpine groundcover near Mangatepopo. White, low-growing and extremely dense, it looked like snow. The vegetation increased in height with distance from the volcanoes, but fauna remained largely unseen. We encountered a moth, a bumble bee, and a lark. That was it.

After only two nights on freeze-dried food, our bodies were whimpering for something fresh, so we stopped at the Whakapapa village restaurant for lunch. We could have gone on eating all afternoon, but with an eye rolling towards the budget we had to stop at one dish each. The restaurant was decorated with photos of the various eruptions of the surrounding volcanoes, all with the comparatively weeny Whakapapa buildings crouched in the foreground. Isn’t this a bit like going on a ferry day trip with grisly pictures of shark attacks on the cabin walls?

We set up Samson at the holiday camp and frisked over to the ablution block for the indulgence of washing. Oh joy! There was a bath!  We went to bed in the mid-afternoon, but I was woken up in the early evening by a hell of a racket. It sounded like a rubbish truck’s pneumatic whining, metallic clanking and general rattling, but it went on, and on, and on. I crawled out to have a look. Yes, it was a rubbish truck. The driver was morose. He had come to collect the camp skip, had raised and tipped it, but alas had not first opened the truck’s hatch, so the noisy smelly stuff had showered everywhere. There is always some poor soul, somewhere, having the perfect end to a bad day.


Day 4

Tuesday, 12 November
Whakapapa to Mangahuia campsite (12 km)

Golden Rapids

Golden Rapids

The scenery on this section was so good I was clicking all day like a Geiger counter. We took too many photos to put in a blog entry, so visit “Gallery” if you want to see more.

The track started in forest, through which Golden Rapids flowed. At first glance, the water looks brown, but then you realise it is brilliantly clear; it is the stones and bed that are rusty. This is due to a clay coating, containing aluminium from andesite rock and colour from the action of iron oxides.

The trees are different from those in other North Island bush areas. Lichen makes sharp white and black patches beside the moss on the trunks, and the taller trees hold P1020810their branches closer to their chests. In some places, the trees look like oddly magnified bonsais, twisted and old, but only about two or three metres tall.

We emerged from the trees into bog areas with low alpine vegetation where the path became a boardwalk to protect the plants. These bogs are a result of old volcanic activity in that the underlying ash deposits stop water draining away. The mud is different here too; it is not like the clinging silt of mangroves or the earthy malleability of pastures. It is peat, comprising tiny shreds of blackened alpine vegetation. Unlike silt and clay, it can be removed from your boots with a single whack.P1020823

Largely following a contour, we walked across the scars of several landslides, where the slopes were stripped and stony, before re-entering the forest. The moss colours ranged from maroon to pale mint and there were some amazing barks, my favourite being the copper and silver striped ones.


Bark (Woof!)

When we took the fork to the Mangahuia campsite, the path deteriorated substantially. From here on it was very squelchy and slow walking and we both fell a few times. On the first occasion I hugged the planet, I had difficulty getting up. Hannah rushed to me in a gratifying show of concern, but instead of gripping my arm, she scrabbled at my pants. The truth dawned…she wasn’t trying to help. She was trying to get our camera out of my pocket to photograph me wedged between two tussocks, with my legs weakly waving. So I bit her. When you walk in the bush, it is beautiful when Love is your partner and you continually act on the question “What would Jesus do?”

Alpine bog pond

Alpine bog pond

A few kilometres from the end of the day’s section, we crossed yet another stream in thick forest. “Let’s have a skinny dip,” I suggested to Hannah, fully expecting the answer No. “I will if you will,” said Hannah. “Right,” I responded, undoing only my top button. She did likewise. “You’re not allowed to look, though,” she insisted, “Promise?” “OK.” So we stripped. I turned, to check that she really was getting into the water behind me.  “Don’t be a Peeping Mom!” shrieked my child (she with the vulgar mind), clutching herself modestly. “Very good, Hannah,” I said. “I’ll put that remark in the blog.”

There was still snow on the mountain and the water was burningly cold, so we did a lot of squealing. “Ooo, you’ve got a weird rash on your bum,” said Hannah. So much for her right not to be seen starkers by her Mom being balanced by an unspoken corresponding duty not to look at her starkers Mom. Pfffft!

Leaving the water, we realised we had started our swim on the wrong side of the stream. There was no bridge and the water was thigh deep, so we had to take our gear to the other side before drying and getting dressed. I did this at once, but Hannah was a bit slow and awkward. Eventually, wearing only her bra, and carrying her pack on her back, she started to cross. She made an unusual sight. “You still mustn’t look, but it is slippery here, and if I am about to fall you’ll have to jump in and help me,” she ordered. “But how can I know if you’re falling if I’m not allowed to look?” I asked in bewilderment. A cry, she explained, with exaggerated patience, would alert me to her difficulty. “Ja, but I’m too deaf to hear you quickly enough,” I said, taking a tooth for a tooth about her pointing out my rash.

When we zipped our tent closed to sleep at 6.30 that evening, there were only two other tents nearby. During the night, several other folk arrived and quietly pitched. Not so with one group of youth at 9.30 pm who interacted so noisily and at such length that we all woke up and involuntarily learned their names. Flashing their torches around, they walked up and down beside our silent tents. “Geez, check at all these people!” shouted Dylan. Gosh, ya figure? At a public camp site? Jocinda, Meridy and Kayleigh pitched right next to us, and had a high volume, long and boring conversation about socks. Where oh where is that calf muzzle noose when you want it? Or better still, a rubbish avalanche from a skip?

Leg 11 – Tongariro Crossing and Santoft Track, days 1 and 2

Day 1

Saturday, 9 November
Scratching a start on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (3 km)

Jenny and Olivia, our solidarity walkers at Tongariro

Jenny and Olivia, our solidarity walkers at Tongariro

Jenny drove us the long distance from Auckland to Ketetahi and she and Olivia walked in solidarity with us for the first two kilometres of the ascending trail through the forest. “Where is the hotel?” asked Olivia sweetly, after we had done a mere 400 metres. Where indeed! We could certainly have done with one. We were rather vapid and floppy that day.

We passed a sign providing instructions about what evasive action to take in the event of a lahar. It would have helped if the sign had indicated what a lahar is (a mudslide), as not all of us have a specialist vocabulary. The evidence of unstable ground was before us though, where the otherwise well-manicured track occasionally smeared away and stream beds appeared to have changed course.P1020685

The forest faded, and shrubby, shoulder-high vegetation took its place, eventually giving way in turn to thigh-high, woody scrub. At last we had a view back from where we had come and a glimpse forward to where we were going. It was at this point Hannah declared that she simply Could Not Go On. Although we had a good few hours of daylight left and had walked a mere three kilometres (our all-time record low), two weeks of soft home living, recreational eating and Facebook had rotted her P1020694moral fibre. Moreover, she had spent the previous night at her bestie’s birthday party, engaged in all-night Teenage Evil. Against the fallout of such activities, maternal exhortations were powerless, so we camped discreetly on the only piece of flat, bare ground we could find close to the track and outside the active Te Maari volcanic radius.


Day 2

Sunday, 10 November
Tongariro Alpine Crossing to the Mangatepopo campsite (16 km)

We awoke to hear some eagerly early German trampers making comments from the nearby track about our nocturnal arrangements. “Bleh, bleh, bleh, P1020691kampeeeeng… bleh, bleh, bleh,” they said. Ach so, we had been spotted! Ja, we were camping. Ja we were pathetic. Now go avay.

The morning offered a brilliant view of the valley below and Lake Rotoaira layered with low cloud.

Above, and west of the path, the Ketetahi Springs exhaled gently, and to the east, from the dark, rough tongue of pyroclastic flow, white plumes of steam pressed upwards. As we P1020707got closer, the wind veered towards us, thrusting the odour of sulphur in our faces and allowing us to hear a dull and menacing hiss. “Do you feel like skipping over there and stirring up that kettle of crazy with a nice big stick?” I asked Hannah. “I’m good,” she declined. Honestly! Where is her sense of adventure?

The trail scribbled its way uphill alongside vegetation that gradually changed with the altitude. From shoulder-high P1020704scrub it became knee-high tussocky grass and other alpines. There were yellow daisies and tiny white flowers. Still higher on the mountain were hollows of snow between rocks bearing red and silvery lichens. The higher we went, and the harsher the habitat, the more the plants shrunk their leaves, shortened their stems and clenched themselves closer to the earth, until at last there was nothing but rocks and dead ground.

Fauna must play a role in the alpine ecosystem, but we saw one sparrow-like bird low on the slopes. Higher up, we encountered seven flies. That was it. The silence dead groundwaited all around us.

A Whop-whop-whop-whop overhead alerted us to the arrival of a helicopter. Oh yes. The superbly rich can charter an airchair view of the volcanic mountain range. The helicopter flew repeatedly and low over the pyroclastic flow on Te Maari and through its resentful blot of vapour. We watched with indignation. “How can they say they’ve seen the alps when they haven’t set foot on the ground?” I asked. “They haven’t got up close and personal with the rocks or the vegetation.” Hannah was in full agreement. “They haven’t done any work,” she said. “They’re just gigantic wusses.” There was no limit to our preening self-righteousness, our scorn – or our envy. I fear we are both deeply shallow. Just scratch our grubby trailblazing surface and underneath you’ll find two thwarted, squealing girlie-girls with pink blood and handbag dogs. You may wish to wash your hands nicely afterwards to remove the dark crescent of gunk from under your nails, but don’t use the Tongariro groundwater because it has got foofy nasty volcanic chemicals in it.

We had hoped to replenish our bottles at the Ketetahi hut, but discovered that the tanked water there was labelled undrinkable. In August 2012, the hut was damaged by a minor but significant eruption. The Department of Conservation decided not to repair it and within a three-kilometre radius of the crater, no walkers are now permitted to linger and no-one may stay overnight. The trail notes did not indicate whether the water at Mangatepopo would be drinkable, so to be safe, we melted some snow in our billy.

The Department of Conservation recommends the Tongariro Crossing be done from south to north, so all the trail operators drop their tourists at Mangatepopo and collect them at Ketetahi. The benefit for the walkers on this challenging route of major climbs and descents is that the last 9 km of the 21-km route is downhill for them. Of course, for purist Te Araroa trampers doing it from north to south, the first half of the trail is heavy going with a 15-Kg backpack. Worse is when the day’s first surge of walkers coming from the opposite direction meets you. By 11.30 am they comprise a steady flow, a bit like the happy class crocodile on a Sunday school picnic, and most of them want to greet you in the friendliest way. This is rather nice of them, but after a while you really don’t have the breath for pleasantries or the facial capacity for smiling. At some stage, your martyrdom to manners has to stop. I am no longer a purist. I think I should be upfront with you about that.


Blue Lake

We passed at least 500 people on this day between 9.30 and 2.00. Tongariro is a World Heritage Site, so on a fair-weather day we should have expected the hordes. But we are used to seeing no-one for days on end and to having the lonely, clean and often hostile wilderness to ourselves, so it felt like an excessively mammalian day to us.

After we reached the top of North Crater, the track led us in a short descent to Blue Lake with its still, sick water and then on P1020715down to the bottom of the massive Central Crater. Above and in the distance, the Red Crater gaped, overlooked by Mount Ngauruhoe’s tight and sullen cone. Fully snow-covered, and hovering much further back, was Mount Ruapehu. We were bound for the skirts of Ruapehu and beyond, so the distance seemed huge from where we stood in this ancient, blasted moonscape.

Traversing Central Crater floor, we could see the path leading past an old, black lava flow and up to Red Crater. The steepness of the path was indicated by its spiking from side to side. The people streaming towards us on P1020719their descent from the 1886-metre summit were tiny little specks, only their movement and uniformity distinguishing them from the rocks. “Oh yay. I feel fresh and frisky for another climb!” trilled Hannah. Actually, I lie. She absolutely did not say that. However, if I am to transcribe accurately and uphold the truth, Google will shut me down and you’ll have to spend the money you’ve saved all year, to brighten the Christmas of orphans, by bailing me out of prison. I cannot ask this sacrifice of you.

Emerald Lakes

Emerald Lakes

Views of the three Emerald Lakes emerged as we laboured upwards. They’re beautiful, but not so much emerald as turquoise. If we’d been alone, we would have had a naughty little swim. This section of the track was the most arduous. There are steep drop-offs on each side and there is no stable surface to the path – it is nothing but sand and loose stones. For backsliding with each upwards step, it rivalled our July experience on the great northern orange dune, Herangi Hill. We threnodised all the way up. At the top, though, where Red Crater’s black edges sinking downwards into its rufous interior are fully exposed, the labour is justified. What an amazing sight, especially with those fierce colours in contrast to the almost kindergarten pastel blue of the lakes below.

Red Crater

Red Crater

There is another and rather startling feature to this crater. An unusual lava formation makes it look geologically pornographic. I can say no more in a public forum; let the picture speak for itself.

We descended once more, crossing the long and flat surface of South Crater and then climbing down past the base of Mount Ngauruhoe. LOTR fans may know that P1020751this volcano was filmed to represent Mount Doom, where the ring was forged by Sauron and destroyed after a fateful struggle between Frodo Baggins and Gollum. Yup, folks, technically we were passing the official Gollum barbecue site. I don’t think he would have sizzled much; his body fat was too low.

The path here is constructed on top of relatively young pyroclastic flow. You can see that the walk would otherwise P1020758be pretty much impossible through the loose, black stone. It would be like wading through a massive play pool of hazelnut clusters, but without any of the fun or nutritional value.

P1020760At last we reached Soda Springs and the many-channelled stream, which flowed south-west under a boardwalk for much of the way to the Mangatepopo Campsite. There, limbs trembling with exhaustion, we set up the tent.

Ah, a dung-drop toilet! Ah… a rainwater tank and tap! Our sleeping bags and a horizontal position! I bet the airchair travellers, tenderly administered to by a masseuse and helped into a spa bath where they were served cocktails, did not feel as good after their sightseeing as we did after our walk. How does their luxury compare to ours? How nice was it for them to stop? Comparatively speaking, ours was the greater luxury. The lady doth protest too much, but that’s her official position and she’s sticking to it.

Leg 10 – Hamilton to Waitomo, days 5 and 6

Here is another song by Marius, with a compilation of stills from our New Zealand journey:

Day 5

Wednesday, 23 October
Kaimango Road to Mahoe Road beyond the woolshed (17 km) (plus about 5 km of highway tramping)

“Look, Mom,” said Hannah, pointing to an Otorohanga road sign. “Waitomo is only 16 km away if we walk along the highway in that direction. If we go on the road, we’ll be finished by this afternoon.” I heaved a sigh. The temptation was powerful. To rejoin the trail where we left it, we had to hitchhike about 40 km. If no-one picked us up, we’d have to walk that distance and waste two days. If we were picked up, we’d still have 32 km of rough trail tramping and another night in the bush ahead of us. “No,” I said with superb nobility. “We have to follow the trail or there’s no point in the journey.”

We walked about three kilometres before someone stopped for us. There are good reasons why people do not offer lifts.

  • Backpackers have muddy boots and are smelly (they offer the special gift of being wet all over too, if it is raining at the time).
  • There has to be room in the car for the bulky packs as well as the trampers.
  • The crazed expression on the trampers’ drooling faces is a no-brainer.

But we’re not fussy. We’re happy to sit in a trailer or with our packs on our laps. Shoot! I’d even hang from the chassis with my black and peach lace suspender belt to avoid an off-trail, road margin slog.

A two-seater work vehicle stopped and the driver, who had the bleariest, reddest eyes I have ever seen, and an almost indecipherably thick Kiwi accent, climbed out. “One of you will have to sit in the back,” he uttered hoarsely, opening the rear doors. The back had no seats; effectively, it was his toolbox. His dog, a small border collie bitch, was pressed into one corner. Hannah climbed into the box and I sat in the front passenger seat. The driver offered to take us 10 kilometres further along the motorway, as his turnoff came long before ours. I asked him what his trade was and he said he farmed beef and sheep, but did fencing for extra income, and that was his job today. He also said a lot of other things which I could not translate from Kiwese to plain English, and I felt a bit awkward saying “Pardon?” more than three or four times. In the end, I just said “Yes” and “For sure” and made vague affirmations, all the while hoping I wasn’t agreeing to something extraordinary. I had better success understanding him when we spoke about dogs. He said people walked through his farm, treating it as a public thoroughfare, and that dogs were an annoyance for his beasts. “In the first year on my farm, I shot between 15 and 20 dogs,” he claimed. “Were they feral?” I asked. “Nah, their owners were right behind them,” he replied, “and I should have shot the owners as well.” Hmm. Either he really does shoot dogs accompanied by their owners, or he doesn’t, but likes to pretend that he does. In either case, the claim was a bit disturbing.

We stopped at his turnoff, and he opened the back for Hannah to emerge. “Did she bite you?” he asked. “Dogs don’t bite Hannah,” I interrupted, “they love her.” “Oh no, I was talking to my dog, not to your daughter,” he said. As he drove off, I asked Hannah what the dog was like. “She was very timid,” said Hannah. “She didn’t respond when I reached out my hand to her.”

After more highway tramping we were offered another lift. This one was a massive and image-boosting stroke of luck. I can now legitimately boast that we have been picked up by the police! The back of the police car did not contain a canine cage, so Hannah’s ride was less interesting but more comfy. I was dying to ask the lovely tattooed Maori officer to switch on his flashing lights and his siren for us; I really should have overcome my reluctance to appear totally childish. Anyway, without the siren, we had an interesting conversation. Steve “Toots” Rickard had been on patrol in 1997 when he saw a backpacker by the roadside, being talked to by members of the Mongrel Mob. Concerned for the backpacker’s safety, he stopped. As it turned out, the backpacker was Geoff Chapple; he was busy putting together the Te Araroa Trail at that time, and the gang members were not threatening him; they were offering him a lift. Toots took Chapple’s pack and dropped it off for him at his evening’s destination. Our conversation drifted to Toots’s cousin, who had taken a job in Somalia, handling hostage negotiations for Georgian sailors who had been held for 18 months. The negotiators had to throw the bags of money into the sea near the pirates’ ship before the hostages were released.

Mind Over Miles is our bag of ransom that we have thrown into the sea. Our family has been hostage to mental illness and we have to trust that what we are doing will somehow secure release. In the meantime, all we can do is kick the shit out of the trail each day.

When he dropped us at Kaimango Road, well out of his way, Toots lifted our packs onto our backs and gave us each an apple. “I wish I could give you more,” he said. I believe I shall keep this very dear soul as an honorary uncle.

It began to rain and we tramped 8 km of connecting gravel road to reach the start of the Mahoe Forest Track. If you’re thinking of walking the Mahoe section, beware. The trail notes say it takes 10 hours to do the 25 km trail but it took us about 15 hours. We could not have done it in one day, even if we subtracted the time spent getting lost, so it was a good thing we had extra supplies.

The "airstrip"

The “airstrip”

For starters, the trail does not start on “Honikiwi Road next to a small carpark”. Honikiwi is north of the first stile, and there is no carpark, small or otherwise, although we did find a dead sheep. For once, both the GPS and the trail triangles indicated we were in the right place and we traversed high country with short grass and good views. We located the “airstrip”, only because the GPS told us we were standing on it, but with renewed confidence, we thundered onwards.

The path, believe it or not

The path, believe it or not

It was at the turnoff to the old timber trail in thick bush that confusion returned. There was a stile, a single orange triangle and a seriously overgrown and waterlogged path. The GPS told us we were 120 metres off track, but we continued walking. For about 30 minutes, we saw no triangles at all. In thick bush, this is worrying. Finally, the path appeared to stop. To the right was what looked like an open, grassy spot. Two feral goats gazed wildly at us for a second before leaping away. The GPS told us the goats were en route for our track. Where goats can go, women can follow, right? Wrong. Within 10 metres, we were in swamp up to our knees and I fell over. Finding a horizontal tree fern trunk, we perched on it, breathing heavily. I was enraged, my eyes bugged out and I was hunched up like a chimpanzee. “I’m going to push on, I shouted,” waving my dripping arms. “I’ll just slash my way through that bush until I get where the GPS says. It’s only 120 metres away.” Fortunately, Hannah saw reason. “You can’t. That bush is just about impenetrable. Come on Mommy-Wommy, let’s just go back the way we came.” Panting, I looked at her. “I hate this so much!” I said. “As do I,” she replied, soothing my ruffled teacher’s soul by not saying “Me too”.

We splashed our way back through the marsh, exhorting ourselves to greater speed with inventive swearwords internalised the night before from Wilt, and squelched back to the stile. There we had some lunch and read another chapter. Eva and the hideous Pringsheim pair were lost on the river, trying to determine whether they were on Eel Stretch, Frogwater Reach or Fen Broad. Isn’t it amazing how Life imitates Art?

We set off southwards, following  the GPS. After 15 minutes, I noted with fatalism that the base of the triangle was shifting. It wriggled its bottom coyly at us and twitched across the screen to indicate that we were now way south of the trail. At this point, we stumbled on two farmers spraying their trees. They told us the place we had been was indeed the trail, contrary to other indications, and we should simply push on through it.

For the third time we walked that damned track. When we reached Goat’s Surprise, we could see our footprints in the swamp, now jagged holes in the seemingly solid vegetation surrounding them, and filled with water. “When the next trampers come down this track,” observed Hannah, “they’ll wrongly think that’s the path. We’ve marked it for them.” We turned left and rediscovered the timber trail we’d missed earlier, and which took us deep into the bush.

The mud was ravenous; it reached up to reclaim us as the earth’s own. At several points, I was afraid I’d lose my shoes to the suction. What you need in this place is not mere wellington boots but thigh boots, or better still, those boots-and-rubber-dungarees-in-one, such as fishermen wear. I had the uncomfortable feeling that the mud would not be content with my orange footwear, but would have ambitions to take my pants as well.

P1020658After another hour’s walk, we found a trail sign, and a fat lot of good it did us. It pointed vaguely between the arms of a fork in the track. We took the upper arm, which turned out to be the correct choice as we emerged onto Watership Down.

What a pleasure to be in high country with sheep and wind and a view for miles. A ewe ran with a very P1020661late lamb at her heels. It was such a new baby, it still had its umbilical cord attached and the squeakiest of weeny bleats.

We passed the old woolshed and camped on the roadside, where we saw not a single human or vehicle in the 12 hours we were there.


Day 6

Thursday, 24 October
Mahoe Rd to Waitomo Caves (15 km)

Nature's trail signs

Nature’s trail signs

Visibility was about 15 metres when we started walking at 6.50 am from the high pastures of sheep, and sounds were deadened in the mist. We saw Hazel and Fiver running silently away into the whiteness ahead of us as we headed south. As we turned into the forest, we knew today was going to be tougher than yesterday. We were walking at one kilometre per hour through the wet trees. There was no track, only trail triangles, so at each orange marker we had to be sure of the location of the next one before moving on.

View and forest pictures were not possible due to the weather, but I found some rather impressive fungi. One of the species looked like it could easily be a dinner plate for an orc.P1020671

Fallen trees were a problem but at least the undergrowth here was lower and also less dense than in previous forests. We broke out into a brief clear patch over a ridge and then followed a fenceline downhill in an almost impossibly steep, thickly overgrown zig-zag. We took photos looking back at the hill, but the photos looked like nothing – you have to stand there to appreciate how horrible it was. This wasn’t the worst, though. There were more descents down steeper ground so thickly vegetated that we could not see where we were going and constantly P1020665floundered and fell. A strimmer, or perhaps a buzzsaw would have been really handy. Laugh of the day was the trail notes’ command: “you are on private property so keep strictly to the route”. There is no “route”, just occasional triangles, which you keep missing in the overgrowth. Tra-laaa!

There is a particularly nasty rambling plant which has tiny but vicious thorns on its branches. This plant was everywhere, and kept trying to cuddle me. As I tore myself out of its clasp, I could hear the thorns ripping little holes in my waterproofs. It left some love deposits in my hands too. Hannah found the tweezers in the medical kit and briskly picked the thorns out of my fingers. “Now be careful young lady,” she said patronisingly, “next time it might hit an artery.”

After some water crossings and another steep ascent on the wrong side of a fence (the right side was impassable, overgrown with gorse), and an hour without seeing an orange marker, we picked up trail signs bearing left into the forest once more. This was more pleasant, open woodland with drier ground, so the walking pace could pick up slightly.

Eventually a faint track appeared between the signs and after another half an hour we found ourselves on a very rough road. But it was a road!  Goodie gum drops. It led us to the Mahoe Stream which we had been warned was dangerous after rain. I can believe it – the water was only knee deep at the time we crossed but the current was brash, and where a tiny tributary joined the main stream, a drowned goat lay flung backwards over some low-hanging branches. Its eyes were gone, but otherwise the carcass was fresh.

From this point onwards, the trail was dull, comprising just an eroded clay road within a corridor of flourishing gorse until we hit Ngatapuwae Road, a few kilometres northwest of Waitomo Caves. The road was very quiet winding through farms and maraes. “Boo!” shouted some cows at us. “Booo… Booooo!” as a small truck drove by with dead black pig in the back. Its tail hung down rather pathetically.P1020672

Sight of the day was an ancient wooden farm building, beside which was parked an equally ancient car. I could imagine a really old fellow parking his vehicle for the last time outside his house, doddering inside and dying there, with everything simply left, Havisham-like, for seven decades.

By the time we reached civilisation we had been walking for nine hours and we were fully prepared for fancy coffees at the Waitomo general store. This store even had armchairs: pink and cream ones as well as a couple of brown ones. We took care to subside into the brown ones. Oh the sensation of having your aching bum tenderly cupped by upholstery.

“I tell you what,” I mumbled through the exhaustion to Hannah, “those nasty, runty little hobbitses walking into Mordor had it easier than we did today.”  “I hope you’re going to put that in the blog,” she replied.

Later, on the bus home, Hannah gave me one of her earphones so we could both enjoy her music. It was Nightwish’s Imaginaerum, pretty wild music with lyrics in Finnish so I’d say it embodied the two previous days in the wilderness.

As the bus passed through Otorohanga, I said to Hannah: “I told you we should have just walked along the motorway to Waitomo, but oh no, you wouldn’t listen, you had to drag me on that awful trail.” She was rendered speechless but I was safe from a good pummelling because we were in public. Yes, the perfect words should only be said with perfect timing.