Leg 14 – The Tararua Range, day 4

Day 4

Tuesday, 7 January
Mangahao-Makahika Track (13 km)

P1030168At the start of the Mangahao-Makahika Track, claim the trail notes, is a small carpark. Well, it depends on what you perceive to be a “carpark” and “small”. In this photo, Hannah is standing in the carpark. At a push, a quadbike, or perhaps two quadbikes could be parked nose to tail on the road verge.

At the first stream crossing we washed our dirty, wet clothes from the last two days. “You’ve always wanted to be a beefy rural maiden and to pound your lingerie on river rocks, haven’t you?” I brightly encouraged Hannah. “Totes,” she grunted. That’s her abbreviation of “totally”. Putting the clothes into net bags, we hung them on the outside of our packs. So now we had clean, wet clothes. There was no chance of anything drying in the humid air and by noon it was raining again.

The vegetation was the same for most of the way, although the rimu trees near the start were good to see. At the viewpoint, from which Shannon, Horowhenua and the Manawatu should have been laid out like a giant pizza before us, the landscape was blurred with rain. From what little we could see, it was evident that on a clear day the pizza would be spectacular.

The night before, we had nearly finished reading aloud Stephen Fry’s Moab is my washpot, and I now pursued a point. “I did not want [my father] to understand, no adolescent ever wants to be understood, which is why they complain about being misunderstood all the time…” Fry writes. “Do you think that is true?” I asked Hannah. “Yes,” she replied. “Why don’t you want to be understood?” “I don’t know,” she answered. Ah. Now I know I don’t know what teenagers don’t know they know. It’s really quite simple.

The felon: horrible thorny plant

The felon: horrible thorny plant

The second half of the trail comprised a long, slippery downhill and we had more encounters with the evil thorny plant that had deflowered our waterproofs on the Mahoe Track. There were also, according to the trail notes, “several crossings of the Makahika Stream”. This is where the English teacher and devout pedant in me elbows her way to the fore and starts strutting around self-righteously in a steel nipple-capped cross your heart bra. A couple means two. A few means three or four. Several means about six or seven. Several does not mean 12, 15 or 20, OK?

At this stage in the trail, the stream’s course is like the printout from Charles Manson’s lie detector test – the one in which he claimed to love all small and fluffy creatures. The stream squiggles madly while the track attempts a reasonably straight line at right angles through its zig-zags. Hannah was still obsessed about not getting water into her boots. I gave up and just splashed miserably through each time. This was my third day of sodden feet and I was waiting for water shrimp foot to strike. This is the sinister NZ equivalent of World War One’s trench foot.  Your toes turn into sultanas, your soles go all crustaceany and two bug eyes on stalks grow out of your metatarsals, desperately searching for Life Above Water. You know you’re terminal when a small snorkel appears.

But I digress from my topic: sloppy or meaningless word choice. Take “a number”, for example. When this vacuous dribbling expression emerges from the lips of newsreaders (using an earnest and authoritative tone), I want to get my catapult and sling marbles at them, the news writers, editors and proof-readers (if the latter two jobs still exist, that is). “Mr Twong has been charged with a number of offences” means nothing. Three is a number. Thirty is a number, as is 300. Actually, zero is also a number. So much for searing journalism uncovering the truth for a nation’s benefit. Oh dear, I’m drooling, sweating and breathing heavily. Time for a number of tranquilisers and a soothing cup of tea.

We camped near the edge of the Tararua Forest Park, in a clearing where there was a toilet and a cairn bearing former PM Helen Clarke’s name. Let me clarify: her name is not on the toilet.

Dinner was freeze-dried lamb and cous cous. With its very first scoop into the bowl, my spoon broke. We travel with one knife and two spoons. Hannah now had her spoon and I had only the knife. So I ate with that, becoming a reluctant role model of rotten table manners. We were both thoroughly miserable. “I want to go home!” Hannah moaned.

But soft! There was one simple pleasure left in this used armpit of a day. The toilet! I trotted across the clearing in the rain to enjoy its convenience. The toilet seat was set in a box, a la ancient water closet. It was obviously built by a bloke, the same blinkered solipsist who affixes that single mirror tile to the wall in every motel room on the planet. He had measured his own femur length for the comfort of buttock placement, so the seat was set too far back from the box edge for most women and all children. Actually, a child would have to do a substantial backwards wriggle on a none-too-clean surface. Eeew. After fulminating for a while, I tried to leave the building. I shouted “Haaaaaalp!” but Hannah was too far away to hear. I struggled with the door for a desperate minute before realising that this one opened inwards instead of outwards in the manner of all other DOC toilets. When in doubt, pull instead of push. That is my advice to y’all. I deserve a special prize for insight, you know. I really do. Next time I am asked by a job interview panel whether “at the end of the day” I can “think outside the box” I’ll know exactly which example to provide.

Leg 14 – The Tararua Range, day 3

Monday, 6 January
Burttons Track to the Tokomaru No 3 Reservoir (17 km)

P1030152We were just getting up and making breakfast when two trampers passed our campsite. They moved quietly and were neatly dressed in matching pale green and beige. They had no mud on their legs. Their hair was brushed. I bet they never missed a trail sign, or backed into a gorse bush while trying to pee, or went cold turkey near a cliff face or got ordered around by a fantail one hundredth of their size. I bet they were German.

We packed in our very South African transitioning to Kiwi way, arguing about whether we should boil the water and whose bum looked bigger in this trail. Hannah did not use her comb for the third day running. I asked her how her pink elephants were doing and she indicated they had largely dispersed but the trunk of one of them was still making little exploring movements around the edges of her mind.

We walked the road through hills of recently planted pines. A few flags of sky flew through the clouded morning. The weatherman had promised a clear day, but the sun took on another of its annoying identities: Old Man in Raincoat offering occasional flashes of his marshmallow cluster in the hope of eliciting girlie screams of fulfilment. Hah!

The river seethed over its banks and its water was brown, so we didn’t refill our drinking packs until crossing a tributary. Our steripen stopped working last time we were in Kerikeri, so we’ve been drinking untreated water for most of North Island. Such insouciance is not recommended, but so far, we have not suffered any ill effects. As I poured the water into her bag, Hannah protested loudly that “something wriggly” had tipped in. “Oh for goodness’ sake!” I said, flailing around for some explanation, “If it’s a… a water shrimp it won’t poison you.” She wasn’t satisfied. “All shrimps live in water,” she replied, resentfully screwing the lid on her camelbak.

We found two severed heads on the road. The horns had been roughly chopped out. Was it really impossible for the hunters to throw the heads out of sight into the grass?

When we were in Whakapapa, the holiday camp manager told us we hadn’t seen nothing yet. In his opinion, the Tararua Range was “God’s own tramping country”.  I reminded Hannah of this comment and asked her what she thought of this track so far. “No sign of God yet,” she replied. “Ja,” I agreed, “but we could be in his back yard at the moment. Let’s give it a chance.”

The road took us through a section of mature pines, well spaced, with an abundance of P1030155human-high ferns as undergrowth. The rain held off but it was misty. “God’s helpers are cleaning up the back yard,” I said to Hannah, as we were engulfed in another swirl of whiteness. “Right now, they’re spraying for unbelievers. You might not have long to live, so I may as well finish the jube-jubes, hey?” She gave me her eyes-as-lemon-quarters look. I should have waited until I had the packet in my hand. She was carrying the snacks this leg.

View of the day was a cormorant who caught his breakfast a mere eight metres away from us at a stream crossing. He bagged a 30-cm long fish, which he carried to a rock before swallowing. He jerked his head and shrugged his neck several times as the struggling lump slowly descended. Now there’s a creature with absolutely no gag reflex! Imagine a cormorant with a sensitive throat, and who needed all his food to be cut up for him. I think there’s a children’s story in there somewhere, but I fear the moral would not be conducive to good table manners among infants.

We found a huge and marvellous red toadstool with white spots on it, poking through the grass. I didn’t know Big Ears had emigrated to NZ. Unfortunately, the health and safety team, in their hermetically sealed anti-contamination suits, were officiously evacuating Noddy’s little chum. Unable to find gainful employment during the recession, he had opened a Meth lab in his basement.

A small herd of feral sheep showed every sign of enjoying health and strength in a clearing near the half-way mark at Burtton’s whare. Their fleeces were nothing short of majestic, and their almost full-grown lambs were fat, happy and had their tails intact.

P1030163A day on the trail is invalid without loss of direction. As we discovered, at this point, you’re meant to cross the river and continue walking parallel to the bank, but there are no triangles to provide direction and no indication in the trail notes either. We wasted considerable time searching.

Burtton’s Track is excessively watery and tree ferny. The tiny, tinkly waterfalls down moss-covered rocks are delightful, but the stream crossings seem just too damned many, and after a while, all the treeferny bits looked the same to us. I probably sound all precious and ungrateful, but there is something about permanently wet feet that makes me very cranky. Hannah lives in fear P1030164of getting water into her boots, so she stopped almost every time we crossed a stream to remove her footwear. This caused more delay, with our eventually taking nine hours to cover 17 km.

Lowest point of the day was my tumbling into a tributary which was barely two metres wide. A rock shifted under my foot, and with my pack pulling me off balance I fell spectacularly. The water was only ankle deep, but the scary thing was that I could not get up without Hannah’s help. I had managed successfully to wedge myself in sideways.  Everything was soaked, sleeping bag, GPS, and the rest of me from the ankles upwards. It was our first day without rain, yet there I was, sodden as usual. But what was I complaining about? This was God’s own tramping ground, and I had just had an immersion baptism.

We were both finished when we found the reservoir, a couple of kilometres short of the Mangahao-Makahika Trail, which was our scheduled section for the next day. Beside the dam wall, there was a flat section of ground with short grass, so we pitched Samson thankfully. As I pulled on my nightie, I noticed a triangle of three, rather peculiar maroon spots on my forearm. Hannah inspected them with clear evidence of enjoyment. “Those are the first signs of water shrimp poisoning,” she said.

Leg 14 – The Tararua Range, days 1 and 2

Day 1

Saturday, 4 January 2014
Palmerston North to Turitea Rd (8.5 km)

From Palmerston North CBD, where the Intercity disgorged us, we walked southeast to the university and then into farmlands. We had only a few hours left of the day, so the distance covered was minimal, but it was important to make a start. Our packs were heavier than usual because we expected to be tramping for more than a week, so were carrying extra food. At twilight, we found a cow paddock without any stock in it, so that was our bivouac site.

It started to rain. We could hear it tapping on the leathery, dried cow pats, giving them new life, flexibility and odour.  “Isn’t this pleasant?” I remarked to Hannah. She gave me a uni-digital sign of affirmation, so I grabbed her finger and kissed it. Her face crumpled. “Stop it Mom, you’re really creeping me out now.”

It rained all night.

Day 2

Sunday, 5 January
Turitea Rd to Burtton’s Track head (19 km)

We didn’t take photographs because it rained almost all day. Oh goodie. Little streams of water trickled off the tent as we rolled and packed it. We started the long and slow uphill through bush and farmland.

Within an hour, Hannah was lagging behind. “What is wrong with you?” I asked. She wanted to stop and lie down in the tent. However, to spend three days getting to the head of Burtton’s Track was not an option. We had enough food for a very specific schedule to be covered in wilderness without resupply access. “We have to keep walking,” I said.

“I feel dizzy and nauseated,” she said. “I can feel my heart thumping from the inside.” I took her pulse. It was at the right speed for walking. She gazed dopily at me. “It’s so confusing. The ground keeps going in and out of focus when I look down.” “Have you felt like this before?” “Only that time when I took an overdose.” “Have you done something different with your medication now?” I asked, with a feeling of doom. “Well, I haven’t taken any for a week,” she admitted. Ah. She was in unsupervised cold turkey.

I had to think what was best to do in the circumstances. Although much of today’s track was on the road margin, at that moment we were in a place inaccessible to vehicles and out of cell phone reception. Also, here, the track was narrow and there was a steep cliff drop-off on the left.

She took her pills, the effect of which would take a while to kick in. I walked on the drop-off side of the path and held her hand. Where the path was too narrow for two abreast, we walked really slowly in single file while I maintained my grip on her hand. Eventually, we took eight hours to cover a distance which should have taken us four hours, but that was too bad.

“Why did you stop,” I asked, “when you’ve been doing well on this cocktail?” “I just didn’t want to be medicated anymore,” she replied. “I don’t know how much of myself I am not when I take the prescription.”

I noticed that my waterproof pants looked unusual. Last time I washed the mud off them I didn’t rinse the soap out properly, and now in the wet there was a lovely lather on my legs. Oh well, better to foam on the thighs than at the mouth.

Between fierce gusts of rain there were moments when the precipitation was briefly drawn aside to expose the view. We were at the intersection of farmland and mountain bush at one of these moments, and in a perfect position. The pastures were sheep-cropped short, and the land voluptuous. Curvaceous hills folded against each other like rolls of exuberant fat in a Beryl Cook uninhibited lady painting. This lady lay nestled against the mountain range; we stood on her serene and dimpled thighs, gazing down at Palmerston North, which was worshipfully flat on its face.

P1030150Well, that was the highlight of the day. After we entered the bush again, it was all a sodden and rather sad uphill slog. It was with some relief that we reached the head of Burtton’s Track. It was a lonely place, but we could see hunters had been there before us. They had blasted the signboard map with shotgun pellets. Someone had also scratched out the “no shooting” and “no motorcycles” icons. “Gosh but you need to be brave to shoot a map!” I said to Hannah. “Maps are pretty dangerous,” she responded, “and hitting a large, stationary object requires a keen eye and a steady aim.”

We set up the tent under pine trees, where we were thoroughly supervised by a fluffy fantail, which flurried from branch to branch beside us in a very bossy way. We were clearly on his private property.

At 4.00 pm the sun emerged like a spoilt celebrity arriving unforgivably tardily at a fundraising party and expecting everyone to be thrilled and gratified. Pffft!


Leg 13 – Joining more dots, day 6

Tuesday, 17 December

Fisher Track to Whakahoro (53 km)

Thingbearers: Hannah, Marius
Fellowship: Mairi-Anne, Etienne

P1030027Hannah and I rode the Fisher Track, leaving from National Park Village where we had stopped walking on 13 November. The track is mainly grass and clay and is nearly all downhill. I regretted cycling this section, because we moved too fast to appreciate its views fully, and on a bike you automatically miss the tiny, interesting pathside details.

The wide track plunges into a valley, emerges from bush into sheep farms, then joins a gravel road which presses against the river for P1030033much of the remaining distance to Whakahoro. What a remote and lonely place it must have been for those who lived here 60 years ago. The fields have been carved out of the bush, which appears to be constantly pushing back.

P1030035Photographs do not adequately convey scale. In this picture, the tiny white spots at 6 o’clock are sheep. For much of the way, the river has no friendly, rounded banks, but has gouged its way between walls of sedimentary rock. The road exists on sufferance in the landscape, snagged with slips and threatened with washouts.P1030039

On reaching the monument at Oio Rd, we stopped for the blokes to take over from us and cover the remaining distance on the gravel. The First and Second World War dedicatory plaque reads: “Erected by the Kaiteke & Retaruke valley residents in recognition of those servicemen whose lives were broken in their prime”. I like that wording. It says nothing of the greater cause; it speaks only of the grim physical outcome of political conflict.

Etienne on the road to Whakahoro

Etienne on the road to Whakahoro

People with a sense of humour live here. A sign on a fence reads “Bentley’s Fence” and another on a gate proclaims “Hoover Dam”. The restaurant at the end of the track (jewel of a settlement comprising only a few buildings) is called “Blue Duck Central”. Also raising a smile were the sight of a lamb with a pom-pom of fleece left at the end of its undocked tail by the shearer, and an ancient bar of pink soap with toothmarks in it. The latter was left on the campsite’s sink, and you can only imagine the circumstances of this dental record being made.

Between the campsite and the Blue Duck Central stands the old Whakahoro post office, which is now a tiny, informal museum. I loved the gas P1030070mask and the heavy black telephone. We had a phone like that back in the 1960s. Operating an instrument like that made you feel very important. Cell phones are such frippery things. Best of all in the post office was an A.S. Paterson & Company Limited manual on how to look after your car. Page two contains a 10-point driver’s pledge, with item six being “Drive only when in full possession P1030071of my faculties”. If my faculties had passed out of my possession, would I know? It reminds me of the NZ census forms of a century ago, which asked the respondent “Are you an imbecile?”

From a nearby barn, we heard a ceaseless drone of bleating, overlaid by loud country and western P1030074music, the taste of the shearers. After listening to “You’re beautiful tonight” and “Achy-breaky heart”,  Etienne said “They’re teaching the sheep these songs. This is a new breed of terror.”

The kids began their playtime. On this occasion they took turns at holding open open my Fay Weldon novel and snapping it shut on each other’s hands. It was a suitable fate for the novel, which was largely crap, but the noise and the scuffling was annoying. We were already cranky due to the sand flies. Disciplinary communication began.

Mom: Children! Stop it! [Scuffling and hand-squashing continues.] Marius, tell your children to stop it.
Dad: Children, stop it. You heard your mother. [Unabated offspring annoyance.]
Mom: Children, you heard what your father said. Do as he tells you.
Firstborn: Stop it, Etienne!
Secondborn: Stop it, Hannah!

We should try leafcutter ant vibrations in future.

That evening, three other camping parties arrived to share the site. Guess what nationality? Yes, the Germans are keeping our tourism economy going. Seriously, folks! Kiwis are a small minority of trail trampers. Get out on the tracks which pass your back door, and which other folk are prepared to cross the world to experience.

Driftwood wild boar at the Blue Duck Central

Driftwood wild boar at the Blue Duck Central

Can anyone identify this plant? Please leave a comment.

Can anyone identify this plant? Please leave a comment.

Leg 13 – Joining more dots, day 5

Monday 16, December

Taumarunui to Owhango (18 km), 42 Traverse (46 km), connection to Tongariro (13 km)
Thingbearers: Marius, Hannah
Fellowship: Mairi-Anne, Etienne

Back on the true Te Araroa Trail route, all four of us cycled today. Hannah and I did the section from Taumarunui to Owhango, Marius did the 42 Traverse and Hannah and Etienne did the road connection between 42 Traverse and the northern start of the Tongariro Crossing, where Jenny and Olivia had dropped us on 9 November. For Hannah, Etienne and me, the road cycling was uneventful. I had one of those delightfully incongruous juxtaposition moments, though, when sublime Ruapehu heaved into view in the distance, while in the foreground was a prosaic turnip field with its unmistakable odour. Sometimes my life feels like a turnip field: ordered rows and well-hoed, but with things underground that can grow into very rude shapes.

Traverse 1[Marius’s blog] Our symbolic journey is from north to south, but this section is better managed from south to north, so I did it from SH47 to Owhango. It was another glorious day for 4×4/off-road/quad bike aficionados. Ahead of me, an adventure sport operator had just dropped off two German guys.

The first downhill gave me a taste of what was still to come: loose shale and rocks the size of babies’ heads. Suddenly, I realised I hadn’t packed my puncture kit or a spare tube. That was dim; pinch punctures are common on this kind of terrain.

For the most part, the sides of the road were overgrown with alpine vegetation and grass plumes which obscured the view but fortunately were soft when slapping you in the face or on the arms. Soon, the fairly easy downhill gave way to some near-vertical mine shafts where you have to descend bare rock. Luckily the weather was good, otherwise I would have had a real challenge with slippery hard surfaces. As it was, I quite gingerly played back and front brakes while expecting the back wheel to come sliding past on terrain that was still wet. However, anyone doing the track north to south would have the penance of hauling self and bike up these craggy slopes after riding 40 km in the heat. The meek are not going to inherit this part of the earth, that’s for sure.

I reached the first stream at the same time as the German tourists, after which there was the “pumice pipe”, a sudden and totally unrideable vertical climb (possibly a scrambler could make it). We had to scrabble our way through the loose ash and pumice on foot to the top. Soon afterwards we had an encounter with motorcyclists who damned nearly didn’t see us.

According to the usual laws of geography, the floor of the valley was followed by another climb. This was done in short sharp bits of hill, just on the verge of granny gear’s capabilities. The heat was murderous; I felt as if I was being both suffocated and exsanguinated. Calculating that I must be about half way, I checked the GPS. Ouch… not even a quarter! Unseen, the “Grrrrregggggg!” bird continued its unceasing admonishments.

My bike’s chain is ageing and gets all grumpy and sticky when wet, so at each stream crossing the bike changed from beast of burden to burdensome beast as I had to carry it. Fortunately there were some good stretches of shade where I could regain strength, and some bracing downhill sections.

This ride was much like my annual fix in South Africa, the Giant’s Castle Challenge, but on a smaller scale – 46 km as opposed to Giant’s 75 km. I longed for the good mates who used to share the masochism of Giant’s with me.

At 3.00 pm, I encountered a sign indicating I was at Dominion Road car Traverse you are herepark, about 15 minutes from the end. I could have wept with relief. I swooped and dodged down the hill. At the bottom I saw another German couple on bikes, approaching from the north. They were doing the Traverse with panniers! Hell! I did not have the heart to tell them about the sheer rock up which they would have to haul their bikes, belongings and weary bodies in thickening darkness after being bullied by the intervening 40 km.

[Mairi-Anne’s blog] Back at the campsite, Etienne shared more ant power with us: “‘Leafcutter ants communicate through vibrations’” he quoted, “‘these … can be used if leafcutter ants are in distress themselves. For example, if they are buried alive from the nest caving in, they send vibration signals to their nest mates who then rescue them.’” Nature is amazing. But so is literature. We had a traditional pre-bedtime family activity: taking turns to read Winnie the Pooh aloud to one another. Tonight’s chapter was “In which Tigger is unbounced”. I thought the kids would benefit morally from it. The opening line is Marius’s favourite: “One day Rabbit and Piglet were sitting outside Pooh’s front door listening to Rabbit…”. Marius says I am Rabbit, but that is a Most Dreadful Lie. I am merely efficient and I know almost everything. Rabbit is bossy and related to beetles! There is no comparison, is there? Besides, I am like Pooh, “who felt more and more that he was somewhere else, got up slowly and began to look for himself”. As we passed the book around, I realised that walking the Te Araroa Trail is pretty much like the unbouncing squad’s experience of getting lost in the mist in at the top of the forest. There are simply not enough orange Tiggers around.

Leg 13 – Joining more dots, day 4

Sunday, 15 December

Timber Trail Part 2 (43km) and the Ongarue Back Road to Taumarunui (33km)
Thingbearer: Marius
Fellowship: Etienne

TT day 2If we were strictly following the Te Araroa Trail at this stage, we would have exited the Hauhungaroa Ranges at Mangakahu Rd, then we would have walked another 19 km on road margin to reach the Taumarunui settlement. However, exiting the park on the Timber Trail meant the road margin connection to Taumarunui would be longer, although through similar and nearby territory. Marius was Thingbearer for the whole 76 km (a gooooood boy), and Etienne joined him for the last 33km (also a gooooood boy).

Meanwhile, Hannah and I flopped around uselessly in the car, profoundly discussing gynaecologists, the correct way to cook an egg, and what it feels like to be bug-eyed crazy. She likes it when I tell her the stories of my misspent student youth. I think I really have told her everything now. Either that or my memory was erased by the Special Forces due to state security issues of the 1980s. I might have to start making up stuff henceforth. I wonder how far I can go without making her suspicious?

[Marius’s blog] After the mist had cleared, it was another spectral morning as I followed the path hugging the wall of a gorge. From time to time, there was a fork without any indication which branch to follow. Soon it became apparent that the left fork was for stronger climbers while the right approached the uphills at a kinder angle before rejoining the main track.

It was after the first suspension bridge that the “real” climbing started. The bugger of it P1020991was that you could never judge how much further you had to heave on upwards: the path followed switchback after switchback with no relief on the angle of climb. Eventually the path levelled and I started on the first of many giddy downhills. There were initially long but gentle gradients interspersed with fairly long stretches of level riding, then the downward angles became steeper.

P1020994I encountered only two small groups of people on the track, and I overtook them while they were resting. The road was all mine and I could whoop and sing as the mood took me. I could also do other private and embarrassing things. My tired body (my saddlesore arse was particularly vocal) called out to the ice-cold little cascades by the roadside, so I took off all my clothes and had a refreshing soak in the Hauhungaroa spa.

I thought of all my good friends across the globe who would love to ride this track and I promised myself to bring them here if they ever visit New Zealand. This trail offers seriously good, non-technical riding – I’ll even go so far as to say, the best I’ve ever done.

I came across a Jigger turntable – a turning point for the locomotive that took the timber TT Jigger turntabledown to civilisation for sale. A plaque described a time many decades ago, when the payroll had to be brought up on horseback for the timber workers, and how one paymaster’s horse threw its rider before bolting with the entire workforce’s pay. Luckily, the horse and payroll were recovered. The plaque also tells of how in New Zealand’s egalitarian past, everybody on the job was paid more or less the same – a locomotive driver only earning marginally more than a lumberjack’s 1s 9p.

Tunnel entrance

Tunnel entrance

I whizzed down the steep incline at breakneck speed but never felt in any kind of danger, as all the turns were well banked. I released the brakes and surrendered to a 5-km plunge that was interrupted only by a train tunnel before I was hurled downhill again. I screamed with the sheer thrill of it. (By the way, I did have my clothes on again.)

At the bottom I crossed another suspension bridge where, at the 35-km mark (the 75-km for the entire track), I saw the first cyclists approaching from the opposite direction. I silently wished them good luck in riding up the hill down which I had just roller-coasted. Where the track ends at Ongarue, I was welcomed by the sweet scent of pine trees in the midday sun.

On the road margin ride to Taumarunui, mobbed by flies and sweating heavily, Etienne and I enjoyed a view of snow-capped Mount Ruapehu. To be in one zone of physical sensation while window-shopping its opposite is somewhat otherworldly.

We rode a short while with an Aussie couple whose bikes had panniers. We’re interested in how well the pannier option works, as so far, our family has always supported cyclists with a car carrying camping essentials. The couple’s opinion was that the Timber Trail was not suited for pannier touring.

[Mairi-Anne’s blog] At the holiday park, I made a great social leap upwards, dragging my family with me as a leopard carries an antelope into the boughs of a tree. How is this possible? I hear you exclaim. I arranged the family’s newly-washed underpants, socks and bras on the car dashboard, headrests and steering wheel. Our automotive tumble drier was then parked at the supermarket while we replenished supplies. We are now officially People of Walmart.

That evening, the darkness was embellished with an exquisite trisyllabic bird call. Marius transcribed it: A down to D D up to E (an octave above), down to G, up to A (all the same value notes). Marius has attempted to reproduce the call on a synthesiser. Can anyone out there identify this bird?

Leg 13 – Joining more dots, day 3

Day 3

Saturday, 14 December
The Timber Trail, part 1: Ngarahenga to Piropiro Camp (42 km)
Thingbearer: Marius
Fellowship: Etienne

Because Hannah and I had already walked the first 15km of the Te Araroa Trail through the park, the cyclists were going to double up on some of this en route to the Piropiro Camp. However, from the turnoff to the Bog Inn Hut today to Taumarunui on Sunday we were not on the actual tramping trail, but parallel to it on the mountain bike track. It was a pity we could not do the purist thing for this section, but The Thing was nevertheless getting transported steadily southwards by body power alone, so we were still on target for our mission.

Marius and I got up and did our usual tiresome prodding of the progeny into signs of life, while they counteracted with their tactics of attrition. Hannah curled up more tightly in her sub-zero sleeping bag. Goodness knows how she can bear all that extra padding in balmy weather. Some vital component of her perception and response system must have gone horribly wrong, but so long as she is not sectioned we’re doing OK. Etienne imparted more wisdom from the insect world, because teacher parents make all kinds of concessions when a child demonstrates a thirst for knowledge. “In addition,” he intoned, “when leafcutter ants and workers make sound, they are telling others they have found a valuable leaf.”

Marius and Etienne got going at last. Having already climbed Pureora, Hannah was off the hook for today, but if she was not, I’m sure she would have staggered around, clutching her groin injury to make Etienne do the section for her. This would have evened the score for the times he urgently had to rush to the loo at dishwashing time at home.

[Marius’s blog] Once again, it was an Angelina Jolie morning: cool and beautiful. My cerebral DJ flicked on Steve Hackett’s guitar instrumental “Spectral Mornings” and this summed it up. Entering the trail, we were immediately enclosed in a tunnel of sun-dappled green curved over a well-maintained track, with blue Perspex markers every kilometre, snaking the way to Piropiro. From our tyres came a happy hum and whisper on the sand, and liquid birdcalls flowed through the forest. Grrrrrrregggg! was still being urgently sought. The injured spouse had had an all-points bulletin put out on him.

P1020971We rode through an area of cleared bush smelling of freshly harvested pine trees. The Timber Trail follows a network of logging paths and miniature railway lines. The preserved sections of natural vegetation give the ride its beauty, where the timber trade has made way for the tourist trade. The small ghost towns in the area are the loss that sits in the same pocket as the gain.

Two hours into the ride, there was an unmistakable metallic dwonk! of a bike hitting the ground, accompanied by a meaty thump and expletive. Unlike his sister, Etienne seldom swears, so I knew this was fairly TT Et and bridgeserious. He was tangled with his bike and some railings, as a result of riding into instead of over the bridge. His face was bleeding and his knee and shins were bruised but he could carry on riding. The odds were even. The children could now argue over who was worse wounded in action.

The trail started an inexorable climb and we found the first of a number of rest shelters along the trail – they do think of everything here! Etienne pedalled the inclines impressively; I guess the rides he did with me at Upper Waiwera finally paid off. We had no conversation though. We were both breathing too hard to talk.

Suddenly the path flattened out and we found a squadron of abandoned bicycles and helmets, but not a rider in sight. Was some weird Bermuda Triangle/Marie Celeste kidnapping thing going on here? No. This was the point where you could dismount and climb to the summit for the view. In most places the bush on either side of the path was too dense for views. We, however, just wanted to get to the downhill.

There is nothing like the exhilaration of the cross-country downhill ride, nothing between you and the abyss as you plummet like a falcon. P1020993Counterintuitively, the less you use your brakes, the more control you have and the less pain from frozen forearms. In the cascades below, even the rocks looked scared. Check the expression on this one’s face.

At the first suspension bridge there was a school group and two preadolescent boys were rocking the bridge over its 30m drop as we crossed. Lacking the professionalism of cattle dogs, the adult chaperones did nothing to curb the boys’ stupidity.

The next suspension bridge had a bollard at its exit point to thwart crossings by scramblers and quad bikes. A dejected group of petrol riders had gathered there. I had to restrain myself from asking them why they brought their machines here when there are other places offering more technical challenges, less expensive and manicured track to spoil and less people to annoy with their noise.

After five hours’ pedalling, we arrived at Piropiro, where the Gurlz were waiting for us with an early dinner of bubble and squeak! It was the first time in years I had eaten this potato and cabbage treat with bacon and eggs.

[Mairi-Anne’s blog] Driving through Benneydale, we stopped at a petrol station to fill up. There was a sign on the bowser: “Open only Mon – Fri, 8.00 – 17.00. Callout for Sat or Sun, $12.” Ah. So we didn’t fill up. The last time I recall petrol pumps being closed during weekends was in RSA in 1979 during national fuel restrictions.

We erected the tent and waited what seemed like a long time for the blokes to arrive. I set out the bedding so the kids would lie next to each other. This was a superior arrangement. They could now pester each other to their hearts’ content without my prone body and spoilsport attitude dividing them.

At last the triumphant riders appeared and subsided into the long grass at the tent entrance. “I have sustained multiple injuries!” declared Etienne. So … sibling rivalry began for the evening, ending in a tussle in the tent which Marius and I viewed from the outside. The tent walls bulged and shuddered as the wrestling bounced back and forth. It was a bit like watching the face in the video of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” pressing outwards against its restrictions. No, actually it was more like two alien parasites trying to burst out of a human host’s body in a third-rate horror film.

“The Timber Trail was fabulous!” declared Marius. “It was one of the best mountain bike rides I have ever done!” So, like Etienne’s ant, he was going to tell everybody, repeatedly, that he had “found a valuable leaf”.

Leg 13 – Joining more dots, day 2

Day 2

Friday, 12 December
Mangaukewa Road to Ngarahenga camp (60 km)
Thing-bearers: Hannah and Marius
Fellowship: Etienne

ShearerWe found the gigantic, blokey shearer’s statue, which is the starting point of the next trail section from Te Kuiti. I preferred the bat and the moths.

A short distance south of the village, the trail joins the main road and stays on tar for a considerable period before taking a left turn onto rather challengingly chunky gravel, the Mangaukewa North Rd. This road eventually rejoins State Highway 30, shortly before you reach the Ngarahenga campsite. It was from this camp that Hannah and I had started for the ToiToi trail, on which she got her injury climbing Pureora the week before.

Sixty kilometres of road and highway connection is better cycled than tramped, so this distance was the family’s intention today. I had the boring but necessary task of camp commandant, driver and road manager. I would rather have cycled, but someone had to be noble, and I found there was yet balm in Gilead. Driving out of Te Kuiti, I passed a man cycling with panniers. The panniers were not for camping gear, though. No. They were for transporting his extremely important Maltese Poodle, which took its role of fluffy sidekick seriously.

Marius and the kids set off, expecting to find me parked every 10 km or so, to replenish water and check if anyone needed rescuing. I had a Fay Weldon novel, which I expected to be a good read, to occupy me while I waited.

[Marius’s blog] I encouraged the kids to use Granny Gear on the hills and bossed Hannah into keeping going when she complained pathetically about her injury again. We were surrounded by bovine noises – for some reason there were lots more cattle than sheep farms on this road. After hearing a particularly odd bellow from one of these mournful meat and milk mammals, Etienne remarked: “Farmers have come up with a new breed of animal by crossing a cow and a donkey. What you just heard, ladies and gentlemen, was a conkey.”

Later, we saw a farmer with his cattle dogs in action. The conkeys were recumbent and P1020964chewing cud, when on the brow of the hill buzzed a quad bike with three border collies who sped like black and white arrows. Their ears were back, snouts pointing low, bodies parallel to and millimetres above their shadows flowing over the ground. These were brilliant professionals; working dogs who knew what to do and thoroughly enjoyed doing it. Before I could get the camera out, all the conkeys had been elevated, motivated, admonished, and relocated. They were disappearing over the hill – all this in about 30 seconds, if that.

Mangaukewa North Rd is loose gravel and leads down into a valley where the heat hangs heavy and torturously for cyclists. Pretty soon the kids were exhausted and I was fairly tired too, although I consider myself cycling fit. I told them to wait, I’d go and get Mom and the car. Off I went. And rode. And rode. Our 10-km rendezvous was at the top of a very long, 35-degree climb.

Returning to Hannah and Etienne at the 30-km point, we found they had created their own version of a golden calf, like the Israelites, when Moses took a bit longer than they thought he ought. They used sticks, rocks and trash found at the roadside, and called their sculpture “The Monument”. Hannah said it was their own “Bushwallyta” (inspired by the divinely idiotic Fry and Laurie skit). “What else have you been doing?” Mairi-Anne asked. “We made barking and grunting noises at each other,” she replied in a tone indicating this ought to have been obvious to us. “Well, so long as you have invigorated your auras and enhanced your chakras, you have not wasted your time,” said Mairi-Anne.

After lunch, I was the sole Thing-bearer for the rest of the day. The rolling countryside around Mangaukewa North Rd reminded me of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, while the DJ in my head played ZZ Top’s “Have a little Mercy”. The DJ was playing a special message from my saddlesore bum: “Have a little mercy/ Love me like a big Roooollls Royce”. My lungs creaked on the last stretch of the ride, and phoned in their dual complaints to my mental talk show, as the bucking and lurching of the gravel was replaced by the smoothness of SH30. Here, one discomfort merely succeeded another, as the heat swelling up from the tarmac drove the oxygen away. No appreciation for views at this point – I just had eyes for the tent and my wife holding out a bottle of cold beer.

[Mairi-Anne’s blog] In the car, the children immediately clawed for their ipods. Goodbye conversation. Toodeloo to even the modicum of emotional transmission provided by barking and grunting. “Why don’t you read a decent book instead?” I pleaded. “I am reading!” protested Hannah. “I’m reading what’s on my ipod.” Note that she made no spurious claim for decency. “I am reading a book!” insisted Etienne. “I have downloaded Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and The Science of Ant Communication by Pamela Patterson. The ant stuff is really interesting. Listen,” he quoted, “‘Cuticular hydrocarbons provide information about sex, age, colony and reproductive status. Each hydrocarbon has a different odour that provides ants different signals such as their tasks (for example, foraging) or whether they are from the same colony.’” This was the first of many anty morsels he shared over the next few days.

When we had set up camp, I got horizontal in hope of a siesta. But teenage scuffles and squeals intruded. The fruits of my womb were drawing tattoos on each other. Etienne gave Hannah a monobrow, which she immediately and churlishly rubbed off, and Hannah gave Etienne a bottom on one arm and a surprised horse’s head on the other. The horse drawing had undergone a chastity conversion from the original one of a willy. He left these tattoos in situ for the next three days, either because he is very sporting, or very dirty. I fear the latter.

I was envious of the family having seen cattle dogs in action. All I had to report was seeing plenty of Australian magpies. “They look like nuns with spiteful faces,” I said. “Yup,” replied Marius. “Dem boids has gone over to de dark side.”

After we had eaten dinner and washed (all except for the resident entomologist, who was keeping his cuticular hydrocarbons pure and undiluted), we took a trip, before the light faded, to see two nearby tourist attractions, the “Steam Hauler” and the “Buried Forest”. The steam hauler left us nonplussed. “It’s just an ancient rusty tractor, like what my dad had on his farm in the 1960s,” said Marius. The story of the buried forest is geologically P1020966very interesting; a section of ancient trees was covered in ash and pumice when the volcano that is now the caldera forming Lake Taupo most recently blew (about 1900 years ago). The wood was preserved beneath the ash, but you can see a few logs which have been uncovered in a small section of swampy ground. The photo shows all you can see at the site, so from a viewing perspective, this was not the high point of the day.

We went to sleep while listening to birdcalls. There was the magpie, the familiar tui and the morepork, and another one we had not heard before. It sounded like a sharp rock scraping over a dull rock. The closest it sounded to a word was “Grrrrrrrregg!” Marius reckoned it was a male bird indignantly discovering that Greg had dallied with his wife. I reckoned it was a wife bird discovering that her mate had not done the dishes the night before.