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.
[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 park, 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.