I’d made up my mind, I was driving inland. I finally left Whakatane. The promise of hot pools and hiking trails pushed me towards Rotorua. I turned away from the coast and faced significantly more ups than I’ve been used to. The dome of Mount Putauaki, and further beyond the ridge of Mount Tarawera. Trekking up both is possible but there are catches. Putauaki requires a permit and a minimum group size of four for unspecified health and safety reasons. As a solo traveller this sets a troubling precedent. Meeting minimum required numbers for paid events to take place is often challenging enough, but when you need three of your mates along to go outside I have a problem. Mount Tarawera is arguably worse. You can only go up with a guide who costs a cool $200. I’ve heard the natives grumble about the state of the over walked Tongariro Crossing. Here’s an alternative but nobody is going to pay to do an alternative. Obviously some people do, otherwise they wouldn’t be charging it. Neither of these mountains remain on my to-do list. I drive towards the township of Kawerau. Smoke billows above the trees. The volume looks like too much for geothermal activity. And it is. The smoke rises from the towers of the town’s lumber mill. The valley is dominated by pine plantations, presumably all feeding the local industry. Which I guess in a way means you can feed the hungry with trees after all. How about that passive aggressive road-side signs?
I did want to go out and walk along the Tarawera River and see the falls. To do this I would have to pass through the plantations. Access required a permit. I stopped in at the i-Site in Kawerau to buy one. Unhappy about having to pay money to be allowed outside, I left before I upset anyone other than myself. I drove for half an hour through various stages of pine development. From pin-cushioned tufts of bright green, to regimented lines of mature tall trees, to the post-harvest wastelands. Signs warn the road isn’t maintained. Rather than potholes, I find I’m battling across trenches. The van took a pounding. All my belongings shaken, not stirred. When I do stop I’ve come to a closed gate. The campsite is closed, which I had been told at the i-Site. I foolishly assumed closed meant no camping. I wasn’t expecting there to be a bar across the road. I’d have to go back. At least this time I was ready for the trenches. I finally arrived in another, unlocked car park, pleased to find I’m the only one there.
I followed the Tarawera River, flowing high, fast but clear. The teal coloured water was marbled with the greens of weed, the white sandy bottom. I could feel the corners of my mouth turn up as I looked over the river, as I turned another corner. I can hear the thunder of a waterfall. Up ahead I see two people. I say hello as I pass. Where have they come from? Not the car park, and not the campsite. I regret not asking. Tarawera Falls drops 65 meters in a spectacular crash. I can’t make sense of where it comes from. I seem to be following the river, but the falls drop from above the valley. I stay on the track, marching towards Lake Tarawera. I lose sight of the river, but can still hear it. I join it again at a frothing pool with no outlet. The river disappears into an old lava tunnel. I start to pay more attention, listening to the tone constantly changing. Gentle pools. Raucous cascades. Murmuring streams. Boisterous rapids. The river calms as I reach the lake. I cross the bridge into the abandoned camp ground. The warning signs still up are a reminder of the on-going pandemic overseas. I walk back to the bridge. Looking down into the clear waters I see trout lazily finning in the current. Were it not for their occasional bursts forward I’d have missed them entirely. I head to the lake shore. I walk out on a solitary jetty. The screaming laughter of a lone seagull echoes through the valley. Looking up, Mount Tarawera rises above the forest on the opposite shore.
I walk no further, knowing I have to return the way I’d come. I’m getting used to going out and coming back. Previously, doubling back would have been unacceptable. A loop must be completed. Now though, I realise while things are the same, they’re also different. The light changes, I see things from another angle. I stroke the bark that twists around the trees. I climb up the twisted web of roots I must have walked down but don’t remember. I run my hands through the manuka leaves. I return to the van, ready for the drive back to Kawerau. Rain turns the gravel road to a brown slush that coats the side of my van. I pull in behind the bowls club where I intend to park for the night. There are signs up advising this is an active geothermal area. To stay here you must be in a vehicle, sleeping above the ground. No awnings. No tents. For a freedom camping spot Prideaux Park is a strange set up. There’s a dump station, a drinking water tap, and even access to power if you can plug in. What is lacking through is a toilet. Fortunately I’ve brought my own. I have two bottles of chemicals. The blue chemical goes in the waste tank. The instructions very clearly state that I should not put any chemicals in the flush tank so I put the pink chemical away and simply add water. The toilet fits comfortably between the end of the bed and the cupboard. With the curtains closed I take a seat. The curtains remain closed for the duration of the performance. I stand to no ovation, considering the test a success. As I flushed the toilet I thought about all those times I’d trotted over to toilet blocks on cold, damp mornings. All those evenings I’d gotten out of the marginally warmer van, padded across damp grass to a lightless shed. While not necessarily a luxury, the toilet is certainly an added comfort. I have remained undecided as to whether testing the toilet in an area of the country that permanently smells like a really bad fart is a good idea. The benefit is if the toilet smells I can’t smell it. The flip side to this is I won’t know if the plastic container of human waste sloshing about in the back of the van smells.
Rain crashed down throughout the night and continued in the morning. I tossed and turned, trying to find whatever the sulphuric equivalent to the cold side of the pillow is. The morning started at some point and I realise I must have managed to get some sleep. By the time I was ready to move on the rain had eased. I drove a short distance down the road to the Waitangi Soda Springs for a bath. I was expecting to have the place to myself but I followed another van in, another car arrived shortly after I’d parked up. For $10 I was able to sit in a pond no deeper than a boating lake you might find in the park of your hometown. There’s no easy way to move around as the water doesn’t reach much higher than my thighs. I half swam, half-crawled, stirring up the mix of pebbles and algae that lined the bottom. I tried to relax in the supposed healing properties of the warm water. Enjoying the basic principle of physics that meant the surface of the pond was hotter than the bottom, even though the bottom is where the heat was coming from. Steam rose, spiralling away in the wind. After an hour I decided I’d had my money’s worth. I dried off, climbed in the van and headed off to do a walk. I realise now this probably wasn’t the best order of events. While walking I realised I was feeling unwell. I started to think perhaps I’d been unwell all day. What I wasn’t sure about was whether I was tired from a rough night, dehydrated from a hour in a hot bath, or maybe the air quality was having an impact. I called my walk short. I drove in to Rotorua.
I drove out of Rotorua beneath clear, blue skies. The promise of more of the same tomorrow. I was going back towards Te Urewera, down the road I avoided last time. The ranges of the national park appear first as a dark green smear on the horizon. They don’t grow taller so much as I grow closer. The road starts out as a straight line, cutting through pine trees. I hit the green smear and the road began to misbehave. Swinging left, then right, then left again. I climb gently, steadily weaving through the foothills. I pull into the car park in the Whirinaki Conservation Park, surprised to see other cars. I pull on my day bag, loaded with water, lunch and layers. I disappear between the trunks of ancient, giant trees. The sounds of the forest conspire to be human. The whisper of a stream. The groan of the trees The chatter of birds. I’m convinced I can hear voices. Sometimes people appear and I feel a bit less crazy, mostly they don’t. As I walk I find most of the time I’m looking up. Following the length of trunks, gazing into the heights of the canopy. Amazed still over the depth of the green, the abundance of growth. Back at the car park, everyone else had gone. I decided I would spend the night on the edge of this verdant wonderland. I leave the van next to a river, beyond the branches of giants.
There is a marked night walk here. I haven’t really ventured out much after dark. Little reflective squares guide me through the trees, Hansel and Gretel style. I’m going to claim that because it’s dark, my ears are tucked in hat, this is the first time I smell the forest. Like pine but also not. Rich, like chocolate but more like dirt. The forest is a different place at night. Mostly because I can’t see any of it. Tree ferns look alien in the glow of torch light. The lack of colour is confusing. Spectre-like grey trunks emerge from the dark and disappear back into the dark. I stop occasionally, switching my torch off and listen. I think maybe I left it too late to hear the kiwis. I do find a music box, one you wind yourself, and it plays back the screams of the male and female kiwis. Perhaps it’s better I can’t hear them after all. I reach the end of the trail and am pleased to find the reflective makers are still there to guide me home. The temperature has plummeted. I keep my hat on as I crawl into bed, my breath already streaming in front of me.
My feet must have gotten cold at some point in the night. They never warmed up. I found myself curled up in the foetal position. Trying to use my body to heat my feet. In the end, I gave up, put socks on and got out of bed. I open the curtain across the side door. Little white flakes are falling from the sky. I can’t quite believe it. Snow has settled on the windscreen, in the black rubber window frames. There’s blue sky between the clouds. I open my stove, put the kettle on and wait for an eternity. The gas isn’t really burning. There’s not enough heat to boil the water. I’ve since learned that the vaporising point of butane is -0.5 degrees. It was too cold for my stove. I drank down a tepid cup of tea and breakfasted on cold oats. I knew that if my stove wouldn’t fire up, I’d probably need to leave the van a while to warm up. At around 11am I put the keys in, lights came on but there was no action. No cranking, no clicking. Nothing. The only time I’ve had this problem before is when the battery was flat. I waited another hour and tried again. Still nothing. Shit. My phone would occasionally show a single bar of reception. I couldn’t connect a call to the AA. I walked back up the night walk trail, up hill. Still nothing. I realised with some regret that if anyone had come through while I was away, I would have missed them. I went back to the camp, past the van and started walking down the road. Checking my phone every few minutes, trying to place a call. Eventually I got through the automated call system to speak with a person. They can’t find my location, I try to guide them and the phone cuts out. I call back, pressing the right numbers and the phone cuts out. I try again, impressed that I’m back with the same person. Less impressed they still can’t locate me. The phone cuts out. This time I get through to somebody else, they find my location and tell me I’ll have about an hour to wait. No problem, I think. “No problem,” I said. I had walked at least half an hour from the van, I’ll only have half an hour to wait when I get back. On reaching the van I decide to satisfy my curiosity. Another hour has passed after all. I put the keys in the ignition. The engine bursts into action. I don’t know what to do, the AA will be here soon so I might as well wait and let them check things over. An hour passes, then two. I see I’ve got a text message from the AA. Someone will be with me within 120 minutes. I have no idea how long ago it was sent, only that it was received 20 minutes ago. Eventually a white pick-up bundles into the camping area. A stereotypically friendly Kiwi jumps out of the front, apologising for the wait. I apologise back, for probably wasting his time. He gives me a funny look and I tell him, “It started”. “No problem,” he says. He does his checks. “This battery is mint,” he tells me. “Brand new is it?” he asks. “Sort of,” I reply. No wiser as to why the van didn’t start, he waits to make sure I can start it again. He speeds off as I slowly follow.