New Zealand: Tramping in the Kamai-Mamaku Forest Park

I left Pike and Kelly with instructions to visit the Coromandel Coastal Walkway and the hope I’d run into them again somewhere down the road. I was going to another beach I had skipped on my first circuit of the Coromandel Peninsula; New Chums Beach. When I last passed the turn off for Whangapoua the road was more like a river. Saying no was too easy. This time white fluffy clouds danced across a bright blue sky. Beach weather indeed. On the information board for the walking trail to New Chums Beach there appears to be a crossing over the river estuary. Looking ahead, I could see only the river. Some maps don’t even show the river estuary. I knew the trail head was on the other side of the river, but how to get there? I walked the beach, followed the sandy bank of the river for a while until I accepted I would have to get wet. I sat down, took my boots and socks off. I looked for the shortest, shallowest point. The water was cool, not unpleasant. I strode out, feet sinking into the wet sand. The water reaching my ankles, my knees, not quite reaching my shorts. The tide was still coming in, my return journey would be interesting. I wiped my feet off on my socks before putting my boots back on. Even on the right side of the river the trail head was hard to find. I stumbled up a cliffside to find nothing. I went back down to the rocky beach and followed a narrow strip of pebbles until I found the muddy, well-trodden path I had been expecting to find from the beginning.

I climbed up to the lookout to find my reward for coming back the way I’d come. The crescent of white sand reaches around the coast. The emerald sea sparked in the sun. The water crystal clear from above. Before I’d even reached the sand I was regretting my lack of swimming trunks and towel. I walked out of the Nikau palms towards the crash of white tipped turquoise waves on the golden beach. There wasn’t another person here. I had this tiny slice of paradise to myself. I didn’t stay for long, conscious of the incoming tide, of the ever-deepening river crossing. I walked back to where I’d crossed the before, took my boots off and waded in. The bottom of my shorts floated on the surface of the river. Other people were arriving as I left. I watched them looking for a crossing, coming back to the notice board to double check. They, like me, either didn’t know, or didn’t want to cross the river. Maybe the crossing is easier at low tide. Either way, I came away thinking all beautiful destinations should require a little bit of work to reach.

Convinced I had finally finished up with the Coromandel for good, I ended up back in Waihi Beach. I was preparing my overnight bag again. While in the Pinnacles Hut, one of the local trampers had shared the location of other huts in the almost surrounding areas. Further up from the Karangahake Gorge are the old Kauri logging grounds, tucked away in the regenerating forest is the Waitawheta Hut. Corroborating this evidence, my friend Matt had also informed me of this option while I was “in the area”. Another hut meant another opportunity to push myself, to test my packing and organisational skills. The hike in along the Waitawheta River follows one of the abandoned logging tram lines. The trail is comfortable, walking over rocks with wooden sleepers underfoot. The river gargled alongside. The emerging forest freshly washed in the night’s rain. There are information boards along the way, offering details of the tree felling that took place here. One particular piece of information stood out to me, 47,000 cubic meters of wood were cleared from this area. I have no idea how much wood that is, but it sounds like a lot. The sign helpfully advises this is the equivalent to 9400 elephants, which must have been a lot easier to imagine for whoever put the boards together. The valley deepens, I entered the gorge. I could hear a strange sound up ahead. I thought dogs were barking but dogs are banned from the area. I came to two young men drying their hair in a towel, both looking sufficiently wet. A larger group were down by the river. Some in the river, some throwing rocks. The plonking of stone in river was what I could hear.

I carried on walking, making quick time along the wide track. I found myself surrounded by the usual suspects. Towering green walls, fast flowing rapids, deep clear pools. Summer here would be a different thing entirely. I crossed swing bridges like bouncy castles, impressed at the caravan sized boulders nestling in the river shallows. I start playing a game along the track, only stepping on the railway sleepers. Like the game children play with paving slabs. If you step on the cracks, the bears will get you. Which bears, and where they would come from I don’t remember, but they were definitely somewhere, waiting to get you. Before reaching the Waitawheta Hut there’s a final river crossing. The only one without a bridge. I approach cautiously. The river isn’t in flood, but it is definitely high. I’m not confident I’d get across without going over. I’m also wearing the only pair of socks I’d bothered to bring with me. I wouldn’t mind so much on my way back. I decided to take the flood detour.

I came out of the forest into the hut clearing. Smoke already rising from the chimney. Somebody else is here and has the fire going. Perfect timing on my part. I enter the front door to meet Rohan and Laura. They’ve put their bags in one room. I decide to give them some privacy and take some for myself, setting up a bunk in the other room. We spend the late afternoon, the early evening talking together. Our conversation seems to flow across all the major current topics without even trying. Perhaps this is the benefit of being disconnected. Away from mobile signal, away from the internet. Our only other source of real entertainment is the fire. We keep the door open for a while, watching the flames eat through the wood. Only as we step away do we realise we’ve smoked out the hut. The damp wood not burning quite as hot, not sending the smoke straight up the chimney. We crack a few windows before going to bed. In the preparations I realise I’ve failed to pack my toothbrush and toothpaste. I’m going to need a better tick-sheet including more items than somewhere to sleep and something to eat. Laura allowed me a squeeze of her toothpaste. Using my index finger as a substitute for the real thing, I gave my teeth something rather than nothing for the night.

I woke up to pink chalk smudges on a purple sky. Mist like clouds hang around the trees. Out of the light at first, the whisps flash pink in the rising sun. I pack my bag, spill half my remaining fresh water, mop the floor, and restock the wood pile. I want to get moving early, having decided to take a different route out. I am going to walk along the Waipapa Trail and then on to the Mangakino Pack Track. The forest is loud in the morning. The birds either disappear or become quiet as the day goes on. The occasional blast of warmth from the sun seems to be accompanies by a whistle or a song from the canopy. The Waipapa Track starts in the same way as the Waitawheta finishes, broad straight lines, bridges over streams. Only once do I encounter a problem. A giant tree has fallen in front of one of the bridges. The trunk has snapped across the narrow gorge. There’s no way through to the bridge. I’m going to have to go down. I step on to what looks like a decent foot hold. As my weight spreads, the soil gives way and I slide the rest of the way down to the stream trickling through the bottom. I scramble back up the other side. Things remain easy after this. I reach a clearing close to Te Aroha Mountain, in the distance the mountains stop altogether and I can see flat farm land. I know I’m nearly at the junction for the Mangakino Pack Track. 

The Mangakino Pack Track is a different beast entirely. The trail is covered with knotted roots, twisted branches, and tangled vines. The leaf litter covers holes, hides trip-wire vines. Wet roots are slips hazards. I think I can trust the rocks until they pull out of the ground like teeth from rotten gums. Between gaps in the trees I can see a forest beyond this one. More of the same forest. The trail is hardly maintained. This winter’s tree falls and land slips block the path. I struggle over, under trunks, dragging my pack through. Sometimes I’m on all fours as this is the only way I can get me and my bag past the trunk. When a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it make a sound, it still drags other trees and ferns down with it. In the end it’s often easier to follow the line of the trunk and bypass the tree entirely but this adds time to the hike. Finding the trail again on the other side is more of a challenge. The little orange triangles often attached to a collateral tree now upturned or buried. I find my legs, my shorts, my pack are caked in mud. For the first time I really understand the risks associated with the New Zealand bush. It isn’t, as I had supposed about getting lost, it’s about something going wrong. It would be all too easy to roll an ankle, to miss a step and end up sliding down the side of a gorge. The streams here are unbridged. I slide off the surface of wet rocks, other rocks roll beneath me when I put my weight down. Once my feet are wet it often makes more sense to go for the ankle deep flat bottomed pools.

I pass the Mangakino Shelter, I pass other turn offs to different trails. I am still making progress. I’m shocked by the explosion of noise as a Keruru bombs out of a tree behind me. Three of my toes are tingling. I’m not sure but I suspect my first blisters forming. The trail continues to lay down a challenge, throwing up obstacles. Get around this. Get passed that. Each one another puzzle to solve. I reach one tree fall so rotten it feels like a sponge. I decide to go over the top. My legs aren’t quite long enough and I feel myself sliding slowly down the trunk like a fireman in to the gorge below. I quickly pull myself over, back on to the path. I reach a wooden boardwalk, I must be getting close to the end. The narrow track along the gorge side suddenly has wooden buttresses and a gravel topping. I’m flying now. Finally making the kind of time I’m used to. The forest eventually lets me go, I stumble out in to the farm fields above the car park. So close to home. 

I left the Kamai-Mamaku Forest Park after a full 7 hours of hiking. The longest I’ve spent on my feet, loaded with my pack since I began. I’m tired, but I feel great. The trail pushed me the whole way. The trail also made me realise the risk I’m taking hiking alone. It’s all well and good telling someone where I am going, how long I’m planning to be there for, when I’m coming back but if I go over the edge of a gorge it’s going to be hard to find me. I decide to place an order for a personal locator beacon in the hope I never need to use it. I text my new friends Rohan and Laura to find out where they were staying so I could catch up for some celebratory beers. They booked me a site at Bowentree Beach Holiday Park. I arrived, took the much needed hot shower and we headed into the kitchen. Within minutes, one of the locals came over to me. “Do you want some fresh fish for your dinner?” he asked. I wasn’t sure at first. If he drops a whole fish, unwashed, fillets still attached to the bone, I’d have a problem. “Are you lot together?” he said, gesturing to Rohan and Laura. “Yes,” I replied, “it’s the three of us.” He nodded, disappearing into the night. He came back moments later with a plate of three perfectly cut snapper fillets he’d caught earlier in the day. Rohan has some fishing experience, he even said Laura would have enjoyed cleaning and cutting it. I let him do the honours with the pan. He plated up this beautiful, soft, white flaking fish. A bit of oil, a bit of salt and pepper. It’s all you need. . After the previous night, I wasn’t sure if we’d have had anything further to discuss but as the beers did the business I found we were deep into the subject of fraudulent archaeologists when I realised my eyes were no longer staying open.

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