New Zealand: Otaki Forks

Drizzle beats a now well known tune on the roof of the van. Getting up in the rain is much easier when someone is paying for you to do it. Being on a holiday park keeps me reasonably motivated. I can take advantage of the kettle, have another blast in the shower. I have to be gone by 10am, which seems late now I’e settled into waking up at 5am. When I do leave I have to stop before I get out of town. Where am I going? What am I doing? I’ve made plans to spend the weekend in Paraparaumu catching up with my original lockdown bubble. Only one day away and a few hours drive. I don’t go far. Woodville Ferry Reserve. I arrive to find the field empty. I’ve stayed here every time I’ve passed through the corridor between the Ruahines and the Tararuas. That’s somewhere to sleep sorted but what about the rest o f the day? How did I manage to live like this for the best part of a year? What was I doing? A lot of this, I suppose. Figuring it out. One end of the Manawatu Gorge track emerges near here. The track follows the gorge all the way to Ashhurst. I did the other end last time I came through. An hour passes before I’ve shaken off the mental fog. Get on with it. I get into my boots and across the bridge. Movement remains the best cure for inaction. The gorge helps too. Dripping ferns, knotted vines, and the pleasant blend of green. Back to tour guide New Zealand, away from the real thing. I stop at every view point. Admiring the slow spin of the grubby white wind turbines. I see two women, twice, all day. Doing the same thing as me, in and out. I follow waxeyes as they flick across the track. I listen to the irregular showers drum through the canopy. A few drops reach as far as my face. Better out than in, always. I turn around at the Tawa Loop track. Well over half way. There’s nothing else I need to do. I make it back to the van before the rain settles in. I’m thankful for the hot water in the Thermos. I join the rain, get comfortable and relax. As for tomorrow, I already have a plan.

Paraparaumu is only a short drive from Woodville. I forget how the North Island narrows towards the capital. I decide to take my still mostly full pack for a spin around the Upper Gorge Track. A training activity. Another session on the feet. Another couple of kilometres with weight on my back. Having already walked this way before I don’t pay so much attention to the leaves of green. I listen in to what my body is saying. Whatever weight this is, is comfortable, almost invisible. What am I missing? Food. The tent. I never had the opportunity to weigh a box of trees. The harness hung off my waist. The shoulder straps helped better distribute the weight. What I’m carrying now feels lighter. My legs are going well, having a nice time. The Manuwatu Gorge track essentially being a gravel footpath by New Zealand standards helps. Even the downhill is pleasant. No screaming from the knees. I finish the loop long before lunchtime. I could have gone further. Oh well. Other things to do.

Palmerston North, a city never particularly high on my list of places to go, has me visit for a third time. Despite the general lack of interest to me, it seems to be the only place between Auckland and Wellington with a half decent outdoors store. I’ve made up my mind. I’ve committed to a new, unreasonably expensive, unbelievably light sleeping bag. The Sea to Summit Spark II. A packed size and weight reduction of almost two thirds. A massive saving, aside from the money. I want to replace my waterproof too. A like for like colour matched Patagonia Torrentshell. No waterproof truly is, but I’ve found this one to be pretty good. Until I destroyed it at work. I have a nice time getting excited with the woman who offered me help. She’s enthusiastic about my kit choices, and my future plans. “Doing the TA?” she asked. “I am, have you done it?” “No,” she says, “I’ve got three children.” “That’s ok, take them with you.” She goes on to tell me the youngest is only 10 months old and has already stayed in a handful of huts. Am I glad not to have been there? Absolutely. Will they be a total weapon on the trails in future? I hope so. I leave town, continuing a fruitless search that began in Napier for gas. Three towns and as many shops later I finally have butane for the small van stove. Cups of tea are back on the menu. Training done, shopping done, it’s time to roll across the suspiciously flat landscape to the West Coast to familiar views and faces.

Nothing much has changed down in Otaihanga. Luke and Bobby are taller, drifting towards distant teenagers. New sofas complete a change of scenery in the living room. Andrea is constantly on the move, picking things up, putting them away. Jason potters in the kitchen. We talk about where I’ve been, the things that I’ve seen. I ask an important question regarding my upcoming plans. “Are you ok to still be my emergency contact?” Checking in every couple of days is a lot more responsibility than every couple of weeks. Or maybe it’s no change at all. Luke and Bobby emerge from their respective caves to play some video games. We all sit together in front of the new to me huge T.V. and watch Justin TImberlake’s In Time. I have the latest night I’ve had in months. Sipping on beers and enjoying the company of familiar faces. Maybe it was the security of four walls, the comfort of a real bed, or the effect of those beers but I end up having the best night’s sleep in as long as I can remember. In the morning I’m encouraged to enjoy a walk along the Paekakariki Escarpment track. One of the highly regarded day walks in the North Island and a section of Te Araroa. As is often the case, I find the track is closed due to slip damage. Instead I throw my tent in my pack, swing the straps over my shoulders and take to the familiar path that follows the Waikanae River. I carry on all the way up to the old State Highway bridge and come back down the other side. Beyond the bridge the green walls of the Tararuas reach into a grey ceiling. The weather is unlikely to improve much but I feel I should at least head in for a closer look. One more night of luxury and then I will head into those high hills. A few days of challenging terrain and difficult weather will be good for me. Especially after I’ve done it. Back at someone else’s home I have a slice of chocolate cake with a cup of tea. I take a hot shower. I take great pleasure in the soft carpet beneath my bare feet. I look forward to the morning, to not having to put shoes on before I go to the bathroom. I curl up in a corner of the sofa, feeling the same way as I always do when I pass through; incredibly fortunate.

I wake up at the same time as normal to find it’s late. I knew it was coming but I didn’t know it was this soon. The clocks have changed. The time for getting up and getting gone has long passed. Instead I’ll have more light later. I soak up more minutes of a normal morning in a normal bed. Staying indoors to go to the bathroom, to the kitchen. My real life can wait, has to even. The forecast is fair. Probably only for today. I pack up the few things I carried inside. At the van I unload and restart with my backpack. I wrestle my new sleeping bag into it’s stuff sack. I’m impressed more with the space I’ve gained than the weight I’ve lost. Jason comes out and we talk about what I do for food, how I manage to make water safe for drinking. Then I leave my sanctuary. The next time I come through will be the last time, and the first time on foot. By then I’ll be in serious need of the home comforts so readily laid on for me. I pick up a handful of jars; honey, jam and my personal favourite; zucchini pickle. After a quick detour via the supermarket for tea and coffee I’m on my way down Otaki Forks road. The closest access point to the Tararuas. Part of the road has been closed since I first arrived in New Zealand. Another slip. An “emergency” access track has been cut through the orderly straight lines of pine trees. A solid grunt straight up through the dead zone. Once I start heading back downhill I’m where I want to be. Heritage forest. Native trees. Green from ceiling to floor. The difference between plantation and old growth no longer shocking. I come out on to a well formed track that appears on none of my maps. Rudimentary signs point to a dam, and to the forks. I head for the forks. I pass another sign, “remote hut site track.” I take this to be a remote as in rugged to the campsite, not as in a track to a remote hut site. I find orange triangles pointing in both directions. I follow one, decide I’m circling back. I follow the other. Sat on my arse with a vine wrapped around my ankle I decide I’ve made a bad choice. I head back to the original sign and ignore it. I arrive on the road and follow it the rest of the way to Otaki Forks.

Deep valleys, walls of green, fast flowing rivers. Paradise is only ever around the next corner, over the next ridge. Field Track steadily climbs the Judd Ridge through regenerating bush towards the mountain tops. Wide gravel gives way to a narrow muddy trail. Boots squelch, poles clang. This is good. I am slowly finding my feet again. The near total peace of having only one objective. Get there, where ever there may be. The straight line drawn on the map is anything but. A meandering, contour climbing path. I reach the carpets of moss. The forest dripping with moisture. A camouflage green toilet reveals the location of Field Hut. The oldest public hut in the Tararuas at almost 100 years old. Those serviced Great Walk huts are starting to look a bit flash. A ladder emerges on to a second floor with mattresses but no bunks. I’ll stay downstairs with the table. Tuna packets have long been a staple of my tramping diet. Yes, it’s unsustainable. No, I’m not happy about it. For a long time I avoided the Tahitian Coconut flavour because I thought “that doesn’t go with pasta.” I had forgotten three very important things. I’m not Italian. Pasta is just a vessel for sauce. If I were to eat pizza, I would absolutely put pineapple on it. So I went ahead and put coconut on my pasta and it was pretty delicious. For a country so well-equipped for time spent outdoors, I remain amazed that nobody in New Zealand has looked at the tuna packets, thought about meat-free options and done exactly the same thing but with beans. How hard could it be? After dinner I step outside to have a look around. The helipad above the hut provides a decent view of the sun beginning to descend beyond the steady rise of Kapakapanui. Inside, rain falls on the roof, sunlight leaves through the windows. I enjoy the light that lasts long into the evening.

The morning is calm and clear. In the night I was warm enough. The Spark II passes the most important test. The massive weight reduction means the sleeping bag offers less in the way of padding on top of the firm hut mattress. Out of the bag, Field Hut is a long way from warm. I can see light through the floorboards. I can feel the chill of the wind inside when it blows against the walls. By the time I’m ready to move on the sound of rain has begun beating on the steel roof.  No matter. Rain I can handle. I push up through the last of the bush to Table Top. An aptly named plateau before another climb up to the real high ground of the main range. I swap my fleece for my waterproof. I pull out my seldom used winter gloves. The rain is falling now as small white flakes. The track is easy going. I steadily gain on the heights of the Tararuas. Behind me I notice the turquoise strip of ocean between Kapiti Island and the mainland. The water has never looked that blue from the beach. Ahead the snow dusted tops loom through thickening, swirling cloud. The wind wakes up. The snow blasts horizontally. This was supposed to be the wet day. Tomorrow was supposed to the cold day. I was heading for Alpha Hut, to complete a Southern-ish Crossing. I pull the plug on the travers to Alpha. If I get that far, and tomorrow is worse. I’ve got to come back. The mountain shelter of Kime Hut as a return point is still possible. About a kilometre away I cut my losses. The visibility has dropped. The snow is blasting directly into my face. The sooner I turn around, the closer Field Hut is. I tell myself I can gather more firewood, keep myself warm. A comment in the intentions book suggests the fire is high maintenance. Perhaps someone should clean the chimney. I find the only reason the fire needs any attention is because all of the wood is damp. Getting the fire started, keeping it going requires patience. The fire takes the tiniest slice off the edge of the hut’s chill. There simply isn’t enough wood. As a solo occupant I already feel guilty in burning any, but I’ve justified this use by gathering more. I chop a pile and bring it inside for the next guest in the hope it might be drier, easier to burn. I cook my socks on top of the fire. I’m beginning to wonder if I need to replace my hiking boots. Less than a year old. They cost too much money, as seemingly all outdoor gear does. The soles are rubbish. They’re taking on way too much water even when I’m not knee deep in a river. But do I really need new ones or do I just want them? They’ll still be cold and wet in the morning. An early dinner is followed by a hasty retreat into my sleeping bag. I wrap a pair of leggings around my feet to keep them warm. Spring has reached the coast. Winter still holds the mountains.

I do not want to get out of my sleeping bag. I don’t have to either. No commitments. Nothing to be back for. Into what will hopefully be the last few weeks of total freedom. Belly and bladder override brain. I have to get up. Field Hut has lost none of it’s chill in the night.  There’s condensation on the outside of my sleeping bag. I notice the damp as I squeeze it back into the stuff sack. That had better not become an issue down the line. Wishing I could hold a cup of tea with my feet. Cold toes into cold socks into wet boots is not an award winning combination. At least today I only have a short trip downhill to Parawhai Lodge. I could go all the way out to the van but there’s no need. I’d told Jason I’d be out by Wednesday of everything went to plan. It hasn’t, but I can still take it easy. Maintaining my “I’m on holiday” attitude, I leave the hut after 10am. I know where I’m going, what to expect of the track. A lesser considered benefit of going back the way you came. I let my train of thought run down any track. Anxieties over the Great Big Walk. Thoughts of one day returning home. The big, repeating one; did I turn around too soon yesterday? No way to know Forget about it. On one hand I want to push myself, the other knows I need to ease myself back in gently. There’s been one day since I left Napier where I haven’t had my pack on. I’ll need to take another rest day soon. I’m doing alright, having a good time. The steady descent through the bush is comfortable. I’m not in a race with myself. It will take as long as it takes, which really is no time at all. I take the long arm of the loop around to Parawai Lodge. Somewhere in the valley a dog is barking. I might have company tonight. I come out in a clearing and find the lodge. At the road end, near the campsite, across the river from the DOC Warden’s cottage. I had illusions of grandeur. Lodge does imply something a touch classier than a hut. I’m met with a shrink wrapping of spider’s web and a scattering of rat droppings. I find the lodge, like Field Hut is well ventilated without the need to open a door or window. No firewood. I could go all the way out in another three hours. I don’t. I sweep off the worktops, the bottom bunk platform. I brush all the shit out of the door. I spray down the surfaces. I take a swift look at the top bunks and decide that can be someone else’s problem. At least the “lodge” has an indoor sink. Although I notice the sign says ‘this water is not suitable for drinking” as opposed to the more relaxed “you may wish to treat it before drinking.” Out comes the filter. I flick through the intentions book looking for the mass of TA SOBO tags. People passing through from November to February. The majority in early December. I’ve no idea when they started but it’s a good estimate of when I can expect to be back this way. After I’ve had something to eat the DOC Warden comes through to check in on the place. “You’re a bit late, mate.” I say only to myself. I lounge on the deck, away from the smell of rat piss. The sun beats down here in this small meadow. The air is warm, gently stirred by the breeze. Yet 10 kilometres away snow and gales rage around the Tararaua tops. I’m left wondering if I’ve gone soft. In reality I’ve always been a fair weather hiker. At times I haven’t had a choice. Bowling through the rain to get to a campsite, marching up a wet hill to a hut. Only yesterday did I first encounter the mountain snowstorm. Nobody else turns up. The only company the scrabbling of rats in the roof.

The sun doesn’t arrive in the valley until just before 9am. Cold breath over the sink gives the illusion of hot water. I’ve abandoned all principles of “be bold start cold”. Starting in itself is challenging enough. At least I wasn’t disturbed in the night by rats. I stagger through the morning. Today will be another short one. A quick exit over the ridge back to the van. How did I used to get up at 6am doing this? On the trail by 8am. Those days weren’t even a year ago. At 10am, still wearing my fleece, still wearing my beanie I start walking. I’ll shed the layers when I hit the roped uphill section of the emergency access track. It doesn’t take long to reach the climb. In even less time I’m sweating. This is good though. Wandering through the bush. Nothing to do but get from A to B. No worries, apaprt from will the van still be where I left it, with all the windows intact? I emerge from the natives on to the dirt road separating the good from the pines. A few people are coming out from the other side. “is that all of you?” I ask, waiting for them to finish the climb. “No,” one of them tells me, “there’s 29 of us.” In that case I’ll start making my way down, pausing on corners to let those come up. Hikers coming up hill have the right of way. “Much easier the way you’re going,” one of them tells me. For once I think I agree, but I’m used to running about on the pine blocks. I’m back on the closed gorge road before lunch time. The van is exactly where I left it, including all of the windows. It is nice to see it, always waiting, always ready to carry me towards my next adventure. I’ll be glad when it’s gone though, I won’t have to worry about where it is, or about getting rid of it.

I climb in to the front seat and pull away. 20 minutes later I’m back in almost civilised Otaki. Checking the Covid numbers, catching up on anything I’ve missed. From here I can look back where I’ve been. Snow crusted mountains still poking the bellies of fat white clouds. When I arrived in New Zealand I wouldn’t have dared go so deep, so high in the Tararuas. I’d have at least waited for a good weather window. There’s no time now and to some extent, there’s no need. It will be what it will be. Then it’s on again. Driving down State Highway 1. Time for a day off, a rest before heading around the corner to go back in again. The coastal drive South towards Wellington is spectacular. Kapiti Island floats alongside. The road hangs to the base of Paekakariki Hill, barely beyond the reach of the breaking waves. Ahead the dark blue puzzle pieces of the Marlborough Sounds rise out of the Cook Straight. I stop for the day at Ngati Toa Domain, overlooking Porirua Harbour. The calm afternoon invites kayakers and paddle boarders on to the water. As the wind picks up a kitesurfer enters the waves. The coast is warming up, unlike the mountains.

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