6 consecutive days in the bush have come at a price. Some things are cheap, better food, more to drink, hot water. New boots are going to cost somewhat more. The mental toll of doing research seems pointless. I’m going to be restricted to whatever the outdoor stores have both in stock and in my size. At least now I have some idea of what I want, still closer to boots than to running shoes or trainers. The brand that seems to score highest today is Salomon. A quick glance online suggests I might be in luck at any of the major retailers in Palmerston North. On brand at least, if not the exact boot. One problem is solved, but the problem still remains. I can’t go hiking until I have new boots. I’ve had a full day of rest. I’m fed, watered and washed. My clothes are clean. The weight hanging in my legs will ease. Tomorrow, I have to buy a new pair for this adventure to keep on rolling. Another trip to Palmy it is.
Living remains easy. I managed to get the plan for the Whanganui River Journey moving forward. Let down, as is increasingly the case, by the Department of Conservation website. Whichever director decided that having two different log-ins is in serious need of a performance review. Whanganui River Canoes have come back to me to advise the section of river from Cherry Grove to Ohinepane will be intense and requires us to be confident, competent canoeists. I would describe myself as a confident kayaker, lacking in the competence department. Iain seems to be confident enough for the both of us. I give him explicit permission to shout at me to make sure I do the right thing to keep us afloat. Not that I’m all that worried about getting wet. A capsize always makes a better story. I harbour my own suspicions the first day will probably be the most fun in terms of water. Still a few things left to sort. The time draws closer. The road of freedom is coming to an end. Only two more weeks. Will I get as far as Taupo? Rangiwahia, Iron Gate and Howlett’s Hut along with the Te Puia Hot Springs remain on my to-do list. Those two weeks will be gone in no time. Today is Monday, by the time I’ve knocked out two trips in the Western Ruahines it will be Friday. Another week down. I look back at my short to-do list. Taupo is a 500km round trip, for what? A lake I’ve seen before. Easy to cross out. It means missing the tramp in to the Te Puia Hot Springs. If I had really wanted to go, I’d have gone there first when I finished up at work. Things have changed somewhat since then. The need to go North has been removed. What remains? A return trip to Howlett’s Hut on the other side of the Ruahines. If the weather allows I might even have a crack at the Dundas Loop in the Northern Tararuas. Everything now is reliant on the weather. Will it be fair? Will it be safe? Amongst all that I still need to get my second Covid-19 vaccination. Hard to believe this leg of the adventure is almost over. I catch a whiff of sadness. Will I ever have this much freedom again? Will I ever have it this good again? No way to know. All I can do is keep pursuing that dream. I load up the van, leave half a block of cheese in a camp kitchen fridge because I am an idiot and drive over to Palmerston North, again.
I park outside the city centre, proud of how little I’ve spent on parking over these past 18 months. I get half way to Bivouac Outdoor when one of the straps on my disposable masks snaps. Back to the van for another one. In store they don’t have what I’m looking for, which is a shame because the staff are always so helpful and enthusiastic. I head for Macpac, where the man behind the counter tells me to try Bivouac so I go next door to Kathmandu. On the shoe rack half way down the store I find them. The Salomon X Ultra 4s. A woman is trying them on, the member of staff assisting her notices me and asks if I need help. The two of us rotate through various sizes of the men’s and the women’s, hopeful that we don’t both end up wanting the same pair. In the end I leave with the women’s 7.5 and she leaves with the men’s 8. I can’t help but wonder why hiking boots are gendered. One stye, one colour, available in all the sizes. Not that it really matters now. I’ve got what I came for. Already I’m reluctant to take them outside. Right now they are clean and beautiful. After their first outing they’re going to be trashed. I stock up on food, realise I’ve spent far too much money and head for a freedom camping spot towards Ranigwahia. I park up in London Ford Reserve and pack my bag. From the pines I can hear the buzz of saw followed by the crash of tree. As the day draws on showers drum across the van. This could easily be one of the last times I sit and watch water run down the back window. This might even end up being my last night freedom camping in the van. Will I be lying if I tell myself I’ll get up and go in the morning?
I’m moving early, close to an impression of someone who does in fact get up and go. The road rides along the crest of a hill. At some point the land started getting choppy again, rising and falling like a child’s drawing of the sea. I keep one anxious eye on the fuel gauge as it slips beneath the 1/4 mark. I suspect I’ve got a few more hills to drive up yet. The Renfrew Road Car Park must be sitting at around 800 meters. Having done most of my packing last night, I’m impressed with how much faffing I manage to do in the car park. Still, I’m in my new boots and on the trail before 10am, which is pretty good considering I had to drive here. I’ve added the final piece of major kit to my pack; the tent. I’ve got 5 days of food. Seems like overkill for what will only be one night away from the van but I have to find out how much, and where it hurts. The initial climb lights a fire in my calves which rapidly spreads up to my face. Sweat is instantly dripping off the end of my nose. My glasses fog. I stop at every orange triangle to catch my breath. Even standing still my legs are screaming. I’m thankful it isn’t my knees but I’m not going to get very far like this. I’ve only been walking for 10 minutes. Experience tells me the first half an hour is about settling in, warming up. Keep moving forward. It doesn’t matter how many times I have to stop so long as I’m going up. Eventually the track will soften.
The steep climb gives way to the broad, rounded top of the spur. Everything becomes easier. I stop sweating. My calves cool down. There’s no bush cover. The track is immediately exposed. I must have already cleared the tree line. Behind me there are a handful of what I think are mountain cedar, pāhautea, rising above the scrub. The sun breaks out of the clouds and I can see the poles marking the way ahead through the tussock. A brown shadow marks the cut of the track. After the hard work of the Tararuas, this feels easy. I’m cruising along with the wind at my back. The wind isn’t anywhere near as strong as it has been. That’s not to say it’s a pleasant or gentle breeze. The gusts cuts straight through my fingers. My gloves are in the top of my pack but I’m already thinking about new ones. Smaller, lighter, perfect for time spent above the bush line in the wind. Those same gusts drive the clouds up the valleys on either side, obscuring the opposing ridges. In seconds all visibility has gone. I can see maybe two, or three poles ahead before the world disappears into a wall of white. To some extent, I consider this to be helpful. I can’t yet see if the way ahead is going to be scary. Somewhere beyond the veil, I’m expecting jagged peaks, pockets of snow, black slips and steep drops. While I can’t see any of it, my focus narrows to the next step, taking me to the next pole.
The forecast occasional fine breaks do come. The clouds swirl over the ridge climb towards the high point of Mangahuia. The things I was worried about suddenly appear. There’s a serious drop to the Oroua River valley on my right. I feel the fear rise. I’m now wondering if that day on the Robert Ridge has had a lasting impact. I swallow down the discomfort. You’ve done worse than this before. Don’t think about what the Earth is up to. Think about what you have to do next. One step, two step. Get to the next pole. Keep on climbing. The fear subsides. Between the mountains and the clouds, a tiny strip of blue sky teases over Hawkes Bay. Must be getting hot over there. At the top I stop and circle. Ahead, higher still, mountains are etched with snow. Round, green filled valleys lined with tumbling streams. Behind, rolling flats of yellow tussock. I’m surprised to learn I’m now 10 meters higher than the summit of Mitre Peak. Obviously, not all mountains look the same. Along the track I spot two deer. They must have seen me first. They look on high alert, frozen still. It takes a second for me to recognise what they are. Sign posts. One points down into the valley towards Triangle Hut. Somewhere I could go, if I didn’t have to go back to the van. The other points down the next spur, towards Rangiwahia Hut, and the car park beyond. The deep cut track up here is a trench filled with snow. I walk along either side. Smiling now. This was easy. Way easier than I thought it was going to be back when my calves were burning. I’m pumping through the tussock. The track becomes wider, gravelled, a path. A bench appears, which is odd but not as odd as the shed painted with Kereru. Another delayed response. Oh. I’ve arrived at the hut.
For the first time in a long time I turn up completely dry, socks and all. I don’t want to give the Salomon X Ultras too much credit. I haven’t had to cross a single stream. The deck of Rangiwahia Hut is lined with skis, a nod to its history. The place is empty. The painted shed turns out to be the wood store, full of chopped logs. Maybe this is what a serviced hut is supposed to be like after all. A couple arrive not long after me, only they’re not a couple, they really are brother and sister. This probably explains why I found them a bit odd. At one stage in the afternoon I was juggling two conversations that I thought was one. She’s talking to me about her son, he’s talking to me about any possible tangent he can latch on to that isn’t her son. That’s us for the night. At almost the exact same time as me, my fellow occupant thinks about putting the fire on. I disappear outside to the woodshed to start scraping together some kindling, he comes out behind me and carries bigger blocks of wood down. I take a back seat and let him get the place warm. I don’t sleep well, which I decide is down to fuel gauge anxiety. I hastily throw together a detour plan; out to the fuel pumps at Mangaweka and back. I have to go back to the van anyway before moving on.
I hit my 8am departure target and begin descending the superb Ranigwahia Track. Anything with a serviced hut at the end of it is usually a dream to walk on. There’s gravel underfoot. Steep sections are stepped. The path switchbacks, descending steadily into the valley. Out in the clouds a bright white formation of stones and towers appears. Only when I’m thinking about the saying that ends in due for shower do I realise it isn’t a cloud at all. I’m looking at the broken snow topped crags of Ruapehu. Next to it, the still whole slopes of Ngaruhoe’s cone. The central plateau never far away. As the path continues down, I start wondering where The Bridge is. I know there’s a bridge coming because it features on everyone’s Instagram who’s been here before me. The broad wooden arch spans the tree lined gorge. I cross over, climb up and look back. There it is. Now everyone else will know I’ve been here too. I follow the minor detour past the unstable slip, which is a lot less fun than an unstable cliff. I don’t know anyone called Slip. I don’t know anyone called Cliff either but I feel my chances of changing that are higher. Even the detour is in better condition than most of the tracks I’ve walked in the Tararuas. I continue winding down for about an hour before popping out at the car park.
The return trip to Mangaweka is uneventful. The fuel light never comes on. I probably could have made it further. I enjoy the quiet drive along the Manuwatu Scenic Route. The limestone looking gorge here has crumbled across the side of the road. Another one that won’t last forever. I pull in to the Peterson’s Road End at 11am. I top up my water bottle and throw my pack back on, setting out for Iron Gate Hut. I could have stayed on the trail, dropping down in to the valley and walking here. Then I’d have had two options; walk back the way I’d come or walk out to the road and find myself 30km away from the van. The huts are closer together than the distance by road, but moving the van was easier. I know I could have gone further, crossing the main range and come out on Kashmir Road. My likely next and final stop in these mountains. The problem has always been how to get back to the van. Last year I had the funds for shuttles and scenic flights. This year I don’t. I could have gone there and come back, but that would have required two good weather days in a row which remains too much to ask for. In this regard I’m begining to get excited about what comes next. When I start walking Te Araroa I won’t have to worry about the van. I will keep walking. For now, I follow the old logging road in to the Oroua River Valley.
The Alice Nash Memorial Lodge comes up fast. I had thought about a night here, adding another hut to my bag but it’s too early. It will be too early when I come back tomorrow. Beyond, the track is less flat and wide but still easier than I was expecting. Close to a meter wide, well formed, not many tree roots. A volunteer group must come in fairly regularly to manage the trap line here. Even the drop into the first side stream contours back and forth. I find my new boots have reasonable traction on wet stone. A great success. Until I reach the second stream. Rock hopping is only as good as the rocks available to hop on. Half way across I’ve no choice. Once the water comes over the tops I’d be no worse off going barefoot. Considering the regular rises and falls, the track dropping down to kiss a corner of the river, the journey in is comfortable. My knees groan a touch, which is fair. They’ve done a good job over the last two days. The red roof of Iron Gate Hut appears in a clearing. The hut looks brand new, which might make it at least 10 years old. Some vile creature has left a huge turd on the sink top. To be fair, the hut toilet is miles away and I suspect whatever left it there is unfamiliar with toilets anyway. There’s deep plunge pools in the river below. I insist it is still too cold for a dip. Maybe that’s why I’ve been struggling to sleep. Too much sweat and grime, not enough personal hygiene. There’s a good quantity of firewood in the woodshed but it’s damp. I bring some inside, gather what I hope will be enough kindling to get something going. Then I settle in for a quiet night, likely on my own. An old man with a rifle trots in close to sunset, unpacks his bed and wanders down to the river for a wash. I begin to wonder just how disgusting I am.
Old mate and his gun reckons the weather is going to improve today, and better again tomorrow. His alarm went off at 5am. I’m not mad, it gives me the chance to really get up and go. I’m on the track at 7am with one goal. Get out as fast as I got in. I’ve seen the scenes. I can keep my phone in my pocket. The first target is where the track hits the river, around the half way mark. I listen to the flow of the water. It carries my thoughts and I let them run. The track requires less attention. I get my dry again boots wet. I hit the corner right when I want to. Then I stop. Something breaks the chatter of the river. The unmistakeable sound of an airbed being inflated with a foot pump; the whistle of whio. They might have flown on by the time I get a clear view of the river. Black as the wet boulders they live among, the movement of their white-blue beak gives their position away. I watch them feed in the white water for a while before the trail beckons me on. I make the last serious climb out of the first side stream. The end wall of the Alice Nash Memorial Lodge comes next. Then a bridge. Then the march up the old logging road. Last comes the van. I throw my pack in, toss my poles in the pack, jump in the front and hit the road. This is the last time I’ll make a ridiculous decision to drive close to 200km in a day to get to a hut I was less than 20km from only hours ago. I set the sat-nav, put on the Neon Handshake and drive the straight line road through farmland. I put my foot down and belt my heart out to one of the best albums of 2003. I will miss this. The long empty roads, covering big distances in no time. I push through the Saddle Road between the Ruahines and the Tararuas. I make my way towards Kashmir Road. The Department of Conservation website recommends a 4 wheel drive. I’ve been told you can get to one of the carparks comfortably with two. The first steep section has me drop in to second gear manually for the first time ever. There’s a single slip, a moment of panic where it might have all gone wrong and then the van makes the crest. Easy. Worse is turning around in the “car park” which is a wide corner of an old farm track. Nobody else is here though, so I can afford to make an absolute mess of it. I had planned to head directly for Howlett’s Hut but it’s later than I’d expected and the weather has shown no signs of improving. If anything it’s worse. Longview Hut is closer to the road end.
I throw more food in my pack and begin walking further along Kashmir Road. The final steep climb leaves me questioning whether the van would have made it to the top car park. Fortunately I don’t have to find out. I pass two white utes, one branded with the yellow and greed of DOC and I disappear in to the clouds. The track that climbs the rest of the way to Longview Hut is in a better state than the road. There is absolutely no view, not now, not ever. The tussock is soaking wet, my boots seem to be faring slightly worse. The right distinctly uncomfortable, too large maybe? Too late now. A second pair of socks will wind up cheaper. The elasticated chord through my pack’s rain cover snaps. Caught on a branch, old and tired. Another item goes on the list of things I should probably replace. I tuck it in where I can and commit to worrying about it later. The hut comes fast. I can’t see smoke but I can hardly see the walls of the hut. The windows are dripping. There’s a head in the window. I poke mine inside the door. There’s a crowd in fluorescent orange. Three DOC rangers and three dairy farmers out for a hunt. Only just half full but it feels like there’s no room at all. I find space for my wet socks, slide my boots in close to the fire which is burning. I take a seat at the table and find out what I’m in for. One of the DOC rangers, Ed, is looking at a website for a brothel in Palmerston North. The other 5 take turns through out the evening to check for themselves in between conversations about strip clubs and Thailand. The lads, lads, lads environment is forgiven when Ed offers me some of his dinner. He’s carried in a twin pack of duck breasts and serves me up a half with some mash and pears. With 7 of us in and the fire pumping Longview Hut gets hot, too hot. A few minutes with both doors open gives us some fresh air and a better temperature when considering bed time. Before bed Ed tells us all of Dave’s legendary snoring. Stu, the third ranger, has carried not just ear plugs but a pair of ear muffs as well. I take a top bunk, hoping distance will save me. The hunting party then confess to also being snorers and sleep talkers. I then admit I’m also prone to a bit of chat in the night. For anyone to stand a chance they’ve got to be first asleep. After further laughter regarding the “menu” on the website, there comes a silent race to be the first to fall asleep.
In the morning one of the hunters and I learn we were the winners. We commented on how quiet the night was considering the warnings. The story everyone else tells is significantly louder. I wonder if my problem isn’t sleeping after all, but waking. I might still be operating on planting time. Awake at 4am like it’s the most natural thing in the world. The DOC rangers are up and gone early. Once they’ve left the rest of us wonder if they actually did any work while they were up here. Not long after the hunting party decide they’re bailing. The weather still hasn’t improved. To help reduce their pack weight for the short walk back to the car park I’m more than happy to help out with the eggs, bacon and sausages they offer up. As they leave I ask if they’d let me know next time they’re heading out, I’ll be happy to help keep their packs light. Alone in the hut I look at the Met Service which shows fine weather. I look out the window and see wind and rain. Sitting in the hut I wait in the hope the weather lifts in the afternoon. Out of nowhere my phone begins to wail. My first thought is the worst, an incoming lockdown announcement. The chimney begins to shake, then the entire hut begins to wobble. A first earthquake outside. The world steadies once more. The alarm was warning me of the incoming quake. First time that’s happened. I start to wonder if I might have to follow everyone else out. The journey across the tops to Howlett’s Hut isn’t long so I’ve got some time to play with. After almost five hours of waiting the clag finally begins to break up and I make final preparations to move. By the time I’m kitted out the clouds have come back in again but now I’m ready. I might as well get on with it.
Ed had warned me parts of the trail are overgrown. “Waist high?” I asked. “More like shoulder,” he said. With this in mind, I layer up. Wrapping myself in the plastic of waterproof jacket and trousers. Despite the poor looking weather, the mountain side is a long way from cold. It doesn’t take me long to pack away much of what I’d put on. The first ascent up to Otumore is measured by each pole reached. The tussock is high and wet but not so bad. I tell myself it will get worse than this The trail is muddy, deep ools filled with brown water. I reach the first peak having seen nothing. There’s a junction here. One sign points my way, the other towards the 4 hours from here Iron Gate Hut. I stay on course, moving along the ridge, going pole to pole. I feel trapped in a grey bubble. The visibility isn’t bad but it’s a long way from good. I’m reminded of old video games where the background loads as you move. There are times when I can’t see the next pole. A few steps forwards and the black line renders from the fog. The poles up hill, on ridge tops are much easier to spot than the ones flat against the background. Halfway along the ridge the curtain of cloud parts. Blue sky appears. I can see down the nearest slope into the valley. As soon as it’s come, the view is gone. Clouds flow in to refill the scene.
The scimitar wings of a karearea cuts the sky apart, soaring out of the valley. I can see! The tops, slips and sharp lines are all suddenly visible. On the far valley wall bright light dances across falling water. By the time I’ve crossed the drop of the saddle and climbed up to the other side the show is over. I’m back to seeking out the next pole. The climb to Taumatatua is slow but once I’m there I know I’m on Daphne Ridge. I know I’m getting closer to Howlett’s Hut. No more ups and downs. At last I come to the forewarned overgrowth. The tussock at times, over my head. The actual height of the plants leaning over the trail isn’t the problem. Not for me anyway. What I don’t like is that I can’t see the track. I’m prodding and poking ahead with a pole because I know at some point it’s going to drop in to a foot carved ravine. I’d like to know about it before I fall in. Despite all this the track is still easy to follow. It often feels like there’s only one place it can go. The clouds lift again to reveal deeper still valleys, higher yet mountains. Channels of snow lay in the shadows. I smile, pleased to have seen them, knowing I’ll never see them again. I pass the final sign post and find Howlett’s Hut. A bright orange roof over navy blue walls. I fall only a little bit in love. It would look even better if the clouds would lift once more. I duck inside. I’ve not been on my feet for long but a morning spent waiting makes the day late. The coal fire uses all of my skill to get roaring, which consists of putting more flammable stuff on and blowing. I’m running low on gas so I’m hoping to pre-heat my water on the burner. Howlett’s Hut stays quiet, which after the ruckus of last night is more than welcome.
The sky burns orange through the window. All the incentive I need to get up. First light hits the snow on the mountains. The clouds glow golden yellow in the valley below and for the first time this week I can truly see everything. Howlett’s Hut at dawn is postcard perfect. I want so much to have one more day. I’m out of snacks, of lunch and so nearly out of gas. I have to stick to the plan and hike back to the van. I pack away on the hut deck in the morning sun. I set off down Daphne Spur, where I’m able to view the entire ridge I walked yesterday. I can’t decide if I got my days wrong or if I got everything exactly right. Having spent days up in the cloud it feel strange to be above them. As I reach the bush line, I reach the clouds. The sun breaks into misty shafts where it enters the forest. I don’t remember seeing it like this before. I break through single strands of spider’s web. The day has had a near perfect start.
I emerge from the bush on the true right of the Tukituki River. A short way upstream lies the a-frame of Daphne Hut. I have no reason to visit. My way out is downstream. I follow the river through the gorge like valley. I remember to put my phone somewhere higher than my waist before I cross for the first time. When it is a necessity I’ve no problem plunging thigh deep in to the cold waters of a river. I know my way out of the river comes after a tributary. This doesn’t prevent me from doubting myself. I double check I haven’t gone too far despite not yet having seen another stream. By now I could really use a little more faith in my abilities. I sniff out trails over spurs, cutting corners. I look for shallower waters to cross, avoiding the deep pools. Surer footed, I feel much more comfortable when the water tugs on my legs. I hit the stream, spot the orange triangle and climb once more to beyond 1000 meters. I’m beginning to feel the strain in my legs. They’re ready for a day off. From the last high point it’s an easy descent through the regenerating bush at the edge of the Ruahine Forest Park. There’s one more stream to cross before I reach the van. I unload, get in and start the drive out. Kashmir Road is made all the worse by oncoming traffic. By now it’s the weekend and today the weather is beautiful. I get back to more civilised roads and head towards Dannevirke where I know there’s a shower so powerful it will take the top layer of skin clean off.