An overcast, dry day in Palmerston North offers much relief from the unrelenting sun. Walking into town without weight feels like flying. I have to replace my Buff, buy some dehydrated meals, get a new gas canister. I need to do a full resupply at the supermarket. I’d also like some treats. I head over to Cyclista on George Street for a coffee and a bagel. It’s too early for lunch, which means it’s too early for beer so I pass up on the opportunity to goto Brew Union. I don’t want to hang around as the gang of Te Araroa paddlers off of the Whanganui River are coming in today. I want to have a shower, do my laundry and get sorted before they arrive. Ant and Fiona are out somewhere in the Ruahines, re-calibrating their trap lines. Their parting words to me were “You’re in charge.” Brian and Lisa turn up first, then Debbie and Jackie arrive. They get settled, we do a bit of a tour. Then we play catch up. They camped overnight at Hiponga Park, paddling into a serious head wind the day I rested in Whanganui. They didn’t cross the Turakina River on the way in to Koitiata, instead sticking on the highway and coming down the roads. They told me they walked down the railway line instead of taking the overgrown route across the brown stream. “There was a comment on Far Out,” Lisa told me. “What is Far Out?” I ask. There’s another trail app, one popular with the Americans. I make a note to download when I next have WiFi. They ask if I have plans for dinner, I don’t. Lisa does some research and we end up with a plan to go to Brew Union for dinner. Result. I learn that Brian has walked the South Island before. He’s back to do the whole thing, in its purest form. Debbie and Jackie were fed up with work and decided it was time to do something else. Lisa has been wanting to do a thru-hike for some time, maybe the Pacific Crest or the Appalachian Trail. Stuck in New Zealand, why not Te Araroa? Why not indeed. Here together I wonder if these people will be my trail family. Leap-frogging one another, meeting at the end of days. After a good meal and an alcoholic beverage it may as well be midnight. When we get back, another walker; Paula, has walked in from Bulls. That’s a 10 hour plus day at some pace. Impressive.
In the morning everyone moves as one. All on the same timeline. The four from the river are taking a rest day. I’m getting ready for another big one. Paula wants to come with me so I wait. “Have I got time for a cup of tea?” “You are English aren’t you.” She says. “Yes, you’ve got time.” I ask one of the others if I can bum a tea bag. My pack is ready to go. Debbie mentions she’s picked up two sets of tea and milk powder. Mine weren’t on the table, so I assumed I’d packed them. I haven’t. Crisis averted. I sit and drink the cup of tea, ready and waiting. Then I watch as Paula loads up. “I can’t lift my pack,” she explains. She crawls into the straps from a seating position. Looking more like she’s had a fall than about to get up. She edges around onto her knees and pushes up, ready to go. I pull my pack up on to my thigh and swing it on to my shoulders. I was anxious Paula would be fast but she’s not. Then I’m worried we’re not going to move fast enough. It doesn’t matter, the Moturimu Shelter will be there when we get there. We walk the right bank of the Manuwatu River down to the new footbridge. On the far side, deep in conversation we don’t stop to check and go 2km the wrong way and have to double back. Time we’ll pay for later. A late start hasn’t helped either. The weather is fine, no sign of rain yet. We keep moving.
Paula keeps me entertained with stories. She was working in Bivouac Outdoor in Tauranga to save money for the trip. She also learned a lot about outdoor gear and got a tidy staff discount. We have a lot of chat about gear, from sleeping systems to waterproof trousers. “This is my first time tramping since I was 15,” she tells me. Not that it really matters, having been serious about mountain biking, kayaking and ultra running at various points her base fitness has to be higher than mine. We pass through Massey University and follow the Turitea Stream towards the foothills of the Tararuas. I ask about luxury items and she tells me about this book she’s reading about a donkey. I get a full account of the plot to the point where she is. She veers of on a tangent about a trip she took to Colorado to mountain bike and then comes back to the book. I laughed, I’d become so absorbed in the mountain bike story I’d forgotten about the book. We follow a farm track. I stop and look back. The blades of the wind turbines shining white against grey clouds over blue sky. Monochrome grass and pine rolls towards us. The pink cups of a foxglove hang empty towards the ground.
We reach Kahuterawa Reserve. Camping is permitted here. I’m surprised I’ve never seen it on any of my apps. It’s fast approaching 5pm. I still want to push on to the Moturimu Shelter. “We could do dinner on the way and then keep moving,” I suggest. “My food is at the bottom of my pack,” Paula counters. We do keep moving. The incoming heavy rain, the possibility of making the river crossings early. The closer we are the more chance we’ll have drives us on. We reach the end of the road, a car park for a Mountain Bike Park. Close to 7pm. Still two hours to go. I take my pack off to refill with water. Walking along I feel like an astronaut. Weightless in space. Paula and I check again with each other. Do we keep going? Yes. In the mountain bike park are the first signs of native bush. Green walls of ferns rising around a bubbling stream. At last I think, at last. We climb considerably.Mist descends. Clouds swirl. We leave the mountain bike park and return to pasture and pine trees. I take my glasses off, my sunhat off. I pull my rain cover over my pack. We reach a bridge with a gate and have to go over a style in order to get around the gate. The darkness is increasing so we fetch out our torches. In the circle of white light the beads of rain race past like hyperspace stars. A white shadow emerges from the trees. The sloped roof of Moturimu Shelter. Finally. I head down to the stream to fill my bottles, the water flicks by in stop motion. Once we’ve eaten dinner and gotten into bed it’s closer to midnight than to bed time.
Paula and I both start moving at 5am. The plan is to get across the Tokomaru River before the levels are too high. Rain taps on the plastic roof of the shelter. First time I’ve heard it over the static of the nearby stream. Water has likely been falling from the sky all night. We eat breakfast, have coffee and get moving. Wrapped in waterproofs the first hill proves too hot but the rain continues to fall. I find I’m waiting for Paula at hill crests. I’d like to be moving faster. Rivers rising all the time. The forestry road makes for easy travel. Burton’s Track turns into the bush. A trail of mud and puddles. Hairline roots. The first tramping track of my Te Araroa journey. Again I find I’m moving ahead, speeding along, feeling comfortable. I pause and wait for Paula. We trot down hill. “I can hear a river,” Paula says. The descent to the banks takes some time still. The orange arrow points out of the trees, along the river’s edge.
The water is brown-clear, not discoloured. There’s no debris in the flow. I can’t hear boulders moving across the bottom. The current is flowing faster than walking pace. The first stream is definitely shallow until halfway. I go first out on to a rock shelf. The first step into the depths is good, I find a strong foot placement. The second leg is caught by the river. Off balanced. A second in which I see myself swept downstream. I feel another rock and hold firm. By now I’m waist deep. The bottom of my pack dipping into the river. I move back a step and decide to try again. Knowing what to expect I make smaller movements, the river unable to push me out of the way. I haul myself across into the shallows. Paula decides to cross further up where it is obviously more shallow. She gets across a little easier but is caught out by the steep bank. I move through the track to see if I can help. Her poles are up on the flat and she’s scrambling up, pack still on. We have a debrief. Hard to know if it was the right decision to cross when you’re over, upright and still dry. There’s another few streams on the way, none more than ankle deep we easily pass over. The next crossing requires more thought. There’s enough of a gravel island to make half way in relative ease. I start making my way across the current. I can feel it pulling. Strong legs. Slow movements. I pause. Doubt presses play. Are we out of our depth? Is this safe? I can still turn back. The next step is shallower and I move to the island. Paula follows me. Poles rattling in the river. Her steps are wide. I can see the river making her work, pushing her feet where she doesn’t want to put them. I’m not even sure if I can help from here. She makes it to the island. The second half is far easier. Shallower, slower. We step up the bank, across another. We both hope that’s us for the day and continue along the track up the river.
Our hopes drains. The big orange triangle is on the opposite bank. The river has already spread into a side channel. I push a pole down and find the bottom almost a full length away. I wade across to the new island and test the water on the far side. Too deep. I look at the rapids. Too strong. I look back at Paula, already waist deep in the side channel. “I don’t think we can do this,” I shout over the river roar. She nods in agreement, turns back to the bank and climbs out. We pitch our tents. Paula’s tent goes up in seconds and she disappears inside. I’m already frustrated with Big Agnes. Inner first means everything is wet from the start. What’s the point? I get the fly on to prevent any more puddles forming. First I use my teatowel to mop up, soaking it through. It doesn’t dry fast either. A rethink required there. Then I use my towel towel which might dry out. The sleeping pad is plastic so I get that in first then sleeping bag and liner in on top. I fetch us more water from a stream tumbling down on to the track further on. Then I strip off my wet clothes, which will stay wet until the sun returns. The sodden wool of my merino underwear tears beneath my thumb. I’m glad I switched to my old pair in Palmerston North. Something else to add to the list. I crawl in to my sleeping bag and close my eyes.
The river pours over rocks as waves. Yellow-white foam sprays upwards. Rain patters down in relentless sheets. Gusts of wind push in a side of my tent. I manage to nap until my mouth dries out, by which time it’s also lunch time. I snack out the door on my usual. I start thinking about what I’m going to do when I have to pee. And I will have to pee. My wet clothes are wet. My dry clothes are still bagged away, hopefully dry. My waterproof has dried out. My towel is mostly dry. It won’t be pleasant but it will be better than not going. Getting out and in I have to be careful not to bring too much water back with me. I notice beneath the pad there was either more water than I moped up or it has begun to seep up through the floor. I wish for the rain to ease, for the river to drop. I really believed we’d make the crossings before they were too high. Yet, this is an experience I have longed for. How will you cope when it isn’t easy? When the world tells you no? By swearing and sleeping apparently. By evening the rain has retreated. The river level fallen. The forecast suggests the rain will hold off for 6, maybe 8 hours overnight. Hope returns.
From within the double wall of my tent the river sounds calmer, quieter. Light hasn’t yet arrived. The sky too dark to see the water. I start packing with the confidence of a man who thinks he is going somewhere today. I get up in the fading dark. Boulders that were waves yesterday are out of the flow. I can see the polished stones of the river bed. I go back to my tent and start packing away. When Paula gets up we go back to the river together. Grass that was flowing with the water is now floating in the air. “I think we’re going to be ok,” I say to Paula. We get our tents down, pull on yesterday’s wet clothes. The first pool, the remains of the side stream is easy. Cold but not too deep. From the island, the main channel looks shallow. The deepest point may well be the first step. Paula points out a rough wall below the water which carries us a little further out. There’s still power in the water but it’s nothing compared to what it was. I stride across and up the far bank, Paula follows. We’re across. We’re on easy street to Tokomaru Shelter, where I’d hoped to spend last night. On the way there we pass members of the Whanganui Tramping Club who stop to chat. “Have you seen the others?” They’re the first people we’ve seen in two days. The rest of the club are coming through from somewhere behind us.
As we gain on Tokomaru Shelter I find things are taking far longer than I’m comfortable with. I’d have expected to be there in an hour and a half. It’s been closer to three. I’m stopping to wait for Paula at the top of hills. I’m speeding off on the flats. This is easy walking, why aren’t we going faster? I start thinking about how to raise the issue with Paula. My frustration isn’t well hidden. “After the shelter,” Paula says to me “You should go.” “Are you sure?” I ask. I assumed she’d chosen to come with me was to have company though the Tararuas. “I’ll be fine,” she tells me. We take a break at the shelter and I take off down the old forestry road. I get stopped by a man in a Toyota Hiace. “Walking the TA are ya?” he asks. He tells me about his adventures on the South Island section. “The big issue,” he explains, “is the dehydration. How do you deal with that?” “Drink more water I guess?” He moves on. So do I, significantly slower. I come along the side of one of the many reservoirs. On the track ahead is a husky, loose and seemingly with no one around. She comes over to say hello. I’m cautious at first but she seems friendly. From above a man wave’s down to me. “Is she yours?” I ask. “Yep, do you want to come up and have a look at the dam info?” he asks back. He’s building a heritage site for the dam, showcasing the engineering, the conditions. “I hope people come out to see it,” I say. “I don’t care if they do, I’ve done it for me.” I respect his approach.
I turn off the gravel road on to the Mangahao Makahika Track. The sign says 6-7 hours. I take that as a challenge. Make the Blackball Stream in less than one. The shade of the bush makes the hill climb easier. Sheltered from the sun. The track is good. More a mud village fête than mud fest. Only once am I sucked knee deep into the quag. The mud opening up around my boots, trying to swallow them whole. Horowhenua Lookout takes longer. Never quite the next corner, the next hill. The view blocked mostly by the trees. A river of silver sways out to sea. From the second lookout I can see the end of Kapiti Island. I should be able to see it all the next time I reach a town. The downhill track is fun and fast. I’m pleased to be moving at my own pace again. I can hear the incoming roar of water. I look at the map, this first creek comes out of the hills. I gamble. Filling my water bottle and drinking without filtering. It tastes clean. I don’t evacuate my bowels immediately. There’s still time. I take great delight in following the tributaries of the Makahika Stream. Sometimes next to a stream, sometimes in a stream, often straight through. I come out in an obvious campsite and know I’m nearly done. I move through the tellytubby green hills of cleared pasture. A herd of cows move out of my way. I cross one more river. I’ve been so wet these past few days I don’t even notice my boots being refreshed.
The gravel road sweeps around to the Makahika Outdoor Pursuits Centre. There’s no obvious reception. A horde of teenagers run wild on the field below. An unspeakably beautiful girl pulls up in a van and asks if she can help. “I’d like to pitch my tent somewhere for the night please?” She points me back up the hill to a black shed. “Anywhere on the grass up there.” The sun is shining. I explode wet gear over the grass, over a wire fence. “Hello,” I hear from the other side of my tent. Only an hour after I arrived Paula’s rocked up. I wasn’t expecting her until after I’d fallen asleep. She takes up what space I left with her own damp gear. We talk about the importance of walking your own walk. The owner comes over with the weather forecast. Good tomorrow, slowly getting worse until Sunday when gales hit the tops. We should be clear by then. That’s better than I was expecting. A hot shower, a hot meal, a hot chocolate, then bed.
The 4:30am wake up returns to normal. I make the final deposit in the composting toilet, bringing the levels up to half way. I have to empty it. Take the lid off, carry the bucket around to the composting bin. I tie up the bags and throw the lot in. Then I have to find the new bamboo bags mentioned on the instructions. The closest I get is sugarcane, it will have to do. Bryan, who should be a day behind, comes striding past before we’ve dropped our tents. He’s keen to get ahead of the incoming weather. Aren’t we all? Paula takes off not long after. I’m in no rush. I’ve got an appointment with Iain at the Poads Road end. To my surprise he’s committed to coming in for the high peaks and huts through the Tararua Forest Park. Even with all this time I still end up rushing to get ready. Too long sitting around doing nothing. The sun is already hot. Liquid nitrogen clouds boil over the main range. I follow the re-routed arrows. Another change forced by a huge land slide. The grader and stream roller drivers wave me along the new road. I pause tot admire the Orthodox Chapel before turning into Poads Road. I reach the end before Iain arrives. A car approaches. Iain isn’t in it. A couple get out and come to look at the map. “Have you come out?” the man asks. “No, I’m waiting for a friend to go in.” A moment later he asks “Which hut did you come from?” How else to explain I haven’t gone in yet? Another car comes through, Iain giving me an enthusiastic wave from the passenger seat. Sick of my shit and yet here he is, back for more.
The couple head in first. We catch up with them on the edge of the bush. “Have you got a topo map there?” the man asks. After spending 10 minutes staring at the big map, they’re already lost. I point them in the right direction and we follow. I spend at least an hour excitedly telling Iain where I’ve been, what I’ve seen, who I’ve met. “Bryan and Paula are ahead of us, you’ll meet them later.” We roll along the Ohau Gorge until another huge slip. The diversion goes up. Straight up. We’re in proper tramping country now. At the end of the diversion, orange arrows point both up and down. We do have to go up. We start off that way until I remember we have to cross a bridge over the gorge before we ascend. We turn around before we’ve gone too far and pass the couple who also went the wrong way. The swing bridge makes short work of the river crossing. We flip around and find Bryan on a break. “Have you seen Paula?” he asks. “Nope.” She should be between us. Her name was in the intention book at the road end above mine. “She’s probably taken a wrong turn at the slip like us,” I say. “Or maybe she passed me when I did,” he confesses. We leave Bryan to begin the relentless grunt up Gable End Ridge. The high points keep coming. The trees open up. A view of the main range. “Holy fuck, oh wow.” I swear at the glorious mass of rugged terrain so rarely seen before me.
Iain decides its time for a break. He’s usually one for scouting out a log or a rock to sit on. He’s decided to slump down on the floor. Sucking on the tube of his water bladder it bubbles. “That’s the end of that.” We’ve still got a way to go to Te Matawai Hut. I check my own supply, relieved to find I filled both bottles with cold, fresh water in the morning. I pass Iain one of mine. We’re going to have to be careful from here. The promised mud fest comes and goes, sucking on our boots like a plug hole on the last of the bath water. After gaining close to 1000 meters, we have to give some up to Butcher Saddle. A 300 meter drop over the next kilometre just to go back up. I chatter away at Iain, hoping to distract him from his own suffering. Not enough water. Not mentally prepared for the big climb, and the unforgiving undulations that follow. He still hasn’t done any hill training. I make an absolute mockery of my map reading abilities by telling Iain either “it’s just over the next bump,” or “just around the next corner.” I suggest that I have a hut sense which starts tingling within a 500 meter radius of a hut. In this terrain that could easily be half an hour of walking still. By the end of the day we’re both struggling. Where is the hut? What’s that? A shaft of flax. The pitched roof of a mountain peak. Then the helipad comes. Then Te Matawai Hut. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so pleased to make it to see a hut, and it’s water tanks. A tap on the side reveals they’re full. I fill Iain up with electrolytes. While he rests I air out my tent. Bryan joins us not long after. “I’m going for a wash,” he declares. Boiling a pot of water, mixing with some cold. This is the first time it’s occurred to me I could literally heat water. I’ve got a pan, plenty of gas. But I’ve already got changed. A scream of joy later reveals Paula has finally joined us, having gone a long way the wrong way after the slip. That’s us for the night. Stuck to my own legs, stuck to the sleeping bag I dream of a pan of hot water, of soap. Of improving my basic personal hygiene in the outdoors.
Paula’s 4:30am alarm gains here no favour with anyone. Wake up when you wake up. Iain has carried in my Aeropress and proper fancy coffee. I think about keeping it until I have to wash up. Too much time. Paula sets off first, the Bryan. Iain and I do the hut chores and set out. The clouds set in overnight. Rain falls. There is no wind. I’m willing to sacrifice the view to get across the ranges. After an hour we catch and pass Paula. We spot Bryan up at Pukematawai before he sets off again. The ridge walking is a sequence of rises and falls. Knob after knob after knob. The mist traps us in a repetitive loop of tussock climbs along muddy tracks. There is absolutely nothing to distinguish each rise from the next. The lack of view helps to keep me focused on the trail. I spot the lumbering figure of Bryan in the veil of rain. Later his pink head bobbing above the scrub. We catch up at Dracophyllum Hut where we stop for lunch and a cup of tea. Some dickhead has left the tap open on the water tank so we pour out some of our own supply. After a rest I set off with too much excitement. Plunging knee deep into pools of mud. The suction threatens to topple me. I find solid ground with my other foot and haul out. I tell myself to calm down. This is how you make mistakes. I get better. Settle in to my rhythm. Accelerating up hill, talking all the time. Iain is impressed with my fitness. Things have changed since we first me almost a year ago. We drop in to some goblin forest. Layers of moss coated, water dripping gnarly trunks and branches disappearing in to the mist. I’m having a brilliant time. Almost a month spent in the Tararuas, some part of me is going to stay here forever. Iain’s less impressed. The day’s are longer than he’s used to. The terrain is tougher. The mountains do not make it easy. The trail markers remain a welcome sight. You’re on the right track, going the right way. Iain rescues a moth stuck in the moss. We see two giant earth worms, one black beetle. There is an ark of invertebrates out in the mist. The loose wheel squeak of the Titipounamu. A lone korimako chimes. There’s a final rise up to Nichols. Nearly there. In the drop beyond there’s a sign post. Nichols Hut. Some 9 hours later, we’ve made it. My excitement rises again and I cut my own track down to the hut. Falling over snow grass, tripping over leather wood. “What are you doing, boy?” Iain condemns me from behind and takes over. He leads us the final five minutes on to the hut deck.
Inside Nichols Hut are heaps of half empty gas canisters and some large pans. Time for a wash. Iain and I stand on the deck of the hut, bollock naked and tip saucepans of hot water over our disgusting, sweaty, stinking bodies. Dry clothes go on. A cup of tea goes in. The added comfort of being clean is extraordinary. Bryan arrives shortly thereafter and does exactly the same. It takes a while but Paula eventually joins us. She takes a bit of a beating on arrival regarding the following morning’s alarm. After we’ve moved on, she tells us she took a bit of a beating on the tops too. The Tararuas have a reputation for a reason. We’re all here. Safe. We’re all tucked in, a two thirds full hut of wet, smelly clothes. Right at the last, Bryan spots the opening. The clouds have lifted, parted. Revealing, for the briefest of moments parts of the Waiohine Valley and the Dundas Ridge. Does it get any better than this? There is no alarm in the morning. We don’t need one. I forgot I was on a top bunk. I woke up and sat up, straight into the hut ceiling. I lie back down again. I volunteered myself for coffee duty this morning. We’ve got a whole bag of grounds, no reason not to treat everyone. We’re all up and moving. On the same schedule. Going the same way. There’s a queue for the loo that would have a view were it not for all that cloud. Bryan’s out first, then Paula. I want to let her get a head start on us. We can give her some comfort in coming through behind.
Visibility is close to zero again. Locked in our grey bubble. After we return to the main ridge the wind hits us. No worse than we’ve handled before but a reminder. This isn’t a place to be in bad weather, no matter how prepared you are. We set a strong pace, with the intention of getting over Mount Crawford and below the bush line before the weather deteriorates further. I’m impressed to find Paula well along the ridge. “Do you want us to walk with you?” I ask. “No, I’m doing good. Go on, don’t get cold.” She’s well recovered from yesterday’s shock. She got through it and is stronger today. “You’ve got this,” I tell her as we pass by. We chomp through the trail, smash through the Mount Crawford ascent. The summit marked by a stick wrapped with a single strand of pink ribbon. “All downhill from here,” Iain advises, which is true if you don’t count the climbs to Junction, and then Shoulder Knob. We hit the tree line, finding shelter from the elements. A pack of trail runners come from below. “How’s the weather up there?” one asks. “Depends how you like it,” I reply. Iain asks them to keep an eye out for Paula. They’re running towards the main range, doing a marathon loop out of Otaki Forks. Nutters. We get stuck in to the descent. A 1000 meter drop across 4km sounds like it should be fairly unpleasant. There’s only one point at which we have to turn around and scramble down backwards. After that, the track is probably the best graded, well marked section I’ve seen in the Tararuas.
The far valley wall comes in. The sound of the river spreads. I can see water through the trees. The closer we get to the valley floor the steeper the descent becomes. We bottom out, cross the swing bridge over the Otaki River. A glance downstream is magnificent. Tannin browns. A spectrum of green. A faded old sign reads “New Hut 10 Mins.” Iain’s slowed right down. The trail starting to carve out a pound of his flesh. Then it comes, the mould green walls of Waitewaewae Hut. Bryan’s gear is already hung out to dry. He’s inside, along with this year’s trail celebrities. 7 year old Emily and her mother Victoria. As we undress and unpack Emily gives Iain and I 20 questions. “What’s your name?”, “How old are you?”, “What’s your favourite colour?” I sneak out for a wash. I learn fast. Bigger pans, more water, nobody else around makes for a more satisfying experience. Being cleaner is good enough. Back inside, Emily is mocking Iain for carrying more than two pairs of pants. The rest of us have already told him it’s a waste. One wet, one dry. Once you put dry clothes on out here, they’re wet. Now you’ve got to carry wet ones. Part of me, part of Bryan too has thought about pushing on. Parawai Lodge is only 10km away. The hut is nice, it’s warm, we’re dry. There is always tomorrow. No rush. Cards come out. Making the most of having time to spare. Emily draws me a picture of a house with me in. I’m in the bath, presumably because I smell. She asks me to keep it but tells me I can’t fold it. I tuck it away in the back cover of my journal. “What are you going to give me?” “Excuse me?” “$50?” “You can have it back.” I laugh. “$5?” “How about I draw you a picture tomorrow?” And that’s how I end up drawing a 7 year old girl a house with a bath and a four poster bed.
The same issues in the morning, only now there’s two more us going the same way, doing the same thing. I miss the group photo because it’s finally my time to use the toilet. Iain and I set out last. We pass Paula first. Pause to take off our rain jackets. We were getting wetter from the inside. The forecast might still be for rain but it’s been too many days since an update to really know anymore. We pass the girls shortly after. After this long I’m beginning to recognise the repetitive nature of bush walking. I could take another 3000 photos of trunks supporting ecosystems of their own and I would be no wiser. I keep my phone in my pocket. Seeing it with my eyes is more than enough. We climb along the side of Arapito Stream. When Iain and I met our fitness, experience was comparable. By now I’m pulling away. We come across wind fall where Iain lets out an exasperated sigh. “This,” he gestures, “is slowkums.” An obstacle for him, a puzzle to solve for me. I’m into it. Iain’s over it. The Tararuas make you earn the miles. We keep our conversation up. I drift in to chat about family. One of the things I’e most enjoyed about walking with Iain, is talking with Iain. A wise and interesting man. I note the bird song, the river song, the trees also, singing in the wind. The absolute lack of human incursion. Except us. Three orange triangles point us over the new trail. Making it perfectly clear. It isn’t always. We both miss markers obvious to the other. The Waitewaewae Sidle Track carries us to an old tramway. Wide, well graded. Iain steps up his pace, stretching out in the comfortable terrain. No longer held up by the mountains. From here out the trail is easy. A pole free contouring line. We take in a big slip. “Would you describe it as both mega and big time?” I ask. “I would,” he replies. From here we can see the corner of the pine plantation, hiding the emergency access track to Otaki Forks. A hunter, napping in the ferns, takes us by surprise. “There’s another bloke ahead of you,” he tells us. Bryan. “How far?” I ask. “Oh maybe 10 minutes,” he says. I start singing “we’re going on a Bryan hunt, we’re going to catch a big one, we’re not scared.” I’m in race mode. Get him. We hit the grass flats around the forks. Everything on view. Of course, that’s where we lose the trail. The obvious route is to following the curve of the river. That isn’t the Te Araroa. I make Iain turn around. We start climbing the track up to Field Hut, which isn’t right either. A tiny animal trail cuts through the waist high grass. Hay-fever be damned, that’s the way. Orange tape on a tree branch confirms it. Edging along an overgrown spur, an opening reveals the roof of Parawai Lodge. Almost there. We push through to mown grass. Bryan’s gear already hanging out on the hut deck. The three of us head down to the Otaki River. Bryan and I commit to a full submerge and a swim. The weight of my sandals pulling in the fast current. The water with more strength than the wind.
Victoria and Emilie arrive next. They also set off for the river. Paula comes in last. Out comes the cards again. The rain that has stayed away for most of the day begins to fall, and fall hard. While the so called adults are talking about tomorrow’s routes. Emily, already in bed starts saying “it’s leaking! It’s leaking!” The heavy rain washing through is coming through the roof. Dripping through the platforms. Seeping into the foot of my sleeping bag. The Te Araroa Tararua Trail Family jump into action. I pull away my bed and start mopping up water. Iain jumps up to the top platform and puts pans out for water. Bryan and I then move the benches to make a temporary, thankfully dry platform. I throw a mattress down. Bryan puts on one the table and everyone hopes the pans don’t fill overnight. Rain falls all night. Nobody else gets wet. This is it, the last push out to Waikanae. Victoria receives several concerned messages warning of heavy rain. The Otaki River is in full flood, roaring down away from the hut. The general consensus is everything will be fine. There’s a swing bridge this end, and a swing bridge at the other end. We’re walking a low ridge line through the bush. We’ll hardly notice the weather. Bryan goes, then Paula. I offer Victoria and Emilie the last of my food, assuming they’re going to wait another day. Iain and I set out. The Pukeatua Track is far nicer than any of us had imagined. Reasonably wide, not too rooty. Even the mud isn’t so bad, for now. We hit the top and come down the other side, thoughts flowing towards hot showers and beers. A welcome return to the civilised world. Iain and I emerge from the bush to a clear cut pine block. Wilding pines have sprouted. The bulldozer track is slick, Iain proves the notes true with a swift fall. He’s fine. As we push on down the sound of fast flowing water increases. “Must be getting close to that bridge,” I say. When we reach the bottom there is a stream. There is no bridge. One we’ve all missed.
The brown torrent rips through the stream valley. Rocks are moving in the flow. The water looks dangerous. I hastily pull out the map, the notes. I did see the stream. The top comment reads “thanks Mum.” The next comment, more helpfully says “This stream is only ankle deep after heavy rain.” I tell Iain, “Stick your pole in.” The stream swallows most of the pole. It’s a lot deeper than anyone’s ankle. Bryan comes down the hill. He takes a look himself. He even braves few steps, just in case. The water hits his waist. The force threatens to take him away. He hauls out. I’ve got phone signal and a text message from Jason. “Do you want picking up from somewhere?” I think we do. We can’t get out. We’ve got to go back. We’ve got to turn Paula around before she comes too far. There’s a hastily pulled together plan. We can get back to the hut, out to Shield Flat via the emergency access track. Only, then Jason comes back to say he can’t guarantee he can get up there. I remember from my own drive in a ford. If an ankle deep stream is pumping like this, that ford might push a car off the road. Iain’s already gone. Too late I learn Victoria and Emilie changed their mind, they also followed us out. I have to eat something. “Keep going,” I tell Iain. I’ll catch up. By the time I get back to Paula, Iain’s already passed. He’s told here we’re getting out tonight. I’m already buying into the idea we’re not. “Get back to the hut,” I tell Paula, “we’ll make a new plan there.” I find Iain, VIctoria and Emilie around some wind fall. I make clear the possibility of having to spend another night in Parawai Lodge. We’re all low on food but we might not have a choice. I chase down Bryan. “We can check with the caretaker at the office about the road,” he says. I lead on. It’s getting late, it’s a long way back. Everyone is wet, people will start to get cold. I smash the journey back. I hit the signpost for the Fenceline Track and tell myself how bloody incredible I am. Now get to the caretaker’s house.
I ring the doorbell, I try the phone. Nobody comes down. The phone doesn’t ring out. What to do. What to do. It isn’t an emergency, not yet. I’ve already stood Jason down. By the time Paula gets back to us it’s going to be late. If we try the emergency access track and he can’t get through, we have to come back. We’ve already done a 20km plus day. People are going to be tired. Bryan comes through next. “I’m going to steal some firewood,” I tell him. He’s already cold. “I’m going to the hut,” he says. “Sure, get changed and get that fire on.” I open the gate marked private and load up on the dry logs. Nobody’s home. Our need is greater. I make a trip back to the hut. Bryan’s changed and already looking happier. “I’ll go and get more wood.” Back at the house, Iain, Victoria and Emilie are there. “I’ll grab more wood,” Iain says and disappears. I walk back with the girls. Bryan’s got the fire on. We’ve got plenty of wood. Paula comes in not much later. We pool our food on the table. More than enough for a fine hut feast. We discuss the extraction. Right now we’re warm, dry, we have shelter, we have some food. We can wait until the morning to try the emergency access track. If we can’t get out then it’s only a 5km return to the lodge. We’ll have to spread our food further but it’s better than pushing ourselves too hard today. We set the extraction plan. Iain arranges for Charlotte to attempt a drive in to Shield Flat for 10am.
In the morning, Paula puts together a mixed breakfast mess for 5. I finish the leftovers from dinner. Rehydrated Radix chilli and couscous. Somehow I don’t think that will be the weirdest thing I eat on this trip. There’s still a murmur of doubt in the hut. What if Charlotte can’t get past the ford? My answer is the same. We have to come back. But first, we have to try. Bryan puts forward a case for walking the road. Ignoring the advice not to cross the slip. Victoria has concerns. She isn’t alone. The Otaki River was a force yesterday. We don’t know whether the slip is still there even. I manage to pull up a satellite photo. Things don’t look so bad. Some work has been done. The road will get us out much faster. If we don’t like what we see when we get there, we’ll still have time to tackle the emergency access track. Time to go. Once more in to the rain. Road walking is easy if nothing else. Bryan and I stretch out our legs. The others only ever a corner behind. The slip comes, there are tracks through it. There’s even a footpath cut in to the valley wall. Not a bother. The only trouble now is we’re too early. The only thing to do is keep walking. I walk with Emilie who tells me all about a movie called the Cat Kingdom. I don’t really listen. I’m looking at the side streams, thinking about the ford. We pass a field with huge bulls in. “Do you know how to say hello in cow?” I ask Emilie. “Moooooo,” she says. The bulls ignore her. We reach the ford. The waters are fast and brown but no more than ankle deep. We link together, arms between backpacks. Our feet shuffle along the concrete. At the end of our human line I barely notice the current. Not long after, Charlotte arrives in the truck carrying bananas, chocolate digestives, and towels. Everyone piles in. Iain and I crawl into the dog beds in the back with everyone’s packs. Then we drive out to a motel in Waikanae. Bryan and Paula check in for rooms for the night. I commit to walking the rest of the way down the river to Otaihanga.
The rain is still falling. The Waikanae river looking like a white water kayaking course, in brown. Flood waters charging down towards the coast. I pass through knee deep puddles thinking this isn’t too bad. Half way down I find the banks are blown. A carpark I’ve walked through many times resembles a small pond. The river flowing over the banks, into playing fields, the pathway now submerged. Ankle deep is ok, knee deep is ok. When the water begins creeping up my thighs it might not be ok anymore. I have to turn around. At which point my phone rings. It’s Jason. “Hello mate, I’ve just realised you said you were going to walk down the river. You can’t. It’s flooded. I’ll pick you up.” I head back to the car park, wade across the new pond. He pulls up, I climb in. We pass the Otaihanga Domain, completely submerged. I’d have had to swim or been washed away. We arrive at my home away from home. I’m given a clean, too large for me set of clothes. I have a shower. I eat beans on toast. The Tararua Forest Park? Barely scratched the surface mate.