Te Araroa: The Northland Forests

I check in early to the Beachcomber Lodge, I get the same room as last time. I suspect I was probably the last person to stay there. I am the only overnight resident. The two guys who are permanent residents both remember me and ask me how my walk was. Long remains the most appropriate answer. One of them even shares his dinner with me, an eclectic mix of curried sausage, stuffed squash, boiled potatoes and bread. It beats tuna pasta by miles. I take my time in getting things done. Mostly I want to do nothing but lie in bed but there’s always something to do. Half a plan to get me to Kerikeri, a food shop to get me to Kerikeri, then a good night’s sleep to help get me to Kerikeri. No tent to pack down in the morning, a little bit more time. My day starts with 5km down the shoulder of State Highway 1. I don’t want to be there until it’s light. Black pack, dark blue clothes. I don’t stand out so well in the night. I groan under the weight of my pack. Two kilogrammes of water and too many kilos of food. I’m only on trail for four days. Why is it so heavy? I immediately look forward to my first break, where I can eat through some weight and drink half a litre. The highway is listed as dangerous in the trail notes and I am advised to hitch, somewhat reducing the nature of the through hike. I ignore the advice. Two days from now I’ll be on the shoulder again, there’s no warning for that section. The road is never really the problem, it’s the drivers. The traffic is light, people give me a wide berth where they can. I give most of them a wave. The closest I come to trouble is when the shoulder disappears and my options are in the road or in a ditch. I take the road. In a field of bulls, several animals are clashing heads, the rest watching like playground spectators. The drama ends as I walk past, for those few minutes all eyes are on me. I turn off the highway and on to a gravel road. Road walking all day. I stop on a patch of flat grass and snack, aware I’m going to be making an early arrival. I stop again on the concrete of the car port at the Takahue Hall, the only place to offer some decent shade.

When I get close to the unofficial campsite on Takahue Saddle Road a man stops me to ask if I’m headed to the campsite. I am. He tells me there’s no water, then that there is water. Someone’s stolen the sign from the gate but I should find the site ok. Around the corner I do find it ok. There’s a sink and a shower, neither work. That’ll be the no water then. A rain water tank behind the shower is full, so that’s good. The toilet is a hole with a lid. I shuffle around for some flat ground and decide this isn’t much of a campsite. There is water though so it’ll do. As I put my lentils in to soak, another man appears at the gate. Of course there’s a local eccentric, of course he’s come to talk at me. I’m a casual bystander to the two hour monologue of a white man educated in Eastern religions who has decided he’s going to lead the Maori to start a new world order. While mostly left leaning, some of his conspiracy is shared by a white supremacist I met not so long ago. “The higher powers.” Someone unseen group of people in charge of the people you think are in charge. All I come away thinking is my theory that the far left and far right are the points where a circle meets rather than two ends of a line is right. I wake to the cry of Ruru over the endless chrip and rattle of cicada. The dark blue of night shifts to the pastel peach of dawn. The walls of the pit toilet move, more weta than I’ve seen anywhere have made this their home.

Jigme, which isn’t his real name, is waiting for me at the end of his drive. Already I’m thinking I do not have time for this, but he gives me a mug of chai so I stop long enough to drink it. He hands me a couple of postcards with pseudo-enlightened messages on to treasure. When my mug is dry, and he asks “Do you know what Hitler and Churchill had in common?” I make my excuses. It is time to go. The 4WD track carries me to Takahue Saddle. The first decent height I’ve gained a week. Then the proper tramping begins. I follow the brown thread of soil as it unwinds over the ridge of Raetea Forest. Convoluted, undulating, and demanding. I am back on the trail, baby! The sweat running down my face is deeper than most streams. I’m more moist than the track reputed for its mud. Like Stewart Island, I’m the benefactor of a dry summer. I stop on the summit of Raetea. Jigme recommended I should spend the night up here. People seem to think all you need for a campsite is flat ground. There’s no water. No protection from the wind. It’s not yet 11am, I think I’ll get this forest finished today. The closest I get to mud are the fresh splats of cow pat. Deep hoof prints suggest softer ground. They’re here, somewhere. That much is obvious. A grey mass ahead blocks the track. On sight of me it makes a run for it. Then a black cow explodes from the bush side. I leave the forest and come through a farm. Most people emerge from the Ratea forest coated in mud. I come out with a t-shirt full of sweat and seasoned with spider’s webs. Bulls stop to watch. Stay watching, I ask them as I skirt around. At the back of the farm house a handful of dogs erupt. I don’t think I’m going through there but there are no markers. One of the dogs is loose and comes all the way up. Timid by the time it’s sniffing my fingers. I drop behind the house and climb over a stile. On the road I pass the first Northbounder, I don’t recognise him. He’s going in, with a plan to camp somewhere off trail. My end is down the road a little further.

Terryn, despite being a private land owner, has my respect. Firstly, he’s created a small campsite on the side of his private land for trail walkers. He didn’t have to do this, he doesn’t ask for anything in return. There is what appears to be an upturned gas bottle with a slot cut in for donations. It’s what he says though that gets me. “I don’t own the land, I just paid a lot of money to look after it while I’m here and I’m trying my best.” Ain’t that the truth. He doesn’t stop for long. “Got to check on the goats.” The valley at night comes alive. Piwakawaka still hawk after moths. Pukeko scream. Ruru repeat themselves. The chirp of cicada never seems to end. When I wake the morning air is cool, damp with mist. The sky is clear. Another warm one coming. I go through the short term suffering of filtering water. I probably didn’t need to, there’s a shop on route this morning. I reasoned I was saving money. I could have saved time by doing it last night. I hit State Highway 1 with the words to Phantom Planet’s California being slowly reformed in my head. The world wakes up and climbs down out of the shroud of white. The mist clearing. I take an early break at Mangamuka Dairy. A chance for a bacon and egg muffin, a proper coffee, an orange juice, and an opportunity to empty my trash.

Kingfishers gives me the side eye from power lines. Cows always stop whatever they’re doing to watch me pass. The air remains warm and sticky. I remind myself this is preferable to rain. Whatever the angle of ascent up Omahuta Forest Road is, it’s mine. I go faster up to the edge of the bush than I do on the flat. There I find the first Kauri trees I’ve seen in well over a year. The gradient shifts, I lose my rhythm. My left knee tingles, right foot grinds. If that isn’t an indication to take a break nothing is. I slump down on the side of the road. It’s isn’t even lunch time and I’m three quarters of the way done. I sit on the roadside for a while. In the end I figure I may as well get there, then I can lie down instead. The remaining kilometres disappear quickly. The gravel roads make a more direct route than any track would. The new Department of Conservation campsite has a toilet, a shelter, and a small expanse of flat, peg defying ground. The tent is up and dry. I delay having a wash so that I don’t end up bathing in my own filth shortly after in the still humid afternoon sun. The 5 to 10 pot wash remains a revelation. Taking the worst of the grime off. Someone could come down either end of the track at any time and find me butt naked behind the shelter, but they don’t. I stand in the sun the same lack of clothes, saving my towel. I pull my shorts on and set to making dinner. Lentils go in to soak. I chop apricots and dates. Once the lentils have softened I add the Moroccan seasoning and bring it to the boil. At any given time, usually when I decide I’m done waiting I add the couscous and chopped fruits. Give it a few minutes to soak up the remaining liquid. Then enjoy. And I do enjoy. I can feel my head leaning forward, edging my chest across the finish line but I’m not done yet. When I am done I’ll miss these moments. The location isn’t the most glamorous, but I have arrived; on foot. I’ve washed, eaten, had plenty of time to read, I’ve watched quail peck across the soil, I’ve crawled in to my tiny tent as yellow clouds skim across the sky. Life is simple, life is good.

In the distance a lone kiwi screams. Much closer, the tent ripples in the wind. A possum hisses like a cat. I stand outside the tent and stare up at the sky. Stars everywhere. South, the orange glow of somewhere. Whangarei maybe? I go back to my bed, blow up the mattress again and fall asleep until a more appropriate time to get up. Today holds what I think is the last proper tramping I have for a while. So many of the Northland forest routes are closed. The trail detours via long stretches of road. I follow the remaining 4WD track to the banks of the Mangapukahukahu Creek. When did I last have wet feet? I don’t remember. I’m in the tannin rich brown waters. The deep black pools in every bend look like home for eels. I don’t know why I’m surprised when I actually see one. White fins gently waving. The eel remains perfectly still otherwise. Easily mistaken for a branch, or the stem of a fern frond, which is what I do when I nearly walk in to the second one. I miss the massive orange triangle when I hit the Waipapa River. I’m overlooking a deep black lake. I’d have to swim across. I pull out the trail notes to check. I double back and find the track that takes me to a shallow crossing. I climb up the far bank and join the lower river track. I don’t understand what “recently upgraded” means in the notes. As far as I can tell this is a tramping track. Narrow, sidling, overgrown, covered with windfall. Then I hit a section of boardwalk which ends as soon as it starts. I don’t know why I can’t be in the river. I mean I know why, I don’t know what it does. Another deep black eel filled lake could be around the next corner. The channel never looks troubling. I’m rewarded for sticking to the track by another stretch of boardwalk. Things really get upgraded when I start climbing the Pukatea Ridge Track. Staircases make short work of the climb. A footpath makes easy work of the flat. It takes me a while but all of this has been for the Kauri trees. To keep feet off the soil, to try and prevent the spread of disease which has so many track closed. Near the summit I hear voices. Andy and Dee. They know who I am before I know who they are. They’d spent a night with Paula who told them I was coming. They’re the rarest of trail walkers. Only doing the North Island, and nearly finished. We have a yarn for a while. Andy gives me the bad news, “it’s like this for about another k.” I’m over the 4WD track before it’s even started. I’m beginning to struggle with these early afternoon finishes. I want to be walking but there’s nowhere to go. It’s either 20km days every day, or 40km days. I want something in between but there’s nowhere to stop. Puketi Forest Hut will have to do, and it does. The first hut on the trail is quite a contrast to the tumble down shack at the other end. There’s a cold shower, power points that aren’t a joke, actual lights. Best of all it has mattresses that won’t deflate in the night. Or in the afternoon, while I lie down and do a little more nothing.

I had this idea I might get up earlier seeing as I had electric lights and no tent to fold away. What I think in the evening doesn’t always carry over to the following morning. I’m tired and the double stacked DOC mattresses are comfortable. Neither of those things are getting me to Kerikeri today. I do manage to save about half an hour. An extra 2.5km before the humidity gets up. I’ve already has to bypass one section of closed track. I’ve a nagging feeling I’ve got another one coming. By New Zealand standards, Northland is flat. From the top of a 200 meter hill I can see the sea. Lines upon lines of hills roll away to the South. Morning light shimmering on Kerikeri inlet. The second track is closed, despite the notes claiming it will reopen in December of last year. Fortunately the road continues on, and all I have to do is keep walking. The quiet roar of State Highway 10 tells me the end is closing in. The Kerikeri river around the corner. I’m fortunate to secure a room at the Hone Heke Lodge. Kiwi picking season in full swing. Everywhere in town is full. I do nothing, go out and buy, then eat a kebab. I do more nothing. I sleep. I don’t get up when I wake up. How bad can a late start be? The air already thick and sticky when I finally start to move. Pretty bad then. I tramp past the skids and slash of Waitangi plantation. I crack. I find somewhere to stash my phone so I can hear it and put on a podcast. I can’t really argue that I’ve run out of things to think about but after all this time, the internal chatter is surprisingly quiet. Also, the roads are boring. Particularly the traffic free forestry roads that pass through cut over wastelands. I make no apologies. There’s something else too, that comes to me later. I’ve been walking alone for two weeks. This is by far the longest stretch of the trail I’ve spent without the company, the camaraderie of other trail walkers. There haven’t been any other voices, certainly not ones I’ve had much interest in listening too anyway. This also plays in to my desire to a.) Get to Auckland and b.) Finish this thing. I’m tired of being on my own. At the end of the forest a plaque commemorates the first link in a long chain. This section of Te Araroa was opened in 1995. I have my doubts about the trail remaining intact this far North. With so many closures already, some of them may never open again. I have my sympathies with those who choose to walk “only” the South Island.

Mount Bledisoe is a bit rich for a hill scraping over 100 meters. I get a view of the trail ahead, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, Paihia, the Russell Forest beyond. My traverse from West to East almost complete. White sails pepper the Bay of Islands. Yells come up from the mountain bike park below me. Ah yes, the weekend. In the supermarket a woman asks me if I’m lost, which is a stupid thing to say to someone in a supermarket while they’ve got a basket on their arm. My no might have been too forceful as she then accuses me of trying to stab people with my poles. I have to concede one of them is hanging a little loose but really, you’d have to try really hard to walk into me. The extra, poorly distributed weight rips into my ankles. My body continues to find new ways to bring the pain. What I don’t get in Paihia is gas. What I am running out of, more so than food, is gas. Doing the organised bit in larger, more commercial Kerikeri might have been a better idea. I was being lazy then by not doing it, and for now so I wouldn’t have had to carry it. But here we are, the East Coast. One more day of moving in this direction before I finally turn South again.

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