Te Araroa: The Waikato River

I bypass Papakaura, known to me as the place I caught a train to just over two years ago to buy The Van. A matter of days later New Zealand would close its borders, shortly thereafter the country shut down entirely. Now I’m 500km short of having walked the entire length of the place. Other memorable landmarks pass; a turn off to the Ramarama campground. A place where I felt like I was going against the flow of traffic as tourists rushed for the airport, desperate to get home while they still could. I wonder how many regret that decision. Staying put was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I cross railway lines, pass cemeteries. The suburban sprawl continues for another few kilometres before the houses begin to thin out. The Great South Road leads me out of Takanini to Drury. Here I meet a man with a backpack and a beard. “Are you Chris?” He asks. I don’t recognise him. Aston introduces himself, another flip-flopping Soboer now heading North. These chance meetings are frequently the highlight of my North Island days. We exchange notes, I suspect I bombard him with too much information stretching too far into his future. We wave each other off to enjoy the remains of our journeys. The easy going ends on Hillview Road where I encounter my first serious hill since before Puhoi. I swear a bit, sweat a lot but it ends quickly. From the top of the Bombay Hills, I look back. The blue spire on the horizon can only be the Sky Tower. Auckland City now 70km of trail behind me. A little out of town I crunch up a driveway where I’m greeted by a warm hug from Kerryl. Officially Kerryl and Tom run a B&B, they’ve a small sleep out behind the house. Unofficially they’re Trail Angels, allowing us wandering vagrants to pitch our tents and borrow the shower if nobody has booked the room.

Aston stayed last night, which is how he knew my name. The guys give me a little tour and leave me to it. A little later Karryl asks if I want to join them for dinner, then Tom takes me round the paddocks to meet the lambs, the goats, the alpacas. I get drawn in to Tom’s chat as he reveals he and Karryl are unvaccinated and had been involved in the recent Wellington protests. I find I have some sympathy with the anti-mandate brigade. I’m not sure people should be forced to take a vaccine. There’s some level of delusion here though too. Karryl mentions the vaccine being more dangerous than Covid. I can’t help but reflect on the numbers in the UK, where a different approach was taken. A lot of people died. New Zealand’s approach offered protection, and time. Away from the reality of the virus, they talk about how they’ve formed a strong community with many people in Bombay who feel the same way as them. Tom and I wonder if there’s a cross over between those already living alternative lifestyles and those willing to listen to alternative news. There’s a meeting coming up about going off-grid and I know I’ve got a significant amount of overlap with this way of thinking. We share a chicken and some beers for dinner and I find myself thinking this is what Te Araroa on the North Island is about. Meeting the people, having the conversations, enjoying the company regardless. I’d have never come to Bombay without the trail. I’d certainly not be sleeping on Tom and Karryl’s lawn without it. The first night in my tent with my new sleeping pad is a success. The Klymit is still inflated in the morning. I didn’t wake up on the floor. I set out early to beat the heat and enjoy the morning light.

A patchwork of browns and greens stretch out from the hills. I cruise down the road out of the small village of Bombay. Across the Mount William Walkway I watch as light runs out of the colours it paints the world with. Hills rise to the distant Kaimais where the green has faded into blue. People come running up the far end, only to go down again. The trail notes for this section are problematic. The Te Araroa Trust have gone for the hopeful approach of leaving the notes for the old route up, as if this will help people following the current route. I was looking for advice as to which side of State Highway 2 was better to walk down, or even if there was something more on a possible shortcut. Instead I’ve got the irrelevance of the Hunua Ranges to skim over. 6 kilometres down the shoulder of State Highway 2 seems like a poorly thought through compromise.That said I have no doubt this was probably the best anyone could hope for. The road manages to be both better and worse than I anticipated. The traffic is light, good. The shoulder disappears and the highway narrows at several streams. I try passing on the outside of the barrier but the drop in to the water stops me. I have to wait for a gap so I can cross back on to the road, and get over the bridge without becoming a fixture on the front of a 16 wheeler. Not good. I’m glad to see the Te Araroa sign that finally takes me off the road and on to the stop bank of the Mangatawhiri River.

The trail notes return here. This is a lesser seen corner of New Zealand apparently. They don’t go into why, so I will. There’s nothing to see here. At first glance it hardly looks like a trail. I switch between the current river bank and the stop bank, seeking out the ultimate track. In places the grass wraps around my ankles, snapping free rather than tripping me. Black-brown harriers float above the fields. White faced herons take flight over the water. The sun beats down. I seek shade at the end of someone’s drive. I mix sunscreen with the mud on my legs. I try not to be too frustrated with the facts. 12km and 3 hours later, I’m only 3km South of the end of the Mount William Walkway. I’ve got another 5km of flat walking into Mercer where my day will end. On the edge of the service station that might also pass as a settlement two gentlemen introduce themselves to me. Papa and Grant. They’re tucked under an awning on a road that’s also home to a couple of campervans that have seen better days. I suspect these chaps might be the owners of the anti-vaccine billboards on the side of the highway I’ve just passed. They don’t mention it, so neither do I. Instead I get a cup of tea and asked about my walk. Papa, who I learn is something of a local chieftain, is planning on some walking soon. He’s raising awareness for something called three waters, which has something to do with the government reforming the management of drinking water, waste water, and storm water. Whatever has been proposed hasn’t been well received in some areas. Alongside anti-vaccine billboards, I’ve seen a few demanding we stop three waters. I plead ignorance on the subject. All I know about New Zealand’s water is you can drink it directly from the rivers in the South Island. Before Papa disappears somewhere he asks me to introduce myself to the Waikato as I pass, which is probably one of the least crazy ideas I’ve heard recently. Grant later informs me he was at the recent protests in Wellington. I ask if he was anti-mandate. “I’m anti-government.” He tells me. “This government?” I ask. “All government, we need to burn it to the ground and start again.” If it means cleaning up the North Island rivers so we can drink from them too, fuck it, sign me up. I finish up my cup of tea and walk the last five minutes into Mercer. I do as Papa suggests and drop down the boat ramp and dip my fingers in the Waikato. “Hello,” I say. “I’ll be with you for a while.” A few days now. There’s no one at the camp ground reception in Mercer. No one answers any of the phone numbers I dial. Everything is open so I walk on in and put my tent up and steal a shower. When I go for my before bed wee everything is closed up. A lot less than ideal and still nobody has come to ask me to check in.

The traffic runs all night. Lights flare through the tent. I count down the hours until I can get up and walk. In the morning some legend has left the facility door open which makes my life significantly more enjoyable. I pack away my things in the dark, eat breakfast by torchlight. I set off before sunrise. The moon, grinning like the Cheshire Cat overhead, slowly fades into the growing light. Mist has settled like heavy snow across the Waikato. There’s a distinctly autumnal feel to this morning. I enjoy my start on the Whangamarino Redoubt Track. If it looks like a trail and smells like a trail then you’d better hope there’s an orange triangle soon because it’s a long way back to the last one. It almost feels like proper tramping, but not for long. I reach the end of the track. The first cow to say a proper hello comes over to sandpaper tongue wrapping around my outstretched fist. From the fortified hill top I see nothing. A world of shadows emerging from the mist. Shafts of golden light pierce the white. This is as good a start to any day I can remember.

I walk a thin strip of gravel, sandwiched between State Highway 1 and the Waikato River. I come out of the long grass with legs like a well seasoned bagel. A variety of seeds have glued themselves to my legs. After about three hours of morning summer has returned. Squeezed between an electric fence and the river’s edge is a better match for my expectations of this region. The Waikato is New Zealand’s longest river. The dirty brown waters flow fast. Don’t drink this. I’m surprised to see flashes of gold in the shallows. Monstrous koi karp feeding on something. Small fry flick around the edges of the strong currents. There’s a choice; road or farm. I start with the farm, until the stiles no longer match up with the fences. I hit the road, which would be quiet were it not for the same three trucks, two tractors and associated trailers running back and forth between somewhere and somewhere else.
I arrive in Rangiriri with something other than the tiny bubbles in a cold can of Sprite on my mind. A pie. A beef cheek, mushroom and caramelised onion pie from Rangiriri Pies. World famous on Te Araroa. Cathy delivers almost immediately. There’s another man there placing an order of 20. He came down from Auckland on the bus specifically for pies. He tried to talk me out of the beef. “Why not get chicken?” He suggests. Because I’ve been thinking about mushrooms and onions, meat in gravy for theast two hours. It is a pheomnally good pie. I don’t even think I’m trail hungry just saying that. It is good. Then I go to the pub and have a beer, because I can.

The Flip-Flop Queen comes in late, it’s old mate Helen off of Helen and Ramona. Those first Nobos but not really. She asks about a few people ahead on the trail but I don’t know their names. There’s a group apparently, and I’ve missed them because they’ve hitched in to Auckland. Helen’s thinking about skipping the next section too, she’s running out of time now having just accepted a job. I tell her she won’t regret catching the bus. Today was a good day but the trail sucks from Mercer, pretty much all the way to Manukau. She won’t miss anything. I couldn’t do it though. I tell her if I hitch now, it’s all the way to the airport. We agree to have breakfast at the café in the morning. “Give me a shout when you’re going over,” she says. “I hope you don’t mind going at 6:30am.” I’m up and almost packed when I notice the light on in Helen’s tent. Katy Perry bangers are already playing out of Fixate. Not often you find somewhere open to early. Of course we’re first in. I order the big one. A sausage so fatty it squirts across the table when I cut into it. Thick rashers of bacon. Two poached eggs. Creamy mushrooms. A side of crispy potatoes. Two slices of toast. I am almost defeated. Helen has a scone. We share stories and I finally hear about her horror day first hand. She and Ramona were coming up the Waiau River. The waters clear but high and fast. She doesn’t know how it happened. Ramona went over and managed to pull Helen down with her. They’re lucky not to be swept away. They’re over Waiau Pass comfortably but the waters of Lake Constance are in flood. The track is underwater. I didn’t believe it the first time I heard it, second hand. They tried to stay out of the water but hit a bluff. In the water they couldn’t really see the floor. It disappears beneath them. The air in their dry bags lifting them off their feet, now they’re floating in the lake. Drifting away from the shore. How they got out, even Helen isn’t quite sure but they did. “What about your bad days?” She asks me. Nothing like that. Getting out of the Tararuas maybe? We finish up, she goes back to her tent. Several hours still until the bus. I’ve got 36km of trail to walk.

I got up in the thick fog, expecting it to have cleared within a few hours. The river is mysterious, the distant bank almost invisible. The fog stays with me as I walk the stopbank on the true left of the Waikato River. Stiles lie in the fence that ends at the trails edge, some lay in bushes, on the wrong side of the fence. One is stood alone in a field, no fence in sight. The Huntly power station ememges from the cloud, looking like the disaster area of an episode of Thunderbirds. Huntly itself doesn’t look much better off. I move out, being driven past by the quarry trucks. One man stops for a brief chat. As I set out he tells me he’ll run me over on his way down, which I guess is a funny joke considering the circumstances. He does pull over again and ask if I’m looking for work, I’m not. Naturally the fog finally loses its hold over the land when I reach the foot of the Hakiramatas. Only when I have to start going up has the weather warmed up. The Southern Lookout is a classic. Ruapehu down on the guide, nothing but cloud in real life. I can hardly see Hamilton. I open my lunch bag to find everything is ruined. The last of my cherry tomatoes have been smushed. The cheese has turned to crumbs. The salami tastes like a spicy school eraser. I make do. The Hakiramata ridge track is a welcome return to proper tramping. A trail of earth and roots, winding between tree, and fern, and palm. I walk through an ocean of green. I rise and fall across the low peaks, sidling round. There’s overgrown sections, there’s windfall blocking the way. I have to be present, focused on the walking. It is utterly brilliant.

I reach the lookout tower before the descent. I reckon I’ve made good time too, I should be in Ngaruawahia around 5pm. The panting man at the lookout is completely unaware of Te Araroa despite being on part of it. I tell him what I’ve been up to and he suggests I look in to the Routeburn. I tell him if he liked that he should try the Rees-Dart. He runs off towards the infinite staircase leading down the ridgeline. I step aside where I can to allow those running up to keep moving through. I crash down and roll in to the Riverbed Motel. I put my tent up near some trees and get given that wonderful gift; a proper towel. Feijoas fall from the trees like little green grenades that explode in the morning when I tread on them. In the night there’s drama. One of the guests has a former partner turn up uninvited and unwelcome. I wake to screams and tears and a discussion as to whether the police need to be called now or later. Selfishly, I’m glad someone decides the police don’t need to come out and further disturb my night. I sleep late and start late. Today it doesn’t matter so much, I don’t have far to go. Bryan awaits in Hamilton.

I spend the morning dodging dog shit on the concrete panels of the Te Awa cycleway. Ducks quack, pukekos screech, golf balls crack like broken eggs beneath the swing of clubs. The Waikato has narrowed slightly. The waters still swirling, now more green than brown. Golf course gives way to equestrian centre and then another golf course. Cyclists fly by, a few runners too. One woman stops and says “you look like you’re off on a serious walk.” “Oh you know, just the length of the country.” She knows what it is, “has it been good?” She asks. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. “If you enjoy a good walk, make the time to do it.” Closer to the city I give Bryan a call to see if I can get anything. He’s got to head to the supermarket later anyway and tells me not to worry. He gives me instructions on how to reach him. Keep following the river, cross the steel bridge. Come past the café, it’s the wasabi green house with a black letter box. The house really is Wasabi green. It’s a bit of a shock at first but I like it. There he is, the big man himself looking a lot fresher than when I last saw him. I’m finally introduced to his partner, Jacqui, who I feel like has been with us a lot of the way. I get a clean set of clothes. Jacqui keeps me organised. “Do you need to hang your tent out?” I’d already forgotten it was festering damp in the bottom of my pack. Laundry gets done. I get fed and tead. Then I get surprising news. Lisa is coming over, Quentin’s coming down from Auckland and trying to rope Jack in too. An even bigger reunion than what happened only last week. Kris is too far away in Wellington. Paula presumably days, or hours away from finishing her journey.

Bryan and I catch up over the last stages of his journey. He’d been staying in pubs and hotels, avoiding his tent and pulling huge days. A heroes return with a banner welcoming him home. He even received a tinfoil medal from the children next door. I wonder how my own ending will compare. My phone goes off one, two three times. The same text from Paula who has just finished her journey. I am the last one left on trail. Lisa arrives first. She’s got gifts for me, four Radix meals. Something to change it up with for a few days. Then Quentin arrives. “What are you doing here?” I didn’t expect to see either of them again, let alone as soon as this. Jacqui asks if I’ve been missing any food from home. Recently I’ve been craving Jaffa Cakes. I haven’t eaten Jaffa Cakes in years. Otherwise I can’t think of anything. Bryan fires up the BBQ, a couple of neighbours arrive. We sit out in the garden, in down jackets and shorts. Little bubbles of conversation. Stories we’ve heard before. Stories Quentin and Lisa missed when they left the trail. Lisa tells us about her plans. Australia by August where she hopes to walk again. The Bibbulum Track out West. Quentin maybe now seriously considering changing jobs. Bryan and I talk about my plans once all this is done. I’m going home. My flight is booked. I’m going to see my family, and my friends who don’t walk. He tells me I sound like I’m ready. I think, maybe for the first time, I am ready to go. I haven’t done it all, but I’ve seen a lot. And I’ve met all of these wonderful people. I enjoy a huge feed, and several beers and feel like the luckiest man in the world.

3 responses to “Te Araroa: The Waikato River

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