Te Araroa: The Pirongia Traverse

Daylight savings time ends. Have I saved enough? The night has been creeping into day for a while now. Darkness coming ever sooner. For two weeks it will be lighter earlier but the sun will set an hour sooner. What even is time?Does any of it matter? I wake up to the smell of fresh coffee. Bryan doing a stellar job as the host with the most. Poached eggs followed by muesli. “Are you going to want a cup of tea after that?” Some of my habits are well known. This is my final morning with these members of my trail family. I do not know when I will see them again, I only hope that one day our paths cross once more. I cross the Waikato River for the last time, the stretch of water vanishing into the fog. I pass through the city centre, already bubbling with life. People spill across the pavement outside cafes. I pass on by. Oh to have the confidence of the man taking a piss in a bush in a park in the centre of town. I go a bit further out before I take my chances. I head to the supermarket, where o try to keep my resupply small, keep my weight low. I head on out through the suburbs. I try to let a couple pass going up Tills Landing but they insist, I look more serious. We end up walking much of the Taitua Arboretum together. Names are never exchanged. The woman tells me she has a habit of picking up foreign tourists and inviting them home. I tell her husband not to worry, I’m leaving and he tells me “yeah I know I’m safe with you.” We part ways at the far car park and I carry on walking. Beyond a stretch of farmland with occasionally useless styles, down a few roads, past Whatawhata the mountain rises. Pirongia. A summit I’ve reached once before. Tomorrow I intend to traverse it. Today I’m aiming for the feet of the peak.

I begin climbing the road up the face of the Kapamahunga Range. A man gestures with his hand I should get in the back of his car. I gesture back with walking fingers. He waves and drives on. I turn off the road and on to the Karamu Walkway, crossing empty farmland. I get spooked by the little yellow plane that’s pulling lanes overhead. It’s spraying something over the ground. I only hope it’s not toxic. Past the airstrip where I see the plane land to refill it’s tank, I experience a classic Te Araroa route change. I come off the farm track, off roading all to go over a tiny saddle for really no reason at all. I drop back down on to the farm track and follow it until I’m returned to the roads. I had visions of an empty Kaniwhaniwha Campsite. A quick dinner thanks to Lisa’s gift of Radix meals. A skinny dip in the stream. An early night. Only half of these turn out to be prophetic. I do get a quick dinner and an early night. There are three other campers. One lady is very keen to talk to me about Te Araroa, but now really is not the time. I’ve just arrived. I’ve got half an hour until sundown. I need to get my tent up, cook and eat dinner, and ideally wash the sweat and sunscreen off. I get my tent up in the dying light. I get dinner on and eaten while I can still see. The sky has already slipped from day to dusk. My day is made when I notice the Ruru sitting on the broken trunk of a ponga fern. I think that’s the first of New Zealand’s native owl I’ve seen. Not that I see any more than I silhouette. It’s dark by the time I step down to the Kaniwhaniwha stream. The inky black waters probably contain nothing more than that, but I imagine eels and fish and other flesh eating things. I stumble in to the water up to my knees, splash around everywhere, and make for the exit. Good is better than perfect. In this case any effort at all is deserving the reward of an extra line of chocolate.

I get no peace in the morning. The same lasfy is back with more questions “How to pack a wet tent?” Same way as a dry one. Only that’s not true anymore. I do try and keep the inner separate. Sometimes I try and dry it out in the sun or wind on a break, mostly I don’t. The sun is rising over the Waikato basin before I set out. The Tahuanui Track up this ridge rising to Pirongia is slow but steady. There’s not much windfall, the ground is dry. It’s easier than I was expecting. I’ve long been out of the habit of hoping these things will last the whole way. The thick canopy sprinkles green light through to me.
Beyond the branches I start to see the other flanks of the mountain rising to the summit. The canopy drops lower, begins to thin. I emerge in patches of open sky. I’ve reached the tops. Mount Pirongia isn’t a single summit but a broken crown of cones. It’s tougher to move through the summits, the track undulating in a Tararua-esque fashion. Short stretches of boardwalk keep me on the move. From the lookout I only see the mountain. There’s low cloud over the East. Behind me, it’s clear out West to the coast. I can see the jagged harbours, the other rise of Karioi overlooking Raglan. The bush is alive with strong bird song. I move on a little further to Pahutea Hut. I do take my tent out to dry it, hanging it out across the deck railings. I stop for longer than I really should but the weather is nice and I enjoy the view. Boardwalk runs to the next summit sometimes two meters above the ground. Old orange markers lie at ankle height. Not that they’re needed. I make the mistake of thinking it’s all downhill from here when I’ve still several small peaks to rise and fall over yet. I start to wait for the mud to come but I’m late in the season, the track down remains dry. No mud. I only have to contend with roots and vines. Coming down the mountains I noticed my Garmin inreach mini has frozen entirely and I lose the tracking over Pirongia. I’ve been thinking for a while the GPS was a waste of money. Particularly as my phone seems capable of doing a better job at no additional cost. I’ve rarely used the messaging, and fortunately, never needed to trigger the SOS. Off the back of Pirongia the clouds have lifted. In the distant haze I can just make up the pyramid of Ngaruhoe and the parabolic rise of Ruapehu. That’s as close as I’ve got to a signpost at the end. Now quite literally in sight.

After the mountain I return to the roads. Gravel, then a section of highway and back to gravel. I’ve still views out over the coast. I come to a fence marked with a tent, drinking water, and the Te Araroa marker. Trail Angel Casey isn’t home but she gives me a tour by phone. “Pitch your tent anywhere on the lawn.” She says before guiding me to a room with a kettle, another with a shower and a toilet. “Help yourself,” she tells me “There’s beer in the fridge.” From Pahutea Hut to Waitomo is a 50km stretch without official accomodation. Plenty of people pitch up in the farm fields close to a stream. Plenty more find the generousity and hospitality of the people who live along the trail invaluable. The morning is a different kind of cool. Not just the sun hasn’t risen high enough yet chill. Grey cloud returns with the threat of rain. Autumn is coming. Two storey tall tree ferns, heads of fronds bigger than a mid sized family car line the road. A farm track turns off the gravel road. Paradise dunks honk, magpies whistle. I take comfort in the fact that while this morning won’t be particularly scenic, at least I’ll be covering ground at speed. The landscape shifts. Bush clad limestone cliffs rise beneath darkening skies. A return to karst country. Even when the farm track turns into a bush trail it retains some of its former live as a logging road. The regenerating ferns haven’t conquered far enough yet. The floor remains relatively flat, my pace comfortably quick. The farmland I emerge on is pinpricked with the dark green of pine saplings.

A goat hunter passes me on his quad. I only know he’s hunting goats because there’s already one strapped to the back of his ATV. He stops briefly to chat. Am I doing the trail? Have I seen any goats? I haven’t seen anything but sheep and cows. I seem to avoid the rain in the morning by being above it. I only ever descended halfway back down off of Pirongia. I’m still a day’s walk from the next lowest point on trail. I break at an airstrip, hoping to see the haze of rain in my direction of travel clear. It doesn’t. I fall victim to dodgy arrow placement and start climbing a road fortunately not marked on the map. I figure out I’ve taken the wrong turn and head back. Along the bush edge bright red flowers emerge from creepers. This must be New Zealand’s native mistletoe, which suggests the possums here are under control. I get annoyed at the gate that pushes me on to a thoroughly chewed up piece of ground when there’s a perfectly good 4WD track on the other side. I get things wrong on my own by being distracted by the ease and obvious direction of the farm track. I end up half a kilometer down the wrong spur. Too long passed between me thinking about the lack of prints in the mud and deciding to check. On my sweaty and annoyed return to the official trail I find the same thing happens. I’m on a goat track, on the other side of the fence a 4WD track. I end up with both feet off the ground at the same time and then on my back. Rushing to make up the maybe 20 minutes at most I lost going the wrong way. Things improve when the trail turns away from the fence and the 4WD track, starting with my attitude. There have been a lot of late nights, long days, and too many beers. I’m thinking more about getting it done than the actual doing of it.

I stop for lunch, where I eat everything I have left bar one crusty wrap. Tomorrow is a 15km day. Essentially a rest day. I should be in Te Kuiti around lunch time. I’ve got just over 10km left today. I’ll make it in to Waitomo before sundown. I keep plodding along. I’m not sure who spooks who. Me or the goat. He’s a big boy too, crashing away through the bush. I enjoy the final stretch, a shared cycle way which means easy walking. I hit the road and stroll on down the remains of the hill. Waitomo is a ghost town. There’s nothing here but the caves and the worms. The Top 10 holiday park appears empty. “there’s two more walkers down there,” the woman at reception tells me as she points out the tent sites. I get the tent up in the dry. After a day in my pack the fabric smells strongly of damp. There’s no chance it drying now. I hear the downpour while I’m having a pressure wash. The shower almost knocks me over. I get called into the kitchen on my way back. Those other walkers are Nobos. One I remember from the South Island. He had a ukelele and an old school pack which makes him memorable. I don’t know her. We chat a bit about what comes next. For me the famous section outside Te Kuiti. The so called tunnel of gorse. I’m already thinking of a road detour when they tell me they took the alternative route. I leave the to hit the pub where I catch a beer with old mate Joel off of Black Water Rafting. It’s nice to have people to meet along the way. We chat about the trail, about cycling from John O’Groats to Land’s End. There’s plotting going on in the back of my mind. Gears whirring over what next, and when. The burger I order disappears in four bites. I think about ordering more, or maybe the deluxe chocolate brownie. In the end I settle for the chocolate I still have in my pack. I can eat out again in Te Kuiti. The rain starts up once I get in the tent. For now at least I’m nice and dry. I pull out my ear plugs and hope for a decent sleep.

I’m awake early. Too early. Thanks, daylight savings time. I lie in bed for a bit. Today is a short day so I don’t have to get moving, so I never get motivated. Showers of rain wash over and I time my exit to a dry spell. I drag my gear over to the kitchen to keep dry. The Nobos get up and we talk more, like friends who’ve known each other for ages. I remain somewhat impressed how Te Araroa connects us. Ukelele and I share a similar story. Before the trail, we wouldn’t touch soft drinks. And now, as soon as we hit town, at the first dairy there’s something about that cold can of Sprite that can’t be ignored. They set out before me. I have another cup of tea. I don’t particularly want to go anywhere. I have to keep moving though. That’s the only way this thing gets finished. I bumble across farmland. My shoes slipping on wet grass and wet shit. I climb through bush over a ridgeline. My wet, mud-clagged shoes make minimal contact with the wet, angled wood of a battered bridge. I’m in the air. I’m on my arse. Over it before I began. The trail is stupid. The weather is stupid. I am stupid. I’m frustrated, the trail is taking too long. Taking stupid routes across stupid fields. There’s probably a farm track that takes a direct, well used, easy route but I’ve got to walk along fence lines. I get my first electric shock through not paying enough attention. Enough is enough. I pull my head together, tighten my straps and start moving my feet. I bypass the piece of trail widely regarded as Not A Trail. The road carries me quickly in to Te Kuiti where I visit Trail Angel Sue at work to get the key to her house. “You either left early or you’re a fast walker.” She tells me. One isn’t true and the other hasn’t felt true today so that’s nice to hear. Sue directs me to her house, tells me where to get a big lunch and says see you later.

The first task is the mad dash to get the tent dry before the next shower. Somehow I manage, with thanks to the wind and the intermittent blasts of sunshine. Next I go out to Town and Country Kitchen, where I get a sad looking beef roast. I feel like it should have come in an aluminium tray and I should be watching trash telly. Despite all appearances to the contrary, the meal is delicious and as Sue advised, of hiker hunger conquering scale. Then it’s resupply time where I buy more food than I probably need. I have to buy a new tube of toothpaste too which upsets me. I also buy more sunscreen without checking, I probably could have got away without that too. Then I head home, to Sue’s home. Getting comfortable in other people’s homes is something I’m getting quite good at. I make up a bed, put my washing on, have a cup of tea. I lie down and do nothing for a bit, a favourite hobby of mine while I’ve been on trail. Sue comes home from work and we talk about how she got into hosting us smelly walkers. She just came home with one one day. She’s been influential in the local community, educating them about us. We will come in and we will spend money. Mostly on food. I can attest to that. When I find I’m struggling to keep my eyes open I make my apologies and head for bed. The next section is supposed to be challenging and I really need to have my head in the game.

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