Te Araroa: The Timber Trail

The earliest opening cafe is closed due to a member of staff testing positive for covid yesterday. A close call. Now I haven’t eaten and have to find somewhere else to eat before setting off. Nowhere else is open for another half hour. Two ladies stop me to ask me where I’m headed. After a bit of the usual chatter about Te Araroa they direct me to Tiffany’s for a feed. The humidity in Northland forced my hunger to retreat but as the temperature has begun to drop, it’s on the march again. I get the Shearer’s Breakfast and remain undefeated. The weather has come good, blue skies with big white and grey clouds. I catch the breeze and know it’s a Southerly because of the chill to it. I head out of Te Kuiti and towards the Mangaokewa Track. The track starts well, which must mean the trouble comes later. I’ve been following user SarahFrench on FarOut who has left a comment on every waypoint to notify how challenging this track was for them. It’s when I see them use the words “ridiculous and dangerous,” that I decide I’m going to have a good day. I probably take a little bit too much pleasure in their obvious online breakdown over this piece of trail.

I wind along a farm track through the high walls of an abandoned quarry. A herd of goats make a run for it, their cries both distinctly human but definitely not. The river track is fun, it’s fast, its wide. What’s the problem? When it turns to a farm track it’s not so bad either. I laugh when I sink shin deep in mud. I laugh when I lose my footing and slide down a bank. I laugh when blackberry thorn rake down my thigh. A good night’s sleep and a positive mental attitude gets you half way. Putting my phone away and relying on my nose helps too. Follow the markers or follow the trail. I can’t get lost as long as I keep the river to my left. The narrow trail would be considerably more challenging were someone to come from the South. My first real difficulty is around tree fall that has knocked out a fence. There haven’t been many times I’ve needed to take my pack off to clear an obstacle but this is one. Maybe it’s because I drilled my toes on the North Island. Maybe it’s because I’ve already strengthened my legs in the South. Or maybe I just enjoy walking next to rivers. My advice for the trail? Take all advice for the trail with a handful of salt. Everyone’s experience is different. I have to be very careful not to fall in to my usual trap of following a farm track instead of the marked track. I reckon I could just about get away with saying some of the markers through here are ambiguous but there’s plenty of them. I lose the trail for about 5 minutes before it turns to a gravel farm track. I bush bash for a bit, emerging into gorse and then finding an orange triangle. The Mangaokewa Track was much better than I’d expected. I cruise through the farmland, toying with the young bulls that run away before deciding they’re curious and run back. They run away again.

I get excited by the washing line at the shelter. I don’t even plan on using it. I’ve arrived early enough for a cup of tea. A rare thing indeed. I wash off my legs. I’m scraped and grazed from thorns and needles. The long grass has brought up its usual pink rash. I check the book for names. Bryan almost 5 months ago. Kris, who only stopped here for lunch on some no doubt mammoth day. I take a while to get settled. Unspent energy. There’s a lingering chill in the air. I change into my thermals. I put on my down jacket. Sun sets almost at 6pm. I’ll be dangerously close to falling asleep at 7. Having signed myself off in the visitor book as Sobo No Mates, another Southbounder turns up. Riley scares the shit out of me when he says hello. I assumed he was the farmer until he tells me he also came in from Te Kuiti today. He’s not a flip flop but an incredibly late starter, but here he is almost a third of the way through. We talk of the alternative realities people live in above and around Auckland. Where we’ve stayed, who we’ve stayed with. What’s for dinner and also what’s for lunch. He doesn’t stop an early retirement. The clear sky beckons a cold night. At 4am the sky is black. The moon has already set. The milky way a fluff of cloud across the starlit sky. It feels like single figures. Low single figures. I crawl back into my sleeping bag and wait until dawn is a little closer. Come 6am only the brightest stars still shine. The sky is fading blue. The bin rustles all on its own, the resident rat knows where the good stuff is. The temperature continues to drop even as the sun threatens to rise. The edges of the damp grass freeze. The season has changed almost entirely overnight.

We talk about Fight Club. At the start of our own journeys we became Space Monkeys. Shaved heads and shaved beards. Later we talk about the impact of the book on our own thoughts. After all, this is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time. When people ask why we’re doing this, the more obvious answer is why not? Riley wants to know what I think about when I walk. Nothing. I’ve solved all the problems. Do we inherently desire ownership of stuff? is his latest pondering. Nope. Less than two seconds of thought. We talk about the trail, what it means and what we’ve enjoyed. I talk about breaking down the addiction to comfort. How, on the days when I manage it, a cold wash is a stream often leaves me feeling better than a hot shower. Warm water might be more enjoyable in the moment but the last effects of cold water are something else. What next? Literally. Where do I go when the trail ends in only a handful of days? Home. To work. To try, hopefully to live a little differently. What about goats? Have you ever stared a goat in the eyes? It’s not comfortable. There’s something off. Riley tells me he understands why they’re used as symbol for the devil. I’ve started to see them as spirit animals. They stink, they’re feral, they’re significantly more able than me in crossing a hillside. But yeah, square pupils. Not ok. The highway comes and goes. Riley leaves me at the turn off for the Pureroa Cabins. My budget has no more room for such luxuries. I’m at the DOC camp further up the road. Maybe we’ll see each other on trail, more likely we won’t. I’m committed to walking the Timber Trail in two days. Riley has already told me he’ll stop at Bog Inn Hut tomorrow. A 17km day isn’t far enough for me anymore. I’d be there by lunchtime. Then what?

The campsite is lacking in a shelter, and somewhere to wash. There is a tap but the temperature is already dropping. I set to making a cup of tea. The steady breeze moves me off the table. I drop the lighter in my pan, squat beside my tent and pour water into my pan. That’s the lighter soaked. I haven’t carried a spare in months. I refused to buy another one this close to the end. Idiot. I wander over to the one motorhome on site. “Sorry to bother you, you don’t have a lighter I could borrow?” The lady digs out a mega big time igniter. “Just leave it on this box when you’re done.” Plenty generous of her, I’m going to need it until morning. Problem solving has already happened. I’ll go via Bog Inn Hut where there’s bound to be lighter or matches. Something to get me out of this mess. Later, the man comes over with an avocado, a couple of feijoas and an actual lighter for me. The trail provides. The bush edge of Pureroa Forest Park is alive with birds. Kaka squark at dusk. Rurus pick up the chorus. The forest here is one of my best chances of seeing a Kokako in the wild. They say their song is so distinct it will stop you in your tracks, so like a Kaka, a Tui, or a Korimako. I don’t expect I’ll see one. Elusive and rare. I might hear one’s song though. My night is not a good one. Cold and dirty, tired and hungry. I toss and turn, wake to half remembered dreams. I watch 3 become 4 become 5. It’s ok. It’s time to get up. Pastel dawn arrives. Short cropped grass sparkling white with not quite frozen dew. The birds whistle away the cold. Nowhere near as cold as yesterday. Nothing among the raucous song sounds distinctly different. I never do hear anything that stops me in my tracks. Silver mist unrolls like silk over the pastures downhill. Shafts of gold pour through open windows on the canopy as I set off.

Ancient forest gives way to open scrublands where the trees were felled when there seemed no limit to the wood. All signs suggest these open areas will be allowed to naturally return to forest. I hope they are given the opportunity to become ancient too. Shared with cyclists, the Timber Trail is graded like a Great Walk. The trail level and clear. I wind along the slopes of Pureroa, slowly climbing towards the summit. Ahead of any weekend crowd for now. The first two bikes pass me when I take a break before beginning the actual tramp up to the summit. The track quality drops off immediately. Proper tramping. I make the summit between blue skies and cold wind. The view stretches out for days. Lake Taupo, Ngaruhoe and Ruapehu, a hazy blue cone on the Western horizon; Taranaki. A trip worth making. The descent is trickier still. A.sign advices DOC no longer maintain the trail. Plants have closed in, trees have called, the track becomes a stream. I emerge again on to the Timber Trail. Whirr of spoke, crunch of gravel as a peloton of cyclists come through cutting sharp lines across corners. They look like they might go all the way. The table I was hoping to spread my tent over is occupied by cyclists. They can’t believe I’ve been walking for almost 5 months. Neither can I. The bush surrounding the trail is magnificent. I realise it might be the last good forest I see. Maybe tomorrow, maybe also the 42 Traverse. Then again maybe not. The end of my journey along Te Araroa is close. I’ve got days left. 250km. Nothing at all. Soon after my time in New Zealand will be up too. This ridiculous, brilliant adventure is almost over. For the first time I feel a sadness. When will I next get to live like this? Can I continue to out do myself year on year? Who can I drag along for adventures when I do get home? Will I ever see my trail family again? I feel joy too, because this adventure has been brilliant and ridiculous. A hunter offers me a ride on the back of his quad. Ridiculous. Cyclists come through in a mass at 3pm. I get swarmed as we hit a gravel road. “Flat tyre?” A hunter jokes. “More like two” The same jokers pass me on their way out. “Still a long way to go,” one says as he hands me a beer through the passenger window of their pickup. Brilliant.

The end of the day comes. Those who remain on trail are tiring. Two bikers can’t catch me on an incline. How smug do I feel? They do dksallear rather quickly down hill. Another follows me instead of the trail. “Hello,” he says as he stops. “I think I just missed my turn.” Piropiro Campsite is huge. I walk first over to the water tap to fill up, then I look for my spot. There’s a fair few tents, a couple of vans. The shelters are all filled with hunters. Smoke rises and I can smell the charring of meat. I pick an elevated spot still in the sun so I can dry my tent before I get in it. The evening is significantly warmer than the last two but there’s little light left. These long days are coming at a cost to my personal hygiene. I’ve been scummier than this before. There was a time when I didn’t know I could wash on trail. I’m eaten and in bed as dark sets in. Before 7pm. This is why I ended up with fairy lights in The Van over the first winter. I wake up in the dark, the tent damp with condensation. By the time I’ve had breakfast and hot drinks the tent is frozen. My gas cannister has also frozen to the ground. The temperature continues to fall. my fingers find small motor tasks difficult. Folding, clipping, tying. I can fix up when I warm up. The roar of quad comes before any cycle. Two hunters wrapped up like for winter. Me not so different. Strange how used I am to seeing men with rifles these days. When I stop for first break, it’s warm in the sun. Still cold in the shade. There’s still ice in my tent when I shake it out to dry it off. The bikes start coming through. My lunchtime associates of yesterday give me a cheer. Re-tyinh my laces I notice the usual stress points have appeared on my Hokas. Par for the course at over 300km I guess. My lighter lending friends come through and stop for a quick chat. I hit the Ongarue Spiral, a supposed highlight. Most of today has been on old tramways. The spiral is some engineering to overcome the gradient issues of getting trains to go uphill. It might have been good on a bike, a little loop and a tunnel. Walking it, it’s just delaying the inevitable. I have my eye out for a shortcut but it’s a pretty long drop. I wrongly assumed I’d be first on last off the Timber Trail. Not long after I arrive at the shed which will be my home for the night, three more cyclists pull off the trail. The shed looks sturdy enough and currently feels like it’s been in the sun all day. I decide to skip out on my tent and sleep inside. The volume of hunters in Pureroa Forest is due to the Roar. The Stags are horny and crying out for attention. Less cautious than normal. They sound like a mix between wolves howling and someone dragging wooden furniture around. Or a hoard of Wookies. For being alone in a shed, their rumbling is pretty unsettling. I make sure to fetch my ear plugs before crawling into all of my layers and then my sleeping bag. The shed is warmer, or the night isn’t as cold. The autumn mornings are hard, but beautiful. Fog smothers the land. The sun slowly burns away. Powder blue skies wait beyond. I will take the cold over the wet every single day.

The Ongarue Valley doesn’t have South Island splendor. The sharp peaks of hills are cleared of trees. Sheep and cattle graze the open pasture. The contrast of green on blue is enough. I suspect my mood has been lifted anyway. Today I arrive in Taumarunui. If Plan B had worked out I could call it a day here. Iain and I would have set off on the Whanganui River on the 15th of November. I would have returned to the start. Things didn’t play out that way. We got shunted down stream by flooding to Whakahoro. A two day paddle or a week’s walk. I’ve just finished the Timber Trail in two days. 84km. I’m not gonna lie, I’m a little bit proud. And I’m still moving on. The road in to Taumarunui is long and uneventful. When I get there all the cafes are closed. Of course, it’s Monday. I end up getting the most disgusting (it was filthy but perfectly edible) burger from Golden Kiwi Takeaways. I’m convinced even the lettuce was fried. The chips are a sorry state too, golden crusty and almost cold. You can’t fuck up a cold can of Sprite though. I stop to chat with a couple of flip-flopping Sobos at the supermarket. Their story more disjointed than mine. South Island, then Cape Reinga to Auckland, now the Whanganui River. Then everything else Northbound. I leave them to their resupply and cross over the Whanganui River. Back again but not quite done. Home for the night is Taumarunui River Canoes. The bed for the night is free and if they’re running people in to Whakahoro a week from now, I can catch a ride out. They’re confident if they’re not running in, someone else will be, and there’s always the locals. I get there to find some upgrades, three new cabins where the container and shed used to be. The container is still there, so is the shed somewhere. These remain my options. I seek out the shed because I know I can shut the door, so I can keep the cold out. The promise of a hot shower is unfulfilled. There is cold water, and a shower head beneath a tree. An outdoor shower is not to be sniffed at. If I ever have a place it’ll need enough privacy for an outdoor shower of my own. The night is warmer than they have been. In the morning I stay snuggled deep in my cocoon. Luke’s going to pick me up in Owhango when he finishes work and I’ll stay with him while the next storm passes. He doesn’t finish work until 5:30pm. Owhango is only 23km away. 6 hours at the worst. There’s nothing on the way, nowhere to stop, and nothing in Owhango either. A slow morning is the best I can do. Staying in town might have been nice but seeing as nowhere in Taumarunui seems capable of doing good food I don’t feel like I’ve missed an opportunity for a decent breakfast.

What you expect and what you get don’t always align. Along the tar seal, through the empty fields I spot one that’s not. Something tall is moving on two legs. There is an ostrich. Bipedal creatures that aren’t human are a little bit freaky. Too tall. Too reptilian. The ostrich follows me along the fence, stopping occasionally to dance at me. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be threatened or flattered. All I feel is somewhat glad the Moa and Hasst’s Eagle are gone. Running into a big bird in the bush would be a terrifying thing. There are horses too, and so many goats. Once the road becomes gravel I find I get lucky again. There’s a man leaning on the back of his truck. “I hope you’re not waiting for me,” I say. “No,” he says, “a mate from work.” We get to chatting and I find myself invited in for smoko. A cup of tea and a few biscuits. George tells me his wife used to be mayor around here and she was instrumental in securing funding for the Timber Trail and some of the other tracks that link up Te Araroa. I tell him to pass on my thanks. We spent an hour there and I find I’ve got less time to burn. I drag my feet up the hill, stop for a break. A biker comes through. She was walking Te Araroa but started to run out of time so picked up a bike in Palmerston North. She’s still got her pack and her poles. I carry on to Owhango. I find a place to sit, send a message to Luke and wait for my ride to arrive. He comes with fancy feijoa fizz and apologies it’s not a Sprite. It’ll do. He shows me to my room, introduces his housemates and makes burgers for dinner. The rain I’d hoped to avoid is now avoiding us but the wind comes in pretty hard. I decide to take a day off while I still can. The weather ever improving to the point where I might get away with another fine day on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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