Northland has a reputation for heat, so it is surprising to find the evenings so cold. I wake from the near freezing night to enjoy a relaxed, slow morning writing, reading and drinking hot drinks. This is more like it! Days around 6-8hrs, 18km-ish, a bit of time to stop and smell the flowers. My arms and back are stiff, the good stiffness from hard work the day before – all that swinging from trees in Raetea.
After the surreal experience of sitting on the loo while a French couple get up and see my not-business half, I head off at 11. Today is a simple day, a ‘connection leg’ as the trail notes might call it. A km to SH1, down 6km, then 12km up roads into the Pukeiti Forest to the Apple Dam campsite.
SH1 is quiet here and I wander along, lost in thought.
“Hello!” says a voice over the road; it’s Alex, with tramping gear and mud up her trousers beyond the leg – an American walking TA too. With an ear to ear grin she stops to point out and marvel at the little things, like a tern in a tree. I didn’t spot her at camp, because she’d camped somewhere in the mud above. We have a bit of a chat, walking opposing sides of SH1, pausing when the trucks rumble by. I feel like we’re on a similar page, soaking it up.
Down the road are the flags of the Mangamuka Dairy (corner shop), the centrepiece of a sprawling Mangamuka, more an area than a town. We drop our kit and enter, eyes wide. It’s not a full-service dairy, but it’s a cornucopia to our eyes. What they lack in regular stock they make up for in a kitchen; they do burgers! I grab a drink and practically wriggle with anticipation while Alex takes almost five full minutes to order a sandwich. Barely touches the sides.
They keep a visitor book; I see Canadian Steve has passed by. “Whole heap of trampers coming!” the dairy girls exclaim, as the rest of the campsite arrives. Seven smelly trampers + packs quickly fill the space.
“Do you know what Mangamuka means?” asks Alex.
“Japanese cartoon flax fibres” I reply. She doesn’t buy it, but gets a similar answer from the shop owner.
The trampers send messages to each other on WhatsApp, gathered around the table. It’s not how I want this trip to be, so I head on after a heartfelt thank you to the shop owners – these outposts mean the world!
I swing east onto the gravel Jackson’s road, winding up to the forest. The farmland here is picturesque, with patches of lush forest still about, and many tall and old trees breaking up the endless fields. The big irrigators have a lot to answer for elsewhere, but here it’s too hilly.
It’s hot; I must inspect my feet. I park it in a ditch and remove my boots and socks. It’s only then I notice a farmer herding dairy cows in my direction; oh shit! I quickly pull fresh socks on, blister-coverings missing; I must be mobile before they get here! The panic is for naught though, as they pass close but on a hidden neighbouring road, not this one.
I am loathe to look at my feet again after that hurried movement, they were as two wrinkly pink newborn rodents with great globs of thick yellow custard blisters splattered on them. Disgusting, and horrifying. They look worse than they feel today though, and I mosey on up hill.
“Big Stump – 70metres” a DOC sign proclaims, next to a sign about Kauri Dieback. This one is clearly already dead, but there’s a little brush and a spray bottle for you to disinfect the mud on your boots. Feeling I should do the right thing, I grab the bottle – it’s empty. I wander out anyhow. The big stump is, indeed, a very large stump. Well on its way to returning to the earth now, I do think it interesting we have (had) a tourist attraction which was the leavings of something great which we killed. Appreciating things only after they’re gone seems to be part of the human condition.
Pukeiti Forest is semi-closed, to help prevent the spread of Kauri Dieback. Dieback is a fungus which latches on to Kauri roots in a similar way as a symbiotic fungus; but unfortunately this one suffocates, poisons and kills the Kauri instead. Spread through the earth, the imperfect response at the moment is to remove the human boots. Doesn’t remove the other animals of course, and only slows things down, but it looks like something.
Because of the forest situation, TA walkers are only allowed to stay at Apple Dam campsite, detour around the forest 36km and camp at the other end. I toddle on to Apple Dam.
I assume the old wooden shed and broken concrete water tank are relics of an old structure at Apple Dam; but no, those are the amenities. This DOC campsite is highly ‘rustic’; it’s just a turning circle for a ute! But the feed at Mangamuka caught up with me and I decide to play ball, not go bush and use the real facilities.
I flash my head torch around the loo. Just a spider up top – no sweat! I drop trou and sit on the painted chipboard. I am partially evacuated when I look into the bowl closely; it’s pretty full, which raises the horrifying spectre of other peoples splashback itself – but more worryingly, those colours I thought were scratches in the plastic are actually the bodies and shadows of cave wetas, sitting all around the inside of the bowl. Please don’t splash them, I will myself. Please.
I splash them. They scamper, and I leap off the toilet like a rocket. Least relaxing bowel movement of the trip so far.
As the evening wears on, everyone from last night dribbles in. They’re a nice bunch, but I feel apart. Not so for Alex; she’s right in there already, one of the crew now – I must learn a leaf from her book. To enjoy the human, companionate element to this trip more. I beat myself up on this but maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself; when walking around is painful, getting and staying off your feet is seductive and important! Either way, a fire is lit and everyone is sitting around, having yarns except me, who sits in his tent looking at feet.
One is saying that the walk tomorrow is 15km, not 35km – “hell, Kerikeri is only 25km away!” he states. Being wrong when I’m right gets me up; plus it’s a potentially heartbreaking, dangerous error they’re making. I show him – his app is giving him direct line distances, mine is giving the route distances. I don’t know how people can be so ill prepared, it is scary! I hobble back to my tent to eat dinner, a real killjoy.
When I eventually stop being a sook and join them about the fire I am welcomed with open arms – theyre a good bunch. Live a little you crotchetty old shit. Maybe the pain and worry drives me to seclusion, and things’ll flow better once things’re flowing better.
It’s to be another freezing night tonight; I put hot water in my metal drink bottle. The steam leaks from the top, wetting the towel wrapped around it. I brought this bottle specifically as a cold night comfort, but if it leaks, that comfort will make me even colder and possibly kill me. I cool it enough to stop steaming, keep it wrapped in a towel, and enjoy cuddling it in the chill. But I don’t trust it – I biff it at my next stop.
The morning sees me up early. Under Alex’s blisterless recommendation I get wrapping toes with all my lambs wool today; just go ham on it. Today is 36km of gravel roads, the longest day yet on the hardest surfaces.
I hobble on north, up along the perfect forestry roads.
The road is dotted with beehives – some wildly successful, others just dead. I find it odd they’re apiaries, yet apeless.
Its a quiet road, indeed I see no vehicle for a full 9.5 hours. Passing through native forest, or pine forest, or anything in between – the road winds on. A wee ford offers a water stop and an excellent view for lunch.
At one of my hourly foot drying rest stops, Alex catches up with me. “I am glad to see you, to know I am going the right way!”. We walk the final 10k together, and it makes the pain and time fly. There are some real good eggs walking the country, walking not because theyre lost, but walking because they’re not. To be around these wonderful people delighting in life, can only inspire and do me good.
Cellphone reception is available along the ridges; indeed, along much of this leg. It’s good to be able to check in, or check things, but I prefer the radio silence – I leave my phone on flight mode. Surely it’s easier to swim in a new pool when you don’t keep your toes dipped in the old.
Leaving the forestry behind, Alex and I hobble through remnant tropical rainforest. We walk an empty carpark at dusk, leading to the Mangamangina Kauri Sanctuary. A short boardwalked loop, we decide we have the energy and drop on down. The great trunks are a sight, like huge elephant legs dropping down from the heavens. Something so much bigger than ourselves. We are able to touch these grand trees, and after our day, we have a real moment with them.
We hobble on the final 2km to the Pukeiti Campsite, ending the 36km 10.5hr day.
Dave and Mel arrive later, and honestly it’s with a little mixed emotion I see the familiar car pull into the site. On one hand I am so happy to see them. My big bro is great company and he’ll look after me like he always has – what a relief. But also, here’s an end to me solely looking after myself, here’s an end to my rebellious island. Of course with fresh fruit, chips and a beer shortly in hand, the rebellion is decidedly and contentedly quashed. Youngest child issues here, ‘all these great folk want to look after me, oh the woe!’
We share beers and the fruit with the other trampers as they get in – it is a nice feeling for all of us to share. Dave plonks a box of treats from the family infront of me; things which might help my blisters and so many yummy snacks. All symbols of care and love and I receive them as such, but I find myself overwhelmed. Here’s the self-sufficient tramper, overwhelmed and unable to carry all the help he’s got. Anything I can’t immediately consume or use I can’t save for a rainy day; I think I’m just shattered. We share a meal and I sleep like the dead, it’s all I can manage.
In the morning, things are hectic. Two of the others, ignoring signs and track notes, had walked the Pukeiti Forest route anyway, got lost and found their way to the site at 11pm. They pop over for a yarn and a 9am beer. I disapprove but also would love to be so free flowing.
Gear is packed back into the car; the mothership was a treat, but it is leaving. Today is Dave and I, wandering east to Kerikeri. My body is in a pretty poor state today; the blisters are sorted, but the long gravel roads have given me a bruised heel. Every step on the right ankle is a pain; the painkillers eventually only do so much. Dave’s not used to this kind of terrain either, and soon we’re both hobbling through the farmland with ailments.
Walking with Dave is a treat, a little comfort of home, and to share part of this journey is cool. I don’t wish him pain, but I am glad we can commiserate on the challenge of the walk – there’s a difference in knowing it’ll be hard, and feeling it.
Ahead is a stile, with a red bucket hanging from it. “Free fruit for TA walkers!” the bucket proclaims. What a delight! Dave peels a grapefruit and it is simply devine. What good vibes on the trail. Unfortunately some of our fellow walkers saw fit to just throw their peels about the farm, right next to the bucket. With the useless navigation, ignoring track closures, and being disgusting pigs, while they are seemingly nice people my tolerance is getting spent. These are the people who have a good time and burn the bridges behind them. Of course I don’t say anything to them, as is the English way. Dave carries the peels to Kerikeri.
We drop down to a weed covered track along the edge of the Kerikeri river. It leads on right through town to Kemp House and the Stone Store, the oldest European buildings in New Zealand (1836?). The trail is a real cutey, but we’re just bloody sore. I don’t know if it’s due to keeping Dave’s pace or not having my mind drift 100 miles away, or whether the pain is just that bad, but it is centre stage today. Dave is a pro at smelling flowers though, and we have frequent breaks at beautiful spots; I must learn to do this too.
We stagger in to the Kerikeri campsite at 8pm, a few treats from Countdown in hand. Everyone else is already there, and we have a fun evening, a great yarn; it’s the last night they’re probably all together. Two of the party saw a job advertised; they might take it and stop following the trail – how’s that for enjoyable drifting!
As we laugh about fake jobs we should tell people (they think I should be a zookeeper specialising in Giraffes), we get whistled at and shooshed by a crank in a campervan. “People are trying to sleep!”. It’s only 10:20pm – I feel oddly about this; we are definitely others, travelling by foot. When you feel so ‘other’, feeling like being considerate to the ‘other other’ drops a bit. Go park not next to the kitchen, guy?
In the morning I stagger out of my tent. My foot is NOT GOOD. I use one pole as a cane, and with all my weight on it I can hobble about without too much pain. As I shuffle back from the shower, I spot a familiar face – it’s Canada (Steve)! I caught up with him on his rest day. Nice to see the man from the beach again.
Dave and I decide to stay in a motel in Kerikeri, it’s my birthday – let’s rest that foot in style.
As we pack to leave the campsite, a coughing man in black sweats camped nearby approaches us. I do my ‘answer in the affirmative without offering anything much’ thing, as I crawl around my tent (I’m cowed to my knees now). The fine citizen moves through getting free money by signing up to courses, to being able to get us access to creepy porn servers for $50. Holiday park indeed. My skin crawls along with the rest of me. He also offers us a local tip – “there’re no ATMs in Paihia – if you need cash you should get it here”. At the time I thank him, but after seeing all the ATMs in Paihia, I suspect he was gearing up to rob us if we strayed from the tents together.
We try to order a taxi from the front desk – the owner just gives us a ride. Soon we’re at a poolside, sipping a complimentary beer and getting our feet up. Dave pick us up some bits and pieces, forces me to let him do everything, and we have a nice relaxed brotherly birthday evening.
I’m rather annoyed about my foot! I had read about injuries etc, but not what things usually happen, how they happen, what the early signs are. I had thought a lot of the failures were mental things not instances where the spirit is willing but the body can’t keep pace. Idiot, I must still have some of that adolescent invincibility thinking. It’s all learning on the fly – and while a few days off your feet while you’re at home is OK, out here I don’t have anything else to do. This walk is my life at the moment, when I can’t do it, I am reduced to writing considerably more than anyone wants to read just to give me something to do!
A look online suggests this bruised heel may take anything from 1 to 3 weeks to heal! The thought of returning to the support of Wellington to save money crosses my mind. It crushes my heart and spirit – no.
Mel comes to pick us up in the morning, from the Stone Store; we toddle over there to visit the cafe and wait.
While there, an old bloke with a worn stick approaches us. ‘Walking the trail?’ He’s a resident of Takahue, and recognised my bright orange hat from a few days previous! A ‘trail angel’, he has rescued and driven many a weary tramper around the hinterland.
We drive over to Paihia, I teach Dave and Mel sevens and we have a good time. We pop over to Russell for a day, and I sit in the sun reading. Just relaxing with these supremely relaxed two is a balm; there is no need to fret. What is a week, what is three weeks, in the story of my life?
I find a peaceful, quiet and cheap Air BnB to get my foot up at. It’s a teary farewell from me as I wave Dave on his way, the big box of tramping goodies under my arm now to get me through four nights of rest.
I had ‘trained’ for this adventure, through increasingly difficult tramps every weekend for ages. In the end it hasn’t been the beach, blisters or mountains that got me, but the endless gravel roads. I am frustrated, frustrated with my body not standing up to the rigours. But if I weren’t comparing it to others who’re halfway to Auckland already, I’d say I’m quite proud of myself making it this far before a system collapse. So, time to enjoy the fine works of Iain M Banks, stop comparing myself to others and enjoy a little break. The people walking it come and go, but Te Araroa isn’t going anywhere. The next leg of adventures await, once I’ve smelt some roses.
This post covers 14.10.2018 – 20.10.2018