I spend much of two days in a roadside Kaitaia motel, writing and recovering blisters. The owners’ wee pug, aptly named Doug, coats me in fur and wriggles constantly, desperate in his desire to lick my horrifying and slow healing toes. While I need the space to write, I feel quite out of the flow and alone; most walkers stay at the hostel up the road. I am not one of the strong ones who made it off the beach here; I’m just a smelly single man with no style and a limp.
My sense of otherness is only enhanced by a roadwork crew arriving later in the evening. They wander to and from the various units they’ve secured, and drink beers out on the forecourt together. “Beautiful units you’ve got here’ they compliment the host. “Might as well take a fuckin’ shit before we go” they share at 5am the next morning.
On the third night I hobble up to the backpackers – motel pricing by yourself is not sustainable. Almost everybody is a TA walker – some preparing and excited for starting the beach, others resting weary feet from theirs. I enjoy being part of the later, showing my puffy, pink and puss-filled credentials. As I staggered here between rain storms I picked up two pairs of merino socks, moleskin plasters and antiseptic. Blisters shall not be overlooked or hold me up again!
KFC is next door, so I eat KFC for dinner. I had hoped I would lose weight on this trip but it is unlikely with this gorging.
With town utilities I improve what I can of my setup. Most navigate with thier phone, and many with the Guthook App. For $60 you can load the entire TA route, and each turn, water source and other points of interest are noted. There is a glaring gap, which is places to camp; these were removed some years back as some were illegal. It makes things annoyingly tricky to plan – would that they were relabelled ‘clearing’ instead. Its other fault is that the ‘trail’ is so heavy you can’t see what the track is beneath it; are you walking down a stream, a road, or a marked route? And the official maps aren’t much better; streams are marked in a 1px aqua line, no matter how much you zoom; they are effectively invisible. So I download the LINZ Topographic maps , which have a two fold benefit. They dont show me the route, so I need to read the notes to know it, and the terrain is beautifully clear to see. (this is the kind of boring brain-spew I wont have in the book!)
There’s an Australian woman getting ready to begin her trip. I ask why she’s walking. ‘Our world is on the cusp of collapse, and this felt like my chance to enjoy the peak before the storm’ she replies. Cheery stuff, but I find I can’t refute her general outlook. But I am trying to ignore that dread on this trip!
I enjoy talking with her, with her dinkum impeccable English. She gets dumb wordplay. I find myself struggling with many of the second language speakers; I can’t stop myself using colloquialisms like ‘mingin’.
One of the few grizzled locals staying at the hostel sits infront of the TV. It produces static. “Can you fix?” he asks the young German man reading his phone opposite.
“I helped you yesterday” replies the kid.
“I know you did”
“If I helped you every day…” the kid trails off.
“Well fuck you too then.”
There’s no malice, the man turns the TV off and sits quietly; the young German keeps doing his thing. I think the kid a bit of a cunt, but I don’t get up to try and fix the TV for the man either. Typical me wants to go see if I can fix it for the guy, but I know it would annoy me if it were working, so I don’t. It’s a small victory for me – I feel I have put others ahead of myself my whole life (except when blind drunk) and, long-term, 100% of the time, it has unbalanced my relationships, led me to misery before exploding seemingly from nowhere, then alone to start the cycle again. Even now I feel bad about being able to help this guy and not doing it, but hey. It takes a while to learn to behave more like a toddler.
My big brother Dave is coming up to walk a few days with me on my approaching birthday. For he and I to walk short-ish days together and be by roads for his coming and going, I must get off my ass and across the Northland Forests. I drag tired feet into dusty boots and find great energy – ‘falling off’ the trail takes enrgy away, getting back on puts it right back.
Bouyed, I prance through sunny Kaitaia. I am on my way again! A heavyset local woman runs after my almost Leonardo DiCaprio-esque happy walk. “Are you a tourist?” she asks, blocking me yet avoiding eye contact. “Kindof, Im from Wellington” I tell her. Whatever interest she a had dissipates instantly and she drifts away. Most peculiar, I consider the possibility of a theft-scoping; but that’s a bit judgemental maybe.
I pop in to Subway for an early lunch. “You have a great energy” the man tells me – and I do – I am pumped to walk again! A light rain drizzles outside and I don my rain gear, excited for the coming days.
Today I’m heading to Takahue, a small hamlet between the closed Herekino forest and the Raetea Forest. 18km. Tomorrow I’ll cross the Raetea forest, another 18km, followed by a 20km roadwalk to the Apple Dam campsite in the Pukeiti Forest. After that it’s th big day i am worried about, a 36km detour around the forest on foerstry roads, before I sync up with Dave at the Pukeiti campsite. From here it’s a 22km day to Kerikeri then another to Paihia, on the east coast, where I will finally relax!
The trail notes advised against walking the 5km of SH1 outside Kaitaia, but I give it a go anyway. As I slide against the endless roadside gradient, slippery with oil, I find the main road interesting – it’s another alien landscape when walking. The scale is all for lumbering vehicles, speeding through at 100km an hour. The only souls to pay such attention to this land here are roadworkers and wildlife. It’s not like walking a 4×4 road – this is a highway. It’s a bit shit don’t get me wrong, but there’s beauty in the small scale returns of nature. The weeds forcing their way through bitumen, the blossoms in the roadside ditches. And of course there’re the ever present codys and takeaway detritus, and bags of dumped garbage. I’m not distraught to cross onto minor roads for the rest of the walk to Takahue.
Rain comes and goes as I plod on, through the swaying bamboo stands that line farms up this warm end of the country. As I reach the Takahue hall ready for a break, I glimpse two packs disappearing toward the forest. My toe feels no better, I am considering returning to Kaitaia. But I feel lonesome, I want a passing word; I forego a break and wander after them.
I catch them huddled, facing a tree during a passing downpour.
“How far are you going today?” I ask.
“We don’t know” the man replies. He’s using a GPS unit for navigation, and they’re blindly wandering along to see what happens. This might be OK on something like the Camino, but I feel it’s dangerous on Te Araroa. I share what I have learnt; where the best last water is before the forest, that there is camping at the Raetea forest summit. The man is most appreciative, punching coodinates into his GPS unit. What the hell would they be doing if I didn’t come along? I find the man’s ill preparation and ready-leeching off mine annoying, and his partner speaks so little English she speaks in the middle of my sentences. I hurry on, happy to leave them behind and hopeful they don’t catch up with me.
Unfortunately they do, as I climb the worsening 4×4 road climbing into Raetea forest. The man has run after me, eager to spot the stream I stop to fill water at despite having the coordinates. Annoying! But soon enough I reach great, subtropical forest, and all that road, my sore toe and garbage is forgotten. This is forest, this isn’t shared with vehicles, this is tramping! I was beginning to wonder if Te Araroa had any. I laugh with joy; this is familiar, and this is my happy place. I scamper through the bush.
It’s muddy bush – some of the muddiest I’ve been in. With two poles it’s all fine, though I catch myself wishing I only had one. On this rooty, varied terrain my blister is all but forgotten – only one step in 20 is a straight, road-like gait that rips the familiar rub.
The plants are intriguing; different from around home, more of them or growing differently. A curled blueish leaf catches my eye; it’s actually the shell of a giant carniverous native snail. So cool!
Canada had text me that there is a nice spot to camp on the 580 point. I reach it, to find a couple doing the finishing touches on their tent. The space is barely 2x2m, a hard-won flat space. I continue on, intending to reach the summit at 744m where grass and flat camping can be had.
Afer days of fast road kilometres, they drop away at a glacial pace up here – maybe one km an hour. I begin to get anxious; I don’t want to spend a night alone up in this rustling, darkening and scary bush! The fear of it pushes me on a bit longer, but at 6:30, after 8.5hrs walking 28km, the anxiety has no more energy to give. I find a small spot to camp 1km and 250 vertical metres from the summit, set up camp, eat and drop to sleep as the rain pelts down.
To my surprise, I am completely happy camping here, not worried at all. Nothing beats exhaustion.
I rise early in the morning, happy for the dawn. It wasn’t fear that kept me awake last night, it was the sloping downhill and root in my back. My toe is a bit oozy and yellow – pretty grim, I resign myself to changing plans once I leave the forest. Sticking this thing in forest mud is not a grand plan, but I have no options.
Packing up, I climb the remaining mountain with new vigour, reaching the radio mast and camping spot in 30 minutes. It is indeed a nice spot to camp, but a bit exposed and I am happy to have had my first night solo in a forest.
From the misty summit, the track weaves along the ridge, across other summits another 10km in an easterly direction to SH1. I just plod along. With the rain overnight the mud is multiplied – I am thankful for my gaiters.
It’s swampy, I think it like the Degoba system in Star Wars. I wonder if Yoda had brothers and sisters, and if he did, whether he taught them the Force. And if he did, did he ever say “Use the Force kin”? A lot of my idle thoughts I let flow by, but that one – I write it down.
This terrain is my thing – I fly along. I pass an Israeli couple making painfully slow progress. The track is muddy, but also surprisingly unclear at times. I thought Te Araroa tracks would be thrashed, but I have a few legitimate ‘where now?’ moments, and it’s as weakly marked as some of the most intrepid ‘tracks’ in the Tararuas.The mud rises to my knees at times (which are quite lofty for knees) – I’d love to see what it looks like after rain during the busy season.
Further down, birdsong changes for rock; a bluetooth speaker is ahead. Fortunately it’s playing CCR, else I may have punted it off the ridge. “Ah, gaiters!” exclaims one of the three stopped for lunch upon my approach. These three and the two behind have been together since the Cape. I had some dreams about reaching the Mangamuka dairy today, but begrudingly accepted the lack of pace in the forest was going to put paid to that. I have a short chat with this lot, but they don’t ask much; the bigger the group the more closed in many ways. I bomb on down, skipping lunch today; the campsite is not all that far now so may as well have it there.
As the forest gives way to rejuvenating farmland, the trail links onto an old farm road. It is not well drained. Some mud is particularly gross, throwing a stink and of a greenish tint. I try to splat the fresher looking puddles instead.
Grand vistas soon spring to view, a mix of great Kauri, lush paddocks and forested peaks. The interface between old forest and established paddocks can be quite unique; I can convince myself it’s a natural split, a picture of harmony in nature. Though isn’t it curious harmony has harm in it?
Further down the farm, I round a corner to find a field of cows. No fence separates me from them. They are all black and white, save for one, which is tan and moos at me continuously. I can tell its not a bull, but still. The cows excitedly head to the base of the road, right where I was walking. I stop, thinking I’ll wait for the others to arrive so I can cross the paddock together. They are forever away though, and the cows get bored, and moove off. I happily cross beneath them, but know this is just a reprieve. Eventually I will need to deal with cows.
The trail leads to a farmhouse surrounded by old containers and rusting junk. Suddenly it erupts; one of the eight dogs has spotted me, and the air is alive with barking dogs straining against leads. I stop, watching to see if any of them are unchained. They seem not to be. The trail notes had mentioned this, but I am still not sure I want to assume all eight are chained! Fortunately the owner comes out – one word from him and they’re good as gold.
I approach the man through the gauntlet. “Thanks for allowing us throgh your property” I say, or something equally nerdy.
He’s like a great cauldron, and the words bubble out – “Naproblimhedondowndarawd”. I head on down. There’s a sign for camping, and though I’ve only travelled 12km over 6hrs today, I am ready for it. I skipped lunch, which was stupid.
I am trying not to bring Hobbity things up all the time, but what lies before me is the most delightfully Hobbity scene. A rolling green valley before me has a small area fenced off by a handmade fence,built of manuka tree branches. ‘Camping’ is scrawled on a wee gate, through which I gratefully stagger. The site flows past a wee stream, with a picnic table. A clothesline is strung for our use, and a small long-drop sits in one corner, sheltered by three half-walls of wind netting and pallets. It is simply delightful, and that these guys put all this effort in for us walkers warms my heart.
I set up my tent, and MacGyver some washing lines from the guys. My toes are wet from the mud, but my feet haven’t felt so good since Day 2 – the blisters are on their way out!
Surprisingly slowly, the others arrive. They have done some hitch hiking stints, and against my desire, I find myself judging that. They’re on the same trail, and share the same experience of particular days, but their overall journey is quite different from mine. I really don’t want to be a ‘walk it all’ thru-hiker snob dickhead, but you notice the difference. It doesn’t mean I treat them any differently from those walking the whole way, and you have kinship with them too – but it’s not the same. Part of me wishes to break my perfect run, to cut a corner, to take a ride, to willingly dethrone myself from this bullshit high-horse. But once I’m down, there’s no getting back up – and I suspect as I go it’ll get harder and harder to take that ride. But really, any rest day, any extra comfort – hell, having more money to spend at a dairy; that’s advantage over a fellow walker, that means your walk was easier. I’ve taken days off to write this and mend a heel; I’m off that horse already, I just haven’t figured it out yet.
I settle in the late afternoon sun, happy with my book. Scratching my beard, I notice dandruff falling like snow. “Feed th wooorld, let them know its christmas time” plays in my head, and I can’t remove it. Fortunately the others’ bluetooth CCR helps me out later; I must learn to not be such a judgemental prick.
Tomorrow I head into the Pukeiti forest, then tackle the big 36k day. Stay tuned, same bat timr, same bat channel!
This post covered 10.10.2018 – 13.10.2018