Day 87: Porirua to Wellington (22km)
I was pretty sore and tired when I woke up on my 1cm-thick mattress in my tiny little tent. I could see my breath in the air, I had a dehydration headache, and all my joints felt rusted shut. Five days straight of walking all day, after not much training, will do that. After breakfast in the Elsdon Camp communal kitchen, I took some Ibuprofen and rubbed on a possibly dangerous amount of Tiger Balm. Then I hobbled up to the manager’s office to pay, feeling broken, and taking in the view of Porirua:
The pic below shows where I pitched my tent, on the small lawn in the middle. The best part of this campground, apart from the view from the manager’s office, is the bush and birdsong right down to its edge.
Mine was the only tent, surrounded by people sleeping in buses, vans and caravans. Many of them, I learned while chatting to a couple over breakfast, were long-term residents. They live at the camp not necessarily by choice but because of high rents and the impossibility, for many, of getting a house deposit together.
Again, that sense of my absolute privilege in being able to adopt and cast off the nomadic life as I choose.
The path up Rangituhi begins just outside the camp’s gates. I was soon immersed in cool, still bush.
This path is very popular with Porirua locals, who have made a morning or after-work constitutional up the “Knob” a part of the city’s way of life. Watching them stroll past me, gossiping and laughing as I Iaboured under my pack, reminded me of the way people in Ngāruawahia have become proud frequent flyers on their Hakarimata summit track – also part of Te Araroa.
About two-thirds of the way to the Rangituhi summit there’s a lookout with fantastic views in all directions. To the south, my day’s main objective: Mt Kaukau, Wellington’s northern gateway. That’s it with the big TV and radio aerial, right on the skyline. It seemed a bloody long way off.
To the south-west, the Rangituhi summit, also aerial-capped. Much of the actual summit has been cleared for farming, but some is gradually reverting to bush, or at least bright yellow gorse and tenacious, olive-coloured scrub.
The next pic’s to the south-east, where the new Transmission Gully route comes in to rejoin State Highway 1, down through Kenepuru, Tawa and Johnsonville toward central Wellington. On the horizon you can just make out the tops of the Remutaka Range.
This is north-east, showing the new gully road swooping in, and the foothills of the Tararua Range up beyond Pāuatahanui and the Akatarawa Road.
This one’s looking north, over the Porirua CBD and the harbour. You can make out the Paremata/Mana Bridge over the mouth of Pāuatahanui Inlet, and beyond it, the hill between the city and the Kāpiti coast. The small dark green blob near the centre of the pic, beside the motorway, is the Gear Homestead and Adrenaline Forest that I mentioned in my previous post; on its right, the Aotea subdivision.
The wind from the north howled and battered. I went for a look around. Hidden in scrub near the summit something caught my eye: a heavy log, wrapped in a white cloth. Someone had written things on it with marker pen – names of loved ones, it seemed, along with personal problems: “my anxiety”, “X’s depression”, “Y’s anger”, “Z’s negative memories”. I imagined the writer, a big-hearted parent maybe, walking up their city’s special maunga bearing this symbol of their burdens. Standing a moment at the top, breathing hard, taking in the size of the view, the size of what they’d lugged up there. Closing their eyes, maybe, then chucking that log high and out, sending it spinning into the wind and the bush. Letting it fly. Feeling the power of all this huge openness flood inside.
It was time for me to get spinning too.
The summit track gets more and more exposed. At times it was hard to stand. Off to the west, Mana Island appeared, from a new perspective for me – almost from above:
Here’s a closer look – a savoury layer-cake of land, cloud and sea:
The summit track was a wind-blasted, wild place. Cresting a small rise the wind made it hard to even take a step; it felt like my heavy pack was the only thing keeping me from blowing into Cook Strait. A mountain biker coming toward me had to dismount and struggle along crab-wise, bent double. Still, I liked the way the land lay, out toward Makara beach:
Here’s a closer shot of those turbines, possibly among the world’s most fuel-rich:
Wellington harbour briefly appeared through the mist, out beyond the hills of Granada and Newlands, but you can’t really see it in this photo:
This one maybe gives a better idea:
Meanwhile, Mt Kaukau loured closer, its massive aerial lost in the clouds:
Following the farm track down off the Rangituhi summit (that infamously and inadequately designated “knob”) I came across these hardy youngsters, following their mum, all three seeming as comfortable and agile in the pounding northerly as I wasn’t:
The trail then winds downward through the Spicer Forest, a pine plantation. It’s a quiet, moody place, with a sense of nature slowly reasserting itself.
Ponga ferns and other natives are slowly coming up among the pines.
After less than an hour you come out onto the valley floor, then Ōhariu Valley Road. Kaukau beckons above a sheepyards.
Walking Ōhariu Rd is a strange experience. Just outside the capital, it would be one of the wealthier rural areas of the country. Much of the valley’s heartbeat seems to be to do with horse-sports. The homes and farm buildings are often elaborate and imposing, the pastures groomed and the white-railed fences looking polished, and on the mailboxes and gateways British names abound: Oak This, Willow That, So-and-so Glen. British vegetation predominates, too: apart from all the heavily fertilised grass, it seems mostly willows, pines, macrocarpas, cherry trees and ivy.
But the most striking things is how the immaculate fences and house boundaries come right down to the fog line, as if the owners begrudge ceding any more land than is absolutely necessary to the public right-of-way. Often there’s nowhere to walk except a deep ditch, or right out on the narrow strip of tar itself. You have to keep alert; there are stetches with nowhere much to go, if a big shiny ute comes barrelling round a corner. Which they quite often do.
It was uncomfortable physically, but also interiorally – it felt unwelcoming, even mean-spirited. As if there is no such thing as public space in this valley, except the bit you traverse sitting in a steel box, behind an insulating pane of toughened glass. No place to wander, to take your time, and certainly not to be any kind of stray.
This pic isn’t a particularly good example, as there’s actually a bit of walking space. Also it’s actually Rifle Range Road, which the trail follows off Ōhariu Valley Rd. But it gives an idea of what I’m on about.
I was passed by a BMW, an Audi, a Range Rover and any number of flash, clean, pumped-up utes, especially those self-consciously alpha-looking Rangers. Every one of them whooshed by like a spaceship, barely slowing down.
Conscious of representing the trail, and that I was probably offending these people by being without means of motorised support on their posh road, I’d wave and smile and try for eye contact. But they would either stare straight ahead, as if I didn’t exist, or turn their heads to stare blankly at me.
As if thinking: how utterly vulgar, that man is walking. On the road.
Whew, got that off my chest. Apologies to the good folk of Ōhariu, who are probably actually fine. These mean thoughts may have mainly occurred to me because I’d been walking for nearly a week and my whole being hurt.
That said, I’ve read somewhere the Te Araroa trustees are trying to negotiate an off-road route along the ridge between Ōhariu and the Tawa area to the east. That would be fantastic.
But I do know that my snide remarks above are a crass generalisation, because the driver of one of Ōhariu’s passing cars not only did acknowledge me with a smile, but actually clapped on the brakes and waited till I came abreast.
The car was a beaten-up old hatchback. The jaunty-looking guy in his 50s who wound down the driver’s window wore a holey jersey, a three-day growth and a mishmash of hair. He grinned at me warmly, leaning through the window.
“Gidday mate, you doing that Great-New Zealand-North Island-South Island-Walk-Thing?”
He laughed, shaking his shaggy head and raising his eyebrows at the pure comedy of it.
“Well… you’re over halfway!”
I smiled and he gave me a big, calloused, full-armed thumbs up. “Good on ya, mate.”
Then he wound up the window and rattled off, beaming.
All the while, beyond the immaculate pastures, Kaukau was getting closer:
Finally I was at the end of Rifle Range Road and onto the Old Coach Road, which starts as a farm track that switches its way higher and higher. The wind pummelled me, blowing my pack cover off at one point. On, on I plodded. Suddenly, around a corner, suburbia appeared. Johnsonville. After nearly five days, I’d made it to Wellington. If I’d wanted, I could have walked from this point down a path for five minutes, then got a city bus for another fifteen to my house.
But I resisted. My plan was to walk all the way to my front door in Wilton, a few suburbs past this one and just off the trail. And the light was fading. I pressed on.
It was far from the first time that, at the fag end of a long day’s tramping, I’ve had to force myself forward in the dusk, the wind and the cold. But it felt odd to be doing it with home comforts so close at hand.
The higher I got, the worse the wind. Mt Kaukau is one of the windiest places in the country, regularly recording gale-force gusts at the summit. That day, gales were forecast in exposed places, and they don’t get much more exposed than the upper north-facing slopes of Kaukau. While I pondered the wisdom of continuing, and my whole body vibrated in the wind, I tried to take a photo of the way ahead:
I slogged on – it seemed a reasonable risk, given I was only a duck downhill from safety. Meanwhile, the track passed below the canopy of a stretch of regenerating bush; instant relief from that carping, hassling wind.
My favourite harbour then came fully into view, with Somes/Matui Island at its centre. It was a great feeling, that sensation of walking all the way home, nearly, from far away and overcoming many toils and snares.
It was also satisfying to look back north, up the Ōhariu Valley and beyond, at much of the ground I’d covered that day:
I tried to savour the views while I had them, because it didn’t look like there’d be much visibility at the Kaukau Summit:
Through the mist and between folds in the hills, my home city glimmered. I could see the waterfront, the inner harbour, the lights near the airport, Mount Vic:
It was a relief but also quite intense to walk out onto the summit. The wind hammered, the rain scythed and the big old pines around the antenna roiled and moaned. Having been there before, I knew the top of Kaukau has a ghostly, charged, gothic feel. But it was extra interesting in this weather, right on dusk, with a long way to go.
Through it all, the aircraft warning beacon on the big aerial flashed out its steady, sombre beat. Here, here, here:
Walking down the sharp ridgeline of the Skyline Track on the other side, further requests for focussed photos were denied by the northerly:
I staggered over into the lee, on the south-facing slope below the ridge, and rested a while in the long, wet grass. Contemplating from above the rainswept heart of my new hometown, I felt like the narrator of Baxter’s “The Ballad of Grady’s Dream”:
And through the harbour fog
The guts of Wellington
Glowed like a great morgue
Where even the cops had gone.
I realised, then, that walking all the way to my front door was out of the question. It was only another 7km or so, but much of that would be uphill onto Te Ahumairangi Hill, and it was dark, wet, windy, and already much later than I’d wanted to be home. Plus I was shattered. I rang my partner, who graciously agreed to pick me up at the next road access.
Then I was off again, trying not to get blown over on the narrow ridge, looking out for the turn off, just before Crow’s Nest, down into the suburb of Ngaio.
Finally I found the sign for Bell’s Track. Descending the exposed slope, the wind pushed me into a half-run, dangerous on the rough ground carrying a heavy pack. But I made it into the shelter of the bush and was soon winding down to Awarua Street. This track is cared for by a local environmental group, and it was good to see all their new seedlings lining the track.
Then I was passing a gateway and back onto asphalt footpaths, back under street lights, back among mail boxes and back beside manicured berms. After the wind-scoured tops of Pukeatua, Rangituhi and Kaukau, the empty miles of the Kāpiti beaches, the rowdy ones of the Centennial Highway and the inhospitable ones of Ōhariu, I felt like an alien, or a lost explorer returning from the wastes.
I sat down on the footpath, back against a retaining wall and my pack beside me, and waited for my ride. This small metal figurine mounted on a housefront sort of summed up how I felt:
It was only a five-minute drive home, where the fire was going and dinner was waiting. I’d walked over 100km and gained a new appreciation for the corner of the world I live in, by reaching it on foot, through its hinterland. A very good and memorable feeling.
More posts will follow soon as I fill in the couple of short previous sections I had to skip, and then do my very last Te Araroa North Island day, down to the edge of Cook Strait at Island Bay.
Meanwhile you can read the rest of the journey so far, all the way from Cape Rēinga if you like, by hitting “home” at the top of this post.
Thanks for reading, hasta pronto and ngā mihi nui.