Drifting alone on a sea of white: Huntly to Waitomo (Te Araroa tramp, days 42-48; kms 701-835)

If you get out of the cities and towns, and turn down any nearly-anonymous, barely-gravelled side road, you’ll experience a salient feature of Aotearoa: emptiness.

Particularly in mid-winter, when everything’s asleep. The land is full of trees, rocks and hills, but (at first glance, at least) not much else.

No people, no animals. It’s spooky but I like it.

This particular landing in the chilly emptiness happened in July, 2018, five months after my last leg of Te Araroa, a 3000-kilometre tramp down the length of New Zealand. I’m doing it in sections, when I get annual leave.

Since January, 2017 I’ve done 835 kilometres, from Cape Reinga to the stretch I’m writing about now -– a soggy, serene bit of Waikato and the King Country.

This stretch started, really, when I woke up in the emptiness, beside a gravel road outside Te Awamutu. I’d pulled over at 3am for a sleep after driving overnight from Wellington, setting my alarm for dawn.

I wanted to get walking as early as I could from Huntly, the Waikato riverside town I’d reached last time.

The day’s route went along the Haakarimata Range; being a ridge-top, there are no streams. I’d have to get right along and down to avoid a thirsty night.

I parked, grabbed a pie and coffee, shouldered my pack and set off.

Day 42: Huntly to Ngāruawāhia – 18km

It felt very good to be walking south, again. Everything I needed for the next seven days was on my back, apart from a food re-supply I would do on the way.

Huntly has its rough edges, and there are those who run it down.

I like how its unpretentious houses draw close to the great, untidy river, but not too close – they nod at it warily, not over-familiar, minding its strength.

Someone has built a riverside walk, with paths between wetland pools cut off from the main flow. The paths are lined with rough grasses, winter-scrawny but staunch, indifferent to the cold, waiting it out.

Looking north, downriver, toward the Huntly rail bridge and power station.

Upstream, the winter floods have piled driftwood like colossal bones, and the willows lie open to the wind.

The Huntly riverside walkway, looking south – up river – toward the road bridge, the Haakrimata Range, and Hamilton.

At the end of the wetland walk you cross the road bridge, and there’s about four kilometres of road-walking toward Ngāruawāhia.

The bumpy spine of the Haakarimata Range loomed into view. That crinkly outcrop looked an easy jaunt on the map, but at that moment I got in my guts a familiar jolt: the gap between the downloadable or foldable world, and the giant, jagged one.

Along there, the river shows, at times, its grimy, swallowing side:

A man in an orange high-vis vest overtook me. He had a pragmatic, wrinkly smile, a neat goatee and, trotting beside him, an old, cheerful-looking dog.

“Stretching the legs?” I asked. “Oh, doing my daily lap with this fulla,” he said, pointing to the cheery dog. “Where you off to, bro?”

When I said Ngāruawāhia he started to warn me about the road, which is narrow, but I said I was going along the range. His eyebrows shot up. “Oh, eh? That’s a big climb. I wondered where you fullas went. Then where?”

I explained I’d follow the trail along the river through Hamilton, then out through Whatawhata to Mount Pirongia.

“Far,” he said. “And then you must be gonna stop for the night, eh?”

I said yes, I’d stop long before that – Pirongia was 80 kilometres and several days’ walk away. He pursed his lips and widened his eyes silently in appreciation, swinging along beside me.

I asked him if I was pronouncing Haakarimata right, and he said I was doing OK. “Just keep practicing. It’s like anything – if I want to speak Chinese, well… Just keep going and one day you’ll probably find it just comes out naturally.”

He went to cross the street, waiting for a car to pass, then calling to the dog: “C’mon, Rico.” They jogged across. A wave: “See ya, bro.”

It felt good to be back into the easy-swinging, distance-walking beat. The steel tip of my walking pole clinked in time to the clomp of my thick-soled  shoes.

I saw a trim, crew-cut woman wrangling a wheelbarrow of weeds toward the river; she’d come out of one of the trim, crew-cut houses along Riverview Road.

She had blue jeans, a black T-shirt, gumboots and tanned, wiry arms. She smiled to see my big pack and telescopic pole, emblems of the trail hiker, and paused where her path met mine.

“Off to the Haakarimatas, eh? Huh. Good luck to ya.” It sounded a touch foreboding.

“Yeah,” I said. “It looks pretty rough from here, all right.”

“Oh, I haven’t done it, myself. But my daughter does it. She says it’s a good climb: It just goes up gradually, at first, but then there’s 500 steps.” She looked at the range, narrowing her eyes, then widening them back at me, finishing with a kind of relish: “And that’s what kills ya.”

We shared a grin; I said I’d give it a shot. As I clinked on she repeated after me: “Good luck to ya!”

The trail turns up a gravel road, at right angles to the river, to the start of the Haakarimata walkway.

It winds upward through the good, green bush, where I felt welcomed back. I stopped to catch my breath at the information panels here and there; they talked about the trees and other plants. There was a lot more to Nikau palms, for example, than meets the eye.

They have dark fronds which tightly sheath their trunk’s growing tip, the sign said. As the trunk lengthens, the fronds fall, leaving an ascending pattern of round scars.

I liked the Nikau’s poised way of wearing such painterly reminders of what has been shed.

The palm’s tough red fruits, meanwhile, were hard enough that settlers used them for ammunition, the sign went on. Māori, on the other hand, used the fallen fronds for roofing, basket weaving and bowls; they even used the young leaves from the palm’s heart to ease childbirth.

Humans are incredible: we can use a tree for absolutely everything – houses, death, life.

The 500 steps were not as bad as the wheelbarrow woman thought. Soon there was this view, near the ridge:

The Waikato River, looking north from near the top of the Haakurimata Range. To the left, Huntly power station; in the centre on the horizon, the Hunua ranges; to the right, Huntly’s Lake Hakanoa; on the horizon to the right, Lake Waikare. State Highway 1 up the righthand side of the river.

A little further on another viewpoint, this one looking south, was a good spot to boil the billy. Some determined secularist had apparently felt the Mormon Temple just doesn’t belong in a sign beside the maunga (mountain), the awa (river), even the Te Rapa dairy factory. Although a dairy factory is probably another kind of temple, in post-colonial, industrialised Waikato.

Info panel at southward viewpoint at the top of the Haakarimata.

I got back on the trail as the light began to fail – in midwinter, you can feel night drawing in from early afternoon. The track undulated along the ridge-line, a tough up-and-down tramp, hard to find a rhythm.

Soon it was dark and I navigated by head-torch light; it was a little lonely in the deep, black bush, far from friends and comforts.

But I quietened my inner caveman: there were no sabre tooths here, no bogeymen, no Redcoats lying in wait to stab and rob. Just the damp trees, the muddy path, the dark range falling away into deep shadows on either side, the sleepy piping of the birds.

In winter you have to accept a bit of moonlit tramping – there just aren’t enough daylight hours.

And it was satisfying to press on into the darkness, alone, more-or-less undaunted.

At the summit there’s a watchtower with a kingly view out over Ngāruawāhia and the empty Waikato plains, to the bright splurge of Hamilton. The sight of the warm lake of lights in such chilly dark made me glad I had, again, failed to set off early enough to avoid moonlit tramping:

The trail notes say this lookout has become a fitness pilgrimage for Ngāruawāhians; I saluted them, reading the encouragement nailed to the top rail from none other than Sir Ed:

I could relax, now, because it was just a 45-minute staircase downhill to a flat area with a stream. That would be home, tonight: there I could replenish my water and pitch my tent and finally rest from a tough 24 hours, full of driving, tramping and solitary nocturnal ruminating.

On the way down, more reward for moonlit tramping: clouds of ethereal pin-points – thousands of glow-worms, burning coolly through the dripping ferns.

Finally, the southern entrance to the Haakarimata walkway. Beside it, more information panels, which I’m a sucker for – what the land means, the stories hidden in its folds. I was too tired to read them then, though, so took photos to peruse later.

I pitched my tent nearby, on what I hoped was public land. It was a magical spot, near a stream that shone in the darkness, surrounded by more glow-worms, blue-green constellations in the wet, earth-smelling night.

This pic and the one below were taken the next morning.

Freedom camping is a dirty phrase to some, but it’s sometimes a necessity on Te Araroa – you can’t always count on reaching a hostel or official campground by nightfall. But I ask a custodian if I can find one, and don’t camp if there are signs or trail notes forbidding it. I camp away from tracks to avoid disturbing anyone, and don’t pollute, and leave no trace. It’s always a little nerve-wracking, though: what if someone comes and asks you to leave, just as you’re drifting off in your warm cocoon? What if they’re furious?

But that hasn’t happened yet. And its a very particular pleasure to walk all day, then camp just where you find yourself: just stretch out and lay your head on the accomodating whenua (land). Soon I was lying comfortably back against a tree trunk, eating noodles, drinking tea and reading up on the history of this range and the neighbouring town, and how they got their musical names.

Waikato-Tainui Māori have lived here for 700 years, I read. According to their lore, the humps of Haakarimata are the children of the sacred mountain of Taupiri, on the other side of the river, whose steep shoulders I’d spent the day passing. She had these children with Pirongia, another sacred mountain to the south, which I’d be crossing in a few days.

The range and the town were both named, I learned, after words spoken by Waikato chief Ngaere during a famous speech he gave at his own wedding.

When the ceremony was over, kingly Ngaere shouted in celebration: “Let the food pits (ngā rua) be opened (wāhia)!”

Then everyone saw the size of Ngaere’s hospitality: the food was heaped up like the nearby range. In fact, so huge was the feast (haakari), some of it was still uncooked (mata).

Later, the information panels said (with considerable restraint), Pākehā colonisers violently evicted Waikato-Tainui off this land they’d named. They were exiled from the place where on they’d long thrived, married, worked and buried their dead; where they’d developed this rich lore, community, identity and mana (prestige, dignity, authority).

Following bloody land wars in the area, which I’ve written about in posts below, the colonial government declared Waikato-Tainui rebels and exiled them from their ancestral territory. It was theft, and it has caused enduring damage.

But Waikato-Tainui weren’t done for. They came back, and today Ngāruawāhia is famous for being the site where the Māori King movement was born. It’s still headquartered there – a potent symbol that Māori belong to the land in a way that can’t be crushed.

Day 43: Ngāruawāhia to Dinsdale, western Hamilton – 28km

The next morning, I ate my crackers and peanut butter, drank my coffee and watched, through the trees, a steady stream of walkers and joggers head toward the summit. They strode past in pairs or groups, laughing and gossiping, or bounded alone in steely silence. It’s true – the Haakarimata Range has seemingly made its community fall in love with fitness.

I packed up and headed out through the carved southern gateway. Its design seemed full to me of the mana of Ngaere, his famous feast, and his upward-striding people:

The riverside pathway takes you along past Tūrangawaewae Marae on the other bank, headquarters of the Kīngitanga (the Māori King movement). Tūrangawaewae: the place where one’s heart stands. The Haakarimata rises into view there, above the junction of the Waikato and Waipa rivers.

I’m pretty sure the tree pictured below is an introduced Idesia polycarpa or “Wonder tree”,  a native of Asia which is becoming a pest here. But it provided a splash of colour in the sombre landscape:

Local school kids want to defend the sombre loveliness from another gaudy pest:

Yeah, stop ya chucking! (I like the elegant insertion of the apostrophe and e.)

The riverside pathway, known as Te Awa, is also a recently opened bike path stretching right through Waikato. More information panels! I can’t resist them:

These ones, and the gorgeous mosaic made by pupils at a nearby Horotiu primary school, mark a brand-new pedestrian bridge which returns you to the other bank a while.

Soon I was coming up on Hamilton. It was a dull, rainy day and I decided to use it to blast through as much of the city as possible. The path is picturesque, and I love that strong, gliding, long-striding river, but a city’s a city and I felt like getting back into the hills as quick as I could.

Palatial homes dominate the banks; the odd golf course; but on the whole, the city seems to hold itself aloof from its best asset, the great, gleaming, powerful Waikato.

The persistent drizzle meant I had the path mainly to myself; someone told me later that had it been a nicer Sunday, I’d have been dodging packs of cyclists all day.

A geezer in a preppy raincoat and chinos approached. I could see him eyeing, with thinly disguised derision, my get-up: technical hiking pole, rainproof leggings, big pack under a flouro cover, storm-proof coat, trail shoes.  And as we drew level, sure enough, he gave a fake laugh to dress up his mocking tone: “Har! Har! You look like you’re all set for some serious hiking. Better find some mountains! Har!”

I was steaming along at the time, trying to make the city centre before the shops closed for coffee and a feed, so I didn’t offer more in response than a polite-ish grunt. He didn’t know I’d slept in the mountains last night, and was going over a particularly tall and muddy one in a few days.

You encounter these types sometimes, when Te Araroa sends you through suburbs or towns. They find it hilarious that you’re in full, into-the-wild regalia in such a domesticated setting; they seem oblivious to the wilderness surrounding their tidy territories. Oh well.

I strode along, my pole chinking, rehearsing how I’d pithily explain all this to the next suburban wise guy.

After several hours of riverside bliss, the trail turns you away from the river and right through a mall. I spied a Kathmandu there, and bought a second pole. That would really entertain the mockers.

Then it was night, and I was on the home straight through streets, parks, a cool new walkway along the railway line, and right past a Korean restaurant, where I inhaled a delicious bibimbap: the joys of urban tramping.

I’d booked a bed on Hamilton’s western outskirts, in Dinsdale, with a “trail angel”; these are a worldwide distance-hiking phenomenon, people who go out of their way to help walkers out of solidarity, admiration or just hospitality.

This one was Murray Pinkerton, a mechanic who is section-walking the trail, like me, when he gets time off. He lives right on the trail, on the edge of Hamilton; he’s built a cosy little cabin on his back lawn, overlooking the city, and rents it to walkers for a generous 15 bucks.

Once I’d showered and changed out of my muddy gear, he and his wife invited me in for a Timtam and cuppa; we shared trail stories until my eyes couldn’t stay open.

Day 44: Western Hamilton to Old Mountain Road, near Pirongia: 18 kms

From Murray’s house you head down a path to the Taitua Arboretum, a place of preternatural peace, before finding your way out onto some paddocks of a preternatural muddiness. Cows seem to delight in turning pasture into great, pocked, boggy mires.

But then the sun came out above the Fresians, and a rainbow, and suddenly there it was – Pirongia:

It’s close to 1000 metres and is notoriously wet, even in summer; if I was finding a cow paddock muddy, Pirongia would be a test.

Soon I was out of the bog and onto the main road through little Whatawhata, with its pub, cafe and petrol station, where I stocked up on noodles, tinned tuna, crackers and peanut butter for the next few days.

Then the trail goes along the Waipa River, which made me think of a story from my childhood about the “great, green, greasy Limpopo”:

Further on, spare, contained winter beauty:

And some hungry locals.

They’re cute, but it can actually be quite intimidating, being mobbed by a couple of hundred tons of bovine hunger. Young steers are a good half-tonne each, bolshie, boofy critters with thick skulls, a mad glint in their eyes, sometimes even a bloodshot leer:

Paddocks full of cattle are reasonably common on Te Araroa. When you hop over a stile they crowd and jostle nearer and nearer, largely unafraid of bipedal beings, which, they’ve learned, might bear food.

But there still lurks a flicker of wariness; if you make a sudden move they jump back half a metre, then start edging forward again, hunger defeating fear.

When I’m mobbed by steers like this on the trail, I always imagine them as a gang of starving wide-boys with Cockney accents: “All right, me old china? Got any food? We like food. Wot about cow nuts? Hay? Anyfing?”

When I’ve edged past them and reach the stile on the far side of the paddock, they gaze after me forlorn and disgusted:

“Wot, no food? Nuffin? Wot you come in ‘ere for, then? You’re avin’ a giraffe, you are… We oughter kick you right in the Albert Halls.”

Sometimes they’re out of sight beyond a crest and you hear them before you see them: a sound like an avalanche of bone falling onto mud, then a shimmy in the wet ground as 400 heavy hooves draw near.

It’s easy to imagine them snapping, becoming a many-legged lynch mob, mowing you down, stomping and butting you to death: “That’s for the rissoles! And that’s for the sausages! And how about a smack on your rump steak?!”

They gaze after you as you disappear into the distance, and their petulant, teenage lowing rings long after.

It was after one of these encounters I got my second electric shock of the day, trying to go through a gate; a sick thud at the base of the spine.

Meanwhile, through it all, the great, green-brown, greasy Waipa slides sleepily, silently on, with a soft-rolling, heavy swagger, past paddocks, stumps and steers.

Leaving it, I stopped at the first house on Old Mountain Road to fill up with water for the night. I had a long chat with the residents, a world-weary but dedicated probation officer who was surprised by nothing, and her South African mechanic boyfriend; he was a nice enough geezer, but very intolerant of immigrants – despite being one.

Then it was on, on, into the darkness along Old Mountain Road. I especially don’t mind tramping at night when it’s on a road, where you can’t really put a foot wrong, and especially not on a clear, still, starry night, with a very delicate fingernail moon for company.

I camped beside the Kapamahunga Walkway, just where it angles off from Old Mountain Road towards Pirongia. Lounging by my tent I cooked my dinner on my little stove, and watched Hamilton gleaming through the misty night.

In the morning, I found I’d slept under this magnificent epiphyte:

Day 45: Old Mountain Road to Pahautea Hut, Pirongia summit – 21km

I was up before light and soon on my way, along the Kapamahunga Walkway (also known as the Karamu track) through lush hills pocked with limestone caves and weird outcrops. But I didn’t have time for photos. I had to reach the mountain and get to the hut on its peak by sunset: a boggy, remote, mountain track through dense sub-alpine bush is no place for moonlit tramping. Still, I couldn’t resist the misty dawn for long:

The sun soon shone down on a creamy cloud layer, that seemed to insulate this fine, airy walking life from the drab, asphalted working life below:

I had so far to go! But it was so hard not to keep stopping, and snapping:

Even the farming furniture of fences, airstrips and dams looked magical and dreamy in the early light:

Closer, closer drew Pirongia – bulking up, filling out, keeping me moving with the constant reminder of the size of the task ahead. Way up there, across all that tangled land, on that cloudy summit, was tonight’s bed:

And over there was Waikato’s rugged hinterland, out toward the west coast, and on it me, a Jungian shadow of my former self:

One of the best things about walking all day is stopping for a break. Especially when the route is in high country, along a ridge-line: You have everything at your feet – the clear slopes, the bush, the clouds, then, somewhere beyond, the old clanging world, way down below.

Pirongia, I said, I’m coming for you. “Righto,” Pirongia said.

Finally I was off the Karamu/Kapamahunga Walkway, then along a couple of long gravel roads, and into the leafy lower slopes of Pirongia itself. It’s amazing how you can put the kilometres behind you when you put your head down. I covered all the farmland between the above photo and the dark green slopes of Pirongia on the horizon in a couple of hours.

You start off into the mountain’s folds by following DOC’s Nikau Walk to a clean, sparkling stream, where I stopped for lunch. Then you head upward, gradually at first, on the Tahuanui Track.

The bush was sunlit and glowing; it was a balmy day, for midwinter.

But gradually the daylight petered out, and the upward striving got steeper, and just would not end. I did an 800 metre vertical climb that day, from my campsite at about 160 metres to the summit at 959 metres; it was a mission.

Towards the end, stumbling by torchlight in the cold an hour after dark, I’d been going for nearly 12 hours and was so tired I started seeing things. This boot-worn root sticking up on the track, for example, looked exactly like the smiling head, in profile, of a sub-alpine alligator:

But finally I reached the clean, dry haven of Pahautea Hut, just past the summit. Being mid-week in mid-winter, I had it to myself; I spread out my wet, muddy gear, ate something, crawled gratefully into my warm sleeping bag, and passed out.

Day 46 – Rest day in Pahautea Hut: 0 kms.

I’d not planned to take a day off, since I had only seven days leave to do a decent chunk of Te Araroa’s 3000kms. But that morning, waking up alone in the neat mountain hut, I felt thoroughly disinclined to head back out into the muddy, misty morning.

Not that it’s a particularly cosy place, Pahautea Hut. The surrounding bush is low, thin, nibbled by possums and wild goats and lambasted by harsh winds, so DOC has decided not to instal a fireplace, to avoid further predations.

So, perched high on a winter ridge, beside the Tasman but nearly a kilometre above it, the hut was wreathed in fog that felt Antarctic, and there was nothing in it to warm me but my own breath.

I watched it whiten the air in front of me, and considered my options.

I felt creaky and beaten up – I’d done 87kms in 4 days, and one of the downsides of doing Te Araroa in sections is that you have to get trail fit again each time. Your body is just starting to get used to hauling your house in and out of gullies and sloughs, when it’s time to head back to town. A day off would be a salve.

But my generous brother was picking me up in three days from Waitomo village, 50 kilometres away. And if I couldn’t make it in time, I’d likely have no cell reception to let him know, and then he’d rightly worry.

So I’d better crack on, I half-decided: 50 kilometres in three days – not too far, but far enough to not have time to waste.

And when you’re on the trail, there’s a kind of fever, like the one mountaineers get sometimes; the way ahead seems to call to you each morning: how far can you get today? How strong are you? What are you made of, compared to me?

But, sitting there at 9am, procrastinating, nauseous with fatigue, eating my meagre breakfast (I was already wishing I’d carried more away from Whatawhata) I realised that today, I just could not be arsed.

“Fuck it,” I told the silent, empty hut, “This isn’t a competitive sport. I don’t have to prove anything, get anywhere: If I need to ring Sam, and don’t have cell reception, I’ll borrow a farmer’s phone. I’m on holiday.”

And I drained my lukewarm coffee (as soon as you took it off the stove, in that frigid place, it began to chill) and crawled back into my sleeping bag.

And, oh man, it was delicious, to let my book fall from my hand and drift off, alone and snug on the mountain top, listening to the wind bang and shake the walls, and the thin trees moan.

I woke about midday, stretched my tight calves, shoulders and hamstrings, and  looked out the window awhile. Through the clouds, there was only the occasional flash of the world below.

Mostly, it was like looking down on a pearly, annihlating shield, filling the Waikato plains, every hill and ravine. It was as if I was sealed off from everything, as if I was the sole survivor of a stratocumular catastrophe, a neo-Noah adrift in a DOC hut, on a world-engulfing sea of white.

It was so quiet: The wind had died, and thick, muffling cloud lay over the hut, close against the windows, enveloping. The low, dark, dense bush crowded around too, in squat, green-smouldering waves, hanging silent, barely a twig or leaf moving.

It was strange and nice to be alone in that forsaken place, doing nothing, wasting time, letting the hours pass; with the whole, big, clean hut to myself.

I began to like how it had no fire. It made it less possible to be indifferent to the reality of where and when I found myself: on top of a sacred mountain, in the middle of winter.

And I was comfortable enough, huddled in my sleeping bag at the table, drinking liquorice tea; and the lack of a fire probably guaranteed no-one else would be mad enough to come, and interrupt this lovely solitude, so absolute, so silent.

Sometimes peaks poked through the clouds, and there was the odd patch of sun. I watched the light change, and the steam rise in wraiths from my tea, winding tannic tendrils to the clean ply ceiling.

All that stillness and silence and solitude was, I’ll admit, a little unnerving at times, but it was also uniquely restful.

And, blessedly, the cell reception was intermittent, so I couldn’t use the manic warble of the Internet to dilute the solitude, or make time run.

Instead, I ate chocolate and soup, stared into space, remembered things, read my Hilary Mantel novel (a perfect eerie yarn for the occasion) and wrote in my journal (I pack light, but never without something to read and write in, and don’t like e-readers).

Every now and then I stopped and listened to the silence: no wind, little birdsong, no movement anywhere. The low bush breathing very quietly.  The hushed mountain seemed to be taking a day off too.

I felt my heartbeat slow, and listened to the hut tick and creak as it warmed and cooled, hour by hour.

And, of course, I read the info panels: I do love those things.

These ones were particularly good, because they were mostly about Pirongia’s traditional inhabitants, the Patu-paiarehe: in local lore, these are wild, irreverent, mist-dwelling fairy people, something like leprechauns.

One of the panels recounted the story of Whanawhana, a Patu-paiarehe chief, who fell in love with a human woman, Tawhai-tu, while she was gathering potatoes down on the plain.

He kidnapped her and took her back to Hihikiwi peak (half an hour through the mist from where I stood) to be his wife. Her human husband rescued her, but Whanawhana’s spell returned her to Hihikiwi every night.

Eventually Tawhai-tu escaped the spell, with help from a tohunga (priest).

“The Patu-paiarehe chanted a lament”, the panel said, “and vanished into the night back to Hihikiwi, where it is believed they still live to this day.”

Looking out into that thick, slow-breathing mist, which seemed pinned to the soil and leaves with some kind of ancient energy, the story had what every good story should have: a weird ring of truth.

(Patu-paiarehe info credits, from the panel: Te Umu Waata Hiakita, Raiha Mani Gray and Naa Ngaati Maahanga).

There was also something new, for me, in hut info panels: a poem. I’ve visited a lot of DOC huts, and they often have info panels about the trees, the birds, maybe a tramping pioneer immortalised in the hut’s name. But no poems, that I can remember.

I liked the poem, and the story of Mac Bell, and I really liked another first for me in DOC huts – a carving (by Mac Bell). Here he is, Whanawhana the fantastic, in a glass case, and his “sacred cloak of golden mist”:

I could just imagine him out there, ruminating on an alligator-shaped log, insulting sculptors and stealing spouses.

All of this was particularly redolent when read alongside Mantel’s The Giant, O’Brien, which is also about the fragile boundaries between the seen an unseen – among other things:

“… the gentry of Ireland had flitted to their wintering grounds, moving silently, gliding white in the dusk. It is unwise to obstruct them, to walk on their paths or look at them directly. Their existence depends on tricks of the light, and shadows moving through water; their natural state is shadow. They don’t count, don’t know the days of the week, and only use wooden implements, distrusting iron and steel. They have children by the basketful, and carry them on their backs. All these gentlefolk are very old.”

Day 47: Pirongia summit hut to airstrip near intersection of Honokiwi Rd/Kaimango Rd – 24km

The next morning I decided to try and make it all the way to Waitomo, 50ks away, in my remaining two days. I’d been averaging about 25 kms a day til then, and had had a good rest. “Give it death,” I said aloud, sculling tepid coffee in my plywood eyrie.

The walk down from the summit takes you right over Hihikiwi peak, where you can just about feel the Patu-paiarehe rustling under the boardwalk, and breathing on your neck:

I’d thought the track up the northern side was pretty muddy, but it was a bowling green compared to the steep bog waiting to the south:

Finally I was out of the bush. It was lunchtime already, but I knew I’d get at least halfway to Waitomo today – the next 20-odd kms were gravel roads, and I’m happy doing those in the dark.

Soon after lunch, looking west, I got my first terrestrial glimpse of the sprawling indent of Kawhia Harbour. I’d looked down on it, fascinated, from plane windows before, and on Raglan, and the rest of this glittery, raggedy coast; but had never actually been here, till now.

Before long night was falling, and the sunset over Kawhia harbour was like a demented shadow play; a fierce, dreadlocked swan stared down a sinister hunchback. Beside the water below this colossal wrangle, one little light winked up from Kawhia township:

I thought they must be quite a people, the Kawhians, out there on the margins of just about everything, in such darkness, with such skies.

The route takes you all along the spine of a long ridge between Pirongia and Waitomo; most of the country on either side is a deep black hole, but there are glimpses of lights from the farms and villages on both sides, and maybe in the distance the larger gleams of Otorohanga, Te Awamutu.

I was in the King Country now, named for the Māori King movement: the rugged territory where the King, his warriors and their community were exiled by the colonisers’ violence; from there, they resisted, and eventually returned to their lands.

And have kept resisting, despite everything.

A friendly sliver of bright, pale moon came out, alongside piercing stars.

Then the bush-covered banks along the road began to gleam, too: glow-worms, lining my path, tiny burning runway lights to guide me in the windy winter dark.

Finally I climbed over a locked gate at the junction of Honokiwi and Kaimango roads, where the trail joins a farm track to continue along the ridge. I found a flat spot near an airstrip, pitched my little nylon haven, and turned in.

Day 48: Honokiwi Rd/Kaimango Rd airstrip to Waitomo village – 25km

In the morning I woke before dawn, munched crackers and brewed coffee, broke camp and set off before it was light. I needed to reach the Hamilton Tomo Group’s hut on the outskirts of Waitomo village by dark, or not too long after. I’d arranged to meet my brother there, and if I didn’t turn up he’d eventually have to think about raising the alarm.

That’s a necessary part of tramping, especially on your own – making sure someone will  wonder where you’ve got to. And it was bloody nice of him to pick me up. But it’s also one of the few stressy things about solo tramping (or any tramping, really): getting out before anyone misses you enough to call 111.

I always carry a personal locator beacon, which helps – if you haven’t set if off, your peeps can conclude you’re probably OK. Probably.

Such thoughts were soon shoved into the background by a special sunrise:

Once again the cloud was doing its world-sealing act, but this time it was a little lower, so small hills poked through like moody islands. The semi-conical one in the centre of the horizon, below, is a geological little sister of Pirongia’s; named Kakepuku, she sprang from the same volcanic vent:

Native falcons, kārearea, have been released there. Here, my main companions were noisy but somewhat graceful Canadian geese, honking mightily at each other, or at me, or at the sun, above the punga trees:

A bit further on, the new foreground to Kakepuku was a horoeka, my favourite tree, the one that evolved juvenile leaves that are too leathery and lance-like to be eaten by moa; only to mature them into fat, juicy leaves once they’ve grown above the tallest moa’s reach. Relentless patience: 1. Hard-beaked, thick-clawed enemies: 0.

(This story is loosely along the lines of why Eleanor Catton named her junior reading & writing project horoekareading.com).

Then the trail takes you onto a bush track. The bush was dense but sunlit; occasional limestone outcrops broke through, weathered into pits and pools and this area’s famous caves.

And there were wild goats – these two grazed around a corner right up close to my lens before the older one sensed something wrong, looked up appalled, and they bolted as one.

You can see remnants of the old timber trail in places, cuttings through hills for pioneers to purloin ancient logs.

Out of the bush again, I could see the cape of cloud endured, glowing.

A short farm section followed; orange markers on fence corners, stiles, cattle tracks, sheep yards, a wool shed. On the horizon, a farmhouse in regal isolation:

The house marks the beginning of a gravel road section of the trail. Soon afterward, I met a youngish farmer with a tanned and weatherbeaten face, a three-day growth, a wide brimmed hat and an easy grin; he’d been casually herding a mob of cattle toward me on a red, mud-spattered quad.

As I watched, keeping out of the way, he stopped by an open gate, stood on the quad’s foot-pegs, and whistled his team of dogs ahead. The dogs sprinted past the hard-jogging mob, leapt out into the road ahead of them; the hot-eyed beasts skidded, stopped, heads lowered, threatening. But the dogs insisted, yapping and dancing, their eyes shining; and, by sheer personality, they forced the cows to turn back, wheel away from the waiting quad, and through the open gate.

The farmer clipped the gate as I walked up; his young daughter smiled a shy hello from the back of the quad, and the dogs romped around, tongues lolling, eyes like stars, loving their work.

Yeah, the farmer said, it wasn’t a bad view from the house on the hill. “But she can fuckin’ blow up there. Cops it from all directions.”

The house was on his farm, but he had tenants in it. “That’s the original homestead. 1903, she was built; solid as a rock. Iron cladding on the walls, big rimu beams in the roof. Suppose they had the resources back in those days.

“You see some amazing sunsets though. From my house too – we’ve got a new one, over there. It’s amazing what you can see, sitting on the deck with a beer… oh, it’s a view to die for, eh.”

He often saw Te Araroa walkers go by.

“Some of them come belting through, don’t even look left or right; just seem in a tearing hurry.

“One bloke reckoned he was going to do the whole thing in three months – he was fuckin’ flying.

“They don’t have time to stop for a yak, take a photo. I dunno.”

What was he up to? “Oh, you know, spreading a few heifers around. Get some work done today, won’t be able to do anything tomorrow – kids want to go pig hunting.”

Not long after I left them, a dusty all-terrain buggy came by. At the wheel was a blonde kid of about 10, wearing in a forest-green Swandri; a grey-haired, bright-eyed woman sat beside him. Two other kids, also blonde and wearing bush shirts, stood on the tray, holding onto the roll bars. They stopped for a yak, too.

I told them they lived in paradise. “Ha! On a day like this maybe, but you haven’t seen it when it blows. She can really blow,” the woman said.

“Jeez, she can blow,” said the young driver, his dark eyes wide. They were the woman’s grandchildren, he said.

They all looked full of energy and life, used to mud, wide horizons and big weather. They were nipping off on an errand.

“So how come the youngest fella has to drive?” I asked.

“‘Cos he’s the best driver,” his grandmother said. Her driver grinned. “Anyway I’m not the youngest, she is,” jerking his head toward his sister in the back.

“She” smiled from the wooden tray, strong, beatific, muddy-gumbooted.

“Well, we’d better get cracking,” his grandmother said, “lots to do.” They roared off.

A bit further on, the trail leaves the road; there’s one of the helpful and detailed signs the Te Araroa trust puts up occasionally:

Here’s a close-up of what I still had ahead of me that afternoon, to get to the cavers’ hut beyond the Waitomo Forest:

A hard, up-and-down paddock-bash followed; you follow steep fence lines up onto ridges, then down the other side, then up again. From the tops, strange-looking limestone peaks were visible back the way I’d come.

I looked up my topo map and compass, but couldn’t decide whether that one was The Dome, Rock Peak or Ngawhakatara (The Lady).


You cross an airstrip and follow another long fence line until you come out on a high, windy ridge: a last look at that cloud-dominating view to die for.

Then a stile takes you into mature bush. By now it was early afternoon and I’d been going since dawn; I was shattered.

The light inside the forest was a soft green-gold, and everything was still. I wanted to be still, too. I flopped back on the  leaves, leaned back on a very tall, very old tree and eked out the last of my peanut butter, some crackers and cheese, had a cup of tea.

A last effort, now: there was some pretty rugged terrain to get through still, but it looked like I’d be in the cavers’ hut by dark, as arranged.

I was a bit worried about crossing the Moakurarua Stream; the trip notes said it was not to be attempted after heavy rain, of which there’d been a bit. It would mean a big detour. But it was only knee-deep; wide and clear in the deep green valley.

Then came a series of slippery clay trails, rutted by mountain bikes and horses, up a long ridge. Finally, a wide, excellent track, hand-cut along steep faces by early loggers; it was satisfying to bowl along that overgrown road, feeling the ghosts of those old lumberjacks flatten out the forest’s rough contours for me, filling in the folds, making my way smooth.

As the sun set, the valley opened up  – this is looking east, maybe a bit north:

And finally I was out, onto an actual road, only a few kilometres from the caving hut. As the last of the sun faded I could finally relax, sweeping down through the wide, gravelled bends.

I trudged in just after dark, filthy, cold, clobbered by distance. There was a hot shower, a log fire, and a case of interesting relics including moa bones, plucked from the depths:

And best of all, the bro was there, with home-cooked kai, port, chocolate, yarns and, in the morning, a lift back to my car. Just what I needed after 135 lush, wintry kilometres.

There will be a new Te Araroa post on here around January, when I do the next bit. I’m aiming for at least Taumarunui, and should crack 1000kms; which might require me to lug a small bottle of bubbly in with me.

Thanks for reading! You can keep following the journey below. Kia ora.



2 thoughts on “Drifting alone on a sea of white: Huntly to Waitomo (Te Araroa tramp, days 42-48; kms 701-835)

    1. Thanks Liz! Very kind, glad you like it. I’m looking forward to getting back on the trail in Jan too – and writing about it. Cheers.


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