Te Araroa: The Northland Forests

8 November, 2019 – Day 6-12 – Km 111-246

I had always enjoyed hiking in forests. That’s kind of the embodiment of hiking in my opinion. Sometimes you might ultimately find a nice view, but usually you had to hike through a forest to get there – a rainforest, a cloud forest, an alpine forest, a deciduous forest, whatever kind it was sure to be full of bird song, smell of damp earth, and occasionally obscure the sunshine. I had heard the legend of Raetea Forest, with its puddles of thick mud not unlike chocolate pudding. It was a little intimidating, to be sure, as we walked toward Takahue Saddle with rain threatening to soak us. Paris, Alastair, and Hunter and I left from Kaitaia together this time, hitching a short ride to skip a dangerous bit of State Highway 1, meandering on gravel roads, past lush green farmland and rural communities. A dairy farmer was leaning against his truck, amused as we took photos of a whole pen of spotted calves. He asked where we were off to. Bluff, we told him. His eyes grew wide when he realized that we meant Bluff on the South Island, not Bluff on 90 Mile Beach.

The campsite at Takahue Saddle was private land, established by a farmer, donation only. He provided a picnic table, a hose with clean water, and a shovel in case you needed to do your business. Ben and Hannah (also known by their trail names of Gargoyle and Space Pants), plus Mayan, Kirby, Joe the American guy, three American guys that were all sleeping in hammocks (we called them the Swingers), a Swedish girl, and another German girl had also found their way to our humble plot of land. The views were remarkable, but when the rain finally began in the evening, everyone retreated to their tents (or hammocks) to hibernate. In the morning, I dreaded packing up in the rain. The only thing more demoralizing on trail besides packing away a wet tent is taking a nice hot shower and then putting on dirty smelly clothes again (but I digress).

The thought of climbing into this notoriously treacherous forest in the rain had me biting my lip. The grocery resupply that I stuffed in Kaitaia was for 6 days worth of food so my bag was bulging and alarmingly heavy. Could I do it? Am I strong enough to climb to three peaks in the mud carrying this monster? The forest was every bit as daunting as I had been warned, expect to travel no more than 1 kilometer per hour, they said. There was no way around it so we barreled through the middle, the thick stew of mud sucking shoes off and knocking everyone off balance. The thick bush made it appear, deceptively, that I was alone most of the day when the reality was there was always someone shortly in front of or behind being swallowed by mud the same as me. I ate my lunch of a peanut butter wrap sitting on a tree root in the middle of the trail while my feet sunk into the ground, streaks of mud on my face and blood on my knee from an argument with a rock.

It was after lunch that I fell. I fell hard and not even a little bit gracefully. Downhill is always the hardest. I landed on my elbow and tailbone, trekking poles flying in two different directions. I was starting to get tired and that tree root came out of nowhere. I lay there in the mud awhile, taking inventory of injuries and eventually doing the only thing I could do – stand up and keep going. It seemed like the worst was nearly over when the trail turned into a pleasant grassy track and I heard the sound of engines. A lawnmower? A chainsaw? A motorbike? I think I was as surprised as they were when two motorbikes rounded a bend and stopped just in front of me. After the day I’d had, it seemed unfathomable they were driving bikes in this rutted mess. They asked me about the trail I had come from and if I thought it was passable for them. I don’t know much about motorbikes, but I thought the track was barely passable for myself so I just shrugged and said they could see for themselves. Without any warning, I was out. The forest released me into a wide pasture on the top of a hill with views spanning for miles. I immediately collapsed and tore into my snack bag. I hadn’t realized how badly I had missed having a break all day with nowhere appropriate to stop.

I dragged my poor bedraggled limbs into camp, one of the last to arrive. It was another donation only campsite next to a stream where we could wash the mud from our shoes and socks and between our toes. Sand flies feasted on our feet and ankles. The farmer stopped by to warn us about weather over the next few days, but it barely registered as the sun set in a cloudless sky and I sunk into a dreamless sleep.

Overnight, the rain poured in buckets. From the safety of my tent, the percussive drops sounded like a battle being waged between the soft vinyl and the protective bubble inside. I didn’t want to get up. I couldn’t hear anyone else moving about so I turned over and pulled the sleeping bag back over my head. When the rain had slowed from a deluge to a sprinkle, I peeked out to see a sloppy campground and a few soggy campers unsuccessfully trying to wring out wet socks and to wipe off rain flaps. Some discussion came about more thunderstorms forecasted for the afternoon. A few would push on to the next camp at Apple Dam. A few would stay put and hope to find cover on the farmer’s porch. And a few of us decided to walk to the locally famous Mangamuka Dairy, 6 km distant, and hope to catch a lift to Kerikeri. We would then return to the Dairy after the storm to continue.

After spending the last week with Paris and Alastair, they decided to stay while Hunter and I were going to hitch to Kerikeri. There was no reason any of us should stay together at all at this point, but I felt a little disappointed that we weren’t making decisions together. It felt a little like every man for himself as if I had to be reminded that this was my journey and no one else’s. I could only make decisions for me after all. At the Dairy, I bee-lined straight for the ice cream counter. Two scoops of hokey pokey ice cream, please. Ice cream in hand, I promptly forgot about the weather.

Kirby and Mayan were also taking a break at the Dairy and had discovered an abandoned building next door where they were told they could ride out the storm for a donation. I took a look and there were a few mildewed mattresses and a rusted bed frame scattered about the two room house. I yelled to Hunter, “hey do you want to stay here too? This place is NICE!” I was probably referring to the fact that it had a roof and lots of space, but on closer inspection the roof had a few gaping holes, the mattresses were stiff with years of grime, and there was no bathroom. We were instructed to use the public toilet a short walk down the road. When the mosquitoes started stirring around dusk, I suggested we close the window only to discover that the window glass had long since been smashed in and shards loosely hung around the frame. It was a Sunday and the Dairy closed early but we made sure to get our fill of hot cooked food before the staff disappeared. A dusty piano and a dilapidated treadmill sat in the corner. A stack of National Geographic magazines from the 70s and 80s entertained us for awhile; Hunter read us an article about how GPS was positioned to change the world. Mayan had the opportunity to introduce us to her shell collection as the rest of us marveled at how much those must weigh.

It was one of the worst night’s sleep in awhile. Buzzing mosquitoes bounced off my only exposed skin, my forehead, all night long. I slept in my sleeping bag on top of the filthy mattress, but with each turn in the night I could feel sandy grit brush my cheek, wishing I had set up my sleep mat directly on the floor. The dripping roof was managed with big plastic buckets strategically positioned around the room. I checked the clock several times, willing it to be morning. The sun never rose and the rain didn’t stop, but walking on seemed like a better alternative than spending another night in what we began calling “the crack den.”

It was only about 13km more to Apple Dam along forestry roads in the Omahuta Puketi Forest. I walked with Kirby and Mayan, while Hunter pushed ahead of us. Now that we were officially a day behind our original group, we saw several new faces and lost others. It rained all day except for a few precious minutes when I could set up my tent and make dinner. I spent the afternoon watching raindrops plop on the center seam and try to predict if they would fall left or right. I made a horrible effort at macaroni and cheese. By trying to save gas, I turned off the heat right after the water boiled and put the lid on, but the macaroni was too thick so after 20 minutes, I ate crunchy macaroni in a lukewarm cheese water soup while we discussed plans for the next day.

We would be entering the Puketi Forest to walk about 3 km upstream, then cross an easy river, and then clamber about muddy ravines for a total of 26 km to Puketi Hut on the other side. Alternatively, in case of extreme weather, we could walk an additional 15 km around the forest, which none of us wanted to do. I think we all knew we would walk it, but we joked about the danger. This cheese soup might be my last meal!

We agreed to stick together even if Hunter was anxious to leave us behind. His long legs and purposeful stride was no match for our cautious baby steps. I was the first to fall. Landed right on my backside in a puddle of mud, but I hadn’t showered in 5 days already so what did it matter? It was early in the day and it was still fun so I laughed as I drew mud stripes on my legs.

When we got to the stream, most spots were no more than ankle deep, a few reached my knee, and one or two as deep as mid-thigh but it was slow-moving and not too cold. We splashed around and took pictures. It was really fun and unlike any trekking I had done before. I felt like I was conquering mountains in that stream, overcoming my fear of water each meter that passed. We had been warned not to miss the track marker indicating a deviation. The marker seemed counter-intuitive, leading us up a steep bank and down on the other side only a short distance away, but this was only to a more shallow crossing for the Waihou River. Some ahead of us had to swim across the deeper ford for not following the markers. Hunter strode across, leaving Mayan, Kirby, and I on the far bank, gazing at a rather intimidating crossing. We conferred. Mayan and I confessed to watching YouTube videos to improve our river crossing skills, while Kirby had taken a class, but had not put it into practice. Ultimately, we decided on the line formation but couldn’t coordinate who should walk first and ended up a big jumbled mess in the middle of a possibly flooded river. None of us fell over and we laughed about our ineptitude on the other side, but it was a clear warning that we need to practice for the more than 100 crossings in the next 4 months.

With that, Hunter was gone, swallowed up by the forest as he charged ahead. I had heard that Puketi was easier than Raetea, not entirely sure what that means in hindsight. The trail forged along next to the river for ages and we hung on to tree roots that jutted from the cliff as we climbed over precarious drops. Muddy ravines dipped down into dark crevasses filled with murky water and we acrobatically traversed from one perch to another, balancing our weighted packs while ducking under low branches. I knocked my head on a tree. Twice. Not the same tree. We all fell a few times and took to riding some of the steeper drops on our bums. As the afternoon progressed, the falling and slipping and knocking became less funny and our jovial chatter turned to silence. An unexpected boardwalk momentarily brightened our spirits only to return to more muddy descents. When we stepped out of the foliage a full 5 km before we thought, timid smiles touched our lips. No one said anything. Finally, someone asked if we were out. It might have been me. The map confirmed that yes, we were indeed out of the forest, walking on forestry roads the remaining distance to the hut. Sighs of relief echoed all around.

The hut promised a fireplace, but all the firewood was wet. It didn’t matter. The three of us girls and Hunter spread out, drying wet tents from the night before, inhaling food with our new hiker appetites, and comparing battle wounds from the day. It felt like a real victory, like every day I was growing stronger and more capable. Of course, the blatant posting about river crossings laid out on the table knocked us down a notch or two. A Canadian couple, who became known ironically as “the Canadians” walked in raving about how much fun this walk had been and how much fun they had. We countered that it was fun…at first. They insisted it had been fun ALL day. Their fate was sealed; they were the enemy. Everyone knows you can’t trust someone that happy all the time. It’s only a matter of time before they blow.

The next day, almost immediately after we set out, Nat comes bouncing down the trail in her Vibrams only carrying a daypack. We met her in Raetea, running the trail, bless her. She had been suffering from a “fat foot” so had taken a few days off and now here she was running behind us, not even sweaty, hair blowing in the wind, clean clothes still smelling of floral detergent, like a vision of lean muscle so full of energy. She walked with us a bit until a local pulled over and told us we missed our turn. When Nat sped off across the farmland, her yellow singlet a beacon of light to lead the way, Kirby, Mayan and I were all too aware of how badly we needed a wash. Plodding along at a comfortable pace, we drifted into daydreams. I stared at my feet as I followed a sheep path when Mayan abruptly announced we were going the wrong way again. Of course we were.

We had crossed a stile, somehow missed the markers and had to follow the fence line around the paddock to get back on track. Anxious sheep and lazy cows lifted their heads to watch our progress. Great bushes of tussock and prickly gorse shredded our legs as we searched for the track. We had to hold on to the fence and walk across a wooden platform in order to cross a canal of liquid manure, the second of which Mayan and I gripped the wrong handle and got a jolt of an electric shock. Shaking that off, we came upon our third canal which seemed wider and deeper than the last except the wooden platform was fully submerged and broken. A few moments of examination, Kirby thought it might be passable to walk through so she went first. It could have been any of us. With one step, she was committed. Her knee buckled and she went down, her backpack bobbing in a poop puddle. I didn’t even know how to console such a thing so we just stared as she tried to use her trekking poles or anything else to assist her up. Obviously, this was tragic even for an already dirty smelly hiker. She told us she hurt her knee and began walking off on the other side.

Mayan and I tried walking upstream further but the situation didn’t improve. Finally, we decided to jump, although this would be challenging at best with our backpacks. At worst, we might just leap directly into the manure. Mayan threw hers across and I held my breath to see if it would stay or roll back down into the canal. It stuck and she effortlessly leapt to the other side. She coaxed me to throw mine as well and she would catch it or at least make sure it didn’t roll. At an awkward weight and shape, it’s not easy to throw a backpack so when I prepared to give it a good heave, I slipped down the embankment, straining my soleus and planting my hands straight into a thorn bush to break my fall. The easy part was jumping. The day had barely begun. We were on farmland and not some wild forest. We were beat up and bruised and electrocuted. And we were left with a considerable road walk back toward Kerikeri. Kirby tried to hitch and was greeted by several locals who apologized for not being able to drive her for various reasons (full car or only going 500 meters more down the road), but she was concerned she smelled too bad to get a ride.

The rest of the walk was pleasant enough with well-maintained trails and waterfall views, yet I was running low on food so by the time we reached camp at Kerikeri, I was dragging for lack of energy. It took every effort to lift my feet. Mayan and Kirby had seemingly recovered and had way more stamina than I did, although Kirby’s knee appeared to need extra attention. Kirby decided to spend an extra day while Mayan and I dragged ourselves one day further to have a rest day in Paihia, the Bay of Islands. We walked for ages on little-used mountain bike tracks that seemed to go on and on. The Canadians passed us, having started 2 hours after we had, with a spring in their step and going on about the lovely day. Oh shut up, will ya? It had been 12 days of walking so far without any rest and every muscle in my body ached. I had a tough introduction to New Zealand forest tramping, but instead of feeling scared about what may lie ahead, I felt confident that if I could get through this relatively unscathed, then the limits are without bounds. Bring it on.