Ian and Wendy are up first, speaking in whispers, their lights aiming down. My head is mere inches from the roof pitch – and Antonie’s head. Last night, I clipped bags to a beam so they wouldn’t clatter to the floor when I turn on my side.
Antoine and I eventually jump down. He cooks on the little table, me on the floor. Gabriela stirs and we talk about the places on the west coast I need to add to Richard’s and my itinerary.
It’s a late start for me, nothing is dry and the air is chill, but everyone reports the next section is muddy for only the first half hour to a 4×4 track. I know it will be a long day, but confident I’ll fly through this final day of the trail in forest – and mud.
Funny how this trail is bookended – epic, deep, squishy, shoe-sucking, never-ending mud, Ratea forest style (that’s day five for those following along) lots of beach and road walking beginning tomorrow (The Te Araroa famously begins on sand for four days; road plays a major role as frustrater) and nutty people who hurt me (kayak man et al left me in tears day 10).
I wonder if I’ve learned anything, if I’ve changed from this walk or is my life just a spinning record, the same stories over and over, just different characters. I’ve been told that is how it works, we tend to meet up with the same dramas until we learn the lesson. Being more boundaried and believing in my value are high on the need-to-learn list for me, I can see that.
Also on repeat – the contents of this forest. Massive ferns, palms and podocarp of rimu, totara and kamahi blot out the light, a throwback to the Northland forests I cut my teeth on last November. I splash through a stream and remember the big day I walked before the Tararuas, walking in a straight path and crossing the same snaking stream nearly fifty times.
I come to an eroded drop of about 2 1/2 feet. Someone has placed a rope here with handles tied in to aid in dropping down and another line with a footstep to get up. It’s only the second piece of aid I’ve seen in four months, the other a piece of rubber slung around a rock at a particularly nasty sidling section in the Richmond Range. Both are hugely helpful, but come as a shock considering the thousands of places I needed aid. Why here? I’ll never know.
The trail provided today – a downclimbing aid, plus considerate people at the hut to get me in the right head space as I finish this thing. The trail provided awful weather yesterday to build my confidence on an exposed ridge. In this moment, though, the trail is providing nothing I want – more mud plus fallen trees across the trail, awkward wash-outs and ancient rickety boards – with a significant fall – crossing streams in deep dips. This area is a water race, carved out for use by gold miners in the 19th century. Sunken earth surrounded by a narrow path is what I walk on, huge ferns crowding the way. I have no idea why the NOBO’s said it wasn’t that bad. Because the mud doesn’t cover me above the knees?
I think I’m just getting impatient. It’s an interesting forest, but this trail goes on for hours. It’s not walking in the sense of striding. It’s more maneuvering with my eyes almost always on my feet. It’s the last day of this, so I definitely picked a good day to be burned out.
It occurs to me that the trail’s ‘challenge’ is meant to make up for its lack of beauty. There’s little to see here locked in a forest for half a day, so leave it unmaintained and a tramper feels it was all worth it somehow. I still struggle with the pile on from the other day when the Kiwis asked for my opinion on the trail. This section needs maintenance. Some of these fallen trees have been here for years. But who does the work and to what standard?
For me, the jury is still out on all that. Until I do my next long thru-hike and see what’s possible will I know if this is the best that can be done. I’d never return nor recommend Longwood Forest, though I see why it was chosen instead of the road to bring the TA hiker to the end of the country at last. The official trail bumbles along in this nonsensical way for another two hours, but some kind farmer offers an early exit on the edge of his land. I am so ready to say goodbye to mud walk I cry out when I see the ocean below.
Of course it starts raining the minute I’m on the road, but I’m walking with long strides and charge right towards the village, a car tooting merrily at me as they pass knowing I’m on the home stretch.
I set up the alicoop in a holiday park filled with old timey campers in Colac Bay, a place famous for a beach called ‘the tree’ where waves break in both directions. I order the special at the packed tavern after rinsing off my shoes and clothes – and backpack – covered in mud. A lovely caravan camper hands me a bottle of bath gel seeing I’m a tramper who has become expert at calling a hot rinse, a wash.
The air is cold, but the sky finally clearing except for an occasional squall mostly over the forest I just finished walking through. As I relax here, well-fed and cleaned up, I begin to see my hike as a fairytale with certain tests the heroine must pass including if she can recognize the wolf in granny’s nightgown – and if she can bear walking for so long on such a varied terrain and such varied track quality.
There’s more to go, about 80 kilometers to the southernmost tip, and I imagine the tests and learning experiences will just keep coming.
Bring ’em on!