The Pee Rag podcast ❤︎ Unfiltered Adventures of the Blissful Hiker
In a series of self-effacing essays, accompanied by her own original flute playing, the Blissful Hiker shares a journey of self-discovery as a middle-aged, female, long distance backpacker…
episode 35 shownotes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker takes a calculated risk to cross the glorious, but dangerous, Tararua Range all alone, the most difficult section of the Te Araroa so far, taking advantage of a weather window.
In this episode:
- Blissful is told at Makahika Outddoor Pursuit Centre to keep moving to get through the high, exposed Tararuas, since it will be calm and clear for two days.
- It’s steep and muddy straight uphill to the Te Matawai Hut, but she skips it as advised and moves on all alone on top of the world atop lonely ridge tops shrouded in mist.
- After several gloomy but mystical goblin forests, and the summit of Pukematawai, she arrives at Dracophyllum Hut, and watched a glorious sunset.
- Stopped momentarily by tachycardia, she finally climbs to the summit of Mount Crawford, the highest point on the trail in this range.
- It’s a long, muddy descent to the Waitewaewae Hut, where Blissful meets hiker friends and is grateful for a day that felt like flying on clouds.
MUSIC: Impresiones de la Puna by Alberto Ginastera andPastorale Calchaqui by Hector Gallac as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
It was a steep, muddy ascent on Gable End, finally breaking out into open scrub, and spectacular views framed by flax and leatherwood looking out to endless bush-covered mountains emerging from low hanging mist. Someone has hacked away at the tussocky plants threatening to take over the trail and it’s made for easy walking on this unbelievable day with no wind whatsoever.
When I arrive at Te Matawai Hut, I’m greeted by a barking, and snarling dog tied to the one bench. The owner tells me I just need to say hi and she’ll calm down. But even he can’t seem to get her to stop and I get a bad vibe about the place, the door hanging on one hinge, and the floor smashed clean through in one spot.
So, I head on, steeply towards Pukematawai somewhere ahead in the swirling mist. I’m in the Tararua Range, a massive land formation shaped like a slug and dominating the narrow southern part of New Zealand’s North Island. This close to the Cook Strait, it’s subject to nearly constant prevailing moisture-carrying winds. This accounts for a warning that weather can deteriorate rapidly to extreme conditions of gale force winds, heavy rain and even snowfall in any season.
I’m carrying extra food, warm clothes and rain gear and my wits, but most importantly, good information from the locals telling me I’ll have a weather window of two days and to take advantage of it – maybe even by skipping past that first hut and aiming for the second one. It’s nearly 3:00 and a sign tells me that next hut is about four hours away. I could easily have stayed at Te Matawai if it wasn’t for that dog and the bad vibes. But maybe it was a good thing all that spurred me on, and, even though I’m tired after so much climbing, I can position myself to take advantage of the weather.
I’m feeling confident as I reach Butchers Knob, right before the track abruptly changes. No longer is there cleared trail. Instead, the sharp grass and woody plants are overgrown hiding all that’s beneath my feet – mud, rocks, uneven ground. Immediately, my pace slows to careful, mincing steps as the mist whips across my face.
It was my longest day of walking yet from the carpark near Palmerston North all the way to the Makahika Outdoor Pursuit Center. I am their only Te Araroa guest, and the owner John told me to keep moving today, so I’d have views from the ridges and not get caught out in rain and mist. Maybe it’s because I was alone, or that I’d walked so far, but John never doubted I could make it. Funny how a little confidence from someone else can build up the reserves in yourself.
And that feeling sticks with me, even as the rain pours down on the alicoop as I pack up. By the time I hit the road, passing a Greek orthodox church and several landslips, the rain lets up. At Poads Road, there’s a massive sign with “Advice to persons entering the Tararuas: Know where you are going, study your map, inform a responsible person as to your plans – and finally, never travel alone.” They go on to advise traveling with a minimum of four persons.
I take a quick look around before I sign the “intentions book” with an estimate of where I’ll stay each night, and see I am the only one heading in today. The first part of the walk soaks my shoes and socks.
I’m walking along Backwater Stream which takes me deep into the bush, finally crossing on a bouncy suspension bridge and cracking straight up the mountain on the muddy and slippery Gable End Ridge Track. Leveling off for a moment, I come to deep mud sprawling all the way across the track and then some. A few well placed logs would fix this right up, I think.
At a particularly nasty spot, I meet a Kiwi who was holed up in a hut over Christmas because of the awful weather. She suggests I plow straight through. “After you,” I say. But that’s not how she does things then though scoffs at trail maintenance like it wouldn’t be sporting.
At the ridge, the view opens up and I put on my hat as mist opens and closes like curtains on a rolling carpet of mountains covered in forest, deep canyons invisible from my high perch. In an instant I’m back in the forest. Here, it’s a goblin forest, a magic fairyland of moss-covered beech, ferns and decaying logs. I push pass Te Matawai, sharp leatherwood ripping at my hiking trousers. I am literally on top of the world now, above the trees on the dragon’s spine of a ridge walking directly over the mountains. Far below in a place I would imagine is completely inaccessible, a river snakes through, its clatter reaching me all the way up here.
A short cut off points to the summit of Pukematawai at 1432 meters completely shrouded in cloud. It’s only about one minute to the top, my selfie shows a grinning face, and curly hair from all the humidity in front of an absolute white out. Yes, I touched that top, simply ‘because it is there.’
But it’s funny how badly I need those views again to lighten my spirit, so I head out of this cloud as quickly as I can. I can see the route now – a long series of humps that I’ll walk over all the way to Dracophyllum Hut
It’s beautiful for the eyes, but murder for the feet in slip-n-slide mud –all covered by overgrown grasses. This is not just something that reveals a wet surprise each step, it’s also dangerous as the ground is uneven with big drop-offs – and it slows down my progress immeasurably.
But this crest is one of the most magnificent I have ever seen with sweeping views in all directions. Olive green mountains as wrinkled as elephant’s legs surround the crest I walk on, long gashes from landslips in a pale tan. My ridge reaches out to the a horizon filled with mountains in blue and black, the mist almost within reaching distance.
Up and down on this ridge of mud and tussock, all alone out here. I can’t see anyone ahead or behind. I think I’m at the final rise, but it instead reveals a huge plunge back into forest before a giant climb. I’m nervous that I’ll lose the daylight, but I forget myself in this stunning grove of moss and lichen swaddled trees, some trunks like giant green teddy bears, arms reaching up in a frozen dance.
Of course, I could camp here if it gets dark, but there’s no water until the rain barrel at Dracophyllum and there doesn’t seem to be any really flat ground either, so up I go. It’s not much further to a flattish spot on the edge of the mountain. A tiny orange hut appears, painted like this so it can be seen from a helicopter. I circle around to the door thinking it’s all mine when I’m met by two pairs of muddy sneakers. No! Dracolphyllum hut sleeps two. And inside are two German Te Araroa hikers all cozied in.
They offer me a bed and say one of them will sleep on the floor. I thank them and say I’ll set up the alicoop in the minuscule grassy spot next to the hut, actually on the trail itself. As I leave, I hear them talking about me saying how bad they feel, this older lady out by herself, they really ought to give me a bed, though they never come back outside.
I make soup and eat salami and crackers out on the helipad watching the colors change amidst swirling mist, teasing me before finally completely enveloping the mountains – and me – just as the sun disappears behind the furthest peak. I shiver and head to the alicoop to tuck in, proud of my long day all alone on the ridge tops, the steady rhythm of snoring putting me to sleep.
It’s barely light and the German men are packing up. I like getting up early and their chatter spurs me on. It’s a lot more climbing today on long exposed ridges, over numerous knobs and over a mountain. The alicoop is heavy with dew, my shoes and socks muddy, but I’m off before them right into another goblin forest, the sun poking through like stained glass. Mist shape shifts before disappearing entirely.
I realize I am officially in Wellington now, section six of ten on the Te Araroa and the last of the North Island. The mud is especially difficult going down on steep slopes then along a saddle through bush, the beech trees sculpted by wind, their branches reaching nearly straight out towards the east. It’s here, in this mystical spot, that I suddenly feel a pain in my chest. This is followed by nausea, heavy arms and legs, and a fast heart rate. Tachycardia. It’s only happened to me twice in my life – one time actually in the Tongariro where I was going strong and suddenly I was just ut totally out of gas. I think it’s a lack of potassium and magnesium so I make a note to get a supplement in Wellington.
But that doesn’t help here at all. I feel like a rag doll and can barely ascend, trying to catch my breath as I hoist myself over never-ending knobs.
There’s nothing else to do but sit down right on a downed bit of beech tree and eat all the tuna packets in my backpack. I then dip into some cashews followed by a handful of gummy bears. Oh heck, let’s eat them all. I’m pretty sure I don’t have any more electrolytes, but scrounging about I’m surprised by one thin envelope and add it to the remaining liter.
The sky is clearing above and there’s no wind whatsoever. I really don’t need to hurry, so I just sit and rest. I feel crappy. Even absolutely still, my heart races and I struggle to breathe. But it’s more than that. I feel stupid, going fast and hard yesterday and thinking I could just keep going like that. Also, that I didn’t think to bring enough food, well, maybe enough food, but definitely not the right foods. This is a nutrition thing, nothing else. I tend to get anemic and lose far too much weight when I thru-hike.
There’s not much I can do about it now but wait for the food I’ve just gobbled up to hit my bloodstream. The young Australian poet Erin Hanson wrote
There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask ‘What if I fall?’
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?
Pick yourself up, Al. You failed a little by not eating the right things this morning and ensuring you had the calories and nutrition to keep moving. But, you’re remedying it as best you can. You’re being resourceful. You will probably feel better soon, so stop beating yourself up and get on with it.
I start to feel a bit better, so stand up, take a good long breath and waddle along,. I eventually hit a flat saddle with the summit of Mount Crawford above me. It looks far, but I see the trail winding its way right along the edge of the spine. The best part about going at a snail’s pace is that I have to take breaks and it forces me to look at my feet, tiny white flowers atop alpine cushion plant clinging tightly to the rocks. I touch its surface, rough but massaging. Next to it are tiny pink flowers and bright green leaves like holly. Kamahi in bloom on this hot summer’s day.
As I ascend and begin breathing more deeply, I feel the nutrition coursing through my veins and my symptoms abate. Still, I go slow and steady – looking out to the mass of mountains, cloud shadows moving along lazily towards the Strait – then down again at my feet where I see what look like tiny succulents, lotus like in a stacked row of petals with one furry white flower pushing skywards, tiny yellow stamens inviting any passing bees. Edelweiss, right here on the North Island of New Zealand.
The summit comes faster than I expect and I meet a TA section hiker approaching from the south. Chris is a Kiwi who started this trail just by walking out his front door. He’s wearing shorts and turquoise compression socks, telling me people run this bit of trail in under 24 hours. I feel a bit deflated until he adds having a day like today in the Tararuas – hot and sunny and calm – only happens about 11 days a year.
We sit and eat and enjoy the view, taking picture after picture and just savoring how lucky we are. A transplant from England named Julian comes at us nearly running on the ridge. He points out the South Island way in the distance, the sea right there beyond the mountains. He then takes my picture and I have a dramatic fall off a rock, the tussocky plants I’ve complained about for the past two days, saving my fall. We say goodbye to Chris as he heads north and the two of us take one last look at this glorious range before heading down into the bush.
Every mountaineer knows that descending can be far more difficult than ascending. The walk down – according to Julian – is savage. We leave Shoulder Knob at 4300 feet and drop to the Otaki river at 100 feet in only 2.5 miles and that translates to steep drops, and most of them muddy, root-filled disasters-waiting-to-happen. My walking sticks get a workout, but sometimes do nothing at all like when I have to go butt first down a mud slide.
Julian beats me to Watewaiwai hut where Floris, Marjelain, and Chloe are already set up. No one seems particularly keen to see old doddering me, so I drop my gear and head to the clear and cold river to bathe and rinse the mud from my clothes as best I can, staying under as long as possible to avoid the mass of bloodthirsty sand flies. Back at the hut, hikers practice yoga and clothing dries on a rack hanging from the ceiling close to the fire.
I eat dinner at a shared table and think about my splendid time tramping in the Tararuas. I did exactly what John suggested, pushing myself to get over the highest peaks before the weather turned. I had spectacular views – spookier on the first day as the mist cleared all alone on the ridges, then sparkly on the second day as I trudged up to the high point and all mountains as far as I could see.
Freedom waited for me as I took my chance – a calculated chance – and entered this glorious range, the hardest hiking so far on the entire trail. My fail was minor and one I quickly corrected, taking note for future hikes. And in the end, up that long spine of Mount Crawford I went, puffy clouds as a gentle ceiling as I flew, barely feeling my feet touch the ground.
I take a bunk in the upper story and am soon joined in a long row of plastic mattresses by the two Germans and Koen who hiked all the way from Te Matawai. Exhausted, we turn in before it gets dark and for the second night, I’m lulled to sleep by snores.
episode 34 shownotes ‘n transcript
- Blissful leaves the Tasman Sea on concrete-hard black sand of Koitiata Beach and meets a Kiwi section-hiker who tells her the uneven and difficult trail standard is part of the challenge.
- It’s road walk from Mount Lees Reserve to Palmerston North and Blissful carries the title of “purist” with pride as she walks every step.
- Her friend and fellow tramper Robb invites her to share Christmas with his family and “slackpack” to Kahuterawa rather than camp in the rain.
- The trail is muddy and steep and Blissful negotiates crossing a swollen river and avoids getting swept away by a landslip.
- The owners at Makahika Outdoor Pursuits feed her dinner and Blissful realizes she has managed some tough spots on her own.
MUSIC: Impresiones de la Puna by Alberto Ginastera as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
The day after Christmas in New Zealand and it’s cold and damp, a steady drizzle hitting the windshield as the wipers lazily brush it clean. My friend Robb is driving me back to where I left off yesterday when I “slackpacked” to Kahuterawa Park about a half hour outside Palmerston north. the rain has done its work in just twelve hours, leaving boulders in the roadway and waterfalls pushing across our path, the stream, swollen and muddy.
I snap his photo at the carpark before we part, Rob carrying a daypack and planning a short circuit dressed in shorts and long sleeved tee, an elaborately carved piece of kawakawa pounamu or greenstone around his neck. I head to the “backtrack” steep through bush and sidling the hillside above the raucous stream below.
I warm up in no time, the rain stops and my spirit lifts as I march easily up the wide path. Until I hit a landslip, a huge one, all the way across the trail. I should have known after so much rain that the earth just wouldn’t stay in place. It’s rock-studded mud, small limbs reaching out like the arms of buried victims. Perhaps I can cross it, I think, tentatively placing my newly clean sneaker up on the pile.
I sink in, up over my ankle and my newly clean socks. Balancing with my poles, I inch forward, sloppy step by step. And suddenly, the mud moves, shifting down like one organism. Just like the path’s name, I quickly backtrack, lifting each foot out with an audible slurp to head right back down the hill.
Perhaps Robb is still here, or someone else has come out this long, lonely, rutted road and will take me back to town. Oddly, the car park is empty and I sit down on a stump wondering how long I’ll need to wait. Flipping through my map, I realize there’s another way out of here and over this hill. It’s a bit longer, but far less steep and appears to be a shared bike path. Up and go, feeling smart and tough that I’m carrying on, even as my eyes scour the land ahead for a campsite should I find myself stopped by a shifting mud monster again.
I met Robb through friends following my hike. He’s an American married to a Kiwi who has made the North island his home for over 20 years. When I left Koitiata and started heading towards Palmerston North, I knew I’d be arriving on Christmas Eve. Would he be willing to let me camp on his lawn? I asked in one of our correspondences. It would take a few days to reply, but I’d be near towns over the next two days, so it seemed likely I’d have an answer one way or the other.
It’s hard to feel “Christmassy” as I walk on the hard packed black sand trail this glorious morning, clouds reflecting on long stretches of beach in low tide, the sand carved by water and thousands of shells crunched into ripply surfaces. A huge mountain range looms in front of me off in the distance. A Kiwi section-hiker drives up and stops to compare notes. I tell him some of the trail is really terrible to which responds, “But that’s the challenge!” with a big toothy grin. Indeed!
I cross a stream at its mouth waiting for the magic moment like Moses, with the waves pull out but the fresh water still pushed back. I land on a little island and only get a bit wet. There are no footprints this part of the beach.
Inland, I walk on crunchy track through pine, full sun in my face with tiny raindrops falling in between. I take a shortcut to Bulls through a shattered landscape of young forest amidst sad stumps and overgrown gorse, then back on road passing neat houses in rows, one with a sign reading water.
I’m grateful for a separated and protected bike path across the Rangitickei river, but then the ‘trail’ requires running across highway 1. That Kiwi section hiker was right, this is a challenge! I camp on the manicured lawn of Mount Lees Reserve, seeing that Bojan, Marko, Alex and Tom were here yesterday, along with fast-walking Amelia who I haven’t seen since day four.
A riroriro or warbler sings its trilled melody and I call it closer, three more joining. The night is cold but ends with a grand display of pinky orangey glow in the western sky, now in purple embers before the rain comes heavy and never ending. But the following day, Christmas Eve, is mostly road walk to town, cows inspecting me from behind their fences and perfectly wooly sheep as if drawn for The Far Side, running away as I approach.
In town, it’s a row of settlers’ homes with curved metal roofs. A little girl in a pink bathrobe carries a cat as big as her, it’s legs flopping in front. I realize as I walk here why I don’t see anyone because most hikers I’ve met will skip this section. They call me a ‘purist’ for walking it. Though I prefer ‘thru-hiker’ to their ‘tour hiker’ or, truth be told, ‘hitch-hiker.’
The TA certainly challenges the concept of ‘hike your own hike.’ I realize we can choose to do what we want, but when I meet them ahead of me at a fabulous hut on a mountain and they talk about how fast they’re moving, I’ll try not to laugh.
I pass beautifully built homes facing the mountains in the high-rent district of Fielding as the rain eases up, then walk through Bunnythorpe, a name that sounds like a character from ‘The Great Gatsby.’ So far, it’s a big wide bike path, but that doesn’t last and I’m back on road, my feet on the white line at the edge of humpy, wet grass.
A Kiwi is mowing here for us walkers. He laughs when I tell him how far I’ve walked. It’s a mass of stiles, a bouncy bridge and a clear path that keeps me off the road until the Manawatu push bikeway. A big Kiwi in gumboots and short-shorts stops his mower to wish me a Merry Christmas.
Robb greets me at the door and gives me his son’s room to sleep in before we head to his wife Tara’s family’s home for a party. Everyone is glum because the weather is so awful. Christmas is normally a time for barbeque outdoors. Nonetheless, we eat and drink and dance.
Christmas morning and it’s even wetter than yesterday. I have tea and toast with Robb as Tara hands me a present snuck under the tree by the fat, orange tabby cat, Fred – it’s tuna packets and chocolate! A hiker’s dream.
They’ve been so generous already, but I have to ask if I might slackpack today since camping in this would be wretched. They agree and Rob tells me he can easily pick me up at the end of the road along the Kahuterawa Stream. So I suit up in all my rain gear and head out, my Christmas present packed with water in a very light Olive Oyl.
In New Zealand, ‘showers’ means a burst of downpours followed by clearing. ‘Rain’ means non-stop precipitation. The forecast for today is the latter. I walk on a bike path to Massey University which is absolutely deserted and prepare for tramping track that turns out to be just lovely, puddly Bledisloe Park.
I slosh through the Upper Turitea green corridor and decide road walking is fine on such a wet day. The foothills loom above me in the gloom. Up and up I go as the road turns to track. At a junction, a sign tells me I am at the halfway point to Bluff. And I kid you not, it’s at that exact moment the rain stops.
I speed up as the track turns to country road and follows a fast moving river into the forest ending at a car park where Robb picks me up for more partying with the family.
The weather is supposed to improve, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the rivers won’t be swollen. Once I find the alternate route, it’s easy zig zags up the hill, the mist rising as I reach the top and see a shelter in the distance. Is that Robb in there? No, it’s Koen! I haven’t seen him since well before Auckland and I am so happy someone else is out here on this miserable day.
Poor Koen slept out on the bench last night, but it rained sideways and he’s soaked even if still smiling his huge grin. I head on and lose him in the forest, heading quickly towards Burtton’s Track. Maybe it’s finding the alternate route that’s made me feel more confident. More likely it’s the fact that tomorrow I’ll head into the Tararuas, a notoriously dangerous mountain range with high, ridge tops exposed to the wild weather on this part of the island surrounded by water on three sides. The forecast calls for clear weather in the coming days and I know it will behoove me to get to the start as quickly as possible to take advantage of the brief window of opportunity.
The track narrows and the bush closes in. The mud deepens and my pace slows as I squish through. The trail begins to head down steeply, and I do all I can to stay upright. The ravine cuts down to water and I hear it getting louder as I approach in the dense darkness. It’s the Tokumara River swollen from the rain and crashing in rapids over half submerged rocks.
I am expected to cross it. Good Lord! Koen is far behind me now so I’ll be on my own through this. I see an orange triangle across the river and take a few awkward steps into the cold, roiling latte-colored water. No, this is far too deep. I move down a few feet, but the water is really boiling and a spill would place me directly in its teeth. So up the river I go, some 30 feet or so to what looks like a reasonably doable cross.
I walk like a crab facing upstream, pulling my poles out completely and repositioning each step to counteract the force of all that water. I move slowly, deliberately and finally reach the bank.
The deepest section of the river is funneling at my side, so there’s no way to work back down the river to the trail. Instead, I have to hoist myself up the steep bank and find some way through. It’s tricky as the slope is eroding in a jumble of fallen trees. I tiptoe across them, though some palms seem ready to give way. Muddy and exhausted, I finally meet the trail – and carry on.
Several more minor stream crossings follow – some with spectacular waterfalls full and loud – and I soon discover I need to cross this same river two more times! It’s a bit dangerous, but mostly time consuming as I search out the best crossing.
Finally the land begins to change as I get scratched up in a gorse tunnel and heaved out on a road. I walk to a reservoir where I meet some kids driving a truck with a giant sticker reading ‘<expletive> 1080’ under a longhorn steer. 1080 is the poison used to kill invasive mammals like possum and stoats, ones destroying the bush. There’s a lot of controversy, though it seems more conspiracy theory than fact.
I still ask if they might have a beer they can sell me, but they don’t.
That might have been nice for the slog of forest ahead, one more mossy and beautiful, but of course, deep in mud. The sun shimmers in dappled light, sparkling on the wet leaves, revealing a delicate spider web. I wind up and down and out on a long ridge before coming to a few stunning lookouts, the second one called Archy’s looking out under clearing skies towards the Cook Strait and the South Island beyond.
Down and down I go, again to more rushing water. I have a few hours of daylight left, but I’m nervous that I’ll meet more difficult crossings that will take time. Instead, I come across one stream coiling over on itself, the trail crashing straight on. I lose count after crossing number 30. It’s likely obvious now why I choose sneakers rather than boots – and also why there’s no point in taking them off to cross.
I reach the valley, orange in the afternoon and finally walk again on a country road, the Makahika Outdoor Pursuit Centre just ahead. The owners behave as if expecting me, feeding me a delicious prawn salad with veggies, bread and a glass of wine – well worth the wait after a beer-less hike today.
John is impressed I walked 25 miles today and made getting here my goal since the weather window is only two days wide, though he convinces me I’ll make it across if I just keep moving. The singer-songwriter Lana Del Ray said, “Being brave means knowing that when you fail, you don’t fail forever.” It’s day 59 on my thru-hike of the Te Araroa, and for the first time, I am beginning to feel like this is my hike. It wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns – I had road walking, non-stop rain, and some obstacles that made me stop in my tracks and consider how I was going to manage.
But my bravery and my feeling of being comfortable in my own skin hiking my own hike is increasing. But it’s not entirely because I succeeded, it’s more because I figured things out. I knew when to ask if I could slackpack, I knew when to get out of that landslip, and I knew to study the river before stepping into it.
I set the alicoop next to the water in the dark. Koen never quite catches up, though I know I’ll see him somewhere along the way. The Makahika river sings me to sleep now, reminding me of all those crossings – just practice for the hundreds of river crossings, most of them far more dangerous, that are coming up on the South Island.
But for now, I’m dry and resting, the biggest challenge of the hike so far not until tomorrow.
episode 33 shownotes ‘n transcript
- Blissful and her paddle partner Andrew leave Hipango Park for one final day on the winding chocolate-colored Whanganui River toward the Holiday Park and a short walk to town.
- On her own, Blissful heads to meet a trail angel named George who offers a room for the night. His partner Rob shares a whakatau, a Maori greeting.
- After a big Kiwi-style English braeakfast, George starts the trail with Blissful. It’s road-walk all the way to Koitiataand there’sno such thing as “share the road” in New Zealand.
- She picks up a lolly cake at Turakina Antiques and is invited by a trail angel for a snack and conversation before meeting the Tasman Sea again after 50 days of walking.
- The sunset is glorious and Blissful has it all to herself, but knows she is not entirely alone because people are looking out for her.
MUSIC: Impresiones de la Puna by Alberto Ginastera as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
Two days ahead of Christmas, but the air is not too hot yet. Humid with a light breeze keeping me cool as I walk road the entire day, twenty miles of it. Here, the land is flat and the walking easy past humpy grassland and spiky flax. I can sense the horizon reaching toward the sea, though it’s invisible in the salty haze. An occasional car passes me but there’s nothing to worry about now. Not like on the long highway bit after Whanganui where double carriage lorries passed within inches on the narrow shoulder.
Here, the traffic is headed to the beach and the baches or cottages in neat rows next to the dunes. Ahead, a woman in a lapis-blue sweatshirt tries to control a large greyhound. As I pass, she yells out inviting me to her backyard for juice and a biscuit. OK, let’s be honest here, six biscuits.
Jean is her name, 82 and no-nonsense. After I finish the first glass of juice, she marches in for seconds, bringing with her a bigger glass. We sit on the edge of a dog kennel in the shade as she asks me what the heck I’m doing here. “Walking the Te Araroa, the entire length of New Zealand.” I tell her, quickly reaching the half-way point of the 3,000 kilometer trail.
“That’s a strange way to spend a holiday.” She comments, furrowing her brow. I’ve had enough to drink and eat and get ready to head on. Jean won’t let me take her picture, mainly because she can’t be bothered to put in her false teeth, so I snap a photo of our feet, my La Sportivas with extra-long laces next to her orange ankle-high rubber boots, modified with a slice down the front to make them easy to slip on and off.
I say goodbye and she throws her arms around me for a big hug. In spite of my silly decision to walk nearly 2,000 miles on my holiday, she advises me to be safe and enjoy each step.
Before I arrived at the beach in Koitiata, I had a half-day more of paddling the Whanganui River. It’s a strange quality of this thru-hike, that for around 100 miles, is best traversed by canoe.
I wake up on day five at Hipango Park, a former Maori Pa, or fortress, now a high grassy area with a cooking shelter and long drop. It’s only the two of us in our ultra-light single person tents, feeling no hurry to press with only a short paddle to the town of Whanganui – and the end of our adventure.
A bird sings a five-note song, a slight variation on Gershwin’s first prelude. I answer with the second line, but I’m utterly ignored. The moon was bright as I slept on soft grassy comfort. There was some weird creaking in the shelter overnight, but neither bothered to investigate.
Rain seems to be a thing of the past – for now. The dock – more like stadium seating – has stairs, so loading is expected to be manageable. The question is if high tide might fight us as we paddle into town.
I count 400 steps as I carry down two barrels from the high water mark of the 1990 flood. Granted, these are mincing steps on the steep muddy path, but that was some flood none-the-less.
We load and push off for more big bends in the river. The tide seems to push us at least some and rapids are “so yesterday.” But the chocolate river continues to entrance, bending around on itself. We laugh spotting a magnificent house on a hill only to wind around it for 8 km and return to its backside.
Soon, signs of the city creep onto the river – a busier road, children playing on a rope swing, a staging area for a future suspension bridge – and in no time, we arrive at the holiday park. A big welcome sign for Te Araroa trampers marks 1,370 km. Andrew and I unload for the last time, divvy up the remaining food and put our packs back on our backs. Yes, it doesn’t feel very comfortable after five days of sitting.
I hug Andrew and say goodbye since he plans to take a bus south and meet his girlfriend he hopes will accept his marriage proposal. I wave goodbye, and head the 4 ½ miles towards the lovely town of Whanganui.
A trail angel named George offers me a room tonight. He says he’ll drive out and get me at the park, but his home is only a few blocks from the trail. I cross the railroad bridge and then cross right back on another bridge, passing old houses decorated with Victorian gingerbread. From there it’s up a small rise to his street and I look back towards the town and river beyond.
George waits for me at the driveway. Balding, with a neatly trimmed beard and mustache nearly white against his pinkish skin. He’s dressed in shorts and a checkered shirt. As I come closer, obviously a walker with my pack and sticks, he smiles broadly and says “Wilcome, Illison!”
The white clapboard house sits above the street, and we wind around to enter from the back passing an outdoor living space of multi-colored Adirondack chairs, numerous plants and sculptures as well as a gurgling fountain.
It immediately begins to rain, so we quickly enter and George tells me his partner Rob would like to give me the Whakatau, a Maori greeting much like the powhiri I experienced in Taike Kainga in the river.
I am called into their living room and invited to sit. Rob is a few years younger than George. Gray beard and bespectacled, he is Maori and welcomes me in the traditional manner with a mix of reverence and warmth, describing his land – and a place I have come to love – the mountains I have just walked on and the river I have just paddled. I am so touched by this beautiful gift, I cry.
Afterward, we chuck my clothes in the laundry and find some new laces for my nearly worn out La Sportivas. They give me a tour of the gardens and outdoor living spaces. As we head out onto the front porch, where a tray of nibbles and wine has been set out to share, I notice the flagpole is waving a flag, one with stars and stripes. At first, I’m confused. It’s familiar so I don’t understand what it’s doing here. “We put that up for your arrival, Illison.”
It’s in my honor, and a way to let the neighbors know who’s in residence tonight.
I share with these generous, loving men my hopes for the walk and my fears. Also how I want to see if I can walk the length of a country and savor each piece with curiosity and inquisitiveness, admitting how difficult it is not to compare myself with others and to instead simply be satisfied with what I am doing.
They tell me they’ll follow me and that I can call them any time. I believe them. George and Rob are more than trail angels. They’re my guardian angels.
I awaken to the smell of bacon – a full English breakfast with toast and eggs and tomatoes and fresh fruit Kiwi-style awaiting me at the table.
We speak of past lives with George having been the CEO of the New Zealand kennel club, owning a bar, and practicing law. Rob makes me laugh with an escapade of outrunning a possum trapped in the shed.
Then Rob heads to the hospital where he works and George puts on a backpack, grabs a Gandolph stick and joins me for the first part of the Te Araroa right through their charming little city on the river. It’s Saturday before Christmas and everyone’s out.
It’s leisurely this cool morning as we walk to the market, carols playing and all sorts of gifts on display. I absolutely hate to go but it’s a full day on hot tarmac. George kisses my cheek, and makes me promise to call any time. He then promises me a lovely sunset when I revisit the Tasman Sea the first time since Ninety Mile Beach, 50 days ago!
The breeze is delicious and I am so grateful because what I’m coming up to is supposed to be the worst of the road walking on the entire trail.
As I approach the final bridge that takes me away from Whanganui, I think of Rob’s words last night that all things come from the mother. She is with us – whether goddess, life force or our moms – all the time.
I do wonder what my mom might think knowing I have over ten miles of pavement in front of me on a very busy highway. At least the shoulder is wide – for now. I should mention that this was the trail in December of 2018. Apparently the path has been rerouted. Still road, but not nearly as busy as this one, State Highway Three, the main thoroughfare from Whanganui to Palmerston North.
The road curves up and down small hills, the wind fluttering grass in a field, green-silver-green-silver. I put sunscreen on my nose. At a shaded picnic area with double-carriage trucks passing just above the speed limit, I stop to eat smoked oysters and mixed nuts, right away spilling oil on my recently clean trousers. My new laces are far too big and look like clown shoes, but they stay tight.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say I feel safe on this road as the verge narrows even more and I’m forced to hug the rocky side of a cliff. No one slows down or heads into the other lane as they pass, they just power by. I place my stick out to indicate the smallest amount of personal space I would like to occupy. Drivers seem oblivious to me, and it’s soon I learn that the concept of “share the road” hasn’t reached these islands just yet.
I keep trudging along, grateful the day is not hot and the views, while not spectacular, do bring in focus an old wooden church resting on piers against a backdrop of humpy hills, much like the prairie in the US Midwest.
I’m grateful to arrive at the turnoff where the Turakina Antiques Store and windows filled with colored glass invite me inside. There’s a small café and seats in the shade. I order Bundaberg bitter and am coaxed by the owner to try a Kiwi treat, a lolly cake, sweet and sinful. Here, the wind actually feels cool as Aretha tells me she feels like a natural woman.
Now it’s only a few miles to the beach and my reunion with the Tasman Sea, or more accurately part of the Cook Strait that separates the north and south island. I will actually be almost at the precise latitude as the northern most bit of the South Island, if that makes sense, right in the crook of the North Island that at one time must have nestled into the South perfectly, like a jigsaw puzzle piece.
I pass fields of corn under a fluffy cloud-studded sky with a slight sugar buzz. It’s the kind of day and easy walking that keeps me totally in the moment. The land gets flatter and the wind picks up as I get closer to the sea, though no sign as the road twists and curves and finally comes to Koitiata with a wild assortment of ‘baches’ or beach homes cozying up to the dunes. I set the alicoop on cool grass next to a picnic table then head past the dunes to black sand and a graveyard of driftwood. Like snow, the surface of the beach is crusty and my feet sink in, soft, warm.
The water is golden in the evening light, warm on my skin. The salt pulls out the itch from all the sand fly bites as I wade in up to my waist, a bit concerned about rip currents. Soon, I’m in a churning bathtub of purple, oversized cotton candy clouds tinged with pink and orange.
There are a few other people on the beach, but no thru-hikers. Right now, I’m in between everyone and loving it, savoring this place to myself. Cheryl Strayed said, “Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was.” How true that is – wanting that space to experience who I am, and especially here in this new place.
And yet, I’m not entirely alone. There was Jean seemingly waiting for me to come by so we can hang out for a few moments. And there were my trail guardian angels, Rob and George helping me keep it real and assuring me I had someone looking out for me.
At 8:48, the sun sinks down, a last yellow point of light flickering below the horizon. First mauve, then gun metal gray. The sand is so soft and the water warm, but now I shiver in the wind and decide to head back to my tent. As I turn, the full moon peaks through the bluish-pink clouds just for a moment as the sky continues to glow on and on, a long magenta swipe across the horizon.
Christmas lights toggle on and off at the baches, and the silvery moon makes another shy appearance and I crawl into the alicoop, the wind whispering a good night through the trees as my heart soars feeling back here at the Tasman Sea like coming home.
episode 32 shownotes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker continues the section of the Te Araroa on the Whanganui River, learning that aiming your canoe – and life – straight into the V of rapids can give you a renewed sense of power and agency.
In this episode:
- Blissful heads into the rapids on the Whanganui and her partner Andrew teaches her to ignore her intuition and head straight into the bubbling caldron – and never stop paddling.
- They lean in, knees against the gunwales, thwacking and bumping through as the water drenches them in a kind of baptism.
- Andrew empties 26 gallons of water, then another 15 in the next set, but they never tip.
- They stay all alone at the the quirky Flying Fox Retreat with some loud birds.
- There’s no more rapids and it’s a long, soggy day to Hipango Park where they camp high up on a bluff.
- Blissful realizes she may never see Andrew again after this shared journey, but thinks if this lovely partner can show up out of nowhere, so can others.
MUSIC: Impresiones de la Puna by Alberto Ginastera as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
It’s day three on the Whanganui River, the “thru-canoeing” section of the Te Araroa. My paddling partner, Andrew and I have hit a few riffles, I’d call them, faster moving water than what we usually follow, flat and serenely, mirroring the sky and cliffs as we slowly float to the Tasman Sea.
But in those few cases, we sort of let the water suck us in and paddle through. Sure, there’s an adrenaline rush, but not much technique involved. At one, I make a bad call, sending us right on the rocks, really more of a beach of pushed up stones created by the bending of the water. We scrape over them then drop down into the swirling water, having a laugh at my poor navigation skills.
But it gives us no time to catch our breath before I hear rushing water ahead and know this time, it’s the real deal. I paddle and Andrew steers, though he relies on my orienting us straight into the V of the rapids. I fail and we’re sucked in sideways, bumping and thwacking our way down the waves. Somehow Andrew rights us and we push through head first. I hold us steady mostly by paddling non-stop as we rock forward and finally spit out into one of the Whanganui’s swirling whirlpools.
“Wow! That was really cool!” I yell, my voice a bit shaky over the sound of rushing water. “So, that was it, then, right? The biggest rapids.” Andrew just laughs at me. “That little ole thing? Hell no! The 50/50 Rapids is still coming up.”
It’s a long haul down the Whanganui, a journey by canoe and part of the official trail that’s the Te Araroa in New Zealand. It’s Day 52 of my thru-hike and I’m closing in on meeting the Tasman Sea again, a body of water I walked next to for four days right at the beginning. Specifically, this 4 ½ day paddle heading almost due south, will take me to the city of Whanganui itself, which is technically on the Cook Strait. But it’ll take me another week to walk to Wellington and then check the North Island off my list.
But for now, I’m in a canoe and it feels like we have this river all to ourselves. We slept at a Maori camp site high up on the cliffs, a halo of the milky way above our heads in the warm air. It’s close to the solstice and we’re up with the sun.
The routine is different on the river. Everything loads into water-tight barrels which have to be carried up – and down – around four stories from this grassy sand-fly-ridden camp area. From the muddy launch, we have to retie everything tightly in place so we don’t lose anything if we tip.
The water is flat coffee-brown under gray skies, the banks pocked with holes and creases from higher, faster water creating perfect symmetrical reflections like a Rorschach test. Huge cliffs close in on our lone canoe as we snake along, seeing the river slowly drop into the distance as it works its way towards the Sea.
It’s quiet and calming here, though my mind is distracted by the Fifty-fifty Rapids, a monster that is said to spit out half those who try to take her on. I zip my phone into a pocket and tighten the straps on my life vest as we come to a cool campsite and a cave we’re told is worth seeing. But the rapids get louder and my heart beats faster. No use stopping for a look; let’s just get this over with.
At first I don’t see anything but a rock beach in front of the bow. The narrow channel is far to the left against a flat wall of cliff. Andrew tells me we need to go straight into it, and ignore our instincts, the ones that scream, “Turn!” or we’ll crash into a wall.
I remember the lesson – “lean in, brace your knees against the gunwales, and paddle!” I fight the urge and face directly into the bubbling and misting cauldron ahead, though oddly we move slowly at first in a slow build-up of terror, the click-click-click as a roller coaster makes it’s first huge ascent.
And just like that, were sucked in, Andrew casually steering us directly into the V – “paddle, paddle, paddle!” I yell, directing myself not to flinch in my front row seat, everything up close and personal.
The sound rushes at us as we pour in, waves churning backwards that can’t be bumped or thwacked. They’re far too big and simply crash over me as the canoe pitches headlong into them, soaking me to the chest.
Boom-splash, boom-splash, boom-splash, thwack, thwack, thwack, fizzzzzzzz. The boat is ejected, rolling and pitching, the filled with muddy water above our ankles but somehow, miraculously, upright.
“Stay centered!” I yell, like a life coach as our tippecanoe lumbers toward flat water where Andrew can begin bailing with the one bucket tied to the seat. In the end, he removes twenty-six gallons of water, but we reach across the now dry boat to give each other high fives and laugh at the noisy boiling whitewater we just conquered.
It’s only a little further Pipiriki and we exit the national park. The land is more pastoral. But there’s a lonely feeling to it, as though abandoned. No more high cliffs, jet boats or tourists.
But are there more rapids?
You bet, and a wilder one that funnels us down a long C-shaped shoot, smashing us into low-hanging tree limbs, fortunately springy enough to push aside. We drop over hidden rocks and luckily choose the correct sides of two islands as rapids bounce, shudder and shake further and further down the river.
We pass Jerusalem entirely, a convent turned backpacker accommodation with its charming church and dozens of wild goats racing up the steep hillsides. I take a picture from downstream realizing there’s no way to go back up as Andrew bails another fifteen gallons from the canoe. Ahead we see a cable stretched across the river, the one that pulls a little car that brings guests to the Flying Fox. Let’s not pass this landing or it’s a long way to camping.
The retreat is a funky collection of huts, glamping tents, a well-stocked campsite shelter, and long drop amidst fig, lemon, and avocado trees. The owners don’t seem particularly glad to see us, but allow us to set our tents for $15 reminding us not to steal the toilet paper as they can sell us a roll for 50-cents. I take a hot outdoor shower in the bush then organize dinner at a table protected by a sheet-metal roof.
Comfortably leaning against the tiny shelter and stretching my legs out on the bench, I think about the metaphor in today’s stretch of river. There’s something to be said for aiming your canoe – and life – into the churning V of rapids. You may not be able to control things, but at least you can reinterpret the story you tell yourself as you go forward. Moving through the crashing waves that soak you head to toe like a baptism, has the ability to release you upright, even if a little wobbly, to a renewed sense of power.
And just like that, it starts to pour.
The rain lets up and a huge moon lights up our sanctuary accompanied by wild night sounds. A few stray splats of raindrops hit the alicoop shaking off the trees and I feel lucky we had the place all to ourselves. At dawn, a loud bird ever so slightly varying its song, positions itself in the tree above my head. Funny how once I’m packed, he decides to quiet down. But that just cues the weird mini-roosters, crowing away like rusty wind-up toys. They have all the equipment of their big rooster brethren but with minuscule bodies and the voice – and temperament – of a first tenor.
The routine is getting, well, routine. And it seems each place we’ve stayed is just that much higher than the river. We pack the barrels and have to hoist them through a fence, over a stile and down zigzags of the last flood’s sandy bench where we balance on huge, half buried drift logs over ankle deep mud to load. Not sure why the owners make it so tough to stay here – but we can’t compare to those who arrive by cable car and pay the big bucks.
I have one hand on the tie-line, one hand for balance and one hand passing Andrew a barrel at a time which he expertly ties down before bailing the canoe of rainwater All hands – and a few extra – on deck, one might say.
There are no more rapids, and the river widens and flattens. But the day becomes a misery almost from the start. Hard rain splashes our faces and leaks down our cuffs. My shoes and socks are soaked through, my rain gear taking on the challenge like a champ.
I’m not cold as I paddle, and actually enjoy the views, which are softer, less Sideshow Bob and more Dr. Seuss. We still pass some massive walls of exposed stone, etched into quirky shapes by the ever-present water. Ferns, flowers, and creepers work their way into crevices as though a skillful designer placed them in position.
Farms appear and disappear, cows and sheep lazily look on as we pass; wild goats momentarily panic. The rain doesn’t bother me much though I worry we’ll get cold. Andrew did not bring rain pants and he’s canoeing barefoot.
At one point, when the rain appears to never let up, Andrew stops paddling and says, “How about some sour patch kids?” Sour Patch Kids – the progeny of sour patch, sour patch’s spawn, the beautiful little gummy candies made in New Zealand, a thru-hiker’s guilty pleasure.
I killed all my candy even before the Tongariro crossing and Andrew has been carefully doling out his available sugar rush to last all the way to Whanganui City. If there’s one thing I’ve learned on this thru-hike, I’m terrible at rationing.
I take a small handful and suck out the sour, chew up the sweet and paddle some more until the rain stops, revealing beautiful reflections on the muddy water.
We come to a section that bends back on itself in a spastic squiggle. At first, the obvious access to our planned camping is a set of slippery clay stairs, but upon closer inspection it’s just a short float down to an old jetty that looks almost to be stadium seating in miniature, roughened up by a monster flood. We unload in stages and again hoist our barrels uphill, even further than yesterday up a winding trail through bush.
It makes sense why this high, flat area was once a pa or fort. Hipango Park was used as a summer getaway from the city and now the Rotary Club maintains a beautiful shelter, scattered no-smell long drops and a soft, grassy camping field.
People are jerks when it comes to removing their garbage, but one group left behind two decent bottles of Shiraz with just enough to accompany my lunch.
Our tents dry in the cool air, our rain gear and socks hanging on the line. A bit tipsy, I think back on this unusual part of the Te Araroa, where the only walking is a strenuous up and down with gear packed in heavy barrels. Locomotion is in a river, one that is precious and spiritual to the people of this part of the world, a wild place, a ‘great walk,’ and nearly a week of my thru-hike that completely changes the mood of my journey.
For one thing, it can’t be done alone, it’s simply not allowed. Had Andrew not shown up, I would have kayaked but stayed with the group of men who rushed this section.
So it was my very good fortune to end up with a skilled paddler and easy going person in Andrew. I’m also surprised by the campsites, their history and quirkiness, their beauty and interest and at this one, we’ll be all alone again which is just fine for this solo hiker.
Andrew and I head back down to the river, arriving in time to retie the canoe before the incoming tide crunches it under the jetty. The clouds turn pink and I think of what’s ahead. Still a few weeks to Wellington with a hard and dangerous mountain range in between. Andrew will take a bus back north to meet his girlfriend and then restart the trail where he left off in a few weeks. It’s likely I’ll never see him again.
But I have to laugh. We’re not saying goodbye right now, there’s still another twenty miles to town and we’ll have to pack up and carry this lot back down the steep and slippery trail again. But still, the wild parts are behind us now.
But it occurs to me, if I can meet someone as cool as Andrew who just seemed to manifest our of thin air right when I needed him, perhaps there’ll be others along the way at the right moments.
episode 31 shownotes ‘n transcript
- Blissful begins paddling the Whanganui with her partner Andrew as captain, a young American exactly thirty years younger, who takes charge of steering.
- After a quick lesson, they’re off mostly on placid water reflecting the clouds and cliffs dotted with waterfalls.
- At the John Coull Hut, she camps outside and watches rare pekapeka, short-tailed bats, the only endemic mammals to New Zealand.
- They take a break from paddling to visit the Bridge to Nowhere, built with high hopes o bring prosperity to the region, though no roads were ever built to it.
- The seven-year-old daughter, Maddy, welcomes them to Tieke Kainga, as the kaikaranga or caller in a powhiri to the Maori community, then gives her a pakohe , a healping stone, which Blissful carries on every hike thereafter.
MUSIC: Impresiones de la Puna by Alberto Ginastera as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
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The powhiri is underway at Tieke Kainga, a Maori community high upon a cliff above the Whanganui River. A powhiri is a welcoming ceremony, inviting strangers to become part of the community – waewae tapu, or sacred feet.
We’ve walked up a narrow path from below to the marae – a meeting house and its lovely courtyard, with benches for all of us. The elder is Matt, the warden of this hut in the Wahnaganui National Park where we’re all staying the night as we paddle towards the sea. The kaikaranga or caller is his seven-year-old daughter Maddy.
We participate by sharing who we are and where we’re from, – specifically our river and our mountain – and then, we sing.
I’ll arrive at Tieke Kainga after two days of paddling down this wondrous river. Kinda crazy, the Te Araroa can be walked the entire way, by why skip this 5-day adventure paddling down over 100 miles of “The Rhine of New Zealand.”
Things start in typical New Zealand rural fashion waking up with complaining sheep and the thwap-thwap of techno pop meaning only one thing – sheep sheering.
Zena and Johno from Taumaranui Canoe Hire arrive and have us unpack our carefully packed gear and repack it again in barrels. It’s all a bit of a drama as we hurriedly reorganize then get another briefing and small canoe lesson in the thick mud at Wade’s Landing in Whakahoro.
The Whaganui River Journey is considered one of New Zealand’s ‘great walks.’ It’s protected and filled with tourists, a very different feel for us long distance walkers used to isolated trails, not to mention how odd it feels sitting rather than walking.
It’s also a river with rapids and I’m lucky to have Andrew a reasonably skilled paddler – as our canoe captain. He turned 24 yesterday (nearly exactly 30 years younger than me)
Apparently one in three flip and we leave it to the Croatians, with Bojan a competitive white water rafter, to be the first to tip. They are taking the rapids in front of seemingly purposely from the side – while we on bump and splash straight into the V, only spinning sideways once but thankfully managing to correct.
After those first riffles, we float on a serene and glassy surface, only the sound of our paddles gently pushing us forward. The water is a muddy brown, like coffee with cream. And the sun just touches the banks, a cool and refreshing air conditioning breeze flows through a deep gorge of bush, the steep walls plastered with moss and ferns. Deep crevices reveal themselves, one after another, carved over time by water and now filled with noisy, but often hidden, waterfalls.
It’s not only grand and thrilling to be here – there’s something spiritual that grabs me instantly. Only a year before I came here, the New Zealand Parliament passed legislation acknowledging the Whanganui as a legal person, a living being, with all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities that entails. And I feel what the original inhabitants must have felt, that the water, the cliffs and the atmosphere itself, breathes.
We land on a rocky shore for a break and I open a can of beer to accompany my lunch. Andrew’s the first American I’ve traveled with and we talk easily about everything from family to movies to work. He also felt a bad vibe with the other group of hikers back on the Timber Trail. Yet, even as a young man, he’s filled with equanimity. “People are going to be jerks,” he tells me. “I just don’t let them ruin my experience.” Out of the mouth of babes.
I reserved a bunk at the John Coull hut , but it feels like a scene from Oliver. So I set my tent with the others then take my dinner to the river’s edge to catch a breeze and look for pekapeka, the rare lesser short-tailed bat and the only native mammal to New Zealand. A flurry of cackling swallows dive bomb our perch before the last of the twilight and three bats flutter in and out of our view, stalling momentarily to catch a meal mid-flight.
Our tents are damp in this foggy morning, set on a staircase of carved terraces, Inca-style. Yesterday, Andrew and I spied rock formations that appeared made by hand, huge hewn blocks as if a wall around the river. His passion is science fiction, so it got us fantasizing of ancient alien civilizations here in this last inhabited patch of the world.
The morepork hooted through the still night until I was awakened by David’s excited descriptions of climbs to Alex and the Croatians, as well as advice to slow down the pace for the South Island, which he completed last year. I really wanted him to shut up and give me a few more moments sleep, but I’ll miss David and these guys. They go on further today to get to Wellington before the month is over.
That definitely won’t be me with the Tararuas to come, a notoriously difficult and dangerous crossing , more remote and difficult than the Tongariro. To prepare for bad weather days I may have to wait out in a hut, I’ll carry extra food, but that, of course, slows me down on the steep ascents.
Thru-hiking is a balancing act and that difficult range is still a few weeks away, right after Christmas. Right now, the river is ahead, and the only part of me that’s tired is my bony bottom on the seat all day.
The Whanganui tends to flood, so it’s a long haul up and down to the canoes in stages with six heavy barrels of gear and food. But we’re up and out before anyone in the hut stirs and the emptiness on the river makes it feel like it’s all ours.
People would walk miles to see just one of these massive waterfalls tumbling out of canyons or seeping down the bare rock – and yet we get hundreds of them, tree ferns grabbing hold to any chink in the cliff, their fronds stretching over the abyss. It’s a day of rapids then calm then rapids again, reflected clouds and bright blue sky on the latte-colored water.
A jetty appears just as a smelly jet boat arrives filled with tourists. We stop here too for the twenty-minute walk uphill to the Bridge to Nowhere. Built in the ‘30s it’s a concrete monstrosity nearly swallowed by the bush as it spans the deep gorge made by Mangapurua Stream. It was built with high hopes and meant for cars to bring prosperity to the region. But, alas, this area is prone to washouts so farmers deserted and the roads were never built. Today the bridge has more tourist traffic than commerce.
We climb back in our canoe and paddle into wind, screaming up the canyon and almost sending us into the piles of huge logs and debris on the edge of the river. The process repeats at Tieke Kainga, landing in deep mud, untying our barrels and carrying them up two at a time to our flat camp spot high above the river.
We’re met right away by little Maddy – who pronounces here name “Midson” – a Maori girl with a dimpled grin, barefoot, shorts, orange t-shirt and aviator sunglasses resting on her head, I’m fairly certain are her older sister, Charly’s. She proudly tells me all about this place, the plants that grow here, how long they stay in the summer and what she does with her days to Charly’s amusement. The three of us hike back down to the river and take a swim in a shallow area unaffected by the strong current.
The big excitement of the afternoon is when the helicopter arrives to make a delivery – firewood, cooking gas, even a riding lawnmower. There’s no other way to get here besides the river. Though National Park, this bit of land was occupied by Maori. The Department of Conservation, or DOC, wanted to build a hut and camping sites for the ever-increasing tourist industry but were at an impasse. Peace finally prevailed in a kind of shared responsibility. Though clearly the Maori won the day and made their point by painting the roof of their marae the exact shade of blue to match tarps used by DOC during the dispute.
I find it all a bit amusing, and yet this was very serious business. The Whanganui is their awa tupua—a river of sacred power, an ancestor. It’s not enough to simply recognize the river as having rights. What matters is the orientation of people to the natural world, a sacred regard for creation and an ethic of responsibility to the whole. There is a saying in Maori that “The small streams and the large streams flow together.” It’s a metaphor for community, that all is intrinsically linked.
And so it makes sense that when we are invited to the powhiri, a welcoming into the community of Tieke Kainga, that we identify ourselves by both our mountain (land that’s also deeply sacred) and our river –
The sky turns a deep purple and the a few bats flutter above as we return to the little shelter next to our campspots to make dinner before turning in. Maddy returns flashing her adorable smile and shows me a picture she drew of me dressed in my hiking outfit and silly hat, my hair like straw sticking out the sides and a big toothy grin.
She tells me good night and I know I won’t see her again so I give her a hug. When we pull apart, she reaches into her pocket and pulls out a stone, black and smoothed by the water. It’s pakohe, a metamorphosed and hardened mudstone that was used for centuries because it could be sharpened into a tool. She tells me it has healing properties. Does she know I need to be healed, or is this just one of those things seven-year-olds do, sharing something precious to them with someone they like?
I thank her and take the stone into the alicoop, massaging its cool softness in my palm. It’ll never sound as easy from me as it does my Maddy, but here’s a try “Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au.” I am the river and the river is me.
episode 30 show notes ‘n transcript
- Blissful leaves the Tongariro National Park on the Tupapakurua Falls Track,a “balcony walk” with views out to Mount Taranaki rising above the horizon like Shangri-La on a brilliantly clear day.
- She camps with her friends at the Katieke War Monument to those who died in World War I and they enjoy a spectacular sunset.
- She learns that even though the day started off badly, a thru-hike allows you to literally walk away to something better.
- It’s a road walk to Whakahoro, but lovely next to the Retaruke River.
- At the camp spot, Eline arrives – a Dutch woman backpacking for the very first time – and teaches Blissful to trust herself.
MUSIC: Poema del Pastor Coya by Angel Lasalaas played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
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I’m having trouble sleeping as my birthday comes to an end. So many gifts in the past few days as I crossed through Tongariro National Park: good weather, astonishing scenery, strong legs and decent track. But I feel lonely just now – and maybe a bit foolish, this woman now in her mid-fifties all on her own maybe trying to recapture her youth?
I guess it doesn’t help that the gal running the Ski Haus where I decided to take a room instead of camp is up all night with her friends. She’s from Germany and here on a ‘working holiday.’ But it’s 4:00 am they’re marching up and down the halls talking, banging around in the kitchen right next to my room. When I ask a third time to please be more quiet, they tell me they’re doing nothing.
OK, except waking me up over and over.
I’m too old for this. Who stays up all night? Is this part of the job? The town is dead quiet, it never occurred to me that I’d need ear plugs to allow me to rest and protect me from the proprietor’s racket. I send Richard a note since it’s mid-morning for him in Minnesota, and he tells me you’re going to have some days like that farmer who took you out on the Polaris to bring in the sheep – and some days, are going to be knee-deep mud.
A truer statement couldn’t be said – both for long distance thru-hikes and for life –
I’m feeling hung over when I hit the trail just as the sun comes up, sadly not from my birthday beer, but from the more mundane reason: lack of sleep.
The sky is clear and it’s crackling cold. Mist rises in the Erua forest as a Maori man walking a tiny dog and wearing a “I heart Melbourne” sweatshirt catches up with me as I leave the village. He tells me you get used to the cold, but it will warm up. A couple of red tailed deer crash through the forest and across the path in front of us.
I soon turn off the road onto the Tupapakurua Falls Track, grassy and soft aiming straight down into bush. Cliffs above heave with life, ferns and myriad plants spilling into the trail, including the endangered New Zealand gloxinia or taurepo, its orange trumpet shaped flower found only on these islands. The air is redolent of bush, fresh. This grassy track seems to float above the deep valley. A family of wild goats scurries across the track behind me for cover. As I look back I catch a glimpse of sunlight gleaming on glacier-packed Ruapehu high above me but slowly disappearing as I descend. It will be a long descent today, over 1000 feet to get me closer to the Whanganui River.
This is my first balcony walk on the Te Araroa where the trail rests out in the open on the edge of a hillside, lush bush directly in front of my eyes like folds of fabric leading towards the horizon. And what’s that ahead? Like a child’s rendition of a mountain perfectly conical and snowcapped. That’s Mount Taranaki out there glowing in the mist like Shangri-La. The Te Araroa does not go that way and there’s no way in this moment I can know yet that I will get there in only a few weeks for an incredible side-trip, and yet I take its picture and feel of tingle of excitement. Even though my eyes sting with fatigue, I realize this bright blue morning all alone is turning out to be one of my favorites.
I’m not alone for long as Tom catches me. My knee jerk reaction is to tell him how upset I am about last night’s noisy caretakers. But the wiser me thinks better of it. The German girl was actually very generous giving me a single room for a decent price, and finding me a towel and shampoo. She likely has no idea how she affected me – protesting that they were being quiet – enough. I decide it’s better not to take it personally because I am quite literally, walking away to something better.
Tom cruises on and I arrive at a gate I can’t seem to open. I fuss with it just as Alexis catches up. “Trail Angels arrive when you need them,” I think to myself as he muscles the rusty catch.
We walk together, arriving at a country lane through gorgeous upper Retaruke valley and deer farming country as storm clouds build and we meet the others. Had I mentioned that New Zealand is one of the largest exporters of venison? It’s road walking now, but does it really count as a road when there’s no traffic at all? I pass two kids in shorts and high rubber boots playing near a huge tractor. A woman at her mailbox offers to fill my water bottle, and assures me there’s lovely camping just ahead.
And she’s right. The local community had to come up with something for the Te Araroa trampers using this triangular shaped bit of land as a meeting point. It’s the Katieke War Monument, a memorial to those who gave their lives in the Great European War. An obelisk rests in a walled space, maybe a fountain at one time? And I count 29 dead soldiers, some with the same last names. I can’t imagine the devastation to this tiny village losing so many.
The locals have erected a long drop and a spigot attached to the fence for fresh water. There’s even a picnic table of sorts, a massive flat rock with two more slender and lower slabs as benches beside it.
It’s a grassy idyll surrounded by hills, birds, and barnyard noises, sheep polka dotting the steep hillsides. I get the alicoop up just in time before rain smacks the top, a perfect lullaby for a much needed nap. The late afternoon dries and it’s hot and humid as the men strip off their tops and we bring out piles of food, no one eating in any particular order as dinner consists of ramen, oatmeal, tuna, nutella, sliced bread and gummy bears.
The day did not start well for me, but that wee nap in my cozy tent with the rain helped – and to be honest, it was not hard walking, but it was surprisingly lovely walking down that huge balcony with views back to the Tongariro and out to Taranaki.
I realize that thru-hiking has the advantage of allowing us to renew ourselves. Things that happen in the first weeks, the first months, can be rectified, left behind, or entirely forgotten. The story can have a different ending. The heroine can live happily ever after.
As it gets dark, we head into our tents but I notice the sky changing color and call everyone back out for a encore finale as the clouds surround us, brilliantly lit by the setting sun in orange, pink and purple. My beautiful hiking day ends as one of my most favorite with an assortment of walkers from around the world all here for different reasons, but earnest and generous as we share this wondrous moment.
The day opens with low hanging mist. I have to put on rain gear just to pack the soaking wet alicoop, not just from rain, but also dew clinging to every blade of grass and leaving my shoes and socks soaking wet. I have this quirk of studying, and even taking a picture, of the little coffin shaped dry spot in the grass that was my warm body only moments ago. It’s a modest day’s walk to the river and there will be plenty of time to dry my gear before packing into barrels for the canoe trip.
My Dutch friend Tom said something yesterday about missing love while hiking this trail. He has his eye on a certain female walker, one I met in the hut on the summit of Mount Pirongia named Eline. Though in this case, I think Tom means missing the deep connection of his family and friends. I too miss the solid and tender person I married who always keeps me balanced and focused. Out here on my own, I’m always a bit lost. Only when I start walking and moving my body, does my mind clear and the nervousness melt away.
It’s a country road doubling as a cycle path as trail today. And you know you’re in farm country when you come across a jug placed right in the middle of the road with ‘stock’ scrawled on it warning that not only will drivers share the trail with cyclists and hikers, but also cows and sheep. I pass a barn and the shearing is on, hits of the ‘90s this time, backbeat pumping incongruously against the pastoral backdrop.
Most of the way, I follow the rushing Retaruke River, views opening to its steep gorge, cliffs wet and mossy from run off and sprouting ferns. A truck passes me pulling a trailer with five red canoes. I wave to Johno at the wheel. Those are our canoes!
It’s long strides all the way to Whakahoro, my footsteps at just the tempo of “For unto us a child is born” from the Messiah on this hot and muggy December 16th. I gotta admit, it’s not easy whistling the melismas, but fortunately my critical audience here is only cows.
I think back to my birthday at the bar. When I arrived, Marko kissed both my cheeks but the others looked embarrassed, likely because I out-age them by 25 years or so. I did feel especially odd when I stood at the bar to buy myself my own birthday beer. But come on, already. Who the hell cares if you’re older? David’s older than you. But somehow it feels different when it’s a guy.
Maybe I don’t have the swagger and self-confidence of these men and I often feel way out of my comfort zone, but they must be a little impressed – or at least a little curious – that I’m out here doing this thing.
What was that famous story of the woman who decided to go to college at 65. When her kids reminded her she’ll be 69 when she graduated, she told them she’d be 69 anyway. Moral of the story is even if I look slightly ridiculous keeping up with kids half my age, there’s not much I can do to change the facts.
A sign welcomes me to Whakahoro, population 8. A horse xing sign follows as I cross the Blue Duck Station – a Kiwi word for ranch – and it’s only a few steps to the Blue Duck café. I pay way too much for lunch, but it’s delicious and it’s a cozy refuge from the baking sun. Bojan, Marko, David, Alexis, Tom and Andrew all crowd around a table on the porch marked with a sign as reserved for Te Araroa walkers, our backpacks spilling out and most of us with our shoes off, the ripe odor explaining why our table is outside.
Alexis shows me how to use my trail app to plan out the coming weeks to Wellington. He reminds me I don’t have to hold fast to a schedule, but at least I have a rough idea of how far I’ll plan to walk each day and where I’ll stay. I meet three soft calves with long lashes and knobby knees feasting on clover as I walk towards our camp spot. They pop their heads through the fence for a closer look and shyly allow a slight pat on the snout.
I set the alicoop right next to the horses’ paddock, with views back towards steep cliffs and within earshot of the river. I paid for a bunk, but I’ll probably sleep better outside – ah, unless the complaining sheep keep me up.
As I throw in my mattress and sleeping bag, Eline arrives, Tom’s crush. She’s tall, brunette and has a million dollar smile. She tells me she walked the last seven days, including the Tongariro Crossing, all alone – and this is a woman who’s never hiked in her life. She just went and did it to prove to herself that she could.
But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t confused and uncertain. She admits it took courage to sort things out and have faith that she’d figure out what to do should there be any problems. But I’m speechless. I consider myself experienced and yet I’m getting tips on how to be brave from a novice – a kind, open and generous novice, but a novice just the same.
The successful IT executive Marissa Mayer said she likes doing things when she’s not quite ready. “ When there’s that moment of ‘Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through those moments,” she says. “That’s when you have a breakthrough.”
Canoers arrive from upstream and set up in the bunkhouse. I head out on Lacy’s Bridge looking for whio in the rapids and watch two bats flutter in the darkening sky. I must say it helps me tremendously to meet another single woman sorting this out out on her own. We share that this that something called us to walk the trail and we both set off maybe a bit sooner than we were ready. But Eline gives me courage. If she can did this – a Dutch backpacking novice with English as a second language – so can I.
episode 29 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker is gifted with good weather while walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing on the Te Araroa, but it takes a fellow hiker to slow her down and help her enjoy the spectacular surroundings.
In this episode:
- Blissful leaves Te Porere Redoubt for the Tongariro crossing with four hiker friends in the middle of the night and is heartened when she sees stars, a good omen for decent weather ahead.
- Tussocky hillsides dotted with mountain daisies take her up to steaming calderas spewing sulfuric smells, ancient craters crumbling into malevolent jaws and lakes of a wondrous chalky green.
- As if like magic, her friend Tom meets her and slows her down to savor the entire day before they camp together below the Devils Staircase in the Mangatepopo Valley.
- On her birthday, the day opens clear with a glorious view of Ruapehu all the way to Whakipapa where the trail goes from good to awful just as the promised storms follow her all the way to National Park.
MUSIC: Impresiones de la Puna by Carlos Gaustavinoas played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
MUSIC: The music in this episode is Argentine composer Angel Lasala’s Poema del Pastor Coyaand Carlos Guastavino’s Allegroas played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
My track is well worn and clear through, actually cutting a tunnel into the surrounding bush, the ground about an inch or two lower than what surrounds it and scattered with tiny leaves that crunch slightly underfoot. These leaves come from mountain beech, ancient trees mottled in black and white and nearly covered in moss, creating a goblin forest effect as I move confidently through.
Every so often I come to a kaikawaka or cabbage trees, with wild fronds popping out the top like so many Sideshow Bobs. I’m following the Whakapapaiti Stream, joining an area of golden rapids made of iron deposits from lava flows that leech out from bogs above, thankfully in this section which is popular with tourists, I have a beautiful boardwalk for my feet.
Humid, moss covered forests give way to shattered open areas from the last eruption of Ruapehu, the largest active volcano in the country. The signs have helpfully descriptive names like ‘slippery gully’ while others, are a bit more ominous warning trampers, ‘Do not attempt after heavy rain’. As if driving home the point, the sky darkens and I hear rumbling in the distance. And just like that, I leave this gorgeous trail to walk directly into a bog.
I am well into month number two of my hike of the Te Araroa, New Zealand’s long pathway. It will take me about five months to complete and I seem to be right on schedule, arriving in the fourth section of ten one day before my birthday. I am in Manawatu-Whanganui now and just outside of Tongariro National Park. It’s 3 in the morning and I’m awakened by the sound of four separate alarms – Bojan, Marko, David and Alexis have all camped with me at the Te Porere Redoubt – humpy remains of a fort from the last of the New Zealand wars.
I can see mist in the light of my headlamp, but I can also see stars above. Glory Hallelujah. The weather report calls for thunderstorms mid-day, and that’s not good for this high and exposed crossing of volcanic alpine landscape, not to mention I won’t be able to see steaming vents, glacial valleys, ancient lava flows, alpine vegetation and bright green crater lakes.
But at this moment, the stars above me, are giving me hope. We’re silent on the six miles of road, blackness giving way to a bluish-gray splashed with orange. Near the car park, a few houses display Christmas lights and we turn into a long driveway surrounded by a fence of orange markers, presumably discouraging illegal parking. It’s empty now as we walk towards a high mountain belching steam.
The guys pause for breakfast and I head on alone first through bush, ‘manicured’ and wide with plastic anti-slip strips, and exits for run-off; there are even stairs. What a contrast to the awful mud pit of yesterday. I push up moss-covered forest, winding through mist to finally break out onto tussocky hillside, calderas spewing out a cloud of something sinister smelling. I take pictures out through clearing skies towards more mountains surrounding Lake Rotaira before they catch me at the ruined Ketetahi shelter, a hut damaged by an eruption in 2000.
Maybe it’s the “rocky mountain high” of ascending, but I suddenly feel joy and gratitude for my birthday-eve gift of stars, warmish air, and that right now, in this moment, I’m making the crossing, something I was afraid I wouldn’t do. I cross a spring white with minerals and gingerly hop over a tongue of lava flow as the trail continues in zig-zags and just like that, I’m enveloped in mist.
Maybe that’s all I’ll get, deciding to look down at my feet and the thick-stemmed mountain daisies, audaciously cheerful in this land of rock and debris. I make my peace with the day just as I reach a ridge that levels out and the sun burns through, revealing massive Blue Lake next to the North Crater in a moonscape of ancient lava flow, snow fingers tracing their wrinkles.
We make our way down to a plateau before reaching four boiling sulfurous lakes in a wondrous chalky green and I see a mountain ahead covered in ant-sized people. The Te Araroa heading south actually takes the tramper against the tide and up the steepest section on crumbling pumice. Still nervous about getting caught out in the weather, we fly up the mountain, heads down and breathing hard as we sink in to the scree even though the hundreds of people coming towards us seem unafraid of any deteriorating conditions.
As I ascend I see another backpacker in bright blue. It’s my Dutch friend, Tom! He tells me hitchhiked the roads to get here a day early so as not miss any possible good weather. He’s all smiles mostly laughing at me racing past some of the most incredible scenery of this long-distance walk.
At the top, I stand at a crumbling cliff and a sign telling me not to take one more step. I look directly into the Mars-like Red Crater, rocks tumbling down into its malevolent jaws, beautiful in a stark and unearthly way. Tom and I linger at the top as the other four press on and I realize whatever weather’s coming, it’s not here yet, and I am at the highest point of the crossing.
And so I ask for a do-over. Tom and race right back down that massive climb, far easier descending as we jump from footstep to footstep in loose pumice. At a little ridge, Tom snaps my picture with the Emerald Lakes below before we park ourselves next to one for lunch and to take it all in.
It’s hard work coming back up the saddle but the sky clears even more and I get a perfect view of Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe – better known as Mount Doom. We play around below them on the barren south crater, but I show respect by not climbing either mountain as they are sacred to the local Maori.
We stay out in this wonderland until it’s nearly dark, then walk down the Devil’s Staircase built over dark gray ash ejected after multiple eruptions. It takes us into the regenerating Mangatepopo Valley where we follow a rushing stream, ochre with minerals. Tom tells me he camped at the hut last night, but suggests we find a secluded spot off trail to camp, one that requires rocks to hold the alicoop in place since my pegs have no purchase in moss that just lifts up off the rock.
What a day, I think settling into our funny little spot next to a dry riverbed. Not just that the weather held, or that it wasn’t really as hard as I’d anticipated – and worried over for days, but the luck of running into Tom as though he was placed in my path to slow me down and savor this extraordinary place.
He never said anything in particular, but his gentle teasing reminded me to slow down check in with myself to remember where I am, what I’m doing and what it is I hope to accomplish. It only took a few moments, but being quiet gave me the space to choose a do-over and not miss out. Later, I had to laugh at myself when we passed a line of Japanese tourists all dressed alike marching up towards the Red Crater. Not one of them in a hurry or worried about inclement weather.
The sky turns black and I see streaks of lightning over the valley below. I’ve eaten and am ready at any moment to dive in my tent, but the rain never comes.
My birthday starts in sunshine – and absolutely no hurry with only an easy day of about 18 miles. Richard sends a message via my GPS reminding me that it’s yesterday in the United States, but today in New Zealand. I often wondered where I’d end up on December 14th while walking the Te Araroa. In a tent in the Tongariro National Park – and to be packed and moving before a few raindrops hit me.
Last night’s spot was perfect looking up the valley and watching the thunderstorms move slowly past. But I literally turn a corner and glacier-covered Ruapehu reveals herself in all her grandeur, a small trail of fog circling like a boa. I saw her flat top all the way from Mt. Puerora days and days ago. The snow is fresh, white, gleaming against the blue gray of her folds. She’s in my sights all the way as I negotiate a severely eroded trail – an accident waiting to happen.
I pass dozens of tourists on the Lower Taranaki Falls track before arriving at Whakipapa village, where I grab a snack from the store served by an American on a working holiday. She mentions it rains here more than her home of Seattle. The track ahead, I’m afraid, will be really messy Te Araroa slogging – and with the added bonus of rain coming.
Tom flies past me with no interest in walking my sauntering pace now. I think now about some of the things he says. He talks a lot about life and relationships and what he wants out of life. He even has a tattoo on his ribs – yes, he said it did hurt – that is a bit of a middle finger to his family and those who tried to steer him to a more conventional life. At 30, he left his wife, quit his job and sold his house to travel.
I, on the other hand, want to stay with my husband, live in a house and keep my job. I’d just like to figure out how I can do all the things I want to in life like walking long trail and keep the rest balanced. I picked the right guy who encourages my wanderlust. We scrimped and saved so I could come here, but I don’t know how things will change me.
Here, alone, on the lower silica rapids track in Tongariro National Park, eating chips and having grapefruit juice on my fifty-fourth birthday, I think it was worth the risk just to see what I can do and to see something new too.
The conditions are easy leading to a hut, but I cut off before it into the wet Mangahuia Track, bog, mud and tall grass carefully negotiated, invasive heather making the going even more difficult.
It’s a spectacular view of Ruapehu across a field of high and tussocky grass. Behind me is the triangular cone of Mount Doom where the sky begins to turn black. I’m wearing all my rain gear plus sun hat. This is New Zealand afterall. I was lost in my thoughts on the easy trail and it’s not until things got more difficult – and the storm clouds started to build – that I remember I’m alone. It comes at me like a slap. I was afraid of the crossing, afraid to be out here on my own, afraid my skills weren’t up to the task. But here I am, and I’m figuring it out.
I hear rumbling behind me and realize I made the crossing perfectly as the mountains I’d passed by yesterday disappear into the gloom. Up ahead is a forest. Let’s make it to the forest before the rain hits, I challenge myself, not exactly sloshing through this ooze any faster, but maybe a bit more purposefully and deliberate. I reach the forest and still no rain, even as the wind picks up and the sky gets darker.
I have several streams to cross, but they’re manageable even if I have to use my hands to climb down the banks. I change my goal to reflect the situation. Let’s get out of this forest before the rain hits so as to avoid rising water.
My map shows the trail hitting a straight line. This means I’m done with stream crossing and the trail improves, perhaps an old road where I fly through the waving branches. OK, let’s get to the campground. If things really get bad, I can hide in the long drop.
The clouds build faster as I reach the road. Ruapehu – and where I was walking only an hour ago – is completely hidden. The storm hits exactly where I was this afternoon with a vengeance, the mountains obliterated in a blueish-black funnel and a smidge of brick-red highlight. OK, no need to stay here, it’s only a few miles on the road to the little tourist town of National Park. If worse come to worse, I can hitchhike.
A couple of DOC workers are parked next to a sign, scraping off stickers and cleaning up the graffiti. I almost walk right past before they call out, inviting me to take a picture of one of the most famous signs in the world – it read, “Caution, crossing at night” with a silhouette of a kiwi. My picture shows road and darkness swirling above, but it was worth the brief stop.
Thunder cracks as I contemplate a hitch, marching ahead towards blue sky and town. Just as I enter the tiny store, the heavens open up. I huddle under an awning, squeezed into a chair where I savor a birthday chocolate/caramel ‘thick’ shake – that’s a shake using ice cream instead of flavored milk. Tom find me and suggests staying where he is at the Ski Haus hostel. The rain falling so hard now, I decide to take a room rather than set the tent.
I feel so lucky that the weather waited until I was safely in National Park before releasing its fury. And I feel so lucky the four boys asked me to come with them, even if we didn’t really walk together. They provided a framework for me to move at my pace. And I was especially lucky Tom showed up when he did so I didn’t get lost in my anxiety and blow past this remarkable place.
We share a beer with the other four at the pub and an Aussie living in Borneo joins us, droning on and on about all he’s seen and done. The climax of the day is not in this moment, but in the unexpected ones, the little victories, like continuing to move through the bog when the clouds got black. I realize it’s hard to pin down how special this crossing was because it so personal. Overcoming fear, learning to stop and look, and finding I actually have what it takes turns out to be the best birthday present of all.
The rain stops and we all head back outside just as the sun appears low on the horizon below heavy clouds, peaking out like an encore glowing a fanciful orange and pink on the entire Tongariro Crossing.
episode 28 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker struggles with being a beginner at thru-hiking as she walks New Zealand’s Te Araroa, but realizes that every step she takes brings her one step closer to being an expert.
In this episode:
- Blissful leaves Ongarue in the North Island of New Zealand and walks toward Taumarunui, where she’ll plan her canoe trip down the Whanganui River.
- She meets a Maori who shares sweet coffee and his philosophy, a mixture of matriarchal wisdom and Christianity and it tells her to “ask the mother for help.”
- In town, the trail provides when she meets up with four hikers she likes who invite her to join them for the canoe trip after four days walking.
- It’s an easy hike on country roads to the Whakapapa Riverwhere she spies two rare whio – or blue ducks – in the rapids, a good omen.
- The hike is along a mountain bike trail called the 42 Traverse, a sanctuary for kiwi and rare carnivorous plants.
- The trail cuts off for the Waione/Cokers Track, a muddy, deeply rutted trail where she meets a trapper who takes her on the ride of her life through bush on a 4X4.
MUSIC: The music in this episode is Argentine composer Angel Lasala’s Poema del Pastor Coyaand Carlos Guastavino’s Allegroas played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
Kawautahi Road heads steeply up a hill, turning into a single track and soft underfoot. My view is of bright green hills back towards Hikumutu, cows, sheep and horses calling this home – as well as one flamboyant ostrich, dancing behind a fence, her graceful feathers sensually outstretched.
I come right back down again into the tiny village of Owhango that seems set up mostly to cater to mountain bikers on New Zealand’s 42 Traverse. The track follows an old logging road and I’m warned can become a muddy nightmare after rain, with several river crossings and few escape routes in this remote part of the North Island. Of course, it’s raining now, but I won’t start the Traverse until tomorrow.
But even in this damp, I need to drink. It’s been a long walk from Taumarunui and I’m thirsty. I pass a garage where a man in coveralls is working on a car. “Kia ora! I wonder if I might fill my water bottle?” He does and when I thank him, he says “S’alright.” As one word. And then I push it – it has been a long walk, I wonder if you might have a beer I can buy?
His 14-year-old kid, a mechanic apprentice in orange and blue coveralls races up wooden stairs on the outside of the building disappearing into what I can only guess is their home. He returns with an ice-cold Corona and a huge smile, “No charge.”
I continue to be amazed at the generosity of the trail angels I meet along this path, the Te Araroa, a long distance thru-walk of the entire length of New Zealand. I am about two thirds the way down the North Island, on the verge of Tongariro National Park, the country’s oldest park and a wonderland of snow-capped active volcanoes. I could see enormous vanilla-icing cake of Ruapehu from the last summit I climbed in the Pureora Forest, miles and miles of bush in between.
But the “trail” for the next two days is road. Thankfully few cars pass as I leave Ongarue campsite. I was kept up most of the night by wailing sheep separated from their lambs. In the early morning light, it’s just birds accompanying my steps.
I’m out of food and my pack is light, but my heart is heavy and my mind worries over the coming sections. The weather is supposed to change for the worse just as I’ll come to the Alpine Crossing. In the next town, I’ll need to make plans for after the crossing when the trail becomes a river, and I’ll canoe down the Whanganui River, a river so sacred, it’s considered a person in Maori tradition. There’s a big group of walkers behind me, ones I camped with last night, who made their plans last night, though no one invited me to join them.
I probably wouldn’t have wanted to go with them anyway. At best, we just didn’t click – at worst, they weren’t very nice to me. So on I plod, not entirely sure what’s in store for me, but learning to let the trail provide even if I feel overwhelmed with detail and somehow can’t manage to comprehend how things all come together.
Music is cranking through the fields, American rock hits of the ‘80s, even at 6 am. It’s a shearing operation where four strong guys in ‘wife-beaters’ work on the sheep. It’s smelly and messy, but they move in a kind of choreographed dance – the shearer leading and the docile sheep in a tight embrace, following. At the next shed down the road plays Thin Lizzie.
I stop at Taane’s Manor for a rest, gnomes and little toadstool tables in a quiet garden. They’re closed, but the Maori gardener named Henry welcomes me. He shares sweet coffee and his philosophy, a kind of mix of Christianity and matriarch-based wisdom. “Talk to the mother while you walk,” he tells me. I pass a cluster of neat homes festooned with lawn ornaments and Henry’s marae of which he is so proud plus a Monet-esque lily pond and bridge.
I finally arrive in Taumaruni and the first sign of civilization? McDonald’s. A lovely old kiwi driving a scooter stops to chat telling me how happy is to finally get out of the house and ride to the golf course. I walk up the street, and hear my name. Four hikers I met way back in Waitomo are sitting under a tree – Bojan, Marko, Alexis and David – Croatian, French and Korean. They offer me greasy chips in a bag they’ve opened out flat on the grass.
They tell me of their plans to walk a few days, make the Tongariro crossing, then canoe for just four days down the river. Straight shooters, easy-going, kind, I like them. And suddenly, the trail provides when Alexis says, “Come with us!” It’s up a steep hill to Taumaranui Canoe Hire perched above the Whanganui River, the mountains beyond. I met by Karen, a Kiwi with long blond hair and a ready smile, on the phone all day long. Unlike me, she keeps her cool, offering to wash my muddy clothes in between reservations and to organize a trip back into town to buy “heaps” of food – and beer – that I’ll load into barrels we’ll strap down into the canoe – or in my case, single kayak.
She sets the five of us up in a container of bunk beds where we can stay dry as we organize for the coming days. Before tucking in, I wander down to the river to sneak in a wash to match my newly clean clothes. Then head back up to the office where I bear a gentle teasing from one of Karen’s sons for “being a nudist.” I thought maybe I was out of sight, but if a middle aged, undernourished body is your idea of a thrill, good on you!
It’s at that moment that Karen pulls away from the phone and asks if I might want to canoe with Andrew. Andrew? An American hiker like you. Wait, Andrew – isn’t he the young man I met in Auckland in a pouring rain? Indeed, it’s the same guy. I have a good feeling about him, and frankly I don’t really want to kayak all alone, even if I’m supposed to stay close to my group. Sign me up! “He’ll meet you in Whakohoro,” she says, “After the crossing.”
I’m still confused, but nod my head and tuck into the container for an early start, another road walk, the air heavy with humidity, sun filtering through low hanging gloom, all I hear is my steady breathing as I head uphill into rolling green. Deer perch above me in an enclosure.
I talk for a moment to a handsome horse wrangler and double check I packed my electronics. Worrying about what’s in – or out – of the pack burns up the kilometers. I wonder why I’m a naturally nervous person. Somehow being a beginner and not the expert causes me stress and self doubt.
A man signals his dogs with whistles as they move cattle. In another paddock, cows run down the hill to check out this walker in their ‘hood. The rain comes just as I leave the tiny village of Owhango, but dries up in time for me to set the alicoop next to my friends in a spectacular spot right above the Whakapapa River.
I cross the bridge to wash up, climbing down to boulders smoothed by flooding, laughing to myself about being caught out stripping nude last night. Just as I dip in my toes, two whio – rare blue ducks who can fish in fast moving water – swim by. I’m a beginner at thru-hiking. I have no idea if the weather will cause me trouble ahead and I feel tentative with every decision, and yet these ducks appear like an omen, a good luck sign that all will be well.
The morning is gray and ominous this morning; foggy, but no rain yet. There’s something really cool about walking overland to the national park and having it just reveal itself.
Walking is such a metaphor for life. Unless it’s a race, you can’t really rush it. You set your pace and then walk every step to where you’re going. It goes as it goes. David is gone when I’m up and then I’m next. I am not particularly fast, but I’m steady. And this is uphill for the first several hours.
I arrive at the first of four streams and a large waterfall cascading down moss covered rock. The forest is huge and, per usual, filled with birds. It’s a sanctuary for kiwi with well placed traps for pests all along the trail – also a sanctuary for plants, including a rare carnivorous parasite which attaches to an unsuspecting more common plant.
I see far over deep chasms to pointy humps of hills in the distance. My trail twists and turns with the terrain. Spooky cliffs look down on me.
I cross a river, water up above my shins, plowing through as Bojan catches me and takes off his shoes. And then, I come to Waione/Cokers track, an overgrown series of puddles.
This is supposed to be a mountain bike path but it’s deeply rutted and steep, unmaintained in deep bush. Not too much more, but will this lead me to a total washout day of rain and mist? Nothing good can come from being angry about the weather.
Then I totally lose the trail at a junction of streams. I’m standing at a sign, so it’s close, but where? Found it. The trail is a stream leading to a river. Cold, fast, up over my knees. I put the loops of my sticks firmly over my wrists, face upstream and slowly shuffle across.
I go up and up on slippy mud and at the top see the mountains, blue on gray. Around a bend, I’m surprised by a man eating an apple leaning against his 4×4, his leg at a jaunty angle. Matthew is a trapper, who hands me two oranges and offers me a ride for the final one kilometer. I don’t really feel like I’m cheating in this rutted nightmare of mud and puddles.
Matthew puts on a helmet as I climb in wondering why the passenger seat is filled with sticks and leaves. I soon figure that out as we bounce, drop, tip, bang, create steam after driving through deep pools, and shred plant-life flying down that narrow path. I try not to let my head bang as we turn sideways, practically wiping out, Matthew still working on his apple and working the shift to keep us heading through.
But it’s not enough and we come to a stop in a narrow channel of thick clag. I can’t open my door and climb over him to get out, pulling a winch to a nearby tree. It takes a few pulls, the tree leaning precariously, before Matthew manages to get unstuck.
I have never known a better driver and I have not had such a ride – ever. Glad I’m still here to tell the tale.
At the road, I catch up with David. He’s a slender, quiet Korean man of 60 who tells me he’s climbed El Capitan four times, soloed Denali and is retired now, guiding just for fun. He’s already walked the South Island and is walking the North Island on reconnaissance.
The Te Porere redoubt is now humpy remains of a fort directly under the high mountains of the Tongariro. It marks the final battle of the New Zealand wars. From here, the mountains are clear, clouds laying out a table cloth at their summits, a bit of snow at the highest points.
We filter water at a hard-to-reach stream as Alex, Bojan and Marko arrive and we set up near the parking lot, in the nick of time as the rain pours down hard and we all dive in to our respective tents.
Inside I muse on my purpose each day – to be honest, the purpose of each step. Sometimes it’s as simple as discovering if I am even capable of managing a thru-hike of this proportion, not just physically, but mentally and spiritually, all the challenges of bad trail, less than exemplary companions and erratic weather.
But these last few days have emphasized my discomfort with not knowing what’s ahead, or maybe more accurately, my discomfort not being expert enough to figure out how I’ll manage what’s ahead.
Life coach Barbara Sher wrote, “You can learn new things at any time in your life if you’re willing to be a beginner. If you actually learn to like being a beginner, the whole world opens up to you.” My friend Karen sums it up a bit more succinctly, “Be brave enough to suck at something new.”
I am not that brave – or am I? I may not be an expert – yet, I got here, walking each step. I brought the food I needed, I didn’t get lost or hurt and I set my tent in a place where I didn’t get flooded when it started to pour rain.
It finally lets up and we all peak out tentatively, finding dry spots to park ourselves and make our dinners. Tomorrow, there’s a long road walk to the park entrance and my first Alpine crossing in New Zealand. As it stands, the thunderstorms are supposed to arrive mid-day, so we decide to leave at 4:00 am, making the crossing just as the sun comes up.
I realize I made a good choice to hook up with these guys, men who are no fuss, no muss and willing to let me in on their plans even if that’s no guarantee anyone but myself is looking out for me.
I am confused and uncertain, I wear my insecurity on my sleeve, but with each step I take, I get just that much more of an expert.
episode 27 show notes ‘n transcript
- Blissful walks the Timber Trail in the spectacular Pureora Forest in the North Island of New Zealand, native bush saved by “tree sitters” and easy walking on old logging tramways.
- Crossing spectacular swing bridges over deep gorges and walking through deep canyons cut deeply in the hills take her to Piropiro Flats, where a trail angel gives her two cheap beers for brunch.
- At Waione Stream, she spies bikers wading in the rapids below, joining them for one of the best swims of her hike, cold but refreshing.
- Camping is at No. 10 Camp, though Chloe can’t stand Blissful’s blissful singing, so she sets her tent at a distance.
- Along the way, Blissful passes the 1,000 kilometer mark, 1/3 of the hike completed.
- The final day takes Blissful across the Mangakotukutuku Bridge and meets the engineering marvel of the Ongarue Spiral, two trestles above a tunnel.
- Finally, she’s finishes at a campsite shared with dozens of hikers who she can’t connect with so decides being alone, is just fine.
MUSIC: The music in this episode is Argentine composer Angel Lasala’s Poema del Pastor Coyaas played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
Available on iTunes
I almost walk right past it, but Chloe arrives just in the nick of time to point it out right there on the side of the trail, their dun color blending in with the flattened and dry grass.
They spell out the number 1 and four square-shaped zeroes. One thousand? One thousand kilometers. I’m here, one-third the way through the Te Araroa, New Zealand’s long pathway. Yes, again, the trail provided with Chloe – who I hadn’t seen all day until now, showing up exactly when I needed her.
What does it mean coming this far? Well, in practical terms, it means I’ve kept walking for 42 days, down the narrow tip of Northland, past Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, and through most of the Waikato and King Country in the central portion of the North Island.
It means I am making progress in this strange calling to walk a long distance thru-hike all alone, mostly to see what it will do to my mind, body and spirit. Well, I’m still standing and I feel strong, my spirit took a bit of a beating when my Swiss companion told me she hates Americans, and my mind feels overwhelmed and confused by all that’s still to come, how to manage the details and if I have it in me to keep moving forward.
But right now, there’s cause for celebration.
For four days, I have been walking the Timber Trail, a spectacular bike/hike path through native podocarp – the tall, unique and ancient conifers of New Zealand. Tree sitters saved the Pureora Forest in the 1970’s and it’s an easy walk on old logging tramways.
I leave Harrison’s Creek alone since Chloe was mad at me for enjoying choice bits of a recently killed deer shared with me by a kiwi hunter and his muse, the Dutch solo hiker Vera.
All mammals – except for two kinds of bats – were foolishly introduced to New Zealand, a paradise where they have no natural predators and are a menace to the birds and the bush.
But it is a bit rich for us to determine who lives and dies since people are also a menace to the bush, but in this forest, we are the stewards.
Anyway, she’s up and gone and might want to avoid me, but it’s two more nights until a resupply and she’s out of fuel. We’ll see how that goes.
Mist rises from the grass and from the alicoop as I put off packing in the cold morning. I’m lonely and feel unsure how to plan for the coming days – a canoe trip of 5-7 days sharing a boat with whom? An alpine crossing that’s dangerous in the fast changing weather, but who wants to hike with me?
I can’t do anything about any of that now since there’s no service in this forest – and besides, I came alone to do this thing alone. I know I’ll work it out if I just start and let the rhythm of my steps ease my worry, but why is that so difficult? Erma Bombeck said, “Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.” So I pack things up and get off that rocking chair of worry, stepping onto the trail and whatever it brings me.
Built on old tramways, kind of like the Rails-to-Trails in the US, this path cuts deeply through the bush like a narrow canyon with steep walls. Tiny waterfalls splash down and they’re covered in bright green moss. I cross rapids on a sign tells me that the whio is one of the only ducks with squishy bills and umbrella toes allowing them to fish in fast moving water. They’re rarer than kiwi. Forty-three bird species have been lost since people arrived here, and hard work is being done to save the rest. I see a man freedom camping by the river and five bikes pass me.
The walking is easy, but my mind won’t rest. I knew this hike would be hard. But it feels hard in ways I didn’t expect. I’m alone a lot and so much walking feels like I’m just trying to get somewhere.
Just when I’m starting to really feel sorry for myself, I come upon a stump house, a tiny shelter built when a newly married guy threw his brothers out of their house. This little joke makes the Bog Inn look like a palace.
I pass the luxurious trail lodge and look for some shade at the sunny and hot Piropiro Flats campsite. You can drive in here, so people have pretty spectacular camping spreads. One big guy, tattooed and shaven head has the sweetest, softest dog and gives me two beers for brunch. The label reads, “If it ain’t buck, it’s bull.” Trail magic chases these blues away. Though even with two beers and all that venison last night, I’ve tightened my hip belt to its max.
I cross the longest and highest bridge of all over the Maramataha River – 141 meters long and 53 meters above the gorge. It was either climb down with all that timber or build a bridge. Good choice, guys. The cables holding this monster have to be pre-stretched and lowered in place my helicopter.
Just as I cross the last swing bridge, I notice several bikers down below on the rocks. They’re bathing in the pools around the rapids of the Waione Stream. I join them in a washing machine of turbulence, going under as far as the cold water allows. A hot shower with soap may be incredible, but a cold swim in churning water after a long slog is divine.
It’s only a kilometer to ‘No. 10 camp.’ Vera has already snagged the one flat tent spot and Chloe and I decide to share a tiny shelter, sleeping on the floor like so many other TA hikers before us. But when I start to sing, Chloe tells me to be quiet. OK, OK, out I go, setting the alicoop in a somewhat flat wide spot on the side of the trail.
Rain, dew and the elements be damned, I’ve got a room of my own. I offer Chloe my cooking fuel before walking back to the waterfalls in the gloaming. Perhaps being alone is ok. I have the bridge and the birds to myself, and just now, the goddess’s watercolorist splashes pink in the western sky.
This time, it’s me up and out before Chloe, trying to calm this combination of nervousness of what’s to come and the fact that I’ll be facing it on my own for the most part. Chloe and Vera seem totally confident – and tell me everything will work out. I must be annoyingly clingy. Well, off I go back onto this lovely trail of easy walking, bell birds calling to each other over a fog-filled gorge.
There are no bicyclists yet, and I find my rhythm quickly, walking in time to Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. Wolcum Yole! It’s December 9, the middle of summer in New Zealand, but winter at home, and Advent a time when Richard and I work through our huge collection of Christmas albums, singing around the house at the top of our voices. I am beginning to miss home, and him.
The sound of the streams crescendoes as I approach, the ferns daintily reach out from the steep sided cut railway bed I walk on, and a rock dangerously teeters in a spot we’re warned not to linger.
People ask how far I walk each day. Of course that depends on where I need to go because I have to find a place to sleep each night. It’s also dependent on conditions of the trail and the weather. A thru-hike means I become a full-time pedestrian. Unless it’s a rest day, I walk, and usually all day.
I take brunch at the Mangakotukutuku bridge, another spectacular suspension bridge that replaced the equally formidable timber bridge, one that curved over the gorge. Across the gorge is a huge cliff of tree ferns marching up, some remaining trees with bunchy branches crowd in for the light, epiphytes draped over their elbows. The rapids below a loud and constant whooshing. The sun is trying to peak out of the fog, my hat is on as I munch on cashews.
This forest was just about decimated. It won’t return until long after I’m dead. I don’t want to squander this chance to step outside my life. It’s too much pressure to expect I’ll feel this way every day because the going is often hard and sometimes even boring, but I remind myself I’ll likely never come here again and this is something to remember. Spiders build elaborate webs across the bridge cables and they sway gently in the soft breeze.
And then I arrive at the Ongarue spiral – an engineering marvel – two trestles built one over the other with a tunnel below. It was the only way to get the timber out of here on these steep hills. I start at the top and take a selfie with two bicyclists far below popping out the bottom. In the tunnel, I don’t bother turning on a light, listening to the gentle dripping of water and the echo of my singing.
But that’s the end as I soon enter the new section of pine, clearcut now with piles of branches, scarring and stumps for miles. A sign tells me the Taupo super-volcano is still active as a rhyolite caldera – rhyolite is the same stone that makes up Minnesota’s North Shore on Lake Superior. The trail I’m walking is made of its pumice.
I arrive at a lovely grassy campsite with a hut built using our Te Araroa donations. A store sells snacks and drinks and there’s a festive attitude mostly from the bikers as they’re picked up by friends and family. Chloe and Vera are set up in this sylvan spot under the trees, and then dozens more arrive, mostly young and new to me.
I had no idea so many people were behind me. They tell me that all hiked together, over 30 miles today. What? Why? A young bearded man lectures me on how I’ll soon learn to go further every day than I go, just as he did on the Appalachian Trail. But don’t you want to enjoy it too?
Another man shares the story about wading through Okura Estuary as though I hadn’t also waded through. I laugh and say I walked through it, then walked to Auckland. He then proceeds to criticize me for not taking off my clothes when I waded in and won’t let up on how stupid I was even after I tell him I simply dried off. Oh dear, I am just not connecting to this group.
So many people speak about the incredible community of backpackers. I did meet some nice people, but that one American is a real downer. Actually I read one of his facebook arguments with the Te Araroa page manager all about whether to use paper maps or not. This was before I arrived in New Zealand and I was absolutely shocked by his manner.
A fellow American making us all look bad acting arrogant, dismissive and aggressive. I had hoped I’d never encounter him and here he is. And within only a few minutes of meeting, he puts me down. Then does it again – and again. How do people like this survive?
Author Jodi Picoult wrote, “Let me tell you this: If you meet a loner, no matter what they tell you, it’s not because they enjoy solitude. It’s because they have tried to blend into the world before, and people continue to disappoint them.”
Tomorrow is all road walk to Taumarunui, the small town where I resupply and figure out how to pull together the canoeing portion of this “trail” down the Whanganui River. Most of the talk tonight amongst this group is about how much beer they’ll take and how many days they want to plan. No one asks me if I want to join them – including Vera and Chloe. OK, well, maybe there’s someone trying to tell me something. I came all alone, I like walking all alone and if canoeing with this bunch includes this particular guy, I’ll pass.
But you can’t paddle a canoe alone, who will go with me?? I tuck into the alicoop and try to remind myself the trail will provide. And you know the end of the story. It (eventually) does.
episode 26 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker learns that she actually misses the muddy, barely-there trail of New Zealand’s “advanced tramping” and longs for the allure of the unknown.
In this episode:
- Blissful walks from Marianne and Allan’s farm toward the Pureora Forest, all on road but happy to walk every step of the Te Araroa.
- She walks in on-again-off-again rain through farmland in a karst landscape of limestone outcroppings and cone-shaped hills. Kind Kiwis make the walk a pleasure.
- She meets other thru-hikers at the Ngaherenga campsite, all having skipped the last sections and call Blissful a “purist.”
- Blissful enters the Pureora Forest on the Timber Trail, a wide shared mountain biking trail, but longs for the side side trails back into the bush to the Bog Inn and Pureora’s summit, where she spies volcanic Mount Ruapehu.
- She crosses two enormous suspension bridges and camps by a Harrisons Creek, where a hunter shows up with a deer, sharing the tenderest morsels.
MUSIC: The music in this episode is Argentine composer Angel Lasala’s Poema del Pastor Coyaas played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
Available on iTunes
The sun angles through the bush of 1,000 year old native hardwood podocarp – rimu, totara, miro, mātai and kahikatea. The understory is thick with tree ferns and many of these coniferous trees are wrapped in a layer of moss, giving this forest a primeval feeling. The mud is thick, but I’m an expert now and on a sunny day, the fact that my feet are wet makes no difference to me.
These are old trees, at one time part of the super continent of Gondwana, before New Zealand broke away into remote island masses. This forest I am walking through is called Pureora – a massive park that was nearly clear-cut before tree sitters protested in the ‘70s saving it for the enjoyment of future outdoor enthusiasts including me. The main trail is popular with mountain bikers and is so wide and well maintained, I become the most blissful hiker yet in 40 days of my thru-hike.
And yet, here I am back on a wet, muddy slog, taking a slight detour just so I can check out the famous Bog Inn. And what a dump it is. It smells like pee and flies buzz everywhere, the table a trail of mouse droppings. A tell tale bit of tarp signals the hut is likely not rain proof. Why would anyone stay here?
Maybe a better question would be, why would any hiker go off trail – and such a lovely trail – just to come and take a peak? Maybe that thru-hiker getting used to hard tramping, was beginning to miss the mud.
Good socks and strong poles are a must on the advanced tramping tracks of New Zealand – ones where the shortest distance between two points is often simply straight up or straight down, on mud and over fallen trees, through deep bush and on barely-there track.
But for 20 miles, the Te Araroa is all road. Yup, that’s one of the biggest complaints about this long distance thru-hike. The track standard is all over the place – nearly impassable to nearly non-existent shoulder with drivers whizzing past, seemingly without a clue as to why someone would be hiking in the road.
At least this morning there is very little traffic and it’s said a cold snap is supposed to quell the rain, even if King Country is the wettest part of New Zealand.
Black clouds chase me and a half rainbow rises out of the bush arching towards the Mangoakewa Reserve, a deep canyon of bird song and solitude from two days ago. It is cold in the shade, but the rain continues on and off – and my raincoat is on, then off, on, and off again – like a bad relationship. Clouds and me, we’re co-dependent.
And then, just like that it clears. The air is cool and delicious up high looking out over this humpy landscape. A few days ago in Te Kuiti, a guy offered me a ride past all this, which I declined. Even Marianne from last night told me she saw me on the road and is usually the one to pick up hikers. This time though, she admitted she thought, “Walk on little hiker!” and was surprised when Alan had me in his car heading up the hill to their home.
But I didn’t let her drive me past this road walk. I mean, there’s something satisfying in walking every step. Admittedly, I sometimes feel like hell, especially when my feet are wet all day and the air is cold. But then again, there’s a sense of accomplishment and invariably, things will change. It can’t rain forever, can it?
Black and white cows look out at me over the fence. A herd of sheep graze amongst a swing set in someone’s backyard. Beyond are cone-shaped hills with rocky outcroppings. This entire landscape is ancient ash as well as “karst” or sandstone, creating stalactite filled caves and these wondrous cliffs. A guy drives by in a 4×4 plus four dogs and we both wave. I reach the highway and have lunch sitting against a sign.
Things are busier, but the verge is wider. And the sky clears, so at least I have that! I pass the abattoir. Oh, all those animal friends I made as I walked past their fields. Well, they have a pretty nice life in the meadows until that last day of their life.
I come to a section of road under maintenance and everyone says hi and urges me along. One follows me and pulls his truck to the side of the road. He doesn’t offer a ride, but asks if I might like a piece of chocolate cake and banana! Why yes! “That’ll get you to the end.” He says before hopping back in.
It’s almost festive as I scarf down the sugary richness and plod along, only about 3 miles or so to go before my turn off for the Pureora Forest. Just then, a car stops on the opposite side of the road, and Chloe jumps out! She skipped all of this walk, even the reserve and urges me to get in. Well, I’ve come this far, I’ll meet you ahead.
And as if the Maui, the trickster of Maori lore was intervening in my refusal to accept a kindness, the heavens immediately open up and it begins pouring again.
Was that really necessary?
Damp and grouchy, I reach Pa Harakeke, Chloe looking annoyed it took me so long to get there. And just as I get my body up on the covered porch, it rains even harder.
The woman at the front desk invites us in to dry out and offers us hot tea and a place to wait it out. A sign tells us the Timber Trail is 84 kilometers long, but only a few the Ngaharenga (nah-hah-rung-uh) campsite right at its edge. The rain stops long enough to allow us to set up our tents just as a car arrives delivering the Polish couple, Maciek and Renata along with Vera, the single Dutch tramper. They bring sunshine with them and a bit of attitude.
We crowd around a picnic table, each with our individual cook stoves and camp food. Maciek is limping. He probably pushed too hard and they decide they’ll need to take time off, maybe even skipping the forest ahead. Vera tells us that the trail notes frightened her from risking the reserve all alone and she too skipped it.
Chloe lost heart and skipped the reserve after a mouse chewed a hole in her tent and stole her food, forcing her to return to town. I commiserate with all of them, especially Chloe, telling her it’s a badge of honor to have repaired gear, a reminder of what she’s accomplished. But when I complain that the Te Araroa association is being irresponsible in not maintaining the track at least to a minimal standard, Chloe cuts me off, chastising me and saying I assume the risk and have a choice whether to walk it or not.
Well, ok, she has a point, though a bit of maintenance would make things more enjoyable and less dangerous. And I can’t help but feeling it’s not just about my complaint that the trail isn’t maintained. She’s criticizing because I walked all of it, calling me a “purist,” a label not meant as a compliment.
The rain starts up again in earnest and we all dive back in our tents. It’s only 7:30, but it’s been a long day and maybe this subject of what to hike and what to skip and what it all means can wait until another day. Besides, tomorrow, I’ll be walking into one of the most beautiful forests in all of New Zealand.
It’s cold this morning and my fingers hurt as I roll up a damp alicoop and stuff it away. I still feel a little irritated by the conversation last night, wishing my fellow thru-hikers could celebrate my having walked 35 miles even if they decided to skip it. Late last night, people showed up in trucks with their lights blaring on my tent. I yelled at them to turn them off. Chloe chastises me again this morning for waking her up. Ah, this is going to be a long walk if we end up camping together again.
It’s clear today and the sunshine lifts my spirits. Rare kakas fly through the campsite making a ratcheting sound. The coming days are on a shared bike track and will likely be well maintained and enjoyable. I’m happy to have made it here, surviving the reserve and river walk with no injuries.
A deep red Maori statue welcomes me to the path, his eyes made of iridescent paua, his ta moko or face tattoos a swirl of black. Without having to look at my feet every second, I can take in this gorgeous forest, one preserved because of tree huggers – or more accurately tree sitters – who protested unsustainable logging in the late 1970s. I’m out so early the sun is angling in sideways in frosty beams.
No bikes were available to rent, but I’m loving the freedom of walking, even if it’s going to take me three days to get through. Signage tells me more about this place, that the forest began it’s life 26,000 years ago when one of the world’s biggest volcanoes blew up. ‘Cruising Rangers’ were the first to venture into the bush to determine the amount of timber within a designated space.
They’d live in the virgin forest for ten days, then take four days off. One picture shows a man in boots, wool socks, shorts and a ‘Swannie’ – a heavy duty weatherproof woolen shirt – and lucky to have found a dry place to camp for the night. Don’t I know all about that. This region gets two meters of rain per year – or maybe that’s just this past week.
I learn the Maori orchestra is made right here in this forest! Matai, a kind of black pine, is used for flutes. Mist rises from the moss-covered trees. I can see my breath. The Toitoi track leads to the summit of Mount Pureora, a sign warning this is “tramping standard,” suitable shoes required. Two bicyclists catch up to me moaning about the mud. Gentlemen, this is strictly for amateurs.
At the trig, a large, pyramidal, black and white geographic reference beacon that marks the high point of 1,200 meters, the view opens to waves of bush covered hills, Lake Taupo beyond. The snow-capped giant of flat-topped Ruapehu, an active volcano in Tongariro National Park rests just below the light clouds. I’ll walk all of that bush, getting there in about a week.
I find a grassy spot and spread the alicoop out to dry, holding down her edges with rocks. Boy did I ever earn this spectacularly clear day. Chloe and Vera catch up and we snap pictures of each other grinning as we hang off the edge of the trig.
The bikers head back down the same way, but we take a shortcut, DOC posting a sign to tell us “this track no longer maintained.” An honest statement, as it’s straight down washed-out stairs and huge drops best maneuvered from a sitting position.
Back on the trail, I move fast, bikes easily passing me on the wide path. It’s built on historic bush tramways, old bulldozer and haul roads from the forestry era and is extremely well graded
Flood escapes and pipes send the rainwater to a long gully alongside the trail keeping it from washing away completely in the rain. Should the TA be maintained to this level? Perhaps it’s a bit much and that explains my desire to take a detour to the Bog Inn. The map tells me I won’t add much on this side trip, but it’s not just to see it. I guess in all my complaining about track standard, I started missing the challenge.
Muddy but happy to have had that bit of adventure all by myself, I return to the trail and cross the first of eight spectacular suspension bridges, two crossing the Bog Inn Creek. No ‘creek” makes its sound like something small, and yet it’s a massive gorge I cross. The incredible architecture of Orauwaka bridge shares its artistry with the bridges of Pureora’s forestry past, except in the olden days, there were no handrails.
Six boards wide, with a tightly woven fence up to my chest, the bridges look like the Golden Gate in miniature, suspended by wires attached to concrete blocks. There’s a bit of vibration, but I’m not afraid to lean over and look down into the water below hoping to see rare whio or blue ducks feeding in the rapids far below.
At a small grassy spot near Harrisons Creek , DOC built a small shelter and a long drop. Chloe is already here and I join her, setting the alicoop then lying down on dry grass in the last of the sun’s rays, Alan’s big coke bottle, a pillow for my head.
Chloe’s out of fuel, so I share some of mine and she gives me a few bits of chocolate in trade, our earlier tension a distant memory. It’s been such a lovely day but I’m nervous of what’s to come – a multi-day canoe trip and an Alpine crossing, but Chloe is not one to help calm me and I need to just manage the unknown factors of weather and timing.
Just then, a young man on an all-terrain vehicle drives up. Vera is riding sidesaddle and a recently gutted deer is tied down to the dash. Laughing and proud of their kill, they come to the creek for water and set up a spot to cook. Chloe is horrified. A vegan, she can’t believe people would delight in destroying an animal.
I explain to her that Europeans introduced deer and they’re a menace. Hunting them is an act of mercy for the bush. Nothing appeases her, so I suggest we move the operation out of site and Kiwi Tim gets to work frying up the tenderest bits. Tim tells me that he was having no luck until Vera came along and she was his lucky charm. I can tell you I have never had such delicious venison – a texture and taste like butter, the perfect addition to the tasteless ramen I cooked up earlier.
Marine biologist Sylvia Earle said, “I find the lure of the unknown irresistible.” It was an easy day today compared to most of the walk so far; nothing hard except for the side trips I chose to walk. No rain, very little mud, and only 16 miles walking over an entire day with plenty of time to linger and explore.
I don’t know what’s coming up next, and I can’t explain Chloe’s combative nature, though I’m certain I won’t be planning my days around hers. And perhaps that’s the lure of the unknown, in some sense, the faith one develops in letting go of what we know – especially if it’s something not really working for us – and then believing the unknown will offer us something else.
The air is chilly as the sun goes down and my belly is full. Vera takes off with the Tim and I can hear Chloe rustling about before she settles down. The stars come out and the dew falls, the creek babbling its song as it’s done for thousands of years.
episode 25 show notes ‘n transcript
- Blissful leaves Waitomo for Te Kuiti through slippery farmland, getting lost in fields of sheep poo and confusing orange triangle-shaped trail signs.
- The reserve begins as a Hobbit Forest in a sun shower, but soon becomes greasy sidling along the Mangaokewa Stream.
- All alone at the “cool campsite,” she muses on when she first started thru-hiking, she was too afraid to even close her eyes.
- It’s more sidling on the way back to farmland, where trail angels rescue her for an afternoon on a working farm.
MUSIC: Soliloquy by Bernard Rogers and Night Music by Antal Dorati as played by Alison Young, flute.
available on iTunes
I’m inching along over slick black mud, on a trail only as wide as my two feet. To my right is a thick wall of undergrowth including tree ferns like elegant filigreed umbrellas, papery-barked totara, and a kind of white pine called kahikatea. To my left is a drop of about 20 feet or so to the river below, shallow but burbling, its sound reaching me even at this height.
I’m in the Mangaokewa Reserve near Te Kuiti.
in the North Island of New Zealand. It’s a stunning, pest-free zone where native birds have returned and green grassy cliffs rise high above the crystal clear water, studded with overhanging limestone cliffs, ideal for climbing. Though my aim today is to keep hiking and get myself to what’s been called a “cool campsite,” one that’s deep in the reserve and far off the tourist trails. I’m pretty sure I can physically handle the distance, but just not sure if my daylight will last.
It is hard walking – slippery, overgrown, thorns-in-the-face, advanced tramping, and it’s here that I learn a new bit of terminology – to sidle. Now I know what the word means, to walk in a furtive or unobtrusive manner, sideways or obliquely, to creep, slink, skulk, prowl. But in the Kiwi context, it refers to the act of walking literally on the side of steep hill, to contour it in such a way, bit by bit, so as not to slide off, all the way to the bottom.
I’ve been working my way down the North Island for a little over a month. The trail notes tell me it’s mostly an easy day from Waitomo to Te Kuiti, walking on farmland with just a few slippery patches. I cross over a sturdily built stile – two boards with feet, one taller than the other and set in a cross. I grab the well-used pole, orange paint flaking off, and hoist myself over the fence directly into ankle deep mud. I’m told an intimidating bull is waiting for me in this field. I hear some grunting but don’t see him as I shuffle across the wet grass to another triangle on the far fence.
It’s a slippery banana peal of descent into bush just as the thunder begins it’s long drawn out rumbling. I cross a bouncy suspension bridge only wide enough for my feet and enter the Pehitawa peh-hee-tah-wah
Kahikatea forest, white pines that are some of the tallest in New Zealand. A primevil, eerie green lights up the ferns and epiphytes.
The forest is pitch dark at 8 am, rain hitting the canopy like a volley of bullets. At the next ascent, my feet slip back and I hit the mud face first. Why am I doing this again?
Only by wedging my feet against the fence posts can I get past that vertical nightmare. And just like that, the track changes to long strides. Wet to the hip, caked with mud, I walk towards a vista of enormous farms in a large bowl surrounded by the bright green hills.
It’s beautiful, but totally confounding – there’s no trail per se, and the orange triangle markers are so widely spaced I am pretty much lost. But, wait, here’s a marker nailed to a tree! I sit down under it just as it begins pouring, only slightly protected from the rain. I have a bit of lunch just as a guy comes out of the mist heading in the opposite direction.
Wait, where are you going? He keeps moving away and is swallowed up again in the cloud. Did I miss something? Is he headed my way?? I follow my marker up a slick slope of sheep poo that takes me nowhere. Then risk going in completely the opposite direction, as the other hiker had, just to see where it takes me.
Of course he was right, and I soon meet a farm road, just as the sky clears. Being damp does nothing to help my mood, but a stiff breeze dries me out and the views get better.
At the next triangle, some saint writes which way to turn next.
Hundreds of sheep are bleating loudly, the lambs being separated from their mamas. I wash off the mud in a tank before heading straight up hill to Pehitawa Mast. Pirongia is completely shrouded in cloud far in the distance. Te Kuiti tay-coo-eet-ee sprawls out below.
It’s yet one more straight down mudslide before town, but now that I’ve washed off, I’m determined not to fall. In town, I buy enough food for the coming six days and waddle like a drunk turtle, checking out the exhibit on the town stars Sir Colin and his brother Stanley, both lantern-jawed rugby stars of the All Blacks as well as a massive sculpture of a shearer and his sheep.
The trail squeezes past an industrial section, massive vehicles behind chain link fences. These people must be used to our getting lost and have posted signs everywhere ensuring the TA walker finds her way to the Mangaokewa Reserve without too many wrong turns.
Things start well on a well worn path, sweeping views of stalagtite filled caverns on brooding cliffs, the bush a hobbit home in a sun shower. A herd of goats, long beards and stinky, rise as one and bound up the hillside.
It’s late in the day when I decide to keep moving, foregoing a car campsite to find the ‘cool campsite.’ Almost immediately after crossing a swing bridge I leave the easy walking behind for greasy sidling that barely offers me purchase.
At one point the trail zigs, but I zag, heading straight up a nasty herd trail that leads to a pasture. Those poor cows get to hear multiple expletives as I unwind my gaffe.
Finally on the right path, I head into a small bit of kahikatea, tall and slender providing easy walking and a flat spot for a tent. It’s the cool campsite, a tiny bench in the river bend, lavished by someone with a table, chairs, a fire pit, a fully inflated inner tube and a shovel labeled ‘toilet, so far, dig deep.’
Except for the man coming out of the mist at just the right moment, showing me – without even knowing – the right path, I was alone all day. And now, having arrived an hour before sunset, I’m pretty sure I’ll be alone tonight.
Actress Ellen Burstyn said, “What a lovely surprise to finally discover how unlonely being alone can be.”
In the first days of solo hiking, I remember being so afraid when it got dark, I couldn’t close my eyes at night. Naturally I ensure I’m as safe as I can be by carrying a two-way GPS with locator beacon and SOS capability. But it’s not about disappearing, it’s about making my own decisions and trusting myself, enjoying this magical place on my own terms and my own schedule.
The air in this canyon is beginning to chill and it’s time to cuddle in the alicoop. It was a rough day, frustrating and long, but here, dirty and damp, I’m rewarded with the final rays of the sun on virgin forest across the river, its susurrant whisper a kind of bush berceuse.
It was an awesome night, even if my clothes never quite dried out. I linger for breakfast and use the poop shovel before heading back on the messy nightmare of trail, climbing over fallen trees on steep black clay, maybe bit less slippery since there was no rain last night.
My shoes are starting to shred and I have a hole in one of my socks, but I’m saving the dry pair for camp and sand fly protection
I feel like the star of a reality show carefully progressing on a crumbling balance-beam of a walking trail when added to the mix are thorns; big, juicy, grabby, shred-the-shirt-and-draw-blood thorns.
And just like that, I’m kicked out on a pasture, where kind souls offer an alternative to the briar path in mincing steps on a downed tree over the river. Back in the forest this time of pine and eucalyptus interspersed with dreadlocked palm, the rain a curtain outside of tall slender trunks.
I crawl through the understory in a tunnel of gorse, another well-intentioned transplant from the Old World that found no competition and steadily spread in an ugly, tangle of sharp edges.
I come upon a superb campsite – with shelter, water, even a clothesline. I sit at a picnic table with lunch and wonder if it’s too early to stop at 10 am. Now the trail is a country road and I feel like a little wind-up walking machine, the breeze drying my pants and my dampened spirits.
I stop a farmer in a huge truck loaded with sheep. “Your dog!” I yell seeing a wee head pop out from under the wheels. It turns out his animal is snug in his little house under there, right where he belongs. The farmer smiles, thanking me anyway, then offers me a ride, but I am happy to keep walking as the rain lets up and it should be easy now to a small turnout in the road ten miles or so ahead.
As I continue, I feel drips of water on the back of legs. Oh, man, I must have sprung a leak in my water bag. It seems everything is breaking down – shoes, socks, my phone which I dropped on a rock causing a spider web of cracks, my pot cozy hanging on with just one thin shred of tape, and now my water bag – am I next?
The trail notes warn that this road sees very few cars, a hiker underscoring the fact writing “zilch traffic.” I probably should have accepted that ride offered by the farmer with the sheep and dog. Just then, a truck appears and I wave him down. I tell him about my predicament with my water bag and ask if maybe he has some duct tape with him.
Allan says he does not have any in the car, but he lives just up the road and will head home and grab some and meet me back on the road. I follow him slowly as he drives ahead and wonder if maybe it might be nicer to camp here than in the bend in the road, with no water or really anything.
At the mailbox, Allan returns bringing tape but also an empty two-liter coke bottle that might make a more reliable water carrier. I thank him and then make the ask. Might I camp on your lawn tonight?
Maybe it’s because I’m alone or maybe I don’t seem aggressive, who knows, but Alan says c’mon up and I pile into his car with my sticks and pack as he drives to a neat farmhouse where two lambs press up next to a fence, unlike the ones in the field running out of my way any time I approached. Marianne meets us at the door not entirely sure about my being there and asking, “Do you know anything about farm work?”
I assure her I don’t, but I’d love to learn. She takes my dirty clothes and stuffs them in the wash, giving me something else to wear along with a pair of Wellingtons, a warm coat and work gloves. Allan and I head out on the Polaris, picking up two dogs from their kennel, lovingly called the hotel.
Finn is a huntaway, a muscular dog with a loud bark and fast running speed. Karen is a heading or eye dog, shorter and more at eye-level with the sheep, moving them with a bit less bombast and bit more finesse. These two absolutely live for farm work, running alongside us as we navigate up and down the huge spread of green hills. With one signal, Finn is off, corralling the sheep to a new pasture. He works so hard without letting up, he finally needs a little cooling off in a nearby trough.
My job today on the farm is simply to open gates, then close them after Allan drives the Polaris through.
Allan assures me I’m helping and “earning” my stay. I really like him. He’s gentle and answers all my questions, telling me that merino sheep live on the south island only and that these kind of sheep are raised to eat, not for their wool. But, they still need to be sheared and it’s just a break even with hiring shearers and selling the coarse wool.
I learn that paddocks are a more recent idea in New Zealand, to rotate the grasses being chewed. I learn most New Zealand beef – they raise cattle too – are grass fed. And I learn yearlings need molasses in big tubs.
Back at the house, Marianne hands me my clean clothes and tells me to get a shower and plan to stay in their caravan. She then asks if I eat meat and to plan to eat dinner with them. Allan tells me they’ve lived here sixteen years and are very involved volunteering in their community.
Marianne and I connect deeply in a kind of unspoken way. She’s my age, but using a walker and I know she must be suffering from arthritis like me. She pulls out a photo album. On one page are pictures showing a helicopter delivering building materials. Another is from their animal cam showing two possums deciding who will go first into the trap. I tell her how difficult and frustrating I find the trail and she shares that no one is really in charge, so parts like the reserve are not maintained.
I also tell her I came to see what would happen to my mind, body and spirit on a thru-hike and that I feel like cheating a little asking to stay the night when I really ought to just camp outside. She brushes that concern aside and tells me I’m still walking every step, and I did spend last night all alone in the bush.
I head into the caravan just as the rain returns, pounding hard on the metal roof. I meditate on being alone, how I love it and need it and take pride in it. But also how much I love being brought into this farm family’s life, to bask in their kindness and generosity for just a snapshot in time.
I know we all feel something – a connectedness for sure, but one with a shelf life and not meant to be more than it is. But when I leave the next morning to walk toward Pureora and the Timber Trail, we both have tears in our eyes.
episode 24 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker descends Mount Pirongia on the Te Araroa in a driving rain on an infamously muddy, root-filled trail and works her way to Waitomo, shown generous Kiwi hospitality all along the way.
In this episode:
- Blissful joins eight Te Araroa hikers in a storm for the descent of Mount Pirongia, the highest point in the Waikato region of New Zealand, happy to be sharing the difficulty of deep mud, a trail-as-river and slippery roots.
- Trail angels invite her to use their shower and laundry, and – after asking nicely – invite four solo women to stay inside out of the elements.
- The next day is wet and muddy across sheep pastures and bush, but when she gets lost, it leads to an easy crossing of the rain-swollen Moakurarua Stream.
- The Hamilton Tomo Caving Club invite her to use their group hut facilities before she takes in the famous Waitomo Caves to see glowworms like constellations on the limestone walls.
- While she understands that generosity can be its own reward, that doesn’t explain the tremendous kindness she’s benefited from and she leaves a nice koha (or donation) for the trail angels she’s met.
MUSIC Introduccion y allegro by Carlos Guastavino, Suite Argentina by Horacio Salgán and Soliloquy by Bernard Rogers as played by Alison Young, flute.
available on iTunes
The rain lashed at the windows all night, the wind shaking Pahautea Hut with a kind of anxious grip, but I’m snuggled in my bunk, warm and dry. This is my first hut stay on the Te Araroa, atop Mount Pirongia in the North Island of New Zealand and I’m grateful it’s here for my use.
The trail notes tell me “It is generally a good idea to stay overnight in this hut and continue south the following day.” That’s because fierce weather changes are notorious atop this extinct volcano, 3000 feet above the Waikato River plain below and the tallest mountain in the region.
There’s discussion amongst the nine of us TA walkers of staying put at the hut until it passes. Part of the reason, surely, is because we’re disappointed we have no view from our aerie perch except for the flowering Alpine Ti Kouka, shaking in the storm like a bouquet of Sideshow Bobs.
And isn’t that just the way it goes? We work hard to get to our goal of the summit and then come up short through no fault of our own, learning we have to make the best of things.
But that is not going to be easy. This weather system is forecasted to bring rain for days and to get off Mt. Pirongia is the hardest part of this trail. It’s only five kilometers, but so full of ups and downs over a tangle of Tawa roots and epic mud, it takes most people five hours to descend.
That thought alone makes me want to snuggle right back into my bunk.
It soon becomes obvious it’s just not going to be possible to wait out this weather system. I make it a bit of a mission, maybe selfishly, to convince those wavering that it might be more prudent to push on mostly because I’m not sure I want to go out in this all by myself.
We gather in the mudroom and put on our still damp shoes and socks, our raincoats and pants feeling a bit thin against the elements.
The Austrian man tells me he needs to hike every step of the trail to stay “in his head” and because he desperately needs a break from life. Others, too, say that they need to walk alone. I’m amazed that I share this need with them and I’m not all that weird. I teach them a few useful English words like ‘fearless’ and ‘intrepid’ as we head out singing the Ode to Joy.
Pirongia is one of the mountains of New Zealand associated in Maori lore with the patupairehe. These were fair-skinned supernatural beings living in the misty tops of mountains and were hostile to any intruders. It’s said that you know you’re near one, when you hear a kind of ghostly flute sound – all I hear now is rain lashing sideways as we quickly run up the beautifully built Noel Sandford boardwalk to Hihikiwi Peak, totally shrouded in mist.
The boardwalk stops just below the summit, delivering us in to the worst mud of my life, living up to its reputation. Pirongia in Maori means “like a bad smell” though I would characterize more as “like a bad (and endless) squish.” I have to admit, the first hour has the feeling of an adventure. We laugh as ‘fresh mud’ seeps into our shoes and oozes out our socks. It’s a challenge to stay upright as the muds gets deeper, the roots a maze, and the trail goes right back up steeply several times before heading down for good.
The rain gets heavier and the trail goes on and on, seemingly without end. I need my sticks and then need my hands up and over a rocky section. Our group begins to splinter as the Swiss boys and Austrian race ahead, the girls lagging behind and Floris and Marjelein and me pushing on. They’re wearing rain kilts and seem to be perfectly happy in this muck as my spirit starts to waver.
I think I’ve got this, but maybe I don’t. The mud above my ankles becomes mud above my knees. The rain hits my face sideways in waves and fills every inch of the trail, becoming a fast moving coffee-colored stream. Vines grab at my shoes, I drop a hiking pole in the mud and fall. Twice.
We’re all trail fit and move faster than estimated, but it’s still a long, frustrating and cold morning. When I finally reach stairs and move down fast, I’m shivering. They end at an empty road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
The men are gone, maybe having hitched a ride. The trail notes mention a man named Michael who lives about 10 kilometers away and allows hikers to camp on his lawn. Floris and Marjolein decide to wait for a hitch as the three solo women arrive and we move on towards Michael’s in a quartet of misery.
Walking on road has its perks as we stretch our legs in long strides. Absolutely silent, desperate and driven, we march along, the rain letting up for just a moment, even the sun peaking out, though not long enough to dry our clothes or spirits before it pours again.
We never find the elusive Michael. Instead, it’s Jon and Casey who arrive at the driveway with their Christmas tree just as we walk up and spy the universal camping and shower symbol nailed to a post above their mailbox.
They invite us to take over a covered porch and use the shower off their garage, our clothes, one shared load of laundry. Clean and dry, we cook meals as the rain pounds on the roof. A bit confused how things work, I wonder if I – we– are intrepid enough to sleep on the floor in this garage in this non-stop, cold rain?
We debate about what to do. Chloe wants to hitchhike to the next town, Vera is put off that they don’t invite us inside and Eline says she’ll make do. So it’s left to me – and I head inside the rambling farmhouse, snug and warm, the Christmas tree up now, lights and decorations ready to hang.
Can you, maybe. I mean, might we – could you allow us, possibly to – well, look, we’re really, really grateful for all your help, but we’re shivering cold. Jon looks at me like I’m a crazy woman and says, of course.
Vera and Elina head upstairs and Chloe and I share a huge bed just off the porch. The feeling of the carpet on my bare feet and the duvet warming my skin is pure heaven, absolute bliss.
I cook up oats on the covered porch as the rain gives way to mist. The girls plan to leave later than me and it will be a solo walk to Waitomo. Jon joins us in a bathrobe, rolling a cigarette and telling us how he ended up here from England. The trail notes warn me never to cross swollen rivers, then describes one that in “normal” conditions is knee-high. I ask Jon about the Moakurarua Stream, but he seems sanguine on the subject and urges me on with the advice not to do anything stupid.
It’s humid and warmer off the mountain. The sun peaks out for ten seconds over a hilly area of soft grass, nibbled low by sheep who watch me warily. The hills sweep away, terraced by many hooves. It’s clear below the cloud in the distance. Small windows of fields in bright green folds open up just as I reach…mud – so far, manageable.
I head back into bush, the trail a slow moving stream. Yesterday I managed the mud by telling myself that I’m warm and moving ok and this won’t last. The New Zealand grey warbler is a constant companion, its song sounding much like its Maori name riroriro. A tui sings a broken cuckoo clock tune right next to me as droplets tap at the ground from wet palms. Real mud returns at the Oamaru Reserve and I put on a good attitude to plow through. The trail notes tell me the part getting out of here on a downhill slope can be quite awful when wet. I try not to think about it too much since I’m not there yet.
I exit the bush into farmland, hills dotted with palms and rimu rise one after another towards Pirongia, poking its shy face out of shifting cloud. A lovely Kiwi without teeth arrives on a four wheeler, his working dog on board. He offers me a cuppa up at his house, and I thank him saying I’d rather move on before it rains harder. Later his eleven-year-old grandson passes me on the road driving the family car.
I hop the fence and it’s cross-country with the very vocal sheep. The land is a rollercoaster of steep ups and downs along the fence line. I’m below the cloud and can see into the valley far below, unusual rock outcroppings scattered amidst golf-course quality grass.
Another squall heads towards me making a huge, long, magnificent roll of thunder and I get totally off trail. It seems there’s an old Te Araroa trail through here. I do my best to contour and meet the correct trail, but that would take me into nearly impenetrable bush. So, I make up my own trail, triangulating towards the right one.
The clouds build and more thunder crackles but it’s far to the west, and this countryside looks like Middle Earth. The rock pressed in odd layers as if made by hand. I meet a trail near the dreaded Moakurarua Stream and find a spot to cross with water just past my knees. Two Kiwis in matching dredlocks walking the softest dog imaginable tell me it’s all downhill now.
Just outside of Waitomo is the Hamilton Tomo Caving Club’s group hut and I reach it as a group of spelunkers from Kaitaia College show up. They invite me to camp on the lawn and use the facilities while I’m here. Their leader, Dave, offers to keep an eye on my gear so I can head into the village to do one touristy thing.
I purchase a ticket to visit the Waitomo caves and see the famous glowworms. Even the Queen came here, so I’m in good company. I’m joined by a group of Chinese tourists who don’t really get most of the guide’s groan-worthy jokes.
We take a boat ride, my neck craning back as if viewing the Sistine chapel to marvel at the Christmas lights of bugs, little constellations – of maggot poop – their light attracting hatching flies believing it’s an exit to the sky, when in fact, it’s a sticky fishing line.
Earlier, the guide took us to the ‘cathedral,’ a large space of thirty-five million-year-old limestone stalagmites and stalactites in obscene shapes. To show off the acoustics, he asks if any of us sing and my hand shoots up followed by an a cappella rendition of ‘Hark, the herald angels sing.’ None of the Chinese tourists know quite what to do, so they simply clap in time to the chorus.
I hitch a ride back up the hill to the hut with a Kiwi named Rocky. As I enter his car, he immediately offers me a beer. Someone’s answering my prayer!
In the alicoop now, the rain starts up again in earnest and I think about the power of being with a group coming off Pirongia, the safety in numbers, and the comfort knowing we were all taking the same steps. I also think of how much I loved hiking alone today, not sure how I’d get across a swollen stream and that maybe, by getting lost, I actually placed myself in a better spot to cross it.
And then I think about Amanda Palmer and her book about asking for help. “Asking for help with shame says you have the power over me. Asking with condescension says I have the power over you. But asking for help with gratitude says we have the power to help each other.
I can’t say how I’ll help Jon and Casey or the Hamilton Tomo Caving Club, since it was their generosity helping me out. Though there is a ton of research about how generosity actually benefits the giver, sometimes more so than the receiver, activating a portion of the brain called the ventral striatum, giving people a feeling of satisfaction and happiness when they’re generous.
But that doesn’t exactly explain why the Kiwis I’ve met in the last few days were so hospitable. Maybe it’s just in their nature.
That being said, I leave a nice bit of koha – the Maori word for donation – for both my hosts.
episode 23 show notes ‘n transcript
Two mountains bookend Blissful Hiker‘s walk of the Te Araroa in the Waikato Region of New Zealand’s North Island – the Hakarimata Range and Mount Pirongia, and she discovers that a hiker is both spectator and participant.
In this episode:
- Blissful walks over slippery roots and deep pools of mud to reach the Hakarimata Trig before running down hundreds of stairs.
- It’s an easy walk to Hamilton where Blissful meets Irene, her partner from the first days of the Te Araroa, then another easy walk to Whatawhata, where she uses up all the good weather and faces a big challenge in rain.
- It’s a long walk over farmland and up on the Kapamahunga Range, then on to the giant extinct volcano, Mount Pirongia.
- In a storm, friends from around the world await at the Pahautea Hut on the summit, and she learns that she “actuates” her hike – and life – in every decision she makes.
MUSIC Introduccion y allegro by Carlos Guastavino as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
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The air feels electric today, threatening gray clouds hang just above the long blue hump of the Hakarimata Range in the distance, a range I crossed two days ago. The farmer who owns this field locked the gate with a strong padlock so I’m forced to climb over into a field of black cow and ivory sheep, complaining bleats and moos in all timbers. A lot of drama on the farm today.
There are no orange triangles showing me the way in this part of the Te Araroa, but I move quickly over short grass, eaten all the way down to the ground and pass weird stacks-of-pancakes shaped rocks.
This is the Kapamahunga Range, more of a plateau high above Hamilton and the Waikato River where I spent time with Irene, the friend who hiked the first week on the TA with me.
It’s not the best day to be out, nor the best to traverse the highest peak in the area, one that sees wild and rapid weather changes.
I hop over a poorly constructed stile directly into sheep poo central, a bit leery that maybe I’ve come upon yet another diversion for the sake of ‘adventure.’ When I expressed frustration for the track standard to Bindie, Irene’s husband, he suggested we rename the nasty bits of the Te Aroroa to give ourselves a more substantial sense of accomplishment. Names like ‘Road Warrior Way’ or ‘The Temple of Doom’.
This section is more “Slip, Tumble and Slide” as I squish through muck of mixed origin hoping I can climb to the 3,000 foot summit where my first backcountry hut in New Zealand awaits me. And just like that, a ridge in the distance appears and under a tablecloth of mist is Mount Pirongia. Mount Pirongia nagged at me over the weeks it would take to walk deep into the center of the North Island, ever since Irene and I walked the Raetea Forest on day 5 – some of the worst mud I’d ever waded through in my life and all on steep inclines. We had a sunny day nearly five months ago when Irene told me this was amateur compared to the mire that awaited me on Pirongia.
I would visit Irene after spending the night alone up in the Hakarimata Range, muddy bush dotted with Rimu and Kauri and its fair share of long, exposed arms of slippery roots amidst mud puddles. An overgrown tangle of dew-heavy plants whip at me, even gorse scratches across my face, the odd spider web sticking to my eyelashes. A tui greets the morning and I wonder if Messiaen knew their oddball robotic song – squawk, flute, computer.
I reach the trig and it’s crowded with chuffed – and spotlessly clean – runners, because on this side, it’s stairs all the way down. I do what any self-respecting thru-hiker would do – I run, 373 meters to the bottom.
I stop long enough to read a sign with a quote from Fred deVito, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you,” just as a sweaty Kiwi in a Houston Rockets T passes me asking if I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy. He tells me he’s walking the TA bit by bit to get in shape and has lost over 100 pounds. “Kia Kaha!” I tell him – be strong!
The mud dries to my pants and shoes on the ten miles of easy tramping to Hamilton along the Te Awa Cycleway. I cross a stunning green suspension bridge and meet a kiwi spraying gorse, an invasive introduced from Scotland.
In town, Irene picks up my filthy self and takes me to their gorgeous farm on the outskirts of town, promising me beer, a hot tub, ice cream, dinner, laundry, and conversation – in no particular order.
In a lull, I read a note from a follower named Tom who tells me, “You and your hiking odysseys personify today’s word.”
The word is ‘actuate,’ To put into motion or action; to activate; to motivate. [to hike] Tom’s message goes on to quote New Zealand poet Lauris Edmond.
“It’s true you can’t live here by chance, you have to do and be, not simply watch or even describe. This is the city of action, the world headquarters of the verb.” Edmond lived in Wellington, NZ, but any place can be your own headquarters of the verb. It has to be. There’s no other choice — life is not about being a spectator but a participator.
I guess I have actuated some things thus far, not just in having the vision to head out on this walk of a country, and the requisite planning, but also the little things like what I’ll carry from town and how far I’ll go each day – and today, it won’t be far.
The cows have moved this morning and are grazing literally in Irene and Bindie’s backyard. I strip down and take a soak in the hot tub, the sky a watercolor brush of grays and blues.
A sale is on in town at the tramping store and I purchase a merino T-shirt, one that won’t carry odors. Irene eats way smarter than I while hiking advises me at the local Countdown, organizing in little packets, nutritional yeast, LSA power-blend and protein powder, along with tuna, couscous and mash.
Hamilton industry gives way quickly to countryside, where I pass the 800 kilometer mark from Cape Reinga (just about 500 miles) Someone has helpfully whited out one zero, but leaves “Bluff this way, only 2200 kilometers” intact.
It’s hot in this bowl between mountains. New Zealand lives under a hole in the ozone and that explains my long sleeves, trousers and hat for protection. I look longingly at the trees in Taitua arboretum, its air conditioned cool already reaching me. The park is filled with roosters, their crows echoing up and down the winding tree-lined paths and I get a little lost.
The trail cuts into an easement between two fields, overgrown with huge spiky arms snaking through the fence to snag. Black clouds build on the mountains, more mud in the making. Beautiful countryside but hard walking the chewed up path of thousands of cow hooves.
Santana is cranked at the Backyard Bar and Eatery in Whatawhata, located in a tiny triangle of commerce where several busy roads meet. I order a beer from the barkeep, who invites me to set up the alicoop next to the sound stage. “We’re not allowed to have you camp here,” she tells me. “But we do it anyway because we like to know you guys are safe.” A tattooed couple – one, purple hair and halter top, the other long gray ponytail, beard – wave as I set up my tent, and soon we’re sharing a few beers and solving all the world’s problems.
As the sun sets, things wind down, revelers needing to get home to make dinner. I share my Facebook handle with my new friends and promise to keep in touch before I crawl into the alicoop to rest up tomorrow’s big climb.
What a fantastic place to sleep at the Backyard Bar in Whatawhata, dead quiet until about 4 am when the trucks revved up again in this safe, grassy nook between highways.
We toasted to birthdays last night – mine is actually in two weeks but everyone got special treatment. What a sunny, warm and carefree day it was. In stark contrast to this gray, drizzly morning.
Five minutes in and the orange triangular markers lead to a dead end. But I spot Tracy ahead as she ducks into a cutoff in deep grass. Within seconds, I’m up to my knees in a swamp, nettles sting and I move like a sloth. A farmer’s field is blocked by an electric fence and a nearly impassible stile spills me out to a road.
Sheep graze on the oddly treeless, humpy hills. A couple of chatty cyclists pass me in slow motion; a trail runner, all smiles, comes downhill in pinks and purples. I think of a comment I received in the Lake District at a summit in a complete whiteout. “If you wait for the rain to stop, you’d never go out.”
A cow, a horse and a goat follow me along the fence – and their pal the pony comes round too just to say ‘hi.’ Birds with dandelion-yellow heads flit forward on post after post as I approach. A pond ribbits as one organism and a big gust sends several honeybees right at my face. Fortunately, I keep my mouth closed.
In an instant, I’m back in bush and scare off a trio of parrots – rear ends in red, blue, and fluorescent green. At the next junction there’s no sign and I feel like an idiot trying to figure out where to go. It certainly proves the argument that tramping signs are erected by non-trampers.
Far ahead, I see a bit of orange on a fence and head for it, finally entering Pirongia Forest Park. Well, here I am at the base of that massive extinct volcano, and the tallest mountain in this region, a mountain that’s been hounding me since the beginning.
At first things are easy next to Kāniwhaniwha stream in a forest filled with birds.
I take a detour to a rustic campground for lunch and meet a Kiwi who built the boardwalk and tower on the mountain. He gives me a blow-by-blow of what to expect, saying, “Everyone complains about the mud, we had to build something.” But warns me the boardwalks don’t exactly cover the entire track.
He also mentions a huge storm is blowing in tonight. Staying at a hut on the summit sure sounds nice right now.
There’s something of life in backpacking. You’re never entirely sure what’s ahead. Of course you can read blogs and do your research, but to know just the right site in which to set camp is usually a mystery. Do I camp here and wait out the storm or do I climb the mountain now in mist and gray skies?
That type of a question is one I often wrestle with. And even once I decide to stay put somewhere, I find I have to turn off that nagging wondering if I’m missing out on something better.
American artist Mary Caroline Richards said, “Let no one be deluded that a knowledge of the path can substitute for putting one foot in front of the other.”
I’m going to have to climb this mountain one way of another and the weather is only going to get worse. Besides, it’s only 2:00 and the trail notes tell me it shouldn’t take more than 4-5 hours.
Better get crackin!
I head back into to bush on the Tahuanui Track, dark already in the gloom, the wind swaying the canopy of Tawa. I get lost momentarily down a rough path of overgrown fern, but doubleback, walking now with more vigilance. So far, it’s a super-highway, but the friendly trail worker assured me the worst of the mud is just below the summit and my pace slows to a crawl.
I get one view out toward folds of Kaikawaka-covered mountains, the mist a heavy gray blanket. No wonder the kamahi trees wear moss like a goblin forest.
Boardwalks appear on a ridge and I understand now what he meant by ‘not covering the track.’ Built like boxes with chicken wire to keep trampers from slipping, they work well for the 10 feet they cover, keeping me out of the epic mud before redelivery.
Suddenly, it’s a super speedway to the summit at 959 meters, but absolutely no view. It’s cold and so I squish down to the Pahautea Hut, my poles sinking in an arm’s length.
Rain lashes the windows, pattering loudly on the metal roof and I enter first a mudroom for my wet gear and then a large common area lit by candlelight. Eight people bundled up in down coats are already here surprised to see me this late in the day and all by myself. Most I’ve met – the two Swiss boys who taught me the importance of Znuipauses along with a Swiss woman named Chloe, the Dutch couple Floris and Marjolein I kayaked with back in Northland, beautiful Vera and Elina, plus a chatty Austrian with hair so blond it’s nearly white.
We laugh, share stories and even sing a little before choosing our bunks, mine next to the window and a “view” of one Dr. Seussian Tawari shaking in the wind.
It’s still light, but I begin to fade quickly and think on something a follower sent me earlier this week, writing, “As the old rock and roll poet once advised, “Keep on walkin’, don’t look back”. That said, I will borrow this thought from Alcoholics Anonymous: during a long, tough, steep, mountainous climb, it is alright, once in a great while, to turn around and look back, just to see how far you have come. Then, get on with it.”
What a great few days walking from one mountain range to the next, deciding to just to forge ahead even as the weather moved in. I suppose I could have pushed harder in order to place myself at Pirongia’s summit in beautiful weather, but that would have meant missing out in a different way, possibly not seeing friends in Hamilton or camping at the Backyard Bar and mingling with the locals.
Walking long distance trail allows us to be both spectator and participant as the world moves by at a walking pace. I had good weather and bad weather, I had decent track and horrible track and if I actuated anything in these past days, it was to make a choice to act with conviction and confidence, and maybe even a bit of faith that at the top of the mountain, there’d be a gang of really nice people seemingly waiting for me to arrive.
episode 22 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker is back on New Zealand’s Te Araroa walking through the Waikato Region in the center of the North Island. She learns to face her fear – as well as ambivalence and irritation – and muscle through the bad parts so she can be open to surprise.
In this episode:
- Blissful skips a trail detour and starts her hike in muddy wetlands and electric-fenced pastureland.
- She arranges for a whole group to camp at Cathy’s Pies and learns that whatever answers she’s looking for on the trail, is likely already inside her.
- Her hiking friends share many of her same feelings about the trail and remind her this is all building “character.”
- Once she moves past fear and gets her rhythm, she camps alone high up in the Hakarimata Range with an incredible sunset and a morepork (owl) for company.
KULA CLOTH “pee rag”! Intentionally designed for all the places you ‘go,’ the Kula Cloth is one of the most important pieces of gear a women should have attached to her pack.
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MUSIC: Introduccion y allegro by Carlos Guastavino as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
The sun is out this morning as I return to the trail alone working my way down the center of New Zealand’s North Island. The trail notes tell me it’s easy tramping for the coming days, mostly on a river walk, but it’s been raining so much, it’s more of a hellscape of overgrown grass soaking me to the skin, their tiny seeds clinging to my pants, slippery mud ascents and descents, and bogs up to my knees.
And look here, storm clouds are building. They’re huge, gray and white puffballs and beautiful in a certain kind of way, but my mind is totally focused on hard and slow walking.
I’m nervous getting back on the trail. I bought way too much food and the next section requires carrying water – which adds more than two pounds per liter. What makes me so nervous? The unknown, my abilities, getting lost or hurt?
It’s funny though, how anticipation builds the fear and moving focuses the mind.
I’ve entered a region called The Waikato, named for New Zealand’s longest river. Meaning “flowing water” for the early Māori inhabitants, this fertile land was a source of nourishment and life. They regarded the Waikato as an ancestor, one of “a hundred taniwha – those mythical creatures who live in the deep river pools – every bend a taniwha.”
I’ll walk to its source near Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park, but that’s still a few weeks away and right now, I’m in the thick of it, heading steeply up an overgrown hill to Whangamarino redoubt, high above the river. You can see why there was a major battle here due to the good sight lines.
But then it’s all doubling back confusion because the TA signs are invariably placed after the turn. I walk under graffitied bridges, a homeless man sleeps in his car next to a rotting possum. I wonder about my sanity walking this trail. My GPS says I am on the route, but it’s a heinous overgrown shitshow next to the freeway. Do they even want people hiking in their country, I wonder. Feels like a nightmare of tall weeds and loud traffic.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind hard hiking, but this area is overgrown, ugly and dangerous. Perhaps one day of weed whacking, or a reroute not on the central north-south freeway littered with garbage might be a thought. It’s actually insulting how awful this is.
I take a deep breath and stop muttering to myself, remembering how much fun I had in Auckland. I pop open my phone and look at the selfies I took with Sarah and Susie at the top of the Sky Tower, one smiling, the other sticking our tongues out for a haka.
Because of storm damage and kauri die-back, the Hunua Ranges Regional Park just north of where I am now – one of high ridge lines, waterfalls, and native forest – is closed. The TA trail has been rerouted through suburbs. When Susie offered to drive me past this 30-kilometer road-walk, I quickly agreed – even though I really wanted to walk every step of the Te Araroa.
I guess it’s not just fear, nervousness and irritation I’m managing this morning. It’s also ambivalence.
And then, just like that, a trail turns into the countryside – with terrific signage. I struggle to open a gate and give myself a shock. Dammit! No touching the fences. They’re electrified!
I spy a farmhouse just in case this storm building in front of me hits. And right on cue it begins to thunder. I see a minefield of electric fences one after another along my path. Some are so high, I throw my pack over and try not to roll in sheep poo while shimmying under. Some too low, I straddle them very carefully, missing the skin and not touching with my sticks.
At a sprawling tree, I make a wrap with meat and cheese, sitting against the trunk to keep my pack out of the cow pies. The trail is quiet, solitary, next to the Waikato River. A few raindrops hit me, but it’s mostly birds and sunshine now.
A Polish couple arrives just as I finish, so I share a ginger candy and give them the tree. The trail leaves cows and heads right to the grassy riverbank making me think of the cult film “Night of the Hunter” when the children escape Robert Mitchum down the Ohio River.
It’s back to uneven muddy walking, yellow irises above my head centimeters from another shock as I follow the fence-line. But the puffy cumulus sail by without letting go off their wet cargo, tiny lizards scurry out of the way from my foot fall.
A grassy area opens up and I walk without needing to look down at my feet. And suddenly, it’s sublime. I’m walking through the New Zealand Game Bird Habitat Trust Wetland Project. Bulky willows kiss the water’s edge; a shady cottonwood crackles with the breeze.
It’s still a long way but it’s easy on an empty road, an entire avenue of cottonwoods wave in the breeze, seeming to cheer me on. In no time, I’m in Rangariri with people I haven’t met yet – Dutch and Swiss– sitting around an octagonal picnic table at the local pub. The trail notes are a bit off in that there is no camping at the pub, so we order drinks and try to figure out next steps.
Another option is Cathy’s Pie Shop, but it’s closed. The solo Dutch tramper, Vera, hands me her phone I guess assuming my English is better – but maybe more so that I might talk our way into camping somewhere.
Cathy answers on the first ring, and it works. She invites us to set up on her lawn and will have pies ready for breakfast in the morning. The two Polish trampers join us and we’re an army of tents and drying clothes on the line.
My dinner choice is a total disaster. The vermicelli feels like nylon twine and the spices are extremely hot. We share a laugh and commiserate on the frustrations of today. I am surprised and delighted to be ‘normal.’
The entire sky is pink and I put on my orange puffy just as Cathy offers me a glass of wine.
I slept well behind Cathy’s Pie Shop in Rangariri even though we shared nearly an entire bottle of chardonnay. She’s a well off Kiwi who lost most of her wealth, but has found her own ‘trail’ after leaving a cheating husband and buying up property to rent.
And she is fascinated by us trail walkers, ones she describes as looking for answers as we walk day after day. What is it I’m seeking? I tell her mostly I feel nervous about the future – and ambivalence about walking every step.
Cathy has this way of making me feel like everything is going to work out and that – like Dorothy – the answers are probably already inside me.
Breakfast is steak pie with hot chocolate and steamed milk. The morning is cool, the fog lifting on the Waikato River. Rain is forecasted in this, the wettest region of the North Island. Irene told me to prepare my self for the upcoming forests, which make Raetea look like a walk in the park.
Right now, the trail is road walk, all the way to Huntly. I suppose I could walk in the fields but it’s really wet and bumpy. The Swiss catch up to me and pull me off the road into the wet grass and the proper trail, and I’m surprised it’s bliss for the feet. I whistle a little bit of the Saint Paul Suite by Gustav Holst and one of the boys joins in.
The other is silent in his Vikings cap, saying he likes the idea of football. And just like that, they stop telling me it’s 9 am, time for a Znünipause, time for a mid-morning pause – even if we’ve only gone a little over three kilometers.
Not really needing a Znünipause, I head on with Cyril telling me “The Te Araroa is not for fun. It is for the character.”
Ahead is beautiful grass and loads of camping under huge magnolia trees – I’m really beginning to think like a thru-hiker. No camping allowed here, though. This is a golf course. Up ahead are mountains, frothy cotton candy clouds pasted to the summits. Before them the massive twin towers of Huntly’s power station.
I told Cathy last night that the first month of this tramp pulled out all the emotions, the old gunk of the past that I needed to deal with. It feels now after some of the dark corners have been scoured of their cobweb, as if this second month is about discovering who I am and deciphering what exactly I’d like to bring into my space.
On the edge of town, I stop at a dairy, or convenience store, to purchase a Jolly soda. It tastes like hard candy. Maybe I’ll take another for the road.
Huntly is busy with trucks hauling two separate quarry cargoes. Houses press in right up on the main drag; wild roses, junked cars and lawn ornaments commingling. Two friendly Kiwis stop to talk with me.
Everyone I shared camp with last night plans to cross the Tainui Bridge, a 7-span bowstring-arch over the Waikato River, and get some real food. But I’m finding my stride and feeling the nerves, the fear, even the ambivalence beginning to wane.
It’s funny how once I move, I care less about the unknown. I seem to reside in the present moment and allow the future to take care of itself. If I keep following this sidewalk, which soon turns into road, the future will include entering the Hakarimata Reserve. It’s easy at first, up stairs into the bush and I stop for lunch at a giant 1,000 year old kauri that somehow escaped the ax. I learn only redwoods have trunks this massive, that this tree is as old as the dinosaurs and its resin was prized for making jewelry, right as I back into it for a little a resin sample on my shirt.
About twenty raindrops hit me. If the weatherman says 60% chance of rain, did that count? A giant rimu peaks out from the Kauri grove, gnarly and shaggy, taller and more slender. Captain Cook made beer from the Rimu’s bitter gum.
At the first lookout looking towards the river valley and rain in the distance, I leave the easy track behind for steeper-than-you-can-believe ups and down over roots and mud. I think of my friend Brenda when we hiked the Border Route wishing for ‘100 feet of joy.’ But I’m a professional at this now and move fast.
And it’s a wonderful feeling, almost out of body. My mind totally focused but my legs and arms floating over obstacles like someone else is pulling the strings to make me move.
I lose the GPS briefly likely due to the thick tree canopy and heavy clouds. It’s weird not knowing where you are, though there is only one path and I’m all alone. And I do know where I am. I’m here.
It’s more up and down on thick roots through the bush to a second lookout and finally a sort of wide grassy spot where I pick up the GPS signal again. I can see it’s not far at all to the summit and its lookout tower, maybe an hour, but I decide I’ve gone far enough for today and I’ll camp right here.
Writer Judy Blume said “Each of us must confront our own fears, must come face to face with them. How we handle our fears will determine where we go with the rest of our lives. To experience adventure or to be limited by the fear of it.”
Yesterday, I cursed the boggy trail and then cried after getting shocked by the multitude of electric fences. Cathy, the Swiss boys and the camaraderie of our tent city in such contrast to sleeping here all by myself gave me strength and courage to press on and by curious rather than anxious. I learned that grass walking is more fun than road walking, that eating an entire bag of candy per day on a thru-hike is the normal thing to do, that falling in the mud is not a sign of weakness and that every step takes me to something new.
Maybe when everything isn’t absolute bliss, that’s ok, because it won’t last. I was afraid starting this next section, but it turns out I had it in me to figure things out and deal with the less pleasant portions of the trail.
And as I sit on my mat looking out on fields and hills, a few tree ferns framing the view, the sky turns orange-pink, the clouds a deep lilac, as a morepork sings me to sleep.
episode 21 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker is back on New Zealand’s Te Araroa thru-hike, “slackpacking” through Auckland then celebrating Thanksgiving with her Kiwi hosts, discovering she has a lot to be grateful for.
In this episode:
- “Slackpacking” means hiking on a thru-hike with only what’s needed for the day, leaving overnight gear at a friend’s where the hiker sleeps.
- Blissful hikes in rain and sunshine through parks, up blown out volcanoes, into museums and along busy roads.
- She learns about another hiker dying on the trail and considers how easy it is to make a dumb decision, wondering if risking everything to come on this hike was a good one.
- And at a Thanksgiving meal she realizes she feels gratitude for her decision, dumb or not.
MUSIC: Introduccion y allegro by Carlos Guastavino as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
It’s raining. A lot. And expected to all day long – with a little lightning on the side.
But I have good rain gear – and I’m only slackpacking my way through Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city.
Slackpacking has that word “slack” in it – as in slacking off. That’s just about right. I’m walking the Te Araroa “trail” but using far less energy because I left most of my things – my tent, my sleeping bag, stove and fuel – with my hosts. I’ll walk as far as I can over the next three days and then get to sleep in a bed at night, eating a proper meal sitting in a chair at a table.
In fact, it’s Thanksgiving and I’ll be celebrating in Kiwi style with my hosts.
There’s a lot to be thankful for – their hospitality for one, but also all the lucky, serendipitous, accidents of fate that have happened in this first month of my first thru-hike.
Come along now on my walk through Auckland, where for two solid days, it’s been pouring rain. It’s not cold as I enter Cornwall Park and duck into the Acacia cottage built by an influential settler. For a moment I feel like these people, happy to have a solid roof over my head against the elements.
It’s definitely a full-on case of ‘because it is there’ as I summit the volcanic cone, of One Tree Hill, so named after a settler chopped down a sacred tree to the local Maori. I’m in almost complete whiteout, though not alone as a few runners and old folks with walking sticks touch the top before heading right back down.
There are more cottages to visit in Jellicoe Park, one a scavenger’s dream in piles of junk including five vintage vacuum cleaners, a collection of ‘cocks, taps and valves’ and an organ with sheet music for Christmas in New Zealand with no snow or wooly hats. I’m told the owner’s wife warned her collector husband if he brought home any more, they’d need a bigger house.
Through the tiny pocket of Taumanu reserve I meet two Americans also walking the trail in small bites, one of whom you’ll meet much later in the story.
I stop at a fruit and vege though at this point all I want to eat is junk food. Two friends-of-friends, Paula and Mike meet me to cross Manukau Bay on a pedestrian walkway under the highway better known as “mugger’s alley.” Because the beautiful old Mangere Bridge is sinking into the estuary, we chance our luck on this alternative, moving fast toward Ambury Park, a wide grassy area dotted with sheep oblivious to the inclement weather.
We part at the Insect Garden filled with nettles poisonous to the touch. I continue towards the stinky sewage plant and reclaimed wetlands crowded with black swans and their goslings, swallows diving, and ducks new to me honking crankily. It’s a migratory bird oasis, this combination black sand and oyster shell beach thick with pale pink morning glories, the long grass pressed down in a field of combovers.
And it’s right there that I run into cool the-trail-will-provide Nathan and we walk and talk together on a long road walk to the airport where he’ll spend the night sleeping on a bench. The sky goes black as we part and I seek refuge at the Butterfly Creek children’s party venue just as an evil breeze presses in, lightning and absolute, full-on, no holds barred downpour. But I am totally safe with about thirty screaming children.
The rain lets up and I’m back on a narrow shoulder of road right under the incoming flight path as cars whizz past. At the Puhinui reserve, curious heifers follow me down the trail before I enter my first public toilet in New Zealand. A helpful recorded voice gives me ten minutes alone and if it’s too hard to figure the time, some jazzy Burt Bacharach counts down for me.
It’s office parks, scruffy neighborhoods and finally the botanic gardens filled with Totara and Norfolk Pine, the rain slacking off. Susie and Sarah are waiting for me in their car to take me back to their home in Mount Eden.
On our drive, Susie tells me a tramper died today on the Tongariro Alpine crossing, a part of the trail I’ll come to in another month. The contrast with slackpacking through Auckland with plenty of places to escape the elements and my hosts just a phone call away – couldn’t be more stark.
As Susie speaks, I finger my hut pass in my wallet, the one I purchased for backcountry stays as I move further south in New Zealand. On the front of the pass, there’s a safety code with solid advice: Plan your trip, Tell someone, Be aware of weather, Know your limits, Take sufficient supplies.
The deceased wasn’t a Te Araroa hiker. He did not heed any of that advice and was totally unprepared when the weather turned ugly, splitting up from his group and getting lost.
Once we return, I take a hot shower, fill up on nutritious food and drink a beer that Sarah picked up for me especially knowing how much I crave one after walking. I feel bad for that poor hiker and for his family. He made dumb decisions for sure, but we’re all capable of making dumb decisions and it’s easy to judge clean and dry and safe.
All I can do is take it as a reminder – a kind of warning – to try not to make any of my own dumb decisions. I make a pact with myself to stay alert as I graciously accept one more beer and enjoy the company of my lovely hosts.
It’s Auckland in glorious sunshine. I look more like a tourist than a backpacker as I join a free walking tour and learn of a statue made in the 1960s to honor the Maori, one made by a woman – all sorts of impossible awarenesses converging.
At Queen and Customs Streets, the signal stops all traffic and people casually pour into the street like a slow motion dance choreographed for some in choppy straight lines, others striding diagonally.
Krispy Kreme just opened a café in the Central Business District celebrates with disco blaring and free donuts for everyone in a line snaking out onto the square.
I love Auckland’s walkability and with a visa, I am considered a temporary resident so I can enter the art museum for free housing works by Maori from Aotearoa and Moana.
I’m stopped in my tracks at a mural made by Ralph Hotere. Originally meant for the airport, it’s called Godwit, named for the long billed, long legged wader who fly 7,000 miles non-stop on their annual migrations, the ‘can do and go anywhere’ bird I saw often on my long beach walking. I try to absorb some of that bird’s pluck into my blissful hiking soul.
One hundred women build sand mounds and celebrate creation; regional artists see land as metaphor. Finally it’s a long hallway of extraordinary Maori portraits from the 1870s made by Gottfried Lindauer not from life, but from photographs. The men have rangi pahuri or full-face tattoos, that signify their mana or influence and some are in European dress with handlebar mustaches, although I find the women more powerful with tattoos around their mouths, on their lips and chin.
Up the hill at the Wintergardens I encounter a fragrant and humid world under glass. Massive pitcher plants yawn obscenely yet invitingly to unsuspecting passersby. In the shade, the temperature is mild on the verge of chilly, I sip a green drink and rest my legs. I am actually on the Te Araroa now, but my pack is only carrying my phone charger.
I head into the museum and find an extraordinary exhibit of Maori artifacts including a 25-meter long war canoe made of one totara log. Large figures look on through abalone eyes, most with their tongues stuck out at me.
And then it’s ‘Hot Words, Bold Retorts,’ a celebration of 125 years of women’s suffrage – New Zealand being the first country in the world to give women the vote, but not including any sort of equality for the sexes in the bargain. These were tough broads, one portrait prominently displays a woman from my host’s family.
Upstairs is natural history, giant wingless moa, giant ‘ponderous heavy diving’ penguins, giant ammonite fossils stagger the imagination.
I skip the curiosities of the odd, dusty collections from around the world and head back into the sunshine where the bay greets me turquoise and glistening. Up Mt. Eden the wind dries my sweat. It’s crowded, everyone tippy- tapping on their phones. A blown out volcano, there’s a huge grassy pit in front of the summit marker.
It’s only a few blocks and I’m back at Susie and Mark’s house where they tell me to make myself at home. This Kiwi Thanksgiving potluck meal is not much different from home, though it’s sliced turkey and ham rather than an entire bird, plus salads and potatoes, heaps of deserts and wine.
We gather in the living room, standing in a circle, each taking a few kernels of corn to represent our blessings. As we share our individual thoughts, the themes are similar – we’re grateful for family, for friends, and for being buoyed by the holy spirit.
To top it off, one family friend named Mike offers up a Maori greeting especially for me as a newcomer.
Ellen DeGeneres said, “When you take risks you learn that there will be times when you succeed and there will be times when you fail, and both are equally important.”
It’s funny writing and voicing this podcast right now as I cross the two-year anniversary of my first steps on the Te Araroa. Facebook sending me “memories” of my thru-hike preparation is mostly how I’m reminded of this fact.
Things didn’t quite work out when I came home after finishing the Te Araroa, and it would be easy to say I made a dumb decision to risk it all just to walk a bunch of roads in the rain and visit a few museums.
As we go around the circle sharing our joys and sorrows, I realize wouldn’t have known any of this at the time. Nor would I know that I’d be where I am today, unable to walk and awaiting two surgeries to fix my deteriorating hips.
But that’s why I went, to walk while I could and live fully with what I had available to me.
It’s interesting that the Maori use the term “sacred feet” to explain a visitor transforming from a stranger to family. My decision to take my feet to a new place was based on wanting to experience it first hand and to know it in as intimate a way as possible.
I’m grateful for that decision to walk the length of an entire country. It was one of the best decisions of my life.
episode 20 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker learns that not knowing what comes next in our lives can be difficult to handle and nearly intolerable. The power is in choosing between accepting limited circumstances with grace.
In this episode:
- Blissful learns her arthritis has progressed the point where she’ll need to have both hips replaced, but that doesn’t stop her from hiking one more short thru-hike at peak autumn colors.
- The Kekekabic is part of the North Country Trail and is the most remote and rugged trails in Minnesota running through boreal forest and the Boundary Waters.
- She takes two big falls, not hurting herself, but realizing her body is breaking down and gets “kekked” (lost) accidentally walking down two portages instead of on the main trail.
- Rain comes and goes the entire way, but crossing the incredible architecture of beaver dams, and witnessing a stunning moonrise make up for it.
MUSIC: Introduccion y allegro by Carlos Guastavino as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
What strikes me at first – especially at this time of year in peak fall colors – is how quiet it is. Quiet except for the wind that sets the Aspen leaves quaking, a deep gold against the soft blue sky, gray clouds hanging near the summits, a mosaic of yellow and dark green.
I work my way between a series of lakes – Miner, Bingshik, Honker, Glee, Fay, Warclub – and I momentarily get lost, shooting confidently right down a portage that ends at the water’s edge then having to shoot right back up. When I return to the intersection and see the blue ribbons pointing the way, I realize everything looks the same, making it near impossible to tell which way to go even when I’m pretty sure it’s right. Fortunately I thought to pack a compass and compasses don’t lie, assuring me I’m heading west again.
Established in the 1930s as a route to a fire tower, the Kekekabic Trail – or the “Kek” – is a 41-mile portion of the North Country Trail and runs through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a unique environment of thousands upon thousands of glacier-created lakes deep in the boreal forest.
With the start and end on the Gunflint Trail near Grand Marais and off Fernberg Road, near Ely, I put off walking the Kek for years because it’s incredibly inconvenient to get to. Around five hours from my home in Saint Paul, then about a 4 ½ hours drive between trailheads.
Because it’s part of the BW, you need a permit to hike in this wilderness of moose, wolf, bear and beaver habitat and it’s notoriously difficult to follow mostly because its remoteness makes it’s difficult to maintain. After the Keks heyday in the ‘70s, the trail fell into disrepair until volunteers established a club twenty years later. But severe blowdowns as recent as 2016 with 100 mph straight-line winds took down millions of trees and left the trail a jumble of impassible limbs. Only last year was the trail cleared end to end and I feel pretty confident I can manage it – though I’ve got some other issues to manage that could make this short thru-hike a difficult one.
Richard and I drove up to Grand Marais on the North Shore of Lake Superior in bumper-to-bumper leaf peeping traffic only made more annoying by a heavy downpour. But this morning, it’s clear skies, the fall colors so intense, the air seems to glow.
The western third of the Kek was burned to the ground by the Ham Lake Fire and opportunistic herbaceous plants regenerating the undulating landscape include Aspen, bright yellow now and a bit of Maple in such a deep red, it could almost be called purple. Richard walks me in a few miles before we kiss goodbye, turn around and walk in opposite directions.
It’s always unsettling to turn my back and move away into the unknown. What awaits me ahead? Fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin writes “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” Of course, I have a rough idea of what I’ll encounter in these four days – and even have a rough plan of distances, best camp spots, the weather.
What I don’t know is how I’ll manage. Earlier this week, I learned that my right hip joint is worn down to the nubs – and the left is not far behind. I got a cortisone shot but that’s only going to buy me time. I’m going to have to get them both replaced – soon.
I’m moving well even if my gait is wobbly and I rely on my sticks to stay upright as I negotiate rocky and uneven surface. Osteoarthritis runs in my genes and I knew this day would come, just not quite this soon. That’s the reason I requested a leave of absence from my job two years ago to walk my first long distance thru-hike, the Te Araroa in New Zealand. I count myself incredibly lucky that I managed not just one, but two thru-hikes pain free.
Well, I guess I’ll be