Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Day 22

September 23rd, 2015

Sep 22 day 22 Stillwater to Auckland YHA 33 km 6:15- 4:00

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So at 7:09 this morning I was trying to ford the Okura River. I did everything right– arrived at the ford point at exactly low tide, tried 4 different places. Each time I’d get about 20 meters out and the water would get to my ribs (and the bottom of my backpack) and the river bottom would go soft — really muddy. Had to turn back each time, so finally gave up, and took the long walk around through the Okura Forest track, which goes through a fairly young Kauri grove along with lots of other magnificent trees, and lots of Tui’s (the birds, not the beers). Much of the rest of the day was spent working back to the coast through the suburbs. I changed from my wet clothes, but of course my shoes were soaked, so that 33 km beat my feet up. The sun would shine for about ten minutes, then it would rain again. Finally got down to Devonport, which is a really great town, and caught the ferry over to Auckland just as it was leaving. The hostel was just up Queen street, but walking there was disorienting. Surrounded by people talking — chattering– after all that solitude was hard to deal with. Hostel is nice, finally got some laundry done, whew, it reeked. Did not realize how tired I really was until I went out for a big bowl of noodle soup, then planned to find a bar, a beer, and maybe a televised rugby game. Ended up crawling into bed very early watching Colbert and Oliver clips before a deep a dreamless sleep.

Day 21

September 23rd, 2015

Sep 21 day 21 Puhoi to Stillwater. 32 km 8:00-3:30 (because of high tides, some road walking probably shortened the actual distance)

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Today started with another generous act. Two days ago, when I stopped at the Dome Cafe for an early dinner, wet, covered in mud, I ordered food and a beer. When the woman who ran the place brought it, she asked if I wanted any chips (in New Zealand, chips are a large bowl of hot, thick-cut fries). I smiled and said sure, and, even though it was obviously a slow day, she just gave them to me. Last night at the bar, I ordered a Tui’s and the manager charged me 6$. When I ordered the next, the bar tender charged 5$. I asked and he said 5$ was enough. Then this morning, I stopped at the Puhoi General Store and Cafe for a cup of coffee before hiking. It was a cold morning, and while I was sitting outside, the woman running the cafe came out with a large, hot croissant with tomato, ham and cheese. She said I looked cold, and refused payment. And tonight, because I was hiking the long trail, Pete– the camp owner– refused payment and let me sleep in the camp TV room (though the only thing on were game shows). This is often a kind and generous country. The day’s hike was, on the other hand, uninteresting. The tides were high so I was forced up on the roads most of the day. It was pretty much a day of walking on the shoulders of roads dodging ongoing cars. Initially I was just going to go 18 km to a campground at the southern tip of Orewa, but I got there before noon, so decided to trust luck in finding a place to pitch my tent in Stillwater. Lucked out as there is a campground right at the entrance to the next part of the hike. The whole place is pretty empty, but a warm dry place to sleep before the big push toward Auckland tomorrow.

Day 20

September 20th, 2015

Sep 20 day 20 dome Cafe to Puhoi 27 km 8:30-3:00

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Got a bit of a late start because I walked up from the Sheep World Campgrounds, to the Dome Cafe for another meal and some great conversation with the couple who run it. Both so kind and peaceful. Had delicious Eggs Benedict and coffee before pulling on my wet muddy shoes for another day’s slog. Even though it rained off and on, it was a good day. Not much road walking, but a lot of old forest roads that were well drained, so only a few kilometers of slipping and sliding. Pretty uneventful walk, but a wonderful ending. 11 or 12 years ago I was driving (with the family) from Whangerai back to Auckland. It was lunch time so we pulled off at this little village that had a beautiful pub by a river with a large green lawn. I remember thinking that it was a nearly perfect place. You can imagine how my dampened spirits rose when I came down off the hill, crossed the bridge and realized that I was in the same place. Walked into the pub in the midst of the Sunday dinner rush, and Amigo (the manager) looked up and said of course they had a room for me. I was soon unpacked, showered, and seated near a fire tucking into a great hot dinner. The place is still nearly perfect.

Day 19

September 20th, 2015

Sep 19 day 19 Pakiri Camp to Dome Cafe (Highway 1) 26 km 6:45-4:00

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The most physically rigorous day since the Raetea Forest. Started out walking straight up a steep pasture– no trail, just knee high grass and the occasional post painted white at the top. Finally got to the top, great views but completely soaked. Followed a fence line up and down with mud so deep, it sucked your shoes off. Path was narrow and crowded by gorse which at some point tore off my hat which was hooked to my pack (I was not about to go back to look for it). It’s cute when Pooh or Tigger fall into the gorse, they don’t bleed. The rest of the day was mud and root hiking, lots of elevation change, some good views but also much rain. High point was the end when I got to the Dome Cafe by four — it closes at five– had an early dinner and a couple Macs lagers which tasted exactly like the beer Dad used to drink when I was a kid. They comped me some fries, then gave me a ride to the “sheeps world” camp ground– a place straight out of some weird reality show. Was cold and wet so I opted for bunk, which turned out to be in an old caravan– was cool, sort of. Tomorrow not looking easy but not as bad as today. Gunna sleep well tonight.

Day 18

September 20th, 2015

Sep 18 day 18 Mangawhai Village to Pakiri Camp 23 km 7:45-1:00

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Short day, resting for what looks to be a difficult couple of days ahead. Pretty much a two surface hike–road to beach, then beach to the end (a brief up and over a point at Te Arai). Started out in the pouring rain, though it does not much bother me when starting out if I’ve got a pack cover, rain pants, and coat deployed from the start. Met two other thruhikers– Pierre and Sophie who were camped at Te Arai and who later stayed at the Holiday Camp. Minimal excitement on this track except having to ford three rivers, each mid-thigh deep. It takes a bit to find a good spot to cross. The water is not always clear enough to acertain depth. On getting to the middle and largest river, I found a woman, A—– on the other side. She was checking the DOC pest traps and also monitoring bird nesting habits. She kicked off her boots, dropped her pants, and waded out in just her knickers, noting on crossing that the water did not get to her crotch. Had a good talk about the nesting of the Oyster Catchers, and the problems of motorbikes on the dunes. The rest of the trek was just more beach–beautiful but monotonous after a bit. Stopped in early at the Pakiri Camoground, made for a short day, but got clean and dry, missed a large afternoon shower. Tomorrow the hills will be mud, a difficult challenge.

Day 17

September 20th, 2015

Sep 17 day 17 Waipu Cove to Mangawhai Village (Mangawhai Camp) 28 km 7:30-2:30

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Very straightforward day. Woke to clear blue skies, got on trail fairly early, had to backtrack to the turn which took me up through a subdivision. They are building lots of upscale houses on the ridges overlooking the bays and islands. After a while, the road turned to gravel and I entered an area being logged off, soon coming up on one of those large winching machines they put at ridge tops to pull whole trees up the hill from the ridges where they have been cut out by chainsaws. It was exactly like the Stamper operation in the film version of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. I had to stop a while just to watch the sheer force being deployed to harvest trees is such difficult terrain. The track then rose up to follow a ridge line with occasional great views of the bays one either side of the head, before descending to a road and then back up a farm track to the edge of the coast. One amazing thing about farmscapes here is that Calla Lilies bloom in clumps all over the pastures near streams or pools. The track then turned to follow the coastal cliff down to Mangawhai Heads, which included a short bit hiking on the beach (seems requisite on this part of the trek). Got lunch and a great smoothie made of some NZ fruit at the Heads before crossing into Mangawhai village and pitching my tent at the campground. The campgrounds here can be interesting. Talked a while to Mike, the manager, who explained that the 68 lots in this one were sold off, and the owners park caravans or build cabins to rent or to live in. I am pitched in a little green bit of lawn between a couple of occupied cabins– my tent is quite a contrast. Strolled into town to the Smashed Pipi Gallery and Bar to have beer and pizza, something I’ve been craving. Talked a while with the outgoing manager– it was his last night running the place– about how peaceful living in this area is, unlike Auckland which is not so far down the road these days.

Hiking Time

September 16th, 2015

Hiking Time

Portions of the Te Araroa require hitching a ride on a boat. Opua to Waikare is an extra 25km if you don’t go by water. I opted for the boat not just out of laziness, but also because I wanted a different view– oyster beds, derelict boats, grand waterfront houses, and old shanties–but I had to wait in the harbor all day for high tide. Needing to rest tired bones, the waiting part was easy. I was living hiking time, in this case time determined by the moon, a natural phenomenon generally ignored by everyone except fishermen, yacht people, and surfers.

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Te Araroa is translated “the long walk,” but it is unclear if the adjective refers to time or distance. Perhaps they are the same. You can plan a walk, determine distances, make reservations, anticipate arrivals. Within the day itself, you can follow a watch and a map, but hiking time subverts all. You can cover 10 km on a forest road in the same time it takes to slog your way up 3km of a stream. You can (and will) make navigational errors that require recalibration of goals. Indeed, goals themselves are often abandoned as any day wears on, which is one reason for carrying a tent: ten square feet of level ground is a home for the night.

While waiting in Opua, I talked with a boating couple, one commented on the lengthening days (we will soon have equinox), and the other noted about how it will also be better with the coming of daylight savings time. I could only smile. The lengthening of the days with the spring is a significant change, enabling longer, warmer walks. I well remember hiking the Maine section of Appalachian Trail in August when it seemed the sun rose at 4:00 and did not set until after 10:00. That made for difficult sleeping as, on the AT, “hiker’s midnight” is 9:00 pm. Regarding daylight savings time, for those living industrial time, it means a day with more usable light. For someone living in the big outside, the day is as long as it is, regardless of time measurement devices or legislation.

Hiking time is also seasonal, not just shortened or lengthened days, but also weather patterns and temperature differentials. The ideal time to hike the TA is November –March. Then the Northland is warm and has, at least in most places, dried out from the spring rains. And the TA’s terminus–Bluff– is approached in the lingering days of summer. My calendar dictated a September start with an early January end. This meant starting out in the rain with still-cold evenings, and, on the South Island, will include wading rivers swollen by the spring thaw. Earl Shaffer, the first Appalachian Trail thru-hiker chronicled his experiences in a book entitled North with the Spring. Most AT thru-hikers still follow that pattern, commencing from Springer Mountain in March or early April in order to summit Katahdin by September. Being in the weather (significantly in French, temps is both weather and time) all day and night, raises the stakes on seasonal difference. My hike on the TA is South with the Remnants of Winter.

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Spending the days walking the big outside makes for other ways to measure time–walking pace, a measure closer to poetry than to clocks. Wordsworth famously walked many thousand miles in his lifetime, and composed poetry while hiking on paths near Grasmere or pacing in his own garden. Each two steps an iamb (with old knees, steps are never spondee, the pattern of my trekking poles is definitely anapaestic). Hiking rhythm is hypnotic, soothing, or sheer brutality. Pace shifts across the day according to many variables: trail surface, nutrition, blisters, elevation change, sheer exhaustion, or inexplicable shifts in mood. With that comes a dilation of traditional time or the production of time as difference.

Hiking time is also geological. Surface, strata, upthrusts, bogs, all insist on acknowledgment. The old lava flow stretching across a beach must be crossed carefully–a surface both slippery and sharp. Volcanic peaks are steep and often lack soil to cushion feet, or when they do, it is a hopeless mucky mess. New Zealand seems a young place geologically speaking. The terrain is in ferment, constantly rearranging itself. Roads and trails are all subverted by slips and landslides, the streams seem to be newly gouging their own paths. And so many hillsides, volcanic in origin, are stark, nearly naked rock were it not for the exuberance of plant life, clinging wildly to their sides. There is something here of the forever new, a sense that things are just getting started.

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If, as I imagine, the geology is young, the botany is ancient. I once wrote an essay about time and trees (here),┬ábut I didn’t talk about Kauri trees, those long-lived giants that proliferated in the Jurassic period but now are confined to the wet forests of the New Zealand northlands. Walking through a mature Kauri forest is something akin to walking amongst redwoods. The diameter of the trunks is unimaginable. There is a store near Awanui built around the upright trunk of an ancient Kauri that has been hollowed out to form a spiral staircase. But, unlike redwoods, Kauri’s have smooth, grey peeling bark, and they do not attain such heights, growing at most about 50 meters with large branching limbs forming an incredible canopy. Standing at the base, you feel as if you are looking at the world’s best climbing tree (if you were also a giant). Nested in its arms are epiphytes– rushes that look as if they should be growing around a bog. The TA goes through a number of Kauri forests, including a visit to one of the best loved of the trees, Tane Moana, thousands of years old. I reach down and touch eternity. At home, I have tongs made of Kauri wood. They are beautiful, rich, and red, somewhat resembling teak. With them I toss salad leaves hours old.

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T. Hugh Crawford

Day 16

September 16th, 2015

Sep 16 day 16 McLeod Bay to Waipu Cove 30 km. 8:30- 3:00 (part by boat)

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Today started much better. A sleepless night near a road–once again cars kept me up much of the night, but on rising, packing up, I noticed the The Deck cafe, which had been closed last night, was well lit, and I was soon tucking into eggs, bacon and coffee. After last night’s pack of ramen supper, it was pure delight. I then wandered down to the jetty to wait for the boat to take me across, spending a pleasant quarter hour talking with a woman walker and long-time resident of McLeod Bay about the changes over time in the village, and also how the footpaths were all being staircased. She doesn’t like them. I tend to agree, until I think back on the Herekino Forest track which could have used something, anything, to make the trail more stable and walkable. In a bit Steve Martinovitch picked me up in the Cara-J, a 38 foot cruiser he built himself– wood with fiberglass sheathing– over three years in his spare time. For the last 18 years, he has been running it as a fishing and charter boat. He too noted the changes in the area, particularly on the bay with the construction of the large (and only) oil refinery in NZ. After a throughly pleasant boat ride, he gave me ride into town so I could get money from a bank ATM (my card does not work in rural ATMs and so is a sometimes source of anxiety). Resupplied at a good grocery store (also a rare commodity on the trail) and hiked the beach down to Waipu, a wonderful little village originally populated by Scots (there is an amazing old cemetery just south of town). I had a good lunch (with salad!!) before heading down south to the campground at Waipu Cove where I got a hot shower (pure luxury) and finally did my laundry (more luxury).

Day 15

September 16th, 2015

Sep 15 day 15 Pataua South to McLeod Bay 29 km 7:15-4:00

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A day of different surfaces and perspectives. Was supposed to start out by traversing a mud flat, but would have had to wait until noon, so I took the long way around the estuary on a road. Then up and over Kauri Mountain and down to Ocean Beach, a place I had visited ten years ago on another trip. Long morning walking the beach (including a ford that was mid-thigh deep (and cold). The weather was strange, cloudy, windy, cold, then sunny and hot. Kept having to stop to add or remove layers. At the end of Ocean Beach rose a set of steep mountains, so the afternoon was a ridge hike, first up a very steep sheep path, then into the woods for a lot of up and down. Much of the steep part had wooden/gravel steps, a mixed blessing. Got to the highest part and missed a track sign (was only written on one of the plastic triangles with a sharpie). As I was climbing, the trail got narrower and more vertical. Soon I was doing serious rock climbing still carrying my backpack and poles. Turned out I was on a spur to the top of a narrow rock peak–the kind that make you tremble when you stand up. Never should have been climbing that with full gear. At the top, it was clear the only return was the way I had climbed up, and after some stressful moments, I regained the regular path and my balance. The rest of the trail was up and down until it dumped me into Urquhart bay (after a least a thousand steps). Followed the road over to McLeod bay, looking for some sort of campground or motel. Stopped to talk to a school bus driver who had just finished her route. She had found a budgie which she had in a box. She and her husband used to run a B&B in McLeod Bay, so she invited me to sleep in her basement. After tea, her husband came in, some mixed signals between them and I soon found myself out looking for a place to stay. There were some B&B s but none took Visa and my cash was short. Ended up sitting on a bench near the bay making ramen noodles, waiting for the sun to go down so I could pitch a tent in the park and not be noticed. On the upside, I was able to arrange with Steve Martinovitch for a boat ride across the bay tomorrow morning.

Day 14

September 16th, 2015

Sep 14 day 14 Ngunguru Village to Pataua South 32 km 8:45-4:00

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Not a particularly eventful day, though the weather was perfect, nearly cloudless. First half was a long road walk out of Ngunguru past the Hugh Crawford Reserve– about 15 km. not a lot of traffic and the countryside was pretty, but also boring. Saw some good livestock including some amazing bulls. There is a bird always out in the bush whose call sounds exactly like R2-D2. And there are these ducks who are always in pairs, but don’t really look alike. One has a while head and an often shrill call, feathers smooth with a russet chest. It’s partner is a fuzzy black critter with a coarse, loud call. They tend to hang out in the mud puddles in pasture land, and spend most of their time yelling at each other. You almost never see one alone, always paired. The middle of the day brought the only bush hike, which had its bright points, but was only 4 km and the entry and exit were through recent tree harvest slash. I did get to ford two rivers, and the woods in the middle were wonderfully peaceful. There I met three women hikers who had spent much of their lives walking the tracks all over NZ– were very knowledgable about how the TA was put together, and were completely engaging. The last third of the day was also road walking. I hope one day the TA Trust finds a way onto the farmland and get the trail off the road. My knees were huge at the end of today, probably need to go slow tomorrow. Got to Pataua South by crossing a footbridge across an estuary where a very old man was fishing, had a bucket full of many different fish. Arrived finally at the Treasure Island campground, running straight into Tim, the good natured proprietor on his trusty ATV. The place was deserted except for one other hiker. Tim directed me to a beautiful picnic area plateau– perfect grass and incredible view of the ocean. Got a hot shower, cooked dinner and settled in for the night.

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