Two fierce forests: Ahipara to Mangamuka (Te Araroa tramp, days 5-8; kms 100-161)

I spent my first rest day on the Te Araroa trail lying in the sun, eating biscuits, grinning with relief at being horizontal, and reading the Murakami novel I’d lugged from the Cape.

A decent book is the one heavy luxury I’ll put up with lugging.

Having had a good hiding from Ninety Mile Beach, I rested up at the Ahipara YHA for three nights.

On the second afternoon I pulled myself together enough for a short hitch-hike into Kaitaia to buy some new boots. I also needed to resupply at the supermarket with noodles, biltong, almonds, peanut butter, tuna, dehydrated peas and the rest of my tramping menu.

(I’ve put a bit of thought and research into the menu; it’s long on fuel-rich fat and protein, and short on weight. Carrying your house on your back teaches you to respect every gram. And you can always vary the spartan diet every few days when you reach a town.)

Walking to the edge of Ahipara (which has neither boots shop nor supermarket) I came to a health clinic, its door open to the sunny morning. A lovely nurse with ancient roots in that district bandaged my blisters, and told me how much she’d relished moving home to look after her people.

After that, I got a ride just as fat rain began to splat on the hot seal. A young couple had burned past, braked, swung back in a u-turn; an arm had reached back to open the back door. “We decided we couldn’t leave you there, with the rain starting,” the freckled, red-headed woman grinned.

Kaitaia is a bit of an anomaly. It’s the main town in the far north, a region with two spectacular coasts, defined by its touching slenderness in the midst of all that water. But you can’t see the sea from Kaitaia, nor even smell nor hear it. It feels utterly inland.

Still, it has its own gritty, unpretentious charm. And the Hunting & Fishing shop sold me some fairly decent boots for a good price. “They’re not the greatest of boots,” the clerk confided. “But they’ll get you through those forests.”

The Northland Forests is the title of the next stretch in the Te Araroa trail notes.

After heading pretty much due south for its first 100kms, from Cape Reinga to Ahipara, the trail strikes off west for the next hundred or so, straight across the island to Kerikeri.

It links DOC tracks, a new track built by the Te Araroa trust, farmland, forestry roads, back-country gravel roads and a short stretch of State Highway 1.

And three forests: Herekino, Raetea, and Omahuta-Puketi.

I walked back into the YHA dorm with my shopping bags, and began, somewhat wistfully, to prepare a packet dinner in the shared kitchen. I’d run out of time to have a better meal in town.

But then I got chatting with the some other travellers; they loved the idea of Te Araroa. “Want some fresh snapper?” asked one. “Caught it this afternoon.”

I sure bloody did.

“Want some rockmelon, pineapple and watermelon?” asked another. “Bought it this morning.”

Oh, hell yes. This type of thing (strangers being lovely to you, because you’re doing A Cool  and Arduous Thing) is known in the long-distance hiking community as “trail magic”.

And it can be so sweet.

Day 5: Ahipara to campsite by stream near end of Herekino forest – 18km 

I got away at dawn, my feet much better with their new tyres, my walking poles plinking pleasantly on the tar seal past the school out of town.

At the school, a mural seemed to sum up a possible point of walking the length of NZ (as if you’d need a point):

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This is a bit like “Tama tu tama ora, tama noho tama mate” – in my loose translation: those who stand up live; those who sit around die.

It took me two or three hours to wind my way up into the bush-covered hills south-east of Ahipara. At the top of the hill there’s a saddle, where the road carries on towards Hokianga.

On my way up I passed an elderly couple sitting in an little, old cottage; they were getting ready for their day. He was sitting at the kitchen table in a checked flannel shirt and a patch of sunlight, staring at a newspaper; she was in the next room, wearing a shawl and an old-fashioned dress, making a cup of tea. As I walked by, she went out of view, reappeared in the room he was in, and put down the tea; he looked her in the eyes and gave her a wordless, crinkly grin. They didn’t see me go by.

The track strikes off from the saddle, and you are into the first of the three Northland forests: Herekino.

It’s a delight to feel the familiar, dark green leaves close over you, and the roots and mud under your boots, after those hard-boiled beach days.

Soon you come to a grove of huge, ancient kauri.

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These are a special tree for Kiwis, and Northlanders in particular. They can live up to 2000 years, and reach a height of 40 metres and a diameter of four metres, or more. Awesome groves of these giants used to cover much of the north.

Māori revered them as the king of the forest, because they tower above all others; Europeans valued them too, for shipbuilding especially, and bowled just about the lot.

Māori skittled a few, too, mainly for waka; but there’s no doubt they did it a lot more sustainably, that is, with a lot less crazed, mechanical abandon.

There are only remnants now, like the Herekino one. But they don’t lose much power for being remnants.

It’s not often you stand next to such a genuinely colossal living thing. It’s like swanning along in the sun-dappled bush, only to suddenly find yourself in the presence of a silent, silvery whale, standing on her tail, surveying the axe-bludgeoned world.

The track weaves on through the damp bush, torn up in places by wild pigs looking for roots and maybe native snails – the partly-chomped black whorls of their huge shells appear sometimes beside the rucked-up earth.

You go along an old forestry road for a while, dating back to the kauri felling days; old forester’s huts are mouldering into the wilderness along the track, ghostly and wistful, lost.

About 10km from the road there’s a creek, and the map said there was no more water for a good while, so I decided to camp – 18km would do for today. Just then fat drops of summer rain began to plop around me, and soon it was a deluge.

At this point not having a proper tent began to seem a mistake; for pack-weight reasons, I’d only brought a bivvy-bag. They keep you dry (supposedly) in your sleeping bag, but have no room for relaxing out of the rain, getting changed, sitting up, cooking food in the open tent door, or anything other than sleeping.

But I soon found a partly-propped up fallen tree which offered rough shelter. I set up my sleeping gear, then sat under the thick, horizontal trunk. I cooked my noodles and biltong, read Murakami for a bit, and watched the sheets of rain-water slide and tumble forcefully over everything.

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A fallen log made my bivvy-bag a bit more habitable in the Herekino forest. This is the morning after, when the deluge had stopped and I’d packed up my sodden gear.

In the middle of the night, in deep, teeming darkness, I woke up gasping, with a savage headache. I realised I was not far off suffocating; my bag had a design fault meaning you had to leave it partly unzipped, or run out of air. But when it was unzipped, drops rattled on my face, and water pooled under my sleeping bag.

There was no way around it – I was wet, but it was a mild night. I would just have to try to get through it, and hopefully dry out in the morning. I checked that my phone, book and other valuables were in sealed ziplock bags; slurped some water and drifted back off.

Day 6: End of Herekino Forest to start of Raetea forest – 17.5km

In the morning, the rain had stopped but everything squished – my clothes, boots, sleeping bag, pack. It would be an uncomfortable start, but I’d sealed up food and a few other things that had to stay dry, so it was no real problem. I munched crackers and nutella and watched the bush steam in the early sun.

The track ramped immediately up the side of the first real peak of Te Araroa: Taumatamahoe. There’s views of Ninety Mile Beach – so satisfying, to look back and see all the ground you’ve covered on your own two, stumpy, little, hobbit legs:

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Pretty sure this is looking down toward Ahipara and Ninety Mile Beach from Taumatamahoe peak, in the Herekino forest. I took a lot of snaps up there, all featuring variations on green hills and blue sea…

There were also glimpses of Kaitaia, and the peninsula narrowing off north, toward Rēinga:

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Kaitaia, from the Herekino forest

Once over Taumatamahoe you slip and slide down a steep, muddy, rooty track, and soon pop out onto farmland. There’s a hut right beside the track an enterprising farmer has put up for trampers; the Te Araroa track notes have the details. Had I known how close it was I probably would have pushed on to it last night.

Then you’re onto sinuous, back-country gravel roads for a while. I grew to enjoy these on Te Araroa; for a start they remind me of where I grew up, way out the back of Dannevirke. Secondly they’re generally lined with lovely bush, or farmland; and finally you often meet cool locals on or around them.

Around lunchtime I reached a locked gate into a forestry block; the Te Araroa trust has negotiated permission to send the route across it, via private logging roads.

I hung all my gear on the gate in the hot sun, sat in the rays with my shirt off, boiled the billy and had a delicious, peaceful lunch and coffee.

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This bush laundry pic shows all my kit for a 7-day, 160km walk – probably weighed about 10kg, excluding food and water. Note high-tech dry bags (rubbish bags from Pak n Save)

Past the gate and down the hill, I was kneeling to fill my Camel-Bak in the stream, my mind a million miles away, when a voice startled the plaque out of me. It was a German tramper, doing a bit of Te Araroa in the opposite direction. We had a nice chat, mainly about our water purification strategies; I use tablets, he a kind of filter you attach to your bottle and drink through.

He was loving the walk, he said, but wasn’t sure about the roads and forestry blocks: “I did not anticipate this.” Also he had thought there would be a shop at the trail head, near Kerikeri, so had hitched out to it with no food: “There would be a store there, in Germany.”

Luckily, some generous trampers shared their supplies with him; then after the first forest (which will be my third) the kind lady at the Mangamuka dairy let him tick up a burger, milkshake and more supplies. “She said I can transfer her the money when I get internet,” he said, smiling in wonder. “She was so trusting. You gonna love that dairy.”

“Yeah, I’ve read about it,” I said. The Mangamuka dairy is one of many little businesses along the trail that have become legendary among walkers, for kindnesses big and small.

We parted ways and I strolled on in the sun. I didn’t mind the forestry block.

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Exotic forest seen from native bush, somewhere between Ahipara and Mangamuka.

Sure, there’s sometimes timber carnage all around – stripped, smashed trunks like naked limbs, piles of jumbled needly twiggy rubbish, scarred dirt in great bald mounds. But you’re generally still surrounded by trees, hills, clean air and silence; and you’re still picking your way peacefully over the flanks, curves and ribs of the Earth.

Another long gravel road section follows.

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I like quiet, bush-lined back-country roads.

The highlight of this bit for me was a seemingly abandoned farm, with a sturdy old farmhouse, wool-shed, yards, fences and paddocks; all of it gradually succumbing to the exuberant bush. At the top of it, the homestead commanded a superb outlook down towards the Hokianga. All that dreaming, scheming and working, and now no-one was sitting with their feet up on the veranda rail in the afternoon sun to enjoy the view.

After the small settlement of Takahue I just had a late afternoon schlepp for a few kilometres up the gravel road alongside the Takahue River; when the road crossed the river to enter the Raetea Forest, that’s where I’d camp. But first, two experiences of Takahue hospitality.

A car barrelled past, raising a dusty cloud, then braked and reversed; I stood by, surprised, as the back window was lowered. A young guy held out a cold beer: “Here you go mate. We couldn’t just drive by and watch you walk along in this heat.”

Soon after, a car going the opposite way did the same manoeuvre. When it drew back level with me, a frantic, busy, electric face thrust itself out the driver’s window. It was another young man, this one alone, and with some kind of unique way of being in the world.

“Listen. On April 1, the clocks go back an hour. One, hour, OK? You have to change, change, just do it, it’s daylight saving, that’s what it’s called. People don’t know. I mean people from other countries. They don’t, they don’t, they might miss their planes. One, hour, back, OK? In six weeks, OK? One hour. OK. Thought you should know.”

I eventually convinced him I would change my clocks, and he nodded, gave me one more hard, urgent look, dropped his clutch and blasted off.

It was getting late when the Takahue Saddle Road entered fragrant bush. I found a quiet place beside the creek, set up my bag, had a swim.

The noodles were especially delicious with the cold beer.

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Day seven: Raetea forest. 17.5kms

After breakfast in my hollow, I filled up my bottles, knowing this would be the last water until evening. The whole day would be along a bush-covered ridgeline, where creeks don’t flow.

The Takahue Saddle Road soon peters out into an increasingly rough four-wheel-drive track, then foot-track. It used to go all the way over the Raetea range from Takahue to a settlement called Broadwood; but rampant bush, time, and weather have cut them off.

On the way up there’s some kind of monastery or retreat; colourful prayer flags flutter.

At the top there’s a saddle, from which what’s left of the old road drops down toward Broadwood. To the south there are views towards the Hokianga harbour, and to the north the early-morning mist filled a bay:

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Rataea forest gets a hammering from trampers in on-line forums for being an extremely long, tough and muddy day, and that’s a pretty accurate summary. It has to be long, because of the lack of water; you’d be mad to carry a night’s worth of water all the way up there. So you have to keep slogging.

And it is a slog, because of the ridge’s serrated profile. You’re constantly climbing little peaks, then dropping quite steeply down – which can be just as hard on your legs with a heavy pack – only to have to struggle up another sharp climb. You’re almost never just bowling along a nice flat.

Also, it’s a proper tramping track – not benched, gravelled, or stepped, nor always well cleared of foliage; you’ve only got the footpad of previous walkers to go by, and occasionally not even that.

And it is definitely muddy, although I think I got off pretty lightly, with only a day of recent rain – after a wet week or two, it would be a bog.

On top of all that, because its higher than anywhere else in Northland, the ridge can be very windy and rainy (I was lucky enough to get a sunny, if muggy day).

Often, you wonder what the hell you’re putting yourself through it for.

But for all that, I revelled in it. You’re in seriously rugged, wild back country, with big mature bush all around, a long way from any road, house, or comfortable nicety of civilisation. It’s just you, your will, the mountains, and the trees.

To me, that’s proper tramping.

Graffiti on a couple of sign posts gave me the feeling some Te Araroa trampers get a bit of a shock to find themselves in such a brutal scramble:

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“There is an end somewhere… hopefully,” wrote “Monkey King” (trail nicknames are a thing on long-distance hikes around the world).

“Fucking Raetea,” wrote a tramper with a less lyrical bent.

“I hate Raetea!” another fairly literal person said.

“Love/hate relationships are the very best ones!” responded someone.

But my favourite take was from Regan and Kupu:

“Tēnā koe Tāne, inā tō mana,” they wrote – a respectful greeting to Tāne, the god of the forests; then a phrase which I think means something like: how mighty you are (corrections welcome).

“Everyone else – Raetea is bigger than we are. Be nice.”

And as you battle on, on and on over the interminable peaks and troughs, there are plenty of moments of sheer beauty to keep you going:

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A droplet of sun in the delicious darkness that is Raetea forest.

First you go over an unnamed 580m peak, then later, the 744m Raetea summit – the highest in Northland.

Up there, looking out over the dark, sunlit bush, I switched on my phone, and the whole trip changed.

There was a message from my Dad: his brother, my uncle, had died that last night.

I’d happened to wake up at 4am; I lay on my back in the crisp dark, looking up at millions of stars overhead.

Around that very moment, I now learned, my uncle had died – he’d been sick for a long while, and his faithful ticker had finally stopped.

I sat on that sun-drenched mountain top, looked across the island, and told my Dad how sorry I was for his loss.

“Me too, mate,” he said. “It’s the end of a long friendship.”

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The view from the top of Raetea peak.

They gave me the funeral details and told me not to worry if I couldn’t make it – it would be a big trip back from the top of Raetea to a church in Dannevirke, and I only had a few days. I said I’d think about it, and let them know.

As I trekked along that endless ridge, I had plenty of time to digest the news, and decide what to do.

I’d been planning to get all the way through the third forest, Omahuta-Puketi, and another two days’ walk to Paihia, where I’d left my car; but that wouldn’t give me enough time to make the funeral.

I thought about my sporty, practical, strong-willed uncle, who lived a long, adventurous life featuring many travels and tramps.

How much he’d have loved this walk; and how much he’d probably appreciate me finding out about his death, and thinking over his life, in a place like this.

I thought about how much Dad would miss him: his only brother, his last surviving immediate relative.

I knew I had to be at the funeral. Te Araroa would wait.

I’d walk to the nearest road, which was soon after the end of the Raetea forest, and hitch back to Paihia, and drive home.

The track got rougher still as the afternoon lengthened; slowly I ground along. I got lost a while, when the track seemed to fade into the thick bush. Soon after, I gained a 638m summit, the sonorously-named Kumetewhiwhia.

The similarly musical, equally nasty Umaumakaroro (445m) tantalised me for an hour or two, before I finally dragged the bastard in and put it in my great, big, invisible bag of international peaks.

An excellent thing about summer tramping is daylight saving; the long, sultry evenings make it easier to finish long days like Raetea before nightfall.

The downside for someone of a dreamy disposition, like me, is you tend to think you’ve got plenty of time, there’s no rush; before you know it, it’s 9pm, and the night is closing in.

This happened just as I left the bush and emerged onto farmland. Now you might think it would be straightforward walking across open pasture; but Kiwi hill country farms are often rugged, slippery, lumpy affairs where the lie of the land is hard to read, and where passing stock have chopped up its surface.

I was aiming to camp by a bush-lined creek beside the gravel road from the bottom of the hilly farm to State Highway 1. But as it got darker and darker I was having trouble seeing the orange markers, nailed occasionally to posts or trees.

Soon I was picking them up by torchlight; then I lost them completely.

Around this time I stopped for a bhuja-mix break. I was startled as I munched by what I’m pretty sure was a kiwi calling, in the bush that ran down to the edge of the ridge. A warbling gargle – something like the sound the old dial-up broadband – then a plaintive, rending “kiii-wiiii” cry, that raised my neck-hairs.

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One of the last friendly orange markers I saw before night fell.

According to the GPS route on my cellphone, I was still on Te Araroa; but there were no more orange markers, and I seemed to be just lurching over open paddocks. I decided to keep going until I hit a creek which, my GPS, compass and paper maps said should be straight ahead. Then I’d have water, and could camp.

The creek was in a steep, bush-choked gully; I scrambled down to filled my bottles. I had a moment’s doubt whether the stream was clean enough, even with my purification tablets – it had passed through all that grazing land.

Then I saw two bright, unblinking eyes reflecting back my torchlight: it was a large koura, a freshwater crayfish, its body looking silvery and translucent, and its antennae sinuous in the current. If that pool was clean enough for a shiny koura, it was good enough for me.

Where the farmland met the gully I found a flat spot under a mature totara. It had been a long, hard, and emotional day. I ate my noodles, drank my liquorice tea and drifted off to the sound of possums chattering, and the creek trickling.

 

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My last campsite on my first leg of Te Araroa, the morning after.

Day 8 – about 8km, bottom of Raetea forest to Mangamuka dairy.

In the morning I had a wash in the creek and found my way down to the gravel road. Then it was a 6.5km schlepp along State Highway 1’s hard tar seal, with my thumb out.

No-one stopped, but that was good because I got to see the Mangamuka valley on foot, which is the best way, with its marae, school, church, farm houses and signs in te reo Māori:

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All dogs can kill Kiwi. Where’s your dog?

It also meant I got to  finish this leg of Te Araroa at the famous Mangamuka Dairy. I could celebrate 161kms with a huge burger and milkshake; and it would be a perfect place to start again next time.

There’s a junction just after the dairy, so I had more traffic when I started hitching again; a shirtless forestry worker in a ute soon stopped.

A beer in one hand, elbow out the window, he told me he’d done a morning’s work near the Hokianga and was going home to Kaikohe. He was only going to take me to the turnoff for Paihia, but when he heard why I was heading home, he went an hour out of his way to drop me all the way back to my car.

He waved away my thanks: “You’ve got to be there for your old man, bro. And your uncle.”

In Paihia, my car was waiting patiently. I had a swim, then drove back south to say goodbye to Uncle Mike.

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