Since we finished hiking the TA on the South Island, we took the ferry across to Wellington in the North Island where we spent a couple of days doing some touristy things like visiting Zealandia, a sanctuary mostly for birds, and the Te Papa museum. We really enjoyed Zealandia as it allowed us to see several birds we hadn’t yet seen- the Saddleback and the Hihi. We also saw lots of Kakas (forest parrots).
We also saw several Tuataras, an ancient lizard that is one of just a few species in an entire order. This animal evolutionary dates back to the dinosaurs.
We walked out of Wellington on the Te Araroa for part of a day, but decided to skip forward to the Tararua Mountain range by train after taking a look at the weather report.
We took the train to Waikanae where we stayed with some trail angels- a large family of locals who like hosting hikers. We got caught there for an extra day because we hadn’t anticipated that the stores would all be shut for Good Friday, so we were unable to get food to resupply for the next section. We were lucky enough to get invited to join the whole family at the beach and we also shared a lovely dinner with our hosts before heading out the next day to the Tararuas.
Day 1: Waikanae to Otaki Forks, 14km
We left town after spending some time shopping for food for the next few days, and repackaging it.
The first section is actually not in the Tararuas yet, but rather on a track called Pukeatua Tramping Track. This track brings you from Waikanae to the beginning of the Tararuas.
We were lucky enough to get a ride to the start of the track.
The clouds had rolled in the night before, and got heavier as the day progressed. As we started climbing up the track, rain started falling. We climbed up a hill for several hours to the top, by which time the rain forced us into rain jackets despite the fact that it was quite warm. In Wellington we purchased pack covers to use in addition to our pack liners so as to help keep our gear dry (we’ve had a few too many wet gear incidents at this point). I was glad to cover my pack up with the new cover. It felt good to use it straight away, since otherwise it’s just a bit of a brick inside my pack (it’s quite a bit heavier than pack covers I’ve owned before).
The forest was dense with tree ferns and typical New Zealand bush, and the clouds sometimes got so thick we couldn’t see much in front of us. Needless to say, we didn’t take many pictures.
We arrived at the hut to find just one man inside stooped over a mug with a few bottles of pills in front of him. He gave me a bad vibe straight away. We exchanged a few words and then began eating dinner. At one point I was able to whisper to John: “I think he’s on drugs or something”. I was a bit nervous. He seemed alright but quite out of it.
Soon a group of 4 young hikers arrived, which made me feel quite a bit better about being in the hut. But not long after that I heard a crash, and John yelled out in pain. I saw the man on the floor, having passed out, and John clutching his calf. I was more worried about John at this point. The man had been holding a cup of practically boiling water, and had sent it flying when he lost consciousness. John was OK, but some of the water had hit his leg, so he went to wash it off with cold water. The guy got up and shook himself off. I asked him if he was OK and he mumbled that he was fine.
At this point my heart was racing and I was very worried. I didn’t want to be in the hut anymore, and I didn’t know what to do. Everyone kind of went on almost as if nothing happened. I tried to look at the map but my mind was racing. A few minutes later, the man fell over again straight out of his chair and onto the floor. Again, he picked himself back up again.
“We need to do something” I said to John. We had passed a caretaker’s hut on out way in. This particular hut is only a 5 minute walk from a parking lot and there was a campground nearby too – mostly for car campers. We had just taken the long way to get there by trail, but if you had a car, you could just drive up.
John and I decided to run down to the caretaker’s hut near the road, and we rang the doorbell. The caretaker came out and we described the situation. He told us there wasn’t much he could do, except report it to the police. “Honestly,” I told him “I’m not worried about our safety- more his safety.” I honestly wasn’t sure if someone like that would even be able to wake up in the morning. He told us he would report it and thanked us for the information. We went back to the hut not knowing if we would be waiting for the police to show up or what.
We got back to the hut and the man was up and talking to another group of people who just arrived at the hut. I was somewhat surprised by how conscious he was, but I noted that the pills were still on the table. Not much later the caretaker showed up at the hut. He told us privately that the police had asked him to come and assess the situation himself. He walked in and talked to the man, who admitted that he was on medication for epilepsy and told him that he wasn’t overdosing. I was happy that the caretaker had come to check on things, but since I actually wanted some sleep, I convinced John that we should head outside and set up our tent. Hopefully there will be no more incidents!
Day 2: Otaki Forks to Nichols Hut, 18km
I woke up at 3am to some people setting up camp near us. In the morning we got up and got going before anyone else was up. I would have loved to know what happened at night, but we weren’t about to hang around and find out. I could tell, though, that the younger people who were staying in the hut were the ones that decided to leave the hut in favor of camping in the middle of the night.
We hiked through dense forest with lots of mud and fallen trees. My shoulder and neck started hurting and the terrain was quite arduous through roots and fallen trees and I got quite frustrated to be out hiking again. I think I kind of mentally gave up on doing a lot of hiking after the Queen Charlotte Track and finishing the South Island. I knew that we planned on doing a few more sections in the North Island, but both my mind and body were not cooperating.
We hit a yellow jacket nest in the middle of the trail, and I almost saw it as a sign to turn around and go back the way we came, but John wouldn’t let me.
Before we got to the first hut of the day, we got to a trail junction with an option to either take a dry route, or a slightly faster route via the river. We opted for the river, but quickly lost the path and wound up wading through the river, sometimes about hip deep for what felt like forever before we saw some people emerging from the bush close to the hut. At the hut we had a quick lunch, but wanted to carry on quickly because we knew we had a 1240m climb, and 4-5 hours to get to the next hut. The days are very rapidly getting shorter, and now we have less than 12 hours of daylight. Suddenly daylight is a premium, and we have to be careful how we spend it.
We climbed up and up and up and it felt never ending to get to the ridge, but finally we did. We were lucky to have this one day of fairly nice weather, so we got some nice views once we were above the bush-line. The clouds were coming in quickly though, and the wind on the ridge was picking up as well, and we scurried across the ridge trying to make it to Nichols Hut before dark.
The sun was setting rapidly behind the whirling clouds, and it was quite beautiful as long as I didn’t consider the distance we still needed to cover in order to reach the hut. I took some pictures, but didn’t take too much time since we needed to hurry at this point.
The terrain was difficult to cover quickly, with steep rock scrambles, followed by thick tussocks and mud. As we came down our final hill, I saw some headlamps in the distance. It wasn’t long before we got to the junction to the hut, and as the last bit of light vanished, we scrambled down through the mud into Nichols Hut. Not 10 minutes later, another couple whose headlamps we saw coming from the other direction showed up. We were then 7 people and two dogs in the hut, which had 6 bunks. Somehow 4 people and two dogs squeeze in the top loft, and John and I along with one other guy probably had a bit more space on the bottom level.
It was warm in the hut, and very cozy. Somewhat surprisingly, by 8pm everyone was asleep.
Day 3: Nichols Hut to Matawai Hut, 14km
We got up around 6am before the sun was up, and everyone in the hut started shuffling around trying to pack up. Today was meant to be somewhat OK weather-wise – cloudy, drizzle, some strong winds. But tomorrow is supposed to be much heavier rain and gale force winds.
We wanted to hurry up and get to the next hut where we could decide if we wanted to spend a day waiting out the weather or not.
The trail difficult- it was very muddy. It’s hard to describe how muddy it was. The mud was often ankle deep, sometimes as much as calf deep, and never ending. It was the kind of mud that would just swallow your shoes. But it wasn’t just muddy on flat ground, it was also muddy on steep slopes, and often you would just go sliding down a muddy chute. There were also a lot of tussocks, and they often would cover the trail, hiding large puddles or chutes of mud. The tussocks would also trip you whenever you would step on one end of the grass and then catch your foot through it, face planting into more mud.
It was a generally difficult going, and the trail was sometimes a little bit tricky to follow. At one point the trail did an almost invisible right hand turn right before a steep gully, but I didn’t see the turn and wound up sliding down this gully of sketchy lose rock until I realized that there was no trail at the bottom. I shouted up to John who told me I had to come back up. Coming back up was almost harder than getting down. I had gotten down just by sliding on my butt, but trying to scramble up lose rock at a 45 degree angle was almost impossible.
We finally came to Dracophyllum Hut, which was tiny- only a 2 bunk hut. We stopped for lunch before continuing on.
The next section was slightly easier going, but still just as muddy. I was wearing my rain pants, and I had mud all the way up to my crotch. I don’t think I’ve ever been so covered in mud in my entire life.
More mud, more tussocks and more up and down and finally we arrived quite exhausted at Matawai Hut, a very large hut with 16 bunks. There was a lone kiwi woman in the hut out tramping the Te Araroa section of the Tararua Range over her Easter break, and we had a nice chat with her as we repaired some gear, had dinner and tried to wash some of our muddy clothes.
It was just three of us in the hut for the night, and we curled up on top of two mattresses each. It was quite cold in the big hut with only three bodies to heat it up, but we have warm sleeping bags.
Tomorrow we hope to make it out to Poads road in the rain. It’s going to be a full day of walking, but it’s going to be quite miserable in tomorrow’s weather. Hopefully it won’t rain too much and the wind won’t be too strong.
Day 4: Matawai Hut to Poads Road, 15km
We were slow to get up in the morning. The rain had started, and looking out of the window, we could only see dense fog, big puddles and rain. It was tempting not to leave the hut at all, but the forecast wasn’t a ton better for the next day, and the additional rain would only mean more mud.
Finally we left the hut bundled up in layers and rain gear.
The trail was muddy. Super muddy. Sloshy, slippery, spongy, deep mud. Sometimes puddles several inches deep with several inches of mud underneath.
The trail wasn’t too exposed, and we just slogged our way down in the rain. The wind wasn’t too bad in the end, and the rain was never heavy, just a constant heavy drizzle.
The layers of mud inside my shoes were starting to really bother me as they were creating funny ridges on my insoles. I was hoping for a stream to walk through to get some of it out.
Eventually we did intersect another trail which went along a river with occasional streams feeding into it. When we got to a stream, we took a good 15 minutes to try to clean ourselves and the insides of our shoes off in the water. Luckily the mud subsided as we got closer to the road.
At the road we walked down to the junction with Gladstone Rd where there seemed to be some more cars going by.
We took off our rain gear to try to look more presentable for hitchhiking, and before long a pickup truck pulled out of Poads Road, which we had walked down, and stopped to pick us up. It was a hunter named Sarn. I got in next to his rifle in the backseat which he assured me was unloaded.
We got chatting, and we found out he had hiked the TA in 2012 – the whole thing. He invited us to his house for a shower, and by the time we got there, he had convinced us to stay the night and have dinner with him and his family as well.
They lent us clothing so that we could do ALL our laundry, and their shower was heavenly. Infinite hot water with more water pressure than I’ve experienced from any shower in New Zealand yet. I think I actually got clean.
We had an amazing dinner which Sarn’s wife, Clare prepared of chicken wrapped in bacon with pasta and salad and ice cream for desert. We sat at the table along with their three kids, and felt like the guests of honor. We were so thankful for their hospitality. We had some great conversations about all the problems with the Te Araroa Trail as well as all the problems in the world before heading to bed.