Te Araroa Trail: Final Thoughts

Oh gosh, where do I begin?

I guess I should probably start by saying that this blog post is going to be my opinion and my opinion only.  I totally respect that other people have different opinions and experiences – but I’d really like to share my feelings and thoughts about this trail hopefully without too much harsh judgment from others.  This trail is still very young, so it’s possible that some of what I say today (2018) will likely change over the next decade or two.

Let me start by describing the Te Araroa Trail (TA).  The TA is a conglomeration of trails, roads, beach walks, and quite a few “hazard zones,” where the trail simply ends at a river, estuary, or lake and you are expected to figure out how to get yourself to the other side where the trail continues.  This can make for some frustrating experiences.

The South Island is more remote, and more of a wilderness experience and the North Island is much more urban with a lot more road walking.  However, compared to the few long-distance trails I have hiked in the United States (the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Benton MacKaye Trail), there is still quite a bit of road walking on the South Island (I’ve gotten laughed at for saying this).

The mountains, especially in the South Island, are extremely rugged and surprisingly wet and or muddy.  New Zealand trails tend not to be maintained. I heard one DOC (Department of Conservation – the organization that maintains the trails and huts) employee say that an average track is maintained once every 10 years (this does not go for popular day hikes or Great Walks).  Many tracks are not maintained at all. In fact, many tracks don’t really exist in the American sense of the word “trail.” Another DOC employee told us that they often just put in trail markers (or reassurance markers, as he called them), and then let some sort of track form from people walking the route and trampling the plants along the way.  This goes against the Leave No Trace Principle “camp and walk on durable surfaces,” which simply does not seem to apply to most of New Zealand tramping, although they do reference the principles often. For the unforgiving terrain, however, you’re spectacularly rewarded with stunning views which seem to be never-ending (again, I’m speaking mostly about the South Island).

In fact, there are several standards of tramping trails in New Zealand:  “tramping route” “tramping track”, and “easy tramping track.”. We determined that “easy tramping track” was equivalent to the American use of the word “trail.”  “Tramping Track” was a much more rugged, hardly maintained trail, and “tramping route” meant no trail, but marked.

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An encouraging marker

Because tracks are often not planned or maintained, the routes often go straight up and down mountains rather than switch-backing (or zig-zagging as they would say in New Zealand).  This makes for extremely steep trails – trails where you risk falling even going uphill! I don’t think I can adequately describe how steep and rugged some of these “trails” are. Meanwhile, New Zealand trampers drag their heavy backpacks through this terrain with remarkable ease (ultralight backpacking gear is hard to find in New Zealand).

Richmond Ranges

Also Richmond Ranges

Distances are often inaccurate or not even available.  I’ve heard hikers report that each section of the trail had an extra km compared to the trail notes.  Most of the time, trails are marked in terms of time rather than distance, so you’ll see signs saying “2 hours” instead of “6km”.   I found this quite helpful since the trail varied so much in difficulty.

Distance doesn’t always matter

Besides rugged, these trails are WET!  I can count on a single hand the number of days my feet were dry for an entire day on the South Island.  This was due to streams, rivers, marshes, wet grass and mud. I’m not sure why even in the driest areas, where there were no trees, and farmers were irrigating the grass, the ground under our feet would always find a way to provide us with squishy marshes, mud, or dozens of streams to walk through.  Many times the trail actually was a stream or river, and hikers are meant to follow these natural landmarks like trails.

Some mud in the Tararuas

Bastien and Tabea fording a river

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The Deception River is a good example of the trail using a stream for several hours.

Despite the rugged nature of the trail, the lack of trail maintenance, and its general sogginess, the trail was always easy to follow and well marked.  I almost never looked at my compass. All trails in New Zealand are marked with orange arrows or orange poles, and unless it is very foggy, it is usually just a game of finding the next orange marker.  The only navigational issues we had were when there were several trails or roads to choose from, and it was not obvious which path was supposed to be the Te Araroa Trail. In this respect, the trail is much less well marked than, say, the Appalachian Trail, or the Pacific Crest Trail, which have dedicated markers so you don’t wind up on a side trail.

Orange trail marker

John and Jeremy in the Richmond Ranges.  Orange trail markers are often poles.

Where the trail is less rugged and also not on a road, it often times goes through farmland, and we often walked through fields of cows or sheep.  I grew very fond of sheep, who often would trot away from us in large numbers, but I became a bit more wary of cows. Cows are curious by nature and often don’t budge when they are in your way.  There are times when you will be in a field of cows, some of which are massive bulls, with no clear escape route if one decided to charge. Sheep and cows wind up in some of the most remote areas of New Zealand, and I was often surprised to see fencing, a stile, livestock poop or bones deep into mountain ranges.  We also saw quite a few dead animals, something that is just part of farm life, I suppose.

Dairy farming is probably the biggest industry in New Zealand (if it’s not tourism)

One of about a million stiles for getting over fencing

Lots of cows

Lots of sheep

Besides farm animals, your favorite animals will become New Zealand’s birds.  Because New Zealand originally did not have any mammalian predators, birds flowed into every evolutionary niche, and many lost the ability to fly, such as the kiwi, weka, kakapo, and takahe to name a few.  Many birds have little fear, and you will find that birds such as fantails and robins will follow you around, in the hopes that you’ll stir up some bugs along the way. Wekas, which look somewhat like chickens, will try to steal any and all your gear.  New Zealand also has no snakes, and only one poisonous spider, which you’ll probably never meet. In other words, you have very little to fear in the mountains… except for the weather.

South Island Robbin

Fantail

A nosy Weka

The weather in New Zealand can rule your life because you often have to ford rivers that become dangerous after heavy rain, and hiking on exposed and rugged ridges can be dangerous in poor weather.  We were lucky with the weather for the first half of our trip, after which we started having to play tetris with good weather days. We did have to spend an entire day in a hut waiting out poor weather in the Richmond Ranges, where the trail is particularly rugged and exposed, and we tried to wait for good weather to cover the Tararuas, the Whanganui River, and Tongariro Crossing, with mild success.  We had several cyclones hit New Zealand during our hike, and had to wait them out in towns, and then attempt to judge river crossings afterward. Some people skipped sections to avoid fording high rivers rather than wait for water levels to drop.

Bastien and Tabea fording a river

Because the trail is so young, it is definitely experiencing some growing pains.  The number of hikers on this trail seems to just about double every year, at least according to locals.  This has placed certain strains on the trail and local communities. Most hikers on the South Island spend their nights in the huts along the trail (you can buy a Hut Pass from the DOC), but the huts vary in size and often don’t have enough space for the number of hikers that show up during peak season.  Huts are often built in areas where it made sense to build a hut, but not necessarily in areas where it makes sense to camp. When the huts are full, people are being forced to camp in these areas anyway. This is especially a problem in the Richmond Ranges where the huts are small, most having about 6 bunks, and they are predominantly in exposed areas where you may need to hunker down and wait for bad weather to pass.  I read stories in the hut book of 16 people squeezed into one of these small huts, with people sleeping in every corner of the floor.

Mount Rintoul Hut, where we took a day to wait out bad weather

 

Speaking of places to camp, there are very few places to camp compared to on trails in the United States.  We originally figured we would simply camp and avoid the huts, but we quickly found that the terrain did not allow us to simply search for a camp spot within an hour or so of when we were ready to call it a day.  I’ve rarely had this problem in the USA, but our terrain is, for the most part, a whole lot less wet and a whole lot less rugged. Plus, the TA goes through many farms and other private estates where camping is not permitted.  This problem was exacerbated in 2017 by the fact that the Guthook App, which many hikers use on their phones as a GPS as well as a means of finding water sources and camp spots, deleted all camping locations listed on the app.  Most hikers guessed that this was because illegal camp spots were being entered into the app, and this was simply not acceptable to the DOC or the TA Trust (hikers are encouraged to donate to the TA Trust after their hike, I would also encourage hikers to donate to the DOC – you can donate to one of their conservation programs, you cannot donate directly to DOC).

There are places that you can camp in towns, called Holiday Parks, and many times we forked out $30-40NZ just to camp in town (they charge per person, not per tent) with showers costing an additional $2 and laundry another $6-8.  This was often the cheapest option for staying in town, the next cheapest being hostels where you would share a bunk room with 4-12 people. What surprised me the most was how packed some of the tourist towns were, and how hard it was to find accommodation on the fly.  It was so bad that sometimes we tried to reserve something in advance, forcing us to stick to a strict schedule to make it in time for our reservation.

After a bit of research, John and I decided to hike the TA northbound.  Our decision to go northbound was based on a few factors: first of all, we wanted to be home for Christmas.  Second, we didn’t want to be in a “bubble” of hikers. Third, we wanted to hike the more scenic, more wild portion of the trail first in case of injury, or other hike-ending situations.  I also later found out that Northland in spring is by far the muddiest season, whereas going northbound we would hit it in fall, which is much more pleasant. So, we started mid-January at Bluff.

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It’s fair to say that going southbound would guarantee a trail community to hike with.  Since we went northbound, didn’t meet many more than a dozen northbounders total during our hike, and for the first half of the South Island, we didn’t hike with anyone else.  It was a bit lonely without other hikers. Of course, we met many southbounders, but only in passing, and we had no shared experiences.

Within the first couple of weeks on trail, I couldn’t help but notice the demographics of people hiking the trail.  The vast majority of hikers were from Europe – but only the rich European countries were represented. There were also a fair number of Americans: from the USA or Canada.  There were a handful of Kiwis (New Zealanders), but surprisingly few. Most hikers were young, but of working age (20’s and 30’s). The fact that the vast majority of these hikers came from the richest countries in the world really left me feeling over-privileged and… guilty.  The feeling would stick with me the entire trail and would shape some of my judgments.

From the beginning, we decided we would not be doing a “purist” thru-hike of the entire trail (purist means hiking every mile from start to end).  I sort of thought we wouldn’t give up on a purist thru-hike of the South Island, however, and on day 1 we were already faced with a 30km road walk on Route 1 (the main highway running the length of both islands).  So, our hike started with this road walk from Bluff to Invercargill on the hottest day ever recorded there. It would take us another 400-500km before we gave up on the notion of a purist thru-hike of the South Island.

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Walking along Route 1.

It’s no surprise that purists are in the vast minority on this trail.  It’s just too bad that some of them are very vocal and judgmental, especially online.  But, I’m sure they also often feel judged by the non-purists for doing pointless road walks.  I’ve heard more than one purist hiker being jealous of non-purists because a non-purist hike seemed so much more enjoyable.  I also noticed that most of the jaded, more negative online reviews or summaries of the TA came from purists, and I don’t blame them.  I am a big fan of the phrase “hike your own hike,” which is a hiker saying that attempts to keep people from judging or passing judgment on other hikers.  If your plan is to do a purist hike, that’s fine, and if your plan is to hit the highlights only, that’s fine too. I think going into the hike, it helps to set your rules in advance, ask yourself what you want to get out of this adventure and be willing to be flexible.

Before we started skipping any parts of the TA, however, we started adding tracks which we didn’t want to miss even though they weren’t on the TA.  We wanted to treat this trip like our one chance to visit New Zealand just in case we never had a chance to come back. Our first added track was the Greenstone Track which connected us to the Routeburn Track (a Great Walk).  We carefully connected these to the TA before the Lake Wakatipu hazard zone near Queenstown, which most people hitchhike or shuttle around.

Routeburn Track

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Routeburn Track

The biggest reason why we gave up on a purist thru-hike of the South Island was because of my physical ailments.  I’ve had several hip surgeries to correct hip dysplasia, and I also have a frozen shoulder, and I have found that I have a lot of pain walking on easy (flat) terrain.  Thus, the first section we skipped was the cycle path from Lake Ohau to Lake Tekapo, a boring ~75km walk along a flat cycle path with nowhere to camp. Some people choose to expensively rent a bike for this section, but we heard horror stories of people having to walk their bikes because of strong crosswinds.

Instead of doing the cycle path, we decided to take a quick side trip to Mount Cook, which remains one of the highlights of our trip.  We day-hiked up to Mueller Hut and saw keas (alpine parrots) along the way.

A cheeky kea

A view of Mount Cook

The next hazard zone for us was the Rangitata River.  This is a large braided river, and it is not advisable to ford it, as it takes many hours.  In that amount of time, the river could easily rise from rain upstream, which you may be completely unaware of, before you can safely make it across.  Unfortunately, when we arrived at the south side of the river, there was no way for us to get out of there, and we had almost run out of food. This is THE middle of nowhere, and the small parking lot and gravel road here sees maybe one car a day, if that.  We weren’t about to be able to hitchhike out of there. As we approached the river, we met two southbounders who had just forded, and so we entered the river only knowing that it was possible to ford an hour earlier. It took us 3 hours to ford the river (it is about 5km across).  I stand behind the Te Araroa Trust in keeping this a hazard zone. If I had the choice, I would not have forded. It was stressful, obviously could be hazardous, and we almost definitely picked a poor route (and I wouldn’t know- just looking at a map- how to pick a better one).

The Rangitata River

The next hazard zone, the Rakaia River, is only 70km further along, and after spending 7 hours successfully hitchhiking out from the northern end of the Rangitata (which sees maybe 1 car an hour), I wasn’t about to go through that again with another, much more dangerous river for only 2 days worth of hiking.  I didn’t want to skip this section, but we did for logistical reasons.

Hitchhiking in New Zealand works well, but only where there are people.  The population of New Zealand is less than 5 million, and most of them live in the North Island, so there are some parts of the South Island where you may be waiting a long time.  On the South Island, most of the people who picked us up were tourists, whereas, on the North Island, we met many more locals.

We hiked most of the rest of the South Island, only skipping a few small road-walks here or there when convenient.

Queen Charlotte Track near the northern end of the South Island

After we gave up on our purist hike, each time other hikers or locals asked us if we were hiking the whole TA we would say “that’s the plan, except for the roads.”  The reactions of locals really surprised me:

“Life is too short to walk on roads.”

“You didn’t travel all the way to New Zealand to walk on a road!”

“There are so many better things to do here than walk on our crappy roads.”

“Don’t let people tell you that you aren’t walking the whole thing if you’re skipping roads.”

“The people that walk the roads are people that just want to be able to tick a box.”

It seemed that Kiwis were far less goal-oriented than the average American.  After giving it some further thought, what struck me about the idea of a purist hike of the TA is that the only box you can tick is that you’ve hiked the whole TA.  You can’t claim to have continuous footsteps for the length of New Zealand, in fact, you can’t even claim to have walked the length of New Zealand because of the hazard zones.  You would need to walk many, many days of extra roads in order to be able to get around the lakes and rivers that are labeled as hazard zones (Note: we did meet someone doing this.)

Road walking on the hottest day ever recorded in Invercargill

Road walking with Martin on the North Island

A very scenic gravel road walk in Northland

Kiwis, along with their nonchalant attitude, are complete badasses.  The average New Zealand tramper is like a cat: they have nine lives, and always land on their feet.  I think this has something to do with the terrain in New Zealand. If you grow up walking in these mountains, you can’t help but become used to them.  Once I finished the South Island, it didn’t surprise me that the first person to climb Mount Everest was a Kiwi, despite the tiny population of New Zealand.

Kiwis are also some of the kindest people I’ve encountered.  It is not uncommon for someone to come up to you in a grocery store or on the street and strike up a conversation about your trip and welcome you to New Zealand.  They’re always helpful and unusually kind. Kiwis will restore your faith in humanity. Only one thing: They’re crazy drivers. But you could also blame the crazy roads.

A funny sign I found on the inter-island ferry.  The same can be said for NZ trails.

Even though the locals are kind and generous, I think that local trampers use TA hikers as scapegoats for all sorts of problems, some of which are somewhat warranted: overcrowded huts, freeloading, littering, etc.  As I mentioned before, most TA hikers are not Kiwis, so I think locals see parts of their backcountry as being taken over by unprepared tourists

North Island:

Due to the fact that the South Island, in general, offers more tantalizing hiking opportunities, many hikers opt to hike the South Island only.  I don’t think this is an unreasonable move because most of the South Island is fantastic. But, if I had limited time, I think I would probably skip small pieces of the South Island (road walks, and the cycle path), and still hit some of the highlights of the North Island.  Although I did not hike much of the North Island, I do think I hit many of the highlights, so maybe it’s appropriate for me to list what I think are the highlights (also, when I spoke to other thru-hikers, they mostly only spoke fondly about these sections).

Highlights of the North Island:

The Tararuas:  This is the one very rugged mountainous section of the North Island.  Many Southbounders told me this was their favorite section of the North Island

Moss in the Tararuas

Amazing views in the Tararuas

More views in the Tararuas

More moss in the Tararuas

The Whanganui River: This is a section of the trail which should be canoed rather than hiked.  The canoe trip is a “Great Journey” (like a Great Walk, but rather a canoe trip), and I recommend doing the typical 5-day canoe trip advertised by all the canoe rental companies.  This is actually not the exact section of the river that the TA follows on the Whanganui, but if you’re not married to the TA, then this is the best section to do. The TA continues south through part of the river that just goes through boring farmland and is affected by tidal flow, meaning you may have to paddle hard or take a break when the tide is against you.  If you’re short on time, the 3-day trip (Whakahoro to Pipiriki) is the best part of the 5-day trip.

Canoeing the Whanganui.  Photo Credit: Martin Mařík

Canoeing the Whanganui. Photo Credit: Martin Mařík

 

The Tongariro Crossing:  This is also a Great Walk, and you can either do just the day hike (roughly 20km), or you can make it longer and do “Around the Mountain,” which many TA hikers recommended to us (huts here are first come first serve), or the “Northern Circuit”, which is logistically a bit more challenging because it is part of the Great Walk, and you must reserve the huts far in advance.

The Tongariro Crossing, a walk through volcanoes

Red Crater

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Mount Ngauruhoe

Northland:  Much of the trail north of Auckland seems worth doing.  There is still a fair amount of road walking, and some of this can be hitchhiked, but there are many stunning coastal walks, and forest sections which are worth your time. Also, there is 90-mile beach, which some hikers seem to hate (I think this is because they are Southbounders, and this is the first thing they hit).  There are also a fair amount of estuary crossings which can be frustrating because you have to pay close attention to tides or find ways around them. Still, it’s a stunning part of the country, and since kiwis (both the people and the birds!) actually live here, you’re likely to experience some of New Zealand’s famous hospitality.

Beach walking in Northland

Stunning coastal walks in Northland

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View near Whangerei Heads of Te Whara on Bream Head

Conclusion:

The TA is worth hiking, at least in parts.  In fact, I think some of the sections of this long distance trail will remain my favorite hiking experiences of all time.  But, the trail is still young and evolving. I don’t think that it will ever be like the long distance trails of the United States in terms of road-walking (or they would need to really reroute the trail drastically), but I think it has a lot of character the way it is.  Maybe they will start a permit system to manage the increase in numbers, or maybe they will suggest alternative routes so people can spread out somewhat. Who knows. I do know that a lot more people are going to go to New Zealand because of the TA, and so you’ll hear a lot more about the pros and cons of the trail from other hikers.  New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I hope that some people who come to hike the TA will also decide to take the time to see some of the sights that are just a quick side trip away.

Milford Sound, a side trip we took from Te Anau

Thanks for following, and I hope this final blog piece will be helpful to some of you contemplating this adventure.  I’m also happy to take any questions!

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Volunteering on Tiritiri Matangi Island

With our last week in New Zealand, we are volunteering on another pest-free Island called Tiritiri Matangi Island, or Tiri for short. This island has much more history as being a pest-free island for endangered birds, and is slightly larger than Motuora Island, where we volunteered a few weeks ago. It also sees quite a few more visitors.

Day 1:

We got to Pier 4 in Auckland early in the morning to collect our ticket for the ferry. The ferry is a large commercial ferry which could seat several hundred people – quite different from the little water taxi to Motuora Island. We had a quick biosecurity check – basically they want to make sure that you aren’t bringing over any animals, seeds, insects, etc. so the island can remain pest-free and not acquire any new invasive animals or plants.

The ride on the ferry was over an hour, and although the ferry was mostly empty, we did share it with quite a few other volunteers who come over to the island every Sunday in order to lead guided hikes. It seemed like there were more volunteers than tourists.

When we got to the island, we put our bags in a vehicle that would transport them to the bunk house, and we were given a guided walk by one of these volunteers.

The walk was wonderful. We saw more birds in just an hour or two on the island than we had in months of trekking. Some of the birds we saw included: Kokako (which sound AMAZING!!!), Saddleback, Stitchbird (Hihi), Tui, New Zealand Wood Pigeon (Kereru), Parakeets (Kakariki), Robins, Fantails, Bell Birds, Pukeko, and even a Kingfisher. I’m sure I forgot a few.

The most exciting for me was the Kokako, which we hadn’t yet seen. These are really amazing birds – quite large with blue wattles dangling next to their beaks. Like many birds in New Zealand, they are bad at flying because they have somewhat stumpy wings, and so they climb into trees and then glide down to the ground.

We got to the bunkhouse around lunch time, and got settled. There were tons of volunteers hanging around the kitchen eating lunch. It kind of seemed like this island was their club house. They shared their photos and gossiped about some of the local birds all of which have names. Here’s what the gossip might sound like: “Lucky got chased away from his former territory by Chad and he hasn’t been seen with his old lady Becky in a while.” (Sorry to those who know the birds personally, I couldn’t remember the exact names and events.)

We got a quick tour of some of the tasks we would be doing from the Ranger, Vonny. We would be cleaning out some troughs, which contain water for the birds to drink and bathe in, and pruning some of the flax and other bushes from some of the trails. That’s all we know about so far.

Then Vonny needed to see the ferry off, and so she gave us the green light to explore the island with the rest of our day.

We quickly packed up some food and our headlamps and headed right for the other end of the Island – not knowing how much time we would get on any other day, we figured we should try to hit the hardest to get to tracks first.

It took less time than I had imagined for us to reach the north end of the Island. One of the birds we haven’t yet seen on this island is the Takahe (we’ve seen a few in other bird sanctuaries). They are large, blue flightless rails – like a Pukeko (if you know what one of those is), only bigger and even less able to fly. We were hoping to see one in the wetlands at the end of the island, but they were nowhere to be seen. Hopefully the ranger will let us know where they hang out; apparently there are only 5 of them on this island (and only about 300 in the world).

Picture of a Pukeko

Picture of a Takahe

We brought our headlamps in hopes of seeing two nighttime birds: the Blue Penguin and the Kiwi. In the bunkhouse they had red cellophane that you could put over your flashlight so as not to spook night animals. On this island, they have Little Spotted Kiwis, which is a different species from the Brown Kiwis we saw at Motuora.

I didn’t have high hopes for seeing Blue Penguins because it’s not their nesting season, but we hung around the beach until after dusk just to see. We had familiarized ourselves with their calls, which are quite loud and sound slightly like someone snoring loudly crossed with a baby’s cry.

Darkness started to fall, and I felt like this was probably just a huge waste of time. As dusk turned to darkness, I decided we should walk over to the wharf, which was on the way back to our bunkhouse. My jaw practically dropped when suddenly, seemingly only feet away from us, we heard the loud snoring sound of one of these elusive penguins. Our headlamps were quite dim, and we couldn’t see anything, but we sat a while listening and heard several more over the course of a few minutes. We decided that we really needed to change the batteries in our headlamps, and we would come again the next day to the same spot and look a little harder.

I was quite happy with our little adventure scoping out the island, and I wanted to get back and cook some dinner before we became too exhausted. We made our way back to the bunkhouse, not trying in the slightest to be quiet, when we saw a big fat kiwi in the middle of the road in front of us. It didn’t seem too bothered by our presence, and we spent a minute watching it snuffling around, looking up at me as it slowly shuffled off. I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t even finished being excited about how lucky we had just been when a second kiwi appeared in front of us! Again, it didn’t run, but rather slowly shuffled off. We wondered whether these kiwis were just more used to humans, or if their docile nature was because we were using the red cellophane, or perhaps they were just happier being out in a new moon. In any case, I already feel really ridiculously lucky.

Day 2:

I woke up around 6am. It could have been the dead of night by how dark it was. I decided to jump out of bed and get dressed so as to try to catch the “dawn chorus” that everyone has been talking about. This is the collective singing of all of the birds waking up to serenade each other at dawn, and I wanted front row seats.

I grabbed my headlamp and we headed down one of the trails in search of a good spot to sit and wait. We found somewhere suitable, but I soon really had to go to the bathroom. I didn’t feel like I could wait, and I ran down to the wharf to get to the toilet. Unfortunately, the wharf was further than I thought, and by the time I got there, dawn was practically breaking, and by the time we were walking back up the trail, the birds were awake. I kicked myself for not hitting the toilet before leaving, but I knew we had another 6 days to listen to the birds, so it wasn’t a huge loss.

Our working day started with cleaning out water baths for the birds. Every other day we are taking out the leaves and feathers, and every other day we throughly clean them and replace the water. Today we were only clearing out any debris. While we were clearing them out, we saw several Kokakos, which are one of my favorite bird to watch on this island. We watched one glide from the top of a tree info the middle of a nearby bush. They’re so elegant for being so bad at flying.

We caught up with Vonny back at the house, and she showed us how to clean the visitor’s center, which is open Wednesday through Sunday. We cleaned the windows, swept and mopped the floors.

After lunch John was given an induction on the John Deere ATV vehicle, which we were then allowed to use to get to the other side of the island more quickly.

There is a track on the other side of the island that needs to be widened. We started cutting back bushes and hacking away at flax leaves.

Before dusk we walked back on the last trail we needed to cover to have done all the trails on the Island. Now we can say we’ve covered the whole place.

We quickly scarfed down some food and ran down to the wharf just after dusk to try to find some penguins. New Zealand has quite a few varieties of penguins, but up here they have Little Blue Penguins. Near the wharf there were a few man made penguin nesting boxes that had little covers that you could lift and peer inside.

We waited a while to hear the one that we believed lived under the wharf, but when we didn’t hear anything, we decided to investigate the nesting boxes. The first two were empty, but when I opened the third one – which was the best disguised and closest to the beach – we saw two little penguins inside looking up at us. It was delightful, but we didn’t want to spook them, so we quickly put the cover back on their box.

I was quite happy with our find, but felt a bit like we had cheated since they were in the man-made boxes with a way to look inside. I decided to shine my headlamp back down towards the beach one more time, and to my surprise, there was another penguin on one of the rocks fumbling around looking for a way to jump in the water. We watched it until it jumped in and swam out of view. Now we felt like we really saw a penguin.

We walked back to our bunkhouse, and before long a kiwi ran in front of us on the road. I was practically expecting to see at least one along the road since we saw two here yesterday. I tried to take a video of it, but it was much too dark out, and the video wound up just being black.

It’s so nice to be able to see such awesome wildlife so reliably right outside our bunkhouse.

Day 3:

We got up before sunrise again, and I wanted to try to hear the dawn chorus, but this time John had to poop right before dawn. I waited for him outside and when he emerged, I figured we could still make a mad dash to a good spot on the Wattle Track. We made it there just as it was getting light, and I was surprised that the birds weren’t up and making a racket yet.

The dawn chorus is supposed to be best in the spring, and it’s now fall here, so I’m not sure how much different it is this time of year.

We sat in silence until the first note rang in the forest. It was a series of gentle notes that sounded almost like a xylophone. This beautiful melody continued as a few more chattery birds woke up to chime in. Soon we heard bellbirds and tuis, which sound somewhat alien in their call (seriously, if you don’t know what a tui sounds like, google it. I think they’ve got to be aliens trying to communicate with us through birds).

The dawn chorus was lovely, and I hope to hear it again before we leave.

Then we started with work for the day. We cleaned and changed the water in the bird baths, which took quite a bit longer than we had anticipated, and then a Department of Conservation boat arrived at the dock, and we he helped unload supplies including large gas canisters, huge bags of sugar (for feeding the birds), and a ton of wood. We piled these things in a cart to bring them down the pier, and then onto a vehicle to bring them up to the work shed.

After lunch we headed out to clear more of the trail that we had been assigned to widen.

By mid afternoon I was quite exhausted and we made our way back to the bunkhouse. We decided not to go out looking for wildlife after dark, opting to take it easy for a night and stay in.

Day 4:

We knew that today the ferry would be arriving, and so we needed to have the visitor’s center ready for visitors. We had cleaned out the inside earlier in the week, but there are many tables and chairs outside that needed to be wiped off (they get covered in leaves, dew and bird crap), and we were also given a leaf blower in order to clear leaves from the front and back of the visitor’s center. This all took surprisingly long.

Tuis at one of the bird feeders

As we saw the ferry pulling into the wharf, we decided to head for the other side of the island so that we wouldn’t be possessive of our bunkhouse or upset at the mess people were making in the visitor’s center that we had just cleaned out.

So, we headed for the track that we’ve been clearing, and made quite a bit of headway. Again, this work was exhausting, and a couple of hours later, we headed back to the side of the island with all the buildings.

There were people everywhere. The visitors center was full with a school group that was getting taught about the local birds. Attached to the visitor’s center is a small gift shop and we wandered in and bought a few small souvenirs. All these things are being run by volunteers that show up to the island with the ferry. When the ferry comes, it just brings people around 10am and then takes them off again at about 3pm. Just one ferry a day.

We went back to the bunkhouse for lunch, and saw that several people had moved in.

After lunch we headed out to clear some drains from several tracks, and wound up coming back to the bunkhouse around 5:30pm. We’re only supposed to work 5-6 hours a day, but it’s really easy to work more than that. I’m not at all complaining – I think I’d be bored if we didn’t have enough work to do, and we have quite a lot of control over our schedule.

We made dinner and met some of our bunk-mates. There is a researcher who is sharing a room with us named Jess, and I think she’ll be here until we leave.

Then there are two couples who are in another two rooms who are here just for one night. One of them is German, the other Swedish. The Swedish couple are biologists – and the man is a herpetologist. The man Mats was very keen to see a tuatara. Tuataras are an endemic order of reptiles (large group of reptiles found only) to New Zealand. Tiri is one of the few places to find these nocturnal reptiles in the wild. After talking to him and seeing his excitement we decided it would be fun to show him where we had seen a tuatara before.

We headed out after dark to find that the island was very active with penguins. We heard their calls as soon as we got down to the water. We were surprised to see them swimming in the water and watched as they stood on the beach recuperating from their long day at sea, standing there catching their breath. Mats had a great camera and took a lot of great shots of the penguins. We continued on to see a number of other penguins resting in the woods but no tuatara. We turned back in hopes of seeing some on the way back. No luck. The goal for the evening was clear: Mats was only on the island for one night and must see a tuatara!

We waited a few minutes to go back on the same track and looked at the collection of penguin photos Mats had a accumulated.

(Penguin photo credit: Mats Höggren)

Then we headed out on another journey down the track where we had seen the lizards previously. Even more penguins! This time we saw them even climbing steep slopes. One penguin was huddling right next to the track and I resisted the urge to pet it on the head. Another penguin was actually ON the track and we had to be careful not to trip over it. These penguins seem pretty uninterested in the fact that we were there.

Finally Mats caught a quick glimpse of a tuatara scuttling away from him, and we decided at that point to head up the hill back to the bunkhouse. On the way, we expected to see a kiwi but instead we saw a penguin well into the interior of the island. Weird. We didn’t get back until after 10pm, which was way past when we’ve been going to sleep.

Day 5

We slept in since we had stayed up late the night before, and woke up to thunder storms. We took our time getting ready for the day, since there was no point in going out in a storm.

It quickly passed though, and before long the sun was out. Today was a good day for clearing drains since the rain water would still be sitting in any clogged drains making it obvious. We walked around several of the tracks clearing leaves from drains before returning to the bunkhouse for lunch.

With the afternoon we finished clearing the track on the North End of the Island, and finished fairly quite early. Vonny was busy with some people that had come on the ferry, so we decided to take the rest of the afternoon off and have a little nap.

The Swedish couple emailed us a few more pictures from their morning: one of a tuatara they saw during daylight, and one of a Kokako (these are obviously taken with a nice camera and a big zoom!):

Photo credit: Mats Höggren

We also didn’t go out in the evening, but rather made dinner and listened to some podcasts before falling to sleep obscenely early.

Day 6:

We woke up early to listen to the dawn chorus for perhaps the last time while on this island. The birds started waking up a bit earlier than usual, and I’m guessing that’s because there were practically no clouds in the sky, so the sky lit up quite fast. As I listened to the chorus of birds waking up for dawn, I decided to make a point when we get back to the USA to do the same there. I’d just be curious to sit with the birds and listen to the morning songs back at home.

I think what makes the dawn chorus here so special is the fact that there is basically no such thing on mainland New Zealand. There are so many birds that have gone extinct or have become endangered that the forests of mainland New Zealand are almost like a ghost towns for birds. Keep in mind, birds were the primary native animals – the only mammals that existed here before man arrived were a few species of bats. So, when rats, mice, stoats, cats, dogs, etc. were introduced, the population of practically all the native birds when from millions, to, in many cases almost 0. It’s almost hard to imagine how full of life these forests used to be. But here at Tiritiri, you kind of get an idea.

After we got done with our regular bird bath cleaning duties, we went for a drive with Vonny to feed one of the pairs of Takahe on the island, and along the way, she pointed out another track that she wanted widened. The Takahe came running up when she shook her little container of food.

We also helped Vonny pick some seeds off a few native bushes that they are going use to propagate.

After lunch we headed out to clear the new track, and Vonny leant is a couple of her folding saws that weren’t dull under the condition that we return them to her cabin before we left. We got to work clearing back trees and branches and we were surprised when we finished the whole track by about 4:30 in the afternoon.

Vonny left the island on the 3pm ferry. Rangers typically work 10 days on, 4 days off.

When we got back to the bunkhouse, tons of people had moved in for the night. That’s because it’s Friday night. Tomorrow even more people will be coming to spend the night. I think we’ll perhaps want to leave the island when we see how many people come here for the weekend.

We decided to head out for a last night time walk, and headed down to the beach to see the penguins first. As usual, they were making a racket. In case I haven’t described their call before; it sounds like a cross between a crying baby and someone snoring.

We left the beach to head up a track towards the ridge to look for kiwis. As we headed up past the toilets near Hobbes beach, we saw something in the middle of the track not moving. “What the heck is that?” I asked to John. We walked up to it and realized that it was a penguin. It just stood there. “Don’t trip over the penguin!” I joked. We heard a bunch of other penguins calling off to our left and it parked up and waddled in that direction , tripping over a large clump of grass along the way.

Only a few yards further we heard a rustle and saw a tuatara heading for a culvert. It stopped and looked at us.

We continued up the track and onto the ridge track and along the cable track and all the way over to the lighthouse, and no kiwis. We didn’t feel the need to persist further since we had seen kiwis on previous nights, so we headed back to the bunkhouse to call it a night.

Day 7:

In the morning we intended on cleaning the water troughs early, but the work shed was locked. We spent some time wandering around the island. By the time we got back we were able to get into the workshop and got the supplies for cleaning the troughs. Walking the Wattle Track to clean some of the troughs, we stumbled upon a pair of kokakos and I got a really good look at them. They were in a branch right overhead. I think these are my favorite birds on this island.

After finishing our chores, we remembered that we needed to return the folding saws to Vonny, but again the workshop was locked! I guess the other ranger prefers to keep it locked, something we hadn’t anticipated when we made the promise to return the saws.

We spent a little bit of time trying to find the last couple of species that we hadn’t yet seen: a fern bird and a giant weta (I believe these are actually the largest insects in the world). We sat by a pond for half an hour and heard a fern bird but only got about a quarter second glimpse of it as it flew past.

Finally we got into the workshop and grabbed the saws and returned them to Vonny’s little house on the other side of the hill.

Then we went searching for the giant weta. We got a tip from one of the volunteer guides and went looking for a particular tree that one apparently lives on.

It took us a few minutes to locate which tree we thought it was, and I circled around it a few times before looking far enough up it. But when I did see it, I practically stumbled backwards in shock. The thing was beyond huge. It’s body was maybe two inches long and it’s legs were each maybe two to three additional inches long. So all in all, it was at least a foot long. Definitely bigger than my hand. It looked like a gigantic tarantula. We spent some time trying to get a picture of it, but it was probably 10 feet up the tree in bad lighting with leaves and branches in the way.

On the way back to the bunkhouse we spotted another giant weta tucked away in a flax plant, moving slowly down a leaf. There was a giant wasp’s nest in the way, but we got some pictures anyway. You’ll still have t google “giant weta” to see the scale of these animals.

We then only had time for a late lunch before catching the ferry back to Auckland.

volunteering on Tiritiri was one of the most fun and rewarding experiences we had in New Zealand. We really enjoyed working with Ranger Vonny and the Island was an amazing setting for a volunteer opportunity. I highly recommend that anyone with the time and energy come and volunteer with the Department of Conservation, especially on Tiritiri.

Volunteering on Motuora Island

While not too keen on all the road walking on the Te Araroa Trail in the North Island, we signed up to volunteer with the Department of Conservation. We got assigned two volunteer projects. The first is on the Island of Motuora, a small predator-free island in the Hauraki Gulf, north of Auckland. Pest-free means that there are no mice, rats, stoats, possums, etc. Here, rare and endangered birds can live without fear of these non-native bird killers. In another week and a half, we will be volunteering on another small Pest-free island called Tiritiri Matangi.

Day 1:

To get to the island, we took a small boat and had a wet landing on the island because there is no dock. That meant that the boat simply ran ashore and we jumped into the water, about thigh deep and dragged all our belongings to the beach while a few of us held on to the boat so that it wouldn’t get stuck in the sand (the tide was going out), nor would it float away while we were trying to unload. Once everyone and all the gear was unloaded, we all pushed the boat away from the shore and waved the water taxi away.

We spent some time exploring our new home- there was a large ranger’s house, and a “bach” which was a smaller house with four bunks, a small kitchen and bathroom.

We were supposed to live in the batch, but just after we settled in, the ranger, Dave, came over and informed us that the batch had actually been rented out during the time of our stay (a bit of a mistake on the part of the volunteer coordinator’s part), so he invited us to move into the ranger house.

Luckily, the ranger house was big enough for all of us. In terms of volunteers, it was just me and John and one other young man named James, a kiwi from Wellington.

In the ranger’s house, John and I got our own bedroom, as did James, so in fact this was an upgrade for us. After we settled in for the second time, Dave talked with us about some of the tasks we would be doing as volunteers on the island, but it was pouring with rain, so many of the tasks would have to wait for a better day.

Dave needed to check some artificial nests built for endangered petrels, as there were several young chicks that were either still in the nest, or had fledged. We followed him up and over the island to an area covered in buried wooden boxes where you could lift the lids off to look inside, and we checked the nests where the petrels had last been seen, but they were all empty. This was good news. Hopefully the birds will return after two years at sea and lay eggs here again.

After dinner, and after the sun had set, John and I headed out on a quest to find a kiwi. This island is used as a kiwi nursery of sorts – they take eggs from kiwis on mainland New Zealand, where they only have a 10% chance of survival, and raise them in the Auckland Zoo until they are about 400g. Once they are 400g, they are banded and brought to this island where they can live care-free until they are 1kg, at which point they can defend themselves against predators like stoats and rats.

Then, each year they come back to the island and capture 20 or so kiwis and bring them back to the area where they were laid as eggs. There is now a healthy population of kiwis on the island. Each year, when they capture a number of these birds to release on mainland, only one or two had bands on their legs. So, the local population of kiwis were reproducing on the island and they were mostly capturing birds that had grown up entirely on the island.

So now they haven’t released any more baby kiwis in some time because they kiwis here are doing so well. Kiwis are territorial and the island can support about 80 to 100 kiwis.

John and I headed out with our headlamps search of one. We weren’t sure of the right technique for finding one, so we just found a somewhat densely vegetated area, and stood there waiting. We could hear them calling, and we occasionally shined our light in the direction of the calls, but couldn’t see anything. We figured the light would scare them off, so we kept it mostly off, wondering when the right moment was to turn it on. We also wondered how much the kiwis would be bothered by noises we made by walking, so we tried to stay quite still. There was a ton of calling – some of which sounded like kiwis, some of which sounded like other birds, maybe pukekos, quails and other sea birds.

After an hour or two, we gave up and wandered back to the house.

Day 2:

In the morning, we were given the task of digging out a drain along one of the trails. This trail is the size of a road, and a tractor or mower or other small vehicle can be driven along it. There is no need for other vehicles on the island, as there are only the two mostly uninhabited houses plus a nursery on the one beach, and the rest of the island can be walked around in a couple of hours. There are several trails though, for accessing each side of the island.

We spent a few hours digging the ditch before we tired out and went back to the house for a cup of tea and some lunch.

In the afternoon, in order to vary our tasks, Dave showed us some weeding to be done, which we finished off in about an hour.

With the rest of the day Dave gave us a task that would allow us to investigate the island as well as get something done. We were to check tracking cards, which are placed in plastic tunnels with bait. These are monitored to ensure that the island remains pest-free. Basically, there is a piece of white cardboard with an ink pad in the middle and a small bit of bait (usually peanut-butter) is placed in the middle of the ink pad, so that anything that runs through leaves footprints that can be checked.

There were about 20 of these tracking tunnels around the island, and Dave gave us a map with their location and sent us off to explore.

We walked all the way around the island, checkin the tracking tunnels as we went. Most of them had tiny little prints from either skinks or geckos, and of course we were glad to see no other prints. Very rarely (maybe once a decade), a rat will somehow make it to one of these islands, and once they find it’s prints in the tracking tunnels there will be a massive hunt to find and kill it.

While walking around the island, we spent quite some time tide-pooling and checking out the cool rock formations on the beach, including an arch.

Again in the evening, John and I went out in search of kiwis. This time, we decided that we would listen for their calls and try to follow them around. Tonight, however, we didn’t hear nearly as many as we had the previous night, so we spent a lot of time waiting to hear one. We did finally hear a male and a female answering (they have very different calls), and we stood there waiting. Then, just in the light of the moon, we saw a kiwi come out of the forest onto the trail. I fumbled to turn my headlamp on, but the kiwi was fast. It bolted across the trail and into the dense bush before we got a good look at it. Then, it was nowhere to be seen.

We headed back to the house. We will be trying again tomorrow. I’m so glad we’re here for 5 days!

Day 3:

In the morning we got working on our ditch digging along the trail – which we thought we could knock out quite quickly, however it took us quite a bit longer than we had imagined, and in fact we didn’t finish before our lunch break.

After lunch, we helped Dave move and secure a large water tank on top of the hill, which was in a very muddy area, so that made it a bit more challenging.

We got back to the house fairly early and spent a little bit of time relaxing on the deck watching the sunset before making dinner and heading out on our third quest to find kiwis.

This time we decided to head to the northern side of the island where the forest is more mature and you can actually see through some of the undergrowth.

First we climbed up to the top of the hill and waited to see if we could hear the unmistakable kiwi call coming from a certain direction.

Before we even heard a kiwi calling, we heard something rustling in the dense grass. We turned on our headlamps and saw what I can only describe as a galloping kiwi. It looked like a chicken without wings trying to run on sponge cake. I was surprised by how quickly it got away from us. I tried walking on the grass, but it was dense and about hip deep, so I wasn’t much more graceful than the kiwi.

I wasn’t expecting to see one in the grass, so I decided to just keep my headlamp on while walking slowly and quietly towards the north side of the island.

Before I knew it there was another kiwi running away from us. I was hoping to get a closer look, but again, the kiwi was so dang fast.

John and I agreed that next time we wouldn’t try to move towards the kiwi when we heard one or saw one with the headlamp.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t long before another one appeared right in front of us on the trail. This time we froze and we had a few seconds before the kiwi became suspicious and ran off. Somehow our lights didn’t bother it too much.

Finally, we saw one more kiwi between the trees on the side of the trail. Again we had a few moments before it noticed us, but this time instead of running away, it ran head first into some grass, leaving it’s butt sticking out. I sat there staring at this kiwi’s butt for quite some time. It’s feathers were soft and layered. I wanted to reach out and pet it, but I knew better. I got a little closer, my eyes wide open, as probably my mouth was, and the kiwi realized its mistake and moved deeper in to the grass. We decided to leave it be and carry on.

On the way back, we saw the same kiwi again, and we half joked that we could probably lie down next to his grassy patch and he would probably walk straight over us.

Day 4:

We finally finished our ditch digging in the morning, along with some small gardening tasks around the ranger house.

Then, we had some extra time and decided to walk around the island to the one spot where you apparently cannot get around because there is a gut where the water came in a narrow channel into some rocks. Dave suggested that perhaps at low tide on a calm day it may be possible to either shimmy across the rock or swim. We ventured out, enjoying the tide pools, finding sea stars and strange sea slugs or perhaps they were nudibranks, we’re not at all sure, until we made it to that point. Unfortunately, the water on that side of the island seemed quite a bit rougher and the waves came crashing into gut sending water way up into the rocks. There was no way we were going to scramble across nor swim. We spent a few minutes mesmerized by the power of the waves before heading back.

We had some light work clearing leaves out of some drains and trying to make some standing pools of water drain into the outdoor shower drain before we called it a day and spent some time in the water trying to find an anchor that a boat had dropped in and lost the day before.

The sunset was beautiful and we enjoyed taking our time eating dinner, enjoying the evening and going off to bed early since we were completely satisfied with our luck with seeing kiwis the day before.

Day 5:

On the last day on the island, we spent some time cleaning the solar panels before packing up and cleaning out the ranger house and the tools we used during the week.

The boat picked us up after lunch. We watched the island get smaller and smaller on the horizon.

We got to mainland and James, the other volunteer, offered to give us a ride to Puhoi, a town close to the DOC office where we were brought back to once on mainland. We decided to get a ride to Puhoi because it was on the Te Araroa, just north of Auckland, and Martin had sent us a message that this is where he intended on getting to by that evening.

We were excited to start walking again in Northland, which hopefully will have some nice tracks and coastal walks, and we get to walk and sing songs with Martin again. It’ll be a fun last week on the Te Araroa Trail before we volunteer again with DOC (The Department of Conservation) at Tiritiri Manga Island.

Once in Puhoi we were dropped off next to the pub and found Martin at a table outside with a beer. We joined him and once darkness fell, we ventured over the bridge into the local park and found a place to pitch our tents.

Hamilton to Hunua Ranges

Hamilton to Hunua Ranges

From Kaimai Mamaku, we got a ride to Hamilton. After a night in Hamilton, I was feeling quite a bit better and we figured out that our friend Martin was only one day ahead of us on the Te Araroa trail (the trail goes through Hamilton). We made a plan to hitchhike slightly north of Hamilton to hike with Martin on the Te Araroa for a few days before our volunteer stint with the Department of Conservation.

We got to the town of Ngaruawahia by getting picked up by a taxi (no joke) who decided to take us there free of charge. I have no idea why.

There we met Martin and started hiking up into the bush on a huge staircase which was absolutely jam packed with people trying to get a work out. There were almost more people here than on the Tongariro Crossing, but then again, it was a public holiday, so everyone was off work.

The stair case went up about 400 meters or so to the summit where there was s lookout tower with nice views. From here, all of the exercisers headed back down the staircase the way they came while we headed down an overgrown hidden trail along the ridge. We left the crowds behind in a heart beat. The trail was overgrown, muddy and dense, but we pushed through, slipping and falling until we got to a section with a really big Kauri Tree.

Kauri trees are the largest trees in New Zealand, and they are currently being threatened by something called Kauri die-back. They’re not entirely sure what causes Kauri die-back, but they believe that people bring a disease in on their shoes and spread it to the roots of trees. For this reason, some of the biggest trees are surrounded by board walks, and when you enter or exit an area with Kauri trees, you have to go through a station where you throughly clean your shoes.

At the end of the track we cleaned our shoes and met a man and his wife who started talking to us and wound up giving us each a huge bag of fijoas – a fruit which was currently in season, and many people in New Zealand have fijoa trees. They taste slightly similar to kiwis only (in my opinion) slightly more bitter and slightly more disgusting.

From there we walked to Huntly, a town where we had booked a very cheap Airbnb, which was great.

The next morning we decided to hitchhike to get closer to the Hunua ranges, but wound up road-walking quite a way to get there. After 20km or so of walking on various roads, we finally got the the track that we wanted to hike on only to find it was closed. Needless to say, we were quite disappointed. After we looked online, we found it it was probably due to storm damage.

We were in the middle of nowhere, but a car with a lady in it pulled up and gave us a ride back out to Route 1 where we tried to make an alternative plan. We decided that we would walk to the nearest small town where there was a place we could camp for free, and we would make a new plan in the morning.

The next morning we decided we would try to hit the Hunua Ranges from the other direction by hitchhiking around. This took some time, but we got there and were able to hike a short distance in the bush to make it to Hunua Falls.

Here we figured we would camp, but someone from a summer camp right next door told us that the rangers didn’t like people camping there, but we could camp inside the summer camp since nobody would be there over the weekend. In return, we only had to bring the trash cans back behind the gate in the morning. It was a deal.

There was cell phone reception at the camp, and overnight we read the weather forecast and found out that a big storm was headed our way. They predicted 60 to 100 mm of rain with winds up to 120km/hr. There was no way I wanted to be outside for that. John and I decided that we would simply head for Auckland since that is where we needed to be in another day or two anyways for our vonunteer gig, while Martin decided to walk to a farm which had a Czech pig roast party planned for the weekend.

We parted ways and before we knew it a car picked us up, and the gentleman was actually headed to Auckland with his wife that day, and agreed to take us in.

The storm was disappointing. I’m not sure how much it rained, but it couldn’t have been as much as they predicted, and it seemed like the wind really wasn’t that bad. We were kind of bummed to be stuck in Auckland instead of eating pig with Martin at the random Czech party on a farm near Hunua Falls.

Even so, it was good to get ready for our volunteer stint which we are very excited about. We will spend 5 days on a predator free island with rare and endangered birds including kiwis while helping with small projects around the island. Stay tuned!

Kaimai Mamaku

Kaimai Mamaku North/South Route

This trail is not on the Te Araroa Trail, nor is it a “Great Walk”. We are only doing a few small pieces of the Te Araroa in the North Island (the best ones) because the trail spends much to much time on boring and/or dangerous roads for much of the North Island. So we decided instead to find other tracks that could help us make our way north on the Island while hitchhiking a bit as well. Don’t worry – I have a lot of thoughts about the Te Araroa Trail, and I’ll be putting together a long blog post after we’ve left New Zealand.

In the meantime, we found a 6-7 day trek in the Kaimai Mamaku Forest.

We hitchhiked to the southern end of this route without much time to spare before sundown, so on the first day we wound up walking only about 10-20 minutes into the forest before finding a spot to camp. The forest is dense, as usual, and our tent is wedged between massive vines and ferns, but it will do for the night.

After we turned off our headlamps but before we fell asleep, we noticed things glowing around our tent – even through the bottom of the tent floor. I reached outside the door and picked up the glowing thing and turned my headlamp back on to find out it was a rotting stick. The glowing thing was some sort of bioluminescent fungus. So neat!

Day 1:

The trail is typical New Zealand bush trail – probably maintained about a decade ago, overgrown, muddy but well marked.

We came to a trail junction and there was tape blocking the trail in every direction. We look a closer look at the pink ribbon, and found that there was a message on it: “Justin Rankin please stop here. Search and rescue are looking for you.” We couldn’t tell how old these messages were or if the hunt was still on to find Justin.

Not long after, we came across the first hut. We took the short side trail to check it out. I immediately noticed that someone was probably staying there. There were shoes and gaiters outside on the porch, and other random gear, but what really caught my attention were scattered deer parts – a pile of deep legs outside the door, and a deer carcass laying in a heap in a grassy patch next to the hut.

I cautiously opened the door to the hut, but nobody was home. There were three bunks, and two of them were occupied with sleeping bags. There were belongings strewn everywhere along with empty beer cans. These hunters were obviously not expecting anyone else to show up to share the hut.

Not feeling very welcome, we headed back to the track only to find the gut of a deer right in the middle of the trail. I was completely disgusted and tried to run past it as quickly as possible, but I did notice that there was an empty beer can nearby. Normally I would have picked it up and carried it out, but I was too disgusted to stop.

We were feeling pretty nervous, not having met a single person yet, and knowing that there were definitely hunters in the vicinity, so we started to sing loudly.

The trail continued fairly flat through many stream beds through thick bush. We had lunch at a small clearing where there was a dilapidated shelter and a bench along with a sign stating that this area was being considered for a hut, and if you hear helicopters nearby to please head back into the bush.

Sometime after lunch we heard barking and some voices, so we made sure to be very loud before we ran into a couple of hunters who were out for just the day. They warned us that April is the most popular month of the year for hunting, and we’d better be careful. We showed them our bright orange and red clothing, and they told us that in New Zealand the safe color was actually blue since they hunt red deer, and orange could sometimes look like a deer, even neon orange. Well, damn. We told them what we saw in the morning, and that we had been singing loudly hoping not to be mistaken for deer.

It was tiring trying to be loud all the time. We ran out of songs as well as things to talk about. It made me aware of how much time we must usually spend walking in silence. But silence lets you zone off and lets the hiking become more meditative. It’s been a while since I’ve felt like hiking was meditative though; New Zealand trails require quite a bit more concentration.

Close to the end of the day we came across a gigantic tree – we thought maybe it was a Kauri Tree, which are the biggest trees in New Zealand, but mostly live in northland. But, it was impossible to tell since the leaves were too far up to see.

By 5pm we found a clearing to camp in and called it a day. Where we are camped there are a ton of Kererus (New Zealand wood pigeons). They sound like helicopters when they fly and scare the crap out of you whenever you scare one out of a tree. By 6pm it was dark.

Day 2:

I woke up not feeling well. I had a bit of a sore throat and a headache. We headed out, but about an hour into the hike, we reassessed and decided it wasn’t worth pushing on if I was going to get sick. I had a feeling that I was catching whatever John had the week before, which kept us stuck in a hotel room for a week.

We headed back to where we camped the night before, and set the tent up again. I proceeded to sleep for about 3 hours. We spent the rest of the day playing cards and napping.

Day 3:

I woke up still not feeling 100%, but we also reassessed the amount of time we had left as well as the amount of food, and decided that we should probably find a way out of the Kaimai Mamaku ranges early.

We found a wonderful trail down past Wairere Falls, which drops 153m. The trail was beautiful, very well maintained with stairs following amazing rock cliffs covered in dripping moss. This trail was also very popular, as a day walk, and people of all ages were tramping up to see the falls.

We got down to the car park and a gentleman and his two daughters were willing to give us a ride out.

“Where do you want to go?” He asked.

We decided to use zen navigation: “where are you headed?” I asked.

“Hamilton.”

“OK, we’ll go to Hamilton.” We had no plan, and were happy to get to any city.

In Hamilton we found an affordable place to stay at a “Microtel” and spent the night. This Microtel was the most micro of hotels we have ever stayed in. I guess you get what you pay for. The room had a small double bed which took up 90% of the room, and there was a door which could barely open because the bed was in the way. The kicker was that John didn’t even fit in the bed – he was too tall, and he couldn’t hang his feet over the edge, because the bed was completely surrounded by walls. Our tent provides us with more space than this room!

After a good night’s rest, we worked on a plan for what to do next. Martin had sent us a message telling us that he was only a day north of Hamilton on the Te Araroa, so we figured we may as well join him and start hiking the Te Araroa again.