Northland on the Te Araroa

Northland

Day 1: Puhoi to Route 1: 27km

We had set up our tents the night before in the dark. In the morning we woke up to find ourselves next to some sort of horse farm. We packed up and in the process John managed to step on one of the tent stakes with his bare feet, ripping a hole in the bottom of his foot.

Soon we started walking. The day was not very eventful. We walked quite a bit through overgrown trail or on roads – mostly nice and easy going gravel roads, but occasionally some slightly more busy roads.

On trail, we kept going up a few hundred meters and back down again, and it felt like my legs had forgotten how to walk. Five days of volunteering on a small island and I was already out of shape?

We managed to walk 30km by about 3pm to arrive at a cafe. I took off my shoes to find that my feet had a bit of trench foot, and I decided to put on dry socks, which helped them recover quite quickly. Johns foot hurt from his little accident in the morning.

We tried to find a place to camp, and found that we missed the spot that we were aiming for by about 2km. We didn’t want to go back, and the folks at the cafe agreed to let us camp next to the picnic tables near their parking lot.

Unfortunately we are set up next to Route 1 which is loud with lots of trucks passing by, but we’re hoping that the traffic dies down overnight.

Day 2: Route 1 to Pakiri Beach, 26km

I woke up several times overnight when cars or trucks were particularly loud. At 4:45am a rooster started crowing, and I gave up on sleep and opted to call my mother.

We started walking just before dawn break shortly after 6am.

“Last night was romantic” said Martin sarcastically. I wish I could be as funny as Martin in a foreign language.

We headed up to Dome Summit. From there the track was quite difficult with lots of ups and downs keeping us working hard. We had a short but scary road walk to get to the next track which was very poorly maintained up towards Conical Peak.

We bumped into a French guy who claimed to be a SOBO. We were all intrigued. A SOBO starting in May? He explained that he was planning on hiking through the winter and he brought crampons and other winter gear to get him through. I made sure to get his name to look him up on facebook: Kevin Fuentes. I can’t wait to follow his journey.

We passed by a summit with some day hikers, but they must have come a different way because before we knew it we were climbing up a stupidly muddy track along a barbed wire fence which had a mixture of deep sloshy and slippery mud, cow shit and gorse (prickly bushes). There was no way day hikers were walking on this. The mud could be described as clay that has been extruded through thousands of cow hooves. It was so bad we couldn’t stop laughing. It was slightly less funny when the mud kept just kept going and going.

Just when we were thoroughly covered in mud and cow shit, we got to the top of a hill, went over a stile, and headed down a ridiculously grassy pasture with ankle busting lumps under waist high grass to give your ankles a work-out. At one point I twisted my ankle and fell – luckily the grass was soft, but I was not amused.

We had several kilometers of downhill through this thick grass before we finally hit the road. It wasn’t a long road walk, but my right hip hurt, my knees hurt and my feet hurt, so I was ready to be done. It had been a long day.

We finally got to the Holiday Park at Pakiri Beach, and for only $20 per person we were able to get a cabin. We had showers and did laundry. It felt good to be clean and to sleep inside.

Day 3: Pakiri Beach to Mangawhai Heads, 30km

We set our alarms for 5am so as to be able to hike at low tide. We read in the trail notes that we had two estuary crossings that were about 7-8km apart, and if we were to hit either one close to high tide, they could be chest deep. No thanks. Especially in the cool autumn temperatures. Low tide was around 6am, and we hit the beach right around then.

The first estuary crossing was straight away, and impossible to see because it was pitch dark out. I blindly followed Martin who was using the Guthook App on his phone to navigate towards the crossing point. Meanwhile I felt like we were just blindly walking towards ocean/water. Finally, the crossing was only about ankle deep, and once we were across, we had an easy beach walk while enjoying the sun rise. The sun didn’t rise until after 7am, confirming my belief that we now have between 10 and 11 hours of daylight per day.

Soon a rainbow appeared on the horizon, followed by a rain shower, and again blue skies. Several minutes later, the same thing happened again.

It was tough for me to keep up with John and Martin on the beach. My pace is simply slower. Martin must be over 6ft tall, and of course John is 6ft 4, so I’m trotting behind them trying to move my legs as quickly as possible.

It never got too warm, and 15km later we hit a rocky outcropping where they trail went up and around on a trail. We decided to try to scramble around the rocks instead since it was still somewhat low tide. It was precarious and the rocks were sharp. We scrambled up and down and around, and finally got to a point where the water came right up to the cliff, and we could not get past. Darn. We had to go back and take the trail instead.

We had a bit more beach walking after that until we got to the road leading to Mangawhai. The road walking was killing me. My hips hurt as did my feet. I spend quite a lot of time just wishing I was better at walking. I know that’s dumb, but seriously, I’m sick of being the weakest link. I’m always the slowest, the one who is in pain, and the one who has to try the hardest to keep up. It’s annoying. There aren’t enough women on long distance hikes. I’m not saying this because women are necessarily slower, but perhaps in general they are better at empathizing.

On top of being in pain, I was also zombie-walking. Waking up at 5am two mornings in a row caught up with me, and I was very tired.

I decided to stick out my thumb on the road, and someone stopped to pick us up. We weren’t far from Mangawhai Heads, so we only saved a couple of km, and moments after we got dropped off at the supermarket, Martin walked up. That’s how much faster he had been walking since the rock scramble fiasco. Sigh.

I was ready to sit down and get food.

Town was nice. We took a long break, ate some fish and chips and bought some groceries before walking on along the beach to the Holiday Park where we could camp.

I’m pretty sure I’m going to be fast asleep by 7pm.

Day 4: Mangawhai Heads to Waipu, 23km

After about 12 hours of sleep we emerged from our tents. We had a small road walk to get past an inlet and back on the beach again. The beach walk was all too short, and after looking at the map we decided we could make it longer by continuing on the beach along a rocky stretch where we figured we could get around while it was still mid-tide.

This turned out to be true- but just barely! We went through a rock archway which was just starting to fill up with water, but we were able to squeeze through before we would had to get our feet wet.

From there there was a beautiful trail leading up away from the beach. This trail was built like a great walk trail – wide, well graded and with tons of stairs. The other thing there were tons of were wasps. These seemed to be mainly of a different variety than the European wasps, which we would call “yellowjackets” in the States. I believe that these wasps were paper wasps. My suspicion is that they build their nests in the tall thick flax leaves.

We then kept traveling up through farm fields with great views of the coastline and the beautiful green hilly farm fields. It’s amazing how green the grass is here. Is looks like high definition bright green.

The trail passed over a road and we continued on past a ghost community. It was a gated community that had been built with roads and some landscaping, but no houses, just lots of land that looked like they were once for sale. It just looked like an abandoned project. Planted trees were dead and the grass hadn’t been mown in months, maybe years. The trail continued a ways through native bush on a really nice trail.

Unfortunately the trail ended at a gravel road which meandered through logged forest with blazing sun for many kilometers before we hit the main road again where we could hitchhike to Waipu.

In Waipu we found that the Waipu Hotel had camping in the back for $8 per person which included a shower. One of the best deals on the trail so far.

Day 5: Waipu to Whangarei Heads, unknown distance.

Today we needed to get around the huge inlet that makes up Whangarei Harbor. The trail kind of just ends at one side and carries on at Whangarei Heads. Apparently you can sometimes find someone to help you across by boat, but we decided to hitchhike around so as to be able to hit the Pak n Save (cheaper grocery store) and the library in Whangarei on the way to Whangarei Heads. It turned out not to be hard to hitchhike, and we were able to resupply without spending a fortune. Lots of the smaller coastal towns only have convenience stores, called Four Squares, which are much more expensive.

Once at Whangarei Heads, the trail follows a road for quite some time, and we decided to spend the night at a place called the “Bus Stop”, which had camping spots with a sort of outdoor kitchen and a toilet. Since it was still early in the day when we got there, we decided to take a scenic side trail, the Mount Manaia Track. This track is not on the Te Araroa, but looked pretty cool, and only took us 30 minutes to reach the top, climbing up a ton of stairs about 400 meters up. I was pretty proud to make it up in half the time written on the trail head sign.

The views from the top were fantastic, giving us a view of the coast that we had just covered the previous days along with the inlet that we had navigated around. Near the inlet was the only oil refinery in New Zealand.

The rock formations around the top of this mountain were equally stunning.

We hiked back down and set up camp at the Bus Stop. It was a really nice little spot.

Day 6: Whangarei Heads to Taiharuru (TA Walker’s Camp), 22km

Today’s walk was great. It started with a walk on the Te Whara Track, which climbed up a never ending staircase to the top of a rocky ridge, in a similar fashion to the side trail that we took yesterday. My legs were tired, probably from all the stairs yesterday, but eventually, when we did make it to the top, the views were well worth it. The track itself was also very nice. A lot of effort must have gone in to install all the stairs, and the trail was free of mud, and mostly not overgrown. This must be a popular day hike.

From the end of that track, we started a long beach walk along Ocean Beach. I was surprised by how many banded dotterels we saw running along the beach. These birds are endangered, and there are apparently only about 1,500 of them left. But, they’ve got to live somewhere, and this is obviously their habitat.

The beach walk was slightly too long. It was sunny out, which I’m seriously not complaining about since we’ve been so lucky with the weather this week, but I think the sun made me quite tired. My feet also grew tired of walking on sand.

I was happy when it was over and we had another hill to climb. This was Kauri Mountain. I wouldn’t really call it a mountain, but it was a nice hill with lots of Kauri trees.

We had planned on staying at a place called Tidesong, where some trail angels help hikers get across another inlet, which is crossable at low tide, but at high tide they can help hikers across by boat. They also offer accommodation. But we gave them a call, and they were not at home, but sounded like very nice people.

Coming down from the “mountain”, we decided to stop at TA walkers camp, a little spot almost a kilometer off the trail/road which someone erected for hikers. There is a small cabin with a hot water shower and two beds. Nobody had been here in months, and we had to figure out how to connect the hot water heater. We wound up having to call the owner for help, and they were surprised that anyone was still hiking this time of year. They sorted out the water and apologized that they hadn’t cleaned the place out in a while. We weren’t too worried.

After they left though, the number of spiders and other bugs in the cabin started to make me feel slightly uncomfortable. There were hundreds of spiders everywhere with webs all over the place. On top of that, as darkness fell, I saw several cockroaches crawling around. John also evicted two wasps, which I was particularly unhappy to discover. I felt bad because I almost wanted to pitch the tent outside. Instead I decided to just take the bug netting part of the tent and sleep in that using the umbrella inside of it to keep it off my face.

This is a nice place otherwise- obviously a lot of thought and work has gone into it, it’s just that we’re here very much off-season as most of the hikers come through southbound many months earlier. I was pleased that the shower had shampoo and conditioner, and they had tea and coffee along with a few other things. I bet this is a nice place during the right season.

Martin had hiked ahead and camped near the edge of the estuary. I soon realized that we wouldn’t see him again.

Day 7: Walker’s Camp to Tidesong, 3km

Strangely, today is our last day on the TA, and since we need to be in Auckland tomorrow, we didn’t want to hike away from the road that would get us out of this area. We decided that we wanted to stay with the really nice sounding Trail Angels just a few km down the trail, half way across the estuary. We were able to cross the estuary at low tide. The water was only up to my mid thigh, and the mud wasn’t much deeper than my shoes.

Before we knew it we were at Tidesong having a cup of coffee with Hugh and Ros, a lovely couple who have done quite a lot of the Te Araroa Trail to raise awareness for kidney transplants. Ros donated one of her kidneys to Hugh, so between them they only have two kidneys. Seems like a huge success story.

We spent the day chatting with our hosts, wandering around the trails on their property and organizing our gear for our next volunteer gig at Tiri Tiri Matanga Island, which we are super excited about.

It’s kind of a weird and anticlimactic finish to a long distance hike, and I kind of wish we had the time to make it to Cape Regina to see the end of the trail, but it’s really not about the destination, and we were lucky to have been able to hike a lot of this trail while still seeing many other parts of New Zealand along the way.

We may not have done a purist thru-hike of the TA, in fact we didn’t even do what I would really call a thru-hike, but I do think we’ve seen most of the best bits of this trail at this point so I have very little regret.

Going into this trip, I had a lot of doubt about my abilities to do this and other hikes. My right hip still aches on almost a daily basis and my frozen shoulder is still frozen and causing pain up my neck and down my back. I’m lucky I was able to hike at all and that my ailments have only slowed me down rather than stopped me entirely.

I really hope that I can inspire people who aren’t in perfect shape to attempt long distance trails. Injuries, disabilities, illnesses, etc. shouldn’t keep you from hiking, even thru-hiking at your own pace. I have to admit it has been a really hard adjustment for me to take it more slowly and accept a certain level of pain, and I often times wonder if this is the new normal, or if in years to come I will once again be able to pound out 20-30 miles a day, day after day. I try not to focus on these thoughts though, but rather on what I CAN do.

Soon I will post a wrap up blog about the TA – with all my thoughts about this trail and hopefully this will be of use to some of you contemplating doing it. I certainly have a few opinions to share!

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.

Tongariro Crossing

Tongariro Crossing:

This trail is both a Great Walk and part of the Te Araroa Trail.

Our original plan was to do a multi day hike in Tongariro National Park, such as the Around The Mountain Trek (probably the easiest for us to plan, since it didn’t require reserving huts on the popular Great Walk portion) or the Northern Circuit (the huts on this trek were booked out far in advance), but the weather looked like complete crap (winds up to 100km/hr and rain), and hiking in this extremely exposed alpine area is not to be taken lightly. Plus, the whole point of coming to do the Tongariro Crossing was to see the famous volcanoes and their beautiful lakes and craters.

Finally there was ONE day of mostly good weather. We were still traveling with Martin and Greg, and we spent the night in Whakapapa. The information center there was quite helpful, and encouraged us not to go out in poor weather. They gave us suggestions for a couple of day hikes that we could do during poor weather while we waited another day.

We checked out several waterfalls all of which were beautiful. It didn’t rain much, but the fog became dense at times, and I’m sure it would have been miserable on the crossing.

To do the Tongariro Crossing, most people book a shuttle that brings them to the parking lot where the hike begins, and then picks them up at the other end. This is because there is a time limit of 4 hours for vehicles to be parked at the car park, and they will ticket or tow your car away if you don’t comply.

Although we didn’t have a car to worry about, we also doubted that we would be able to hitchhike to the car park since most people payed for a shuttle. We didn’t fancy paying $30-$50, and we saw on the map that there was a trail connecting Whakapapa to the beginning of the alpine crossing called Mangatepopo Track. We inquired at the information center at Whakapapa about this trail. The lady there told us that this trail was the most poorly maintained trail in the park. She advised us to get a shuttle instead.

“It’s not worth your time- you won’t see much and it’s very muddy and poorly maintained.”

I don’t know why we even bothered asking, because hiking 10km of “poorly maintained” and “muddy” trail wasn’t about to stop us.

In the morning, John and I decided to get a head start on Greg and Martin, assuming that we would be slower and they would catch up. We headed out at around 6:30AM.

The Mangatepopo track – “the most poorly maintained trail in the park” – was probably one of the best trails we’ve hiked on so far. There were a few muddy patches here and there, and some serious erosion, but otherwise it was practically a sidewalk. If this was the most poorly maintained trail in the park, the rest of the trails must be practically paved.

As we approached the Tongariro Crossing, we saw the masses of people. There was a line of people, like ants walking up the trail, sometimes 2 at a time. I soon had “the ants go marching” stuck in my head.

As we merged with the Tongariro Crossing, I realized that we would have a hard time finding Martin and Greg. There were so many people that finding them would be a game of “Where’s Waldo?”

We filled up our water bottles at the first hut, and then started climbing up with Mount Ngauruhoe on our right towering above us.

The track climbed up maybe almost 1000 meters in total, but it was well graded, and of course we were in fairly good shape, so we kept passing people as we climbed.

We reached the top of Red Crater, which was aptly named since we were standing on the edge of a giant Red Crater.

From there, there was a steep scree slide down towards a few beautiful bright blue lakes. We spent some time having lunch while admiring the lakes.

People were everywhere, and at this point I figured we would never find Greg and Martin, and I had no idea if they somehow passed us while we weren’t paying attention.

The trail climbed another small volcano with great views before heading slowly downhill towards the other car park.

The downhill was slow and boring, and John had recently come down with a cold, and was feeling like crap. Each time we came to a spot with a place to sit down, he would curl up in a ball wanting to sleep.

We were only a few minutes away from the car park on a bench right on the trail, John laying down groaning when I saw Martin coming down the trail towards us. Greg was not far behind, and we finished the last leg of the trail together.

We were lucky and got a ride within minutes of getting to the car park, and found a place that we could all spend the night in some very cheap cabins on a farm for sustainable living. Here, John was able to spend a whole day in bed trying to get over his cold.

Whanganui River canoe adventure

On how many thru-hikes can you canoe a section of trail?

The Whanganui River is officially part of the Te Araroa trail, and many hikers canoe all the way to Whanganui (the city), however we decided to canoe from Taumarunui to Pipiriki, which is a standard 5-day canoe trip offered by many canoe outfitters. The Whanganui River is also a “Great Walk”, or rather a “Great Journey”, so you have to pay for campsites and/or Huts along the way.

For this adventure, we teamed up with our friend Martin from the Czech Republic, and our friend Greg, from the UK. The four of us hired two canoes.

The canoe company gave us a bunch of waterproof plastic barrels to store all our food and gear, and these were roped in to the middle section of the canoe between where the two people sit so that they don’t go floating down the river if we tipped over.

The person in the back is the captain of the vessel, and uses his or her paddle as a rudder to steer the boat, while the person in the front is the engine – paddling forward, providing propulsion.

The Whanganui has grade 1 and grade 2 rapids, which means that we get some white water to navigate through on occasion, making some sections quite fun and/or hair raising.

Since we don’t need to carry everything on our backs for this section, we had the luxury of being able to take heavier food items and drinks.

Since the first day of our trip coincided with John’s birthday, we brought with us a cheese cake and ingredients for cocktails. We had good weather to enjoy an evening at our campsite eating cake and making friends with two girls from Canada who were also canoeing the five day section.

The river had more rapids than I was expecting on the first day, which kept us busy and alert. By day two, we felt like pros, and to be social, John and I would often canoe next to Greg and Martin. We would hold on to each others boats, letting the current do much of the work. We called this configuration “Canoe-maran” (like catamaran).

We also decided to name our vessels- our canoe became The Lucky Clover while Greg and Martin’s canoe became Maria.

We spent many hours singing songs and playing word games while watching the amazing scenery go by.

The river is really beautiful- much of the time the river forms a deep canyon with interesting rock cliffs on either side. Sometimes there are small caves or side canyons to explore. Often there are beautiful waterfalls into the river- most with small amounts of water, but often the water carved interesting channels into the rock.

On day two there was a waterfall up a small side stream that seemed worth trying to get to, but here were some small rapids/ fast current in the way. Martin and Greg made it up into the side stream without much incident, but John and I got pushed over by the current. Instead of leaning away from the current, we leaned into it, which flipped our boat over. Luckily there was a little beach that we could easily get to and tip the canoe over to drain the water out. Of course we were soaked to the bone.

Luckily it was a nice sunny day and we took a long lunch break to dry ourselves off and have a hot cup of tea.

On day three we got up early since we had a somewhat longer day mileage wise – but the miles went by quite quickly because we paddled a bit more than the previous day – not just relying on the river to carry us along most of the time. We played 20 questions, thought of riddles and stopped several times to make tea and coffee and to have second breakfast, first and second lunch, etc.

We took a break at John Coull Hut where the wardens told us the weather would be bad for the last two days of our trip. There was supposed to be heavy rain for the following few days.

We secured our canoes for the night knowing that the river could rise quite a bit over night.

It didn’t rain much overnight, but in the morning, as we woke up,we heard thunder in the distance.

We packed up quickly, but soon the storm was upon us and it was absolutely pouring rain. Lighting lit the dark sky, and thunder boomed often and loudly. We spent a good 20 minutes debating whether to leave or not. We were told the day before that the weather would be steady for the next 2 days – storms and heavy rain, with no indication of if it would make sense to delay getting in the canoe for a couple or hours or not.

We decided the huddle under the small shelter in our campground for another 30 minutes or so to wait out the immediate lighting storm. It didn’t seem smart to be on the water in a storm, but at the same time the river valley was very very deep, and the likelihood of actually getting struck by lightning seemed slim.

As we stood under the shelter it started to hail.

I was already starting to get quite cold because I was already wet from packing up in the rain, and I only had a long sleeved thin wool shirt and my rain jacket along with already wet pants and my rain pants. It was quite cold out, colder than I was expecting.

Finally, when the lighting and thunder seemed to ease up, we made a move and headed down to the water.

I was shocked when I saw the river. In the thirty minutes we were waiting, the river completely changed color to bright brown, and had risen slightly, the current pulling a few little bits of debris along in the middle of the water.

We got in the water and started paddling vigorously to warm up.

The next section of river was supposed to take us about 4 hours to complete to arrive at Tieke Kainga Hut, where we had planned on taking a side trail to another hut (not directly on the Great Walk) to save some money. The river was flowing so quickly that we got there in around two and a half hours.

We pulled up to Tieke Kainga Hut, and the warden there told us that the trail we were meant to take was across the river. It would be quite hard to paddle over there with the current so strong. He offered us a cup of tea.

At the hut there was an adorable young deer hanging out with a collar on, obviously someone’s pet. We soon found out that its name was Dinky and it belonged to the people across the river, but it often came over to Tieke Kainga.

Drying a wet pack of cards

John went back down to the river to check on the canoes. He came back a few minutes later calling for help, saying that the canoes were already half way into the water again even though we had pulled them all the way out when we arrived. He pulled them out again, but we really needed to get them well above the river. We all ran down to the river again, and sure enough, in the 2 or 3 minutes it took us to walk down there, the canoes were already in the water again. The river was rising very quickly.

We dragged all our gear along with the canoes all the way up to where the shelter for campers was. As we were doing this, Dinky followed us up and down the banks of the river, offering his moral support. It was so weird to have a domesticated deer hanging about like a dog.

The warden then told us we could stay at Tieke Hut since it was safer than our original plan, and we really needed to get out of our wet clothes and warm up. I was shivering and really needed to get warm.

The warden’s name was Woody and he made us teas and coffees and cranked up the fire for us to sit next to. I was so thankful to be indoors out of the torrential downpours outside. The warden was living there with his wife, and 5 year old kid, and his 20-something year old nephew from the United States was visiting as well.

Another two girls who we had met earlier in our adventure showed up, and we spent the rest of the day next to the fire warming up, trying to dry things, drinking tea and singing songs while Martin played the ukulele.

The warden and his nephew had caught an eel in the river, and he fried it up and gave us each a taste. It was very oily and quite delicious – not very fishy.

We also got a Maori welcome, which apparently wasn’t a proper one because the wife wasn’t home, but it allowed us to enter the sacred area in front of and inside the Maori meeting house, which was a separate building with a totem pole in front of it. It was neat to be in a culturally significant place.

The next morning we were told by the warden to wait to get into the water until he got the OK via the radio from our canoe outfitters. Apparently the river level was borderline dangerous, and he didn’t feel comfortable just letting us go.

It took a few hours to get the word that we could leave. We weren’t sure if we would be stuck there, or if we would have to wait for a jet boat to rescue us or what.

Finally though, we got the OK. We were all to stick together for safety in numbers.

The river was huge. We were nervous, but somewhat confident after 4 days of canoeing. All the rapids were buried under the swollen river, but there were new obstacles to worry about: whirlpools and eddies and boils. Basically, the fast moving water, when it hits a curve can create huge swirling whirlpools that can suck you in, and sometimes the waves on the surface of the river were quite powerful as well.

We navigated the river without any issues until we were within sight of the van which was on the side of the river waiting to pick us up.

We aimed straight for the van, without doing a good job of reading the river between us and the van. Unfortunately there was a massive whirlpool that we were headed straight into. Suddenly our boat was being pulled to the left and John and I tried paddling hard to the right, but leaned into the whirlpool too hard, and the canoe tipped out right into the middle of the pool. It took us 30 seconds to stop panicking.

We were swirling around in the whirlpool with very little control over where we were headed. I’m quite a strong swimmer – I was a lifeguard for many years when I was younger, and a dive master (scubadiver), so generally, I’m not afraid of the water. But this time I was afraid. This water was unpredictable and fast.

We both held on to the canoe, which at this point was upside down. John still had his paddle, and I assumed mine was lost, but in fact I saw it spinning in the whirlpool with us. John managed to catch it.

“HELP!!” John shouted.

I told John we would need to just kick and hope that we could get the boat out of the whirlpool, and we kicked hard while holding onto the boat. Luckily we did slowly get closer to shore, and before I knew it, Martin was in the water with us.

“I’ve got the boat” said Martin.

I realized we were close to the shore, and I tried to stand up. There really wasn’t a surface to stand on at the bottom of the river, it was just deep, deep mud.

We clawed our way up the bank with the canoe with Martin’s help, and took a few deep breaths before assessing what to do next.

We wound up dragging the canoe along the banks of the river with me and Martin paddling it and John holding onto the rope from land over to a spot where we could start unloading it. The girls showed up and helped us unload. Greg also showed up and he and Martin paddled the empty canoe towards the van keeping as close to the shore as possible.

John and I felt a bit sheepish being the only ones to have fallen in the river (twice at this point), but I was so thankful that this time it happened just minutes before we had to get out of the water anyway. I would have been terrified and freezing if we had fallen in earlier.

Finally we got everything, everyone, and all the gear up safely to the landing where the van was, and we spent some time changing into dry clothes and having a snack before heading into town for warm showers, a hot dinner and a real bed.