Tātou Araroa — Episode 13: If it doesn’t challenge you it doesn’t change you.
Progress: 1649.5km— 54.84%
Levin to Porirua — Kapiti Coast and the Tararua Ranges
When insanity strikes and you plan to walk Te Araroa, you soon become aware of three sections of trail whose notoriety shines brightest; the terrifying scale and wilderness of the Richmond Ranges, the 800m scree climb over Waiau Pass and the unpredictable and dicey Tararua Ranges. Over the last week we have conquered the later and lived to tell the tale.
Due to the weather we had to think outside the box a little and decided our best plan was to use our friends Sam and Sabrina’s house as a base and attack the Kapiti Coast sections over a number of days and simply train back to Sam and Sabrina’s when we finish. 3 days of slackpacking (the trail term for walking with no backpacks) awaited us.
Day one we set off, walked to the Waikanae River (swollen greatly by the phenomenal rain we’d experienced), followed it to the beach and traipsed on the sand as far as Paekakariki. Despite the strong winds (on our tail thankfully) we make easy work of the 24km. Our day highlighted, as is so often the case when walking in residential areas, by the food options at our disposal. The hero this day was Ben’s Buns at Paraparaumu Beach. A lunch of a sausage roll, feta and spinach roll and a caramel slice ticked boxes we didn’t even know needed ticking.
We continued southward towards Raumati Beach with the slipper shaped Kapiti Island visible off the coast then headed into Paekakariki itself. A quick jump on the train and we were back at base.
The following day was uneventful, we again started with a train journey from base and a walk from Porirua, back to Paekakariki, choosing to walk this section heading north to benefit from the prevailing wind. A rather dismal predominantly road walking section was again saved by our lunch stop in the seaside town of Plimmerton. Another sausage roll, a chicken, cranberry and brie panini and gigantic custard slice were today’s sustenance.
The final day of Kapiti Coast walking was the tremendous Paekakariki Escarpment Track. A well made but exposed and undulating track that sidles the hills overlooking the beautiful coastline north of Wellington. Shortly before what we knew was to be an tough climb we were stopped by a lady coming the other way “it’s so dangerous up there, it’s so windy, be prepared to turn around!” We would certainly class ourselves in the more risk adverse percentile of Te Araroa walkers but made the commitment to give it a go and reassess when we reached more exposed sections.
Up we went, and up the wind went. Luckily the relentless gale was pushing us very firmly into the hill and very firmly away from the, at times, 200m drops to the other side. We pressed on and passed a number of people who were slightly less dramatic than the lady at the bottom and felt more comfortable with our decision. Then we came to one of the two suspension bridges that you cross and the mood changed rapidly. The bridge swung violently (violently is too strong a word here but psychologically it felt violent) as we approached it. The sign read “Maximum 5 persons”, so we felt comfortable that it had us. We also knew that this area of New Zealand is notorious for its extremely strong winds and thus the bridge would have been designed with this in mind. A few tentative steps onto the bridge, “this isn’t too bad” we both dared ourselves to think. A few more now leaving the comfort of the near bank, “ok, certainly moving a bit more now”, we approach the mid point and a sense of overwhelming fear kicks in, head down, pace up and we willed ourselves onwards. Finally reaching the other side with our heart rate somewhere in the high 600s we let out a nervous giggle, oblivious of course at this point to the fact that carry on or turn back, we had one more of these life shortening ordeals to contend with.
Onwards we moved, passed a slip that involved placing way too much faith in the cluster of grass and roots your hands grasp on to that save you from the not insignificant drop below, and towards the next bridge. Deep breath, walk, walk, head down, hold in the internal screaming, walk, walk, keep low and phew — the other side greeted us like an old friend. Terra Firma, safety, no more bridges today.
The rest of the walk was blustery but pleasant and picturesque with the ominous sky providing a moody and dramatic vista over the surf below. We slowly descended into the town of Paekakariki, consumed two tremendous beers, some potato wedges and headed back again to base.
After a couple of rest days (and another visit to Ben’s Buns of course) we headed to the start of the the sections we’d been both excited and nervous about since Day 1 — The Tararua Ranges. A five day, 70km section that takes in ancient muddy and rooty forest, never ending climbs, exposed ridgelines and consecutive twelve hour days is not for the faint hearted.
Sunday’s jaunt over Pukeatea (812m) from the South Mangaone Road End was a gentle introduction. It was a warm day and the forested sections provided little shade from the intense sun, but it was an enjoyable day made better by what, or rather who, we knew awaited us at Otaki Forks, our destination for the day. We arrived around 6.00pm to the Pārāwai Hut and were greeted by four of our very most favorite people from the trail so far. Careful wrangling and some astute planning had led to ourselves, Mark and Tanya (of the wet day into Rangiriri fame) and Scott and Jane (two members of the Famous Five from way up in Northland) all being at this place at this time to attack the beast together.
We awoke the following morning to glorious blue skies and felt positive about what came ahead. To walk with people whose company you enjoy, whose pace is compatible with your own and, importantly, whose judgement you respect, is a tremendously reassuring thing. We have encountered many walkers who attack this Trail alone and have grown a deep deep respect for their fortitude and willpower.
A check of the map showed us we had just the 10km to walk that day, it was reasonable based upon our usual walking pace of 3-4km/hour in bush that this would be a short-ish day allowing us to conserve energy for the trickier days ahead. When Hour 4 passed and we still hadn’t reached half way we knew that perhaps we needed to throw away our previous beliefs regarding pace and just settle with the fact the Tararuas were going to be slow and going to be unforgiving. This section was made even tougher by a huge slip that the trail is now rerouted passed. Narrow paths, steep drop offs and a whole heap of head scratching to tackle fallen trees blocking one’s path were very much the order of the day. At one point the six of us formed a chain to pass our bags through one section of intensely suffocating supplejack, when one 20 metre section takes you 25 minutes you know you’re in for a long day.
Spirits were high and when we rejoined the original TA route past the slip the track improved and we made it to the wonderfully named Waitewaiwai (or YTYY) Hut hot, sweaty, tired but in a positive mood. A beautifully invigorating (read: freezing cold) dip into the Otaki River capped off a solid day. The welcoming confines of the warm and comfortable hut helped us sleep well knowing that tomorrow was a big one and the 5.30am alarm was set.
Waitewaiwai Hut to Nichols Hut, just the 8km but within those 8km included 1100m of climbing through dense and rooty bush and a whole heap of exposed ridgelines too. The day started with a fortifying one-two punch; straight off the bat it was dodgy suspension bridge time. High above the Otaki River we crossed the swaying and not mint condition bridge one by one. Three wires underfoot with nylon netting between the wires all between you the water below made for some tense moments but we navigated it safely and confidently. The second of the two punches was the ascent up Mount Crawford that began immediately across the bridge. A half climb, half scramble, all draining 4 hours pushed each of us to our limit but, thankfully due to the early start, and the comfortable pace that allowed us, we still found the energy to allow our jaws to drop when we ascended above the bush line into trampers heaven. As the forest dropped away beneath us we were treated to a stunning panorama, stretching from the snow capped peaks of Mount Taranaki to the northwest and Ruapehu to the north to a crystal clear view up the entire coastline stretching north from the Kapiti Coast around to Whanganui. The view southwards was even more spectacular — the South Island (Te Wai Pounamu — or the Waters of Greenstone as it is now officially known) was clearly visible and looked resplendent in the midday sun. The white halo of snow atop Mt Owen in the Kahurangi National Park just south of Nelson a particular highlight of the view. The view inland was no less stunning, the jagged ridgeline up to the top of Mount Crawford lay directly in front of us shouldered by a seemingly never ending smorgasbord of valleys, spurs, more peaks and adventure, so much adventure.
After a well deserved break and a deep breath or two we headed up the tussock lined track along the ridge towards Junction Knob. Ridges had formed many of Bill’s fears about Te Araroa since the inception of the idea many months ago. Visions of knife edge “one false move and I’m done for” situations had haunted his dreams. This was very different. The margin for error provided by the low lying, but very much present, long grass and tussock together with the sweeping, rather than sheer, landscape allowed us all to bask in the overwhelming beauty we were experiencing.
Junction Knob led us parallel to the summit of Mount Crawford ahead, some light cloud wisped softly over the saddle that dipped between us and the apex. It looked a bit more formidable that what we’d been exposed to and indeed it was.
Now is perhaps a good time to address Bill’s major fear: Heights. The irony that a man who has previously been “High Ropes Director” at an American Summer Camp and “Senior Instructor” and “Team Leader” at a Centre with a climbing wall and high ropes course being scared of heights is not lost on him. Whilst he has become comfortable at height due to a learned trust in equipment, he is still acutely aware that the weakest part of the system is always the user. On these ridgelines there is no safety line, there is no harness and carabiner, if you make a mistake the consequences can be catastrophic. In summary, it is at this point when Bill’s internal demons are screaming like a banshee who just stepped on an upturned plug covered in Lego and push pins.
Down into the saddle we went, it started well enough with a few sections of scrambling, a few steep-ish drops but mainly still very much in the zone of comfort. Then we reached a point whereby we are faced with a climb that involves perhaps 3 motions in total to climb you over a rock face with usable, but not comfortable juts of rock for your feet and hands. Bill’s brain explodes, the self doubt and fear from 5 months of planning and running this exact situation in his mind comes to a head. It is at this point when the power of numbers comes in. Positive words from Jane and Tanya (who share his trepidation with heights), a kind offer to transport his poles from Scott and it’s go time. 6.4 seconds, some rather feminine squeals and 3 moves later and he’s up.
Riding a high from this initial challenge we make great progress along the ridge up to the summit of Mount Crawford. The views from before only amplified by our additional height and offered a near 360 degree orbit of vision. Waves of satisfaction wash over us all, Scott sleeps, we all eat lunch and reflect upon both our luck and our reward.
We drop down the ridge, tackle a few more dicey sections which Bill handles as dramatically and unconfidently as the first, and we drop down to Nichols Hut. It has taken us nearly 9 hours to complete the 8km section.
At Nichols Hut we were greeted by a trail celebrity — Mr Brian Haybittle. Brian’s status may very well be created simply in our minds, but to us he’s a trailblazer, he’s this years TA Godfather. He was the first to step off from Cape Reinga in early September, he was the first to be open about his fears about being underprepared or even physically incapable of completing the trail. Supported by his lovely, and surely very patient wife, Kelly, he’s walking whilst she follows in the campervan and provides him, and other hikers with a much needed mobile haven from the trail.
We settled nicely into the hut feeling contented and tired when we see more figures coming down from the trail, and then some more, and then some more. It seemed the backlog caused by the weather had all come to a head here at Nichols Hut. It was great to be around 12 Te Araroa walkers, it was however a shame, and a problem that Nichols Hut sleeps six. Two generous folks offer to camp outside on the slivers of flat spots and the rest of us share mattresses, sleep on the floor and fill whatever space there might be. No fire needed that night, the 10 of us in the hut were snug in regards to space and warmth.
We awoke the next morning to a scary sound and sight. Wind and Cloud. A moderate westerly wind was barreling off the ridge we would climb on to to continue our journey and the visibility was perhaps 50m at best. Our weather report had informed us the night before that the cloud would clear and as we were to be in bush for 75% of the day, meant the wind hopefully wouldn’t be as big a factor as it might be for those travelling the opposite direction.
The wind hit us like a punch in the face once we reached the ridgeline, it was at this point we felt grateful indeed for our adventures atop the Paekakariki Escarpment Track for we knew this wind did not compare and that slow and steady walking would see us right. We made good progress to start, as it was cold and we aimed to warm ourselves through exertion, and after an hour dropped into the bush, and majestic bush it was, comparable to Taranaki’s Goblin Forest the gnarled and moss covered branches of the Kamahi trees had an Ent-like quality about them.
Puketoro and Kelleher high points were the heart in mouth challenges today. Their exposed and rocky outcroppings providing Bill with yet more internal struggles and torment. A confidence was growing however, as if each successful navigation of a tricky section were another layer of armor to be used against the next; “not only CAN you do it Bill, you’ve already done it”.
The tiny but infinitely charming 2 bed Dracophyllum Hut was our lunch stop. It is perhaps the best indication of how wild the weather can be up here that the hut in it’s entirety is anchored into the ground by wires from each corner. We recharged the batteries and continued onwards. We knew that all that stood between us and the relative safety of our hut for the night, and our descent back to civilization tomorrow, was Pukematawai (1432m), from our perch atop Butchers Knob, following another rough and exposed section along the undulating and unforgiving ridge. Our eyes followed the ridge further up and up and, amongst the cloud we saw the summit. From our position here it looked impossible, it looked like the razor thin ridge extended nearly vertically to the peak. Although Bill was showing the most visible signs (sitting on the ground with eyes closed, whimpering and shaking whilst the brain demons screamed ever louder), it was clear we were not in a good place. Alas, we have walked for over 1600km, we were a team, we knew we would support each other and we knew that, despite the vastness the task at hand appeared, it was just one foot in front of the other and repeat.
Like most things in life, things are never quite as bad as they seem, as we climbed the first knob, just 100m from where we had been experiencing such trauma, it looked more friendly. Another drop and small climb to another rocky outcrop a few hundred meters later and the view looked ever more achievable.
Almost imperceptibly we began the climb up the main route to the summit. The seemingly razor thin ridgelines were actually tussock covered and made for draining but rarely terrifying walking. Conversation flowed well, the pace was steady and before we knew it we’d made it. It was with enormous satisfaction that we looked down upon our vanquished foe and we felt invincible. We felt as if we had really achieved something that felt impossible just 30 minutes before.
Once our jubilation had subsided we checked the sign post — Te Matawai Hut — 1hr. Needless to say, it was not 1 hour and unfortunately we were now faced with a new foe — the sun. It was baking hot and water was running low. Sarah especially began to feeling frazzled and drained as we descended for a seemingly infinite period of time. 90 minutes later and we see another sign — Te Matawai Hut — 30 mins, this was not good, if were to continue at current pace and the sign was right, it would mean another 90 minutes of walking which would have further stretched our remaining physical capacity and resources. Unexpectedly and delightfully, just 20 minutes later and the early evening sun reflects perfectly off the tin roof of Te Matawai Hut into Bill’s eye — “The hut!” he exclaims in astonishment and the pace quickens. 3 minutes later and the tired and weary six are sat in the shade of the charming and well maintained Hut. Shoes off, socks off, bottles filled, water consumed, humanity regained. We held some short conversations with those at the hut, including a 17yr old girl walking TA, Maya, with her mother, Pip, and we sleep and we sleep. One of the best sleeps of the trail in fact as we know tomorrow is mainly down, muddy and down, but we can manage mud by now.
The final day of our epic section takes us from Te Matawai Hut to the road end near the Makahika Outdoor Pursuits Centre where we finished up before our break last week and represents a closing of a loop for us. We fought hard against the inevitable GetHome-itis that creeps into to every trampers mind. Every conversation turns to food, we talking about plans for each other’s Christmases that start with which family members will be there but always ended with discussions concerning gravy and potatoes and beer. The track was stunning and far more forgiving than we had expected from those who had come up the hill the previous day. There was only one obstacle now between us and the comfort of our Paraparaumu whare (home) with Sam and Sabrina; The Slip. Whilst “The Slip” sounds like a terrible name for a horror movie it had filled us with trepidation for a few days. We had heard that last week’s wild weather had caused a section of the trail to come away and left walkers having to cling to rapidly diminishing roots and grasses for balance as they inched there way across the narrow path above the water many meters below.
We got to the slip and could certainly see the challenge and the psychological issues it would present, but we were a different beast now, we had got across the nightmare of a bridge out of Waitewaiwai Hut, we had made it passed the exposed knobs, we’d seen off the clouds and the wind and we’d made it up the seemingly impossible ridge — we were not going to let this slip take up any more space and time in our minds.
Scott, as he so often did during tricky times, led us through and Bill followed, we clung to whatever purchase the bank would offer you and shuffled our feet across it, as we got into a rhythm it became easier and more instinctive. Then we were done. A final step onto solid ground on the other side and the relief was palpable.
The final hour of walking went by in a flash. The feeling of suddenly coming across an open and expansive meadow after the terrain we’d experienced was surreal but fantastic. Whilst we were happy to be finished and content and accomplished by what we’d achieved it wasn’t without a tinge of sadness. The 6 of us would soon just be the 2 of us. We’d experienced some incredible moments as a group, both during this section and throughout the North Island. We said our goodbyes, our merry Christmas’s and we were gone.
A hugely hugely fortuitous hitching experienced followed (it ended at a brewery!) and we’re done. Back safe at Sam and Sabrina’s feeling weary, sleepy, spent and hugely hugely satisfied. Tararua Ranges — TICK.
Right, we know that bit was epic, but listen carefully. Our plans now are to finish the North Island with two days walking into Wellington on Sunday and Monday. On the 22nd we are then flying down to Queenstown on the South Island to begin the Kepler Track on the 23rd. The Kepler is not part of Te Araroa, but was too stunning to ignore. We finish this on Christmas Day and then head for the Routeburn Track on the 27th, again, not Te Araroa, but again too good to ignore. It also has the benefit of finishing on the Trail so we can continue. We will continue South from there down to Bluff (The traditional finishing point of Te Araroa for many), then make our way via bus back to Queenstown and walk the South Island northbound from there.
In simple terms; finish up in North Island — Fly to Queenstown — Kepler — Routeburn — TA Southbound to Bluff — Coach from Bluff to Queenstown — Queenstown to Ship Cove (top of the South Island) Clear as Pirongia mud??
Last, but very much not least…….. THE BEARD!
If you’ve read the previous blogs you know we’re fundraising for the Mental Health Foundation and at the moment we’re auctioning the future of Bill’s beard — it’s currently $290-$160 BEARD OFF! To get involved, just head HERE and make a donation with either BEARD or NO BEARD as the comment and the highest total will win. Every little helps :)
Deadline is 11.59PM NZ Time 24th Christmas Eve — Shaving (if needed) to occur 4.00PM NZ Time on Xmas Day.
If you can’t think what to buy that family member, friend or colleague? What better way that making a donation in their name?