The morning of October 10th was wonderful. We left the hostel and hit the road by 6:30 a.m., passing a sleepy eyed French Ben at the kitchen table eating toast with a jar of jelly as we headed out. We completed the two-hour road section in beautiful early morning light. Crossing back through Ahipara and down through the countryside we met stunning landscapes, beautiful plants, puppies!!, and the occasional early commuter. We started our climb up into the mountains, my pace slowing. (G, with his loooong legs, only quickening as the incline increased.) We took our time and enjoyed the picturesque scenery. At 8:40 we arrived at the first forest track, Herekino Forest Track. We took pictures, took off some layers of clothing and prepared ourselves for what we had been told is a tough and currently muddy section. Knowing we had eight hours of hiking ahead, we began our ascent at 8:45 a.m..
Full of arrogance, we dominated the first ascent. Hundreds of meters almost straight up, we placed foot after muddy foot on the roots in front of us and climbed hands, feet and trekking poles for the first hour without seeing a sign of level ground. Still pushing ourselves, we finally arrived at the first smaller incline. Exhausted, absolutely exhausted, we paused for a muesli bar shoved down our throats between ragged breaths. We were full of smiles and proud of ourselves for the accomplishment. We laughed at Ben who had been surprised to hear we were planning to push all the way through this first forest section to Digger’s Valley Rd on the other side–an 8 hour hike in dry conditions. We were doing so well, we would of course finish the section!
We pushed on and were soon at what we called the summit. This forest is thick, wet jungle. Filled with ferns, palm trees and dozens of other jungle plants I don’t know the names of, it’s clear the flora grows very fast here. The trail was nothing more than a previously trodden foot path wide enough for one foot. It was frequently meters of wet, deep mud, and at other times was climbing up or down tiny tree roots and the occasional stone. When we could see blue skies through the leaves in all directions, we assumed we had reached the summit. We checked the map, and were amazed at our pace. We were hiking so strong we would likely be out of the forest in early afternoon rather than 5 or 6 as we had planned.
So we continued. Down now, as is the only option after a summit–just as steep as up was and extremely risky with many slips that could easily have been broken legs or worse. Slow and strong we hiked on–talking all the while about how poorly the trail was maintained (this trail has likely never seen any trail maintenance) but grateful there were so many orange markers lighting the way.
As we began to climb up again we noted that we sort of hoped there wouldn’t be any more ups that were so demanding. I became a snail of exhaustion. I know fitness will come with each passing day, so I pushed on. We reached the ‘summit’ and remarked how it would be nice to see further than eight feet in any direction–why hike a mountain if you can’t have the view from the top??
Forward we pressed. Down and then up. Down and then up. The ups were less steep now, each step only bringing your foot as high as your shin rather than the previous heights of your knee or thigh. We examined the map and were again overjoyed to be progressing so fast. We hiked and hiked. Mud and mountain, ragged breaths and dangerously slippery roots.
On the map the track was supposed to join a logging road around what should have been our midday. We decided that is where we would have lunch since the forest was so thick there was no way we could sit anywhere or even set our packs down to get lunch out. We hiked with that goal in mind, but as noon passed so did 1 o’clock. Returning to the map, we were forced to realize that not only were we not miraculously faster than standard, we had no idea where we were. We weren’t lost. We were clearly following the orange markers. But we had no idea where in any number of kilometers we might be. And therefore, we had no idea when the logging road would come.
We kept hiking. Somewhat dispirited now. Feeling, for the first of many many times to come, the effects of low food energy combined with frustration, inability to set goals (because we didn’t know where we were), exhaustion and lack of proper fitness. We kept hiking up and down, up and down; a dozen ‘summit?s’ all with their own scream-worthy ascent and prayer-worthy descent.
We finally came to the logging road not too much later than the prescribed time found on the sign at the beginning of the trail. Turned out we were not really any faster than average. Worse yet, ‘road’ was a significant overstatement. If I showed you a picture of it out of context you might call it ‘a lake after a mud slide’, ‘an old fashion brick-making clay hole’ or ‘a joke’. I called it stupid. It was certainly not a place you could have lunch. With many cries of frustration (and I’m assuming G’s slew of foreign declarative a were also of frustration) we made it a hundred meters or so down what would be our new path and found it got a bit better. From then on one could typically find one side or other of the ‘road’ which was solid. At the first wide-spot opportunity, we sat down and had lunch. One tortilla each with one thin deli slice of salami about three inches in diameter. We immediately decided that tiny circle of salami in the middle significantly elevated the tortilla.
The afternoon passed much as the morning had. Rough, steep hiking. The logger road got skinner every kilometer until it finally whittled away back to a foot path of mud and the jungle again smothered you from every direction. Where we had thought we might get out of the forest earlier than planned, we soon began to fear we wouldn’t get out before sunset. Just as true and pure frustration with the DOC (department of conservation) hit an un-Morgan-like level evidenced by raging exclamations ceased only long enough to figure out how to swing from and around trees to get down the mountainside where once there may have been a safe foot path, I saw grass. Decreasing my expression of thoughts toward the DOC and increasing my focus on speed, I ran the last few steps to reach what was clearly farmed grass.
We had made it. It was 5:00 p.m. but we had made it out of the forest! In front of us was expansive, rolling green farmland spotted with cattle. The DOC sign pointed us to the left and prescribed 30 more minutes to Digger’s Valley Rd, our camping destination for the day. We checked the map and identified that we would hike a bit further than the road so we could camp by a stream. Knowing the sun set early in the mountains, we set off–very tired, but very glad to be out of the jungle. In the kilometers remaining, as we wound our way down the farm path to Digger’s Valley, we saw two hikers emerge from the forest a while after us.
When we reached the stream we eyed the camp-ability of it. It wasn’t really clear where we were. There were no houses or buildings anywhere in the area and the road was simply a gravel path. It seemed ok if we camped, but we thought we’d better double treat the stream water in case we were in the middle of a cattle ranch. As we made our decision, the other two hikers caught up to us. It was Ben the French guy and a new British guy, Pete. Pete said he had planned to camp a little bit further where two streams merged, but that this area looked good enough. We all climbed down off the road and picked our patch of grass. Poor Ben looked exhausted. G and I knew, no matter how tired we were, we were not as tired as we would have been if we’d been carrying a pack like Ben’s. (I mean, how did he swing from the trees in the section where there’s no way to get down by foot??)
At camp we all exchanged notes a bit but mostly kept to ourselves. It was quite late and we all needed to set up camp, get water and make dinner. G and I managed everything just as the sun was setting. We had two kinds of instant soup for dinner plus a bit of trail mix. We brushed our teeth by headlight and clambered into our sleeping bags in total darkness.
We had made it through the first forest. G told me all day that this section was known for being one of the most strenuous (and I look back at the morning when I said at one point that the Te Araroa might be boring if this was strenuous–ha!! Arrogance) We had big plans for the following day. Though we hiked ten hours that day (2 road, 8 forest), the next day we wanted to try to get in 13 hours–completely through the next forest. The second forest was 3 road hours away and then ten hours in the forest. I didn’t want to camp on the mountain, so we had to get through. Surely we could get 13 hours in. We made a plan to get up at 4 a.m. and be on the road by 5. Hiking the road section, which looked pretty straight forward on the map, by headlight. That would put us at the forest track by 8 and out by 6p.m. Surely we could do it. We tucked in for the night hoping we could.