Hiking with Ben

In the Riverside Bed and Breakfast, I slept very well. My legs still ached, but it was as though the covers heard the aches and smothered them with softness and warmth, so I couldn’t really tell which one was louder. Waking in the beautifully sunlit room, I showered and headed out to check the laundry. Before going to bed, I had noted that Georges had hung the clothes all folded in half, but I was too tired to fix them. After showering I figured I’d go hang them properly before starting breakfast. I came into the dining room to find a magazine-photo-shoot-ready table setting for two with our continental breakfast laid out. It was amazing. Through the French doors on the other side of the table I also saw that our laundry had been rehung correctly. Smiling broadly, I started eggs and sausages and toast. We had a delicious breakfast with wonderfully full servings of everything. Paul worked around us to light a wood stove and hang some of our clothes and shoes over it to speed the remaining drying–the wood stove alone was a treat, let alone first fresh CLEAN clothes!! Also, much to our pleasure, Paul joined us partway through our breakfast to chat. We learned about the house–it had been built on a different part of the island and was cut into four huge pieces and moved to its present day location. The house was completely reassembled and the land around it perfected to accommodate it. Paul even had a photo album of the whole process. Paul had stayed in the bed and breakfast years ago and had purchased it within the last few years when it went up for sale. He lives in Auckland but comes to Horeke part time. He said the bed and breakfast doesn’t really make a profitable business, but he likes being able to meet people’s needs. He also shared about his pre-retirement career as a geothermal engineer. Georges and I really enjoyed getting to sit and talk to Paul. It added so much to the whole wonderful experience.

Since Paul was driving us to the trail, we had a restful morning enjoying the company as our laundry dried over the wood stove and we tried to pile in as much good breakfast as we could. (I still long for more time at that breakfast table…) We set off from the bed and breakfast at 10:30. We talked about New Zealand, American and European school systems for much of the ride back to Mangamuka.

Shortly after we entered the forest–Paul having agreed to drive us as far as the road went, Georges and I saw Ben the French guy with the heavy pack walking by the road. We couldn’t believe it!! We had spent MUCH of the last days thinking and talking about Ben; hoping he somehow made it through the incredible forest in spite of his pack weight. G and I agreed Paul could let us out there and we would walk with Ben.

It was kind of sad to say bye to Paul. I don’t know why I liked him more than the dozens of others we’ve met so far, but I think I gained so much from his hospitality that I never really wanted to leave. I could easily have grown old in that house. All the same, the trail goes on. We had a picture with Paul and thanked him again. Then we turned to Ben and began the next phase of our travels.

Ben had indeed made it through the forest. We last saw him in Digger’s Valley. He had taken an easy day that day and hiked only the the beginning of the next forest section. (That would be the night we slept on the mountain in the forest) Then he had pushed through the entire forest in one day (the day we finished the forest) and, arriving out of the forest and hiking in the night, he had camped in someone’s yard. They gave not only their permission but also let him take a shower. We met him as he hiked on from there toward this last forest and river section.

There is a campsite not far into the forest that is supposed to be pretty nice. It would be a good place to camp except it isn’t very far into the section–a few hours at most–and so leaves 25 k of the forest and river for the next day. (Average road speed is about 4 k and hour; in the forest we budget no more than 2 k and hour)

All of us agreed the campsite was appealing, but likely a poor choice due to the burden of the next day. G and I decided we would just see how the pace was and probably just hike until a good time (4 or 5) and then start watching for a good spot to set up the tent. Ben seemed to be in general consensus, though it wasn’t discussed how long we would walk together.

We were on a gravel road that wound its way up the hillside. We did take a wrong turn at one point, but the views as we walked down a grassy hillside were so beautiful, I didn’t mind at all when we got to the bottom and realized we had to hike all the way back to the top.

Hiking with Ben meant new conversations. The three of us stayed together for quite a while. I realized G and I weren’t taking many breaks and asked Ben if he typically takes breaks. He said he did, but he usually sat down and took his pack off. We all agreed we’d have lunch when we got to the stream that was coming shortly past the campsite we wouldn’t be staying in.

Paul had offered to drive us as far as he could. If we hadn’t stopped to hike with Ben, Paul would have taken us almost the entire way to the stream, saving us many hours of walking because it was all gravel road. When the trail finally left the road, it headed down a wide path which sported a few muddy patches just to tease us. We reached the stream without any struggles, crossed it and sat down for a lunch break. (Our tortilla was complimented today with an apple each we had gotten from the bed and breakfast)

After lunch we began the stream hike. It was 2.5 km in/through the stream until it met a river. Then there was 2.5 km through the river with the chance of a route running in the hillside above the river. After that the trail left the river and ascended another unknown hill/mountain/cliff. Just before that ascent, though, the trail notes mention ‘a freedom camp site’. We didn’t know what that meant but we decided to make that our goal for the evening. We all made our packs good for the risk of falling into the stream, changed our shoes and set off.

Ben was wearing old tennis shoes. G and I had on our barefoot camp shoes. We liked our camp shoes for the job, but in the end it made us very slow. We had to pay attention to every rock we walked on because we could feel the sharpness of each stone. Even still, this section was very cool. There wasn’t a trail. Everyone just had to go through the stream and so the banks of the stream we undamaged. You weren’t looking in on the water, you were in the water looking out. It was cool.

The rocks that made up the path of the water were diverse and fascinating. Every color, every pattern, every shape and every size. I picked one for my mom that seems plain when dry, but turns a beautiful shade of violet when wet. (I didn’t find any for Mrs. Doorenbos–none seemed up to her standards). All along, more streams joined us by waterfall or quietly trickling through the forest. There were no fish and no bugs to be seen. The water was like ice, but we got used to it.

The 2.5 km took us 99 minutes to walk. Ben would walk ahead of us and then wait for us to catch up. We were clearly very slow with our shoes. When I caught up to Ben and Georges where the stream meets the river, it was to find them discussing the swim-ability of it. Appalled, I asked if they remember anything they read. We had read two dozen times that day that there was a path just before the river that lead to a low water crossing to get across the river. Geez. Boys. I quickly found the path and lead the way up to a trail on the banks of the river. In a short bit it lead back down to the river and we crossed easily. Looking for markers we saw there was a path up stream that followed the opposite bank. We headed for it.

Climbing up, we consulted the map and trail notes. We weren’t sure how long it would be before we would cross the river again. Should we keep our camp shoes on and hike slowly through the forest, or put in our hiking shoes and take time switching at each crossing. We had no idea when the next crossing would be. G wanted to put on our shoes, so we did. Five minutes later we were hiking again.

This trail was very skinny but mostly mud-free. There were kill traps for some kind of animal on every third tree, so we knew there must be some animal in the woods, but we didn’t know for sure what. The sun was approaching the mountains above us and I felt very rushed to make it the next 2.5 km to the camp site. We saw a trail sign that suggested it might be several km further than that, so we had no idea which was correct. The trail followed right next to the river, about two meters up. The bank was steep so the trail was little more than a footstep of levelish ground carved out of the hillside from hundreds of feet before ours. At times there was nothing to be done but jump from one spot to the other. Many times the ground was merely small plant roots which gave way easily under foot–we just prayed they would hold out for the three of us. The river below looked to be pretty deep most of the time, so we figured this path must be faster than swimming up stream, so we stuck to it.

In my fear of the sun setting on us before we had made camp, we took this section at nearly a run. Leading, I prayed with every stumble that neither Georges or Ben would go tumbling into the river below.

After an hour we became worried we wouldn’t make it to this freedom camp site. I wanted to push on, always feeling it must be just around the next bend. But G had found a really good area to make camp and wanted to just stop. With some persuading, I let go of my goal to make it to the camp site and we made camp in a large, flat clear area that had plenty of space for our tent and Ben’s. Plus there was great access to the river for water refills.

G filled water while I put up the tent. Then I put out the sleeping bags and pads while G made dinner–bacon carbonara noodles. We hung our food because of all the animal traps and we managed to have everything settled, except brushing our teeth, before dark. After brushing our teeth, we went to sleep in our unplanned, yet surprisingly good, campsite. Ben not far off.

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