“So I guess we’ll go to the top?”

We were running a bit late in the morning. Rushing through our last breakfast with Marius, having showered and packed our bags, we left for the trail shortly before 8. I forgot the pair of underwater I had hand washed and hung from the shower that morning, so we turned back–the first thing I’d forgotten on this trip so far. Marius drove us through the streets the trail followed–we were glad we didn’t have to walk those boring and unsightly kilometers–and dropped us off at the trail head. It was a rushed and very bittersweet goodbye. Georges and I were so grateful for all the hospitality and generosity we had experience with Linda and Marius.

Back to the trail. Our first section was through an arboretum. We followed a paved path over a hill and out of the suburbs. We met a couple going the opposite way that asked if we were hiking the Te Araroa. Saying we were, they asked where we were headed next (like we ever know). We said Waitomo was the next village. The lady was excited for us and told us the forest just before Waitomo was a very hard, steep and not well marked. Great.

Entering the country, we continued, wondering where the trees were. I discovered I had left the ibuprofen on the bed at Linda and Marius’. The new insoles were a solid improvement for my feet, but now I had no ibuprofen to take the edge off the pain. It was a serious blow to the day’s outlook. Every step was painful, but the fear of doing serious harm to my foot, leg or hip by limping was much worse. Slowly, each step took me forward. I feel terrible for Georges, who was having his dream trip burdened by slow, nearly-dead weight.

The path turned down a steep hill by a cool modern house and at the bottom we found the actual arboretum. Checking out the map and explanation, the area was filled with native, exotic, common and rare trees–each section separated and carefully raised in the right composition of soil. It was something that had been started by a couple many, many years previous and had been donated to the district council (local government) for continued care and public access. We started into the giant trees.

This was one of the coolest sections we’ve done. It being so early in the morning, all the farm animals and birds were calling and singing. Soon we found ourselves surrounded by the most beautiful and diverse flock of wild chickens–with all ages of chicks from tinsy tiny to middle-sized adolescents! They woke as we passed and came out from under the trees and bushes. Ducks and black geese waking to greet us, too. We took our time. Stopping to watch the chickens (wondering if I could feasibly kidnap one). Taking some pictures, but enjoying the moments–the sights and sounds. We continued through the majestic trees, the section coming to an end too soon.

My foot was unbearable, so we stopped so I could KT tape it. Then we continued. Road section for a while. Through the countryside and rolling hills. Then over a sile and into the pastures. Siles every hundred meters or so, we enjoyed the grazing cows and green grasses. At one point we passed through the most unusual part–the trail was blocked by a steel fence/gate on top of the fence the sile had been built for us to get over. Clearly not able to climb a fence on top of a fence, we walked around and climbed through a different side. DSC09033Then, getting to the top of the first hill–where stairs had been built for us from the two-story fence to the top–we found a gate into a one-meter wide grassy path with ten foot tall fences on both sides.

Freakishly holocausty, we crept through the grass. Soon we saw that there was a large herd of deer in the paddock to our left, which at least explained the height of the fences. Georges stopped to feed the deer…because the grass on their side of the fence was obviously inferior.

The last pasture section before we got to the road was equally as unusual, but much more dumb. For some reason, our path–again fenced in on both sides (not a common part of pasture crossings, by the way)–was randomly blocked by wide log fence poles placed first across the end of a foot bridge at waist height, then sticking straight out of the path or diagonally placed across the path. Unnecessarily making us climb through and around these random fixtures. The last of which was the worst. The parts that had poles sticking straight out of the ground would have three or four poles in a line, which we would have to squeeze through. The very last set was so close together that I couldn’t get through. G, being taller slipped through with a bit of a hop. But my pack is closer to the ground and I couldn’t get it through from any angle, and the poles were pretty high to comfortably get myself over.

It made no sense. But whatever–with great heaving and effort I managed to left myself into my arms high enough to get my pack over, but then had no forward momentum. I eventually swung my legs enough to fall to the ground on the other side of the poles. Dumb.

This left us out of the pastures and back on the roads. We walked and met the highway. We continued on the very small shoulder of the highway–these road sections are not fun. We arrived at village of Whatwhatana, which consisted of a gas station and a café. Thankfully, the gas station had ibuprofen. We had lunch sitting outside the café–tortilla with a coffee/hot cocoa.

Annnnnd!!!!! I finally ate my Kerikeri avocado I had been carefully carrying in my hip belt since early October.

But it wasn’t fully ripe yet!!! Much to my disappointment, I had been overeager and cut into it too soon. Oh well. It was acceptable and at least now it wasn’t in my pack anymore. 😦

Over lunch we talked about where we would stop for the night. There was a free campsite that was reachable, but then there was a hut at the summit of the next forest track that was only 4-5 hours from the campsite–too short of a day to sleep in the hut if we slept in the campsite tonight. So we thought maybe we’d stop before the campsite and aim for the hut the following night. Really, making plans is unhelpful. We just walk until we are done walking.

So we started walking again. After a km on the highway, we split off on to a side road. We decided we would hitch the road section and accepted a ride from Jane the artist. Jane told us about the super tall pines that had started appearing in the landscape and the small communities in this rural area. She went out of her way to take us on the roads of our trail so we were able to see the same path. We did end up skipping a pasture section we didn’t exactly want to skip, but it meant that she let us out at the foot of the next forest section. It being only 1 p.m., we realized we could now make it the 5-6 hours to the summit and hut.

Looking at the map, I realized that the summit was 959 meters elevation. We had been in pain with the previous summits…at two and three hundred meter elevations….

“So we’re going to the top?” I asked, looking up at the mountain.

“Yep,” G responded.

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We hit the campsite thirty minutes onto the trail–which was beautiful and well maintained so far. The road-wide, grass path had two pebbled paths tire-width apart. Meaning G and I could walk side-by-side. It followed a pretty stream, though there were trees between the path and the stream, so we only saw it occasionally. At the campsite we met Luke, a fellow Te Araroa hiker. He was resting to have lunch so we said we’d see him at the hut or somewhere on the way up. He also knew Eelco, and G and I guessed Eelco might be at the hut tonight, too.

The way up the mountain was different than previous tracks. It was a beautiful forest. The jungle was tame and the ground more clear of ferns and thick bush. The vines were kept off the path, and the trees were big and beautiful. We lost the trail at one point and neither of us was sure where to go to get it back. Using the GPS to guide us, we fought our way perpendicular to the path rather than retrace out steps. (Then I took the front walker position) We talked about plans for after New Zealand while we hiked.

The path lead us constantly, but gently, up. It was very different than all the ridge lines we’d been hiking before. This was just constantly up, no down, no level. For several hours we were gifted with beautiful forest. This area of New Zealand was the inspiration and filming ground for parts of Lord of the Rings–the Hobbit’s village was filmed not far from our location. We could see strong resemblances to the forest here and the movie. It wasn’t a bad section.

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Until the mud and boulders started.

I can’t remember exactly when it changed. Somewhere, the forest stopped and was replaced by the jungle. At the higher elevation, we found ourselves in the cloud–which made not only us wet, but the trees and ground too. The path became instantly crowded. The flora fighting for the free space that was the track. Beneath us the ground went from solid and leaf strewn to muddy, rocky and rooty. It suddenly steepened and we were climbing with our hands over boulders and up walls of giant tree roots. It was kind of raining, but really we were just in a rain cloud. We thought for sure we were right near the summit, there was not other explanation for the suddenly harsh conditions.

We weren’t near the summit yet. There needn’t be an explanation for the harshening of conditions. It was simply worse. Checking the GPS as I became increasingly exasperated and frustrated, we found we had a surprising number of kilometers still left ahead of us. Just as we always did, we thought each level patch to be the summit. Luke passed when there were 3 km left. One particularly summit-like clearing had us truly convinced. There were absolutely no views. Complete white-out, being in the cloud. All that work for nothing. The boulders were slippery. The path was muddy. And the track was a climb maximum steepness. We continued for another two hours. Finally, we arrived at a scaffolding outlook tower. Underneath sat Luke. We didn’t even bother going up. All we could see was white in every direction. We passed by Luke and I prayed the rest of the trail would be over quickly.

It wasn’t. It continued for 1,800 seconds. But suddenly, there was a helicopter pad and from there on, there was beautiful boardwalk. We cruised into the best camp we’d seen. First there were tent sites–raised, padded squares with short paths leading off the boardwalk. Then there was a small hut and then a huge hut. 🙂 and in the kitchen window of the large hut, was Eelco. 🙂

Muddy and exhausted, we went into the hut’s mud room and removed out boots. Inside we found a large, spacious room with a kitchen area–several sinks and lots of counter–and many benches for sitting. There were two rooms with bunks, Eelco had taken the smaller room and we took the larger. There were clean, thick sleeping pads on the many bunks. The whole hut was beautiful and clean.

The evening passed with many laughs and much coldness. Luke arrived shortly after us. We had dinner and shared snacks with each other. Eelco told us his wife had messaged him saying there was a lot of rain coming the following night. After we finished swapping stories about the trails behind us, we talked about the trail ahead. There was a 7 hour section on the schedule for tomorrow and a 10 hour section after that. That put us in Waitomo the second night from our hut. But the rain was coming the following night. Eelco and Luke were going to try to make it to Waitomo.

The 7-hour section was 3-4 hours out of the forest and then 17km of roads. The 10 hour section was 20 km of pasture and forest. 2km an hour means sucky track, but the section didn’t look like it should have taken so long. Even still, where Eelco and Luke might be able to squeeze a 17-hour section into a day, G and I had barely the slightest chance of doing such a thing.

Thinking back to 4 a.m. Digger’s Valley, we decided we’d try. The forest would not be possible without daylight, so we’d leave shortly after 6. We’d push ourselves as hard as we could and we’d hope for a hitch over the 17 km of road–that was the only way we could possibly make it work. All of us having decided tomorrow would be early and long, we cut the night short and went to bed early.

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