Te Araroa 7: Palmerston North to Wellington

Morning all,

This time I’ll be chatting about the journey from Palmerston North to Waikanae, through the Tararua mountains (kiwis refer to them as hills, but I think they refer to anything less than Everest as a hill). This is a pleasant (if tough) enough route as is, but assorted unexpected occurrences occurred which turned it from a good walk, to probably the best part of the Te Araroa so far (for me at least). My apologies, but this post ended up huge, so grab a coffee if you plan to read it all in one go (any excuse).

Walking out of Palmerston North was a fairly generic road/park walking experience, but once again I was amazed at how quickly you can go from the middle of a city to the middle of nowhere out here. It took me about an hour to get from middle of city to country road. The first day’s walk was reasonably relaxing, walking along country lanes and paths along river banks and through countryside, and conveniently, I found an actual campsite at around 4. I was in no rush, so it made sense to camp for the night and have a slightly longer day the next day.

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At this point the weather was fairly beautiful, and the scenery was not too shabby either.

My second day out from Palmerston North unfortunately found me diverted onto some main roads because of logging work going on through the forest. As I later discovered, lots of folks ignored the closure signs and found no logging going on anyway, which was a little irritating, but hey ho. This road walk was about as bad as the walk out of Whanganui, with a lot of large trucks and no offers of a lift, but once I was away from the state highway it was not so bad. Indeed I walked past the Shannon hydropower station, which has a white water kayaking course running past it, so that was pleasant.

After a night spent camping next to a very quiet road, I found myself A) inside a cloud, B) in a serious downpour, and C) about 2cm above a vast and increasing area of waterlogged ground. Suffice to say I packed up my tent as quickly as possible, and commenced the day’s walk, utterly drenched to begin with…. perfect. As it turned out, an hour or so after starting the walk the rain stopped, and the track, whilst a little rough, wasn’t too bad to start with. As ever with these tracks though, it deteriorated fairly quickly. The rain had done its work on the ground, and the track which was littered with steep ascent and descents had turned to deep slippery mud. Fortunately though, 2 months of “training” in the ways of New Zealand’s northern forests had made me accustomed to swinging from tree to tree, and spotting the islands of relatively solid ground in the vast lakes of mud which are “the track”. This track introduced a whole new facet of kiwi terminology to my lexicon though. Being a nieve Englishman, I tend to group paths and tracks into one group (along with roads and pavements), and rivers and streams into another (the group which contains lakes and swimming pools). For kiwis however these two groups blur somewhat. Now don’t get me wrong, stream crossings are part of walking in the bush, and help to remind you that broadly speaking you’re off the beaten track. However, 28 stream crossings over the course of 500-1000m did make me question why they bothered building sections of “path” at all. The only reason I can think of is that they didn’t want to write “just walk down the middle of the river for a kilometre” in the track notes.

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Seamless transition from aquatic to terrestrial walkway… And back…. And back again…and back again.

Anyway, after a bit of “extreme paddling”, I was pretty worn out and it was late in the day, and I began the 8km road slog to Levin to re-supply and have a shower. However, t’was not to be. A couple of kilometres down the road, a car pulled up, and the bloke inside said ” you look like a T.A. walker” (I’m still not sure if this was a reference to my various walking gear, or the fact that I was utterly filthy). Long story short, he (John) runs the Makahika outdoor pursuits centre which I was a few kilometres beyond, and he offered me a place to camp for the night for free. This is becoming quite a common occurrence on the trail, however from my arrival at the Makahika centre, things gradually became more and more surreal.

I arrived with the offer of a free place to camp. Fine. John offered me something to drink, I opted for water (I don’t like to overextend my hosts’ hospitality). Fine. Then 2 more TA walkers (Georges and Morgan, who have a blog at https://5millionsteps2people1adventure.wordpress.com/) arrived. More drinks were offered, and this time I went for a beer (everyone else was drinking beer, so I felt less bad about squandering their supplies) and biscuits appeared. John then announced “the corporate event down in the hall should have finished by now, I’ll go and see if there are any leftovers”. What he returned with was a vast plate of burgers, and giant salad, and bread buns for days. Well, it was going to go to waste if we didn’t eat it. We then ate until we couldn’t move. At length (and another beer later) 3 more walkers arrived (Jeanette, Sally, and Brian), and John said “I’ll go and see if there’re any more leftovers”. This time a giant plate of pork, a vast dish of roast vegetables, and another salad arrived. John then announced that they had plenty of spare room in the dorm rooms in the hall, so we wouldn’t need to camp. As a final ludicrous step to this ludicrous turn of events, we got onto the subject of the next section of the walk (through the Tararua mountains), and John said we should check the weather forecast. So we did, and it looked damp and miserable for the next couple of days, so John said “why not just stop here until the good weather window in a few days”…. so we did, and John and his wife Sally continued to treat us like royalty! This was without doubt the most overwhelming in a long line of overwhelming acts of generosity from the lovely New Zealanders.

Anyway, at length we were joined by Jim and Simon, another two TA walkers, and Jeanette, Sally, and Brian headed back to Wellington, and so a group of 5 of us headed off on our way through the Tararuas in glorious weather… and a fair bit of mud. Well that’s not quite true. We vaguely started together, but it was quite clear that we all liked to walk at different paces, and so we spread out along the track and then met up again each evening in the huts.

Our first day in the Tararuas was largely ascent, but I was slightly surprised at how successfully I handled it again. It seems that ascents aren’t too bad at all… relatively speaking. Anyway, I made it to the Te Matawhi hut and discovered that we would be sharing the hut with a group of 4 soldiers, out hunting/training. This was all very comfortable in the 12 bunk hut (note: cunning sentence of anticipation for future discomfort). Up here I also discovered my first interesting food chain of New Zealand (“interesting” being defined as: “doesn’t end in a possum or weasel”). I’d been told about the giant earthworms up here, and had read signs regarding giant predatory snails which fed on them, which is fascinating to hear, but in reality, it’s great when “giant” actually means giant.

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A carnivorous snail (not the biggest one I saw, but the one I remembered to photograph).

A GIANT earthworm… Looks delicious.

The second day was a fantastic but long day following a ridge line along to Nichols hut, high in the mountain range. Here we kept crossing above and below the tree line, with some spectacular views and brilliant ambiance. At this point I was very good that John and Sally had delayed our departure for a few days to hit the perfect weather up there. Unfortunately, every silver lining has a cloud, and it turned out that the 4 hunters weren’t going to make it to their intended hut for the night, so they were staying at Nichols hut too… Nichols being a small 6 person hut…. and there now being 9 of us in it. Nonetheless, a couple of the hunters volunteered/were volunteered by the guy who seemed to be their boss, to sleep on the floor. While this gave us space to fit in (just about) the hut turned into a furnace of industrial proportions.

After a night of steadily desiccating, we found ourselves inside a cloud in the morning. Not great considering this was the day of traversing the highest point of the Tararuas, from which the views were reputedly fantastic… if you aren’t inside a cloud. Nonetheless, we set off, and headed up the steep ascent and delicate knife edge walking through to the peak of Mt Crawford. The cloud remained all the way to the peak, however about 2 minutes after arriving at the peak the clouds to the west just totally cleared off, as if someone had opened the curtains, giving some breathtaking views out to Levin and over the west coast. To the East however, the cloud remained impenetrable the whole way along… ah well, not to worry.

The cut off between East and West.

The view to the West.

Fortunately we were heading south and west, and so as we progressed on the walk, the views just remained spectacular all day. To round out a brilliant day, arriving at the hut we were greeted by some food left by a pair of Department of Conservation staff who had been doing bird surveys. There’s nothing like free food to complete a day.

From there it was a fairly smooth walk down to Otaki forks and onward to Waikanae, though finally the rain caught up with me. At least when it rains just before you reach civilisation it’s not too bad.

The view back up the Tararuas.

Waikanae marks the start of a long fairly urban (urban by New Zealand standards) stretch of walking over 3 or 4 days to Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand. Whilst this was fairly generic, it never fails to amaze me how close you always are to countryside out here. Even on the way into Wellington itself I followed the skyline walkway which takes you along hills to the West of Wellington, and only for the final hour to the city centre was I actually in urban area.

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The land less than a kilometre from the edge of Wellington.

The urban metropolis of Wellington.

Anyway, the blog will now be silent for a few weeks, as my brother has come out to visit, and so we’re doing some more “holiday” like things. However I’ll be back on the trail somewhere in the South Island around mid January, so expect the next post somewhere toward the end of January… if I can find internet access (this is liable to be a serious limiting factor in the South Island).

I hope everyone had an excellent Christmas and has an excellent New Year.

Until next time

Dave

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