Dark, dank, dense, – forests can be places of foreboding mystery. Your vision is limited and the ears pick up strange sounds. It’s easy to get lost and panic – the hostile foliage swallows you up into a state of disorientation – will I ever get out?!?
It’s easy to panic when lost in these environments. Staying calm is key. Retrace your steps, take a compass bearing, or if you’ve a GPS – then finding your way shouldn’t be too much of a chore. As long as you’ve got spare batteries!
Forests/jungles hold a special place in my heart. Harbingers of life, their complexities are fascinating. New Zealand, like much of world, was not-so-long ago covered in trees. Humans brought an end to that. Both the Maoris and Pakeha played their roles, burning vast swathes to make room for agriculture and livestock. Valuable timber such as kauri was stripped in a short space of time. The pieces left are now well protected yet still face threats – namely from invasive pests.
Resting at the Herekino Saddle, I felt joy at being about to pass into this shrouded realm. Te Arai is the Maori name for this spot (The Door). Spirits of the departing take a breather here, before their voyage up Ninety Mile Beach to Cape Reinga. From there they continue under the sea to their final resting place – Hawaiiki, the ancestral homeland. The spot is marked by an eerie carving by my host of the last couple of months – Peter Griffiths.
I suppose I’d better backtrack here for a minute. After finally finishing The Beach, I spent a night in Ahipara and set off the following morning. The fractured metatarsal felt good, but I’d developed a strain alongside my toe of the same foot. On the edge of town I had a coffee and breakfast, contemplating whether I should be pushing myself. It began to rain.
I took that as a sign and hitched back to Pete’s in Takahue. Over a couple of days the toe improved quickly, but a niggle developed in the right foot. Damn feet!! Not wanting to delay any longer I hitched back to Ahipara. The 7km road connection from town to Te Arai passed quickly. Flats led me to a V cut into the hillside – the Herekino Gorge – where my starting point for the forest lay.
With a smile I left the sunlight behind and plunged inwards. First task was to scale up to the ridgeline. Due to this being a day-trip, I only had a tiny bag with a couple of kilos in it. Wow – the difference was huge. Taking a quick break on the climb, I looked up to spot a tiny plane flying northwards over the Herekino. I was in the mood to do the same.
I felt like a caged animal that’s just been released. Having the weight lifted off my back also freed my mind. After spending months navigating the jungles of Cambodia, I knew how to move quickly in this terrain.
The first part of the ridge was thin with scrub, affording me views of Ninety Mile Beach curving to the north-west. Hopefully the last I’d see of that for a while. As the trail angled downwards my feet began to trot beneath. Momentum pulled me into the thicker sections.
An hour in and Kauris surrounded the path. I leant The Stick onto a larger specimen, which completely dwarfed my walking aide. Kauris have been in resurgence the last few decades, but are now plagued by kauri dieback disease. To help prevent the spread of this, trampers are advised to not tread on their roots and to walk in clean footwear.
Leaving the mighty trees behind I sped into a gulley, stopping only to drink straight out of the clear stream. I slowed down on the hills, not wanting to burn up my energy too quickly. The trail was gnarly in parts, with twisted roots and gloopy mud forcing me to pick my steps. Vegetation grew thick around me, reducing visibility to a couple of metres.
On and on, up and down, I kept the pace going, pausing only to sip water or nibble dried dates. After suffering to complete that bloody beach, the liberation allowed me to vent all the pent up frustration that had built. I pushed myself as if possessed, almost jogging some parts. The kilometres flew past.
The trail abruptly popped out onto an old logging track. Bare, red mud now led the way, reminding me of the logging tracks in Cambodia. This is when I started to notice the growing pain in my right foot. Argghh – not again!!! I’d just fixed my left foot and now its partner decides to fail me! My fault for pushing it too hard after months of inactivity. I clenched my teeth and kept going, stubbornly not wanting to let this new problem slow me down.
After turning right at a junction, the straight logging track once again became a crooked trail. Pig tracks littered the area and many parts of the path had been turned over by the rooting swine. Evidently hunters rarely visited these parts. Two run-down logger’s huts pointed to the area’s past.
Varieties of ferns, including ones that grow the height of trees, jostled with other flora for space. Something snared me, stopping me in my tracks. I carefully took a step back and twisted free. Like rattan in Asia, this plant had barbed hooks on the underside of its leaves and stems. Known as Bush Lawyer by the settlers (due to it grabbing you and not wanting to let go), the Maori name is tātarāmoa. Similar to a rose plant, the fruit resemble blackberries and tea can be made from the leaves.
The final descent into Takahue valley was steep and treacherous. The Stick helped with balance and nearby trees provided hand-holds. Half-way down I noticed that I was no longer on the trail. Peering from side to side I couldn’t make out any of the orange triangles that mark the way. Back-tracking solved that problem. A few hundred metres later I popped out of the bush and was rewarded with views of Takahue. Rolling pasture opened spread far with fences criss-crossing the fields. Patches of pine forest mixed things up.
The trail now ran alongside a fence that traversed the slope, dividing forest from private grazing land. I spotted Tutu growing and cut a branch off to take home. Boiled until the water goes black, I’d make a foot-bath from it to help heal my tendons. It’d have to be handled with extreme caution though, because if ingested the powerful poisons within can kill. In New Zealand this shrub is responsible for many sheep and cows rolling over dead.
Walking that last stretch I suddenly felt naked. The Stick! I ran back up the trail and found it lying next to the Tutu shrub. That was the second time I’d slipped away that day. I’d also left it just further on the previous week, when exiting from another nearby walk. It seems that The Stick liked that forest and wanted to stay behind. Well tough! I’m going to keep carrying the bastard for another few months still.
The trail ended at Diggers Valley Road, and a sign put up by Sabrina told of the next road section being closed due to a logging operation. A rumbling truck kicked up a load of dust as it passed, emphasising the message. I’d have to leave that part of the walk for another time.
I started walking the gravel road towards Pete’s. Luckily a guy on a dirt-bike picked me up, saving me another 7-8km. My feet ached by now, no surprise considering I’d halved the allotted 8 hours walking time down to under 4. It made me even more determined to cut further weight from my pack.
Next up – The Raetea Forest – an even bigger and wilder, rainforest resembling expanse.
There’s little chance of New Zealand’s forests being wiped off the map in the foreseeable future. But many others face that very problem. De-forestation in Borneo is happening at an alarming rate, threatening the unique species and tribal people that call those rainforests home. Cambodia’s remaining jungles are plagued by illegal logging and poaching. If action isn’t taken now then future generations will only be able to experience these vital habitats through history books. To help preserve these threatened forests, please visit my donations page.