After a couple of days in tourist-mobbed Paihia, I packed up and caught the fast ferry over to Russell. I’d stayed a couple of days in a large backpacker’s, sharing a dorm with travellers who see the country via the Kiwi-Experience buses. My walking trip seemed mad and bizzare to them. My highlight of staying in the resort was a day out kayaking in The Bay. It was a pleasant change to propel myself using arm power instead of leg. Dan, the local who’d fixed me up with the vessel, was good company. He lived on a yacht that he’d commute to using a speeding “tinny” (a small metal-hulled motor-boat). Not a bad life.
Both the lady at the pot-office and Martin the ferry skipper were keen to learn about the walk. Once in Russell, and while buying batteries, Sheryl the shop keeper offered to put me up at hers that evening at Waikare – a small settlement that led into the Russell Forest. To get there I had a lot of road to walk, passing through hilly bush, past expensive holiday homes and alongside mangrove covered bays. The nicest part was crossing one of these swamps via a new board-walk. Tide was out and the mangrove roots stood erect in the mud.
A few hours later I approached some road-workers. The guy holding the STOP sign clearly recognised me and said hi. I was confused.
“Yeah bro, don’t you remember we picked you up hitch-hiking the other day from Paihia?”
I rattled my brain but it remained blank.
“Yeah you and the young fella who we dropped off at Haruru Falls.”
And then it came back to me – making my way back to Kerikeri after walking through Waitangi. This guy and the driver were drinking pre-mixes and provided an entertaining ride. The driver came over to say hello and I barely recognised him in his work clothes minus drink in hand. I asked about the weather as the route ahead depended on it being good, while the forecast had not been. The first section of the Russell Forest involved walking up a small river that’s prone to flash floods during rain.
“Ahh you’ll be alright, forecasts mean shit over here.” Fair enough.
“What about a lighter?” I’d lost mine earlier that day and was down to three matches. “Nah, can’t help you with that bro.”
The lighter problem was solved by Gary. He was the last inhabitant on the track into the forest. I found him hard at work in his garden beside the trail. After having enough with the rat-race style of life, he’d decided to “go bush”. His wife hadn’t been keen on the idea, and after lasting 3 ½ years she moved to Whangarei, visiting Gary on the weekends. I admired him for his tenacity in committing to living off such a wild bit of land. Pumpkins, potatoes, fruit trees and a dairy cow provided food, with meat coming from wild cattle and pigs. A tough, yet rewarding, life.
He had a spare lighter that I exchanged for a 13mm spanner that I’d found on the road in. Telling me I’d avoid the impending rain, I bid him farewell and followed the trail down to the river. Gary’d cleared this part of the track with his son and it criss-crossed the Waipapakauri Stream. A stunning walk it involved a fair bit of wading, some waist-deep. A few drops came on the way, but held off and I made it to the “hut” with only wet legs. Hut in speech marks as the four walls I’d expected turned out to be only two, in a T shape, with benches lining them. I made myself comfy on one of these and tried to sleep. Then the mosquitoes moved in. My left-over Thai repellent proved useless and I spent over an hour trying to fight the bloodsuckers off. I killed a load, but they came and came, harassing me from all angles. I gave up and pitched my tent.
I awoke at 3am itching. Turning the light on I realaised that I’d left an inch of the zipper open and a half dozen of the bastards had got in. Trapped in the tent they were easy to exterminate, leaving my own blood smeared over my palms. At day-break the drone of a whole squadron trapped under the fly greeted me.
The rest of the Russell forest was tough on me. Tired from the 30km the previous day, and lack of sleep, the ridge walking wore me out. Blisters developed, and just as I reached the road, the rain finally came. I ducked off down to the first bay and cozied up for the night in a cabin by the beach.
The morning looked better, but after re-fuelling at a shop, the rain came back. Pausing at the road junction I met a Maori couple in their early 30’s who’re hitching into town. Harry & Jill walked with me for a couple of kilometres, becoming my first real companions while tramping. They’d only been living in Oakara Bay for a couple of months after moving up from Auckland and enjoyed the quietness of the place.
They eventually caught a ride and I was left to continue along the road margin. Road walking is not the nicest of ways to advance. It requires an extra degree of vigilance. I normally keep on the right so that I can see approaching traffic without having to look over my shoulder. But on tight, blind corners I cross to the left to avoid being splattered by drivers hugging the bends. I have to restrain from listening to music (not that I’ve done much of that so far) so that I can hear approaching vehicles. With big trucks I try to step off the road when possible.
This section was made even worse by the increasing rain. When I reached Helena Bay I sought cover under a large, leaning Pohutukawa tree. Typical of the area it was a quaint little bay with a few baches (small NZ beach-side holiday homes) scattered around. While sheltering I heard a loud humming coming from the roof a nearby bach. I looked up just in time to see this electrical transformer explode into flames and burn itself out. The rain eased off and I kept moving.
The road ahead kept to the Te Araroa Trail and headed into the Kaiikanui Forest. Down to the left the gravel cut a slice out of the hillside, steep drop into pasture on the left, a rise into bush on the right. The drama of this route was emphasised by the lack of barrier and warning signs against caravans. It led down to the coast.
This alternative route appealed to me. The rain had let up, but I could picture a slippery, tough, wet trail through the forest. That route oozed problems. After a few minutes contemplation I left the Te Araroa Trail in pursuit of the unexpected.
I can’t really say that the torrential downpour was unexpected. I was kind of hoping that the forested hills that I’d bypassed would’ve soaked it up, but alas, no. Blankets of heavens finest lashed down in ferocity. I buttoned up, kept my head down, and forced the feet to pick up speed. Heavy rain definitely makes you walk faster.
Ready for sanctuary, the beach at Mimiwhangata disappointed in its emptiness. The road led to a DoC Rangers house and a pre-book lodge. Information panels provided temporary cover as rain eased into drizzle. But I wanted to sit down and eat lunch. I ditched all scruples and made for the only shelter available – a toilet unit. Luckily it was pretty new, spacious, and not yet grotty. I sealed myself inside, chomping on cheese and salami tortillas just as the weather picked up again.
It was hard to leave the shitter and to step back into the elements, but once I hit the deserted beaches I’d forgotten about the comfortable bog. With a full stomach perceptions change – it’s easier to handle loneliness. Two beautiful windswept beaches and a jagged headland later I finally found salvation.
Rang and Ama were bracing the weather by the beach to get phone reception. I ambled over to ask for directions, conscious of the funny looks they were giving me.
“Where’d you come from?”
“Err, just from around those rocks other there.”
I could see the pity in her eyes as Ama invited me for a cup of tea. I later found out that she had a thing for taking in stray animals. Both originally from The North, they now live in Australia’s Gold Coast and were over for a holiday, staying at Rang’s family bach. The first thing that struck me were the 6 caravans lined up in various states of disrepair. Pohutukawa trees lined the mown lawn of the blue wooden building. Rang explained it as a typical bach:
“It started off as a small shack, but over the years my family kept bringing things up and adding to it.”
It was very cosy, but the beauty lay in its privacy and setting. The only neighbours were half a kilometre up the beach (Rang’s uncle), and due it being Maori land it was off the tourist map. The perfect place for a quiet getaway. But unfortunately for the guys it had rained for the few days they’d been there, forcing them to stay indoors, away from enjoying the beach. Cabin fever had set in. Apparently I was welcome company.
“Hey Rang, can Max stay in one of the caravans tonight?”
“Yeah, no worries.”
I looked down at my blisters, thought of the 8km ahead and peered up at the sky. It wasn’t hard to accept the kind offer. Tea was exchanged for a gin & tonic and Ama began cooking. The hospitality didn’t stop there – “You want a bath?”
Rang chopped up some wood and started a fire under a large copper container filled with water. 20 minutes later I wallowed in the cleansing heat with a couple of candles above my feet, door open to the elements. Hospitality at its finest. It’s these moments that make all the pain worthwhile.
We sat up late into the night, with Ama encouraging me to reel off story after story of life in Cambodia. In return they explained the bounty of the coast and how easy it is to live off the abundant sea food. We’d had mussels for dinner along with home-kill pork – a feast compared to the packet stuff I’d been tramping with. A degree of self-sufficiency is easy to attain in these sort of locations. The cat and dog had no problem surviving when left alone. Mangu the dog had been there for years. But unfortunately his stomach had deteriorated to the point where after any meal an evil stench would escape from his rear end. Rang would ban him from the vicinity to prevent Ama from retching.
Rang & Ama walked with me to the road in the morning, leaving me to continue alone at the microwave post box. Civilization returned with million dollar properties nestling into cosy little coves. The sun was back and I shared the road with early morning joggers. Up, down, left, right, the way snaked south. My spirits were up and confidence flowed through me. I looked forward to some big days and making up for lost time.
The arch under my left foot tightened up suddenly. I paused and stretched the foot upwards, hoping to ease the cramp-like feeling. Instead of relief, the tendons running up from my foot to the shin exploding in pain. Bugger to Hell!!!
Hobbling on I reached a campsite by a beach. I paused for a break and spotted a vacant toilet/shower block. My shirt was giving off a pong so I washed it under a tap, hoping that the camp owners wouldn’t spot my sneaky intrusion. They didn’t, and after a half hour I hit the road again. The tendons pounded away and once I reached Whananaki I slumped onto the first bench. I peeled the sock off and was greeted by a swelling. I rubbed tendonitis cream into it and pondered my next course of action.
A wolf whistle made me turn. Rosey leaned out of the window of her 4×4 with a smile on her face – “What’s up dude?”….