The Heart of Darkness
Imagine a forest as a body, and then imagine its intestines - these are the Northland forests.
We left our motel late after some laundry mishaps and stuck our thumbs out for a ride back to Ahipara and the trail. A great local girl, who took the time to drive around the block and pick us up knew exactly where we were headed as she had met a few of our fellows just the day before, and happily dropped us off at the foot of the track - saving us a few kms of road walk on an already late morning. The rain had begun again as we stepped foot into Herekino - the first Northland forest.
Muddy, steep, and dense, Herekino got our blood flowing quickly after days of walking on flat beach. Although a few highlights brightened our path, like seeing our first huge Kauri tree, Herekino was a slog, and exhausted and muddy, we pushed through it's end just before dark, collapsing for the rainy night onto the first patch of grass we found.
We began the next morning imagining we now knew what we were in for and feeling confident that even with the long road walk to reach our next forest - Raetea - that we could push through its depths and camp on grass another night....
We were wrong.
The road walk started quickly, through forestry blocks where we met a shy hedgehog and made good time. But soon rain descended again, growing steadily heavier as our road walk dragged on. After hours in the rain, a steep climb, and a wet lunch, we loaded up with 4 liters of water each (Raetea is "dry" of streams), and finally reached the beginning of the forest. Already our spirits were at an all time low, and we were cold, tired, and soaked through. If only we had known the heart of darkness we were about to be swallowed by.
Raetea was by far the most impossible hiking we have ever encountered. Almost vertical, hand over hand, muddy ascents were followed by knee deep mud pits spanning any flat section of trail, and followed again by descents more steep and slippery than the ascents - and repeat, for kilometer after painful kilometer. Slips and falls, twisted wrists and ankles, plants completely obscuring the trail (not to mention the treacherous footing), confusing markers or the lack there of, and branches and trees to clamber over, under, or smack ones head into. We moved through this obstacle course at a painful 1 kph (.6 mph) and soon realized we would have to spend the night in the forest's depths.
We bedded down in the best spot we could find, still soaking but blessedly the rain had stopped. The next day we threw on the same mud drenched, freezing clothes and shoes, and continued on through another 6 km of "trail" (hah!).
And then, as if passing through to some other dimension, the forest fell away. We were met with grassy hillsides, wildflowers, and a sunny, bright view stretching into the distance! We practically skipped down the farm's hillside, found the first stream, and rinsed the mud, tears, and as much of the memories of Raetea as we could into the flowing water. Still with a long road walk before reaching camp, we lingered as long as we could before continuing on.
After a bit more 4WD track our next forest began not as a forest but a stream. For a few hours of the morning the official trail was in fact a forest stream, rough footing and slow going but the cold water was just what our swollen and blistered feet needed. We then reached an "easy" tramping track, which may have once been that before rain and mudslides washed it into bits. More Raetea-like clambering (though luckily with a little less mud) frustrated our going up to lunch, and was added to by a new bit of interest - possum trapping. From that point on for another almost 20 km every 20 feet or so a possum trap was nailed to a tree directly next to the trail, and every fourth trap or so had a possum hanging (by its crushed head) below the trap, in various stages of decay. The smell was nauseating, and to the pain of Alexa's vegetarian sensibilities, she also accidentally speared with her hikingpole a very rotten poisoned rat carcass while attempting to scramble another steep ascent. Yuck.
Although the dead possums were our constant companion, we were relieved to find that our last forest, Puketi, although extremely steep (there are no such thing as switchbacks on New Zealand trails!) had a reasonably well maintained track, minimal mud, and some absolutely breathtaking groves of giant Kauri trees. We reached a Department of Conservation campsite that evening exhausted but triumphant - we had passed through the heart of darkness and come out the other side, alive and still with our wits!
The next morning we woke up to sun, our first dry tent, and a gorgeous day walking through rolling farmland, as views of the Pacific Ocean and the Bay of Islands steadily grew nearer. We arrived in the town of Kerikeri exhausted but triumphant, and were greeted by a few of our fellow trampers outside a restaurant as we walked through town towards our campsite. Dropping our packs and kicking off our shoes, we all sat, downing burgers and beers, comrades in arms, and celebrated our success while probably annoying the other patrons with our stink and our levity.
We decided not to take our day off in Kerikeri, but to complete our coast to coast stretch and walked roads into Paihia, a beach town in the Bay of Islands, to finally take our first full day off! We are sitting now in the wonderful hostel The Pickled Parrot, enjoying a real bed, hot showers, our first real laundry, and free wifi!
Tomorrow we continue on, hoping our sore feet have recovered enough, and looking forward to more beach, forest, road, or whatever the TA chooses to throw our way. We're ready.