Towers of the North
In a conversation we had recently with some friends from the trail, we discussed lessons, or advice we could impart from our time so far on the trail. A stand-out point was about expectations; and how you should have none coming into the Te Araroa. We had them, and they've all been shot down, flipped around or far exceeded in almost every way.
Upon completion of the Wanganui River canoe trip, the first order of business was to retrieve our resupply box from the Wanganui post office. Andrew had put over 1000km on what could once have been called shoes but now more closely compared to open toed sandals (!) and was in dire need of a fresh pair. After a few adds and drops including a shiny new pair of kicks we were on our way out of town.
A typical walk out of town was met with a welcome surprise as we attempted to hitch a brief highway section. About ten minutes into our hitch attempt an incredible Kiwi woman, Raewyn, pulled up and we quickly jumped into her car. We got to talking and explained we were hitching around a 20km highway section and planned to continue walking afterwards on a connecting farm road and on to a campsite at the beach. Long story short, she insisted on driving us all the way to the coast (saving us from rolling into camp after dark) and graciously invited us to stay with her and her husband Chris at their place the following day. After a wonderful sunset and one of our favorite campsites, we walked the following day along a black sand beach fronting the Tasman sea and through forests and farms to arrive at Raewyns place where we were greeted by real beds, lots of beer, and a fantastic home cooked dinner, or as the kiwis call it, tea. We were convinced the following day that we should stay and wait out the impending forecast - we 'reluctantly' enjoyed another day of gracious hospitality and much needed haircuts as we waited out the rain in anticipation of our next section, the Tararua Ranges.
The Tararuas are infamous amongst the NZ tramping community as being one of the most dangerous hiking regions in all of the country. Their geography lends itself to constant exposure from both the east and west, with certain sections having little to no cover other than of New Zealand's fantastic backcountry Hut system. Weather can take a turn for the worst with little warning leaving hikers subject to extreme conditions - as we would soon find out.
Conquering this mountain range started as most of them do, with easy road walking. We bid farewell to Raewyn and Chris and after a ride into town we departed the city of Palmerston North back on foot via a series of bike trails and river walks. Buildings became less frequent as we slowly slipped away from civilization with every passing kilometer. The final day before we started the Tararuas, we slip-slided our way through a muddy forest crisscrossed with rivers and came early in the day to an outdoor pursuits center that Alexa happened to have stayed at five years earlier on her first trip to New Zealand. The TA friendly owners gave us a ride into town to resupply for the ranges, plenty of good advice about the forecast and our trail, and even let Alexa spend the afternoon grooming their two horses.
The next morning we headed down the road and into the ranges as clouds built above us. We knew a storm was soon to hit, but as the forecast had said it wouldn't last more than a day, we had decided to wait out its fury while in the ranges. Our first day we climbed and climbed as the weather declined, turning steadily colder, wetter and windier. We reached our first hut late, and hunkered down with some of our usual friends plus a few new TA hikers. The next day dawned with even more rain and as we knew we were headed next onto the exposed ridges, we all decided to spend the day in the hut eating through our pack weight and coming up with games to stave off the boredom. As the day came to a close the clouds peeled back and in the twilight we caught the first misty view of the mountains ahead.
The next day we headed into the mud, climbing the crests of knife-edge ridges and gaining views of where we had come. As we ascended the clouds returned and upon reaching the far side of the ridge we were immediately blasted with icy wet winds, considered by the forecast to be "severe gale force" - aka 70 kph and so strong as to make walking, particularly on a narrow and slippery ridge, almost impossible. The day continued much like this, both frightening and beautiful, as the clouds parted for breathtaking views and we hiked high above steep river valleys and beneath a rainbow.
As we neared our next hut, the winds died down and the clouds lifted some. We found ourselves in a world of mountains, peaks and ridges stretching in every direction. As we descended off the ridge we entered another strange and beautiful landscape - an enchanted forest of gnarled mountain beech trees, every surface covered in a springy, deep green moss. The Tararuas truly were a land out of fairy tales.
The next day we made our final climb in shifting cloud to the peak of Mount Crawford, its summit socked in by mist, but as we began our descent we left the clouds behind and were greeted by a magnificent view of the Southern Tararuas and the Kapiti Coast. Just at the edges of sight, almost too far away to be believed, was the shadowy shapes of distant mountains - we were getting our first glimpse of the South Island! We skipped in the sunshine down Junction Knob and into the lower forests. Unfortunately our day soon slowed as the trail descended 1000m of elevation in less than 2 km of distance and Alexa's knees decided to throw in the towel. We ended the day early as we reached the first hut at the bottom of the descent, a beautiful large hut above the river. The next two days we scrambled through river valleys and climbed one last outlier peak, taking things slowly to salvage what was left of Alexa's swollen and sore knees.
We reached civilization on the Kapiti Coast the next afternoon, and headed straight for a beer and a huge meal at the local brewery. We were on our way to Wellington and the end of the North Island, but the Tararuas stood out in both our minds - remote, magnificent, and not to be taken lightly - but very possibly our favorite stretch of trail in the whole North.