12/1-12/3 This stretch of trail turned out to be one of our most challenging so far. With the daily rain fraying our nerves and already dampening our resolve, we moved on towards the Tararuas, the last real mountain range on the North island. At about 1800 meters, they may not be the tallest peaks on Earth, but they are notorious for their difficult trail and foul weather; every year, several trampers have to be helicoptered off, alive or otherwise. Fortunately, just before starting the ascent, the trail passes the Matahika Outdoor Pursuits center, run by Sally Duxfield and her husband John. We had been told to look out for them by Jesse, the young Kiwi hiker, so we stopped in for some tea. Unfortunately John wasn't there, but Sally gave us the weather report and run down on the mountains. She was in the intelligence business and John was a pilot in the military, so the similarities to my cousin Beth and her husband Mark were uncanny (even the haircut was the same). Well spoken, worldly, and with a desire to keep tabs on things, she offered to give us a GPS emergency locator, but all were in use. She asked that we checked in at the ranger station at the other end so she would know we weren't dead (she also helps out in search and rescued). Very comforting. We set out in to the rain once again, passing a van full of hikers presumably also heading uphill as we were, then passed an older solo TA hiker (British, I think) with an enormous pack moving at a snails pace shortly before reaching our first hut. He was fully geared out with a rubber apron, huge gloves, GPS, watch, and probably enough food to last eight days or so. Obviously he wasn't thrilled with the weather, and was anticipating it taking him quite awhile to cross this section. We left him at the first hut where he was staying for the night, but with less food and less inclination to stop so early, we pushed on to Te Matawai hut. We had the place to ourselves, and warmed up with a fire in the stove there, futilely drying our clothes off in the meantime. Our next day was our most difficult thus far. With the inclement weather, we barely had fifty meters of visibility all day; the famous views we had read about were nonexistent, despite the path often being atop a ridge above treeline. There is an eerie sort of beauty to it, the type that is captured in Japanese watercolor paintings where even the nearest vistas fade into black and white and grey silhouettes... but damn, after hoofing it so hard, you long for even a glimpse of the landscape. We passed the tiny Dracophyllium hut, a two man shelter made for emergencies, then down to Nichols hut for lunch and pondered the next section, a 5 km alpine stretch that often turn hikers back in bad weather. Thankfully, the temperature was relatively warm, so despite the high winds, we elected to push on. It was ever bit as bad as we anticipated, with howling gusts threatening to push us off the often narrow ridge track, and sideways rain making it difficult to spot the metal poles meant as markers along the way. These sang with a haunting voice in the gale, and only made the silences when we occasionally dipped below the ridge, and thus out of the shuddering reach of the wind, all the more welcome. Eventually the path began to drop, and once in the trees, we were out of the worst of the weather. Our relief and enthusiasm quickly soured however, as the trail plummeted 1200 meters in less than 3 km (i.e. very, very steeply). What we though would be a relatively quick descent dragged on as our knees took a beating on the tricky terrain, and we were happy when we finally bottomed out at a river valley, where we were greeted by two tiny, adorable baby goats. It's as if the trail were apologizing to us for the abuse. We then crossed a long and rickety swing bridge before finally ending at Waitewaiwai hut (abbreviated to YTYY in the trail books), and once again went through the motions of drying our clothing by the stove. If nothing else, this section convinced us to buy unlimited hut passes in Wellington. Our next day we were spared he rain in the morning. The path started on a well graded logging road... but as we have learned, this trail never takes the easy route. A mud slide had destroyed part of the tread, and the alternative added 3.5 km of foul track that made us bitter for the easy trail we were missing. Eventually we descended to Otaki Forks, a valley where the river splits, just as the rain finally, inevitably began. We cruised through and on over some smaller hills, relishing the more enjoyable, but still muddy trail, before a road walk brought us to the town Waikenae (but not before turning down several rides from locals). We decided to head straight to the grocery store and were greeted with free food galore, as we had stumbled into their Christmas celebration. This is pretty much a hikers dream, and we stuffed ourselves on snacks amidst people dressed in Disney costumes, two battered hikers in a sea of holiday cheer. We unceremoniously ate a whole chicken in the store cafe with the festivities going on about us, before finding a campsite under the gloomy trees of a suburban park. Just another few days in the life of a hiker.
Really secure? footbridge.
How to poop and pee... I needed this.
This is LITERALLY what we walk in everyday. So much mud.
Free food at the grocery store Disney Themed Chirstmas party!
Top of Tararuas
My fire man
Hey! A hut!