Day 39: The Very Muddy Hihikiwi Track
Monday, December 18, 2023 9:59 pm
Location: Jo’s Funny Farm (838.9 km)

A long slog on a very muddy downhill through the Pirongia Forest culminated in a road walk to a trail angel’s garage.

The morning started off fairly dreary. While it was nice and dry inside Pāhautea Hut, outside, it was foggy and miserable, and cold enough to see our breath. This did not motivate CareFree and I to move quickly this morning. I proposed leaving at 9, but when that time rolled around, the hut was still in the clouds.

We didn’t want to leave, but we really couldn’t stay either. Maybe, we thought, if we could start our way down, once we lost enough elevation, the fog might stop.

What really got us to get going, though, was an updated weather forecast, which showed rain all day. With no prospect of improvement, the trail would just get wetter and wetter the longer we waited. So we finally finished packing and headed down from the hut at 10 am.

We weren’t really looking forward to this. A couple of young women who arrived at the hut very late last night told a story this morning of taking the wrong trail up and having an extremely long, muddy slog up the mountain in which one of them lost both of their shoes at the same time to a mud pit. Later, I realized that that was most likely the Bell Trail, which we were fortunately not taking down the mountain.

Instead, we were taking the Hihikiwi Track, which took us over the summit of Hihikiwi Mountain via a very nice boardwalk. Signs were posted warning not to pass except on the sections with guard rails, due to the drop-off; that was when I first noticed that the boardwalk was a good two meters above the forest floor, and it was very rocky and overgrown under the boardwalk.

That was our fastest 700 meters of trail in the forest today. After the summit, the boardwalk just ended, and we began a long, slow, steep slog through a tremendous amount of mud, rocks, and roots.

Forest on the Hihikiwi Track
Forest on the Hihikiwi Track

From Hihikiwi Summit, the trail dropped, then climbed to a viewpoint nearly as high as Hihikiwi, before descending steeply. Ultimately, we lost about half the elevation we gained yesterday climbing into the forest.

The 5.3 km trek from the shelter to the end of the forest took us 4.5 hours. There’d been reports of knee-deep mud pits, and our trekking poles verified their existence, but we were able to avoid stepping into them. Still, avoiding the mud was slow, especially when it’s steep. At least this time, I didn’t lose a shoe, and CareFree’s new boots worked much better than her old ones.

The most frustrating part of the descent, though, wasn’t the mud, but the random 5 or 10 meter stretches of boardwalk that were either nearly completely hidden by mud or overgrowth, or stopped or started next to a pond on the trail. It felt like they’d been placed specifically to taunt us.

The end of the trail brought us to a creek, and a dirt road. We were able to clean our muddy legs in the creek; CareFree just waded in with her boots to clean the mud off them as well. (I figured the mud would wash off my boots either in the rain, or the next farm field we walked through, without soaking them in the process.) I swapped my socks out, putting on a dry pair, which made my feet happy for at least a little while, until they started absorbing moisture from my wet boots.

After a longish break, we continued down the dirt road, which took us past farms. On one of the, a rancher was out working in a cow pen; we waved at him as we passed, and he rode over on his horse to chat with us. It was a fun conversation, and CareFree was particularly impressed with how he drove the conversation to include everyone roughly equally — us, and three other hikers who were just behind us on the road. (I forget exactly how it came up, but I was able to bring up the unusual fact that Maryland’s state sport is jousting.)

About 10 km of road walking in total, including a half-hour stretch on a minor highway, brought us to our destination for the day, Jo’s Funny Farm. Jo is a farmer, who has been letting hikers camp on her property, started when one showed up unexpectedly ten years ago. Because there weren’t a whole lot of hikers here today (six in total), we all got to stay in the garage, which was fantastic, since it meant one of us had to set up tents in the rain. Jo charges a nominal fee for that and a shower (which was excellent), and a bit more for an optional dinner or breakfast (we opted just for dinner).

Besides us, there were two northbounders completing their hike from 2021, that were already there when we arrived. The three hikers right behind us went past, apparently going to another trail angel further up the road. (There’s no place to camp anywhere nearby.) Later, Jess arrived, and Jackie arrived after 10 pm; they had camped at Kaniwhaniwha Campsite yesterday, and had gone up and over Pirongia in a day (all day, in Jackie’s case). They had no views at all today, making the trail for them today a very large PUD — pointless up and down.

Jo’s dinner was fantastic. We had biscuits, sausage, mashed potatoes, shredded lettuce, beets, two homemade cheeses, and either a beer or a glass of wine, a fantastic way to celebrate a long, wet, muddy day.

After dinner, the clouds lifted enough to give a little view.