A moderately long day along roads and some surprisingly amazing trail (for Te Araroa) brought us to Waitomo.
We left Jo’s this morning to overcast skies that quickly cleared up, giving us great views of lush farmland. Our first hour and a half were along a gravel road that meandered southwest,with relatively little traffic.
As our morning progressed, though, it got cloudier, and eventually overcast again. This largely coincided with the views disappearing and the road winding through a forest.
We stopped for a break where the trail turned off the road, then followed a dirt farm road along the edge of a forest. This road looked recently maintained: the ground on part of it was churned up, with a large backhoe sat just off the road. This suggested it had been recently widened or repaired. Either way, it was fairly easy to walk along, at least until the road went into the forest and, while it was clear we were largely still following an abandoned road, the road was no longer maintained to drivable standards, and more resembled a hiking trail.
The trail left the forest and cut through more farmland, with recently-planted pine trees in rows. A sign later indicated that this was “carbon farming” — trees planted for the generation of carbon credits. (I think it’s a shame it’s a monoculture pine plantation, rather than native trees that can one day become a healthy forest, but at least, I guess it’s better than bare, erosion-prone ground.)
After another break just before the trail left this road to travel along the border of one of the tree farms, CareFree reflected on one of the bird calls we’ve been hearing, and suggested that it sounded like the bird call was saying “cheeseburger”. Fortunately, we were heading to a town tonight, but the prospect of also having “cheeseburger birds” in the New Zealand wilderness was not enticing.
After our break spot, we began a series of very steep (and rather pointless) ups and downs as the trail followed a fence line, rather than the nearby dirt roads. By this point, the sun had come out again, making this exposed series of climbs and descents much more sweaty than they would have been earlier in the day. As we progressed, this became rather demoralizing, as we charged through thick overgrown brush, which occasional steep drop-offs just beyond the trail tread hidden by the bush, while a perfectly good dirt road was just on the other side of a fence.
We passed an extremely smelly dead animal (probably a possum) and a skeleton immediately next to the trail (that would have been very easy to step on). A little further on, we saw three dead possums on the ground, underneath a possum trap. Clearly, the traps in this area were working well.
The next bit of trail was a blur. It was hot out this afternoon, and I ran out of water in my pack bladder, so I was focused on going quickly enough to make it to the bottom of a hill where there was a creek we could get water from, but not so quickly that I’d sweat much more and completely run out of water. it still took us an hour, though, but most of that was in forest, so the bright sunlight wasn’t so bad.
We probably should have stopped at the next creek — it was wide enough to require fording, and stopping there would have let us dry our feet and socks out before continuing on.
When we got there, though, we were not really in the mood to stop and take our boots off for the crossing, so we just charged through. This was a gamble: if the trail past the creek were bad, our feet would be pretty unhappy with being wet and being asked to navigate poor trail.
From the creek, the track was somewhat steep with two separate channels, one of which was significantly eroded. Once we got higher up, the trail split into a horse trail and a hiker trail. The hiker trail took us below the ridge, on an absolutely fantastic trail, easily the best we’ve hiked on the TA so far. For about an hour, we zoomed down the trail, almost questioning if we were still on Te Araroa. (The trail really was that unexpectedly good.) Somewhere on that nice stretch, we passed halfway through the North Island; we’re now closer to Wellington than Cape Reinga.
The excellent trail ended at a dirt road, which eventually gave way to a paved road, as we dropped away from the ridge and raced towards Waitomo. Earlier in the day, we’d booked a cabin at the Holiday Park in Waitomo, and needed to get there before 7 in order to check-in.
While on the road into Waitomo, a trail angel shuttling a hiker stopped on the side of the road to chat with us, which was a little awkward since we were basically shouting at each other from across two lanes of light traffic. (She stopped because she’d seen us just off the road this morning at our first break stop.)
On our way into town, we passed the entrance to some of the cave tours that Waitomo is particularly famous for due to the presence of “glowworms” (actually the larvae of fungus gnats). Getting into town late in the day, we opted not to go on one of the tours, but we are considering coming back after we finish the trail to see the caves (and some of the other tourist or cultural sites we’ve passed along the way).
We arrived in Waitomo just before 6:30 — half an hour before our deadline. We attempted to treat ourselves to ice cream at the general store/restaurant, which had closed half an hour earlier but was still “open” for selling their (very limited) grocery selection while they finished closing down. CareFree managed to cajole them into serving us ice cream. (Later, another hiker who’d gotten there just after us mentioned that we were the end for the day, they wouldn’t serve him ice cream at all.)
After our ice cream, we checked in to the holiday park, just across the street. We got showers, and also treated ourselves to laundry — it’ll be nice leaving town tomorrow with fresh clothes. (If we hadn’t, it might be almost another week more before we got our clothes washed.)
We began planning the next stretch off trail, 180 km to Taumarunui. Tomorrow will be a short 16 km day to Te Kūiti, where we’ll resupply. After that, we’re looking at several high-30s and low-40s km days before we reach Taumarunui. Part of that stretch is along the Timber Trail, a cycling trail which we’d have the option to cycle. It’s something we’re considering, but we haven’t looked much into it, so the apparent logistics make it seem unlikely.
With very heavy rain forecast next week, we had the thought to go back to Auckland for Christmas to avoid the weather. However, due to busses already being booked up for holiday travel, in order to gain any advantage against the weather, we’d have to make it to Taumarunui on the 24th. Given the distance, we’re currently anticipating getting there on the 25th, so the timing doesn’t seem like it’ll work out.