Te Araroa part 5: Alternative trails
From Auckland, Te Araroa used to head southeast towards the Hunua ranges. Unfortunately, this section is closed due to storm damage and kauri dieback disease. This year, the trail heads towards the airport and then south. State Highway 1 is never far away. Auckland is a massive sprawling city, so this part of the hike involves a lot of pavements and roads.
We decided to do a slightly alternative version of Te Araroa. The original idea was to stay in Auckland for a couple of nights and hike some stretches with daypacks, like the coast to coast trail and perhaps do some hikes on Rangitoto or Waiheke island. On our first day in Auckland, we had a big breakfast and then set off towards the Domain with our daypacks, intending to hike the coast to coast. Then it started to rain, and our coast to coast walk became cafe to cafe. Auckland has a lot of good food, so we felt it was an important cultural experience to eat as much of it as possible, in particular the ice cream. We had been told by someone about where to get the best ice cream in Auckland, so we paid a visit to Giapo Gelato. At the door, we were greeted by a guy who told us he was new so he couldn’t serve us but he could give us free chocolate while we waited. Yes, please. After a short chocolate-fueled wait, we were shown the menu at the counter. We were allowed to taste all the flavours, which ranged from guacamole with strawberry to hokey pokey. Delicious! Once we had chosen our flavours, we had to decide how we wanted to eat them. We could have the standard cups and cones, but also ice cream on chips, inside fried bread or on little wearable cones. We could even decide on massive chocolate sculptures as toppings. For instance, a white chocolate and caramel sky tower, or a dark chocolate colossal squid. For the first time in weeks, we felt full, but luckily they gave us a box for the chocolate toppings so we could have them for breakfast the next day (which we did). After ice cream, we had some burgers with Sarah and Aaron (because you can never have enough food) before we headed off to the cinema to see the second Fantastic Beasts movie. It was a bit weird. Lots of different plotlines and why weren’t there more baby nifflers? We ended up at a cocktail bar called Caretaker, which Aaron had read about in a bartending magazine. There was a little door hidden away in a sidestreet, and we went down some stairs to find a cool little bar with a jazz band. They didn’t have a menu, but instead asked us questions to find out what we liked. Strong, creamy or refreshing? Sweet, sour or spicy? I ended up with a gin-based ginger mule (after a warning that they had the strongest ginger in town, bring it on!) and Jasper had a penicillin. The waitress told us this basically meant we wouldn’t be ill for at least a month. I’m pretty sure medical science does not work like that, but they were awesome cocktails anyway.
On our second day in Auckland, we were definitely going to Rangitoto. Definitely. Absolutely. Except it rained again when we woke up and we didn’t fancy hiking on a volcanic island in a thunderstorm. So we did some more cafe-hopping, followed by a visit to the DoC office to buy hutpasses and then the sun came out and we did actually do the coast to coast! Bits of it, anyway. Beautiful view from Mt Eden! And obviously we rounded off the evening with more food (rather than join Sarah for a hot yoga session because that just sounded exhausting).
The next morning we hopped on the Intercity bus to Pokeno, together with Sarah and Marie. Pokeno is not too far from Mercer which is on trail. We tried to hitchhike unsuccessfully for about an hour before someone stopped for us. Sarah and Marie were not so lucky and just decided to tramp next to State Highway 1. Rather them than us! We had a vague idea to walk from Mercer to Hamilton in two days (75 km) but due to our late start we quickly realised we might not make it. We did our best anyway, but the trail decided to work against us. We got lost in a gorse bush just above Mercer (Aaaah, pricker bushes got me!) before ending up in what looked like a field with a path of trampled grasses but turned out to be a lake with reeds - this was the correct trail though! Hello, wet feet! Next up, State Highway 1! It looked at first as though we would have to cross it but the trail actually follows the railway for a short stretch (there was a fence between us and the trains, no worries) after which we crawled under a bridge. We then walked just beside the motorway for an hour before the trail veered off and ran beside the Waikato river. It’s a very nice area, but the trail could do with some maintenance. This is probably why many people skip the Auckland - Hamilton section in its entirety. In return, this is probably why this section is not a high on the priority list for maintenance. In one place, the river had swept away most of the trail. There were also about half a dozen electrical fences without stiles which we crossed in increasingly creative ways - jump over, crawl under, climb the wooden fence a bit further down, build a “stile” with some logs and branches, hug a tree. In France, we would’ve had a Bâtard Complet, a loaf of bread that becomes so hard after five days in a backpack that you can use it to construct anything. Sadly, we had to make do without. Çe n’est pas ideal. There were also cows, scratchy types of grass that nearly came to my hips and glorious evening light. We arrived in Rangiriri around six and decided not to push for Huntly once we saw the little “TA hikers welcome” sign at the pie shop. Despite the shop being closed for the day, Cathy made us some delicious apple pies and we camped in a field behind the shop, together with Sarah and Marie.
We were pretty glad the next morning that we had decided to stay in Rangiriri because the walk to Huntly West was along stopbanks with more scratchy grass and cows. It was a pretty nice walk, all in all. There were some good views along the river. Huntly has got a bit of a reputation apparently, and some TAers have described it as dodgy. There’s a massive power station that looks pretty grim and there was graffiti on some of the TA signs, but that’s all we noticed as we passed through. We did get the impression that Bruce Springsteen could have written songs about Huntly, had he been a kiwi.
The rain stopped as we left Huntly, after a long lunchbreak under the roof of the baptist church (no need for a village festival to raise money for the church roof, this thing is perfectly waterproof). Together with Sarah, we headed for the Hakarimata ranges which are described in the trailnotes as steep and muddy, which we have learned is TA speak for “fun” and it was. The climb was over stairs at first, then got steep and scrambly with treeroots and mud. We passed through glorious stands of nikau and treeferns. There were occasional viewpoints. We could see the Huntly power station in the distance, with Rangiriri just visible behind. The other way was Hamilton. At the end of the ranges, we came suddenly to a little clearing full of people in brightly coloured sports clothes. Their shoes were suspiciously clean. These people, in turn, considered our muddy feet with trepidation. We all stood on the viewing platform and enjoyed the view of the entire Waikato. Jasper and I were feeling surprisingly fine, after a 35 km day with a lot of ascent and descent. We briefly toyed with the idea of continuing to Hamilton. This would’ve been another 15 km, on easy paths. However, it was getting quite late and as we didn’t want to roll up at my aunt and uncle’s place after midnight we decided to go to Ngaruawahia with Sarah. We hopped down the fancy boardwalk and staircase, had a quick wash in a stream and headed towards the motel. Jasper and I crossed the railway line when the lights started flashing. A train appeared in the distance. Sarah was behind us and decided to run rather than wait. Our Dutch instincts were horrified, obviously, but luckily it was a slow train so both Sarah and Shackleton made it in one piece. The motel in Ngaruawahia is great, by the way, TA walkers can camp there and they even gave us towels for the showers! Pure luxury!
We had a slow start the next morning and took our time drying out our tents in the morning sun, before we started on the Waikato river trail while eating our second breakfast (ice cream). It was a sunny, hot day and we could feel the heat wafting at us from the asphalt below. Sarah suggested trying to hitch a ride from a boat, which would have been absolutely lovely. Even without a boatride, it was a glorious day along the river bank, until the moment we said goodbye to Sarah (and Shackleton). She was going to the city centre, and we were off to the suburbs to stay with my relatives Monica and Hans.
We knew Hamilton has some cool gullies and were hoping to walk through them but not all pathways connect to each other and we were eventually forced onto normal roads. As usual, we felt horribly overdressed with our gaiters and trekking poles, not to mention the massive Aarn packs. We were greeted with food and hot showers, and lots and lots of news about the trail. Monica is an avid reader of all TA facebook posts and probably more aware of trail updates than we are. She’s also been cutting out newspaper articles about the TA and tramping in general, including one about Liz and Clare the British trailrunners! Monica and Hans even bumped into two trampers in Mercer one day and decided to offer them a bed for the night (Rebekka and Falk, if you are reading this - Monica and Hans say “hi”). We had a welcome rest day in Hamilton, with plenty of time to resupply and eat. We cooked and ate so much food that I think even Hans was impressed.
A final note - Jasper’s Aarn pack, that he bought secondhand, has suffered some damage to the internal frame. He took it to the Trek ‘n Travel outdoor store in Hamilton, hoping for some advice on how to fix it, perhaps with some creative use of number eight wire. Instead he got an entirely new pack, because repairs could take a few weeks and Trek ‘n Travel and Aarn don’t want TA hikers to be slowed down. That’s the most amazing customer service we have ever experienced. Colin from Trek ‘n Travel, and Aarn, you are absolute legends! We’ll send you a postcard from Bluff!