Ahipara to Kerikeri or “Forest Slump”
Ahipara is a sleepy coastal hamlet with an excellent cafe, a small, expensive grocery store and a bottle shop. It’s not much in the grand scheme of things but appeared to us as a veritable oasis after the trials of 90 Mile Beach. As we made our third or fourth return journey to the shops, we met a pair of fellow TA hikers, the Dutch duo of Vince and Rene. They seemed remarkably buoyant for just having traversed the beach, a situation which seemed hugely demoralizing given the fact that Adam and I were almost in need of Zimmer frames at this stage. The truth would soon come to light however, as they freely admitted they’d hitchhiked their way out of 40kms of beach walking.
After a well deserved rest day in Ahipara and a glorious night spent in an actual bed, it was time to hit the trail once again. Being in a much more congenial state of affairs physically, the Dutch had decided to leave a day earlier than us. The following day, we decided on a short 9km effort to get ourselves established at the entrance of the Herekino Forest. Sometime during this brief foray, Adam’s feet once again began to give him grief. Watching a man pull off his own toenail with a pair of pliers is not the most grim thing I’ve ever seen, but it would definitely make it into my Top 5. The upshot of this impromptu surgery was that walking actually became somewhat easier for him, at least for the time being.
We set up camp in a grassy divot just shy of the trailhead and as the sun went down I was once again enamoured by life on the trail, by the purity and simplicity of it. You carry all you need for your survival on your back, throwing it down in some picturesque, deserted slice of wilderness at the end of the day. In all likelihood, you’ll never lay eyes on this piece of land again in your life, but for a time it is yours. It is home.
The Herekino Forest trail was a welcome change in landscape from the dearth of variety we’d experienced on the beach. New Zealand is a country made famous for it’s scenery by Lord of the Rings, but the landscape was much more reminiscent of Return of the Jedi than Return of the King. The trail was steep, muddy and crisscrossed with the roots of ancient Kauri trees, offering the occasional view before plunging along a precipitous descent toward the exit. Here we met the Dutch group again, who had some interesting news. It seemed that one of their group, Rene, had expressed his intent to quit the trail. He cited a lack of mental rather than physical ability to keep going, and his ability on the trail certainly seemed to correlate with this assessment. We spent the night camped in a tract forestry land, ensconced in a stunning grove where unicorns frolicked amongst the wild flowers and clear streams. The undergrowth smelled of fresh mint.
The next day, it became clear that Adam’s feet would once again become a sticking point. Rather than venturing further, we decided to make the call and hitchhike into town to spent a further rest period waiting for his small toes, now bereft of nails, to harden. We were picked up by Peter, a Takahue local who took us to his home and gave us coffee and homemade biscuits whilst scolding us on the weight of our packs for an hour or so. His house was brimming with character and his family were incredibly hospitable. Eventually he dropped us in Kaitaia where we spent a few days drinking and relaxing. Christmas came and went without much ado. Once again, we were ready for the trail, having now absorbed Vince into our team. Our first effort hitchhiking as a trio (always a difficult proposition) was extremely fortunate. Peter’s wife, Sabrina, saw us on the outskirts of Kaitaia and happened to be driving to the exact location we desired, so we piled into here ludicrously small yellow hatchback and offered our sincere thanks.
From here, we moved into Raetea Forest which, despite all warnings, turned out to be much more agreeable than we’d come to expect. All reports were of agonising inclines and a succession of impenetrable quagmires. Essentially, we began to feel like we’d have more luck traversing the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the late 1960’s. It turned out to be much more benign than predicted, probably more so than the Herekino Trail. The track was still challenging, though it’s inclines were less steep and sustained and the vegetation seemed less dense, being a little further from the West Coast. We camped in a meadow atop a bare rise with a stellar view of the valleys before us which filled with fog in the early morning like a scene from some fantasy novel, the ridges and mountains of the horizon appearing as islands in a sea of white.
From here, there was some more road walking and another pair of forests to complete. These were much easier, owing mainly to the fact that the trails were quite well groomed. In the Omahuta Forest, the trail took us along the bed of a shallow stream called the Mangapukahukahu, which instantly became my favourite name for anything, ever. We weaved for kilometres amongst the shallow pools and over small shoals before climbing a steep ridge out of the forest.
With the forests completed, the last phase of this leg of the journey began. Lady Luck was our friend once again in what was to become a steady procession of serendipitous events. As we exited a piece of farmland, we were stunned to see that the ute approaching us contained Ethan, one of the many who’d given us a lift whilst hitchhiking up to the Cape. He invited us in for coffee, fruitcake and a bit of a yarn. We continued through picturesque farmland, emerging onto a high ridgeline where the emerald hue of the manicured turf was resplendent in the morning sun and contrasted starkly by the darkening horizon. As we walked east, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the Bay of Islands, the peaks and ridges almost lost in the distant haze. This sight was one of the highlights of the trip so far, and one I think that will remain with me for some time.
The trail wound its way down along the Kerikeri River, past amazing pieces of riverside architecture and toward an unexpected waterfall where an equally unexpected acquaintance was found. It so happened that we’d jagged the timing on a meeting with Rene, whom we’d left days ago in the hostel in Kaitaia and was now lounging at the base of the impressive cascade. As we approached town, we also ran into two German lasses who we’d also met in the same hostel. We’d eventually see all of these people once again, further along the trail. The day, and indeed this section of the trail, ended with beers, burgers and even a free lift home from the pub (although I did have to perform a hill start in the courtesy bus, as the girl couldn’t quite figure it out and was beginning to flip out).
Kerikeri was an unexpected gem, a leafy, affluent town which is a far cry from some of the places we’d seen on the West Coast. We stayed at a comfortable, quirky holiday park, making full use of the facilities before departing the next day. We had a schedule, you see… to be in Paihia for New Year’s Eve celebrations. But that is a tale on its own, a story for another time.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.