Tramping (Trekking) the Length of New Zealand (MAIN PAGE)

Section E: Auckland to Rotorua

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Section Summary: Section E starts in Auckland with an 18-km north-to-south walk across parks and streets through the central part of the city along the well-marked Coast-to-Coast Track (so named because it goes from the Pacific Ocean on the north side to the Tasman Sea on the south side). Section E then undergoes a "displacement" of 80km to the east, at an exactly constant latitude, to resume with a south-going route through rugged and mountainous Coromandel and Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Parks, along tramping tracks and minor roads. There are three huts along the route. In between the two parks, the route emerges at Waikino in the Karangahake Gorge and passes through historic gold mining territory, harking back to the New Zealand gold rush of the 1870s. The section ends by emerging onto active forest roads and finally an abandoned railroad track to Rotorua. Maximum elevations reached along the rugged bush and forest route, with some crest-top tracks, are around 600 meters (2000 feet).

Section Journal: from Rotorua, New Zealand, December 6

Before starting Section E, a rest week in Auckland included route planning and consulting with others, packing and mailing equipment and supplies (2 large boxes to Wellington, 1 large box to Taupo, smaller boxes to Waikino and Mamuku), reading email, and even speaking at a professional energy conference. My right foot, injured at least partly due to all the angled road shoulder walking, also had a chance to heal. Then Section E began with a walk south across Auckland with friends John and Julie Irving along Auckland's "Coast to Coast" walk, a 16-km marked route through city parks and streets. This was my first time hiking with partners on the trek, and it was an enjoyable day. They even bought me lunch along the way. We extended the official Coast-to-Coast route a few kilometers further south to the district of Mangere Bridge, as this both seemed a much more fitting place to end the Coast-to-Coast walk than its official end-point (Auckland officials take note), and also to "line up" the geographic latitude with my intended start in Coroglen through Coromandel Forest Park.

This last point requires some explanation. My original route plan had me take a ferry from Auckland east across the body of water called Firth of Thames to the Coromandel Peninsula and thence south through the Coromandel and Kaimai-Mamaku mountain ranges. This choice was originally made to avoid suburban walking south of Auckland and also because I wanted as much of my total route to be in the mountains as possible. From Coromandel it is possible to walk almost the entire remaining length of the North Island, all the way to Wellington, along several mountain ranges and mostly in public forest lands (called "Forest Parks"). However, I discovered that the ferry only runs in the summer, starting after Christmas, and that any boat landing me in Coromandel Town would mean at least 40-km of road walking, mostly on main highways, before I could take to the trails. A ridgetop route that I had originally planned closer to Coromandel Town, over Papakai and Maumaupaki peaks (~800 m elevation) is apparently quite difficult and unmaintained, and I was advised not to take it. With my experience of bush routes now better calibrated from the tracks in Sections B and C up north, I decided not to try. And all the road walking in Sections C and D had made me quite adverse to any further highway walking for the moment.

So I decided to start on the Coromandel Peninsula, but south of Coromandel Town, in the settlement of Coroglen, from where I could immediately start on trails, and also visit New Zealand's largest and most developed hut on my first night out--Pinnacles Hut, with 80 bunks, running water, gas stoves in the kitchen, and a live-in warden. Thus, the overall trek route was "discontinued" in the south Auckland district of Mangere Bridge, at latitude South 36 degrees, 56 minutes, 33 seconds (NZ grid 6471700N), and then resumed 80-km due east, at Coroglen, at that exact same latitude. To some this discontinuity may seem contrived or against the "rules," but I'm very happy and comfortable with it for the reasons discussed above. Besides, the "rules" are my own!

The track from Coroglen to Pinnacles Hut was marked "for experienced trampers" on a sign near the hut, but I didn't know that until after hiking it! It was a very nice track, although quite strenuous in one section where there is a steep descent to a river and then ascent up the other side. There was one mishap, however, on a stretch that wasn't too steep or difficult, but was close to my arrival at the hut. I wasn't paying proper attention, being tired and hungry close to the end of the day. There was a large step-up along a flat dirt/mud section, of a type which normally is surmounted easily with sufficient momentum to get over it. But not paying attention, I didn't put sufficient momentum or commitment into the step, and started falling over backwards. After a few backward steps behind me down the slope, I managed to twist and land on my side, but I also hit my head on an exposed root. Nothing but bruises, but it could have been worse, and I violated my promise to pay attention every step of the way. This will serve as a reminder to be diligent with every step.

After Pinnacles Hut, the track down to Kauaeranga Valley was a "yellow brick road" or "deluxe" track. It was wide and paved flat with stones or well-cut steps in the rock or smooth dirt, and had sturdy wooden bridges or cabled bridges. It was a joy after the more difficult bush tracks of earlier. This track standard, "walking shoe," is common to very popular shorter trails, both here and in the U.S., but I probably won't encounter it too often along my route.

To go south from the Kauaeranga valley park headquarters, I was faced with two options: 35-km of road walking to Hikutaia, including 20-km on a main highway, or a route along further bush tracks out to Neavesville Road, which then runs south and bypasses much of the road walking, leaving only 7-km from Puriri to Hikutaia on the Highway. I really wanted to avoid the road walking. But there was only one way to do it, involving an old 4-km bush track from Highway 26A to Neavesville Road that had been unmaintained for perhaps 15 years. The track appears on a 1982 track map of the area, which someone had given me in Auckland (thanks, Marsha), but is entirely absent from the current topo map or any recent trail maps. So I wasn't sure if was passable. However, it was entirely a ridgetop track so I knew I couldn't get lost on it, as my little experience had shown that it is very easy to stay on the narrow ridgetops in the bush, and there were no nearby cliffs or very steep terrain so it wouldn't be dangerous. And coaching I had received from Peter up north in Takahue gave me confidence: Peter's coaching for bush walking was: (1) stay on the ridgetop; don't get bogged down in gullies and streams and traverses; (2) think like a (wild) pig; go under obstacles across the trail; and (3) feel the ridgetop with your feet. Peter's advice was very good, and I wouldn't have attemped this abandoned track if it hadn't been entirely ridgetop.

When I got to the summit on Highway 26A, there was only a short wooden post in the ground and an opening in the bush. Pushing in, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find a track! And a very old sign, some 20m into the forest, indicating with a large white arrow which way the track headed (the direction of the ridgeline up from the road). The track was quite easy to follow for the first half, although there was the occasional tree fallen across it, but there was a steady progression of white plastic rectangles nailed to trees perhaps every 50 meters, providing additional comfort. The main asset, however, was that the track tread--the surface of the track--had been very well formed, was quite smooth, and was in good condition. So on severely overgrown sections, particularly the second half of track, where I often couldn't even see the ground for all the chest-high grass and bushes, sometimes forming a solid wall in front of me, I could still "feel" the track with my feet, and could readily tell when I was walking along the track and when I had left it, even if I couldn't see it. Even after many years of disuse, I could feel the "path of least resistance" that was along the trail, since the rest of the bush was so dense, and the occasional white markers continually confirmed my direction choices. The hardest parts were picking up the track again after detouring around a major obstacle, such as a series of fallen trees that blocked all visibility ahead, but once I was in the track, it was relatively straight forward to stay in it. My prior experience on bush tracks in Sections B and C had also helped me understand how tracks are routed along ridgetops and what the bush ahead looks like where there is a track going through and where there isn't. The main problem with the overgrowth was slow progress and getting multiple small cuts (like paper cuts) on my hands and legs as I pushed through and parted the sharp "cutty" grasses (razor sharp on the edges) and other types of bushes with my poles, jacketed arms, hands, bare legs, and even entire body. Or vines snaked through and I had to twist and turn and "dance" with the foliage in order to untangle and get past. Several places I took Peter's advice and crawled on hands and knees underneath obstacles. Really, it all became a matter of psychological attitude--taking each meter patiently rather than feeling "held back" by the forces of nature. The old sign at Neavesville Road said 2 hours to Highway 26A. Maybe true for when the track was first built! Now, the 4-km track took me a full 5 hours of walking! (I camped overnight partway through, pitching a tent directly on a wider flat section of the track.) I feel like I earned my "bush wings" with this track. Arriving at Neavesville Road (just a dirt road in a very isolated area), it was cause for celebration, and I put the Gypsy Kings on the audio player, my first music in many days, and set off down the dirt road to the main highway.

[Those of you particularly concerned about my well-being will welcome hearing that I filed an "intentions" notice with a park ranger before setting out on the abandoned track to Neavesville Road, and checked in afterwards, and also that I am now carrying an electronic emergency beacon, which can transmit an emergency signal up to a satellite, and then allow rescuers to radio-locate my position on the ground. I hope never to use it, but it will travel with me as I head into the more remote mountain sections to follow.]

Actually, the Piraunui track from the Coromandel Park Headquarters up to Highway 26A, which is supposed to be a current track, and does appear on the maps, was overgrown with gorse and other plants and was probably the most dangerous track I've been on so far. That is because the track is entirely a traverse (against Peter's advice!) and is very narrow in sections over steep hillsides, or even impassable where stream gullies have been washed away, leaving 5-meter-deep "holes" to circumvent. On some of the narrow sections, sharp-pointed gorse bushes have overgrown the track to the point where one must plunge directly into the heart of the gorse bush or risk getting too far over the edge of the abyss. The "crux" of the the Piraunui track was one such section, where pushing directly into a large gorse bush over a sloping 15-cm-wide track (6 inches) left no way to plant a downhill pole to balance and keep from toppling down the steep hillside. And there was nothing to hold onto on the uphill side, save the gorse bush, which would not support me. I cursed loudly across the valley after crossing that small bit. (There have been a few such "crux" sections on the Pacific Crest Trail in prior years where the extreme concentration and stress of a particular short section left me crying after getting through, as an emotional release.)

When I emerged from the Piraunui track onto busy Highway 26A, two passing motorists on the road honked at me. In the spatial context of still being far from the road, they were clearly signaling their approval of a tramper just emerging from the dense bush, and their encouragement was appreciated.

Would I recommend this route along the Piraunui Track and then the old track out to Neavesville Road? Both tracks need maintenance (and the later needs to be added back on maps!), and I would not hike the Piraunui Track again until it is repaired and cleared. But they are both very nice tracks through beautiful country, and much preferable to road walking. I'm glad I did it this way, but wouldn't necessarily recommend it to anyone else!

After coming out Neavesville Road and walking Highway 26A for a bit, it was time to head back up into the hills. The Golden Cross Track heads up to the top of the range and emerges at the closed Golden Cross gold mine, high up on the ridge crest. The track is of top quality and construction and doesn't require looking down much as it winds through a beautiful forest--my first experience of a Pacific-Crest-Trail standard track. Thanks, DOC (Department of Conservation--the agency responsible for tracks and maintenance). Passing Golden Cross mine was my first chance to learn about a gold mine up close. After gold was discovered there in 1892 by the Lowrie Brothers, the mine operated from 1895 to 1998 using both open-pit and underground mining methods. During the mine's operation, 23 tons of gold were produced (worth more than $250 million at today's price), three-quarters of that during the period 1991-1998. On average, one ton of mined ore yielded 5 grams of gold (5 parts per million by weight). The photo of the information board, the writing of these facts in my notebook, and a lunch of rye crackers and almond butter at the parking lot's picnic tables were all done in pouring rain and winds strong enough to upset my balance while walking. It was a good chance to test my waterproof camera and "all weather" notebook and pen, all of which performed admirably. The pen wrote clearly on the page even as the page was being pelted by rain, and when I was done I could literally blow the droplets off the page and still read it.

Then it was on to Waikino, where hosts Jane and Kevin Kinghan, who operate an accommodation service, placed me comfortably in their guest house, showed me how to dry my wet boots and clothes in the hot water closet, gave me dinner, talked of tramping, and watched a TV program about the New Zealand army role in Afghanistan. Despite the difficult overgrown track to Neavesville Road and the dangerous Piraunui Track, this first part of Section E was quite enjoyable and involved only 8-km (5 miles) of highway walking.

(As an interesting coincidence, as I was looking for the Kinghan's residence, I went into someone's garage to ask directions, because I heard voices, and because a sign out front said "Steely Dan" (one of my favorite artists). The fellow inside makes various types of metal fittings to be sold to larger international manufacturers to be incorporated into finished products, and also makes finished products like frying pans, working out of his garage. I'm beginning to understand New Zealand as a nation of small businesses and small farms; the statistics bear this out: two thirds of New Zealand's working population work in businesses of less than 20 employees, which is quite astounding when you think about it. Anyway, another fellow present in the garage, Steve, was someone I had met on Neavesville Road the day before, some 40-km north of there. Steve lived up Neavesville Road and was driving by in an ancient truck as I walked down the road to the highway after emerging on the old overgrown track that took so long to get through. He somewhat warily had asked me what I was doing up there, and when I explained the track I had taken gave me a respectful thumbs up and drove off. Meeting him the next day in the garage, we talked some more about the area and I marveled at the coincidence. Turns out the Kinghan house was directly across the street from "Steely Dan"!)

After two rest days in Waikino (one of the days partly because it was still raining, and it is very difficult to leave a dry comfortable place to start out into the rain!), I set out into the Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park, the second part of Section E. The entire length of the Kaimai-Mamaku Park, for the next several days, was something of a love-hate relationship with the DOC (Department of Conservation) and its challenging tracks through the bush (and its comforting huts). I am happy to say that I did not slip or fall, even mildly, at any point through Kaimai-Mamaku.

The first track followed an old "tramline" up alongside the Whatawheta River to the Whatawheta Hut, my intended destination for the first night. Tramlines were narrow-guage rail tracks along which horse-drawn carts were pulled, and were built throughout the Kaimai-Mamaku range starting in the late 1800s so loggers and miners could more easily move timber and supplies. Nothing is left of of the rails or ties or bridges across rivers and streams, but the route cut itself has been made into a tramping track. With the tramlines, stream crossings are climb-down and climb-up affairs into deeply cut stream beds that once were bridged. River crossings were also needed. The route, and my track, had to cross (ford) the Whatawheta River six times on its way to the hut. There had been light rain in the days before, so perhaps the river was marginally higher, but the route description's warning that "river crossings are inaccessible after heavy rain" should not apply (I hoped). Most of the crossings were OK--I found it best to cross just upstream of a line of rocks, offering shallow steping (calf-high or knee-high water for perhaps a few steps) and maybe twenty steps total with boots under water in order to cross. I kept my hiking boots on, rather than switching to my "water shoes", both for better traction and because taking the boots on and off six times would have added more than an hour to the trip! (The penalty is wet boots and socks for the entire next day).

However, at one crossing I chose the wrong place to ford--a relatively calm section that looked good, but which turned out to have a current in the middle and two or three steps through waist-high water to get across that current, along with large, irregular and slippery rocks underfoot. "Good foot plants; don't slip" I thought repeatedly to myself. "One more good step" I thought, to get to shallow water, as my foot sought firm footing. This was the third dangerous passage of my trek (the first being a highway bridge on Highway 1 in Section D and the second being the traverse section mentioned above on the Piraunui Track). My definition of a "dangerous passage" is "likely to be disabling with a smaller chance of being fatal should one slip, slide, or fall." A slip and fall into the river current at that point qualified. My intent is to minimize dangerous passages as much as possible along the way, and I will note them when they occur.

To cap off the day, the last river crossing was done somewhat hastily, as it started pouring rain and thunder was heard off in the distance. I didn't want to be in the river should there be a lightning strike nearby! Immediately after the crossing, the comforting sight of the beautiful Whatawheta hut appeared. No people in it, however (OK, its time to see others along the trail after all this solitary hiking--hopefully in upcoming sections.)

What followed were a series of tracks and old tramlines of varying difficulty, some smooth and unencumbered, reminding me of the Pacific Crest Trail, some with the usual steep ups and downs, some with lots of climbing down into and out of steep stream gullies which also soaked boots in crossing, and some more like continuous mud puddles with thick sucking mud that swallowed an entire boot (the Kaimai is famous for its mud). There was one other hut along the way, situated on the crest of the range, that was so nice I decided to take a rest day there (sporadic rain and hail storms that day also influenced my decision). With views of the range crest, padded bunks, a passive rain-fed water tank and faucet, table and chairs, and covered porch, the Te Rereatukahia Hut was the perfect place for the body to repair and for sleeping until noon!

One track section was described in a DOC pamphlet as "the most rugged of the North South Track, as the track negotiates a number of rocky outcrops....There are some very steep ascents and descents including one section with a 9-metre vertical steel ladder." That's a two-storey-high vertical ladder, folks. I decided to bypass that section and one other by walking down from the crest to a nearby road and walking along the road some 15-km before re-entering the park. The track down to the road ended by going through private forest land for the last hour of walking, however, and it wasn't until I got almost all the way down that there was a sign "closed due to logging operations." What could I do? Go all the way back up to the crest and traverse all the way to the other side of the park, or take the steel ladder section after all? No, I kept descending into the forest, to emerge onto a rough logging road through a clear-cut area that had obliterated all sign of the track. An unanticipated extra hour later, after much exasperation, use of my GPS and compass, and more pushing through thick bushes and thorns, I found where the track emerged onto the road. There, a sign proclaimed the area "temporarily closed to public access." But there was no such sign at the start of the track, at the crest. And it stands to reason that the track could be re-routed around the logging operation, or marked in some way to allow passage (in the U.S., companies logging on public forest lands around trails are generally required to re-route trails and/or post detour signs, not close off access entirely). DOC take note!

Another section of the main North-South track was described by a plastic-coated paper sign nailed to a tree as "rugged and overgrown [unmaintained]; for experienced trampers only; 4 hours to [get through]", and I was invited by the sign to take an alternate track, the Te Tuhi Track, which led to the "new" (1996) Ngamarama Track "on the east side" of the Te Tuhi Track. The new Ngamarama track wasn't on my map and it was unclear at what point along the Te Tuhi Track the new Ngamarama Track diverged. But I trusted it would go through and it was described in a few words on the DOC pamphlett I had. Not wanting another difficult push-through climb-over overgrown bush section, I set off on the recommended alternate route, which the pamphlet seemed to indicate would be around 4 hours to get to my next track (Leyland O'Brien). The alternative route was a very nice track and would have been an entirely pleasant experience, were it not for the fact that at some point, at a bend in the track, I continued straight. After a minute I saw an orange marker, and continued. But there was a large tree across the track that required a push-through climb-over detour. I found the next orange marker and continued. Another tree and strenuous detour. Again I found the next orange marker. After about half an hour of this, I realized that the track had gotten significantly worse at some point, but perhaps someone simply had given up on the maintenance past that point. At about the same time, the track emerged on a "road" filled with shoulder-high cutty grass and an ancient sign saying "track (Te Tuhi)" and pointing in the direction I had just come. There was a faint path along the "road" and a few pink ribbons here and there, and I pushed my way through the grass for maybe 100 meters, until I realized there were no more markers anywhere to be seen. A check of the GPS at that point showed no track or road was marked on the map at my current location and that I was still a few kilometers from anywhere. And dense bush all around, the "road" barely discernable. This was NOT "tramping the length of New Zealand" just here, but rather "stuck in the middle of nowhere." A mild panic for a second, but mostly thoughts of having to completely retrace my steps and then spend four hours on the "rugged and overgrown" North-South track that the alternative route was designed to avoid. Was this overgrown road part of the "alternate route"? I wasn't going to go any further to find out. Now that I considered it, the track had gotten much more overgrown quite suddenly, so maybe I missed something. So I retraced my steps, struggling back around the same overgrowth and fallen trees I had to get there, until I emerged back on the clear track I had left at the bend where I had gone straight. There was an orange triangle directing one around the bend and along the wonderfully clear and obvious path--the continuation of the alternative route. I hadn't seen the orange triangle and had walked right off the track at the bend! Anywhere else, you walk off the track, you stop seeing orange markers and know it. But I suspect I had turned off onto the old Te Tuhi Track, and continued to follow the older orange markers for the old, unmaintained section of Te Tuhi, and that bend was where the new Ngamarama Track "started." OK, I wouldn't have made the mistake had I seen the orange triangle at the bend, or had I realized sooner that the track had gotten significantly worse all of a sudden. But I trusted in following the orange markers. A sign at that bend/junction, or a clear barrier across the old track would have been nice, DOC!

The walk through Kaimai-Mamaku distilled my defintions of "aerobic hiking" versus "strength hiking." Aerobic hiking is what I am used to, what I trained for, and what is possible along most of the Pacific Crest Trail. Aerobic hiking is basically the freedom to take continuous steps of any size such that the exercise is continuous, rapid, and more dependent on endurance and breathing than on muscle strength. Strength hiking is what is required through much of the bush here. Strength hiking is more akin to rock climbing, and more reflective of the steeper New England sections of the Appalaichian Trail. One must pull oneself up or lower oneself down in high, careful steps, often keeping three points of contact (feet, poles, and/or hands) while moving the fourth point. Movement often requires putting the entire body into it, using leg and arm strength to climb up or down, along with other muscles. The drops or climbs to negotiate with any given movement can be half of one's body height. The training required is weight-lifting rather than bicycling or fast walking. I had no such strength training before starting the trek, and could have benefited from it. In general, I'm not a strong person, just an aerobic one, and the bush was exhausting.

Some of the tracks allowed aerobic hiking and these were prized, such as the Wharawhara Link Track, which was beautifully constructed to allow continuous, rapid, short steps uphill. That track showed me that the difference between aerobic and strength hiking can simply be how the track is constructed, given the same terrain. One track I was looking forward to for its aerobic hiking, the Wairere Falls track, which climbed 300 meters (1000 feet) vertical in less than 1000 meters horizontal, and included steps cut into stone, was closed because the steps had broken. Instead, a DOC sign directed one to an "old Maori track," which really means a track that goes straight up the fall-line and is "strength hiking" in the extreme the entire way up!

After leaving the Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park, I stopped to have lunch at McLaren Falls park, a small oasis by a lake of stunning beauty being enjoyed by a large group of school children. This was my last water for the next 24-hours, as I then entered a closed forest road for an all-afternoon walk through pine forest, clear-cut areas, and re-planted seedlings. New Zealand seems quite advanced in utilizing these forest "plantations," where continuous replanting and harvesting of pine forest allows a (renewable) and continuous supply of wood. The clear-cut areas don't look so pretty, though. Logging traffic was minimal in the afternoon, although there were active logging operations nearby. I worried about whether I was allowed to be on the road at all, given it was privately-owned forest land, but signs were few and the logging crew that saw me just waved and (I later learned) announced me on the radio to others in the area (all logging-road traffic is announced and monitored via radio). There were a lot of dead possums on the forest road, and as I camped off the road in a clearing overnight, I was awakened to a steady stream of heavy trucks in the pre-dawn, as the loggers got to work. I emerged onto the highway and made my way to the Mamaku Blue Winery and Cafe. The Winery grows its own blueberries and offers all manner of blueberry-based goodies in its cafe. Not having had any water source since McLaren Falls, and down to the bottom of my food bag, the cafe was a welcome stop and I sampled several of the goodies. In fact, I was so grubby, worn-out, scratched-up, beat-up, and foot-sore from wet boots and socks that I took a car ride into Rotorua from Mamaku Blue, bought a pair of running shoes, and returned to Mamaku Blue two days later to walk the remaining 20-km into Rotorua without the backpack or heavy boots!

I also abandoned my plan to walk on forest roads south of Mamaku, to Taupo, and bypass Rotorua altogether. There were more active logging operations in the forest south of Mamaku, along with high logging-truck traffic, and smaller less-defined roads through part of it that would not be on my map. Water would be a problem. And the forest company's "security firm" had told me I couldn't get permission to go through the area, be that as it may. In general, it felt like I would be walking through an industrial work site (which is really what it is, in spite of the beautiful forest). So I finished Section E in Rotorua by walking along the tracks of an abandoned railroad line from Mamaku to Rotorua, preceded for several kilometers by three (wild?) goats who weren't inclined to leave the track but didn't allow me to catch up to them either!

Page updated December 6, 2003