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

Section G: Taupo to Levin

Click here for photos of Section G, Part 1 (Taupo to Kuripapango)

Click here for photos of Section G, Part 2 (Pipiriki to Levin)

Click here for route data/details for Section G

Section Summary: Section G starts in Taupo with a 30-km highway walk and then 10-km rural road walk to the entrance to Kamanawa Forest Park. The route then passes along forest tracks and poled tussock-and-rock routes, through broad river valleys, narrow stream valleys, and along high ridgelines of Kaimanawa and Kaweka Forest Parks. The route traverses the open "tops" of the main Kaweka range, passing over "Kaweka J", the highest peak in the park at 1724 meters elevation (5700 feet), and my highest elevation reached on North Island. After reaching the southern edge of Kaweka Forest Park, at Kuripapango, my original planned route continued south through the Ruahine mountain range, but for reasons discussed I decided to transfer west back to the "official"/developing Te Araroa route. This due-west transfer, by car, represented another "constant-latitude discontinuity" similar to that of Section E. The second part of Section G begins at the small settlement of Pipiriki on the mighty Wanganui River, follows a small and very isolated river road south for some 70-km (alternately metalled/gravel and sealed/paved), to the outskirts of the coastal city of Wanganui. The route then makes its way to the coast south of Wanganui, after crossing two large rivers by inland bridges, and then follows continuous coastal beaches southward to Levin. As part of the beach walking, two additional large rivers that cannot be waded must be crossed by small boat near to the coast.

Section Journal: from Levin, New Zealand, December 30

Section G started in Taupo on Friday. I walked along the highway for 30 kilometers in my running shoes, to get to Tararua Road, which would take me up to a track leading into Kaimanawa Forest Park, and thence into Kaweka Forest Park. The road has a wide flat grassy shoulder, most of which had been recently mowed, so I could stay off the pavement. For the second half of the road walk, there is a dirt forest road which parallels the highway on the north side, about 50 meters away, and this was enjoyable walking for almost 15 kilometers. This forest road is part of the Kaingaroa pine plantation forest, which a local told me is the largest man-made forest in the world. Cutting rights to Kaingaroa forest, along with other nearby forest blocks, were just purchased by Harvard University's endowment fund last month for more than $1 billion. Plantation forests, as a renewable resource, are big business! Upon reaching Tararua Road on the highway, I no sooner had crossed the highway and stuck out my thumb then the very first car, just appearing, stopped and gave me a ride back to Taupo.

Then on Sunday, I took a taxi back to Tararua Road and carried on from where I left off, down the rural road to the park boundary, with my hiking boots and backpack. I was planning to camp at the trailhead that night, but just a few kilometers before that, I discovered "Sika Lodge" which offered beds for $15. So I stopped there, and discovered a whole work crew was staying there. The crew was being paid by the district council (government) to trap, bait, and kill possums in the area. The possums were eating all the foliage and transferring bovine tuberculosis to the local farm animals, I was told. It was a tough two-month job for the six-person crew to reduce the possum population over a wide area to a set level, as measured by special trap-sampling procedures. "Sika" is a species of deer which inhabits the region, and over the next week I passed two deer hunters on the tracks on my way through Kaimanawa/Kaweka forests, as well as deer hoof prints on the tracks.

Monday it was up the track. To my delight, the tracks through the Kaimanawa and Kaweka forests, which are primarily beech forests, were open, flat underfoot, and soft dirt-and-leaf covered. The forests had a much more spacious feeling than the bush tracks further north, and one could see for some distance through the forest, and easily go off the track if need be. Switchbacks, not found in the previous bush sections, existed on some steep sections. On forested ridgetops, views of far-off ridges could often been seen through the trees, in contrast to ridgetop bush tracks, where nothing can ever be seen unless track builders "cut out" a view along the way. On open ridgetops, poles and well-trod tracks through rock and clay banks and scrub were easy to follow. I felt quite "at home" on these beech forest tracks, as well as on the open ridgetops, as they reminded me of favorite sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. Anyone who enjoys the Pacific Crest Trail will love the Kawekas!

My first and only fall on this section happened within the first hour on the track. I was crossing a stream over a smooth slippery sheet of rock several paces across, and in my haste to get across before boots got wet, slipped on a slanted section and fell. Nothing happened to me, not even any bruises, but somehow my pole got caught and I fell on it laterally, snapping it in half. My poles have become such close extensions of my body that I weeped as if a body part had snapped. And because I had a week of tough travel ahead which would be much more difficult without two poles. Luckily, the pole snaped in such a way that two telescoping pieces still fit together offering along-the-pole strength, and all that was needed was several windings of handy duct tape to put it back together with close-to-full structural integrity. I used it gingerly for awhile, but ended up forgetting about the break and used it normally for the next six days. The pole held up until the very last hour of hiking the Kawekas, just before I got to the Napier-Taihape road, when I started slipping down a loose dirt slope, didn't fall, but put my weight on the pole. It collapsed for good, irrepairable this time. (Black Diamond makes these poles, and I consider them among the best on the market, but no pole is infallible and they are not made to be strong laterally.)

After a solitary night at scenic Oamaru Hut, with views across the broad Oamaru River valley, it was off on Tuesday up that valley to Boyd Hut, situated along the even more broad and open Ngaruroro River valley. There is an airstrip for light planes (bringing in hunting and river rafting parties) at Boyd Hut, so I hoped to find people there. Descending to the Ngaruroro River, I could see a plane parked on the airstrip, and someone walking along the track on the opposite side of the valley. Now there was only the river crossing itself, and then 15 minutes to the hut. It hadn't rained the past two days, but there had been some heavy rain in the days before that, so rivers in general were apparently up a bit when I started on Monday, but were coming back down. I started to ford just where the track markers cross the river (a better place probably up-stream a bit), and discovered that the river got deeper and deeper as I crossed, until, with just a few steps left to the far bank, it was above my waist and part of my backpack was in the water. I didn't feel in danger of falling, however, as the footing underneath was sand and small stones, quite solid (another pleasant contrast to the larger underfoot rocks of previous trek sections), and the current was mild. Still, an unsettling experience.

When I got to the hut, there were three people, two boys Mike and Ryan, and their father (sorry, misplaced the name), out for a 5-day hike. These were literally the first fellow trampers I had met since the second day of my trek, October 16, when I met two Austrians out for a few days along 90-mile beach! (Not counting the overnighters at Pinnacles Hut and a few day-hikers in Kaimai-Mamaku). Very impressive was their crossing of the Kaipo River two days before, near Oamaru Hut. As I mentioned, the rivers were up, and they found their river crossing very high. Mike and Ryan swam across the river, starting upstream to manage the current, while their father made chest-high trips across with their backpacks. "Good on you mates," as they say!

Wednesday morning presented the prospect of having to cross back over the Ngaruroro River farther downstream, and I was nervous all the way to the crossing. If I had hiking partners, I don't think water would have bothered me at all, as someone would always be around to help in the event of a spill or just to dissipate the anxiety. But by myself, the water made me quite uncomfortable. Happily this second crossing was only up to my thighs, and was uneventful except for the sobs of relief afterwards. I put Steely Dan's "West of Hollywood" on repeat and listened to it for the next hour-and-a-half up the ridge to Tussock Hut and a lunch break.

Later Wednesday, as I crossed and re-crossed Harkness Stream perhaps 20 times down a narrow gorge of a valley, the track changing sides with each twist of the stream, I grew to enjoy slooshing through the water up to knees or thighs, knowing that immmediately afterwards I would be at Harkness Hut and could at least partly dry my boots in the afternoon sun. Harkness had a beautiful wooden bench on a porch overlooking the sunny valley, and I feasted on a 4-course dinner and read the hut's circa-1990 Reader's Digest, for a very restful evening.

From Harkness Hut, the next two days were very challenging but glorious and beautiful as I ascended out of the forest onto open tussock and rock ridgetops for two days of high ridgetop travel at elevations from 1200 to 1700 meters. The weather held, and skies were bright blue. The trails were steep, but with only occassional "climbing" requiring hands and overall strength. Mostly throughout this entire section, I could engage in the "aerobic hiking" I mentioned in a previous journal. That is, the track was smooth, even if steep, and so small rapid steps, going either up or down, could be taken, without having to break stride. This applied to both open travel and forest tracks. It was a welcome relief from the bush "strength hiking" of previous sections. Stamina was still very much needed, as the ridgetop travel involved continuous ups and downs over minor peaks along ridges. In fact, these two days involved roughly 1300 meters (4300 feet) of cumulative vertical ascent each day, even though the ups and downs remained within the 1200-1700 meter elevation band. I felt in good shape and the vertical ascents were dispatched one after another with no bodily complaints or pains.

Thursday morning dawned very cold. My thermometer said 2 degrees C inside (35 deg F). Outside the ground was coated with frost and my boats, soaked from the stream crossings the day before, were sold blocks of ice. I left Harkness Hut very early, 6:45 am, as I wanted to climb up to the ridgetops before the sun beat down on the way up, and was concerned it might take until after dark to reach my destination, Tira Hut. I walked the first half-kilometer along the stream in my water shoes because there were three stream crossings before starting up to the ridge and I didn't want to soak my icy boats. After the third crossing, I put on my wet socks and frozen boots and headed up. After about half an hour my feet started thawing out, some feeling returned, and by the time I reached the top, 500 meters vertical later, the boots were substantially dryer and the feet warm again. Lunch in the sun at Te Puke hut dried them out completely, and for the next few days--dry boots! I got to Tira Hut by 6:30pm, with two hours of daylight to spare, and rehydrated myself from the meagre 2 liters I had had drink all that day (there were two places on the "tops" to drop down and get more water, but I didn't bother).

Friday was the day to surmount the main Kaweka range and traverse it southward for some hours, passing over the high point of the whole park, a peak called "Kaweka J." "You don't want to be up there in bad weather I had been warned by several different people, as visibility could be reduced to zero and it could be hard to navigate, even with the worn track tread and frequent poles. So I was concerned about Friday's weather. During the night, the wind over Tira Hut was howling and clouds wisked by. "Oh no" I thought, the weather was changing and I would be stranded, as there was no good alternative to going along the "tops" at that point. But Friday dawned bright and clear, and I made my way up to Kaweka J by lunch time, anxiously scanning the skies for any signs of change. It wasn't until descending to Kiwi Saddle in late afternoon, about 5pm, that the clouds started rolling over the ranges and ridges, and I was engulfed myself, but visibility was still OK. A storm was coming, said a forest work crew I passed on the way down (there to remove the "predatory" Radiata pine tree). Good thing I would be down to the road at Kuripapango by the next day.

The ridgetop and range-top walking was alternately along wide rock/clay/tussock fields and then along rocky narrow knife-edge ridges, often the track and ridge being just shoulder-width wide, with sharp drops on either side. But I was used to this type of terrain from the Pacific Crest Trail, and it didn't bother me. Only one place, where the ridge really was a knife edge, and the track navigated to the side of a rocky outcrop for several steps, with almost a cliff-like-drop-off to the side, that I took pause. There were a couple of steps just wide enough for a boot and no hand-holds available on the smooth rock. Going across sideways, facing the rock, would risk falling over backwards. So I went straight across and felt just a twinge of out-of-balance hit me before I was across--quite unsettling. Trails I've been on in the U.S. with such a section would have a steel rope attached to the rock to hold onto as one stepped along.

The last night was spent at Kiwi Saddle Hut, once again alone, except for a "trail runner" who showed up just before sunset, talked for awhile about his upcoming 100-km trail run (done within a 24-hour period), and then left to run to the next hut, presumably after dark. He was bringing supplies to that other hut for an upcoming event, so had to move on.

As I descended to the road the final day, the wind was howling along the narrow ridgetops, affecting my balance and threatening to tear my hat and sunglasses from my head despite my hat strings. The strings were too loose, but this was no place to fumble with strings. Eventually, my hat was torn from my head and sailed off into the blue as I fumbled to keep my sunglasses. A bit later was when my pole broke definitively. So I arrived at Kuripapango (just a dirt road and some recreational parking lots) and the end of the Kawekas, it was clear I had to go to town, rather than keep going in the next range south (the Ruahines), as I had tentatively planned (and still had food for), to buy a new hat, get another pole mailed from my private stockpile, and rest up a bit. As I reached the road and parking lot, a group of people were packing up two cars with rafts and equipment, and one car was going into town and could drop me there. Good timing--just a bit later, we were driving the 50-km into town. The two families had just finished a 5-day rafting trip down the Ngaruroro River, after flying in by helicopter, camping and hunting deer along the way (six deer killed for evening meals and in haul-bags for the dogs back home).

The weather was changing on this last day, and a multi-day storm was due in the next day, according to a forest work crew that I met Friday. Turns out the weather was wind, clouds, showers and rain over much of the southern part of North Island for the next two weeks, so my day on the Kaweka "tops" was possibly the last clear day up there for quite awhile. My "window of good weather" seemed to work well, as even a few days before I entered the Kawekas an earlier rain would have had river levels up, as mentioned before. Overall, the trip through the Kawekas was unquestionably the best part of my trek so far, and I'm very glad I went through there!

But now I had made it to Kuripapango and faced a dillema. My original planned route continued south through the Ruahine mountain range right from Kuripapango. However, upon further study of maps and email dialogues with a local man, Phil Hansen, who has tramped extensively through the Kawekas and Ruahines, I had realized that a continuous north-to-south route through the Ruahines would not be easy. The track system is designed for trampers to cross the range east-west, or simply go up to huts and then come back out along back-track or loop routes. The northern-most and southern-most sections could be done, but the middle was the problem. Either I had to bypass the middle section of the range on roads further to the east, or walk along the range "tops" similar to those of the Kawekas, except that parts of the Ruahine tops were not poled (marked), and would be subject to weather changes that could leave me on the range top with low or no visibility. In addition, the southward entrance to the Ruahines from Kuripapango was across a river that was described to me as "even a small amount of rain can make it impassable"--a river crossing of indeterminate location at the bottom of a steep 700-meter (2300 foot) vertical descent from Kuripapango. Once descended the 700 meters, I would most likely be very temped to try the river crossing no matter the conditions rather than go back up. The forestry work crew I met early said the river level wouldn't likely be affected by the coming storm, but all the warnings I've received about river/stream crossings under rainy conditions in New Zealand came back to me. The Ruahines are also even less frequented than the Kawekas, and I would be entering a particularly isolated area of the park. Finally, I couldn't stomach tramping, by myself, the sharp Ruahine range "tops" without poles there to guide my route, despite my reasonably good navigation skills.

If I had companions along, even just for morale, the Ruahine river crossings, river travel, and open "tops" navigation wouldn't have seemed so formidable. But despite excellent information from my local email correspondent Phil Hansen, I didn't want to try it all alone. During the past six years along the Pacific Crest Trail hiking by myself, whenever someone was concerned about my safety on isolated sections, often days from the nearest road, I would justify my safety by replying "if something happens to me, I'll just lay down in the trail and someone will come along shortly and be able to go and get help." Safety on the isolated tracks and routes of the Ruahines would be far less justified that way.

I had been thinking about switching back west to the "official"/developing Te Araroa route, which I had left in Auckland, as discussed in Section E. Even though I didn't like the idea of a second discontinuity, as my original idea for the trek was completely continuous, this proved the best solution to my dillema at Kuripapango. And it still preserved north-to-south continuity. So I made a transfer by car (a west-to-east "constant-latitude discontinuity") to rejoin the Te Araroa route at the same latitude as Kuripapango, at the small settlement of Pipiriki on the mighty Wanganui River. From there, it was two days walk down an isolated river road to the coastal city of Wanganui, followed by a day to reach the beach, and then 2.5 more days of beach walking to Levin, from where I could enter the southern-most moutain range on North Island, the Tararuas. This route had the timing advantage that I could spend Christmas Eve in Jerusalem, a small settlement along the Wanganui River with a unique convent and church--"Sisters of Compassion." What better place to spend Christmas Eve than in Jerusalem?

So down the isolated winding metalled/gravel Wanganui River Road I walked. The road stretches for 70-km down the river gorge without any other access roads other than at the starting and ending points. The Wanganui is New Zealand's longest continually navigable river. Its waters have been plied by Maori canoes, Victorian paddle wheelers, steamers, kayaks, and jet boats. Along its banks fourished some of New Zealand's earliest settlements, both Maori and European, while tourism in the early 20th Century earned the river the title "Rhine of New Zealand." At the moment, the river was swollen with flood waters from the recent rains, and was a massive muddy flow broken by whirlpools and back-flows that would have made boating hazardous (as it was for Geoff Chapple when he walked it five years earlier).

I got to Jerusalem about 7:30 pm on Christmas Eve, and was shown by Sister Sue to a beautiful dormitory/meeting building for visitors/travellers. The story is that Mother Mary (Suzanne Aubert) established New Zealand's first and only Roman Catholic congregation more than 100 years ago, the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion, at Jerusalem. (Jerusalem is also called "Hiruharama.") Mother Mary was also an expert in herbal remedies and developed a thriving healing business. Later on, during 1969-72, James K. Baxter, one of New Zealand's foremost poets, lived in Jerusalem and attracted "disenchanted young people" who formed a well-known commune that numbered up to 200 people at one point. (I was advised to read the book "O, Jerusalem" to learn more about the commune.)

There were about 40 people present for midnight mass that evening in the church. The service and hymms were alternatively in English and Maori, and the majority of the attendees were Maori, presumably from neighboring settlements along the river. For example, the first few lines of "O Come, all ye faithful" were sung as:

E hoa ma tena, whakatika ake
Me haere tatou ki Peterehema...

After service, we all retired to the meeting room for tea and cookies, and it was a late but memorable evening. I must admit I am not a Christian, but I was neverless inspired and enobled by the service. Thank you, Sisters and Brother JOhn! The Sisters fondly remembered Geoff Chapple from five years before, and were glad to hear I was following in his footsteps along Te Araroa!

The walk along the river was quite pretty and enjoyable, despite the fact that the road became sealed/paved further on, which was harder on the feet. The second night's accomodation on the river was spent in a wool shed at Omaka. The family there runs a canoe service, and also puts up campers in their yard and on tidy mattresses on the floor of their wool shed. (And they also remembered Geoff Chapple from five years ago.) The wool shed had a clean kitchen and bathroom attached, and was quite pleasant. A woman named Sally was also staying in the wool shed that night, and I enjoyed a very nice Christmas dinner conversation with her, with a little red wine she offered to go with my otherwise unremarkable freezed-dried meal.

The walking from the Wanganui River to the coast was along rural sealed/paved roads which passed through a historic area where some of New Zealand's earliest European settlers took root, although not without conflict with local Maori peoples. The walk south from Wanganui could in theory be entirely along the beach, except that several major rivers could not be crossed on foot on the coast. The first river south of Wanganui, the Whangaehu, had to be crossed on the main highway.

The route then took me through the historic small town of Ratana, primarily Maori in population I gathered, from where I was supposed to find an inland "farm bridge" across the next river south, the Turakina River. (The shop-keeper in Ratana remembered Geoff Chapple from five years ago also.) It was perhaps 3-km from the town to the bridge. Not knowing the route or owner of the farmland in adavnce, the best I could learn in Ratana was to head west from the corner of town along a farm road, past a farm house that was under renovation but uninhabited, through several gates, through the forest, and thence across the bridge. Permissions? "No one there to ask; don't worry about it." Geoff Chapple had given me some indication of where the bridge was located, but it was vague. So optimistically I set off down the farm road, passing through a few gates and through the center of some large paddocks with sheep around and some cows or bulls in the far distance. Just before the forest, the road went over a rise and then downhill into a hidden depression. There, standing in road, were several bulls, and many more scattered around the area. I stopped at the top of the rise, and looked at the bulls, wondering how I might get past. They took immediate interest in me, and stared at me. As I looked at my map, more to feign non-chalance and to think than to learn anything from the map, several bulls started walking towards me. This didn't look good, so I started walking back along the road from the direction I had come. The bulls by this time had amassed into a cohesive herd of about 30 bulls and were following me quite intently as a group. Not wanting to be caught out in the open, I headed across the grass to a fenceline, and started following the fenceline back in the direction of town. Some of the bulls passed me and went up to the fenceline ahead of me, while others remained behind and to my side, effectively encircling me. A few made little runs in my direction. "Time to bail out" I thought, and hopped over the fence at a sturdy post (it had two electrified wires on top that gave me mild shocks but nothing too bad). In the distance, it appeared that the paddock I had now entered also contained bulls. In fact, the entire area seemed to contain nother but bulls! Bidding adieu to the intent bulls now on the opposite side of the fence, I made my way through a forest strip, back across a wooden gate, and through the paddock to rejoin the farm road closer to town, with the bulls back in the far distance. Well, I had come within 1-km of the bridge, but that's as far as I could go with my limited knowledge of how to safely co-exist with bulls in a paddock and my aversion to climbing over electrified fences! Besides, I realized, I was technically tresspassing on someone's farm and not at all making a low-profile crossing! So the Ratana shop-keeper drove me the long way around by highway, just to the opposite side of the bridge I would have reached in another 1-km past my farm retreat. I considered backtracking across the bridge from there to cover the 1-km from the other direction, but there was a closed gate leading to Waipu Farms between me and the bridge, and at that point I didn't want to engage in any more unauthorized tresspass. So I'll consider this another "motorized river crossing" of 1-km, even though I greatly lament the missed kilometer of my route!

Soon thereafter, when I reached the beach and was camped at the campground in the coastal settlement of Koitiata, I learned from the camp warden that the farm road and bridge I had tried to walk was owned by Waipu Farms. The road to Ratana was used to transport stock out of the farm in trucks because the bridge wasn't too strong. Sorry, Waipu Farms, and hope future trampers can work something out! (The camp warden in Koitiata also remembered Geoff Chapple from five years ago.)

Then followed two nice days of beach walking and then a 15-km road walk into Levin. I could play music, and my feet appreciated the softer beach walking. The route passed several beach-side towns, and I enjoyed sharing the beach with families buiding sand-castles, fellow walkers, joggers, bicyclists, and an assortment of motor-bikes, dune buggies, farm quads, sedans, and SUVs. I waved at most and most waved back. There were two more rivers to cross, and happily I managed to cross both by boat near to the coast. (Plan B was to hitch-hike out to the main highway from the river bank, cross the rivers on the highway, and hitch-hike back to the other side of the river, also at the river bank.) At the seaside settlement of Scott's Ferry on the north side Rangitikei River, I went to the boat ramp on the river and inquired as to boats. I was advised to visit a certain house in town. When I reached the house, the family there remembered me; they had seen me several hours earlier far up the beach as they drove by on a scavenger drive. When I explained I needed to cross the river, they decided to take me, even though they had just taken their boat out of the river the hour before. They drove their boat back to the river, and quick as a wink were dropping me off at the boat ramp on the opposite bank, about 0.5-km east, from where I could continue southward into the town of Tangimoana and then back to the beach southward. Didn't even have to get my feet wet. Thanks, guys!!

The second river crossing by boat the next day was equally fortunate. Just as I reached the boat ramp in the town of Himatangi Beach, a family was preparing to put their motorboat in the water, and agreed to take me and drop me off on the opposite side of the river, on the river beach, from where I could immediately continue southward along the ocean beach. I took pictures of them and emailed the pictures to them in exchange for their kindness. The drop-off was a jump-off into knee-deep water in my water shoes, and wading onto the shore. Again, many thanks!!

Section G was great. Now to prepare for the final section of North Island through to Wellington along the rugged Tararua mountain range....

Page updated April 10, 2004