Day 40 (Sat 19 Dec): Hamilton to Whatawhata
Left campground 8.15am, wandered around Hamilton City centre; started the walk proper around 10.15am, reached Whatawhata 2.30pm, 18k or so.
Pain in the head status: Had a bad headache in the night but it wasn’t a migraine or a hypnic headache, I think it was due to dehydration as it eased off completely once I had a drink and a wee. The endless permutations of headache never cease to amaze. But this was a lesson for me – even though I wasn’t thirsty and thought I had drunk enough water, I was still dry. I did have an extensive heat rash on my legs, which seems to be an indication of the heat stress of the day. I am going to pay more attention to my urine output and colour as a sign of my hydration status from now on. Anyway, I had a lovely headache-free day of walking.
Word of the day: Betise, stupid mistake
Today was a messy sort of day. We headed into Hamilton City centre to check whether the local tramping shop, Trek and Travel, had any inflatable pillows, as Tony’s pillow has developed a slow leak, leaving him deflated in the middle of the night. We were thwarted by Covid-19 – the shop was out of stock due to supply issues. We had also had to wait until 10am when the shop opened to receive this disappointment; in the meantime, we kicked around the city buying lunch and blister treatment to tend to my feet. In lieu of a new pillow, we tried to patch the offending area of leakage, but this was unsuccessful. A taping of the seams is underway.
It was mid morning before we hit the trail again, which led us through the city and onto the roads, passing nothing of much interest until we climbed up to a high point (Tills lookout) where we stopped for lunch and I decided to exchange my boots for sandals. This probably saved me half a litre of water lost through sweating feet. The lookout provided views of the surrounds that were obscured by the ever present haze, so it was something of a let down. The only other area of interest was the Taitua Arboretum, which I initially scoffed at when I saw the patch of non-native forest the trail was leading us to but it turned out to be kind of entertaining and a welcome albeit brief relief from the sun. It was full of chickens and other fowl, had a ha ha lawn which wasn’t funny but gave a view down to what looks like Hamilton’s pitiful attempt at a stone circle, and had other quirky botanical themes.
Then it was back on the road, where an entrepreneurial girl tried to sell me a homemade skewer, and on a very stile-ish journey through a farm. The final stretch before our destination, Whatawhata, was an adrenaline-pumping jaunt on the side of a state highway. Nothing like having utes with trailers barrelling towards you at an excess of 100k/h, hurtling past within arms reach, to become acquainted with your heart rate. It would be less stressful if I had confidence in the competence of New Zealand drivers but this confidence frequently fails me. Almost as disconcerting was the fact that on this section, Mt Pirongia, which we will be climbing in a couple of days, was behind us, and the trail seemed to be leading us around in circles to where we had just come from. But sometimes you have to go backwards to get ahead.
Accommodation options are limited in this neck of the woods so we made the betise of stopping at the Whatawhata Tavern. This has an outdoor ‘garden’ area (patch of lawn with some trees) which the proprietors allow TA walkers to pitch their tents on for free (with the expectation that food and drink will be purchased from the bar of course). We were told that the motorbikes currently parked on the lawn would be cleared out by around 6 or 7pm and we could set up camp then. This didn’t happen til around 9pm. We were also told that the loud group of drinkers in the garden bar where we tented would be moved inside by 10pm. They didn’t move on until 11.30pm. Our betise was thinking that this was not inevitable for a Sat night in Whatawhata on the weekend before Christmas. The pub was insanely busy and when the owner told us that he would be back in the morning to open up at 7am (which would give us access to the lavatories), I did not make the betise of believing him. We made alternative toileting arrangements.
There were some silver linings. We got to spend a few hours chilling out and chatting with the Dutch couple with the matching tent (Kees and Elise) and meet another TA walker, Saphira, a Swiss girl struggling with motivation to continue the trail, probably because her massive pack weighs half a ton. I also discovered a new culinary sensation. We made our usual dehydrated dinner (since we’re carrying it, we have to eat it) but ordered a plate of chips to have on the side. I mixed the aioli and barbeque sauce into the dinner and scooped it out using the chips as a spoon. Unbelievably delicious.
Bargain of the trip so far: Massive double scooped ice creams at Whatawhata for only $3. It almost makes the place worth visiting.
Day 41 (Sun 20 Dec): Whatawhata to Kaniwhaniwha campsite (base of Mt Pirongia)
Started walking around 8.30am, reached campsite around 12.30pm, 14k by foot, 10k by car.
Pain in the head status: No pain (celebrations!) Despite a less than optimal sleeping environment last night.
Word of the day: Providential, due to the protective care of God or nature
A good hearted local who had got chatting to Saphira in the bar last night offered to give her (and by proxy, the rest of us) a lift to where the trail started through a large sheep and beef station. This providential act of kindness saved us 10k of tedious road walking and engendered an intense feeling of gratitude that lasted for several hours. I’m not even sure what this man’s name was but he looked like a Wayne and had a big ute that we could all cram into, our packs loaded on the tray. Thank you so much, Wayne.
This made the day’s walking much more relaxed, and we wandered through the farm, trying not to scare the sheep and admiring the classic King Country landscape of limestone rock breaking through the grassy slopes.
The trail then took us into a tantalising snippet of native bush, full of kahikatea, totara and rimu, before spitting us out to walk beside the bush, past the local limeworks and back onto a road. There wasn’t much native birdlife though – far more squawking pheasants and twittering finches than even the warbling of the riroriro.
But we dived back into the bush at the base of Mt Pirongia to reach a campsite by Kaniwhaniwha stream, and the multitude of traps along the track gives hope for a morning wakeup call that is more melodious than the pheasants. We’ll be listening for the kokako, which is resident here.
One problem with reaching camp so early, and finding other people in the plum camping spots, is that you spend the day shuttling the tent around to keep it in the shadiest spot. But it is an idyllic place, the stream rushing by, and even toilets supplied with loo paper and rubbish bins. Luxury camping.
Highlight of the day: Undertaking a spot of caving through the Kaniwhaniwha caves. This was on one of those cute little tracks, past the campsite, that has signs to tell you that you’re 300m from your destination.