Day 58 (Wed 6 Jan): Whakahoro to Johnson’s campsite (on the Mangapurua track)
Started 8am, finished 3.30pm, 24k.
Pain in the head status: Disappointingly, had another migraine in the middle of the night and had to take another migraine pill. But it retreated entirely by the time we started walking. I’m hoping tonight will be headache-free as I dread getting into a cycle of daily- or nightly – migraines.
Word of the day: Emollient, softening, soothing
After a damp, foggy start to the day, we resumed the Mountains to Sea cycle track, starting on the Kaiwhakauka track, then joining the Mangapurua track. Not many TA walkers take this way, although it is part of the trail, but most opt to canoe the Whanganui River. Both of us had already done the river journey and we were keen to walk this track as it was one we has never walked before, due to the logistical nightmare of starting in the middle of nowhere (Whakahoro definitely counts as this) and ending in the middle of the Whanganui River, 30k from the road end at Pipiriki. The only way out from the river end is by canoe or boat.
The first highlight of the walk was Blue Duck Falls and the experience of looking down the cliffs and steep valley slopes into the gushing river below was complementary to my memories of the canoe journey where you spend all your time gazing up at the sheer rock faces gouged out by the water (when you are not focused on paddling madly through rapids). The soft sandstone in this region means that even a small waterway carves a gorge through the earth.
The second highlight of the day was being visited by a friendly robin at morning tea, while we were listening to the birds and the goats (and smelling the goats).
The third highlight was reaching the peak of the Mangapurua track (661m – a slow steady climb) with views out to Tongariro National Park (not raining there today).
There was also an excellent memorial documenting all the returned servicemen (including a few from the Maori Battalions and one woman, Matron Amelia Bagley) who received a block of land in this area after World War I, to farm and live on. It turned out the terrain was too rugged, the farming too difficult and the access too remote and the settlements were abandoned by 1942, once the road had been damaged and the Government of the day refused to fix it. Wooden signs along the track mark where the houses of these intrepid farmers once stood.
We camped in a clearing that once housed the Johnson’s, with an excellent shelter that was big enough to put the tent up in. Bonus: no wet tent in the morning.
New example of multi service tramping equipment: Ideally, everything we carry while tramping has multiple uses. My nail scissors serve as hair clippers and package openers. My novel example of this comes from carrying a few of those single serve margarine packets, that I’d pinched from the complimentary breakfast at the lodge in National Park, to make our rehydrated mashed potato more palatable. Once you scrape out the margarine there’re always bits left in the corners. Inspired by the Handmaid’s Tale (it was in the book if not in the recent miniseries), I used this as an emollient ointment on my dry scratchy legs. The Handmaid used butter but sadly our lodge only supplied margarine.
Cautionary tale: Although much of the walk today was on four-wheel drivable dirt roads, there was a decent section that was a narrow tramping track, with the usual hazards of mud, rocks and roots, but made more hazardous for mountain bikers because of the extreme slope of some of the terrain, with sheer drop offs into the river far below. Cyclists were advised to dismount and walk in particularly treacherous parts and a notice at the start cautioned that a number of cyclists had had to be helicoptered out because of injury in 2020 and in 2019, a cyclist died here. Cyclists beware. As if I needed another reason to avoid mountain biking.
Day 59 (Thurs 7 Jan): Johnson’s camp (Mangapurua track) to Pipiriki
Started 7.30am, reached Mangapurua landing around 12pm; reached Pipiriki 2.30pm, 16k walking, 30k by jetboat.
Pain in the head status: Woke at 5.30am with a stiff sore neck and head and got up to put breakfast on, then thought I’d try a caffeine pill in case this headache was some weird hypnic variation and it worked like a charm. I sat down to my early porridge pain-free.
Word of the day: Quixotic, idealistic without regard to practicality, marked by rash lofty romantic ideas or extravagantly chivalrous action.
Even if I hadn’t unintentionally started the day early, we would have been woken by a helicopter making passes over the valley, starting around 6am. We saw someone being dropped in a clearing in the midst of dense, steep bush, and beehives being flown out. The big business of manuka honey.
The trail today continued to pass the sites of the doomed servicemen’s lots, allocated by ballot as a supposed reward for war duties but ending up being a heartbreaking drudgery. The last settlers to leave were the Bettjemans in 1942, and all that remains of their dwelling is a brick chimney.
The madness of trying to farm here, or put a road though, was amply demonstrated by the multiple bluffs we passed and the remarkable steepness of the land. There was barely a flat piece of ground to be seen and the streams transect the mountains in deep stony gorges. One bluff, called the Current Bun Bluff because of round concretions that jut from its surface, was even too much for a goat, given the decomposing goat corpse we had to step over beneath this bluff. For the cyclists coming through, this was definitely a place you would not want to fall off your bike.
The pinnacle of this quixotic venture was the Bridge to Nowhere, built to service farms that were already being abandoned, ending at the Whanganui River, at a landing that canoeists struggle to get up, even today. It’s hard to imagine how such a construction was justified at the time, but it does make an engaging tourist attraction. Local tourism is doing well here, judging by the number of canoes and jetboats on the Whanganui River.
We had time to observe this because we finished our walk around midday and spent the next few hours being entertained by the antics of the canoeists maneuvering their vessels to the Mangapurua landing, which is just a slab of muddy rock jutting out from the bank, made slippery because it had started to rain. Two metal posts fixed into the top of the rock served as hitching posts for dozens of canoes and the canoeists often had to clamber over two or three boats to get their shot at scrambling up the rock face. The reward for all this effort was the chance to walk to the Bridge to Nowhere, so I’m sure the old timers who made the Bridge would be very happy to know their work was so well visited and admired.
Then it was our turn but we left in style, alighting gracefully onto a jetboat that took us down the river to Pipiriki. This was my first jetboat ride and it was a gloriously relaxed way to see the river. The green waters mirrored the steep green surrounds, the gorges dense with moss, ferns and flax.
We stayed at Pipiriki campground which thankfully had a small shop so we could have an ice cream and a packet of Tim Tams for afternoon tea. And a pie (vegan mince and cheese) to add to our mashed potato dinner. For tonight at least, we are not hungry.
Wildlife encounters: Tony heard kiwi screeching outside the shelter in the night (I was snoring serenely). This led us to ponder who would win in a fight between an adult kiwi and a feral cat, as we had seen a cat on the track not far from Johnson’s camp. This was the third feral cat we’d spotted, but I hoped there were enough rabbits around to distract it from the native birds. I’m rooting for the kiwi, but I know if kiwi chicks were around, the cat would win.