As soon as we started out from Cape Reinga, we started hearing about Ratea Forest. We heard horror stories of broken trekking poles and shoes lost in thigh deep mud.
After miles and miles of flat terrain on roads and beaches, though, we felt the relief of using new muscles as we began to climb toward the beginning of the forest.
And then we were in it. The mud in Ratea sets in immediately. The trails are steep -- not a switchback in sight -- and the only way to climb the mud slide is to find purchase on the roots that hold puddles of thick water. Sometimes, you can tow yourself up on the trees and vines. We last maybe a kilometer of hopping from root to root before we plunge into a knee deep mud well.
It's a bit like a game at first, staying out of the deepest mud. "Well, you wanted an adventure trail!" Jonathan shouts back cheerily.
The forest is as beautiful as it is rugged. Everything is green and growing, and the undergrowth is thick with ferns and tangles of vines. The trees themselves house not only lichens and mosses but other full trees and tussocks of grass that grow along the branches and in every elbow. The meadows above us keep our own path cool and dark, and we hardly feel the rain, although we can hear it on the canopy overhead.
We don't see any wildlife on the ground here, and the forest floor seems eerily empty. But we are kept company by the birds, whose chirps and songs follow us through the mud. The Tui sound almost mechanized until they give a sort of honk or snort when they miss a note. Others peep mercilessly and some let loose sudden screams and shrieks.
Our pace through Ratea is almost painfully slow, and it's better not to check how far we've come. The final climb up to Ratea Summit seems to drag on for hours.
When we finally arrive at the top, we look with horror at the mud pit -- is this our campsite?! Exploring a short side trail though, we see the forest open up and we leap with joy onto a flat, grassy patch perched improbably amidst the ferns.
Two other tents are already set up, and the sun breaks through the clouds for a moment, giving us a glimpse of the farmland and rolling hills outside of the bush.
We introduce ourselves and put up the tent, then stand there staring at it, soaked and filthy. One of the other campers emerges to bathe in the tiny patch of sunlight. The other gives a muffled greeting and says "Nice to meet you, but sorry, I'm never coming out."
We use our wet socks to scrub the mud off of our legs, then wait for them to dry a bit so that we can scrape off the larger chunks of grass and dirt before putting on our sleep pants (which are sacred and not to be gotten wet). We finally climb into the tent and can barely stay awake to cook our ramen.
The next morning we wake up early, pull on our wet, mud-filled socks, say goodbye to our neighbors' tents and begin our long, slippery slide down from the summit. We're in for another long day of mud, but we know there's a burger waiting for us at the Mangamucka Dairy when we finally reach the road.
When we reach the forest's boundary the sun is shining and it's shockingly bright under the open sky. We blink and stand dazed for a few minutes before heading down through soft, grassy pastures to the gravel road below.
It's not until dinnertime, as we're cooking up our ramen and peanut butter feast that we realize it's Thanksgiving.