South of Hamilton, Te Araroa leaves the city streets and -- after a few hours of farmland and gravel road -- the steep climb up to Mt. Pirongia marks the beginning of real, sustained wilderness.
The bush on Pirongia is stunning; more open and airy than the Northland bush. Toward the top, the forest gives way to a dense, tall scrub (maybe 8-10 feet high) that creates a tunnel overhead. The peak itself is the highest point yet and it feels noticeably more alpine than anything we've seen so far. We made it to the mountains!
We reached another milestone just after the summit of Pirongia, as well: our first DOC hut. New Zealand has an extensive system of backcountry huts maintained by the Department of Conservation. We bought a 6-month backcountry hut pass for $92 NZD (~$65 USD) that covers nearly all of the huts on trail (No more paying for camping everywhere! Hooray!). The huts are more and more common the farther south we go, so we'll rely heavily on this pass, moving forward.
Pahautea Hut, our first one, is relatively new and quite large with space for 20 or so people in bunks and another 5-6 tent sites outside. There's a tap with potable water there and three "long drops" (the kiwi word for a privy). The hut has a large common space with cooking areas and long tables. It also has a wrap-around porch with a spectacular view out over the bush. For backcountry accomodations, the hut was pretty darn swanky.
The DOC huts become gathering points for hikers and there were about 15 other TA walkers at the hut with us (the largest group we've seen so far). When we told the others that we planned to do 50km+ the next day, we got a few scoffs because of the tough terrain. But of course, nothing makes us want to do something more than someone telling us we can't...
Around 9am the next morning, we checked our progress and realized that the first 3km (~2 miles) had taken us nearly 3 hours. The mud was deeper and wetter than Ratea in places, and the climb down from Hihikiwi (a small summit after Pirongia) was steep and very slick. In spite of the slow start, however, we still made it to camp by dinnertime. First 50km day, complete!
But that most certainly wasn't the end of it; there was a lot more sufferfest to come.
After resupplying in Te Kuiti, we headed out of town on a poorly maintained trail covered in blackberry brambles. It was narrow and eroded, often leaving no more than a few muddy inches trying their damnedest to send us sliding down toward the river below.
In the morning, spider webs crowded the trail and -- since we desperately needed our poles to keep us on the mountain -- there was no protecting our faces from getting coated in sticky strands. Oh yea, and it was pouring rain. Of course. We deemed the section "blackberry fucking spider hell" and got through with a little blood and a lot of cursing.
Thankfully, we had some good trail to look forward to in the following days. The Timber Trail is a popular cycling track, so it is wide, well maintained (and drained), and has a mellow grade throughout. It also passes through stunningly beautiful forest and on our first morning, we wandered through misty, moss-covered trees under a sunrise that turned our world bright green and gold.
We sped along with smooth trail underfoot, easily knocking out another 50km+ day (that's 30+ miles for you Yanks) and crossing our 1000km mark, too! Sometimes it's nice to just open up and hike big miles.
The Timber Trail also made for some scenic miles with neat features, including several huge suspension bridges and an old railway tunnel.
The Timber Trail would be an amazing addition to any New Zealand adventure by foot or by bike. So, check it out if you have the chance! End to end, the cycle track is 84km (52 miles), and we were passed by some cyclists riding it in a day. Here's some more info on the Timber Trail, in case you'd like to visit.
And finally, just because this trail never ceases to surprise us and because we have nowhere else to put these amazing photos....
Up next: we check out the one and only Mount DOOM!