After Ratea, the Northland opens up. The north is covered in pastures with sheep and dairy cows, small towns dot the landscape, and forestry is a major industry. We've been told by locals that only a tiny percentage of the native bush remains intact, and it shows.
We often cross through several different ecosystems in one day: wake up in a pasture, hike down a gravel road, ascend into a few kilometers of native bush, then descend onto a beach before walking into a town and camping in a grassy park.
The terrain changes can be disorienting; by afternoon, the morning's campsite feels like the distant past, and it's tough to get into a rhythm with our hiking. The sections of true "track" (trail) feel far too short -- and the sections of roadwalking along state highways seem far too long.
And yet the wild sections are startlingly deep and dense. Sometimes, dropping off of a road, the lights go out in the dense undergrowth, the world turns green, and of course, you squelch instantly into ankle deep mud.
Private land is a big deal here, too, and the trail runs through (or around) a lot of industrial terrain. We keep a sharp eye out for electric fences as we traverse through muddy pastures, dodging sheep, cows, and all they bring with them (I wrote a note to myself for this post that just read "Mud. Mud. More mud. Mud with poo."). We also walk along logging roads, past orchards, and through people's backyards. We're in and out of towns nearly every day.
Paradoxically, this makes the trail both far more convenient and far more complicated than hiking through true wilderness.
Because of all of the private land, there and heaps of rules about where you can and cannot (mostly cannot) camp. Free camping (or freedom camping, as they call it here), is nearly impossible in many sections and we've had to pay for camping far more than we'd like. There are Holiday Parks (campgrounds) all over the place, but it's awkward to time your days around specific stopping points, rather than just hiking until you're tired and setting up camp. Coming from a trail like the PCT, it's also frustratingly expensive.
Another unusual logistical hurdle here: the ocean. Much of the trail follows along the east coast, which makes for some exceptionally beautiful views, but has caused us a few headaches, too. At several points the trail crosses rivers, estuaries, and even large harbors that require transport by boat.
We've been able to do several smaller crossings on foot, but they've required us to plan around the tide. Even at low tide, a couple of crossings have been chest deep for me and I've had to loft my pack overhead to keep it dry.
Several of the beachwalks also require that you pass at low tide. When you're moving 3 miles per hour, it takes a fair bit of planning to hit a tight time window. We use an app that gives us low and high tide times, and we'll sometimes plan several days in advance to make sure that we hit all of the water sections at the right times of day.
The rivers that are too big to cross are another story. Sometimes, we have a phone number in our notes and just hope someone answers. Once, we got a name and phone number for a guy who smuggled us across a harbor like stolen goods. Another time, we got to a river with no way to cross and a friendly local flagged us down to offer us a ride. Phew! (Especially because we were on a time crunch for the next low tide...).
While the trail logistics here can make my head spin, being near towns all of the time does have it's upsides. One day, Jonathan and I stopped in two different towns to get fish and chips for both lunch AND dinner while still knocking out 30+km. Another day, we hiked 20km, got coffee and breakfast, enjoyed some cider and ice cream in a park, caught a boat, and then hiked another 10km to camp.
We have barely carried more than 2 days of food at a time, and the snack opportunities have been ample. It's hard to resist hot food once the hiker hunger starts setting in.
Another unique asset on this trail is New Zealand's total obsession with public toilets. They're everywhere! Every beach and small town has one and they're sprinkled through the cities like Starbucks through Seattle.
I love a good poop in the woods as much as the next guy when it's sunny and the view is right. But when you've been soaked all day, a dry privvy is pretty game changing.
The Northland had its own kind of chaos, but there were some phenomenal highlights, too. Look for another post coming soon with some of our favorite sections.