Daniel, he went East~
Hikurangi was a mountain I had only become familiar with in the last few years. It has not only the distinction of being the highest non-volcanic mountain in the North Island, but, nestled at the end of the Raukumara ranges in the East, it is also known as the first place to receive the sun at dawn. Prominently marked on most maps, it has tempted me for quite some time.
Incidentally, the East Coast was one of my three places I’ve vowed to visit this year along with Northland and Southland. I was last in the East Coast when I was 4 where I have vague memories of visiting Fantasyland. My desire to tour the East Coast had meshed perfectly with my yen for climbing mountains, and in this case, Hikurangi, and then Waitangi weekend fit so well into these plans. I tried to make a plan to get there with a friend but it fell through two days before the long weekend, and then I failed to scramble well enough to get another person. So, again on a long weekend, I was to go on a trip alone.
I didn’t plan at all – I just packed generally and left. I stopped first at Gordonton and availed myself of their Devonshire tea, headed to Taupo, whose i-Site failed to give me the information I required, and then finally onto Napier, whose i-Site did. It was a pretty little town and I intend to visit it again, perhaps to it and the neighbouring southern townships. I booked my evening accommodation for the evening, a campsite at Mahia Peninsula, and asked for permission to climb Hikurangi from the Ngati Porou Tourism Board (as it is not state-owned land), which was granted.
Driving around the coast to the peninsula was a relief. The stifling heat of the day had eased, and the sun was lower bringing a reddish evening tone to the landscape. Was Mahia Peninsula special? I cannot say; it just felt perfect. Perhaps, through other eyes and at another time, it’ll seem like another dingy little beachside community.
“The dolphin might still be in the bay. Just look out for the people watching,” the lady at the desk mentioned as she sent me to my site. After pitching my tent, I headed to the beach for a swim in the surf and then over to order some takeaways. While waiting “20 minutes” for my food, I went further along the shore where some kids were still in the water 30 metres out to sea. One was cruising through the waves vertically at quite a rate before stopping, and that was when I spotted the fin. Yes, Mahia does, indeed, have a friendly dolphin that lolls around for hours with the kids.
The next day I woke early, upped sticks and went north, arriving in Gisborne at 8:30am. I got further information about my evening destination, Hikurangi. From there I shot up to the coast beach-hopping through Tolaga Bay and Anauru Beach and then fueled up at Tokomaru Bay. All that lay ahead of me now was the mountain.
The plan for the mountain was simple: walk up to the hut in the afternoon, eat and sleep in the hut, wake early in the morning and ascend the peak for the sunrise, and then descend for my homeward journey. As I pulled into the car park area, I saw that DOC had provided an information sign. The difficulty was rated as: medium to high. This intrigued me a little. The Tongariro Crossing and Pirongia were both rated as medium, and this was going to be my first opportunity to climb something with a “high” rating. I shrugged, threw on my 10kg backpack and then started up the hill at 2:30pm.
It became apparent very early that this was not going to be an enjoyable day of tramping, but a physical challenge. The first section to the hut was over 10 kilometres long through unforested farmland devoid of any shelter; it was sweltering that day with temperatures verging on 30 degrees; and I was carrying a heavy pack up an almost unending gradient (it was only when I descended that I noticed that there were not only flat sections but some small declines). My sweat pores were going gangbusters, requiring me to regularly rehydrate and rest, but after three hours of grind, I came over a ridge to the cute hut.
Not being a DOC hut, it had some interesting aspects: it had cutlery, candles, a pot-belly stove and dishwashing liquid available. The long-drop was an old one, not from the standard issue that you see on most walks. Overall, it felt quite homely.
After dinner I tried my best to sleep early to prepare for my 4am wake-up. I didn’t get to sleep quickly at all, baking in my sleeping bag, but by the time my alarm went off I felt rather refreshed. Once I had wolfed down breakfast, I grabbed by day-pack, slid on my head-torch and headed out. Above me was the usual winter early evening sky with Scorpio looming large with Sagittarius following. The moon, being close to Full, had already gone over the mountain and had probably already set. In the distance to the east I saw the lights of Ruatoria – obviously someone else was awake. Immediately I set about ascending and the early slope was steep. I entered light bush for the first time and then into alpine vegetation. It was an eerie scene. It was here that I had my first encounter with speargrass (which in my ignorance of its actual name, I referred to as “Hell’s Cabbage”). The leaves were very sharp and would perforate my shins for the whole journey; sometimes little ones would be concealed amongst grasses so as to ambush my hands and arms; and then there’d be patches of them rendering a section almost impassable. Some would have the most hellish flowers emerging from them, big spikes awaiting tender flesh.
The markers had reflective lines for those ascending at the wee hours and at first they were simple to follow. Once in the alpine vegetation though, some were placed further apart than you’d expect. Twice early on I went astray and had to wander sideways till I caught sight of a metallic blue and pink reflection, often having to navigate through speargrass. The track took me around to the western face of the peak, the opposite side from the hut, and only then did it trail upwards toward the summit. And it was then that I lost the trail for the last time. I believed the last marker I had seen must have been the final marker and that it was now up to the climber to find his way. And so I climbed. And trudge up a scree slope. And I climbed over a sheer face to a dead-end. And I went back down and around over the delicate plants. During this time, the sky lightened sufficiently for me to turn off my headlamp. Every time I looked up, all I could see was a craggy mass with at least another 100m of ascending remaining. I looked down over the smaller hills. They were gloomy still - I still had time before sunrise. I surge up again, crossed back over the scree slope and then up. And it was still another 50 metres to go. Exhausted, I looked out over the ranges behind me to see, yes, the mountains were crowned in red: I was too late for the sunrise. Disappointed, I had a good rest at this point, drank and then launched myself again up the hill and within five minutes hauled myself onto the summit of the peak. I howled a cry of relief, only then to look fifty metres over to see another peak, the peak, the peak with the trig on top, which is to say the highest point, Hikurangi peak. Between it and me there was a dip and ascent still remaining. I looked over at the sun and leant back against the peak I was on to regather myself. It was 6:40am. I ate, drank, stretched and rested before again clambering down the rocks and up to the trig. Along the way I noticed a few other paths up to the ridge I was on and then it struck me that I hadn’t taken the intended route up. At the proper trig I had a proper rest, saluted the sun and then prepared for my descent.
With the numerous possible routes down, I was not sure whether there was a best one. Descending entails more risk that ascending. I chose one near the trig peak and started to painstakingly descend, at first on all-fives (the buttocks becoming a valuable limb) and then later on my feet when it felt safe. It was nice to see some human footprints on this section; there were none on my ascending route. There were several parts where scree surfing was possible to a degree. At one point I “screed” my way close to two abrupt drops, the only ways down. I looked at the one on the right but didn’t like that prospect, so I went for the one on the left which had the advantage of natural foot and handholds in the rock-face to descend with. The drop was almost three metres, so I turned my body around and went down backwards. Halfway, with over a metre left to go, I put my left foot onto a big foothold, aiming to drop my right foot down onto another and then jump to the ground. But: crack – crumble. The big foothold beneath my left disintegrated with my weight on it. I quickly pushed my body into a crevice in the wall and re-evaluated my plan. My handholds were not great and what remained of the big foothold didn’t inspire me with confidence. I couldn’t see a way down, but then there was nothing back up, even if I could get back up. I spent a good two minutes having a rest while prised into the groove. Thoughts came to mind like the blood donation form I had ticked and crossed two days before, which asks whether you indulge in hazardous activities such as “mountain climbing” (I had crossed it). Fortunately, last year in August I had gone down to Taupo where I did proper rock-climbing with Andrew for the first time. Although I did only the basic ones, there were some interesting “learning points” which suddenly shot to mind. A lot of the perception of impossibility was coming from my lack of faith in handholds. But with each extra hold you have the collective strength doubles the safety and reliability. I put my weight through both hands to turn my whole body around (facing away from the rock-face) and pushed my body into the rock-face again. I reached down to lower handholds and then managed to get my left foot to the last foothold and dropped down. Success! This all was done in ten seconds. Naturally, I howled in triumph like a lion.
Luck was with me in that I was again descending on the western side: I was still in the shade of the mountain and still had plenty of water. The remaining path on the rocky section, although hazardous, was quickly processed (there was one other potentially body-maiming moment, but for brevity it will be omitted). I was now just a scree slope short of the alpine shrubbery, but where were the track markers? I groaned loudly. Why couldn’t I just go down the right frickin’ slope?
After a brief rest, I deduced that the track must be to the right so I traversed several scree slopes and speargrass patches before finally spotting the silhouette of one, and in fact noticed that there were markers going further into the mountain than I had seen (i.e., that was the way I should have taken up). But now, finally, I was back with a simple way down. At thus I descended. The only funny note was that despite all the peril in the climbing and descending of the peak, the only time I shed blood was on a rather flat part in the alpine shrubbery when I somehow lost my balance and grasped for speargrass. Blood came oozing out of my palm immediately, but once I had put pressure on it and it had stopped bleeding, there were no visible wounds.
Again, in respect of the points raised on my blog of Pirongia in the freedom of going alone, I don’t believe I would have done the mountain if I’d gone accompanied. There was too much risk, difficulty and pain that I could accept for myself but wouldn't want to put anyone else through. But in some sections it would have made it easier and safer. The first day had been a physical test; the last day was both a great physical and mental test.
I washed off in Hick’s Bay and then started the long drive home. This was the part I hadn’t thought about: driving over 500 kilometres after waking up at 4am, climbing for 7.5 hours and exhausting myself psychologically. I can honestly say that it was done responsibly and with numerous stops. Naturally, this is the other disadvantage of going it alone - no-one to help in the driving. And thus concluded my longest of long weekends.