Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Gorgeous Trip

Many desires cannot be consummated; the itch once scratched yearns to be scratched again. Travel is one of those. Set in motion by a promise to return to Wellington and designed to fulfil my hastily made vow to explore the lower Hawkes Bay, my road trip for the last weekend rapidly became the most ambitious tour of the year. The numbers say it all: 5 days on the road; 2084 kilometres travelled; 3 forest parks visited.

After an hour of teaching on Thursday morning, I filled up my car and went on my way. I hurtled to Taupo, and then through the autumnal beauty of the gorge highway to Napier. I didn’t know where I was to stay: My original plan of staying in the Kaweka Ranges at Te Puia Lodge was in doubt as the weather had been bad, but finally I received the call: yes, it was fine to stay there. I was caught unprepared: the Kaweka Ranges are accessed many ways; all I knew was that my way was to go to the end of Puketitiri Rd; and how was I to get to Puketitiri Rd? My fuel needle hovering over “half-full”, the sun heading to the North-western horizon, I scrambled around till I found my road and once upon it, I raced against the setting sun. And so on and on, Puketitiri Rd went. The map belied its full stretch. It was over half an hour till I sighted the snowy ranges and almost an hour till I saw a landmark on the map. My gas-tank pessimistically sagged well below “half-empty” toward the two bottom lines, a white one and a red one, that marked the bottom of the proverbial barrel. The road wound upon itself, through a gate and along a narrow road flanked by an unverged 50 metre drop and a rockface. At half past four, I landed myself in the car-park and I still had a 2-3 hour walk to the hut. The fuel needle rested for the night at half a millimetre above the white line. I reassured myself that the lines are not absolute, that there is still a buffer of fuel below the lowest line.

The track followed the Mohaka river gorge and was well-formed and easy to walk and run on. The last two-thirds entered into the spectacular. The river bent around huge bluffs and the mountains were nicely gathered around. Night fell too quickly and my headtorch went on; the delight of the view was reduced to the auditory pleasure of the river. The hut was unsurprisingly empty and pleasantly supplied with gas. The temperature went into a nosedive and to survive the night comfortably I put all my clothes on, put an emergency blanket over the top of my sleeping bag and put my towel around my neck, my woolly cap on and my sunhat over the top. I sipped my tea as the darkness overcame me.

I woke at 5:30, broke my fast and set off. I could wear just shorts and my tramping shirt and felt warm enough. The true beauty of the gorge was apparent with some scenes being simply breathtaking. I believe I could also hear the squeals of Blue Ducks in the river. As I followed the gorge down, I suddenly felt the chill. I became aware that all the mountains now had a green top and below a certain height were white: all the greenery below a certain level had frosted over. The mud crunched beneath my feet as I felt colder and colder. I arrived at the car. It was frozen over too. There were hot springs at either end of this trail but I was too rushed to go to either of them. My first taste of the Kawekas and it was a sweet and cool one. I want to taste it again.

After defrosting the car and packing up, I got in and set off again. I looked at the fuel needle: it was now on the white line. I was glad that I had joined AA just a couple of days before but was increasingly anxious about the prospect of running out of gas. I did my best to save petrol by coasting and trying to sustain speed the best I could. And at least the sun came out to thaw my fingers. Suddenly I was filled by another worry: There weren’t deer in the fields yesterday, so why were there now? Why is the mountain range on my left now? I knew in my heart that I must have taken a wrong turn but held onto a hope that I was just too focussed the day before. I decided to go to the next house I saw and knock to ask. The road-end, however, came to me first. Fortunately there was a house at the end as well and I leapt out to ask the farmer, who kindly clarified that my navigation was regrettably off: I had gone over ten minutes in the wrong direction and now the fuel needle was certainly on the red. I castigated myself thoroughly and roared off back down the road, then onto Puketitiri road again, round and round, coursing through the straights, the gate and past small communities. I was pretty resigned to running out: How long could this really go on? The needle was well below the red. This interminable road would have to end or the petrol. I coasted over a ridge and the horizon opened up to the bay view. Relief swept into me: Napier was almost here. I went through the semi-suburbia of Napier, turned into a Gull station and parked catatonically at the pump. After having a good drink of ginger beer, I got out of the car and filled up: 39.90L of petrol. I think I know the total capacity of my tank now.

Napier was a sight for sore eyes; it was warm and welcoming after my trauma. And it was only 10am! I decided to head up Te Mata peak as my main attraction here. Some of my students had told me about it and suddenly I couldn’t help but look at it: a huge blade of rock ripping from out of the ground near Havelock North. As my car went up the slope, I became the uncontrollably distracted driver of your nightmares. It was such an awesome view and every time I looked over my shoulder at the huge drop or the site back over the harbour I could barely contain my gasps or exclamations of amazement. At the top, it was easy to see tracks leading through the park. I want to go there again.

The Southern Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa were pleasant to drive through, the Ruahines and Tararuas following me down on my right. I had never been that good at remembering which mountain ranges were which but now I think I’ll never forget (even if I call the Ruahines the Rimutakas by accident). The blue and ochre of the Bay became the grey and green of the Wairarapa, which I have never visited. The main stop was to be Mt Bruce, New Zealand’s National Wildlife Centre for breeding threatened species. I saw Kiwis again and, maybe for the first time, a Kokako. It was spell-binding to watch. It was smaller than a tui and jumped rambunctiously around the leaf-litter before leaping onto the fencing ten centimetres from my face: “Mook-mook-mook?” it asked. I responded in kind, but he just repeated his question. According to Maori, this bird had the second best voice in the pantheon of NZ birds, behind the now extinct Huia, and this one expected me to sing! I continued south and the weather continued to intensify.

I drove to a hut at the bottom of the Tararua Ranges, and settled in for the stormy night. I got up at 6am and went on a walk to a lookout, while the weather took a little rest from its huffing and puffing. I really want to explore the Tararuas more. My only real concern was whether the Rimutaka Hill Road was open or not. It wasn’t, and my first trip through it was very enjoyable. It winds around the Rimutaka Range side of a gorge where it meets the Tararua Range. Just like Te Mata, the view could be lethal in its beauty.

From Wellington, I picked up a passenger and headed back over the Rimutaka Hill to go to the little known Cape Palliser. Unbeknownst to me, we were coming at the most perfect time. I had intended to do the Pinnacle walk but the storm that was centring itself on the lower North Island was powering up the seas and wind. Add onto that the fact that we arrive around high tide, you’ll soon get the picture: Behind a sign warning of falling rocks, rocks certainly were falling; sea spray hissed over the road; sea foam invaded the seal, imitating snow; miscellaneous driftwood strew the road. Yet on the other side stood cliffs and both jaggered and weathered rocks. We got to the end of the road where I climbed the stairs to the lighthouse (“Climb at your own risk”). The mid-section of the ladder felt perilous enough, but the last three steps were as risky as it could be. The wind-speed was horrifying. If you leant into it, it could more than hold you up, it could send you places. Descending was just as tricky. As we returned back down the road, I made a discovery. There were dozens of seals all along the foreshore. We somehow hadn’t seen them! And also new additions to the road had appeared since we had come down: a log had washed up and a whole tree had fallen over the road! This was nature at its rawest. I still want to go tramping here so I shall return.

The next day I left Wellington and after a quick look-see at the Otaki Gorge, went onwards through Wanganui to Mt Taranaki. As I entered the park, I saw a sign: “Kiwi zone: No dogs!” and immediately behind it, in my headlights was a ferret charging away like a greyhound. I sped up, lining him up with my left wheel but he broke to the left and dove into the undergrowth. The mountain itself was enshrouded in mist and I had to take it very carefully. Remnant snow was fringing some sections of the road too. At the top, the mist was so thick that to walk around without a head-torch could be enough to get quickly lost forever in the cold and the wet. Again, I was the only one staying at lodge but that gives one the freedom to spread out.

I woke at 6am and went on a short loop walk to see Dawson’s Falls, which was pretty small but good nonetheless. I headed down the mountain and the sun shone on me again for the first time since Friday morning. I headed onto the Forgotten World highway, a place I had always intended to visit. It was truly beautiful. It hasn’t got much development at all, but has all the material for a Great Walk and agricultural eye-candy, every corner an idyll. The jewel, Tangarakau Gorge, could only be gaped at, the only problem being that there were few places to stop to view it. And, further on, from a place called Nevin’s Hill lookout, there has to be the best view of Ruapehu I’ve ever had. As a whole the highway might be the best drive visually that I’ve been on, a Great Drive perhaps.

And then it was back via Taumaranui, Te Kuiti, Otorohanga to Ngauruawahia, and onward to Auckland. The last day was truly a case of sensory overload. I had to wonder if I had been reduced to a gibbering, gawping tourist: “Wooo, mountain; woooo, tree.” but on the way back through the agricultural Waikato, I realised what I had seen was truly special.
This reads more like a love letter to the North Island, and perhaps it is. I am suffering a particularly acute, yet peculiar form of patriotism; one that causes one to wish to possess the whole country in the mind.