Corner of Digger’s Valley Road to start of Ratea track
22 km / 14 Miles
It is a day of embracing mud. Mud in the shoes, mud in the socks, mud under the pant legs up to the knees. It squelches and squishes and squirts and splashes, and wherever it touches, it adamantly clings to.
We set out from camp this morning to the summit of Mt Taumatamahoe. We pass the broken down loggers shanty town on the way; it was abstractly intriguing in a vaguely academic way, but it was filthy, a hotbed of tetanus and who knows what else, and I am glad we hadn’t pushed to camp here. The trail was a tree tunnel most of the way, with a few glimpses out across the ridges as we neared the top.
The terrain undulates for a bit, by which I mean always going either steeply up or down, and then drops, sheerly, down down down. The descent was something between a mud ski down a slick clay chute and a desperate scramble to maintain footing, all through an obstacle course of roots. At one point a rope was installed as a hand line for lowering oneself through a 20 foot vertical terrace of…mud.
Within sight of the bottom I start to hurry. Wham! Feet out from under, straight over onto my back, wracking my spine and shoulder blades. I stand up, cursing quietly to myself and vowing to be more careful when Wham! straight back down again. I lay in a parody of self pity for a moment, then get up and start hurtling downhill. Within a few minutes the track flattens at a scrub station. Free!!
I am saddened by the insufficiency of the station. These are in place to scrub off all dirt between forest tracks to stop the spread of a fatal Kauri disease. “It takes only a pinpoint of soil!” encourages a sign, trying to instill a brisk commitment to thoroughness. Instead, it induces a sense of guilt via inadequacy, as there is no way clean the muck off. The shoe scraper bristles provided are already caked, more smearing than removing, and the tank of spray disinfectant is empty.
We do our best.
Where the forest track lets out is a big shack named the Tramp Inn. It’s on a family’s farm, and they welcome hikers. We get water and sit in the tin building to eat our lunch, out of reach of the gusty wind and threatening sky.
The register inside reveals our experience is not unusual:
We take off on a two track road, which turns to a gravel 1.5 lane. The roads are beautiful to walk on, allowing so much perspective of the forest and the landscape just not available in the enclosed canopy. It feels great to open up the stride and move unhindered. We pass through farm land and pastures and paddocks. We rub friendly horses’ noses and behind friendly goats’ ears.
I listen to a podcast interview of a famous New York chef who took up meditation as a way to change his abusive method of managing a kitchen. He describes his process of meditating as choosing a fault or flaw to work on that day, removing it from himself in the shape of a dark cloud, and then destroying it with lasers from his mind’s eye, letting the emotions attached to it shrink as the cloud shrinks. I’m intrigued; it’s a concrete enough visualization I resolve to try it myself.
Eventually I catch up to Prana and we wait for Parker under the shade of a gnarled enchanted tree, surrounded by Cala lillies. He walks up with Sebastian, a soft spoken guy from Germany that Prana had met at Ahipara. The four of us trailed each other to the minimum stopping point for the day, which was a triangle of grass on the side of a surprisingly traveled road. We passed cows, sheep, and horses grazing, making contented sounds, many pregnant or with young ones. I wasn’t sure what the farmland out here would be like. It’s just lovely! There is not a single muddy pasture yet; all the animals have lush green lawns and space to spare.
We vote to push on and up to camp at the base of the waterless climb for tomorrow, another 3 km today. The air is cooling, and the climb is on the edge of a hill, along a beautiful cobbled double track, looking out over all the farms in the valley.
We arrive at the last water crossing before the Ratea forest track, and fill bottles and pouches, all giddy and giggling. We start discussing that time-honored, sacred subject of thru-hikers: food. Specifically, the food we do not currently have in our backpacks. “What do you want every time you get off the trail?” I ask. “I usually want watermelon. Ice cream. Sushi. Super salty popcorn. Those are my major craves.” “Pot roast,” says Sebastian. “Last time I was in town I made a pot roast with weggies.” “With what?” “Weggies, you know.” “Oh, like potato weggies?” I ask, impressed. “Yeah, potatoes, peas, carrots, onions. Weggies. Wegetables.” This delights me so much, I can’t stop giggling. Wegetables! Yes.
We make it the last few uphill kilometers with just enough juice, and light, to get the tents up and crawl in.