Damien’s Beach Camp to the Ruakaka River
So how does a short day turn into our first 20 mile day?
Because a predicted 2 day storm and gale could not allow us to cross the Harbour for the whole weekend, so we aim to cross it tonight, that’s how.
The glory of waking up somewhere easy can never be overstated. The grass is dry and without condensation, leaving all of our gear pleasant to pack. There is an on-demand hot water heater in the camp kitchen, so breakfast is a mindless, instant affair, and is eaten sitting at a table as though we are civilized beings. The only difficulty is solved when we find large jugs of fresh water that we were able to use for drinking. The view out the front of the shack, obscured last night, is of a rocky spine rising out of the edge of the surf.(This is actually the view from the outhouse.) No wonder the family loves it here, and is proud to share it. Gratitude to them.
We are on the beach at 9:00, and the low tide allows Prana and Parker and I to talk as we go. Prana tells his life story, mostly for Parker’s benefit, which is a fascinating exercise. How to explain a whole formation of existence in one linear tale? There’s a lot to a life.
We scramble through a rocky point, and are passed by a group of 5 we have been leap frogging with. “Storm coming in tomorrow,” says the tallest of the group, the apparent spokesperson each time we have passed. “Gale force winds.” We wonder what that will mean for crossing the Whangarei Harbour. Probably nothing good. We climb from the beach to a beautiful overlook of Ocean Beach behind us.
From this point we are able to call Peter, our potential boat ride across Whangarei. “Oh yeah,” he acknowledges about tomorrow. “Could be real bad. Weather’s supposed to come in for sure. Well, the best we do is see what it looks like when it’s time to go, eh?” Ugh. Being stuck on this side of the Harbour with no services for a full weekend sounds demoralizing. And inconvenient. And expensive. We check over the maps. Hmm. Could we make today’s and tomorrow’s mileage…today? Outlandish! But…intriguing. Could Peter even take us across tonight if we did make it? “Oh, yeah,” he assures is. “Whenever. Just call. You’ll have to hike for a ways, though, are you ready for that?” Oh yeah, I assure in turn. We are game.
Parker is ahead, so we will catch him, but Mikkel (whose middle name is Bro, and as is the perfect name for him -not as in dude-Bro, but as in the group’s little Bro-we now call him this) and Ellie lingered late at the farm camp. How do we let them know this new plan, and see if they want to adopt it? Will they even leave early enough to adopt it if they want to? We don’t know, so we scribble an abbreviated update for them on our morning’s cereal bag, and thread it through a bench in a spot they can’t miss. The main hurdle of the day is not the total number of miles, but how long the next 4 miles will take us; they are aggressively vertical, the rise much farther than the run, and the run is considered 4 horizontal miles. If one does a little trigonometry, it is probably much further on the hypotenuse that is the path. One point in our favor is that these are built up with stairs, so while the calves and glutes are in danger of giving out, careening in the mud is minimized.
We climb and climb, descend, climb. This is the world’s most scenic stair master. There are several fantastic lookouts over the ocean and Harbour, and one rocky spire is tempting to scramble up, my palms sweating with anticipation at the thought, longing for proper rock climbing, but the drop offs on either side are too punitive to risk. There is a bench with a clear view that we stop at for a late lunch. As we are refueling, Bro bursts from around a corner, and victoriously drops to the ground and starts shoveling in food as well. “We saw your note and kind of panicked,” he says. “So we basically came fast with no breaks.” Yes!!!!! Prana and I are so happy to see him. Ellie shows up not far behind. All in on the idea of making it all the way to the Holiday Park, the 5 of us take off again, and descend as many stairs as we just spent two hours climbing. Even though our quads start quivering like jello part way down, the rhythm of the stairs and the scenery is hypnotic.
We drop and drop, and abruptly the ground levels off. We follow the trail as it contours around the edge of the Harbour, and celebrate at the store with a first dinner of ice cream cones and potato chips. Luckily we are now ahead of schedule, as that is about all this store has for a resupply. As the rest of the groups comes in, I call Peter again. “Still game, are you?” he asks. He seems amused that we are still willing, as another group of five hikers had declined the idea of continuing into the night. “Well, good on ya, I say then. It’s at least 45 more minutes to the dock. Call me from there, and I’ll come get you. I’m two minutes away.”
It takes us an hour to reach the dock, as everyone’s feet are smooshed, and leaving behind the bright promise of the store’s junk food aisle was an effort. I ring Peter. “I’ll be right down.” The tide is out, far below the concrete boat ramp, so we start stripping our shoes and sock, watching the water, ready to wade out.
A sound grows from up the road. A tractor comes into view on the hill above us; a tractor towing a trailer and boat.
I’m relieved the boat is much larger than James’s, to match the much larger crossing. “Oh, no, this is full service,” says Peter when he sees our bare feet. “Dry feet guaranteed. It’s a perk I learned hikers love. Climb on board!” We laugh with delight as we heave our packs into the front, stuff our feet back into our shoes, and climb into the rear compartment of the boat. Peter drives onto the beach, towing us as though we are on a float in a parade, then expertly backs the trailer into the water. He pushes the boat off, then jumps aboard, leaving the tractor parked practically in the water.
He’s a friendly guy and chatty, although I can hear only every few words over the roar of the engine. He cranks up the speed and water sprays in over the sides as we bounce off the top of each choppy wave. It’s a short ride to the floating dock on the other side, where we are essentially dropped off in the middle of a giant oil refinery. “With the low tide you can walk the beach around, so that’s good luck. You’ll want the low tide to cross the Ruakaka river anyway. Once you round the bend, you’ll get the full force of the Southerlies, so be ready to be cold.” He wishes us luck and waves as he zooms back towards his tractor.
The chemical smells of the refinery are not terribly appealing, but it is a unique area to walk through. We skirt the barbed wire prison-like fence, pass a huge nasty pond covered in frenzied seagulls, then duck under some huge pipes that let off huge blasts of stinky steam. It is surreal. It is sneaking around the mines of Moria. We finally turn the far corner out of the refinery, and into the southerlies, which are indeed cold, and even more so, relentless.
The beaches stretches ahead, the light dimming enough that it is impossible to see our destination, the sand luminescent, a white ribbon to faithfully follow. Behind us the peaks that we logged so much vertical time in this afternoon are showcased across the Harbour, appearing even steeper from these angles.
The clouds treat us to a spectacular sunset, which lingers throughout most of the evening’s 6 miles. The refinery behind us lights up like skyscrapers in a city, unpredictably beautiful reflected in the sheen of water coating the sand.
When it is too dark to see, I start to despair, feet aching, the wind creating a deprivation of any other sense. Just as I am about to commit to the thought that I absolutely hate night hiking, we reach the edge of the wildlife refuge that announces the river. Prana, Bro, and I are far in front, and we all agree: no farther tonight. Following the boundary of the refuge inland, we find a huge, unvegetated hole in the dunes. By dim headlamp, it is reminiscent of a dormant volcano crater.
We check in with the other two- they are on board to call it good for the night. We descend, and again the wind disappears. We are cradled in the deep nest of dunes. We all feed our mouths like zombies, which brings a sharp, short lived spike of giddy energy, and crawl into our tents.