12/5 The Swimming Holes of the Mangoakewa

Suspension Bridge to Mangokewa River picnic site

20 k

We wake early, trying to beat the heat of the day. We are out of camp, hiking the half of a kilometer a fifth and final time, before 6:20 am. The morning is filled with cross-farm hiking, lots of stiles, and the always entertaining livestock. The cows seem to be getting more aggressive, or at least bolder, the farther south we go. Or maybe it has something to do with the springtime getting lustier. Either way, one of the last paddocks we cross has several bluff-charging cows. Prana, Bro, and I are ahead, almost clear of the far end, and Ellie is a bit farther back. The cows turn their attention to her. “Do you think she’s scared?” asks Bro. “I doubt it,” I answer, just as a cow mock-charges her. “HEY!” Ellie bellows, unperturbed. The cow backs down. “I don’t think so either,” observes Bro.

We trace another couple of climbing and descending k’s. There are some really beautiful spots where the trail crosses under huge sycamores and through waist high soft grasses. A few days ago we had seen a little shed that was basically 3 upright planks of wood and a piece of corrugated metal approximated as a roof. ‘O’Neill Construction’ the sign had announced with pride. The stiles today are decreasing in caliber of craftsmanship until we finally each a 2×4 on its side on the ground, with a splintery pole with staples sticking out of the top. “Look, a stile manufactured by O’Neill!” Bro quips, and the game is on for the rest of the day. We see a single piece of lumber up in a tree. “An O’Neill treehouse!”

We reach Te Kuiti, sheep shearing capital of the world, source of our resupply for the next 5.5 days. It appears to be a long narrow town, and we walk the long axis of it. We pass an empty lot strewn with haphazard equipment. “A new O’Neill development going in!”

We reach the hub of the village, as far as we are concerned, which is a box store and two groceries faced by picnic tables in the park across the street. We scour the inaccurately named SuperValue for sales on any of our preferred staples, then fill in the blanks at the New World. In the park, the 4 of us eat our lunch and drink cold carbonated drinks. How will Prana and I survive without this surfeit of available ginger beer? Then begins the ritual of repackaging the resupply.

Bro replaces his phone and battery bank, and Ellie finds a new charging cable. All the chores done, we heft our packs and walk out the other long arm of town, hoping to make the reported swimming hole camp in the heat of the afternoon. There are some beautiful art installations along the way.

Lord. It is hot. The sun is merciless.

We push through face high grass a good ways before we turn a sharp corner into the dark forest; a refreshingly cold stream pumps past the trail, and Prana and I warrior dunk our heads and shirts.

The brief respite from the roar of the furnace lasts only a few steps, and we walk through meadows below limestone outcroppings. One high embankment of rock is the actual inside of a cave with a cliff wall broken off, leaving the stalactites and stalagmites on display to the open air.

We cross a suspension bridge over the Mangoakewa Stream, and reach a sign that describes waterfalls on the side we just crossed over from- we debate whether taking that trail will connect us back to the side of the creek the TA is on, or if it will deadend on that side. None of the maps show a continuation or another bridge, so we reluctantly pass the option by. The side we do hike is lovely, passing through an old dark forest, where small streams lined with ferns splash into the main river, creating a symphony of sounds. We emerge into an open meadow filled with sheep, with several picnic tables, a bridge back across the stream, and a new sign with a map showing the two banks trails do indeed make a full loop. Blast! Oh well. We take a break on the picnic table, vigorously debate the merits of swimming here at the bridge or waiting until camp, and decide forego this swim spot in the hopes of gettin to camp that much earlier. We continue downstream along the creek, the meadow narrowing gradually until we are walking along the river.

We had seen rumors that this section would be ‘the worst section of the whole TA.’ There are some knee deep mud holes, a few long steep ups that immediately careen straight back down, and some narrow sloping tread; it’s slow going, but to say it is the worst is a bit of a melodramatic stretch. The going gets a bit harier right before camp, and I hope that the reports of this being a nice spot are accurate. They are- a large soft pine needle carpeted clearing tucked into a grove of towering conifers appears on the edge of the bank, along with an open grassy ledge with wooden table and chairs, and a truly magnificent swimming hole.

We strip our packs and most of our sweat and salt drenched clothes and all head into the river before the chill of hiking cessation can set in. We splash ourselves and soak our feet, scour off the mud and do our laundry the old fashioned way, with a succession of scrub and wring cycles.

It’s closer to 6:00 than 3:00, but still feels luxuriously early. We drape all the laundry in the trees and tear into dinner- two loaves of pizza bread (flavor= bell pepper and apricot!) that Prana carried from the bakery. It’s a second luxury to not have to cook; if hydrated food wasn’t so heavy, I would be advocating for not cooking at all on this broiler of a trail.

I write and Prana reads, and as we lounge in the safety of our bug free tent, Tristan & Jennifer and a fast talking Scotsman arrive. We all commiserate over the heat, the tread, the slow going since Waitimo. This campsite feels very cozy and homey, and I happily drift to sleep.

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