I was desperate to get out of the city and into the bushes. Sitting and working in front of the computer day after day after day really sap the life and enthusiasm out of you. I needed a break, and cities with their concrete jungles just won’t do it for me.
So I invited a few friends to join me for a 2-day hiking trip in the New Zealand backcountry. I had planned the trip last year but it didn’t materialise then due to other commitments and circumstances. This time, I was determined, regardless of how the weather’s like.
The Kauaeranga Valley is located at the heart of the Coromandel Forest Park in the Coromandel Peninsula backcountry, about 2 hours drive away from the Auckland City. We rented a car and started the drive early in the morning so that we can start our hike early.
Along the way while we were driving over a hilly area, we suddenly saw an area fully covered in mists as far as the eye can see. A few hills jut out of the mist cover, like islands in the middle of a vast ocean. But this was no ocean. It was purely mist, so thick and low. We’ve never seen anything like it before, and we were driving straight into it.
I brought along my DSLR camera, and my friend used it to capture this rather surreal photo.
We have decided to take the tramping track from the Kauaeranga Valley road end up towards Moss Creek, before turning towards the Rangihau junction and overnight at the Pinnacles Hut. The track was graded as a tramping track, which is described as a “challenging day or multi-day tramping on mostly unformed tracks. Backcountry skills and experience required.” It was the second highest level of difficulty in the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) track categories. Nominally, the DOC estimates that it would take about 8 hours to cover the horizontal distance of about 8 kilometres.
There was a more easier route towards the Pinnacles Hut, which is graded as a walking track, with the description “Gentle walking from a few minutes to a day on mostly well-formed tracks”. It would only take about 2.5 hours to reach the Pinnacles Hut via that route. Having coming this far and in desperate need of adventure, we weren’t gonna take the easy way.
Having arrived at the road end at about 9.00 AM, we should be able to reach the Pinnacles Hut at about 5.00 PM, with just about an hour of daylight to spare. Turns out we were dead wrong in that estimate.
The other guys
The first 2.5 hours of our hike went relatively smoothly. True to their track category description, the tracks were mostly unformed, but we could easily follow the orange triangular markers fixed onto tree barks along the track.
There was a place after a particularly steep climb where we met another group of 3 hikers, just like us. Apparently they had lost the track (and so had we), and had been spending the last 25 minutes trying to figure out a track among the dense undergrowth.
We knew that we couldn’t be far off the actual track, because we had been following the orange markers. When we met the other group of hikers, there were no longer any orange markers in front.
Luckily, I spotted one of the markers just under the last climb, hidden by a bunch of fallen undergrowth. It was so easy to miss, and it was only because they had stopped there that they got back onto the track. Trying to work their way uphill through the dense uphill will only cost them so much precious time and energy.
And so we continued climbing on towards the Moss Creek junctions. There were places where the climb becomes very steep, and we found ourselves climbing along rocky cracks on the steep hillside. What’s worse was that water actually trickle down those cracks, so they were really slippery. But it was good fun.
The ultimately not fun stuff comes right after that.
Shortly before we reach the Moss Creek junction, the track began to turn boggy with mud pools that literally suck your shoes off you. It was tough going. We had to literally take one step at a time trying to skirt around the bogs, holding on to weeds and tree branches that skirt the track.
But it was inevitable that sooner or later we were going to make one slip and step right into the bog. And sure enough we did. I was the only person in our group that wore proper waterproof hiking boots. My two other hiking parties wore sports shoes. The moment they stepped into the mud, their socks and feet were socking wet. And we were not even halfway into our hike for the day.
Reminder to self: on your next hiking trip all your hiking parties will have to wear proper hiking boots. No excuses.
When we finally reached the Moss Creek junction, and this was after quite some time slowly making our way through the boggy track, we parted ways with the other group of hikers that we met before. They were going to make camp at the Moss Creek campsite, and we were going to stay overnight at the Pinnacles Hut.
Distance-wise, we’re only about a third of our hike for the day. We were already behind time by 30 minutes. That’s a lot when you only have 1 hour of daylight to spare. We told ourselves that the going will get much easier after we have passed the boggy portion of the track.
The only problem is, we never got pass the boggy portion. Not until we’re about half an hour hike away from the Pinnacles Hut.
After we stopped for a while for lunch – which consists of wraps with vegetables and canned chicken which we made on the spot – we continued to press on. The track didn’t get any better. The bogs were truly neverending, and they were so demotivating. Our smooth going at the beginning turned into a slow, one-step-at-a-time, navigating through the bogs.
Needless to say, it just sapped our energy and robbed precious daylight away from us. Between where we stopped for lunch and the next junction, we spent 4.5 hours to cover a horizontal distance of a mere 2.5 km. It was so demotivating to look at the map now and again just to discover that we had barely covered half a centimetre of the track in the map.
By the time we reached the next junction (Rangihau-Pinnacles junction), it was already 5.30 pm, and we were losing daylight fast. That junction was near the top of a hill, and from that hilltop we could see the Pinnacles Hut still so far away. “We won’t be able to make it”, was what my friend said.
But we pressed on. Soon daylight faded away completely, and still the bogs didn’t end. We were then climbing down slippery cracks in the hills, partly covered by clay moistened by trickling water.
We had three torchlights, which worked well in the beginning. Soon, the batteries in one died out, and another torchlight was giving out meagre amount of light. Only one torchlight – the one I bought before the trip – was working well with bright light. So with one bright torchlight and another small, dim torchlight, the three of us worked our way through the unformed tracks of our route, totally devoid of daylight now.
And did I mention that the bogs never cease to litter the route?
We slipped and stepped into the mud pools so many times now that we didn’t care anymore. The feet of my two hiking parties were already soaking wet since the last few hours. My feet were just damp, only because I wore waterproof hiking boots.
After a steep climb down we came to a river crossing. We replenished our water supply, which had gone dangerously low. And then continued on.
Right after the river, the route turned into a steep climb. The tracks were unformed, so the climb was really steep and difficult at times. At one particular location we had to climb up a rockface that was inclined at more than 60 degree. Handholds and footholds were just shallow depression onto the rockface. And remember that we were doing this at night, with only one bright and one dim torchlights.
And we had to hold those freaking torchlights!
Note to myself number 2: get a head torch.
One of my hiking friend was totally scared at this point. Scared enough that she said out loud that she didn’t sign up for this! Then me and the other friend kept pushing her on, and I asked her to take off her pack and give it to me.
She told us the next day how throughout the night hike she was praying hard in her heart all the way through, and how she was so scared. She didn’t think she could make it at that steep rockface, but she did. That kind of experience, you don’t get it anywhere else. And it builds your courage and character, and makes you stronger.
Oh, and she also said that through it all it had been a fun experience. Fun experience! And this came from a girl who was literally stoned right there at that rockface out of fear. See what I mean?
That wasn’t the only rockface we had to climb that night. There were many others, still steep but not quite as steep. After one rather extended climb over a rockface, we decided to stop for a while and catch our collective breaths. So we sat there and munched on the energy bars that we brought along.
And then we looked up.
It was the most beautiful thing. I had never seen so many stars in the night sky before.
The moon was a crescent that day, and that moment the moon hadn’t risen yet. And there was barely any clouds, and the air was unpolluted, so we had this vast stretch of dark, clear sky above us, littered with countless stars. We could even see a particular stretch across the sky where there seems to be a higher density of stars. It was such a consolation to our weary and sore muscles.
My friend asked me if I could take a photo of it with my DSLR, but I couldn’t. Either the high ISO will ruin the picture with noise, or the long shutter speed will turn the stars into streaks of light as they move in that 1 or 2 seconds it would have taken the camera to gather enough light with low ISO.
After that point, the route began to turn less boggy, so we could pick up a bit of speed. By the time we reached the Pinnacles Hut, we had hiked in the dark for about 3 hours. The signboard at the junction to the hut was such a relief. It had taken us 12 hours of continuous hike to reach the hut from the start of our route.
The hut had no electricity, except for the solar-powered battery to power the few lights for a few hours, and only cold water. The shower was covered by wooden walls with no roof – literally under the stars. And this was one of the most luxurious huts in New Zealand.
But I didn’t get a good sleep that night. When we arrived at the hut, many people were asleep already. The guy that slept on the bunk bed next to mine had put his pillow on my bed, so I had little room to stretch out, and I was too polite to wake him up.
So I had to curl myself, and sure enough not even halfway through the night I woke up as my feet began to cramp up. I stretched it out in the air, and went back to sleep again. And woke up again. And again.
The next morning, we woke up at about 5.00 AM and had our breakfast and packed our packs proper. By 6.00 AM, still dark, we set out from the hut towards the pinnacles. We wanted to catch the sunrise at the top.
By now, the tracks are well formed and there are steps partway up the Pinnacles. But near the top, there were only steel rungs bolted into the rocks. For the uninitiated, it took quite some courage to climb up those. My friend almost gave up, but we pushed her on, and she was glad later on that she didn’t give up. She would have regretted it if she did.
Sunrise at the Pinnacles was truly beautiful. From the top, we could see the vast area of the Coromandel Forest Park all around us, bathed in the golden light of the rising sun. We could make out the route that we took the day before, and spent quite some time at the top.
The way back
The route up the Pinnacles and back again to where we started the day before took us 6 hours. But we weren’t rushing it. In fact, it was quite relaxed. We took time for plenty of rests and pictures in between the hike. The track was well-formed, and was much easier than the route that we had taken the day before.
But our bodies were so sore, especially our feet. After 12 hours of hard unrelenting rocks and logs under our feet from the day before, the relatively flat track was a bliss. We reached the road end where we started our hike the day before by about 11.00 AM, treated ourselves to some proper lunch at the nearby town of Thames, and headed back to Auckland.
It seems that most of the hiking trips that I went on didn’t go quite according to plan. And I’m not talking about just a bit of deviation. The last time I went hiking we were stranded on a barren mountain face. And the hike before that, we were caught in bad weather at the top of a mountain, which prompted genuine concern for the lives and safety of my hiking parties.
Note to self number 3: next time, don’t ever tell your hiking parties that it will be easy. Ever.
However, it is exactly these challenges that make these adventures so valuable and so worthwhile doing. People seek challenges and adventures for many reasons. For me, it is that ability to break free and just push myself towards my limits, and then go a little bit further. It is only by doing things we never thought we could do before that we grow both in stature and in spirit.
And of course, the experience was invaluable. Cities to me are so pretentious. We built ourselves these great homes and buildings and drive in posh cars and cover ourselves with such classy attire with expensive perfumes and put on huge, fashionable shades for good measure, and all for what? Our conversations are restricted, our emotions are held back, gestures are mechanical, appearances matter more.
Out in the bushes, none of those matters. Sweat, tears, blood, pain, raw emotions, courage, fear, camaraderie, all these very essences that make us human, those are the things that matter. Without those, we are reduced to mere cogs in the huge machines that we have trapped ourselves into. Without those, life is just a mundane repetitions of daily tasks that the society demand of us.
And perspective. Only by experiencing the harsh and the difficult will we value the comfort and the convenience. Only by experiencing fear and pain will we value surety and pleasure. Only by experiencing the bitter will we value the sweet.
Not least of all is that all these experiences have now become part of the stories of my life, stories I can tell and retell to friends and families, stories we can recount among ourselves. Never underestimate the power of stories, for told under the stars or around a campfire or on top of a hill overlooking a cliff, they can help form powerful bonds between people.
And of course, shed off some accumulated body fat and weight in the process. Even as my body is recovering from the sore muscles and back as I write this.
As usual, some photos from the hiking trip. There aren’t many photos during the most strenuous and difficult parts of the hike, for obvious reasons.