3,000 km on foot across New Zealand

A Tale of Two Mountains

In a bleary state of semi-consciousness, I awoke with a feeling of dread. I could hear rain. A deluge, in fact. I opened my eyes and was surprised to see a white ceiling with a single lightbulb overhead instead of the grey nylon roof of my tent. We were at the YHA in Hamilton, a city of some 145,000 people in the Waikato-King Country region of New Zealand. Relieved at the prospect of not packing up a wet tent, I rolled out of bed. Then I remembered – we were scheduled to visit Sanctuary Mountain and the botanic gardens.

An hour later, Dad and I waited under the grim shelter of a lamp post for our ride. When Rod Millar pulled up, a river of rain rushed off my Mountain Equipment slickers and onto his seat. I apologized sheepishly.

“At least you’re not out tramping in it!”

A very good point, indeed. Rod had the distinct look of a true tramper – fit, strong legs and a trim means-business beard. I think he might have been wearing flannel, as well. It was comforting to know that a Kiwi – who will go up, over, and through just about anything – wouldn’t enjoy tramping in the storm of the century.

Rod is the sort of non-profit volunteer known as a lifer. He showed up one day for a mandatory employee volunteer day, and hasn’t been able to leave since. He drove us well out of the city and into the rural regions south of Hamilton where Sanctuary Mountain is located. From a distance, it was not unlike every other mountain we’d climbed in New Zealand with a thick, coarsely woven carpet of rain forest covering its gnarled body. But as we approached, you could begin to make out the subtle green mesh fence wrapping 47 km around the perimeter of the hill.

Sanctuary Mountain is an ambitious preservation effort attempting to recreate a pre-human New Zealand, or at least, a pre-pest New Zealand. (I suppose a lot of that depends on your view of humans.) The 47 km fence, which requires 24-hour surveillance, prevents possums, stoats, rats, feral cats, and the rest of the deadly lot from entering the preserve. It’s the longest pest-proof fence in the world.

Sirocco the kakapo, courtesy of Phil Brown, Sanctuary Mountain

Sirocco the kakapo visiting Sanctuary Mountain, courtesy of Phil Brown.

Giant weta, courtesy of Sanctuary Mountain

Giant weta, courtesy of Phil Brown

Until now, the most rain we’d seen was in frustratingly frequent five minute intervals, but today it was non-stop. We met up with a resident biologist, and prepared to enter the enclosure. The tall fence with the double gate reminded me distinctly of Jurassic Park. Rod stopped just shy of the entrance and pointed to the mesh link running into the ground.

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I’d been expecting him to declare how deep the mesh was submerged and how strenuous it had been to dig a trench. Instead, he showed it was only a couple of inches below the ground, but extended horizontally beyond the fence. As clever as rabbits are (i.e. not very,) they only dig directly by the fence line and not beyond the shallow mesh barrier. By keeping rabbits from burrowing under the fence, Sanctuary Mountain is able to prevent other pests from entering through their tunnels.

A morepork at Sanctuary Mountain, courtesy of Phil Brown

A morepork at Sanctuary Mountain, courtesy of Phil Brown

We followed them through the carefully maintained trail system. Here were kākā parrots, tuatara (most closely resembling reptiles of the Mesozoic era), bellbirds, Mahoenui giant wetas, and many other species threatened by the country’s pest problem. The Sanctuary is hoping to soon reintroduce the endangered kakapo and kokako.

As we bowed our heads under the relentless rain, Rod regaled us with tales of the community effort it took to bring Sanctuary Mountain into existence. Established as a preserve in 1912, the local community agreed to make it completely pest-proof and truly protect the area nearly 100 years later. After a staggering NZ$14.5 million was raised, the fencing project was underway. Local volunteers keep the place functioning with instant response to a downed section of fence and community outreach.

After several kākā sightings and a brief glimpse at the hihi, we headed back into the city. The rain had yet to let up, so I promised myself a visit to the Hamilton Gardens – which have recently won the International Garden of the Year award – on another, less damp day.

The next day, we packed our bags and walked out of Hamilton under clear skies. The trail took a surprising turn above the city, and deposited us on a high treeless hill with white outcroppings of limestone. We made camp and watched the city light up in the growing dark far below.

We were passed early the next morning by a trio of energetic Germans. I don’t function socially on less than a cup of coffee, and these exceedingly happy young men were much too much at 7:30 in the morning. I mumbled ‘hello’ and went back to admiring the 360-degrees of views. (Thank goodness developers haven’t found this patch of New Zealand yet!)

Coffee or no coffee, I was forced to communicate a mere half-hour later. All five of us had managed to lose the trail. We compared maps and looks of despair before agreeing it must be “over there” – an elusive place found faraway beyond the arc of a waving hand. The trail was soon retrieved and we continued south toward the mighty Mount Pirongia of which we’d heard so much about.

Before leaving for New Zealand, I found a clip on Instagram shot somewhere on this mountain. Wind and rain whipped the thick, green forest like an egg beater. Ferocious. Merciless. And judging by the growing grey on the horizon, weather was coming in. We false-summited several times before finally reaching the 959m point in an outright gale. I snapped a couple of pictures from the viewport and we hurried back into the trees and onto the hut.

Bill Bryson may hate up-hills, but I’ve come to loathe going downhill. From the top of Pirongia, it was a 30-minute descent to the hut. A switchback is a rare occurrence on a New Zealand trail. You’re much more likely to find a straight, narrow path leading precariously down a 20-degree slope. Add mud, roots, and grasping tree limbs and you’ve got some work ahead of you. I heard a crash, crack, and a curse behind me.

Dad and I have a running joke – because he falls down at least once a day, I should just push him over first thing in the morning to get it over with.

“You K?” I shouted.

“Yeah, but my pole isn’t.” Dad shouted back.

He shuffled down the slope holding his now angular pole aloft. He threw it angrily into the trees. I knew there wasn’t much point in reminding him of his Leave No Trace principles, so we carried on in silence.

We reached the Pahautea Hut as a fine mist began to blow in. Just as we were settling down for the evening, the Germans arrived carrying Dad’s broken pole. I quietly thanked them. Maik, the one with the most impressive beard and heaviest looking pack (I later learned he was carrying a computer!), is producing a documentary about their experience on the TA. We agreed to meet up the next morning for an interview.

Morning came with a thick cloud swirling around the hut. It looked miserable out there. It was nearly 8:00 and there was no sign of movement from the Germans. The weather can be quite unpredictable on Pirongia, and we might have been well advised to bunker down and wait for it to pass. But the prospect of sitting in a wet, cloud-infested hut for the day was not appealing, so we figured we’d do the interview later and get moving.

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Escaping Pirongia was no easy affair. The trail down to the road was steep, as steep as we’ve seen. For some four hours we swung from trees, leapt over muddy bogs, and climbed chains up rocky slopes; all the while the wind shook the trees overhead and splattered rain into our faces. At last we stumbled onto a forestry road.

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I looked at Dad in a state of shock, “I think I need a beer.”

“Me too.”

So we hitched a ride to the closest pub and laughed – as one can only laugh from a warm, dry place – at the mountain we’d just climbed.

3 Responses to “A Tale of Two Mountains”

  1. Pamela mccullough

    Wow! Te Araroa sounds so so tough! Way to go, guys! You are my inspiration!

    Reply
  2. Amy Hobby

    So awesome guys! I’ve always wanted to do something like this. Very inspiring!

    Reply

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