Wined, Dined, Fried, and Fertilized


With her shimmering harbors and verdant natural parks, it’s easy to forget you’re strolling about in a dormant volcano field. It’s more or less napping, but when it rolls over and snorts in its sleep every 5,000 years or so an eruption occurs. Fortunately, I suppose, all of Auckland’s 50 volcanoes were one-offs and are now considered extinct, except for Rangitoto.

A volcanic island in the Hauraki Gulf, Rangitoto erupted about 550 years ago. Rising from the clear ocean waters, the island is a beautiful – if not imposing – sight. In Maori, Rangitoto means ‘bloody sky.’

The silent volcanic craters and cones dotting the city were once important geologic features for the Maori. Many of these high points served as fortified villages. You can still see terraces and traces of excavations on many of the extinct volcanoes.

Even before the arrival of European immigrants, Auckland was a hub of activity, with a population of nearly 20,000 Maori at one point. But after a series of tribal wars in the 18th and early 19th Century, the Auckland area was near vacant, leaving it a desirable site for British colonization. In the area’s abundant water supply, safe harbors, and fertile soil, the first Governor of New Zealand William Hobson saw the makings of a capital city and so it became 1841.

Its status as such was short lived, however, when the central government moved to Wellington in 1865. Despite losing the capital, Auckland quickly became the most populous city in New Zealand, and remains so today. Nearly 32% of the nation’s population lives here. A quick walk up the major thoroughfare of Queen Street gives you a sense of the city’s diversity: kebab shops, break-dancing Maori kids, Prada, classical guitarists, and Korean eateries.

Through Dad’s connections with Eddie Wilson of Threadgill’s in Austin, Texas,  we stayed with the owner of Real Groovy (also on Queen Street), a record and music store of the like that doesn’t exist much anymore. After three days drinking beer, eating BBQ, and napping in his early 1900’s home, we left Auckland under a wet, heavy cloud. Once outside the city, we stepped into the Hunua Ranges, a remote dotting of low mountainous hills with waterfalls and deep forest tracks. Fantails followed us through flowered undergrowth, dancing, flashing and waving their fan-shaped tails. Their song is reminiscent of a very small and worried cartoon mouse.

Shortly before leaving Auckland, we’d been informed of a discrepancy on the map. Fine details such as when and where generally escape me, so I had completely forgotten about this impending dilemma. After walking some 2 km down a very long and very steep hill, we ran out of trail markers at a T-intersection.

Now, this wasn’t my first rodeo; we’ve become quite accustomed to searching for the trail at least once a day. While standing next to the last marker we’d seen, I checked the GPS. It said we were a full kilometer off the trail, so what on Earth was the marker doing there? Either the map, the notes, the marker, or the GPS was wrong – a very unhelpful realization.

The rumble of a diesel engine on gravel interrupted our irritable musings. I waved down the work truck and asked about the trail. None of the passengers or the driver had heard of Te Araroa, and shook their heads when I pointed at the TA marker they must drive past everyday.

When I showed them the map, the most helpful of the lot laughed and pointed into the forest, “There’s no trail through that.”

“But our notes say there’s a track leading…”

“No, no, no. You’ll be walking in a river. Your best bet is to turn around up the hill and walk on the road into Mercer.”

I wadded up the map and shoved it in my pack. I hate back tracking, especially up long, steep hills I’ve recently enjoyed walking down. But with no other options save wandering about in the forest looking for a trail marker, we cinched our packs tight and turned back.

Several hours later, another friend of Eddie’s waved at us from his truck.

“You folks need a ride?”

We threw our packs in the bed and climbed in. Fred had recently returned from a music roots tour of the United States; which had concluded with a hitchhike from El Paso to San Francisco for a bluegrass festival. With a punk rock mariachi band in the background, Fred rambled off band names, insisting I make a page in my notebook to keep up with his recommendations. (I did.) That night, his wife Pip organized a dinner party with two of their tramping friends; whom we regaled with tales from the trail.

Fred drove us back to the trail the next morning by way of the Mercer Cheese shop. Pip had sent us off with a Christmas cake, so after a short walk, we stopped by the Waikato River and enjoyed a very rich and dense cake and cheese snack.

The trail was achingly slow in its descent to Hamilton. Shortly before arriving in the blue-collar town of Huntly, we walked a long stretch of farmland along the Waikato. Small fenced paddocks divided the narrow stretch of farmland by the river, and trampers must climb over stiles every ten to fifteen minutes.

In the distance, a helicopter crop-dusting contraption ran laps over the fields. The trail trudged directly under its path. The faint stench of fertilizer in the breeze wafted up my nose. The aerial attack subsided as the helicopter landed, but we were soon to be bombarded by land. A truck rumbled across the fields, spraying fertilizing pellets. We ducked as the pellets bounced off our packs. I hope to be two inches taller by harvest!

When at last we reached Hamilton, we had the new feeling that we were finally making progress. The first month from Cape Reinga to Auckland seemed an eternity, but with the changing scenery and our prospects for reaching Wellington in reasonable time looking brighter, we settled down for a couple days of rest.

Canada the Cat greeted us at the YHA in Hamilton.

Canada the Cat greeted us at the YHA in Hamilton.

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