“This ain’t no upwardly mobile freeway. Oh no, this is the road. This is the road. This is the road to hell. ( Chris Rea – Road to Hell )
Walking on State Highway 1 has never been on my bucket-list. Nevertheless here I was, trudging up the Mangamuka Gorge on SH1 facing oncoming traffic which varied between logging trucks, other heavy haulage trucks and everyone else who all seemed in a mad rush to get somewhere. It was hot, it was intimidating and the camber of the road made the alignment of knees, hips and the 16kg backpack hellishly difficult. It was hell. Light relief was however provided by a road repair gang who, when I told them I had walked there from Cape Reinga, fell about laughing and questioned my sanity.
But then, as often happens on the TA, a kind gesture or good deed occurs which restores your faith in the journey you’ve embarked on. In our case, it was the owner of the Mangamuka dairy who offered us a room in her sleepout when we turned up sunburned, exhausted and over it. Her kindness and the subsequent cheese burgers she made for us were a solace. We fell asleep to the sound of trucks careering along the highway.
The following day was much easier. With a spring in our step we left SH1 and turned off on farm and forestry tracks for approximately 12km. Our destination was the DoC campsite at Apple Dam. DoC generally does a great job but this camp site was a shocker. A busted rain tank meant you were forced to trust the nearby stream and the toilets were putrid. However there were a fair few other TA walkers there and this led to some good natured banter and war stories as we set up the tent. Some freeze-dried coq au Vin and some whiskey from our stash had us in bed listening to the rain on the tent before long.
The following day looked like a massive challenge on paper, and it didn’t disappoint. It started off with a controlled slip-slide down a citadel of mud before entering the Puketi Stream. Truth be told – this was a beautiful section of the trail. A cool, clear creek babbling through a gorge with stunning tree ferns and regenerating bush made for a lovely, if tricky, walk. What followed was the stuff of nightmares. An insanely muddy and slippery track alongside the river which had us stretched to our limits. I fell a number of times and on one occasion nearly ended up back in the river. It took us three hours to traverse 3.8 km and when we finally joined the Puketi Forest track, we were spent. We trudged on for a bit but realised we were still 12km from our objective and needed to camp. We set up the tent on a flatish bit of ground and fell asleep to the sounds of the surrounding forest.
The following day we tramped the remaining 12km to the Puketi Forrest hut which was beautiful and we had it to ourselves. The nightmare of Puketi was starting to fade in the rear view mirror, and, in the morning, we trudged the final kilometers to an oasis by the name of Kerikeri. Fresh blisters and general exhaustion serve to remind us of the enormity of the challenge in front of us, but, with beer in hand, we are able to reflect on surving our road to hell with a smile.