“When your day is long. And the night, the night is yours alone. When you’re sure you’ve had enough of this hike. Well hang on. Don’t let yourself go, ’cause everybody cries. And everybody hurts sometimes.” (REM – Everybody Hurts)
As camping grounds go, this was a doozy. “Camp in the beer garden of a pub” they said, and who was I to argue. And that’s how I found myself pitching a tent in the garden bar of the Back Yard Bar in Whatawhata. Incidentally, that translates to ” place where large trucks drive through at night”. There was not much sign of life when we arrived, save for a Maori fellow holding up a bar leaner who the proprietor cheerfully referred to as “Blackie”. We were shown where to pitch our tent and this is when I stumbled upon the fact that handles of beer were $4 at 4pm, $5 at 5pm etc to 7 pm when they became there normal price. I was not about to let this innovation go unsupported so at one minute past 4 pm I was there ordering two handles of Waikato Draught, which has the appearance and flavour after the local river after which it is named.
We had made our way to Whatawhata from Hamilton, a souless and insular town which would struggle to make the highlights reel of places to see in Aotearoa. The following day was a lovely walk starting off on the road and through a working farm to a beautiful picnic spot by a river. We cooled our burning feet in the ice-cold creek before once again pulling on our boots for the final 3km on the Nikau Walk to Kaniwhaniwha. There we met Chris and Megan (trail names are Mac and Cheese) who are from Colorado and are here to walk the TA because it’s the only Southern Hemisphere hike that appeals in their winter months. This had been a reason put forward by other walkers and seems a natural selling point for the TA but significant investment will be required to upgrade large sections of the trail to make it safe and enjoyable for an influx of through-walkers over the 2000 that are starting the entire TA in 2020.
Of course, the previous two days had been a curtain raiser for the main event – a traverse of Mount Pirongia. Whilst we were planning our TA, Pirongia, along with the Tararuas and 90 Mile Beach, loomed large as a massive challenge in the North Island section. And she didn’t disappoint. Commencing with a sucker punch of beautiful forest with a steady but manageable gradient, she soon showed her true colours with a grunty, rooty muddy ascent that had me sweating and cursing. And just when you thought you had her beaten, she sent you flailing down a steep ridgeline only to repeat the process again. The feeling we had when standing upon the viewing platform at 949 meters above sea level was 80% relief and 20% quiet achievement. But it was getting off the mountain that was to prove much harder and give a physical context to REM’s 1992 classic “Everybody Hurts”