Hiking without a goal

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Sometimes a hike doesn’t work out. For us, a successful hike is one where either we reach our goal or we enjoy it so much along the way that the destination wasn’t too important. Our go at the Kaipawa Trig Track was neither of these things.

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We’d be driving for a few hours now, bored and stiff. The weather was mildly gloomy, occasionally drizzling. At the top of a hill were parked several cars, a clear indication of a trailhead. Ponchos and boots on we wandered around the picnic area looking for the path in. We found it and up we went on a nominally steep but miserably slippery grade. The drizzle had wet down the whole trail and many sections were now just exposed, slick rock. This is normally a good indication that the hike will be tough, but we don’t mind increased difficulty.

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If the path were dry, I’d imagine this to be a fair trail with some mild climbs. As it was, we were growing increasingly wet, tired, and I’d threatened to fall several times. We’ve faced worse conditions and tougher climbs, but without a clear goal or reason for going, the hike became a slog. Because we need an end-point, we decided to go to the first Trig. Incidentally, you might be wondering what a trig is. We did too. It’s a marker used in geographical and geological surveys of an area. A trigonometric marker. We never quite made it to this one.

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There were several hill climbs along the way, and the scenery was beautiful to be sure, but conditions were just bad enough that without the need to get somewhere, we decided to turn back. The thought of putting more sliding slopes between us and the car was not palatable, and by this point in our journey the ponchos we bought in Cusco were starting to let in water and smell kind of funny.

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In the end we got what we wanted, sort of. We’d seen a part of the New Zealand wilderness and stretched our legs. We felt somehow unfulfilled at the end of it though. We didn’t reach our goal, and mist and cloud made the trail seem much more constricted than it otherwise would have been, all the vistas obscured by fog.

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Looking back on the photographs we took, the hike seems much more interesting than we experienced it. Ours was a hood-blinded, sweaty trek. From the pictures we took though, the nature around us was abundant and vibrant. New Zealand’s tramping site lists this track as going through “regenerating forest”. A regenerating forest is one where something took out a large portion of the older trees, and saplings quickly established themselves.  No information was provided on whether this forest is under human assisted regeneration or natural regeneration after a fire.

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A Kauri tree stands tall, a canopy unto itself.

Either way, the verdant green of the forest shows it’s doing very well. The rain also gave me an opportunity to see one of my favorite sights in nature : wet moss.

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Well, to feel really. Wet moss under the fingertips is a lovely texture, and really only available in rainy forests. Done appreciating the small things along the way, we headed back to the car. On the way there I almost fell a few times, but to my credit, my balance has increased tremendously over the course of our travels. For someone with better balance than I, the final downhill before the parking lot would make for an amazing slide. Safely back at the car, we were very ready to dry off and get on the road.

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The windswept trees saw us off to our next destination.

 

Waipoua Kauri Forest

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Yakas

On the eastern shore of the north peninsula are the world’s largest Kauri trees. These are, by volume, the largest trees in New Zealand, and they are amazing to behold. Driving down the freeway, a small dirt parking lot and a picnic area appear. To one side is a shoe-cleaning station and the entrance to four fantastic walking trails. There are three distinct trails, between fifteen and forty minutes long. One trail holds two named sites, so four sites total.

The draw of this forest is, of course, the huge trees. New Zealand Parks services have kindly labelled them for you, starting with the seventh largest Kauri known, Yakas. Named after a gumdigger who grew intimately familiar with the forest, and helped to find the largest trees, Yakas is about twelve meters of trunk and another thirty meters of canopy. All told he’s about as tall as a 14 story building, and just under a car-length across.

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Te Matua – Father of the Forest

The second largest Kauri, Te Matua is my favorite, wearing an unbelievable crown of tree-sized branches. He’s not as tall as Yakas, but is wider by an extra meter – a huge distance when dealing with diameter. Two thirds of this tree’s height are in the branches – twenty meters worth of tree-trunk style canopy.

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Tāne Mahuta – Lord of the Forest

The last of the big ones, and the most popular tree in the park. The Lord of the Forest is about as wide as Yakas, but stands an impressive 51 meters tall, about 17 stories. There are two viewing platforms for this tree, one further back than the next, so you can get a really good sense of just how large he is. When you head back to the parking lot, climb the little picnic hill and turn around – Tāne Mahuta will be rising out of the forest canopy, taking up a breathtaking volume in the sky.

Puketi Forest

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Take a turn off the main road and keep going. Eventually you hit gravel, and even farther, dirt. At the end of a dirt road is where many of the North Island’s treasures are hidden. Without too many tourists or locals, they’re great places to see the nature of New Zealand and explore in peace and quiet. Like the fantastic Waipu Caves, the Puketi forest sits at the end of a dirt road, and while it’s listed in some of the travel guides, we found it to be entirely quiet even at the peak of tourist season. Unlike the rest of the North Island, the northern peninsula seems to have less sightseers, few enough that many great attractions are rarely visited.

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The Puketi forest is one of several Kauri tree forests left in New Zealand. Shorter than Redwoods but much thicker, Kauri trees are a symbol of pride on the island, considered the kings of the forest by the Maori. In person they are striking, their trunk overwhelming, their branches blooming into a canopy of what would be normal sized trees some thirty meters in the sky.

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The Puketi forest is not the best place in the Northland to see the largest of these trees, but it is the best we found for seeing them in their natural environment. While the Parks department does a great job of framing their particularly treasured trees, in Puketi you see them mostly unimpeded by railings, and without the crowd that the greats attract. Another surprising nicety at Puketi – the trail has signs naming the various flora

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The nature walk also does its best to educate the public of the problems that faced the Kauri trees. Besides being highly desired for their famously straight and durable lumber, the trees produce a wound-covering rubber. Initially rubber harvesters took it from fossilized deposits in the northland, but turned to bleeding live trees when the old supplies ran down. The cuts and gouges left the trees open to disease and as a result many died.

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A Kauri tree covering damage with gum-like sap.

The modern-day villain for these trees is Kauri dieback disease. Spread by mammals, particularly humans and wild boar, the disease causes a laundry list of symptoms leading inevitably to tree death. There is no known cure, and the trees don’t show any natural resistance. Once a single tree has been infected it’s only a matter of time before any nearby trees succumb. The spores can live for a long time without being in a Kauri and it takes only a microscopic amount to spread the disease to a new area. To protect the trees New Zealand authorities have made sure to set up elevated walkways at all popular Kauri sites, introduced public awareness campaigns for cleaning gear, and have even closed sites when the threat of infection became too great.

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The nature walks at Puketi are a great way to learn about the flora of New Zealand, to appreciate the history of, and threats to, the greatest of the islands trees. Their future is uncertain, an unfortunate reality for these proud giants. Despite this shadow, the forest is peaceful and full of life. It is vitally green, full of the sounds and smells of nature, with beauty great and small on all sides.

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A view of the sun-stopping canopy
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The Kauri tree, conspicuous even in the dense forest flora
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A cross-section of a dead tree
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Kauri bark sloughing off to shed moss and parasites
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Tiny, floor covering moss