Ease into tramping with an overnighter at the Pinnacles Hut in the Coromandel, writes Andrew Laxon.
In hindsight, the warning signs were there when we left the carpark and didn't see the other trampers again.
We crossed the swing bridge over the Kauaeranga River, to the boys' delight, and headed down the bank and turned right following the sign to Pinnacles Hut (via Billy Goat Track). The track climbed steeply up past old logging rail tracks.
Then the morning fog cleared, we checked the map one more time and realised we were doing the route back to front. Never mind, it was all the same scenery, just in a different order.
Our weekend trip to the Pinnacles Hut on the Coromandel Peninsula was part of a gradual return to tramping for me and my friend Richard, together with our sons David, 10, and Isaac, 7.
We had warmed up with a day trip to Whatipu over summer and decided we were ready for our first overnighter - something easy enough for the boys to manage but challenging enough to be the real thing.
The Pinnacles ticked all the boxes. It's one of New Zealand's favourite destinations for overnighters, just 16km down the road from Thames (allow an easy two hours' travelling time from Auckland) and up into the hills, following the routes used by kauri bushmen in the 1920s to remote logging sites in the Kauaeranga Valley.
The tramp also boasts the biggest and probably most luxurious hut in the country. Built in 1995, it takes 80 people and has its own cooking facilities but it can be booked out months ahead, so apply early. You need to pick up your hut ticket at the well-appointed Department of Conservation hut near the start of the track.
As our morning continued, we decided taking the alternative route was a great idea. The track levelled out after the initial climb and followed an up-and-down path across the hills to the old Hydro Camp junction.
From there we had great views across to the East Coast on the last half-hour's walk to the hut. A fit tramper could do this in three hours on the all-weather track (running shoes are fine but be prepared for some basic rock-hopping and scrambling in places). We took about four-and-a-half hours, allowing plenty of time for lunch, scroggin stops and partially successful attempts to interest the boys in the area's logging history.
The palatial Pinnacles hut has a gas-powered kitchen, chemical toilets, icy-cold showers and even solar-powered lighting in the bunkrooms. It opens on to an enormous deck with great views down the valley. We grabbed bunks and showers, taught the boys how to play 500 and tucked into risotto and instant pudding for dinner.
Andrew Laxon, with Issac Dykes, seven (left) and David Laxon, 10, prepare to take on the Billy Goat Track. Photo / Richard Dykes
It was late April but the hut was almost full, including families with very young children. We tried to work out if they walked in by themselves or were carried. Later that night I woke briefly to a loud chorus of snoring. If you're a light sleeper, bring earplugs.
The next morning David and I took the spectacular 40-minute trip to the top of the Pinnacles, which was just the right level of adventure for a 10-year-old boy. The last part involves scrambling on all fours over rocks using handholds but there's no danger of falling, despite the steepness.
We climbed mainly in fog but the mist parted as we stood at the top to admire the views out to sea. It cleared again as we descended past some magnificent craggy pinnacles, standing tall like Easter Island statues.
On the way back we visited a dam near the hut where the bushmen used to release thousands of logs down a series of dams all at once. We walked out along the historic pack horse route, which includes steps cut into stone to make life easier for the horses carrying the logs. The track has been substantially upgraded here but it's still a steep climb, even coming down.
As we reached the bottom we stared up the high waterfall across the valley and realised we had looked down on it from the Billy Goat Track the day before. That, we agreed, is when you feel like you've really been tramping.
Learn more about the Kauaeranga Kauri Trail under "Parks and Recreation" on the Department of Conservation website.