Knocking the Hillary Trail off

By Wayne Thompson

A gentle grassy descent makes Te Henga Walkway the most popular part of the trail for old and young alike. Photo / Natalie Slade
A gentle grassy descent makes Te Henga Walkway the most popular part of the trail for old and young alike. Photo / Natalie Slade

We stood on the edge of a cliff, mesmerised by the view below and beyond.

Black tentacles of kelp swirled in channels of green which nature had gouged in the rock shelf.

Surf burst through sea caves and four gannets flew in formation over specks of islands.

In the distance, we could see 30km along the coast to the big Piha hill and, poking out from behind, a sandy tongue protruded into the sea from Whatipu, at the entrance to the Manukau Harbour.

Lunch was eaten in the shade of a cabbage tree grove, cicadas providing the music. Then we continued along undulating ridges with jagged orange clay edges poised above a sea which changed its colour from grey in a squall, to deep blue in the sunshine.

The track was often exposed to the wind and rain in between shady groves of nikau, karaka and stumpy manuka bent over by wild Tasman Sea storms.

When we reached the carpark at Muriwai, after five and a half hours on our feet, I was tired, a knee was niggling from going downhill and the litre bottle of water was bone dry.

The satisfaction of looking back to where we had come from - Bethells Beach - faded when my companion said: "Do you realise we have only walked a bit of the last day's trail ?"

It was true. The fourth day of the Hillary Trail is 27km and officially estimated to take 11 to 12 hours.

We had decided to sample a wholly coastal piece from Bethells Beach to Muriwai. The official estimate for the 6km was 4 hours 30 minutes.

A week before the Hillary Trail was opened, Aucklander Sean Collins ran its whole length from Muriwai to the Atarangi Visitor Centre, near Titirangi, in just 11 hours.

Herald outdoors writer the late Colin Moore tramped flat out from Muriwai to Whatipu in a day, several times. "A marathon trek," he called it.

The Hillary Trail uses existing trails, old routes used by Maori, settlers, bushmen and tramping clubs, some parts of which have been upgraded in the past year.

Most of the trail is in the Waitakere Ranges, which are run by the parks division of the Auckland Regional Council (ARC).

Our group of over-50s walked the section known as the Te Henga Walkway, the first part of which - from Bethells Rd to O'Neill Bay - is up to DoC New Zealand walkway standard, suitable for a mobile family.

It is the most popular section because it takes you, regardless of high tide times, on a gentle descent by way of a well-mown grass path track to a beautiful and remote sheltered bay.

However, beyond O'Neill Bay, the track leading to Muriwai is below this standard. Gorse bushes stab at you and kikuyu grass disguises where the edges of the track are. Parts of the trail require special care to avoid a fall, maybe over a 50m cliff. Officials warn that some sections of the Hillary Trail are difficult with steep climbs and muddy or slippery surfaces. Some streams have to be waded.

Named after mountaineer and adventurer Sir Edmund Hillary, the trail is designed as a wilderness tramping experience - offering a long walk each day and a night's sleep in a tent within a forest clearing.

The ARC thought such a trail would inspire youth to enjoy old-school tramping and camping. As older folk, though keen to camp, we thought it was easier to exploit one of the great things about the trail. Because it goes close to the west coast villages, it can be done in sections.

ARC Parks notes a steady increase in bookings for the three $5-a-night campgrounds designated for the trail away from the villages.

The Karamatura site is near the Huia Dams. Pararaha is halfway between Karekare and Whatipu, and Craw campground can be reached by car from the Arawhata Rd.

The ARC also has lodges and baches for hire and there are campgrounds with tent sites and showers and cooking facilities at Piha and Muriwai villages.

Private lodges and bed and breakfast places are available at settlements close to the route.

- NZ Herald

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