Eleanor Hughes enjoys the heightened experience of a Coromandel tramp
I've lost count of the number of times I've driven through Thames, usually only stopping for forgotten grocery items before journeying further up the coast. This time however, Thames is the destination - or more precisely, we're escaping Auckland for the Coromandel Range, which looms just beyond.
Once a separate town - Grahamstown - founded in 1868, the northern end of Thames is bustling with shoppers enjoying the Saturday market. We drive past, and further on still, turning just before the Goldmine Experience offering underground mine tours I've never stopped to do. We eventually pass a sign announcing "Waiotahi Block" on the left-hand side along the quiet, winding road and park up. It's an hour and a half since leaving Auckland, and I'm ready to stretch my legs. Heaving overnight packs on our shoulders, we begin to walk. Crosbies Hut, the DOC hut we've booked beds in for the night, is 13km from here.
A fantail flits ahead of us so quickly I think it's a moth at first, its tail feathers barely grown. Early morning sun highlights a vibrant green punga frond among dead ones the colour of burnished gold. They resemble bustle skirts as they hang from trunks. A trickling waterfall breaks up the bush, and I wobble on rocks going over two stream crossings. The Waiotahi Track is sometimes clay, sometimes rock, a little gravel, and pretty much always uphill. It's dim most of the way, with sunlight dappling through the thick bush, bursting through only occassionally to spotlight the damp ground below. There's shin-deep mud in places; perhaps it never dries out until summer.
At a break in the trees, I look out to the Firth of Thames. The flat sea looks like blue jelly. It's broken by a sole boat leaving a white trail behind it, the Hunua Ranges beyond a mere shadow. We continue hiking, spotting green moss that feels and looks like velvet, juvenile rimu resembling wispy pieces of Christmas tinsel and giant stick insect-like lancewood trees. There's not another soul around, and only distant birdsong accompanies us.
It's good to lift the backpack off my shoulders and sit awhile at the junction of the Karaka and Waiotahi Tracks. We're two and a half hours in, and it's time for lunch. We don't stay still for long though, and an hour later we reach The Jam Tins, a junction point marking the Tararu and Karaka Tracks, and Crosbies Hut - 1 hr 35 min. There's also a sign to a crater lookout. We'll do it tomorrow.
I get another glimpse of the sea, more distant this time, as we tramp past powerline-thick vines wrapped around branches. Others, like a pile of tangled fishing line, hold up rotted limbs while the odd one snakes across the ground to trip tired trampers. It's a final few minutes of pushing uphill, but five hours after starting, we reach our home for the night.
Signboards tell of the history of Crosbies Settlement, named after European settlers Thomas and Agnes Crosbie who farmed one of five lots in the area. It would have been an isolated life, accessed only by foot, horseback or horse-drawn sledge. The farm was sold to the Lyes family in 1917, but by 1926 Crosbies Settlement was abandoned. Later attempts were made at farming but the bush had reclaimed the cleared land by the 1960s and in 1970 the Coromandel Forest Park was established, which included this area. The woolshed, all that remained of the farming history except for a few fences, was converted into a trampers' hut which blew down around the late 1980s.
I wander past the five empty campsites to the new hut, built by DOC in 2010. Sited on the ridge of the Coromandel Range, its views are "wow". Flat-topped Table Mountain lies to the right, Castle Rock/Motutere, its point like a turret, further to the left… maybe west, I'm not good with directions. In various spots, between land rising and falling, the sea glints.
Inside the 10-bed hut, I claim a mattress on the top level next to a window. The beds aren't separate, just two levels of five mattresses side by side. A woodburner, table, bench seats, and table are the total sum of the interior furnishings. Outside on the deck, a sink is sheltered from the wind and a compostable toilet sits back near the campsites where a couple are setting up a tent. Rather them than me. Late spring nights are still chilly.
I take a walk to a rock where a memorial plaque to Heidi Paakkonen and Urban Höglin, who went missing in this area in 1989, is attached. Some of my group take the Memorial Loop Track, a short walk that rejoins the main track to Tapu Road Summit, in the early evening. It's dim, they say, and feels a little creepy. They don't go for long.
I find a sunny, sheltered possie for myself and my mud-covered shoes and relax until the sun loses its warmth. We have dinner before the daylight disappears. There's no electricity here or cooking facilities. Some cook meals on their gas burners, I eat cold couscous salad. It's still rather early to go to bed when darkness descends around 8.30pm, but everybody else hits the sack. Snuggled in my sleeping bag, I stare out of the window at twinkling lights in the far distance, maybe Whitianga, maybe Tairua.
In the morning, those nearby peaks of Table Mountain and Castle Rock rise like islands in a sea of frothy, white clouds. It's like looking out of the window of a plane.
Backpack on, wincing when it digs into sore shoulders, I'm tramping by 8am, a faint mist in the bush soon disappearing. After yesterday's uphill, it's a downhill return on Waiotahi Track, which would make for a faster trip if it wasn't so slippery in places. At The Jam Tins we take the 30-minute side trip to the crater, leaving our backpacks in bush at the junction. Without the weight, I feel I could skip along the remainder of the track.
It's a green, green world looking out over the crater, ridges rolling beyond each other forever, creasing and crumpling in valleys. We think we spot a few wild goats as we soak up the sun on the crater's edge. Reluctantly, I go back into the dim, cool bush. A cluck, cluck sound further on has me stopping, statue-still. I glimpse a brown quail disappearing into the undergrowth.
Emerging from tranquillity a few hours later, the thought of heading back to Auckland's rat-race isn't particularly appealing. Perhaps I could pick up some groceries and go bush again. There are plenty of tracks in the Coromandel Forest Park; maybe the Pinnacles Hut in the Kauaeranga Valley…
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