Keen trampers in our youth, my husband and I had always wanted to do an overnight hike with our kids once they were old enough. The Pinnacles in Coromandel fit the bill: close to Auckland and the manageable walking distance of only three to four hours.
Better still, we'd invited another family to tramp with us. Our three young ones could hardly contain their excitement - it was going to be the ultimate sleepover. I just hoped they'd all make it up the hill on their own legs.
Our stop at the Visitor Centre to check the track conditions before we headed off yielded a bonus - walking sticks kindly left by a previous group of trampers. The kids grabbed one each and we set off at a cracking pace. Apart from Luke, who's only 5, the kids all carried their own gear. I felt a pang of pride as I watched them race ahead, their skinny legs sticking out the bottom of their backpacks.
From the car park, the track follows the Kauaeranga River. Manuka, flax, and ferns grow on each side and friendly fantails flutter above, making for a very pleasant ramble. The kids laughed, the adults got to talk to each other - what could be better?
Gradually, the path began to climb and soon larger forest trees surrounded us - rata, rimu and tawa. We saw kauri saplings, but no large trees; our pioneering predecessors had cut them down.
To the children's delight, we crossed the river several times on bouncing swing bridges.
About an hour's tramp in, disaster struck. Eight-year-old Hannah tripped, screaming when her knee hit a rock. Out came the first-aid kit, a sticking plaster was applied and Hannah's tears wiped away. Despite this top-class medical treatment, she couldn't walk more than a few steps, let alone make it to the top.
So her father lifted her on to his shoulders and trudged back to the car park, destined for an impromptu visit to her grandfather's and leaving our numbers reduced.
The rest of us tramped on, following a path the kauri loggers had made of river stones 100 years ago. It was slippery and muddy in places as we went up and up and up some more. Our packs became heavy. Luke had to be bribed with jellybeans and piggy-backed for the last kilometre.
Emerging from the forest, we were rewarded with superb views and, even better, the sight of the hut.
The friendly warden ticked us off her list and showed us a group of empty bunks. After a brief rest and a snack, we could leave our packs to face the last part of the climb. The path from the hut to the Pinnacles is steep with literally hundreds of steps, but the views are spectacular. After the steps it gets technical; we climbed up ladders and scrambled up rocks using metal rungs as handholds. The hours the kids spend on the monkey bars paid off - they left us for dead. A couple of times I glanced at the sheer drop and yelled, "Slow down ... be careful!" But it was a wasted effort - they were way ahead.
We reached the top in about 30 minutes. At 759m above sea level, the outlook over the forest, mountains and coastline of the southern Coromandel is fantastic. I wanted to sit and savour it for a long time, but the young monkeys were already running back down.
Apart from the wonderful setting, the other great thing about the Pinnacles Hut is how close it is to civilisation. After dinner, the kids had a fabulous time running around outside playing "spotlight" with their torches.
From our top bunks, the two large windows looked out at the night sky. I've never seen so many stars - really. It was peaceful and I suddenly felt very tired.
Oh, the joys of hut life. Too soon, the night-time rustling and door banging of our room-mates was replaced by the morning bustle. Ouch. I pulled my sleeping bag over my head but I couldn't pretend it was still sleep-time forever. Porridge and strong coffee worked wonders and soon we were ready to face the descent.
We now had to make a decision: go back the way we came, or attempt the longer and more scenic Billygoat Route.
Hubby's ankle was playing up and our friends were keen to reunite their family, so we chose the fast track.
Down the path we ran, stumbled and hobbled through the forest, over the stream crossings and swing bridges and finally back to the track entrance, where we left the walking sticks for the next group of intrepid trampers.
Hannah and her dad met us at the car park. They were both grinning.
"Guess what?" said Hannah. "My knee isn't broken, it's just dented. And Granddad took us out to dinner!"
So, we left the Kauaeranga Valley on a happy note, weary but satisfied we'd achieved something worthwhile.
Getting there: The Pinnacles are in the Kauaeranga Valley, Coromandel Peninsula. The entrance is off SH25, behind Thames.
Visitor Centre: The Visitor Centre, 13km up the Kauaeranga Valley Rd, is the main point of contact for track, hut and camping information. The walk to the Pinnacles starts at the end of the road, 9km past the Visitor Centre. The Kauaeranga Valley Shuttle provides a daily service to the valley. See sunkistbackpackers.com
Where to stay: The Pinnacles Hut has 80 bunks, mattresses, toilets, a cold shower, solar lighting, gas cookers and gas barbecue. Bring your own cooking utensils. A hut warden is present at all times.
Accommodation at the Pinnacles Hut is frequently booked out Saturday nights. Book online at doc.govt.nz. Adult $15 a night, child/youth $7.50, preschoolers free. There are also camping areas near the Pinnacles Hut. See doc.govt.nz
What to take:
• Food and plenty of fluid
• Clothing that can be layered including hat and gloves, warm and fast-drying tops, bottoms, and thermal underwear (wool or polypropylene), rainproof coat (and overtrousers)
• Sturdy boots or off-road shoes
• Sun protection
• Map and compass; first aid/survival kit