The sign said it would take four hours to get to the top of Pirongia, an ancient 959 metre-high volcano in New Zealand’s Waikato/King Country region, and to the Pahautea hut.
Clearly this sign does not take into account a 17kg backpack nor the mud.
But six hours to the highest peak on #WalkNZ so far isn’t too shabby.
Going up, it was yet again another forest – and a muddy forest at that. But nowhere near the standards of Raetea or Omaha.
In fact, I even quite enjoyed the climb, which at first was a gentle incline through the trees, with an open and broad trail and mud that was nothing to write home about.
Goodness, a forest I actually liked, I joked to myself as I meandered along.
Of course, I should have guessed – the last 4km was a little bit different and came as a surprise, but not quite disappointment.
It seemed to change almost suddenly, one moment a nice path strolling through an open canopied forest, the next moment the forest has gone wild, the path much steeper.
It was almost like I had walked over a threshold into another forest, one where the vines were unruly, where the tree roots were ready to trip you up, where there were bolders to scramble up, and mud that was slushy and deep that had an affinity to my boots. And the flies – oh my word the flies. How they did buzz.
My pace slowed considerably. I was moving at about 1km an hour. I could see the hut just across the saddle – it was so close I could almost touch it and yet it was so far.
I contemplated the fact that 800 plus kilometres in and I was still trying to avoid the mud. Would it ever grow on me?
And then out of nowhere a boardwalk appears, almost like an apparition.
Nope, it was a true to life, solid boardwalk.
Oh my, it was beautiful, glorious.
I practically skipped along it to the summit.
That too was beautiful and glorious, with views of Pirongia’s other peaks and out across the Waikato.
From there it was a quick joint to the hut, where the boots were removed and the mud duly washed off.
Being a Saturday, the Pahautea hut was popular – and come 8:30 I could see why.
Behind the windows in the dining area, the sky sparkled a golden silver as the sun started to sink.
I watched its descent through the window from the end of my bed, the clouds turning a fluro orange that in the wispy haze looked like the orange was moving like a lava flow. I had to blink to double check a volcano hadn’t erupted and I’d happened to have missed it.
In awe of the natural spectacle, the setting sun continued to put on a show, transforming the clouds from fluro orange to rose pink. It was New Zealand’s natural beauty at its best.
And it didn’t stop there.
The next morning there was more of the same but from the opposite horizon as the sky shone a technicolour hue as the sun kissed Pirongia good morning. In the distance the volcanic summits of Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu made a striking profile against the dawn sky.
It was the morning buzz I needed to get down the volcano, the day’s trail by all accounts a muddier affair than the previous day’s.
However, it started with a boardwalk to a lookout point, giving a false sense of what was to come.
After that it was brown mud and tree roots; the objective being to use the tree roots to avoid the slushiest of the mud or to skirt around the drier outside to miss the worst of it. An objective that wasn’t always possible as I soon found out.
Had someone been filming me on the descent, it would have looked like a comedy of errors.
First, I tripped over my walking poles and nearly simultaneously face planted in the mud while almost headbutting a tree root.
Then as I went to jump over a patch of mud onto a log, my stupidly towering backpack hit a tree brunch above me with a boing propelling me back into the mud.
Did I learn from the experience?
No, because I went to make the leap again, and again my backpack went boing against the tree branch and again I ended up in the mud.
Not long after, I then spectacularly missed a selectively placed boardwalk, placing my foot in a pile of gooey mud thinking there would be boardwalk underneath it, only for my boot to disappear in mud up to my ankle and my other knee efficiently colliding with what was actually the edge of the boardwalk and gouging out a nice bit of flesh.
Then to top it off I went (inadvertently) for the piece de resistance.
A thick tree branch stuck out at an angle over a mushy pool of mud, inconveniently in the way of a nice mud-clear bank to skirt around the mud pool.
Ah ha, I thought, I can hold onto this branch and swing myself around onto the bank. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
Little did I know that a heavy backpack plus a slippery tree branch would be a recipe for disaster.
I grabbed the tree branch and heaved myself with backpack-weighted momentum.
The tree branch was like butter. My hands slid right off at the same time as my feet lost purchase and, in what felt like slow motion, I fell backwards into the mud pool. Mud stretched up to my knee, my black shorts now brown.
I thought of the French guy earlier who had caught me up at the second summit. “It’s not ze forest zat is ze problem,” he had said. “It is ze mud!”
He had a point.