After completing the South Island section of Te Araroa in 2015, my partner, Fiona, and I took on the a long North Island hike in 2017. The Spine of the Fish is the tale of our own northern trail - several hundred kilometres of often isolated mountain tracks and backcountry roads that took us over the rocky backbone of the North Island of New Zealand. What we found surprised us...what we didn't find often shocked us.
Hokowhitu to Palmy Railway Station - 6kms. Island Bay to Ngaio - 20kms
The island’s spine lay all jagged and black against an orange glow that faded to blue as our train rattled past the mist and dew covered flatlands of Manawatu toward Wellington. Through Shannon. Past Mounts Dundas, Arete, Pukematewai. Levin. It seemed like we were riding a bullet train as the swamps north of Otaki sped by.
New Zealand trains aren’t known for their speed but we were already in slow mode so the travel seemed fast. We’d woken at 4.00am and walked across Palmerston North to its decayed railway station – a six kilometre trek that almost instantly reset our lives to a walking pace. A pace we hadn't really experienced since we'd walked the South Island section of Te Araroa a couple of years earlier.
We had untethered ourselves.
This instant sense of detachment from our ‘real’ lives was helped by the novelty of the train’s route. The well-traveled monotony of State Highway 1 was never far away but the only really familiar feature was our planned route north along the silhouette of the island’s spine. The Tararua Range was the only clue we were in familiar territory.
Call it local knowledge or dumb luck but the first day of our trip was as we’d imagined it would be when we’d first decided to start our expedition. Autumn should be perfect, crisp and still and this first day of the season was. It was a world away from the disaster of a summer we’ve just had.
As the train hit Kapiti our transformation from ‘productive’ members of society to Trail Trash was almost complete. We sat surrounded by well dressed and over-perfumed commuters – all we needed was a few weeks of grime and we’d be set.
Fiona’s sister Jo picked us up at Wellington railway station and took us for a muffin and coffee at the Maranui Cafe a few bays from our starting point, Island Bay. Not our last luxury before heading into the mountains, but just about. A few photos by the beach and we were off.
As we were going to be staying with Jo, she took our packs home for us. It was a perfect gentle start. Kind of.
There’s nothing gentle about Wellington’s hills, mounts and valleys. The capital is as steep as Palmy is flat, but our latent Ruahine fitness saw us through the day admirably. Much of our walk was under cover of bush, so we were sheltered from the sun. Along the Southern Walkway, up and over Mount Albert then his old lady Victoria and then through the city. Sirens and Tui kept us company most of the day. Riroriro could often be heard over the traffic below as we sweated our way through the Greenbelt.
We lost the official Te Araroa trail a few times and chose to take the Cable Car up to the Botanical Gardens – what New Zealander needs to walk past Parliament?
We had 13 weeks to get as far up the North Island as we could and expected to make Auckland. We planned to leave Te Araroa at Palmerston North – the centre of the official trail – then make our way up the Island’s backbone - the Spine of the Fish - over the Ruahine, Kaweka, Kaimanawa and beyond.
We knew the weather wouldn't hold and the days would get shorter. We expected our northern trek would be way more wild than our South Island adventure, but the first day's hard work and blue skies was just the introduction we needed.
As we sat with family at the end of that first day - our bodies sore and a little burnt - we were both excited, intimidated and ready for it.
Tune in tomorrow for day two – if we make it that far…
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