Lost highwayHome » Latest issue » Good, issue 11 » Lost highway
Picking out a cattle trail of old, Sarah Heeringa goes wandering in the wilderness on Auckland’s doorstep
It’s the holidays and we could all be lying under a tree with a pile of books. Instead, several sisters and I, plus a gaggle of our children, are setting out to retrace the old stock route our grandfather used to take. Once upon a time our grandpa Harold had farmland at Waitakere’s Bethells Beach and more at Muriwai. From time to time the need for fresh grazing would lead him to drive the stock over the hills through neighbouring farms in order to reach his other property.
If you’ve made the long and winding country drive from Muriwai to Bethells Beach, it’s suprising to find that, as the crow flies, these two iconic black sand beaches are less than ten kilometres apart. And looking at the flash new bach-mansions springing up on the west coast hills, it’s hard to envisage driving a herd of sheep or cows anywhere around here today.
It takes a similar stretch for my kids to imagine the bustling urban sprawl of Henderson as a sweep of lush orchards. Heading west down the major Lincoln Road highway, I’d pointed out the little wooden Presbyterian church their great-grandfather once helped build. Even 50 years ago it would have been a building of significance; now it is swamped by mega-stores, car yards and ignominious drive-ins.
The cliffs plunge down to black rocks and pounding surf. The Hillary Trail snakes around the slope just below us, offering unimpeded views of the ragged rocks and cliff edges and out over the Tasman Sea. It’s a classic, wild-west coastal scene of poetic proportions; windswept and entirely uninhabited
After consulting with uncles to establish the route and asking permission from the various private landowners, we’re finally ready to set out. The mustering party would have been up at dawn to pack supplies, saddle the horses and feed the pack of faithful farm dogs needed to keep the mob of cattle together. Our fairly rigorous preparations—a camping breakfast then hats, water bottles, sunblock all round—are augmented by our dad turning up with a box of fresh doughnuts.
Starting at Muriwai and heading south, we soon pass the teaming gannet colony on the cliff’s edge. Takapu, as these seabirds are known in Maori, lay a single egg during the latter months of the year. Once hatched, chicks stay in the colony until late summer before migrating to Australia. About 1,200 adult pairs return to Muriwai each year.
For some of the way, our walk follows the new Hillary Trail—a 70-kilometre trek connecting an existing network of tracks and backcountry campsites. Described as a ‘back to basics tramping experience’, the trail takes trampers through the Waitakere Ranges, past the Arataki Visitor Centre, Huia, Whatipu, Karekare, Piha, Anawhata, and either winds north to Muriwai via the Te Henga (Bethells) Walkway, or through Cascade Kauri Park and on to Swanson. Tramping its entire length takes around four days and three nights, and encompasses hilly terrain, dense rainforest and exposed coastline. By all accounts, it’s exceptional.
Because we’re thinking like cattle drovers today, we’re less interested in exposed coastline and more in safe, flat fields. The cliff edge is where you get the best views of birds, sea and wind-tossed grasses, but it’s not somewhere you’d want to head with 50 excitable animals. We’d have to stay high above the swamp and streams, my uncle warned, to avoid getting stuck in the quicksand.
Following the farm track, we wind our way up the rolling hills south of Muriwai. Over on the left the cliffs plunge down to black rocks and pounding surf. The relatively narrow Hillary Trail snakes around the slope just below us, offering unimpeded views of the ragged rocks and cliff edges and out over the Tasman Sea. It’s a classic, wild-west coastal scene of poetic proportions; windswept and entirely uninhabited. Further on we spot a couple of tiny black dots on the white-capped swells—surfers looking to catch a ride.
By now the sun is gaining strength, but thankfully we descend to the Te Henga valley, where there’s a cool freshwater stream to ford. Heading inland, we splash barefoot along the stream’s shallows, winding around the base of Bethells’ huge black sand dunes, now glinting hot in the sun. Occasionally the kids make an energetic dash up the sheer face of a dune, but they soon come screaming down again to dunk their burning feet in the water.
Our smaller walkers are starting to tire, but it’s okay because we’ve reached our destination—the cool familiar interior of another farmhouse. We gladly troop inside for an expertly brewed cup of tea and more of those doughnuts. Revisiting history has never been as pleasant or civilised.
We’ve knocked the bugger off. Next trekking challenge: the Hillary Trail.
The other great walks
There are nine official ‘Great Walks of New Zealand’ that take you through Aotearoa’s national parks and some of our most stunning scenery. The DOC tracks are so popular with tourists that hardy trampers have been known to dismiss them as ‘highways’.
Lesser known are the many private trails across New Zealand’s farmland, along coasts and through forests. For a smallish fee, the hosts will often transport your pack and provide a knowledgeable guide, a comfortable bed and sometimes even a gourmet meal to look forward to at the end of the day. Here are 20 unofficially great walks of New Zealand.
Glenfern Sanctuary and Barrier Tracks, Great Barrier Island
4 separate day walks, up to 6 people, open Sept–May. $35–$75. www.fitzroyhouse.co.nz
Dundle Hill Walk, Waitomo, King Country
2 days, up to 32 people, Oct–May. Pack carry available. Catering on request. $75 + $15 for pack carry. www.waitomowalk.com
✽Walk Gisborne, Gisborne
2–3 days, up to 12 people, open Nov–Apr. Packs carried, gourmet catering and professional massage. $150–$195 + $69 per day for food and wine. www.walkgisborne.co.nz
Whana Walk, Hawke’s Bay
3 separate day walks, up to 14 people, Nov–Apr. Catering on request. $80 per day + $80 per day for food. www.whanawalkhawkesbay.co.nz
Walk Westridge, Ongarue, near Taumarunui
3 separate day walks, up to 8 people, Nov–May. Catering on request. $100–$150 + $50 per day for food. www.walkwestridge.co.nz
Eastern Taranaki Experience, Stratford
3 days, up to 10 people, Sept–May. Packs carried, fully catered. $390–$460 incl all food. www.eastern-taranaki.co.nz
Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Tongariro National Park
4 days (flexible), up to 14 people, Nov–Apr. Catered. $1,250 incl food. www.walkinglegends.com
Kawhatau Valley Walk, Mangaweka
3 days, 10–12 people, Nov–Apr. Packs carried, catering on request. $100–$150 + $50 per day for food. www.kvw.co.nz
Weka Walks, Mangaweka
3 separate day walks, 6–8 people, Nov–Apr. Catered. $140–$265. www.mthuia.co.nz
✽Tararua Walks, Masterton, Wairarapa
3 days, 8 people, Oct–May. Pack carry available, catered. $259–$295 + $10 pack carry. www.tararuawalk.co.nz
✽Tora Coastal Walk, South Wairarapa
3 days, up to 14 people, Oct–Apr. Packs carried, catered. $375 incl food. www.toracoastalwalk.co.nz
Cape Campbell Walkway, Ward, Marlborough
4 days, 10 people, Oct–May. Packs carried, food available. $160–$240 + $25 pack carry. www.capecampbellwalkway.co.nz
Awatere Tussock Track, Marlborough
3 days, 8 people, Nov–May. Packs carried. $140–$180. www.tussocktrack.co.nz
✽Kaikoura Coast Track, North Canterbury
3 days, up to 10 people, Oct–Apr. Packs carried, catering on request. www.kaikouratrack.co.nz
Hurunui High Country Track, North Canterbury
3 days, 8–10 people, Nov–Apr. Packs carried. $85–$185. www.walkingtrack.co.nz
✽Banks Peninsula Track, Akaroa, Canterbury
2 days (4 people) or 4 days (12 people), Oct–Apr. Packs carried days 1 and 4. $135–$230 + $10 pack carry. www.bankstrack.co.nz
Akaroa Walk, Banks Peninsula, Canterbury
3 days, 12 people, Nov–Apr. Packs carried, catered. $1,486 incl food. www.tuataratours.co.nz
Glenthorne Station High Country Walks, Lake Coleridge
5 separate day walks, up to 30 people, year-round. Catering available. $25–$320 per night. www.glenthorne.co.nz
Four Peaks High Country Track, Geraldine, South Canterbury
3 days, 8 people, Nov–Apr. Pack carry available. $180 + $75. www.walkfourpeaks.co.nz
✽Hump Ridge Track, Tuatapere, Southland
3 days, no limit on numbers, year-round. Pack carry and catering options. $90–$1,395. www.humpridgetrack.co.nz
✽ Good recommends
From Off The Beaten Track: 20 multi-day walks on New Zealand farm and backcountry tracks, by Colin Moore (Craig Potton Publishing 2009, $40). See www.craigpotton.co.nz for more tramping titles