Tues 15 December – Day 31
14 km but felt like 40
I remember flying over Pirongia as a teenager with Dad in the helicopter. We’d flown down the coast over Raglan and our flight had included Pirongia for some reason. It was a wintery day. Mist rose from the dark canopy covering the rugged arms of the mountain and it left a menacing impression on me. It’s lasted until today when there is still an iota of trepidation about crossing the mountain. The Pirongia mud is legendary and the weather conditions can change frequently. It is also 959m high. Fortunately todays forecast is for a high of 26 and sun. Could not be a better day for it.
Steve’s shadow crosses my tent as he sets off at 7am. Half an hour later I am packed up and setting off as well. I have two litres of water in my pack bladder but my water bottle has sprung a leak so is empty. The hut has water so my intention is to refill once I get too the top. The climb to the Pirongia summit is four hours. Let’s see what time I can do it in. The track follows the stream for a way then begins the ascent. I am very surprised that it is not steep at all. There is a continuous incline however often it is no steeper than an urban park and there is plenty of trees and vegetation to admire. Sadly it’s regenerating rather than original but regardless there the canopy of rimu totara tawa and kahikatea, including the tallest in New Zealand (on a different track). Also there are lots of tuis and kereru. One tui is having a lovely sing song when a plane flew over as a reminder of the outside world (Air Chathams to Wanganui) and droned it out. I am pleased with the cover provided by the trees today. It is a scorcher of a day yet it remains cool in the shade. For the most part it is an easy walking track with the odd bed of roots to cross. As the height increases the vegetation changes occasionally with nikau common and mosses ferns and lichens.
Towards the top the track opens to a viewing area with sublime views for 180 degrees. It looks like the ‘Dr Seuss’ tree of New Zealand however it is the mountain neinei. The stubby tree has an unmistakable form: a shaggy trunk with peeling bark, a multi-branched candelabra-like form, and tough, leathery leaves that grow in tufts. To add to its tropical appearance, in summer the mountain neinei produces a flower shaped a bit like a pineapple. It is easy to believe that the summit of Pirongia has been reached but hold on there is still quite a way to go yet. It gets steeper and more challenging to climb but I’m nearly there. Over a series of boardwalks and stairs I eventually reach the summit. All up it has taken 3hrs 40mins. The summit has a lookout platform to make the most of the 360 degree views which are widespread today. I can see right down to Mt Ruapehu with its snow cap, west to Karioi, east to Te Ahoha and Maungatautari. A few hundred metres further is the Pahautea hut with 20 beds. Must also have one of the most scenic long drops in the country. I stop for lunch of soup and water top up.
I want to get away from the hut for the descent before 1pm as I understand it can be accomplished in 3 hrs and I am being collected at 4pm. The sign says 3-5 hrs and I am thinking as it has been quite dry recently that it may not be too muddy. Despite this I put on my gaiters just in case. The Pirongia mud is notorious and by all accounts the Hihikiwi track is mud ridden. Like up to the knees mud. I’m not looking forward to it. To the summit of Hihikiwi is a breeze as it is all on an elevated boardwalk. But bang as soon as you’re off the summit it’s into the type of track described. The blackish mud is almost everywhere. It is impossible to judge how deep it may be without stepping in so sometimes you are in luck and it’s firmish or not over your shoe and other times splooge, up to the shin. If you’re lucky there may be a detour around a muddy patch but more often this too is muddy now. Some parts have definitely dried off and I am thankful for the fine weather and drying wind we’ve had recently. But it is still a mess. Making it worse is the track keeps ascending so not only is there mud going down but there’s mud going up too. I’m cursing the track builders for all of these hills. Just get us the beep down. Eventually the track does only descend. It is slow going as it is not really a track as such but a series of mud roots and rocks to cross whilst being directed by the orange triangles. However make it I do in 3hrs exactly. It is such a relief to be down and although the descent has been tough and exhausting, climbing to the top of Pirongia was definitely worth the effort. Fortunately there is a stream at the exit to Pirongia West Road so I can remove my muddy gaiters shoes and socks for a good wash. Not long after my trail angel arrives and I am treated to the most remarkable Oparau hospitality with Rachel Tom and family tonight.