A Forest of Mud:
One of my fears backpacking in a foreign country is needing to be rescued and becoming headline news as, “That Stupid American.” I’m not nearly as prepared as a boy scout, but I hope I can make educated decisions and take calculated risks. I had been hearing about the Raetea forest since the beginning of the trail, but it was still shrouded in mystery. Some people voiced dire warnings and shared that not one, but two backpackers this season had already been rescued from it’s clutches. Others shook their heads and said it was nothing more than a muddy forest. On the September WhatsApp group, more conflicting reports emerged from the backpackers ahead who had attempted it. One reported it had taken 15 hours to slog the 7.7miles from the start to where the trail popped out of the forest and deposited hikers onto a field. Besides the serious mud, hikers must navigate a poorly marked track, unpredictable weather, sharp ascents and descents, and carry all the water they might need since there are no water sources once in the forest (I suppose one could drink from a puddle, but how absolutely vile). The alternate route bypassed the forest on mostly gravel and asphalt roads, which sounded safe, but rather unappealing. I’m a decently experienced backpacker, but I’m decently experienced where I’ve mainly hiked, the East Coast trails of the USA. It’s difficult to determine good calculated risk based off of other people’s reports. Their level of comfort, exposure, fitness ability and a myriad of other factors can play into what they determine is acceptable risk. Multiple people outside of the backpacking world have told me I shouldn’t be hiking as a solo female (come at me, bro) and I think some hikers in the ultralight community sometimes should be more prepared (come at me, bro). Who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s experience and wisdom should I listen to? (Mine, naturally).
my legs were coated with a layer of grime from the forest
one of the “milder” sections of mud in the Raetea forest
I was still undecided as I set off in the pearly gray, early morning mist. I was still a few miles before the turn off, and determined I would decide when I reached the junction. I checked the WhatsApp group again as I reached Takahue Saddle campground, and was delighted to see two hikers had messaged they were going to attempt the infamous Reatea route. I was only a few hours behind them, so 1.5 miles later, I took a deep breath and launched into the forest. Every trail seems to have a theme, for better or worse, and I was about to be thoroughly introduced to the TA’s fondest theme: MUD. Not cute, puddle jumping, mud pie kind of mud, or even wear-your-muck-boots-in-the-back-40 kind of mud. This mud was the stuff of legends. The trail, if I can call it that, was the maddest, dirtiest scramble I have ever encountered. This was a mud run on steroids. This mud didn’t even remember how to be just dirt. This was mud that had fought the devil and WON. Within two steps my feet, ankles, and half of my calves were plunged into the gooey, squelchy, quicksand of grime. The trail twisted cruelly up, and I had to grasp the closest available tree branches to pull and heave myself up the first ascent. After going on in the same manner for a good 20 minutes, I gingerly wiped the sweat out of my eyes and peered at my phone, hoping I had made decent progress.
I had gone .3mi.
7 hours later I emerged from the forest, victorious. Over the course of the previous ~7miles, I had slipped multiple times, fallen 4x, did one full, unintentional split (honestly, I was quite impressed. Yoga is paying off), stepped into a few knee deep mud pits, almost lost my shoe 3x, and swore so much I should wash my own mouth out with soap. Additionally, it had rained on and off, the temps dropped considerably while I was on the summit, and it even hailed at one point. But I had conquered the forest and basked in the glow of my success as I traipsed the road walk to Mangamuka.
The next day, the trail was incredibly easier, mainly gravel roads connecting the two forests together. I had camped behind the radio station, and spent a delightfully long morning at the Dairy across the street, eating my way through a their takeaway menu. The stroll up gravel roads to the Blackridge campsite on the edge of the forest was done on a full stomach and in high spirits. I took a quick detour to see “A Giant Stump” and was satisfied that it was indeed quite large.
Rain, Wind, and Hail, oh my!
The Ōmahata-Puketi forest track is a wet, challenging route, using river . Unless there is an extreme drought, hikers should be prepared at very least to get their shoes wet. Additionally, there is a river ford deeper in the forest with the advice not to attempt a crossing if there has been recent heavy rains. New Zealand does not have lions, tigers, or bears… Or any type of predatory animal. Kea birds in the South Island might dive bomb unsuspecting hikers to steal bits of their lunch or brightly colored socks or anything else they take a fancy to, and possums and other small rodents might attempt to munch through unattended food bags. They are just considered a general nuisance. Even if the most poisonous spider in NZ bites you, at worst you’ll get a small, somewhat itchy welt. The true danger in New Zealand is not the wildlife, but the weather. Kiwis warned me there could be, “Four seasons in one day, or one hour.” High knot speed winds, torrential downpours, flash flooding, rapid drops in temps, and even volcanic activity are on the beware list. If you are only a fair weather hiker during New Zealand spring, you might not hike.
The two other hikers and I decided to take the flash flood warnings seriously. There is a concrete bridge a kilometer or so before Blackridge campsite. If water is flowing over the bridge, then the potential for flash flooding along the River canyon trail is very high. When we had crossed it, the water was very close to the top of the bridge, but not flowing over. We decided we would attempt the forest together and only if it didn’t rain during the night. We awoke to steady, heavy rain. There is nothing glorious about backtracking 2.5miles of the previous day’s hike through a downpour. I spent the majority of it quietly complaining to myself, particularly after I accidentally stepped into a puddle that was rapidly turning into a small mountain lake. The weather and my mood cleared up by the time I reached the turn off to the bypass.
one of the views along the Puketi bypass
My mood for the rest of the day was stable, but the weather was not. It fluctuated between sunshine and downpours, light misty rain and fog, tremendous winds, and dark ominous clouds. Hail also made an appearance, no less than four times. Interspersed into this symphony, an occasional loud thunderclap would sound, almost directly overhead, but mysteriously only ever one in number. Even more peculiar, no lightening bolt preceded it. The temperature also got in on the joke, allowing me to experience cold fingers and sweat dripping down my back at various intervals. The devastatingly quick shifts between rain and sun were frustrating when it came time for lunch. I tried several times to settle down on a log or bank and pull out my food bag, only for another round of rain to sweep over me. The bright skies were like a false summit, gave hope for a moment before disappointing. Eventually I gave up and ate as hurriedly as I could, crouching over my cheese and salami wrap like a caveman.
The bypass is completely gravel roads, skirting the edges of the forest. It offers some fine views (when not fogged over) of the surrounding mountain ridges and valleys. There was a good amount of PUDs (pointless ups and downs) but never alarmingly steep or long ascents and descents. Other than the odd, shifty weather, it was a lovely walk. Birds gave calls strange to my foreign ears and I enjoyed the variety of trees and vines and undergrowth to my right. Being a safe distance from their sinuous clutches while traipsing up the relatively easy gravel path helped me notice the incredible beauty more fully than I had while in Raetea forest. There I had mostly been wiping sweat out of my eyes and concentrating on locating the best possible place to take the next step (often misjudging). Only a few miles from where the bypass ends and rejoins the TA, there was a small loop trail to a grove of Kauri trees. Unfortunately, many Kauri trees are being impacted by a disease called Kauri dieback. There is no known cure yet and some of the ancient, massive trees are being infected. The roots of these trees can lay quite close to the surface and even small amounts of contaminated soil can wreck havoc. Thus, a few of these forest are now closed to the TA. I took the little detour, excited to see some of these legendary trees. It was a lovely way to end the day’s hike. I spent the last few miles to Puketi Hut musing on how lucky we are to live in a world where there are trees. May we respect and protect and marvel at them as best as we can.
Breakdown of miles: 82- 123
Day 5: trail angel’s to Mangamuka dairy/radio station: 18.2mi
Day 6: radio station to Blackridge campsite 11.5mi
Day 7: 22.4mi
The ring is.. still in the Shire! But closer to Bree now than to Hobbiton.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.