Burtton’s Track to Palmerston North…nearly.
The fact that you’re reading this means that we survived the night. There was no blood spilt at our little campsite amongst the pines. There were no midnight shotgun blasts. There wasn’t even the lock-smashing hammer my paranoid mind swore it heard.
We woke to find the gate safely and firmly shut. The guys who I’d thought had broken in obviously had some sort of key.
All was good in the light of day. Except that it was bloody raining.
Extracting ourselves from the tent can be tricky at the best of times as I’m not the most limber of people. Packing up in the rain and in the dark also makes it a very cerebral exercise and I’m not known for my intellectual prowess, especially at six in the morning.
We’d escaped Shannon’s imaginary hillbillies the night before, and that morning we made it out of our tent safely – thanks to Fiona’s yogi and logistical skills.
We walked into the thick native bush of Burtton’s Track in steady rain and heavy mist. The wet meant that photos were largely out of the question, just as breakfast had been. We aimed to conquer that little task at a place we call Fake Whare. There’s a clearing in the bush about halfway along the track called Burtton’s Whare – it marks the spot where a Mr Burtton lived and died in the early 20th century. This clearing has no whare (house) any more, but a clearing just south of it does…kind of.
Actually Fake Whare is more like a hallway and is one of the strangest buildings we’ve ever seen in the backcountry. About 8 metres long and less than a metre wide, it has three walls, one of which is a door. It’s open at one end and has no windows. It has a roof and is dry, but is full of food wrappers and other debris. It has no Feng Shui and will never feature in House and Garden.
We were desperate for our morning coffee and some muesli so Fiona set about preparing breakfast there while I went to get the water. As I tried to find a way to the river I stumbled into a campsite amongst a patch of Ponga trees.
It was like finding a movie set from a mashup of Apocalypse Now, The Flintstones and the New Zealand noir classic, Vigil. Damp, dark and festooned with animal skulls it was pure Kiwi gothic and the perfect place to mix up a strong brew. Fiona didn’t need much encouragement to leave Burtton’s Hallway and we were soon having a slap-up brunch at Ponga Lodge. As we recaffeinated and chewed our way through our bowls of cereal we marvelled at the macho design skills on display: Ponga walls, a blue-tarp roof, a rock wall storage cabinet, a corrugated-iron chimney that seemed to have nothing to do with the fire place in the middle of the ‘lounge’, a bed sheltered by fern fronds, and there was even a kennel. The place was a home away from home and well worth a visit next time you find yourself in Shannon with nothing to do.
We were soon back in the heavy drizzle. There are a few river and stream crossings to navigate, so by the time we got to the uphill track that would take us to Gordon Kerr Forest, we were soaked through. Like many of Te Araroa’s tracks this one was never designed for the number of walkers that now ply it throughout the year. The wet summer the region has just been through meant that large swathes of the track were becoming bog. It was miserable, with one high point: as we walked we were accompanied by an obliging fatman wearing a kaftan. Demis Roussos and his soaring song My Friend the Wind carried us through the Manawatu bog that afternoon and I will always be grateful to Fiona for bringing him and his delightful melody to my attention on that horrible day.
At least the rain stopped as we made our way across the just-felled pine plantation toward the Arapuke Forest Park mountain bike track. The scenery may have been scorched earth, but we could take our coats off and air out. We mixed up a raro sachet using water from a tannin coloured stream and squeezed out our socks as sandflies took the opportunity to feast on our wrinkly shins.
We were on home turf, and although it’s ugly, it’s a special place for Te Araroa. As we entered the mountain bike park, we came across a brand new sign that marks a sort of halfway point for the 3000km Long Pathway. Although the trail changes length slightly every year as detours and adjustments are made, Gordon Kerr and Arapuke sit pretty close to an ‘average’ halfway spot – a point that deserves some recognition for the several hundred who make the trip every year.
The Palmerston North City Council are investigating upgrading facilities in this section to acknowledge this special place, but also to fill a gap in infrastructure. Yes, most hikers carry tents…but they also love small comforts like shelters, potable water and longdrops. We’d just walked 140 kms from Wellington and it was our home area that we found the most uncomfortable part of our trip. We weren’t particularly bothered, but…
We rinsed our socks again at the mountain bike carpark by Blacks Bridge and marvelled at the folds in the white skin that loosely draped itself about our feet. Sandflies swarmed again and we had another coffee while we decided what to do. Should we stay or should be go?
This was where we had planned to spend the night, but we were only twenty kilometres from our actual beds and our cat Louie. Home tugged at us in the same way the Earth’s core tugged at our heavy packs. We talked to passing walkers and cyclists as we hummed and hawed. We could’ve caught the bus that took walkers from Palmerston North’s Festival of Walking back into town. We could’ve hitched a ride with friends who were at the park too, but we didn’t. Soon it was just us and the sandflies.
Decision made. We started walking.
However, tarseal, loose skin and wet boots don’t go very well together. Blisters started to swell and burst as we scrunched along the road and it soon became apparent that we would have to call in a favour. At 6.30pm our son Tom arrived to pick us up at Greens Road, 18 kilometres from home.
We were so relieved that we never contemplated that this could be seen as some sort of failure. As we slept in our own soft bed with its crispy sheets while the cat purred at our feet, we didn’t care.