Broken Hills Campsite to a locked-down Frontcountry Hostel.

We’d set the alarm for 5.30am so that we could get onto the track as soon as possible. The day’s planned route was long and we were full of doubt. We knew the weather was about to close in and that some of the tracks we planned to walk over were officially closed because of severe storm damage. We’d sought an authoritative opinion on the legality of doing this and we figured that we were within our rights to do so.

My text to our advisor read:

Could you give us a bit of ‘technical’ advice. We’re planning on walking the recently closed Pinnacles Track in the Coromandel. Recent storms have dealt to it apparently. Are we ‘allowed’ to walk it? We’re going to ring the Thames [DoC] office to check what they say but it would be good to know the legal status. Cheers Anthony B.[Sic]

The reply came soon after:

Yes you are allowed to walk it. Unless they’ve undertaken a formal closure process which they won’t have its still open. [sic]

The grammar was a bit questionable in the reply but the intent was clear enough to give us the right questions to ask someone in authority.

So Fiona rang the Kaueranga Visitor Centre. Yes, the tracks were closed came the answer from the very helpful lady on the phone, but any further advice would have to come from someone in charge.

She gave us a name and number to ring at the Thames DoC office. Calls were made and messages left. As we walked out of cell range a couple of days later we hadn’t heard back so decided to find out for ourselves. That’s how we found ourselves walking into the Coromandel Forest Park with a slight sense of unease.

The sign at the entrance to the forest told us that our first leg to Hihi Trig would take us five and a half hours. Just over half way.

We had a big day ahead of us so put our heads down and powered up the hill. We got to the first junction and a sign that informed us that we had traveled an hour’s distance in half an hour. This is a normal discrepancy in the hills, as what we call ‘frontcountry’ signs are designed for tourists and children. The skill is in judging when the ‘backcountry’ signs start. As there was a special sign warning us that the track was only for actual trampers we figured that the four and a half hour time from the junction to the trig would be accurate, and that we had entered the backcountry.

Former kauri forest

We pushed on up the hill. It was muggy and started to drizzle so we put on our new wet weather gear – two dollar shop rain ponchos. We’ve given up on our expensive waterproof coats. Not only are they not waterproof, but they don’t breath. The ponchos are flimsy but they are waterproof and because they’re very loose fitting they breath quite adequately. They have the added benefit of fitting over our front balance packs, something a traditional raincoat doesn’t do. They also cover that annoying gap between your back and your pack.

Mini Gear Review:
Two Dollar Shop Rain Poncho
5 stars
Comment: awesome and very flattering on the figure. Single use only. WARNING: Not suitable for bush-bashing, alpine travel or night clubbing.  

After half an hour of tramping on some pretty decent track I accidentally took us off the beaten path and we hit a dead end. With a bit of wandering around we soon found the track again and walked on. Not long after we came out on the top of a ridge where a view of the other side of the range greeted us. I can remember being slightly disappointed at the small sliver of park we were adventuring into.

We were feeling fit and strong. We were also confident that we’d easily make the time of the sign as we skipped down towards the bottom of another valley.

‘There’s another sign!’ Fiona called out.

‘Nooooo! It’s the same one!’

Yep. We’d walked back to the junction.

‘Bugger’ is a polite roundup of the kind of conversation that we had as our hearts sank and our legs weakened at the thought of doing the half hour climb to the top of the hill again.

This had never happened to us before and we were both quite disturbed by it. The low bush, unfamiliar territory and heavy cloud meant that we didn’t have a clue which way north was, but it felt deeper than that. Fiona put it well when she suggested later that we must have passed over some sort of magnetic ley line that reset our internal compass.

(I’m writing this the day after and we’re still not sure where north is. Fiona has put the compass on the window sill so that she can see, and try to accept, where we’re headed.)

After popping a barley sugar we were soon on our way back up the hill. What had taken us half an hour the previous time took us twenty minutes the second.

To cut a long story shorter than a frontcountry saunter, we made it to Hihi Trig in three and a half hours…from the Broken Hills Campsite. We’d lost 40 minutes back tracking but still managed to obliterate the sign’s stated time.

You’ve had to read my whinging of tiredness and constant hunger for a couple of months now and I’ve never talked about our fitness. I haven’t avoided the subject on purpose, it’s just that neither of us notice it. Fitness doesn’t mask exhaustion and hunger, it just seems to sit modestly in the background making ever faster and longer days possible. But even fit days end uncomfortably with aches, pains, cuts and bruises.

The trig was the literal high point of the day so we celebrated with an early lunch before heading out across a boggy plateau of little more than scrub. Occasionally we came across giant sawn stumps and huge white ghosts. The skeletal and forensic remnants of a former forest of giants.

As we gurgled from bog to bog, Kauri to Kauri, any thoughts of boot hygiene were sunk. This isn’t meant as a criticism, but the practicalities of Kauri Dieback control are increasingly seeming like little more than bureaucratic lip service and desperate do-goodery as we make our way north.

Birdlife also seemed sparse, but the forest is coming back…slowly. Give it a couple of hundred years and the area might one day resemble it’s impressive past.

At one o’clock we reached Billygoat Basin Campsite. Our predicted nine to ten hour day had melted beneath our feet and we found ourselves in a bit of a dilemma. As we sat on the doorstep of the camp’s toilet drinking miso the bad weather started to come in. We had five hours to nightfall and the idea of retiring to our tent while we waited for the storm didn’t appeal.

Billygoat Basin bog

As we got colder we decided to heed our ‘legal opinion’ and explore the closed track that would lead us to the shelter of a porch at the also closed Pinnacles Hut three hours, in frontcountry time, away.

We ducked under the warning tape after reading the sign that informed us of severe storm damage and went to find out if there was a way through.

Just around the corner we paused momentarily at the partially washed-out bridge that sat across a near-empty stream. Compared to a crooked and obviously munted similar structure that we’d crossed in the Whirinaki a few weeks earlier, that had no warning tape, this bridge was in ship-shape nick.

Like our recently smashed track times we figured that we may be about to witness the dilemma that DoC faces as it tries to manage its increasingly popular frontcountry. They have to manage the expectations and safety of naive foreigners, young families and school parties. But where does the tourism management stop and the backcountry start?

We crossed the bridge -one at a time- to find out.

The track up what is known as Billygoat Walk is a bizarre man-made cobblestone climb that has been washed out in its steepest inclines. The stones are slightly slippery and uneven enough to make walking on them uncomfortable for the travel wary…me.

cobblestone walkway

Eventually we came to a serious looking slip. Serious in a frontcountry way. It was largish and quite fresh. Someone helpful had left a pink ribbon trail across the mud so we followed it. The slip was inappropriate for the urban-equipped throngs that flock to the Pinnacles, but it was a mere blip in a relatively stable landscape to us so we walked on…still waiting for THE BIG ONE.

Slip on the Billygoat walk

At the intersection that would either take us back to the safety of the visitor centre or Pinnacles Hut we still hadn’t found any severe backcountry-level damage, so we walked on.
We had heaps of time before dark so gambled that if we had to turn back we would have plenty of daylight to get back to the safety of the camp.

As the rain started to pour and the wind started to blow we came to the hut. Shelter from the storm.

The idea of staying in an 80 bunk hut has never appealed to us…we have dozens of usually empty huts in our back yard, the Ruahine and Tararua. We’re not snobs or anything…we just don’t like doing crowds in the mountains. We’ve always been curious though and being able to go there when it was closed was nothing short of a pleasure. A guilty pleasure.

As we entered the large and empty building I was impressed. As I walked its empty porch with my jaw dragging along the ground Fiona read the noticeboard.

‘They’ve left us a note!’ Her call echoed across acres of fine timber decking.

‘What the…?’ I pondered out loud as I went back for a read. ‘How did they know?

She’d meant people like us…not us specifically. Naughty people.

It read:

Because of state of track this hut will only be ‘manned’ at random times. If you are here we ask ‘WHY!’ You have ignored all warning signs!
Please be aware-
* the kitchen is locked.
* the gas is turned off.
* one dorm is open for emergencies.
* your welfare is your responsibility.
* there are hidden cameras around both huts.

You have been irresponsible to make your way up here. Parts of the Web Creek or Billygoat Tracks are very unstable plz do not tell people-friends it is OK to come up here. Anyone found on tracks leading here will be told to leave immediately!

It was a spooky feeling. The empty, architecturally designed frontcountry palace reminded us of an empty student union in the summer break but with a slightly apocalyptic twist. Had the world ended? Was Cyclone Whatsername so bad that New Zealand had ceased to exist while we’d been in the hills?

The notice about hidden cameras and the grey weather made me think of some Chernobyl-esque Soviet-era sci-fi movie. The threat of Big Brother DoC sitting watching us go about our business on TV only served to make the feeling real and a bit kooky.

Of course it wasn’t that bad…but it made our appreciation of the dry and warm dormroom a little uncomfortable.

Would we get in trouble? What if our friends found out about this empty castle on top of the Coromandel? Will DoC ever give us our dream job of being volunteer camp wardens at Moke Lake?  

We rested and sat out the weather that evening and through the next day, Sunday.

We spent the day reading, writing and keeping dry. Fiona hooked the radio in her phone up by taping her earplugs to a window – they act as an aerial – and we listened to news of the outside world that sadly included another drenching for flooded Edgecumbe.  

We felt very fortunate as we lay in the comfort of the frontcountry hut.

Or was is a backcountry hut now that the track was a bit crap?

Whatever you decide…please don’t tell your friends that we’ve been there, but if you do, make sure that they know we were grateful for some shelter from the storm.

Plant of the day