Spine of the Fish  The Ultimate Zero Day

It’s all over bar the shouting…and a couple of blog posts

I’m writing this from the Auckland Art Gallery. Since you last heard from us we’ve finished our walk, watched hours of bad television, eaten lots of good and bad food and been for an underwhelming ‘holiday’ on Waiheke Island. We finished our walk about a week ago.

Now read this carefully: you haven’t missed anything. I have left you hanging. We may have finished walking The Spine of the Fish, but there will be two more blog posts after this one recounting our last few days on our trail.

I would apologise for this break with storytelling tradition, but here’s a few reasons why this postscript isn’t at the end of our tail…or should that be trail? We may have finished but we don’t want it to end.

  • We are in a muffled kind of mourning and want those last few kilometres to linger a wee while longer.
  • Once the last post is posted, that will be it, so those final few minutes on that rock at the top of the Coromandel Peninsula deserve to be written up well.
  • I would like to use an actual computer to achieve this. Writing on my phone with my pointing finger has lost its glamour. Give me a keyboard!
  • Civilization with all its B-grade distractions has made writing with any real conviction impossible.

Is that good enough?

So in the meantime, in lieu of actual Spinal action I’d like to take this opportunity to wrap things up prematurely with another listicle…a not-so-brief summary:

It was warm enough to swim well into May.

The weather

Our journey ended at the same time as our pretty-bloody-good autumn did. We’d had to weather a few cyclones, but this is New Zealand, cyclones can hit any time. Generally our long walk was through calm and often bluesky conditions. There were plenty of wet days, but even when it bucketed down it very rarely blew. The further north we got, the more picture perfect it got.

Sunburn was always on the cards, but not the blistering sunburn of summer.

We swam in some of the warmest seas we’d ever experienced in May. We bathed in plenty of freezing rivers but often had a baking sun to dry ourselves under.

As we walked northward the flowers agreed with our observations of good weather. We saw Pohutukawa, Rata and Manuka flowering for a second time in the season…in May. Perhaps they were getting in one last bloom before Myrtle Rust killed them all?

The Kaweka has great paths but the forest is in a shocking state.

The environment

Don’t get me wrong, I reckon we walked the best trek anyone could take through a large part of the North Island. The Spine of the Fish is a great way to experience this part of the country and some of the areas we passed through are absolute jewels – if you don’t look too closely.

Fly over, or drive past these places and they look great. They’re covered in trees right? Spend week after week in them and you may experience something different.

I was shocked at the poor state of some of the forest we walked through. The lack of fauna was troubling.

My favourite section was the Kaweka with its perfect little huts, beautiful mountain views and friendly hunters. But as a conservation area it’s a disgrace. If ever there is a symbol of where we have failed as guardians of the forest the Kaweka is it.

Its wilding pine problem is horrendous, but we kind of expected it. What surprised us most was the deer damage. Much of the forest has been hollowed out by its population of Sika deer. These aggressive animals – they’ve been known to kill Red Deer who’ve stumbled into their turf – are also voracious and aren’t fussy about what they eat. We saw pockets of birdlife, but much of our trip through that area was in silence.

While other areas had much healthier forest that would provide good habitat and food, they weren’t exactly brimming with birdlife either. The only decent population of Riflemen/Titimounamu that we came across was in the Ruahine Whio Protector’s area. We’d thought these birds would be common throughout the North Island, because we see them all the time in the area we trap. Nope. They weren’t common…they were barely there.

Of course our walk just gave us a snapshot of the Spine’s biodiversity and perhaps we weren’t looking hard enough, but the often eerie silence was worrying.

Poor old DoC are about to get dragged into this criticism but it’s not their fault. We’re all responsible for our forests and mountains – it’s us who’ve let the Kaweka Forest Park (and many others) down.

It’s us who guide DoC’s role…and if we want them to blow their budget on fancy hunting huts and tourist toilets we can’t complain about the results. Dying forests. Declining species. The Tongariro Crossing. It’s all down to us…not the understaffed, underfunded and misdirected government department.

The logistic difficulties of the Ruahine Range make this section tricky. Digging up a food stash at Longview Hut.

The route

I reckon we picked it well. Spine of the Fish is full of variety, challenge, backcountry appeal and isolation.

There will probably never be a long trail in New Zealand that doesn’t involve road walking, but I reckon the route Fiona found has a great balance between functional trekking and quality tramping. It’s a great way to experience an under-appreciated part of New Zealand.

The part that makes it tricky for foreigners -possibly a good thing- is the three week section between Palmerston North and Taupo. Logistically difficult, it also contains long legs that should probably only be attempted by people who understand New Zealand conditions.

A lengthwise traverse of the Ruahine, Kaweka and Kaimanawa Ranges is fine in decent weather, but should possibly not be attempted by anyone who’s only wet weather gear is an umbrella and a pair of long leggings.

Then again, who are we to judge?

In trekking parlance: HYOH.

Wrinkly feet, our only real ailment.

Our health and fitness

We knew what we were in for having already tested our bodies, minds and gear on the South Island section of Te Araroa two years previously so we weren’t surprised that we were constantly uncomfortable. Sore feet were our worst problem, but we didn’t suffer any permanent structural damage.

We did spend a lot of time with wet feet in several legs of the trip, but found that we could manage this if we remembered to. Gurney Goo and Kereru’s Manuka and Calendula skin balm helped us through when wet weather and weeks of stream crossings threatened to rot our feet.

We did have the occasional brush with disaster but because we weren’t walking to a tight deadline we were able to rest and recover. Never underestimate the healing power of time if you suffer an injury or illness.

I finished the trail skinnier than I have been since I was fourteen. Fiona lost weight, but proportionally not as much as me. Having said that she’s spent the day while I write this, wearing a pair of our daughter’s skinny jeans.

Long distance walking is a great way to reset your body AND mind. We are as fit as we’ve ever been and our mental state could only be described as serene.

In the end we were sleeping with the sun, often falling asleep before seven and waking about six. There’s a good word to describe the effect this natural rhythm had on us:

Ommmmmmm…

I have a bad back. At times I can be immobile for weeks – sometimes needing help just getting to the toilet. Tramping and hiking has turned this around for me. My core is a rock and although I’m often debilitated after a night on a DoC mattress, it only lasts a few minutes. My back has been a tower of strength on this walk. I expect the results to last a few months. If it does blow, I won’t be out for long.

The Spine of the Fish has been great for my spine.

Fiona had the misfortune of ‘losing’ her thyroid a couple of years ago. Her doctor couldn’t believe she’d managed to walk the South Island in her condition, but she did. I had to coax her up a few mountains but thinking back, she coaxed me up just as many.

She takes medication for it now. If you’ve wondered why most of the photos of our trip are of her from behind, it’s because she’s walking faster than me.

When your camera is smaller than your lens. The compact and tough Sony A6500.

The photographs

Speaking of Fiona’s behind, she’s a very impatient model. Occasionally I could get her to pose, or redo a scene, but otherwise I had to follow breathlessly in her footsteps.

Yes, I could have just photographed the scenery, but there wouldn’t have been any scale for you to judge. The only way to show how big a rock, knob or slip is, is to put something familiar beside it. Fiona was that ‘something’ and you should all be grateful. She was a super model.

As for scale – there is a bit of a trick to judging it. Her backside shrunk considerably over the length of this trip, so what looked like a hill in the Tararua way back at the start may, actually look like a mountain now.

You’re going to have to think about that.

I took two cameras and two lenses with me. The cameras were: a Sony Nex 7 and its younger and brainier sister, the A6500. They are light, mirrorless, cropped-frame sensor and hi-res cameras that produce “professional” quality photos. I work as a designer and would have no problem blowing their photos up to building-sized signs or for use in glossy magazine printing.

The new A6500 seems to have developed an intermittant  fault with its manual aperture setting, but I shoot mainly in…gasp…Auto…when hiking, so this wasn’t usually a problem. If I needed Manual I just got the Nex 7 out. If I chose to take a heavier camera I may have chosen not to carry a backup which would have been a mistake.

I used the Nex 7 on our South Island trek so had no problems buying an upgrade to it as my primary camera. These cameras were tough and easy to carry in most conditions. I use an Aarn balance pack with camera bags in the front so could easily bag my camera up if it rained then get it out if a shot presented itself.

I packed a very small 35mm Zeiss full frame lens as a backup, but sent it back when we got to Tauranga. Because I was using it on a crop-frame sensor it ended up being a 50mm lens, which really limits scenery photography.

The lens I used 95 percent of the time was a Sony Zeiss 24-70mm full frame lens. Again because I used it on a crop-frame sensor its range changed – to about a 35-100mm zoom.

I loved it. Being able to ‘crop on the go’ with a zoom lens is the best way to photograph a long walk. I didn’t have the battery life or time to crop my photos on my phone’s photo-editing software so I would instead take several different compositions of each scene, on Auto, then choose the best to use in the blog. This meant I hardly ever had to reshoot…something Fiona probably appreciated.

This lens was tough and shoots clear, infocus photos. On our South Island trip, I’d taken a relatively cheap little 16-50mm kit zoom lens with the Nex 7. It did a good job, but lost focus around the outer edges of some shots. It’s quite fragile and I’ve had to repair it twice.

Danger? What danger? We followed a well trodden path around this gate and found Waiheke Island’s most peaceful road.

Waiheke Island

We had originally thought that we would take the ferry from Coromandel Township to Waiheke Island then walk across it before ferrying on to Auckland.

If you’re considering doing Spine of the Fish as a trek this little island hop is very doable and logical. We ran out of inspirational juice though and chose to go back for a scout around once we’d spent a couple of days in Auckland – which we’d ferried to.

In the winter season, the ferry from Coromandel to Waiheke to Auckland, only runs in the weekend and in the evening. Its only stop off is at the east end of the island at dusk – a really bad time to start walking or sort out a camp site.

We had thought Waiheke would be a walker’s paradise. It has a bit of a hippy history so we figured that that vibe would still be there. We thought we’d cruise in and wander about in a haze of incense, groovy love-beads and nature.

Yeah right.

What a hole.

It’s one of the least walker (and cyclist) friendly places we’ve been to. Its narrow windy streets are death zones as hyped up Aucklanders motor around the place trying desperately to pay off their lifestyle mortgages. One Auckland friend described it as Henderson marooned on an island.

There are few footpaths so walkers and cyclists often have to share the roads with cars. Share is a completely inappropriate word, but Auckland Transport have tried to disprove this by littering the streets with ‘Share the Road’ signs.

Yeah right.

If I were an island parent I wouldn’t let my children out. The place is full of four-wheeled psychopaths. If you do choose to walk it be careful. If you choose not to…you haven’t missed much.

This is possibly a bit harsh, but it’s how we felt after ten weeks in the backcountry.

You can’t beat taking your time. If you want to go fast, take a car.

The art of the slow hike

One of the reasons that we walked our walk was to see if a New Zealand hike was still possible.

‘What do you mean New Zealand hike? We’ve got Te Araroa!’ I hear you saying…and you’d be partially right.

Te Araroa may be in New Zealand, but it’s an international hike. Although Kiwis make up a 5th of its through hikers and totally dominate section walking numbers, American-style trail culture has become a huge part of the T.A.

New Zealand walking vocabulary is becoming infused with foreign terms. Trail Angels, fire circles, thru-hikes, zero days and granola bars sit alongside long-drops, huts, tramping and koha. This is a fine thing and what cultural exchange is all about.

I like all the bright eyed, often young and usually interesting foreigners we meet who are doing T.A. Their existence makes New Zild a MUCH more interesting place.

I love the new culture of lightweight gear that trail walking has brought to New Zealand. When I look at my retired and heavy-canvas Mac Pac, my back aches. Light is good!

But I’ve become wary of the hikers that we call Ultrafast Number Crunchers. UNCers seem to walk TA to tick another hike off their list – as quickly as possible! For them it’s all about how light they can go. How far they can go. How fast they can go. How much this! How little that! Yawn.

We really enjoyed our amble through a part of New Zealand that doesn’t get many overseas tourists. At the risk of sounding like some xenophobic Trump lover, it felt like we were walking through our place at our pace and it was nice.

Would we recommend it to other hikers. Yes. But yes with a proviso.

Do it because you REALLY want to do it, not because it fills a gap in a spreadsheet. Take your time. Learn about the places you walk through. But most importantly…give something back while you’re there or after you leave.

New Zealand is actually quite a fragile place. It’s a sliver of land on the edge of a huge ocean at the end of the earth. It doesn’t have much wilderness left, so if you’re lucky enough to stumble into some, respect it and think about how you can protect, or enhance it.

What next

This will not be the last great walk that we do, but we have no idea what our next one will be. We are planning on walking Te Araroa from Auckland to Cape Reinga. The idea is that we’ll walk Nobo and meet that season’s Sobo walkers as they make they way down the island.

Other than that, we don’t know. Shall WE go overseas and do a trail somewhere? The PCT. The Appalachian. The Camino. The Himalayas. Perhaps we could do the new one in Japan or Bosnia?

If we do an overseas hike we’d probably have to do it in a hurry because life is like that. We’d be shy. We wouldn’t have much money. We’d probably do it quite quickly. We’d probably try for an ultrafast, number crunching tour somewhere.

Or we could walk from Gisborne to New Plymouth. Kaikoura to Greymouth. The length of the Manawatu River…our awa.

Hmmmmm.

Thinking of walking our way?

If you’re passing through Palmy, get in touch. We’re building a New Zealand Forest Service Tribute Hut in our backyard and if there’s room, you may be able to stay. If you want to give something back while you’re here we may be able to take you out onto the Spine to do some conservation work.

In the meantime: tune in shortly for the last two days of Spine of the Fish!

Want to read more? Find our South Island Te Araroa blog here.

Note: This was written a week after our walk ended, but it took me two more weeks to upload the bloody thing. Adjusting to life back in Palmy has been hard, but it’s good to be back home.

Wilderlife