Posted by yachtcamomile
When we set out for Great Barrier Island we had in mind all the sheltered bays and anchorages our cruising friends had been telling us about but also wanted to climb to the highest point viewing the famous Kauri Driving Dams on the way. It is very possible that this idea came to us whilst under the influence on Norsa but it certainly was not made in the light of any previous experience of climbing a 2037 ft peak through a humid forest. However felt we were in good company as Norman and Sara are both experienced and fit and we had been on bush standard walks over half as long as this in Tuhua.
Our position on 15th February
36º 11.0 south
175º 21.7 east
We moved our boats to Kaiarara Bay where the valley leading to the mountain forms an inlet which shallows at its head and dropped our anchors in sandy mud full of hopes that the forecast rain for the following day would not materialise. We awoke to a dark cloudy sky heavy with rain so Sue and I decided not to risk it as 7 hours walking to the peak and back could get really uncomfortable in wet cloths not to mention that the visibility would be poor anyway. The dark clouds then did their thing and it came down in torrents all morning long so we settled into a lazy day. Norman & Sara braved the clearing weather in the afternoon and managed to walk a 3 hour circuit reaching the Kauri dam knowing that they had to leave the island the next day. They came over to Camomile for a shared supper before leaving the next day.
The following day brought sunshine but was still damp and it seemed to us that the mountain tracks would still be saturated from yesterdays deluge so we decided to walk to Port Fitzoy for supplies. It took us 3½ hours to walk there but a detour on the way via a waterfall track turned out to be more worthwhile than expected. When I clambered up the jungle culvert towards it I discovered the large pool at its feet to be full of bikini clad young ladies giving diving lessons to their kids. Sue was pleased when we reached the shop to find a 3 month old puppy tied up outside.
Our shorter return trip only took 2½ hours but I had over 7 kilos of shopping on my back.
Finally Friday 17th broke clear so we were up and at it, landing our dinghy on nearby Bushes Beach and making our way through the heavily wooded terrain on a loose gravel track. The mountain is located in the centre of the island and various mountain tracks allow relatively easy access to the summit.
We had chosen the shortest but steepest route up the Kaiarara track past the sites of two Kauri Driving Dams. This track was posted at 3½ hours and after 1¾ of climbing up steep but very well defined paths with occasional flights of steps we reached the first dam.
Kauri trees are majestic, can grow to an impressive girth and height and can live for thousands of years with the oldest living ones in New Zealand dating back around the time of Christ . Their huge weakness is that they are tall and dead straight. Straight enough therefore as sailing ship masts and easy fodder for the saw mill. Thus the Kauri logging industry was profitable in the island’s early European days and up to the mid 20th century. However the forests on Barrier Island extended well inland where there was no easy way to get the logs to the sea. Kauri logs were dragged to a convenient stream bed with steep sides and a driving dam was constructed of wood with a lifting gate near the bottom large enough for the logs to pass through. The dam was filled, which might take up to a year, and then the gates were tripped and a massive torrent of water and timber would roar down the narrow valley to the inlet below where they were held in booms before being towed to the Auckland sawmills. The noise of this man made avalanche could be heard miles away and would draw crowds of onlookers but anything standing in the way of the wall of water and logs was annihilated. The logging industry decimated huge swaths of ancient growth so most of the trees we saw around us today were younger native forest and exists due to the efforts of the New Zealand Forest Service who were responsible for planting around 150,000 kauri seedlings in the 1970s and 1980s.
We climbed on with some apprehension because the way ahead was steeper still. We need not have worried though because, aside from a few narrow tracks where we had to scramble a bit, it was mostly well laid path, good bridges and increasing flights of steps and walkways. By the time we got to the next waterfall though Sue had already counted 650 steps and we admired the commitment of the DoC people who had managed to haul all this timber up the hill to build tracks for our convenience. We were also starting to understand how hardy these Kiwi bush men (descended from the likes of the 6’8” George Murray whose sons Ivan and Jack were only an inch or so less) really were. Before we moved on we stopped for a carb and sugar break because we reckoned if we were ever going to burn fat the next hour would be it. By the time we had met a couple on the way down the track Sue had counted 1600 steps but we were pleased to hear that “there were not that many more”. I fear they may have been suffering a rare form of Kiwi altitude sickness (take-pity-on-the-sweaty-poms-itus) for, actually, there were 2540 from bottom to top give or take a few.
Up to the last stint it was hard going but was at least broken up by sections of path to help you get your breath back between step sessions. We had a short rest by the remains of the higher Kauri dam which was similar but smaller than its big brother downstream but then came the last 1000 steps which were unrelentingly continuous.
Don’t get me wrong, if the steps were not there we would have had no chance however, we both really felt it. Muscles burning, drenched with sweat and gasping we ascended flight after flight. Part of the problem was that, shrouded with the humid thick jungle like vegetation we had no idea how much further it was to the top. At the count of 2300 Sue stopped having decided that this was not such a good idea with a subtext of “by the way, was it one of mine by any chance”. She looked un-amused so I hastily retreated in the only direction open to me – up.
Happily we were on the home straight and met a small sign post that claimed it was only another 2 minutes to the top. It did seem to me at the time that the sign writer was related to the couple we met who were going down and was suffering the same delusion however because 10 minutes later we arrived at the summit trig point to a stupendous view.
It had taken us 3 hours (30 minutes less than the prescribed time), I turned around to grab the camera, switched it on and behold, the view was gone, the cloud descended and it rained. Bugger.
Making the best of it we huddled and gratefully munched our sandwich lunch with raindrops dripping from our noses while the worst of it past. 20 minutes later the view was back and we could see at least 30 miles or more. Right across the Coromandel to the mainland with the island spread beneath our feet like a forested bedspread. It was great.
After just ½ hour at the summit we started our descent. James, our eldest, had warned me that I would find this hard on my knee injury and he was right. But we retraced our path down the mountain and, as we made our way, the weather improved so, facing downhill we were treated to vista after vista through the overhanging trees. At last the steps stopped and we were back on the gravel track on more level ground so by the time we reached the final bridge it felt like the home straight. 30 minutes later we reached the dinghy and though we had started to suffer sore feet were really rather pleased with ourselves that we had managed a 7 hour walk in just 6. Not too bad for old duffers eh?