Walking the Hillary Trail, December 2010

Standing still: The Hillary Trail

I’m reminded of a Jonathan Franzen line -  “You see more standing still than chasing after” - when I think back to the weekend before Christmas 2010 when myself and three friends walked the Hillary Trail on Auckland’s West Coast.

For weeks we’d been anticipating the four-day, 70-odd km walk from Huia to Muriwai. The weather had been relentlessly hot and in my mind’s eye I’d imagined endless river and beach swims - and a swathe of sunscreen.

But on the second day at Whatipu Lodge we woke to the sound of rain knocking on the corrugated iron roof.  Two hours down the track as we carefully navigated a steep, slippery rock face into the Pararaha Valley the skies cracked open and torrential, skin-soaking rain thundered down from dark clouds overhead. Ironically we thought we were smart getting to the creek-side Pararaha Shelter just as the rain cranked into top gear.  But the joke was on us when 40 minutes later we stood dumbfounded at the normally knee-deep Pararaha Creek watching its dirty waters lick the neck of a brave member of our party as, clinging to toi toi, she ventured out into it’s swift current.

“So what do we do now?” 


“Use our packs as flotation devices and float down the stream.”

“Won’t everything get soaked?”

“And what about getting caught by snags?”

 “Does anyone have some rope? 

“Nope didn’t even think of it.”

“Wouldn’t it be embarrassing to be the first people to die on the Hillary trail?”

 “Don’t we link arms like this when crossing a river.”

“Isn’t it like this?”

“We’d have to undo the waist belt on our packs!"

Our conversation stumbled on like that and even though we were all experienced trampers when one member said: “I think we need to go back to the shelter and wait” it quickly became clear that it was the only sensible decision. Perhaps 20 years ago we’d have tried to find a way across… but not now. 

Back inside the shelter at 3pm one of our party cut strips of flax and started weaving a rope as we tossed our options back and forth. We could wait until 5.30pm at the latest to cross the stream and walk on to KareKare and Piha, otherwise the only other real choice, apart from sleeping the night on the concrete floor of the shelter, was to turn back to Whatipu and get there just before dark.

We boiled the billy, changed into warm clothes, studied the map and read the trail instructions. Despite a light rain falling, inch by inch the stream seemed to be shrinking. When I put a ruler-length piece of flax at it’s clay edge, it was high and dry half an hour later.

“Look only waist high and not nearly as swift,” called out our brave water-tester as using the flax rope tied to a bush she edged out into middle of the stream.

Close to our 5.30pm deadline, we hoisted our packs above our heads and waded across the stream using the flax rope to steady ourselves. 

High on adrenalin and on having made the right decision, we climbed up Buck Taylor Track and onto Zion Hill Track with spectacular views down to KareKare. 

You will know when you get there
“Nobody comes up from the sea as late as this
In the day and the season, and nobody else goes down
The steep kilometre, wet-metalled where
A shower passed shredding the light which keeps
Pouring out of its tank in the sky, through summits,
Trees, vapours thickening and thinning…”
Allen Curnow

Karekare is “not for those who prefer safe landscapes“ says Bob Harvey in Rolling Thunder: The Spirit of KareKare.  “There's an over-powering sense of place here.  The moment you arrive, you know this is a special place.”

The rain had stopped and it was a clear evening full of promise, as at 9pm we strode up the steep, concrete driveway of the much-anticipated Piha Lodge where we’d booked a bach with a swimming pool and views out to the ocean.

AAAAAAAAh … I think we all felt like we’d stepped into the wrong story as we found ourselves instead in the tiny, cluttered Piha Bach: a small cabin – really only suitable for two people - attached to a musty smelling caravan with notes of instruction plastered everywhere! One of three above the toilet reading: “Use as little paper as possible toilet will block!!!! IF OVERLOADED”.  One of three in the shower: “If shower starts going hot and cold it’s usually because the lever has been bumped.  Just push it in, turn it to the right.  Pull toward you and then across to your left to the desired temperature”.

There wasn’t enough room to swing a cat, let alone comfortably house four wet, weary middle-aged women, our wet gear and packs…meanwhile the lodge proper, the swimming pool and views out to sea illuded us up the hill.   After a complaint to the manageress/owner there was nothing left to do other than laugh and sleep – or try to!

The next morning the sun was bright and the day fresh. We wound round the back of Piha passed the Kitekite falls, stopped for a flat white at the Piha store and then strode out onto the rolling surf beach -  Piha Lodge and its tiny “La Bach” was history!

We grunted up out of Piha, climbing high above Whites Beach - home to the Sir Edmund Hillary family bach and the reason this track is called the “Hillary Trail” in a tribute to the conqueror of Everest and the time he spent out on this coast.

An hour later at the Anawhata stream, we were all so hot we stripped off to tramping boots and immersed ourselves in the “shallow”  knee deep water. After a cup of tea boiled on the billy and some Christmas cake we plodded up out of the Anawhata Valley to Kuataika (250 metres) and then employed tactics to keep weary trampers going by singing songs from our 70s and 80s youth: Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Neil Young, Carole King, the Bee Gees, the Hollies until finally as the day started to turn on the cusp of dusk, we arrived at the southern end of  Lake Wainamu.

It was quiet and picturesque as we walked through long grass and raupo round the edge of the lake.  But at the fartherest reach, we lost the track.  Just a big raupo swamp in front of us. Back and forth we went: two climbing high up into the waterfall looking for a way across, the others lunging through the raupo. I could hear again the  haunting joke we'd had at the Pararaha Creek “wouldn’t it be embarrassing to be the first to die on the Hillary Trail” when there was a "whoopee" from the other side of the raupo. The scout in our party had hauled herself up a steep bank and found where the track had lost its way in a flooded creek.

Waitakere Rain
“Ernest Hemingway found rain to be
made of knowledge, experience
wine oil salt vinegar quince
bed early mornings nights days the sea
men women dogs hill and rich valley
the appearance and disappearance of sense
or trains on curved and straight tracks, hence
love honour and dishonour, a scent of infinity.

“In my city the rain you get
is made of massive kauri trees, the call of forest birds
howling dark oceans and mangroved creeks.
I taste constancy, memory and yet
there's the watery departure of words
from the thunder-black sand at Te Henga Beach.”
Paula Green

Round the lake we plodded as the playful sounds of a group of teenagers swimming and frolicking in the water, followed us. Down Bethells Beach Road in the dark: weary, hungry, and thankful that a spacious, comfortable bach, with nary a notice in sight, awaited us. The night so warm I went to bed lying half out of my sleeping bag’s silk inner - a breeze from the opened window and the sounds of the sea accompanying my journey to sleep.

Up on the tops above Bethells or Te Henga (the sand) the next day, we languished over lunch with clear, blue sky views all the way back down to Whatipu and then north up the sweep of Muriwai Beach. Later I read we were sitting on Te Ara Kanohi (the pathway of the eye). 

We ploughed on passed flax in flower, hot beating sun, green farmland, swirling blue sea below. It was so hot when we stopped under the shade of a big Puriri tree that one by one each of us stumbled down to a little stream and soaked our shirts in its cool water.

The climb up to Constable Road was steep and long. But a text message about cold beer at the end of the track got through.

Soon we were in a car and on our way back into the rush of the city.  As of the four-day walk settled in our collective memory, the stream crossing at Pararaha surfaced as a pivotal point around which the story was told - and told again.