I love walking in the open where I can see for miles. Despite the incredible vistas to be found here there’s not a lot of this type of walking in New Zealand, where the natural state of the landscape is mainly bush or lowland forest. There are, of course, some exceptions, but to get above the treeline often takes a day’s walk on its own, carrying everything you might need for the next few days – food and cooking equipment, clothes and sleeping bag, even a tent if the route has no hut accommodation – on your back.
My activities in this respect are restricted – my knees complain when forced to carry much more than my weight and, call me high maintenance, but I like to know there’s a decent meal and a comfortable bed after I’ve been walking all day. There are day walks in this country, a few km that can be done between the hours of dawn and sunset, but nowhere near as many as I grew up being used to.
Ohakune sits on the edge of the Tongariro National Park, which has a couple of multi-day treks and a handful of shorter walks, ranging from a few km to the world-renowned Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the only day walk to cross an active volcano. (This latter, at 17km of solid effort, is not something I’d undertake on a cold wet day towards the end of autumn with more rain forecast. For me it requires longer daylight hours than are available at this time of year.)
The Waitonga Falls Track is halfway up the mountain road from Ohakune to the Turoa skifield. It’s part of the longer, four-day, round the mountain track, a popular short walk and, as such, well-maintained. The car park is shrouded in mist, an occasional brightening of the sky suggesting we might be close to getting above the cloud. It’s about four km to the Falls and back and the sign says an hour and twenty minutes return. We can march it in an hour if we want to, but we rarely do. It’s a lovely track, through beech forest, a brief exit to cross alpine wetland via a boardwalk, then down to the base of the eponymous waterfall.
From the road, the wide track disappears into the trees and any heat from the vague and intermittent sun immediately disappears. It crosses a bridge over the young Mangawhero – which rises farther up the mountain and passes through Ohakune before it will eventually spill into the giant Whanganui – then climbs steadily into the forest. Slender trunks of silver beeches mix with the sturdier, moss and lichen-covered trunks of the mountain beech and the twisted trunks of kaikawaka. Ferns line the track, bright green against the wet mulch, droplets of water captured along their edges. It’s an ethereal scene, misty rain hanging in the air. Large drops plop from leaves, one landing right down the back of my neck, making me jump and squeal.
We search in vain for the cage of native mistletoe that used to adorn a bend in the track, the wire protection necessary for its survival. It’s been a year since we’ve been here and sadly it seems the rare plant has either died or, if the cage was damaged, been predated upon (possums love it). The track has also been repaired, small steps added where there used to be knee-high climbs that I had to haul myself up, or resort to a helping hand from Neil.
After a km or so the path breaks out to open ground, a small patch of alpine wetland, the boardwalk zig-zagging across it to protect the delicate plants as much as to facilitate a dry crossing. The mountain looms to our left but hides behind the cloud that drifts around us. The small Rotokawa pools can offer a perfect reflection of him but it is a rare phenomenon, relying on a clear sky and no wind, the irony being that a wind is usually required to shift the cloud and even a slight breeze obscures any detail within wobbly watery ripples. Today is a rare calm day, the water mirror-still, but the only reflection is of the grey sky, a silver orb evidence that the sun is there somewhere.
Back in the forest the path skirts the side of a valley, the land falling steeply to our right, before descending into it via steps. There’s a feeling of age to this forest, anything that doesn’t move covered in moss or lichen; fungi cling to tree trunks, and ferns grow in abundance beneath the trees. Even the air smells old, dank and woody with tinges of mouldering vegetation. Large dents mark where tree roots have torn free from their footings, toppling the trees they should anchor. Some lean drunkenly and precariously on their neighbours, others gradually decompose on the ground. Often the wind masks the sound of the water, but today the trees are silent and we can clearly hear the water stumbling over rocks below. Heavy rain yesterday means a lot of water to drain off the mountain today.
A final twist in the path and the stream is directly below us, the water appearing from a dip in the edge of the cliff high to our left. We clamber down the rocks to the water’s edge and gaze up. Waitonga Falls is something of a misnomer – the stream certainly drops from a great height but, for most of the way down, it doesn’t actually fall, instead sliding over the rocks, dropping into air for only the last few metres. As with most streams on this mountain, the flow varies dramatically, spring the season of snow-melt when it tumbles and gushes, the trickle of late summer often a mere whisper of white against the rock.
It’s a beautiful spot, peaceful and serene on a day like today when we are the only visitors. At busier times the shrieks of those balancing on slippery rocks to cross the river for a better view of the Falls can be heard above the bubbling of the water, shattering the calm. It’s not uncommon to see legs wet to the knees where an unwary tourist has slipped into the water.
From here the path continues on its circuit around the mountain, dropping into valleys and climbing back out of them, over swingbridges and in and out of the forest, leading past half a dozen huts in which you can lay your head, if that’s your kind of thing. It is less maintained and becomes more challenging. We’ve often explored further and will do so again, but today coffee and the warmth of a fire call. We retrace our steps back to the car.