Hiking With Joe

Hiking boots on, poles in hand, I wonder why one of my favourite walks on Mt Ruapehu is so named. Finally, a couple of weeks ago I remembered to look it up when I got home. Turns out Joe Blyth was one of the inaugural members of the Tongariro National Park Board, skied the mountain when you had to walk up to slide down, and was a keen tramper. He was headmaster of the school in Ohakune and climbed to the summit of Ruapehu nearly 150 times. Bit of an underachiever then.

The first time we walked the Old Blyth Track (no idea where the new one is, if there is one) we did so, I guess, nearly twenty years ago. We’d travelled here to ski and, as so often happens, the mountain was closed because it was too windy to plonk people in chairs hanging off cables suspending them a fair few metres from the rocks below (skiing isn’t easy in these parts). I say we walked the track – in reality we paddled along it, the water over the tops of our boots in many places. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, not helped by a strong wind that, when we broke from the shelter of the forest to the open flank of the mountain, tried to rip the flesh from my face and actually blew my foot away as I lifted it across scattered snow to step onto a boardwalk. For many years I had a clear memory of this but was unable to pin it to a specific walk, which tells me it must have been a while before our second attempt, when we discovered the track isn’t always a river.

Given how difficult some of the tracks on this mountain are you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a fairly easy walk. Some parts of it are, but others are challenging. Most of the time you are in the forest, where sunlight filters through the low trees, where stray ferns and twigs drift across the path into your face. There are a few small open areas, the largest a boardwalk-over-wetland near the end, a section where the wind can almost blow you over, or steal your foot. The gradient is mainly gentle, but it is a continuous uphill with some steeper sections when you hit the denser forest in the middle part, a couple of fallen trees to navigate when we did it recently. It begins as an easy stroll, then turns into an adventure hike when you come across eroded areas that have left steps so steep it’s physically impossible to get up them (I’m talking waist high here). Add in the deep pools that sit beneath some of these steps after rain, and the ankle-deep mud that surrounds them, and it’s a recipe for strained muscles if not more serious injury. Early in the track’s life hikers laid logs across the soggiest parts, which was kind of them, but rounded logs aren’t the easiest things to walk on – your feet slip on the wet wood and your toes get trapped in the small gaps between them. If the weather is on your side it’s a pleasant couple of hours; in the wet it’s hell and I recommend avoiding. This is not a hike you do after heavy rain. Even in summer there are large patches of mud to negotiate and at all times you will have to paddle some of it.

Considering the length of time since our initial visit we presumed, on our return, that some repairs must have been done. Nope. It was worse, and it is each time we walk it. The erosion by many feet and much water means the huge steps get higher each year, some now bypassed by unofficial, hiker-feet-created, new sections. The old-style boardwalks over the open area near the end are half-sinking, half-collapsing, and I swear they were designed with tripping in mind. It’s impossible to walk normally on these things, the gaps larger than the wood between them, gaps that grab even the sturdiest boot if you have the temerity to try and do more than shuffle along them.

Why do we keep going back? Because it’s a beautiful track and a lovely way to spend a few hours. As you enter the forest low ferns surround you, butting up against the slim trunks of young trees. A couple of small horopito bushes, their red-edged leaves bright amongst the greens, poke through. Thin grass-like leaves of toitoi bend towards you, their grace deceptive – stride too close and you’ll realise why Kiwis call it ‘cutty’ grass. Unless the wind is whistling through the trees, the only sounds you will hear are your own breath and the warble and chirrup of unseen birds.

We walked the Old Blyth Track last on New Year’s Day. We saw no one else until we reached the path junction near the end, when it joins the popular Waitonga Falls track. We heard voices, an older couple extolling its virtues to a group of twenty-somethings. ‘It’s beautiful!’ said one of them, adding: ‘Isn’t it?’ when she saw us approaching. We joined the conversation as she tried to persuade the group to detour. Some were clearly keen, others less so. I looked at their footwear, city trainers, perfectly suitable for the well-trodden and well-maintained track they were on.

‘It’s very muddy,’ I said. One of the young women widened her eyes in alarm. ‘I wouldn’t recommend it in those.’ I pointed at her shiny-white clad feet and then indicated my mud-covered boots.

‘I’m not doing it!’ she said.

Initial plans for the new off-road bike track down the mountain suggested that it would follow parts of the Old Blyth. If it does, they have a hell of a lot of work to do before it’s ridable. Like most people around here, I’m looking forward to the completion of this long-talked-about ride (work starts on the lower section this year) but the Old Blyth track is very special. Yes, the condition of some parts means it isn’t a stroll in the park and it would benefit from improvements to stop damaging detours; I’m not sure I want it to change too much. It would be impossible to cycle over the logged sections, but to remove them would take away some of the walk’s character. It can be challenging, but I love it. Joe might have knocked it off in half an hour in his jandals in all weather. I recommend a day without rain and good hiking boots.

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