Tree Trunk Gorge

About an hour’s drive northeast of Ohakune, deep in the Kaimanawa Forest, the Tree Trunk Gorge track leads off a narrow road and into the bush. It follows the line of an old road associated with the Tongariro Power Scheme and is mostly wide and straightforward, albeit shared use with mountain bikes. Neil rode it a few years ago with friends and we’ve walked it a few times since then. I won’t ride it, too challenging for me, and it’s rough in places with no flat sections; you either climb or you descend.

The first 500m is downhill which, apparently, is fun on a bike. Not the word in my mind as I skittle down, loose stones skittering from under my feet. Halfway down, tell-tale scatterings of sawdust suggest the work of a chainsaw and, sure enough, we soon pass through a tree, sawn-off sections of trunk to one side of the path, bare ends of branches where they met the saw the other. Half a dozen more follow in quick succession and it dawns on me that this must be the work of Gabrielle, more proof of how Ohakune was sheltered by the mountain from anything like the storm that must have caused this damage.

The path levels as we hear the bubble of water. This stream is neither wide nor deep and flows nowhere near as fast as those on the mountain do, therefore is easy to cross, although deep enough that it would breach the top of our boots. On the return journey it won’t be an issue but I’m not keen on squelching along with wet feet for a few hours so we whip off our boots and slip on jandals, wading into water that is cold but not mountain-stream frigid. Then it’s time to exercise the lungs as the path climbs on its steepest gradient, loose stones rattling underfoot. I wonder how it can be possible to get purchase on wheels.

We haven’t done a decent walk for a few weeks and my legs enjoy a good stretch on the inclines, up and down, jumping across small streams. This track runs through forest, no open space, so I’m surprised when we come to an unexpected clearing. A scene of devastation greets us, with trees upended, tangled roots rising vertically over holes in the forest floor that once anchored them. A blanket of soil drapes around the base of two thin fallen trunks where intertwined roots of smaller plants have held fast, pulling a layer of earth with them. A couple of ferns cling on, their leaves hanging upside down. Sawn-off branches line the sides of the track like an honour guard. It’s a sobering sight.

After a pause for lunch at the campsite we continue on towards the swing bridge at the Pillars of Hercules, a deep gorge carved by the Tongariro River through ancient lava flows. More spectacular evidence of Gabrielle’s path confronts us: huge trees ripped from their roots, splintered ends sticking up from the forest floor like broken cocktail sticks, the torn wood raw and freshly-bright against the dark trunks of untouched neighbours. The chainsaw hasn’t reached this far, or couldn’t cope with the extent of destruction, and fallen giants block the path. We clamber over small branches, push our way through tree-tops, and skirt trunks too thick to climb over. We have to resort to hoisting ourselves up on our bums on one huge trunk, swinging legs over to drop down the other side. I’ve never seen anything like it. Wide holes mark where roots were torn up, massive balls of soil upended and now hanging. The ruin is astounding. The river far below is visible when I’m sure it never used to be, suggesting that the canopy has been torn away, clearing the view.

I heard someone describe the storm as like a plane landing in the back garden. It does almost seem as though a huge metal object has torn a wide path through the forest and I cannot imagine what the noise here must have been like. Terrifying springs to mind. It’s hard to comprehend the power that could cause such destruction, especially as today the forest is calm and peaceful, no wind to stir even a leaf, fantails piwakawaka-ing around us.

We push our way through or detour around at least half a dozen blockages before reaching the swingbridge and bouncing onto it for a view of the gorge and the river. The track continues for a few km to the highway but we turn here, re-tracing our steps, re-crossing the river, allowing the cold water to flow into our boots this time. On the final incline I pause by a small tree with holes punched through its bark and into its flesh, the work of the puriri grub, which lives in tree holes until it pupates into New Zealand’s largest moth. I investigate for a minute while I get my breath back, then puff on up to the car, removing wet boots and socks to drive home.

Note: When I looked at the Department of Conservation website for Tree Trunk Gorge to check some details for this post I was surprised to see a banner proclaiming that the track is closed due to severe weather events. Even more surprising is that there was no such message on the site for the Pillars of Hercules. None of the signs at either end of the walk had any suggestion of closure or track damage, and we saw many other people on the track.

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