It’s dense, tangled and in most places steep. It’s easy to lose the track (trail). If you do, attempting to bushwhack your way back is next to impossible. First, most of the time you can’t really tell where you are. The dense foliage just swallows you up. There is no seeing above it or out of it. There are no distant mountain peaks to navigate by. But the real reason is that usually the undergrowth is so bloody dense and thick, you can’t get through it.
Don’t get lost. Don’t lose the track. If you step several feet off the track, you might not find your way back. If lost, you could easily walk across many of the smaller trails and not even notice you were crossing them. Partly for this reason, when I go on a new tramp, I bring my GPS receiver with me. I couldn’t stand the newspaper headlines, “Stupid American gets lost several meters from his car!” Streams. There will be streams. You will cross streams, re-cross them and then cross them again. Many times. On some of the tramps, you can try and keep your feet dry. On others, don’t bother.
And for that matter, everything is often wet. Everything. Roots, rocks, fallen leaves, palm leaves, fern fronds, the earth—everything is wet and slippery to walk on. Expect to slip and slide. If it is a long enough tramp (hike), at some point you will probably end up on your bum, as they say here. In some places, entire chunks of hillslide have slid down—called ‘slips’ in New Zealand—leaving a scar across the hillside and often taking out a significant portion of the track in the process. In summer, you’ll be dripping with sweat. In winter, it might very well be raining. This is the New Zealand ‘bush’, the New Zealand word for the native forests, in particular the subtropical native forests on the north part of the North Island including the Bay of Plenty region where we live. Interestingly enough, there are not as many people on New Zealand hikes (outside the popular tourist ones) as you might expect. Often you can go for hours and only see a handful of people. The Department of Conservation (DOC) does a wonderful job managing the trails on public land in New Zealand. Most of the trails are well-marked and well-constructed. DOC signs list distances and times to given destinations. How accurate are the times for the hikes? It varies. I can walk at the same speed and sometimes it takes me much longer than listed, sometimes they are right on the money, and sometimes I am much faster. Go figure.
However, the switchback has generally not yet been invented in New Zealand. Instead, on the more popular trails, the DOC prefers constructing endless stairs often straight up the sides of mountains. If the trail is less popular, the trails still climb straight upward except you cling to rocks and roots and pull yourself up using your hands and feet.
Swing bridges are fun but there don’t seem to be as many on the North Island as on the South Island.
Trails are marked with orange DOC triangles. These will be your friends on your tramps. Sometimes when you are walking along on the track, even on a fairly substantial one, the track will suddenly disappear. It will just be gone. Poof! Just like that. You have to stop and look carefully. It’s like a can-you-find-it puzzle. In this case, you will be slowly turning around and looking at an extremely complex tangled mass of jungle foliage in various shades of green dappled with sunlight. Somewhere in there is a single five-inch faded orange triangle partially overgrown and covered with lichen and fern. That is where the trail goes. Can you find it?
But most of all, the bush is a magical place. Tall ancient trees—New Zealand has some of the tallest native trees in the world—reach up towards the sky. Numerous smaller trees, vines, creepers fill in the undergrowth. The tree ferns, ponga and mamaku, give everything a prehistoric appearance. Everything is teeming with life. Stumps have moss, ferns, fungi growing on them. The trees themselves are tangled in vines trying to hitch a ride upward toward the sunlight.
Then you’ll round a bend in the trail and see an unnamed waterfall that would receive accolades anywhere else, but here doesn’t even have a name, or a series of pools connected by delicate water channels eroded through the rock, or water dripping down a cliff onto beds of luxuriant ferns.
The dappled sunlight on leaves. The quality and feel of the air against your skin. The songs of the birds. The sound of water flowing. The smell of flowers and of things growing. Life. Walking here, one feels near and close to the wild heart of life itself, or perhaps one gets a glimpse from a time long-gone when early man and woman took their first steps on this wondrous world.