Nothing had quite prepared us for the slog of climbing up a seemingly never-ending tree root staircase at the start of our tramp across the Mount Maungatautari ecological island.
Few people seem to have heard about Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari. The scale of this restoration project is hard to get your head around - a 3400 hectare native forest with two enclosures surrounded by a 47 km pest proof fence. This huge ecological reserve is full of ancient native trees such as rimu and rata and wildlife including endangered species like the kiwi, hihi, kaka and the ancient tuatara.
We're here to complete the Over the Mountain tramp across the two highest peaks - Maungatautari and Pukeatua. It's a perfect day when our AWOL group is dropped off by our host at the Northern Enclosure entrance.
We cross the lush green fields and pass the pest proof fence before entering the native forest with its canopy of majestic trees and prolific silver ferns. Welcome shade cover for most of the day.
Lithesome B and P (our 2 smokers) take off at a fast clip and are soon out of sight. We cross paths a couple of times during the trek. They take on the more difficult old track scaling higher peaks including the aptly named Rocky Outcrop. We are left wondering 'what are they smoking'?
Now back to that tree root staircase ... exposed tree roots cascading downhill in a tangled web. The scene is reminiscent of something from Peter Jackson's version of Middle Earth - a land full of myths and legends and ancient creatures that could appear at any second. Tuatara will be right at home here. The path is over and around the tree root system and at each rise we round the corner and another root staircase appears. An hour in and we are thinking 'Will it ever end?' and it finally it does.
Two hours from the start we reach Maungatautari Summit and the nearby Trig Station - not much of a view as we are still surrounded by majestic trees and abundant forest growth.
Time for a break - we tuck into hearty picnic lunches. Rested, we head for Pukeatua on the new track, a longer but easier route. By the time we reach the turn off to Pukeatua, it is clear we've climbed enough peaks today. We give the next peak a miss and continue our descent to the Southern Enclosure exit.
On the downward slope we spread out relishing our majestic surroundings, listening to the sound of birds - tui, hihi (stitchbird), and pitoitoi (North Island Robin) are all identifiable and we occasionally catch sight of them flitting through the trees.
Four hours later we reach the exit. Nothing beats the exhilaration of knocking off another physical challenge that really stretched us. "One of the toughest tramps I've done", "I'm amazed I've done it!", and (strictly in retrospect) "Best part was the challenge of the tree roots - something different".
It's time for a relaxing soak in the spa bath - perfect for soothing tired limbs. We are staying at Out in The Styx. Lance and Mary are great hosts and the substantial meals are delicious. The garden is ablaze with ruby red and white roses, lavender beds and splashes of rhododendrons.
After dinner another treat is in store. Our guide has some spare torches for our night tour of Sanctuary Mountain's Southern Enclosure. Geoff points out wild fushia in shocking pink and purple. We marvel at the underside of silver fern glowing in the dark. We spot spiders and intricate webs on tree trunks.
Some rare finds - a harvestman (not a spider) and a lime green glow-in-the-dark flat worm. Koura (native crayfish) are swimming in the stream. Glowworms sparkle like stars at the base of an overturned rimu trunk.
Back at ‘Out in the Styx' it's time for a well earned night's sleep.
Our Over the Mountain hike and the Sanctuary Mountain by Night guided tour leave a lasting impression of an ancient forest protecting threatened and endangered species and a rare insight into our natural heritage. Add to this the great company, teamwork and support when the going got tough, lovely accommodation, tasty meals, stimulating conversation and ... we have another memorable AWOL adventure.
Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari is an ecological reserve located near Te Awamutu in the Waikato region, about two hours driving time from Auckland. Out In The Styx Guesthouse is situated within walking distance of the Southern Enclosure. Transport can be arranged to the Northern Enclosure for the start of the Over the Mountain 6-7 hour day tramp. The guesthouse is also a handy location for other shorter walks in the reserve, and for cycling and kayaking along the Waikato River.