Tackling the Tirohanga

Department of Conservation —  16/03/2021

By Jeff Neems – Communications Advisor.

As the Corcoran Road carpark came into view, I raised my tired arms above my head like a boxer celebrating a triumph via final-round knock-out.

“Yes!” I yelled. “Yes! Made it! Woooohooooo!”

My colleagues Glyn Morgan and Nigel Binks laughed at my reaction. “Jeff of the jungle,” my wife quipped later when I told her of my hearty celebration at the edge of Waikato’s Pirongia Forest Park.

Glyn Morgan and Nigel Binks, Waikato District Rangers, at the summit of Mt Pirongia, in Pirongia Forest Park.
📷: Jeff Neems.

Raising my arms was itself an accomplishment. As a sedentary office worker, my upper body doesn’t get a lot of exercise. But on this day, a sweltering Friday in peak Aotearoa summer, my arms, shoulders and torso had received their most vigorous work-out in years.

The exercise for my legs was, as the kids say these days, “next level”.

Our trio of Department of Conservation (DOC) staff had completed the descent of Tirohanga track, one of the most gruelling (by my standards, anyway) tracks in the tree-clad park which covers more than 13,500 hectares.

Our time of about 3 hours and 45 minutes was pretty leisurely for Glyn, an experienced DOC Senior Ranger-Supervisor who can descend the track in less than two hours. Biodiversity Ranger Nigel (10 years younger than me) looked pretty comfortable too. On a group hike, you only go as fast as the slowest person, and in our happy band of DOC staff, I was the slowest….by some margin.

We had flown in by helicopter (as opposed to walking up) for a restock and check of the Pahautea Hut, a 20-bed DOC hut popular with hikers exploring Pirongia. Our pilot had circled the maunga, giving an incredible perspective on the forest park and the tracks which cross it. By the time we landed at the small helipad near the top, I was ready to get on with it.

Glyn Morgan disembarks the helicopter which transported six DOC staff, undertaking a range of work, to the top of Mt Pirongia.
📷: Jeff Neems

I had helped Glyn clean the toilets, had a good look around the hut, checked the visitors’ book and enjoyed the gorgeous 360-degree views across the district and off to the Tasman Sea, before we’d set off on the most intense burst of physical activity I have undertaken in years.

The Tirohanga Track is challenging: a round-trip (ascent then descent) will take an entire day, and is suitable for advanced trampers, hikers or walkers. That would’ve been beyond me. A good level of fitness and tramping experience are required, and most people will stay overnight at the hut. The Mahaukuru is evidently even tougher.

Glyn had given me fair warning that it wasn’t a straightforward walk: “There’ll be a bit of scrambling over rocks, using a few chains. In some places we’ll be walking along the ridge, so plenty of up-and-down sections. It’s a back-country track and although it’s formed, it’ll be challenging. It’s a good work-out.”

I admit I didn’t know quite what he meant by “a few chains”. I expected dinky little chain swing bridges or something like that. It turned out to be chains attached to rock faces, in some cases several metres long and what almost appeared directly vertical. The chains were there to pull yourself upwards or grab on to as you clambered down.

Glyn Morgan at the Pahautea Hut.
📷: Jeff Neems.

It was tough going. I dripped with sweat in the summer heat. My hat and sunglasses were quickly disregarded to mitigate the risk of overheating as the sun baked down on us.  The 1.5 litres of water I took proved to be enough for rehydration, with about 200 mls in the bottom by the end.

“Look mate, if it comes to it, I will carry you out,” Glyn had warned, half joking.

I was determined that would not happen.

There’s an old saying about getting back what you put in.

And on this hot day, I put in a lot. My legs ached for days afterwards, my back and shoulders were stiff and sore.

But what I got back was extraordinary. As well as truly magnificent views across the Waikato from points nearly 1km above sea level, I enjoyed a special form of peace and tranquillity only the forest offers. I filled my lungs with refreshing and clear air. I clambered over rocks and tree roots, and gazed up at rata, kahikatea and the 700-year-old pahautea trees from which the hut takes its name.

The Ruapane trig station, on one of Mt Pirongia’s ridges.
📷: Jeff Neems.

It is fair to say the descent of the Tirohanga Track was one of the achievements I am most proud of in my life and career. My leisurely evening walks around Hamilton’s Lake Rotorua, or the leafy streets of my gentrified suburb, only partially prepared me for Pirongia’s physical challenge – so to complete the rugged walk left me with a strong sense of accomplishment, and reminded me of why I work for DOC. The bush is beautiful.

There are times in life when you must challenge yourself physically and mentally, as Glyn pointed out, and the rigours of the Tirohanga track ticked that box for me.

It is not for the faint-hearted, but those incredible views across the Waikato basin and to the Tasman Sea make it more than worthwhile – they make it spectacular.

Looking across the Waikato basin from Mt Pirongia.
📷: Jeff Neems.

If you go:

  • Tell someone your plans.
  • Use the DOC website to book your spot at the Pahautea Hut.  The hut has 20 bed spaces and is popular.
  • Prepare correctly – wear sturdy and comfortable boots or shoes, take food and water, understand the route you’re taking, check the weather forecast.
  • Find out more about Pirongia Forest Park here.

2 responses to Tackling the Tirohanga

    Nelson French 01/04/2021 at 7:51 am

    Hi Jeff thank you for taking me back to the top of my maunga after nearly 30 odd years. My brother and I (both served with the SAS) tramped to the top for an overnight stay with our children and nephews, nieces in tow. Had to pop my 5 year old in my pack because he kept getting stuck in the mud along the track. Managed to keep my 7 year old neice going by telling her Mr Whippy might be waiting at the hut…sorry neice. Magic memories of Pirongia taku maunga mea taku whanau

    Peter Hallinan 16/03/2021 at 1:24 pm

    I climbed Pirongia the day of the Indonesian tsunami. Last person in NZ to hear about it. Your blog bought the memories back…