The piwakawaka swooped in chirping a distinct “meep meep” and with its dark beady eyes began to size me up. Spreading its fantail the bird then danced a one, two step before taking flight and landing directly on my trekking pole. The piwakawaka was desperate to consume the insects our feet disturbed as we hiked through Longwood forest, the last forest on Te Araroa. Te Araroa, a long distance hiking trail spanning the length of New Zealand from Cape Reinga to Bluff, had been our dark horse for the last four and a half months and we were nearing the finish line. The trail traverses some of the rawest and unmaintained terrain in the world so it was no surprise that we came to a particularly muddy patch. As I shuffled through the calf deep bog I cautiously poked my trekking pole into the sludge to check the depth, an act I had perfected over the last few months. Meanwhile our canny fantail friend had spied our predicament devoid of tasty insects and flew out of sight. Despite the mud we were at least getting close to our destination, Martins hut. Since starting the trail we had sheltered from storms, ate, slept, been woken by mice and made friends in around 40 backcountry huts which we considered home. But Martins hut is the last hut on the Te Araroa trail. The hut signifies the near end of a long journey and evokes a sense of achievement for many Te Araroa hikers.
As the trail began to descend the distinct sweet smell of wood smoke leaving a hut chimney filled the air but before I could pursue the welcoming scent I heard an urgent “There you are! I was worried”. It was my partner Jack. In my excitement I had speed up and now I felt admonished for abandoning my hiking buddy. “Sorry” I said guiltily “but I think we are close, can you smell that?” Jack looked through the dense beech trees and I followed his gaze catching a glimpse of rusted roof. We had made it. Rounding the ageing 1905 weatherboard hut we noticed the old miners graffiti on the outside first then the two men inside. The men were possum trappers who had made themselves comfortable after a long day and we chatted to the elder of them who closely guarded the doorway. While the trappers weren’t unfriendly their body language indicated a reluctance to share the hut with us. We couldn’t blame them, it had been several days since our last shower and we were now covered in forest mud. In earnest Jack and I decided to leave the rustic hut to the trappers and continue hiking to the start of the next section where we could set up camp. Bidding farewell to the trappers we started towards our new destination and as the trail opened up our friend the Piwakawaka returned, darting around our weary feet and spurring us on with a “meep meep”.