28-Sep-2007 -- As we had just completed teaching about GIS and GPS technologies at the 2007 Social Science conference and conducted an additional GIS workshop at a school in Auckland, a confluence visit seemed like a fitting capstone to these events. We had taught together several times in North America and in New Zealand, and usually finished up these events with practicing what we preach--getting out on the landscape.
We departed our last GIS institute during the evening of 27 September, spending the night in the delightful small town of Ngaruawahia. Anne, being a native New Zealander, can pronounce these names much easier than I can, and she even knew the history of the area. The town's name means "break open the food pits," referring to a bodacious food chain that was set up for a local chief back in 1660 that extended for over one kilometer!.
Somehow my watch became an hour off, and I awoke before dawn, expecting us to depart right away. I spent a pleasant hour on the swingset and trampoline at our motel, waiting for Anne. When she appeared at the correct time, we drove south on highway 39, through another wonderfully-named town called Whatawhata, and then west on highway 31. We drove out of the Waikato valley and dairying region and were treated to wonderful views in all directions of the green hills. .
Soon, the Tasman Sea was peeking through the pines.
We approached the coastal town of Kawhia, which was the first seaport on the west coast of the North Island. Despite the magnificent harbor, inadequate roads and the lack of a railroad prevented it from becoming the major seaport that people expected, and thus, the region still felt wonderfully wild and untamed to me. True, there was farming and ranching in the valleys, but what a landscape! Kawhia is a contraction of Ka-awhia. A whiawhi was a ceremony performed by Polynesian explorers as they entered a new land to protect themselves from evil. Each phrase of the chant used by the Turi began with the word "ka," which may explain how Kawhia was named..
We turned up the valley at Oparau toward the east-northeast. We then made a left turn on Pirongia West Road and continued northeast past beautiful farms and ranches. Soon, the road angled steeply up the mountainside, and we were nearly on the 175th meridian. Anne wisely made a U-turn and we headed back down. The challenge now was to select the correct ranch house to inquire about visiting the confluence and avoid some bushwacking. We'd done much bushwacking before on our treks together, but many of the steep hills here were covered in gorse, an extremely nasty, thorny bush that is unfortunately an invasive plant against which landowners are continually in battle. .
Anne has an uncanny knack for knocking on the correct farmhouse, and it turned out that she did so again here. After chatting amiably with a young woman and saying hello to her toddler, we were granted permission, and off we went. We trekked down the slope in the back of the buildings toward the river, and debated whether to continue up the trail to the north. We decided against it, striking off along the river's north bank, and finding that impassable a while later, doubled back to the bridge and setting off on the south bank. East on the trail we went with about 1 kilometer's straight-line distance to go. The sound of a dog up the slope made me a bit nervous, but it was a magnificent day, just after the first of spring in New Zealand, green hills, blue sky, hiking with a friend. What more could one wish for? After 20 minutes, we were forced to wade through the Oparau River, which was quite chilly, but enjoyable nonetheless, especially since we didn't drop our camera nor GPS into the waters..
On the south bank once more, we struck toward the northeast, and then due north up a very steep slope. I thought the confluence would be at the top of the ridge, where I took a classic New Zealand photograph of sheep on steep slopes, looking toward the Pirongia Forest preserve. I then thought the confluence would be on the side of the next slope. When that didn't happen, I realized that the confluence would be at the bottom of the next ravine. We found it about 5 meters up the south-facing slope on the opposite side of the ravine. It was so steep and muddy that I had a difficult time keeping my footing; Anne, a steady New Zealander, seemed to have no problems. .
The confluence thus lies on an angle of 40 degrees, sloping to the south. The temperature was about 15 C (59 F) under sunny skies and light winds. The vegetation included, unfortunately, gorse, but also manuka, foxglove, and punga. We saw paradise ducks, hawks, and sheep and cattle. A ranch house was clearly visible down the slope to the west, but we saw no people during our trek. This was my 8th confluence in New Zealand and one of the most scenic confluences I have visited anywhere in the world. .
We were reluctant to depart, despite our muddy shoes, and gingerly stepped due west down the steep slope to the track below. This was the track we should have came up after wading the river, but as we both love circular hikes, no harm done. Once at the river, we retraced our steps, stopping to thank the landowner and tell her that we were leaving. The total hike time was about an hour and a half. On our way out, we read the historical sign posted at Oparau, and had a snack at a wonderful yellow-painted general store on the main highway. We continued west and then embarked on another adventure: A drive north on an unmarked road that Anne knew that was prone to rockslides but wonderfully free of traffic, in the wild west of New Zealand!.