Getting into the wild

Steph Bell-Jenkins and her boys at the start of their tramping adventure in the Pureora Forest Park.

In February I heard an inspiring piece of advice while listening to a Radio New Zealand interview with Australian adventurer Jessica Watson that triggered a light-switch parenting moment:

“You’ve got to turn off that part of your brain that’s holding you back and just give things a go.”

A few weeks later, I got a chance to put this liberating philosophy to the test when my brother Jon invited me, my husband and our three boys to join his family on an overnight tramp in Pureora Forest Park, which straddles the Hauhangaroa and Rangitoto ranges west of Lake Taupo and east of Te Kuiti.

We would walk 9.4km from Waihaha River car park and stay the night in the 10-bunk Waihaha Hut.

My husband is an experienced outdoorsman, but the boys and I had never been on a long tramp or stayed in a Department of Conservation hut before, so I was worried.  What if the kids (all aged under nine) couldn’t make the distance?  What if there was no room in the hut?  What if someone broke their ankle?

Then I remembered Jessica’s advice, swallowed the lump of fear in my throat, and decided to give it a go – and I’m so glad I did, because that weekend turned out to be one of the best we’ve ever had.

Even packing our food and gear was an adventure, like planning a mini survival challenge.

My husband made sure we had all the essentials – toilet rolls in waterproof bags, matches, water purifying drops, a little gas cooker and pot, heatproof spoons and a first aid kit.  He borrowed a GPS and my brother had a personal locator beacon for emergencies.

With our gear slung on our backs, we set off from the Waihaha River car park to Waihaha Hut in glorious autumn weather.

The 10-bunk Waihaha Hut in Pureora Forest Park.

The walk was absolutely beautiful, following the Waihaha River through open grassed areas and shrubland into dense podocarp forest.  We discovered plants that made “smoke” (pollen) when we touched them, blue mushrooms, fascinating plants and many different birds – kakariki, kaka, tomtits, kereru, tui and robins.  One highlight was a narrow suspension bridge that swung wildly as we crossed it, making us feel like Indiana Jones.

The river narrowed as it wound through volcanic terrain towards its source, opening out into cool, clear swimming spots, sweeping around sheer bluffs and roaring and boiling through narrow, rocky chutes.

The walking was easy thanks to the well-drained and relatively flat track, also popular with mountain bikers.

After five hours of tramping with plenty of food and rest stops, we finally reached the hut, tired and extremely proud of ourselves, where four friendly hunters made us very welcome.

Shortly after scoping out the place and choosing their bunks, the kids amazed me by heading straight back out to play in the bush, rather than taking the sensible option and collapsing in exhausted little heaps on the lovely thick foam mattresses provided.

The hut was comfortable and spacious, with indoor and outdoor tables, long stainless-steel benches and a sink with running water, large covered deck, longdrop toilet and tub.

More trampers arrived after dinner and it was great meeting them and chatting as night fell.  There were more people than beds, so four of us slept in tents and the rest squished onto the bunks.

I was wondering how the kids would cope with the walk out the next day, but they were incredible during the whole six-hour trek (including generous breaks for lunch and a river swim) and by the time we reached the car park I was in awe of them.

Before that weekend I would never have guessed our boys could walk 9.4km so happily and that was a real light-switch parenting moment for me.

In the past I’ve been reluctant to attempt long tramps because I was afraid it would be a miserable experience for the kids.  I didn’t realise how much strength, stamina and determination they actually had.

But thanks to Jessica Watson’s inspiring advice, I turned off the part of my brain that was holding me back and a whole new world of adventures has opened up for us.

Waikato mountains here we come!

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