Isn’t it strange this primal instinct we humans have of looking up at a mountain and wanting to get to the top of it? Where does it come from? Why do we do it? Recently, I sought to found out by running a peak that had teased me for too long.
The Kaitake Ranges are the ever-green smaller sibling sitting just west of the towering, snow-capped Mt Taranaki (west coast of New Zealand). It’s a far less daunting target for the runner in comparison to its giant neighbour and I’ve been wanting to conquer it for years.
My brother lives at the base of the ranges and the first time I visited him I ventured up into the Kaitakes. Unfortunately this was at the same time as the remnants of a tropical cyclone swept ashore. I made it through the rain to the crest of the ridgeline only to have a tree struck by lightning about two hundred metres of me. Needless to say, I turned tail and scampered off the ranges, leaving them to be conquered during another visit.
My second visit was just two months after partially rupturing my Achilles. Fresh out of a moon boot and with more than 700m of climbing to the summit, I was clearly not going to make it up and over the Kaitakes on this occasion, let alone to the end of my brother’s driveway!
Which brings me to this week’s visit. Since the achilles injury I’ve slowly increased my long run duration up to 90mins and so, without knowing the exact distances I’d be travelling, I figured I was in reasonable shape to give the crossing of the Kaitakes a shot.
I started at the coastal township of Oakura, 10mins south of New Plymouth and ran the opening 4k along the busy Surf Highway 45 south to Lucy’s Gully (the main entrance to the Kaitake Ranges). This sealed and rolling road warm up gave my calves a chance to get some blood flowing before the onslaught awaiting them in the hills.
From Lucy’s Gully, there are two options to the summit. I chose the one on the right (Sefton Ridge Track) essentially because I’m right handed and my little rule is: when in doubt always turn right, because the toilet is always first on the left (seriously, the number of houses that have a bathroom first on the left will blow your mind!).
From the car park, Sefton Ridge Track immediately crosses a stream and then goes vertical. A heavy winter of rain had left the track pretty muddy and the roots slippery with moss and mould. For the majority of the climb my limited fitness meant that running was near impossible, except for the odd false flat that allowed my legs more of a recovery than an acceleration.
Trail runs in the bush, with only glimpses of views, can be mentally tough as you feel like you’ve sweated buckets but have barely moved. The trees and undergrowth are beautiful but they begin to blend all-together when you’re just longing for a glimpse of the summit. But, just as my climb was beginning to feel endless, I reached the ridge line where I could see the trig station atop of the summit that I was heading for and a network of smaller summits that I would traverse to get there.
The running became more regular from here and I started to get the feeling of being very high with sweeping views of the Taranaki farm land and beyond to the turbulent expanse of the Tasman Sea.
As the summit approached, the gradient kicked up again with a 50m rock climb (not vertical cliff face but certainly steep enough to require hand holds and plotting your course up the exposed volcanic rock). This was the last hurdle to be crossed before taking in the 360-degree views from the top of the Kaitakes (Patuha stands 684m above sea level). And after a run almost devoid of the sounds of birds (this was really strange and I wonder if they have a big pest problem given the number of traps beside the track) I was greeted at the top by two friendly robins who enjoyed the view with me for a few minutes.
I had no idea of the condition or run-ability of Davies Track which would complete my loop back to Oakura. It was the lesser-known entrance to the bush reserve, so—going by the steep and root-bound nature of the tracks I had already travelled—I wasn’t expecting a great deal of faster running. But I was gladly proved wrong.
After a short, steep drop down the back of Patuha, the Davies Track turned into an almost perfect trail for down hill running: soft under foot, gentle gradient, not too many roots but just enough to keep you on your toes and keep you engaged.
Unlike road running which is about rhythm—finding a pace and sticking to it—trail running takes in the whole spectrum of human locomotion. At times you’re jogging, then you’re walking and crawling and even climbing, and then the track opens up and you’re sprinting. I didn’t hit a sprint but I was certainly rolling along as though I was in a 5k race … and loving it!
Davies Track spits you out on to farm land and from there it’s a few kilometres on a country road downhill to Oakura. As it was easily my longest run since my attempt at the Queenstown Marathon last year I was feeling pretty zonked so I was glad to see the sight of my brother’s house. I chucked back half a litre of water and looked up at the peak I had just conquered. I was stoked to be back in the game of running up mountains. I’m still unsure why us humans like to get to the top of them, but this one sure felt good.
Here is my pace and altitude: