The Hillary Trail is a 4-day 75km tramp along the wild west coast of the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park in West Auckland. The scenery is spectacular, encompassing beautiful native rain forest (including the majestic Kauri), a rugged coastline, wetlands and waterfalls. However, the terrain can only be described as brutal for running, with countless steep sections, some of which become reacherously slippery when wet, and technically demanding surfaces that include soft sand, stream beds, mud and ankle-breaking rocks and tree roots. If you don’t bring your A-game on this run then you’re going to struggle. Unfortunately for me, this was the one day when I couldn’t find me A-game and, boy, did I struggle! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The trail is named after kiwi icon Edmund Hillary, famous for being the first person to scale Mt Everest (with Tenzing Norgay) and for his subsequent charity work with the Sherpa in Nepal. Edmund Hillary had a special relationship with the west coast, building a bach at White’s Beach (north of Piha) where he would retreat to find peace from the media attention. The trail was officially opened on 11 January 2010, the second anniversary of Edmund Hillary’s death, and already a number of runners have completed the course. There’s even an honours board to record their feats.
I’d been meaning to give it a go for a while, and I figured that now was a good time to do it, since I had recently run the Tarawera Ultramarathon and was hopefully still in pretty good shape. I’d already run the first half or so on a number of occasions, running as far as Arataki to Anawhata Rd in 7.5 hours, but I knew that I’d be looking at 12 hours plus for the full trail, so I’d have to carry more food then I’d ever carried before.
I managed to stuff enough food for the day in my bag, along with a small first aid kit, but it meant that I had no room for a rain jacket or any warm gear other than the thermal that I’d be wearing at the beginning. I wasn’t too worried about the rain jacket because I prefer to just get wet if it’s raining. However, a bit of extra warm gear would have been preferable, just in case I injured myself badly enough that I couldn’t walk out and had to wait for an extended period for help. I didn’t bother with a map because I was pretty familiar with most of the trail, and for the couple of sections that I didn’t know so well, I printed out the relevant pages from Shaun Collins’ excellent Runners Route Guide To The Hillary Trail.
It was a challenge to fit everything into my running bag, but I managed to get all of this in, minus 2 beef snacks and one bread bag, plus a cellphone.
You can start the trail at Arataki in the south or Muriwai in the north. I chose to begin at the Arataki Visitors Centre, since it’s not far from where I live. I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived at 6am, to find that the carpark was already open (since 5am). Fortunately, I realised at the last moment that it closed at 6pm and I knew there was no chance that I’d be back by then, so I exited again and parked in a layby 100m further up Scenic Dr. At 6:10am I found myself by the Hillary Trail information board, where I started my stop watch and was off.
The slip track lived up to it’s name, with the heavy rain earlier in the week having made the surface slick. But I had a long way to go, and wasn’t in a particular hurry, so I was happy to take it nice and easy on this section. I’d anticipated a chilly start and was wearing a long-sleeved thermal under my running shirt, but by the time I reached the bottom of the hill I was already sweating and quickly shed the thermal.
After a short but muddy section of the Pipeline Track, it was onto the Nihotupu Dam Road and the first decent climb. That was followed by the Hamilton Track, notorious for it’s endless mud, but the monster has been tamed by a recent track upgrade that includes boardwalks and a metalled surface. The excellent track surface meant that I was able to make good progress and it wasn’t long before I began the descent into Huia Bay.
Dawn breaking over Huia Bay.
I think it was during this section that I first began to sense that my body wasn’t quite in tune. The legs were feeling lethargic, which wasn’t a good omen when I was relying on them to carry me over some pretty tough terrain during the next 12 hours or so.
After running alongside the lower Nihotupu Dam, and tackling another decent hill, the road descended from the dam to the beach below. Fortunately, the tide was heading out so I was able to take the low-tide option around the rocks before heading inland again at Karamatura Valley.
The low-tide route at Huia Bay.
The Karamatura Loop Walk is one of the prettiest sections of the trail, hugging the banks of the Karamatura Stream. After an easy flat section, the track started to climb and I could hear the sounds of the stream rushing and crashing over boulders as the valley steepened. After turning off onto Karamatura Track, the gradient increased significantly and for the first time I was forced to walk. I must have slogged my way up the valley for about half an hour before reaching the junction with Donald McLean Track, after which the going was much easier and started to descend towards Whatipu Road.
After crossing the road, I entered Omanawanui Track, one of the ranges most spectacular tracks and something of a hidden gem. The views over the Manakau Harbour, and out through the heads to the Tasman sea, were nothing short of breathtaking. Then it was an ankle-breaking descent down a rocky trail to Whatipu.
View over Whatipu Beach from Omanawanui Track.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that, despite my feelings of lethargy, I had arrived at Whatipu just inside my target time of 3:30. I wasn’t sure whether my body was really struggling and it would soon catch up with me, or whether it was just my mind playing tricks on me. Time would tell.
This was also the location for my first water refill. The tap by the toilets say that it isn’t safe for drinking but I’ve used it on a number of occasions without any ill effects. I’d only drunk a little over half of the 2 litres I was carrying, so I obviously wasn’t paying enough attention to my hydration, a mistake I often make. However, I was about to make a bigger mistake, as I reasoned that it was only 3 hours to my next water stop at Piha, so I’d obviously consume even less water this time. So instead of filling my hydration pack again, I only filled it to about 3/4 (1.5 litres) to save having to carry unnecessary weight – a move I would later regret!
The route out of Whatipu was via Gibbons Track, which started with a steep climb through the bush before offering some stunning views out over the wetlands and the wild remote beach. Other times when I’m training out here, I’ll take the beach all the way from Whatipu to Karakare and there’s nothing but the sand, surf and sea birds.
The trail soon turned onto Muir Track which descended steeply, before following a stream for a while and then dropping down into Pararaha Valley. This is one of my favourite spots in the Waitakere Ranges, beatiful wetlands surrounded by steep rocky cliffsides on the inland side and sand dunes on the ocean side. From here, the trail led onto the beach and a short but energy-sapping strecth over soft sand to the Tunnel Campsite and then onto Karekare Beach.
A brief stop at the Tunnel Campsite, a pretty spot surrounded by cliffs, wetlands and beach.
At Karekare, I took the trail back to the carpark and there was a short road stretch before taking Comans Track and starting the long climb up to Log Race Rd, above Mercer Bay. By now, I was pretty sure that my body wasn’t right and I was struggling – both physically and mentally. I’d been running for over 5 hours and was hurting, but I wasn’t even half way there yet. And then to top it off, my water ran out. I was obviously consuming more water than I had earlier in the day, and now I faced about an hour of running without water.
View down the coast from Mercer Bay Loop Walk.
One reaching Log Race Rd, there was a boring road section for about 20 minutes or so. It should have been easy going but my right leg was hurting with every step, but a quick bit of massage in my lower back helped alleviate the pain. Then it was back in the bush and a steep descent to the foot of the Kitekite Falls. In summer, I’ve often seen people swimming in the pool or sunning themsleves on the rocks, but was alone this time while I stopped briefly to admire the falls before pressing on.
Water at last! I’d been slowly dehydrating in the humid weather for the past hour or so, so it was a relief to finally arrive at the next water source. There’s a tap at the Glen Esk Rd carpark and I made sure I drank plenty and filled my bag completely for the next leg. Another road section, but more pleasant this time as I ran past summer homes and then onto Piha Beach. It was hard passing the Piha Store without popping in for a pie and a drink, but I wanted to complete this run using only the supplies I was carrying (apart from water of course).
The beach made for easy running, but it was short-lived as my next challenge was to climb the steep White Track to Anawhata Road. Near the top there was a brief shower – the first rain of the day. After a short road section, I arrived at the beginning of the Kuataika Track. This was the equal furtherest I’d run along this trail before, and while I’d taken about 7:20 to do it last time, I wasn’t surprised to find my watch showing 7:50 this time round.
Piha Beach offered a rare flat section.
Kuataika Track was the only section that I’d never covered before, but I’d heard that it was very hilly. It started off easily enough, with a grassy paddock followed by a wide flat track. Then it all went downhill from there – literally! The hard clay surface was slick with the recent rain, and it was pretty painful trying to negotiate the steeply descending track with legs that were crying out with every step. I had no idea that I’d climbed to such an extend, because the downhill seemed to go on for ever. However, eventually it bottomed out and crossed a stream before climbing upwards at an equally steep gradient. Once more I was reduced to a walk and forced to endure an agonising climb as I again negotiated a slick surface that threatened to send me backpedaling in places. This was possibly the toughest section of the course and I was relived to finally arrive at Wainamu Junction, which signalled a return to more familiar territory.
Houghton track meant more downhill, but a lot easier going than what I’d just experienced. At the bottom I was greeted by the sight of Lake Wainamu, which I then proceeded to circumnavigate in an anti-clockwise direction. The track was mostly good and only gently undulating, so it was a chance to stretch the legs out and make some good time. Shortly after arriving at the popular Wainamu Sand Dunes, I followed the stream to Te Henga Road (a lot of time running in it) to Bethells Road, and the start of the Te Henga Walkway.
There’s a tap here so I took the chance to fill up my hydration pack for the last time. As I sat on the grass I noticed the storm clouds rolling in and felt the first drops of rain. I couldn’t complain because I’d had a pretty good day weather wise, but the exposed cliff-top Te Henga Walkway was the last place I wanted to be in the middle of a storm as night was falling. However, I didn’t have much choice so I strapped by bag back on headed up the track. As it turned out, all I got was a brief shower as the storm passed by inland, where I could see flashes of lightning.
Bethells Beach from the Te Henga Walkway. This photo was actually taken a week later when I was walking a portion of the Te Henga Walkway with my boys, but its the photo I would have taken while running if my phone battery hadn’t have died (and it wasn’t getting dark and a storm wasn’t brewing).
I guess it must have been the knowledge that I was on the last leg, because I felt new strength in my legs as I wound around headland after headland. Progress was made difficult in places by vegetation growing across the path, and after threatening to trip me on several occasions I finally succumbed and fell flat on my face, only to have my fall cushioned by a bush. I tried to get by without my head torch for as long as possible, but I soon found myself stumbling too often in the gloom and had to put it on. A torch is a vital tool when running trails in the dark, but I do find it reduces my ability to scan ahead. On a difficult trail such as this one, that meant I had to slow my pace, which was frustrating when I’d been making such good time. Eventually though I found myself at the bottom of the dreaded staircase, and my last big climb of the day. A short time later the stairs were behind me, and I was celebrating my arrival at Constable Road, happy in the knowledge that it was easy running to the finish line now.
The next section was along a flat sealed road, but I still had to fight hard to resist the temptation to walk. I was helped by the knowledge that my wife and boys were waiting for me at the finish, and I knew I was going to be later than I’d estimated, and didn’t want them to be waiting in the dark for any longer than was necessary. After 2km, I turned onto Edwin Mitchellson Track, and before I knew it I was onto Lookout and Quarry tracks. With milestones tumbling I could almost feel the finish line and, with it, a sense of relief mingled with elation.
I was all smiles as I trotted past the gannet colony, and there may have even been a couple of celebratory fist pumps. Then it was down the steps and to Muriwai, where I finished at the information board. Sure enough, my wife and boys were there to greet me and provide a much-needed taxi ride back home. But not before I sat on the bench for a few minutes to reflect on a tough but satisfying day.
I wish I could say that I loved the experience, as I have so many times before, when running portions of this trail. However, my body struggled from early on, and it ended up being a bit a pretty tough day. Still, that’s the way life goes sometimes, and there’s satisfaction in digging deep and making it to the end regardless. My finishing time was just under 13.5 hours, about an hour longer than I’d hoped, but I was just relieved to have finished it, regardless of my time.