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Hiking the Kaimais

Rising ominously through the morning mist, the majestic Kaimai Range stands as a sentinel, watching over  the expanse of the Hauraki Plains and Waikato to the West, and Bay of Plenty to the East.

At its northern end, the Kaimai Range rises from the Ohinemuri River to its highest peak, Mt Te Aroha (952 meters).  Some seventy five kilometers to the south, the range merges into the Mamaku Plateau, to the west of Lake Rotorua.


Commanding utmost respect, the unforgiving Kaimai Range comprises very rough and rugged terrain – sheer cliffs, deep valleys, and unpredictable weather patterns.  It is covered in native bush and forest, and navigating this region is not for the faint-hearted!  In fact, the range has claimed more than its fair share of human life.

On the third of July 1963 a DC-3 Skyliner, No. ZK-AYZ operated by National Airways Corporation, Flight 441 from Whenuapai Airport, Auckland to Tauranga crashed into the range in dense mist.  All twenty three souls on board died, making it the worst air disaster in mainland New Zealand to date.

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Then in early 1969 construction of the Kaimai railway tunnel began at the western side of the range.  The approach to the tunnel portal involved a cutting, which reached twenty five meters deep at the tunnel entrance.  Rising ground water caused a cave-in, trapping twelve workers, four of whom were killed by the collapse.

Traversed by rough tramping routes and later by access tracks for the logging and gold mining industries, the range now features over 360 km of walking and tramping tracks administered by The Department of Conservation.  In association with DoC, many of the tracks and huts are maintained by the Kaimai Ridgeway Trust - an association of outdoor recreation clubs from all areas near the Kaimai Range.

On the morning of October 31st, a group of sixteen hardy souls from Bay of Plenty Naturists gathered at the carpark on State Highway 29 to tackle a section of the Kaimai Summit ridge track, which forms the start of the main North South track running the entire length of the range.  The grey overcast sky and threat of a shower didn’t create the most ideal weather for a naked tramp.  In fact, at around 470 meters above sea level, it was quite cool and we all noticed the icy breeze, tinged with mist, sweeping up through the bare foothill valleys.

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Click on map to enlarge

Below and behind, the Waikato plains sprawl endlessly in a 

patchwork blanket of gentle colours.  The chessboard squares of the farms spread themselves in brown, green, and grey; all just pale colours in the morning haze, criss-crossed by the thin dark lines of shelter belt trees.

At around nine o’clock, under the leadership of Kevin and Joan Sampson, we set off.  I noticed many of the group armed with hiking poles and wondered to myself whether this piece of kit would be a curse or a blessing in this rugged terrain.  Most of us stayed at least partly clothed for a time until we’d worked up enough body heat to strip off in the cool morning air.  The first kilometre of the track is quite easy going with gentle gradients and well defined steps.  But then it all changes as the track makes a sudden ascent, climbing steeply with tree roots serving both as steps and as handholds.  I could see one of the party in front of me was finding it difficult to climb with his two hiking poles, as he had no hands free to hold onto the roots and pull himself up.  My earlier musings were confirmed as I noticed others in the same predicament.


Joan is offered a helping hand

as she negotiates the steep incline not far from the start

Far in the distance, we could make out the shape of Mt Pirongia and the Hakarimata Range stretching northwards from Hamilton through the haze.  This lookout spot was one of very few places along the route where the forest allows even a glimpse of the countryside below.  The vegetation on the Kaimai Range enjoys a considerable amount of rainfall, allowing various plants such as ferns, mosses and lichens growing on other plants to thrive in the damp environment under the forest canopy.

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Fallen trees have needed to be cut away

to allow the track through.

“That’s why we only have one stick,” Kevin remarked.  Good advice, I thought.


A few minutes more of tough, steep climb saw us reach the top at an altitude of around 600 meters above sea level – some 130 meters of hard slog above our starting point.  It had certainly taken its toll on some of us – one feeling quite woozy and needing some time to recover, while others took the opportunity to walk a few meters to a lookout point to take in the view across the vast Waikato Plains.


Across the Waikato Plains,

Mt. Pirongia stands in the distant haze

“We’re about to move on!” came the cry from somewhere on the track.


After a welcome break, a swig from our water bottles and the shedding of remaining clothes, we headed onwards.  The track had once again become more forgiving as it meandered along the summit ridge.  At this altitude, some of the trees had succumbed to the winds and had fallen across the track.  A few of them have been cut to allow the track through.  Still others have been left and the track bypassed around them.

About one hour fifteen into the hike we paused again at the intersection of the North South Track and the West Henderson Tramway track; time for another water intake and to let the slower ones catch up.  At this point, I went to the front of the pack with Kevin and Joan to find out a little more about their tramping adventures.

Over the years Kevin and Joan have hiked many well-known trails and mountain tracks around New Zealand, including Lake Waikaremoana, Mt Ruapehu, Mt Egmont, just to name a few.  They name one of their strongest influences and inspirations as long-time friend, school teacher, mountaineer and fellow naturist Doug Ball.


Joan and Kevin Sampson

Early in March 2008, at age 79, Doug made headlines by becoming who is believed to be the oldest person to climb the 3,033 meter high Mount Aspiring in the Southern Alps.  Doug has been a strong advocate for the rights of naturists, writing many articles and taking photos for naturist publications, as well as contributing to submissions made to government ministries including the Ministry of Culture & Heritage’s discussion document, "Content Regulation in a converged World", regarding the censorship of innocent nudity in films, videos, magazines and the media as well as submissions to the Royal Commission on Social Policy (1988).  Now aged 92 Doug still takes daily walks to keep the body moving.

But Kevin, along with Joan, Doug, and a few other friends once managed to make it into the headlines in a rather more light-hearted fashion.  Some ten or more years ago they were on a four and a half day naturist hike on Ruapehu

“The funny part on that one,” recalls Kevin, “It was a beautiful sunny day and we were around the southern side, above Ohakune.  As the track winds clockwise around the mountain you come to the Ohakune Mountain Road, and the track starts again another three kilometres further up the road.  Well we got to the edge of this road; none of us had any clothes on, we looked at each other and said, ‘Bugger this!’ and just kept on walking!  We had one or two toots from passing cars and one guy went up the road, turned and came back down the road with one hand out the driver’s side window, steering with one hand and trying to take a photo with the other.  Then in the next edition of the Ohakune free paper was the headline, Nudists Seen on Mountain, along with a very blurry photograph!”

Out of all the hundreds of people Kevin and his companions have encountered on their hiking expeditions, he can recall only one time when somebody complained about their nakedness.


“We were up in the Kaimais – Thompson Track, I think it was – and we’d gone to where the track drops down from the end of the road down to the river, where there’s a fairly popular swimming hole.  And as we were coming back up, a couple of guys with four children, about eight to ten years old, were coming down towards us.  ‘Where’s your clothes?’ they shouted, and I said, ‘Oh it’s too hot for clothes today!’  They said, ‘This is a family track!’  I thought to myself, ‘Really?  I must have missed that sign!’


“So it was a children thing, which of course is total rubbish.  There’s no evidence at all that they’re harmed by the sight of a naked person.”

At that moment, we arrived at another sign board.  It was the intersection with the Western branch of Henderson’s Tramline track.  We’d been hiking for one hour and forty minutes – not much more than the DoC’s indicated “1 hour 30 minutes” on the sign.  Considering the refreshment breaks and fitness level of the group, we’d actually done not too badly!  After more refreshing water, we said goodbye to four of our group who had to turn back at this point due to time constraints.  The remaining twelve of us headed onwards.


“The next section is two kilometres in 30 minutes,” Kevin announced, “so it should be pretty easy going.”

Up to this point, the darkened grey skies had caused the forest to be quiet.  Some of our group noticed the lack of birdsong.  Someone suggested that the birdlife in the Kaimais had been diminishing in recent years due to the ongoing problem with predators such as stoats and opossums.  While that is possibly true, it was reassuring to notice now, as the sun came out, that a few birds had started to serenade us again as we walked along. 

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A most welcome water stop at the

Henderson's  Tramline Track West intersection 

We decided to walk the next half hour to the Northern branch of Henderson’s Tramline and then make a decision as to how much further to proceed.

“When Joan and I have been tramping though here clothes-free, some people stop for a chat,” Kevin continued.


Just then, we came to a swampy creek crossing.  Joan watched and offered advice on the best way across.

Kevin agreed that it’s all about educating people.  “Yeah, the occasional person will ask you what it’s about and why you are doing that, and we just explain it to them and they’re happy.”


“It was quite funny one time when Joan and I were starting out on a trip around the foothills of Canterbury, about a 900 meter climb, and we were starting out at the same time as this other couple.  Once we got onto the track proper the guy was in front of us and the woman was a little way ahead.  We said to the guy, ‘We’re naturists and we hike without clothes, would that be a problem?’  ‘No – no problem to me, but I don’t know about the wife.  She mightn’t be too happy!’  So, we stripped off anyway, he went ahead and caught up to his wife, and when we caught up to them the wife said to us, ‘Don’t listen to him!  He doesn’t speak for me.  I wish I could do that!’”

We took another brief stop to allow the slower ones to catch up – they’d been held up at the swamp crossing.


Joan offers some helpful advice on

where best to cross the swampy stream

“The interesting thing I find with a lot of naturists and naturist groups is that they want to promote naturism, they believe in it and everything, but they’re not prepared to actually push themselves out there so much, saying they always have to respect other people’s views as well – in other words, obey other people’s views.  But really – I can’t understand that.  I respect other people’s right to hold a view and to think differently, but I don’t need to believe and behave in the way they do, when we’re not doing any harm.  So long as were not doing anything offensive or illegal I don’t see why we can’t push the boundaries a bit.”


Kevin made a good point, and it certainly would be an advantage for every naturist to be reasonably conversant with the relevant pieces of New Zealand legislation, including the Bill of Rights Act (1990), with regards to public nakedness, and also to be prudent enough to know the appropriate time, place and circumstance to exercise your rights and push those boundaries, without deliberately intending to shock.


Arriving at the North branch of the Henderson's Tramway Track - a nice grassy spot for lunch before heading back.

At two hours and fifteen minutes into the hike, we finally arrived at the Northern branch of Henderson’s Tramline Track.  The space offered a nice grassy area to stop for lunch and relax a while.  Another couple realised that time was against them and started the return trip almost immediately, so our group was now down to ten, including a clothed hiker who offered to take the group photo for us.  It was interesting to note that the group comprised both those who, like me, had lived a clothing-optional lifestyle since childhood, as well as those who had discovered the joys of naturism relatively recently.  Mike was one of the latter.

“Actually through Katikati [Naturist Park],” Mike responded when I asked how he became a naturist.  “I saw the sign on the side of the road, followed my nose in, and met Kevin [Sampson] at the office, and he gave me a guided tour around the camp ground.  That was my first inkling there was a whole community of socially naked people.  I had no idea before that!  And from there, BoP Naturists got hold of me

and I’ve probably been five or six years in the group now.  And I’m part of the Northland Naturists too, so being in Auckland I can bridge the two.”

The return trip was largely uneventful much of the way.  We passed a man and his young son who greeted us in a friendly manner as they went by – neither of them fazed by our lack of clothing.  A little further, it started to drizzle and, although under the canopy of the forest it didn’t affect us, it crossed my mind that the steep descent that we’d climbed up near the start could become a problem if it rained too much.

Just then, a couple of runners passed us.


“There’s a group of children on the track up ahead!” they warned.


“Yeah, right,” I thought to myself.  I suspected the remark was yet another example of people using the argument of ‘harm to children’ to cover their own insecurities.  Either that or they were trying to be funny.  I suspected the group of children existed only in their sad

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The junction of the North Henderson Tramline and the main North / South Track provided a nice grassy area to have lunch before the return trip.

imaginations and, as it eventually turned out, I was right.

By now the rain was really starting to set in and the track underfoot becoming quite wet.  As we rounded a bend, Kevin was watching where he was placing his feet to avoid the mud.  Suddenly his head connected with a low overhead branch!  It was only a small branch and did no damage, but it did demonstrate another hazard when hiking forest trails – the peaked cap!  With your head down, a peaked cap completely obscures your overhead vision.  Better to wear a beanie or else turn your cap around with the peak at the back.


Almost time for a drink stop.

An hour on the return trip brought us to the top of a gentle rise and we decided it was time for another drink stop and to let the slower ones catch up.  Col, being probably the oldest in the group, was doing particularly well.


“How are you going, Col?” Kevin asked


“Not bad.”


“Your knees holding up?”


“So far.  They are a bit sore but – they say the best cure for a sore back is exercise – I don’t know if the same applies to knees though.”


Kevin mentioned an article by medical professionals that he’d been reading only a few days before.  It was about arthritis sufferers and joint health and it recommended the best solution was to keep moving.

According to the article, moving is essential if you are living with arthritis.  Exercise helps to limit pain and improve joint motion.  It also boosts energy levels, improves strength to support your joints, and prevents falls and future injuries.  Movement helps your joints be healthier in several ways.


First, movement increases the synovial fluid in your joints, which basically acts like an oil that helps the joints move smoother.  Second, exercise increases blood circulation in the body, bringing oxygen and nutrients to the joints.



Joan and Mike carefully pick their way down the now treacherous incline.


Anne sports the evidence of an unplanned slide!

Also, research shows joint movement activates genes associated with rebuilding cartilage.  Dr. John Hardin, a professor of medicine and orthopaedic surgery at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City reports exercise triggers a biological process called autophagy, where damaged cells in the joint are broken down and removed.


Finally, exercise strengthens the muscles, ligaments, and tendons surrounding each joint, resulting in a natural brace for the joints during activity.


“OK, let’s keep moving!”  Kevin called out.

Someone remarked that the return trip seemed much easier so far.  While that was true, I couldn’t help thinking about the steep descent that was still ahead.  It was a hard slog climbing it, but going down would now have the added complication of the rain, rendering it very slippery.  And, sure enough, as we reached the start of the descent one member of our group who had gone ahead returned with the news that the track down was now quite treacherous.  Very slowly and cautiously, we picked our way down the steep slippery incline, carefully searching for secure footing and handholds from the overhanging trees.  Ten minutes and a couple of unintended bum-slides later we all reached the bottom where, once again, the track became easy and well-formed.  Anne was one of the unlucky ones!

“I’m going to have to sit in the river when we get back,” she declared, “after a couple of unscheduled slides!”

Some one at the back laughed.  “Where’s the camera when you needed it?”

It wasn’t long before the sounds of civilisation started to echo through the trees as heavy trucks hauled their burdens up the steep Kaimai Road.  A couple more bends and we arrived at the stream back at the start of the track and Anne wasn’t the only one to take advantage of a refreshing wash in the cool water.


The whole trip had taken about four hours and forty five minutes.  There were a few tired legs but everyone in the group felt exhilarated.  As we said our goodbyes, exchanged email addresses and phone numbers, and packed our gear into the vehicles, I could sense an air of real achievement among the group as each one commented on the challenge completed.  I suspect several had well exceeded their expectations.

Winding my way down from the summit on Highway 29, I eventually reached the Old Te Aroha Road, which follows the foothills almost all the way home.  With the rain now bucketing down, the dark ominous rain clouds had descended over the Kaimai range, blanketing it from view.  But it was still there, waiting, watching, guarding the plains, until I return some other day.


3 November 2020

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