The Te Mata car park is bustling with activity, despite the early hour.
Around us, dog walkers wrestle their excitable new Christmas puppies onto leads. One particularly fluffy and tiny Maltese tries to scramble up my leg as I consult the trail map, squinting in the thinly clouded summer sun. The surprised noise I make is embarrassing for a grown man and not proportional to the animal’s size.
The dog walkers mix with lean regulars and chubby New Year resolution joggers. The latter are clad in bright, packet-fresh gear. I pinch my own stomach, kneading the effects of the cheap beer, salty snacks and general beach life of south east Asia. Losing my belt somewhere between Cambodia and the Philippines has had an alarming lack of impact. It is timely to be back in a country where you are never far away from a hike, bike or waterway.
We choose to follow the Rongokako trail which will take us in a circuit around the foothills, via a climb over Te Mata Peak and ridge, and so stomp off into the undergrowth in the direction of the first sky blue arrow that marks the route. The scenery is almost Wild West; sun-baked and crumbling paths wind through kindling dry grass and then narrow alongside craggy hilltops. All around are stunning views of rolling, parched-yellow hills. Nestled in the flat basin beneath Te Mata, sits the verdant-green wine producing valley of Hawkes Bay and our campsite.
Te Mata o Rongokako is the Maori name of the giant who, lying down dead, forms the ridge of this mountain. If you stand on the plain below, it bears the resemblance of an enormous sleeping man. The legend goes that Rongokaka and a beautiful princess from a tribe on the plains fell in love. But the princess, following advice from her kin who wanted to take revenge on Rongokaka’s tribe, was convinced that she should make Rongokaka perform near impossible tasks to prove his devotion. He met his match when he was asked to eat this mountain, finally choking on Te Mata Peak and expiring here.
New Zealand’s Maori place names are awash with wonderful etymology like this. As we reach the Peak and admire the view across the plains (or catch our breath), we overhear a grey-bearded chap explain that the Tuki Tuki River below is so called because of the sound the water makes hitting the rocks.
At the Peak, there sits a large, shining tiled mosaic that lays out the topography that can be seen all around. To the east, the Pacific Ocean. To the west, at the far reach of the map, sits the snow capped Mount Tongariro (aka Mount Doom) which we plan to tackle at the end of our trip and is supposedly one of the best day treks in the world.
On the descent, the sun breaks through and transforms the hills from yellow to singing gold. We navigate around overhanging flax seed bushes and arrive at the edge of the redwood forest. In comparison to the bare hills, the shaded wood pulsates with the buzzing of invisible insects and birds. Entering in to escape the midday sun, we hop over a stile into an aroma of damp-pine and almost fall over an impressive treehouse. A true feat of woodland engineering. I try to steal a photo, but a small blonde child emerges from the entrance. With arms crossed, she stares me down and so I skulk off without taking a snap, bested by the miniature war-chief.
Almost back at the car park, we pass one of the aforementioned runners who is bent over, heaving with perspiration. She waves away offers of assistance, her face masked by a brand new, fluorescent pink Nike cap. Another reminder to get in shape.
Spurred on, after our return to camp we spend the afternoon exploring Hawkes Bay on bikes. I should mention the cycle is more of a stuttering crawl around neighbouring vineyards.
I convince myself the first swill of chilled rosé on my tongue is semi-earned.