Down, down, down into the Te Toto Gorge

The trail was relatively short, as New Zealand hikes go. It started as so many paths do—unmarked, barely discernible. But we knew it was there somewhere, as it was. After much poking around and second guessing we found the steep, skinny path that took us into the Te Toto Gorge.

The gorge dissects towering coastal slopes of what’s left of an extinct volcano cone called Mt. Karioi, which rises 2,500 feet above the west coast. From the exposed basaltic lava embedded in the cliffs, geologists can trace the gorge’s history back 2.7 million years.

It’s one of the few places left in the Waikato Region, where we live, that native forest runs from mountain top to the Tasman Sea. Sailing along the coast, explorers Abel Tasman and James Cook named Mount Karioi Woody Head. To us, the heavy textured greens felt like a giant salad bowl.

The Maori name Karioi means to loiter or idle. According to legend, Karioi was a jilted princess, who after discovering she lost the love of her life, laid down and rests to this day. Our day’s leisure had nothing to do with lolly gagging whatsoever.

The going was tough, a real calorie burner. It started with a steep descent into a thick tangled grotto of trees, shrub and vines known in this country as simply “the bush.”

We left the sun above us on the ridge as we scrambled deep—nervous as hell—until we saw a tiny red metal triangle nailed to a tree—then another. Relief. We knew the markers meant we’d find our way back up through the Jurassic underworld when the afternoon light disappeared.

After several hundred feet, the path petered out into huge grassy meadows near the coast. This area was once gardened by the Maori, who used terracing, complex drainage systems and stone rows for crops of kumara, yam and taro. Remnants of earthworks and karaka tree groves suggest the early settlers occupied the site between 1700 and 1800.

Whether influenced by the Maori earth-spirit or the simple fact these Lord of the Rings landscapes are so gorgeous, we’re obsessed with exploring the jewels of NZ’s geography. To the point of wearing ourselves out royally. Or phrased in Kiwis lingo: we were plumb knackered at day’s end.

Our reward awaited us: a couple of Mac’s Black brewskies and smoked chicken, brie and cranberry pizza at Vinnie’s Pizza in Raglan, owned by an expat from New York. A great way to celebrate the start of day tripping the Queen’s Birthday weekend.

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