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Sunset, starlight and sinister spirits

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December 2019 Issue

Eager to escape the crowds, Matthew Cattin foregoes a bunk for a night walk to The Pinnacles in Coromandel Forest Park

With headlamps off, a new world appeared.

Cradled above the sleepy stream, my tramping group gazed up at uninterrupted skies as stars emerged behind our improving night vision.
Each end of the suspension bridge was freckled with neon glow worms, inadvertently guiding exhausted eyes as they awaited midnight feasts.

It was a beautiful scene – even more so in darkness than in sunlight – and we had it all to ourselves. Four tired trampers smiling in the dark.

It felt like one of those ideas that would fizzle out before it found legs, extinguished by better judgment and common sense.

A Sunday night sunset atop The Pinnacles, followed by a three hour night walk back to the car.

My initial intentions were to walk the track during the day like most normal people, but after seeing photos of the summit drenched in golden hour sunshine, I knew I would regret the plain lighting of midday.

With work awaiting me on Monday morning, there was but one choice.
Fortunately, three companions didn’t even need an arm-twist, so beneath welcoming blue skies, we set off.

We made mental notes of landmarks and tricky sections on the ascent, all of us preparing for the return journey in the dark.

After the steep, but brief, climb, the massive 80-bunk Pinnacles Hut greeted us around 3.30pm and carrying just my daypack, I arrived feeling fresh.

We enjoyed a late lunch on the deck, while the hut warden shared the legend of Racehorse Jack, the resident ghost who has been haunting the forests since the kauri logging days.

Fired for gambling on the job, the vengeful vagrant burned down swathes of forest to ensure his lumbermen colleagues would lose their livelihoods too.

But as poor Jack discovered, one doesn’t pick fights with axe-wielding pioneers and get away with it.

The arsonist’s body was hacked to pieces and spread around the forest.

None of his body parts were ever found, but it’s said you can hear his ghost wandering the forest at night, searching for his missing pieces.

It was a spooky tale, but the real horror story was yet to begin – around 70 teenagers were on their way to the hut for their Year 12 outdoor education trip.

We’d passed them earlier on the trail, hurling stones into the river in testosterone-fuelled madness.

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Watching the sunset from the Pinnacles summit. Photo: Matthew Cattin

We thanked the ghost of Racehorse Jack we hadn’t booked a bunk, and as the wave of hormonal yells neared, we took off to higher ground.

The summit sunset was magnificent. Golden light waged war with shadows, and layers of land rippled into the distance in all directions.

From the hut far below, the occasional voice would catch on the wind and remind us how fortunate we were to have the view to ourselves.

We began our descent to the hut just before the sun dipped below the horizon, keen to get the dangerous section behind us before darkness.

The light disappeared quickly with the sun’s retirement, and our headlamps sprung into life for the remaining two and a half hours of walking.

I’ve done a few night walks before, but never as ambitious as a 7km track – usually I’m only walking short distances from the hut to search for kiwi or other animals.

I found there is something quite meditative about the experience. There are far fewer distractions than in the daylight, as your world is reduced to a small orb of light circling your feet.

Nothing seems to exist outside the reach of the torchlight, and the darkness is an ominous mystery.

The excitement of the night brings energy to tired legs, and senses are tuned tightly to the sounds of the forest.

Gusts of wind groaned through the trees overhead, and occasional animals creaked or rustled on the track edges.

Aside from the occasional spider, a koura and a brazen possum, we were completely alone – four balls of light winding through a thick darkness.

Having spent my life planning tramps around the hours of daylight, I felt like I’d opened up a whole new world of possibilities.

I’m unlikely to make a habit out of it, but with the right safety precautions – a PLB, plenty of torches, layers and food – I found night tramping to be a fantastic way to experience the outdoors.

It’s no wonder Racehorse Jack has been doing it for decades.

Staying safe on a night walk

Leave intentions: Leave accurate intentions with family, friends or adventuresmart.nz, and follow up as soon as you are home safely or back at your vehicle.
Know your route: Choose a track you are confident you can follow in limited visibility, without endangering yourself or your party. If your intended track requires route finding, or hazards such as river crossings or scrambles, consider an easier track.
Packing precautions: Carry enough gear for the worst-case scenario. This includes warm layers, extra food, first aid (including an emergency blanket) and a PLB.
Back-up your bulbs: Ensure your torch batteries are charged before setting off, and bring spares or a backup torch just in case – even a charged phone will suffice.