“I DON'T KNOW if I can go on.”
These are not words I had expected to hear barely 18km into a 3068km hike, yet here is my hiking buddy uttering them while limping heavily under a mysterious hip pain.
Weighed down by full backpacks and with boots sinking into the soft sand we stand in our tracks mulling over the options. Going on alone appears to be my only immediate solution. I gaze down 90km of empty beach stretching all the way to the horizon, and despite the immense disappointment sitting heavily in my belly I can’t help but feel something else stirring beneath it - excitement. Five months of unknown ahead of me, so much space to run around in and not another soul around for miles. This was going to be fun.
I had always harboured a yearning for an adventure that would stretch my limits. A chance discovery a year earlier had alerted me to a new long distance trail stretching from one end of New Zealand to the other, offering true wilderness hiking in a stunning landscape. Immediately I knew I had discovered my challenge.
The Te Araroa Trail - Maori for Long Pathway - officially opened in late 2011 following many years of hard work by the Te Araroa Trust and hundreds of volunteers. Planned with the intention of taking hikers on a natural, cultural and historic tour of the land, the Trust has succeeded in plotting a varied and stunningly beautiful route right through the heart and soul of the country. Starting in Cape Reinga at the top of the North Island the trail winds 3068km to Bluff at the bottom of the South Island, taking in long empty beaches, dense and steep forests choked with vines, ferns and towering kauri trees, countless river crossings, vast volcanic desert, high rocky alpine passes, farmland and a sprinkling of road sections. Swapping boots for boats, trampers even tackle a 200km stretch of the Whanganui River.
Pausing to take in the vast grasslands of the Canterbury Plains, with snow-capped peaks in the far distance. (Image: Laura Waters)
No stranger to minor adventures but a virgin of the ‘solo hiking for five months’ variety, I expect my stamina and outdoor skills will be stretched to hitherto unknown limits. After shuffling some camping equipment from my friend’s pack to my own I set off on my first ever solo overnight hike, a 100km stretch along Ninety Mile Beach. It’s a section that reputedly defeats many would-be Te Araroa hikers because of its challenging sometimes-soft, sometimes-hard sand and unchanging scenery however the experience leaves me buzzing with excitement. For days I walk past fields of open shells all facing the sea as though in salutation. Washed up chunks of sea sponge, dead seals, blue bottles and puffer fish litter the coastline, and with only the birds for company I find it an intoxicatingly peaceful start.
After a food re-supply in the seaside town of Ahipara five days later, I venture out again for the next 100km leg. Tripping and sliding my way over muddy tree-rooted trails from west coast to east, I discover steep forests so jungle-thick with vegetation I half expect to come across a family of mountain gorillas. I bash my way through the undergrowth, fighting with the long tendrils of vines that wrap around my ankles or hook frustratingly on my pack. A week later I finally burst forth from the claustrophobic forest with the satisfaction I have survived another challenge known to filter out a few more through-hiker hopefuls. If you can make it through the first few weeks of beach and forest, I am told, you might just have what it takes to finish the trail. And so I start to settle into the routine of walking, all day, every day.
Finding my feet
The trail continues south along kilometres of white sandy beaches, weaving through small coastal towns bursting with colourful flowers fragrant in the warm air, and shattering my previously held perception of New Zealand as a mainly cool, rugged and mountainous destination. It’s an unexpected pleasure. As too is the amazing warmth of the locals. On numerous occasions I am offered somewhere to camp, a hot shower, or even a tour of the family sheep farm. One man drives me to the pub at the end of a hard day’s hike, pressing a scrap of paper with a phone number into my hand with the instructions to give him a call when I am “ready to come home”. The interactions enrich and elevate my experience beyond a simple hike, and give me an insight into Kiwi life that would be out of reach if I were not travelling at walking pace.
One thousand kilometres in and I have well and truly adapted to my new daily routine of walking and camping. The trail includes a traverse of the vast volcanic desert of the Tongariro Crossing, a section touted as one of New Zealand’s best one day walks with an impressive grey moonscape backed by several volcanoes and dotted with startling emerald and blue lakes. At 18km in length, the Crossing is normally considered a full day walk but my day stretches to 35km as I continue on through to Whakapapa, at the base of Mt Ruapehu. I’m relieved that my body seems to recover anew each day.
My North Island journey draws closer to an end with a spectacular six day paddle down the Whanganui River, dotted with 209 gentle to challenging rapids and countless waterfalls through steep sided gorges, followed by the wild and windy Tararua Ranges which provides a first taste of serious mountains.
During the first 1770km I have crossed paths and walked for extended periods with a handful of other hikers, and after 78 days on the trail a small group of us rendezvous for the final push to the official end of the North Island Trail on the coast near Wellington. A fellow French hiker pops the cork on a bottle of champagne and while there are congratulations all round, I can’t help a niggling feeling that the North Island was just training for the more remote and challenging South Island trails ahead.
The Te Araroa Trust has created a full set of trail notes, and to say they are at times understated would be an understatement. The casual mention of “a river crossing on a rock chute just above a 4m waterfall” has me mildly dreading the wild and remote Richmond Ranges. The notes continue: “the water is flowing fast down the chute and if you lose footing, you go over the waterfall….some trampers will find this section challenging”. Seriously? Thankfully my shift in the Richmond Ranges is accompanied by clear and still weather, and the silence across the vast rocky mountain range is deafening. The summits here are consistently above 1500m, and above the tree line the 360 degree views are stunning. When I finally reach it, the dreaded ‘river crossing over a waterfall’ is benign at low water levels, and I’m relieved to mentally tick off another obstacle.
Further south, the crossing of the Waiau Pass in the Nelson Lakes National Park region is another trail highlight, but first I need to “climb a steep scree slope in a direct fashion”. I inch my way up a trail devoid of switchbacks, eyes wide in focussed concentration lest I begin an unstoppable slide backwards on the tiny loose rocks and end up at the bottom of the mountain. Carefully I kick the toes of my boots into the slope one at a time to ensure a solid hold before lifting a hiking pole and planting it ahead of me. Contact with the ground is extremely tenuous and at the top of the pass I’m grateful to flop down against a huge sun-warmed rock for a rest. I’ve lucked out with the weather again, and the views are endless over the jagged pale grey rocky peaks cradling pockets of snow against a brilliant blue sky.
Getting down the other side is another thing. I recall something from the guidebook about it being “not quite mountaineering” but I commit to tackling it one step at a time. Searching out the orange marker poles bent over from years of rock falls and avalanches, I am guided down into the relative safety of the valleys.
“Sidling” is another common trail note description that always prompts the question “Will this be regular sidling or suicidling?” Many trails have sheer drops to one side that could easily end in tears or worse. Always though I manage to get through, and the scenic rewards far outweigh the physical and mental challenges.
A well earned rest near the top of the Waiau Pass. (Image: Laura Waters)
Drama in the deep south
By the middle of the South Island I find myself hiking alone again, venturing into the high alpine Canterbury region, just south of Methven. Trail notes and blogs from hikers ahead inform me that in the next nine day section I can expect around 60 river crossings, chest high tussock grass, a trail-less route “lightly marked” with poles, and a crossing of the Rangitata River - a 10km wide braided river valley that’s considered a trail hazard zone. Anxiety starts to build at the thought of tackling it without backup.
It’s a searing hot day when I set out. Orange dust settles on my sweaty skin and at the end of the day my clothes are washed and dried by a river in the space of a few hours. The next morning I set out in sunshine for a long day following a river, crossing and recrossing it about 50 times as I make my way up the valley. Higher and higher into the mountains I go, pushing my way through swathes of the infamous tussock grass and spiky Spaniard grass, and referring to the GPS wherever the marker poles are too far apart to see.
With only 3km to go until my intended hut for the night, I suddenly feel a wall of icy air funnel through the valley towards me with rain clouds not far behind. Pulling on a shell jacket I march on, confident it should only take me just over half an hour to reach the hut. When the rain finally hits I’m dismayed to find little balls of ice in it. Hail. I pick up the pace, pausing occasionally to search out an orange pole in the distance, but all the while the icy wind bites into my exposed hands rendering them as numb as blocks of stone. Desperate not to miss the hut, I turn my back to the wind to check the GPS, my hands now numb stumps stabbing clumsily at the buttons. In disbelief I watch as the hail turns to snow, flying in my face and reducing visibility.
The last ten minutes are the longest of my life but eventually I open the hut door to find the familiar face of Jean-Charles who had passed me earlier in the day. With my frozen fingers fumbling with the ice and snow encrusted clips on my pack, JC lends a helping hand before getting a fire going. “I’m glad you arrived. I was just preparing myself to go out looking for you,” he says relieved. I’m grateful to see him too. It’s often said that the New Zealand weather can change quickly but to experience it first-hand is sobering.
A few days later I am confined to an old mustering hut for three nights with more snow and wild winds roaring through the high alpine valleys. Royal Hut is well over 100 years old and its rusted corrugated iron walls are no match for the howling wind determined to blow little balls of snow through the many gaps. It’s a long two days and I pass the time bundled up in my sleeping bag reading discarded magazines from the 1980’s and trying not to dip into my chocolate rations.
On the third morning I awaken to silence outside and leap out of bed to discover cloudless blue skies. Overjoyed at my impending escape I pack up quickly and hike further up the valley. Stag Saddle is the highest point of the trail at 1925m and as I reach it the sun starts to warm my bones, reward for my two days of confinement. Stunning expansive views over New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mt Cook, and surrounding ranges now white with fresh snow are the best I’ve had all trip, and the calm blue waters of Lake Tekapo in the distance herald my next rest stop.
The section has been a challenge but I have learnt a lot, and as I tramp the remaining distance to Bluff I realise I’ve come a long way, and not just in kilometres. Being without a defined path or the next marker pole in sight no longer fills me with a mild panic like it used to. I feel at home in the wilderness. I have learned to listen to my intuition and trust my judgement, and I feel a calmness and completeness that has previously eluded me. Without all the noise and distraction of modern living I feel I have discovered the real me.
It is a profound change, and so it’s with a touch of sadness that on Day 152 I set off with four other hikers for what is going to be our last day on this magnificent trail. Much of the 32km section is road margin from Invercargill to Bluff, and as we power along the tarmac many passing drivers give a congratulatory toot and wave. Apparently no one but a crazy Te Araroa hiker would be walking this road with a pack. It occurs to me that we must look clean and strong now to the casual eye, but an observer would have no idea of the trials and tribulations we have encountered over the past five months - the mud, sweat, snow, tears and blisters. I’ve loved every single bit of it, because with a long distance walk also comes simplicity and freedom. It’s been an extraordinary journey, not only of the feet and body but of the heart and soul too.
The Walk: Te Araroa is best walked north to south, departing around early November and finishing in the South Island before the winter snows start.
As a rough guide, expect to walk around eight hours a day, six days a week. Hiking the entire trail takes around 5-6 months. The trail generally goes through or near a town every 5-8 days for re-supply, however there are a few sections in the South Island that require a food drop.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies via Auckland to Kaitaia in the North Island. It’s a two hour bus ride from there to Cape Reinga. At the end of the trail drive one hour from Bluff to Invercargill where Air New Zealand departs via Christchurch to Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
Planning: Download all trail maps, GPS routes and detailed track notes from the Te Araroa website at www.teararoa.org.nz. The book “A Walking Guide to New Zealand’s Long Trail – Te Araroa” by Geoff Chapple provides a great overview of the trail with 3D maps.