Te Araroa Trail: Final Thoughts

Oh gosh, where do I begin?

I guess I should probably start by saying that this blog post is going to be my opinion and my opinion only.  I totally respect that other people have different opinions and experiences – but I’d really like to share my feelings and thoughts about this trail hopefully without too much harsh judgment from others.  This trail is still very young, so it’s possible that some of what I say today (2018) will likely change over the next decade or two.

Let me start by describing the Te Araroa Trail (TA).  The TA is a conglomeration of trails, roads, beach walks, and quite a few “hazard zones,” where the trail simply ends at a river, estuary, or lake and you are expected to figure out how to get yourself to the other side where the trail continues.  This can make for some frustrating experiences.

The South Island is more remote, and more of a wilderness experience and the North Island is much more urban with a lot more road walking.  However, compared to the few long-distance trails I have hiked in the United States (the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Benton MacKaye Trail), there is still quite a bit of road walking on the South Island (I’ve gotten laughed at for saying this).

The mountains, especially in the South Island, are extremely rugged and surprisingly wet and or muddy.  New Zealand trails tend not to be maintained. I heard one DOC (Department of Conservation – the organization that maintains the trails and huts) employee say that an average track is maintained once every 10 years (this does not go for popular day hikes or Great Walks).  Many tracks are not maintained at all. In fact, many tracks don’t really exist in the American sense of the word “trail.” Another DOC employee told us that they often just put in trail markers (or reassurance markers, as he called them), and then let some sort of track form from people walking the route and trampling the plants along the way.  This goes against the Leave No Trace Principle “camp and walk on durable surfaces,” which simply does not seem to apply to most of New Zealand tramping, although they do reference the principles often. For the unforgiving terrain, however, you’re spectacularly rewarded with stunning views which seem to be never-ending (again, I’m speaking mostly about the South Island).

In fact, there are several standards of tramping trails in New Zealand:  “tramping route” “tramping track”, and “easy tramping track.”. We determined that “easy tramping track” was equivalent to the American use of the word “trail.”  “Tramping Track” was a much more rugged, hardly maintained trail, and “tramping route” meant no trail, but marked.

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An encouraging marker

Because tracks are often not planned or maintained, the routes often go straight up and down mountains rather than switch-backing (or zig-zagging as they would say in New Zealand).  This makes for extremely steep trails – trails where you risk falling even going uphill! I don’t think I can adequately describe how steep and rugged some of these “trails” are. Meanwhile, New Zealand trampers drag their heavy backpacks through this terrain with remarkable ease (ultralight backpacking gear is hard to find in New Zealand).

Richmond Ranges

Also Richmond Ranges

Distances are often inaccurate or not even available.  I’ve heard hikers report that each section of the trail had an extra km compared to the trail notes.  Most of the time, trails are marked in terms of time rather than distance, so you’ll see signs saying “2 hours” instead of “6km”.   I found this quite helpful since the trail varied so much in difficulty.

Distance doesn’t always matter

Besides rugged, these trails are WET!  I can count on a single hand the number of days my feet were dry for an entire day on the South Island.  This was due to streams, rivers, marshes, wet grass and mud. I’m not sure why even in the driest areas, where there were no trees, and farmers were irrigating the grass, the ground under our feet would always find a way to provide us with squishy marshes, mud, or dozens of streams to walk through.  Many times the trail actually was a stream or river, and hikers are meant to follow these natural landmarks like trails.

Some mud in the Tararuas

Bastien and Tabea fording a river

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The Deception River is a good example of the trail using a stream for several hours.

Despite the rugged nature of the trail, the lack of trail maintenance, and its general sogginess, the trail was always easy to follow and well marked.  I almost never looked at my compass. All trails in New Zealand are marked with orange arrows or orange poles, and unless it is very foggy, it is usually just a game of finding the next orange marker.  The only navigational issues we had were when there were several trails or roads to choose from, and it was not obvious which path was supposed to be the Te Araroa Trail. In this respect, the trail is much less well marked than, say, the Appalachian Trail, or the Pacific Crest Trail, which have dedicated markers so you don’t wind up on a side trail.

Orange trail marker

John and Jeremy in the Richmond Ranges.  Orange trail markers are often poles.

Where the trail is less rugged and also not on a road, it often times goes through farmland, and we often walked through fields of cows or sheep.  I grew very fond of sheep, who often would trot away from us in large numbers, but I became a bit more wary of cows. Cows are curious by nature and often don’t budge when they are in your way.  There are times when you will be in a field of cows, some of which are massive bulls, with no clear escape route if one decided to charge. Sheep and cows wind up in some of the most remote areas of New Zealand, and I was often surprised to see fencing, a stile, livestock poop or bones deep into mountain ranges.  We also saw quite a few dead animals, something that is just part of farm life, I suppose.

Dairy farming is probably the biggest industry in New Zealand (if it’s not tourism)

One of about a million stiles for getting over fencing

Lots of cows

Lots of sheep

Besides farm animals, your favorite animals will become New Zealand’s birds.  Because New Zealand originally did not have any mammalian predators, birds flowed into every evolutionary niche, and many lost the ability to fly, such as the kiwi, weka, kakapo, and takahe to name a few.  Many birds have little fear, and you will find that birds such as fantails and robins will follow you around, in the hopes that you’ll stir up some bugs along the way. Wekas, which look somewhat like chickens, will try to steal any and all your gear.  New Zealand also has no snakes, and only one poisonous spider, which you’ll probably never meet. In other words, you have very little to fear in the mountains… except for the weather.

South Island Robbin

Fantail

A nosy Weka

The weather in New Zealand can rule your life because you often have to ford rivers that become dangerous after heavy rain, and hiking on exposed and rugged ridges can be dangerous in poor weather.  We were lucky with the weather for the first half of our trip, after which we started having to play tetris with good weather days. We did have to spend an entire day in a hut waiting out poor weather in the Richmond Ranges, where the trail is particularly rugged and exposed, and we tried to wait for good weather to cover the Tararuas, the Whanganui River, and Tongariro Crossing, with mild success.  We had several cyclones hit New Zealand during our hike, and had to wait them out in towns, and then attempt to judge river crossings afterward. Some people skipped sections to avoid fording high rivers rather than wait for water levels to drop.

Bastien and Tabea fording a river

Because the trail is so young, it is definitely experiencing some growing pains.  The number of hikers on this trail seems to just about double every year, at least according to locals.  This has placed certain strains on the trail and local communities. Most hikers on the South Island spend their nights in the huts along the trail (you can buy a Hut Pass from the DOC), but the huts vary in size and often don’t have enough space for the number of hikers that show up during peak season.  Huts are often built in areas where it made sense to build a hut, but not necessarily in areas where it makes sense to camp. When the huts are full, people are being forced to camp in these areas anyway. This is especially a problem in the Richmond Ranges where the huts are small, most having about 6 bunks, and they are predominantly in exposed areas where you may need to hunker down and wait for bad weather to pass.  I read stories in the hut book of 16 people squeezed into one of these small huts, with people sleeping in every corner of the floor.

Mount Rintoul Hut, where we took a day to wait out bad weather

 

Speaking of places to camp, there are very few places to camp compared to on trails in the United States.  We originally figured we would simply camp and avoid the huts, but we quickly found that the terrain did not allow us to simply search for a camp spot within an hour or so of when we were ready to call it a day.  I’ve rarely had this problem in the USA, but our terrain is, for the most part, a whole lot less wet and a whole lot less rugged. Plus, the TA goes through many farms and other private estates where camping is not permitted.  This problem was exacerbated in 2017 by the fact that the Guthook App, which many hikers use on their phones as a GPS as well as a means of finding water sources and camp spots, deleted all camping locations listed on the app.  Most hikers guessed that this was because illegal camp spots were being entered into the app, and this was simply not acceptable to the DOC or the TA Trust (hikers are encouraged to donate to the TA Trust after their hike, I would also encourage hikers to donate to the DOC – you can donate to one of their conservation programs, you cannot donate directly to DOC).

There are places that you can camp in towns, called Holiday Parks, and many times we forked out $30-40NZ just to camp in town (they charge per person, not per tent) with showers costing an additional $2 and laundry another $6-8.  This was often the cheapest option for staying in town, the next cheapest being hostels where you would share a bunk room with 4-12 people. What surprised me the most was how packed some of the tourist towns were, and how hard it was to find accommodation on the fly.  It was so bad that sometimes we tried to reserve something in advance, forcing us to stick to a strict schedule to make it in time for our reservation.

After a bit of research, John and I decided to hike the TA northbound.  Our decision to go northbound was based on a few factors: first of all, we wanted to be home for Christmas.  Second, we didn’t want to be in a “bubble” of hikers. Third, we wanted to hike the more scenic, more wild portion of the trail first in case of injury, or other hike-ending situations.  I also later found out that Northland in spring is by far the muddiest season, whereas going northbound we would hit it in fall, which is much more pleasant. So, we started mid-January at Bluff.

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It’s fair to say that going southbound would guarantee a trail community to hike with.  Since we went northbound, didn’t meet many more than a dozen northbounders total during our hike, and for the first half of the South Island, we didn’t hike with anyone else.  It was a bit lonely without other hikers. Of course, we met many southbounders, but only in passing, and we had no shared experiences.

Within the first couple of weeks on trail, I couldn’t help but notice the demographics of people hiking the trail.  The vast majority of hikers were from Europe – but only the rich European countries were represented. There were also a fair number of Americans: from the USA or Canada.  There were a handful of Kiwis (New Zealanders), but surprisingly few. Most hikers were young, but of working age (20’s and 30’s). The fact that the vast majority of these hikers came from the richest countries in the world really left me feeling over-privileged and… guilty.  The feeling would stick with me the entire trail and would shape some of my judgments.

From the beginning, we decided we would not be doing a “purist” thru-hike of the entire trail (purist means hiking every mile from start to end).  I sort of thought we wouldn’t give up on a purist thru-hike of the South Island, however, and on day 1 we were already faced with a 30km road walk on Route 1 (the main highway running the length of both islands).  So, our hike started with this road walk from Bluff to Invercargill on the hottest day ever recorded there. It would take us another 400-500km before we gave up on the notion of a purist thru-hike of the South Island.

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Walking along Route 1.

It’s no surprise that purists are in the vast minority on this trail.  It’s just too bad that some of them are very vocal and judgmental, especially online.  But, I’m sure they also often feel judged by the non-purists for doing pointless road walks.  I’ve heard more than one purist hiker being jealous of non-purists because a non-purist hike seemed so much more enjoyable.  I also noticed that most of the jaded, more negative online reviews or summaries of the TA came from purists, and I don’t blame them.  I am a big fan of the phrase “hike your own hike,” which is a hiker saying that attempts to keep people from judging or passing judgment on other hikers.  If your plan is to do a purist hike, that’s fine, and if your plan is to hit the highlights only, that’s fine too. I think going into the hike, it helps to set your rules in advance, ask yourself what you want to get out of this adventure and be willing to be flexible.

Before we started skipping any parts of the TA, however, we started adding tracks which we didn’t want to miss even though they weren’t on the TA.  We wanted to treat this trip like our one chance to visit New Zealand just in case we never had a chance to come back. Our first added track was the Greenstone Track which connected us to the Routeburn Track (a Great Walk).  We carefully connected these to the TA before the Lake Wakatipu hazard zone near Queenstown, which most people hitchhike or shuttle around.

Routeburn Track

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Routeburn Track

The biggest reason why we gave up on a purist thru-hike of the South Island was because of my physical ailments.  I’ve had several hip surgeries to correct hip dysplasia, and I also have a frozen shoulder, and I have found that I have a lot of pain walking on easy (flat) terrain.  Thus, the first section we skipped was the cycle path from Lake Ohau to Lake Tekapo, a boring ~75km walk along a flat cycle path with nowhere to camp. Some people choose to expensively rent a bike for this section, but we heard horror stories of people having to walk their bikes because of strong crosswinds.

Instead of doing the cycle path, we decided to take a quick side trip to Mount Cook, which remains one of the highlights of our trip.  We day-hiked up to Mueller Hut and saw keas (alpine parrots) along the way.

A cheeky kea

A view of Mount Cook

The next hazard zone for us was the Rangitata River.  This is a large braided river, and it is not advisable to ford it, as it takes many hours.  In that amount of time, the river could easily rise from rain upstream, which you may be completely unaware of, before you can safely make it across.  Unfortunately, when we arrived at the south side of the river, there was no way for us to get out of there, and we had almost run out of food. This is THE middle of nowhere, and the small parking lot and gravel road here sees maybe one car a day, if that.  We weren’t about to be able to hitchhike out of there. As we approached the river, we met two southbounders who had just forded, and so we entered the river only knowing that it was possible to ford an hour earlier. It took us 3 hours to ford the river (it is about 5km across).  I stand behind the Te Araroa Trust in keeping this a hazard zone. If I had the choice, I would not have forded. It was stressful, obviously could be hazardous, and we almost definitely picked a poor route (and I wouldn’t know- just looking at a map- how to pick a better one).

The Rangitata River

The next hazard zone, the Rakaia River, is only 70km further along, and after spending 7 hours successfully hitchhiking out from the northern end of the Rangitata (which sees maybe 1 car an hour), I wasn’t about to go through that again with another, much more dangerous river for only 2 days worth of hiking.  I didn’t want to skip this section, but we did for logistical reasons.

Hitchhiking in New Zealand works well, but only where there are people.  The population of New Zealand is less than 5 million, and most of them live in the North Island, so there are some parts of the South Island where you may be waiting a long time.  On the South Island, most of the people who picked us up were tourists, whereas, on the North Island, we met many more locals.

We hiked most of the rest of the South Island, only skipping a few small road-walks here or there when convenient.

Queen Charlotte Track near the northern end of the South Island

After we gave up on our purist hike, each time other hikers or locals asked us if we were hiking the whole TA we would say “that’s the plan, except for the roads.”  The reactions of locals really surprised me:

“Life is too short to walk on roads.”

“You didn’t travel all the way to New Zealand to walk on a road!”

“There are so many better things to do here than walk on our crappy roads.”

“Don’t let people tell you that you aren’t walking the whole thing if you’re skipping roads.”

“The people that walk the roads are people that just want to be able to tick a box.”

It seemed that Kiwis were far less goal-oriented than the average American.  After giving it some further thought, what struck me about the idea of a purist hike of the TA is that the only box you can tick is that you’ve hiked the whole TA.  You can’t claim to have continuous footsteps for the length of New Zealand, in fact, you can’t even claim to have walked the length of New Zealand because of the hazard zones.  You would need to walk many, many days of extra roads in order to be able to get around the lakes and rivers that are labeled as hazard zones (Note: we did meet someone doing this.)

Road walking on the hottest day ever recorded in Invercargill

Road walking with Martin on the North Island

A very scenic gravel road walk in Northland

Kiwis, along with their nonchalant attitude, are complete badasses.  The average New Zealand tramper is like a cat: they have nine lives, and always land on their feet.  I think this has something to do with the terrain in New Zealand. If you grow up walking in these mountains, you can’t help but become used to them.  Once I finished the South Island, it didn’t surprise me that the first person to climb Mount Everest was a Kiwi, despite the tiny population of New Zealand.

Kiwis are also some of the kindest people I’ve encountered.  It is not uncommon for someone to come up to you in a grocery store or on the street and strike up a conversation about your trip and welcome you to New Zealand.  They’re always helpful and unusually kind. Kiwis will restore your faith in humanity. Only one thing: They’re crazy drivers. But you could also blame the crazy roads.

A funny sign I found on the inter-island ferry.  The same can be said for NZ trails.

Even though the locals are kind and generous, I think that local trampers use TA hikers as scapegoats for all sorts of problems, some of which are somewhat warranted: overcrowded huts, freeloading, littering, etc.  As I mentioned before, most TA hikers are not Kiwis, so I think locals see parts of their backcountry as being taken over by unprepared tourists

North Island:

Due to the fact that the South Island, in general, offers more tantalizing hiking opportunities, many hikers opt to hike the South Island only.  I don’t think this is an unreasonable move because most of the South Island is fantastic. But, if I had limited time, I think I would probably skip small pieces of the South Island (road walks, and the cycle path), and still hit some of the highlights of the North Island.  Although I did not hike much of the North Island, I do think I hit many of the highlights, so maybe it’s appropriate for me to list what I think are the highlights (also, when I spoke to other thru-hikers, they mostly only spoke fondly about these sections).

Highlights of the North Island:

The Tararuas:  This is the one very rugged mountainous section of the North Island.  Many Southbounders told me this was their favorite section of the North Island

Moss in the Tararuas

Amazing views in the Tararuas

More views in the Tararuas

More moss in the Tararuas

The Whanganui River: This is a section of the trail which should be canoed rather than hiked.  The canoe trip is a “Great Journey” (like a Great Walk, but rather a canoe trip), and I recommend doing the typical 5-day canoe trip advertised by all the canoe rental companies.  This is actually not the exact section of the river that the TA follows on the Whanganui, but if you’re not married to the TA, then this is the best section to do. The TA continues south through part of the river that just goes through boring farmland and is affected by tidal flow, meaning you may have to paddle hard or take a break when the tide is against you.  If you’re short on time, the 3-day trip (Whakahoro to Pipiriki) is the best part of the 5-day trip.

Canoeing the Whanganui.  Photo Credit: Martin Mařík

Canoeing the Whanganui. Photo Credit: Martin Mařík

 

The Tongariro Crossing:  This is also a Great Walk, and you can either do just the day hike (roughly 20km), or you can make it longer and do “Around the Mountain,” which many TA hikers recommended to us (huts here are first come first serve), or the “Northern Circuit”, which is logistically a bit more challenging because it is part of the Great Walk, and you must reserve the huts far in advance.

The Tongariro Crossing, a walk through volcanoes

Red Crater

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Mount Ngauruhoe

Northland:  Much of the trail north of Auckland seems worth doing.  There is still a fair amount of road walking, and some of this can be hitchhiked, but there are many stunning coastal walks, and forest sections which are worth your time. Also, there is 90-mile beach, which some hikers seem to hate (I think this is because they are Southbounders, and this is the first thing they hit).  There are also a fair amount of estuary crossings which can be frustrating because you have to pay close attention to tides or find ways around them. Still, it’s a stunning part of the country, and since kiwis (both the people and the birds!) actually live here, you’re likely to experience some of New Zealand’s famous hospitality.

Beach walking in Northland

Stunning coastal walks in Northland

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View near Whangerei Heads of Te Whara on Bream Head

Conclusion:

The TA is worth hiking, at least in parts.  In fact, I think some of the sections of this long distance trail will remain my favorite hiking experiences of all time.  But, the trail is still young and evolving. I don’t think that it will ever be like the long distance trails of the United States in terms of road-walking (or they would need to really reroute the trail drastically), but I think it has a lot of character the way it is.  Maybe they will start a permit system to manage the increase in numbers, or maybe they will suggest alternative routes so people can spread out somewhat. Who knows. I do know that a lot more people are going to go to New Zealand because of the TA, and so you’ll hear a lot more about the pros and cons of the trail from other hikers.  New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I hope that some people who come to hike the TA will also decide to take the time to see some of the sights that are just a quick side trip away.

Milford Sound, a side trip we took from Te Anau

Thanks for following, and I hope this final blog piece will be helpful to some of you contemplating this adventure.  I’m also happy to take any questions!

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Northland on the Te Araroa

Northland

Day 1: Puhoi to Route 1: 27km

We had set up our tents the night before in the dark. In the morning we woke up to find ourselves next to some sort of horse farm. We packed up and in the process John managed to step on one of the tent stakes with his bare feet, ripping a hole in the bottom of his foot.

Soon we started walking. The day was not very eventful. We walked quite a bit through overgrown trail or on roads – mostly nice and easy going gravel roads, but occasionally some slightly more busy roads.

On trail, we kept going up a few hundred meters and back down again, and it felt like my legs had forgotten how to walk. Five days of volunteering on a small island and I was already out of shape?

We managed to walk 30km by about 3pm to arrive at a cafe. I took off my shoes to find that my feet had a bit of trench foot, and I decided to put on dry socks, which helped them recover quite quickly. Johns foot hurt from his little accident in the morning.

We tried to find a place to camp, and found that we missed the spot that we were aiming for by about 2km. We didn’t want to go back, and the folks at the cafe agreed to let us camp next to the picnic tables near their parking lot.

Unfortunately we are set up next to Route 1 which is loud with lots of trucks passing by, but we’re hoping that the traffic dies down overnight.

Day 2: Route 1 to Pakiri Beach, 26km

I woke up several times overnight when cars or trucks were particularly loud. At 4:45am a rooster started crowing, and I gave up on sleep and opted to call my mother.

We started walking just before dawn break shortly after 6am.

“Last night was romantic” said Martin sarcastically. I wish I could be as funny as Martin in a foreign language.

We headed up to Dome Summit. From there the track was quite difficult with lots of ups and downs keeping us working hard. We had a short but scary road walk to get to the next track which was very poorly maintained up towards Conical Peak.

We bumped into a French guy who claimed to be a SOBO. We were all intrigued. A SOBO starting in May? He explained that he was planning on hiking through the winter and he brought crampons and other winter gear to get him through. I made sure to get his name to look him up on facebook: Kevin Fuentes. I can’t wait to follow his journey.

We passed by a summit with some day hikers, but they must have come a different way because before we knew it we were climbing up a stupidly muddy track along a barbed wire fence which had a mixture of deep sloshy and slippery mud, cow shit and gorse (prickly bushes). There was no way day hikers were walking on this. The mud could be described as clay that has been extruded through thousands of cow hooves. It was so bad we couldn’t stop laughing. It was slightly less funny when the mud kept just kept going and going.

Just when we were thoroughly covered in mud and cow shit, we got to the top of a hill, went over a stile, and headed down a ridiculously grassy pasture with ankle busting lumps under waist high grass to give your ankles a work-out. At one point I twisted my ankle and fell – luckily the grass was soft, but I was not amused.

We had several kilometers of downhill through this thick grass before we finally hit the road. It wasn’t a long road walk, but my right hip hurt, my knees hurt and my feet hurt, so I was ready to be done. It had been a long day.

We finally got to the Holiday Park at Pakiri Beach, and for only $20 per person we were able to get a cabin. We had showers and did laundry. It felt good to be clean and to sleep inside.

Day 3: Pakiri Beach to Mangawhai Heads, 30km

We set our alarms for 5am so as to be able to hike at low tide. We read in the trail notes that we had two estuary crossings that were about 7-8km apart, and if we were to hit either one close to high tide, they could be chest deep. No thanks. Especially in the cool autumn temperatures. Low tide was around 6am, and we hit the beach right around then.

The first estuary crossing was straight away, and impossible to see because it was pitch dark out. I blindly followed Martin who was using the Guthook App on his phone to navigate towards the crossing point. Meanwhile I felt like we were just blindly walking towards ocean/water. Finally, the crossing was only about ankle deep, and once we were across, we had an easy beach walk while enjoying the sun rise. The sun didn’t rise until after 7am, confirming my belief that we now have between 10 and 11 hours of daylight per day.

Soon a rainbow appeared on the horizon, followed by a rain shower, and again blue skies. Several minutes later, the same thing happened again.

It was tough for me to keep up with John and Martin on the beach. My pace is simply slower. Martin must be over 6ft tall, and of course John is 6ft 4, so I’m trotting behind them trying to move my legs as quickly as possible.

It never got too warm, and 15km later we hit a rocky outcropping where they trail went up and around on a trail. We decided to try to scramble around the rocks instead since it was still somewhat low tide. It was precarious and the rocks were sharp. We scrambled up and down and around, and finally got to a point where the water came right up to the cliff, and we could not get past. Darn. We had to go back and take the trail instead.

We had a bit more beach walking after that until we got to the road leading to Mangawhai. The road walking was killing me. My hips hurt as did my feet. I spend quite a lot of time just wishing I was better at walking. I know that’s dumb, but seriously, I’m sick of being the weakest link. I’m always the slowest, the one who is in pain, and the one who has to try the hardest to keep up. It’s annoying. There aren’t enough women on long distance hikes. I’m not saying this because women are necessarily slower, but perhaps in general they are better at empathizing.

On top of being in pain, I was also zombie-walking. Waking up at 5am two mornings in a row caught up with me, and I was very tired.

I decided to stick out my thumb on the road, and someone stopped to pick us up. We weren’t far from Mangawhai Heads, so we only saved a couple of km, and moments after we got dropped off at the supermarket, Martin walked up. That’s how much faster he had been walking since the rock scramble fiasco. Sigh.

I was ready to sit down and get food.

Town was nice. We took a long break, ate some fish and chips and bought some groceries before walking on along the beach to the Holiday Park where we could camp.

I’m pretty sure I’m going to be fast asleep by 7pm.

Day 4: Mangawhai Heads to Waipu, 23km

After about 12 hours of sleep we emerged from our tents. We had a small road walk to get past an inlet and back on the beach again. The beach walk was all too short, and after looking at the map we decided we could make it longer by continuing on the beach along a rocky stretch where we figured we could get around while it was still mid-tide.

This turned out to be true- but just barely! We went through a rock archway which was just starting to fill up with water, but we were able to squeeze through before we would had to get our feet wet.

From there there was a beautiful trail leading up away from the beach. This trail was built like a great walk trail – wide, well graded and with tons of stairs. The other thing there were tons of were wasps. These seemed to be mainly of a different variety than the European wasps, which we would call “yellowjackets” in the States. I believe that these wasps were paper wasps. My suspicion is that they build their nests in the tall thick flax leaves.

We then kept traveling up through farm fields with great views of the coastline and the beautiful green hilly farm fields. It’s amazing how green the grass is here. Is looks like high definition bright green.

The trail passed over a road and we continued on past a ghost community. It was a gated community that had been built with roads and some landscaping, but no houses, just lots of land that looked like they were once for sale. It just looked like an abandoned project. Planted trees were dead and the grass hadn’t been mown in months, maybe years. The trail continued a ways through native bush on a really nice trail.

Unfortunately the trail ended at a gravel road which meandered through logged forest with blazing sun for many kilometers before we hit the main road again where we could hitchhike to Waipu.

In Waipu we found that the Waipu Hotel had camping in the back for $8 per person which included a shower. One of the best deals on the trail so far.

Day 5: Waipu to Whangarei Heads, unknown distance.

Today we needed to get around the huge inlet that makes up Whangarei Harbor. The trail kind of just ends at one side and carries on at Whangarei Heads. Apparently you can sometimes find someone to help you across by boat, but we decided to hitchhike around so as to be able to hit the Pak n Save (cheaper grocery store) and the library in Whangarei on the way to Whangarei Heads. It turned out not to be hard to hitchhike, and we were able to resupply without spending a fortune. Lots of the smaller coastal towns only have convenience stores, called Four Squares, which are much more expensive.

Once at Whangarei Heads, the trail follows a road for quite some time, and we decided to spend the night at a place called the “Bus Stop”, which had camping spots with a sort of outdoor kitchen and a toilet. Since it was still early in the day when we got there, we decided to take a scenic side trail, the Mount Manaia Track. This track is not on the Te Araroa, but looked pretty cool, and only took us 30 minutes to reach the top, climbing up a ton of stairs about 400 meters up. I was pretty proud to make it up in half the time written on the trail head sign.

The views from the top were fantastic, giving us a view of the coast that we had just covered the previous days along with the inlet that we had navigated around. Near the inlet was the only oil refinery in New Zealand.

The rock formations around the top of this mountain were equally stunning.

We hiked back down and set up camp at the Bus Stop. It was a really nice little spot.

Day 6: Whangarei Heads to Taiharuru (TA Walker’s Camp), 22km

Today’s walk was great. It started with a walk on the Te Whara Track, which climbed up a never ending staircase to the top of a rocky ridge, in a similar fashion to the side trail that we took yesterday. My legs were tired, probably from all the stairs yesterday, but eventually, when we did make it to the top, the views were well worth it. The track itself was also very nice. A lot of effort must have gone in to install all the stairs, and the trail was free of mud, and mostly not overgrown. This must be a popular day hike.

From the end of that track, we started a long beach walk along Ocean Beach. I was surprised by how many banded dotterels we saw running along the beach. These birds are endangered, and there are apparently only about 1,500 of them left. But, they’ve got to live somewhere, and this is obviously their habitat.

The beach walk was slightly too long. It was sunny out, which I’m seriously not complaining about since we’ve been so lucky with the weather this week, but I think the sun made me quite tired. My feet also grew tired of walking on sand.

I was happy when it was over and we had another hill to climb. This was Kauri Mountain. I wouldn’t really call it a mountain, but it was a nice hill with lots of Kauri trees.

We had planned on staying at a place called Tidesong, where some trail angels help hikers get across another inlet, which is crossable at low tide, but at high tide they can help hikers across by boat. They also offer accommodation. But we gave them a call, and they were not at home, but sounded like very nice people.

Coming down from the “mountain”, we decided to stop at TA walkers camp, a little spot almost a kilometer off the trail/road which someone erected for hikers. There is a small cabin with a hot water shower and two beds. Nobody had been here in months, and we had to figure out how to connect the hot water heater. We wound up having to call the owner for help, and they were surprised that anyone was still hiking this time of year. They sorted out the water and apologized that they hadn’t cleaned the place out in a while. We weren’t too worried.

After they left though, the number of spiders and other bugs in the cabin started to make me feel slightly uncomfortable. There were hundreds of spiders everywhere with webs all over the place. On top of that, as darkness fell, I saw several cockroaches crawling around. John also evicted two wasps, which I was particularly unhappy to discover. I felt bad because I almost wanted to pitch the tent outside. Instead I decided to just take the bug netting part of the tent and sleep in that using the umbrella inside of it to keep it off my face.

This is a nice place otherwise- obviously a lot of thought and work has gone into it, it’s just that we’re here very much off-season as most of the hikers come through southbound many months earlier. I was pleased that the shower had shampoo and conditioner, and they had tea and coffee along with a few other things. I bet this is a nice place during the right season.

Martin had hiked ahead and camped near the edge of the estuary. I soon realized that we wouldn’t see him again.

Day 7: Walker’s Camp to Tidesong, 3km

Strangely, today is our last day on the TA, and since we need to be in Auckland tomorrow, we didn’t want to hike away from the road that would get us out of this area. We decided that we wanted to stay with the really nice sounding Trail Angels just a few km down the trail, half way across the estuary. We were able to cross the estuary at low tide. The water was only up to my mid thigh, and the mud wasn’t much deeper than my shoes.

Before we knew it we were at Tidesong having a cup of coffee with Hugh and Ros, a lovely couple who have done quite a lot of the Te Araroa Trail to raise awareness for kidney transplants. Ros donated one of her kidneys to Hugh, so between them they only have two kidneys. Seems like a huge success story.

We spent the day chatting with our hosts, wandering around the trails on their property and organizing our gear for our next volunteer gig at Tiri Tiri Matanga Island, which we are super excited about.

It’s kind of a weird and anticlimactic finish to a long distance hike, and I kind of wish we had the time to make it to Cape Regina to see the end of the trail, but it’s really not about the destination, and we were lucky to have been able to hike a lot of this trail while still seeing many other parts of New Zealand along the way.

We may not have done a purist thru-hike of the TA, in fact we didn’t even do what I would really call a thru-hike, but I do think we’ve seen most of the best bits of this trail at this point so I have very little regret.

Going into this trip, I had a lot of doubt about my abilities to do this and other hikes. My right hip still aches on almost a daily basis and my frozen shoulder is still frozen and causing pain up my neck and down my back. I’m lucky I was able to hike at all and that my ailments have only slowed me down rather than stopped me entirely.

I really hope that I can inspire people who aren’t in perfect shape to attempt long distance trails. Injuries, disabilities, illnesses, etc. shouldn’t keep you from hiking, even thru-hiking at your own pace. I have to admit it has been a really hard adjustment for me to take it more slowly and accept a certain level of pain, and I often times wonder if this is the new normal, or if in years to come I will once again be able to pound out 20-30 miles a day, day after day. I try not to focus on these thoughts though, but rather on what I CAN do.

Soon I will post a wrap up blog about the TA – with all my thoughts about this trail and hopefully this will be of use to some of you contemplating doing it. I certainly have a few opinions to share!

Hamilton to Hunua Ranges

Hamilton to Hunua Ranges

From Kaimai Mamaku, we got a ride to Hamilton. After a night in Hamilton, I was feeling quite a bit better and we figured out that our friend Martin was only one day ahead of us on the Te Araroa trail (the trail goes through Hamilton). We made a plan to hitchhike slightly north of Hamilton to hike with Martin on the Te Araroa for a few days before our volunteer stint with the Department of Conservation.

We got to the town of Ngaruawahia by getting picked up by a taxi (no joke) who decided to take us there free of charge. I have no idea why.

There we met Martin and started hiking up into the bush on a huge staircase which was absolutely jam packed with people trying to get a work out. There were almost more people here than on the Tongariro Crossing, but then again, it was a public holiday, so everyone was off work.

The stair case went up about 400 meters or so to the summit where there was s lookout tower with nice views. From here, all of the exercisers headed back down the staircase the way they came while we headed down an overgrown hidden trail along the ridge. We left the crowds behind in a heart beat. The trail was overgrown, muddy and dense, but we pushed through, slipping and falling until we got to a section with a really big Kauri Tree.

Kauri trees are the largest trees in New Zealand, and they are currently being threatened by something called Kauri die-back. They’re not entirely sure what causes Kauri die-back, but they believe that people bring a disease in on their shoes and spread it to the roots of trees. For this reason, some of the biggest trees are surrounded by board walks, and when you enter or exit an area with Kauri trees, you have to go through a station where you throughly clean your shoes.

At the end of the track we cleaned our shoes and met a man and his wife who started talking to us and wound up giving us each a huge bag of fijoas – a fruit which was currently in season, and many people in New Zealand have fijoa trees. They taste slightly similar to kiwis only (in my opinion) slightly more bitter and slightly more disgusting.

From there we walked to Huntly, a town where we had booked a very cheap Airbnb, which was great.

The next morning we decided to hitchhike to get closer to the Hunua ranges, but wound up road-walking quite a way to get there. After 20km or so of walking on various roads, we finally got the the track that we wanted to hike on only to find it was closed. Needless to say, we were quite disappointed. After we looked online, we found it it was probably due to storm damage.

We were in the middle of nowhere, but a car with a lady in it pulled up and gave us a ride back out to Route 1 where we tried to make an alternative plan. We decided that we would walk to the nearest small town where there was a place we could camp for free, and we would make a new plan in the morning.

The next morning we decided we would try to hit the Hunua Ranges from the other direction by hitchhiking around. This took some time, but we got there and were able to hike a short distance in the bush to make it to Hunua Falls.

Here we figured we would camp, but someone from a summer camp right next door told us that the rangers didn’t like people camping there, but we could camp inside the summer camp since nobody would be there over the weekend. In return, we only had to bring the trash cans back behind the gate in the morning. It was a deal.

There was cell phone reception at the camp, and overnight we read the weather forecast and found out that a big storm was headed our way. They predicted 60 to 100 mm of rain with winds up to 120km/hr. There was no way I wanted to be outside for that. John and I decided that we would simply head for Auckland since that is where we needed to be in another day or two anyways for our vonunteer gig, while Martin decided to walk to a farm which had a Czech pig roast party planned for the weekend.

We parted ways and before we knew it a car picked us up, and the gentleman was actually headed to Auckland with his wife that day, and agreed to take us in.

The storm was disappointing. I’m not sure how much it rained, but it couldn’t have been as much as they predicted, and it seemed like the wind really wasn’t that bad. We were kind of bummed to be stuck in Auckland instead of eating pig with Martin at the random Czech party on a farm near Hunua Falls.

Even so, it was good to get ready for our volunteer stint which we are very excited about. We will spend 5 days on a predator free island with rare and endangered birds including kiwis while helping with small projects around the island. Stay tuned!

Kaimai Mamaku

Kaimai Mamaku North/South Route

This trail is not on the Te Araroa Trail, nor is it a “Great Walk”. We are only doing a few small pieces of the Te Araroa in the North Island (the best ones) because the trail spends much to much time on boring and/or dangerous roads for much of the North Island. So we decided instead to find other tracks that could help us make our way north on the Island while hitchhiking a bit as well. Don’t worry – I have a lot of thoughts about the Te Araroa Trail, and I’ll be putting together a long blog post after we’ve left New Zealand.

In the meantime, we found a 6-7 day trek in the Kaimai Mamaku Forest.

We hitchhiked to the southern end of this route without much time to spare before sundown, so on the first day we wound up walking only about 10-20 minutes into the forest before finding a spot to camp. The forest is dense, as usual, and our tent is wedged between massive vines and ferns, but it will do for the night.

After we turned off our headlamps but before we fell asleep, we noticed things glowing around our tent – even through the bottom of the tent floor. I reached outside the door and picked up the glowing thing and turned my headlamp back on to find out it was a rotting stick. The glowing thing was some sort of bioluminescent fungus. So neat!

Day 1:

The trail is typical New Zealand bush trail – probably maintained about a decade ago, overgrown, muddy but well marked.

We came to a trail junction and there was tape blocking the trail in every direction. We look a closer look at the pink ribbon, and found that there was a message on it: “Justin Rankin please stop here. Search and rescue are looking for you.” We couldn’t tell how old these messages were or if the hunt was still on to find Justin.

Not long after, we came across the first hut. We took the short side trail to check it out. I immediately noticed that someone was probably staying there. There were shoes and gaiters outside on the porch, and other random gear, but what really caught my attention were scattered deer parts – a pile of deep legs outside the door, and a deer carcass laying in a heap in a grassy patch next to the hut.

I cautiously opened the door to the hut, but nobody was home. There were three bunks, and two of them were occupied with sleeping bags. There were belongings strewn everywhere along with empty beer cans. These hunters were obviously not expecting anyone else to show up to share the hut.

Not feeling very welcome, we headed back to the track only to find the gut of a deer right in the middle of the trail. I was completely disgusted and tried to run past it as quickly as possible, but I did notice that there was an empty beer can nearby. Normally I would have picked it up and carried it out, but I was too disgusted to stop.

We were feeling pretty nervous, not having met a single person yet, and knowing that there were definitely hunters in the vicinity, so we started to sing loudly.

The trail continued fairly flat through many stream beds through thick bush. We had lunch at a small clearing where there was a dilapidated shelter and a bench along with a sign stating that this area was being considered for a hut, and if you hear helicopters nearby to please head back into the bush.

Sometime after lunch we heard barking and some voices, so we made sure to be very loud before we ran into a couple of hunters who were out for just the day. They warned us that April is the most popular month of the year for hunting, and we’d better be careful. We showed them our bright orange and red clothing, and they told us that in New Zealand the safe color was actually blue since they hunt red deer, and orange could sometimes look like a deer, even neon orange. Well, damn. We told them what we saw in the morning, and that we had been singing loudly hoping not to be mistaken for deer.

It was tiring trying to be loud all the time. We ran out of songs as well as things to talk about. It made me aware of how much time we must usually spend walking in silence. But silence lets you zone off and lets the hiking become more meditative. It’s been a while since I’ve felt like hiking was meditative though; New Zealand trails require quite a bit more concentration.

Close to the end of the day we came across a gigantic tree – we thought maybe it was a Kauri Tree, which are the biggest trees in New Zealand, but mostly live in northland. But, it was impossible to tell since the leaves were too far up to see.

By 5pm we found a clearing to camp in and called it a day. Where we are camped there are a ton of Kererus (New Zealand wood pigeons). They sound like helicopters when they fly and scare the crap out of you whenever you scare one out of a tree. By 6pm it was dark.

Day 2:

I woke up not feeling well. I had a bit of a sore throat and a headache. We headed out, but about an hour into the hike, we reassessed and decided it wasn’t worth pushing on if I was going to get sick. I had a feeling that I was catching whatever John had the week before, which kept us stuck in a hotel room for a week.

We headed back to where we camped the night before, and set the tent up again. I proceeded to sleep for about 3 hours. We spent the rest of the day playing cards and napping.

Day 3:

I woke up still not feeling 100%, but we also reassessed the amount of time we had left as well as the amount of food, and decided that we should probably find a way out of the Kaimai Mamaku ranges early.

We found a wonderful trail down past Wairere Falls, which drops 153m. The trail was beautiful, very well maintained with stairs following amazing rock cliffs covered in dripping moss. This trail was also very popular, as a day walk, and people of all ages were tramping up to see the falls.

We got down to the car park and a gentleman and his two daughters were willing to give us a ride out.

“Where do you want to go?” He asked.

We decided to use zen navigation: “where are you headed?” I asked.

“Hamilton.”

“OK, we’ll go to Hamilton.” We had no plan, and were happy to get to any city.

In Hamilton we found an affordable place to stay at a “Microtel” and spent the night. This Microtel was the most micro of hotels we have ever stayed in. I guess you get what you pay for. The room had a small double bed which took up 90% of the room, and there was a door which could barely open because the bed was in the way. The kicker was that John didn’t even fit in the bed – he was too tall, and he couldn’t hang his feet over the edge, because the bed was completely surrounded by walls. Our tent provides us with more space than this room!

After a good night’s rest, we worked on a plan for what to do next. Martin had sent us a message telling us that he was only a day north of Hamilton on the Te Araroa, so we figured we may as well join him and start hiking the Te Araroa again.

Tongariro Crossing

Tongariro Crossing:

This trail is both a Great Walk and part of the Te Araroa Trail.

Our original plan was to do a multi day hike in Tongariro National Park, such as the Around The Mountain Trek (probably the easiest for us to plan, since it didn’t require reserving huts on the popular Great Walk portion) or the Northern Circuit (the huts on this trek were booked out far in advance), but the weather looked like complete crap (winds up to 100km/hr and rain), and hiking in this extremely exposed alpine area is not to be taken lightly. Plus, the whole point of coming to do the Tongariro Crossing was to see the famous volcanoes and their beautiful lakes and craters.

Finally there was ONE day of mostly good weather. We were still traveling with Martin and Greg, and we spent the night in Whakapapa. The information center there was quite helpful, and encouraged us not to go out in poor weather. They gave us suggestions for a couple of day hikes that we could do during poor weather while we waited another day.

We checked out several waterfalls all of which were beautiful. It didn’t rain much, but the fog became dense at times, and I’m sure it would have been miserable on the crossing.

To do the Tongariro Crossing, most people book a shuttle that brings them to the parking lot where the hike begins, and then picks them up at the other end. This is because there is a time limit of 4 hours for vehicles to be parked at the car park, and they will ticket or tow your car away if you don’t comply.

Although we didn’t have a car to worry about, we also doubted that we would be able to hitchhike to the car park since most people payed for a shuttle. We didn’t fancy paying $30-$50, and we saw on the map that there was a trail connecting Whakapapa to the beginning of the alpine crossing called Mangatepopo Track. We inquired at the information center at Whakapapa about this trail. The lady there told us that this trail was the most poorly maintained trail in the park. She advised us to get a shuttle instead.

“It’s not worth your time- you won’t see much and it’s very muddy and poorly maintained.”

I don’t know why we even bothered asking, because hiking 10km of “poorly maintained” and “muddy” trail wasn’t about to stop us.

In the morning, John and I decided to get a head start on Greg and Martin, assuming that we would be slower and they would catch up. We headed out at around 6:30AM.

The Mangatepopo track – “the most poorly maintained trail in the park” – was probably one of the best trails we’ve hiked on so far. There were a few muddy patches here and there, and some serious erosion, but otherwise it was practically a sidewalk. If this was the most poorly maintained trail in the park, the rest of the trails must be practically paved.

As we approached the Tongariro Crossing, we saw the masses of people. There was a line of people, like ants walking up the trail, sometimes 2 at a time. I soon had “the ants go marching” stuck in my head.

As we merged with the Tongariro Crossing, I realized that we would have a hard time finding Martin and Greg. There were so many people that finding them would be a game of “Where’s Waldo?”

We filled up our water bottles at the first hut, and then started climbing up with Mount Ngauruhoe on our right towering above us.

The track climbed up maybe almost 1000 meters in total, but it was well graded, and of course we were in fairly good shape, so we kept passing people as we climbed.

We reached the top of Red Crater, which was aptly named since we were standing on the edge of a giant Red Crater.

From there, there was a steep scree slide down towards a few beautiful bright blue lakes. We spent some time having lunch while admiring the lakes.

People were everywhere, and at this point I figured we would never find Greg and Martin, and I had no idea if they somehow passed us while we weren’t paying attention.

The trail climbed another small volcano with great views before heading slowly downhill towards the other car park.

The downhill was slow and boring, and John had recently come down with a cold, and was feeling like crap. Each time we came to a spot with a place to sit down, he would curl up in a ball wanting to sleep.

We were only a few minutes away from the car park on a bench right on the trail, John laying down groaning when I saw Martin coming down the trail towards us. Greg was not far behind, and we finished the last leg of the trail together.

We were lucky and got a ride within minutes of getting to the car park, and found a place that we could all spend the night in some very cheap cabins on a farm for sustainable living. Here, John was able to spend a whole day in bed trying to get over his cold.