About 5 months before we set out on Te Araroa we were able to attend a talk by Debby McColl at our local tramping club about her Te Araroa thru walk in 2010/2011 with husband Rob. You might recognise their names from Te Araroa book by Geoff Chappell as there a few photos of them dotted throughout. Deb’s imparted some sage advice to future TA walkers. Two things in particular that stood out were
1.Make your rules
It was the best possible advice to hear and was applied early on in our TA experience.
With the benefit of hindsight and while the TA is still a fresh memory there’s a few other things that were poignant during our experience that I would like to share.
Obviously everything I’ve written here is from a personal experience and It would be futile of me to think I could influence another person’s walk. You can take it or leave it. If you are anything like me you probably might leave it.So here we go. Some thoughts on what I wish I knew before we started Te Araroa
Be aware of false advertising
The trail is sold in a way that way that really makes you want to buy it. After finishing the North Island section in January my partner Jack and I skeptically made our way to Picton on the ferry to start the South Island section. I picked up the onboard magazine that happened to have an article about the trail. Here’s a snippet that made me chuckle.
‘You will walk along new Zealand’s best beaches, cross mountainous terrain, walk through moss covered forests..’ etc. “No mention of 19 kilometres along state highway 4 then?” I quipped to Jack.
In many ways Te Araroa is touted as such a grandiose experience. When the reality is it’s a new, rough and ready trail with plenty of room for improvement. The media around Te Araroa is incredibly optimistic and has the tendency to promise the moon, so to speak, so of course the trail has an impossible task in trying to deliver. I get the distinct impression that a lot of published Te Araroa media is from the perspective of section walkers or those who are skipping particular sections. Its seldom that you hear about the 3 days of road walking from Whanganui to Palmerston North or the monotonous road and farm walking from Mercer to Hamilton.
Before starting the TA I refused to believe anything that painted the trail in a poor light. Maybe I was optimistic, maybe I just wanted to find out for myself but there is something very true in the reviews that I wish listened to and there are plenty of them. I remember listening to a scathing review of Te Araroa by the Trail Show podcast but put it down to Americans being “soft” and not understanding New Zealand tramping. It turns out their views are warranted but I just didn’t want to be believe them. So ignorance was bliss, for a while, then it meant quite a few not so pleasant surprises.
Don’t worry about 90 mile beach, it’s what comes next that will test you
I was so worried about starting Te Araroa. 4 days on a beach! What would that be like?
Well It hurts and I never figured it out. I walked with 2 pairs of socks and trail runners, I walked in sandals, I walked barefoot. My feet were still hamburgers with blood blisters at the end but you just do it. The excitement and the resolve for the trail is there in every way and will spur you on. No one really worries about what comes next but they should try and prepare. The Northland and Waikato forests. They are beautiful and challenging beasts. There are now a few hundred hikers passing through each season and that means mud, a common experience on Te Araroa. In fact my feet were wet and muddy for 80% of the time on the North island. For a while I was convinced I would get trench foot. The forest trails are poorly maintained and subject to windfall but while the forests were challenging we were ok. We would try and have fun with it and that included singing and laughing out loud. We figured out that it was better for us to laugh and sing than cry and there was plenty of angry tears. We also had to be honest as well, being thru hikers meant we were contributing to the problem. We were simply two of the few hundred stamping through the forest eroding what little trail is left. I do wonder about the sustainability of these sections in years to come and if issues with trail maintenance will ever be addressed.
The people you meet will be the best part
I absolutely love the people we met and hiked with on the trail and I will remember them for life. The TA community on the trail are amazing and it’s a very special shared experience. It’s been many years since I spoke with people on such a personable level. Without phones and internet in your face 24/7 it’s very easy and it’s seldom that you spend time with so many people that have the same common goal. I did not expect to met so many fantastic people and I certainly didn’t expect to miss them so much when we finished.
The hiking will be nothing like you think it will be
Before starting Te Araroa I was convinced I would become a trail warrior conquering beautiful mountains, rivers and volcanoes! I would skip through National parks having idyllic nature experiences with my partner Jack. Well that did kind of happen, sort of, but we also spent 50% of our time conquering state highways along with countless other roads while dodging 18 wheeler trucks and clinging to road shoulders.
Not to mention all that clambering over broken farm stiles and wading through unmaintained farmland covered in cow shit, pacing town and city pavements and schlepping through muddy forests. There were a lot of times both Jack and I said out loud “why does the trail go here? It’s so shit” I often thought parts were incredibly average and not worth the time or money. While no one was making us walk the trail we had already decided that we were steadfast in our thru walk. We ended up referring to the average parts of the TA as ‘character building’ and they certainly made us appreciate the good parts.
If you are thru hiking you will be (or at least feel like) the minority
Leaving Ahipara we hit our first road section before Herekino. A 4 wheel drive passed us and asked us if we wanted a ride to the trail head. We politely declined and that was that. We just made our first “rule”. For the next 4.5 months we would never get in a car on the trail. But while we thought this normal we met many others making their own rules. We considered Te Araroa to be a thru walk and a walk that allowed you to walk the length of a country but many people don’t share the same ethos and will hitch all possible road sections. I wasn’t expecting to have any emotions about this at all but I did. Quite frankly I was envious of the their experience. The thru hitchers suffered less shin splints, experienced more kiwi hospitality and still received the same amount of kudos for much less effort. There are even those audacious enough to sit in a car for over half the trail and still collect a finisher’s medallion. Because they were still thru hikers right? hike your own hike right? While I wanted to be cool about other people’s choices the beguiling behaviour of thru hitchers left me feeling cynical about the thru hiker experience. It’s a feeling that leaves me tempted to throw my finisher’s medallion in the bin. Because clearly it doesn’t mean shit.
There’s a reason why everyone says just do the South Island
I didn’t want to believe that the North Island was as average as the podcasts and blogs would say, but it is. I can count the highlights on one hand
2.Mangawhai heads coastal walk
3.Tongariro crossing and Whakapapaiti track
4.Cape Reinga to Scott hill staircase
5.Whanganui river journey
Altogether these highlights are less than 500 kilometres and the rest is quite a lot of filler hiking and really mentally challenging stuff in the sense that it is mundane. On the plus side you can get through a lot of podcasts and audiobooks. An example of typical section on the North would be something like Pureora Forest park to National Park
Two days of road walking to 42 traverse which is a pretty dull bike/4 wheel drive trail which then goes onto Waione- cokers track, a muddy clay track (track is such a loose word on the TA, series of mud puddles is more accurate) where the only person we saw who was dumb enough to be in there was a weed farmer replanting new buds in a well camouflaged pot farm (yes he was surprised to see us too). Then a road walk to Tongariro crossing where, while we had a stunning bluebird day we shared the trail with about 1000 other tourists. The only time we didn’t have other people in our photos was once the trail joined to the mangatepopo track and we walked to Whakapapa village. Then onto the stunning and oddly quiet Whakapapaiti track before your back into the mud then back on the road to National Park. It’s too much average walking to get to the good stuff. If you are short on time and cash just do the South Island – it’s the real deal.
Your “thru hike” will feel comprimised more than once
By the time we got to Auckland we were so sick of relying on people and tides for water crossings. We just wanted to walk. In the Northland section we felt like our lives were being ruled by tides and water crossings and because there are so many options we didn’t know if we’re doing the right thing or being true to the trail. There were a couple times we had to walk roads instead of beaches and rushed sections to met tide times. We had to apply Debs “be flexible” approach more than once even though I didn’t want to miss sections of the trail. But of course as we made our way down the country we did. Sometimes we didn’t have a choice. For example We hit the Whanganui river section during Xmas. We wanted to walk to Mangapurua landing but this meant we would only be able to hire a canoe for one day. The canoe company needed all canoes back for huge group that were arriving on the 27th of December. Jet boating in a canoe to Mangapurua landing is also extremely expensive and I’m not sure why the trail doesn’t just officially start at Whakahoro. Unfortunately we were tied to the canoe company as well as I sent a resupply box to them (bad move, should have just forked out for expensive food in National park or hitched back to Taumarunui). Anyway we were forced to “be flexible”. We canoed from Whakahoro to Pipiriki and the canoe company offered to hire us bikes as a compromise. So we even biked on our “thru hike” from Pipiriki to Whanganui. In many ways i wish we held onto our bikes until Palmerston North. The 3 days of walking from Whanganui to Palmerston North was predominately roads. Shit house roads.
You will see some weird behaviour
Some hikers can’t sit still no matter what the weather. I would see in person and online sketchy behaviour that included people continuing to hike in poor weather, going through flooded rivers and doing non assisted crossings that seemed ludicrous. I think a lot of people underestimate the raw terrain on TA and how much the weather can play a part in the experience. I also don’t think the river crossings are emphasised enough. Even I was surprised about the rivers that we had to cross. I’m so glad Jack and I did a bushcraft cross before the TA which taught us how to read and cross rivers. Money well spent.
There’s also the shared hut experience that irked me a couple times which I also was not expecting. Being from NZ I learnt hut etiquette early on in my outdoor experience so it was difficult to see others not reciprocating good manners. That included the handful of TA’ers not paying for hut passes but continuing to use all the facilities and the entitled TA’ers who thought it was ok to graffiti dumb shit all over hut ceilings and bunks. Yeah you’ll see what I mean when you get to Carey’s hut.
Some hikers (mainly males) are also very good at taking up space, making a mess and acting like they own the place. As a female it was too easy to make myself small and allow others to dominate the space. I had to force myself to take up space in the huts and it’s something I strongly recommend to other women on the trail. Remember that no one owns the huts.
You will spend more than what you budget and likely spend money when you don’t even want to
We spent the sum total of $12,500. This seems like a lot and it is. It doesn’t even include all our gear, this is literally just what we spent on canoe/kayak/bike hire, food and accommodation. Most of it’s due to our unruly spending on the North Island where the trail continually funnelled us into towns. It would have been super awkward to stealth camp in urban parks so we paid up. We also didn’t want to be “those cheap TA hikers” who take the piss and ruin the reputation of the trail for other hikers.
There were also times that the trail funnelled us into some of the busiest tourist towns in New Zealand like Lake Tekapo and Queenstown to name a few. We did more than once end up $25-40 to tent at holiday parks who also charge $2 for 10 minute shower. We would have preferred a bed for night and would have paid extra for it too but alas it’s difficult to prepare accommodation from a mountain top and everything was booked. When we had to pay to camp we were paying for a patch of grass and the ability to charge our phone and use a kitchen. Nothing more.
It will hurt, right to the very end
When we got to Ahipara after 90 mile beach I was crippled. I couldn’t walk and limped around for a zero day before we started the Northland forests. While the pain was never again that intense it never stopped hurting. Right to the very end something hurt. I really thought my body would just get used to it and I would be amazingly fit and strong and fly through the mountains and do 50 kilometre days and it would feel like nothing. Yeah um that never happened. But I did learn to switch the pain switch off or else I would enjoy nothing. When I couldn’t do that panadol and coffee worked a treat. Sure we had some adrenaline fuelled days that spurred us on and we felt like champs but at the end, mostly thanks to the Oreti beach section and a return to road walking Jack and I both limped into Bluff. Even as I write this, nearly two weeks after finishing the trail I still can’t walk properly when I first get up in the morning and my feet are still swollen, one size bigger than normal.
So there it is. Things I wish I knew before I started the trail. But there’s something else. Te Araroa was quite possibly the best experience of my life. While I would not call it life changing, it’s just a walk after all, I did love being outside everyday, challenging myself and my body. I saw some amazing things and met some incredible people. I don’t regret a thing.