Those of you who know Pete know that he’s a researcher. He thinks things through, and then he thinks how those things will affect the next ten things down the line. It’s why I can never beat him at chess. He’s been talking about Te Araroa, and New Zealand in general since I met him on that fateful day in September 2011. I, however, am not a planner. I don’t think important life steps through the way that I should. I relate far too much to the line in Legally Blonde, “Do you think she just woke up one day and said, ‘I think I’ll go to law school’?” I made my decision to hike Te Araroa with similar foresight. My thought process went something like Bilbo’s: hear a tall bearded man discuss how great an adventure it will be, and just go for it.
I had also never really hiked before meeting Pete. He introduced me to back and front country camping, and I really learned to love it. We decided early on that we would hike Te Araroa together. We bought gear (all hail REI) and spent time in North Carolina, the California coast, and mostly Yosemite testing it out. But here’s the thing – never for longer than four days at once. You always have getting back into your car and driving home in the back of your mind as your security blanket. Your trail mistakes aren’t going to affect you for many days. If you get all your hiking clothes, shoes, tent or sleeping bag soaking wet, it isn’t drenched for the next week, or until you get a miraculous spot of sunshine and decide to stop hiking for the day to dry it out. Which brings me to my first piece of knowledge I gleaned from the trail:
1. You cannot fully prepare for a thru hike, without doing a thru hike
I spent hours reading thru hiking blogs and gear lists. The trails we hiked in Yosemite (in hindsight) were absolutely pristine. My gear worked because we only hiked 10-15 miles a day for two to four days at a time. That’s not a test! That’s a few notches below those fake rocks you stand on at REI to see how your shoes fit. But I didn’t know what I needed until I was out there, 100 kilometers in. As I sit here with the trail completed, I would have preferred almost entirely different gear if I could do it over. But that’s okay. Because what can normal people do to prepare themselves mentally and physically, as well as fully test all their gear before doing a thru hike, other than take a month off work and escape into the wilderness? There was no way I could have known what it would be like to walk for days on end – many days from sun up to sun down – without just doing it. Pulling a full Nike. There’s no way to prepare your body and mind for that. I just had to rip off the bandaid, metaphorically and literally, many many bandaids.
I am speaking of course about footwear, most particularly boots, or death boxes, as I like to call them. On these numerous gear lists that I read on hiking blogs, no one flat out says it, but I will: If you’re walking everything, you wear trail runners. If you know what you’re doing you don’t wear boots. By the end of our journey Pete and I could look at someone and know about how much of the TA they had actually hiked based entirely upon their shoes.
“That guy we just passed said the next section was really hard.”
“Yeah but he was wearing boots and gaiters, so we can’t trust him.”
I wore boots at the start because: 1) That’s what I had always hiked in. 2) That’s what the DOC and TA recommend you wear. 3) I wanted my feet to stay warm and dry. 4) Ankle support. I have now learned that ankle support is a myth sold to us by Timberland. When you hike that much, the muscles around your ankles build up quickly. Plus your poles keep you very balanced. Basically, until we reached Auckland, my feet were more blister than foot. We were hiking with other people, and I was the only hiker in boots. I recall having that moment that everyone who skis has when they are around those who snowboard – taking off my boots the second I am able to and being baffled that anyone would continue to walk in theirs longer than they had to. It made no sense. I would spend 15 minutes every morning, to the joy of Pete, mummifying my feet for the day. I saw one of our friends massaging his feet after the end of each day. I remember laughing to myself thinking that there was no part of my foot that I could touch to massage that wasn’t raw.
But we hit Auckland and I bought trail runners, which are essentially running shoes with more grip on the bottom. Almost instantly my blisters healed. The first day I hiked in them I remember saying “OOOhhhhh, thaaaaaat’s how our friends can hike so many kilometers in a day.” I had read so many blogs talking about how much everyone’s feet hurt when hiking the TA. But there is a difference between having two uncooked steaks for feet and what people call “hiker hobble,” which is just the walk you get from your feet being achy.
2. New Zealand’s weather is hard as
From the first few days on the trail, the difference in New Zealand’s size and location as compared to other countries became very evident. What do I mean by that? Pete had a good analogy for this. He described going to scuba dive on his previous trip to New Zealand. The instructor, basically said “Have at it. Touch everything when your diving.” Essentially, this stuff is battered by the Pacific Ocean all day long so a couple thousand tourists’ hands aren’t going to do any harm. The weather in New Zealand is incredibly intense and unpredictable. And I don’t mean San Francisco unpredictable (i.e. “I can’t believe how hot it is in December, it’s usually quite temperate. Our weather is so unpredictable”). I mean, literally experts cannot predict it very far in advance. When you ask Kiwis about this they come back to the “it’s an island” response. Basically, the met service doesn’t have anyone nearby to tell them what’s coming. Due to weather patterns that I don’t have enough time to look into fully, there’s no country or place that really receives New Zealand’s weather before it does. It blows in quickly and you have to constantly be prepared for anything. Cyclones form and bounce off Australia, but all that usually happens within 3-4 days. Not super helpful when most of the stretches on the TA are 5 days.
It rains A LOT in New Zealand too. Looking back, I realized that I had only ever hiked in the rain once – because almost all of the hiking I’d ever done prior to the TA was in Northern California, and it just doesn’t rain much there. Needless to say, I found the adjustment difficult. Also, as only those who spend a lot of time outdoors know, you can never really stay dry, at least not when it’s pouring. My arm movements with my poles allowed water to drip into my elbows no matter how tightly I did the velcro on the sleeves of my raincoat. After a few hours of this, mixed with sweat – because rain gear is very very warm when one is doing strenuous physical activity – I developed what I coined “swamp arms.” Furthermore, where your hip belt tightens and your rain pants meet your rain jacket inevitably get wet as well. Water seeps in under there somehow so my whole midsection was wonderfully moist. So that, added to constant knee-high stream crossings, allowed me to keep this 5 inch patch on my thighs as well as most of my back dry.
When it was raining, and we needed to break for lunch, there’s no shelter. Everything is wet. We either prayed we passed a hut or a tree with a very thick canopy, or we would go hungry until we stopped for the day. As you can tell from Pete’s blog, food was a huge priority on the trail, so usually our choice was just to make and eat our lunch while it became drenched. It’s amazing how much quicker I would move in the rain. Normally, while dry on breaks, I would sit there like a child stalling to avoid bed time… Me: “What did you think of that last section of the trail?” “I wonder if anyone will be in the hut tonight?” “I should have another sip of water, just in case.” Pete: “I know what you’re doing.”
But when it was raining, we’d get so cold stopping for the few minutes that we could empty tuna packets into a wrap and shove them into our faces. I learned that hypothermia (at least the early stages of mild hypothermia) can set in very quickly. So I’d pack up and start hiking in the rain again with tuna juice still dribbling down my chin.
And it isn’t just rain/snow/sleet/hail (all of which we saw on the trail multiple times), the wind is like nothing I’ve ever felt – and I lived in Chicago for 3 years.* There were times where I was legitimately concerned that I was going to be blown away. It almost knocked Pete over once, and one time, we had to duck down and take shelter… from just the wind. We checked the weather later that day and it was listed as “moderate wind.” It also means when you’re walking on gravel/sand or in the rain/snow/sleet/hail it hurts when it hits any exposed skin. Once in Wellington, I had to hold the parts of my pack straps where the excess bits hang down because they were hitting me in the rear and it felt like a whip. While some pay for that treatment, I did not enjoy it.
Particularly on the South Island, I constantly got the feeling that I was walking through a disaster zone. Like a tornado had just blown through. Fallen trees and land slips are everywhere and constant. That’s Pacific Ocean weather beating down on a very narrow island for you.
*I know that is not why it is called the windy city. But there is a reason that that is a fun fact and not an obvious one… it’s a damn windy place!
3. Pack weight is incredibly important
Every hobby has a culture surrounding it, and thru hiking is no exception. The people who are the experts are mostly what they call “ultralight.” Every gram matters. I never fully became a part of the thru hiking culture. I didn’t count kilojoules for my food. I kept things in my pack that I never used. I carried sleep pants and sleep shorts. I felt more like Jane Goodall studying chimps and imitating them so they didn’t throw poop at me. But they are definitely right in the concept of “the lighter the pack the easier the hike.” The days where we hit a town, bought a bunch of food, then hit the trail again, were the absolute hardest. You feel the extra weight with every step. You curse yourself for buying that extra bar of chocolate and thinking you needed a third pair of socks. But as we went farther South, and I got fitter and fitter, I found my priorities shifted. We spent more of our time hiking than at camp, so our priorities were no longer comfort at camp, but comfort when we hiked. I don’t need wipes to clean myself at the end of each day, I’m just going to get dirty at the crack of dawn tomorrow, and these wipes are so heavy. I don’t need all this Advil, I’m managing okay now.
4. New Zealand’s trails are hard as
New Zealand measures trail difficulty differently to how I experienced US trails. The US tells you the distance, then lists the difficulty level as easy, moderate, or difficult, or something to that effect. New Zealand lists the hours it will take you to complete it (and sometimes the kilometers) and then tells you how “formed” the track is. “Walking” track is essentially pavement through the woods; “Easy Tramping Track” is generally well formed, some sections may be rough, muddy or steep. Track has signs, poles or markers. Major stream and river crossings are bridged; “Tramping track” is mostly unformed, may be rough and steep. Track has markers, poles or rock cairns. Expect unbridged stream and river crossings; “Route” is only for people with expert level bushcraft skills and only marker poles to guid you, with no real trail to speak of. Most of the TA, when actually hiking in the wilderness and not on roads or beaches, is Tramping Track or Route.
Then you look at the hours given, and whatever you shave off from the given time is then your percentage for the duration of your hike. For example, a sign says it will take you four hours to hike and you do it in two, the next sign you see says eight hours, then you can expect to do it in four. We did not find this to be consistent. Ever. Not once. We did sign-posted (or DOC times) in the Tararua Mountains on the North Island, then had to plan for the first month on the South Island a few days later once we hit Wellington. We packed our food supply boxes thinking we would do DOC times on the South Island as well. Then, as you likely know, we blew through DOC times and cut them down by a third once we hit the South Island. Not the easiest to plan around, because carrying extra food is NOT fun (see above). Plus the trail crosses hundreds of streams and major rivers. Our trail notes often said, be prepared to wait it out to cross. Meaning, if it’s been raining for awhile and the river is flooded, you’ll need to have enough food to sit there and wait for it to go down.
New Zealand’s trails are cut differently than US trails as well. As Pete has said many times in his blog, New Zealand does not believe in switch backs. Their attempts are called “zig-zags,” and they are few but adorable. Two or three zigs and zags at most over a 400 meter climb in a few kilometers, thus making them so steep that you have to hike on your toes anyways, defeating the purpose of the zigzags entirely. New Zealand cuts trails directly upwards. And I’ve often gotten the question, “Do you think that as more thru hikers come to hike the trails, they will start cutting switch backs, or more ‘American’ style trails?” And my answer is absolutely not. Kiwis seem to take pride in how difficult their trails are. Many times we’d reach a really steep hill, practically a sheer wall of grass and mud and we’d see one marker at the bottom of the hill and one directly at the top with no discernible way to get up. As a TA walker you could almost feel the DOC saying… “Good luck.”
But the hardest part of New Zealand trails isn’t usually how steep they are. Most of the time, for me, it was the ground conditions themselves. It was mud on mud on mud that we’d spend the first part of our day trying to dodge, but by the end we’d be so defeated we’d just walk right through it. It’s so thick and goopy that it would pull my heels out of my shoes when I walked. Mud also smells. I’m pretty sure that it’s bugs breeding in it, but I’m no expert. Climbing through it all, I felt like GI Jane with better hair and smellier clothes.
To say that the TA’s river crossings are numerous would be an understatement. There were days where we just walked in a river most of the day. This was fun the few times it happened on the North Island – a cool break for the blisters. On the South Island, the rivers are alpine, and alpine river is TA for ice blocks for feet. There were days where, at the conclusion, I was convinced that my foot would look like Mr. Deeds when I took my sock off. The pain of walking through freezing bog, river, and snow or frosted tussock is indescribable. I was usually praying for a steep ascent just to get more blood flowing to my feet.
The New Zealand bush is also incredibly dense. Everything grows faster than Pete eats
chocolate. For much of the North Island, we had are arms in Xs like Wonder Woman, trying to keep the plants, vines, thorns, etc. from hitting us in the face. And the ground is more root than ground throughout much of the trail. This made keeping my footing more a dream than anything I could actually execute. Furthermore, the bush was so thick sometimes, we couldn’t see the floor beneath us. I’d just keep walking forward, praying to Maui that I didn’t trip or sink into knee-deep mud.
But by far, my least favorite of all Te Araroa terrain was the farm track. If there is land in New Zealand that isn’t a steep mountain, chances are, it’s farmland. Going into the trail, I knew there was a lot of farmland, but I had visions of manicured grass, frolicking sheep, and eating hand-fulls of freshly picked kiwis as I hiked. Sure my expectations don’t tend to be steeped in realism, but I didn’t foresee what came by a long shot. The North Island is full of rickety stiles, unavoidable poo-filled bog, grass destroyed by thousands of hoof prints, territorial bulls, and poo. So much poo. I don’t know what’s in the grass that cows eat in New Zealand but the concept of a patty was a joke. Their piles seemed more size-equivalent to ants’ nests in the amazon you see on Planet Earth. Or many times like someone had an entire bucket of Christmas gravy that he just dumped directly in our path. And recall how wonderful trail runners are? How they saved my feet? The downside is that they are extremely porous, designed with the intention of being quick to dry. Frequent rain, mixed with endless mud, combined with digestively regular cows is a recipe for things seeping in between my toes that I would rather not be there. Plus, cows are everywhere: in the bush, in rivers, in the road, on the beach, halfway up a mountain track. I am practically a lifelong vegetarian and halfway through the North Island I found myself thinking that these cows had far too much space. You may be asking yourself, “why so hard on cows and not sheep?” Sheep poo stays on the bottoms of your shoes when you step on it. It does not come up the sides and find its way into your shoes the way a cow’s does.
It also became very obvious when walking on farmland, that farmers had reluctantly allowed us to do so, with clearly great negotiating efforts put in by the TAT. Many sections of the notes crossing farmland would preface the track description with a warning to stick to the marked track exactly and to not bother the stock. This would inevitably lead to a heard of snarling bulls standing right in front of the stile we had to cross. Many times they were either in heat (or whatever the correct phrase is) or guarding a calf. Old McDonald is full of it – cows don’t moo moo here. They growl through nostrils the size of espresso cups and stamp their feet at you when they are near calfs or are ready for sexy time.
Stick to the marked trail exactly, quite often meant follow the fence line up a narrow path with hunched shoulders for fear that if I was at my full shoulder width, I would brush the electric fence or snag my only shirt on rusty barbed wire. Or the exact trail often meant knee-deep poo bog, or walking through a field of turnips so big they could win prizes at a state fair, or climbing under or over a newly strung up electric fence. I’m pretty sure those farmers didn’t “forget” we had to walk through that section of his land. Pete would always easily step over them. However, electric fences hit me just right, meaning I had the Sophie’s choice of farmland: Crawl under it, undoubtedly getting covered in poo. Or try to step over it, risking my lady bits having a jolt. I usually picked the latter in case you were curious.
5. Comforts you think matter, don’t
Every single person I talked to post-trail said the same thing: “Isn’t it so nice to sleep in a bed and have a shower?!” Yes it’s nice, but it’s not what I missed or thought about. My camping mattress is better than the bed in my freshman dorm at college, and in my sleeping bag I feel like a swaddled baby. And once I didn’t shower for a long time (I think the longest we went was about 8 days – which is not a very long time compared to US thru hikes), I was just dirty and I accepted it. You would be shocked how much you get used to, and how much you can tolerate on the trail. I “washed” our dishes by dipping them in the river and drying them with my dirty shirt. I used my pocket knife to cut our cheese, a pocket knife which also contained my nail clippers, which I used on my toes. When I got to some huts I’d claim my spot by wiping off the mouse poo and rolling out my sleeping bag on the mattress. When I went to hostels at first, I’d want to wear sandals in the shower, but I quickly realized that I was more disgusting than anything that had been in there previously, so who was I kidding? On the trail, I’d take any food that anyone offered me (save meat), even if they’d already eaten some of it. All this coming from a severe germaphobe; for example, my dad once called me Howard Hughes when we were in an airport. The trail changes you man. My priorities were putting one foot in front of the other each day, sleeping, and eating as much as possible. That’s it.
The things that I missed most were not walking, not putting on muddy, wet, cow poo-filled socks and shoes every morning, not having to worry about the weather constantly, not being covered head to toe to avoid sandfly bites, and not walking. The bliss of not having throbbing legs and feet every night when I was trying to sleep is indescribable.
6. New Zealand is somewhat overrun by tourists
We started the trail on December 11, which is a bit later than most. The normal start time is around mid-November. For much of the trail we were alone, but we were following a huge group of TA walkers – good, bad and ugly. We got the impression many times that people were desperately trying to hide the thought “Oh great, another walker” from their faces. Not that people weren’t friendly to us, but as we learned throughout our journey, normal people don’t do thru hikes. We saw graffiti in huts saying TA SOBO, people not paying for hut passes but camping outside the hut (yet still using the limited water supply and the drop toilet), people camping where signs say not to because it’s private land, people outstaying their welcome at places where Kiwis have opened their home to walkers, etc. That combined with New Zealand’s amped up efforts in marketing leading to overcrowding in many popular towns, particularly in the South Island, we got the sense that we weren’t wanted by some people in some places. There are hundreds of tourists unloading from buses every time we hit a populated town in the South Island. Kiwis seem a bit worn out. Friendly, but tired. Like they want things to go back to how they used to be. We constantly felt pressured to “make up” for people on the trail, and other tourists in general, who weren’t giving the TA or foreigners a good name. We’d give donations where they were requested, we didn’t camp except where it was specifically allowed, we spent money in towns and supported cafes and restaurants who were pro-TA. We tried, and at times, it added to the exhaustion. We’d go to the supermarket and the cashier would look at me like I was just another filthy backpacker. I’d want to plead with her, saying “We’re different! We walked 40k today and all I want is a smile and a drink besides water. I’ve seen so much of your beautiful country, lets talk about it.” But usually, too tired and grumpy myself, I’d just move along feeling dejected but appreciating the refreshment and air con or heating.
7. The TA is new and underfunded, and I felt it occasionally
The Te Araroa is a very new trail. It wasn’t in full swing until 2011, and many times, I could feel the kinks. Most people still don’t seem to know what it is. Even when they live on the trail. People should really stop and smell the roses on their own streets, or at least inquire as to what the signs are indicating.
The TA is funded and maintained by the TA trust and they do an incredible job. We are so grateful the TAT exists because without it then the trail wouldn’t exist. The way they weaved us through the whole country was great. To navigate the trail, we used maps and trail notes provided by the TAT. But these notes still aren’t written for thru hikers specifically, they’re written for anyone who would want to do that particular section of the TA. Many people walk the TA in sections, so this note-making method makes sense. However, I wish the TAT had thru hiking notes separate from “everyone else” notes. At times, it was demoralizing reading that “you can park your car here” or “this bridge is crossable with a pram” or “no camping on this stretch” which would be 50k long with no campsites listed on either end of that section. I often felt forgotten. Like they didn’t think anyone would actually connect the sections and need to sleep somewhere. At times I’d shout to up to Pete (him being height and distance ahead of me), “the note writers do know that people hike this thing all the way through in one go right??” The truth is, most people don’t. At least not people we met.
We’d meet other hikers or people off the trail, and most would say the same thing: “Oh you’re walking every bit of it? Even the roads? Good on you.” Good on you seemed to be Kiwi for “you’re a crazy person.” We weren’t met with admiration by many people. We were met with good on you and a look saying “Why hike all of the TA when you could hike in other more beautiful places, or take breaks to rest your feet? You’re a weirdo.” And not weirdo in a fun admirable way like Bill Murray. In a you lack essential brain cells kind of way, like Ryan Lochte.
Even the people “on the TA,” listing themselves as TA SOBO or NOBO (Southbound or Northbound) that we saw in the hut books were people we knew to be hitch hiking many sections or jumping around on the trail or sometimes driving to the start of tracks. And while there’s no right way to hike, (Hike Your Own Hike is a common saying among thru hikers) the TA has a tendency to make the people who are walking every meter of it, or the “purists” as we are called, feel other or even foolish. Purists are not the norm like they are on the American trails. Furthermore, people who did not hike every bit of the trail, as we did, are given the same recognition as those who do. It became very difficult to not have resentment breeding inside us like whatever breeds in the mud. “Hike your own hike. HYOH,” we would chant to ourselves.
This discussion of the kinks in a new trail would normally lead a TA hiker to go into a negative rant about the road walking, but I won’t do that. I didn’t mind the roads. While they were incredibly unsafe (NZ has no road shoulders on most highways, and the speed limits are very high), I didn’t mind the road walks. I got SURE FOOTING! We moved fast. There are usually animals* to watch, without having to step in their poo. We could usually get lemonades or coffees from a shop. We’d get honks and waves and thumbs up from people who knew what we were doing. We were walking the length of a country, so it makes sense that we’d have to walk on roads for some of it. The bad part, other than the unsafe aspect, was the joint pain. My hips didn’t lie during that 100+ kilometer stretch from Whanganui to Palmerston North. And Pete’s leg swelled up like a sausage in a casing. But they are gradually eliminating road walks section by section. And the trail will only get better. I don’t necessarily think farmland should be the go-to replacement for road walks (see above negative rant about farmland), but sometimes it’s the only other option.
*Walking by animals was so fascinating. Keep in mind, this is Pete and I walking by on a road with a fence separating us from the animals, and cars zooming by at 100k/hour… Sheep look up at you like you’re an alien getting out of a spaceship. Like they have literally never seen a human before us, while of course still chewing their freshly plucked grass. Then they run away. All of them. In a line. Because they’re sheep. This never got old. After 3000 kilometers and thousands of sheep (apparently New Zealand has over 15 million sheep, and only 4.7 million people), we loved it every time. Sheep are the best. Cows on the other hand, started mooing immediately, then they come up to the fence to greet you. All of them. Then they follow you along the fence line for as long as the fence allows. I don’t know what they were expecting us to do for them. This was pretty fun, but not as good as sheep. I think I resented cows for the size of their bowel movements even from a safe distance.
8. Te Araroa is a lesson in Type Two Fun
Up until now, you are likely asking yourself why I even did the trail. It sounds like I was unprepared and miserable most of the time. You’re right, I was. In all honesty I was miserable about 86% of my time for those four months and five days. But that’s because a thru hike is essentially pushing one’s body and mind to its limits. I met a guy cycling some of the trail and he told me something that I will never forget: “Doing things like this is type two fun. It’s the type of thing you can only look back on to enjoy fully.” In the moment I was too focused on my foot pain or how wet I was or how my pack was digging into my shoulders, or not dying to fully appreciate all that the trail has to offer. But I look back on the trail with immense happiness. I imagine it’s something like childbirth. I remember how difficult it was, but I pushed by body to an extreme and came out the other side proud as hell at what my body is even capable of. Proud of what I endured. And like a new mom, I’m showing photos to everyone I meet, and I bring my accomplishment into every conversation without any skillful segue.
But the trail is more than a feat of endurance. It’s accomplishing a goal. There is something indescribably satisfying about having such a pure goal: Point A to Point B. Cape Reinga to Bluff. One foot in front of the other. The trail allowed me to devote my whole self to one thing. To shed all other responsibilities. To see everything I did as “for the trail.” Food is fuel and I need as much of it as possible. Calories are good, they keep me moving. As a woman, I usually lived trapped in a constant fisticuffs with food and its effect on my body. And while I have always had decent confidence as compared with many women, there was something so freeing about taking off the food gloves and eating for the purpose of accomplishing my goal. Sleep was also to walk the next day. I slept close to 10 hours every night, not to avoid responsibility or out of a bad teenagerly habit but because my body needed it. I earned eating two dinners when I got to a town and going to bed at 8:30 every night. I had worked for it. I see why people become depressed after completing trails. After putting your whole self into something for four months and then one day no longer needing to, it’s quite jarring.
The other magical thing that happens when you hike every day for so long, is of course the way that your body transforms. After the second week on the South Island, I was sitting in Saint Arnaud looking down to discover, I have abs… that are… visible… and I just ate a pizza and a half. You can’t really put a price on that type of discovery. But it also taught me things about my own body. I walked the length of a country, and I still don’t have a thigh gap. A thigh gap is clearly just not in the cards for me. But who cares? Because I just freaking walked the length of the country. My legs did that for me! I felt like I was the head coach and my body parts were a team in some weird sporting event. “After that descent today, and your previous strain, Right Knee you are definitely MVP, well done.” “All right team, I know it’s that time of the month, and much of your energy is currently being diverted elsewhere, but we just need to make it up this summit, then we can rest.” Every day that I made it through the day without injury, I was so grateful. That is what stops most people from finishing. Now, don’t get me wrong, if I had gone to a doctor at any point on the trail, I’m pretty certain she would have said to stop hiking. We were always in pain, and usually in multiple places. For me, it was similar to the song Head Shoulders Knees and Toes, Knees and Toes. I appreciate the repeat of the last line, because it really was mostly my knees and toes throughout the trail. At one point, I was writing a rock opera in my head, mostly to the tune of Bohemian Rhapsody, about how much pain I was in. I sang it for Pete and he was pretty impressed. What can I say, we made a rule that we wouldn’t listen to anything while we walked, just the sounds of the trail and the sounds of our own thoughts (hence the “head” part of Head Shoulders Knees and Toes). And as I write this, almost two weeks after completing the trail, I still have no feeling in the tips of my big toes, and I still look and feel like an elderly woman every time I stand up. But pain reminds me of the trail, my accomplishment, and my adventure with Pete, and I smile.
There are so many things that I loved about the trail:
Pete’s blog showed you how beautiful they are I’m sure. I felt very lucky every day to see what I saw. Plus the TA is very much off the beaten path quite often. So I felt special. Like not many people even get to see what I saw.
My view on birds before the trail was somewhere between mild phobia and Michel Gerard. But New Zealand’s birds are incredible. I felt like James Cameron didn’t invent any birds for Pandora, he just used the ones already in existence in New Zealand. We saw New Zealand’s penguins, parakeets, and parrots in the wild, all brightly colored and different. Birds are unafraid, so they come close to you while on the trail. Once, I had a robin sit on my shoes while they were on my feet, just looking up at me. Fantails are probably my favorite. They follow you for kilometers on the trail just flying right in front of you. I later learned that they are eating the bugs that are also following me and that I’m kicking up from the ground while I walk. And while we never saw a kiwi, even after going to Stewart Island, the hope that we could some nights was a fun part of the experience.
During the first couple weeks of the trail, we met a guy and a girl we really got along with. She was an expert hiker already, having completed the three American thru hikes already, and he was an active long distance trail running competitor. They were way ahead of us in terms of ability and gear (mostly, how much less they had than us), they treated us as equals from the start and were great company. They eventually got ahead of us on the trail and we got to follow them the whole way, seeing their names and dates written in hut books. Hut books are for search and rescue and the DOC, but they also are great fun for those on the trail. We followed a guy called Brian, from Atlanta, basically the entire 4 months, at one point getting as close to a few hours from catching him. It’s fun to follow people, reading their comments on the trail and weather.
We were also shown great kindness by a lot of Kiwis. Our gratitude was amplified astronomically by our desperation. One night in particular, we had been hiking for well over 40k and I didn’t think I could make it any farther. It had been (and still was by the time we finished the trail) one of the toughest days for me. A Maori family welcomed us into their marae, giving us a home cooked meal, a bigger tent to sleep in, and a tour of the place, complete with historical explanations. Pete kept looking at me with eyes that said, “keep it together, don’t cry,” because he knew how much it meant to me. We were bought a dinner by a Canadian couple who were impressed by our journey. Even as early as 90 Mile Beach, people would pull over in their cars and make sure we had enough water. The people we met along the trail definitely added to the experience. Even the annoying people we wanted to pass and never hike near again offered us great entertainment and we look back on their ludicrous behavior with fondness.
We looked forward to hitting towns for days sometimes. I learned to love the NZ road sign “No Engine Breaks for Next 2 Kilometers.” In TA language this means you’re hitting a town soon and trucks need to slow down! But as great as towns are, there’s something quite magical about the New Zealand wilderness. It feels alive but still. The bush on the North Island seems tropical and closer to the Amazon than how I pictured New Zealand. It’s quite amazing that there are no harmful animals, insects, or reptiles in there. It’s such a gift to have that worry removed from your mind when sleeping and walking through the woods. There’s a reason so many people love being outside. I felt connected to the woods, and like I knew them better than all the day hikers and people in camper vans that we saw. Like they were mine.
One of my favorite summits was towards the end of trail in the Takitimu Mountains. There were huge snowflakes falling and sticking to the ground, and each step was a crunch. The steep climb was keeping me warm, and the trees were blocking the wind. When we started the climb, there was no snow on the ground. By the time I reached the top, I saw a note drawn in the snow for me by Pete who had hiked ahead. I couldn’t stop smiling during the whole climb, which is saying something. It was magic.
The stars in the Southern Hemisphere are pretty incredible too, making getting up to pee in the middle of the night almost a pleasure. One time, while camping in the bush near a river, Pete woke me up saying that there was something I needed to see. I got out of the tent, and the stone wall on one side of the river was covered with glow worms. And now, when I sit down on the icy porcelain of an indoor toilet, I miss the stars.
The Te Araroa also offers you almost every type of terrain on one trail: beach, jungle, river, mountain, mossy forrest, road, farm, canoe, kayak, and everything in between. While this made it incredibly difficult to pack and meant we had to carry a lot, for all contingencies, it kept it interesting.
Overall, completing a thru hike has left me feeling like a badass who can do anything. But also, I can do anything, so there’s really no excuse for not accomplishing things. The walking every day was painful, hot, cold, wet, beautiful, exhausting, boring, and amazing. People are continuing to ask if I would do another one. And if you’d asked me that at any point prior to the lovely snowy summit in the Takitimus, I would’ve laughed in your face. I thought people who did more than one thru hike deserved an olympic gold medal and a straight jacket. But after completing the trail and touching that signpost in Bluff, the poetic words of the Canadian philosopher Justin Bieber come to mind: I will never say never.
Loved reading this Heather. It’s great to hear your perspective on the walk and very well written. I understand the statement where you said it takes a few days post trail to really appreciate what you’ve achieved. I’m just wondering how long it will take for the wanderlust to subside. (If ever) congratulations again 👏👏👍
Cracking piece of writing, well done.
This is absolutely wonderful! Thank you…oh, crap, I’ll be stepping in sheep poo in a little over two months!