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The call of the Tora Coastal Walk

It’s a gutbuster but the views from the Trig – the highest point of the three-day Tora walk – are worth the climb.

Sharon Stephenson swaps her daily dog-walk for a three-day hike on the Tora Coastal Walk in Wairarapa.

State Highway 53 at the rump end of February is engorged with summer: parched, cranky, unsure of what to do with itself in temperatures that touch the early 30s. We drive north from Wellington, our journey a carpet of tinder-dry paddocks and poplar trees that hang their heads in exhaustion. The car radio tells us rain is on its way; we doubt it.

“I’d rather be at home with a G&T,” says my travelling companion, as we clear the last of the Rimutaka Hill’s stomach-worrying bends, the Wairarapa’s fertile farmland shimmering in the afternoon haze. So would I.

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Instead, we’re headed to the heel of the North Island for the Tora Coastal Walk, three days of clambering about the kind of muscular hills, gullies and ridge-lines made for mountain goats and people with good knees.

I’m neither, which is probably why I’ve never been tempted by the hundreds of public and private walks that cross New Zealand. When others talk about “doing” the Abel Tasman or the Kepler Track, I quietly wait for the conversation to wear itself out. I’m a daily dog walker and sometime runner, so I have the necessary cardio bandwidth; I’m just not convinced strolling around the countryside is a good use of my leisure time.

But then a friend has a Road to Damascus moment while walking the Tora – it’s a salve to her digitally toxic soul, her sense of achievement is as great as if she’d climbed Everest, etc, etc – and I begin to wonder if maybe there’s something to this.

Sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean on day one of the walk.

Naturally, I’m woefully unprepared when it comes to gear, resilience and map-reading abilities. But that’s the beauty of Tora, says Kiri Elworthy, who operates the almost 47km loop walk with her neighbour, Jenny Bargh.

“It is about challenging yourself, but the Tora isn’t too physically or mentally difficult,” says Elworthy, whose mother-in-law Jane started the walk with Bargh in 1995. “It’s well marked, you can walk it in trainers and use a stick instead of buying a fancy walking pole. The key is to have an authentic Kiwi experience and enjoy the scenery.”

Kiri Elworthy.

There’s a lot to enjoy: chiselled, manuka-smothered hills where the only sound is sheep ripping at the grass. Low, rocky beaches that open their arms wide to the Pacific Ocean. Windswept stands of native bush and rivers spilling with clear water. The impulse to Instagram every vista is strong.

Elworthy, who hosts walkers the first night at her property’s chocolate-box cute Whakapata Cottage, says most of the 25,000 people who’ve completed the “surf-and-turf” walk are New Zealanders (although an increasing number of Australians appreciate being able to roam freely without fear of pesky snakes and spiders). Even so, the walk comes as something of a surprise: “The most common feedback we get from Kiwis is they can’t believe this part of New Zealand exists.”

The one-way loop bites through five hill-country farms, including the Elworthy’s 650ha sheep and beef farm and Greentops, the 640ha cattle farm run by Jenny and Chris Bargh since 1981. Hardship tramping this is not: at the end of each day, there are comfortable mattresses, hot showers and pomegranate-scented candles. Even better, instead of carrying your luggage on your back, it’s forwarded by Derek, the local mailman.

Encountering rural “traffic” on the rugged Tora coastline.

Nine of us have signed up for this walk: a few female farmers from Woodville, a semi-retired couple from Paekākāriki and an aunt-and-niece combo, the younger a retired teacher from Te Puke, the older a 70-something gypsy who’s lived everywhere from Nairobi to the Middle East and now splits her time between England and Italy, where her children and grandchildren live. She occasionally comes back to New Zealand to “get away from the craziness and reconnect with the landscape”.

This isn’t the first time most people’s tramping boots have had an airing: notes are compared on Camino de Santiago, Machu Picchu and the tracks of Cinque Terre. I immediately like the Woodville farmers when they admit their only walk is a gentle Thursday stroll that’s more about the cafe at the end.

What we all bond over is a love of good food, and I believe Elworthy when she says it’s common to put on weight while doing the Tora. Breakfast and lunch are make-your-own affairs from supplied ingredients, supplemented with thickly iced ginger crunch and lemon cake, the kind your grandmother probably made, while dinner involves heating up delicious meals left by a local cook. The calories don’t count, we reason, because we’ve earned them and will burn them off tomorrow.

On the first day, we wake to vocal tūī and a sky the colour of dirty wool. It turns out the radio wasn’t kidding: when we set off at 8am, fat raindrops are already turning parts of the track into a slushy mess. At 19km, it’s the longest of the three days, described as “moderate” in the notes. It starts gently enough, through paddocks filled with dairy cows and clumps of bush, before trailing steeply up a ribbon of farm track.

It’s an hour to Blairlogie Junction, named after the Wairarapa region where Jane Elworthy was raised. Just beyond the appropriately named Misery Yards, it’s a long, uphill slog to The Buglar, 255m above sea level. We should be able to see the coast from here, but lacy threads of mist obscure our view and by the time we begin our descent, we’re buffeted by such strong nor-west winds it’s an effort not to tumble off the edge.

There’s no shortage of picnic spots.

The first day is supposed to take six to seven hours: we do it in four and a bit, stopping for neither lunch nor loo breaks and severely testing the “proof” in our waterproof clothing. Thankfully, there’s a roaring fire going when we arrive at the purpose-built Stony Bay Lodge, which features the concrete floors and clean lines so beloved by modernist architects. We spend the afternoon reading, playing board games and watching the sea fling itself at the beautifully bleak coastline.

This is Ngāti Kahungunu country where, in the 1840s, local Māori invited Pākehā to travel over the hill from Wellington and settle. Which they did, with Daniel Riddiford eventually buying up huge lumps of land to create what was then known as Te Awaiti, one of the largest coastal stations of its time. Subsequent Riddifords ran the station until World War II, when parts of it were parcelled off and sold to returning soldiers, who macheted their way into the wild landscape. Edward Elworthy bought 800ha from one of those returned servicemen in the 1970s and his descendants – including Kiri’s husband, James – have farmed here ever since. 

In early 1995, Cecil (Cec) Elworthy, James’ younger sister, was trying to find a tourism business case for her commerce degree. Her body may have been in the Victoria University library, but her mind was on her family’s land, seeking a lifeline from the double whammy of high interest rates and low commodity prices. Her mother, who loved to walk around the farm, thought others might, too. So, when Cec’s business case showed Tora could work, the Elworthys and Barghs got together and, despite scepticism from neighbours who thought no one would pay to trudge through their farms, opened one of New Zealand’s first private walks.      

The Shearers Quarters, rustic and welcoming accommodation for the final night of the walk, hosted by Jenny (above right) and Chris Bargh.

On day two, it’s a gentle 3.8km stroll to the Ōpua shipwreck where, on 2 October 1926, the Ōpua’s shipmaster misjudged his position and ran aground at this tiny inlet 20km north of Cape Palliser. No one was killed, but nor were they too fussed about moving the remains of the vessel, including the huge boiler whose rusting hulk still holds tightly onto the black sand.

Tracks are good places to share stories and as we walk the road carved into the side of the coast, Jo, one of the Woodville farmers, tells me about the seven children she fosters, aged five to 18. Their backstories are populated with gangs, drugs and violence, but Jo’s gentle care of these vulnerable kids leaves me feeling more kindly disposed towards humankind than I have in a long time.        

Two hours later, we’re walking up the bumpy gravel track to our home for the final night, converted shearer’s quarters opposite the Barghs’ house. I’ve got a blister forming on my right foot and the muscles on my thighs are starting to knot, so I’d quite happily sit in the sun flicking through magazines. But the others want to do the optional two-hour round trip to the Trig, at 301m above sea level the highest point of the walk. As we toil up steep inclines, wiping sweat and sunscreen from our eyes, I wish I’d stayed at base camp. But then the expansive panorama reveals itself, arcing up the coast and across this wild, hard-to-farm land, and I’m rewarded with possibly the best experience of the walk.       

Our last day begins under sharp blue skies and is an easy 13km past skittish cows and knots of regenerated native bush, the air thick with mānuka and kānuka, to Whakapata Cottage, our starting point. 

On the drive back to Wellington, as my phone pings with the demands of work and home that I’ve happily unplugged from over the past three days, I realise I’ll miss the simple rhythms of life on the trail: walking, eating, sleeping and having nothing to worry about except putting one foot in front of the other.

I may not be rushing out to buy hiking boots, but I finally understand the lure of escaping to New Zealand’s savagely beautiful bush. It isn’t the last time I’ll do this.

The Tora Coastal Walk operates from 1 October to 30 April. For more info, visit toracoastalwalk.nz.

This article was first published in the June 2018 issue of North & South.