Walking Te Araroa trail: The pleasures and peculiarities

by Neil Brown / 01 January, 2018

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A lone walker at the northern end of Ninety Mile Beach on the Te Araroa trail.

Short notes on a long walk

Neil Brown on the pleasures and peculiarities of walking the Te Araroa trail.

I’ve always been inspired by a scene in the film Easy Rider, where Wyatt, the character played by Peter Fonda, tosses his wristwatch symbolically into the dust just before he roars off to search for America.

Our journey was a little less dramatic: we went looking for the real New Zealand on foot.

Te Araroa, the Long Pathway, is the brainchild of writer-adventurer Geoff Chapple. The trail takes you 3000km from Cape Reinga all the way down to Bluff, and this summer it’s expected to host nearly 1000 walkers. The track bounces between east and west coasts, threading its way through villages, small towns and major cities. It jumps into rivers, follows farmlands and wanders down walkways, beginning and ending with two pristine white beaches that are littered with toheroa shells.

When we set off, we didn’t realise that long walks nurture their own distinctive culture. For example, there are through-walkers and section-walkers. We section-walked the North Island (jobs and life got in the way), but transformed into through-walkers after we crossed Cook Strait to our home island.

Through-walkers seem to feel they exist in a class of their own, although no one ever said this to our faces when we were section-walkers. Having had a foot in both camps, we found this stratification difficult to understand. As section-walkers, we had to go through the painful process of getting fit multiple times. For the South Island trek, there was only one such breaking-in experience. But once you’re into the rhythm, the daily routine of sleep-eat-walk becomes completely absorbing, satisfying and addictive.

Another peculiarity is the decision by some walkers to adopt a whole new persona while they’re on the track. “Trail names” crop up repeatedly in hut books and fellow hikers are spoken about exclusively using these new identities. We met a slight, ginger-bearded walker who introduced himself simply as Redbear. He had just fought his way through a notoriously rough, gorse-ridden section, and his shirt and trousers were in tatters. After he moved on ahead of us, he was discreetly renamed Threadbare.

For some of our fellow walkers, the further and faster you go, and the more gear you can dispense with, the higher up that ladder of hiker-envy you climb. We bumped into walkers who’d renounced hot food and a daily cuppa for five months so they didn’t have to carry a stove and fuel. Others covered a marathon distance every single day. One hiker we never actually met recorded to decimal places his ultralight pack weight in every hut book where he stayed, little realising the scornful entries beneath his would satirise his boastfulness mercilessly.

Crossing a swollen side-stream of the Taramakau River, near Arthur’s Pass.

The concept of Trail Angels was another new one for us. They’re the good folks who go out of their way to help walkers out. Footsore after the initiation of the first days, we staggered into a campsite and were greeted spontaneously with fresh tuatua and smoked fish to eat. Payment for our accommodation, we learnt, was by koha. Give what you feel like giving, or give nothing at all. It was an effective strategy as, burdened somewhat by this freedom of choice, we cheerfully paid over the odds.

Much later, we emerged from the Tararuas hungry, wet and bedraggled, having waited out bad weather in a hut for an unplanned extra night and then walked all day through torrential rain. We hung out wet gear and settled into a hut at Otaki Forks, which was deserted as a slip had closed the main road from town. Just on dusk, a woman pedalled up on a one-speed bike and called out a cheerful greeting. She dismounted and carried inside a basket swaddled in a gingham tea-towel, producing from it freshly baked bread, fruit and some hard-boiled quails’ eggs. By way of explanation, she said, “I thought there might be some trampers here and you’d be hungry. I rode the 3km from home on the off-chance.”

True, some of these good folks are rather eccentric. In Northland, a friendly local offered us a lift to our campsite and then freaked out both of us during the drive when he insisted on maintaining full eye contact while conversing with the back-seat passenger. The car was worryingly positioned directly over the white centre line, pottering along at 20kmh on the twisty country road. He enthralled us with a long and detailed exposition of his theory on how local possums had been introduced as part of a government plot to undermine illicit growers of marijuana. “Possums around here,” he concluded, “they sit up on their haunches in the road, like they’ve never seen a car before....”

We were left hanging, wrestling desperately with the logic of his argument, but he settled back into his seat. Case closed.

Not all of our encounters were memorable for the right reasons. In the mid-North Island, we arrived at a campground eager to sit down at the cafe that the trail notes had assured we would find there. It had been closed down. Despondent, we rang the bell at the office and asked if we could fill our water bottles from the tap outside.

“No,” said the young woman in charge.

I struggled to process the rejection but my wife, much cooler under pressure, asked where their recycling container was.

“You can’t leave rubbish here.”

“We don’t want to leave rubbish,” my wife replied. “We just need to take an empty bottle to fill from the river so that we have enough water to drink for the next two days.”

“All our plastic bottles have been crushed.”

The woman was fixed with a gimlet eye. My wife is not a large person but she is not to be trifled with. “Look away!” she said, through gritted teeth. “I am taking one.”

A short time later, with two emphatically uncrushed bottles tucked under her arm, my wife strode off towards the road.

The Whanganui River is a designated part of the trail, but can only be tackled by boat.

Huts are great places to swap stories. We met Alex in the Takitimus, below Te Anau, nearing the final southern coast that represented the end of our journey. We warned him we were early risers and always did our best to be underway by first light. He was not an early-bird, he told us. Then he shared the tale of his night in Blue Lake Hut, the last stop before most walkers tackle the Waiau Pass. This is a reasonably serious undertaking: an ascent to the Main Divide, followed by a drop over many steep and rocky sections to the Waiau Valley on the far side of the Southern Alps. Alex had read late into the night in a crowded hut, he said, then fallen into a deep sleep.

Hours later, he awoke with a start, sat bolt upright and quickly registered it was morning and he now had the building completely to himself. Scrambling out of bed, he wolfed down a snack with a quick drink as he exited the hut at a near jog. Outside, he spied his first orange track marker and was off.

An hour later, puffing up a steep slope, he started to question his direction of travel. It was the wrong track! Cursing, he tried to sidle around the steep terrain to rejoin the correct route to the pass but eventually became bluffed. Remembering that a walker had died in this area after slipping over a steep face of rock, Alex eventually backtracked and retraced his steps all the way down to the hut before resuming on the correct path. It was a long day for him.

Alex’s story was trumped by Ned, an Englishman, who crossed the Waiau Pass three times in two days. He started out from the same hut as Alex, climbed successfully to the eastern side of the Alps but was halted by a badly flooded Upper Waiau River. He then backtracked in the bad weather all the way to the Blue Lake Hut, where he slept for a second night. Leaving early the next morning, he slogged up the steep face once more, to cross the pass for a third and final time.

Our strangest encounter also took place inside a hut. There was only one other person sleeping there and a southerly had been howling outside, accompanied by horizontal rain. It really was a dark and stormy night. As the wind began to ebb away, well after midnight, a solid thump suddenly vibrated across the floorboards and woke all of us simultaneously. The door remained firmly latched. A palpable silence was followed by a quavery voice floating over from our fellow tramper. “Was that you?” she said.

No, we replied, it wasn’t us.

Then followed a rapid scramble for head torches and the room was lit up from three directions to reveal a fat possum in the centre of the floor, blinking in puzzlement. It had scaled an outside wall to a broken window, then launched itself aerially into the building to forage for any abandoned food inside.

Two walkers labour up from Roses Hut on the Motatapu Track, between Wanaka and Arrowtown.

Possums were a bit of a feature for us. Much of the bush we walked through in Northland was far too quiet, apart from the spookily manic chatter of their threat-calls at night. There was little evidence of birds. We encountered prolific birdlife only when we had walked right across the island and into Waitangi, where active pest control keeps the area fresh and authentic-looking for the many tourists from cruise ships that park up just offshore.

Other creatures were encountered, too. South of Taumarunui, we pitched our tent in the bush, right on the track, ate dinner and crawled straight into our sleeping bags. At 2.30am, we were abruptly awakened by a nearby noise that was somewhere between a growl and a gravelly roar. Confused, I fumbled awkwardly at the tent flap, but whatever it was caught our scent and went crashing off through the scrub.

Next morning, we asked two hunters we met about these unearthly sounds. “Pig,” they declared with authority. “A big boar, probably. They get big because they’re smart and smart ones keep away from people.” A short time later, still chatting about our night-time encounter, we rounded a corner and were confronted by six browsing deer. They charged away with the same urgency as the boar.

In Southland, we happened upon a local competition called the Big Three. Contestants must shoot a stag and a boar as well as catching a big trout, all between Thursday and Sunday. I assumed few people would be successful in bagging all three in such a tight timeframe, but the local rugby clubrooms were swamped with animal carcasses on display as spectators and competitors alike wandered the grounds in their Red Band gumboots, waiting for the winner to be declared.

The trail follows the sea in numerous places and this, too, provided us with memorable wildlife encounters. Waves on the west coast were relatively placid and the water was sparklingly clear for us on the latter stages of Ninety Mile Beach. We could see the large, dark shadows of stingrays as they hunted close to the shore. Locals had told us these fish sometimes chase whole shoals of panicked mullet onto the beach and, sure enough, soon afterwards we happened upon a number of the small silver fish, still flapping on the sand. They were eyeless. Gulls, seeing their chance, had pounced on the stranded creatures and with one judicious peck, had begun their opportunistic feast.

In Colac Bay, Southland, we walked down an empty beach with the sun glistening on well-formed waves. There was a light offshore breeze and surfers were making the most of the ideal conditions, but only one was human. The others were tiny Hector’s dolphins and each time the lone board rider paddled to catch a wave, the dolphins would frolic and jostle each other to streak in alongside him. It was a completely joyous sight.

Walkers approach the top of Waiau Pass, high above Lake Constance.

In the end, our Te Araroa experience provided us with a host of adventures, as well as a snapshot of our country and some of the issues it faces today. By way of diversion, as we strolled through the North Shore and Auckland City, a game was devised called “BMW vs Mercedes”. One point was scored for each vehicular sighting, with a bonus for a cabriolet with its top down. Little separated both teams, with scores in the high 50s, when the game fizzled out as we walked over the bridge into Mangere and South Auckland.

Our path led us down the main streets of Hamilton and Wellington, too. In each city, there were forlorn people sitting in doorways, with cups on the ground in front of them. Rough sleepers were ubiquitous, a number grouped for some reason outside the casino in Hamilton.

We chuckled quietly when a French woman gasped in horror as we scooped water out of an alpine stream and drank it straight down in front of her. She tutted as she returned to her complicated network of filtration equipment, but maybe she was right?

Wyatt in Easy Rider went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere. We were luckier with our examination. For us, our country still exudes warmth and generosity, but greed and meanness lurk just around the corner. Interesting and adventurous spirits abound. Away from the towns, nature still rules and beauty is everywhere. Especially if you happen to like possums.    

A fellow walker, Doug, harvests fish chased ashore by marauding stingrays on Ninety Mile Beach.

This was published in the January 2018 issue of North & South.



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