3’000 kilometres on foot through New Zealand. Are we gonna make it? Before we started the Te Araroa in the end of October 2015, we had never hiked for more than one week at once. And now it will be 4 to 5 months. Having some doubts was only fair.
Roughly 4,5 months later we stood in Bluff, the official end of the Te Araroa. Tired, happy and relieved that we had made it. Despite tons of mud, more wet than dry feet (Te Araroa Statistics), malicious tussock country and numerous wearing kilometres on roads we reached our goal. Even my stress fracture of the third metatarsal in my right foot and the forced four weeks break in Wellington could stop us only temporarily.
But did I have the feeling of having achieved something great?
Did I nostalgically reminisce about the time on the trail in the coming days and weeks?
No. Well, a bit 😉
Do I miss the trail?
Surely, it was a great accomplishment to walk (almost) 3’000 kilometres through New Zealand and to be frequently stretched to one’s limits. But I wasn’t euphoric nor depressed afterwards. Both of us weren’t.
Why ever not? Probably it was because we’d been travelling for almost two years at this time. The Te Araroa was part of bigger adventure. A highlight among highlights. We had travelled and lived as we liked it for two years. Far off from social pressure and norms. Although our experiences on the trail separated us from the machinery of everyday life even more, we had already been used to a non-conform lifestyle. We knew the taste of adventure, freedom and independence pretty well.
And then there is the “once in a lifetime” attitude with such projects. For many people the Te Araroa was an adventure they had to work towards for years or had to sacrifice a lot for it. Is the adventure once over, people fall into euphoria that quickly turns into shock and often into the infamous post-trail depression. Lots of hikers are affected by this mood after a thru-hike.
Eating, Walking, Sleeping. Living on the trail is reduced to the essentials and differs drastically from the “normal” stressful life, to which most will return.
I’ll have my adaption problems too. But I’m not depressed after the trail. We both know that the Te Araroa won’t have been our last thru-hike. And it wasn’t our last long-term travel.
We have too many plans for the future to look back wistfully at the past.
But now to the actual summary of the Te Araroa.
The North Island of New Zealand is significantly denser populated than the South Island. More people, more private land and fewer wildernesses. Not a typical hiker setting. Furthermore, 50 per cent of the trail is on all kinds of roads.
Therefore, it’s much more about the culture of the New Zealanders and their life style and also about the contact with the locals. The hospitality and helpfulness of the Kiwis surprised and delighted us again and again. In total we stayed around a dozen times in guest rooms, summerhouses and on the front lawn of strangers. We’d often only asked for water and in return got much more. Added to that there were numerous encounters, talks and nice gestures, which let us forget the strenuous kilometres. The Kiwis have got the Trail Angel gene without knowing what a Trail Angel is.
The cultural exchange was one of the main reasons why we wanted to do the Te Araroa. As normal tourist we wouldn’t have had any chance to have these experiences.
Ups and Downs
The social exchanges and the interesting meetings were crucial factors so that the negative parts of the North Island didn’t outweigh. The road walking was mentally and physically wearing for me. Music or podcasts couldn’t always help over the monotony. The perpetual walking motions on flat ground caused chronic pain in the hip, shoulders and feet.
Of course there were some nature highlights. I liked the East coast of Northland, the Pureroa Forest, the Tongariro Crossing and the Tararuas the most. Islands in a sea of farmland, roads and muddy forests.
I was mentally and physically worse off than on the South Island. I fought against inflammations and got a stress fracture (4 weeks break) before the Tararuas. My motivation was inexistent at many days and I often had strong mood swings.
A lot of these problems I trace back to the road walking. I don’t like it to walk straight forward on flat and unnatural ground (concrete, tarmac, gravel) with the same locomotion pattern.
Short and Crisp
The North Island gives a great insight into the New Zealand culture apart from tourism. The contact with the Kiwis was great. There were only a few really exciting hiking sections. Too much of the trail is on roads and paddocks.
The Te Araroa on the South Island leads along the East side of the Alps and avoids densely populated places like Nelson, Christchurch or Dunedin. Stops in civilisation are restricted to touristic places like Arthur’s Pass and Queenstown.
The wild landscapes and nature are to the fore on the South Island. There are few road sections, which are mostly links between trail and resupply.
We were very lucky with the weather and counted for example only two rainy days in the first three weeks. This made the partly difficult and dangerous river crossings immensely easier. Lots of rivers are only fordable in good weather and rest days in huts because of the rain are not uncommon. Besides the physical effort, nature offers most of the challenges on the South Island.
For me the most spectacular sections were the Richmond Ranges and the Nelson Lakes National Park.
Ups and downs
New Zealand has a tremendous network of 1’200 DOC (Department of Conservation) Huts. Most of them you can find in the backcountry of the South Island. Theoretically you could enjoy 40 huts along the Te Araroa. We spent not many nights in the huts but we often camped in our tent next to one. A pit toilet and a roof over one’s head tempt most TA hikers to hike from hut to hut. As a result we met way more other Te Araroa hikers than on the North Island, where it spreads out more because of the free camping.
This led to our encounter with Mary Kate and James (USA). Until Bluff we spent almost every night at the same place and sometimes hiked for some hours together. We enjoyed their as well as other company very much.
I only disliked the last section of the trail on the South Island. From Te Anau to Bluff and especially the last 100km, which were mainly on beach and roads. I immediately developed an inflammation; this time it was my shin. Compared to the North Island this section wasn’t unusual. The parallels were obvious.
More nature, less civilisation, more hiking. I had more fun and energy on the South Island although the days were longer (duration, distance) and more challenging than on the North Island. It was to my taste (gusto 😉 ). Up and down, up and down. As long as it isn’t straightforward on boring roads! Not without reason we got the nicknames “mountain goats”.
Thus, I was in much better health. The stress fracture wasn’t healed completely when we started on the Queen Charlotte Track though. But after I had survived the Richmond Ranges I knew that I would manage the rest.
Until the last section from Te Anau to Bluff I didn’t have big problems.
Short and Crisp
Without any doubt the South Island was the highlight of the Te Araroa. Finally I could enjoy New Zealand’s nature. The trail leads for 1’300km through diverse and stunning landscape. And the best: almost no roads ;).
Is the Te Araroa something for you?
Would I do the Te Araroa again? No. There are too many other long-distance hikes in this world. Would I recommend it to others? Absolutely. The TA isn’t really comparable to other long-distance hikes. Both islands are stark contrasts and have their own focus. Culture in the North and Nature in the South. You probably could be disappointed by this trail, if you only focus on one aspect. But if you are willing to completely embark on New Zealand, you won’t be disappointed.
The Te Araroa is still in its early childhood and therefore has a lot of child diseases.
As the main problem I see the raising numbers of hikers. At the moment the numbers are doubling every year. The infrastructure can’t cope with this numbers.
On the North Island for example it’s going to be problematic with free camping. In many sections there are only a few possibilities to set up camp on public land. We camped mostly on private land and so relied on the helpfulness/hospitability of the Kiwis. And sometimes we unavoidably camped without permission. Should more and more hikers knock on the same door or camp illegally, there will be problems.
On the South Island free camping isn’t a problem. But the good network of backcountry huts could hit its limit. 6-8 bunks won’t be enough in the high season. In my opinion this isn’t a big problem for Te Araroa hikers, because they carry a tent anyway. But they can camp only if the terrain allows it. Therefore the DOC should concentrate more on pit toilets and tent areas than on building bigger huts.
Water is sometimes scarce on the North Island. Farming and civilisations pollute a lot of water sources. We knocked almost daily on a door and asked for water. Some rain tanks and an index of water sources on the trail would be tremendously helpful.
800 kilometres on roads on the North Island. It’s not only annoying but also very dangerous. Especially the sections on the highway or heavily trafficked roads were safety-related critical. 2 metres clearance from a truck with 100 km/h? Uncomfortable. That for 5,10 or even 20km? Reality. The Te Araroa trust must take the trail off the roads in the next years. Otherwise there will be accidents.
Well maintained hiking paths like in Europe or the US are rare on the Te Araroa. On the South Island the trail is often subtle or inexistent. This causes two problems.
Firstly, if the trail isn’t marked and built out well enough or even inexistent, people walk cross-country and make several small trails. It destroys all the vegetation and the ground around the trail. Wide swaths of stamped down plants and mud holes are the norm. The harm in arid areas with delicate flora is vast. A clear and well-built trail is not only for the hikers beneficial.
And there is a hitch in the maintenance on existing tracks too. An example: in the Pirongia Forest the Te Araroa leads through rain forest up to Mt. Pirongia, where there is the fancy and new Pahautea Hut, and goes back down on the other side. Both tracks, particularly the Hihikiwi Track, are a mud hell. The hut is nice though, but the ascent and descent aren’t. The DOC invests a lot of money in a new hut but not in the maintenance of the access.
Of course, the maintenance of the many by the DOC managed hiking tracks costs much money. And voluntary work doesn’t seem to be widespread in New Zealand. But I think it would help if the DOC would concentrate more on the tracks than on the huts.
Te Araroa is still young and has a lot to improve. The next years will show if New Zealand’s Trail lasts. It definitely has the makings of being one of the great Trails (Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, etc.).
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