(I’m about to head into two weeks of no signal, so I apologise that this latest entry is a little rushed!)
I’m lying in my tent at km 970 at the start of the 86km Timber Trail. I arrived here at 10am after 3 hours of road walking, mostly along State Highway 30, with giant trucks hauling timber screaming by.
Having hiked almost 1,000km, one third of the Te Araroa “Trail”, these are my thoughts…
On most days I have wanted to quit. There are three distinct days I remember not considering the option, but these were not because the trail was necessarily magnificent, it’s because it wasn’t as god awful as it often can be.
I’m not writing this to be negative, I’m going to try to be as objective as possible.
The Te Araroa is NOT a trail. It never actually claims to be. It’s a “pathway” that consists of beaches, forests, roads, footpaths, rivers, paddocks, bike paths, highways, 4WD tracks, estuaries, stop banks, and some trail. I’m speaking of the first 1,000km I’ve seen, as I’m expecting the South Island to be quite different.
There are sections that are so overgrown it’s hard to believe there is a path below the long grass or blackberry bushes or spiky gorse that rips through your skin and clothing. It’s hard to understand the true nature of the trail because it’s constantly changing, but all I know for sure is that it will constantly shock and surprise you with what’s up next.
I don’t have the magical sense of being removed from civilisation like I did on the PCT, or the feeling of not having a roof over my head for days on end. I haven’t witnessed sunrises from mountain tops or watched the stars from my sleeping bag at night. I get up early to have 3 hours of walking without the burning sun, so I’m either eating oatmeal in my tent or road walking when the sun rises, and I’m usually in bed before it gets dark.
There is not a trail community like I’m used to. There are definitely people on this trail but there are less of the unique characters I was used to bumping into on the PCT. The average age is about 25. I’ve met two people who are older than me hiking the trail and one of them I had to take to hospital.
People do whatever they want on this trail. Some hike the whole thing, some hitch the roads or whole sections. Some do side trips and in one case win a trip to Figi on NYE and plan their hike around that. This is not a scenic walk. It’s a walk that challenges the notion of walking in some of the craziest places you can imagine designing a “pathway” (in the first 1,000km anyway).
People who begin and complete this trail are determined, stubborn, proud, A-type and gluttons for punishment. I always wake up with a sick kind of curiosity about what my day will be like, and am often astounded at how shocking my day of walking ends up being.
I think people end up enjoying the Te Araroa because of its complete madness. It either breaks you or makes you stronger or both. It will make you fit and strong and hopefully introduce you to some amazing people, but you will work your arse off doing it, and on many days question if it’s all worth it.
I live in a constant state of optimism that the trail will get better. I have been assured hundreds of times that the South Island is better, but boy is it a long way to walk to get there.
I can’t say I regret doing any of it, but you could not pay me any amount of money to ever do it again. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to visit the north island of New Zealand again or ever even look at it on a map. The saving graces are the locals you run into quite frequently during this first century of kms. There are many trail angels who don’t even know what trail angels are. They just help out hikers because they choose to, like any other person they’d come across that looks like they might need help. Kiwis are some of the friendliest and most robust people I’ve ever met. This trail has given me an appreciation of how tough a breed they are!
Yesterday consisted of steep eroded trail that fell away under foot as I walked precariously alongside a river. The sections in between were boggy marshes with mud up to my ankles, and walls of blackberry bushes that ripped through my sun shirt and legs.
After such unpleasantries I joined Tom and Will, two young British guys who I’ve been bumping into since Mercer two sections back, at a cute little campsite by a stream set up by a local farmer. I was able to wash my legs and shoes of all the mud and eat lunch in the shade before another 20kms along various roads. It was the first night I literally camped on the side of the road, thankfully alongside the boys.
I’ve got new heel blisters from all the road walking, and when I got to the start of the Timber Trail, which is essentially a mountain bike track, we saw another hiker Katy jumping on a rented bike to do the track in one day. The boys and I looked at one another and then approached the man Katy had been speaking with, and after 5 minutes we’d organised ourselves bikes for $60 each. The only consideration was that we had to be able to do the whole thing in one day, and having just completed it, I can say it was the most thrilling and terrifying section of trail for me.
I literally felt like my bike was going to fall apart as we raced down some of the winding, bumpy, narrow and scarily steep sections. Just before the half way point I stopped Tom and told him I didn’t think I could make it. He gave me a look like I was crazy and said “but you’ve been overtaking everyone else on the trail”. Everyone else was only doing half the distance we were, but his belief in me helped me stopped feeling like the weak link and 3rd wheel, and by the end I was hammering so fast down the hills I felt like I was flying.
Will felt like we were cheating… but my body doesn’t feel like riding 86km in one day was anything close to cheating the trail. The TA is mainly hiking with some paddling thrown in, and I very much expect this section to become mountain biking after word gets around!
So as I finish writing this from km 1048 of the TA a day later (with the thill of the ride still buzzing inside me), I can honestly say I’m looking forward to what’s to come, but I’m bloody glad those 1048kms are behind me! This trail is a rollercoaster!