I’m camped at km 1207 of the Te Araroa and I have to say since passing the 1,000km mark, things have really picked up. I think I’d been waiting for some kind of turn around moment, and when I actually passed the 1,000km mark while hurtling down the trail on a mountain bike, I think it might have occurred.
I attribute the trail’s improvement to two things: the physical environment and my company. After the mountain bike section I arrived in the town of Taumarunui shortly after my British comrades Tom and Will. Taumarunui is the town where the river section down the Whanganui should be planned, which meant that after weeks of wondering who I’d end up paddling that section with, the answer became quite clear. There were three other hikers in town planning their paddle at the same time, but they were also planning a side trip in between, so when it came to setting a date I looked at Tom and Will as if to ask, ‘are you guys happy to do this with me as the third wheel?’
Committing to paddling the river together meant committing to hiking the next 7 days together as well, leading through the Tongariro National Park past Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings), and once it was settled this would be the case, we went from TA hikers who bump into each other frequently, to a team of three who camp together, hike together, share food, talk about farting and bowel movements, and find ourselves in stitches from laughter constantly.
When we signed up for the paddle we all had to write down our name, age and where we were born, and when Tom (22) and Will (23) read that I was 35, I think they thought I was joking. Even the guy booking our trip didn’t believe me, but that’s one magical element about thru-hiking. Age is about as relevant as the colour of your socks. Nothing equalises people better than stripping away all your comforts and throwing you into unfamiliar territory.
Tom and Will just happen to be the only two hikers I’ve come across who hike the same distance and every meter of the trail like me. They started a few days after me, but while I’ve taken a few days off, the boys haven’t taken a single zero day, and while I’ve been spending money sleeping in Holiday Parks, the boys have managed to spend only $10 on accommodation before this last week.
Since joining forces I haven’t taken a zero day either, and we’ve slept in a shipping container, a cabin, a public shelter/toilet, the forest and a couple’s shed who live about 30 minutes from National Park near Tongariro. This happened yesterday while enjoying a burger, chips and milkshake at a cafe, when the woman (Catherine) serving us offered to house and feed us for the night. She warned us that she and her partner live in a shed with no electricity, but when we arrived this ‘shed’ was an absolute masterpiece of craftsmanship. The whole temporary home was built by Catherine’s husband Mal with recycled timber and goods such as a wheel hub for a sink in their bathroom. They’d purchased the native bush property in May after giving up their comfortable 5 bedroom house and 9-5 jobs having successfully raised three children between the ages of 22-29. Now that the kids have flown the nest they’ve decided to move off the grid and live a much simpler lifestyle, and I can honestly say I’ve never met a couple loving life and the prospects of their future years more.
Catherine fed us from the moment we arrived to the moment we left almost 24 hours later. We ate fresh herbs and vegetables from their handmade greenhouse (as they live above 800m which makes growing veggies a little difficult), pancakes and fresh fruit in the morning, and delicious wraps before we left in the afternoon. While we sat out the rain for most of the day we also played the board game ‘Balderdash’, which had us in stitches for hours.
If there’s one thing the TA does better than any other trail, it’s introduce you to the locals in some of the most unique ways. I hear countless stories of hikers being invited into people’s homes, and I’m shocked almost every day by the kindness and generosity of the Kiwis. They’re amazing people living in such a diverse and fascinating country.
The diversion to Catherine and Mal’s came at a perfect time too, because we’d hiked this last section much faster than the guy booking our river trip expected, and still have a day to kill. We were hiking over 30km days because of bad weather where it was too cold to stop, but this also lined us up with perfect weather when we hiked one of NZ’s great walks through Tongariro National Park. It was truly stunning!
The boys and I have been sleeping like sardines beside one another on our matching Neo Air sleeping pads the last couple of nights, and I’ve got them into the habit my dear friend Morgan taught me of discussing our worst and best moments of the day alongside what we learned before bed. The boys told me they never really talked to each other much until I came along, and they seem to be enjoying this enhanced social activity as much as I am.
People always say your trail experience is so much about the people you share it with – and I couldn’t agree more.