All posts by Serial Nomad

Writer & Wanderer

The Whanganui River

I’d been counting down to the river section since the beginning of the trip. Not that I actually knew exactly when it was coming up because I pretty much live day to day out here, but I continued to imagine what the river would be like, what sort of kayak I’d get to paddle, and who I’d share the experience with for weeks.

After all these daydreams the river still exceeded my expectations, and it will go down as the most enjoyable 5 days of the trip so far. I got super lucky I have to admit. I had two wonderful people to share it with (who also carried most of my gear in their boat), we had exceptional weather without a single drop of rain, and because of the weather, the river was quite low which made the rapids a lot of fun, especially hitting the class two waves on a sit on top kayak while the boys followed behind in their canoe and managed to stay upright.

When we booked the trip in Taumarunui we bought all our food for the trip and left it at the information centre for the canoe company to pick up (Canoes 4U). The tricky part was that we had to purchase 5 days of food for the river alongside 7 days of food for the section in between in under two hours. I felt like I was on one of those supermarket gameshows where people run around filling their trolley with anything they can grab. We then had to run back to the information centre 300m down the street with our trolleys before it closed at 5pm and literally made it with only minutes to spare.I was really surprised at how many rapids there were and how long the days of paddling actually were on the river as well. When they said it would take us 5-7 hours to paddle just over 30km I didn’t believe them, but as I’ve learned the Kiwis don’t exaggerate, and that’s exactly what it took us each day with only a few leisurely stops in between.We stayed at one DOC (Department of Conservation) campsite, one private campsite, on a roadside after the convent we’d hoped to stay at was going to cost over $20 each to camp, and spent our final night at a DOC hut where we managed to finish off all the beer we’d brought with us on the trip.

On our last day we had 43km to paddle to Whanganui, and so I clipped my kayak to the boy’s canoe like a sidecar and we all paddled together with me and Tom up the front using the canoe paddles and Will in the back paddling and steering with the kayak paddle. It worked a charm, and I was even able to boil water and make us coffee on the go!

The river itself was stunning, running through deep gorges and past numerous waterfalls and beaches. There were a few jet boats transporting folks up the river to see the Bridge to Nowhere, but other than that we practically had the river to ourselves.

We paddled around 150km from Whakahoro to Whanganui, which is one of the many options for this section of the trail. Some paddle from Taumarunui, some get out at Pipiriki, so essentially your trip can vary from 3-7 days, and I think selecting the 5-day option was perfect.

Since the lovely river we’ve completed two 30km days of road walking in 30 degree temperatures. The weather is due to change this evening however, with two seperate cyclones hitting the lower part of the North Island and the South Island bringing with them heavy rain and gale force winds. Tom, Will and I are all camping within earshot of one another, so if it’s pouring down in the morning we may choose to bunker down and sit it out, or battle a wet 20km into the town of Feilding.

Goodnight from km 1466 of the TA 🙂

The turn around

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.

The first 1,000km

(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!

Sleepless in Stillwater

I am SO tired right now, but I’m staying at the Stillwater Holiday Park where TA hikers can sleep for free, but your bed is in the games room of the park, so if you want to sleep early forget about it!

I’ve had a great last few days, and I’ve also enjoyed feeling no pressure to write an update. In fact the only reason I’m writing now is because it’s impossible to sleep, so I’m happier to use the time productively.

Since Christmas I’ve hiked 113kms across beaches, through beautiful forest, across rivers and along roads. I came to the realisation that the TA has a personality disorder – just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it surprises you again!

Beach walk to Pakiri.

Farmland leading to the Tamahunga Track.

I actually met the woman who is responsible for the trail in the north while I was hiking yesterday. Thankfully I’d just had coffee and was in a great mood, because when she asked me about the trail I said it was tough for the first two weeks but now I’m starting to enjoy it. We chatted for a long time, and she was as regretful about the road sections as I am. This trail has been a huge endeavour, and an expensive one to negotiate with all the private land owners who host the trail on their property. Some people just won’t budge, and so the only way to connect the trail is to take a road around to the next track.

After racing through the Dome Forest two days ago with a guy named Warrick who was training for a week long adventure race in Tasmania, I was in my tent by about 7pm on a farmer’s patch of lawn opened up for hikers. I was about to drift off to sleep when I heard someone yelling, and then soon after I heard hiking poles falling to the ground near my tent and a huge pack hit the floor. Enter Kevin from Lyon in France. This guy is hilarious, and although we both swear by hiking alone we’ve been forced to share this section because of the logistics with kayaking and crossing estuaries. He’s been good company to have around despite the fact he doesn’t seem to understand much of what I say, but it’s also nice not to talk too much, while having someone to appreciate some of the better parts of the trail with.

Kayaking 7km down the Puhoi River.

Coastal walk from Waiwera to Orewa.

I’ve entered the outer suburbs of Auckland so it’s been a lot of road and pavement walking today. I took the opportunity to purchase a new pair of shoes – a pair of New Balance trail runners with a D width that seem to fit my toes perfectly. I’m hanging onto my old sneakers for the estuary crossing tomorrow and some of the roads around Auckland if they last that long. I’m scared my new sneakers are going to be destroyed before I even hit real trail again!

My collection of footwear.

Today I felt like I was on a vacation rather than a thru-hike. I stopped for eggs and bacon and coffee for breakfast and ate a burger this evening at the boat club nearby the holiday park. I feel like I deserved it after the horrendous road walk into Stillwater today though. It was literally a winding road with no shoulder for 5 long and hot kilometres, and at the end I was practically running to avoid cars.

The trail through suburbia!

Goodnight from km 562 of the trail. I’m due to arrive in Auckland for NYE on the 31st! Woohoo!! 🎉

Christmas on the TA

Despite not being with my family, today was one of the most enjoyable Christmas days yet. Imagine waking up with your only priority being doing nothing, absolutely nothing. The only items on my schedule were to eat food, swim in the sea, put my feet up and sleep, and I did all of them with pure glee.

I guess I’ve spent so much time alone recently that I’m well and truly comfortable in my own company, to the point that when I swam in the ocean today, or more so the estuary in front of the campsite, I made my way back to shore through the shallow water like a Mexican walking fish on my hands, trailing my floating body behind me until I literally stopped floating. I was giggling to myself, unfazed by the wandering eyes watching my slow crawl to shore. I was experiencing pure uninhibited delight, feeling like the freest spirit on this planet, and the rest of my day was much the same.

This trail has taught me more about being alone than the PCT ever did. Heck I spent most of the time either falling in or out of love on that trail, or thinking about people other than myself.

Today I realised I am truly self focussed, not in a negative selfish way, but in a way that I’m not distracted by any kind of love interest or another person that might affect my decisions. It feels blissful and self empowering. I know I need human interaction to keep me sane, happy and human, but I don’t need to feel like I belong to someone, or be completed by another person, or have someone sitting beside me to appreciate the beauty of what’s around me.

I haven’t listened to a single song on my iPhone or anything during the 450kms I’ve walked so far, and I’ve honestly come closer to whatever meditation is meant to achieve than anytime I’ve tried to meditate. Thoughts come and go, some I hold onto and some I don’t. I’ve cried so many unexpected tears, not from sadness, but from something more profound deep within. Smells that remind me of moments in my childhood, my best friends, my parents and my sister. I cry because I come so close to these memories it’s impossible not to be affected by them, as though I’m living them years later, understanding how significant or insignificant those moments either were or were not at the time.

I cried yesterday thinking about the days when I’d be lucky enough to order food from the ‘tuck shop’ when I was in primary school. Either my mum or I would fill in a form, put money in an envelope, staple it to a brown paper bag, and then hand it in when I arrived at school. The joy I got from picking up my brown paper bag at lunch time filled with a small garlic bread wrapped in foil, a chocolate milk, and a bar as a treat were monumental. Simple pleasures like these can bring me to tears almost 25 years later, it’s remarkable.

Even if it were just for the experience of today and some of the memories I’ve had, I could say the last three weeks of pain were worth it. How else could I be sitting on a beach alone in another country to everyone I know and feel justified doing absolutely nothing on Christmas Day? I spoke to my family, I sent and received a few messages from the special people in my life and that was enough. I felt completely fulfilled with next to nothing, and that’s one of the reasons I love to thru-hike, because I’m reminded of how little we actually need. The less you can live with the more joyful your experience on trail will be, and I’m pretty sure that translates to life off trail as well.

Christmas lunch!

Today I let go of my preconceived ideas of the Te Araroa. It’s not the PCT, the AT, the CDT, or any other long distance trail out there. It is a unique beast that was not designed to be a straight forward pathway. There are challenges around every corner: river crossings, road walking, steep sloping gradients like you’ve never seen. But it is what it is, take it or leave it. No one is forcing me to be here except me. I don’t need to be in the depths of the wilderness to learn something about myself or the people around me. I’m still living out of a backpack and am slowly getting a better sense of a trail community. The environment is just the backdrop, and I think what I’m meant to learn is right in front of me.

Maunganui Cliffs walkway.

Merry Christmas from the Te Araroa Trail, New Zealand’s truly unique Longest Pathway.

Back in the game

I’m camping in the rain in the backyard of some dingy pub for $8 so I can eat a descent meal in town tonight. I reached the town of Waipu today, km 420 of the trail and feel bloody brilliant. Maybe it’s the sweet lager I’m drinking right at this second at the pizza shack, or maybe it’s because I spent the day with Brian and Julian and realised just how much I’m actually enjoying the trail compared to others. All I needed was to hear someone else complain about the beach walking so I could step in and say, “yeah but isn’t this beautiful, and it’s overcast today so we’re in heaven!”

I didn’t actually hike much with them, because generally I love to hike alone, but we leapfrogged a little and all got stuck at the same river crossing because non of us took notice of the notes and the tide. We reached the Ruakaka River mouth at high tide, and after Brian attempted to float his pack inside its rain cover, we were saved by a paddle boarder who ferried our packs over while we swam.

It was one of my favourite days on trail, and my feet were relatively happy inside my crocs until the last 5km of road walking when they needed to be inside shoes again. My small toe still complains when crammed inside a shoe, so I took my scissors to my sneaker and made a hole for my toe to stick out. I have no idea how this will affect my walking, but desperate times call for desperate measures!

I camped with the boys the last two nights and was kinda relieved when they opted for the hostel over the cheap camping. As much as I love company I really don’t want to form a walking group. They’re nice guys, but since being in their hyper scheduled presence, I’ve found myself going off their plans without looking ahead myself, and the thing I love most about being out here is the complete independence to make my own decisions!

Catching the boat from Whangarei Heads to Marsden Point this morning.

I just ate an entire pizza topped with venison sausage, mushrooms, bacon, roasted garlic, caramelised onion and capsicum, and I ate it so fast I didn’t even manage a photo. I’m literally in the best food coma ever, which will hopefully allow me to sleep despite the loud drunk men hollering about 10 meters from my tent, or at least they were before I escaped to the pizza shack.

Thanks for all your encouraging messages today! They honestly boosted my spirits and put me back in the game. It’s my mission to find joy in every day now, and share it whenever possible!

Goodnight from Waipu! 🙂

Feeling a little ‘ho-hum’

Last night after I’d exploded my pack and taken over a very cute little shack for TA walkers, two other hikers arrived. They’re the first hikers who have caught up to me, and they started on Dec 8, which means they’ve been pushing big miles.

Julian is from Germany and Brian is from the states near Atlanta I think. They’re the most on schedule hikers I’ve met, knowing exactly what’s coming up and calculating exactly how much food they should be carrying for each stretch. I’m taking a very uncharacteristic relaxed approach to this trail. I carry 4-5 days of food, sleep wherever I make it to, and the only real regimented thing I do is hit the trail at 6:30am every day to beat the heat. I’m not sure if it’s all the time I’ve spent in Canada but I hate walking in the sun here. It’s so hot and burns you to a crisp within minutes, and I’m going through so much sunscreen I swear their stocks are about to rise!

Crossing the Taiharuru Estuary yesterday before reaching the walker camp:

Last night I left $20 for the guy who maintains the little hiker shack and tonight I’m at another random campsite in someone’s backyard with running water, a gas stove, outhouse, shower in the main house and some fresh produce. I gave these guys $20 too, and when I checked how much I’ve spent already in NZ I’m up to $1,200 in under 3 weeks!!! Shit! I read this trail is expensive but holy crap. I also broke another hiking pole and probably need a new pair of sandals too so the tally is only going to rise. Oh and it costs $15 to get across the next water crossing tomorrow morning, then there’s another short paddle section soon, a ferry over to Auckland, a four day paddle further south, and then two ferries to get from the North to the South Island. I had thought about paddling between the two, but I’m so overwhelmed by the costs and logistics and plain old hiking I can’t even fathom it now.

I’ve managed to find a state of contentment which is neither happy nor sad while I hike. It feels rather meditative in a way, and is allowing me to grit my teeth through the foot pain. I hiked most of the day in my fake crocs today because my small toe refused to walk inside a shoe, but I hit the most insane forest this afternoon, which forced me to wear my shoes on the 350m descent over 1km. It was horrific on my ankles and knees and was the closest I’ve come to running out of water.

I thought about quitting a lot today. A lot of this trail feels pointless, and when the roads actually bring you to a track, it’s so god damn steep and hot it’s just awful. There’s so much trail magic surrounding the trail, but it just doesn’t really feel like a trail. At the moment it feels like a suburban walk from town to town that detours up any steep hill or mountain in its path, then you either sleep on the side of the road or pay $20 to sleep in your tent in someone’s backyard. It’s all quite random really.

I’ve heard the South Island is steeper, which I can totally imagine and it turns me off hiking it completely. I keep wondering if I’m just in a shit mood and if these feelings will pass, but it’s really hard to say. The further I walk the more invested I become I guess, although today when I thought about needing to race the weather in the South Island I legitimately thought, ‘ah well, I’ll just go as far as I can.’ This is the exact opposite to the PCT. I needed to finish that trail as though my life depended on it, whereas this trail I just don’t have the same drive. I came out here to be in nature for 4 months, but I just feel like I’m on a treadmill going through the motions. What the hell is wrong with me?

I know what you’re all thinking, and trust me I’m as disappointed in the way I feel as you are, but I’m just being 100% honest in this moment, because I can’t bring myself to write anything else, and sometimes just by writing it down I can move on and feel better. In fact I already do feel slightly better just getting that off my chest. Tomorrow is a new day!

Goodnight from ‘The Green Bus Stop’ at km 394.