I've always wanted to go on a big journey. As a teenager, I wanted to horse trek around New Zealand with my dog and my guitar. Finally, four decades later, here I am without the horses, the dog and the guitar. It's not quite as I'd pictured it, but it's what I've got.
Planning my Te Araroa Northland section was a long and frustrating effort. From basic planning and information gathering to route planning, gear selection and all-things-food, the entire experience was overwhelming, daunting and scary. By the time I got to the start line, less daunting was the prospect of going out there alone, although it’s true I was still worried about getting lost. The one time I did feel excitement was when I wondered what life would be like afterwards. Surely it’s impossible to experience a journey like this, without changing in some way, large or small. So I began with ‘the big hair chop’ and off I went!
Just like that, it all came down to this - the way too heavy but ridiculously small pack that would be my home for the next six months or so. How exciting!
That first day, I took a few quiet moments at Cape Reinga asking everyone I could think of (God and all the spirits I know) to guide me and grant me safe passage. The meeting of the waters surged, lively as the currents ran together, and as the energy built beneath me, I took flight. Springing forward into my first steps on the Te Araroa trail felt good. I was free. Free of all the daily grind, all the things that detract from my free-spirited bounce. I was back in my happy place, at one with nature. Although the day wasn't super clear, there were some gorgeous views along that first 14km stretch. Lying in my wee tent that night I felt snug, warm and positively peachy. Boy, was that about to change!
90 Mile Beach was gruelling. There's no other way of saying it, it was ruthless and absolutely brutal. I was sore everywhere. 30-odd kms on the beach with a fully loaded pack is a lot harder than one might think. It's excruciating and exhausting. A lot begins to hurt. At times, the pain and desperation make the beauty of 90 Mile Beach invisible. It just goes on and on as far as the eye can see. Stumbling into camp as the first drops began to fall, I was very grateful for my quick pitch Durston tent. Vicious weather was on the way. As I lay in my tent, warm and dry (even if sore) I was also grateful for my Back Country Meals. Thank goodness I just had to boil some water and a few minutes later I had a nutritious 700 calorie meal. Yay to that as the rain pelted down!
And so began the adventure. As the hours and days wore on, the rain persisted and the pain remained, I often slipped into my "I just want to get there" mentality. Without wanting to eat, I’d stuff food in my mouth. I’d get cold so I’d put on more clothes. And on I’d trudge. And on, and on. But in amongst all that, you can’t help love the sheer beauty, expanse and isolation of the rugged west coast.
The wild horses were a thrill for me. There's nothing that signifies freedom more than horses running wild. The tiny foal prints in the sand were especially cute. Lowlights were walking the graveyard of once beautiful beings - seals, stingray, shark, fish, birds, shellfish and all the creatures who’d washed up, including a sheep. As I turned to leave, I knew I’d never look at 90 Mile Beach the same way ever again!
But I went from the frying pan into the fire! Little did I know that after leaving 90 Mile Beach there would be literally hundreds of kilometres of hard, road walking for numerous reasons including the horrendous weather of the past few months forcing track closures.
I entertained myself on the long road stretches, connecting with the curious and interested. The gorgeous little beef calves with their stocky legs and thick bodies, stared at this passing stranger with single focus, ears twitching to the sound of paradise ducks, their gaze not wandering.
Another moment of beauty came when I met an old arthritis-riddled collie who insisted on limping over to excitedly say hello. He was so joyful and excited as he hobbled towards me, my heart melted. Meeting halfway like old friends, we had a beautiful cuddle session to soothe away pain and rejoice in love. What a gem he was. It surely was an effort to tear myself away from him to continue. He accepted the parting with grace, knowing our sharing was a moment in time, and we both left richer for the experience.
Starting out, I wasn't keen to hitchhike too much of the Te Araroa Trail but sometimes you learn to be practical. I discovered the painful way, just how incredibly hard roads are on the body. A foot injury meant I had to take some time off trail, which was very frustrating. I found out that many walkers were choosing to hitch at least some, if not many, of the road sections so I changed my approach, reminding myself this was my own individual journey and there were no rules.
Whilst the road sections tested patience and resolve, there were many stunning coastal and bush sections to enjoy. Drifting off to sleep to the sound of moreporks was beautiful and peaceful. It felt safe to be under the watchful eye of nature. I love the bush and the Helena Ridge Track was new for me. Immersed in nature, cocooned by hundreds of shades of green, and scent-indulged with the smell of the bush, my heart filled with peace, hope and joy.
At length, I arrived at Nikau Bay, another highlight of my journey. Others were there too. It's an amazing spot where the various huts and utility buildings fit into the surroundings with the same gentleness that the creator as a person exudes. The atmosphere is as calm and natural as the Nikau palm growing outside the door of my bunk room. I'd have liked more time to stay and soak it all in, but the Trail called.
By Day 18, I'd made it as far as the Taiharuru Estuary. The wind howled all night. Every time I woke, I dug deeper into my warm protective bedding. The minute I poked my head out into the mess of weather, it started raining. With the foul weather keeping daylight at bay, we waited impatiently in the cold for enough light to leave.
Reaching the estuary shoreline, mangroves lurking in the partial light, I stepped into the sticky, gooey, smelly mud. The cold muck squelched up between toes and around ankles. Slipping and sliding out to the water, we found the crossing point and waded in. But that was the easy part. Once clear of the water, it was knee deep mud. Balancing was tricky, especially with a big pack on your back. Cleaning up to put shoes back on wasn’t so easy either!
Arriving at Ocean Beach, the force of the head wind drove my forward step backwards and everything that was loose became a sail to take me downstream. Rain sliced at my face so severely I had to look only at my feet, waiting for the moments between showers. For the first time all journey, I was actually happy to see the road! The prospect of hitching was a very welcome thought in this horrendous weather.
Onward with my adventure.
Outside of the official network of Trail Angels, there are the family and friends who provide support in all sorts of ways, the strangers who offer a lift to a tired walker, and the lady who gave me muffins. Many offer their help for free, and some official Trail Angels ask only for a donation (koha).
I’d like to recognise all these people for their invaluable contribution, their generosity and their kindness. Having witnessed some behaviours on the Trail, I implore people to respect the Trail, those who use it and those who support it. It's not okay to leave someone a $10 koha when you've used bedding or linen, eaten their food and drunk their alcohol. I really hope walkers give a sensible amount and pay their way plus some. These trail angels do an amazing job for the Trail and without them, it wouldn't be possible to route the Trail through some sections.
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