Do you think we should turn back?’ Johanna yelled through the hood of her jacket, her voice instantly whisked away on the roaring wind. Manu was fast disappearing in the white mist ahead, too far away to communicate with. I considered the trail we’d just covered, a relentless ascent to a rocky and exposed ridge. Even if we did turn around we’d still have to negotiate the same exposed ground. Somewhere ahead on the other side of this ridge would be the shelter of the forest.
‘Nah, we’ll be right,’ I yelled back, gesturing with my hand for her to move forward.
The wind that had been manageable initially had soon turned into a roaring beast that shoved us with unpredictable gusts as we negotiated a narrow ridge, steep drops to either side. I staggered along it like a one-year-old learning to walk, arms and legs wide for balance, occasionally resorting to crawling on hands and knees, clutching at rocks and tufts of grass on the ground to prevent from being blown away.
The wind grew until it sounded like a jet engine screaming in my ears. It battered and blew in my face, pushing air down my throat with such velocity that I couldn’t properly process it. A violent gust pushed me to the ground and my eyes streamed, blurring my vision. A surreal blur started to creep over me. No longer did I feel like I was on a hike along the length of New Zealand, but rather that I’d been nudged into a parallel universe where there were no rocks or grass around me, only a pure raging whiteness. We shouldn’t be out here, I realised too late.
The Tararua Range is notoriously windy but I didn’t realise just how dangerous it could be until I was in the middle of it. My passage across taught me a lesson or two, but I was to learn many more before my journey was finally over.
Te Araroa is one of the world’s newest long-distance hiking trails stretching 3,000km from the very northern tip of the North Island of New Zealand to the southern most point on the South Island mainland, traversing a dazzling variety of stunning terrain. It makes a decent five-month challenge for hikers of all experience levels but for someone who’s longest walk to date was a measly 65km it was a trial by fire.
Exposed terrain, alpine conditions, navigational challenges, lightly marked trails and river crossings are common. Nowhere in the country is more than 130km from the sea and its maritime climate means that the weather can change rapidly. At any time of the year, hikers need to be ready for all conditions, and preparation and good decision-making are essential.
I hadn’t planned to venture into it alone but when a friend that I had enlisted to join me pulled out on the second day with an injury I walked on anyway, over the months gathering experience, skills, muscles, a few new friends and, by trail end, even a new mindset.
The route through the North Island meanders from west coast to east and back again, along remote beaches, past idyllic seaside towns and through many a forest. But these are no typical forest trails. The foliage is often dense to the point of obscuring the trail altogether, the ground steep, slippery and riddled with tree roots. Vines dangle from above, waiting to snag passing hikers, and fallen tree trunks create added obstacles to climb over. It’s beautiful
but exhausting terrain.
In the Hunua Range the vines grew to ridiculous proportions, making the vague trail markers all the more difficult to find and, with little water left in my bottles, my GPS sent me on a wild goose chase that kept me trapped in the forest until darkness fell on a 13-hour day. I learned to pay closer attention to the terrain from that point on.
In the evenings I erected my tiny tent amongst the trees, on a beach or next to a farmer’s field. Te Araroa combines a majority of trail hiking with a sprinkling of quiet back-country roads, and what these sections might lack in raw natural wilderness, they make up for in cultural interest. It was here where I came across farmers dashing between fields on quad bikes, perhaps with a sheep wedged between their knees or a couple of dogs balancing on the back. It was here that a family invited me in for a shower and an extensive tour of their farm. On another evening I camped amongst tufts of wool scattered amongst the grass next to shearing sheds, invited by a group of Maori sheep shearers preparing for a job the next day. These interactions transformed my long-distance hike into an all-round genuine Kiwi experience, greatly enriching my journey.
Every five to eight days the trail passed through or near a town, allowing me to resupply with food and give my body and clothes a much-needed wash. Though the treats of civilisation were always welcome, as the months went by I found I started to feel more at home in the wilds, surrounded by the songs of birds and the rush of a river, than I did in town.
In the South Island the trail starts with 65km of gentle hiking overlooking the stunning Queen Charlotte Sound. From high ridges I peeked down into one glorious cove after another, occasionally finding the odd white yacht floating lazily in the blue. In the distance, long bands of islands seemed suspended in the haze and I stopped regularly to take it all in. Somehow the area had the feel of an abundant tropical paradise, with its blue seas, lush green ferns, and the air ringing with birdsong and the trill of cicadas. In just that first day on the South Island I saw dolphins, a pod of killer whales, and even glow-worms.
It was a dazzling welcome but with the tame introduction over the trail soon got down to business. The route here follows the Southern Alps, an impressive mass of jagged peaks that form the spine of the South Island. If I wasn’t walking among them, I walked alongside them and the stunning views had me constantly reaching for the camera.
It’s an environment that requires constant attention. The mountains here are rugged, protruding above the tree line, and regularly I found myself rock scrambling along precipitous ridges with nothing but a smattering of orange poles providing occasional reassurances that I was still on track. The days were long, the hills seemingly endless.
I waded through rivers – lots of them. Some were ankle deep, some thigh high. One day I crossed back and forth over a river nearly 50 times to make my way up a steep sided valley. A week later I crossed the Rangitata, a mighty braided river whose shingle bed is constantly shifting in size and shape as it spreads its flow across a valley floor four kilometres wide.
In the middle of the South Island I went from being drenched in sweat under a relentless hot sun one afternoon to getting caught in a snowstorm 24 hours later, suffering painfully cold hands and feet as I hurried through the snow and howling winds. It was the last day of summer.
I largely abandoned my tent down south for the shelter of the many huts dotted throughout the mountains. Some were no bigger or more salubrious than a garden shed, while others were relative palaces with double-glazing, wood burner stoves, water tanks and toilets. Either way, it was nice to know I had a nearby shelter ready to retreat to after a long day on the trail, particularly when conditions were inclement. When the snow fell again near Stag Saddle, the highest point of the entire trail (1,925m), I was immensely grateful for the protection of a corrugated iron hut for three long days and nights.
Finally, after five months of incredible hiking, I reached Bluff: the end of the trail. Te Araroa is not an easy walk but the scenic rewards are well worth the effort and I was sad when my time on it ended. It was a journey like no other. Immersing myself in the wilderness for five months taught me more than I could have ever imagined – about surviving the wilds, overcoming fears and the joy that can be gained just by living simply, connected with nature. I had never been happier than with one outfit and one bag of belongings, far from the noise and overstimulation so common in modern life.
TEN OF THE BEST
It’s easy to get absorbed in the beautiful scenery when hiking in New Zealand, and just as easy to get lost. For Laura Waters, making sure she had reliable navigational and rescue equipment was essential, as was suitable clothing to handle whatever climate she encountered. Add to that sturdy hiking perennials such as walking sticks and comfortable backpacks, and even something for soothing tired feet at the end of each day…
Aarn Natural Balance Bodypack – £269; 1.83kg
This pack’s comfort was critical to my enjoyment of the hike. Its unique design counterbalances weight from the back compartment with two front pockets, evenly distributing the load around the pelvis. This results in a pack that feels a whole lot lighter than it should. Easy access to camera and snacks is a bonus.
Rab Scimitar Pants – £80; 360g
I absolutely love these and wore them nearly every day. They’re comfortable with a slight stretch giving freedom of movement, and are super tough for their weight with reinforced knees and kick patches on the inner ankles. Zippered pockets keep things safe.
3. Rescue kit
Ocean Signal Rescue Me PLB1 – £190; 116g
This is one piece of kit you carry but hope to never have to use. It’s essential in New Zealand where the terrain is challenging and remote, and there are few people around to call on in an emergency.
Garmin GPS Etrex 20 – £130; 142g
A GPS comes in handy when you’re stuck in a whiteout with no trail on the ground to follow, or lost in a forest without visual reference points to get your bearings. Be aware of its accuracy limitations if you’re using a route you’ve preloaded yourself.
Rab Neutrino Endurance Down Jacket – £280; 635g
A light and super toasty jacket with 800 fill down wrapped in a weather resistant Pertex Endurance shell. The hood adds extra warmth and the high neckline stops any cold air from sneaking in. Essential for cool days or those long summer nights when you’re stuck in a hut in the snow!
Asolo Atlantis GTX Boots – £90; 1.5kg
These are supportive and secure boots in tough and uneven terrain, and have a grippy tread. Lightweight for their strength, one pair lasted me the entire 3,000km.
7. Walking poles
Exped Explorer 130 SA – £99; 430g
Tough enough to survive the constant battering I gave them over steep, rocky and difficult terrain. I liked the simple no-fuss system used to adjust their length – secure push buttons for the lower two sections and a twist motion for the upper section.
Snowpeak Gigapower Manual Stove – £45; 92g
Dinner was ready in a flash with this compact, safe and no fuss system that simply needs screwing on to a gas canister. The flame is adjustable for simmering. For added efficiency, I combined it with the Snowpeak Stove Windscreen that shelters and directs the heat back up to your pot.
9. Sleeping bag
Rab Neutrino 400 – £260; 815g
Contains 400g of high-quality European goose down in a trapezoidal baffle design that keeps the down largely in the right place and distributed evenly. The water-resistant Pertex shell kept any condensation from penetrating into the down and it continued to loft well throughout the trip.
Terra Nova Laser Competition 1 – £249; 1kg
This compact tent is cosy inside but the small footprint is handy when flat space on the ground is hard to find. It’s lightweight, fully sealed against creepy crawlies and has a bathtub base rated at 5,000mm which means the puddles that sometimes formed around me never made their way inside.
... to take a chunk of Lush massage bar with you to rub life back into your feet at the end of a day or to soothe tired legs. It’s small, highly effective and a little goes a long way.
This was published in the December 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.