Te Araroa trail (TA) is New Zealand’s “long pathway”. It is a spectacular route spanning the length of the country, 3000kms from Cape Reinga to Bluff. Much has been written about the trail since its opening in December 2011, and numbers of hikers/trampers embarking on the trail is roughly doubling in numbers each year. This 2017/18 season, I was lucky enough to join the ranks of those who know what it is to spend five months walking this great trail.

I’m a female, middle-aged, British ex-pat- turned-Kiwi. In my work life I’m professional, steady, industrious and methodical; but in my personal life I’m a dreamer, traveler and outdoor enthusiast. When I heard about TA a few years ago I knew immediately that I would walk it. There was no question in my mind about what I did or didn’t know about tramping, the backcountry, whether I could afford it, how I could fit it into my life, or how much I would struggle or not; I just knew I would do complete it. I’m not alone; TA has that effect on people. This season there were an estimated 800 to 1000 crazy souls out there somewhere who were captivated by it.

TA trampers are a diverse bunch of people and come in all varieties, ages, shapes and sizes. Roughly two thirds are from overseas, and a third are Kiwi. They range in age from late teens to seventy-plus. They are from all walks of life; athletes, students, civil servants, tradies, bankers, actors, farmers, office workers, retirees. Some like me walk TA solo; others walk with friends, as couples, or as a family. Some walk on a very tight budget, others are able to spend a little more. Some people embark on TA to find themselves, or to lose themselves; some have reasons for walking, others find a reason in the way it changes them along the way. Many walk simply because they can.

There are no rules to being a TA tramper. Most people walk Southbound (SOBO) like me, but more are walking Northbound (NOBO) in recent years. You can walk TA as a “purist” covering every step of the route. Alternatively, like me and many others, you can walk in the “non-purist” style, doing as much of it in one go as you want or can, but maybe missing out some of the road sections for example. Non-purists might throw in a few extra hikes like the Tongariro Northern Circuit, Abel Tasman or the Routeburn while they’re at it. Then there are the “section-hikers” who might only walk one island, or do the entire route one section at a time; like the Kiwi couple who tramp sections when they can fit it around both their work schedules, or the US firefighter who knocks off a section in his three week holiday each year; or the seventy year old German lady who spent her seventh season on trail this year to complete her TA journey. As soon as I signed up to the various Te Araroa Facebook groups I started to get to know my fellow trampers, and we swapped advice and tips. I knew my new online buddies’ start dates, and saw their entries in visitors’ books and hut books along the way. When I eventually met some of my new group, we greeted each other like long lost friends.

Once I made my decision to become a TA tramper I began my research and preparation. People seem to fall into loose categories of “go all out” on the preparation, “wing it”, or fit somewhere in between. Firstly I bought my DOC hut pass, and made my donation to the TA Trust. My preparation was of the “all out” variety. As I hadn’t done any overnight tramping before I didn’t really have much in the way of proper gear. I love planning a trip, and had plenty of time before I could legitimately leave my life for five months. I spent one and a half years immersing myself in TA, researching gear, reading other people’s blogs, getting to grips with all the TA resources available and generally boring the pants off my friends by talking about nothing else. I found it useful to create a simple spreadsheet detailing the route, daily distances, where to stay, my gear, food and training. I kept it up to date on the trail itself as a record of what I actually did verses what I thought I would do.

I spent months researching gear. New words popped into my vocabulary like “ultralight”, “base weight” and “cuban fibre”. Major considerations were my pack, tent, sleeping pad and sleeping bag, walking poles, and cooking system. I spent as much as I could afford as I wanted my gear to last. I was faced with the dilemma of wanting to travel lightly (I’m only 5ft 2”) but having gear hardy enough to withstand the unfathomable New Zealand weather. I wanted to be as safe, dry and well equipped as possible. In the end I wasn’t ultralight, but I certainly wasn’t the heaviest. I chose a 45-55 litre pack which, when fully laden with 7 days’ worth of food and 2 litres of water weighed around 17kgs; but on average I carried around 14-15kgs. My biggest dilemma was which shoes to wear. I’ve never worn hiking boots, so I tested four pairs of hiking shoes/trainers. The week before I left for TA I eventually decided upon my lightest pair of trail runners teamed with a pair of ankle length fabric gaiters, which worked really well. Once on-trail, on the days with forty-plus river crossings I was still light and my shoes almost completely dried out overnight. I got through three pairs. I would estimate that 80% of TA trampers I met wore trail running shoes, with the rest opting for boots or sturdy hiking shoes.

Staying safe on the trail is a big priority and I wore a tiny bum-bag around my waist with the essentials, in case I had to ditch my pack for any reason. In it I carried: A personal locator beacon (PLB), emergency blanket, hand-warmers, whistle, watch, phone, money and ID. The PLB is an expensive but essential piece of kit which I hoped I would never have to use, and I was pleased to see that the majority of TA trampers carried one. Navigation-wise I left nothing to chance. I downloaded the TA trail notes and maps onto my phone, read them thoroughly beforehand and then again each day on the trail. For day-to-day navigation I used the Guthook Te Araroa Hiker app, with New Zealand topo maps downloaded and available offline. My backup app was Backcountry Navigator, with a gpx file of the route downloaded to it, and topo maps available offline. In addition I carried a compass and paper maps; posting the relevant maps to accommodation stops along the route to pick up as I went through. I used my phone for navigation, camera, reading, music and blogging. I also carried a 10,000mAh Anker battery pack which gave my phone 3 charges, and on the South Island I carried an Anker solar panel. This combination worked really well, and I was never out of juice.

Six months out, I started to think about training. I estimated that I would be walking around 25-30kms a day across all types of terrain; sand, road, asphalt, mud, forest, tree roots, farmland, tussock, boulders and scree. What I wasn’t prepared for was the climbing, scrambling, sidling, bush bashing, fallen trees and number of river crossings thrown in for good measure. I’ve been a (slow) runner for years, so I upped my game and entered a couple of 10k races each month over the winter prior to TA. I got into trail running a bit more to get used to different terrain. My balance wasn’t all that great, so I started doing twenty minutes of simple yoga each morning. With four months to go I started walking a 5km loop with a loaded pack a couple of times a week before work, starting with 10kgs and working up to 16kgs. My training also incorporated a couple of courses in backcountry skills. I learned how to cross rivers safely with the Waikato Tramping Club, and I learned my navigation skills with Outdoor Training New Zealand. I did a couple of multiday tramps to test my gear and my strength; because nothing gets you “pack fit” like walking with a pack. All this really paid off. I went into TA strong, fit and healthy, and I knew how all my gear worked. Those early tramps taught me some valuable lessons; like counting all your tent pegs as you pull them out, and applying protection to your feet either before, or as soon as you start to feel the hot spot of a blister forming.

In Part two, Julie begins her journey at Cape Reinga, full of confidence and enthusiasm for the challenge ahead.