The final six weeks before departure flew past, and I was suddenly standing beneath the sign post at Cape Reinga in the rain and fog, for the obligatory photo. Before setting foot on Te Paki Coastal Track, I paused for a minute or two to look at the TA signage. I took a deep breath; savoured the moment, shed a little tear, then I took my first steps. In that instant I became a Te Araroa trail walker and I knew then, that it would change my life. Once on the trail everything slotted into place. I had timed my beach walk with the outgoing tide and I wild camped for the first couple of nights in perfect conditions. Then the blisters came. Almost everyone I met started at Cape Reinga carrying too much in their pack, and almost no-one walked Ninety Mile Beach without suffering some kind of injury. We limped into Ahipara windswept, sunburned and blistered, and promptly ditched our unnecessary gear. I started with far too many clothes, and finished with a minimal number of strictly necessary items. Many of us swapped gear in and out as we went along the trail, as we saw what worked for others. I had taken a “rain skirt” with me on the North Island, but bought a pair of rain pants for the South Island on the advice of a TA friend, which ended up being one of the best decisions I made.

It is said, and I would agree, that the first two weeks of TA are the hardest. Once I had rested for a day or so after the beach walk, I entered the mountainous Northland forests of Herekino and Ratea, where I was rudely introduced to elevation, tree roots, and mud. I survived the first two weeks, and got off pretty lightly with the weather. Life on trail became normal, and I enjoyed the variety and the newness of every day. I enjoyed nights wild camping beneath the stars, in backpackers’ hostels, camp grounds; trail angel’s garages, caravans and lawns; DOC huts and campsites, or a cabin if I was feeling flush. My journey itself is a story for another time. I left only footprints, trusted my instincts, and always felt safe, even in the deepest backcountry. I completed TA in 140 days without any major injuries.

On trail there was hardly a day that went by without a conversation about food. What have you got, what do you want, and what might there be at the dairy or gas station in the next town. Fantasizing about impossible food became a daily event, with someone generally making a crack about having pizza delivered to the mountain summit for lunch, or a box of beers being put on ice for us in the next hut. I started my TA journey eating porridge for breakfast, a peanut butter wrap for lunch, and a wide variety of nuts and snacks. My main meal consisted of couscous, with a soup and dried vegetables mixed in. However after two weeks my hunger really kicked in, and the couscous didn’t cut it any more. In Kerikeri I ordered masses of dehydrated meals and sent them to a friend to add to my resupply boxes for the South Island. It was difficult to get enough calories per day eating trail food, so I more than made up for it with food binges in villages and towns. Upon arriving at revered establishments such as the Mangamuka Dairy in Northland, I ate whatever I wanted; burgers, cheese toasties, chips, ice-creams, smoothies, fizzy drinks, and more ice-cream. Planning food for the South Island was a more difficult task and for me, involved sending numerous food drops to locations en-route. Many trampers instead opted to hitch out of the trail to resupply before hitching back in.

For me, there were no doubts whatsoever about walking the trail solo or whether I would complete it. I really enjoy my own company and barring a huge injury, I knew I would finish. I spent most of the North Island with a fabulous group of people, and then I became a loner again for a month or so, before ending as part of a team again. Some people went into TA with serious doubts about whether they could do it, and surprised themselves beyond all expectation; others went in over-confident and lasted a month. Some people became bored and dropped out; some enjoyed New Zealand so much they remained in their favourite place for weeks. I experienced both the punishment of physical suffering and the rewards of my newfound strength. I had some had difficult days; when I was tired, or carrying a slight niggling injury, or the trail and the weather were against me. I survived these by breaking the day down into hours … “if I can get through the next hour I only have 20kms to go”, “a 700m climb is only two Hakarimata steps and I can smash the steps in 30 minutes”, “I can be dry in my tent in only 2 hours time”…

In the backcountry you are part of a community, and everyone is equal. “Out there” nothing else matters; your job, salary, age, physical abilities, what you wear, or how you look. When you have a forest to navigate, a river to cross, or a mountain to climb, your everyday life and everyday stress vanishes. Your mind becomes solely focused on the here and now, and most of the time you literally have to focus on every single step you take. You can live a lifetime in just a few days, and the relationships you make are more intense because of it. You look after each other, and support each other. The advice you get from someone else’s personal experience is invaluable, and the arm around your waist as you cross a river can save your life. You develop a special bond that others cannot understand. Skinny-dipping together in a freezing cold river; the way you smile at each other when you attack your ice-cream outside the diary in town; the bewilderment of emerging from a gnarly five day stretch; the hugs you swap when you reach the mountain top; and complaining to each other when you put wet socks on for the fifth day in a row. You may even come back with an affectionate “trail name” which are commonly given on the USA long-distance hikes, and generally for a particular reason, like “Shipwreck”, “Hot pants” or “Parsley”. I blogged as “tinytramper” and developed a small but dedicated following living each day vicariously through me. For some people I was an inspiration, and a step towards their own personal goals; to others I was an enigma. On the trail I felt sadness that my loved ones could not share the experience with me, but I took comfort in the new relationships I made. I became a friend to many; a lover to one; a confidante, mentor, and pupil; and a mother, sister and daughter.

I returned from TA happy, healthy, glowing, lean, refreshed, calm, more observant, less judgmental, grateful, loving, joyful, passionate and courageous. I started solo, and finished as a team-mate. I took risks, broke my limits, learned from my mistakes, and became even more respectful and in awe of the backcountry. I’m now somewhat of an expert, yet I still feel like a novice with so much more ahead of me.

I am left with the overwhelming joy of accomplishment, but above all I have a sense of belonging. Ask anyone who has walked TA and you will hear a very similar story. During this very special journey not only did I become part of the trail community, but I became one with New Zealand and its people. It’s in my blood now; the sea, sand, forests, plants, animals, birds, insects, roads; villages and towns; the mountains, volcanoes, rivers, mud, rocks, and grass; the vast skies, the sunshine, the wind, the rain; the moon and the stars, and the ordinary and extraordinary people who call this amazing place home. The effect Te Araroa had on me was quite profound. It wasn’t just a long walk; it was a journey which celebrated this beautiful country and its people. It was everything I had been through in life so far, as well as the culmination of it; and it allowed me to rediscover who I am, what I believe in, what really matters, and how I want to live. Te Araroa trust expresses this sentiment purely and simply in its vision statement “Te Araroa – what it means to be a Kiwi”.