Te Araroa  Part II: A long run on our long pathway

In Part II of her blog, Mary completes the North Island portion of the Te Araroa Trail just days before lockdown and emerges to find a world strikingly different from when she began her tramp.

By Mary Williams

Mary Williams was the recipient of a FMC Youth Expedition Scholarship. This is the second and final instalment of a two part blog sharing her journey along the Te Araroa Trail.

Upon completion of fast-packing the length of the South Island, I enjoyed a week at home eating inordinate amounts of food and adamantly not wearing shoes before heading to the south coast of Wellington to again start my way north. This time there was 1500kms behind me and I had a pair of knees that were starting to show signs of wear and tear. This, in addition to covering the next 100kms in two days, didn’t set me up well for the Tararuas. It seems that no matter how fit you think you are, the Tararuas will always put you back in your place! Luckily, those notorious gale-force winds stayed at bay and we were treated to some of the best the Tararuas has to offer. Three days of tramping along ridges with my dad and his dog, and we popped out near Palmerston North. I bade my dad farewell and prepared for the Ruahines.

After a local Department of Conservation ranger warned me of the leatherwood in the southern Ruahines – I’d had enough of the leatherwood leisure-park in Kahurangi – I was dropped off a little further north and made my way along the Pohangina river. The crystal-clear water, abundance of birdlife, and lush native bush were all things I’d missed in the South Island. What the North Island mountains may lack in height, they make up for in beauty.

An exposed ridgeline scared me off the Ruahines: aptly named “Sawtooth Ridge” and “Broken Ridge”, followed by a peak seemingly surrounded with slips when looking at a topographic map – would be better attempted with company and a reassuring rope. Instead, I took a detour to rejoin the mountains further north and vowed to one day come back and attempt the part that was missed with a friend, a rope, and a little more confidence.

Into the Kawekas I went, meeting several hunters on a weekend away from the city. The roar was approaching, and I made a mental note not to dally. Of all the mountain ranges I’d run or hiked through to that point, the Kawekas were my favourite. The gradients were forgiving; the huts iconic; the views spectacular; and the trails largely unpopulated.  It seemed like the perfect note on which to head into the Waipunga Forest and onward to Te Urewera.

After a rest day in Taupo, however, Covid-19 seemed to be becoming less of an overseas pandemic and started creeping closer to home. One case had been confirmed here in New Zealand, and I had a feeling it was going to get much bigger very soon. Instead I had to make another decision to leave a section of tricky trail for Future Mary to complete, and I headed straight to Lake Waikaremoana in Te Urewera. This way, it was easier to bail early if I needed to.

I left my Covid concerns behind me as I stepped foot onto the Lake Waikaremoana trail. Dense, ancient forest and a lack of cell phone service made those worries seem trivial: all that mattered was the moment, the trail, and moving forward – and, of course, what I was eating. If there’s one common concern on long trails, it’s what meal is coming next. A few potatoes were dug up from out the front of a hut, perfect trail fuel!

The next evening in Ruatahuna, a small town in the heart of Te Urewera, I was treated to a tour by a local member of the Tuhoe tribe and given a floor to sleep on. Wind battered the windows, wild horses galloped past in the night, and there were eight confirmed cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand. I headed off along the Whakatane River Track, weaving between towering tree ferns and through mānuka flats; I climbed through storm-damaged bush and overgrown trails, navigating around windfall and steep slips. Wild horses grazed outside the huts, and deer crashed through the trees. The dense canopy seemed to envelop me like a big green hug, blocking so much sun that I was kept in constant dusk. I was always half expecting a moa to come walking around the corner ahead of me.

When I finally made it to Whakatane four days later, it became evident to me that my apprehensions around Covid-19 weren’t unfounded. 53 cases were now confirmed, lockdown was imminent, and I was on the first flight back to Wellington from Tauranga.

It wasn’t quite the finish I’d been aiming for. There would be no photo with the signpost at Cape Reinga; no building sense of excitement as the finish line approached; no psychological test of running 88kms along 90 mile beach. What I did have was a chance to rest my legs and a month of lockdown to reflect on the massive adventure I’d had so far. This summer I had the incredible opportunity to explore our back country and all it has to offer, from rolling farmland to the towering southern alps and the dense bush of the Te Ika a Maui. It was a trip of self-discovery and personal challenge, my first extended solo back country trip and a huge logistical learning curve. It’s funny, but the 70km days and the early morning aren’t the memories that stick the most: instead, single moments of wonder are imprinted on my memory. Like the moment I looked into the eye of a dragonfly that landed on my chest as it bit the head off a cicada; startling a stag not ten meters ahead who proceeded to run away with a mouth stuffed full of ferns; dancing with a seemingly boundless cloud of sandflies as I hastily stuffed my bivvi into my pack on a warm Canterbury morning; the moment I crested Butler Saddle, and was greeted by an incredible view of glaciers, towering mountains, and the head of the Rakaia River.

Cape Reinga will always be there. The Kaimais, 90-mile beach, and Northland will still be there when we are finally able to roam our back yard again. For now, I’ll spend my time remembering the adventures that have been had, cherishing friendships forged in the back country, and trails already walked. After exploring such a huge chunk of our beautiful Aotearoa in one summer and so suddenly having it closed to the public, I’ve learned that we should never take the accessibility of our back country for granted.

The first instalment of Mary’s journey along the South Island of the Te Araroa trail is featured here on Wilderlife.

Wilderlife