Here at Wilderlife, we’re collating Victoria’s diaries, photos and videos into a digest. Each post spans a section of Te Araroa between major towns and rest days.
Walking with her seven-year-old daughter Emilie, together they are raising funds for Federated Mountain Clubs and telling stories about the mental health benefits of time spent in the wild places of NZ, as well as the importance of protecting those areas for future generations to enjoy.
Cape Reinga to Ahipara
DAY 1 : 02 October 2021
As far as first days go, this was a stunner!
We set off from Cape Rēinga against a backdrop of blue skies and brilliant sunlight, marvelling at the expansive scenery and rugged coastline of this spiritually significant place.
Cape Rēinga, also known as Te Rerenga Wairua (the leaping place of the spirits) is a remote and windswept sanctuary in the far north of New Zealand’s north island.
For Maōri, it’s the place where spirits of the dead gather to depart for the homeland of Hawaiki. For us and other pilgrims, we turn south to begin Te Araroa — the long walk across Aotearoa, back home to the very bottom of Te Waipounamu.
Our ears were filled with the roar of waves pounding the jagged rocks below as we picked our way through the muted palette of tiny coastal plants, before dropping onto the long, sweeping Te Werahi beach. We celebrated our first five kilometres with a quick and exhilarating skinny dip in the freshwater stream before clambering up and over the peach and pink coloured sand dunes, which felt like we were walking on Mars with its cracked, red surface under our trail shoes.
We paused atop Hērangi Hill to admire the views of Cape Maria Van Diemen and Motuopao Island before continuing on to Twilight Beach, stopping to admire the many treasures that had washed upon its sandy white shores.
Twilight Beach campsite was spacious and empty and we camped modestly behind a huge clump of flax, spending the rest of evening playing on the beach with another walker, Kim.
Emilie and I watched the sunset while sharing homemade lamb curry with mashed potatoes and a couple of Toffee Pops before retiring to the sanctuary of our tent.
We were quickly lulled to sleep by the rumble of the incoming tide, and when I woke in the wee small hours for a pee break, the stars lit up every corner of the sky.
A perfect start to Te Araroa.
DAY 2: 03 October 2021
The descent to Ninety Mile Beach
Dawn brought pink skies and warm winds before grey clouds marched in.
We climbed up and over from Twilight Bay, muscles aching and bare legs still burning from yesterday’s sun. We entered a dark green forest of stumpy kānuka and mānuka, dotted with white and pink flowers.
The track was sandy underfoot and green and gold flax rustled in the wind while our ears filled with the sweet song of tiny birds. A pair of pīwakawaka serenaded us and a brown and gold dragonfly paused long enough for me to photograph him for iNaturalist.
We descended the steep stairs onto Ninety Mile Beach with glee, only to be met with a gusty offshore breeze that stirred up the sand into thin tendrils whipping around our bare legs.
As described, the novelty turned into monotony very quickly as we trudged down the beach, glad for our oversized hats and sunglasses, boosting our spirits with the occasional boiled lolly.
Lunch was salami and cheese on pita bread, eaten while huddled behind flax and sand dunes along the Te Paki stream.
We changed into long pants and rain jackets in an attempt to block out the wind and felt much more comfortable for another six kilometres, until our aching feet drew us back to the sand dunes.
It was as though Mother Nature herself had drawn us here. Behind the giant flax and tussocks was a clump of dense windswept pine trees, and underneath, a flat green space just big enough for our tent.
We sat gasping for breath and massaging our swollen feet when the first droplets of rain blew through, sending us scrambling for shelter and tent pegs.
Once camp was set up, we grabbed our rain jackets and staggered back to play on the beach, the warm rain kissing our bare legs and the cool salt water swirling around our feet.
It felt so good. Our water play was observed by half a dozen giant mollymawks and a pair of black and red oystercatchers, against the backdrop of miles of empty windswept beach.
And now we’re snug in our tent, listening to the gentle boom of the incoming tide while fat raindrops plop on the roof.
The forecast is for more rain, but tomorrow we’ll make it further down the beach.
For now, we’re going to snuggle up and play some cards, eat some hot kai, then lie and marvel at the wonder of this crazy adventure that is Te Araroa.
DAY 3: 04 October 2021
A sullen grey dawn brought respite to a long night of wind and rain. Thankfully we had been sheltered from the worst of the weather, huddled in our tent under the outstretched arms of the old pine tree.
We packed up slower than I would have liked, as Emilie was reluctant as I was to get out into the wet grass. My body ached and the backs of my legs were scorched red and stinging from yesterday’s sun and wind. I managed to separate the sopping wet fly from the rest of the tent and jam it into the outside pocket of my pack.
It was a relief just to start walking and distract ourselves from the discomfort of damp gear.
But today wasn’t going to be the day. Right from the start it felt hard. I wondered why I’d decided not to pack any instant coffee for Te Araroa, as peppermint tea just wasn’t giving me the same will to live.
Nonetheless we pushed on, the grey cloud eventually lifting and giving way to bright sunlight. I tried to zone out by focusing on the many different hues of blue between the sea and the sky and the grey, brown and golden palette of the sand.
The mussel spat trucks rumbled up and down the beach, quickly disappearing into the haze that rose off the beach.
One driver stopped to chat and we recognized his face from yesterday. He gave us a can of warm Sprite that I let Emilie drink most of, after convincing her it wasn’t beer. It was her first time drinking a soft drink, but I couldn’t care less — maybe the sugar would make her move faster.
It was difficult to get perspective and gauge distance on the endless, empty beach and my traveling companion was stuck in second gear, stabbing her hiking poles at seashells and stumbling along.
My body was hurting and I wanted to lengthen my stride to get the day over with, but had to keep stopping so she could catch up.
We had 14 kilometres to cover until we reached the Maunganui Bluff Campsite, with the promise of fresh water to replenish our depleted supplies. I swear it was the longest day of my life.
Lunch was salami and cheese on dry, crumbling pita pockets, eaten huddled with our backs to the wind on the side of a tea-coloured creek. I boiled some of the water for my tea and added a chlorine tablet to our drink bottle.
Old mate in the truck came to visit us again, surprising Emilie with a couple of peach custard treats. He said a few of them would be having a barbeque at the Bluff if we made it down there.
We staggered the remaining eight kilometres with very little will left to live. The mussel men came good with their promise and were parked up on the sand when we got there.
“Do you want sausages or burgers for dinner?” they asked Emilie, whose eyes were popping out of her head.
We set up the tent in a corner of the grassy campground, with wild horses grazing on a knoll behind us, and staggered back to the beach to sit on the wooden flat bed of one of the mussel trucks and be served our burgers.
I don’t think I’ve tasted anything better. Those blokes were absolute champions.
After Emilie had her fill of food and chatter, we went back up to take a cold shower under the rainwater tank and go to bed.
A tough day, but overall, I think she was a winner.
DAY 4: 05 October 2021
Treasures from the sea
We woke at six to thick grey mist and wild horses chomping grass nearby. We lay quietly and marvelled at these beautiful animals, a stallion and three brown mares with tiny knock-kneed foals close to their sides.
As the sky lightened, the little group slipped away into the trees and we set about eating our breakfast and packing up our gear. When I say we, I’d like to point out I mean me, as I sent Emilie off to refill the water bottles and decided to pack up my sleeping bag as I waited . . . then my liner, then my mat, and then her liner and mat. I then wondered if she’d fallen down the well and went looking for her, only to find her in deep discussion with a fellow TA walker who had arrived last night.
Interrupting their social gathering to drag my daughter back to her breakfast, I growled at her a few times while reinforcing the meaning of teamwork and the need for her to pull her small but sturdy weight.
It may or may not have gone completely over her head, as by the time we were ready to go so was our fellow walker, who shared the first five kilometres with us before we pulled off for morning tea.
It was a stunning day with blue skies and sunshine. The tide just started to go out, revealing fresh treasures washed up overnight.
We found some beautiful big shells and soft fingers of coral amongst tendrils of kelp. The coastline was much more interesting than yesterday, with towering mounds of tussock-covered sand dunes tempting us to climb and play amongst them.
After covering 10 quick kilometres, we climbed a sand dune and spread out our tent to dry in the sun — secured by a lump of timber scavenged from the beach — put on our togs and dashed towards the sea.
Emilie was in her element, dancing in the clear blue water and splashing around like a seal puppy. I eased myself in and floated on my back for a while until the waves broke over me, then lay on my belly, fingers slipping through the sand as the tide pulled me back and forth.
We spent almost an hour bathing and drying off, before getting back on track around 1pm. I encouraged Emilie to keep up the pace by telling her the story of Storm Girl, a little wild girl who lives all alone in a wooden hut built out of driftwood, huddled behind the sand dunes, with only the ocean and sea creatures for company. Storm Girl wandered up and down the beach, rescuing tired and injured seal lions, penguins and pelicans and bringing them back to her hut to rest.
We made it to 18 kilometres (we were aiming for 20) before making the unanimous decision to jump into the sand dunes. Here we found a place to set up camp in the sunshine beside the pine trees.
The past two or so kilometres were spent gathering tuatua, which we washed and cooked for dinner, eating with mashed potatoes and parmesan cheese. I think Emilie found the gathering and cooking more fun than the actual eating, but she ate her share and we broke into the big bar of Whittaker’s Chocolate for dessert.
We were both tired but feeling pretty good about today — camped up at the 58km mark, over halfway down the windswept coastline of Ninety Mile Beach.
DAY 5: 06 October 2021
Miss Emilie’s day to shine!
Today was Miss Emilie’s day to shine.
She bounced out of her sleeping bag and onto the beach, full of stories and joy.
I was so happy to have her lead the way today, as my body was sore and the beach felt very long.
She told me a wonderful story about two little Gum Nut babies, Rosie and Ruby, who lived in an old tree until one day, their parents said they were moving house and off they went to live at the beach, in a big old three story house.
The girls had many wonderful adventures, from meeting the shy seashore pixies on the beach at moonlight, to helping rescue wild baby ponies and feeding them warm milk and hay.
Her beautiful words carried us 12 kilometres along the beach from the Hukatere Lodge campground, where we decided to call it an early day and explore the sand dunes and play.
My spirits sank low in the afternoon as a strange wave of anxiety swept over me — maybe it was my stomach slowly eating itself after a few long days with less food than usual, maybe it was the realization that I really was all alone on the beach with my child.
The weather was grey and ominous and the sea was not inviting today. It whipped us with cold spray and a strong sideways current prevented us from entering the angry-looking surf.
I lay on my belly in the sand and helped Emilie decorate sandcastles, sneaking sideways looks at the angry ocean and empty beach and feeling the growing anxiety of not belonging here.
It was hard to know what was going on with me. Was it hunger, fear, anxiety, or just a little rush of cortisol from my PTSD ? I held on and rode it out while the rains swept through and washed the beach clean again.
DAY 6: 07 October 2021
Hukatere Lodge to Ahipara! 30 kms
Today we let loose, went kooky, got weird, had a whole heap of badass beach girl fun, kicked butt and finished Ninety Mile Beach.
We staggered into the Ahipara Holiday Park at 9pm, stomping up the back streets, growling away neighbourhood dogs, and squinting at the map on our InReach under the light of a single head torch.
So how did two little pairs of legs cover 30kms in one day!? I’m still not really sure how we made it. We must have used our magical powers of courage and determination, because each time I asked Emilie if she’d like to stop and camp in the sand dunes she said no way! So onwards we went.
We left Hukatere Lodge around 11am, taking our sweet time to wait for the rain to pass so we could wring out the sopping wet tent fly and skip on down to the beach.
But after just 5 kilometres, the sky opened up and let us have it. It was like walking through a river. Massive raindrops lashed against our little bodies and drenched our socks, shoes, shorts and knickers.
There wasn’t much else to do but keep trucking on — heads down, rain jackets zipped up to our noses, and storming down the beach just to stay warm.
I honestly thought Emilie would call it and was running through contingencies in my head. Would it be more miserable to huddle under damp trees or to keep moving forward?
But this little soldier wouldn’t stop. We told stories and sang songs and jabbered away to each other in our made-up personalities, which included two random mates doing the big TA (‘hey mate!’) and Emilie swearing she was an old man with a beard headed to Bluff, only to turn around and walk the whole way back again.
And after a while, we hardly noticed the rain. It was wild and it was fun. We were now two Storm Girls stomping down the beach on our big strong legs, searching for washed up seashore pixies, sea lions and other taonga.
The rain, I told her, would blow right over after a while. The cloud would dump its load and move right along.
And you know what, there were those fecking hard moments when I thought we’d be in this forever, as well as those beautiful moments when you’re just rolling with it, a tiny pawn in Nature’s hands.
Then we looked over our soggy shoulders and saw thin tendrils of sunshine snaking up the beach.
The clouds finally parted and the most beautiful apricot and orange sunset came through. Of course by then the battery on my phone was dead and we had our eyes fixed on our destination – Ahipara – with the evening lights just beginning to twinkle at the end of the beach.
A Trail Angel swung by with a warm beer and melted ice cream and we swore they were the best things we’ve ever tasted. Old mate the mussel man came past too and offered us a lift. But no way mate, not now when we’ve almost clocked 100kms!
Almost delirious with joy and exhaustion, we kept going until the light died out of the sky. We laid together on the darkened beach for 10 minutes to rest before finishing the final kilometre to the Kaka Street ramp, which marked the sweet, sweet end of the crazy adventure that was Ninety Mile Beach.
Victoria and Emilie are walking the Te Araroa over the 21/22 summer season. They are raising funds and telling stories about the mental health benefits of time spent in the wild places of NZ, as well as the importance of protecting those areas for future generations to enjoy. To see all their stories, visit wilderlife.nz/adventures_with_emilie/ and follow them @adventures_with_emilie on Instagram and Facebook.
90% of the funds raised are donated evenly between the Mental Health Foundation and the Federated Mountain Clubs of NZ Mountain & Forest Charitable Trust. 10% is going towards some of the expenses of walking the trail.
If you’d like to help them out, please donate via their give a little page.