I have finally started my Te Araroa adventure, something I dreamed up to do this time last year.
Disclaimer: My long-term intention here is to write a book about my journey, but I’ve decided I can blog it as I go too. It’s all through my phone so my Te Araroa blog entries may be a bit drafty and unresearched, peppered with half-wit, thoughts and ideas as I want to capture what I think/thought as I go too.
Here I go, 10am on a rainy Thursday morning, straining under my heaviest pack from the Cape Reinga lighthouse.
For Maori the Cape is the jumping off point of departed spirits, as they head off to Hawaiki. It’s a special place, and one deserving of more than I have the bandwidth to give it today. I try to have a soulful moment but I can’t; this is the start of my journey, I have waited so long and am anxious to get going. I take a stupid photo and pass two Germans heading down as I climb back up the slope; they’re starting today as well.
Te Araroa stretches 3000km, but Day 1 starts gently with a distance of 12km. You aren’t allowed to camp just anywhere on the first leg – the only sites are at 12km, 30km, 60km, 87km and at the end of the beach at 100km. The later days have me worried, but today is just for my mind. I climb down to Twilight beach and enjoy the lonely peace, figuring out what I’m doing. It rains but is warm.
I reach Twilight camp at about 2pm. There’s grass, toilets, water and a gazebo designed like a city with a homeless problem would design a bus shelter; all angles and gaps, a lot of amenity but no real shelter.
A tatty, mouldy notepad with a heart on the front sits on the bench, held down with a tent peg. It’s an impromptu visitor book. I leaf through – it’s full of two things – hope for an adventure ahead, and tales of aggressive possums eating all food.
As the dusk settles I am joined by the German couple, a young Australian, an old Canadian and four Aucklanders finishing up a three day tramp about the reserve. It’s a nice bunch to start and chat with. I spend a lot of time sitting, watching the surf on the beach. It’s surreal that I have finally started my journey.
We all worry about the possums. Though a sleepless night follows, the possums amount to nothing but a snuffle outside the tent.
The family of four are first to set off in the morning and I follow shortly after. The trail takes us a few kilometres through scrubby coastal manuka and brush before the big reveal – the endless expanse of 90mile beach. I sit and take stock. The next few days of maps are just one straight line, SE down the beach. Today is 25 kilometres of beach walking, to a campsite at the Maunganui Bluff. Roughly halfway is Matapia island, which I can just make out fading into the horizon, brought close by the spray of countless waves. I look on with foreboding.
Down at the beachfront, a baby seal’s corpse writhes with maggots. I recall a ‘cute friend on the beach’ shared by a walker last week; big brown eyes – I suspect they are one in the same. More foreboding. But here we are, and here we go – I get started.
The hours pass and the cliff behind me disappears into the ocean spray. So too does the island; it is just me and this walking fog. I think of the wee seal, unable to beat the long shallow surf back to sea, stuck in this pergatory of nothing in each direction. The surf is huge; when Charon manages to get his boat through the waves and finally take the pups it must be a blessing.
I decide to lunch halfway, when the island is to my west. But it never moves. I walk hours and the island stays put. It’s just the endless waves, the island tease, and fading into the spray behind me the silhouette of the Australian following up.
It’s eight hours of this. As my feet begin to feel the pressure of the relentless same angle and gait, I mull on the meaning of grit. I like to think I have grit, but why? What compells someone to walk this path? I had joked earlier, “I’ve told too many people, I can’t back out now” and meant it as a joke, but I realise it is actually true. My grit at the moment is to prove to those who may doubt me that I can do this. All who have ever thought little of me, I’ll show them what I can do. This realisation is sad; why am I putting 6 months of effort into proving wrong those long-lost or irrelevant? Whatever man, it’s just this beach; there’s nothing for it but to walk on forward. I already sense the simple joy of that, and the positive message forward.
The Aussie shared a wee motivator he has, something he read. ‘I can give up, but not today’. It reminds me of the what that guy said in Touching the Void – ‘I was sure I was going to die, so I thought I might as well keep going’. It’s dark stuff, but it holds water for me. A year ago when I decided to do this, it was to be a pilgrim in my homeland, to connect with more of New Zealand. What a great adventure – write a book! But as the year of limbo passed by, and books, podcast and videos were released of the trail, and I couldn’t get on with anything else, it became something else. Just something to do. A reason to be. I said I would, so I will, and then you know. Who gives a shit. My life was something like this endless beach, alone with no view forward and dark shadows following behind.
Yea real positive shit! In the later hours I put on some music.
Eventually I stumble into the Maunganui Bluff campsite. There’s a flushing toilet with no door, which is quite fun. It’s only recently I have discarded teenage self-consciousness and I find it liberating. I almost want someone to walk in on me and see how little I give a shit.
The Aussie arrives after me, and we think we’re it for the night. The younger bucks, the only ones with the grit to get through. But we’re to eat humble pie as the 65yr old Canadian arrives in better condition than both of us, then the Germans right at dusk, shattered but showing their gumption too.
We have a bit of yarn making our respective meals. To not walk this alone, to have others around walking for their reasons though we don’t get this dark about it, is nice. There’s irony in this ‘lonesome road’ being so much more communal, connecting and social than my real life. Here, when I’m alone, it’s understandable. Back home, I began to pile moments of similar loneliness with failure and hopelessness. Its’s so freeing to unburden myself of that!
Cape Reinga is the jumping off point for spirits. While I didn’ feel it at the time, I hope it proves to be one for me too. Not as a point to the afterlife, but maybe I have left some of my lifes baggage there to revisit on my way out rather than keep carting it about on my walk and afterward. It feels like I have jumped into life again and it’s pretty bloody good. But I do have some pretty shit blisters.
I get up at 5:45am, to a starry night. My tent fly seems to amplify the light, it felt like morning inside! Damage done I can’t return to sleep, so I get ready to leave early. At 8:30 I break camp. High tide is set for 9 and the trail notes say the tide reaches the dunes at points. I quickly find the points are all of it – I make a harrowing run back to a dune, racing against a shin-deep wave sweeping up from 50metres out the shallow beach. I wave back to the Canadian at camp, and settle in for an hour to wait for the tide.
I’m not used to being stopped because of tides and am annoyed to have to wait – it’s another long 30km day ahead – but it’s a blessing really. I safety pin a cloth to my hat to shade my neck – proper hiker now – and write my trip notes. Later the Australian labours over the dunes and we have a good chat about motivations and things – I am jealous he is doing this ten years my junior, he figured things out a lot quicker.
I find some double-uses for my gear, which never fails to please a tramper. Velroing the opposing gaiters together creates me a quite large mat on which to avoid sand and damp grass when I’m not wearing them. A spare bootlace linked between corners of my packs ‘brain’ (the removable top bit) creates a shoulder strap bag for towns.
The day of walking takes its physical toll. After an hour my knees grizzle; after four hours I relent and take ibuprofen. Those pills are like gifts from the gods. Blister-wise, I swap a medium-sized sock for two thin ones on the right, problem foot, after wrapping everything in lambs wool.
While physically it is a challenge, mentally I am prepared for a big day. It passes relatively well, with a little music and a bit of thinking. It’s such a simple thing, just one foot in front of the other – always forward, and tomorrow the same. I find it so freeing, out of the ‘what did you do to end up like this?’ funk I had been in of late.
After eight hours the Aussie and I slump in to Utea Park together at 5, and are made instantly welcome. The hosts here are something else, driven by kindness, connection and compassion over making money. It’s hard to believe it’s real! Tania rushes off to make us hearty smoothies, packed full of fruit and nutrients our bodies crave. I’m given a cabin for $20, and sit down to examine my feet. It is here I discover disaster – a blister I didn’t notice on my small toe has grown to epic proportions. Swollen beneath the toe beside, every step rolls the blistered skin. I lance it and it squirts a good 30 cm. Startling, disgusting but kind of fun too. As bad as mine are, they are nothing compared to the German girl across the way – she’ on day 4 of a recovery, just today able to hobble about.
Blisters are the topic of conversation here. Our hosts regale us; there was the man who wrapped his feet in strapping tape, only to remove all his skin with it, and sit in a puddle of blood. Another sat on this very porch and calmly removed every single one of his toenails from his feet, before “puting them in a salt bath”.
“He wanted to keep the nails?!” I exclaim, to much ridicule; he was batheing his feet. It has been a long day.
Utea park shows how good begets good; all around are positive messages left by travellers, and everyone is kind, smiley and friendly. A microcosm where everyone is cool.
It is with a little sadness that I rise on day 4, re-lancing and re-bandaging my aching blisters. It’s sad to leave, such is the greatness of this little wounded walker sanctuary. But today is just a 17k day, down to Waipapakauri Campsite. The Australian pushes on the full 30 today, so our little posse is broken. The Canadian and I take a very leisurely morning with sun, coffee and books waiting for the tide at 11am. It’s so chill compared with the prior days; just as I get into the walking groove 4hrs in we are almost there at Waipapakauri. No seal corpses today, with the only beach-thing of note being a crappy maroon sedan (where do people keep finding these?) honking metres from me speeding by at 100k an hour, breaking the otherwise unanimous hand-waving 4×4 standard beach driver I encountered.
Im glad the place is there but the difference between it and Utea Park couldnt be more stark. The owners have sold and are leaving next week, the shop is bare and things are running down. Flat grass is flat grass though, and I have a lovely night and kip. The owner opens the bar specially for Canada and I to grab a beer – it goes down a treat.
My plaster supply dwindles, I use the weird ones noone uses.
Day 5 is the final 14km of 90mile beach, coasting in to Ahipara. My blisters are crotchetty, but I finish without tunes or drugs.
While I hobble about, making use of cellphone reception to let people know I’m alive, Canada heads in to town, bringing back fish and chips and beer. What a legend! Having run out of dinners, I make do with a tin of beans from the campsite shop.
Last year the trail climbed from Ahipara into the Herekino forest and the great Kauri there; but now to slow the progress of Kauri die-back, the trail takes you up Kaitaia. So on Day 6, I lance, strap and hobble onto the road, heading the 18km to the wee township which seems like a metropolis now. It’s brutally hard walking with my foot, I stop three times to try to lesson the pressure and friction and fail each time.
A local guy pulls up beside – “want a ride?” I thank him but decline. Seconds later I would kick myself if it wouldn’t hurt so much, but he’s already gone. The curb isn’t that boring, I amuse myself thinking about pain, people who throw cans out windows, and guessing what kind of vehicle is coming based on its tyre noise.
I collapse into Kaitaia and an ok motel, where I write this post. Feet up and slowly recovering, I’m giving them 3 nights and then hopefully I’ll be back on the trail, heading into the bush!
A long rant but overall, despite the mental and physical challenges of this initial leg, I am loving every second. So glad I made it and I can’t wait to find what else is in store!