Deanna and her siblings' 1980s childhood was full of outdoor Northland adventure provided by their fun-seeking, doting parents.
These experiences, now firmly etched in their memories, are illustrated with the many moments captured by their mother Cheryl who, lovingly compiled albums with the photos she took of her husband Richard and their four children.
The albums, hand-written with captions, along with the memories, are held dear to the Lee children today after tragically losing their beloved parents in a car crash nearly three years ago.
Cheryl and Richard Lee – both well-known and loved across the community, were killed in a head-on collision while on their trip of a lifetime in America. Cheryl was the manager of the i-SITE, Te Manawa The Hub and Claphams Clock Museum and Richard was the operations co-ordinator for the Whangārei District Council Venues and Events team until 2016.
For Deanna, now Gerlach and with a young family of her own, being locked down across the Tasman last year, following the loss, prompted her to recreate some of those adventures she fondly remembered. And so, a brave and wild idea was born.
Within months, Deanna, with her husband Tom, embarked upon walking the length of New Zealand with their three kids - Juno, 12, Joplin, 10 and Goldie – then five. In November, they set off to undertake Te Araroa Trail with Goldie emerging the youngest known person to complete it.
The former Whangārei Girls' High School graduate left for Otago University in 1996 before moving to Australia in 2001. There she met Australian Tom while working as tour guide climb leaders on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the couple, with their subsequent children, would travel to New Zealand to visit the kids' grandparents at least once a year.
"Experiencing depression after they died in that car accident in the States a few years ago was one of my motivators for having a crack at the trail," says Deanna. "I wanted to honour their sense of adventure and risk-taking by giving our kids the opportunity that they gave us on that trip around Australia."
The family spent a year travelling around Australia in an old panel van which her parents slept in the back of while the four kids shared the caravan.
"Mum and dad loved travelling. To save money, they often camped and went on road trips together in their van, sleeping in the back on a mattress.
"Dad was adventurous and mum loved to travel. We grew up on low-budget outdoor adventures - many things would be considered unsafe these days, but that's just how it was back in the 80s - around the Whangārei area. Home was Kara where mum's folks had a farm that we managed and then onto Maungatapere where we had a hobby farm. Dad's folks lived at McLeod Bay. We split time between working on the farm on weekends or playing out at the coast.
"On the west coast, we'd spend the day or camp overnight on Baylys Beach. We'd go out there to try out the latest toys dad had built from spare parts in the shed - riding bikes, motorbikes, land yachts, even hang gliding. Dad used to pull us along in the hang glider with a rope - running first to get us to practice and then a gentle tow behind the car. Mum loved it too. Dad still used to fly his hang glider in his 60s. He had to wait until conditions were perfect otherwise mum would be terrified.
"On the east coast, we'd go out to Gray (grandad) and grandma's place, right on the water in the harbour. We dove for scallops using a petrol-powered air compressor on the boat for air - apparently a huge no-no, but we had no idea - it worked! Gray made boats and canoes, he even had a little microlight that could land on water. We went exploring, swam and fished all day - all the freedom in the world out there in the bay. Dad had four brothers who all had about four kids each so we had plenty of cousins to play with."
The year-long Australia trip was also carried out on a low budget with the couple picking peaches over the summer while the kids went to school. Deanna has fond memories of swimming in the river with their new mates.
"It was an awesome year and I was keen to replicate the adventure with our kids."
After spending several weeks of 2020, pre-Covid, in Christchurch where her brother Zane and his family are now based, the couple began contemplating relocating there. The subsequent lockdown back home in Australia proved the catalyst.
"Home had been calling for a while. I was always really close with my dad's mum, Alene, out at Whangārei Heads and I wanted to be in her life before she died. In general, I had a growing need to connect with whānau and whenua and Tom had always been keen to move to New Zealand, he was just waiting for me to be ready.
"The ultimate motivation was Covid-inspired. Lockdowns gave us space to be together, dream and contemplate more and feel the need to change more urgently. When our freshly-empty schedules started filling up again as lockdowns lifted, we felt strangled by our obligations. Our simple time together as a family faded away and it just felt so wrong. Indeed, it was time for a change."
Having read about another family taking on the approximate 3,000km Te Araroa Trail, Deanna and Tom began researching and realised they would have to begin by November to finish before winter set in. So, they applied for quarantine and visas to move to Aotearoa, sold most of their belongings, wrapped up work and school and hopped on a plane.
"The airport was eerily empty, but the plane was full, and we all bused off to Hamilton for hotel quarantine together."
With a blog called "Noodles for Breakfast" and a website with a GPS tracker for followers, they then set off from Cape Reinga to embark on a six-month journey of the country.
The trail showcases everything New Zealand has to offer, including beaches, volcanoes, mountains, rivers, lakes and valleys. The path also intersects with many towns and cities, allowing chances to stock up on supplies and rest.
Although having carried out preparation, such as learning navigational skills, wilderness first aid and river crossing, Deanna says the family weren't the fittest when they set out. But that soon changed.
"We got fit as we went along. We would love to go back and re-do Ninety-Mile beach to see how it feels when you're fit!"
That day started off nervously and disorderly, Deanna recalls, as the family had not before undertaken an overnight hike together and had no idea what seven days' worth of food entailed. They soon realised what had been overlooked or over-packed as, for seven days, they lugged their heavy packs over the endless kilometres of sand, negotiating tides along the way.
Their luggage involved two lightweight tents, inflatable sleeping mats and pillows, sleeping bags, a set of clothes, rain wear and warm night wear, later accruing warmer clothing from Wellington as it progressively grew colder. A professional photographer, Deanna also lugged her camera gear along the trail capturing both stills and video for a book and film she is working on.
"It was often below freezing at night when we were camping or sleeping in huts without fires or insulation. We carried as much food as we needed for each section. There were two ten-day sections in the South Island - that's almost 40kg of food, so that was really hard to carry."
While Goldie proved to be, by far, the most adventurous and inspirational, all family members experienced their highs and lows.
Deanna describes some of their most challenging days that nearly broke them as day four of 10-12 hour days climbing up and down steep, gnarly terrain and finally dragging themselves to their hut in the dark, eating their dehydrated dinner and falling into bed.
Then there were the terrifying days on Northland roads with logging trucks screaming past where they'd all had their limits. Deanna recalls the children singing Christmas carols to the smell of pine trees to take their mind off the stress.
"In the Richmond Ranges, there's a day where you sidle up Wairoa River all day. The track has slipped and disappeared in a bunch of sections and it's a hellish day with little legs trying to find a way to get through. To top it off, we all got multiple wasp stings. Poor little Goldie got five stings close together and screamed for hours. She was terrified at the sight of every wasp we saw that afternoon and took frequent dips in the river to try to soothe the screaming stings. The pain was too much to get to sleep that night, we were on the job of trying to soothe her until nearly midnight. Our poor hut mates!"
She says the most challenging day was along the Timaru River, again with the track disappearing and around 13 ice-cold silty river crossings with the last few kilometres straight up a steep hill.
"We walked into the hut after dark, sidling up the steep hill with headlamps on, being careful not to slip down the ridge. Stodys Hut was a welcome sight! It was freezing and windy, the hut is an old musterer's hut with gaps in the wooden slats so the wind whistles through. There was no firewood, the floor was dirt and mice somehow managed to get into our breakfast bar tucked away in Tom's pack during the night. But we were still chuffed and grateful to be there."
Along their journey, they were met and helped by various friends and family members, strangers and "Trail Angels" – locals who help walkers with food, a bed, or advice.
They also hired bikes to cycle the 82km central north island Timber Trail over two days with a camp in the middle. With Goldie believed to be the youngest to have cycled the
trail, the hire company didn't cater to her size so they purchased a bike which was delivered to the start of the trail.
"She had such sore arms in the last few hours that she was crying but soon forgot about them when we only had 5kms to go. Then she was so excited to get to the end and fanged it!" says her mum.
They hired kayaks and paddled from Taumarunui to Whanganui for seven days, with Deanna describing the river journey as "epic".
Their favourite section of the trail involved ten days through the Nelson Lakes National Park.
"It's the most epically, beautiful part of the country that we've seen so far and we had an amazing crew of other trail walkers with us."
And, of course, Northland featured strongly among their highlights.
"We loved coming down the east coast of Northland, home. My mum managed the information centre in Whangārei since I was a kid and she knew all the tourism operators well, so we often went up to the Bay of Islands on Fullers boat trips, and out to the Poor Knights. She was infatuated with Matapouri and Whale Bay. As a teenager, I camped at Whananaki with my mates. Ocean Beach was our official homecoming out at Whangārei Heads, and we just happened to walk in on a Friday afternoon, perfect early summer's day not long before Christmas. We had the most beautiful afternoon fishing and having beers with my cousins and their mates from the Heads, we even saw dolphins in the surf and heard Kiwi at night from our tents."
Finally arriving at Bluff mid-May after 177 days felt "bloody good".
"That day it was windy and raining with hail and sleet. The locals were amazing and made us feel so welcome. Marcus Lush saw us walking alongside the highway in the rain and put a note on the community Facebook to look after us. His wife even came down and dropped off hot chocolates to the kids on the side of the road in the pouring rain. And then when we made it to town, the local real estate office and cafe asked us in and shouted us hot drinks. One of my old mates from uni had seen us walking down the road and came to say 'g'day'. I couldn't believe it. It'd been twenty years since we'd seen each other. And then my brother Zane and his wife Jules came down from Christchurch to meet us at Stirling Point where the famous signpost is. What a beaut day.
"There were so many best days ever! There's this epic feeling when you do hard things, when you're uncomfortable and challenging yourself for days at a time and then you get through it and you reap the rewards. We were so utterly stoked with little things, like a shower and a real towel, fresh food, a real bed, meeting new splendid people every other day. Swimming in wild places, people giving you food - food is everything on trail - being in some of the most beautiful spots on the planet and having them to yourself. Walking through some of the crappiest spots in Aotearoa and seeing the bones of this country. You get it all out there on the TA and that's what makes it such a rich experience. Our kids have seen a cracking cross-section of New Zealand, it's an awesome education."
Deanna felt her parents with them throughout the journey.
"The tramp through the country they loved so much felt more epic and spiritual than a road trip. We all felt really strongly that mum was with us from about Whangārei Heads
onwards. She was in every piwakawaka/fantail that we saw throughout the country - and there pretty much all the way. It seemed that whenever the kids got hurt and cried, there was Grandma Cheryl flitting down to nurture them.
"We finally saw Poppi Ri in the Richmond Ranges. There was a stunning ridgeline heading down toward a gnarly section that we had heard was quite challenging one beautiful afternoon. We saw this New Zealand falcon from afar, perched on a rock overlooking the immense valley, we were pretty high up on those mountains. It just kept staring at us and drew us in. We managed to get really close before it flew away. It felt amazing and I had a little cry and cuddled the kids. They were certain it was Ri. It felt comforting and empowering that he was keeping an eye on us up there when we were nervous about the terrain ahead."
While tramping the country, they pondered their possibilities about where to live. However, as soon as they set foot at Lake Hawea, they fell in love. After staying at the holiday park and chatting with the owner, by the time they reached Bluff, Tom had all but secured a job as the general manager. After spending several nights in Christchurch with family, they moved to Lake Hawea, somewhere Deanna had always dreamed of living, and are currently looking for a house to buy. The kids have settled into school and are stoked to be in New Zealand, calling themselves "Kiwaussies".
"They were all fiercely close to my mum and dad before they died and have a strong sense of belonging after walking the length of this whenua on foot. They connected with whānau, tangata, tangata whenua as we went. They're embracing learning Te Reo at school and getting involved with kappa haka. Admittedly we live in a pristine environment down here in Lake Hawea, but our roots are still very much in Northland and we'll regularly traipse back up north to connect and explore."
For now, the adults are relishing in their long, hot showers, fluffy bath towels and real beds with sheets while the kids are enjoying making friends and playing with toys again. They're also happy to see the back of trail food, enjoying fresh food and the meals they fantasised about.
But Deanna admits to sometimes feeling the "post-trail blues". After spending six months in survival-mode and, despite it being the most challenging thing they had ever done, life was less cluttered than their usual modern lives and, at times, she finds herself staring up at the surrounding mountains offering their tranquillity.
As well as checking out the local trails, the family are planning to return to several sections of Te Araroa Trail early next year which they had to skip due to unsafe river levels.
"It's a great skill being comfortable in the outdoors and knowing how to navigate it all safely. A big part of that is learning how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Learning how to appreciate the lows as well as the highs. I hope the kids will continue to enjoy and explore the outdoors their whole lives. I feel like it is so important to who we are, how we've evolved, and sets us up for looking after our natural world in a way we haven't been and need to.
"We learned so much about the kids' capabilities, and our own. Doing a long trail like Te Araroa gives you an amazing sense of purpose and drive. Kids are capable of so much more than our modern lives allow them. We learned that we are all quite different and our motivations and weaknesses vary. We learned to help each other and took turns leading and motivating. We learned to give each other space to have an angry moment or breathe
through pain and calm ourselves down. We learned to encourage each other and often chatted all day long.
"I feel we've done my folks, Ri and Chez, proud by honouring their sense of adventure and learning to love this land as much as they did. Ultimately, we'd love to use that love to inspire others to get out there and together learn how to do a better job of protecting our natural environment. And, in the words of my grandad Gray, just, 'have a go'. It's such a simple idea, but, damn, it feels so good to let go of fear about failure and, instead, embrace being brave enough to just give it a go."