I get misty eyed when I think about the time I walked from Cape Reinga to Bluff. Here she goes again, friends no doubt think as I wax on about the joys, tribulations and wondrous sights encountered during that 3000km journey down the length of the country. As far as once in a lifetime trips go, tramping Te Araroa was spectacularly transformative, and the long-lasting effect it had on my life only made it even more memorable. With the world's current challenges, escaping into the wilds is looking a tempting option again.
Long-distance trails are growing in popularity around the world and in 2011 New Zealand launched its own, a linear route that connects a swag of pre-existing trails with a handful of new linking trails. In the north it meanders from west coast to east and back again, via remote beaches, tangled mossy forests, the volcanic desert of Tongariro National Park and knife-edge ridges traversing the Tararua Range. In the south it takes a more direct route over and alongside the dramatic Southern Alps. Roughly once a week, sometimes more often, the trail intersects with a town where hot showers and general stores offer a welcome opportunity to refresh and restock.
When I set out in 2013, Te Araroa was a bit of an unknown quantity, a trail that only a handful of people had successfully completed. Although I had a dozen or so multi-day walks under my belt, none had even been longer than 65km so it was a trial by fire on the body and mind. I needed it though. After the closure of a toxic relationship and the stresses of city life, my world had been overtaken by crippling anxiety and depression, the symptoms of which mercifully and miraculously disappeared within weeks of being immersed in the peace and simplicity of nature.
Then I fixed problems I didn't even know I had. In walking the trail I faced countless challenges: steep and exposed mountains, sudden snowstorms, scores of unbridged river crossings, dubious trail marking, the dislocation of a shoulder and, not least, losing my hiking buddy to an injury on day two. But in surviving these challenges I discovered a hitherto untapped inner resourcefulness and courage. I learned to tune in to the environment, to listen to my gut and overcome fear. I discovered I was capable of much more than I'd realised and I observed how little you need to be blissfully happy – food, shelter and one bag of belongings will do. It became clear that life could be joyous when you simplified it and removed the "noise". The insights gained during those five months changed my life forever, leading to a change of career and a substantial reshaping of personal beliefs and world view.
Taking on the entire route will give you an experience like no other but if you can't spare the time or energy for a 3000km tramp, consider section hiking it, taking on bite-size stages over an extended period. Alternatively, cherry pick sections that appeal. The stretch from St Arnaud to Boyle Village, across Nelson Lakes National Park in the South Island, actually elicited a few snuffled tears from me at the sight of its beautiful snow-capped mountains, clear rushing rivers and immense boulder fields.
If you're curious to know what it's like to have a beach almost entirely to yourself for four days, the first 100 kilometres south from Cape Reinga follows the remote, golden strip of Ninety Mile Beach. Mt Pirongia, in the Waikato, marks the first of the real mountains for southbound walkers and a two-day section traverses its steep and mossy-green bulk. The real delights though are those lesser-known discoveries such as the stunning forests of the North Island's Hakarimata Walkway or the Telford Tops on the Takitimu Track in the south. The four-day Mavora Walkway, south of Queenstown, is also notable for its stunning lakes, mountains, beech forest and sense of isolation.
A trail highlight - that incidentally doesn't involve walking - is a 200-kilometre paddle down the Whanganui River. Kayaks and canoes can be rented in Taumarunui for the six-day paddle to the sea at Whanganui. Approximately 200 rapids scatter the route, mild enough for a beginner to take on yet frothy enough to get the heart racing. In places, the river carves its way through steep sided canyon walls festooned with ferns and spouting waterfalls, and campsites overlooking the snaking water are some of most scenic I've encountered.
Most nights in the North Island are spent in a tent, however in the South Island walkers can make use of plentiful DoC huts en route, especially handy when the weather turns challenging. Purchasing a backcountry hut pass will give you access to all huts on the trail and while some have all the sophistication and comfort of a garden shed, others are double-glazed masterpieces with cosy wood-fired stoves and five-star views.
I won't sugar coat it, walking all day, every day, takes a bit of energy. I managed to scoff my way through 10kg of Whittakers in the five months it took me to complete the trail and I still lost weight (ah, those were the days). Te Araroa is not for the faint-hearted either. It has some considerably challenging terrain at times and can be exposed to some gnarly weather, but nothing can compare to the feeling of utter connection to the land when you sneak a peek through the tent fly as the moon rises over the remote Ahuriri River Valley. Or the vision of killer whale dorsal fins slicing through the surface of Queen Charlotte Sound as you skirt a ridgetop path above. Or the soothing hoot of a morepork owl in the darkness of a northern forest night. Such moments of magic make the hardship all worth it.
Laura Waters is the author of memoir Bewildered, about her adventures hiking 3000km down the length of New Zealand.
TE ARAROA TRAIL
The Te Araroa Trail stretches 3000km from Cape Reinga to Bluff and takes between 4-6 months to complete. Topographic maps, trail notes and further information can be downloaded from teararoa.org.nz
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com
This story was first published in the New Zealand Herald Travel on 1 October