A young Whanganui woman thought walking the 3000km Te Araroa trail would give her "alone time in the bush" - but she's finding it a very social experience.
Kate Emery set out from Cape Reinga on October 23, in 90km/h winds. She hopes to be in Bluff by the end of March, then walk a 10-day Rakiura circuit on Stewart Island.
She's from Maxwell and the Ngā Rauru iwi and last year her life revolved around getting onto the trail. She had graduated and then worked to save the recommended $7000 to $10,000, sometimes doing two jobs.
She wanted to see New Zealand before travelling overseas, to grow in herself and decide what to do next.
"I don't really know what direction I want to head in. Hopefully I figure that out on the trail. If not, I have to keep walking."
She was fit when she started the walk, but it was still hard.
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"The first four days along 90 Mile Beach is really tough on the body, especially on the feet. I had five layers of blisters on both feet, and my shoulders were really sore getting used to my pack."
After three weeks her feet were better, her pack was lighter and she was stronger. She's found her "sweet spot", doing 25 to 30km a day without getting too tired.
She brought a group of seven to her parents' home at Maxwell on November 11, having done 1300km. They ate, drank, slept, washed themselves and their clothes - "all the things that you want to do as soon as you get to a town".
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She'll head off soon with her dad, Mark Sutherland, to do the Tararua stretch.
Emery has only spent a few nights on her own. One was at Ocean Beach in Northland, where she woke early to a silent, misty morning and was the only person on the beach.
Another wonderful leg was the paddle across the Bay of Islands, from Paihia to Waikare, before walking through Russell Forest. The stretch from Waipu to Mangawhai was another highlight, passing through forest and farmland, on boardwalks and on sand.
The worst weather so far happened during the five-day paddle from Whakahoro to Whanganui.
"I've got some leaks in my tent now. Paddling in the thunderstorms was a bit unnerving, with lightning all around us."
Emery is in the middle of a surge of southbound Te Araroa walkers, with about 20 in Whanganui, 20 ahead and 20 behind. She's met only three other New Zealanders doing the walk.
"As soon as I find them, I attach to them."
She carries a personal locator beacon (PLB), wears trail running shoes and keeps her pack down to 16kg. She doesn't like the dehydrated meals she eats most nights, and carries a stove to make her morning coffee.
"I snack a lot, because the main meals are just so gross."
She'd like to meet more Kiwis on the trail.
"If anyone wants to do it, I think 'go for it - make it happen'."