On a crisp early fall day Stephanie said, “Let’s go someplace warm this winter and do a long hike.” This seemed like a good idea, but didn’t take root until a while later when I got the flu for 2 weeks, giving me nothing to do but dig into the details of a trip plan. I could think of only one thing that interested me: traversing New Zealand’s South Island via the Te Araroa (Maori for “The Long Pathway”). This route, which was finally linked only in 2011, runs the length of both islands, but we didn’t have time for the full 3000 km. The 1300 km (800 miles) of the TA on the SI would be most suited to our tastes: rugged, remote, and wild.
“TA SI SOBO” was born: “Te Araroa, South Island, SouthBound” (Thru-hikers are as efficient with their jargon as they are with their hiking!)
A BIG TRIP
For Stephanie and me this would be a big trip in many respects. We have done countless adventures, but this would be the longest trip we’d done together in over 30 years. It would also be by far the longest continuous hike we’d ever done. And, the hiking clearly would be hard. Speed records for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the full TA are nearly exactly the same (53 days, 6 hours for the PCT; 53 days, 9 hours for the TA), but the PCT is 800 miles longer! One veteran thru-hiker of both the PCT and the TA said he averaged 50 km/day on the former but only 30 km/day on the latter. There seem to be a couple of main reasons for this remarkable difference:
1) The TA has some HARD hiking! Typical tracks along this route are what in the US we would term “use trails”, meaning that the trail tread (if there is one at all) is established by people walking over the area, rather than by a purposeful construction. NZ’s Department of Conservation (DOC) has marked a route and cut out deadfall and some other obstacles, but on many of these tracks they have done no work on the trail tread itself. The result is often super steep routes, very rough footing, brush bashing and exceptionally poorly-drained, muddy and sometimes washed-out or otherwise eroded trails that take constant attention and a ton of energy to navigate. On some days we made only 25km with a full day’s concerted effort (but other days when we walked 40-50 km due to easy conditions).
2) Weather. NZ weather is notorious. It’s wet. Really wet! Much of the western side of the SI receives in excess of 6 METERS of precip per year! As we learned, even relatively small amounts of rain can turn these difficult trails into slippery, muddy messes that are extremely slow to navigate. Heavier rainfalls can be a big deal because there are countless river crossings that can become impassable when water levels are up. Reports indicate that it is not uncommon to have to wait a day or more for water levels to come down. It wasn’t at all clear that summer on NZ’s SI was going to fill Stephanie’s requirement for “someplace warm”. Checking weather reports as our Thanksgiving Day departure neared things looked absolutely miserable with constant rain and even snow at fairly low elevations. But somehow we hit it just right and the rain stopped pretty much the day we arrived. In the end we had only 4 days of real rain while hiking (fortunately, since UD’s new rain jacket wasn’t available yet!), and were never delayed by weather or high water despite literally hundreds of river crossings on the route. Conditions were generally mild – actually surprisingly warm even when wet – but never really hot.
Is the Te Araroa now the world’s 4th great thru-hike?? The AT (Appalachian Trail) was the first, the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) is right up there, the CDT (Continental Divide Trail) is now standard faire for thru-hikers, so is the TA next? In the logbook of one hut I noted from 2004-2010 only 6 people/year logged in, while starting in 2011, 50 people/year were there, all writing “Te Araroa” in the logbook. Notably, most of the trampers were Yanks and Germans, as they had come specifically to hike the TA.
A DIFFERENT SYSTEM
Another interesting and unfamiliar aspect to hiking in NZ is the hut system. There are dozens of huts along the route and everyone uses them. Actually, very often the huts are the only viable option since the ground is typically very unlevel and rough and wet. In most places there are few established campsites, and finding a good place for a tent can be difficult or impossible. Given the weather, huts just make sense. The huts are mostly really nice and very economical. A 6 month pass covering every hut on the TA costs about US$75. Of our 39 nights on the TA we spent 17 in huts, 8 in lodges, 4 “home stays” (more on that later) and 10 camping in our tent. The near requirement to stay in huts in many places meant that our itinerary was driven by the hut locations. Frequently we were faced with the choice of either stopping early, or pressing on later than we’d like to get to the next hut. Usually we chose the early option, especially later in the trip when we were well ahead of schedule. Another thing about the huts is that they’re generally very comfortable compared to huddling in a tent, so it’s easy to kill time lounging around or socializing with other trampers. The huts can be busy. After one big, 50 km day we arrived at the Boyle Flat Hut around 7pm find a boisterous boys’ tramping club had taken up residence. They had the wood stove cranking, and the hut was steaming hot and the air thick with the smell of bacon, which they generously shared with a couple of ravenous thru-hikers! Ear plugs are necessary gear. On NZ’s 9 famous “Great Walks” you have to reserve the huts months in advance. But, in general the TA is still a “backcountry” experience, where you can go for days without seeing anyone, and often as not we had the huts to ourselves.
We allowed 45 days for the tramp, but in the end it required only 40 days of walking. During the first days we were unsure of making the miles we needed to complete the route in our time frame, so we did what comes naturally to both of us in such a situation: we hiked long, hard days. Later, when it was clear we could make our goals, we relaxed the pace, took a couple of “tourist” days, and had some social time. For us, averaging 20 miles/day on the TA was comfortable, especially in the southern half where the hiking tended to be easier.
Resupply is an issue for any long thru-hike. We were unsure what we’d find in NZ supermarkets, but were happy to find that even the small (“Four Square”) markets were well stocked with everything we needed. In much of the northern part of the Island we knew we wouldn’t encounter even these small markets on route, so we planned to do 3 of our first 4 re-supplies by mail drop, which we purchased, packed and shipped from Christchurch on our first day in NZ. We were greatly helped in this by UD athlete Vajin Armstrong, NZ’s top ultrarunner, who generously took time from his busy life to pick us up at the airport and take us shopping and then to the post office. We mailed these boxes to St Arnaud, Boyle River and Lake Coleridge. With a stop at the Four Square in Havelock on Day 3, this would cover the first 3 weeks, all the way to Lake Tekapo. In the end we had to hitchhike to only one resupply point, at Te Anau, which we wanted to visit anyway to see the famous Fiordlands area (by that time we were well ahead of schedule and took 2 days off to sightsee).
There are 900 huts in New Zealand! Colorado is the exact same size and number of people – can you imagine 900 backcountry huts in Colorado? Wouldn’t that be interesting? The South Island is quite remote – just 20% of NZ’s 4.5 million people live there.
When I mentioned our TA plan to Buzz he immediately put me in touch with the UD distributor there, Grant Guise. Grant was a fantastic contact and a huge help on our trip in many ways. Plus, he was stoked for our visit. He said, “The PB [Adventure Vest] has been really popular down here. Our races require loads of gear and food and good lightweight jackets and pants are not that easy to come by, so it seems people need bigger packs – the PB is perfect.” It seems that every run in NZ is an adventure run! Grant immediately invited us to stay at his home in Wanaka (about 500 miles along) and ended up walking with us for a day and a half in the Motatapu. Further south, we also stayed at his parents’ home in Riverton. Grant’s mom, Peggy, has quite an athletic resume herself, having run the first 60 km Kepler Challenge in 1988! Grant also created a little contest for NZ runners to win an Adventure Vest by taking a selfie with us after being given clues as to where we might be day-to-day. The remoteness of the route made this a really hard contest! But, a few people rose to the occasion, and it was really fun to meet some of NZ’s tight-knit trail running community. Runners Ben and Blair tracked us down on Goat Pass (with cookies!) Later, Helen and Croydon brought us beer and snacks at a remote hut near Mavora Lakes on New Year’s Eve – probably the nicest New Year’s celebration we’ve ever had. And few days later Grant’s friend Dwight and his wife Lee fed and entertained us at their home in Te Anau. Really fun!
The friendliness and generosity of the people of NZ was something we experienced throughout our trip. Near the end of our third day we were walking up a long, tiring gravel road looking for water and a place to camp. A car pulled alongside and the conversation went about like this:
Driver: “Would you like a ride?”
Me: “Thanks! But, no, we’d like to walk.”
Driver: “Suit yourself.”
Me: “We didn’t realize it would be all sheep farms along this road. Do you have any potable water?”
Driver: “Sure.” [Driver’s wife pours us out some water.]
Me: “Is there any camping at the trailhead?”
Driver: “Yeah, but we live right at the trailhead. Why don’t you stay with us?” !!!
We had a lovely stay with Dennis and Sharon, an older ex-pat American couple who have lived in NZ since 1968! A couple weeks later we were staying in a lodge at Arthur’s Pass and Stephanie noticed a UD Adventure Vest in the lounge area. We struck up a conversation with the vest’s owner, Scott, who after about 5 minutes invited us to stay at his home in the south when we came through. We had a great stay with him and his family, touring their dairy farm and playing with the 3 kids. Scott’s wife, Chantal, walked the first 19 km with us the next morning. The friendliness and generosity of the people we met was humbling and a highlight of our trip. Our heartfelt thanks to all of them!
Thru-hiking is an odd game. The object is to walk everything from point A to point B, in this case from some arbitrary point near the north end of the SI to some other arbitrary point at the south end. While we went through some amazing, stunning, remote and archetypically New Zealand terrain, we also had long sections of gravel ranch roads and even a little paved state highways. I always struggled with these sections, asking myself “Why am I walking this?” especially when, as frequently happened, a friendly motorist pulled up unbidden and asked if we wanted a ride. The fact is, while I really enjoyed the TA and wanted the opportunity to do a “pure” thru-hike in this style, I probably won’t do such a long one again. I prefer just doing the “gems” – walking the stellar tracks and experiencing the best scenery and terrain. Stephanie, on the other hand, loved the road sections where she could just relax into walking. She’s already talking about doing the North Island!
THE TE ARAROA
Usually we think of backpacking as a means to get into the solitude of the wilderness, which we certainly did on the TA. Most of New Zealand’s South Island is so under populated and remote that you rarely even hear a passing airplane – the quiet and stillness are breathtaking. But, in the end for me this trip was more about connection: the connections we made with people we met, and the deep, unspoken connection that revealed itself between Stephanie and me during the long days of close contact.
A more detailed trip report with our daily itinerary, gear list, and other useful links, is here.