Thursday 26 June 2014

Te Araroa Trip Report

Te Araroa (TA) was the trail I had chosen to kick-off my new full-time outdoor life back in 2012. For various reasons it turned out not to be possible then, but it was alway a question of when, not if, I would hike this trail. Hikes that start and finish at the sea have always been my favourite types, it's just not possible to go any further, and New Zealand is a very special place cramming so much variety into an area not much bigger the the UK. When some time became available it didn't take me long to commit and give it a go.

Breast Hill (yes really!), South Island, New Zealand
The trail is just over 3000km and should take around 5 months to hike. It starts at Cape Reinga, on the tip of the North Island, and finishes in Bluff, on the far southern tip of the South Island. A new trail the official opening was in early 2011 but hikers had been making their own way, using parts of the trail, for many years.
Cape Reinga, North Island - Start of the TA
Rather than build a new trail the TA links together existing routes with either a new purpose built trail, or more likely a road walk. Public access to private land is minimal in New Zealand and that creates a real problem for anybody trying to create such a long route. This is a much bigger problem on the more populated, and cultivated, North Island and means that the TA association has had to negotiate access with individual landowners which takes a time and often isn't successful. Until that is done the only method of providing the links is to divert onto the public road. The TA  has done a great job of minimising road walking, given what they had to work with, and things should improve as the trail gets more established. Even so if you are thinking of hiking this trail then you better be comfortable with lots of road walking!

One of many road walking "link sections"
Starting in the Far North you will hike sub-tropical forests with many being home to the magnificat Kauri tree. Quiet sand beaches stretching for miles will be hiked before disappearing into dense, almost impenetrable, bush. 
Kauri trees can grow huge but this is just a baby
Called the Giant Stump this Kauri didn't survive the New Zealand's loggers
Beach from Cape Reinga
90 Mile beach, you will walk all of its 55 mile length!
You will probably have the beaches to yourself
Beach walking is surprisingly tough on the feet, best sit down and have a rest!
Beaches are sometimes used as roads so keep an eye open. Yes you can drive at 100km/hr on them!
Between the sections of coast and bush you will hike through farmland often full of cows, horses, or sheep. You will also pass through a couple of major cities and some larger towns as well as many tiny villages.

Best get used to cows, bulls and...
Auckland, the trail goes right through the centre
Wellington, a nice compact capital city
Active volcanoes will be crossed with their bubbling mud pools and bellowing steam like a kettle. Real mountains are few in the North but the Tararuas will give you a good taste of what is to come in the South Island. 
This hut took a pounding when a volcano threw its toys out in 2012
Tongariro Crossing in volcano country
Emerald Lakes, Tongariro Crossing
Tongariro crossing is one of the few busy trails on the North Island
Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings or Mount Ngauruhoe by its real name
Tararuas a taste of what's ahead in the South
Junction in the Tararuas 
After passing through Wellington and onto the end of the North Island you will catch a ferry over to the South Island and its here where the big mountains begin and things get more remote. But before the big mountains it’s back the the coast and the beautiful Queen Charlotte Track.

The end of the North Island
InterIslander Ferry
Your South Island adventure begins with the Queen Charlotte Track
Queen Charlotte passes many fine bays
The sunsets aren't too bad either!
The rugged mountain ranges of Richmond and Nelson stretch as far as you can see and you will climb many saddles and passes but summit surprisingly few peaks. Some days you will be crossing river after river, maybe by a simple swing-bridge but often they will need fording. 

The Richmond Range is the first taste of New Zealand's real mountains
Rough exposed hiking in the Richmond Range
Nelson Lakes is also rugged and beautiful
A simple swing bridge over a river
Many rivers will need fording
You will walk on the banks of many great lakes and enjoy the clarity of the southern night sky. Nearing the finish it’s back into dense bush which will bring back distant memories of the North. 

Lake Rotoiti, Nelson Lakes
Lake Ohau, Canterbury
Clear starlit skys begged to be photographed
You are finally ejected at the coast and then it’s not far to the end end of a magnificent hike. The TA was an amazing journey and the best hike I have done to date. But do read on as it will not suit everybody!

Journeys end. The Bluff.
The TA association has an excellent website with everything you need to plan your hike. Free paper maps can be downloaded and then printed and you can find GPX files of each section for your GPS. Trail notes are also available and they contain lots of useful information. This is all really helpful but there are some errors in the data. There are times when the 3 sources will not agree and the map will show you going one way, the GPX track another and the trail notes will say something completely different! Overall though I found this information useful but pay attention to what you see on the ground, and if you have no idea which is right then guess! It worked for me! It’s also worth joining the Facebook page as that has many files from previous hikers that you can download about resupply, routes options, transport, accommodation etc and it’s where most other hikers share information while on the hike.
Sometimes the route finding is obvious
Sometimes it's confusing!
Transport to New Zealand is generally easy from Europe but getting to the start of the hike is not. I flew with Cathy Pacific to New Zealand from Leeds/Bradford airport (via Heathrow) for £968.29 return. Auckland is the best airport to fly into and from there you can get a Intercity bus to Kaitaia ($54) and then join a tour bus up to Cape Reinga ($50). You will probably need a stopover in Auckland and Kaitaia, so allow a couple of days for all this. Hitching is an option but is down to luck. Getting over to the South Island involved using the InterIslander ferry from Wellington to Picton ($65) followed by a Post boat to Ship Cove ($50 - ask for special TA rate). Getting back to Auckland from the Bluff was with an Air New Zealand flight from Invercargill (£243.50). If you are from the UK then you are automatically granted a 6 month visa on arrival. If you are from the USA or most other countries then you need to apply for your visa before arrival.

The Harrisons tour bus up to Cape Reinga is the easy way to get there
Resupply is fairly easy with the trail passing through many towns on the North Island, normally every 2-6 days, and a little longer between stops on the South Island. On occasions I carried 10 days of food but generally much less. I only sent 2 resupply boxes ahead of me and that was to St. Arnaud and Lake Coleridge. It would have been possible to resupply in St. Arnaud but the store there is very basic and expensive. You can send packages to Post Offices or Hotels/YHA's but do call and ask them in advance. Water is also not much of an issue, with the exception being the first few days down 90 mile beach. When I crossed that section, in early December, there was ample water but it had been very rainy. Most village stores stocked basic food suitable for hikers, some stocked dried camping food but that was generally only in the larger towns. There are files on resupply options available for download on the Facebook page.

One of the many mountain huts on the South Island
Given the problems linking trails together, and therefore forced road walking, 99% of TA hikers do not hike the complete trail end-end, most miss some, or all, of the numinous road sections. That’s not something I could do but after having hiked many 100’s of km, on sometimes fast and dangerous roads, I can fully understand why it is more often hiked this way. These link sections are one of a number of challenges to a successful thru-hike which also include issues with tides, estuaries (with no crossing options), numerous river crossings (often not crossable after rain), sections that need a canoe/kayak, overgrown rough trails and weather dependant routes. 

One of the many river crossings
Trail? Not always!
If you are willing to put up with, and adapt, to the TA then you will be rewarded with a magnificat hike but do not underestimate this trail, it can be tough. It is a much harder hike than say the PCT, and if you are not skilled, lucky, and persistent, then you are not likely to complete it. The TA can also bite back, in the 2013/14 season I know of 2 hikers that lost their lives on the TA, the first was a Brit that slipped off a cliff and the second was a German section hiker that has never been found. Neither of the sections in question were particularly dangerous, in good weather, but it highlights a big problem on the TA in that there is normally no foul weather alternative to the tricky bits. As a thru-hiker you can’t choose when you will hit these challenging sections. 

Some sections can be dangerous in bad weather. Sadly one TA hiker lost their life not far from here 
River crossing are a massive issue in New Zealand and they claim more lives than anything else. Many of the big rivers are bridged (usually a simple swing-bridge), but some are not. There are times when you will do 40+ wet foot crossings in a day and there are even sections where the trail actually is the river! Some of those sections can be as long as 5km and are un-passable after heavy rain, most will not have detour options. There are also some longer river sections where you need a kayak or canoe, they can be hired with a little work, and quite a lot of cost, or you can road walked around. That can take 4 or 5 days and you will have to plan your own route as there are no alternatives listed on the TA website.

Many of the deeper rivers are crossed via simple swing bridges
I'm in a river, is this really the trail? Yes!
Maori Canoe, you need a canoe or kayak for some sections
The key to safely hiking the TA is experience and lots of spare time. Keep a constant eye on the weather forecast, the trail conditions (especially rivers), and be prepared to stop and sit it out if necessary. The TA certainly requires more mountain skills than most other long hikes which is the main reason why I would not recommend this trail for the beginner. The second reason being the long testing road walking sections which makes a continuous hike unlikely for many hikers. My experience of the TA was that the worse the weather got the harder and more dangerous the trail became. This is normal on any trail but because the TA is always a rough and ready type of trail the weather has a greater affect.

Tracks are often wet and muddy
Mud glorious mud!
Trail quality is mixed and varies from quality board walking to no trail at all. In general the trail will probably be of a lower standard than you are used to and is certainly much lower in quality than something like the PCT. Therefore when planning your hike expect to cover lower distances. On the PCT I averaged over 50km/day but on the TA only managed 30km, and I’m a fast hiker. Trails normally don’t switchback up and down climbs, or around obstacles, preferring to take a more direct route. That will often mean clinging on to tree roots by your fingertips while lowering yourself down vertical drops on wet and slippery terrain. Sometimes these sections would have ropes or chains but generally they didn’t. 

Roots are great at tripping you up and even better when wet!
Mud and wet roots make the downs slippy. The chain helps.
Trail maintenance appears to be focused on the more popular routes and many of the lesser walked trails in the North Island don’t appear to be maintained, or hiked, often (if at all). Some quieter sections of the South Island are marked but have no trail linking the poles together. The negotiated sections through private land in the north are often a bit of a nightmare. Nobody (other than TA hikers) ever walk these sections and they are often so overgrown and badly signed that they are not worth the effort. Sometimes access will only be granted to the parts of land that are useless for anything else, bogs, gorse, rubbish tip, eroding cliffs, you get the idea! 

Can you spot the trail?
Trail in the bush is often overgrown but fun to hike
Could do with a quick trim I think!
Sometimes access is only allowed to land that is useless for anything else. Think bogs!
Link sections are often by road and they vary from quiet gravel roads to full on motorways! New Zealand main roads are often narrow and winding and have a small, or no, shoulder to walk on. Traffic will be hurtling towards you at 120km/hr and drivers do not expect to see hikers on these roads. This isn't surprising, why would anybody choose to hike up a main road… only TA hikers! Many drivers will not be able to stop, or move over, when they approach you as -

  1. they are travelling at 120km/hr. 
  2. they haven't seen you or expect you to be there.
  3. there is another car/bus/truck coming the other way, also at 120km/hr. 
  4. many drivers are just dick-heads and refuse to move 1mm, even if they could. 

These numerous road links are the most dangerous sections of the TA and you must never loose your concentration, even for 1 sec, when negotiating them. It gets worse though, you will have to cross many road bridges over rivers and in these sections the road gets even narrower. There will be no shoulder and you will have to walk (or sprint) in the main carriageway. You will be living on your luck and hoping that nobody is coming your way when you are 1/2 way across. They will not be able to stop and you will have nowhere to go. For these reasons 99% of hikers miss some/all of the road walking, I didn't but if I hiked it again I would. I pushed my luck 1 to many times on those roads. Take care!

Long bridges are the most dangerous road sections
Trails are surprisingly well marked given that maintenance is minimal, sometimes they are marked with a dedicated TA marker but more often than not by a simple orange marker of some sort. Just because a route is marked doesn’t mean there will actually be a trail between the markers though, sometimes there isn’t. The orange markers will either be triangles, or in more open areas, poles. You should note that ALL trails in New Zealand are marked with these same markers so just because you are following orange markers does not mean you are walking the right trail. In bad weather these markers can sometimes be hard to spot, and with no trail to follow, navigation could then become difficult. Markers would sometimes disappear in the North Island when crossing private farmland, I’m not sure if they are being removed by landowners or if they are just getting knocked down by livestock but when you are on private land and you have no idea where the trail went it gets a bit annoying.

Obvious which way to go!
Simple orange triangle marks the way
In the mountains a pole will often point the way
Sometimes a combination of the two!
TA is a new trail and it can be very quiet at times. In 1600km of North Island hiking I only saw around 6 other hikers. The exception being the Tongariro Crossing which will be packed with 100’s of day hikers and the final walk into Wellington. Often I would walk alone for weeks in the dense bush and I loved it! After hiking on what I considered to be an overcrowded PCT earlier in the year this was welcome relief. If you are the kind of hiker that needs company then find some before you set off, I know of at least 1 hiker that quit because of loneliness on the trail. The South Island is where most people go to hike in New Zealand and that will be much busier.

In the bush it can be quiet. I didn't see anybody most days on the North Island
Looks like it belongs in a Lord of The Rings set
You find all sorts of things in the bush
Rather than move this old bulldozer they turned it into an attraction
TA hiking is very dependant on the weather and you should try and time your hike to give you the best possible chance of success. Try to aim to hit the South Island around mid January, Jan/Feb/Mar should be fairly settled and the rivers at their lowest. You should also try and start your hike as late as possible from Cape Reinga to make the most of any drier weather up North. I started early December and that was near perfect. It still rained an awful lot on the North Island but then I had near perfect weather on the South Island, where it is more critical. New Zealand's weather can change very rapidly, rivers can rise incredible fast and it’s this that catches out many hikers. 2013 had a very wet start to the summer and it rained most days up till the end of December which made the North Island a more challenging hike than the drier South Island for me.
Mountain huts are a great place to sit out bad weather
Most TA hikers fear the river crossings, and rightly so. There are 3 areas that the TA association consider to be too dangerous, and therefore class them as natural breaks. What they mean is that you should not try and cross these natural breaks but find a way to get around, be that by hitching, walking, cycling, whatever… and this will still be classed as a thru-hike. You have to decide if this is right for you but the first of the natural breaks is the Rakaia river and I would, under no circumstances, attempt to ford this river. People have tried it, and some are even alive to tell the tale, but it is extremely dangerous and just not worth the risk. It is possible to walk around (50-60km road walk), hitch, or organise a lift with Lake Coleridge Lodge (expensive but great place to stay). The second hazard is the Rangitata which is likely to be fordable if you have had a period of dry weather. The Rangitata is a braided river, spread over many km, with numerous channels and when I crossed it never went above knee height and was perfectly safe given the conditions, you may not be so lucky. Getting around this can be tough (100km+ road walk), hitching might be an option but it’s a quiet road. I did hear that it’s possible to get the school bus to drop you off but I don’t have any details. I also understand there is a company that will packraft you across but that would be difficult to organise and probably expensive. 

It's not all dense bush up north
The final natural break is Lake Wakatipu at Queenstown, this isn't crossable but you could organise kayaks if you have the time/money but most get a shuttle round to Greenstone. A water taxis is another option but that will cost $500+. The Ahuriri is not classed as a natural break but it is also a big river that is normally fordable. It was the deepest and fastest of all the rivers I crossed and again it is only fordable in good conditions, fortunately there is a bridge around 10km east if needed. There are also 1000’s of smaller rivers to ford that could all pose serious problems in wet wether.

The Rangitata river is spread over many km's but was easily fordable when I was there
The Ahuriri river was the deepest and fastest river I forded
Water, water everywhere. A standard stream crossing
Another hazard is hunters. Hunting is big in NZ and in a relatively small country hunters and hikers are likely to get a bit close for comfort at times. On my final forested section through Longwood Forest one hunter accidentally shot, and killed, another the day before I was due to enter. When in these sections make sure you have some bright clothing and make plenty of noise. I wore a bright red windshirt which seemed to do the trick.
Watch out for hunters in the bush
Tides and estuaries can be an issue to a thru-hiker. Some sections of the trail are tide dependant but normally it’s possible to detour around by roads, even if this is a much longer route and not suggested in the trail notes. The same is true of the estuaries, the trail can abandon you at an estuary with no detail of how to get across. That’s because there is no way of getting across! You either have to arrange something before you start the section (not easy unless you are local and have friends to help you out) or trust to luck that you can arrange something when you get there (often possible but it might be expensive) or you can road walk round (often many, many, extra km’s on nasty roads). I road walked round all the sections with no crossings and often regretted it. Some of the worst road walking was on these detours and if I did it again I would trust to luck as it worked for many others.

Sometimes you come across the weirdest stuff in the bush
Wild camping on the North Island isn't always easy, or allowed. When passing through farmland you will need to ask permission to camp, and it is likely you will be told that you can. If you don’t ask then do not be surprised if you find an angry farmer outside you tent. Camping in the bush is normally ok if you can find somewhere clear enough to actually pitch your shelter, generally if you have a small single man tent, and are persistent, then you will. On the North Island there are also numerous commercial campgrounds on, or near, the TA that vary in price from $6-30/night. I used a mixture of these and wild camping in the bush when possible, I only camped on farmland as a last resort. 

Camping in a clearing in the bush
On the South Island you can camp in most areas, or make use of the excellent mountain hut system. These huts are not free but you can buy a 6 month pass for $92 and it’s possible to stay in these huts for all but about 5 nights! The passes are available from Department of Conservation (DOC) offices but be aware that they close for 2 weeks over the Christmas period, so plan ahead. These passes are excellent value but you will still need to carry a tent as some of the huts are little more than garden sheds and could easily be full on arrival. Others are much more substantial, with log fires, many bunks, and a couple even have showers! I found the huts diluted my wilderness experience and preferred to camp outside, or elsewhere, but they were still great places to sit out any bad weather when needed.

Some huts are no bigger than garden sheds
Standard mountain hut with stove
Basic mountain shelter
There are no wild animals to worry about in New Zealand but there is a lot of livestock. In the North Island you will be walking through many fields of bulls, cows, sheep and they can get a little frisky at times. When hiking in these areas don’t be surprised when you find your way is blocked by a fence (often electric), with no stile, gate, or other way of safely crossing. There were a number of blocked paths on North Island but only one on the South Island and your only option is to climb over or roll under. Rodents can be an issue in the huts and birds, particularly Kea and Weka, will likely try and eat/steal/destroy your food/kit/phone. Hanging food in huts will normally deal with the rodents and a tidy camp with the birds. 

Particularly on the North Island expect to find your way blocked
Careful crossing though as most fences are electric!
There's plenty of wildlife on the trail, big and small. And it's not likely to eat you!
You're unlikely to see a Kiwi on the trail but you do go through areas where they live in small numbers, so it is possible. If you want to see a wild Kiwi then it’s worth taking the ferry over to Stewart Island from Bluff where your chances are much better. In 9 months of cycling/hiking in New Zealand I have yet to see a wild Kiwi! Bugs are much more of an issue than animals, particularly so in the South, the bugs in question are called Sand Flies and they leave a nasty bites that itches for weeks and often scars. They are everywhere! Bug replant works but isn't long lasting and I actually found concentrated lavender oil to be just as good, and it’s probably better for your health longterm.

Tararuas on the North Island
Kit - choose kit that is suitable for wet and windy weather. It often won’t be but when you need it you will be glad that you did. Waterproofs were used on around 70% of the days on the North Island, at some point, and on only around 5% of the days down South. After rain, and because of the overgrown trails, you will be walking in wet vegetation for many hours so good rain pants are a must. Footware should have a good studded sole if you want any kind of traction on the wet muddy trails of both islands, but particularly the north. Boots or trail shoes is down to personal choice but whatever you take will be wet most of the time so quick drying (no goretex liners!) should be high priority, I used my standard INOV8 Terroc 330’s and they were great as always. I also carried a pair of sandals on the North Island because of the 100’s km of road walking and I’m very glad I did, roads are really tough on the feet! 

Nelson Lake National Park, South Island
Stoves - alcohol (meths) is probably the best option as meths is available is ALL grocery stores (normally with the cleaning products), but only in 1L bottles. Gas is readily available in larger towns but is still much harder to find than meths. Packs should be tough enough to take plenty of rubbing against vegetation (sometimes gorse!) and be sized to take 10 days of food, I took a homemade dyneema pack. A water filter is a good idea for at least the North Island as you will be getting your water from many areas surrounded by farm animals. I took a Sawyer mini filter and while it was slow to filter water it worked well and the performance could easily be restored with a quick back-flush from the included syringe. 

Canterbury, South Island
Try and take a small shelter as finding space in the bush can be an issue. Bush camping on the North offers great wind protection and on the South you can generally use huts in bad weather so extreme wind performance isn't the number one feature of the shelter. The ground will often be soft so some long pegs (stakes) are a good idea, I took a mixture of 6g titanium and Easton 9” pegs. 

Canterbury, South Island
Normally it didn't get very cold overnight and I only had 2 occasions that it fell below freezing. Take a bag suitable for 0 deg C and you should be fine. A GPS is a good idea as the trail isn't always obvious and particularly in the bush it’s possible to end up going the wrong way. I found a guy in the North Island bush who had ended up walking back the way he had already come and had no idea until we compared notes. I didn't carry a dedicated GPS but ran Viewranger mapping software on my mobile and that worked perfectly. Photography - if you are into photography then you will love the TA! Keeping equipment weight down is a problem though and I used an iPhone 5S for all panoramic shots housed in a Lifeproof case and a Ricoh GR APS-C sized fixed 28mm lens compact for all other shots. I used RAW and processed in Aperture.
The North Island can be just as beautiful as the South, it's just different!
For me the TA was the perfect trail. It was challenging, stimulating,  quiet, immensely varied and an unforgettable experience.

Westland, South Island