Stretching for 3000km across the length of New Zealand, the Te Araroa trail would throw a lot at us. Beaches, forests, mountains, towns and cities in all weathers, carrying pretty much everything we could need for the 5 months on our backs. Our first section would be starting the trail at the very beginning at Cape Reinga, and heading South until we hit Ahipara.
The day before our start date, our arrival at Utea Park was welcomed by Tania and Paul. Tania is a chatty and friendly host, an instant mother figure making sure everyone has what they need for their next leg of the Te Araroa, and Paul likewise, chatting with the group like a father. They seem to relish at the opportunity to help those taking on the TA, whether they are new arrivals like us, or returning guests now three days into their journey. We walked to the shore beyond the dunes to see for ourselves where we would be walking for the next 4 days. To both the North and the South, 90 Mile Beach disappears from view, lost in a haze of sand and spray whipped up from the racing wind. It's unlike anything I've ever seen.
The forecasts hadn't been promising, with high winds and rain forecast, but it looked as though we would hit a good weather window at least for the first day. As we settled in at Utea Park the day before, we joined walkers now 3 days in to their own TA hike, each equal measures of excited, exhausted, and windswept. They described battling into gale force winds, tents soaked through in the night, sand blasted faces, and blisters that begged to be burst. But they were undeniably enjoying themselves.
The following morning with fully loaded packs, Tania drove us to Cape Reinga and bid us farewell. Kia kaha, stay strong.
Day 1. Cape Reinga to Twilight Campsite.
.We started our first day in high spirits, having the obligatory photographs with the starting point signpost, and setting out on our way. I'd made the mistake of caving in to curiosity and had my bag weighed. Three days worth of water and food, my hiking gear along with the camera and tripod had me tipping the scales at 22kg. Most will hike with a bag around 15 kilos, but I guess most aren't carrying a camera and tripod. Was I being too prepared? Could I leave some equipment out? Whatever the answer I figured I'll either get used to it or learn the hard way, so we went on.
The first day was exciting, to finally be here after months of planning and wondering what it would be like, now we were doing it. We were lucky with the weather too as the rain had passed and the winds had turned northerly, blowing behind us as we went. Only a short 12km section on the first day meant we could take our time a bit, enjoying the landscapes of the sand dunes and the beaches. As we walked the final beach section I spotted a fur seal in the surf, and after stopping to enjoy a moment watching it, realised that it wasn't keen on us loitering and swiftly charged us. Turns out I can run with a 22kg backpack. As we continued walking along the beach we saw signs of other fur seals moving up into the dunes, so my best guess was that we had been in between the seal and where it wanted to be, possibly even where a pup was hidden. Fair enough, I'll keep that in mind. After setting up our tent at Twilight Campsite we settled in for the night after our first dinner on the trail, freshly caught fish with noodles.
Day 2. Twilight Campsite to Maunganui Bluff
We were packed up and moving not long after first light. There was a bigger distance to cover today and we wanted to get there sooner rather than later. The going was good, the terrain not too challenging and again the weather was on our side. The bag was still heavy but at least I was a little more used to it now.
We made our way up and over flax covered hillside, reminiscing of our days walking around St Martin's coast on the Isles of Scilly, before eventually 90 mile beach came into view. We'd heard much about this beach, such as the fact that it's only 55 miles long (apparently people who rode horses knew they could cover 30 miles a day, but didn't account for slower horses on sand), that it is used as a road thanks to the concrete like sand, how it can play tricks on the mind especially as to how far away things are, and that it takes three days to cross it.
After stopping for breakfast we made our way down to the shore, and, well, we walked. Just endlessly walked. I wish I could jazz it up a bit but it's just sand as far as you can see. Until, eventually, we could see something else. Maunganui Bluff is nestled just in the dunes near a small headland that juts out into the beach, finally we had a point of reference. But that point of reference seemed to just stay there. Unmoving no matter how long we walked. This was the mental challenge that would plague us as we walked this beach.
Eventually, thankfully, we reached the campsite. A cold shower eased some of the aches of the day and salami with instant mash seemed to hit the spot perfectly, but surely sleep would fix everything? Well, it rained non-stop for several hours that night in high winds, so I guess I'll never know.
Day 3. Maunganui Bluff to Utea park
With 30km of beach to walk that day we once again started early, coinciding the beginning of our walk with the rising sun. The dunes and the beach had an eery quality to them, disappearing into the distant sea spray. But I have to be honest, once the nice morning light was gone, and we were into the monotony of the walking, there was very little exciting to report. We saw some dead things washed up, puffer fish and the like. Some cool patterns in the sand. But as our feet began to tire, the reality of this day is that it is endless, monotonous, painful, purgatory.
Roughly 8 hours after we began, we reached Utea Park. Knowing that there was still another 30km of beach to walk tomorrow, there was little else we wanted to do but eat tuna and rice, and sleep. We just wanted it done.
Day 4. Utea Park to Ahipara
Just 30km to go before the beach was behind us. You can probably just read the description for day three and it will still be relevant here. Just add a whole lot more pain in the feet and it becomes pretty accurate. We could actually see the landscape rising beyond the end of the beach. We could see our destination, and the buildings that made up Ahipara dotted against the distant hills. I made a vain attempt to convince myself that this would help the day go quicker, being able to see our destination, but no. After every hour of walking, they were still there, where they always had been. Stopping for food and a break was nice, but also possibly the worst idea as with every brief moment of relief from the weight on feet, they were only renewed with pain going forward.
Thankfully the laws of physics prevailed and after 9 hours of walking, we had arrived in Ahipara and made it to the holiday park where we could pitch our tent. Our feet were screaming, tendons bruised and swollen. Dinner? So many noodles, sausage, a party size bag of crisps, and ginger beer. Tomorrow we rest.