Te Araroa, part 1: Sand
For some reason we thought walking 3000 km along the Te Araroa trail would be a good way to spend the next five months or so. I have no idea why. Right now, my feet hurt and my calves are sore. Still, it’s worth it. Hiking is fun! Although we should probably call it tramping now that we are in NZ.
This epic tramp starts at Cape Reinga at the northernmost tip of NZ. Getting there is the first part of the adventure. We recommend having your friendly Hamilton-based aunt and uncle drive you north to about Whangarei, then taking the Intercity bus to Kaitaia. Call ahead to the lovely people at Utea park, and they will take care of the rest. This part of the trip went without a hitch. We said goodbye to my relatives, spent a few hours on an Intercity bus and were picked up by Tania from Utea park. Carmen from Canada tagged along as well, because hitchhiking from Kaitaia proved difficult. Utea Park is located about two thirds of the way down 90 Mile Beach, the first epic obstacle on the trail. On the way there, Tania told us all sorts of things about the land, the people and the beach. While it is not as the name suggests 90 miles long, it is massive, as we got to see for ourselves when she drove onto it on the way to Utea. Yeah, this beach is also a road at low tide. Utea park turned out to be an absolutely amazing place. Trampers coming down the beach can make themselves at home in one of the cabins or pitch their tent while Tania makes them a blueberry smoothie.
We were up bright and early the next morning, our packs considerably lighter thanks to Tania’s offer of storing some stuff for us until we drop by on our way down (tip: get a pack of TimTams and leave them at Utea). Tania drove us to Cape Reinga over the beach - “But only for about 15 km, we’ll do the rest by road because the tide is coming in”. This was only 15 km?! We tried to remember some features; a log, another log, a rusty old car. Anything that would help us when we came by here again a few days later.
At Cape Reinga we said goodbye to Tania. She told us to stay strong which sort of made me feel I was about to face a dragon. How bad could this beach be? We took obligatory starting photos at the Cape Reinga lighthouse and the signposts - according to this, Bluff is only about 1500 km! Then we were finally really truly off! There was a trailmarker with the TA logo, the first of many.
We stopped after just 2 km. It was high tide, and the path goes over some rocks that are being battered by wave after wave of the Tasman sea. So we took our first TA break! Not long after, a trailrunner whooshed past us. She just about had time to tell us we can stay with her in Auckland before she was off, not across the submerged rocks but via a tiny path that climbs across the headland. Not long after, two other trampers reached us. They’ve both done the PCT and are known to us only by their trailnames - Moonwalker and Rock Steady. Apparently we could all get trailnames soon. Anyway, these two had tiny lightweight packs and decided to scramble after the trailrunner, who actually drove them up from Auckland because she wanted to go for a run here. What about us? We wondered whether we should wait for the tide, or scramble after them? I looked at Jasper. Jasper looked at Carmen. Carmen looked at me. Let’s scramble!
It was an adventurous scramble, with steep drops and long grass that hid the path. But we made it onto our first beach. This one, Te Werahi beach, is small and we quickly crossed to the other side, where we crossed our first stream and climb over the weirdly coloured slopes of Herangi hill. It was almost like being on Mars. Except there was an ocean beside us, and oxygen to breathe, etc etc. The next beach we crossed was Twilight beach, at the end of which was our first campsite. Two beaches down, one to go!
Twilight beach campsite should be renamed Possum Place because the buggers were everywhere. I woke up at night to see one on top of my backpack in the vestibule of our tent. It didn’t have time (or possibly the teeth) to gnaw through my pack though. Possums are annoying pests. Make sure to pack up your food so they can’t get it. We heard some people hang their foodbag from the roof of the shelter. But someone else told us possums have crazy Mission Impossible skills and can still get that food.
Twilight beach is just 12 km from Cape Reinga. The real tramping started on day two. First a brief climb over Scott point, then down the steps to 90 Mile Beach. So it begins...
One of the other trampers at Utea told us the first day on the beach wasn’t so bad because there were two features to look at. The first is a rocky island just off the coast. When you reach it, you are about halfway to the campsite at The Bluff. Right by this campsite is feature number two: another, slightly flatter island. Obviously there were other things to look at. Waves. Gulls. Waves. Dunes. Waves. Just to name a few. 90 Mile Beach is amazing, don’t get me wrong. It is glorious and immense and awe-inspiring. Just very, very tough to walk down. The sand is hard so you can keep a steady pace, which is part of the problem. You just keep going on and on and on because there is no way to judge how far you’ve gone or how far you still have to do. At first, the rock in the sea kept getting closer. Then it remained stubbornly at the same distance for what seemed like hours, until finally we were right next to it. Things on the beach itself were even worse. Something in the distance would look like a beached whale but turn out to be a small stick. Or that oddly shaped stone a few hundred meters away suddenly revealed itself to be a tour bus roaring past at 80 kph. Did I mention that people drive on this beach?
After about 30 km, we finally made it to the campsite at The Bluff (Cape Reinga to The Bluff, we did it! Haha) . Our feet were wet from crossing so many streams and I was so stiff I could hardly move. There were a few others at the campsite already, some of whom we already met at Twilight. Pete and Karen from the US must be twice my age but are at least twice as fit. But they’re triple crowners whereas I am an overworked ex-PhD student. Jakub and Katerina from Prague must be the fastest trampers ever. Even Jasper had trouble matching their stride, and his legs are longer than most people are tall. Marvin from the UK came in late with his massive backpack but at least he could still move normally. Only Carmen was anywhere near as stiff as I, but she had the excuse that she had surgery on her foot last year. I managed to do some stretches, then we got an early night because we wanted to get up in the night to hike under the stars. Unfortunately, it was cloudy when we looked out at three in the morning, so we went back to sleep and got up again at dawn, our usual time. Without a rock in the sea to keep us company, this day was a lot harder even though it was the same distance: 30 km. Luckily, after an hour or two we saw a familiar red car drive up towards us. It was Tania, driving another tramper up to Cape Reinga! She stopped to tell us we could do it, that she believed in us. I want a podcast or something with Tania saying motivational things. I needed it that day, because it was tough. Every muscle in my legs was screaming in protest and the soles of my feet felt like they were on fire. I somehow plodded along the beach the entire 30 km with only two short breaks (which was probably the problem...) until we saw the green flag marking Utea. Of course the damn flag did what all things on this beach do: it refused to get any closer no matter how long we walked, until suddenly it was right beside us. Tania’s husband Pauly told us to take any cabin and make ourselves at home. We limped into our old cabin, waving at Pete, Karen, Jakub and Katerina who of course got there way ahead of us and were still annoyingly flexible. My feet were swollen and had weird red splotches. Uh oh. An evening of sitting with my feet up helped. The TimTams helped too. And of course the company. Jasper taught Jakub, Katerina and Carmen how to play klaverjassen, while Pauly told dozens of stories which mostly revolved around how to make money in the north. Smuggling is not recommended, but bring on the hot pools and tea tree oil scheme!
For our last day on 90 Mile Beach, we wanted to tramp at night under the stars. We peeked out the window at 3 am and saw at least one star, so off we went. Walking on the beach at night with only the light of the stars (there was no moon) is quite possibly the strangest, creepiest and most wonderful thing I’ve ever done. We could just about make out the top of the dunes and the line of the waves, that’s it. And I’m pretty sure that something in the sand glowed or sparked when we walked on it. Because we couldn’t see ahead, we didn’t have that horrible feeling that we were not making any progress. As dawn approached, we could see a bit more. Are those human footsteps? Is that an animal over there? A cow, a walrus? (It was a piece of driftwood) Then we had the most glorious sunrise.
We had also learned a bit from our mistakes of the past few days, so we took plenty of breaks. My feet still hurt, but I could keep going. After every break I staggered along for a few minutes until my feet warmed up sufficiently to bend. But by the time we were just a few km from Ahipara, at the end of the beach, I was really beginning to flag. Luckily, around this time the rest of the gang caught up with us. Jakub and Katerina walked at what I’m sure is a leisurely pace for them, but which Jasper and I could just about keep up with if we ignored the pain in our feet. Karen wanted to be introduced to my penguin Philip. She had only a purple moose with her this time instead of her usual penguin so she said she was glad to see a penguin on the trail. And Carmen agreed with me about the sparkly something in the sand so if I was hallucinating at least it wasn’t just me. After a group hug at the 100 km mark, we traipsed into Ahipara for showers at the YHA, then fish and chips (and veggieburgers) at the takeaway place, supplemented by beers courtesy of Pete. All in all, not a bad way to start Te Araroa. My feet still hurt, I’m still shaking sand out of odd places and I’m pretty sure I’m sunburnt despite liberal application of factor 50. But we met some awesome people.
And the terrain could’ve been worse. It could’ve been mud.