“So, what did you make of your first six days on the Te Araroa Trail?” I asked my boyfriend, who had newly flown in from the UK and was still suffering the after effects of jetlag.
“Well, it’s not so much a trail, rather a route,” he mused.
“The terrain is much wilder than I anticipated and the landscapes are vast. It feels like there’s a sense of being the first people to walk here because the path is non-existent, the route marking is quite frankly at times invisible. It doesn’t feel like you’re on a well-defined trail that thousands of people have walked. This feels more remote. There is an enormous sense of space.”
He added: “Walking uphill and down hill isn’t the most demanding bit. It’s the bit where you have to plan ahead for the river crossings because of the weather, and even some of the shallower river crossings can still be dangerous. The road walking, with its hard surface, is draining and monotonous – it’s more a mental challenge than a physical challenge. On occasion you have to do a long day to move ahead of a weather system or to find water. Progress can be slow like when you’re boulder hopping, it requires a lot of balance, concentration and endurance. But I’m loving it. Except for those flippin sandflies.”
He scratched the hundreds of red spots dotting his calves where the blood-thirsty critters had taken a liking to him.
Yes it had been something of a rude introduction to the Te Araroa Trail.
Within a six-day time frame we’d condensed the main aspects of what the trail was all about – uphill, down hill, mountains, forests, the good, the bad and the ugly.
We started with the Deception Track to Goat Pass, which forms part of the Coast to Coast cycling, running and kayaking competition.
The term track isn’t really a sufficient descriptor for this section given you’re walking up a river bed to its source, continuously hopping over large boulders, your shoes and socks sodden, wondering which side of the river the next trail marker will be on (assuming there is even a trail marker).
The large boulders didn’t pose too much of a problem for my boyfriend with his long legs but for short-legged me, it was more of a challenge and I found it demanding. I have noticed I have quite a selection of huffs and grunts that I call on for difficult sections.
How the Coast to Coast competitors could climb up and over this mountain in three hours, I had no idea – it took us more than nine hours over two days to just get to the pass.
The other side, the bit going down, was much more straight forward over boardwalks and through forest but still with a fair amount of boulder hopping, finished off with a 5km road walk into a head wind to get to Arthur’s Pass.
There was more road walking the next day – although a kind construction man gave us a ride on the back of his truck over the one-way bridge (illegally, I think) – before hitting the next trail head which was uphill through beech forest and then pine forest, where the sunlight barely penetrated.
All of a sudden the forest disappeared and we were walking through golden tussock, high on the side of a mountain.
Far below us the numerous braids of the vast Waimakariri River fanned out, the blue ribbons glinting in the sunlight as they raced at the base of mountains so huge even a panoramic photo couldn’t do it justice.
The lodgings that night were less than desirable. A tin hut with two bunks and only one mattress, that hadn’t stood the test of time, ramshackle and a home to mice who had a penchant for scrabbling up the walls in the middle of the night and who were clearly copious pee-ers based on the smell that accosted my nostrils.
The north bound walkers we met had informed us the trail the next day was down hill.
They were lying.
In my mind an undulating track does not constitute a down hill, and this was clearly an undulating track.
It wasn’t the best of starts to the day given we were pushing for a big 28km one so that we weren’t caught out by yet another torrential rain weather system, the remnants of a tropical cyclone.
The second part of the day consisted of wet shoes from numerous river crossings of the same river – possibly 20 or more but I lost count – and the forecast was the river would be in flood by the afternoon of the next day.
We had to get out now or be stranded for one or two days.
Eleven hours later we finally hobbled into the campsite. I didn’t feel like a seasoned TA walker that was for sure.
And the next day I felt it – a 30km day, most of which was on gravel road. It was hard and loose under foot, the uneven stony surface poking at all the tender points, sending ripples of pain up the back of the calves.
Within the first two hours, I was over it as gale force winds blew and luminous grey clouds threatened rain.
But the Te Araroa trail hadn’t finished it’s introduction – there was still a spectacular bush whacking section on a crumbling path right at the edge of Lake Coleridge. One wrong step around another thorny shrub and it would be wet shoes.
We came out scratched and muttering obscenities about the maintenance of the track.
A hitch hike brought us to Methven – two cars, about 30 minutes of waiting. We were undecided whether the Absolute Vodka bottle wedged between the mother’s legs as she drove and occasionally brought to her lips, contained water or vodka. Her children were in the car – it couldn’t be.
My boyfriend had experienced a slice of the trail, the rigours of long days over rough terrain. He had toughed out the sandflies, put up with my sweaty body odour, stomached dry and flavourless couscous and tuna and got no blisters.
Next, the trail will throw scree slopes, unformed tracks with no trail markers and more river crossings at him.
It doesn’t look like he’s about to break.
Apologies, a lack of sufficient WiFi means I can’t upload photos. They are to come.