My journey along the Te Araroa trail: 99 days on foot across New Zealand

Finally setting off

Te Araroa trail

On the 25th November 2016, after four flights, two bus rides and a few kilometres in a car I finally arrived at Cape Reinga, the northernmost tip of New Zealand’s North Island. Standing by the lighthouse I was looking down onto an interminable stretch of white sand – the famous 90-mile beach. I was about to spend the next three days running on this beach, fighting my way trough soft sand and strong head winds. A prospect that most people would not feel too excited about. But I had a huge smile on my face. In fact, the 90-mile beach represented the starting point of my 3000km self-supported journey on foot across New Zealand. A running adventure along the Te Araroa trail that I had spent months preparing for. 

The why

Through this journey I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to do something that I knew would take me outside my comfort zone. And most importantly, I wanted to get back to basics: be self-sufficient, live with the minimum amount of possessions and be completely in sync with nature. Over the next 99 days I would be running and hiking through forests, mountains, towns and farmland carrying everything I needed in my 35L backpack until I reached Bluff at the very bottom of the South Island. 

Shuffling along the 90 mile beach

After fiddling around with my GPS (which is when I realised that I had uploaded the route but no maps, oops) and taking a few obligatory “start line” pictures, I finally set off. It was good to be starting off on a beach stretch as that made navigation pretty easy (map reading has never been my strength). Luckily, all I had to do for now was to keep the sea on my right side. Aside from all my camping and running gear I was also carrying 3 days of food and 2 litres of water. The extra weight on my back and the soft sandy terrain meant that I was shuffling rather than running. But I was finally on my way to Bluff and that was all that mattered to me. 

Welcome to “kiwi mud bath” territory, aka the Northland forests

After reaching the end of the 90 mile beach I entered what I call “kiwi mud bath territory”, aka the Northland forests. These jungle-type forests are home to the impressive Kauri trees and many native bird species. But they are also very very muddy. At times I had mud up to my knees which made running pretty much impossible. On those trails I was struggling to cover more than 2km per hour without falling over or getting my backpack caught up in lianas. Finding drinking water and camping spots in this terrain also proved to be a challenge. My progress was so slow and I started thinking that I would never make it to Bluff.

But then I realised that instead of letting myself get overwhelmed by the magnitude of my end goal I had to take it a day at a time or sometimes even just an hour at the time. I had to just focus on what I could influence right now. So I started using the mantra “relentless forward progress”. I would keep repeating this phrase to myself when pushing up a steep slippery hill. As long as I was making progress (ideally in the right direction) I was happy. Because I knew that eventually I would reach my destination.

Settling into my Te Araroa trail routine

Over the next few weeks I started settling into a routine. I would wake up at around 6am with the sound of hundreds of birds outside my tent. Then I would roll up my sleeping matt, stuff my sleeping bag into its pouch and get into my running cloths. After a breakfast of oats, nuts and dried fruits, I would brush my teeth, dismantle my tent, pack all my gear into my bag (the first few days that took me a good thirty minutes but I streamlined that down to less than ten minutes towards the end of the trip), do some warm-up stretches and then start running.

My evening routine was pretty much the same but in reverse. If my camp spot happened to be next to a stream or a lake I even got to to enjoy a “shower”. Pure luxury. And in between two camp spots I was simply running. Or hiking if the terrain prevented me from running. 

Life is so simple on the Te Araroa trail

Whilst crossing New Zealand I got to run along beautiful white beaches, across sheep fields (I have never seen as many sheep in my life!), up and down precipitous mountain tracks, on countryside roads, busy highways, along old railway lines, through dense forests, up volcanoes and along turquoise lake. It felt amazing to be able to spend entire days doing what I love doing most – running.

As I was traversing pristine landscapes I often reflected on how simple life was out here. All I had to do was to keep moving south without getting lost. And make sure I had enough water and food to get me to the next town. That was a really important aspect of this adventure, especially in the South Island were I was outside civilisation for up to 10 days at a time. The trick was to find foods that were very nutritious yet light and not voluminous. Peanut butter and tortilla wraps became my top pick. 

Back to basics

I have never felt such a sense of freedom, presence in the moment and connection with nature than during this journey. Despite being quite far out of my comfort zone a lot of the time I felt at ease. I loved setting off in the morning wondering what I would experience that day and where I would be pitching my tent in the evening. 

On the Te Araroa trail I felt so removed from the materialistic pressures that modern life is constantly imposing on us. When you carry everything you need to survive on your back for 3000km it forces you to only pack things you really need. Every item is carefully selected and has its very specific purpose. I found it so freeing to live without any unnecessary “stuff” and temporarily strip my needs back to the most basic level. It made me realise that experiencing nature’s beauty, being outside in the wilderness and developing strong bonds with people bring so much more happiness than any material possession ever could. 

The kindness of strangers

Speaking of people, kiwis are among the most welcoming and hospitable people I have ever met. I remember a particular evening when it was starting to get dark and I still had not to found a place to pitch my tent. I decided to knock on someone’s door to ask if they knew about a spot nearby. Instead of being redirected to a suitable patch of grass I was welcomed into a family for the night. We chatted about our respective lives and families over a delicious homemade dinner (so much better than the tuna/couscous I had been planning on having that night) and after a shower I put up my tent in their garden. I will never forget all the acts of kindness I received from complete strangers throughout this journey. 

Learning to listen to my body

My journey along the Te Araroa trail was full of amazing moments that I will never forget. But I would be lying if I pretended that I did not encounter any low points throughout the three months.

In the run up to this adventure I had been training hard for months to prepare my body to this challenge. I always knew that covering 3000km on foot would lead to some inevitable niggles but I had not quite realised how much of an impact sleeping in a tent and constantly carrying a load on my back would have on my recovery. Within the first few weeks I started to feel pain in my right knee. Initially I just ran through it but after a while I had to slow down to a walk and not long after that the pain increased so much that even walking felt unbearable.

I decided to take three days off to let the inflammation go down. This was a difficult decision and at the time I was really beating myself up for it. I was worried about getting behind on my target mileage. In hindsight these rest days combined with a lot of ice, stretching, sleeping in a real bed and eating large quantities of fresh fruit and chocolate were definitely the right thing to do. Three days later I was so relieved to be able to keep going – having to give up because of injury had always been my biggest fear.

Adventure is not always pretty

Aside from the physical struggles I had a few emotional low points as well.  Adventure is not always pretty. I remember one night when I was lying in my tent completely soaked and shivering. There had been torrential rain all day and my clothes and sleeping gear got completely soaked. I felt exhausted but I felt to cold to sleep. I remember asking myself what I was doing here when I could be snuggled up in a warm apartment with my husband back home. The thought of giving up even crossed my mind. But after letting off some steam in my journal I tried to regain perspective. I decided that reaching my end goal was definitely worth a few frustrations and some pain.

That night I wrote down a quote from Lance Armstrong in big letters in my journal:  “Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever.”

Getting used to this nomadic lifestyle

My body was now used to the constantly tight muscles. Not showering for days had become normal. I had become an expert at finding the perfect camping spots. I had learned to recognise the native birds by their song. My tent set up routine was optimised to the second. I didn’t need an alarm anymore as my body was naturally waking up at sunrise and I had finally learned how to read maps and navigate through mountains. 

3000km and 99 days later…arriving in Bluff

And before I knew it I was only a few days away from Bluff – my final destination.  It felt strange to think that what had become my every-day life would soon be over.

When I reached Bluff there was no finish tape, welcoming party or loud music like you get at a race. Just a signpost assuring me that I had indeed arrived in “Bluff – southern-most town in New Zealand”. After spending a few moments taking it all in I walked back to the town centre, smiling to myself.

I felt proud of what I had achieved. I had pushed myself outside my comfort zone, I had worked hard to achieve a big personal goal, I had stayed committed to my objective, I had faced and overcome many fears whilst on the trail, I had learned to listen to my body, I had arrived at the right destination in one piece and hopefully I had also managed to inspire a few people along the way. 

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