What an adventure! My trek across New Zealand’s South Island had nearly everything a trail can offer. Great new friends, grindingly hard trail, delicious food, near disasters, and beautiful scenery.
For anyone who has never completed an 800+ mile thru-hike (I think there might be a few of you out there), I’ve gathered together a few stories from the trail that will hopefully give you a good idea of what life was like on the Te Araroa.
Here’s a quick summary of the trip in raw numbers (with credit to my friends Justin and Patrice for the gimmick).
- Distance (official): 1,286 km/800 miles
- Distance (estimated actual): 1,400-ish km/870 miles
- Total Days: 58
- Zero Days: 4 (Havelock x2, Twizel, Queenstown)
- Resupplies: 13 (Havelock, Nelson, St. Arnaud, Boyle “Village,” Arthur’s Pass, Methven, Twizel, Tekapo, Wanaka, Queenstown, Te Anau, Otautau, Colac Bay).
- Most River Crossings in a Single Day: 69
- Pairs of Shoes: 1.5 (the first pair was pretty beat up from 300-ish miles in Nepal)
- Falls into Nearly Frozen Rivers: 1
- Blisters: 0 (and that’s why I love my Injinji liners!)
- Trail Name: “Why Not”
Quote of the Trip
“I can feel the history falling on my head.” Said while discussing the condition of the West Hamilton Hut, an “historic” old hut that we took a very, very quick break in.
Many New Zealand tramping (Kiwi for “hiking”) tracks (Kiwi for “trails”), especially the more popular ones, have huts located at fairly regular intervals. The huts come in a variety of shapes, sizes, ages and conditions, largely depending on why they were built.
Huts along the TA typically cost anywhere from $5NZ to $15NZ per night, depending on the facilities available. They get even cheaper with a $92NZ six-month hut pass that allows unlimited access to standard Department of Conservation (“DOC”) huts. Huts along the Great Walks, which aren’t eligible under the hut pass, are often much more expensive on a nightly basis as well, sometimes costing over $50NZ per night.
The TA huts are concentrated on the South Island with only a small handful available along the North Island route. Most of the huts were built by, or at the behest of, the DOC. These are generally at least in good shape and often much better than that. Some, like the Ann River Hut on the St. James Walkway, are wonderful oases worthy of an extended stay.
Other TA huts include those that were musterers’ huts (meaning they were built decades ago for the crews that would head into the hills to gather grazing sheep to be sheared) or those built by New Zealand’s Forest Service. These huts receive far less maintenance than the DOC versions and can at their worst be dilapidated nightmares of rotting timbers, leaky roofs, graffiti, and aggressive mice.
West Hamilton Hut, “with its dirt floor and canvas bunks,” was one of the latter. The notes suggest that the hut “provides historical interest and welcome shelter in poor weather.” Read between the lines of that less-than-glowing assessment and you’ll understand why this type of history is one to be wary of.
Land of Friendly Animals and (Practically) Deadly Plants
New Zealand, in contrast to it’s neighbor across the Tasman Sea, has almost no dangerous animals. The islands have no native mammalian land predators and the invasives are generally harmless, assuming of course that you’re not an indigenous ground bird (in which case, they’re sadly devastating). Even the creepy crawlies in Zealand are fairly innocuous, with only one species of mildly poisonous spider calling the place home.
New Zealand’s threatening biota is largely limited to flora. The native bush is packed with a variety of plants just waiting to skewer the unwary hiker. Hook grass, bitty-bit, speargrass/Spaniards, wild rose – the list of plants ready to scratch, stab or otherwise annoy with their array of barbs, spines, spikes and thorns goes on and on. Even the mild-seeming tussock grass that covers many trail sections likes nothing more than to reach out and trip you as you walk by.
We encountered many of these beauties along the trail and occasionally found ourselves cursing their irksome nature. Despite the long trail hours and many intimate brushes with these vicious bushes, I couldn’t quite decide on a favorite indigenous scourge. I’m torn between the plentiful matagouri (aka, Wild Irishman) and the much more rare Tātaramoa (aka, the Bush Lawyer).
30 Thru-Hikers Walk Into a Bar…
One of the most entertaining experiences during my time in New Zealand occurred off trail. A few weeks into the hike some ambitious TA’ers organized a gathering in Queenstown using the very handy TA Facebook group.
The party became a popular goal for many TA walkers, most likely because the astute organizers scheduled it to take place at an Irish bar on March 17 (also known as St. Patrick’s Day). With some deft planning and a lot of luck, Justin, Patrice and I arrived in Queenstown the night before the shindig and then wallowed in a luxurious zero day in town as we waited for the party.
Around 30 hikers made it to Queenstown’s Pog Mahoney’s for the fun. A few attendees had already completed the trail and were now working their way north from Bluff. Most were still on trail at some point relatively close to Queenstown and had managed to hike or hitch their way in just for the party.
The TA, although less trafficked than the world’s more famous long distance thru-hikes, nevertheless has its own tight knit trail community. The party turned into a great opportunity to catch up with trail buddies we’d met on earlier sections and to get to know new people sharing the same great experience.
The circumstances of the get-together also led to conversations that would be ridiculous in almost any other context. My favorite was the opening of most of the conversations, which usually began with some form of, “Where are you?” followed by “I’m here” or “I’m in Wanaka.” I can only imagine what the non-TA bystanders thought as they overheard this scraggly group of homeless-looking people ask each other where they were as they stood directly in front of each other.
Check back in next week for more trail stories from the Te Araroa.