On the Trail: Te Araroa
Two wāhine share tales from the trail spanning Aotearoa’s length.
Photos: Elina Osborne and Deanna Gerlach
The tide washes in at Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē (Ninety Mile Beach). Running from Scott Point in the north, the long strip of sand sweeps down the coast past the town of Ahipara to Reef Point. Deanna Gerlach wakes in her tent tucked behind sand dunes and breathes in the salt of the morning air. Her husband Tom, and kids Juno (12), Joplin (10) and Goldie (6) wake to do the same. Hair is rumpled, ankles feature new scores of mosquito bites, and a silicone bag of peanut butter accidentally left outside has been devoured by possums. For the Gerlachs, this is freedom. This is Te Araroa.
Aotearoa’s longest trail is a showcase of landscape diversity, stretching from Cape Reinga to Bluff. A challenging 3000km journey winds along coastal sands, ridge-lines of forested ranges, farmland and volcanoes in the North Island. In the South, it traverses national parks, high country stations and mountain passes. It’s a different kind of trail from traditional back-country routes, where you might not run into anyone. Te Araroa is as much about the people and towns passed along the way as its natural beauty.
Home had been calling for a while for the Australia-based Gerlach family (Deanna originally a Kiwi from Northland). “My Mum and Dad were killed in a car accident a few years ago, and I had a growing need to connect with whānau and whenua. We’d dreamed of adventures as a couple and then with the kids, we just couldn’t get it together.” Covid prompted their drastic life change, despite having never done an overnight hike as a family. They’d read about another young family tramping Te Araroa, and inspired, they sold most of their belongings mid-2020 and applied for visas to jump across the ditch.
Te Araroa means “The Long Path”, and so it is. At about 25kms a day, the trail takes the average adult around 120 days to walk (four months). It’s no small feat for any hiker, let alone the little legs of Goldie, the Gerlach’s youngest family member who celebrated her sixth birthday on the trail. The power of distraction was an early first lesson – storytelling became key to combating sore legs, itching mozzie bites and peeling sunburn.
The walk from Kerikeri to Paihia was a 28km day. It featured unsealed logging roads with forestry trucks screaming past. It was early December, it was hot, and Christmas was on the kids’ minds. “The night before, at the backpackers in Kerikeri, long-term Irish backpackers were baking cookies and singing along to Christmas songs. The kids loved it.” The last few hours were a slog for the kids into Paihia, Deanna says, but spirits were high despite their exhaustion. They arrived at the Pickled Parrot Backpackers at dusk. The owner, Cherry, ushered the kids into the vegetable garden where they picked greens for a salad. And the cream on top: “A local guy heard we were coming and dropped in a fresh snapper he’d caught that day. When you’re hiking for days at a time, fresh salad, fish (and beer), a shower, a real towel and a bed to land in at the end of it all is the ultimate dream.”
Connections like this with people hint at the magic of Te Araroa. Deanna says there were plenty of memorable ‘trail angels’ on their journey. (Trail angels are volunteers who provide support to Te Araroa hikers, such as a warm bed, a meal or place to clean up). The Gerlachs met one woman crossing a bridge in Northland’s Pātaua who scribbled her phone number down for the family to call when they reached Ōrewa. “Weeks later we called, and on a miserable, rainy evening we walked into their house as exhausted, drowned, smelly rats.”
She and her husband fed and showered the Gerlachs, and rose before sunrise to drop them off at their estuary crossing. When the tide was too high and fast-flowing, they even drove back to take the family to the other side. “They were busy folk with grown children and Covid-upset finances, but they dropped everything to help us.”
There were some pretty gnarly sections of the trail that weren’t great for kids, Deanna says, in particular the road sections. Bypassing the highways was simple enough to do for the little ones’ safety. Four days’ hiking with 10-12 hour days in the wild Tararua Ranges (near Wellington) was challenging. To give some perspective, this section of the trail traverses forest and alpine terrain, with constant steep ascents and descents. It begins at 150m above sea level and reaches its highest point at Mount Crawford (1462m).
In the South Island’s Richmond Ranges, hikers head up Wairoa River for a day. “The track has slipped and disappeared in a bunch of sections and it’s a hellish day with little legs trying to find a way to get through. To top it off we all got multiple wasp stings. The pain was too much for Goldie to get to sleep that night, we were on the job of trying to soothe her until nearly midnight. Our poor hut mates!”
Pushing themselves offered plenty of opportunities to test their capabilities, Deanna says. “It’s just amazing what we could do once hiking became just ‘what we did’. Doing a long trail gives you an incredible sense of purpose and drive. Walking each day is what you do, and it’s hard and it’s challenging, but that’s okay. Kids are capable of so much more than our modern lives allow them.”
The family took turns to lead and motivate each other; to offer space to breathe through frustrating moments. The trail knitted them together. Deanna and Tom wanted their children to know that discomfort was okay, and not to be phased by it. The feeling would always pass, and without lows, as Deanna puts it: “the highs are actually pretty lame”. Juno, Joplin and Goldie learned to appreciate simple pleasures like a bed and holding a book in their hands. A deep respect for the earth rose too from camping on the land and in huts each night. “They learned how important our natural world is to our wellbeing, and to fiercely protect it.”
The Gerlachs returned to settle at Lake Hawea post-trail in May 2021 after six months’ worth of hiking. They’d tramped through the town while hiking on the trail, staying at a local holiday park called ‘The Camp’. The family got chatting to the owner and by the time they arrived in Bluff weeks later, Tom had the general manager job lined up. Life post-trail is different, but the delights are the same: spending time outside, storytelling, creating. Then there’s new delights like settling into a home, making treehouses and learning to ski. Be it on the trail or off it, it’s the simple things that count.
* * *
Te Araroa was completed in 2011, after a decades-long volunteer campaign led by a Kiwi writer, Geoff Chapple. He walked the 1500km prospective North Island route in 1998 to demonstrate the project’s viability. His aim, he wrote on completing it, was to “let the trail speak – to meet the New Zealanders who hunt the bush, who farm, who populate the small towns.”
Auckland’s Elina Osborne decided to walk Te Araroa in 2020. She’d already tackled the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2019, traversing deserts and snowy mountains on America’s second longest trail from Mexico to Canada (4265km in length). “I didn’t feel like I could actually ever do it, setting aside all that time and money, especially because growing up you’re told everything you do needs to be productive.”
But a period of transition in Elina’s life prompted her decision to hike the PCT. “I wasn’t feeling fulfilled by the job I was in, a relationship had just ended, and my mum had recently been diagnosed with blood cancer. It was a time where I said, ‘What do I actually want to do?’” It was enough of a push to prioritise a journey she’d previously viewed as impossible. Granite peaks, alpine lakes, meadows and great stretches of desert welcomed self reflection. “On the trail, everything makes sense in a way where you start to recognise what you really value within your life, and what you want to prioritise going further.”
She’d caught the hiking bug, and back in Aotearoa in late 2020, Elina decided it was time to hit the trail again, this time on home turf. It was an opportunity to appreciate the country she’d grown up in, and in unusual circumstances – a year where overseas visitors couldn’t enter the country. Elina estimates approximately 70% of hikers on Te Araroa in 2020 were Kiwis, when the figure usually sits around 20%. “It felt good to be here, it was grounding for a lot of people I think. We have so much to appreciate living in New Zealand.”
The trail’s road sections were tough, walking Auckland and Hamilton’s trafficked roads with her pack in December was mentally challenging; podcasts and walking with fellow trampers made it easier. “It was quite funny, some people are fully aware of what Te Araroa trail is and they see you walking and say, ‘You made it!’ Others have never heard of it and thought I was very lost.”
A water journey forms part of Te Araroa, with hikers paddling down the Whanganui River from the mountains to the Tasman Sea through hills and valleys. Lowland forest surrounds the river in its middle and lower reaches, forming the heart of Whanganui National Park. It offered a real sense of isolation, Elina says. “It was a completely different experience to be paddling down this river in a canoe. In that stretch I felt the most isolated, and just in awe of being able to connect with a place like that.”
Elina summarises the South Island’s leg in one word: majestic. The trail runs down the spine of the Southern Alps, sending trampers along rugged, high-elevation ridgeline trails and scrambles. Hikers are highly prone to suffering beauty fatigue.
Beauty didn’t come without its challenges. A bout of food poisoning hit Elina in the Richmond Ranges (near Nelson), and in one section what should have been a stream crossing was a turbulent flowing river after rain all night. “The weather was something I didn’t realise I'd need to look into with more pre-planning. Streams and rivers are so impacted by weather changes.” But with difficulty and discomfort comes growth, Elina says. “When you’re in situations that you haven’t been in, testing your limits and pushing yourself, you’ll always take some kind of value from that.”
She’s currently working out what life looks like post-Te Araroa. Trampers become accustomed to life on the trail, and not many can say they’ll happily return to a traditional job after months lacing hiking boots and sleeping under stars. “It doesn’t really make sense to say, ‘I’m going to live like a privileged homeless person the rest of my life’. I want to engage in society and communities, I don’t want to become a forest hermit and run off into the woods. For me, I was able to prove to myself that I could do something hard, and part of living now is bringing that mindset and belief system into my regular life. You can make the life you’re living off-trail something you really love, you don't need to run away.” □
Te Araroa: The details
Te Araroa is 3000km, and takes around four months to complete for most hikers. Sometimes you’ll only be a day or two between towns, other times you’ll be in the wilderness for just over a week. Trampers haul large amounts of food and gear. There’s usually a campground ahead in the more populous parts of the north, and in the more remote south, backcountry huts meet you at the end of a day’s hiking.
The North Island route is just over 1600 km long, and the South Island just under 1400 km. According to trail experts it’s best tackled north to south, beginning in Cape Reinga in late spring. The traverse of the South Island then falls in mid-to-late summer, when the mountain passes are clear of snow. About 60% of Te Araroa crosses DOC land, leaving the remaining 40% (private land, council land, roads, etc) to be maintained by the non-profit organisation, Te Araroa Trust.
If four months is too long to take out of a busy life, there’s plenty of Te Araroa sections you can walk as standalone hikes. The Queen Charlotte Track or the Tongariro Crossing are amongst the better-known walks integrated into the route, but there are others, like the newer Motatapu Alpine Track.
Find the full story in Womenclan: Journal Two, available now.