Thursday, November 16th, 2017
Day 11: Kerikeri to Paihia, 21km
With chilly temps and rainy skies, yesterday’s rest day was everything I could have asked for. And today I woke up relaxed and ready to get back on the move. The walk from Kerikeri to Paihia certainly wasn’t the longest, hardest, or most exciting stretch we’ve done so far, but it was beautiful nonetheless. We followed a paved road out of Kerikeri until entering the Waitangi Forest where we followed a super mellow gravel road through the gentle vegetation. We eventually popped out onto another paved road, crossed the Waitangi Bridge, and arrived at The Pickled Parrot hostel in Paihia.
The majority of New Zealand’s residents live on the North island, so the trail tends to cut through a ton of little towns. As a result, a lot of our camping has been at designated camping areas or cheap tentsite hostels. It’s quite a luxury but sometimes I feel like we’re cheating, even though it’s really the only option! Once we get into the less populated, more mountainous spots on the South island we’ll be camping in the more traditional backcountry backpacking setting I’m accustomed to. But for now I’m enjoying a warm chair and full kitchen every 4 or 5 days!
I usually stuff all the tent pieces in my tent bag, but accidentally stuffed the tent bag in my sleeping bag compression sack this morning, so I just shoved the tent into my backpack. I had also carefully laid my rain fly on the driveway to dry this morning in Kerikeri. So when I went to set up my tent this evening and noticed the absence of a rain fly, I made the heart dropping realization that I had in fact left my fly on the ground in Kerikeri. Especially in a wet environment such as New Zealand, a rain fly is pretty crucial. I kind of panicked. But before I could totally freak out, Clea and some other friends helped me contact the Kerikeri Holiday Park. And whew! They had my fly. So I hitch-hiked my dumb ass all the way back to Kerikeri, grabbed my fly, and hitch-hiked back. It’s seriously too easy to get a ride around here. These two young guys picked me up and we got to talking about heli-skiing, determining that I need a friend who flies helicopters. They let me out and I get in another truck a few minutes later. I asked the driver what he did for work, and turns out the dude flies helicopters. No way. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to lock down any heli-ski lifts, but I was appreciative of the lift back to Paihia, fly in hand. I can promise you I’ll be making sure that damn piece of fabric is in my backpack every morning from now on!
Friday, November 17th, 2017
Day 12: Paihia to Waikare, 29 + 10 bonus kilometers
We left Paihia around 9am and cruised along the Opua Coastal Walkway to the car ferry loading dock. The route was a casual dirt track along the forest by the coast. The vehicular ferry takes you from Opua across the Veronica Channel to Okiatio. From there, we could follow Aucks Road directly to the junction with Russell-Whakapara Road, or we could jump on the Okiatio to Russell Walkway. The walkway would add on a few extra kilometers, but takes you through wetland, bush, and around cliffs instead of a paved road. Naturally we chose the nature route. We ascended and descended sets of stairs as we hiked through thick, wet forests, along boardwalks, and crossing roads every once in awhile.
About four hours later, we arrived at a random boating club near the town of Russell. Something didn’t seem right. We hadn’t seen any Te Araroa signs for awhile, and had just been cruising along this nature path. We finally checked a map and turns out we had walked about 10 kilometers north towards Russell, the opposite direction from where we wanted to go. Dammnnniittttt! Of all days to go the wrong way, of course we fuck up when we’re carrying a full 8 days worth of food supply. Oh well! Thanks to New Zealand’s hitch-hiking magic, we got a ride back the 10 kilometers to the road junction we totally passed, and continued on our way.
The next 17 kilometers were definitely a long haul along a paved road. As we walked in monotonous silence, I enjoyed a few solid hours of much needed introspection. We’ve been having a lot of endless walking time in between more exciting sections of the trail. I have found the time to be perfect for asking yourself a deep question and truly exploring the answers. Not only does time seem to pass faster when your mind is occupied, but I’m absolutely diving deeper into my ideas than I would normally. It’s pretty cool.
Anyway, we eventually arrived at Sheryl the Trail Angel’s house in Waikare. Sheryl is an incredibly generous local woman who lets TA walkers pitch a tent on her property and use her facilities. We’re sleeping in a field with the cows and horses, and are currently eating fresh, boiled farm eggs by candlelight…feeling right at home in this rough-around-the-edges but adorable Northland farm house!
Saturday, November 18th, 2017
Day 13: Waikare to Oakura Bay, 20km
It’s 7:40pm and Clea and I are currently at Whangaruru Beachfront Camp in Oakura Bay. We are laying on a slightly slanted but super comfortable double bed in the back of an old ambulance renovated as a camper van, digesting each of the 9 delicious curries we sampled for free at the Curry Cup, a friendly competition held by the Kiwis here for a local fishing tournament. If there were ever a moment of wondering “what the hell is my life” in the most hilarious way possible, this is it.
The rain started around midnight last night, and hasn’t stopped since, not even for one single tiny minute. I suppose we were overdue for some proper non-stop New Zealand sky water, I’d be a fool to think we’d be lucky enough to somehow miss it. We spent extra time this morning talking to the lovely Sheryl, hoping our tents might dry at least a little bit before we stuffed the wet, muddy fabric into our wet, muddy packs. We thanked Sheryl and her husband Peter for their hospitality, and went on our merry, wet way down Waikare Valley Road. We almost missed our turnoff, but after yesterday’s 10 kilometer mishap, double checked the map and got on route. For the first 4 kilometers we tramped directly up the Papakauri Stream.
After all the rain, and with the rain continuing to fall, we were consistently wading through water mid-calf to mid-thigh deep. Makes for slow but adventuresome tramping! Just when my fingers started to feel cold and tingly, we popped back on a trail and emerged at the DOC Shelter. We were totally soaked when we stopped for a snack and quick warm up, necessary I guess as my lips were apparently turning an unusual shade of purply blue. After awhile we sucked it up, stuck ourselves back into our sticky rain jackets, and booked it up the old forest road to get some blood pumping. By the time we got to the junction with Russell Road, we were just as wet and just as cold as before, so we glanced at the maps and kept moving.
Camping options between the road junction and the beginning of the next track were limited. We ran into the Australian couple and their group from Tramp-Inn, and learned they were camping in Oakura Bay. Initially we intended to walk at least 5 kilometers further, but our potential B&B was booked, and the other campsite was another 6 kilometers passed that! And let me point out that by this time we were still walking in the pouring rain, now alongside a paved road getting splashed by cars, feeling pretty pathetic and probably looking even more pathetic than we felt. By the time we passed the sign to Oakura Bay, Clea and I were both totally over the day. Now if you’re in the woods and it’s raining, you don’t really have a choice; you make do with the wetness, accept the change of environment, and laugh at your misery. When you’re cold and soggy on the side of a road watching dry, warm people pass you as you slowly make progress towards a camping area, you choose the camping area. The Whangaruru Beachfront Camp only had tent sites available, so we paid our dues and went to kick it by the kitchen in hopes the rain would let up.
We changed into dry clothes and sat outside chatting and reading, smelling all kinds of amazing things coming from the kitchen. Turns out there was supposed to be an annual fishing tournament that was cancelled due to weather. Each year they do a curry cook-off, and we showed up just in time! I think they felt sorry for us backpackers looking so pathetic and wet, eating couscous with peas, even though we were totally happy. Regardless, they let us try all of the curries and cast a vote. New Zealanders are seriously awesome people. Meanwhile, another tramper’s tent pole broke and the owner told her to sleep in the laundry room.
When she walked by us on the porch, clearly having not set up tents yet, she asked if we wanted to sleep inside somewhere. The rain did not look like it was going to stop any time soon, and a warm, dry night of sleep was irresistible. So she offered us to sleep in her old ambulance which she had redone like a mobile camper.
So alas, here we are, snuggled up like the two coziest, happiest trampers ever. Dry for the first time all day, grateful for the acts of kindness, and ready for another beautiful day on Te Araroa tomorrow.
Sunday, November 19th, 2017
Day 14: Oakura to Whananaki, 31km
OMG BEDS ARE THE SHIT! I slept so well in our little ambulance last night. Our day started off well-rested and dry, but took a disheartening turn due to a progressing ankle pain Clea has been dealing with for the last few days. If anyone understands how upsetting a random, annoying, unexplained injury can be when you’re otherwise feeling healthy and fit, it’s me, and my heart was breaking for her. I wish I had a magic wand to instantly heal miss Clea’s Achilles, but unfortunately I’m just a regular bloke with no special powers. She decided to hitch-hike to the Whananaki Holiday Park for a rest day while I powered through the next trail segment. Choosing to miss a day on the track is never an easy decision, but there comes a point when your body calls the shots and you’d be damned not to listen. Fortunately Clea is an incredibly strong, independent, intelligent woman who cares enough about herself and her goals to make the hard but right choice to spend a day nursing her heel. She also is amazing and understanding enough to handle herself for the day, so I set out down the road by myself, anxious to get to camp to provide moral support and smiles.
I put some headphones in to bump some Dead jams during the uneventful road walking section until I was joined by a happy middle-aged man with curly graying hair, short shorts, Hokas, and a tiny pack. Turns out he’s a trail running Kiwi named Curly who left a week ago in attempt to set a record for tramping the TA. Anyone who can talk running with me is an immediate friend. We cruised at his very fast pace (I’m definitely starting to understand the benefit of small light packs) and chatted about life and outdoor activities all the way through the Helena Ridge Track, a mixture of forest track and open fields. A clear endurance athlete with a super positive attitude, Curly most certainly inspired me to move fast and not limit my realm of possibilities as far as personal fitness goals in the future go.
Anyway, at the beginning of the Morepork track we ran into the familiar group I’ve been seeing for almost a week now. I snarfed my bag of trail mix and kept on the move, trying to keep up with Curly without being too intrusive. The Morepork Forest was nowhere near as muddy as the Herekino or Raetea, but slick and slippery nonetheless.
Eventually I popped out of the forest into a beautiful, open meadow with expansive views of the ocean in the distance. As awesome as the forests are, every time I come out of the trees into a meadow I am overwhelmed with a sensation of freedom, similar to how I feel in the mountains. We still have a long ways to go before we’re back in an alpine environment, but I’m absorbing every ounce of liberation in the Northland.
I got to Clea faster than expected. She had been resting her ankle and reading at the Whananaki Holiday Park all day, and making friends with this adorable man named Tom. They say a huge part of trail magic is the people, and I believe that wholeheartedly. The overly generous Tom offered us dinner, and proceeded to cook beef stir fry with rice and red wine which Clea, Curly, Tom and I absolutely devoured. What a treat!!! Like seriously what an amazing man Tom is to spoil a group of strangers; he said he wants to ensure a solid spot in heaven. He gave us advice on just about just about everything in the way a loving grandfather would. I went to bed with a full belly and satiated soul.
Monday, November 20th, 2017
Day 14: Whananaki to Ngunguru, 25km
This morning Tom walked us across the Whananaki Bridge and took our picture before parting ways. Fortunately Clea’s ankle improved enough for her to hike! HOORAY! From there we followed the gorgeous Whananaki Coastal Track which curved along the oceanfront past adorable, unique beach houses before popping out on another road. I got stung by a bee for the first time, at least from what I can remember. That shit hurts! Anyway, because the TA is a relatively new trail and there are so many towns on the North Island, unfortunately many segments have to follow roads for miles until the DOC can figure out better connecting tracks through nature. So we walked along the road until reaching the food mart in Ngunguru where we snarfed down an ice cream cone and called for our ride across Nikau Bay.
Our ride across Nikau Bay came in the form of a little boat driven by a middle-aged male Kiwi local named James who offers rides across the bay as the TA happens to pass through his property. Little did we know he was about to deliver us in paradise. Our acceptance of James’ offer to camp at his place was almost immediate upon arrival. Right next to the water but tucked behind tropical trees, James had built a beautiful open kitchen and dining area for trampers in the huge green yard below his house, complete with showers and toilets, kayaks, a fire ring, a garden, a picturesque swing, and a camping cabin. He told us to pitch our tents anywhere and make ourselves at home, which we did promptly. Soon after we cozied up, our trail family from the last few days arrived. James provided all of us fresh eggs from his chickens and access to any of the vegetables in the garden, which everyone gratefully accepted.
Later that evening, James brought me and Clea a cold pale ale and took us out for a beautiful nighttime kayak ride around the bay. For the first time since arriving in New Zealand I was actually able to see some stars! I’ve either been asleep too early or it’s been too cloudy. Lots of firsts today. But yeah James was not only an unbelievably generous host, but he hung out with everyone all night. He is a super honest, genuine person with incredible outlooks on life, an interesting history, and great conversation skills. His place is almost too good to be true! A true paradise.
Tuesday, November 21st, 2017
Day 15: Nikau Bay (James) to Taiharuru, 32km
Man I didn’t think James’ place could be any more magical, but that was before today’s breakfast. First of all, I slept like a baby after our late kayak adventure. Secondly, I saved my eggs from yesterday and cooked them sunnyside up with white cheddar, sausage, and sauteed kale straight from the garden. Thirdly, James joined us for breakfast with a huge pot of coffee!!!! COFFEE!!! I haven’t been drinking the amazing black juice because it’s expensive, takes too long to make, and quite frankly I’m enjoying the caffeine break, so the bitter cup of heaven this morning really got me going. I slowly ate my delicious meal, which beat my usual Clif bar by about 25 million, postponing my inevitably departure of this tropical haven. Eventually we packed up, showered James with thank you’s, and began yet another long road walk.
Of the 25 kilometers between James’s house and Pataua, the 4 kilometer Mackerel Forest Track was the only section of rolling, grassy trail. The other 19 kilometers were along a mellow paved road. There was hardly a cloud in the sky as the hot sun pounded down on my shoulders all day. All I can say is thank god for headphones. Nothing like some Phish or Nick Jonas to get in the road-walking groove.
We timed ourselves perfectly to be walking across the Taiharuru Estuary at low tide. Always one for great descriptions, Clea said walking through the muddy, sandy water was like the perfect combination of 90 Mile Beach and Herekino Forest. I agree entirely.
After the estuary, we followed signs to a Walker’s Camp. Historically we know little information about campsites until we’re there, and this was no exception. We walked up a driveway for awhile before the handwritten signs sent us on a seemingly random track through the grassy hillside. The track was leading into a gorgeous, open valley amongst pastures full of turkeys, cows and horses that seemed like a trippy and strange approach for a typical holiday park. We kept thinking we’d pop out in some magical kingdom full of fairies and butterflies, but alas we found ourselves at a little cabin situated in an open, green paddock with a picnic table, outdoor stove, and random white outdoor sofa. Inside the cabin were two beds, a shower, a sink, coffee, tea, a cooler full of snacks and soda, honey, books, and other assorted items of the like. Turns out this 16 year old kid Louis lives up the hill with his parents, and built this structure as a camp for TA walkers! He asks to put $15 in the honesty box for your stay and enjoy yourself. How fucking cool! Shit like that makes wonder what the hell I was doing when I was 16.
Anyway, we took showers to wash off the stinky estuary mud, and because nobody else was anywhere in sight, decided to frolick around naked in the grass and delight in the solitude. Another TA trail angel providing us with our own valley oasis! Fortunately Clea spotted a woman walking down the hill in time for us to throw some clothes on. Louis’s mother Susanne was a sweet lady who seemed happy to have us there, and we told her how impressed we were with her son’s idea. After we stuffed our faces with ramen and tried to cook this random egg Clea found in the woods (which turned out to be disgustingly rotten, don’t ever trust unknown forest eggs), we played Bananagrams until the sun went down. Now we’re both laying on our own beds listening to the 363,388 mosquitoes buzzing and the mystery animal creeping outside the window, feeling happy and fulfilled. I can’t wait to eat breakfast with this view tomorrow and hopefully I don’t become one giant mosquito bite overnight.
Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017
Day 16: Taiharuru to McKenzie Bay, 25km
I slept so deeply in that cozy ass bed that I managed to have a nightmare. I can’t remember what it was about, but I woke up hyperventilating and weirdly screaming; Clea and I are officially really good friends now that she’s witnessed one my midnight terrors. Anyway, I survived the night with minimal bites, and the mystery animal failed to bust into the cabin so that’s all groovy.
I was awake before Clea and noticed blue skies above so I read outside for awhile until she woke up to join me for a marvelous cup of instant coffee. Aside from our one night in the forest, this was really the first morning we had to ourselves. We took our sweet time packing, soaked up the beautiful weather and peacefulness of the valley before cruising out. A short uphill road walk with incredible views of the ocean and distant mountains lead us to a grassy, forested track over Kauri Mountain. An hour later we arrived on top of the steep, clay descent down to Ocean Beach. Realizing high tide was coming in, we decided to read and sunbathe for an hour before starting our journey down the beach. Not being in any kind of hurry whatsoever is such a liberating feeling! Ocean Beach was a significantly shorter, much more scenic, and noticeably softer beach walk than 90 Mile, landing us at the base of the Bream Head Track.
I’ll take hot sun over cold rain any day, but HOLY FACK THE SUN TODAY WAS TOASTING MY BRAINS! The heat and humidity slowly turned my body into what felt like a giant bucket of popcorn butter as I climbed the exposed, grassy slopes and sticky, forested stairs to the summit of Bream Head (Te Whara). Dying for a snack and a break from the gallons of sweat oozing out of our pores, we dropped packs and scrambled up to a lunch spot with probably the best view I have seen thus far. The bright blue ocean stretched beyond the horizon in front of us, encompassing distant islands and crashing waves onto the tan shores far below. Positioned on the middle of a forested ridge, there were massive rock faces with vegetated tops and steep cliffs in both directions. Behind us were rolling green hills speckled with tiny buildings and miniscule animals. The view was truly breathtaking, and our perfectly leisurely lack of a schedule allowed us to simply sit and exist in paradise until we satiated ourselves with nature’s beauty.
From Bream Head we undulated along the heavily vegetated ridge, up and down hundreds of steps, and over roots, passing multiple false summits before topping out on Mt Lion (Matariki). Only mildly sticky but severely stinky, we began the descent into Urquharts Bay which involved well over another 1000 steps. You know stairs might kind of suck and destroy your knees in large numbers, but they’re definitely better than a long, super steep, muddy downclimb!
My joints rejoiced upon returning to a flat, smooth road which led us the short distance to The Green Bus Stop, another quaint camping area for TA trampers in someone’s backyard. We found Tanya, Dave, Hannah, and Georgia (most of our recent trail family members) cooking dinner and relaxing in the humble camp complete with fresh water, free farm eggs, a toilet and shower access. Hungry from the day’s hike, I quickly pitched my tent and proceeded to cook my current favorite meal: this amazingly flavored Malaysian ramen with peas and shiitake mushrooms. This particular batch was phenomenal with the addition of a cracked egg. Mmmmmmm. After dinner I walked up to the owner’s house to pay and ask if she could open the can of mangos I found in the free food box. I wound up having a long, interesting conversation with Jenny (she has a cool name) about reasons why people are seeking out adventures like the TA, and the general shift in attitude towards what’s important in life these days. I swear we have been encountering the coolest, most generous trail angels recently, I feel so lucky! I am also very much looking forward to a rest day in Whangerei tomorrow, my knees need a break. Tomorrow also happens to be Thanksgiving (at least in the southern hemisphere) so we are planning to do nothing but feast. It will be epic.
Thursday, November 21st, 2017
Day 18: THANKSGIVING REST DAY!!!
I AM SO STUFFED WITH DELICIOUS CHICKEN AND BROCCOLI AND PEPPERS AND KUMARA AND BREAD AND BOYSENBERRY APPLE PIE!!! Clea and I fully succeeded in creating an epic Thanksgiving meal for ourselves during our off day in Whangerei. I know it’s technically only Wednesday in the States and that Kiwis don’t exactly celebrate Thanksgiving, but today was the third Thursday of November so it only seemed appropriate to prepare a feast and celebrate our gratitude for the amazing life we are living. The timing also worked out perfectly with our resupply to spend the day touching base with everyone at home, resting our muscles and joints, and stuffing our faces.
Anyway, I have a lot to be thankful for, and I’ve had a lot of time to think about the truly important people and parts of my life so I’ll share. Just so you know, this is written more for me than for anyone else I am grateful for the opportunity and ability to travel, to have worked hard at a job I loved to earn enough to fund a trip like this. For having a true, meaningful friendship with someone like Clea who supports me, encourages me to be honest and genuine, trusts me, and is crazy enough to spend months on the trail with me. For having two incredibly loving, understanding, and supportive parents who are always helping me learn to trust myself and follow my dreams. I am grateful for Dandy whose enthusiasm and excitement for my adventures keeps me going. For Tyler and Logan and any other family member who might think I’m nuts but love me anyway. For Maria for loving my dad as much as she does. For Jack for finally showing my mom the kind of man she deserves. For all of my crazy ass friends who share the stoke with me on all different levels, who laugh with me, cry with me, climb bad ass mountains with me, and push me to be a better person, better friend, better mountaineer, and so on. For my peer mentors who have taught me how to splitboard, understand avalanche safety, and climb, trusted me, and been patient while I learn. I’m exceptionally grateful for all the families I have babysat for who have become like second, third, and fourth families to me. For all of their kids who I have been lucky enough to watch grow up. I’m thankful for the strangers I’ve met and will continue to meet on the TA who start conversations that spark new perspectives on the world and my place in it. And for all the people who love to pick up hitch-hikers. I’m thankful for everyone who is a part of my life in any way, because every relationship is unique. I give and receive something entirely individualized from each person I interact with. Whether it’s repeated or instantaneous, happy or sad, simple or complicated, all of these interactions play a role in shaping the person I am and continue to grow into. And that’s fucking cool.
I’m grateful to know so confidently what makes my heart full. To wake up everyday and know how and where to find my strength and happiness. To be so passionate about the things I love to do. To have an excellent education been provided my whole life. I’m thankful every single day for my health and physical ability to walk, run, hike, climb, ride, etc. I’m thankful as hell for Dr. LaPrade who fixed up my knee two years ago, and to Nate and Lyndee for being the best physical therapists in the world. For my parents and friends for physically and emotionally helping me through that whole shitty recovery.
I’m grateful for mother nature, for the mountains, high summits, challenging rock, long sketchy routes, fresh air, alpine lakes, beautiful trails, fresh snow, sunshine, wildflowers, soft breezes, and trees. For trail runners, sports bras, hiking boots, hydration packs, backpacks, snowboards, splitboards, trekking poles, ice axes, crampons, helmets, harnesses, ropes, and aaalllllll the other gear that keeps me alive. And for all the geniuses who design and create it. For sunscreen, bug spray, arnica gel and chafing cream. For topo maps, compasses and mapping tools. The list is endless. I could seriously write a novel about everything I am grateful for, but I’m passing out from a food coma.