A Long Walk to a Short List

It’s been a tumultuous and exciting twelve months.  This time last year we were both finishing up our jobs, picking up the last few pieces of gear, packing up our house, getting ready to move out of our house and still trying to figure out how exactly we were going to go about hiking the length of a country.  Sure, in simplest terms, a through hike is merely putting one foot in front of the other. Start at the top and keep going until you reach the sea.  It’s a little more difficult when the longest hiking trip you’ve previously done was 2 days (I should also mention that this was actually in preparation for New Zealand…).

Fast forward to today, Te Araroa seems like a distant memory, we’re back in Dublin, back working and back carrying most of the kilos we’d dropped on the trail.  To hear that a blog that we’d started almost as an after-thought, has now been short-listed in The Blog Awards Ireland for The Best Travel Blog has been overwhelming.   So thank you; to all of you who read the blog from the very beginning.  Thank you to everyone who encouraged us to keep updating with posts, even when our bodies ached, we were mentally exhausted, starving, soaked and missing home comforts.  Thank you to each person who supported us along our journey and who contributed to The Irish Heart Foundation.  Looks like the journey is not quite over yet…

Please vote for us HERE

Thanks!

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Shedding the excess baggage.

We both lost a lot of weight on the trail, in more ways than one. Here you’ll see the things we trimmed off our pack weight as we went along, some practical yet unnecessary, some utterly ridiculous. The comments on the photos are a mix from both of us.

When we go on another mental trip across a country there’s some things we have learned about packing for a thru hike. I’m going to go through some of these which may seem painfully obvious to the experienced but some of your reading this may be like us when we started so I’ll go ahead, and please, if you are one of the experienced people and you do things differently please add a comment and share your knowledge, but no one wants an ultralight war, right?

Keeping your sleeping bag dry is pretty important, especially in a country with weather like New Zealands. Your sleeping bag will stay just as dry in the dry sack as it will in it’s own stuff sack within the dry sack.

One well insulated jacket/fleece and a long sleeve merino/light hiking top is enough to keep you warm in the evenings. If it’s really really cold get into your sleeping bag.

Sporks, they’re fantastic. That set of camping cutlery was actually purchased mid trail when there was no sporks to be found, but I still got rid of them as soon as I could.

We nearly did have to walk on the roads at night going back to Whananaki after reaching Ngunguru, but we didn’t have the bike light with us. A lot of use that was.

The navigation book wasn’t the worst idea, we had done our mountain skills and navigation courses but we knew we’d probably forget some of it and if we were tired and panicked we’d probably make bad decisions. Thankfully we never needed it, the trail was very well marked pretty much the whole way.

We probably could’ve got a bit more use out of the frisbee but the opportunities were so few, it wasn’t worth carrying around.

I got to the point where I pretty much lived in my merino vest, I was only really wearing my t-shirt in towns anyway.

Definitely bring a compass, but if you have a GPS you probably don’t need a 2nd one. Especially not a pair of cheap Kathmandu ones.

Really didn’t need two head torches, once again worried about hiking at night, the only hiking we did at night was to the long drop, even a small bike light would do, cheaper and lighter.

The scissors were kind of part of the first aid kit really, and I actually cut Laurens fringe a couple of times, but we still didn’t need them.

Stuff like the peppermint capsules, I guess you wouldn’t really know until you go. Ya just can’t tell how your body is going to react to the physical challenges of a thru hike.

Tweezers. Say it ain’t so.

As a photographer I was concerned about memory and storing images. But due to weather inhibiting my willingness to take out my camera a lot of the time on the North Island I didn’t take as many shots as I would’ve liked and I also ended up buying a 128gb card for my camera which was plenty in the end.

I’ve awful allergies to dust/pollution, same symptoms as bad hay fever but they all disappeared on the trail, no need for the antihistamine eyedrops and nasal spray, absolute bliss.

Imodium are definitely on the bring list, and I think we only got rid of our spares after we had already done about half of the trail and dealt with my water bug.

Blusher indeed. Isn’t Lauren’s face rednow, eh?

The nature of the pain of my calf injury had all sorts of things going through my head so I bought a massive box of Aspirin on the outskirts of Hamilton to dissolve the blood clot in my imagination. Bounced most of them but kept a few as pain killers.

We did play  good  amount of cards, but we mostly just used the ones in the huts. Take ’em or leave ’em.

Bit of rope. We used the 8m of accessory cord to dry clothes and to hang food so possums and mice couldn’t get at it. The rope wasn’t really needed, could’ve been useful if something broke I suppose.

Hair clips?!

Probably should’ve kept the merino top, I had another long sleeved top but it was just a wicking layer with no real insulative qualities.

I can’t remember a single time we used water filtration on the South Island, but we kept it with us just in case, either way we didn’t need two plungers.

We left one of the seats in the back of someone’s car on the way to Cape Reinga, we barely used the other one.

I had two penknives, this and a swiss army knife. This one was for whittling. Yes, whittling. While Lauren read her Kindle, I would whittle. I had also intended on teaching my self Spanish on the trail.  Great intentions.

Less weight and less cleaning by leaving the bowl behind.

Not sure what that is, foundation?

Rarely any signal, ditched the radio pretty quickly, too much winding up while trying to wind down in the evening.

Who needs lids on cups?

The accidental torch. Stowing away to New Zealand, fair play.

Who needs eye masks when you have Buffs?

Like windproof matches and a lighter weren’t enough.

More UFOs, unidentified futile objects.

The foot cream probably could’ve been utilised more, but we had Hurt Creme, a Kiwi wonder product that fixes everything. Everything.

If we weren’t walking for the Irish Heart Foundation I would’ve kept the insulative midlayer jacket and left the fleece as the jacket packed smaller.

Great to have a guide to New Zealand but it was just too heavy to carry.

Lauren had many tops. I think she was happy when we finished though, as she got to wear one that she hadn’t worn in a few months.

A Summery Conclusion

The North Island:

We met many people who had no plans of walking the North Island of the trail, some were due to time constraints others were due to the amount of road/farm walking, but in my opinion if you have the time and/or you haven’t been to New Zealand before, you should walk the North Island.

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Photos from the last day

Your decision will probably depend on why you’re doing the trail, but, the majority of the roads you walk on are not busy and often lie in beautiful surroundings. Walking through paddocks of livestock can be unnerving, but if you respect the notes and the animals you won’t have any problems.

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Starting in Cape Reinga and walking down 90 Mile Beach is an unexpected baptism of fire as walking down a flat sandy beach doesn’t sound challenging, but it’s one of the toughest parts of the trail. Thankfully it’s softened by the sporadic presence of the local people, an amazing introduction to Kiwis and their culture. Countless times we were overwhelmed by the kindness of the locals, be it stopping in their tracks to give you a bottle of water on a hot day or inviting you into their home for a home cooked meal and somewhere to sleep. You meet civilisation regularly enough, and when you’re lucky you’ll learn about Maori culture from the Maori themselves, there is sadly very little indigenous presence in the South Island, the documentary on Maori TV about the trail, “Tales from the Trail”, is a testament to that. Six episodes on the trail in the North Island and only one for the South Island, even though the most spectacular scenery is in the southern half of the Te Araroa.

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There are also some great trails and sights throughout the North Island, Tongariro Crossing, Whanganui River, even the Pureora Forest where we walked for 13 hours in the rain verging on hypothermia, one of my favourite sections. Those are only to name a few, I could go on. Actually I should mention the Tararuas even though we didn’t get in there, everyone else we met on the trail said that they were the highlight of the North Island.

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The South Island:

If you only have time to do one island do the South, and unless you’ve done a lot of training, go northbound. Starting on the Queen Charlotte Track you’re lulled into a false sense of security, but then you’re confronted with 8-12 days in the Richmond ranges followed by the Waiau Pass, which isn’t for the faint hearted. Both beautiful and challenging in their own right, the undertaking still demands a lot of respect, I am of course writing my opinion as someone who started as a novice hiker on this trail.

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Apart from that, the South Island is where you really begin to connect with the trail and your natural surroundings. Longer sections and fewer people mean you’re rarely distracted by “civilisation”. We took a couple of days off in huts towards the end and kind of wish we’d done it more often. A lot of the time “rest” days consist of absolute chaos. If you have a blog or a camera you spend a lot of your time uploading text and pictures to the realms of the internet. You also probably have to do a resupply, and God help you if you don’t know what you want, then maybe you’ll cook yourself a nice dinner that isn’t made of pasta or noodles, take some extra shopping time for that, or you could just go out for dinner, hope you’ve got your best trail clothes dry after you’ve done your laundry. Are you stressed yet? I hope not because you’ve to get back on the trail at 7am tomorrow!….*Deep breaths*…phew…maybe take a second day off.

Home:

If I had any reservations about going on this trip I certainly don’t have them about going on another one. Ever since we’ve gotten back home we’ve been asked “How was it?”, “Was it amazing?”, “What was your favourite part?” etc. but to my friends’ hidden frustration I haven’t gotten much further than monosyllabic responses. Trying to sum up the trail on the spot is difficult to say the least, a life changing event with high levels of endorphins pumping through your veins for five months will do that to a person. By the time your endorphin craving brain musters up an answer they’ve moved onto the next question. “Do you hate being back?” No certainly not, but I can’t help but miss a lack of purpose from my day to day activities. Once you’ve caught up with friends and family it feels like there’s not much left. At the same time there’s so much extra stuff, instead of my eyes being glued to where I’m putting my foot next I’m glued to a little screen in my hand. I brought several rounds of antihistamine products to New Zealand, but didn’t have to use them once, it seems I’m allergic to the city and the pollution that bellows within. Getting used to large amounts of people has been pretty easy but life in most cities means you’ve to keep an eye over your shoulder too, which is harder to get used to.

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I have a theory on the friendliness of the New Zealand people, which is probably a very simple point to someone educated in sociology, but you see it everywhere, people in rural areas are friendlier than they are in highly populated areas, they have more time for you and will generally acknowledge you when they pass you etc., but if you were to try and acknowledge everyone in a city you’d never get anywhere. People in big cities are bombarded every day with millions of people in very close surroundings, giving them a reputation of being either rude or ignorant in other circles because they’ve learned to shut things out. It has been a very short period in human history that we’ve become so numerous that perhaps our rise in population has far exceeded our emotional development to deal with such numbers. We now live in a world where it’s every man for himself even though it was demonstrated with Game Theory that (very basically) if everyone worked towards a common goal, everyone would mutually benefit, many hands and all that. I digress, I guess my point is that sometimes you’ve to see nothing to catch a glimpse of everything. After coming back from the trail I seem to have a hole within that fits no shape of the city. I still relish the feel of a dry cotton towel after a hot shower, putting on dry socks every day, actually putting on clean dry socks every day. I certainly look at things a lot differently now and I believe I’m a better person for it, but I still feel like I’ll never get over the trail until I’m back on another one. I guess the remnants of the trail within are like getting a tattoo, you’re happy with it for a while but you begin to feel like you’re incomplete, an unfinished piece, imbalanced, and the only thing that will cure that feeling is to get another one. For now though, I’m back home after thankfully missing the Irish winter. Where next? Who knows, but I’m looking forward to seeing me out there.

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A large portion of the TA hikers of 2014 – 2015 celebrating at the Te Araroa Party we organised in Queenstown on St. Patrick’s Day.

Day 147 – They didn’t know it was impossible, so they did it.

On October 18th 2014 two inexperienced hikers set off from the Northernmost point of New Zealand with ridiculously oversized backpacks, hope in their hearts and one goal in sight.  The goal was to put one foot in front of the other until they reached the southern tip of the country, clasped their hands around that signpost at Bluff and could finally say that they completed Te Araroa.  And of course, they planned to raise a little money for the Irish Heart Foundation along the way.  Before they completed the 3000 odd kilometres down the length of the country there were a couple of obstacles in the way.

For me, these obstacles were predominantly in my head and included but were not limited to:

1.  The possibility that I would fall off something and die.

2.  The possibility that something would fall onto me and I would die.

3.  The possibility that an incensed bull would attack me and I would die (this particular fantasy was so elaborate that I had imagined all the attendees at my funeral reception eating beef as a sort of revenge.)

4. The possibility of being swept away in a river and, well, die.

5. An often irrational fear that I would break my ankle (Valid in a forest or mountain, not so much on a beach).

As time passed I became braver, physically stronger and grew more accustomed to this life in the wild.  From the early days when I would rather do myself some serious bowel damage than use a smelly long drop, to now when I would face the most pungent insect infested toilet with aplomb, I had grown in a myriad of ways.  I could dig a hole to go to the toilet a mere few metres away from other hikers, I was able to fall asleep in a hut knowing that I was likely to have mice rustling around in my hair during the night and I hadn’t had a scrap of make-up near my face in 5 months.  Now if that’s not personal growth I don’t know what is.

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Now, 147 days/21 weeks/5 months and a couple of stone in weight loss later, we faced the last 48 kilometres of our journey. The 15th of March 2015 would be a monumental day in our memories.  Amusingly, it was a day marked in a lot of locals’ calendars for another reason – the “Surf to City Walk/BIke/Run” was taking place.  We set off before 9am from Oreti Beach Holiday Park into streets that were currently deserted all for the occasional table manned by volunteers giving out cups of water, along with curious glances at our over ambitious get ups.  You could just see the confusion in their eyes as they took in our walking poles, backpacks and general air of doggedness – fitting for a 48 kilometre trudge to the finish-line of a through hike, not so fitting for a 12 kilometre family fun run that would momentarily kick off.  We decided to imagine that the thousands of men, women and children walking alongside us were there as a support group for us, which really made the first 10 kilometres of our epic day fly in.  For an extra boost of morale we ducked into the Four Square en route and picked up three pies and a $7 bottle of plonk to pop at Bluff.  I was so pumped to be reaching the end that I didn’t even balk at carrying the glass bottle in my backpack for 10 hours.

It was just after 11am when we left our crowds of fans to turn off onto the estuary walk bypassing Invercargill.  At this point, the wind somewhat left our sails as we began our route past some sewage plants wafting less than favourable odours, before eventually being spat out onto the state highway for, mercifully, our last 20 kilometre road walk into Bluff.  Up until yesterday, our longest day walking had been about 35 kilometres and so today’s marathon, coupled with the agony hanging on from the previous day’s equally exhausting 43 kilometres, was really testing our endurance, patience and physical state. By the time we were about midway down the state highway, the only things keeping me moving were the knowledge that we were almost finished and would soon be partying in Queenstown and, oddly enough, some hard-boiled sweets that Alan had the foresight to purchase.  Approximately 5 kilometres until the end of the highway and the beginning of our final sprint along the Foveaux Walkway, we all felt a little call of nature and, spotting a tiny church across the road, nipped over to investigate their facilities.  As expected there were none, but the gorgeous little woman who was offering tours of the historic building, grabbed her keys to a nearby parish hall and brought us up the road to use the toilet. Afterwards we spent a few minutes chatting with our final ever trail angel and her friends before getting back on the road, aware that time was pushing on.

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Before launching into the Foveaux Walkway Lizzie doled out the Whitakers for a last jolt of energy and off we went to take on the last 7 kilometres of Te Araroa.  And it was amazing.  Turning around the corner onto the coast was one of the most powerful moments I have experienced of the whole trail.  The sky was still overcast but the clouds parted to reveal a single sunbeam illuminating a fierce sea crashing monstrous waves onto the rocks along the shore.  All at once I was  put in mind of the angry atlantic coast of home and at the same time reminded that this was our last glimpse of beauty, the last in a line of many spectacular views on this adventure of ours.  Behind my sunglasses there were tears which I tried and failed to choke back as I registered all that we had achieved over the last 5 months.

DSCF4054 DSCF4050Having previously expected to practically run all the way along the last 7 kilometres, in spite of our exhaustion, we instead ambled along taking in the view and snapping a ridiculous amount of photos.  After sidling the cliffs, the track joined onto a very civilised seaside pathway, from which we could see the last boat of the day sailing across from Stewart Island as the sky steadily darkened.   As we made our way the last few metres to Stirling Point at Bluff,  the yellow signpost coming into view, the anticlimactic feeling was palpable (if that isn’t a complete contradiction in terms).

We marched through the drizzle with a last burst of purpose towards the end of Te Araroa.  The cheap champagne was popped, the cameras flashed, we whooped and cheered, and the rain kept coming.  A young German guy poked his head out of a car parked nearby, confused by our cheers: “You are at the most southern point of New Zealand, yes?…You know there is one other point more southern?”.  It was ok, we reckoned we’d walked enough for now.

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Day 146 – Ebeneezer Goode!

We had a long day ahead of us and once again we didn’t get going as early as planned, but we didn’t bat an eyelid, anything that prolonged the trail at this stage, was welcome. With 38km to go before the end of today and about 90% of that beach, we got on with our second last day. Lauren and I still had 90 Mile Beach burnt into our feet, never mind the backs of our minds. Lizzie had listened to us give out about the sandy seaside slog previously, leaving her apprehensive about the distance we were about to undertake over said terrain. But, at the same time it was a new experience for her, and we both relished our first day of walking on 90 Mile, a rush on the senses; the sea air, the crashing of the waves, even the local bird life diving for scaley unfortunates in the deep blue.

DSCF3972Starting out on Colac bay walking on the sand was tough, with little choice we trudged through the soft sand at a slope of about 20 degrees rolling towards the sea. After the last few days I could feel my legs burning already, we were only a couple of kilometres in, but I kept the concerns to myself, I didn’t want to put doubt in anyone else’s mind or to start thinking about my calf acting up. Though, looking back on it now, our priorities were a bit skewed, but we had a party to get to, meaning we couldn’t not make our target destination for the day.

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Sinking as much as we stepped we reached the head between Colac Bay and Riverton. It was up and over the panicky sheep covered hills to a short forest track that would unveil a view of Oreti Beach and even Bluff in the distance. Bluff was barely visible, it rose over a haze that rendered the end of Oreti Beach non existent. If it wasn’t for Bluff it looked like we might be walking for a lot longer than the 48 hours we had expected to finish within.

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DSCF3996We strolled down the hill to the centre of Riverton for lunch which consisted of our favourite baked products. We also savoured a range of cold liquid products and got a couple bags of sucky sweets to take our minds off the marine monotony ahead. Acid Drops and Brandy balls were the choice of the day, and it wasn’t long until the combination of E numbers and sugar had us intoxicated like kids.

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DSCF4005Oreti is like a chopping board, wide and flat. Kids of all ages race by on scramblers and 4x4s, scoring the beach like knives cutting the sand. Deserted car wrecks rudely protrude the horizon, pointing towards the sea with a rusty glow off the surrounding sand. In the far distance there are people, too far to recognise, but we were talking to them in no time. We had been told about the Oreti River, Rich Peters had completed that section already and warned us that the water was up to his chest in his attempt to cross it. Rich was a tall guy too making the thoughts of the river crossing more than daunting. We arrived however when the tide was well out, meaning we only had to splash across the river, gratefully cooling down our hot feet.

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DSCF4021We walked for a while without our boots on, which was nice, but our pace had slowed dramatically. With our boots back on we continued down the infinite sandy haze. At this stage though I still felt great, not something I could usually say after walking about 30kms in the hot sun. The camera was out, and I was literally running about the place taking photos of everything, I not only felt good, I felt strong. With an unusual level of desire to remove my pack and sprint up the beach as far as I could, I decided against it, I’d only have to go back and get the bloody thing after all.

DSCF4024The beach was getting more populated meaning we must be near the exit. Cars were appearing and disappearing in the near distance, our exit point. People stared at us like we had just walked out of the sea “Where have you walked from?!” the gawkers yelled, “Cape Reinga!!” I retorted, drawing faces as profound as the trip we were close to completing.

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DSCF4034Like a magic tractor we turned into a road, making our way to our holiday park destination. Beach Road Holiday Park looked a bit grim on the outside. Run down chalets echoed across the site like the wrinkles on your granny’s face. After a ring of the bell, we got a very warm reception from the staff, and found that just like Sloth from the Goonies, the chalets were a lot nicer on the inside than on the out. After hobbling down to our room and sitting down we were very happy to peel our shoes and socks off after a long day. Hot showers preceded a hot adhesive like dinner and several cups of tea as we wound down physically and mentally before our last day.

Day 145 – Red Sky in the Morning, Shepherd’s Warning

We woke up to the glorious sight of the sunrise glowing on the trees above us.  We were afforded a couple of minutes basking in the beauty before Richard, who was already long awake, reminded us of the old saying “Red Sky in the Morning…”.  Sure enough, the muesli was barely scraped from the bottom of our bowls when the rain began to pelt down.  And so it continued for the rest of the day – ideal weather for a track entitled “The Long Hilly Track”.  To be fair, I’ve had longer and hillier, but seven hours traipsing through muddy undulating forest in lashings of rain isn’t the most pleasant of experiences.  I’ve spoken previously about wanting to stretch out these last few days of the trail – well in this instance I wasn’t feeling so prosaic.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe’d been the first to vacate the hut that morning (yes, go on, we’ll allow you a moment of shock horror), followed by Richard and then the German contingent.  We were quickly passed out by Katrin, Thore and Moritz, who power walked past us like a team of yummy mummies desperate to drop a couple of pounds for the Christmas season.  I can’t speak for Alan, as he’d probably been finished the trail in January had it not been for me, but I was slowed down significantly by having to cross fairly deep ditches repeatedly via rickety tree trunks.  At one point we had to full on vault across a gap a couple of metres wide, which you can imagine I was LOVING.

About 7 kilometres before the Long Hilly Walk would culminate, the trees opened up to afford walkers views across farmland and, temptingly, a more direct route to the ultimate destination of Colac Bay.  All three of us gazed across the farmland for a moment reading each other’s thoughts, before eventually sucking it up and continuing along the last long, hilly stretch.

As we exited the bush and made our way along the last few kilometres to Colac Bay, the realisation that we were really truly almost there began to resonate powerfully.  You could smell the sea in the air and the rain had finally stopped as we arrived at Colac Bay Tavern, a little gem of a spot that is a haven for TA trampers with its whopper burgers and discounted cabins. Stripping off our soggy gear and drenched boots we headed straight for the burgers and pints, carb-loading for the next challenge:  two days, eighty kilometres and one goal.  Clutching that signpost at Bluff was becoming more and more feasible.

Day 144 – Blind Mans Bluff

Everyone should wake up in the morning and play with a dog or two for a while, not only is it a great mood lifter but you get a great warm up for the rest of your day. While Lauren made the breakfast I threw a stick less burly than the ridiculous bit of 2×4 the dog was making fun of us with. Out of nowhere a labrador shows up and joins in on the fun. I always wonder how dogs don’t get bored of playing fetch, running back and forth chasing the same object over and over again, but looking at myself I realised that perhaps we get the most pleasure from the simplest things like walking day in day out, essentially chasing the same thing over and over again.

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We shared a moment with a pair of deer at the end of Merrivale Road after passing about twenty plucked possums littering our paths. Arriving at Bald Hill we could see Bluff in the distance, it felt strange, the thing that we had been chasing for five months was finally in sight. At this point I was a bit overwhelmed, I realised that I didn’t want to catch Bluff so soon. Bald Hill is a telecoms mast, a harsh reminder of the reality we were about to return to, but we had to move on. I could barely take eyes off Bluff until it went out of sight, but that was a good thing, out of sight out of mind. As far as the trail was concerned we were about to head back into a thick forest. After a near miss on the road, we entered the forest after a spot of lunch in the sun, glorious.

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This was the last bit of forest we’d be walking through so we were soaking up every last drop of it. The tiny paths and moss covered trees made for a beautiful walk with added photo opportunities. It was getting late when we hit another clearing before the hut, Bluff looked nice in the low light, but the sun was setting in more ways than one. Back into the bush to find the hut and we arrive to meet Rich, Moritz, Thor and Katrin. They had camped up at Bald Hill the night before. Unfortunately we didn’t get to sleep in our last hut, but it would be our last night in our tent along the trail.

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