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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.