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, clas 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.
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 a 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 baulk 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.
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 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.
Having 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 the 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.