By: Christine Martens
From the images pouring out of New Zealand’s new long distance trail, the Te Araroa, the hike looked like a tantalizing adventure. Rugged mountains, sweeping landscapes, and rainforests filled with fern trees and waterfalls. However, after reading some people’s accounts of hiking the entire trail—“purists”—I started rethinking the idea of a traditional thru-hike, and began to ponder what it might mean to “thru-journey.”
The Te Araroa Trail, or TA, is a 3,000-kilometer conglomeration of trails, roads, beaches, routes, and more than a few “hazard zones.” Hazard Zones are spots where the trail does not connect, leaving you to figure out how to get across un-fordable rivers, lakes, oceans, and estuaries. New Zealand consists of two islands, and the TA covers the length of both islands. The South Island is much more remote and wild; here, the TA winds through many national parks and forests with huts along the way to spend the night in for a small fee (note: you can also opt for a 6-month or 1-year hut pass). The North Island contains the majority of New Zealand’s population, and the TA hits some amazing sections; however, it is generally less remote, often spending time on roads.
Most thru-hikers travel southbound, starting on the North Island in October or November, and finishing on the South Island in February or March. My husband, John, and I decided to go in the opposite direction, starting in mid-January at the southern tip of the South Island where the trail ends at Bluff. From the start, we hadn’t planned on being purists, but it was hard to give up old habits on the first day of our hike. That day, however, we ended up walking 30 kilometers alongside Route 1, the largest road going through New Zealand. It was also the hottest day ever recorded in Bluff.
As we hiked north, we found out about many other trails we wanted to explore on the South Island, which were not part of the TA. So, we figured out how to connect the TA to the Greenstone Track and the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. The Routeburn turned out to be a short, but absolutely stunning, alpine hike. From this point on, we were hooked on finding the best side trips. The TA covered a lot of beautiful country, but like on any long-distance trail, hikers must make compromises to make forward progress.
We decided to use the TA as a pedestrian highway. As many people were covering the country by campervan, generally heading either north or south, we would be covering the country by foot, taking side trips to see the sights. Sometimes, we did need to hitchhike, but in general, we would make our way north by foot, using the TA.
We decided to skip any tedious road walks we could, opting to spend our days on trail rather than pavement. We made side trips to see Milford Sound, take a hike up to Mueller Hut for an awesome view of Mount Cook, and explore another Great Walk, the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. On the North Island, we hiked and canoed many sections of the TA, but skipped many long road stretches. Here, much of the “trail,” oftentimes a road shoulder, is so urban that camping for free is simply not an option.
Along the way, we decided to volunteer with the Department of Conservation, and spent time doing so on two pest-free islands near Auckland—Motuora Island and Tiritiri Matangi. These islands are home to many endangered birds, including the famous kiwi, of which we saw two species during our stay. These opportunities were some of the highlights of our trip.
As we used the TA for our “thru-journey” of New Zealand, it made me think about Benton Mackaye, and his original vision for the Appalachian Trail. In conceiving the Appalachian Trail, he wanted to create a sort of pedestrian highway system running the length of the East Coast with side trails feeding into it. Unsurprisingly, he was also an advocate for building “townless highway systems.” Only six months ago, we finished hiking the Benton Mackaye Trail, and his vision had stuck with and resonated with me.
After four months hiking (or “tramping” as they call it in New Zealand) across two islands, I have decided that I love the idea of a “thru-journey”—a deliberate usage of a long-distance trail in order to thoroughly explore a country without being married to the trail itself; an opportunity to truly see the sights along the way in case this is the one and only chance in your life to visit this country. In the end, 15% of the distance we hiked in New Zealand was not on the TA, but many of the the side trips we took were the highlights of our New Zealand thru-journey.
Christine Martens and John Haffner are outdoor enthusiasts who have hiked several long distance trails, including the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. They call Asheville, North Carolina their home, where they’ve worked as hiking guides for Blue Ridge Hiking Company in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Learn more about their adventures on their blog, Instagram, and Facebook.