By: Dahn Pratt
Get tough for Bluff. As I scrawled these words on the wall of the rec room of the Stillwater Holiday Park, I felt like a vandal—even though we were encouraged by the owners to place a message on the walls. In an ironic twist of fate, my mettle would be tested mere hours later as I got swept away in a tidal estuary crossing.
You have to compartmentalize every facet of the hike if you’re ever going to complete a thru-hike, and that was precisely my goal. Bluff was the southern terminus of the infamously wicked Te Araroa, and I was only about two weeks into the rugged and mentally exhausting trail.
Along the 3,000km of unrelenting challenges, Te Araroa taught me a unique way of dealing with a long distance hike. It wasn’t so much a “Get tough for Bluff” mindset. Instead, the endless hardships that await you on each new stretch of this 4-month tramp need to be subject to a mantra that borders on formalistic. My preferred method was triple-pronged. Often, and I mean often, I found myself seriously exhausted, not so much physically, but mentally. The mental toll of Te Araroa, specifically, or any long hike, more generally, can’t be overstated. Decision-fatigue, trail conditions, obstacles, and challenges that zap motivation have to be approached with a kind of monastic calm.
My methodology is as follows:
Seems simple, but the decision tree warrants some unpacking.
Photo: The multifaceted, ever-changing terrain of the Te Araroa. One minute you’re on a flat beach walk, the next you’re scrambling up a mountain.
Many times—countless times, infinity + one times—you will be frustrated on a long distance hike. If you’re battling wits with Te Araroa, you can multiply the aforementioned count by the number of sand flies you’ll encounter (spoiler alert: it’s a lot). New Zealand is anything but tame. It’s not called hiking here, it’s called tramping (and for good reason). Trail conditions are varied and tough. Slips, mud, stream and river crossings, post-holing in bog or snow, cross-country boulder scrambling, and all manners of “not really hiking” are features of this trail. Te Araroa will quickly test your resolve.
Quick anecdote: the first part of a southbound “thru-tramp” is called Ninety Mile Beach. People pretty much unanimously hate this part for its unending monotony and blister-ensuring repetitiveness. I quite liked it, actually, but the three proceeding forests quickly humbled me. Hip-high sludge, mud-skiing down treacherous slips, and all matter of slow going through overgrowth and overuse quickly made me question my sanity. In fact, I questioned whether completion was even possible.
Frustration is part of the game, it’ll happen early, and it will happen often. It’s how you react that will dictate the outcome.
Photo: Glorious mud.
On a long walk, you simply can’t bring “everything, but the kitchen sink.” God knows I’ve tried. Mitigating discomfort, frustration, or sucky situations is oftentimes simply not possible when living a minimalist lifestyle. This step is so important and so difficult. Embrace.
You will be frustrated—a lot. You need to learn to accept that, or at the very least cope with it. Being uncomfortable is the very nature of this challenge. Can you laugh when you fall on your ass and cover yourself with smelly mud? Can you muster up the courage to smile when impending dark clouds bring a week’s worth of rain? A majority of the factors on a thru-hike are simply out of your control. How you choose to accept them—or deny them, if that’s your defense mechanism—is tantamount to finishing.
Photo: Embracing mid-summer snowfall on steep spurs.
“Embracing the suck” is a really good start, but you can only pound your head against a wall for so long before you have a bloody stump (excuse the gory metaphor).
Adaptation is a crucial next phase if you want to continue with your mission. No matter how meticulous your planning, you will need to change course at some point. Being flexible can make a big difference, but adapting isn’t as simple as being flexible. Oftentimes, on a long hike you need to fundamentally change what or who you are at your core. That’s what true adaptation is.
Anecdotally, if you’ve hiked 2,000 km straight without taking a zero (rest day) and all of a sudden a cyclone has imprisoned you in a tiny backcountry hut for 4 days, you need to change core behaviors.
Photo: On this particular day, the trail started as a series of stream fording (at least 100) and ended with a stretch of arid plains.
Once you’ve noticed you’re frustrated, embraced that concept instead of letting it discourage you, and changed your behavior to thwart the emotional response, the last step is to simply allow the previous two steps to run their course. Patience is tough when one is eager to overcome the challenges or obstacles of the trail. Patience is necessary when walking through 125km of pure agonizing mud on the North West Circuit of a subarctic island. It is also necessary for having the fortitude to cross a braided river valley prone to flash flooding. Or when walking 800km of miserable road. All of these are possibilities if you’re on Te Araroa.
Note: While Stewart Island is not officially part of Te Araroa, I decided finishing my hike with an anticlimactic roadwalk to Bluff simply wouldn’t do, and tacked on the North West Circuit.
Photo: Beauty awaits the patient.
Dahn Pratt is a hiking savant, bordering on other spectrums, who is attempting a 10,000-mile continuous thru-hike, zig-zagging from the North to South Hemisphere in perpetual summer.