I had been in New Zealand for maybe 36 hours. After a long sleep to try and recover from some jetlag, I made my way out onto the streets of Queenstown and sat down in a cute cafe. A few minutes later, there in the line were some textbook thru-hikers — the Hyperlite packs, the trail runners, the dirt and grime. I went over and asked them, “Te Araroa?” They said yes, how did I know? We chatted for a second, and I asked if they knew anything about my friend Captain Jack, who was doing Te Araroa at the time and with whom I had shared many miles on the PCT and the CDT. The two lit up upon hearing Jack’s name and told me they were not far behind on trail, and would be pulling into town either that night or the next day.
I sent Jack a message, letting them know I was in Queenstown, and they responded, saying they would start running the rest of their way into town. Typical Jack. I met up with them later for some drinks and a good night with a few of their new trail friends. We started making plans to meet up again further down the trail.
That’s how I ended up doing the last 42 miles of Te Araroa, New Zealand’s 3,000 km long trail, with Jack and their trail family. I met up with the crew in Riverton, and over the next two days we would walk from there to Invercargill to Bluff.
Left to right: Susie, Pia, Tom, Joe, Liv, Jack
The trail family consisted of:
- Jack, a seasoned thru-hiker from North Carolina
- Liv, a Swedish social worker and “Lord of The Rings” devotee
- Tom, an unerringly friendly Kiwi from Auckland’s suburbs
- Pia, an anesthesiologist from Germany with an adventurous streak
- Joe, another Kiwi, part of the New Zealand Army and a contemporary renaissance man
- Susie, a cheery Australian with a great knack for finding helpful trail angels
Trail names are not yet a common convention on Te Araroa. I felt this was a tragedy, but I was glad for the new friends. Over our three days and four nights together, these people took me in like I had walked the entire trail with them. They treated me like I was family, and welcomed me to Aotearoa with humor and joy. I’ve taken their advice to help you with your Te Araroa planning.
The ideal start for SOBOs weather-wise on Te Araroa is early October to late November. NOBOs are more likely to start in December or January. Most people will spend around 4-5 months hiking, with the trail spanning around 3,000 kilometers, (1,864 miles).
Liv enjoyed her December start, even though it was considered somewhat late for a SOBO hike. She took many zeros, and still didn’t have to stress much to stay within the weather window. There are plenty of roadwalks on the North Island, and it’s not unheard of to simply hitchhike, get those over with, and save some time.
There are many reasons to not start in peak season — 90% of hikers go from the North Island to South Island. A slightly earlier or later start can save hikers trouble in finding cheap accommodations in town and beds in New Zealand’s many huts. Especially when the NOBO and SOBO bubbles overlap, it can get a little crowded on trail. Pia said that she ran into a maximum of 20 hikers a day at her high point of social activity on trail, though she heard in true peak season you may see as many as 30-50 other hikers a day.
By the time this crew finished, April 15, it was getting mighty cold again. Some of the passes were beginning to catch some snow, which can always be dicey.
Bring a Garmin or similar beacon for this long-distance trail. There are a lot of remote sections. Of course, look out for cars on the North Island road walks. When you get further south, there’s a system of backcountry huts, almost all of which have an intentions book. Write your name, where you're headed, and at what time you left. You write in every hut you pass even if you aren’t staying, so potential search parties have as much information as possible.
With that in mind, there’s one paramount Te Araroa safety consideration that everyone in this trail family mentioned: the river crossings.
The term 'New Zealand Disease' refers to drowning. Te Araroa river crossings are no joke. People drown every year in the New Zealand backcountry. The rivers here can rise suddenly, becoming murky and powerful. One girl that Joe met along the way tried to cross the Otuhake river when it was surging, and was swept away. Trapped underneath the water by her pack, she had to unstrap herself and shrug it off to surface. Being a former professional swimmer, she managed to make it back to shore. Liv herself had a close call during a crossing too.
If you’re even a little unsure, don’t cross. Wait for others to join you and do it together. Pia felt that buddying up actually made it a lot of fun. Another option is to simply wait out the heavy rains in a hut. Tom spent a day stuck in a hut, and Joe spent three days in a hut waiting out cyclone Gabriel. He also had to consider the knife edge that was next for him along the trail, and the 110km/hr winds that made it impassable. He had three days on half rations and read the entire Lord of The Rings trilogy on his Kindle.
Like with any backpacking trail, there will also just be some inconveniences to contend with. Te Araroa likes to send you straight up and down the mountains — not many switchbacks to be seen. The quality of the trail itself varies quite a bit too. Then there’s the mud of the Longwood section, just before Riverton. There will be full days of walking through mud, and a lot of rain on this trail. “Dry feet is not a thing on TA, so don’t go for Gore Tex,” says Liv.
A final piece of advice: watch out for the wekas, mischievous flightless birds, on the Queen Charlotte Track.
The Beach to Invercargill
On our first day hiking together, I tried to spend some time talking to everyone in the group. Many of them reminisced about 90 Mile Beach, the first section of TA back on the North Island.
We tried to think of trail names, and a few even fit: “Zinc” for Liv and her excessive need for sun protection, “Teddy” for Tom, just because it fit, and “Little Gaiter Boy” for Joe and the gaiters to which he was devoted. The perfect trail name for Pia eluded us. We kept up a good pace and laughed loud and often. We stopped and ate lunch. Some of us recited poetry. The air felt clean.
The Lowdown on Trips to Town
Every thru-hiker just wants to be told before their trip, where do I need to send resupply boxes? Here’s a nice, definitive answer for you:
- St. Arnaud–there’s a cafe and a small shop, but it’s expensive.
- Arthurs Pass–another expensive shop that is often closed.
- Boyle River–no shop here, send a package or hitch to Hanmer Springs.
Pia recommends a food box to Pylorus Bridge, too; though you could also resupply in Havelock or hitch to Hamilton from there.
Pia also mentioned that it’s best to come fully outfitted with your Te Araroa gear. There is plenty of local, high-quality gear available, but affordable equipment can be hard to find. You will need to clean certain items before customs — especially your tent and your shoes — to make sure you’re not bringing invasive species or foreign seeds into New Zealand’s delicate ecosystem.
New Zealand culture is very friendly to thru-hikers, and hitching is generally safe and often easy. Te Araroa trail angels may expect “koha” — essentially a donation to show gratitude, so be prepared to contribute to the gift economy.
Most of my new hiking companions mentioned the town of Methven as being especially friendly to hikers. Wellington and Wanaka are also favorites of TA hikers and regular tourists alike. You’ll have to pay to camp quite often on the North Island.
Holiday parks are some of the most common Te Araroa accommodations. For a bed, especially as part of a group, the pricing is OK. However, tent sites are rather expensive. And, unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to charge for wifi at holiday parks.
Hotel rooms vary a lot by how touristy the towns are, anywhere from $35 NZD to $200+ NZD.
If you’re restocking in town, no Te Araroa resupply is complete without Whitaker’s Chocolate. They’re huge, hearty blocks of chocolate with all sorts of flavors.
New Zealand’s ubiquitous meat pies are a fantastic feature of hiking on the islands as well. You’ll find them hot and ready to eat at gas stations, bakeries, and grocery stores.
Hut, Hut, Hike!
I’ve mentioned the hut system already, but it’s worth some details. They’re available throughout the South Island and a little bit of the North Island. They’re far nicer than the AT shelters back home. They’re actual huts with four walls, bunks and often a fireplace. You’ll find some that are historic and more primitive, while others are insulated, spacious, and shockingly comfortable.
You’ll need to purchase hut passes from the Department of Conservation — nightly, six month, or annual passes are available. Huts in popular areas — especially around New Zealand’s Great Walks — may require additional fees beyond your regular pass.
This should be obvious, but it bears emphasis: leave the huts as good or better than you find them. It is your responsibility to restock any firewood you burn; this can include foraging wood from standing dead trees or the forest floor around you. Sweep the floor as you leave and lean the mattresses against the wall to air out.
Joe was especially passionate about preserving historic huts, and would like to point out that many of them are living memorials to the folks that built New Zealand’s trails. He was sad to see them defaced with graffiti and to hear other hikers complaining about their quality. Respect for these spaces and knowledge of local customs is important. He pointed to this great resource to learn everything from hut etiquette to river safety.
Top row left to right: Tom, Jack, Pia, Susie. Bottom row, left to right: Liv, Joe.
The last day involved a roadwalk out of Invercargill, but when we got to the big ‘Bluff’ sign, we climbed up a hill through some farmland. We looked out onto the Pacific Ocean and down onto town. There was a beautiful final stretch through a patch of the rich forest that covers so much of Aotearoa. Then we descended, and there was the yellow signpost where the hike ended, the southern terminus.
I watched everyone laugh and hug and take their pictures with the sign. They popped champagne and felt every ounce of deserved pride at what they’d accomplished.
On at least three separate occasions during her hike, Susie wanted to walk away, but she didn’t. She kept going back.
It was a culmination of six years of planning for Liv, or maybe a dream 18 years in the making, with her two respective great loves in life: hiking and Lord of The Rings.
Joe felt unplugging into the mountains had done a lot for him. Pia was leaving with unforgettable memories and trust in herself.
Tom felt changed. The experience connected him to his country and the land on a deeper level than he had expected. He had seen the tops of the mountains where the water gathered, forming a trickle, then a stream. He had come to relate more fully to the Māori understanding that we belong to the land, and it is our job to care for it as it cares for us.
After celebrating for one more night and one more day, the time came to part ways. My old friend Jack was off to the PCT where we’d first met, planning to run as much of it as they could.
The group hugged and teared up and said goodbye to their deep friendships and their romances.
I knew they were in the midst of a beginning.
Matthew Kok is an essayist, a poet, a traveler, and absolutely in love with the world outside. They are currently operating out of Manapouri, a little town in Aotearoa–South Island, New Zealand. You can find them curled up with Stormy the housecat or cooking up big, elaborate breakfasts late in the morning. You can also find them on Instagram at @matt.kok