It was a cloud infested morning when Dad and I said goodbye to the Scottish and Israeli trampers. We all knew it was most likely for the last time. They were much (much) faster than we were. With only 180 or so trampers on Te Araroa, you’re not just finding a kindred spirit when you cross paths with a fellow thru-hiker. Though our experiences and tales from the trail couldn’t be more different, we all have one thing in common: we are doing something so all-encompassing, so demanding that no one will truly understand what it was like unless they’ve been there themselves.
Te Araroa sets you apart. In some ways, we will never really be off the trail.
We met our first thru-hiker in the sunny coastal town of Paihia. The German’s Achilles was swollen and bruised, a typical war wound from Ninety Mile Beach. Then along came a farmer who grew all her own food and dehydrated it with spices and herbs—what wonderful news to hear when you’ve been eating ramen for last five days. Later we met a quiet Frenchman (except when he snored), three very enthusiastic filmmakers from Germany, a horde of Appalachian Trail veterans, two striking Brits who stepped forth from the pages of Outside, and the inescapable, uber-cool ultra-lighters. I’ve lost track of the number of Americans out here. There’s a smattering of Dutch and German walkers, the odd French tramper, not many Aussies (though I hear they’re about), a couple of Canadians, and not a single kiwi!
Then there are the thru-hikers you wish you’d met: the young writers from Ireland (the Urchins have a thing for Irish writers, after all), the first woman to run the trail, a young man who built his own gear and lived off the land, the guy who ran the trail in flimsy things resembling flip-flops, the guitar player who neglected to bring a map and caused a massive search-and-rescue mission. At times, we couldn’t have been more than a day apart in some forest and never known it.
But we know a fellow thru-hiker when we see one. It’s not hard to pick us out of a crowd. Hawkishly searching for food, our legs muddy and scratched, trekking poles in hand we tend to have an exhausted yet focused look about us. Generally we’re looking for a shower and a bed. And ice cream, of course.
Ask a thru-hiker why they are here, and you’ll get 180 different answers. Or perhaps none at all. Perhaps by the time they’ve reached you, they’ve already forgotten what drove them from home, across the Pacific or the Atlantic or the Tasman, to some distant island in an empty sea, to walk, to trudge, to crawl (yes, at times) for five to six months of their lives.
Some are searching for something. Others are forgetting. Some like the challenge. Others like the sense of self-worth. Some take it too seriously. And others don’t take it seriously enough. Some walk the roads. Others don’t. Some like to boast the integrity of their thru-hike, while others whinge and ask for ‘their money back.’
At one hut, I watched two thru-hikers feel each other out. Who is the fastest, most amazing, most-most tramper in the room?
‘So, when did you start the trail?’
‘Oh, wow, we started the 12th.’
‘When did you start this section?’
‘Two days ago.’
‘Oh, okay, I started yesterday.’
‘We took a lot of breaks.’
‘Yeah, me too.’
And then you have the reverse. Who is the slowest one here?
‘You’ll catch us.’
‘No, I’m pretty slow.’
‘So am I.’
‘I bet I’m slower.’
I’ve lost count of the number of times Dad and I have been passed. Sometimes repeatedly by the same people. I don’t know how it happens. We are the tortoises of the trail, and the hares have passed us long ago. Although, the fastest hare pulled up short with injury at the halfway point. What would Aesop say!
The trail is not perfect. But then, what is? The Te Araroa has its host of blind defenders. And its fair share of hard-nosed critics. In the end, neither side hears the other because doing so would compromise their experience, their memories, their meaning. And this had to have had meaning. Why else would we turn our status quo on its head, invert our lives into the upside-down Southern Hemisphere, living in a state of semi-homelessness in the wild? Will we return to civilisation like Abbey from the desert? Or will this be no more than a slew of tagged photos on Facebook?
Whatever it is these thru-hikers retain from this experience, you can be sure it’s as different as the reasons they’re here. Though we are all headed to Bluff, have stepped in each other’s muddy boot prints, and fell in the same holes, we all have our own trail and our own stories. I guess that’s just life.