Day 1 : Cape Reinga – Twilight Beach campsite (12.2 km / 7.6 mi | Total: 12.2 km / 7.6 mi)
Day 2 : Twilight Beach Campsite – Maunganui Bluff campsite (27.9 km / 17.3 mi | Total: 40.1 km / 24.9 mi)
Day 3 : Maunganui Bluff campsite – Utea Park (29.3 km / 18.2 mi | Total: 69.4 km / 43.1 mi)
Day 4 : Utea Park – Ahipara (31.7 km / 19.7 mi | Total: 101.1 km / 62.8 mi))
Day 5 : Zero day
Nov 9 – Nov 13
Total days: 5 | Walking days: 4
Section distance: 101.1 km / 62.8 mi
Average distance per day: 25.3 km / 17.5 mi
Total distance : 101.1 km / 62.8 mi
The first time the tidal wave hit me, I was running along the beach, trying to get to the next rocky section when suddenly the lashing of water hit. I held on to one of the black rocks while the water momentarily overwhelmed everything around me, until it pulled back into the sea. Then I ran, my eyes locked on the waves. Their movement was like a song of nature, coming closer and pulling away again. I watched them grow violently and stopped to wait for them to calm. I held on to the black craggy stones until an opening appeared and once again I ran. But this time, it went wrong.
I’d been on the trail for less than an hour and a half. The first hour and a half into a five month, 3,000 kilometre trail running the length of New Zealand. I’d just taken my picture at Cape Reinga to mark the start of this journey, and I was at the very start of the first section that would lead to the 90 Mile Beach. I wasn’t expecting anything particularly challenging, although walking hundreds of kilometres through forests and over mountain passes through all sorts of conditions was bound to test my limits at some point: ultimately, something was likely to go wrong.
Before the TA, I had found myself on a few scary sidles and a somewhat terrifying mountain ridge that required scrambling quite beyond my skill set. I’d faced torrential glacial rivers and I’d been followed by a brown bear. I’d been in several trying situations before, but so far I’d been fine.
In case of the mountain ridge, I made the choice to turn back. In case of the glacial river, I ran across a daunting snow bridge and the bear, the bear I lost by making a lot of noise and slowly moving backwards until I was able to run. But the sea, the sea I did not know. The tides, I did not know. And in that moment, I knew that everything was very wrong. In that moment I was quite sure I could die.
I don’t recall when it happened. I remember running along the rocks, and I remember the moment of suddenly being loose off the ground and floating aimlessly, powerless in the water, surrounded completely and solely by sea. I was preparing for the current to pull me back with it, and I was preparing to, if I’d come up, to swim. To swim for my life.
The next moment, I fell onto the saturated sand below. The wave had retreated and had left me on the beach. I was alive. It took all my strength to pull my body up, heavy with fear and exhaustion and wet gear, and run across the remaining rocks to the small beach ahead.
I quickly threw off my pack, panting hard and terrified, while the next wave soon engulfed the beach in its tide. I only just managed to grab my pack before it was pulled back into the sea once more. With barely a moment to catch my breath, I couldn’t believe it when I watched two tourists emerge from the overgrown hilltop above the crashing waves and walk onto the beach, smiling, utterly oblivious to my near brush with death. I had been told the trail was overgrown and impassable. Clearly, a trail was there. The carefree couple appeared to walk on clouds and managed to dance along in their jeans, staying dry despite the turbulent waves. I was entirely befuddled. I kept going and struggled to dodge the water while they moved ahead effortlessly. I hated them.
After my paralysing start, I was eager to catch up with the two other hikers I knew were ahead. I wasn’t used to hiking and sharing such a long journey with others, but I’d already realised it wasn’t going to be difficult to meet people on the TA. In fact, I met my first fellow hiker after only just arriving at Auckland airport, when I’d passed through security and was waiting to retrieve my tent from biosecurity screening.
This is when I met Just Drew (Passing Through – yes, that is a trail name!) An American hailing from Hawaii, a man in his early sixties planning on thruhiking the TA, just like me. We stayed at the same hostel and took the bus up to Kaitaia, where several other hikers were also finding their way up to the trailhead. Tim from Canada, and some others I would never see again. From Kaitaia, getting to the trailhead offered limited options. It was another 100 kilometres which you could either hitch or book a tourist bus that tours up the 90 Mile Beach all the way to Cape Reinga. I’d planned to book the bus for the next day, but after some hesitation, joined Just Drew and hitched up to the very odd Hukatere Lodge for the night. The next morning we struggled to hitch ahead, but ultimately made it all the way to the official start of the trail, Cape Reinga.
It was almost midday when we arrived. We both took some pictures with the signpost until I hurried off to start on my own. As I left, Tim approached, and after receiving some encouragements from tourists around us, I began the trail.
Cape Reinga was beautiful. The views were marvellous with a bright sky and waves pristine blue and white. The vegetation was a lush green. It was a beautiful day to start the trail. I followed an easy path down and soon busied myself taking many, many pictures. I wasn’t long before Just Drew and Tim had both overtaken me.
As I approached the first beach, Te Wehari, two women approached me. They were daytrippers. The tide is coming in, they cold me, but it shouldn’t be a problem to get past the first rocky beach. Just pay attention to the waves, they said. Learn its rhythm. Wait for the large one to hit, and then run across the section as the water retreats. There was a trail on the hillside above the rocks, but they insisted it was too overgrown to take. You’d be walking on top of thick, tough shrub, they repeated, so continue along the shore.
And so I did, watching Just Drew and Tim slowly disappear into the distance, making it past the growing waves just in time. After I got hit by the tidal wave, I found myself in a feverish rush to get through the sections ahead. All I wanted was to get to the end of the day. All I wanted was to find the others. I was too anxious to stop and check my gear, but I pulled out my phone and realised it had died in the salty water. This didn’t bode well. My phone was my navigation system. No phone meant no maps, no GPS and nothing but a rough gamble as to whether I was on the right trail. The worst thing was that I wasn’t able to take any pictures. Being on the trail felt meaningless now.
It felt like I’d been walking for hours when I finally caught up with Just Drew and Tim. I saw them on the opposite side of a large stream meeting the sea. The water was deep and the stream wide, and I was apprehensive to ford it. Water was not my friend. I’d become scared of the sea so close, but I was happy to be surrounded by people again. I was determined not to loose sight of them for the rest of the day.
Once across, I told Just Drew and Tim my story but couldn’t quite convey how terrifying that moment had been. Just Drew had also been hit by a big wave, but made it out all right. Now that I’d caught up with the guys, I hoped to finally get some rest. Unfortunately they were on a different schedule and moved on quickly, so I stuck with them. I didn’t want to be alone.
We hiked together that day, up over the pink sandy headland, sections of beach and told stories of what we did and where we’d been. For the first time, I got a sense of what it’s like to have a trail community.
When we reached Twilight Beach campsite it was still early, but we were all happy to rest for the night. I was relieved this day was over. I was finally able to check what had happened to everything inside my pack, and was surprised to find most of it wasn’t completely wet. Damp, and horribly sticky, but not saturated, apart from my down jacket. Everything was covered in a layer of sand. I cleaned my things with water from the tank and charged my phone using my battery pack which miraculously sprang to life. For a moment my worries dissolved. With my phone working, everything was going to be fine again. My relief didn’t last: I switched off the device to let it dry, and it never came back to life.
Several other hikers arrived that night. We were a party of five. Just Drew, Canadian Tim and René from Switzerland. There was Joachim from Sweden who I’d never see again after the 90 Mile Beach. He was section hiking part of the North Island, and had limited time.
That night I got my first animal visit. Something that looked like large mouse was scurrying around my vestibule in the dark. An official welcome to the trail.
The next day I woke to an early morning scattering of rain and clouds. I could already hear people move about. When I finished breakfast and peeked out of my tent it had dried, and I was the only one left in camp. Shit, I thought, and I hurried to get going. I felt abandoned, and scared to face the trail and the sea on my own. I had no idea if I could make it to the next campsite before the tide came in early afternoon, or I’d have to wait in the dunes for the water levels to go down. So I urged on, something I would find myself doing a lot over the next few days.
From the campsite the path followed an inland section with lush vegetation that reminded me of the trails in the Southwest national park in Tasmania. I was desperate to document all this and take pictures, but I’d lost that opportunity to the sea. It would be another two days before I was able to get to a town and hopefully an electronics shop. At this point, I didn’t even have a clue as to where in New Zealand that would be.
After a short hike I made it to the start of the 90 Mile Beach (which is actually 55 miles, or 88 kilometres). Endless views stretched out ahead of me. The sand of the beach merged with the skies ahead, with high dunes on one side, and the rising sea on the other, the sea that absolutely terrified me.
Now all I had to do was walk. Without the means to know where I was or how long I still had to go, the days along the beach felt immensely long. That first day I was slow and I rushed to follow the footsteps in the sand ahead of me, before they were lost forever by the incoming tide. Those footsteps were the only thing that gave me comfort. Knowing that the guys were ahead of me, that I wasn’t alone and that I was still walking in the right direction.
As the hours passed, the water moved close. I feared for a sudden rush of waves and I moved to the high dunes, dipping in and out, making slow progress on the beach and even slower progress in the dunes. When I finally reached a rocky bend next to a small island, I hurried across the inlet and made it across just before the water got too high. I found the campsite right behind it and everyone was present. I’d made it. I crawled into my tent for the second night – my trusty tent from my first hike around Tasmania, and I finally felt like I’d come home.
It took another two days to finish the beach section. The wind was strong and I was cold, wearing all my layers while everyone else felt the warmth of the sun behind thin clouds. I overlapped with the others and soon began to feel bored in the monotony of the views and the wind lashing my face head on. The closer I got to Ahipara, the busier it got on the wide beach, with endless cars driving up and down, parking on the sand. I was glad when I finally walked into the small town of Ahipara, even though I didn’t have a clue as to where to go. With a stroke of luck found the Holiday Park, where everyone else had set up for the day.
I took the next day off and went on a mission to find a new phone. I took the bus to Kaitaia with Tim and René. In town, René treated us to coffee, and I had the best warm breakfast cake ever. It was strange to be off trail and in a town again. After the usual stop at the outdoor store, I headed to Noel Leeming to get myself a new phone. At last! I would be able to navigate and take pictures again. I was hugely relieved. When everything was sorted I resupplied at the Pak’n’Save. I was finally ready for the next hurdle of the TA: The Muddy Forests.