Day 10 : DOC Puketi campsite – Kerikeri (25 km / 15.5 mi | Total: 224 km / 139.2 mi)
Day 11 : Zero day
Day 12 : Kerikeri – Paihia (24 km / 14.9 mi | Total: 248 km / 154.1 mi)
Day 13 : Paihia – Oakura (37 km / 23 mi | Total: 285 km / 177.1 mi)
Day 14 : Oakura – Sandy Bay Metapouri (38 km / 23.6 mi | Total: 323 km / 200.7 mi) (actual distance walked: 53.5 km / 33.2 mi)
Day 15 : Sandy Bay Metapouri – Ngunguru / Nikau campsite (19 km / 11.8 mi | Total: 342 km / 212.5 mi) (actual distance walked: 15 km / 9.3 mi)
Nov 18 – Nov 23
Total days: 6 | Walking days: 5
Section distance: 143 km / 88.9 mi (official trail miles only)
Average distance per day: 28.6 km / 17.8 mi (official trail miles only)
Total distance : 342 km / 212.5 mi
After the 90 Mile Beach and the Muddy Forests, the Te Araroa settled into its typical north island behaviour. Each day the trail would take me though a variety of beaches, farmland, 4wd backroads, forest tracks and roads: a collection of everything and nothing in specific. There were nice bits, and many forgettable bits, all short and somewhat interchangeable. But I was about to create my own drama for a couple of days. And this is what happened.
The first day out of Puketi Forest was utterly miserable. After all the muddy trails, the skies had opened and the easy day hike to Kerikeri turned to wretchedness in a torrential downpour. Everything was grey and sodden and it didn’t take long before I was soaking wet.
I was last to leave the DOC campground but soon passed everyone ahead of me. The day moved through farmland, covered in cow shit and bumpy from their heavy hoofs sinking through the ground, twisting my ankles over and over. It was a struggle to find the markers and simply walk. I watched Tim jump across a wet patch, only to find himself swimming in a ditch. Shortly after, he electrocuted himself on one of the many electric fences. There was nothing enjoyable about this section.
By the time I passed Bea, the route moved us out of the farmland and meandered through perfectly manicured gardens and a touristy river walk. When I reached Kerikeri we were desperate to stay in a dry room, but they were all taken. With no other choice, we all ended up at the holiday park, where I set up my tent in the rain.
I soon got into the swing of thing, doing laundry and eating food. I was planning to take a day off, just like the others, but then I managed to ruin it all. I lost my Spot. I’d left the device on the grass a little away from my tent to signal my location and someone took it. To be fair, I’d left in on the grass for about 8 hours because I’d entirely forgotten about it, and when I finally remembered around midnight, someone had taken it. I had no idea what I was going to do if I didn’t get it back. This was my safety device. I needed it. I drew posters in a frenzy, urging the finder to return it and put them up in the bathrooms.
The next morning I desperately asked reception and confronted random people to see if they had spotted it, to no avail. Luckily I was in town for another day so I had a chance to have it returned. Apart from my worries over the Spot, Kerikeri was actually a nice little town. I had the best breakfast on trail here, and I spent the day with my friend Lucy from London, who had moved to Kerikeri some time before. It was great to see her new life so far from home. But I couldn’t get the Spot out of my mind. What would I do if I didn’t get it back? Wait? Go to the police? Buy a new one? When I came back to the campsite late that evening, I found the Spot in my vestibule. I couldn’t believe my luck. It was returned!
The next day I continued the trail to the town of Paihia. It was warm again and I followed pleasant gravel roads through forests for most of the day. Paihia is quite a popular trail town although I couldn’t understand why – it was much too busy and touristy. I met up with Bea and we hoped to set up our tents at a backpackers but no one at reception ever showed up. We ended up at the YHA with everyone one else once again. The good thing was that it meant we could all organise the boat trip across the Waikare Outlet together. The first of quite a few forced North Island boat crossings that the TA would throw at us.
Finding a company that would take us across proved a bit of ordeal. We got so desperate that René came up with the hilarious idea to hire a helicopter to take us across – the only problem being that it couldn’t land. But we found someone willing and the next morning, we enjoyed a lovely boat ride across the inlet, following the orange DOC trail markers that were fixed to little poles in the midst of the mangroves in the water.
Once across, the trail turned into another accumulation of separate elements: a quiet road, a track and an unexpected wade through Papakauri Stream. A few kilometres of sauntering through the water, an easy walk apart from the slippery rocks that required some caution. I slipped and fell on a painful rock, but Tim, somehow, managed to complete the length in his flip flops. Once through we came together at a small open shelter where we rested for lunch. Tim stayed behind. His foot needed more rest, he didn’t want to push it.
The rest of us made it through the forest and another 8 kilometre roadwalk to Oakura, a small town off trail, next to the beach. The amount of road walking was taking its toll and my feet were killing me. When I arrived at the beach, I laid down and waited for Bea and René to catch up. Bea was the one who had found the campsite on the map, and we had all inadvertently started to follow her around.
I’d quickly realised she liked planning her days ahead. I was quite happy to just walk and see where I ended up each night, but there were a lot of camping restrictions and water crossings depending on boats and tides and calling companies or random people to get us across. It was quite nice to have someone else around to do it all with.
The next day, everything fell to pieces.
René set off early. He liked set his alarm around five and leave shortly after. Just Drew wasn’t far behind. I waited for the sun to wake me and said goodbye to Bea. At 7:30 I was on my way back to the main road to continue the trail. I fiddled with my phone to select some music. As I tapped on Justin Bieber, my phone froze, clearly in disagreement. I tried to go back, switch off my phone but nothing happened, until the screen went black by itself. Then it overheated. It got so hot that I couldn’t touch it for about an hour.
When the phone finally cooled down, it wouldn’t turn on. I was at a loss what to do. I didn’t know if it would fire up again, or if it was gone forever. Moreover, I didn’t know where to go. Everyone I knew was well ahead of me. Without a working phone, I had no maps or GPS. Following an official trail like the TA was quite a lazy thing to do: I merely followed the red line on the Guthook app and had little awareness of the towns around me. I only barely recalled the name of one of the trails I was supposed to hit today, the Morepork Track.
I had no other option but to continue walking. With any luck, I would be able to follow the trail markers until I caught up with someone I knew, who could help me find my way to a town if needed. I followed the road and only just about found the trail marker directing me to Helena Bay, but then the markers ceased. This was quite common on the North Island. Markers, notably outside of forest trails, were sometimes non-existent, or far and few between. Often they were just a bit too far from the road to spot. Without an inkling where to go, you’d be hard-pressed to find the signs signalling a turnoff. You’d be pretty screwed. And I was about to find out how much.
Without catching sight of our common orange markers, I could only assume the trail was continuing straight ahead. From Helena Bay I followed Webb Road uphill. A dog barked furiously at the start. I remember thinking the animal ought to be more used to hikers passing if this really was the trail. I kept moving up, increasingly worried. I saw no other hikers and there were hardly any cars. Unsure of everything, I hailed down a post lady who reassured me that walkers came in this direction. I mentioned the Morepork Track but she didn’t recognise it. Instead, she reckoned walkers turned down to Mimiwhangata Reserve. Perhaps the track was there.
The turnoff to Mimiwhangata Road lead to a remote bay area. Surely I was supposed to go inland. I hovered. I continued up the main road, then came back again. I wondered if I should stay and wait for a hiker to pass. Surely Tim was going to catch up today. But what if he didn’t? What if he’d had an early start, or had taken a rest day. He may never pass.
So I gambled and took to road down. By the time I thought I was very much in the wrong place, I’d gone too far to turn back. Then I spotted a trail with orange DOC markers. Was I back on the TA? I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that everything was going to be okay after all.
The trail was confusing. It forked in different directions and I took the trail right, then turned back and forked left instead. I jumped locked gates and walked through a field of intimidating cows. This wasn’t the TA. I climbed a fence and walked onto private property, rundown shacks along a downtrodden bay and found my way to the very end of a road: a wiggly ordeal of endless gravel which would lead me all the way to Whananaki.
In Whananaki I was finally surrounded by people again. I found a tourist map and spotted the Orange Man at the foot of a large pedestrian bridge. The Orange Man was another hiker I’d met at the Kerikeri campground. Finally someone I knew. He hadn’t seen the others, and I assumed they had continued down to the next town, Metapouri. The Orange Man showed me where the trail continued. Another 10 kilometres. I was exhausted by now, mentally and physically, but I could make it. I had to make it.
This is where I made my next mistake. I left the Orange Man behind to film the walk over the bridge, put in my earplugs and barged on, desperate to arrive in Metapouri as soon as possible.
The road walk was endlessly hilly. I waited for it to turn towards the sea as it was supposed to, but it didn’t. Instead it kept curving farther and farther away. I was desperate for it all to stop. Everything hurt. When I’d walked at least 10 kilometres I began to worry. Surely I hadn’t gone wrong again, surely I was just about to turn a corner and find myself in town?
But there was nothing. Just trees and a silent road until I hit a crossing with just a few buildings nearby. I checked the sign. ‘Metapouri 16 km’. I’d gone wrong. I’d gone wrong again. I felt so defeated that I considered hitchhiking to town, the one thing I didn’t want to do. But I was exhausted and far removed from the trail I was supposed to be on. I had failed. I wanted to cry.
My inner turmoil over whether or not to hitchhike was soon resolved. No cars passed at all. I had no choice but to walk. When I made it close to Metapouri, I found TA markers again. I was somewhere. Close. Soon I passed the Sandy Bay campsite, a picnic area next to the beach with a small parking lot that allowed tourists to camp for one night. It seemed grim in the fading light, but I was happy with anything. I’d hoped to get into town but I couldn’t walk any further. I must’ve walked over 50 kilometres that day. Quite average for some, but well beyond my comfort zone.
I woke up early. My phone was still not responding and I knew I had to find a larger town, find a Noel Leeming store, where I’d originally bought the phone. I was determined to walk fast and catch the others before they reached Ngunguru, the next town ahead, where we’d have to cross another river by boat.
It was just after 9 when I reached Ngunguru. The road there was windy but pretty and the town was small. Several shops were strewn along the riverside road, but I didn’t see anyone, except for some locals. The shop owner told me I was the first hiker they’d seen that day. I wandered back and forth, aimlessly. Not knowing what to do I sat in a coffee shop and waited.
This is when I met Sunshine. I’d heard of a hiker called Sunshine being on trail, but I hadn’t met her yet. This girl looked like a Sunshine. She let me check the map on her phone and we soon realised the post lady the day before had unquestionably sent me in a very wrong direction. Even the route I had taken that morning hadn’t been the actual trail.
We found the nearest Noel Leeming store in Whangarei, which was nearby, but the trail didn’t pass through, as I’d hoped. I had no option but to hitch. I left my oversized walking stick on a bench – the stick I’d picked up just before the Muddy Forests and which I’d grown strikingly emotionally attached to. The moment I stuck up my thumb, a man wearing a wife beater passed and stopped.
Shortly after I got dropped off right in front of Noel Leeming. It was perfect. The store manager didn’t seem too worried about restarting my phone, until it failed. When I returned a little later, he informed me I’d had the simple misfortune of receiving what they call a brick: a faulty device. And apparently, a device so faulty that he pretty much told me not to count on getting any of my files recovered. A cruel fact as I hadn’t saved any of my pictures. Everything from the trail so far was lost: I had no pictures of the beach, and now I’d lost all the shots I’d taken in the muddy forests. It was all gone and there was nothing I could do. They handed me a new phone and send me on my way.
It took a long walk in the burning sun to get to the road where I hitched out of town. I made it back to Ngunguru where I quickly picked up my stick. Finally I called James, who ferried hikers across the river for a fee and owned a camping ground on the other side.
When he showed me where I could pitch my tent, I recognised all of the shelters already there. I couldn’t quite believe it. I’d expected everyone to be well ahead by now. I told them my crazy story and learned they had stayed in Whananaki the night before. They hadn’t gone to Metapouri at all. In fact, they arrived in Whananaki only about thirty minutes after I had left. The Orange Man was there as well, and told me he had almost gone the wrong way just like me, and had watched me disappear in the far distance. I’d never been so happy to see the people I knew. It was interesting to see how this trail and our experiences were creating some strong bonds. And now that I was back, I was ready for Round Three.