Day 16 : Nugunguru – Pataua South / Treasure Island campsite (24 km / 14.9 mi | Total: 368 km / 228.7 mi)
Day 17 : Treasure Island campsite – Te Whara Track (22 km / 13.7 mi | Total: 390 km / 242.3 mi)
Day 18 : Te Whara Track – Waipu (30 km / 18.6 mi | Total: 420 km / 261 mi)
Day 19 : Waipu – Mangawhai (36 km / 22.4 mi | Total: 456 km / 283.3 mi)
Day 20 : Zero day
Nov 24 – Nov 28
Total days: 5 | Walking days: 4
Section distance: 114 km / 70.8 mi
Average distance per day: 28.5 km / 17.7 mi
Total distance : 456 km / 283.3 mi
‘Trail name or real name?’
That was my reply whenever another hiker asked for my name, those first few weeks on trail. Trail names are a funny thing. Some hikers are keen on them, some not so much. They’re a typically American aspect of long-distance hiking and although you can’t take it too seriously, the idea behind it is actually quite nice.
At its most basic, it’s an easier way to remember people’s names. Call them by something they did, or a physical aspect that stands out, and you’re bound to recall Happy Feet better than you will Lisa. There’s another angle that’s a bit more interesting: the idea of leaving behind normal life, the daily grind of work and rest and work and rest with all of today’s societal expectations shaping you into the person you are, with a life that has inadvertently formed around your choices.
I see it like this: hiking a long-distance trail provides a sense of freedom, and taking on a new name gives you the space to free yourself of all those ties you’ve created in your life. Now you can find out who you really are. In practise though, trail names aren’t all that deep and meaningful: they poke fun at your habits mostly, but that’s okay. That’s perhaps the best thing about trail names: they show you that you don’t have to take anything, including yourself, all that seriously.
On the TA, few people already had trail names from previous trails. Most others didn’t really do trail names, and didn’t necessarily gain any on the TA. But a few of us did. And on the stretch to Auckland I tried to get a few more going, because well, why not? It was quite a fun thing to think about during this mad five month journey.
I got mine before I even hit the trail. I was travelling to the trailhead at Cape Reinga and took the bus from Auckland to Kaitaia with Drew, who I’d met at the airport coming into New Zealand. We were talking about trail names and I asked about his. He’d done the PCT but I guess he hadn’t been too adamant about the whole trail name thing either. As a result, his name was Just Drew Passing Through, or Just Drew for short.
I tried to use the bus journey to catch up on some of my reading – I’d picked up a few cheap women’s magazines in the airport, and somehow failed to read all of them, despite my 30 hour flight. I was determined to get through them before binning them. So there I was, trying to read that bloody Cosmopolitan magazine before starting a 3000 kilometre trail running the length of New Zealand. All those stories about advancing the career I’d just put on hold and the products I ought to be buying even though I wasn’t even going to be able to take any showers any time soon. I thought about the only outfit I had on me, the one of was wearing and would be wearing for the next five months. This magazine was not for me. But still, I paid money for it, so I was going to finish it. I eye rolled at myself and waved the magazine at Drew. Cosmo was born.
It wouldn’t have stuck if Just Drew hadn’t started calling me Cosmo. First when we met Tim as we were changing buses in Paihia. And then when we met everyone else that first night on the beach. So in time it stuck, like trail names do.
After more than two weeks on the TA, and a few small disasters, I was back on track again. I was in Ngunguru and was looking forward to reaching Auckland soon. I had a working phone and finally I could take pictures, which I made sure to upload whenever I got the chance, WiFi or not. The first day back on the trail proved quite the anticlimax. The way out of Ngunguru was a succession of road walking, and rather boresome. My feet hurt and the temperatures were high – everything was sweaty.
The route to Auckland meandered through any type of landscape, and it was difficult to feel as though you could sink your teeth into it properly. By the time you got used to the walk on the beach, you’d be right next to the road again, or up on a steep hill in a forest, which suddenly spat you out in front of a river you can’t cross by yourself. But it was okay. It was all part of the trail we had decided to walk, it was part of the journey.
That night, Bea, René, Just Drew and I stayed at Treasure Island campsite, which had a surprisingly lovely patch of grass with splendid views. We spread out our tents and sat on the lawn, while Bea and I watched in sheer revulsion when Drew shot snot rockets right next to his tent, in the grass. It looked like he was going to hit René.
We had situated ourselves right ahead of another anticipated water crossing. The Taiharuru Estuary crossing meant a few kilometres of wading through the river at low tide, close to where it spilled out into the sea. We were all pretty anxious. All accounts stressed waist deep water, and René even considered walking the roads around it instead.
We decided to go together and started at six the next morning to get there for low tide. Soon we were walking around the edge of sea, a flat stretch of dark mud stretching into the far horizon. It was a slow process, the mud sucking you in with every step, an ongoing struggle for freedom. When we turned the corner we faced the estuary that we needed to cross. This was the part that worried us. This is where it got deep.
We situated ourselves at the best place to cross and braced ourselves for the worst. Then, nothing. The mud was ever more thick and slippery and it was covered in a layer of water. It was only ankle deep.
With all unnecessary stress behind us, the day turned to a beautiful saunter. For the first time since 90 Mile Beach, we hit the photogenic Ocean Beach, after which a steep climb took us up to the Te Whara Track. The ascend was almost too much for me, but soon I was distracted by that typical New Zealand dance again, up and down the forest trails, the one that never ends.
I walked behind René and watched him fly ahead. He was always saying he was slow, but he was always darting ahead of me. He had this thing about balance. He carried hiking poles but only used them when he really had to, instead he did without, to test and improve his natural balance. You would always find him walking with his hands in his pockets, and so he was now. On the narrow forest trail, up and down, with his hands in his pockets. Suddenly, I knew. I knew René’s trail name. There was simply no question: René was Pockets.
In my revelation I blurted it out, rather excited about my own insight. Much to my surprise, Pockets entirely disagreed. He wanted to be Sunshine, he said. But he couldn’t. He wasn’t a Sunshine. In fact we already had a Sunshine, and he wasn’t it. René was Pockets.
I called out to the others to notify them of René‘s new name – I was going to make this happen. Just then, Pockets shrieked from the trail ahead. He’d somehow hurt his ankle, and he’d hurt it in a bad way. It didn’t take long to realise he was going to have to go off trail. Luckily we were near a junction, and Just Drew took him down Peach Cove Track, and he went to the town close by, where he stayed for several days. I always tried to find out where he was after that, and while he was always somewhere nearby, I never managed to see him again.
Bea and I continued up the steep hill until we couldn’t climb anymore. We’d planned on a short day so we found a grassy patch along the ridge and watched all the hikers we knew or had heard of, pass us. Just Drew, the French couple, two Danish guys, the Orange Man and Sunshine. We enjoyed being able to wild camp again. We spent the long afternoon reading and writing in our journals, both cooped up in the comfort of our own tent.
Bea was another hiker who wasn’t keen on trail names. Too much of a redundant Americanism, I reckon. But we gave her one anyways, sneaked it in, almost without her noticing. When we planned the boat trip from Paihia across the Waikare Outlet, we had to write down all of our names, and she was noted as Bee. It wasn’t a real trail name as it was essentially the same as her real name, but she came to embrace it. It also planted that little seed in her that would allow me to give her a much better suited trail name later on, far down on the South Island, when I finally knew. But we’ll get to that in time.
The next day the way down the hilly track proved a lot easier than the way up. The views over the sea were marvellous and soon I reached Whangarei Heads, where I met Bee at the shop and we bought sweets and ice cream. We waited for a guy with a boat to come and take us across Marsden Point for $10 each, where we were forced to continue along a horribly busy highway next to an industrial area to avoid the beach at high tide.
After a monotonous afternoon on the road and the beach, we arrived in Waipu, another small town, where we camped on a cramped space behind a dodgy bar. Some tourists had erected the biggest tent I have ever seen right in the middle of the tiny lawn, and surrounded by tiny hiker tents, it looked absolutely grotesque.
The bar that served pizza across the road however, was absolutely fantastic. All the hikers in town came together and tried out all the different flavours. It was a great distraction after everything the trail had been throwing at us so far. These were some strange days riddled with highs and lows in many different ways.
The next day became another staple example of a tough but varied day on the TA. The route pushed us through a lot of roads. First tarmac, then a long gravel road over a logging mountain, until a final section of farmland led to the most beautiful Mangawhai Walkway. A well maintained coastal footpath with views over lush green trees and deep blue sea.
It spat us out at the next town, Mangawhai Heads, with Mangawhai shortly after. Bee had planned a rest day, and I wasn’t sure what to do. I met her in the first town where she’d checked into a hostel and we went to get some food. While I was lingering over my hotdog and milkshake we were joined by Just Drew and Michael, one of the Danish guys.
Just Drew took the opportunity to complain about the trail. It was a thing he’d started doing and the way he went about it, annoyed me quite a bit. Sure, no one really came out there to enjoy hours of road walking next to busy highways, but it was part of the trail. Anyone who decides to overhaul their lives for six months, go through the process of getting visas and buying expensive flights, ought to add a little research into what they’re planning to do once they arrive.
It’s not difficult to find out that a lot of the North Island includes vast amounts of road walking. Bee and I both knew. We didn’t love it, but we got on with it and began to appreciate the upside of roads – faster walking. I told Drew that if this trail wasn’t what he wanted to do, he simply shouldn’t be here (a moment that will forever horrify Bee’s proper British manners.) There are many other trails he could be walking and complaining wasn’t going to change anything.
Not long after the guys moved on. I never saw Just Drew again. Some weeks later I heard he had returned to Hawaii because of his violent hay fever. I think he should’ve simply skipped North Island and moved on to the more remote South Island. The South Island was what we were all looking forward to: this was where the wilderness set in.
I decided to take a zero day and stay in the next town ahead, Mangawhai. Bee and I sorted out our plans for the next section into Auckland. In the next days we had a short kayaking stint coming up, and there were water crossings that worried me more than the ones we’d already passed. It was a relief to know that I would be doing these things with someone else.
Unfortunately Mangawhai itself wasn’t too interesting – I struggled to a find place for breakfast, which was all I really wanted. But it was sunny, the campsite was quite nice and I managed to clean all my gear. If it hadn’t been for the evil duck that spent all night pecking at my tent (I ran out at least three times to chase it with my stick) it would’ve been a perfectly relaxing day off.