Day 21 : Mangawhai – Pakiri Beach (21 km / 13 mi | Total: 477 km / 296.4 mi)
Day 22 : Pakiri Beach – Dome Forest / Waiwhiu (27 km / 16.8 mi | Total: 504 km / 313.2 mi)
Day 23 : Dome Forest / Waiwhiu – Puhoi (26 km / 16.2 mi | Total: 530 km / 329.3 mi)
Day 24 : Puhoi – Stillwater Holiday Park (33 km / 20.5 mi | Total: 563 km / 349.8 mi)
Day 25 : Stillwater Holiday Park – Auckland (32 km / 19.9 mi | Total: 595 km / 369.7 mi)
Day 26 : Zero day
Nov 29 – Dec 4
Total days: 6 | Walking days: 5
Section distance: 139 km / 86.4 mi
Average distance per day: 27.8 km / 17.3 mi
Total distance : 595 km / 369.7 mi
If there’s one element that pervades anyone’s experience of walking the TA, it’s water. Streams, rivers, the sea, inlets and estuaries. New Zealand loves them. The TA loves them. They haunt you. Especially those waterways that can only be forded during low tide, or those streams that can be tackled easily – as long as it hasn’t rained recently. It was draining to plan my days around water crossings. I just wanted to walk until I fancied walking no more, but I couldn’t. The TA wasn’t like that.
After all the water crossings so far, I still didn’t know how to find out when high tide was. The different apps available weren’t very user-friendly so I was eternally unsure. Up until now, high tide had always hit sometime during the early afternoon. Whether that was accurate or just an odd coincidence, I honestly wouldn’t know.
The road to Auckland included the last of the pesky water crossings on the North Island – some expected, and some not. Bee and I calculated five days into Auckland from Mangawhai. It was a frustrating stretch with little campsite options, or we would’ve done it in four. It meant our first day would be short: a quick road walk before a 15 km walk down Pakiri Beach. I was looking forward to it. I took my time in the morning and anticipated an easy, leisurely walk.
Around 8 AM, I was ready to set off. I checked the Guthook app for any last minute comments and quickly regretted it. True to form, the beach wasn’t as straight forward as I’d anticipated. There were three streams to cross. One at the start, one about ten kilometres in and one at the far end. During high tide the last two rivers swelled up to about chest deep. I was terrified.
My leisurely stroll turned to a feverish half-run. With my late start, I was probably going to hit the last rivers close to high tide so I raced down the road and didn’t stop once I hit the beach. For once, I was unstoppable.
The beach was empty except for me and a figure behind me. I wondered who it was. Bee should be somewhere close, but it wasn’t her, I could tell from the shape. It wasn’t until I turned the wrong way around a raised picnic area and had to backtrack that the figure caught up. I turned around and saw from a distance who it was. Tim! I hadn’t seen him since we left him at the hut after Papakauri Stream, a week ago. We yelled an excited ‘Hi’ from a distance, while he stopped for a snack and I moved on. I was bound to see him shortly after. I hadn’t nicknamed him Fast Walker for nothing.
I kept a close eye on the movement in the water and walked so fast even Fast Walker didn’t catch up. I checked my GPS to see how far I was from the second stream and when I finally reached it, I saw nothing. A slither of water ran from the dunes across the beach. I was confused. Surely the tide was coming in.
I knew I had another five kilometres to go until the final stream, and just in case, I kept speeding. I made it around noon. Holiday makers and small children strolled up and down the beach just in front of the holiday park and I looked at the river surging into the sea. It was perhaps ankle deep.
I couldn’t believe I just raced through the entire beach for no reason. I went to the shop at the campsite and bought some ice cream, then sat next to the road to wait to be reunited with Tim. It was great to catch up with someone who started the TA on the same day. I told him about the stream crossings mentioned on the Guthook app, and he said he was wondering why I was walking so fast.
He told me how awful he had felt when I last saw him. His tendonitis had made the hike so difficult for him that he was terribly down spirited. He ended up hitching to Whangarei where he anticipated staying a few days to rest and unwind, but within a few hours he had found some new trail runners, a SIM card and a battery pack, and the improved gear had completely reset his mental state. He went straight back to trail and had been feeling much better since. He was doing 35-40 km days, so he was sure to outwalk me straight away.
Shortly after Bee joined, Tim moved on to the forests. It was early and I was tempted to join him, but I wasn’t sure if there was any camping along the way and it wouldn’t get me to Auckland any faster. So I stayed at the sunny campsite, and Bee and I relaxed and bought bad biscuits and horribly sweet chocolate which we ate for the rest of the day.
The day of the forests was a beautiful one. It was warm and it hadn’t rained in a while, so it wasn’t too muddy. The forests were divided into three sections. First there was Omaha Forest, and then Dome Forest, which existed of two different sections by itself.
At the far end was a café which closed at 5, and we planned to get there in time to eat. I was dying for some pancakes, or french toast. Sweet breakfast food had become the thing I craved most on trail – apart from cold sodas and fresh orange juice, of course.
The trail quickly moved up, first over grassy hills until the tracks advanced steeply through the dense forest, covered in tree roots and adorned by a jungle of vivid green with sun rays peeking through the roof above. I had grossly underestimated the terrain that would be housing these forests and I certainly hadn’t expected numerous summits. I was prepared for a walk through trees. Instead I found myself struggling up and down, and I soon felt battered. My ankles, always unstable, were in a world of pain – it was my main physical struggle which I dealt with on trail.
When I reached the second forest a sign told me the next section would take 1.5 hours and the last 4.5. I was perplexed. Another six hours meant that I would never make it to the café before it shut. What about my hot bowl of latte, my pancakes?
Suddenly I was on fire again. Or attempted to be, at least, it was like trying to light up a flame that had already died. These forests were great but not in a hurry. When I reached a picturesque stream I decided to give up. I rested and filled up on water as I’d be dry camping that night. Then, the French couple passed. They’d camped at the holiday park just like Bee and myself, and they were some of the hikers I was slowly getting to know a little bit.
They were also aiming for the café before it closed, and seemed to think they could make it, despite the time noted on the sign. As they moved on I realised I had to do the same. Again, I was in a mad rush. Scrambling up and dashing down. I was frustrated, everything was painful and my pack burst with four litres of water – much too heavy for the uneven trail. When I lost my balance and tripped over a tree root, I was done with the day. Everything was going wrong, and I wasn’t even going to make it to the café, no matter how fast I hiked.
When I reached the Dome summit (and the TA’s 500 km mark) I was virtually in tears. Bee texted me that she’d made it to the café just in time, and she offered to order me some food to take away. She got me a lemonade, a latte and a cheese and salmon bagel. I was so happy.
I continued down the trail and not long after it changed – I hit a popular tourist track to a viewpoint and the path was wide and clear. It was only a kilometre but I felt like I was never going to make it out. Every single bend turned into another one, the trees just seemed to multiply and that café that was supposedly right at the exit, was now just taunting me from afar.
When I finally made it out I crawled onto the café’s porch. Sitting down was bliss. Leaving the forests behind was bliss. Bee had all my goodies and the French couple was there, enjoying theirs. My drinks were amazing. My bagel was heavenly. I wished I could order a hot meal but the café was now truly shutting down.
Our packs and shoes were lining the deck and we soon did what hikers like to do: feel the weight of each others’ backpacks. It was one of those things everyone is curious about. The French couple had surprisingly light packs for carrying so much Decathlon gear – clearly they had made some good choices, despite this being their first long hike. Lifting Bee’s pack, however, was a whole other thing. It looked small but it was surprisingly heavy. Bee was very good at stuffing a lot of heavy items into that thing. It was incredible compact. I had no idea how she managed to carry that every day.
When it was time to go we crossed the busy road and walked until we found a forest filled with dead trees. We hid. It was one of our very few wild camping spots so far. We weren’t far from the café and I desperately wanted to go back the next morning, I still craved for pancakes. But no one wanted to come, and I didn’t want to be the only dirty hiker knocking on the door. So the following morning I moved on just like the others, out of the barren forest and into the next warm day.
I’d expected the route to continue like the rough tramping track in the forests but it was very different. Most of the day moved along gravel tracks up and down green hills. I met the Japanese couple for the first time, Nobu and Kei, who I’d heard of and took to immediately. They were as charming as their packs were small, and they were hiking the TA for their honeymoon.
The best part of the day turned out to be the Puhoi River Track. It was a well-maintained trail through the woods, very much unlike most of the unmaintained routes the TA followed. It was a relaxing end to the day.
After the river track I found Bee in Puhoi – a picturesque, old fashioned town that wasn’t much bigger than the pub (where we ate pizza) and the cute general store (where I bought fruit in a can, which I opened using Bee’s pocket knife, one of her unnecessary items, stuffed deep into her pack.) We sat at a picnic table and chatted with the Japanese couple until they headed off to kayak the next eight kilometres down Puhoi River, an official part of the trail.
Bee and I had booked ours for the next morning, and so had the French couple. The four of us camped in the local park – something that wasn’t officially allowed, but we heard the locals didn’t mind. We hid as well as we could and no one bothered us. The best thing about Puhoi was the public toilets and the outdoor shower. It was great to wipe days worth of sweat off me.
The next morning Bee and I got up on time to get our kayaks from the Puhoi Canoe Hire. I was quite excited to kayak for a couple of hours and it was the most relaxing start of the day. It wasn’t hot just yet, and being on the water was bliss.
The rest of the day was long. Parts of trail, a sandy beach, then a rocky one. Even though there were some lovely views, I was tired and unmotivated. I was only a day away from Auckland and I just couldn’t wait for my day off. The final road walk was unremitting and I couldn’t have been happier when I walked into the campsite at Stillwater.
TA hikers got to camp for free and there were lots of us, all congregating to face the last big Okura water crossing the following morning. Everyone sat outside and chatted, while I retreated in my tent, absolutely loving the simplicity of being in solitude and resting my feet.
The final day started late. It was the day we’d walk into Auckland, and the day of the Okura water crossing. A few hikers were on a schedule and had opted to start early and get a ride around the river instead of waiting for low tide and crossing it on foot.
The rest of us left the campsite around 10:30, which landed us at the Okura River crossing about two hours before low tide. I wasn’t sure why everyone was so apprehensive to leave early, it just meant we’d get there before low tide and would be waiting at the waterside, in my opinion more frustrating that setting off a little later.
We set off and soon moved around the beach, watching the retreating sea, laughing as we moved closer to the opposite bank and found there was hardly any water at all. Would it be like all the other crossings that ended up much shallower than we’d been told? Had we worried pointlessly once again?
But then, just as we thought we were in the clear, a deep slither of waterway blocked our path. Nobu took off his pack and dove right in, checking how deep it was – too deep. We tried a few more spots, and I began to walk further inland, just to see if there was a shallower spot. My map showed two low tide crossings, and perhaps the other one was better. It took a while to realise it was much farther than it had seemed, and I turned around, while a few others kept going.
Back at the original crossing I checked my map again. The GPS route through the water followed a strange curve. First, straight towards the sea, then it arched back to shore. I called the others who were still waiting and we checked it out – Nobu swimming in once again. This was the spot, he said. This was the sand bank we were supposed to take.
It was an hour before low tide when we moved through. All our belongings carefully sealed in ziplock bags and plastic supermarket bags, stuffed deep inside our packs. I held my pack like a baby and kept it dry, and somehow managed to hold onto my walking stick as well. We water was deep but there was practically no current – and the deepest part, waist-deep, was only very short.
Soon enough we were back on the road, the long road into Auckland. Finally. I was ready for my pancakes and sushi and my private room at the YMCA. We dispersed, leapfrogged, walking the roads along the beaches, through the residential areas, nipping in and out of local parks. I saw some of the others who had continued to the crossing further inland. They had also found a spot that was roughly waist deep and made it through. Now all we had to do was keep on walking. It was another 27 kilometres to the ferry that would take us into the city.
The remainder of the day was furiously disheartening. It was a Sunday and it was hot, and all the locals were crowding the beaches that we were supposed to walk. The official route meandered in and out of them, and up and down little roads so short you had to check the map every few hundred meters. When the tide came in I found myself walking a narrow path next to the sea, alongside teenagers and parents with strollers and everybody else in the world. When I reached Takapuna I gave up.
It was awful. I couldn’t deal with the constant crowds and I was in so much physical pain that I left the beach and diverted to the main road. I put in my earplugs, turned on the music and drowned out all of my surroundings. I took the most direct route to the ferry.
When I reached the terminal I entered another world. I was back in the city. The first part of the TA was done.