When sitting down and thinking about what to write about a hike that covered 3 000km, 129 days, about a hundred square miles of mud, 1000 beautiful vistas, wonderful people and magical moments, it‚Äôs difficult to know where to start. Because really, there are two hikes, the one from one end of a country to the other, and the one that runs between the borders of your heart and soul, between everything you thought you knew but don‚Äôt, and what you thought you didn’t but do.
The terrestrial Te Araroa, The Long Pathway in Maori, is a route that runs from the top of New Zealand‚Äôs North Island to the bottom of the South Island. It was officially opened in 2011 and is a work in progress. Most people do the route from North to South and take four to five months to complete it.¬†It connects many already established walks and trails with newly built ‚Äòconnector tracks‚Äô and sections of road walking. Every year more and more of the trail is taken off road, with the aim of eventually having no road-walking sections at all. The trail has been designed as a thru-hike, meaning that it is long and can be completed in one continuous hike, modelled after similar hikes in North America, namely the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the oldest and most historic of all three, the Appalachian Trail.
The Long Pathway of the heart, I‚Äôm sure, is many different things to different people: endurance, adventure, achievement, and friendship, to name a few. Besides the challenge of completing something totally out of my realm of experience, and pushing my own limits to the brink, what I wanted probably most, was to get back to basics, to reboot and detox from a good, but increasingly frantic, curated and seemingly unanchored life. I felt that in my thirty-third year I had somehow lost something, something essential and something I desperately wanted back. I had gotten to the point where I could feel no more wildness in me.¬† I felt lost. It would be a cliche to say that I went to New Zealand to find myself, a cliche and untrue, because I didn‚Äôt. I know who I am and what I want, but somewhere along the way I‚Äôd become tamed. I went to New Zealand to reinitiate myself into the elemental and essential, to dive deeply below the dream of what we think life should be, and resurface refreshed, renewed and reassured that there is so much more to living than schedules, deadlines and the monstrous and often maniacal expectations we put on ourselves. This modern distortion of success constantly looms over us and threatens to fall in on our heads. But the real essentials, the simple bare bones, is where it is impossible to argue about how small our place in the scheme of things really is, so small, yet so very vital. As our world takes blow after blow, environmentally and socially, politically and economically, we need so desperately to reconnect, to fight for a home and place that we are slowly losing.
New Zealand is beautiful, wildly and outrageously beautiful. It is a landscape that constantly changes and surprises you. One moment you can be walking through a lush green forest in a t-shirt, and the next you are gazing up at an ancient glacier. There are waterfalls, goblin forests, beautifully desolate coastlines, places where you feel like you‚Äôre walking on the moon or Mars, and panoramas of mountain vistas that make you feel so small and insignificant, but at the same time, like the world could fit in your heart. It is a sensory and soulful odyssey, where exquisite natural beauty is your constant companion. But the New Zealand back country can be a dangerous place too, with people perishing or disappearing every year. With that thought in mind, more than a few hours were spent walking with ghosts, as I wondered how it must feel being lost up there, alone, knowing no help may come. I wondered if there wasn’t a beautiful freedom in those last moments.¬† Leaving the world surrounded by the awesome magnitude of it, insensitive and unmoved by our human fragility. Or perhaps it would quite simply be terrifying. Probably that. These were thoughts that kept close, and kept me ever mindful of where I tread. It is this juxtaposition of the beauty and the danger that can put our lives in perspective like few other experiences can. An ephemeral fairy forest filled with ornery wasps, three days from the nearest help, possibly one sting away from a deadly allergic reaction, suddenly puts you in the most dangerous place you’ve ever been.
The walk itself is physically and mentally gruelling.¬†But that‚Äôs the point of a hike like this; to push yourself to your own limits, and in this the kiwi tramping trails rise happily to the challenge. New Zealand tracks are hardcore, wild and raw. The steep bits are steep, with straight up ascents, and steeper, knee-destroying descents, with precarious footing, or sometimes no footing at all. Switchbacks are very rare and precious, what are not rare and precious are slips, gorse (a very sharp hard bush which can leave itchy red welts on the skin), spear grass (bushes of very hard, very sharp blades) and pools of often deep mud, which can span a metre or two (or more) in all directions and can often make up the majority of ground travelled on certain parts of track. I was felled ignobly more than once by the brutal pairing of gorse and apocalypse-grade pollen. Tears were shed. It is the closest to real wildness and my own limitations that I‚Äôve ever come. And this was what I‚Äôd come for.
But the pay off in grandeur and splendour is enormous and frequent. One of the places I felt this most acutely was coming over Waiau pass, the steepest terrain we‚Äôd climbed on the trail. We‚Äôd woken up early because we‚Äôd been told that the ascent over the pass was hard. It was, but it also became one of the most memorable sections of the trail.¬†Behind us was the gorgeous Lake Constance, blanketed in early morning mist, and just behind that, Blue Lake, the clearest lake in the world. Ahead of us sat rocky and majestic outcroppings, still covered with patches of melting snow, which formed waterfalls all over the mountain face, and water from beneath the mountain made beautiful tarns as clear as glass. The walking had been so difficult, but the view from the top was breathtaking. With body aching like it had never ached before, I‚Äôd never felt so strong, so free, or so grateful to be alive. We were standing in a place that would take a fit person three days to walk to. The only other way to see it with your own eyes would be to helicopter in. The sense of gratitude to have got to where you were standing, to have a body able to get you there, and friends to share it with, is enormous and devastatingly humbling. And humility is something that wilderness teaches us in no small measure. You are never so vulnerable as you are out there, not only to the elements but also to your own mind and thoughts. Memories, good and bad, come unbidden and at will. But the meditative quality of walking from dawn till dusk, day after day, becomes the place where these can be unwrapped, and forgiven or blessed. ¬†The methodical and constant footfall of one foot in front of the other, often when you are tired, hurting, and sometimes frustrated or angry, needs a focus on the present which is difficult to escape.
The wilderness is a place where you can think freely and without distraction.¬† And I found that my thoughts often became prayers in a way that were new to me.¬† Along the trail, walkers have made cairns of stone to mark the way for future walkers, and as many of these walkers do, I began to place my own stones on the cairns as I passed. Each time calling to mind someone, dead or alive, that I may not have thought about in a long time. And each time I did this I thanked them. Mostly I did this for the deceased and found myself, once more, walking with ghosts. People I know would have loved to have been there with me, who would have looked forward to hearing the tales when I got back, people who loved adventure and the wild as much as I did. A grandmother who, although she never travelled, would give me atlases and books about exotic places for birthdays and Christmases. A grandfather who rode horses bareback and grinning, who sacrificed most of his life to two world wars, but loved the places war took him. And a father who has had a life more packed with adventure than anyone I know. I believed this before, and I believe it more now: that every cell in our body remembers what thousands before us have loved. And they pass this on to us. It’s written in our DNA. Everything is connected, the history of the world is an energy that really has no end or no beginning. It is a song that has always and will always be sung. One of the most powerful examples of this for me on the hike, was when a curious little bird, in the middle of a forest, high up in a silent mountain, began hopping ahead on the trail, looking behind it at me before flying ahead to the next tree, and turning around to check again. It felt for all the world that it was leading me along, making sure I didn’t take a wrong turn, that I didn‚Äôt get lost. This delightful, tiny, fearless guide was making sure I didn’t lose the path.
It is new and beautiful experiences like these that make it difficult to know where what you know ends, and what you don’t begins, or where you end and everything else begins. But you also realise that it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it is a beautiful world, and a beautiful life, and whatever your curious little bird is, follow it. It knows what you need. One of my favourite quotes of late is from Salman Rushdie.¬† He writes in Midnight‚Äôs Children: ‚ÄúTo understand just one life you have to swallow the world.‚Äù Te Araroa isn’t the whole world, but it‚Äôs a glorious piece of it. It fed my soul well and I feel I understand myself and my place in this world a little better for it.
This is not to say the entire hike was bliss, as you may have gathered, or that every moment was significant and filled to the brim with meaning and that I conquered all my demons, or even that most of it was. It wasn‚Äôt.¬† It was hard. My body ached.¬† If I stopped walking for more than a few minutes it was painful to start up again.¬† I slept appallingly badly. I was eating food my body hated.¬† My lips were perpetually cracked, I could barely get a brush through my hair, I had never smelled so bad or been so close to doing grievous bodily harm (not really) to someone that I loved. I‚Äôd never felt so tired or been so hungry, I‚Äôd never been so afraid so often, never cried so frequently or felt so vulnerable, and there were times when I wanted to give up.¬† But I had also never felt so strong, or so sure of my strength, and not because I was strong, but because I had no choice but to be. When you think you can‚Äôt go on, but know that you have absolutely no choice but to, you realise just how few our limitations are.¬† In the words of Sir Edmund Hilary, ‚ÄúIt is not the mountain that we conquer, but ourselves.‚Äù
Words and photographs by Amy Lawrence