A year ago today, Anna Ridewood, a 32 year old Rural Surveyor from Somerset, started an adventure of a lifetime; to complete the entirety of the Te Araroa trail, a trail that runs the length of New Zealand. “How long is New Zealand?” I asked Anna slightly naively, “and how long did it take you?” Anna, who has always been an outdoorsy type (significantly more than yours truly), completed the Te Araroa trail which measures a mind-boggling 3000 kilometres in 118 days. Not only did she complete this momentous challenge, she ran the majority of it.
Anna had initially intended to run the entirety of the Te Araroa trail and record a time as the first ever self-supported woman to achieve this feat. However, the people of New Zealand changed the course of her journey through unexpected levels of generosity and engagement, so she decided to slow down and make the most of this once in a lifetime experience.
I interviewed Anna who has graciously allowed me to share her story; her anecdotes, tips, tricks and create somewhat of a guide to the Te Araroa trail.
1. Why the TA
What made you decide to embark on such a monumental trip as hiking the Te Araroa?
I have spent a lot of time in New Zealand over the years having lived over in my early twenties and consider myself part kiwi! I absolutely adore the beauty of the place, the kindness of the people and the simplicity of the lifestyle and ever since I first visited, the country has had a special place in my heart.
As my love for endurance sport and adventure developed, I decided I wanted to complete a huge, self-supported A – B expedition, ideally the length, circumference or width of a country. I don’t remember thinking about it for too long before I decided it would be either the length of New Zealand or the UK and the deciding factor was that New Zealand has one single designated trail running the length of the country called the Te Araroa trail as opposed to the UK where I would have had to put a lot of work into creating my own. I also don’t have to have my arm twisted to visit New Zealand, ever, and I thought it was a good excuse to catch up with old friends! Plus – I knew I’d see parts of the country I’d never visited before and in a very different way. The terrain dictated the mode of transport and running it was – although this I decided before I realised how hard it is to run with a heavy bag on your back!
2. Planning and route
How did you plan your trek? Did you plan to run and did you complete all 3000km?
My lead in time from deciding I wanted to do it, to my first foot hitting the trail was about a year. This time was spent creating a ‘Te Araroa guide’ (an Excel bible of schedules, logistics and resupply information), buying and testing kit and also training! There is a huge amount of information available on the trail, provided by the Te Araroa Trust including plenty of Te Araroa maps, trail notes and up to date information on any hazards, diversions and trail conditions. I also read loads of blogs and followed other people who had or were hiking the trail the previous season. It really was quite easy therefore to prepare but I still spent a huge amount of time reading, reviewing sections and distances in order to figure out timings and where I’d likely be, when. It was important to know where resupply stops were and where I needed to post boxes ahead to myself.
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I started with enough time to comfortably finish before the weather turned chilly in the South Island but I didn’t particularly have a deadline as such. I anticipated I would complete in the region of 120 days and ended up completing in 118 days including 15 rest days. Distance per day depended hugely on the terrain and weather conditions (some sections of the trail are extremely weather sensitive) but I did anything from 10km on Christmas eve to 70km on my last day. 40km was my happy place and I probably averaged around 35km – 40km per day. Technically, the trail totals a little over 3,000km and when you factor in getting lost, diversions and finding places to camp, you find you do a huge amount more. My total by the end was more like 3,300km.
I set out to run it and I ran as much as I could but the reality is quite a lot of terrain is so rugged and steep, it doesn’t actually lend itself to running and I found if I was carrying any more than 4 days worth of food, my bag was simply too heavy. I just made sure that everything I did, I put my all into it – if I was walking I made sure I was still moving at pace so that it still felt like a tough physical challenge. The trip ended up being a combination of running (or shuffling?!), hiking, paddling and I even threw in 2 days of mountain biking for good measure!
Resupply was fairly straight forward in the North Island as the trail passes through lots of towns but for the South Island it’s a little different as the trail is much more remote and there are big mountain sections where you really need to carry food for a week or more in case the weather turns and you have to sit out in a hut. From Wellington, I posted myself 4 resupply boxes of food to get me through the first half of the South Island, after which the trail runs through a few towns enabling resupply on the move. Only once did I need to hitch off trail to resupply which I was pleased with, as hitching in New Zealand can be extremely slow, especially in some of the more remote area
Were you alone for most of the Te Araroa trail? If yes, how did you find being alone? Or was that part of the appeal?
The Te Araroa trail is becoming quite popular and is now considered up there as one of the big three along with the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail and this last season there were around 1,000 people completing it. After the initial few days along 90 Mile beach I didn’t see anyone else on the trail for weeks until I got mid-way down the North Island. I think everyone bottlenecked around Christmas time and thereafter it felt quite busy.
I had a good mix of time spent alone and with others. I only camped totally alone a handful of times and cherished those moments. A lot of Te Araroa backpackers or hikers on these trails form groups or ‘trail families’ who they travel with but an important challenge for me was completing alone and so whilst I made some incredible friends along the way, I made sure I got that alone time too. I started alone and finished alone and had a magical section in the middle with my own trail family. There’s a 5 day canoe section in the North Island along the Whanganui River and I did this with a wonderful group of people I’m still friends with now. We stuck together for the first section of the South Island, the Richmond Ranges and then went our separate ways. I think, on reflection, I had the perfect balance of company and solitude.
I am really good in my own company and so apart from Christmas which I always find a little odd spent away from home, I was fine. My boyfriend came to New Zealand for a month at the end of my trip and so I knew I always had that to look forward to!
Speaking of company, did you meet any interesting characters on the Te Araroa trail?
I met all sorts of interesting people along the way who were completing the trail for all sorts of reasons. Lots of people raise money for charity, some to simply take a break from the craziness of life and others going for the triple crown; completing all three big trails back to back!
There was a chap walking the trail in bare feet campaigning for veganism, an environmental activist walking in silence for the planet and a family of four with children aged 6 and 9; the children being the youngest people ever to complete the Te Araroa trail!
There is an amazing network of backcountry huts throughout the country in which there are books which are used to record the movement of Te Araroa backpackers (known as ‘trampers’ in New Zealand), whether simply passing through or stopping the night – a safety measure really but it was also fun to see who was ahead of you and it was a good way to pass messages along the trail! I really enjoyed finally catching up with someone who I had been reading the hut book entries of.
It was the people I met outside of the trail that made my trip so special. The generosity of kiwis along the way, blew my mind daily. There is a whole community of ‘trail angels’ (some know they have that title, others have no clue!) who live near the trail and provide support, from a seat and a tap to fill water, to a lawn to camp on to sometimes even a hot shower and a bed. By only a few weeks in, I had lost count of the number of wonderful families who had taken me in and then called a friend or a relative a few hundred kms away to inform them of a British girl who would be passing through who they must put up for a night. I had parties thrown for me, gifts of food from passers-by whilst on the move and tea delivered to me in my tent at 6am when camping in new friend’s gardens. One of these trail angels is a chap called Jock Hay who lives in a beautiful place called Helena Bay is one of these. Everyone knows Jock. The trail passes by his door and he literally flags Te Araroa backpackers down from the beach and invites them into his home. The night I stayed he had friends over, I was there with a Dutch couple who were also on the trail and between us all we emptied his fridge of cold beer and had the most fun evening. In the morning he delivered a cup of tea to me in my tent (I was camping on his lawn!) at 6am. It was just magical.
The people also changed my journey for me. I set out to run the Te Araroa trail and actually considered for a brief time that I might try and record a time as the first woman to run the Te Araroa trail self-supported. This very quickly changed when I realised how much people wanted to be a part of my journey. I didn’t want to rush through and chose to embrace the experience. Rather than getting to camp at dark and being up and out by 6am, I found myself chatting and drinking endless cups of tea in the gardens of my hosts and also cutting my days short in order to enjoy offers of BBQs and evening swims. New Zealand hurled love and kindness at me from every angle and I was determined to try and share my journey as much as I could.
I love this! Despite how lovely the people of New Zealand are, there are some people who would likely think this is a dangerous activity to do as a lone female (I personally think it’s awesome!) did you ever feel concerned for your safety?
I never felt concerned for my safety as a lone female. I would actually say I felt more comfortable being alone in the bush without phone signal, 3 or 4 days away from civilisation, than I did when I passed through towns and cities. With not a huge amount of backcountry experience (New Zealand backcountry can be extreme), there were some mountain sections where I felt a little out of my depth and some of the river crossings made me nervous but I was really lucky to be with my trail family for the Richmond Ranges and later on if I was unsure, I would wait for someone to pass through or cross with. I had a policy of ‘if in doubt, don’t’.
I think having good kit is essential, knowing you will be warm and knowing that you always have a backup in the ‘what if’ scenarios is extremely important. I also carried a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) and so knew the whole time that if anything were to go really wrong, I could just activate that, and I would be ok. It is all about approach to risk I think.
I think solo travel of this type is completely liberating and something that if you are at all of that nature, should be tried. It is the most wonderful feeling to exist with everything you need on your back. I found that it really brought me back to basics and reminded me of how little we actually need in life. It’s a wonderful way to remind you not to take things for granted. Comfortable beds, the ability to turn on a tap and get water, hot showers, and being able to just source food from a shop are all things that trail life helps you to appreciate!
4. Pros and Cons:
What are some of your highlights from the trip and what are some of your ultimate low points?
I’d say on the whole I mostly had pros! My Te Araroa journey was a wonderful experience and the day I finished I felt a mixture of elation and devastation it was over!
I think there was a point in the south island when I knew the tough stuff was over (after Waiau Pass) and that felt a relief. I also had a few lovely days spent with my trail family through the Tararua Ranges and the Richmond Ranges; two fairly intimidating and notoriously tricky sections. The weather was not the kindest and so we stuck together and supported each other. We had so much fun – it was lovely to share that time.
The scenery the whole way was just insane and a few times I had to pinch myself that it was real life and I was actually doing this. The simplicity of it all too. I had a few ‘moments’ where I just felt so overwhelmingly happy and content. Simple lakeside suppers, river swims at sunrise, sunsets, campfires, early nights, just to live in nature for 4 months was incredible.
On reflection, I’ve realised that cons were mostly related to weather and bag weight. Whilst my kit was light (8kg ish), carrying food for more than 4 days I found extremely tough and going into the Richmond Ranges I was over 20kg with 10 days’ food. I was really tired by this point, it was hot and the sandflies were terrible. I remember one particular day of climbing when it all just got to me. I managed to run into my wonderful French friend known to me as ‘Frenchita’, who was having a similar day. We cried and shared a huge hug, tears quickly turned to laughter and then we plodded on together for the next few days.
Life post trail was also really tough. It is such a huge adjustment from ‘trail life’ to ‘normality’ (or whatever we call it) and I found it extremely hard. I had a month spent in a campervan in New Zealand which was an ideal transition period and my advice to anyone would be to have something similar planned. Four months on I am still adjusting now – an experience like that changes you forever and I think it is really good to be aware of this.
5. Equipment and tips
What equipment did you carry with you? Do you have any recommendations of products that worked well for you?
My basic kit list was as follows:
- Bag – Ultimate Direction 45 litre Fastpack
- Tent – MSR Carbon Reflex
- Sleeping Bag – Marmot
- Sleeping Mat – Thermarest Neoair X lite
- Inflatable Pillow – Sea to Summit (Anna’s luxury item!)
- Trail Running Poles – Mountain King Trail Blaze
- 2 sets of shorts, t shirt, underwear and socks (wearing always 1)
- Recovery leggings and long sleeve top to sleep in
- Lightweight down coat – Montane
- Lightweight waterproof – Montane
- Gloves, visor, beanie – Montane
- Running Shoes – ALTRA Olympus
- Gaitors (Dirty Girl to keep all the little stones out)
- Flip flops
- Water – Sawyer Water Filtration System
- Water – 2 Litre Camelback
- Lightweight camping stove and billy – Optimus
- Notepad and pen
- Toothbrush cut in half
- Contact lense solution (boohoo for me!)
- All purpose biodegradable soap
- Basic First Aid Kit
- Head torch
- Powerpack – Anker Powercore 10,400
- Personal Locator Beacon
I love Montane kit – they specialise in lightweight mountain equipment and it is reasonably priced. I also swear by Injiji toe socks – they keep my toes so happy by avoiding any nasty between toe rubbing. On the Te Araroa, your feet are wet a lot of the time, in fact in the South Island they will be wet for the majority of the time! Foot care is SO important. Also, wearing toesocks means you can protect your feet from sandflies in the evenings and plod around camp with your flipflops.
The other thing I would recommend is using either a pack liner or protecting all of your kit with smaller drybags. The latter was my preference as it kept my kit organised and my pack compact. It is SO important to keep your kit dry – let your sleeping bag get wet in the mountains and you’re done for.
6. Looking forward
What’s your next adventure and why?
I would love to run the South West Coast Path and I did consider running it this year. However, I have realised how long my body has needed to recover from the Te Araroa trail so this mission will wait. I’d also love to cycle across Canada but I have no plans as yet!
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