Te Araroa: 90 Mile Beach

3 November, 2019 – Day 1-4 – Km 1-101

I sat on the black rocks watching the surf crash toward me. I tried to check the tide, but I was out of service. I looked back toward the direction I came from. There was not another soul on the little Te Werahi Beach. Forward, the same. My first weighty decision would need to be made alone.

That morning two Scottish girls, Daryl and Stella, who had just moved to New Zealand for working holiday and were on a road trip north had offered to drive me to Cape Reinga from Paihia. I had forgotten to check the tide before we left. Rookie mistake. Not that it mattered because it had taken nearly three hours to arrive and I was sort of at their mercy, grateful for their company and the distraction of what lies ahead.

I spent 3 days in Auckland with my friend, Tahlia, whom I had met in Cambodia in 2016 and is a veteran of the Pacific Crest Trail. She scrutinized my gear and made recommendations on what I should ditch and what I was missing. She took me to the supermarket and made suggestions on foods that were easy to prepare on trail and what was lightweight nutrition to carry. She packed my bag and reorganized everything. I’ll admit that I only took some of her advice with the idea that some things are better learned on my own, but she was gracious with her time and didn’t judge my decisions even if she thought I was making some mistakes. Her parents took such good care of me with home cooked meals and Kiwi hospitality. I couldn’t have felt more welcomed.

Tahlia and her friend, Rachel, drove me to Paihia yesterday with stops for ice cream in Puhoi and waterfall viewing in Whangarei. We picked up a hitchhiker named Dylan as good karma since it was assumed I would need to hitch to Cape Reinga the next day. Dylan was a weed farmer on his way to Karikari and we were all nearly high from the smell of him by the time we dropped him on the highway. Rachel wanted me to write about poo stories in this blog and became convinced that I should start a new Instagram handle called “View from my Cat Hole.” After all, it’s something that few people write about. I told her I would think about it.

In spite of the many laughs on the way up, I had knots in my stomach so while Tahlia was helping me draw a cardboard sign with my destination of Cape Reinga for the next morning, we met Daryl and Stella and all of my nerves melted away. Now I had a lift, a safe lift, and once I got there I just needed to walk. I could walk, right? I do it every day. Their car was an import from Japan with knobs they couldn’t read. Their GPS placed us in the middle of the ocean.

The lighthouse at Cape Reinga is really a dramatic starting point for this trail. Te Araroa means The Long Pathway in the Maori language and indeed it is long. The directional signs at the lighthouse indicated that Bluff, a tiny locale at the very bottom of the South Island, was 1452 km away. Lucky for me, though, the trail would follow a significant curve back and forth that would render the path much much longer, 3000 km to be fair. Here is where I would leave Daryl and Stella amongst all of the other day visitors to this northernmost point. It was about 1:00pm. The temperature was warm, but not too; there were no clouds and unbeknownst to me at the time, the tide was getting ever higher.

Undulating bluffs, apricot-colored mounds, and aquamarine waves were my views until I came to a patch of scraggy black rock, the swells crashing into my path. I tucked my knees up and bit my lip. My options were to retreat and try to find higher ground, although I could only see cliffs jutting up above, or to wait for the tide to go down, however long that may be. Was it coming in or going out? I couldn’t be sure. It seemed that I sat there for ages trying to decide what to do, long enough that I could feel the pattern of the waves, one small one, two medium ones, and then a big one, repeat. If I could time it right, I just might be able to scramble myself out of this between the big and small waves. With a little dexterity and channeling my inner ninja, hand over foot, I scaled the rocks and easily leapt to the other side. I looked back where I had been sitting and scoffed at the trepidation. I’ve got this, I thought.

When I arrived at Twilight Micro Camp a few hours later, a few others were already there, the first people I had seen all day. There was Paul from Liverpool, Steph from Brisbane, a section hiker from Italy who we called Ferrari, and Paris and Alastair from Auckland. They were already making dinner and comparing gear. Paul had two pots, a real luxury that he was teased about. Paris, sticking to his keto diet, was carrying a small cutting board and a variety of canned and fresh veggies; there was a collective jealousy about the novelty of fresh food felt almost immediately. I admitted to carrying an iPad and I was granted my luxury item without too much teasing. Eventually, we were also joined by Michael from DC, Danny from Michigan, and Tom from the UK who were all veteran thru-hikers of the PCT or Appalachian Trail, looking to do 40k days. We all watched a technicolor sunset light up the beach.

That first night I felt content inside my tent, cozy and warm. When I emerged to use the bathroom just after dark, I saw two small shadows dart out of my ray of light. What the heck was THAT? Back in my tent, the moonlight illuminated silhouettes of mosquitos hovering on my mesh liner like little vampires while larger creatures scurried around in the grass. I must have dozed off when the first possum poked its nose under my vestibule and discovered the bag of peanuts I left in an exposed external pocket. I awoke to rustling and shone my light before it ran away. They grew more bold to where I had to smack the ground or yell to scare them. I knew the peanuts were the attraction, but was afraid to open the zipper for fear of letting Dracula inside. I played this game with the possums for hours before I finally fell asleep and gave up. The morning yielded a hole in the peanuts bag, but not my backpack, thank goodness.

From Twilight Camp, I was one of the last to leave around 8:00 followed by Paris and Alastair. I passed Steph on the stairs leading down to 90 Mile Beach. She was struggling, but I didn’t yet know it would be the last time I saw her. Leading up to this tramp, I knew 90 Mile would be a mental hurdle, a seemingly endless trek over a desolate lonely terrain. I didn’t know how I would cope. At first, it was beautiful as barren places can sometimes be. Perfect seashells decorated the hard-packed sand like little gifts thrown forth from the sea. Sculpted waves of sand lined with a salty ridge swept far off into the distance. The horizon disappeared in a haze of salt spray and the shapes of other hikers ahead of me would melt out of sight as they pulled further ahead.

Shade was nearly impossible to come by beyond 10am when the sun overtook the dunes to my left. I walked and walked, occasionally turning around to see how far I had come just to be disappointed by how little progress I seemed to make. I stared at my feet. I listened to podcasts. I sang Taylor Swift at the top of my lungs. I counted my steps. I counted seashells. I counted waves. I yelled at the beach. I yelled at my aching feet. From time to time, a tourist bus or a random car would drive toward me down the beach, Maximum Overdrive style, with passengers staring at me, slack-jawed, disbelieving that someone would be out here on foot.

Everything hurt by the time I reached Bluff Camp and I was nearly the last to arrive. I hadn’t seen anyone except Paris and Alastair all day. It felt like I must be the only one suffering. Today I met Matt and Sasha from the UK, Hunter from near Queenstown, and Hannah and Ben from Vermont. I was too shattered to even walk out for sunset, but sharing stories about sore limbs and mind-numbing boredom on the beach made me feel a sense of camaraderie, like I’m not really in this alone. Wild horses regarded us with some curiosity, circling the camp. Knowing they were nearby made it a magical night even if my eyes were shut tight as soon as my head hit the pillow.

The next two days were more of the same, but darker. I took to stabbing my trekking poles into the spongy sand (shock absorption caused them to cheerily bounce back as if nothing had happened, which is very unsatisfying when you’re angry, like slamming a soft close door) and yelling “FUCK YOU, BEACH!” There was no one to hear me. “I hate this FUCKing beach!!” “And why does it SMELL? ARGH, it smells SO BAD!” I grew monstrous festering blisters and developed a heat rash around my waist. I was sunburned and thirsty. I played a game of stopping for a drink every 15 mins and allowed myself a proper break every two hours where I would eat a snack. Time became abstract. At the end of the third day, I had just taken my last sip of the 3 liters of water I carried when a pickup truck drove straight toward me. A woman rolled down her window like a mirage and introduced herself as Tania. She said, “My place is just up ahead with the green flag on the bluff. You’re welcome to stay if you’d like.” I just nodded, uncertain if she was real. She said she had a warm shower waiting for me. She turned to drive back where she had come from when she asked how I was doing on water. I told her it was gone and she poured the rest of her own bottle into mine. When her truck disappeared again and I could see I had only about 500 more meters to go, I cried for the first time. Sobs erupted from somewhere deep inside. The beach was defeating me and I hated it. I’m not easily defeated. When I had exhausted whatever demons had caused this outburst, I wiped my eyes, blew my nose, and did the only thing I could do. I kept walking.

At Utea Park, Tania made me a refreshing blueberry smoothie filled to the brim with the sweetest berries I have ever tasted. I took a hot shower with free soap and gathered together with the rest of the gang, comparing sunburns, parched lips, and pulsating blisters. It was at camp in the evenings when I felt like part of a larger whole, but we had not quite bonded enough to spend the days together so daytime was reserved for yelling, crying, and cursing. It was nearly dark when Kirby, Mayan, and Toby emerged from the beach. We were all aghast that they had been walking even further than the rest of us, camping in the bush the previous two nights because they just couldn’t make it the whole way. Selfishly, I felt relieved that I wasn’t the only one struggling, but seeing their exhausted faces I also felt empathetic.

As the town of Ahipara grew ever so slightly closer over the length of Day 4, my face had weathered in the sun. The tips of my ears were blistered and peeling. I knew I had about 2 hours left to go, yet two women who were pleasantly biking past said “only 30 mins left to go!” and I wanted to throw a seashell into their spokes. A Kiwi couple walking toward me stopped and asked where I had come from. When I said, “Cape Reinga” without any irony, the man guffawed. “Cape Reinga?! That must have taken days!” I told him 4 days and they said, “Wow! Good on ya!” I hobbled into Ahipara, feeling proud of the 100km under my belt, but also unsure in my ability to do this. That is, until I commiserated with my fellow trampers and learned that even some of the veterans were feeling the burn. My first challenge was complete, but there was little reprieve as now I needed to regroup and prepare for the forest.