“So, why are you walking this trail?” It wasn’t even a week into my Te Araroa journey when I was first confronted with this question. I had just met Peter, a carver living in rural Takahue, not far from Kaitaia in Northland, who had offered me to stay at his place for the night. People like Peter are called trail angels in the through-hiking community as they offer their help to hikers, which often includes food, accommodation or pickup and drop-off services. He had probably met countless walkers over the years, and I guess he had heard similar answers before. “I don’t really know…. I guess I just love walking.”
Here I was, 130km into the biggest challenge of my life, and I couldn’t even explain why I was doing this. I had just survived the torture that is 90 Mile Beach: endless loneliness, concrete-like sand and the unforgiving elements. I knew there had to be a different reason, a deeper intention I had yet to find. As it turned out I was right in my assumption, but it would take me a long time to get to that point.
To explain my situation I have to go back in time, to the point where I moved to New Zealand in 2019. Love brought me here, a long way from Germany where I was born and lived most my life to that point. Yet I had decided to move to this new country, and start a new life at the opposite side of the world. It didn’t take me long to settle into my new life in Wellington, find friends and a job. I enjoyed my life here – until Covid happened. All of a sudden living in New Zealand stopped being a voluntary choice, and started becoming the only available option. I felt stuck in a foreign country, far away from my family. I was left without the feeling of belonging, the feeling of being rooted here, the feeling of home.
Somewhere around that time I must have made the subconscious decision to change something. While I had always wanted to do a long-distance hike, Te Araroa seemed suddenly like the perfect opportunity. I was meant to walk it. It was meant to happen now, with the whole world in lockdown and the little oasis called Aotearoa I was lucky to be in. So I talked to my partner who was surprisingly supportive of my plans, and made my way up to Cape Reinga to the beginning of the long pathway.
Weeks after my meeting with Peter I found myself in a canoe on the Whanganui river, a place of huge cultural and spiritual importance to Māori. In these lush green river canyons under the thundering sound of water flowing through wild rapids, I felt for the first time a deep connection with my surroundings. Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au (I am the river. The river is me) as the Whanganui iwi use to say. I felt one with the awa (river), one with taiao (nature), one with the whenua (land).
And I was not alone. I had found friends, a fellowship, a trail family. Together we paddled the river and finished in Whanganui, where we stayed with Rob and George. They were some of the first trail angels for Te Araroa, although the see themselves more as kaitiaki (guardians). Through them and their amazing hospitality I learned so much about mana and aroha, and I finally understood why I had started this journey.
It was about creating my own story here. Exploring whenua and tangata (people), and finding my connection to both. While I was sitting here with my newly found whanau (family), I understood my own intentions. Te Araroa had made it possible for me to experience Aotearoa from a different side, off the usual tourist tracks, into areas unknown even to many kiwis who grew up here. I saw colourful birds, learned about native plants, enjoyed lonely beaches and pristine mountain rivers. I walked through many small towns and met the people. I felt hospitality and warmth, often when least expected.
From Whanganui on I was a different person. Every step confirmed my thoughts. I felt good, although an old foot injury had just flared up again. Through the Tararuas and the Kapiti Coast, I made it back into Wellington and the end of the North Island section of Te Araroa. The end of 1700km – to get here I had to walk, run, cycle, paddle, hitchhike and even slide. But coming into Wellington I felt something new, something I had not felt in a very long time.
I felt home.