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March 2013 Issue
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The best long trail in the world

Rob Wakelin is the CEO of the Te Araroa Trail. Photo: Josh Gale

Wilderness meets the new CEO of the Te Araora Trail Trust and finds a man determined to make the long distance trail a household name

The new CEO of Te Araroa Trail Trust has a bold vision for the trail: he wants it on every Kiwi’s bucket list.

To help make it happen, he’d like an All Black to walk it.

“If someone like Richie McCaw walked it, Te Araroa Trail would become a household name,” says Rob Wakelin who took over from trust founder Geoff Chapple in April 2012.

Chapple left to work on a book called Terrain: South Island which will be based on discussions he has with geologists as they walk together across some of the memorable landscapes on Te Araroa Trail’s South Island route.

I caught up with Wakelin for coffee and he talked passionately about the trail and some of his ideas to make it the best long-distance trail in the world – one of the Trust’s vision statements.

Wakelin is annoyed many Kiwis confuse Te Araroa with the Prime Minister’s National Cycle Trail and aims to change this common misunderstanding.

“The concept of a long hiking expedition isn’t that huge in New Zealand, but if you Google it you find trails the world over, and a really hardcore community of through hikers that want to tick every box,” Wakelin says. “Now that a handful has done Te Araroa, word is starting to filter through internationally, but arguably more quickly than at home.”

To raise the trail’s profile, Wakelin would like to find a prominent New Zealander – preferably an All Black – to walk it and to make a television show about the journey.

“The country is slowly, but surely starting to have this big discussion about our national identity and I think the ingredients are there for Te Araroa to feature in that discussion somewhere as one of the great Kiwi rites of passage,” Wakelin says.

He says there is somewhere between 70 or 80 through-hikers walking the trail this year, up from 40 or 50 last year.

Wakelin wants to increase this number, but says there will never be enough through-walkers to sustain the trail into the future.

Instead of depending on long walkers, Wakelin wants to encourage Kiwis to walk the trail in their own way. He has identified different groups of walkers and aims to encourage all of them to get out there on the trail.

“We still want to work hard to make the long walk the ultimate achievement, but it’s not the only way to do it,” Wakelin says. “We’ve broken down groups to section walkers, those people who maybe walk a week at a time, weekend walkers, day walkers and even people who don’t want to go too far from home.

“It’s not all about going up the Richmond Range or the Tararuas; those places will always be there for people who want them, but for those who want an easier experience we’ve got options as well.

“We’ve heard feedback from a lot of our walkers that the coastal walk on the North Shore in Auckland is one of the most spectacular parts of the trail.

“There’s something for everyone and that’s where the information we provide has to improve.”

Wakelin comes from a sport management background and has worked for Wellington Rugby Football Union, Waikato Rugby Union, Piha Surf Life Saving and Northland Rugby League before starting with Te Araroa Trail.

He was awarded the Sport Waitakere Administrator of the Year award in both 2008 and 2009 and won the Waitakere Enterprise Young Business Person of the Year award in 2009.

When he started his new role, Wakelin sat down with the trustees and together they developed a strategy plan for 2015.

The upshot of the plan is the Trust wants the trail to be a safe and easily navigated journey showcasing New Zealand and for it to be maintained and driven by volunteers around the country.

This year Wakelin wants to focus on completing about 15 unfinished sections of the trail and on creating an inventory system for the roughly 150 tracks that make up the trail.

Keeping tabs of which tracks need to be maintained and by who is no easy feat and is going to take more than a few keen volunteers with clippers.

“Geoff [Chapple] has done a great job at leaving the Trust quite cashed up, but it’s going to go downhill unless we establish new income streams and partnerships,” says Wakelin. “There’s plenty of opportunity in that direction because I think the trail is a great story to tell.

“The concept of corporations supporting Te Araroa has to be engaged because the reality is someone has to pay the bills.

“We could be purist about it and have a very small $10,000 budget, but that’s nowhere enough to maintain the tracks let alone everything else.”

Doing deals with corporations is sure to rankle some of the Trust’s executives and supporters and Wakelin acknowledges he is already encountering opposition. However, he is pleased it’s being debated.

“I didn’t know a lot about the trail before I signed up, but the minute you start to investigate it, it just grows in your mind,” he says. “We can all help to build it; I’m one guy behind a desk so there’s only so much I can achieve.”