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Faces of thru-hiking

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May 2019 Issue

Divided by age, nationality, experience and motives, Te Araroa Trail walkers couldn’t be more different. Wilderness talks to veterans of the trail and discovers it’s a sense of accomplishment that unites them.

Name: Owen Vaughan
Age: 58
Nationality: New Zealand
Base pack weight: 6.5kg (before food and water)
Weight lost on trail: 18kg
Longest day: 47km
Trail breakfast: One Square Meal or muesli
Favourite dinner: Spiced lentils, Back Country Cuisine dehydrated meals or pasta and potato mash
Luxury item: iPad

With 60 on the horizon, Owen Vaughan decided the Te Araroa Trail was now or never.

“I’ve been to quite a few funerals in the last few years, and all these people had ideas and hopes, and they never got to achieve them. It was a case of doing it now while I can,” Vaughan says.

Though Vaughan is a keen tramper who has led multi-day walks on Milton Rotary fundraising trips, he had never walked more than five consecutive days before. But by the end of his first week on the trail, as he began clocking 30km days, his body was adjusting to the new routine.

“My metabolism changed by Kerikeri, and I was getting hungrier all the time. By the time I got to Auckland, I had lost 9kg,” he says. By trail’s end, Vaughan weighed what he did when he left school.

The simple act of walking every day towards a goal gave him a new perspective.

“Walking is not lucrative, and during the process I decided you don’t need things – all you need is shelter, food, friends and family,” he says.

“I did miss the consistency of eating cooked food with vegetables, hot showers and being with family, but you develop a routine and work out ways to communicate – I ended up getting closer to members of my family.”

By the time Vaughan reached the South Island, his fitness was at an all-time high.

“I was happy to walk at my own pace, and I would rarely go above 4km in an hour, but my pulse was always down, and that’s when I realised I was damn fit,” he says.

“My legs still get sore, but recovery was almost instant. It’s a great feeling, and long may it last.”

Arriving at Bluff was an emotional moment for Vaughan, who walked the trail for Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand.

“I went up to the cafe, and a waitress walked out and asked if I had just finished the Te Araroa. The tears started rolling and didn’t stop for a couple of hours. Apparently, a lot of TA guys blubber when they finish.”

Jonathan and Angie celebrate completing the TA

Name: Jonathan Bertholet and Angie Theys
Age: 27
Nationality: Belgium
Base pack weight: 10kg
Weight lost on trail: 5kg, 8kg
Longest day: 37km
Trail breakfast: Muesli bars
Favourite dinner: Spiced red lentilsand couscous wraps
Luxury item: A book

Walking 3000km might not appeal to many couples, but for newlyweds Jonathan Bertholet and Angie Theys, it was the ideal honeymoon.

“I had dreamed of walking a long distance trail for a long time, and my wife wanted to go to New Zealand, so it was perfect – and we are still together,” Bertholet laughs.

At times exhausting and demanding, Bertholet says the trail has brought them closer, but admits it’s an intense test for any couple so “maybe do it before the wedding”.

More so than the landscapes, Bertholet rated the people they met on their journey as the highlight.

Where many Te Araroa walkers hike solo, or in twos or threes, the couple joined a band of walkers that became known on the trail as ‘the big group of seven’.

Bertholet says the trail would have been a completely different experience without the diverse members, who hailed from the USA, Holland, Switzerland and Germany.

“At first we were a group, and finally we were a real trail family – we supported and motivated each other all along,” he says.

“We had some amazing moments, but also some disagreements, and even then we stayed together and learned a lot about ourselves.”

A champagne finish at Bluff was an emotional moment for the group, who had walked nearly 1400km together.

“In some ways we wanted it to finish, but in others we didn’t ever want it to – that would mean starting on something different,” he says.

Julie Stacey walked the TA to celebrate becoming a New Zealand citizen

Name: Julie Stacey
Age: 47
Nationality: UK/NZ
Pack weight: 12kg (including food)
Weight lost on trail: 5kg
Longest day: 42km
Trail breakfast: Porridge with fruit
Favourite dinner: Backcountry Cuisine
Luxury item: Inflatable pillow

“To be honest, before the Te Araroa, I wasn’t really a hiker,” Julie ‘Tiny Tramper’ Stacey admits.

“You become a thru-hiker when you thru-hike – even for the experienced trampers out there, nothing can prepare you for the trail.”

Stacey was 45 when she took on the trail to commemorate her new citizenship.

“I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate becoming a Kiwi than walking the length of New Zealand,” she says.

Due to a spate of bad weather, her route was an unconventional “flip flop” which saw her finish the southernmost section before returning for the trail she had missed.

She officially finished in Tekapo with a group of walkers, and says if it weren’t for plans to visit family, she would have kept on walking to Bluff – such was her enjoyment of the trail.

“It was a really overwhelming feeling – you feel like you become part of a special community, one of just a few people really who has done this.”

New to hiking when she set off, Stacey has come out of the Te Araroa a seasoned hiker.

“It’s given me the confidence to face my fears in the backcountry. I was a novice before, afraid of crossing rivers, mountains and heights, but I’ve come out so much more confident.”

As with many who complete a thru-hike, Stacey found it hard to hang up her boots once she stopped.

“People talk about the post trail blues, and I definitely felt that. All of a sudden you’re not part of a community, and you don’t have this purpose you’ve had every day for four months,” she says.

In the year since completing the Te Araroa, Stacey has ticked off many of New Zealand’s classic tramps, and hopes to walk more long-distance trails.

A lack of tramping experience was no barrier for Tina Spinler, who finished the TA this year

Name: Tina Spinler
Age: 30
Nationality: Germany
Base pack weight: 8kg
Weight lost on trail: 5kg
Longest day: 37km
Trail breakfast: Oats with chocolate chips and protein powder
Favourite dinner: Beef two-minute noodles with potato mash, peas and tuna
Luxury item: Vietnamese coffee maker

After walking a handful of day hikes around Glenorchy, Tina Spinler decided to commit to New Zealand’s longest trail.

She had little to no training under her belt when she set off from Cape Reinga to walk the infamously gruelling 90 Mile Beach.

“My first few days of walking really sucked, but the last days of road walking towards Bluff were super easy, as I had the motivation to finish,” she says.

“I’m happy I started in the north so I would be prepared for the South Island – if I went the other way I wouldn’t have been ready, fitness-wise, but my fitness improved quickly.”

Once adjusted to the wake, walk, sleep routine, Spinler came to enjoy the simple lifestyle, but admits struggling to get through arduous road walking days.

“There were a lot of times when the road walking was hard on my feet, but at the end of the day, you forget about it – you just have to get through the day, and by evening you’re fine,” she says.

Meeting people from around the world and embracing nature were the highlights of the trail for Spinler, who says she’s finished with long-distance trails for now and is back at work in Queenstown.

She’s happy to be reunited with her favourite steak restaurant, which she missed more than anything on her journey.