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Keeping it in the family

Image of the April 2021 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
April 2021 Issue

Walking the TA as a family could be the biggest adventure, writes Katrina Megget

Lake Pukaki-based parents Anna and Mike Bacchus wanted to go on an adventure with their daughters Alexis and Bailey (at the start aged five and seven). With Te Araroa Trail passing their front door on the southern shores of Lake Pukaki, they would often watch trampers with huge backpacks stride past. A seed was sown.

“We weren’t quite brave enough to pull the kids out of school and leave our business for the time it would take to do the trail, so instead we set the goal of aiming to finish it by the time the kids finish school,” Anna says.

Walking northbound, the family started the trail in December 2019, taking on sections in the school holidays and have now walked more than 80km. Anna and Mike, who are both keen cyclists and outdoor lovers, see the TA as a chance to pass that hiking passion onto their children, who love being outdoors but aren’t outdoorsy in the traditional sense.

“I hope they learn to appreciate and respect our environment as well as learning about the details of it – the geography, geology, climate, flora, and fauna [as well as survival skills],” says Mike. “I know they will be stronger people and I want them to know that if they ever get stressed out in a modern hectic life they can go back to the bush.”

Walking the TA as a family has become more popular, especially with COVID-19 reducing the ability to travel, says Mark Weatherall, executive director of the Te Araroa Trust.

“We have seen a large increase in the number of families doing the trail, and more and more Kiwis are aware of the trail and therefore keen to do sections,” Weatherall says.

The youngest to thru-walk the trail had been seven years old, but Weatherall says this season a five-and-a-half-year-old is walking the full length with their family. “I am thrilled to see families getting out there and experiencing the TA – it’s an amazing opportunity to meet people, be with nature, and enjoy what our amazing country has to offer.”

But the logistics of a family tramp of the TA can be difficult and some sections challenging, as the Bacchus’ have discovered. Mike carries the bulk of the gear – two tents, the cooking equipment, and Alexis’ sleeping kit – while Anna carries her kit, Alexis’ clothes, the food and first aid kit.

“Bailey [now nine] really surprised us and has taken her own pack with sleeping bag and mat, clothes and water, and hasn’t asked us yet to take her stuff,” says Anna, adding Alexis [now six] just carries a pack with her water and a jacket.

The family had hoped to walk 10km a day, thinking that would be achievable, but Anna says Southland’s Longwood Forest highlighted how slow the trail can be. “I think we averaged 1km an hour, so we had to readjust our goals and be happy with whatever we managed.”

The more realistic average for little legs is 6km a day, she says.

Scott Grierson said a challenge of family trail life was parenting in the presence of strangers. Photo: Scott Grierson

For Americans Scott and Rina Grierson, their TA odyssey over the 2018/19 season was their last big adventure as a family before their three sons left the nest. At the time of their attempted thru-hike, Stanley, Stephen and Spencer were 18, 16 and 11 respectively and on some days on the trail the family clocked 30km. But carrying gear was tricky when teenage boys eat so much, Scott says, so the family shuffled the weight each day based on how everyone was feeling.

Scott notes that one of the biggest challenges of trail life as a family was parenting in the presence of strangers. “Private opportunities to correct errant behaviours or to discuss teachable family moments can get complicated along the busy trail,” he says.

The other challenge was the terrain of the TA. At one point, Spencer was up to his waist in mud in Northland’s Raetea Forest, Scott recalls.

While the experience and memories shared of thru-walking was special, Scott says section walking would be just as good and provide greater flexibility. “If the goal is to bond with younger family members, share adventures and learn skills and grow in the outdoors, then section hiking gets that done. A family unit can traverse the whole Te Araroa route in a season but based on the totality of our experiences, sampling sections as a family is the best option.”

It will be many years before the Bacchus family get to Northland’s Raetea Forest, but based on their experience to date, Anna and Mike are proud of how their girls have handled trail life, dealing with long days, near-horizontal rain and the muddy Longwood Forest.

“There was a bit of grizzling to begin with but once they get past that they enjoy it. It’s interesting that the bits where you think they will lose it completely, they find some funny side to it and just keep going,” says Anna.

For kids, the TA is like a giant playground; it’s all just one big adventure. As Alexis puts it: “The TA is good because there are trees to climb over and mud pits that we walk through and it’s really fun. And it’s really fun sharing a tent with mum.”

Advice for families

  • Start small: Not sure if your kids will like it? Introduce them to local or more manageable sections first.
  • Don’t rush: Take breaks and rest days; it’s not a race.
  • Plan your budget: Accommodation options in the North Island can get pricey.
  • Research: Read up on what to expect from each section and be aware that some sections may not be suitable for young children.
  • Flexibility: Be flexible and ready to move your goalposts and expectations. Section hiking provides more flexibility with the gear needed.
  • Think like a child: Embrace the child within and keep in mind what might be enjoyable for children.