Meet the Kiwis working behind the scenes on the Te Araroa Trail, offering accommodation, food, transport and care for tired trampers walking our longest path.
Christmas Day, 2018 was a bit out of the ordinary for Tozan Delman.
His wife Jess was somewhere in the North Island, working her way towards Bluff.
Tozan was in his in-law’s barn in Central Otago, working his way through coding on his phone.
In several days, he would join Jess to walk the South Island leg of the Te Araroa Trail – but first, he had a website to set up.
The idea was simple, but until now unfulfilled – Trailangel.co.nz would be an online forum where Te Araroa Trail walkers could communicate with those offering accommodation, transport, food or general help, known to many as ‘Trail Angels’.
“I wanted to prove that if something is a good idea, nothing should stop you from doing it – you don’t need money or resources – it’s possible to make a website on a 4G network in a barn,” Delman says.
From its humble beginnings, the website has grown to nearly 1000 members, and Delman says there are daily interactions happening on the website and accompanying Facebook page.
“I thought if I could get even a few people on there, it would make the experience more enjoyable,” he says.
“Having it take off and take on a life of its own has been a joy to see.”
Random acts of kindness on the trail – known as ‘trail magic’ – can be a life saver, Delman says.
At Southland’s Martins Hut, he remembers enjoying cold refreshments left by a trail angel.
“We got to the hut after a hard day’s walk, and there was a chilly bin with a smiley face on it,” he says. Inside was cold soda, chocolate bars and fruit.
“There’s a guy that hikes it onto the trail and he refills it every weekend.”
Inspired by experiences on the Te Araroa, Tozan and Jess have enjoyed their first season of hosting walkers in their Wellington home.
They know just how much of a difference simple hospitality can make.
“Just offering someone the opportunity to be indoors out of the weather – that in itself is a great thing – but we’re going to do more,” Delman says. “We’re going to make you dinner, give you a beer, go the extra mile and give you 10 times what you need.
“If you’ve done a lot of walking you know what it’s like – you appreciate those small things like being able to sit on a sofa, wash your hands with running water and have a proper shower.”
Mark and Kerry Williams from Mangawhai are also determined to give back. After walking the trail in the 2018-19 season, the retired couple felt inspired to leave the experience better than they found it.
In their spare time, they get stuck in with track maintenance, traipsing shovels, clippers, pruners and hammers into sections of the trail.
In walking season, they open their lifestyle block to tired trampers, offering camping space in their orchard and beds in a sleepout, along with cold beer, toilets, showers, power and food.
“We just ask for $5 koha, if they feel obliged. Most do, and it helps us to pay for the beer,” Mark says.
For the couple, it provides an opportunity to relive their experiences of the track, and offer advice for the days ahead.
“It’s great to have a chat and offer them some comforts – by the time they get to us they’ve been through 90 Mile Beach and some of the worst parts of the trail,” Mark says.
The couple’s own Te Araroa adventure began with Kerry’s dream to walk 90 Mile Beach.
Having grown up in Kaitaia, the trip had long been on her radar.
“Then we started thinking, if we’re going to do 90 Mile Beach, why not just do the whole trail?” Mark says.
The couple loved their experiences of the track but had to pull out an agonising 200km from Bluff after a river crossing accident washed the pair downstream and broke Kerry’s arm.
They say they’ll complete the trail this month. Kerry rates the hospitality of trail angels as one of the track’s highlights.
“You get to be hosted along the way by a bit of Kiwiana, and every trail angel brings something different,” she says. “For people from overseas, it’s that Kiwi hospitality that you don’t get in a hut or campground.”
When Lynn Bartlam bumped into a pair of trail walkers near her home in Pirongia, she was oblivious to the pilgrimage of tired, muddy hikers streaming through her neighbourhood every summer.
Camping in a tent next to the road, the pair suggested Lynn and her husband Scott consider hosting walkers, as accommodation on the south side of Pirongia left a lot to be desired.
Being trampers themselves, they quickly agreed.
“We know what it’s like to come out of a multi-day tramp and have a nice meal – that’s not noodles – a hot shower and maybe a mattress. It’s like gold,” Bartlam says.
“We have a young family and not a huge amount of spare time, but we decided to give it a go, and here we are in the next season.”
Since opening up their home, the Bartlams have accommodated a steady trickle of walkers who they pick up from the trail 7km from their house.
“We have space in the paddock of our lifestyle block where they can put their tents up, and those who can’t face their tents and want to be dry, there’s the caravan option,” Bartlam says.
“I so admire what they’re doing, what they take on with their flaming big packs – it’s amazing; I get the easy bit.”
With Pirongia’s notoriously muddy section now behind them, Bartlam says walkers always appreciate a shower and a bite of dinner from the slow cooker.
“The mountain’s southern track is a muddy wet track even on a dry day, and walkers can be thrown in the deep end up to their thighs,” she says.
The family enjoys getting to know the walkers and their stories, and eldest son Liam, 9, has taken on the role of welcoming and initiating each new walker on the property.
A world map sits on the tabletop, marked with each walker’s origins.
“We always ask them where their journey started, and it’s never just Cape Reinga,” Bartlam says.
“It makes our little bubble of life on a lifestyle block open up somewhat.”
For Rob Firman and George Mills, the journey with Te Araroa started six years ago.
The Whanganui couple were walking along the river road in late December when they met an Alaskan woman walking south on the Te Araroa Trail.
She didn’t have accommodation plans, and Mills and Firman invited her to stay for Christmas – so beginning their role of kaitiaki.
Since that chance encounter, the couple have hosted more than a hundred walkers.
“We provide free accommodation, wifi, and meals for whatever length of time they need to stay and rest,” Firman says.
“We have places in the garden flat enough to put four tents, and we’ve converted the garden shed into two-bunk accommodation.
“We also have two covered-in areas, a front and back verandah, two spare rooms, couches, the living room floor, wherever – whatever it takes for us to support them to achieve their goal is the main objective.”
The pair hosted 28 walkers in the 2018-19 season, and are happy to host as many walkers as they can fit.
“As far as we’re concerned, it’s just another plate at the table,” Firman says.
The couple charges nothing for food and accommodation, but Firman says the hospitality they offer is really no big deal.
“As far as I’m concerned all we give is hospitality – somewhere to put their head down where they’ll be dry, safe, warm and comfortable,” he says.
“In my own travels, I met a lot of people along the way that were helpful, even if it was just a complete stranger saying ‘hello, where are you from?’.
“I remember thinking, if one day I can give something back to people, I will.”
Firman and his parents were born in Whanganui, and he loves sharing the Māori culture, the whenua and its history with walkers.
“I take them on guided tours through here, based on my childhood knowledge, early settler history and Māori history,” he says.
“It’s just wonderful having the world visit our place and not having to go so far from home.”