Hundreds of Te Araroa Trail walkers have enjoyed warmth and hospitality on Waikato’s Kaimango Road, thanks to a network of trail angels.
Mt Pirongia is a bittersweet milestone for Te Araroa Trail walkers.
Pahautea Hut, near the mountain’s summit, is the first hut southbound thru-hikers encounter on their journey to Bluff, though its comfort is short-lived.
From its front steps, Hihikiwi Track hurls walkers down Pirongia’s southern slopes over 6.4km of mud, root ladders and bogs – a vengeful welcome back for those who dared defy nature with a night indoors.
The walk – or squelch – takes up to six hours, and trampers emerge exhausted and caked in earth – the memories of last night’s bunk buried deep beneath rising cortisol levels.
But then, a little ways down Kaimango Road, fortune favours the battered, bruised and brave.
On a 2.5km stretch of the gravel country road, there lives a network of trail angels who take in hundreds of weary walkers every season.
Veteran trail angel Jo Macky has been hosting walkers since two bedraggled people turned up on a stormy night in 2014, looking like drenched cats.
“People kept just walking up the drive,” she says. “We don’t advertise – they just show up. It happened organically, and they don’t stop coming.”
For Macky’s neighbours Casey and Jon Huffstutler, the knock came a few seasons later, when walkers arrived at their door asking to fill their water bottles.
“After that, we got on the trail angels page on Facebook and said ‘hey, we’re here if you want to camp out’,” Casey says.
Since then, hundreds of walkers have accepted the famous Kaimango Road hospitality – the past season alone saw the neighbours host 340 walkers.
After the hellish descent from Pirongia, the welcome of a hot meal, shower and safe place to sleep is appreciated by all but is overwhelming for many.
“We’ve all been in tears sometimes – we had one walker stay, and it sounded like they certainly had a hard life,” Macky says. “They said they didn’t realise there were such nice people in the world, and we were just doing our natural thing.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Huffstutler’s have also bonded with those they offer shelter to.
“It’s amazing how many get in touch afterwards, sending postcards saying thank you so much,” Casey says.
The opportunity to stay on a lifestyle block is also a new experience for many trampers.
“They’re blown away when they go out to the garden – you can eat all of the flowers, and our food is all homegrown,” Casey says.
“It’s hard work to live our life, so it inspires me to keep doing what we’re doing – it’s an inspiration for how we live,” Macky says.
Like his neighbours, Kaimango Road photographer Tom Lee also experienced a serendipitous introduction to the trail walkers.
“My partner Hannah rescued a young Swiss guy in the rain one night, so we welcomed him in and gave him dinner,” Lee says.
The chance meeting inspired the couple to continue hosting walkers, and it set Lee’s Te Araroa Trail Project into motion. The photography project is an attempt to capture the diverse faces and stories of the trail walkers as they find refuge on Kaimango Road.
Lee’s work is displayed on his Instagram page @the_te_araroa_project, and he hopes to one day compile his images and interviews into an exhibition and book.
“Photography is my job, but it’s always good to have a long term project you’re working on, and it’s free candy in that sense – the trade was there, I just had to find out if the walkers were willing to participate,” he says.
The experiences Lee has shared with walkers have inspired him, “but not to go on a 3000km walk,” he laughs.
“There seem to be common themes in people looking for answers that they weren’t getting day-to-day, and it makes you appreciate that there is more to life than having a good time, being at home and working nine to five,” he says.
“It’s such a massive feat, and seeing how hard their journey is inspires me to do better in my life and the things I’m putting my energy into.”
Much to their disappointment, the Kaimango Road angels are expecting a reduced Te Araroa season for 2020/21 due to Covid-19, but last year’s increase in Kiwi walkers is reason to hope for a strong turnout of local trampers on the trail.
And those that make the journey will have a slice of Kaimango hospitality to look forward to.