The Te Araroa Trust relies extensively on volunteers through a network of regional trusts to sustain, promote and support the trail.
Matt Claridge, executive director of Te Araroa Trust, is straight to the point. “Without volunteers, there would be no trail. Sure, the trail is on terra firma and it’s a route, but the trail is really about the people. Those walking it, those connected to it, the trail angels, and those that volunteer.”
With only two employees – Claridge and trail manager Daniel Radford – the trust relies on volunteers. Seven regional trusts make up the formal network and sit under the national Te Araroa Trust. The focus is primarily on trail maintenance for individual areas, as well as building relationships that support trail maintenance and development.
“Each regional trust is uniquely independent, with its own operating rhythm,” says Claridge. “They can apply for funding for maintenance and special projects, and organise working bees.”
The national trust provides the resources, such as funding, to support the work of the regional trusts.
“One hundred per cent of donations go towards trail maintenance, and in the last six months we’ve introduced a more formalised process to distribute donations directly to regional trusts for maintenance in their area,” says Claridge.
“Our trail manager oversees the national maintenance budget, which is dedicated to hotspots and areas of high need urgency.”
Claridge estimates there may be as many as 4000 thru-hikers on the trail this season, and they might be unaware that it’s not a government-owned trail or entity.
“Walker registrations are twice that compared to pre-Covid times, although not everyone registers so it’s hard to get an accurate picture,” he says. Of those registered walkers, Claridge says only about a third donate, which is a big shortfall. “Donations, both of time and money, are incredibly important.”
As 60 per cent of the trail is on public conservation land, the Department of Conservation and Outdoor Access Commission are the two most important partners for Te Araroa. Even under the remit of DOC though, volunteers are crucial to keeping the trail maintained.
Emma Gregg, from Palmerston North, is a keen volunteer who’s been involved in several hut projects over the years.
“I really value the backcountry and the hut network, and they need looking after,” she says. “Once a project is done, I feel invested in that particular hut, and it gives a good sense of belonging to the place.”
In January 2023, Gregg led a team of volunteers to revamp Te Matawai Hut in Tararua Forest Park on Te Araroa. The Greater Wellington Backcountry Network (GWBN) organised and funded the renovations for the DOC hut.
“We did a total repaint of all the exterior, interior and roof, as well as general maintenance and cleaning,” Gregg says. “We installed a manhole, repaired the front door, cleaned the gutters, fixed windows and window latches, and replaced parts of the benches that had [sadly] been used for firewood.”
There are around 70–75 regional trustees, who become involved because they’re that way inclined, not to put it on their CV, says Claridge. “Our trustees are often keen trampers who share the same values and community spirit.”
Jason Roxburgh, from Thames, gives around 3–4 days a month as chair of Te Araroa Waikato Trust. Roxburgh is self-employed and he’s been in biodiversity conservation all his life. He sees volunteering as a way of giving back and using his skills.
“The way I see it, someone’s got to do it and that someone can be me,” he says. “I get a huge sense of satisfaction that I’m helping people to have the same experience I’ve had long-distance walking. I get a lot out of enabling other people to get the benefits that I’ve felt.”
He’s done a lot of long-distance walking overseas and walked 1800km of Te Araroa, from Cape Reinga to Anakiwa, last summer.
“I think Te Araroa is the opportunity of a lifetime,” Roxburgh says. “All New Zealanders should try and do at least part of it if they’re able to, or at least know what – and where – it is. It’s a fantastic walk; the North Island showcases the cultural side of New Zealand and the South Island showcases the backcountry grandeur.”
Roxburgh plans to finish the full route next year. “Long walking is so great for mental and physical health, and you can truly say you’ve seen New Zealand if you’ve walked from one end to the other. You really get to see and feel the country.”
Te Araroa Manawatū Trust looks after more than 100km of the trail, or around five days of walking, from Bulls to Levin. The seven trustees are people who’ve walked the trail, are keen trampers, or trail angels. They all love spending time outdoors and regularly give their time and energy keeping their section maintained. The trustees have a roster for cleaning, tidying and general maintenance once a month during the walking season and every couple of months outside it.
Palmerston North local Brian Way has been a trustee for a year, joining when he retired in 2022. “I used to work closely with the trust when I was the parks officer for Palmerston North City Council, as the trail uses a lot of the city walkways. It gives me a focus in retirement, and keeps me socially involved and engaged.”
Way organises regular work parties. “We have a good sized group of volunteers – around 10 regulars – and at least a dozen more who come along less often.”
It’s the only trust that owns an asset in the form of the Ian and Franks Hut (aka Tokomaru Shelter), an old farm building on Burttons Track that was refurbished around four years ago. The trustees transformed it from a derelict building to a six-bunk hut with an adjoining shelter and a toilet.
“When we went to clean the shelter, we found the long drop toilet had become a ‘short drop’ and a nearby landowner was having issues with human waste on his property,” says Way. “Over two days our team of six dug a new hole and moved the building to provide much better toileting facilities. Managing human waste is really important, as it’s part of caring for the environment and waterways.”
Track maintenance often needs specialist skills. In 2022 heavy rain and storms brought down three big trees on the Mangaokewa Track, south of Te Kuiti. The trees could only be cleared by people with the right experience. In January this year, a team of six from Te Araroa Waikato Trust spent a 14-hour day clearing the trees, re-painting track bollards and cutting back vegetation along the 2-3km stretch of track.
“One of the trees had been there for around six months, and the other two came down in a storm last November,” says Roxburgh. “Big windfalls like that require big chainsaws and lots of people to clear; the trees would still be there in five years’ time if the volunteers hadn’t done it.”
John Birch sits on both the Te Araroa Waikato Trust and the Te Araroa National Trust, and like Roxburgh loves getting stuck in. “I walked the trail in 2020-21, and I want to give back. I like rolling my sleeves up and getting out in the bush; chainsawing trees and clearing bush is my happy place. The majority of volunteers believe in, and want to do something for, Te Araroa, but also just enjoy the hard yakka of trail maintenance.”
Last year Birch took part in a working bee in the Mangaokewa section of trail, south of Te Kuiti. “Part of the trail had fallen away in places along the riverbank and was overgrown. It’s not a particularly pretty part of the track and needed sorting out. It was hard mahi, clearing through 3km of the track, but like walking the trail you get to engage with some pretty awesome people.”
The seven trusts don’t have coverage across the whole country, but Claridge is hoping to form trusts in Nelson, Marlborough and mid-Canterbury as and when they’re needed.
“We’re also developing membership options for the trail, and a better way to coordinate volunteers,” he says.
Birch adds: “We also need volunteers for other things, like communications, coordination, and fundraising, and we’re always keen for people to join us.”
– To get involved and support the Te Araroa Trust, visit www.teararoa.org.nz to donate or get in touch with your local regional trust.