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Walk your own trail

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April 2021 Issue

As three very different trampers discovered, there is more than one way to walk Te Araroa Trail.

Jay Mangels didn’t want it to end.

Five metres from Bluff’s iconic signpost, his feet were granite, his pace glacial. It took him half an hour to cover the final few paces, the tears flowing.

Mangels had just completed the South Island section of Te Araroa and would make the trip again from Germany a few years later to walk from Cape Reinga to Wellington.

His feet were veterans of wild Alaska, Patagonia, South Africa and Europe, but nothing had compared to the freedom and beauty of Te Araroa.

“You never really leave the trail once you’ve done it, it’s always a part of you,” he says.

Mangels has made the pilgrimage to Aotearoa many times since 1990 – he says his biggest mistake in life was failing to secure citizenship with a green card marriage. “I would have married a fence post or a bridge if I had to – my wife knows that,” he laughs.

Describing himself as an EFI walker, Mangels is a thru-hiker who walks Every F*****g Inch of the trail. This means no shortcuts, no hitchhiking, and repeating sections if circumstances require leaving the trail. “I was offered a lot of rides, and I would never accept. It’s nice if you have some spare food, and I will always accept that, but never a ride,” he says.

For Mangels, the trail is about the journey, not the destination, and he doesn’t connect with those who hurry to the finish line.

He traveled at his own pace, and found the walking meditative, rarely desiring music or stimulus other than what nature provided. “It’s so nice to listen to your own breathing, the stillness, the water, the wind – you’re a lot more connected with nature,” he says.

“The entire time you are hiking, you don’t have to make decisions; you just put on your shoes and walk south, that’s it. It’s very relaxing,” he says. And the sense of freedom is incomparable.

“I flew into Christchurch, picked up a rental, and drove it to Picton. I dropped it off, and walked 2km to the campground, and I felt the final bubble disappearing from around me,” Mangels says. “All I had was my backpack, tent and everything I had to carry. It was complete freedom, and I thought this is going to be it for the next 3000km.”

Kiwi tramper Lauren Norman enjoyed a similar sensation when she walked Te Araroa solo in 2018/19. “It’s very liberating, knowing as long as you’ve got a water source, you can keep yourself sustained with what’s on your back,” she says.

Norman wasn’t fussed about walking EFI, and says the trail is about walking your own path.

“I hitched the road sections. I didn’t have any interest in walking them, and I wasn’t hung up on walking every step,” she says.

Norman walked extra kilometres elsewhere, such as the Around the Mountain Track in Tongariro National Park and the Routeburn and Kepler Great Walks.

“Some people don’t want to let you say you’ve done the thru-hike unless you’ve walked every step, but I think that’s lame as,” she laughs.

Aucklander Denis Stanton is ticking off sections of Te Araroa

Norman says the scenery was never boring, but music and podcasts helped her fill the quiet and occupy her mind on long days. “You get to the point you have thought about everything in the conceivable universe and you have nothing left to think about,” she says.

The notion that every thru-hiker should have a life-affirming revelation on the trail is a cliche Norman rejects.

“People always ask if it changed my life and what revelations I had. It cracks me up,” she says. “The majority of walkers seem to be looking for something, and I’ve been pretty open about the fact I walked it because I love the outdoors, and I’m okay with not having a huge epiphany.”

However, two experiences “take the cake equally” for Norman’s lowest points on the trail. The first was losing her way near Te Kuiti, and spending hours bush bashing through gorse and over farms. The second; becoming “violently ill” one night after drinking bad water near Lake Tekapo. Between hurls outside her tent, Norman rolled over and appreciated the area’s renowned night sky; serenity amongst spews.

The kindness of trail angels is a memory Norman carries with her, and she remains in touch with several hospitable strangers. An “outrageous chain” of spontaneous encounters between Whanganui and Bulls saw her enjoy rides, cooked breakfasts, showers, clean sheets and restaurant dinners, all courtesy of friendly locals – a welcome change from the quiet bush. That Kiwi warmth was experienced everywhere Norman went, and she never felt unsafe hitchhiking, walking or camping alone, except on her first night spent on 90 Mile Beach. “I had possums outside my tent, and I had never heard a sound like that before – I thought I was in hell,” she says.

Auckland section walker Denis Stanton says there is a definite distinction between purists and those who are there to enjoy themselves.

Thru-hiker Jay Mangels says Te Araroa never leaves you

“In my experience, Americans seem to want to do every step, and Germans hitch the roads and look a bit more cheerful,” he says.

Stanton became involved with Te Araroa in 2015 when hosting thru-hikers from the USA who had met his son on the Pacific Crest Trail.

The following year, he got the call again to host more walkers and involved himself in Te Araroa Facebook groups to advise and assist walkers, and it was here he realised his experience was lacking. “I decided I needed to do something for credibility, so I walked the first 200km from Cape Reinga,” he says.

The following year, he walked the Richmond Range section – often a Te Araroa favourite – and has since joined the dots south of St Arnaud. “I definitely have some of the thru-hiker mentality in wanting to follow the line on the trail,” he says.

Section walking allows Stanton to pack lighter than thru-hikers, and he fits everything for up to 10 days in a 36l pack, with his food weighing in at under 2.5kg.

“There’s a quote: ‘No boy ever starved to death on a weekend’. If my food is a bit light, it won’t matter, as I’ll be catching up at the end of the week,” he says.

Now retired, Stanton has been invited to join the TA’s Auckland Regional Trust and assist with the upkeep of the trail. He doesn’t know how much of the trail he will tick off over time, but insists every year is his last.

“New Zealanders are becoming more aware of the trail, and we’re spreading the idea that you don’t have to do five months – you could just do a bit, and there might be a bit right where you live,” he says.