Walking Te Araroa can take around three to four months; a big time commitment for most hikers. Wilderness speaks to three people who left their jobs for the ultimate trail freedom.
Joseph Kearney is a builder. The 27-year-old had been working for a small Auckland building company for eight years when a friend returned from overseas in 2020 and asked if he’d like to do Te Araroa.
He abruptly decided he needed a change: “I said yes without really thinking of the repercussions, but as a builder there’s work in most places, so I wasn’t too worried about where I’d end up afterwards.”
Financially, things were easy for Kearney, as he moved back in with his parents to help save money just before the first Covid-19 lockdown. “I saved while I could work, and I didn’t have too many overheads. I was lucky I didn’t have a lot of costs like many people do, and while I was away, I only had a few monthly recurring payments to account for.”
It took eight months of saving, planning and preparation before his first thru-hike, and then Joseph spent 138 days on the trail. “It was amazing. I had such a good time. I learnt so much about myself, and that you can go so much further than you think when you’re ready to give up.”
Kearney’s Te Araroa experiences and the freedom from a job gave him the courage to set up his own building company.
“I never really had the confidence to solely work for myself, despite being a qualified builder for several years,” he says. “Now, I’ve been doing it successfully for the past 18 months. Completing Te Araroa changed my whole persona; it gave me more drive and ambition, and I strive for higher achievements in myself now.”
He’s thinking of doing a trip to the United States to do the Pacific Crest Trail in a couple of years, although “that one’s a bit harder to save for”.
Joshua Votaw, 37, is a New York lawyer. “Work-life balance in America is one of the worst in advanced economies,” he says. “Trying to keep everything together and taking care of the people around me over the last couple of years during the Covid-19 pandemic meant all of a sudden I couldn’t bear the thought of continuing my life in corporate America.
“People talk about the American Dream – work hard, play by the rules and you’ll get ahead in life, but no one ever tells you what’s on the other side of that dream. I’ve spent my whole life working full time, hustling, and I got there, and it turned out not to be everything. There’s nothing meaningful beyond the material stuff and the titles.”
Votaw decided to make his own guidebook about what’s beyond that sort of life. He fell in love with New Zealand in February 2020, when he visited for the first time. “It’s absolutely beautiful, in all the ways, and so I decided to walk Te Araroa, starting January 2023.”
He’d taken sabbaticals before, but his current company wouldn’t allow it, so he resigned.
“Putting my notice in and booking my flight were the hardest steps,” Votaw says. “Because then I had no choice, I was going down this path and there was nothing to do but react. I don’t have any kids, I’m not married, and I don’t have a girlfriend, so there’s nothing keeping me.
“I’ve realised there’s a lot of rooms in my heart that I’ve not really gone to in my 37 years, and there are many ways to either avoid them, or dive into them. There’s a quote that says ‘all of man’s problems stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone’, which absolutely applies to me, and I know it’s not doing me any good. I feel the healthiest thing for me is to strip myself of all my armour and go where it’s just me and the elements. For this to be successful means to have as little waiting for me on the back side as I can. I want to be able to go anywhere or do anything when I’m done with this.”
Votaw says that 10 years of prudence have left him financially able to afford this trip. “I don’t have trendy clothes, I live in a rent-stablised apartment that’s below market rate and have lived much below my means for years, preparing for something like this. I don’t come from money, I don’t have anyone supporting me, and I’m not a millionaire.”
As he’s not tied down in the same way as are many, preparation for the trip was not too difficult. A friend is watching his cat, and he’s sublet his apartment. He said: “I’ll be trying to keep my expenses as close to zero as possible while I’m away, and have cancelled or paused recurring payments where I can.”
Annika Ananias, a 35-year-old graphic designer from Germany, hiked Te Araroa’s South Island section in 2018 and the North Island in 2019-2020. She fell in love with New Zealand, and hiking, in 2007 during a semester studying in Auckland. She decided to tackle the TA as her first thru-hike.
“I was thinking of what to do before settling down and having a family, and I’d wanted to do the trail ever since it opened in 2011,” she says.
She tried to arrange a sabbatical with her employer, but it didn’t work out. “They didn’t want to do it, so I thought, OK, I’m going to quit because I really, really want to do it. I didn’t care about leaving because it was a dream, and incredibly important to me.”
But the dreaming never stopped, and Annika never settled down or got back to normal life. She’s since hiked her way around the world, including doing Kilimanjaro, Everest Base Camp, Annapurna, and more recently, the Pacific Crest Trail in the United States.
Annika freelances when she’s not on the trail and has a flat that she leaves empty when she’s away. She said: “I’m in a lucky position in that I got an inheritance, and I decided the way to deal with that was spending it on something cool.”
In thru-hiking, Annika has seen how precious time is. “I want to spend my time doing something meaningful, that I really enjoy and that gives me purpose every day. I’m trying to live that now while I’m young. On trail, it’s just about eating, sleeping, walking, and repeating. I really love that feeling of not worrying about things that often turn out to be stupid stuff in the end.
“I love being out there, living in the moment, connecting with other people and nature – I just feel at home when I’m outdoors.”