Finally setting off
Standing by Cape Reinga lighthouse, I looked down onto an interminable stretch of white sand: the 90-mile beach. I was about to spend the next three days running on this beach, fighting my way through soft sand and strong headwinds – a prospect that most people would not feel too excited about. But I had a huge smile on my face.
The 90-mile beach represented the starting point of my 3,000km self-supported journey on foot across New Zealand; a running adventure along the Te Araroa trail for which I had spent months preparing.
Over the next 3 months, I would be running and hiking through forests, mountains, towns, and farmland, carrying everything I needed in my 35-liter backpack. My destination? Bluff, at the very bottom of the South Island.
Shuffling along the 90-mile beach
After fiddling around with my GPS (which is when I realised that I had uploaded the route but no maps, oops) and taking a few “start line” pictures, I finally set off. It was good to be starting off on a beach stretch: map-reading has never been one of my strengths, but all I had to do for now was to keep the ocean on my right-hand side.
Aside from all my camping and running gear, I was also carrying three days’ worth of food and two litres of water. The extra weight on my back and the soft, sandy terrain meant that I was shuffling rather than running – but I was on my way to Bluff, and that was all that mattered to me.
The Northland forests
After reaching the end of the 90-mile beach I entered what I call “Kiwi mud bath territory”, aka the Northland forests. These jungle-type forests are home to the impressive kauri trees and many native bird species. But they are also very, very muddy.
At times the mud came up to my knees, which made running pretty much impossible. On those trails I was struggling to cover more than two kilometres per hour without falling over or getting my backpack caught up in lianas. Finding drinking water and camping spots in this terrain also proved to be a challenge.
But the Northland forests taught me the importance of breaking down a big goal into small manageable chunks and taking it one step at the time. While my progress was so slow, it would have been easy to start thinking I would never make it to Bluff.
But instead of letting myself get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the end goal, I decided to take it a day at a time – or sometimes even just an hour at the time – and focus on what I could influence right now. I started using the mantra “relentless forward progress”. I would keep repeating this phrase to myself when pushing up the steep slippery hills. As long as I was making progress (ideally in the right direction) I was happy. Because I knew that eventually, I would reach my destination.
Settling into my trail routine
Over the next few weeks, I started settling into a routine. I would wake up at around 6am with the sound of birds outside my tent. I would roll up my sleeping mat, stuff my sleeping bag into its pouch, and then get into my running clothes. After a breakfast of oats, nuts and dried fruits, I would brush my teeth, dismantle my tent, pack all my gear into my bag (the first few days that took me a good 30 minutes but I got that down to less than 10 towards the end of the trip), do some warm-up stretches, and then start running.
My evening routine was pretty much the same, but in reverse. If my camping spot happened to be next to a stream or a lake, I even got to enjoy a “shower” – pure luxury. And in between two camping spots, I was simply running. Or hiking if the terrain prevented me from running.
A simple life
While crossing New Zealand I got to run along unspoilt beaches, across sheep fields (I have never seen as many sheep in my life), up and down precipitous mountain tracks, on countryside roads, along old railway lines, through dense forests, up volcanoes, and along turquoise lakes. It felt amazing to spend entire days doing what I love doing most: running.
As I was traversing pristine landscapes I often reflected on how simple life was out here. All I had to do was to keep going south without getting lost. And make sure I had enough water and food to get me to the next town. That was a really important aspect of this adventure, especially in the South Island, where I was outside “civilisation” for up to 10 days at a time. The trick was to find foods that were very nutritious yet light and not voluminous. Peanut butter and tortilla wraps became my top picks.
Back to basics
I have never felt such a sense of freedom, presence in the moment, and connection with nature than during this journey. Despite being far out of my comfort zone a lot of the time (I was rubbish at reading maps and I had never been on hikes or mountain runs by myself before), I felt at ease. I loved setting off in the morning wondering what I would experience that day and where I would be pitching my tent in the evening.
I felt so removed from the materialistic pressures that modern life is constantly imposing on us. When you carry everything you need to survive on your back for 3,000km, it forces you to only pack things you really need. Every item is carefully selected and has its specific purpose. I found it so freeing to live without any unnecessary “stuff” and temporarily strip my needs back to the most basic level. It made me realise that experiencing nature’s beauty, being outside in the wilderness, and developing strong bonds with people bring so much more happiness than any material possession ever could.
The kindness of strangers
Speaking of people, kiwis are the most welcoming and hospitable people I have ever met. I remember a particular evening when it was starting to get dark and I still had not found a place to pitch my tent. I decided to knock on someone’s door to ask if they knew about a spot nearby.
I was expecting to be pointed to a suitable patch of grass, but instead, I was welcomed into a family home for the night. We chatted about our respective lives over a delicious homemade dinner (so much better than the tuna/couscous I had been planning on having) and after a shower I put up my tent in their garden.
I will never forget all the acts of kindness I received from complete strangers throughout this journey.
The human body is such an incredible machine
My journey along the Te Araroa trail was full of unforgettable moments but I would be lying if I pretended I didn’t encounter any low points.
In the run up to this adventure I had been training for months to prepare my body for the challenge. I knew that covering 3,000km on foot would inevitably lead to some niggles, but I had not quite realised how much of an impact sleeping in a tent and constantly carrying a load on my back would have on my recovery.
Within the first few weeks I started to feel pain in my right knee. Initially, I just ran through it, but after a while I had to slow down to a walk; not long after that, the pain increased so much that even walking felt unbearable.
I decided to take three days off to let the inflammation go down. This was a difficult decision and at the time I really beat myself up about it. I was worried about getting behind on my target mileage. In hindsight these rest days (combined with a lot of ice, stretching, sleeping in a real bed, and eating large quantities of fresh fruit and chocolate) were definitely the right thing to do. Three days later I was so relieved to be able to keep going – having to give up because of injury had always been my biggest fear.
As I progressed further down the trail I felt like I had more and more energy and the pain in my knee was gone. I got to a point where I could do consecutive 45km+ days in the hills without feeling exhausted.
That made me realise that the human body is such an incredible and adaptable machine. When you treat it with respect, it can help you achieve things you never thought possible.
Adventure is not always pretty
Aside from the physical struggles I had a few emotional low points as well. Adventure is not always pretty. I was lying in my tent one night, completely soaked and shivering. It had rained torrentially all day and my clothes and sleeping gear got soaked. I felt exhausted but I was too cold to sleep.
I remember asking myself what I was doing here when I could be snuggled up in a warm apartment back home. The thought of giving up even crossed my mind at that point. But after letting off some steam in my journal I tried to regain perspective and I decided that reaching my end goal was definitely worth a few frustrations and a bit of discomfort.
That night I wrote down a quote from Lance Armstrong in big letters in my journal: “Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever.”
Getting used to the nomadic lifestyle
As the days and kilometers passed I became used to my nomadic lifestyle. Not showering for days had become normal; I was now an expert at finding the perfect camping spots; I had learned to recognise the native birds by their song; my tent set-up routine was optimised to the second; I didn’t need an alarm anymore as my body was naturally waking up at sunrise, and I had finally learned how to read maps and navigate through the mountains.
3000km and 99 days later…
Before I knew it, I was only a few days away from Bluff – my final destination. It felt strange to think that what had become my every-day life for the last few months would soon be over.
When I reached Bluff there was no finish tape, welcoming party or loud music – just a signpost assuring me that I had indeed arrived in “Bluff – southernmost town in New Zealand”.
After spending a few moments taking it all in, I walked back to the town centre, smiling to myself. I felt proud of what I had achieved…and was now thinking about which island to cross next.