Te Araroa: An Unexpected Journey

Te Araroa: An Unexpected Journey

Te Araroa, though not officially one of Aotearoa’s 10 Great Walks, is arguably the greatest of them all. Translating to ‘The Long Pathway’, the trail spans 3000 km and traverses the entire length of the country, taking walkers through beaches, forests, country, and mountains. 

It’s said that those who tackle Te Araroa are often in a transitional period of their life; either in a midlife crisis, running away from something, or perhaps towards something – Bilbo Baggins’ self-discovery style. For Will Missen, Te Araroa was a northern-bound uni summer break adventure, while for Tessa Honeyfield it was a southern-bound quest after graduation. Critic Te Ārohi speaks to the two Te Araroa walkers about their adventures. 

Tessa graduated from Otago Uni at the end of 2022, with a BSci in Human Nutrition, explaining, "I didn't have any plans for when I finished uni. I didn't want to get a job in nutrition. So I was like, 'Fuck it, I'll just go for a walk." She began soon after finishing her exams with the goal "to finish it, I guess [...] I just wanted to enjoy it, see some parts of the country I hadn't seen, meet some new people, but, overall, just have a good time." 

The trail takes four months on average, depending on your pace, and walkers will typically prepare for months beforehand. Otago Uni student Will, however, squeezed it into just three months last summer break on a whim. The summer job he had lined up with the Electoral Commission fell through during exams, and he wasn’t sure he was up for another summer spent bartending. So, a mere week later (two days after completing his final exam), Will went bush. “Everyone always says you gotta explore your own backyard before you explore somewhere else,” says Will. And that he did. He set off from Bluff, the lowest point of the South Island, with no training or even a tent – just a Bivouac bag. 

“I’m going on an adventure!”

Day to day, Tessa says the distance she’d walk would greatly depend on the terrain and how she was feeling. On average, she guesses she'd walk about 25 km a day. Long days could reach 50 km. For Will, who was under greater time pressure to complete the trail before summer break ended, the “long days” Tessa describes were his average. He tells Critic he would walk 40 kilometres a day from dawn till dusk – a grand feat when sustained over such a long period of time. “I did 42 km the first day, and then I got injured and I was like, ‘Oh shit, I actually have to go a bit slower,’” says Will. “I did twenty the first week and then built it back up.” 

Tessa also had a rocky start to her journey, trudging through rain for a week straight before she'd even reached Auckland. "I got sick of being wet just all the time pretty quickly," says Tessa. The constant sogginess landed her an infected toe three weeks into the hike, forcing her to hitchhike her sodden (and smelly) self to the doctor. She’d often say to generous drivers, “I’m sorry about my smell.”

Smell was something Tessa said played a surprisingly big role in her Te Araroa experience. Her nose grew so accustomed to the natural aromas of the bush and beach that she could tell the difference between a Te Araroa walker and a day walker almost purely based on their odour. "You could smell the washing powder from their clothes [...] It’s like, ‘Oop, day walker.’ And I'm just wondering what they’re thinking when [I walk] past,” she laughs.

Contrary to popular belief, walkers rarely complete the journey in one go. They’ll often break up the trail to fit around work commitments, events or holidays. Both Will and Tessa headed home to celebrate Christmas with their families. Tessa’s Christmas could hardly be deemed a “break” however, given she summited Mount Taranaki (a 2.5 km climb) while she was home – eliciting a "my God" from Critic. 

During Will’s Christmas break, he says found it difficult to adjust. Having grown accustomed to the bush-life, Will says that being in the company of his family whilst at home was unusually overwhelming. “In the middle of the day, I had to go into my room for hours because [being around my] family was too much,” he says. 

The contrast between the trail and “civilisation” was even more stark when Will attended a 21st party in Wellington. “I went to a friend’s birthday the night I arrived in Wellington on a rooftop bar […] and I had to go sit in the bathroom for like 20 minutes because it was so intense.” And when he got off the boat in Wellington, he recalls being “mortified and so overwhelmed by seeing shops.” 

"I definitely noticed it walking into cities,” says Tessa. “Like walking into Auckland. It was actually quite an abrupt entrance into the city. It's quite overwhelming with all the cars and noise and people. When you're in the bush, it's actually pretty simple on the eyes and the senses [...] You get used to that and it's nice on the mind. And then when you enter the chaos of a city, it's stressful and people are stressed," she says. “The priorities are just different.”

The people you meet along the way

Outside of the spectacular scenery, Will and Tessa say that the people they met on the trail was one of the best parts of the journey. “I just kept meeting new people every day,” says Tessa, and from a huge range of backgrounds: Germany, USA, Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Austria, England (“lots of Europeans”). And although Will says there were “definitely some whack-jobs,” he met some “really cool people, too.” On such a long and isolating trail, Will admits the “whack-jobs” weren’t so bad anyway, providing much-needed entertainment. 

Friendship on the trail is peculiar, according to Tessa. She would spend weeks at a time with people she’d only just met. "I did get to know some people quite well, and talked about things you wouldn't [even] talk about with someone that you'd known for years just because you spend so much time so closely together." A bit like a platonic version of the speed-run relationships on Love Island, perhaps. 

In any sub-culture, you’ll often find broad categories that members will belong to. In Dunedin, there’s your Castle breathas, sheathas, surfer bros, Glassons girlies, and Health Sci nerds, to name a few. Among those she met, Tessa says she began to notice certain stereotypes. First were the ‘Purists’. 

One Purist she met was in Taumarunui: a German guy with a big beard (whose name she’s forgotten) who would buy a box of beer in every town he came across. “He was determined to walk every kilometre,” says Tessa. His dedication was to the point of forcing his friends who’d come to visit from Germany to walk with him in “the shittiest section” of Te Araroa, according to Tessa. She skipped that stretch, which was essentially just walking next to the road. “His friends were only over [from Germany] for a week or two, [I thought] surely he’d take them to a nice place,” she says.

Another type of walker was the ‘Ultra-lighters’. While Tessa says she ditched a lot of unnecessary baggage in the first few weeks since “the lighter you pack, the better,” these guys take it to the next level. They will do anything to make their load as light as possible – down to the gram. “Everything counts,” says Tessa. “Ultra-light people are worried about every gram of weight in their pack, so they try and make everything as light as possible, having the bare minimum equipment.” A classic manoeuvre for an Ultra-lighter is to cut their toothbrush in half. Tessa met one guy who had a spork, and had gone to the effort of drilling holes in the handle to make it lighter. 

Another common (and less extreme) method is ditching the stove and eating only cold food (one guy only ate almonds, apparently). They opted to prep anything typically eaten hot through a process called “cold-soaking”: soaking food in cold water, like two minute noodles, couscous, or porridge. Food like this isn’t uncommon on the trail. While it’s far from glamorous, it tastes okay in the midst of  “hiker hunger,” something Tessa explains as an intense hunger that trail walkers often develop a few weeks into the walk: "You're never full, you're always hungry." 

Tessa says the goal with food on the trail was to have lightweight, high energy food that would last – so not many fruits and vegetables, unfortunately. "I had a lot of oats, wraps, peanut butter, two minute noodles, instant mash potato, dehydrated peas and mushrooms," Tessa says. The most unconventional meal she had was two minute noodles with instant mashed potato and “soy stuff and weird flavours”. People would put some strange stuff in wraps, she says, “Like Nutella, chips, and lollies. Just everything we could pack in.” 

Will’s meals consisted of Israeli couscous and salami, or peanut butter and tuna wraps. Yes, peanut butter and tuna together – a caloric necessity. Food was his biggest expense of the journey, costing him just less than two grand. He admits that he longed for the days of “fried food and oranges” or anything that wasn’t “wet” after surviving on dehydrated meals for so long. "Yeah, I don't miss the food, I'll say that,” Tessa laughs.

A solitary journey

While they were constantly meeting new people, Will and Tessa’s respective journeys were largely solitary ventures. Will says he would go days without seeing people, and in that time he had the company of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and The Lord of the Rings via his audiobooks. 

“It’s quite interesting, it’s almost like brain resetting,” says Will. “When I was in Southland, I'd just walk through heaps of really quite quiet terrain and I hadn’t seen anyone in five days […] I was just so low, and I hadn’t had any social or human contact. I remember going through a small little village called Tuatapere and I was just craving a conversation.”  

Tessa says she luckily didn’t find it too lonely since she's “good at being by [her]self.” She admits she did talk to herself a lot, though. “I thought I was gonna think about things more,” Tessa reflects. “Like, you'd think you have so much time in the day where you're doing something as simple as walking, that your brain would have space to think about things, but no. But I just thought about walking and, you know, ‘that tree's nice’. ‘Where's the hut?’ those kinds of things.” 

Tessa has a photo of a hut visitor’s book entry she found somewhere in the South Island, that could serve as a demonstration of the sort of thinking the trail could spur, which reads: "Reality is fucking wild. How crazy is it that anything even exists? Why is there something rather than nothing? Where did the universe come from? We just so happen to be conscious beings who live on a rock amongst billions of galaxies with conditions such that life can exist. How probable is that? Wake up to the invigorating awe-inspiring that is yourself and others in nature.” 

Although Will could struggle with self-motivation at times, he attributes his stubbornness that kept him going more than anything else. “You just kind of get moving, you stop thinking about the blisters, you just kind of look around and think, ‘Crikey, New Zealand is so beautiful.’ So diverse, so stunning. It’s just hard not to appreciate it.” 

Will says, “There’s this one point that always stands out, at the top of Mount Crawford, in the middle of the Tauraruas, and you can see Mount Ruapehu, you can see Mount Taranaki, you can see Masteron, you can see Farewell Spit, Golden Bay, Sounds, Kaikoura, Wellington Harbour […] it felt like you were on the top of New Zealand.”

But Will says his best moment was seeing the Sky Tower. Not because Auckland’s prized jewel surpasses the scenery of mountains and oceans, but because it was a sign that he was close to the finish line – and also home. “I’m originally from Auckland, so when I saw the Sky Tower for the first time, that was pretty cool [...] [I thought] I’m actually kind of getting there.” 

The finish line

After months of walking, Will describes arriving at the finish line in Cape Reinga to meet his parents as “magical” – all the more so by the fact he had made a massive push to complete the last 100km in under 24 hours. 

The experience has left Will profoundly changed, both in terms of how he views himself and his capabilities, but also in how he perceives the world. He misses the outdoor life and the freedom he had to go where the trail took him with just his basic needs to be taken care of. Now back at university, Will longs for the simple days of living. “Problems do not exist, all you gotta do is think about eating and drinking […] Problems about social anxiety or that thing you did when you were twelve, none of that actually matters.” 

The trail has “absolutely” given Will a different outlook on life, leaving him with ambition and an eagerness to be outside. Seeing Aotearoa in all its glory also ignited the environmentalist in him. “We need to protect our nature [...] It’s very hard to know the scale of the problem, and I have a whole new appreciation [for it].” He’s even decided to raise money for the endangered Kākāpō: “Lots of people felt like they wanted to help somehow and I was like, ‘Oh you can.’” 

For Tessa, it was an odd mixture of emotions reaching the finish line after four months. Aside from expressing disappointment in her champagne popping abilities (“it didn’t fizz up”), she says it was a “relief, I guess a feeling of accomplishment, just like, 'Oh, yep, that's done. What do I do now?' Not as emotional as you'd expect.”

Tessa says she “got a bit depressed” after completing the trail. Similar to a comedown, Tessa dubs it the ‘post trail blues,’ an apparently common phenomenon. She reckons her post trail blues was largely due to not having any future plans afterwards. “I didn't have a job or a purpose. And also because I just went from being on the trail with these great people and being in the bush to just losing it all in one day, you know?”

The experience cemented a philosophy Tessa already held. “I'm not too caught up in what other people think you should be doing. You know, like what job you should do and what you should be earning,” she says. “It can be a very satisfying life just doing what makes you happy. It doesn't have to satisfy other people's expectations." Something she picked up along the way from the people she met was: “Don’t sweat the small stuff. Just have fun.”


Will encourages anyone to take on the walk. “There’s a benefit of trying to get lost,” he says, and hopes to inspire others as well. “Don’t do Roys Peak, don’t do whatever is on Instagram, go make your own memory.”  

But Tessa says she’d definitely caution anyone interested in Te Araroa, emphasising that it’s not for everyone. “Some people just could not do it,” she says. “You lose so much comfort of normal life, and being away from people you know is something that a lot of people can't do [...] But if you like to walk in the bush, if you're capable of being alone and are resilient enough to face some challenging things, and are looking for adventure and want to see more parts of the country – yes."

Over the course of their expeditions, Will and Tessa experienced many highs and lows, not only in the terrain, but also physically and emotionally. “Te Araroa – relentless, brutal, and majestic,” wrote NZ actor Bruce Hopkins (Gamling from The Lord of the Rings) after tackling the trail in 2021. "I would agree with that quote, I reckon,” says Tessa.

This article first appeared in Issue 8, 2024.
Posted 8:02pm Sunday 21st April 2024 by Harriette Boucher and Nina Brown.