The Te Araroa Project

For 3000 long kilometres Te Araroa (“The Long Pathway”) wends its way the length of New Zealand from Cape Reinga, New Zealand’s northernmost accessible point and the entrance to the Māori spirit world, to Bluff, the bleak and chilly full stop at the end of the mainland.

My route to work each day follows part of the trail, so every morning in spring and early summer I see a procession of hikers making their way down Kerikeri’s Inlet Rd to Waitangi Forest and the promise of Paihia, a prettily located tourist town, on the other side.

Since the full trail opened in 2011, 16 years after the first section from Kerikeri to Paihia, I’ve watched the number of hikers grow rapidly.

At first they’d take me by surprise, like spotting some kind of endangered species. Now I pass as many as 10 a day during my short drive into town.

According to the Te Araroa Trust 1100 people walked the full 3000km in 2018. The figure for 2019 is likely to be much higher.

Parts of Te Araroa are unquestionably beautiful. But other parts are tedious in the extreme, with hikers forced to trudge along busy roads or through deep mud on poorly formed tracks. Every year a few have to be winched by helicopter out of the unforgiving Raetea Forest, not far from where I live. Yet they still keep coming.

Every morning on my way to work I’d wave and wonder: Why?

There was of course only one way to find out, so I started asking them. And that’s how the Te Araroa Project was born.

Given how many people are walking Te Araroa these days, and the fact I’m almost always running late in the mornings (sorry boss!), I can only stop and talk to a small proportion of them. Sometimes I run into them during my own hikes around Northland; I’ve rescued a few in blister distress and bumped into others stocking up at the supermarket.

I always ask walkers three simple questions – why they’re doing it, the best thing so far about Te Araroa, and the worst.

Everyone so far has been amazingly receptive to my project. Because I live in New Zealand’s Far North the hikers’ best and worst experiences are limited to their first few weeks on the trail, but their motivations are extraordinarily varied. For some it’s as simple as a love of walking; for others the physical trail is merely the gateway to a journey of self-discovery.

But I’ll let them tell you about that themselves…


Haroon Shaikh, New Zealand/India, in Waitangi Forest
Haroon Shaikh, New Zealand/India, in Waitangi Forest. Photo: Peter de Graaf
Haroon Shaikh, 38, New Zealand/India

Some people walk Te Araroa because they love hiking. Others do it because they’ve been through a crisis and need to clear their minds, challenge themselves and make a fresh start. Haroon, who was born in India but has lived for many years in Christchurch, fits into the latter category. I met the carpenter/IT engineer on Inlet Rd, Kerikeri, on December 14, 2019.

I had a divorce, well, we separated 2½ years ago, and because I’m Indian it was a big deal. I struggled quite a bit with the relationship breakup and I had a few other mental issues that needed to be sorted out. I read a book about a guy who was going through similar stuff, he was in Washington State and decided to walk to the other end of the country, which turned out to be Key West, Florida. Something like that entered my mind. I made an absolutely naïve attempt at the start of last year to walk the length of State Highway 1. It didn’t work out very well because of logistic issues and safety. Later in the year I started hiking with a group, day hikes which turned into multi-day hikes. Then I heard about Te Araroa and it just clicked.

It’s a bit of a life reset for me. Nothing’s better than walking a country. I left behind my stuff in Christchurch, I gave away my old marriage clothes, everything that was from the marriage is gone. The house where I was living for 14 years is gone, I left my job. I’ve only got a suitcase and a box of books in Christchurch that I’ll probably pick up at some point. I’m kind of at home where I am for the next four months. It feels good. There’s certain freedom and certain hardship, they go together hand in hand.

Nothing’s really bad about the trail but there are things that are not really enjoyable after a while. One of them was Raetea Forest. The sheer mud, hour after hour after hour. For the first 15 minutes you try to avoid the mud. Than you fall into the mud, and then you realise after three hours it’s actually quite fun to just walk through it. And it’s faster. But after eight, nine hours at my fitness and speed I thought, it just can’t take this long. So I took a short cut after nine hours, if you can call walking two hours a short cut. It was a bit tough, not doing the whole Te Araroa, but at the end of the day I have to think about my knees. I don’t want to break myself. I had already done nine hours of slog, there was nothing more to prove.

The best parts so far were walking Ninety Mile Beach with other people and Omahuta Forest, walking through the stream. That was so much fun.

Haroon and Jo at Kaitaia i-Site. Photo: Haroon Shaikh

When I reached Ahipara I was having tea and biscuits at Bidz Dairy and saw someone in a jeep was going towards Kaitaia. I asked him if I could hitchhike, he said jump in, so I grabbed my bag and jumped in. I went to the i-Site [information centre] in Kaitaia and Jo was there. I’d called her a few days earlier to ask where I could get halal food [food prepared according to the rules of Islam] in Kaitaia. She rang around the whole town to find out, so it was really good to put a face to the voice. Then she helped me out by telling me where to find showers, toilets, internet and groceries, and she looked after my backpack so I didn’t have to carry it. I did my resupplies, picked up my pack, walked out onto the road and realised I’d left my walking poles in Ahipara. It was about 4pm and I couldn’t find any way to get to Ahipara and back the same day. Jo said, ‘Stick around until 5pm when I finish and I’ll take you there and back’. It wasn’t part of her job but she did it anyway. I want to find a way to repay her or get her some recognition.


David Grammer, Austria, in Waitangi Forest. Photo: Peter de Graaf
David Grammer, 20, Austria

I met David, a cinema projectionist from Linz, while he was walking down Inlet Rd, Kerikeri, with Haroon Shaikh on December 14, 2019.

I absolutely love hiking and I love the mountains. In Austria we also have great places where you can walk very much. I saw the movie The Lord of the Rings — that’s the first time I started to see how beautiful the country is — and then I read more about it and the culture here. It’s just a wonderful land. When I heard about the trail I thought it was a great idea to do it now that I’ve finished school and I’m not really sure what to do next in my life. I want to use the opportunity to think about what I’m doing next, what I aim to do in life, what I want to do.

The highlight for me was from Cape Reinga to Twilight Beach and then the sunset at Twilight Beach. It was just wonderful. A wonderful sunset with a really red sun, and the waves were pretty big too. And the worst part … it’s not really the worst because you get used to it, but the mud is really challenging. Raetea Forest was really hard.


Ole Schramme, Germany, on Ti Beach, Paihia
Ole Schramme, Germany, on Ti Beach, Paihia. Photo: Peter de Graaf
Ole Schramme, 30, Germany

I met Ole, a geology graduate from the city of Jena, on December 4, 2019, while he was striding down Ti Beach towards Paihia, looking for a place to take a skinny-dip. One of the challenges of walking Te Araroa is that non-essentials like togs (that’s a swimsuit to non-Kiwis) have to be left behind to minimise weight. Although new to long-distance walking, Ole is already hooked and researching other hikes to do in future, such as the 440km Kungsleden (King’s Trail) in Sweden.

I came here for my gap year and I didn’t really know what to do so I worked, and while I was working I was always hiking quite a lot. Then I head about Te Araroa so I thought it would be a good way to combine travelling and being out in the nature. I never did a long distance walk before this but I did some multiple day hiking and I quite enjoyed that. I like not relying on a car and the idea of just starting every day and seeing where I get. I like biking too but that’s not an option around here, the roads are not made for it.

The best thing, surprisingly, is just being outside and sleeping sort of wherever I want to, and seeing the different landscapes, even though I’m just at the beginning. One time, just before Kerikeri, I didn’t find a place to sleep so I asked people if they know a place to tent, and they offered me a bed and even gave me a piece of cake. That was really friendly.

The worst [thinks hard] … the sleeping situation annoys me, you can’t just go how far you want and tent somewhere. In some places there is so much private land and paddocks you are forced to go on a campsite or stop before you want to. And I got some blisters on Ninety Mile Beach, but that’s fine.


Clement Le Blay and Thomas Le Gall, France, in Kerikeri
Clement Le Blay and Thomas Le Gall, France, in Kerikeri. Photo: Peter de Graaf
Clement Le Blay, 28, France

After days of trudging through the forest in near solitude, Clement Le Blay and Thomas Le Gall, both from Brittany, accidentally arrived in Kerikeri in the middle of the annual Street Party, which is easily the biggest night of the year in an otherwise sleepy town. They had to squeeze through a 5000-strong crowd to get to the supermarket for provisions and even the campground was booked out, but the young Frenchmen took it in their stride. I met Clement, a psychiatric nurse, and Thomas, a communications student, in Kerikeri on November 23, 2019.

I am walking Te Araroa because I want to prove to myself I can make it and because I really enjoy nature. I have been to New Zealand before and I really liked the country and the landscape. I think walking with a group is a really good way to share things with people. It is also a simple way to travel through a country, to use your feet.

The highlight so far was the beginning, the first day from Cape Reinga down to the beach. The worst I would say was the last two days in Raetea Forest because it was really steep and muddy. And it was our tenth day of walking so it was exhausting.


Thomas Le Gall, 23, France

I was in New Zealand last year for my holidays and it was the best time in my life because New Zealand is awesome. When I was here last year I learned that my grandmother, Yvette, had cancer. So when I was back in France I decided to prove to my grandmother that I can do this [Te Araroa]. She died just two weeks before I left to New Zealand so now I would like to do it for her and to prove she can be proud about me. I am doing this for her.

The worst part about Te Araroa is maybe when we have to walk on the road because it’s a bit boring and we meet many cars. I know that Te Araroa could be perfect in a few years, but I think we need to have some bad times so we can later find some good times.

The best thing I think is when you are alone in the landscape, like on Ninety Mile Beach. You feel freedom and you are happy knowing there is good nature in the world, because sometimes you just read in newspapers bad things about the planet. When you are on Te Araroa you see the planet is beautiful and we need to conserve it.


Jia-hui Ling, Taiwan, on State Highway 1, Mangamuka
Jia-hui Ling, Taiwan, on State Highway 1, Mangamuka. Photo: Peter de Graaf
Jia-hui ‘Joyce’ Ling, 27, Taiwan

When I saw Jia-hui she was running down State Highway 1. She had just survived Raetea Forest — arguably the toughest section of Te Araroa in Northland — and was carrying a pack almost as big as herself, yet she was running. She explained she wanted to get to Mangamuka Dairy, an oasis for walkers in an area otherwise devoid of shops, before it closed. Jia-hui is a social worker who helps people recovering from serious burns and loves hiking so much she had a mountain range tattooed on her arm. I met her at Mangamuka on November 13, 2019.

Three years ago the first girl from Taiwan walked Te Araroa. I am the second. I very like hiking. In Taiwan I put mountains on my arm [shows a tattoo]. In my Chinese name hui means sun, so I put a sun and mountains on my arm.

I got a working holiday visa to New Zealand and I saw there is a trail that goes through the whole New Zealand, so I thought: Why not? It’s going to be fun and I will see beautiful scenery and friendly people. But my bigger reason is because I am a social worker. My clients all have really bad burns from explosions, from accidents. They are doing really hard rehabilitation, physically and mentally. I see how strong they are and I get courage from them. I can show them how I am strong too and encourage them.

After I go back to Taiwan I will join a social walking group again. I think this story about Te Araroa can encourage some teenagers to do things they really want to do.

On Ninety Mile Beach I got really bad blisters on my feet. At every step I thought I am going to fail. The distance was long and my hiking boots were too hard. After the fourth day, when I finished Ninety Mile Beach, I needed to take a really long rest. I went back to Auckland for two weeks to recover from my blisters and change my shoes. It was hard for me because I hike a lot, so I did not understand how this could happen to me. I really wanted to quit. But now I am back to the trail.

The best part is the forest. It is so beautiful. It makes me think of similar places in Taiwan. When I was walking on the beach I met a lot of people but in the forest it was just me. I really enjoy that, the quiet and being by myself. Just the forest, the wind and the mud.


Gary Hayes, New Zealand, on Inlet Rd, Kerikeri
Gary Hayes, New Zealand, on Inlet Rd, Kerikeri. Photo: Peter de Graaf
Gary Hayes, 44, New Zealand

In normal life Gary is a police constable in Whangarei but he’s taking four months off to walk the length of his adopted country — he’s originally from the UK — while raising awareness of the police-run youth charity Blue Light. He’d planned to walk Te Araroa together with Alistair Todd, a former police detective, and a 16-year-old Tipene Parata, a high school student from the town of Moerewa who aspires to be a policeman, but on the day I met him he was on his own. ‘Toddy’ had an injury and Tipene had end-of-year exams so it was just Gary striding down Inlet Rd, Kerikeri, on November 17, 2019.

I’m doing this to raise awareness of Blue Light, the kids’ charity, because they’re celebrating their 35-year anniversary this year.

Earlier this year I was on holiday with my family and I picked up a second-hand book in a bookstore in Kerikeri. It was about a gentleman called Geoff Chapple who created the Te Araroa trail. Halfway through the book I thought it would be great to put it on my bucket list and possibly do the trail one day … but by the time I put the book down I’d decided I was going to do the trail and I had to think of a reason to do it. Being a policeman the first thing that popped into my head was Blue Light.

I got help and support from the national Blue Light organisation, now I just have to put my money where my mouth is and hit the road. Along the way there’s several events where the kids will come along and join me. They’ll fly the flag themselves for Blue Light. Otherwise I’m just one mid-40s guy deciding to go for a walk.

The highlight so far has been meeting people from around the country and around the world. On average I see around eight people a day doing the trail, for multiple reasons. The thing with Te Araroa is that everyone is so friendly and accommodating and helpful. It’s great to meet different characters and hear their stories.

There’s been plenty of low points. I picked up an injury, my feet are sore, I’m constantly wet … but I just try to focus on the positives. If it’s a really cold, wet day, or my feet are really battered, I just tell myself: ‘I could be working’.

You can follow Gary’s progress on his Facebook page Gaz and Toddy do Te Araroa or read about his mission so far in the news stories Northland cops walk length of NZ for Blue Light and Charity walkers caught up in storm as lightning hammers Northland.


Meghan Wiebe and Chris Borke, USA, on Inlet Rd, Kerikeri
Meghan Wiebe and Chris Borke, USA, on Inlet Rd, Kerikeri. Photo: Peter de Graaf
Chris Borke, 30, USA

An electrical engineer from Boulder, Colorado, Chris is walking Te Araroa with his fiancée Meghan Wiebe. They got engaged 18 months ago during a rafting trip; they were planning a wedding until they figured out they could walk the length of New Zealand for the same amount of money, so they’re treating it as a kind of pre-honeymoon. Their care for each other was palpable. They were really rather sweet. I met them on Cobham Rd, Kerikeri, on November 10, 2019.

Trail life brings me a mental clarity and an ability to step back from the grind of normal life. I really like the simplicity and the ability to think on the trail and get away from screens and lights and just find some simplicity while spending time with great people doing similar things. There’s a lot of really intelligent people on this trail. We’ve had some great discussions at camp.

I really liked the beach [Ninety Mile Beach]. I think a lot of people don’t like it but I liked the simplicity. It cleared everything. Then I started yearning for the forest … I’d get sneak peeks of it while hiking into town. I just love that, seeing the landscape around me.

The worst so far … that’s a hard one … Meghan’s been having a bit of trouble with her feet and seeing her go through that is hard. There’s things I can do, like take some of her gear, but I can’t really solve her feet, which is infuriating as an engineer because I can’t solve it.


Meghan Wiebe, 27, USA

Meghan is a recycling consultant from Boulder, Colorado. I know this because when I stopped to talk to her I was on my way to a recycling station so my car was brimming with empty bottles and old newspapers. I think she approved. As well as a personal challenge, Meghan is treating Te Araroa as a kind of road test for her future husband. I hope they are very happy together.

I’m doing this in part to test myself. I’ve never done a long through hike like this, so I want to see the limits of my body. But it’s also a sort of celebration of what the human body can do. I think it’s pretty incredible that all these people start out and see where they can get to.

I think it’s a fun way to explore a country with my partner and try a lot of different experiences together. If we can handle four months together it’s a good start to a lifetime together.

My personal highlight was the upriver section walking from Apple Dam to Puketi Forest. I’ve never walked in a river on a trail. That was really fun. I guess the low would be my feet …


Daniel Nogueira, Brazil/New Zealand, in Waitangi Forest
Daniel Nogueira, Brazil/New Zealand, in Waitangi Forest. Photo: Peter de Graaf
Daniel Nogueira, 29, Brazil/New Zealand

Originally from Minas Gerais in Brazil, these days Daniel is a marketing manager and permanent New Zealand resident based in Auckland. He’s one of many walkers on a bigger mission than his own personal development — in his case it’s raising awareness of how individuals can reduce waste as well as raising money to replant a forest reserve in northern New Zealand. I met Daniel in Waitangi Forest, Kerikeri, on November 9, 2019.

I wanted a bit of adventure. I’ve been on a few cycling trips in New Zealand and Tasmania for three weeks at a time but I wanted something longer that would be a bit of personal journey as well. You go for the scenery — it’s beautiful — but you always look internally as well, at your thoughts, trying to be a better human.

I’m also walking 3000km though New Zealand to plant one tree for every kilometre for the Native Forest Restoration Trust. The trees will be planted in McGregor Reserve. [The Professor WR McGregor Reserve is a block of former farmland, now a regenerating kauri forest, bordering Northland’s Waipoua Forest. Go to Daniel’s Givealittle page to donate.]

I want to raise awareness of individuals having a positive impact on the environment by trying to walk with minimal waste. For example, instead of buying cereal bars in single-use plastic, I make my own. I also buy bulk ingredients to avoid packaging.

The worst thing was the amount of plastic I saw on Ninety Mile Beach. It’s brought by the current, it’s not from New Zealand. That was sad and it’s one of the reasons I want to raise awareness of using less plastic and disposing of it correctly.


Kineret Amit, Israel, in Waitangi Forest
Kineret Amit, Israel, in Waitangi Forest. Photo: Peter de Graaf
Kineret Amit, 22, Israel

Kineret, from Be’er Sheva in the Negev Desert, is one of the youngest walkers I’ve met. She also had a tiny pack so she has clearly mastered the discipline of taking only what is essential. Letting go of physical things is part of the Te Araroa journey, she told me. She finished her mandatory military service in January, then worked in a chicken farm to save money to travel to New Zealand. I met her in Waitangi Forest, Kerikeri, on November 9, 2019.

Before my military service I did the Israeli National Trail — it’s 1000km and takes two months — and I loved it. It’s the freedom, and the only thing I have to think about is the one step in front of me. It makes me really present in the moment, and connected to my body.

The worst about Te Araroa was the aches and pains and blisters at the beginning. The best thing has been the kindness of people. They’ve really helped me along the way. I came here with a friend but she got injured in the middle of Raetea Forest. Two other hikers helped us get a helicopter. Everyone in the rescue was so kind. Then we stayed with a family in Kaitaia for a few days to heal. She’s still there, I continue alone. I hope she will catch up with me.


Beatrice Fierens Gevaert, Belgium, in Waitangi Forest
Beatrice Fierens Gevaert, Belgium, in Waitangi Forest. Photo: Peter de Graaf
Beatrice Fierens Gevaert, 31, Belgium

You don’t meet many art gallery curators walking Te Araroa. I met Beatrice, who hails from Brussels, in Waitangi Forest, Kerikeri, on November 9, 2019.

Why am I doing this? The love of walking. A few years ago I did the Camino [Camino De Santiago, a pilgrimage trail ending in northern Spain]. I started walking from home, in Belgium, and it took four months. I loved that experience. I wanted to have that experience again, but more in the wilderness.

I’ve been dreaming of New Zealand since I was a kid. Then I found out there’s a through hike here, so Te Araroa combines the two things I love. Perfect. Walking is a good way of discovering a country. It’s slow travel and you meet a lot of people. I like to take my time.

I loved Raetea and Puketi Forests. We were lucky, it hadn’t rained for a few weeks so there was just the right amount of mud, not enough to drive you crazy. In Puketi the river walk was great. I took lots of breaks to go swimming.

The worst is the road walking. It’s tough on your feet as well. People aren’t expecting hikers, they’re driving very fast so it’s quite dangerous. But the rest of it has been amazing.


Zac Delacy, Australia, in Waitangi Forest, Kerikeri
Zac Delacy, Australia, in Waitangi Forest. Photo: Peter de Graaf
Zac Delacy, 32, Australia

Zac is a Kathmandu retail manager and enthusiastic walker from Melbourne. I met him in Waitangi Forest, Kerikeri, on November 9, 2019.

I do a lot of hiking and I lead hikes in a group. It’s always been a passion to do a long distance hike. I haven’t done one in Australia because of the water and food — it’s a lot easier in New Zealand. Plus, I can always go and do Australia later.

The best part so far was Omahuta-Puketi Forest. You get to go through rivers and streams, you walk along narrow paths like goat tracks where you’re sidling around the mountain and it just drops on either side. I love those more exciting technical tracks.

The worst is the main roads, like Ahipara to Kaitaia and Kaitaia to Raetea. It’s a bit dangerous and there’s not always space on the road with the trucks and the traffic. But everything else is awesome.


Nadine Mooren, Netherlands, and Georgia Ellen, Australia, in Waitangi Forest
Nadine Mooren, Netherlands, and Georgia Ellen, Australia, in Waitangi Forest. Photo: Peter de Graaf
Nadine Mooren, 25, Netherlands

Nadine is a snowboard instructor and tour guide from the city of Nijmegen. When I met her in Waitangi Forest, Kerikeri, on October 27, 2019, she was walking with Georgia Ellen. They met each other at Twilight Beach on the first night; mostly they go solo during the day and meet up again at night. This was their first day walking together.

I wanted to discover New Zealand. It’s really cool to do that by foot. I wanted to have this challenge and see how far I can push my own boundaries. It’s the physical challenge, but even more it’s the mental challenge. I also want to develop myself as a person, meet people from around the world and experience other cultures.

The best thing so far is the way the nature changes so quickly. Two days ago we did Puketi Forest, we walked through the river and through huge kauri … I’ve never seen a forest like that before. It was so cool.

The worst day was the last day on Ninety Mile Beach, I was limping, but the worst moment was in Raetea Forest. We decided to camp because we couldn’t get through in one day. It was the moment I had to put my boots on again the next morning. They were muddy as hell.


Georgia Ellen, 29, Australia

Georgia is an event manager from Sydney. I met her with Nadine Mooren in Waitangi Forest, Kerikeri, on October 27, 2019.

I wanted to so something that, if I’m lucky enough to grow old, I could look back on as a significant thing I’ve achieved in my life. I wanted to do something out of the ordinary. I’ve grown up in Australia but my dad’s family is from New Zealand, so I also wanted to connect with that.

I’ve never done a big physical challenge, though I’ve been challenged mentally in a few ways. I’m not someone who would choose a physical challenge … but I did.

I reckon the best bit was the first day. It was so exciting, I couldn’t get the smile off my face. It was raining and awful but I was so pumped to be there.

The worst was the second day, on Ninety Mile Beach. I found it really challenging mentally. Raetea Forest was bad but I knew it would be bad … But on the second day I hadn’t slept the night before, I was physically exhausted and it all really kicked in. It was 28km and I felt pressure to get to the campsite because you’re not supposed to camp in the dunes.


Mark Laugesen, Australia, in Puketi Forest
Mark Laugesen, Australia, in Puketi Forest. Photo: Peter de Graaf
Mark Laugesen, Australia

A retired government contractor from Canberra, Mark hopes his knees will hold out for the full 3000km. I met him on Pukeatua Ridge Track, Puketi Forest, on October 24, 2019. His pack was enormous and his walking pole was broken so I gave him my stick, which you can see in the photograph. It was a fine stick.

As a New Zealander living in Australia for many years I’ve pined for New Zealand. I’m doing this walk to better understand how I really feel about New Zealand and New Zealanders. So far I like it. I also want to traverse Stewart Island from north to south.

The best thing so far was Ninety Mile Beach. The beach is wide, the breakers are a long way out and it’s so long. The scale of it is just spectacular.

As for the worst … It’s all good, because it’s all a learning experience. Though I would have to say I never want to see the mud of Raetea Forest again.


Melvyn Lheureux, Belgium, in Puketi Forest
Melvyn Lheureux, Belgium, in Puketi Forest. Photo: Peter de Graaf
Melvyn Lheureux, 26, Belgium

I met Melvyn on Pukeatua Ridge Track, Puketi Forest, on October 24, 2019. His T-shirt says: I don’t know where I’m going.

I love walking. I have done a 10-day walk across Reunion [an island in the Indian Ocean] but this is my first long-distance walk. My sister and my girlfriend went to New Zealand already. I also want to discover this country and its landscapes.

The best part so far? The beach [Ninety Mile Beach] was very long, but it was sunny, so it was great. Raetea Forest was difficult but if you have these [points to his gaiters] and you can go straight through the mud, it’s okay.

My name, Lheureux, means happy. I am happy, definitely. I am a little bit tired and my feet are wet, but I am definitely happy.


Bruce Hopkins, New Zealand, on Pā Rd, Kerikeri
Bruce Hopkins, New Zealand, on Pā Rd, Kerikeri. Photo: Peter de Graaf
Bruce Hopkins, New Zealand

I met Bruce as he was slogging up Pā Rd, Kerikeri, on October 26, 2017. The actor was one of the first people I interviewed about Te Araroa. In this case it was for a news story published in the Northern Advocate.

When Bruce Hopkins says he’s taking the long way home, he really means he’s taking the long way.

The actor, born on Stewart Island but raised in Northland, is taking his father’s and brother’s ashes back to New Zealand’s southernmost inhabited island, and he’s doing it on foot.

Hopkins is walking the 3000km Te Araroa trail from Cape Reinga to Bluff to connect more deeply with New Zealand and its people, while raising money for the charity Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.

He had a rest day in Kerikeri, where his sister Wanda Connon and mum Coe live, then hiked through Waitangi Forest to Paihia before taking a detour though Russell.

Russell is not on the trail but he wanted to take his father and brother through the town where he went to primary school, “as part of my farewell to the north”.

Hopkins worked out of Houhora as a crayfisherman with his father before becoming a professional dancer. Stints with various dance companies followed, including the renowned Limbs, before he switched to acting.

He played the part of Gamling, commander of the armies of Rohan, in The Two Towers and The Return of the King in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

He first heard about Te Araroa three years ago when he was MC’ing a fundraiser and had to introduce Geoff Chapple, founder of the long-distance trail.

“It was the thing I was looking for, to express my gratitude at being born in this land. It’s about connecting me to this land and its people,” he said.

He started following blogs of people walking the trail — “it just fascinated me” — and started training. He hit on the idea of carrying his father Bill’s and brother Doug’s ashes home to Stewart Island, and when someone asked if he was planning to raise money along the way, he recalled being impressed by Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.

The charity supports grandparents who have ended up as their grandchildren’s primary caregivers. The extra burden that placed on grandparents, who were already dealing with the trauma of their children’s problems, was immense, he said.

Hopkins said he had never been a tramper so he was still reeling from the shock of walking up to 10 hours a day with an 18kg pack.

The toughest parts so far had been the Herekino and Raetea forests, with deep mud and endless hills, and his last day on Ninety Mile Beach with a 31km walk into a 30-knot headwind.

Highlights included camping at Twilight Beach near Cape Reinga, where he used to moor with his father in their crayfishing days, and being offered a bed and a meal at Takahue after a gruelling day in the forest by an “incredible woman” raising her grandchildren.

He hopes to reach Bluff in mid-March. He will then carry on to Stewart Island to take his father and brother home.

Hopkins’ journey was nothing if not eventful. He suffered a serious leg injury that laid him up for several weeks and he somehow lost his father’s and brother’s ashes. He carried on regardless and reached Stewart Island in May 2018. You can still follow his journey via a series of RNZ podcasts called The Long Way Home.

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