Maunganui Bluff to Ahipara

Day 3 (Thurs 12 Nov): Maunganui Bluff campsite to Hukatere campsite (90 mile beach)

Started 7.55am, finished 4pm, 30k

Pain in the head status: nagging neck pain started near the end of the walk, developing into a full-blown migraine, but quickly aborted by meds

Being woken by the sound of horses neighing in the night was a novelty, as was seeing the sweeping clarity of the stars when I had to take a midnight wee. I was reminded why my interest in astronomy remains aspirational – even in Northland, it’s cold outside at night time, and that’s when I want to be asleep.

Tony serenaded me with a groggy happy birthday when he woke up – I’d almost forgotten this was the day. And what a day. I have never before spent 8 hours walking on a beach on my birthday, and I hope to never do it again. It sounds so easy and romantic, walking on a beach, but try it for 30k and you’ll have a different view. The soggy, spongy sand at the beginning of the day didn’t help, as we set out just after high tide. But when the tide is out, the stretch of the beach is enormous. Plenty of room for the numerous cars to pass by us.

Podcast distraction was definitely needed. I tried an educational/entertainment offering called You’re Dead to Me, which is a mashup of history lesson and comedy (but not very funny). It got off to a bad start by telling me the history of chocolate – excruciating, when all I have left is a few squares deep in my pack.

At the beginning of the day, the sand dune sculptures offered something to admire, but the dunes became more uniform, and the geometric patterns left in the sand by the retreating waves were the main source of visual interest. It was a clear fine day, so the cumulous clouds were scarce.

Reaching our accommodation for the night was a moment of intense relief. Hukatere campsite was a little way off the beach, hidden in the dunes, and the owner, Gabrielle, welcomed us with a cup of tea and a demonstration of the (hot!) shower, and uses for the rolling pins.

Wildlife observations: Dead gannet and shag on the beach. Questions: Why do seabirds sometimes stand on one leg? How do their skinny stick legs support their weight? Why do they scuttle away from the incoming waves as if they are afraid of getting their feet wet? Why are shells so many different colours – grey, scarlet, peach and pink, blue and black and white, tan and cream and yellow?

Day 4 (Fri 13 Nov): Hukatere campsite to Ahipara

Started 8.15am, finished sometime around 4.30-4.45pm, I was too distracted by the sight of icecreams at the campground reception to notice; 31k

Pain in the head status: Mostly nil, lots of pain in the feet! Some blisters developing also…

Lesson: it’s very difficult to exit a tent gracefully.

Word of the day: Coterie, small exclusive group of people with shared interests

Another long trudgerous day. We farwelled our Te Araroa co-hikers, Ian and Ramona, who had come in late the night before, requiring a beer to recover, and were going to do a ‘short’ day of 17k and stop at a lodge beside the beach. The way ahead is always shrouded in sea spray so you can only incrementally see where it is you are going. This gets worse as the day goes by and your sunglasses acquire a film, but means when you take them off, the views are delightfully clear.

We supposedly did 31k today but I tally it higher as we spent the first few hours meandering up and down the beach trying to find the firmest sand. Lots more sand dunes. Lots more waves. Lots more sand pictures. We had to take extra breaks to rest our feet. I tried a podcast more aligned to my activity – the Outside Podcast. Always good to be put in your place by hearing about outstanding athletic types doing remarkable things.

Our camping site for the night is Ahipara Holiday Park, which is very attractive. We met up with two of the cyclists we met at Maunganui Bluff, who had a rest day (in which they went for a big walk). We talked of outdoorsy things, and felt like we were in the Te Araroa hiking/cycling coterie. The other cyclist, Heather, had pushed on – I was amazed and impressed to discover she was 72 years old. Never too late to follow your dream.

Wildlife experiences: frogs groaning in the flax just beyond Hukatere campsite. Shy, long-limbed herons endlessly flying away in front of us. Honeybees crawling on the sand, and dying, for mysterious reasons. Little pink crab shells; mussels and scallop shells. Sandhoppers bouncing around rotting washed-up seaweed. Questions: if you step on a sandhopper burrow when it is inside, is it buried alive in a sand avalanche? If you pee on a sandhopper burrow when it is inside, does it drown in urine or think this is a wave of warm sea water?

Cape Reinga to Maunganui Bluff

Day 1 (Tue 10 Nov) Cape Reinga to Twilight Beach

Started 10.30am, finished 2.30pm, 13.5k

Word of the day: Bibulous, given to the consumption of alcohol

Pain in the head status: Twinges on and off most of the day but ignorable

We stayed overnight in Kaitaia, which was enough to determine that the flashest restaurant in town was McDonalds, a sad state of affairs – we dined courtesy of Pak N Save. After a confused start, when the shuttle driver left Kaitaia, thought he had forgotten to pick up two people from the hostel we had stayed at, returned in a rush, borrowed a phone from another passenger (victim?) to check with his wife, found out that those two people were actually Tony and I, we finally arrived safely at Cape Reinga. After an obligatory visit to the lighthouse, we set off on Te Paki walkway, the first leg of the journey.

A cooling southerly welcomed us with reminders of home, although it had nothing of the icy blast of Wellington’s winds. It streamed ribbons of blond sand over the darker wet sand where we were walking. Just as we were to tackle the only hill of the day, over the headland of Cape Maria van den Diemen, that might have induced some sweating, a cold shower rained down on us, rather pleasantly. It passed in time for us to dry off in the sun and wind.

I didn’t know what to expect from this track, but the scenery was stunning. Exposed rock and sandstone of ochre, gold and red. Flax bushes with smooth green buds about to explode into fiery flower. Swathes of deserted pristine beach. Mostly pristine – some plastic rubbish on Twilight Beach, but nothing like the southern beaches of Stewart Island, that this reminded me of.

Two other couples camped at Twlight Beach – one didn’t talk to us but the other were two cheerful bibulous publicans from Warkworth (Ian and Ramona), who broke the day of tramping up with a mug of wine after lunch (to lighten the load).

Wildlife observations: red billed gulls on Twilight Beach chased after treats from the retreating waves but flew upwards skittishly to escape the incoming tide. Blue and lavender tinged jellyfish with long navy tentacles lined the sand, bloated and squishy. Flocks of black fronted terns looking purposefully out to sea. Swallows diving around the campsite shelter. Shags drying their wings in the sun.

Day 2 (Wed 11 Nov): Twilight Beach to Maunganui Bluff (90 Mile Beach)

Started 7.45am, finished 3.20pm, 28k

Word of the day: Peripatetic, walking about or travelling from place to place

Pain in the head status: Miraculously, no PITH. More than made up for with pain in the feet, hips, leg muscles…

Everyone says 90 mile beach is hard. A long, mind-numbing trudge that makes you wish you were anywhere else. So I was mentally prepared, maybe not physically. The soles of my feet hurt from the hours of walking. The first half of the day was easy enough, starting with a walk over the headland to the long back, among stands of manuka and kanuka, with the occasional piece of sea foam wafting above the scrub. On the beach itself, the weather was entertaining for a while, as dark clouds spat their contents in grey streams in front of us, but never on us, as the sun shone at our side. We watched the birds and the formations of the sand dunes. But after lunch, it got hard going. I was saved by a podcast called ‘Drilled’, discovering the motivational force of outrage. The podcast presenter told me the story of how the oil industry had fooled the public into disbelieving climate change, much as the tobacco industry worked to convince consumers that smoking didn’t cause cancer. My opinion of oil executives, marketers, PR and communication firms and lobbyists took a dive but at least it distracted me from the pounding in my feet.

Great relief to reach the campsite and find it had a shower, albeit a cold one. Washed and fresh again, with a full stomach, all’s well in the world. The peripatetic lifestyle is pretty good. Ian and Ramona staggered in around 6pm, having stopped for multiple cups of tea to fortify themselves (the wine having been finished the night before). A few cyclists also camped out – but plenty of room for all.

Wildlife observations: Dead turtle on the beach. Black-backed gulls rising up in the sky to drop molluscs on the ground, to get to the flesh. Hundreds of pipis spitting up sand in pipi-sized sand-hills.

Pre-Te Araroa test tramp: Matemateaonga

Labour weekend, two weeks before we were due to start Te Araroa. We hadn’t been tramping since February, what with COVID-19 and work busyness, so we needed to test ourselves. We had thought of doing the Mt Taranaki Round the Mountain track, but the forecast was dire. We had to find somewhere within driving distance of Wellington that wouldn’t involve swollen rivers or being blown off mountain ridges. We landed on the Matemateaonga track in Whanganui National Park. Most people walk this one-way, and start or finish with a jet-boat ride on the Whanganui River, but we decided to walk there and back, starting from the Stratford end.

Possibly the most painful part of the track was the drive to get there – five and a half hours from Wellington, culminating in a dirt road that my little Toyota Echo was not well adapted to. But it was easy one and a half hour wander up to the first hut, Omaru , which was heaving with trampers from the Auckland Tramping Club. We made use of the tent for some peace and quiet, a necessary refuge as my head had started exploding. It was a bit of a rough night.

The next day we truly appreciated why the locals call this the Muddymuddyaonga track. We christened our boots with all the variants of mud imaginable – sticky clay mud, stinky bog mud, sandy white mud, slippery earth mud. And we started testing our wet weather gear, as the rain began. After lunch at Pouri hut, the trail turned into a goat track, literally, as we saw goats running along it in front of us, but also overgrown with ferns and horopito. We spotted red-crested parakeets, kereru, fantails, but mostly heard the birds rather than saw them – grey warblers, shining and long-tailed cuckoos, robins, ruru. Tony spotted seashells in the rocks along the track – evidence that this ridge had once been under or near the sea many moons ago.

The lovely new Ngapurua hut was our lodgings for the next two nights; we did a day walk to the end of the track and back to the hut, then started the trudge back to the car. For me, the mornings were a challenge – I’d wake with a sore neck and head and require the trifecta of caffeine, nurofen and triptan to get me going, fortified with a stiff porridge. I’d scavenged together coffee sachets that we’d pilfered from motels on past trips for our morning libations, but had tragically failed to notice that half of them were decaffeinated. Tony took it on the chin and sucked up the decaf while I made do with black tea.

All in all, the Matemateaonga prepared us well for what we expect on Te Araroa. Plenty of mud, consecutive long days of walking, mental endurance for monotonous slogging, finding out where our packs wet out and wearing my feet into my new boots. (I don’t know why we say we’re wearing our boots in – it’s the feet that take the hammering.) Important lessons (or ‘learnings’ if you are a Wellington policy wonk): 1. two pairs of underwear are not enough; 2. you always need more caffeine.

Te Araroa: What, why, when

If you haven’t already heard of it, Te Araroa (literally ‘long pathway’) is Aotearoa/New Zealand’s version of those famous thru-hikes such as the Appalachian Trail, the Camino de Santiago, the Pacific Crest Trail. Thru-hikes are expected to take a significant amount of time (months) although you can do bits of them at a time (section hikes). In terms of age, Te Araroa is a baby thru-hike – not yet 10 years old (it officially opened in December 2011) – and is run by a Trust and loads of volunteers, not a Government agency. It’s a diamond in the rough, not a polished gem, but that only adds to its appeal.

We’re planning to do Te Araroa in around five months, depending on how our bodies and my head holds up (and contingent on any viral or other apocalyptic events). Some people do it much faster, but some people are also insane. We have no deadline to meet or plane to catch at the end of it, so we’ll take our time, enjoy the journey, rest our feet. And with 3,000kms to walk, we’ll need to show our feet some kindness.

We’re starting from Cape Reinga on November 10, heading for Wellington (SOBO – south-bound). Once there, we will reverse the trend, fly down to Invercargill, take a bus to Bluff and head up the South Island (NOBO – northbound). We wanted both the SOBO and the NOBO acronym experience. And at the end, it will be a quick ferry hop back home to Wellington.

Why walk Te Araroa? So many reasons… Here’s one – Aotearoa/New Zealand is spectacularly beautiful. We could explore its treasures for the rest of our lives and still not reach the limit of its bounty. The natural environment is where I feel at peace, connected, balanced. I want to know whether spending this much time in what is the equivalent of my church will help heal the dysfunction in my brain and body that triggers my migraines. What will it be like to walk and breathe the outdoors every day instead of peering myopically at a computer screen? To strip down what I need to what I can carry on my back? It’s a walk of discovery, to find out what is possible, to expand my limits and learn to live with them.

Why bother tramping?

Really – why do it? Why not stay at home and watch Netflix?

Let’s be honest, tramping involves pain. Even without a migraine disorder, it hurts to go tramping. By the end of the day, your feet throb, your shoulders ache, you’ve got calluses from where your pack rubs and, if unlucky, blisters from suboptimal boots. You seek relief on a hard, mouldy hut mattress and count the bruises and scratches from tussles with the unforgiving vegetation. You look forward to the next day, in which your thighs and glutes will scream at the torture of another hill to climb.

Why not stay at home where the fridge is full, the bed is soft, and you have no snoring strangers in your sleeping area? It’s hard to fathom, but I need the outdoors, the time to reflect, the exposure to wilderness. It’s a privilege to be able to encounter in-person the mountains and valleys and lakes and rivers of this incredible country. Watching a landscape on a TV screen, you don’t feel the wind, smell the air, taste the mountain water. You don’t feel the sandflies biting either, which is a blessing, but you miss the sensation of simply existing, the simplicity of existing, in a remote area of beauty far removed from human interference.

Having migraines makes the decision to go tramping a bit more fraught, but although exertion can trigger the pain, the lack of it can do the same. So if I have to suffer, I might as well do it in some of the most beautiful places on earth.

How to tramp with migraines

What I’ve learnt so far about tramping with migraines.

I often used to go tramping on my own, and had the occasional migraine alone in the wilderness. But that was before the migraines became very frequent – now I have migraines for around 10-12 days a month, that means for any longer tramp I go on (a week or more), the chances are, I’ll have a migraine on at least one day of tramping. Flicking through the notes I’ve taken on recent trips, I spot a recurrent theme. ‘Headachy on waking, turned into a full-blown migraine so took some pills. They worked after an hour or so but felt dopey and clumsy until lunchtime.’

‘Woke with neck pain and thought it was due to a bad sleeping position, but it soon became a migraine. Took a pill but it increased in severity. Felt yuck all day but pain only moderate so carried on with the walk for the day.’

So nowadays, I make sure I have company when I go tramping – and picking the right companion(s) is the first important step. They need to know about the migraines, be understanding, willing and able to help out if necessary. If I’m flaked out at the end of the day, my partner is happy to put up the tent, get dinner ready, inflate my sleeping mat and take on all navigation responsibilities (oh, hang on, he does that anyway).

Flexibility is the other crucial element. We always have a plan A, for what we’d like to do, a plan B for if I get sick, and probably a plan C as well. For longer trips, we’ll usually budget at least one spare day that I can lay up if I have to. We’ll pick tramps that can be lengthened or shortened depending on my state of mind. This is why I’ve never done a trip with a tramping club. I’ve heard too many stories of people who were left behind on club trips because they couldn’t keep up, and it was up to them to find their own way out. That sort of environment and those sort of people are not safe for me to tramp with. Most tramping clubs are not able to accommodate people with a disability on their trips, and migraine can be a disability that is invisible, making it even more likely to be misunderstood.

An example of a trip where flexibility was the mainstay of the experience was a visit to the Wilkin Valley and Gillespie Pass over New Year in 2016.

Day 1: We flew into Jumboland Flats on a brilliant clear, still day and walked to Top Forks Hut, which was actually two huts, perfectly located beside the Wilkin River and with views out to a snow-capped Mt Castor, which even at the end of December cracked off an avalanche or two while we were there. On the walk in, a migraine started forming behind one eye and temple, increasing in intensity despite downing every type of drug in my possession.

Day 2: Day-walk to Rabbit Pass. We’d planned this – spending three nights at Top Forks to explore. Because of my pounding head, I viewed the pass at a respectful distance, before stumbling back down the rocky track to lie down in one of the huts.

Day 3: Day-walk to Lake Diana and Lake Lucidus. I forced myself to walk up to these beautiful hanging alpine lakes, but lost the will to reach the third one (Lake Castalia). The track upwards looked like hell. Once again, I retreated to the hut for some quiet. It was New Year’s Eve but only one other couple was at Top Forks, so we took a hut each. At least my partner Tony had someone to talk to.

Day 4: Despite lots of time with the bunks, the migraine persisted. If you have never had a migraine, imagine your worst hangover. It feels like a knife is slicing through your head, you want to throw up, you can’t think, you just want to crawl under a blanket and close your eyes for a very long time. Now imagine you are in the middle of a tramp, it’s hours until you can reach a hut and days before you can finish. I trekked down to Kerin Forks Hut in a blinding haze of pain. One foot in front of another. But the skies were blue, the Wilkin River was exuberantly gushing and the trees breathed serenity.

Day 5: We had planned to reach Siberia Hut and dash up to Lake Crucible, a 7km side trip. I didn’t get further than Siberia. Tony did the Lake Crucible dash and comforted me with photos. I tried to sleep.

Day 6: Finally, I woke up with a clear head. We had several options. We could press on, as planned, over Gillespie Pass to Young Hut, and walk out the next day to Makarora, where we had our last night’s accommodation booked. This took us into the shadow of Mt Awful. I didn’t think I was up for that. The weather was fine and we knew the next day there would be hordes of day trippers flying into Siberia Hut for a turn about the wilderness. We could hitch a flight back to Makarora (i.e. pay half price for the return trip). So we did a leisurely walk up to Lake Crucible, Tony for the second time. He didn’t complain. It was spectacular.

Day 7: We wandered down to the airstrip in the morning, lounged in the sun until the plane could take us out, and spent the rest of the day wandering around Makarora. I missed out on Gillespie Pass, but saw so much beauty my mind was full.  

More about migraines

What is a migraine? Really, who knows. It’s a serious kind of brain fart. Something sets off the brain, maybe a change in neurotransmitters (the chemicals that nerves communicate with), or blood flow, or hormone levels, or nutrients, or… so many options. The end result is a pulsating, throbbing, stabbing pain in one side of the head, often befriended by nausea, fatigue, intolerance to light and sound, visual disturbances and lots of other symptoms to demonstrate that the brain is having a meltdown.

For example, my brain under the influence of migraine finds it difficult to process words. Sometimes I can think of a sentence but can’t seem to articulate it. Sometimes I have a concept of a sentence, but can’t think how to form it. This has helped to develop a saintly patience in my beloved partner Tony. The fatigue is extreme, often preceding the pain and lingering long after it. Every movement and every thought is weighted with lead. You lie down but can’t sleep. You get up and want to lie down. If you’re out tramping, you lean on your walking poles, crawl over obstacles that you would otherwise joyously jump past, and fail to navigate rivers with dryness.

Migraine affects around one in ten people, but more women than men. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, migraine is the 3rd most prevalent and 6th most disabling disease in the world. A little startling to know, then, that the first medication specifically designed to prevent migraine, was only approved in 2018 (CGRP pathway monoclonal antibodies). Before that, migraine preventive treatments had been second-hand drugs – anti-hypertensives, anti-depressants, anti-epileptics, anti-wrinkles (Botox). I haven’t tried the new CGRP wonder drug – I’m waiting, but not with bated breath because I might pass out. New Zealand is always the last to fund new treatments. I’ve tried pretty much everything else that is available, prescription and otherwise (if you want a list, it includes amitriptyline, nortriptyline, timolol, propanolol, atenolol, sodium valproate, topiramate, lisinopril, candesartan, pizotifen, verapamil, melatonin, venlafaxine, fluoxetine, ibuprofen, butterbur, riboflavin, magnesium, coenzyme Q10, feverfew, acupuncture, chiropractory, osteopathy, ayurvedic medicine, massage therapy, even cannabis, just quietly). None of it helped appreciably, and/or had unpleasant side effects. My episodic migraines persist.

Preventive treatments are supposed to reduce the frequency and severity of migraine attacks – but acute treatments are used to stop an attack in its tracks. I’ve had more success with these. Sometimes, aspirin or ibuprofen, maybe with the assistance of a stiff coffee, beats the migraine back. More often, I use a triptan (rizatriptan is my substance of choice). Mostly that works. Sometimes it doesn’t, and the pain can drag on for days. For me, this was commonly around my period – known as menstrual migraine. The relationship between female hormones and migraines is complicated – but for me, hormone replacement therapy has been a godsend. I do still occasionally get the prolonged, unresponsive migraines, but not every month. For those, I use a TENS machine to ease the pain – the cefaly. Tony tried it once to see how it felt – you can probably tell from his face. We call it the Wonder Woman device, but it doesn’t convey any superpowers, only a replacing of the migraine pain with a nerve-stimulating drill-like buzzing. You take what you can get.

A wee historical note – the triptans, which were the first drugs developed specifically to treat migraine, came to market in the 1990s, the same decade that saw the launch of Viagra, the blockbuster drug for erectile dysfunction. Hmm. Migraine is the 6th most disabling disease in the world; erectile dysfunction doesn’t even rate as a disability (unless you are a veteran in the US, where you may be eligible for a monthly payment for loss of a creative organ); but no one has to take time off work because they can’t get a hard-on (ok, unless they are a porn actor). Why was there not more research and drug development for a condition like migraine, that causes so much pain and suffering; and why was there so much research and drug development for a condition like erectile dysfunction? Hypothetical question: we know the answers.

If you want to know more about migraines, check out some of these links:

Gear list

What are we taking and how much does it weigh?

Very good questions. Not entirely sure, yet, but here is the latest estimate.

What we’ll wear while walking: T shirt (Icebreaker), shorts, socks (Icebreaker) and boots (Lowa), sunhat, underwear, walking poles (Leki), gaiters, sunglasses/glasses.

Gear carried in Osprey Ariel 55 l pack. This has no relation to the little mermaid, although the pack is kind of the same colour as Ariel’s tail.

Spare clothes: T shirt for sleeping in (Icebreaker), long johns (Icebreaker), underwear, shorts, down jacket (Rab), rain jacket (Outdoor Research), long sleeved top (Icebreaker), socks, neck gaiter (buff), beanie, sandals (Teva)

Camping items: Tent (Hilleberg), inflatable mattress (Thermorest), sleeping bag (Enlightened equipment), silk liner, inflatable pillow (Sea to Summit), cooker and gas, matches, mug, spork, pot, knife, sitting mat

Personal care items: trowel, towel, face cloth, toilet paper, hand sanitiser, toothbrush, toothy tabs (Lush), dental floss, soap (Ethique), sunscreen, lip balm, medications.

Food stuff: rubbish bag, dishwash liquid, dish cloth, tea towel, food bag and food, water bottles/bladder, water filter, shopping bag.

Other: Headlamp (Led lenser) and batteries, GPS, PLB, camera, phone, chargers, battery pack, first aid kit, nail clippers, earplugs/headphones, wallet, Backcountry hut pass, pack cover, notebook and pen, little book of NZ trees for botanising.

The goal is for my pack to weigh less than 15kg, fully loaded with food and water. The more we eat, the less it will weigh!