Tramping (Trekking) the Length of New Zealand (MAIN PAGE)

Section A: Cape Reinga to Ahipara

Click here for photos of Section A

Section Summary: Starting at the Cape Reinga lighthouse, which is within just kilometers of being the northern-most point of New Zealand, the section follows mixed coastal walking, including over high bluffs, along beaches, and through bush, until it emerges on Ninety Mile Beach. The section then follows flat and straight Ninety Mile Beach to its end in Ahipara.

Route: Cape Reinga Coastal Walkway from Cape Reinga lighthouse, along Te Werahi beach, along twilight beach, past Pukekarea trig station, to Kahokawa Beach. Ninety Mile Beach past Te Paki stream, the Bluff, Pukekura stream, road to Hukatere, Waipapkauri, to Ahipara.

Towns: Ahipara (store/takeaway/lodging).

Route notes: Cape Reinga Coastal Walkway is easy to follow, with markers at regular intervals. Some is cut trail (track), some is cross-country (routes) over delightfully soft sand/rock/mud hills, and some is unused dirt (paper) roads. There was only one place where the route turned off from what was then a dirt road for a more overgrown road. The marker was obscured in the grass and I followed the other road for a kilometer or so before coming to a locked gate and realizing the road was heading in the wrong direction. Out came the compass, serving as a reminder to check it even in seemingly unremarkable situations. At this time of year, there were streams crossing the beach every few kilometers mostly, so water was never an issue and I only carried a liter at a time, except for the last 25 km before Ahipara, where none of the streams shown on the map except one (Karaka) actually flowed across the beach (access would need to be in the hills behind the sand dunes).

Maps: M02/N02 North Cape, N03 Houhora, N04 Ahipara.

Supplies: Auckland prior to bus ride (5 days food).


[Note on the difference in terminology between the U.S. and New Zealand: in the U.S. it is called trekking or backpacking and here it is called tramping; a trail is called a 'track' (with developed tread) or a 'route' (marked/poled but no tread); gravel roads are 'metalled roads'; and paved roads are 'sealed roads'.]

[These words are being typed from an internet cafe in Kerikeri, which takes over the building of the Kerikeri Bapist Church Monday through Saturday and then folds up on Sundays.]

After three very busy days in Auckland packaging food and supplies and mailing them ahead, finding out information, handling various logistical items, sorting and choosing gear for the first sections, emailing, and visiting new and old acquaintances, including the people promoting the "Te Araroa" national tramping route I'm emulating in most part, I headed up to Cape Reinga at the northern tip of the North Island to begin.

In Auckland I was advised to contact Peter Griffiths in the Far North. Peter oversaw construction and agreements for the new Herikino Forest Track near his home, which is one of the earliest "linking" sections developed as part of the continuous Te Araroa route. So after a full day's bus ride to Kaitaia, Peter met me at the bus with his beautiful 3-year-old daughter Pepita and drove me to Cape Reinga for an appropriate and warm send-off for the trek.

According to Peter, two sentiments I'm starting with are destined to be reversed: "this seems to be a pretty organized country" and "too bad the route doesn't go through more forest." Peter is a wonderful source of local knowledge, and reminded me that my internal sense of direction may be off for awhile, as that sense is accustomed to the northern hemisphere. Magnetic declination is the same as in Western U.S., but the vertical component of the magnetic field is different (which means compasses designed for the U.S. actually won't work in New Zealand), which could also affect one's "internal compass." It made me think that the sun being north of me (behind me) rather than south of me (in front of me) as I walk south probably leads to perpetual disorientation. Peter also remarked on the delicious whisky-colored water flowing in streams across the beach from the hills and swamps beyond--and that the color was natural. This set my mind at ease while I drank it (although I am still using a pump water filter for all my water on the trek) and it was indeed delicious!

So I started on the trek at 5:30pm on October 15 and camped the first night on Te Werahi beach. The area around Cape Reinga reminds me very much of Point Reyes near San Francicso in California--steep bush-covered hillsides and cliffs overlooking the ocean interspersed with beaches, and a mild, peaceful feeling.

Thursday, the first full day of hiking, I finished the Cape Reinga Coastal walk and started on 90-mile beach, camping at Waikanae Stream, already on the second map. The sand is firm enough that you don't sink in--boots barely make an impression and the beach is perfectly flat and straight into the distance. This was one of the best hiking days I've ever had.

Music makes a huge difference. With the right tune on my MP3 player I walk blissfully along. The music seems to sharpen my visual sense and doesn't drown out the sounds of the surf and birds, which still come through. This first full hiking day was vintage Hiroshima and Keiko Matsui. Later came Pat Metheny and Gypsy Kings. I often listen to one song repeatedly for an hour or more before changing to the next one. Thanks, Mom, for suggesting that I bring an MP3 player. At 60 grams (2 oz.), it has 150 songs on it and runs 30 hours on one AAA battery. That works out to a "song specific weight" of 0.4 grams per song and a battery weight of 0.5 grams per hour of playtime. After two days of music, I then walked two days without listening at all.

Seagulls were my constant companions. As I walk along the beach, pairs of seagulls stand motionless on the sand about as far from the water as where I am walking, each pair spaced perhaps a kilometer apart. These birds are the only distinguishing feature on an otherwise smooth beach as far as the eye can see. Each pair fist appears as two white specks in the distance and then resolves into two birds as I get closer. The birds fly off as I get within 50 meters, only to circle around beind me and land in about the same spot. This happens repeatedly all day, providing distance tracking in "seagull pairs" rather than in kilometers. Some gulls circle overhead and yell at me, seeming to say this is their beach not mine. In the late afternoons I notice birds flying along the beach very close to the ground--perhaps a meter above the ground where the wind is less--trying to make it into the wind.

Occassional vehicles--both cars and full-size tour buses--wizz down the beach at high speed (probably 40-50 mph, or 65-80 km/hr), easily driving on the smooth sand. One day I counted 10 tour buses but other days there were just a few fishermen going to or from their spots and a few tourists' cars. The excessive rate of vehicle speed seems a constant in this country--on roads as well, vehicles drive much faster than on comparable roads in the U.S., and there appear to be few posted speed limits except in towns.

The temperatures all days were in the sixties (17-22C) and partly to mostly overcast skies, leading to pleasant walking. However, in the afternoons the clouds burned off and the sun shone brightly--a problem for me unaccustomed to the fierce sun here (ozone layer is thiner). Twice daily coatings of SPF 45 sunblock and strong polarizing sunglasses seem to have been adequate. In addiiton, the wind picked up in the afternoons strong enough to blow over an empty water bottle, perhaps 20-25 mph (30-40 km/hr), and leaving me with wind burn. Camping in the low dunes/bush hills bordering the beach was like camping in a mini sand storm, with sand blowing through the mesh screens of the tent and leaving a thin coating over everything.

I feel like I'm in good shape and my training has paid off. I've been hiking an 18-mile (30 km) training hike once a week the past four months, and have bicycled 3200 miles (5100 km) in the past year, culminating in a 100 mile (160 km) ride in 7 hours a few weeks before I left. I haven't trained with a full pack, however, so getting conditioned to carry the pack, light as it is, is still needed. By and large, my gear is the same as I've used on previous backpacking trips, and everything is functional so far. My Black Diamond Contour trekking poles are wonderful and indispensible--I use them every step of the way to reduce wear and tear on my legs and knees.

New Zealand's energy bars are far superior to those in the U.S. I love the "Naked Bites" organic apricot and Macadamia nut bar with no wheat, oats, or dairy, plus a carob-coated nut bar from the bulk section of New World Supermarket (the big chain here) that tastes just like the old Payday candy bars!

It is really wonderful not to have to worry about bears as I camp, which one must constantly do on most parts of the Pacific Crest Trail in the U.S. It's a real treat to be able to cook and eat in the tent (stove outside of course), brush my teeth in the tent, sort through tomorrow's lunch, etc. In bear country none of these things can be done, as the tent and one's clothing must remain food-odor free so as not to attract bears in the middle of the night, and one's food must be hung from trees, often with an elaborate process of counterbalancing food and a counterweight from a high branch, so no tie-off rope is accessible from the ground--a process which often adds 15-20 minutes each night after dinner. Camping in NZ thus seems a "luxury" of food-anywhere sloppiness!

Made it to Ahipara by 1 pm on Sunday October 19, for less than 4 days hiking Section A. The Ahipara Bay Motel overlooks the beach, with views all the way up ninety mile beach. When asking directions in town, a local woman advised me to "go past the shop" [i.e., the one commercial establishment in town] and turn right. If you ever come to Ahipara, be sure not to miss the "Bidz Burger" at Bidz Takeaways, made with steak, bacon, ham, cheese, eggs, pineapple, mushrooms, lettuce, tomato, onion, and beets--one of the most amazing burgers I've ever had.

The first days hiking allowed me to reflect again on the reasons for the trek and New Zealand. These could perhaps be captured in the following phrases:

"I like to walk"

"My batteries need recharging after 15 years of deep discharges."

"New Zealand is free of wild animals/insects/snakes to worry about--I just have to worry about getting through, weather, and flowing water (crossing streams/rivers)."

"We owe it to ourselves to become more connected to the earth and this is my way at the moment."

"My voice, which gets constant use in my professional work, needs a rest."

"Its time to take stock and gain perspective on my professional work after a series of major results and reaching a natural point of pause."

"Cape Reinga is truly the 'end of the earth' and a most appropriate place to start."

This has been a complicated hike to prepare and execute. In addition to logistics, supplies, equipment choices, route information and decisions, re-supply packages prepared and sent ahead, and researching availability of services and supplies, all of which continue throughout the entire trek, there are emails and communications with friends and professional colleagues alike, documenting and web-posting the trek photos and writings, and the "challenge" (sorry) of eating enough to replenish the calories lost each day.

A final note on navigation: I used a GPS to locate myself on the beach once or twice a day, usually at stream crossings, so I could see how far to the next water source marked on the map. NZ has its own grid-coordinate system which is realy neat. Instead of latitude and longitude, the grid is laid out in 1-meter increments, with 1-km squares marked on the topo maps. The GPS, when set to the NZ grid coordinate system, will not only tell you which 1-km grid square you are in, but will give you three more digits to locate yourself within that square to within 1-meter (although accuracy of GPS readings was typically to within 10-meters). So sample coordinates would be 66 70 130 North, 25 09 510 East. The "70" and "09" give the kilometer grid square and the "130" and "510" give the position in that kilometer square to the exact meter. And you can then plot a location on the topo map to usually within 50 meters, represented by 1 mm on the map (1:50,000 scale gives 2 cm = 1 km). Thanks to reading Geoff Chapple's documented experiences with trying to use GPS latitude and longitude readings with the NZ topo maps, resulting in errors of close to a kilometer sometimes, I made sure to get a GPS with the NZ grid coordinate system built in (the Garman eTrex, which has about 30 different selectable coordinate systems from around the world). Position fixes were quite reliably obtained after about 3-4 minutes of sattelite tracking from power-on, even in the forest.

Page updated October 27, 2003