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Epilogue: Final Thoughts, Tramping Safety, Tongariro/Waikato Sections, and "Te Araroa Points"

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Epilogue Summary: Below are final thoughts about the trek while returning from Bluff to Auckland, further thoughts on tramping safety, and coverage of two additional sections on North Island that are part of the Te Araroa route. The idea of "Te Araroa Points" is also elaborated, in terms of suggested definitions and accounting, and my own trek accounting. The two additional sections are (1) the Tongariro Crossing, which passes along the north-west flank of Mt. Ngauhuhoe, a volcanic cone, with views of Mt. Ruapehu; and (2) an 18-km section of Te Araroa along the broad Waikato River valley in central North Island, from Meremere to Rangiriri.

Epilogue: Auckland, New Zealand, April 21, 2004

Everywhere I go now, I see tracks, dirt roads, or other ways to go through, up, or around terrain. "You could walk that beach and that ridge" I tell someone standing next to me on the inter-island ferry as we enter Wellington Harbor. Buses and trains offer many opportunities to study terrain and imagine walking through it!

The journey from Bluff back to Auckland began with a bus from Invercargill to Christchurch, which is about half-way up the South Island. Passenger trains used to cover that route, which was quite spectacular along the coast, some locals told me. But the company that bought the passenger rail network some years ago suspended service on that route. This was very disappointing, as I had wanted to take the train all the way back from Invercargill/Bluff to Auckland. What is the point of walking all the way to Bluff if you can't take the train back? Bring back the train (Mrs. Prime Minister)! Anyway, I *was* able to take the train from Christchurch all the way back to Auckland, with stops along the way and with the intervening cross-Cook-Strait ferry crossing. The train ride from Christchurch to Picton was spectacular, following the South Island coastline for some 100-km. The train journey through the heart of North Island was also very scenic.

On the way back, I got many congratulations from readers of this web site. All those emails are much appreciated. Some readers were preparing to do all or parts of the trek themselves. Others said they were waiting to read the book, but I must say that this web site *is* the book. I don't expect to write a published book, but perhaps the web site can be used or expanded in some additional ways in the future. Many wrote to say they greatly enjoyed following me along and that the trek was inspiring. Thank you! That is most gratifying. One New Zealand reader wrote:

"What a beautiful Journey....I have no idea how this may have changed your heart, your head or your soul, but I do know that in many ways following your journey has affected mine....I am sure the meaning [of the trek] will change as life ebs and flows....I'm going to miss your up-dates, but I am just so proud not only of the achievement, but of how you achieved it....Your whole journey is an inspirational piece of work on many more levels than you've probably yet realised, though I've no doubt you have a clear idea it is a widespread scale....I couldn't have asked for a more beautiful contemporary tale of this land that I often think of as timeless."

Wow! Thank you!

As for myself, most of all right now, I appreciate the "brain renewal" that has taken place!

And in the end, it seems quite simple really. I said I was going to walk the length of the country and I did. And I'm glad that I did. As with any such endeavor, there were times when I thought of giving up. Some readers pointed out the ebb and flow of optimism or emotions during the various sections, as conveyed through the journals. Sections D, K, and L were low points and Sections A, G, H, J-1, J-2, and N were high points. One reader pointed out that the lack of tramping companions during virtually the entire way finally took its toll towards the end of the trek, and made it more difficult for me to contemplate isolated, difficult or stressful routes alone. (I just learned of some behaviorial/physiological research that suggests stress levels associated with a specific activity decline when undertaken in a group rather than alone, and that the stress levels decline as the number of people in the group increase, to the point where stress was zero with a group of five.) At some point during the trek, I realized that a trek undertaken to reduce stress was nonetheless stressful in some of the situations I faced. For the variety of reasons discussed in the journals, there were various times when I felt stuck, that the planned route wasn't going to work, and that I had to work out modifications. Probably, with more tramping partners, I would have made different decisions in some sections. In the end, I have no regrets about what I did or didn't do. I did what I did!

Further Thoughts on Tramping Safety

The English tramper Michael Johnson hiking the length of South Island from south to north, whom I met on the Dart River March 12 (see Section M journal and photos), was reported missing to the Wanaka police in early April. His last known sighting was on March 15, when he picked up a food parcel from a farmer, just after he passed over Cascade Saddle from the Dart River. After that, he was to go over Rabbit Pass to Makaroa, and then to Wanaka for a rest break by March 22. Rabbit Pass is often considered a dangerous route because of a rocky drop-off exposure along one part of it. It is also very isolated and infrequently traveled.

Michael's body was found on April 25. Mountain Recreation NZ had this to say about the tragedy:    "The body of solo English tramper, Michael Johnson was found high off a ridgeline near Mt. Twilight forty days after he left Cameron flat and twenty-four days after he'd been notified as missing. The search was the biggest and longest carried out by Wanaka police and SAR personnel. The deceased had not informed DoC of his specific intentions, had not been seen by others and did not carry a personal locator beacon. It is presumed he had been involved in a fall of about 30m and got himself into a sleeping bag and possibly died within 48 hours. Heavy snowfalls covered his body during the main search period. A significant snow thaw occurred in mid April. At the end of a large SAR exercise which had been diverted to the location for realistic practise and a final check of the area a piece of the sleeping bag was spotted from a helicopter in the last 2 hours of the search."

Michael's death was a real tragedy. He was a very nice person and a kind soul.

Before Michael's body was discovered, published newspaper reports faulted him for not carrying an EPIRB emergency beacon (also called a "personal locator beacon"). The EPIRB sends a signal to a satellite which is immediately received by rescue personnel, but cannot send position information. The satellite knows the approximate area, but rescue personnel must then take to the ground with radio-location equipment to locate the EPIRB exactly, which requires mobility in the bush. So the EPIRB doesn't guarantee rescue. On-the-ground radio-location efforts can fail or come too late to avoid death by exposure or dehydration if one becomes disabled in an exposed location or away from a water source (see my remarks in my Section J-1 journal). The reports said Michael decided against carrying an EPIRB for reasons of weight, although it only weights 200 grams (8 oz.). I carried an EPIPB on sections where I was very isolated, such as the Coromandel and Kaimais (Section E), Kawekas (Section G-1), Tararuas (Section H), and Waiau Pass (Section J-1).

New Zealand has a strong "intentions" culture for tramping and rescue. That is, trampers typically notify friends or relatives of their exact intentions and route, and the day they expect to finish. The contact person notifies police if the tramper doesn't emerge on the predicted day. Police may allow for some extra time in case the tramper was delayed due to weather or other factors, and also considering the gear carried and the person's ability to survive overnight, but generally a search is initiated immediately. Often the first part of the search involves checking the log-books of huts along the route (via helicopter) to see where the missing people were. Thus, everyone is encouraged to sign-in the log book at each hut passed, even if not staying the night. In addiiton, "intentions" forms are commonly filed with DOC, which also follows them rigourously in terms of alerting police on a set day if the trampers do not report back that they have finished.

In my case, I kept a contact person appraised of my interary for every section, and made sure my contact person knew the exact date to inform DOC or the police if he didn't hear from me. And my very first act upon emerging from the bush was always to find a phone and call my contact person to let him know I made it out. Since I usually wasn't near a DOC office to file an intentions form with DOC (the system works well for those who drive to tracks), I had my contact person keep track of me. I also made sure my contact person had a list of the exact gear I took on any particular section and my food provisions, which is information that rescuers want to know.

In Michael's case, I was surprised to read in the newspaper that Michael's contact person was out of the country at the time, apparently without any back-up or alternate contact arrangement. Thus the police weren't notified until about two weeks after Michael should have emerged at Wanaka. The lack of a contact person to confirm his timely emergence from the bush was a serious mistake, I think. And particularly because this was during arguably the most difficult and dangerous parts of Michael's entire route--Rabbit Pass and then the Southern Alps to Mt. Cook.

"Intentions" arrangements are probably the most important aspect of solo tramping in remoter parts of New Zealand. Still, the bush is so vast and dense that if you are not on a marked track, and there are alternative ways to go, even if rescuers go out looking they may still never find you. That is another reason I decided to remain on marked tracks or marked routes (i.e., I avoided unmarked routes in isolated areas), and made sure I stayed along the marked line at all times.

I also remained very cautious in general about river crossings, which I grew to appeciate as the biggest hazard here. Side streams and rivers that are easy to cross in normal conditions can quickly become raging torrents in heavy rain. Two thirds of all tramping fatalities in New Zealand are due to drowning--from being swept away crossing rivers and streams--a search and rescue volunteer told me.

Of course, if you travel in a group, you don't have to worry about these things nearly as much, as there is always someone to go for help. As I wrote in my trek summary, I think solo tramping can be safe, even if DOC recommends against it in general, but I was always thinking about what would happen if I became disabled on my own in any area where few travel. Waiau Pass (Section J-1) is perhaps a section I wouldn't do alone again, knowing what I know now, since becoming disabled alone on the top, without anyone to go for help, could be quite dangerous. If the weather turns bad, one could die of exposure or dehydration before rescuers arrive.

It all depends on one's tolerance for risk. In my case, I had no interest whatsoever in taking risks with my physical well-being just for the sake of a walk in the wilderness. That perspective guided my choices as I went along (for example, my decision not to go through the Ruahine range in Section G), as well as my unease with more challenging sections that I was still quite capable of negotiating from a technical/skill point of view. It also guided my clothing/gear selection, although sometimes I felt foolish carrying large amounts of unused clothing/gear on a particular section that I only would have needed if the weather had changed rapidly for the worse.

During the trek, the NZ press regularly featured news stories of trampers and mountaineers going lost or being rescued. Mountaineers suffered several deaths on Mt. Cook and Mt. Aspiring this past summer season. One pair of trampers I remember were stranded for almost a week in a small rock crack, with room for only one person at a time to shelter from the rain and snow at Arthurs Pass, and with two sleeping bags for cover. But they knew how to survive for several days in those conditions. The search started almost immediately after the pair failed to return at the right time, but searchers were hampered by the bad weather. Finally, the weather cleared and the pair was found. They had gone off the track to bypass an icy section but had gotten stuck due to a rapid change in weather, unable to go either up or down. By the time the weather cleared, the pair were so depleted that they couldn't haven't gotten out on their own, but were spotted from a helicopter. These were the two common elements in many of the stories I read: going off of the track and sudden changes in weather. NZ's rescue crews seem very dedicated and professional; I have no doubt they do the absolute best job possible.

From all this, I conclude with the following advice for the long-distance solo tramper: file your intentions with DOC or a contact person who can act on your "due-in" date, don't go off the track, sign-in at every hut you pass even if not staying there, carry an EPIRB on very isolated sections, wait until river levels fall after rain before attempting to cross, and be prepared for the worst possible weather!

Tongariro Crossing and Waikato Sections

From Wellington to Auckland I stopped at two places to hike additional sections of Te Araraoa and get more "points", in order to leave the country with the most points possible, and also to underline the idea itself.

I also stopped to visit Trust Power's Tararua wind farm near Palmerston North (see photos). The wind farm is quite impressive, being the largest in the southern hemisphere and achieving some of the highest capacity factors in the world (amount of power actually generated compared to the amount that could be generated if the turbines operated at full power all the time). Both coal power and wind power have been prominent in the news recently as New Zealand debates its energy future in the wake of the cancellation of a major proposed hydroelectric station in the South Island--"Project Aqua." This cancellation probably signaled the end of any more large hydro development in the country. Wind resources are so good in New Zealand, however, and the amount of isolated farmland so plentiful, that I believe New Zealand could receive 100% of its electricity from wind power if the problem of storage of intermittant power output could be solved. (The intermittancy of wind in New Zealand is unusual in its degree.) The main practical storage solution at the moment is pumped hydro storage, which is still expensive and poses its own set of environmental problems.

The Tongariro Crossing was a wonderful 25-km day hike. I started from Whakapapa Village, site of the imposing "Grand Chateau" in the headquarters of Tongariro National Park, pictured on many tourist brochures. The weather was beautiful as I shared the track with several hundred other day-hikers all going across the Crossing at about the same time. Officials warn hikers about not going across in just shorts and t-shirt, no matter how nice the weather at the start. These warnings about sudden severe weather at the high points of the crossing should be well-taken, but on this day the weather was relatively mild and one could have survived even in light clothing. I was prepared for a blizzard, in case the weather changed suddenly as it can, but most of my clothing remained in the pack. The high volcanic peaks and slopes of golden-brown tussock and volcanic rock, along with distant views of Lake Taupo, made for a scenic day. It was nice to be walking amongst others, and I chatted with an Irish woman, Clare, as we made our way down the slopes on the far side, part of a near-constant procession of people.

The Waikato River track was a pleasant walk along the river. The northern end of this trail at Meremere is within the traditional tribal lands of Ngati Nako, subtribe of Waikato Iwi, according to the Te Araroa trail sign. "Local mythical river guardians Wawaia, Karutahi and Te Ia Roa will assist your safe passage" assures the sign. The track is mostly along rough grassy flats in paddocks, with periodic white posts at stiles and a few other places. It is easy to follow; simply stay close to the river. The trail sign notes that duck hunters appear along the river in May and June. (Track starts at the end of an unsigned road that goes west from Highway 4 about 1km south of the southern turn-off to Meremere, and ends at the Waikato River bridge at Rangariri.)

While walking the Waikato River track, it hit me more strongly than before that I don't particularly like walking through farmland! ("Farmland" in New Zealand denotes primarily cattle and sheep pastureland/paddocks.) I'm not sure if it is the lack of shade and potable water, the rough walking underfoot (cattle tear up the ground), the frequent fences that must be crossed, or the "unnatural" state of the land, so far from what it would have been before it was ever farmed. And when I think of it, I walked through very little farmland during the trek that wasn't on dirt roads, surprisingly little overall when considering that most of the country is farmland. Of course, much of the sealed (paved) road walking everywhere was past farmland. But I can look back and see that I enjoyed the road walking more on roads passing through forest than through farmland. And I can see that my route was deliberate in avoiding farmland where possible.

After doing these two pieces of Te Araroa in the central part of North Island, and traveling betweeen them by train, I am still glad that I took my alternate route through the Coromandel, Kaimai-Mamaku, and Kaweka Forest Parks on the east side of central North Island.

Te Araroa Points Accounting

Below are most of the sections of Te Araroa that I would nominate as "available", according to my proposed definition from the Section J-2 Journal. This list is by no means official or definitive. It is intended to be a minumum starting point, and others may consider additional pieces would qualify to be on it now. Distances are approximate and illustrative, not exact. Further work to come up with more exact numbers would be needed. Also shown are the points I garnered during my trek and from the two epilogue sections (if my total is less than the total for a given section, it means I took an alternate parallel route for all or part of the section).

SectionTotal pointsMy pointsMy trek section
Cape Reinga Coastal Walkway and Ninety-Mile Beach 110110A
Herekino Forest and Juken Nissho Forest Tracks 20 20B
Raetea Forest Track from Takahue to near SH1 8 8B
Omahuta Forest roads 10 B
Kerikeri Walkway 4 4B
Paihia-Opua Walkway 8 8C
Russell Forest Track 21 21C
Whananaki Coastal Track 5 5C
Beach from Marsden Point to Waipu Cove 25 20C
Brynderwyn Walkway/Cullen Road end 10 10D
Beach from Mangawhai to Pakiri 25 25D
Tamahunga Track 7 7D
Puhoi to Orewa Beach 22 19D
Okura Bush Walkway 9 D
East Coast Bays Walk 25 20D
Auckland Coast-to-Coast Walk 15 15E
Waikato River, Meremere to Huntly 30 18
Pureora Hauhungaroa Route 45
Tongariro Crossing, Ketetahi to SH47 35 25
Wanganui River 65 65G
Beach from Turakina to Waitarere 55 55G
Tararuas Levin to Otaki Forks 50 50H
Mangaone Walkway 10
Queen Charlotte Walkway 57
Richmond Forest, Pelorus Bridge to near St. Arnaud 130
St. Arnaud to Lewis Pass at Boyle 140140J
Lewis Pass at Windy Point to Aickens 80 80J
Aickens to SH73 near Arthur's Pass 30
Cora Lynn to Windwhistle 75
Mt. Somers to Mesopotamia 55
Greenstone and Mavora Lakes Tracks 50 50M
North Mavora Lake to Mavora Lakes Road 10
Beach from Riverton to Oreti Beach 25 25N
Foveaux Walkway 7 7N

Total Points

Page updated July 4, 2006