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In early February 2013, Jez Bragg, a leading international trail runner and member of The North Face Global Athlete Team, completed a 53 day off-road run down the full length of New Zealand on the brand new Te Araroa trail. He covered a total distance of 3,054km. Jez also included in his challenge a crossing of the Cook Strait by sea kayak, thereby completing a tip-to-toe traverse of the whole of New Zealand - purely under human power.
Having had the chance to explore such vast areas of the country, Jez shares with us his favourite sections of the trail:
1) North Island: 90 Mile Beach
How can a beach go on for so long? Of course it’s not quite 90 miles in length, but not far off 50. It’s a complete geographical wonder; a mind boggling stretch of sand with an endless horizon, testing my mental strength just as much as my physical ability to run all the way down it. Having officially started my run from Cape Reigna lighthouse at the top of the North Island, I hit 90 Mile Beach just 20km into my journey, and I spent a long first day working my way down the beach in an attempt to complete it in one day. I successfully did so, running 101km on the first day of the expedition.
(2) North Island: Raetea Forest
The forests of the North Island were incredibly dense, almost having a rainforest feel to them, being hot, humid and so lush green in colour. From the rare vantage points I came across, they would cover vast expanses of terrain, often hilly and technical in nature. The forests were incredible - but intense - environments to pass through, testing my navigation skills thoroughly, as well as my mental fortitude. Raetea Forest was the first stretch I encountered on day two, such a contrast to 90 Mile Beach on the previous day, and a perfect example of what was to come over the course of the trip. It set the tone for the challenge the forests presented throughout the North Island and to a lesser degree on the South Island. Some sections took multiple days to complete when I would stay overnight in DoC huts and be self-sufficient with a fast pack. Waterlogged trails meant I was constantly plastered in mud and had wet feet providing another big test of head strength.
North Island: Bay of Islands Coastline to Auckland
After long stretches of wilderness running traversing from the west to east coasts, it was exciting to arrive on the Bay of Islands coastline, and to run stretches hugging the coastline heading south down towards Auckland. The coastal towns and villages were alive with families enjoying the sunshine on the beach, totally oblivious to the epic journey I was making. The temperature was pleasantly warm, the sea had a lovely clarity to it and the views across the bays to the small islands were stunning. It felt comforting to be running through civilisation and ‘normality’ for a short while. And of course there were plenty of ice cream shops to keep a runner fuelled….
(4) North Island: Whanganui River
There are several sections of the official ‘trail’ that are actually water sections or river crossings. The longest is the down-river section on the Whanganui River. The start point was the classic ‘Bridge to Nowhere’; an aptly named bridge constructed many years ago when there were plans to open the area up for farming and habitation. It was a long run-in to get there, but then the paddling on the Whanganui provided a well-earned and enjoyable break from the running. Along with Mark, one of my support guys, we covered the 110km+ down to Whanganui town in a day and half, enjoying the dramatic route the river follows, from steeply sided gorges in the upper reaches, to more open rolling hills lower down. It’s a big, powerful, river with many sets of rapids to keep you on your toes, but also plenty of amazing waterfalls and features to explore on the way down.
(5) North Island: Wellington: City to Sea Track
The Te Araroa trail ‘embraces’ the urban parts of the country, passing through several large towns and cities including Auckland and Wellington. I loved these sections, enjoying the opportunity to experience urban life and take in the sights, sounds and landmarks of these famous cities. The Wellington section was particularly special. From the top of Mount Kaukau the views of the city were incredible, and then the route followed green walkways and the City to Sea track to the west of the CBD, through the botanical gardens, and generally at a slightly elevated level to provide constantly changing views. And of course arriving at Island Bay, right on the southern tip of the North Island, I had reached the psychological half way point of my journey and that was very special moment. A run like this requires so much physical and emotional energy that when the big milestones did arrive, my emotions ran high. It was sunny and hot when I arrived on the beach at Island Bay so I leapt into the sea and whooped out loud, much to the confusion of the people around me.
(6) South Island: The Queen Charlotte Track, from Captain Cook’s Monument
Kayaking across the Cook Straight from Makara Beach, just west of Wellington, directly into Captain Cook’s monument at Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound, was one of the highlights of trip. But, after a 9 hour crossing, I was stranded! It was the start of my run on the South Island and also the start of one of the nine great walks of New Zealand; The Queen Charlotte Track. There is no vehicle access into Ship Cove so, despite being a long day already, I had a 25km to run to reach my support vehicle. Being a well-trodden route, the trail was well formed and fast, and a scenic delight. Many sections followed the ridge line of narrow peninsulas, all clad in rich green forest, dropping away to the sea on one or both sides. With white sand and turquoise waters, the contrast in colours was spectacular, made even better by some beautiful weather.
(7) South Island: The Richmond Range
The severity of the terrain, and it’s demands on me, certainly cranked up a sizeable notch on the South Island, involving crossings of many national parks and wilderness areas. The Richmond Range came first; 120km along the ‘alpine route’ to complete a high level traverse across the whole range. It took me the best part of 3 days to complete, overnighting in the brilliant DoC huts along the way. The weather was mixed, but I had enough glimpsing views of the expansive forest-clad wilderness through the fast-moving low clouds to remain excited and to enjoy it. The rivers in particular were stunning (Pelorus), being an almost unnatural turquoise colour. The rain really set in on day 3, with conditions such that I had to keep moving to stay warm, but with that suffering came a true sense of purity, and ultimate respect for wild environment I was in.
(8) South Island: Nelson Lakes National Park
Straight out of the Richmond Range and into Nelson Lakes National Park via Saint Arnaud; no let-up in the mountainous terrain of the Southern Alps. The route across took in two huge passes; Travers and Waiau. I worried about the river levels but thankfully swing bridges were in place, and there were more great huts to seek refuge in when needed. I passed Blue Lake and Lake Constance which are famous for having some of the clearest waters anywhere in the world and, despite the overcast conditions, you could see exactly how. Long days of up to 18 hours took their toll as I remained determined to maintain a strong daily average distance. But the incredible expanses of mountain wilderness were a constant source of interest and strength and ultimately dragged me through.
(9) South Island: Deception River Valley
For sheer sense of adventure the Deception River Valley route in Arthur’s Pass National Park takes some beating. It’s not for the faint-hearted mind, particularly if you attempt it in the dark like I did (not recommended). On a clear summer’s day it would still be wild, but far less daunting. The route follows the Deception River bed closely, regularly switching from bank-to-bank and gaining height quickly. The challenge is knowing which bank is the best to be on, and obviously route markings are not so easy to make out in the dark, but they are limited anyway. The goal is Goat Pass where there’s a brilliant DoC hut, set amongst vast expanses of open moorland. As you ascend the waterfalls get higher, and the boulder hopping more challenging. At times it’s more like canyoning than hiking or running, I certainly spent plenty of time actually in the river. Thankfully the rain held off until I had made the pass, so river levels remained high, but stable. It was a definite sense of relief having made it across safely.
(10) South Island: Longwood Forest/ Longwood Range
On the face of it the Longwood Range is just another set of forest-clad hills, but not for Te Araroa hikers. On a clear day the range provides a first glimpse of the Bluff peninsula, some 120km trail kilometres down the coast. Bluff is located on the southern tip of the South Island, the official end point of the trail and for through hikers/ runners, the focus for many, many days of hard work. I was spoilt with a clear morning and when I eventually summited Bald Hill and caught my first view down the coast to Bluff, it was a very emotional moment. The following day I arrived safely in Bluff where my 53 day journey sadly came to an end.