Photo by Justin Helmkamp

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My Trail Story featuring Justin Helmkamp

Justin Helmkamp spent 40 days walking over 800 miles on Te Araroa in New Zealand.

Natalie McMillan      My Trail Story       04/25/2019

Natalie McMillan

My Trail Story

04/25/2019

It seemed like the next step in the process of forever chasing this seemingly strange addiction I’ve had over the past three years. First, gain your thru-hiking chops on the Appalachian Trail, learning tips of the trade on the trail that started it all. Next, go west and take those skills to a changing environment of desert, high mountains, and the Pacific Northwest on the Pacific Crest Trail. Continue on to off-trail route-finding on the Oregon Desert Trail. The question then became, “What am I going to do with three months off in the winter?”

 

The next step turned to taking what I had learned, halfway around the world to New Zealand. I heard about this new trail the Kiwis called the “Te Araroa,” which in the Maori language stands for “The Long Pathway.”. For two years it was the trail that I always wanted to experience but would never be able to make work. Well, fate gave me an opportunity, and on November 10th, 2018, I landed in Auckland. Solo.

A view of tree and snow covered mountains.

Photo by Justin Helmkamp

The big difference with this trail compared to the past was my intention to hike solo. Each of my past hikes, there were always other people — trail family hiking the same way as myself Sometimes groups that I had planned to hike with. Others that happened naturally on trail. But this time it was different. I chose to hike Northbound from the Southern Terminus of the South Island, starting early in the season, something that is not common amongst TA hikers. In doing so, I set my hike on a course that would challenge me to be able to complete the task at hand mostly in my own mind, a far cry from other trips. Having someone else to share the experience has always been a part of my past. Naturally, I was a little concerned with this, but I also realized that for another level of growth in hiking, doing this solo would push me in ways that other hikes had not.

On November 15th, after traveling south and sleeping off the jet-lag, I finally started from Bluff, the Southern Terminus of the TA, intent on completing the South Island section of the trail. By the second day and about 50 miles into my hike, I limped my way to Riverton, a small town directly on the trail. After 70% roadwalk/compacted beach walk, I had messed up my foot to the point of a possible stress fracture. This was my first taste of how hiking by myself could be detrimental. Without other people around, I found myself not taking the time to rest during the day and continually pushing myself too quickly too soon. So I weighed the options. I could quit and go home, or I could wait, rest, and heal up. I chose to go to Queenstown, the “Adrenaline Capital of the World” (bungee jumping was invented there and it is the action sport hub of the Southern Hemisphere), to work in a hostel and heal up. And I loved it!

A sunset with mountains and a stream.

Photo by Justin Helmkamp

A small house on a hill in the mountains.

Photo by Justin Helmkamp

Immediately I found a sense of community among other travelers. And since I was staying in the same hostel for four weeks, I met quite a few long-term stays and gained a new friend group of travelers.  None of them had done much in the way of long-distance thru-hiking, but their different travel experiences helped me see how there are many other ways to see the world. And when my four weeks were done, I felt bittersweet about leaving my “tramily” in Queenstown. Intentionally pulling myself away from the people I enjoyed to continue on this lonely path was hard, but I also knew that I had come to New Zealand with a purpose. And if I didn’t give the effort I felt I owed myself, then there would be regret.

After a day of bus rides and hitches, I found myself back on the Long Pathway where I had left it a month before. Still, there was no signs that anyone else would be hiking with me. After the first week, I had only met four people on the trail, all heading the other way in section hikes.  But those moments in passing would frequently be high points in my days. Those 20-25 miles a day on various levels of track challenged me in ways I hadn’t been before on the AT, PCT or other trails. Plenty of time to be stuck in my own head, no opportunity to free myself from swirling thoughts and questions with another person.

It was tough the first two weeks. I found myself not wanting to leave resupply towns to get back to the trail, stalling as long as I could until I knew I would be hiking in the dark to get to camp unless I got off my butt and started moving. I didn’t want to leave the sense of security found when surrounded by other people because it was my only opportunity to connect outside of myself. But in forcing myself to continue (and as time progressed), finding ways to maneuver through my mind became easier; questions began to find their answers, freeing my mind to be able to experience the beauty of this place with less noise from within.  

And was it ever beautiful!  Vast fields of tussock blanketing the mountains in a sheet of gold.  Cascading waterfalls leading to river valleys of the purest water I had ever tasted. Beautiful birds of multiple neon colors. Huts for shelter with views that only millionaires could pay to have.  It was a paradise. And a very muddy paradise at that. I often joke that I didn’t have dry feet for over a month on the trail. But as with the other challenges of the hike, committing the time to accept the new “normal” of my existence found me unphased by spending hours crossing rivers multiple times a day.

Small white flowers in a field of tall grass.

Photo by Justin Helmkamp

The further north I traveled, the more people I came into contact with, with nearly all of them still heading the opposite way. I was the weird one to them, this solo American with a tiny backpack heading NoBo. But it did also lend the opportunity to briefly meet others on the trail, even if it was a fleeting passing. Some, I found, were past PCT hikers looking for a winter adventure.  Three were Triple Crowners (having completed the AT, PCT, and CDT) reaching out to new places. It was fun to connect with them about their experiences on places I knew and loved, albeit briefly. Onward and Northbound I would go against the grain, eventually leaving the open spaces for the forests in the mountains saved from clear cuts by early Europeans arriving in New Zealand. To places like Arthur’s Pass, Nelson Lakes National Park and the Richmond Ranges. By this time, the trail was home once again, a place that I was comfortable with being alone. The mountains became steep, the trail was tough, but I was ready for this last section before the victory lap finish at Ship Cove.

Having made it through with a few new cuts from some tumbles, I approached my last full day on trail on the Queen Charlotte Track. The track is also a bike path, so I knew I could make good time and I knocked out a 30 mile day, getting to a privately-run campsite about 12 miles from the finish. Borrowing a hammock for the night, I had a restless night looking up and watching the Southern Hemisphere stars gently drift by. My last night on the trail had thoughts racing through my head, as it does on any other trail I suppose. But these were full of questions asking if I had a “fulfilling” experience. Was it worth doing this alone?  Would sacrificing some of the freedom I had found, to hike with others, seeking out a group of people on the trail, have been worth it?

The next day’s 12 miles flew by. It was a perfect day; sun shining through the trees as I made my way around the many bays and coves to my end at Ship Cove. And when I got there, I felt relief, happiness, accomplishment; all the things I think many feel upon completing a long hike.  But I also knew that I would never do this again.

A waterfall in New Zealand.

Photo by Justin Helmkamp

Sun shining through the clouds on a grassy mountain hill.

Photo by Justin Helmkamp

Not in the hiking of the Te Araroa again or any other long trail, but rather in the way I had committed to on this hike. For 40 days and 812.5 miles, I had walked all but maybe 30 minutes by myself, never seeing another hiker other than in passing on the whole trail. And while I now know that I can if I need to, it is not something that I will do again. Sure, I had good moments on trail. Many of which I would say are some of the most beautiful experiences in my life. And I am truly grateful to New Zealand and the Te Araroa for them. But in looking back at what truly makes the trail special is those shared moments of beauty. The moments that are remembered best, with more fondness than others, are those where the people you are with help bring a new level of joy to the moment. There is a quote at the end of Into the Wild, “Happiness is only real when shared.”

I offer a small amendment: “Happiness is most real when shared.”


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Te Araroa

Te Araroa is a long distance hiking trail in New Zealand, stretching 3000 km across the country’s two main islands. The trail travels from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

Learn more

3000 km (1860 mi)     $39.99 full guide

Cape Reinga, North Island, New Zealand, Te Araroa
Photo by T L

Cape Reinga, North Island, New Zealand, Te Araroa
Photo by T L

Te Araroa

Te Araroa is a long distance hiking trail in New Zealand, stretching 3000 km across the country’s two main islands. The trail travels from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

3000 km (1860 mi)

$39.99 full guide

Learn more

Get our trail guide for this area!

About the Author

A woman wearing a denim jacket and a brown hat stands in a field of wildflowers.

Natalie McMillan

Natalie grew up hiking in Arizona where she fell in love with the outdoors. Her favorite hikes are to Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon and Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, UT. She loves taking pictures of people, places, and nature, which might explain why she has almost 47,000 photos currently residing on her phone. She takes care of all things related to social media and marketing and recently moved to Denver, CO from Flagstaff, AZ. You may find her frolicking around the trails and mountains of Colorado, or exploring the new city she gets to call home.