3,000 km on foot across New Zealand

Possums, Stoats, and Hedgehogs, Oh My!

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The thing about Te Araroa is that it’s like hiking a different trail everyday. You never have the opportunity to say, “This incredible view of the Pacific is so tiresome,” because the next moment you’re back in forest. Then farmland. And a bit later you’re strolling through a hillside village. Such was the case when we packed ourselves up and left Paihia destined for Ngunguru. Despite the doctor’s advice, we announced that walking would be the best remedy for Dad’s shin splints.

To keep plugging along Te Araroa, there are a few ways to connect the trail at Waikare – a small settlement at the opposite end of the Bay of Islands, accessible by boat only during high tide. The tide wasn’t scheduled to come in until dusk, so we assessed our options. Behind Door Number Two was a 20-something kilometer walk up a dirt road. Door Number Three offered a short ferry ride to Okiato and a hitchhike along paved road. We opted for Door Number Three.

Planning to hitchhike is like planning to not be unlucky. On this particular day, we planned poorly, and were faced with a much longer trudge than if we’d decided to take the dirt road. The few cars that sped past couldn’t be bothered to make room for our outstretched thumbs on the 3″ shoulder. I had a brief vision of my severed arm caught in an SUV’s grill, and quickly tucked it in.

We turned onto an even more desolate stretch of road. I sighed and resigned myself to a very long day. The hum of a motor interrupted my reverie. I looked back. A fresh-off-the-lot Mercedes approached. By now, I knew anyone with a car that smells better than I do, wasn’t likely to slow down, much less stop. I stepped off the road and waited for it to pass. When it didn’t, I turned and saw the S-Class had actually stopped and popped its trunk.

Well, this was unusual. A dog lay sprawled in the backseat, taking what looked like a very comfortable nap and the front seat was littered with road maps. The driver made room for our packs in the trunk and the dog begrudgingly moved. Peter was an ex-hotelier, now exploring the backroads of his country with Lily, the sleepy dalmatian-mix.

Most people we’ve met along the way haven’t heard of Te Araroa. When you describe the length, and the terrain, and the starting and ending points, you are generally met with one of three reactions: shock (why on Earth would you do that!), ambivalence (crazy f-ing Americans), and intrigue (I might like to do that someday!). For a brief moment, you could see a much younger Peter, imagining days on the trail and nights under the stars. Lily thought the idea was absurd and went back to sleep.

Peter took us deep up the Waikare Inlet along a remote dirt road littered with abandoned cars and dilapidated houses. We stopped just shy of a wide stream crossing in the road.

“Normally, I’d just drive across it. But I want to see you do it,” Peter said as he pulled out his camera.

Dad, Peter, and Lily the Dog.

Dad, Peter, and Lily the Dog.

We shook hands and promised to meet up farther down the trail when it passes through his neck of the woods. We splashed across the stream. Peter snapped a few photos before we disappeared into the Russell Forest.

Now, what was I saying about never a dull moment on Te Araroa? Not two kilometers into the forest, the trail deposited us directly into the Papakauri Stream. Here, one is expected to wade upstream, in the water, against the current, through a river for some four kilometers. Did I mention it’s in the water?

Dad and I tied our boots around our necks, slipped on our water shoes and stepped in. At times, the water rose above our knees. We stepped carefully along the rocky bottom, watching for fish and reminding each other there are no snakes in New Zealand. The trail was deceptive. It would lead us up the bank, around a turn in the stream, and then back into the water. At each exit, we’d think, “this must be the end.”

I’d dry my feet, pull on my boots, and head back onto land. Not five minutes later, we’d be wrapping our boots around our neck again and slogging through the stream. After the fifth repetition (you’d think we’d learn…), we at last reached a small shelter with four bunks; one of which was occupied by a uncommunicative French tramper. The most we got out of him were snores all night.

For the next several days, Te Araroa was in and out of forests, the trail undulating up steep rises and down sharp inclines. Around every corner were wooden box traps and plastic poison containers. Set out in a somewhat desperate attempt to combat pests – stoats, rats, and possums, among many others – the traps are sometimes less than a 500m apart.

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Introduced into New Zealand’s unsuspecting landscape for a myriad reasons that must have seemed like a good idea at the time, a host of small animals have wreaked havoc on the country’s defenseless plants and animals.

Brought in to control the exploding rabbit population, stoats are almost singularly responsible for the 90% mortality rate among baby kiwi. Stoats will go after both eggs and infants. They have also been linked to the extinction of the bush wren, laughing owl, and native thrush. (If you want to be depressed, look up ‘weasel’ and ‘kiwi’ on YouTube.)

In 1837, the first possums were rounded up in Australia and shipped to New Zealand to establish a fur trade. If you have a really good imagination, possum fur might resemble mink. But it doesn’t really. In a short time, the possum population quickly outgrew the demand for their thin, lackluster fur. Today, possums are everywhere, eating and/or destroying bird habitat. Sometimes, perhaps after they’ve eaten all the berries and bugs in the area, they’ll just go ahead and indulge in the birds, too. They’re not picky eaters.

Possums are disgusting animals. Our first encounter could have been titled “Night of the Killer Possum,” a classic B horror film. Just as I was dozing off to sleep, I heard a retching noise outside my tent followed by heavy, labored breathing. There was scraping and scratching in the tree above. The retching noise was echoed by more barfing and coughing sounds throughout the forest. It was the distinctive call of a tuberculosis infested possum. Like I said, disgusting. We’ve been instructed by a number of locals to stab them with our trekking poles.

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Not all of these so called pests (a particularly kind word for them) are the stuff of nightmares. Little hedgehogs with twitching noses and squinty little eyes were brought to New Zealand for an equally cute reason: to remind British immigrants of home. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. Today, the hungry little buggers eat weta, skinks, and the eggs of ground nesting birds.

By now, we knew to expect anything in the forests. It could be a pleasant walk through native bush or it could be a treacherous climb up and down slick, muddy hills.

Halfway through the Matapouri Bush Track, I said, “I’m loving these switchbacks!”

I was really asking for it. Ten minutes later we came upon ‘the slip.’

In New Zealand, mud slides are quaintly referred to as ‘slips.’ As though, Whoopsie Daisy, the trail slipped! And fell fifty feet, wiping out the entire hillside. I snapped a few blurry pictures at the top, then looked for a way down. Nothing was particularly desirable. I grabbed a tree trunk, swung around backwards, and gently eased down the newly formed cliff. From here, you still couldn’t see the trail, just more toppled trees and mud. We slid, hung from branches, grappled with ferns, and at last landed in the stream below.

When I looked up, there was no sign of the trail on the opposite bank. We scrambled out of the water and checked the GPS. Te Araroa was meant to be somewhere to our right. With every step there was a growing fear that we might be in this forest for a very long while. I crashed through the undergrowth and vines, hoping, more than I’ve ever hoped in my life, that I actually knew how to use a GPS.

“What’s that up there?” Dad asked.

I looked up the hill and through the trees. There was a whisper of a faint line zigging across the undergrowth. Possibly a trail?

“Of course, it’s the trail. Right where the GPS said it would be.”

We had found Te Araroa and our pathway out of the woods. The road to Ngunguru was still a long one, and at last, very late in the day, we arrived on the doorstep of Hilton and Melva Ward at the Riverbank Homestay. For several years now, the Wards have opened their doors to trampers, offering tea, advice, and a level patch of lawn to sleep on. It was just what we needed.

7 Responses to “Possums, Stoats, and Hedgehogs, Oh My!”

  1. Pamela mccullough

    I love following you! Some of this stuff is pretty scary though. I’ve ordered the book from NZ, and am planning on setting out next November. I am so excited for you!

    Reply
  2. Marlene Kaim

    Amazing journey! Hang in there, Margaret. You and your Dad are keeping me and my six year old granddaughter, Gracie, inspired by your spirit for adventure. Love the pictures. Grace wants to meet you when you get back to Durango. God bless!

    Reply
    • margaret

      Thanks for reading, Marlene! And I’d love to tell you and Gracie all about it when I get home =)

      Reply
  3. Larry Gill

    Carry on troopers! And thanks for providing the updates from time-to-time with you
    informative and delightfully crafted blogs. I’m really proud of you and Bob!
    Take Care, LG

    Reply
  4. james

    I hiked the Bibbulmun track end to end(~995 K’s) in Western Australia–and LOVED IT! I will always remember Christmas day swimming & relaxing in the sun. I always seemed to over pack w/ food @ grocery stores along the way too. Sock liners & tape helped w/ blisters–I got ALOT of those. Your so lucky, you will always remember this trip, esp w/ your father! My hike was was a mile stone in my life, as I’m sure, this is becoming one for you. Your also lucky you don’t even have to worry about poisonous snakes–I got up, close a couple of times w/ those, also how do you manage your water? Have you gotten lost? I sure did! I love reading you account! Keep up the great Job!

    P.S. I loved meeting other fellow hikers–they all seemed 10 times more interesting too!

    Reply
    • Margaret

      Hi James, I just met someone that had done the Bibbulmun. I had never heard of it but it sounds really unusual! Water hasn’t been too much of an issue -just have to plan accordingly. We treat everything whether it’s necessary. We’ve been momentarily displaced (lost) a couple of times, but nothing disastrous. Knock on wood!

      Thanks for reading!

      Margaret

      Reply

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