At the Top of the Bottom of the World (Day 1)

The Beginning

Our day starts at 8, a late morning in comparison to what is to come. I stand on the sidewalk with a Swiss girl and another American as we stuff the final items into our packs. We threw a “packing party” the night before where we helped each other discard unnecessary items. Things left behind included a bottle of olive oil, a $20 bar of laundry soap, and several sticks of deodorant, which is now classified as a luxury item.

Getting There

We’re picked up by a local woman who runs a shuttle service up to Cape Reinga, the starting point of the Te Araroa trail. This is already her second trip up to the Cape today, and her young son bounces with energy in the passenger’s seat.

The drive is winding, mixing car sickness with our collective anticipation. When we finally reach our destination, it doesn’t feel real.

Getting Our Feet Wet (Literally)

The proper start of the Te Araroa has been closed all season, with the opening continuously pushed back by the Department of Conservation as they make repairs to the track. Walkers either have the option of skipping ahead a bit to start at Te Paki Stream or walking alongside the road for 16 kilometers. We were all happy to choose the former.

After a few photos at the Cape Reinga Lighthouse, our shuttle drops us off at Te Paki Stream. Here we are surrounded by golden sand dunes and perfect weather to start our hike.

Together, we walk directly through the stream. It seems fitting for one of the wettest trails in the world to have our first steps be through ankle deep water. We learn to embrace wet socks quickly.

Te Paki Stream is a lovely walk through the dunes. We are passed by a cyclist and meet up with two more hikers – one Swede and one Kiwi. The five of us emerge from the stream onto the notorious sands of 90 Mile Beach.

A Brutal Way to Start a Hike

I have heard many dramatic stories of this beach. TA walkers spend roughly 90 kilometers walking the monotonous stretch, and it has been known to humble even the most experienced hikers. I’ve been warned of blisters and wrap my toes diligently. My SPF 70 sunscreen becomes my most trusted companion under the harsh New Zealand rays. 

The first few hours feel great – everyone is getting to know each other, and spirits are high. We meet a man picking muscles in the sand and learn that 90 Mile Beach is actually a highway. Cars speed past, but the urge to stick our thumbs out hasn’t quite hit yet.

It Just Never Ends

Time starts to melt after a while. Conversations die off and our group slowly drifts apart. We stop on occasion to address the hot spots on our feet and break into the food supply weighing down our packs. I try to find the right thing to listen to but nothing helps break the maddening sameness of the beach. Music feels wrong in this desolate place and podcasts fall flat against the wind that picks up in the afternoon. The only thing I can do is embrace the boredom and keep going. 

26 Kilometers Later

When we finally reach camp, some early risers are already waiting for us. We set up our tents and watch a cinematic sunset while cooking our backpacker meals. Tomorrow will be a tough day, but for now our biggest worry is getting some rest and keeping the possums away.

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