The first night on New Zealand’s Te Araroa Trail for South African Claire Brear was one that she won’t forget soon.
“I did think I might die,” says Brear. The day in early November 2019 started well. “I felt like my pack was really heavy but I felt excited and a bit nervous.”
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Claire Brear hiking through the Nelson Lakes section of the Te Araroa Trail. (Photo: Claire Brear)
The 3000km trail takes five to six months and starts at the top of the North Island in Cape Reinga and ends in Bluff on the South Island. “It was misty at the lighthouse and then soon as I got down to the beach it cleared. I was in good spirits. It was very beautiful.”
The 42-year-old web designer from KwaZulu-Natal says she then made the mistake of walking further than the recommended 12kms on the first day and found herself frantically trying to put up her tent on Ninety Mile Beach with a massive storm approaching.
“The storm gathered at 5 o’clock off the coast and I thought, 'I can’t carry on, I have to set up camp'. I was trying to set up my tent but it was in the sand dunes so it kept falling down.”
After trying to set it up three times she eventually got it up on a bush so she could tie the ropes to the roots of the plant. “I climbed into my tent, listened to the lightening and prayed that I would survive the night.”
And she did. The next morning when Claire woke up and opened her tent there was a rainbow coming over through the clouds. “It was a sign to me that there is no way it will ever be that bad again.”
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(Photo: Claire Brear)
140km in 10 days
Four months later in mid-February and Claire is 2000km into her journey, taking a short break in Nelson, at the top of the South Island.
“I’m tired but I’m okay. I’m not as tired as I was - I always feel like I could sleep for three or four days.”
She is casual about just completing one of the most gruelling sections of the trail from Pelorus River through the Richmond range to St Arnaud. Completing over 140km in 10 days, this section was particularly exhausting because she was still recovering from walking from the top to the bottom of North Island.
“By the time you get to the end of North Island, you’ve walked almost 2000km, your gear is packing up, you are packing up as a human, you’re hungry all the time, you’re tired, you don’t sleep enough and you’re in survival mode. I wanted to be in a good place physically before I hit the Richmond range but I was just exhausted.
“On day three my legs were burning, my pack was the heaviest it’s ever been. At the end of day three, I walked into a river and I cried and thought 'I’m just going to turn around and go'. I felt weak, physically flat, I had no energy. I thought if this is only the preamble to the mountains, imagining the mountains I have ahead I thought I don’t how I’m going to do it.”
After some encouragement from friends on the trail, Claire did complete it, taking one day at a time.
She says that when she finished this section, it felt like a marathon.
“You’re holding your breath all the time hoping you’re going to make it to the end and you don’t want to celebrate too soon.”
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Why do this trail?
Claire was first inspired to do the Te Araroa trail - which goes through forests, mountains, volcanoes, beaches and cities - when visiting family in New Zealand earlier in 2019. She went back to South Africa and did some research and then let the idea settle for awhile. It was a personal tragedy that pushed her to finally commit to doing the trail as soon as she could.
“A really good friend of mine died, very unexpectedly. This wonderful girl, at only 33, had a stomach ache and went to the doctor. They said you’ve got advanced ovarian cancer and she died two weeks later.”
Claire says this was a wakeup call, knowing that she might not have another year or five years to do it one day. That life can change at any moment.
She advises anyone who wants to do the Te Araroa trail to make some kind of action that forces you to commit to it, and then you can figure it out as you go. “Just do it, don’t get stuck in the planning phase.”
The next leg of the trail from St Arnaud to the bottom of South Island in Bluff will take her about two months. To get through that she has planned ahead and sent some resupply boxes for herself at future stops along the way. These are filled with some of her favourite snacks like dried fruit, tea bags, salt and vinegar peanuts and a Kiwi favourite - Whitaker's hokey pokey chocolate.
Her favourite meal at the moment is couscous. “I haven’t grown tired of it, I could eat buckets of it just on its own with salt.”
Stay up to date with Claire’s journey by following her Instagram.
SEE: Land of the Long White Cloud: A South African’s guide to New Zealand
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