My Trail Story by Adam & Leigh

Adam and Leigh share their story of thru-hiking the Te Araroa and then deciding to thru-hike Pacific Crest Trail the following year.

Adam and Leigh posing along the Te Araroa
Photo provided by Adam Carter and Leigh Foster

Day 1

My anxious mind was going into overdrive. In less than 24 hours, my partner, Leigh, and I were due to begin our journey from Auckland to Cape Reinga to start the epic 3,000km Te Araroa trail, which runs from the top of New Zealand’s North Island all the way down to the bottom of the South Island. 

In the chaos of packing up our lives, finishing jobs and organizing our hiking gear in the many weeks leading up to this day, I’d conveniently been able to quiet my mind, failing to come up with an answer to what was probably the biggest question of all… “How the hell was I going to walk 3,000km?” And by that I mean, is it even possible for someone who spends half their life sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen to do something like this? 

Hiking the Te Araroa trail

After Leigh and I had committed a few months earlier to hiking the Te Araroa trail, it felt like there was a never-ending list of things fighting for our attention, which meant that I didn’t really give this question any serious thought prior to arriving in New Zealand… as strange as that may sound. Now that there was nothing left to do other than start walking though, the scale of what we were about to attempt seemed so unimaginably huge that I really began to seriously doubt whether I would be able to do this. 

All those questions that I’d conveniently been able to push out of my mind came flooding back. What if I injure myself. What if I’ve packed the wrong gear, what if we haven’t done enough training and prep. I am new to hiking as a couple, what we end up not being able to stand each other, and what if we’ve been completely delusional and quickly discover once we get out there that we don’t enjoy trail life at all and need to quit, going home with our tails between our legs? Leigh and I had talked about doing a big adventure for a while now, but what if it just doesn’t work out? 

So many unanswered questions, and no real way to answer any of them other than to just dive headfirst into this epic adventure and see what happens. So that’s what we did… and we definitely had challenges along the way, but ultimately we lived to tell the tale, despite my endless list of fears and concerns heading into it. Take that, internal doubts. 

The coast near the Te Araroa
Photo provided by Adam Carter and Leigh Foster
View from the Te Araroa
Photo provided by Adam Carter and Leigh Foster

How did we end up on the TA?

Let’s take a step back though. How did we get to a point where we decided to walk 3,000km across New Zealand, you may ask? The short answer is a mixture of persistence, dumb luck, and compromise.

Leigh had first floated the idea of walking the PCT together about 5 years ago after reading an article in a magazine about long distance hiking. The adventure and challenge spoke to her straight away and was something that she was really keen to experience. 

I, on the other hand, initially struggled to get my head around the idea of walking the length of the US. Mostly, I just didn’t really get what the point was. The whole thing seemed very arbitrary to me in walking from Point A to Point B just because someone had built a monument at those two places. Growing up around a lot of risk-averseness, also meant that stepping outside of the lane is not something that comes naturally to me, so it can take me awhile to make big decisions that go against these instincts.

I wasn’t originally super motivated to attempt something on the scale of the PCT. We still enjoy hiking and being outdoors. So we decided to try something much shorter. But still longer than our previous experiences which were limited almost exclusively to overnight hikes. 

In July 2015, Leigh and I spent about 2.5 weeks on Australia’s iconic 223km Larapinta Trail through the Northern Territory. It was a beautiful walk through some of the most amazing mountain ranges and desert terrain in central Australia, and our first taste of life on the trail. 

Type 2 Fun

As much as I am able to look back on the Larapinta experience fondly now, it was definitely Type 2 fun for me in the moment. I’m generally pretty calm and collected in normal day-to-day life, but the Larapinta Trail brought out a part of my personality that I didn’t really know existed beforehand. The combination of carrying a heavier than necessary pack, the uneasiness of having very little control over my day-to-day existence and dealing with constant pain in my feet and Achilles (probably due to having the wrong shoes) had me in an agitated state for most of the hike and really prevented me from getting as much as possible out of the experience.

Looking back, it definitely got the better of me. I was overly worried about things not being perfect and not going to plan – all things which came up for me again on the TA (but luckily the length of TA meant that I had more time to actually be able to work through them). I actually remember making a list before we started the Larapinta Trail of everything that could possibly go wrong, just so I could come up with a high level plan to be able to deal with any possible scenario that we might face. It sounds ridiculous but I’d thought of just about everything, including “what do we do if a dingo steals our hiking boots from outside the tent while we are sleeping”. It was out of control.

Adam hiking along the Te Araroa
Photo provided by Adam Carter and Leigh Foster
Leigh hiking along the Te Araroa
Photo provided by Adam Carter and Leigh Foster

Short trip to New Zealand

Fast forward to August 2017, when Leigh had organized a short trip to New Zealand to try and get me out of a funk, after going through a particularly grueling patch at work. We spent a couple of nights on the absolutely stunning Coromandel Peninsula, in this amazing wilderness cabin. We couldn’t help but notice a book laid out on the coffee table, A Walking Guide to New Zealand’s Long Trail: Te Araroa, written by Geoff Chapple.

The picture on the cover immediately piqued my interest. This was the first time I had even realised that there was a long distance hiking trail right on our doorstep in New Zealand. The New Zealand hiking season also ran from October to March, which would fit in better with my current work commitments. New Zealand had been on both of our travel bucket lists for awhile, but most of our annual leave up to that point had been spent travelling through warmer climates and pursuing scuba diving adventures, so we had not yet gotten around to spending any time in New Zealand. 

Larapinta Trail

Despite my earlier struggles on the Larapinta Trail, the idea of attempting a long distance hike in New Zealand did have an immediate appeal, as it seemed to be a low-risk high-reward decision. I was dealing with workplace burnout at that point in time and really felt like an extended break out of the office would be good for me. I hoped that some time away would allow me to find a better headspace, and what better way to do that than by taking on such an absurdly huge adventure which would put me way, way, way outside of my comfort zone!

Even if we ended up finding that trail life wasn’t for us, we could always just jump on a plane and we’d be home within a day or so and we wouldn’t have to sell a kidney to pay for the flights. We decided to put the PCT on hold in favour of the Te Araroa trail to see if we would like this long distance hiking thing…

As we did more research on the TA and long distance hiking in general, the pieces started to fall into place. Not only was a long distance hike an incredibly cheap way to see a country, the timing worked out where we could do it after I had reached my ten year work anniversary, when I would have some additional leave to take. It wasn’t only the logistical aspects that started making sense though. The fact that New Zealand had no dangerous animals to worry about was also a big tick in my books – one less thing my risk-averse brain would have to worry about. 

Te Araroa Research

It became pretty apparent through all of our Te Araroa research that long distance hiking was complicated. It wasn’t about just starting at random Point A and finishing at random Point B. Which I had originally thought when Leigh first pitched the idea of the PCT to me all those years ago. The adventure was about everything that happens in between. It was about doing something that would almost certainly be a rollercoaster of ups and downs (and often many times within the same day).

The hike was about giving up comfort in favor of experiences, challenges, and personal growth. It is stepping into the unknown that is the true appeal for many long distance hikers… having no idea what the next hour or day will bring, but knowing that whatever is thrown at you, you have what it takes to get through it and come out the other side a stronger person. It’s about stripping back everything from your life and doing something that truly makes you feel alive. 

Adam and Leigh posing near the coast along the Te Araroa
Photo provided by Adam Carter and Leigh Foster

Our TA Journey

We left Auckland headed for Cape Reinga on 16 October 2018 and arrived at the official start of the Te Araroa trail around lunchtime on 17 October 2018, after getting four separate hitches from the town of Kaitaia over the course of two days (there’s no official transport to get you to the start of the trail, so you pretty much have to hitchhike). It was the first time hitchhiking for both of us, but getting us out of our comfort zones so early in the trip, upon reflection, was the best way to kick off this amazing adventure. 

We couldn’t have been prouder

On 13 March 2019, 148 days later, we got handsy with the monument at Bluff, pinching ourselves at how we had both managed to make it all the way to the end of the trail. We certainly weren’t the fastest, or the most lightweight, and we didn’t force ourselves to walk on highway sections pretending to be part of the trail if we didn’t feel like it, but we made it our own way.  We couldn’t have been prouder of what we had achieved and what we learned about ourselves and working together as a team. There were a lot of ups and downs along the way but we loved every minute of it and feel very lucky to have been able to experience New Zealand the way were we able to.

Check out our Te Araroa Blog

For everything that came between our first and last day on the trail, feel free to check out our Te Araroa blog, where we have posted daily blogs and will eventually be posting some final thoughts about our overall TA experience – adamleighandthetrees.com/what-is-the-te-araroa/blog-posts/ 

Anyone familiar with the TA will no doubt already have a good idea of the many highlights and (not so many) lowlights of the trail. While I could regale you with one or two of our favourite stories, it really is too difficult to choose only one or two stories to highlight in this post… so I’m not going to do that. Instead, what I want to do is to highlight a handful of the biggest lessons we learned during our time on the trail. 

A lake along the Te Araroa
Photo provided by Adam Carter and Leigh Foster

So, in no particular order, here we go:

1. The hardest part is starting (just take one step at a time)

It is easy to get overwhelmed before you start a journey that is going to take you 4-6 months to complete. It’s such a big undertaking and there are so many unknowns before you actually start that it’s hard to get your head around the enormity of it. 

Despite my pre-hike mini internal freakout where I doubted whether I had it in me to walk 3,000km, once we actually started walking, I have to say that I never really experienced the same feelings again for the duration of our time on trail. If you take the big goal of walking 3,000km and break it down into 30x 5-7 day adventures of 100km each (which you can do on the TA for the most part as most towns are about this far apart on the trail), you would be amazed at how quickly the kms fly by. Once we got past Auckland (about 500km in) and got into a groove with our daily hiking routine, everything seemed to go by in the blink of an eye.  

Photo provided by Adam Carter and Leigh Foster
Photo provided by Adam Carter and Leigh Foster

2. Growth comes from getting out of your comfort zone

There were a couple of quotes that kept coming up for me in our research before starting the TA, “the only thing that is stopping you from getting where you are to where you want to go is your comfort zone”, and “if it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you”. Having now had the experience of hiking the TA, and being challenged in more ways than I could have possibly imagined, both physically and mentally, I couldn’t agree more.

Being put in uncomfortable situations while on the trail, gives you the opportunity to hold a mirror up and see how you respond in the many different situations that the trail can throw at you. Whether it be weather-related, gear-related, injury-related, insect-related or people-related, you’re going to have to work through some stuff at some point between the start and the end of your hike. One of the major learnings for me was that instead of pretending that I wasn’t struggling with certain things, I really tried to lean into it as much as possible, and dig around for a better understanding as to why I was responding in a particular way so that I could try to address issues as they came up for me.  

3. All bad times come to an end if you wait long enough

Even during the heaviest rain or the worst weather, the sun will come out again… eventually. I lost count of the number of times we found ourselves in objectively shitty situations only to have something happen to us that completely changed our day, whether it was the unexpected hospitality of strangers, the sheer beauty of the trail, or finding ourselves in a spot where we could have a hot shower and a roof over our head at the end of a hard day. It was pretty much impossible to have a completely horrible day on the trail from start to end without having something really amazing happen that would completely change your whole perspective and mood. 

Once I learned this lesson, this knowledge really helped me when I was struggling with different things at different times, as I knew that it was only a matter of time before something amazing would happen.

Photo provided by Adam Carter and Leigh Foster
Photo provided by Adam Carter and Leigh Foster

4. Enjoy the moment and don’t stress about what you can’t control

This was a big one for me. The TA is a bit different than other long distance hiking trails in the world, in that, the trail on the North Island, at least, passes through a lot of towns and you can’t exactly pitch your tent in the local park (for the most part). To begin with, I was constantly stressing about whether we were going to make it to the next accommodation option each night and whether it would be full when we got there. I worried about crossing rivers and tidal streams and getting caught out in bad weather.

I’m a slow learner sometimes, so it took me almost 3.5 months to learn this lesson, but it eventually hit me that all this worry I was carrying around with me about what might happen in the future wasn’t productive in any way and just left me feeling mentally exhausted. There’s no such thing as the “perfect” hike. You’ve just got to roll with the punches – try to make the best of every moment and accept that your experience is going to be different from every other person’s experience out there, which is ultimately what makes it truly special. 

My mindset was preventing me from enjoying the moment because I was too focused on reaching these never-ending daily goals that I was setting in my head. We met people along the way that had probably put less than 10% of the time that we had into planning and researching and they all managed just fine on the trail. So for my own mental state I had to decide to let go of the things that I couldn’t control and just accept that we would be okay and be able to deal with any situation that we found ourselves in.

5. Don’t rush it 

“What date did you start?”, “where did you stay last night?”, “where are you going tonight?” – all common forms of typical hiking small talk, but we found that these sorts of questions can also mask a level of competitiveness that can creep into the experience for some people. For a variety of reasons, whether it be ego, budget, or visa time limits, a significant portion of people aim to finish the trail as quickly as they possibly can. 

Fortunately, we were not in this position, but I know how powerful the pull can be, as I initially had a real problem with admitting that I couldn’t hike as fast as many others on the trail. Before I was able to let go of this baggage and accept things for what they were, I would often intentionally pick up my pace whenever I saw someone catching up to us on the trail to try and stay ahead of them for as long as possible. Stupid, I know. It was as if I needed to consistently prove to myself that I was good enough to be out there doing the hike and calling myself a TA hiker. 

It’s a cliche, but you really just need to hike your own hike. If, as an example, you want to hike a certain distance each day to stay with your trail family, that’s fine, but you shouldn’t be forcing yourself to do this at the expense of your overall experience and enjoyment of your time on the trail. If you are making yourself suffer every day in the name of big miles, you probably need to ask yourself whether this is the experience that you want for yourself. 

Comparisons to other People

The reality is that it’s not every day that you get to step out of your life for 6 months to do something like this, so my perspective on this is that you want to take your time and enjoy it as much as possible, instead of rushing to finish it as quickly as possible. No one is going to care whether it takes you 100 days, 120 days, 150 days or 180 days to finish the trail. Don’t get caught up in defining yourself based on comparisons to other people. That is always going to be a losing battle.

Photo provided by Adam Carter and Leigh Foster
Photo provided by Adam Carter and Leigh Foster

6. Walking as a couple can be hard, but so is walking solo

It seemed to us that the vast majority of people on the TA were solo hikers. We had read beforehand that one of the major challenges for solo hikers is just maintaining your motivation levels for the duration of the hike. Apparently, solo hikers are more likely to quit the trail as they don’t always have the support network they need on trail to get them through the tough times.

Stuff is going to come up

Having said that, walking as a couple or in a group, is not necessarily a walk in the park either. While you are certainly able to support each other and keep each other company, it is inevitable that given the amount of time you are going to spend together (say, 24/7 for 4-6 months, for example), stuff is going to come up. Unless you both have the temperament of a monk, you are almost certainly going to grate on each other’s nerves at some point and probably in ways that you never could have anticipated (just ask Leigh about my habit of twirling the end of my trail mustache with my fingers).

We had our fair share of challenges as a couple, but all things considered, I do think that it was easier hiking as a couple than it would be hiking solo. You need to be willing to make small compromises every day when hiking as a couple, but I still feel like in the scheme of things this is a small sacrifice to make in order to be able to share the experience with someone that is an important part of your life. As they say, ”Happiness is only real when shared”. If you remember to be kind, respectful, and honest with your hiking partner (or partners) even when you are in a stinker of a mood, you’ll be alright.

7. The trail is for everyone

Before hiking the TA, I had assumed that long distance hiking was a young person’s game… I could not have been more wrong. We met people on the trail from the age of six all the way up to about 75, all of whom were hiking the entire 3,000km length of the Te Araroa trail. 

Obviously, the experience you get from the trail will depend on what stage of your life you are at, but the main thing I learned from meeting so many different people on the trail is that there really is no such thing as being “too young” or “too old” to do something like this. If you want the experience bad enough you will find a way to give it a go. Besides, what have you got to lose? 

Hikers walking up to a mountain on a path
Photo provided by Adam Carter and Leigh Foster

What’s next for us?

As we got closer to the end of the TA, Leigh and I started giving some serious thought to whether the PCT was something that we would ever want to do post-TA. 

After hearing so many positive comments about the PCT from other hikers on the TA, both of us were keen to attempt it, but the TA had taken a higher toll on my body than I would have liked. After losing around 12kgs over the course of five months on trail, I was already lighter than I’d ever been as an adult and didn’t want to walk the PCT back to back with the TA unless I felt like I would be physically up to finishing it. We contemplated whether we could wait another year or two but the idea of tackling it while our fitness was already up and our lives had already been turned upside down seemed like the best option. 

Top up the Bank Account

To give myself the best possible chance of reaching the Canadian border, I decided that I would go back to work in Sydney for two months to fatten up and top up the bank account for this next adventure. Leigh, on the other hand, was ready and raring to go and after spending less than a month back in Australia post-TA. She took her first steps toward living her dream of walking the PCT from all those years ago, leaving from Campo on 29 April 2019. I will be joining her at the Sierras later in June 2019 and we will walk the rest of the way together to the Canadian border.

We hope you have enjoyed reading this blog. It was a real honour to be asked to contribute and we hope that all of you who are currently considering a first time thru-hike know that you can do it and you should do it! Happy trails everyone!

If you are interested in following our PCT journey, you can check us out at Adam, Leigh and the Trees on Instagram or WordPress

For those of you contemplating hiking the TA in the future, please feel free to reach out to us directly on either platform if you want to pick our brains. We’re more than happy to share our experiences, thoughts and advice with you! 

A light house in the distance with a path leading up to it
Photo provided by Adam Carter and Leigh Foster

Related Trail Guide

Te Araroa is New Zealand’s premier long-distance hiking trail, stretching 3000 km (1860 mi) across the country’s two main islands. The trail travels from Cape Reinga on the North Island to Bluff on the South Island, passing through 9 distinct regions on its way. The trail offers spectacular views of all the amazing landscapes that New Zealand has to offer, from bustling cities to towering volcanoes. Te Araroa is truly an experience of all aspects of New Zealand – historic, cultural, and natural. From ocean beaches to deep forests, the trail is perfect for thru-hiking, backpacking, section-hiking, and day-hiking.