In 2017, an Auckland family with no tramping experience traversed from the top of the South Island to Wanaka on the Te Araroa Trail. Pia Wittwer shares how her husband Adrian, along with their three kids Tobias, Fiona and Cedric explored some of the country’s most inaccessible landscapes.
Motivated by the idea of offering their children an adventure, Pia and Adrian decided to walk the length of the South Island. For two months the family followed the Te Araroa Trail through isolated backcountry areas with dramatic scenery. We chat to Pia about the logistics of tramping with a family of five, including their youngest boy Cedric who was only 11 years old.
Preparations for your adventure must have been significant!
We spent a whole year and countless hours of research. We found a huge amount of information for solo and couple hikers but feeding and accommodating a family of five people turned out to be a completely different beast. The more we planned the bigger the logistics became, especially with resupplying. We learnt the weight of gear and money are inversely related and this meant searching sales and clearance racks for affordable equipment as everything had to be bought five times.
How did you prepare for your tramp?
We had never even hiked overnight before! So we did a handful of two or three nights to practice and iron out gear trouble during 2017. Some were more successful than others and we had a few disasters along the way!
So the journey starts...
In early December we took the water taxi from Picton to Ship Cove. It was a stunning clear day with hardly a cloud and we even saw dolphins. When we started on the track though, reality hit home quickly. It was a horrendously steep first climb and we were redfaced and puffing. For the first time in more than a year I seriously questioned my sanity in starting this adventure. The views were worth it though! The next 70km introduced us to views of the Queen Charlotte Sounds with water so blue it looked artificial. We became accustomed to walking every day and got more practiced with setting up camp. Our teenagers, who had been less than enthusiastic about the whole hike quickly settled in and started to enjoy the freedom of it. We experienced ‘trail magic’ (good things just seem to happen) and met lovely people, dealt with a couple small blisters, enjoyed a thunderstorm and chased weka through the bush because it had stolen our chocolate powder! We spent a very low key Christmas Day at St Arnaud and it was lovely not to worry about food preparation, guests and Christmas presents for a change. The Nelson Lakes section worried me quite a bit because I knew there would be long days and steep ascents and descents. But the worry was unnecessary; we did managed to cram eight day’s worth of food into our packs, we managed the Travers Saddle in one day (nine hours of walking - 1,000m up and 1,100m down!) and our tents survived camping at Lake Constance in gale force winds even though no one slept that night. The children got better every day and we secretly think they liked the scary parts of the trail more than we did. We all agreed that Waiau Pass - the second highest point of the Te Araroa Trail - was an absolute highlight with stunning views on both sides even though it was earned the hard way. Not for the faint hearted. We caught a lift around the multiple braided rivers in the Canterbury High Country and walked a different route from the original Te Araroa Trail through Stour River Valley. It was probably the most testing point of our journey as we did not get into civilisation for 12 days. The landscape was vast and the temperatures were hot. In the last leg from Lake Ohau we hiked up the East Ahuriri Valley and we had those really hot Central Otago days. With temperatures of 32 degrees it was very hard going, especially as there was not a single tree or bush to provide a scrap of shade.
Cyclone Fehi had us stuck at Top Timaru Hut and after waiting three days for the river to go down we started to get low on food so we decided to turn back over Mount Martha Saddle. 32 km later and 1,900m change in altitude we got to State Highway 8 and hitched into Wanaka. Not quite the way we wanted to arrive but definitely safer.
It has been an incredible hike with many lessons learnt. We met amazing people, saw out of this world scenery and hiked hard terrain that tested our limits. We became known on the trail as the “Swiss Five” and we think Cedric holds the record for the youngest hiker on the Te Araroa Trail. We saw strength and grit in our children which makes us immensely proud. We created a family bond that will last forever. All the experiences - good and bad - make this an unforgettable two months. We have become part of the fabric of the Trail, our story woven into the Te Araroa Trail and we will carry it in our souls forever.
NOTE: I’d caution all families about the river crossings along the way. We had a big wash out (not because we don’t know how to cross rivers but more likely because little people are a lot less strong against running water so the main support is the biggest person. For us the ratio of the two big boys versus us three shorties was unfavourable). The rivers are not to be trifled with.
Discover more adventures from Pia and her family on their Grab Life blog.