The Gerlach family, from left, Joplin, 10, Goldie, 6, Juno, 12, Tom and Deanna, on Mt Crawford in the Tararua Ranges, during their six month walk of the Te Araroa Trail. Photo: Supplied
An Australian family of five, including a six- year-old girl who is “resilient, strong and adventurous”, has walked New Zealand’s epic Te Araroa Trail from Cape Reinga to Bluff.
In total, they walked about 2300km of the 3000km distance, bypassing the highways and two bush sections due to safety and weather concerns, but they plan to complete the bush sections later this year.
Goldie Gerlach was aged five when her family started the six-month trek, and turned six halfway through.
Tom and Deanna Gerlach and kids ham it up in Bluff after reaching Bluff on the Te Araroa Trail. Photo: Supplied
The youngster, who carried a small backpack every day, is believed to be the youngest person to do the walk.
The Gerlach family departed Cape Reinga on November 21, 2020, and arrived in Bluff on May 18.
Remarkably, before starting the hike, they had never done an overnight tramping trip together.
But that didn’t deter Tom and Deanna and their kids Juno, 12, Joplin, 10 and Goldie from embarking on something “different and wild”, Deanna said.
“We have been walking for six months, so it’s been pretty epic,” she said the day after finishing.
The family, originally from the northern beaches of Sydney, decided to move to New Zealand to make a new life for themselves in 2020.
They were keen for an adventure before settling down to jobs and school, and knew the Te Araroa Trail would be quiet, with no international visitors.
“We pretty much sold everything and moved over and just started walking,” said Deanna, originally a Kiwi from Northland.
“We just wanted to do something really amazing with the kids, before the oldest goes to high school, and we felt like the youngest was ready for it, she’s a particularly strong, resilient and adventurous little person. She’s not your average six-year-old.”
Gerlach family members walk along the beach near Riverton on the Te Araroa Trail. Photo: Supplied
The first few days of walking along Ninety Mile Beach was their training period, where they learned to camp overnight as a family and walk for long periods each day.
And they just kept going, with mountain ranges conquered and multiple new experiences had.
They walked for 130 of the 177-days, enjoying 47 rest days in between.
Deanna and Tom Gerlach and their kids smell the finish line when entering Bluff on the Te Araroa Trail. Photo: Supplied
Their longest walking distance was 29km in a day.
And their longest day was 13.5 hours [25kms], while they did a 52km canoe paddle down the Whanganui River on one stretch, and a 42km cycle on another.
The adventure had been a great way for their children to get to know their new country and meet some of their relatives along the route.
Deanna and Tom had watched their youngsters grow during the six months.
“It’s really cool seeing what the kids can do, once they have a purpose,” she said.
They had become more resilient and developed more fortitude when the going got tough.
“The trail just became what they did, like going to school. They accepted what we were doing, walking, and they made the most of it.”
That said, the kids had missed their familiar surroundings, including bedrooms, friends and toys.
And they found the walk challenging, both physically and mentally, but had coped remarkably, she said.
They all carried backpacks, with young Goldie rebuffing numerous offers from her parents to carry hers.
The children had loved the freedom of the outdoors and their imaginations had developed over the six months, their mother said.
“The kids had no toys to play with. They made swords, slingshots and bows, learned to use their pocket knives, told stories, played cards and watched the stars.
“They are so good at coming up with their own games now. It’s fantastic how their brains have adjusted over that period of time.”
But not everyone thought their family adventure was a great idea.
“One woman said it was child abuse, and some people said just don’t do it, it’s not fair on the kids,” Deanna said.
She believed those people had their own ideas about what was safe and what wasn’t.
But the couple said they had been cautious throughout the journey, especially given they didn’t know what the adventure would be like themselves.
They had assessed each section before walking it and had talked to a lot of people.
“That’s why we didn’t do the river sections at Arthur’s Pass, we haven’t taken any risks like that.”
“Ninety nine per cent” of people were supportive of them taking the kids.
“Especially when they met them and saw how comfortable and lively and happy they were, they just thought it was awesome.”
The family had walked some “gnarly sections”, namely the Richmond Ranges and the Waiau Pass, both taking 10 days to complete, but made easier by other trail walkers joining them and helping out with the kids.
They slept in tents on many nights, particularly in the North Island, while also staying in the likes of holiday park cabins and backpacker hostels when needing a break from camping, and strangers had even taken them in.
They stayed in DOC huts on many nights in the South Island.
They ate plenty of dehydrated food on the long sections, while rice, pasta, muesli bars and tuna were also staples, and fresh vegetables were devoured in the towns.
The couple, who documented their trip on noodlesforbreakfast.com and @noodlesforbrekky on instagram, said it hadn’t been easy decision to give up their income, schooling and all things familiar to take on the unknown.
There were plenty of things to be fearful of on the trail, but life was much more simple, and about survival.
“Where will we sleep each night? have we got enough food? where can we collect water from?
“We got to learning how to survive out there. How to interpret the trail notes and guess how long a section might take. What are our contingency plans were if we couldn’t make it.”
And they learned to appreciate the simple pleasures of life; a hot shower, fresh food, beds with sheets, “such delights” after long stretches in the bush.
Juno, 12, said the trail had changed her in many ways; she was more confident, she had “connected” with her parents and she no longer worried about what other people thought.
“It’s also helped me see that you don’t need many things to be happy.”
Now the family was looking forward to finding a new home, and the kids were excited about going back to school.
Tom, who headed the sales team of a large wine company in Australia, and Deanna, a photographer, said they hoped to continue to keep the adventures going once settled into the routine of life in New Zealand.
“We will be living in the South Island somewhere, we are not sure where yet, we have to find work,” Deanna said.
And in the spring and summer, they plan complete the bush sections they missed – the first at Arthur’s Pass and the second in Southland’s Takitimu Mountains and Longwood Range.
“We have got probably three weeks of walking that we will make up,” Deanna said.