Eyecare musings from Te Araroa
Niall at Lake Constance in Nelson Lakes National Park

Eyecare musings from Te Araroa

January 12, 2024 Niall McCormack

Life can often throw up unexpected moments that change the direction of our careers. As a second-year student in Manchester in 1986, I answered an advert in the UK optics press for volunteers to spend their summer vacation helping an eyecare team in Tanzania. Summer holidays in Merseyside or Tanzania? It was an easy decision! Little did I realise how much this experience would shape my life.


Eye Care for Africa


Fast forward to 2016, after many volunteer trips to Africa and the Pacific, I was examining the eyes of a retired couple who had decided to work in an African orphanage for a couple of years. Aware of the volunteer work I’d been involved in, they invited me to come to Uganda to examine the eyes of the children at the orphanage. Challenge accepted! Within the year, the Eye Care for Africa charity was born. A Hawkes Bay charity providing eyecare to marginalised groups in East Africa, it’s primarily aimed at helping people in remote Tanzania who have little or no access to eyecare. The establishment of an eye clinic in a remote part of Tanzania grew naturally from this original commitment. Clearly, however, this would require a significant amount of fundraising beyond my usual channels of quiz nights and ad hoc appeals to friends and colleagues.


Turning to Te Araroa


In 2020, the idea of a sponsored walk along Te Araroa seemed like a suitable option to raise further funds. The New Zealand-long trail is a 3,026km challenge, stretching from Cape Reinga to Bluff, linking previous tracks and walkways and connecting settlements, towns and cities. It seemed a good idea more than a year from the start line, but as the impending trip drew closer, I started to wonder what on Earth I had let myself in for.


On 24 October 2022, I flew from Napier to Kerikeri ready to embark on what promised to be the experience of a lifetime. I’d given a talk to my local Rotary group the week before and had begun making every excuse in the book as to why I wouldn’t get to the finish line. A sore shin, an achy back – all those doubts were beginning to amplify as I caught a bus to Cape Reinga the next day. “Niall has the fear of failure”, commented one Rotary member!


The notorious North Island


My first goal was to make it to Auckland, a mere 600km away. The tortuous nature of the trail from Northland to Auckland means this stretch is an achievement in itself for most Te Araroa walkers. The first few days along 90-mile beach, though stunning, are notorious for causing blisters. Although I got through relatively unscathed, this year’s North Island spring weather was the worst for many years due to year three of a La Niña weather pattern. Drenching followed drenching! Police closed the main road into Whananaki due to flooding as I made my way into town. Cold and shivering, I was relieved to discover the wet weather had resulted in most holidaymakers abandoning their plans, leaving several cabins free at the campsite. So, thankfully, I didn’t have to pitch a tent.


The wet weather didn’t relent and, a few days later, I slid off the trail down a ravine and couldn’t get back. Five and a half hours and an attack by a herd of bulls later, I managed to find my way to a road near Matakana. Disgruntled and dismayed, with nowhere to stay at 7.15pm, I sat on the side of the road on my pack and called home. My wife, Paula, called round and found glamping firm, Matakana Retreat. Boy, did I deserve that! But I was advised it hadn’t been cleaned. Luckily, the owner said, “I tell you what, you sound like you’ve had a tough day, you can have it for free!’ That became a theme of my entire walk – ‘trail angels’ who give so much to strangers like myself in need of a bit of support, making you realise how many really good people there are in Aotearoa.


My fitness improved immeasurably as I walked through various storms on the fantastic trails that make up Te Araroa, including the Tongariro Crossing, the Whanganui River Road and the Tararua Range. I averaged around 30km a day, with my backpack ranging in weight from 11-19kg.


As I neared the end of the North Island, the bad weather started to retreat and I was able to spend a wonderful Christmas in Palmerston North and New Year on the Kapiti Coast with Paula. As 2023 dawned, however, the realisation that we wouldn’t be able to meet again until nearer the finish line put a bit of a dampener on the positive realisation that I probably could make the finish line!



A fine day at Lake Rotoiti



Conquering the Mainland


The South Island leg of Te Araroa is simply sensational, although the remoteness of the trail in many places is somewhat daunting as you can never be certain where you will be at any particular time. In complete contrast to 2022, I had fantastic weather in January and February 2023, making every step along the stunning Queen Charlotte Track to the Richmond Ranges and on to the mountains around the Nelson Lakes a pleasure. At one point, a dentist friend who I had flatted with after university and hadn’t seen since, left me a box of fruit and chocolate in one of the DOC huts along the way. I was definitely the most popular hiker in the hut that day!


One breathless view after another made my two months’ walk in the South Island an incredible experience. As I conquered Arthur’s Pass and made my way to Lake Tekapo, the elevation gains also did wonders for my fitness, which surpassed levels I’d thought were long past. The 54km walk to Twizel followed, which was one of the most challenging days as there’s nowhere to camp along the way. Some hikers hitch a ride, others hire a bike, but for purists like myself, walking every step of Te Araroa is a commitment. At 3:20am, I left Lake Tekapo and, despite the 14kg backpack and fairly hot weather, was delighted to make it to the Twizel campground by 5pm, only to be told the campground was full, but “don’t worry, there’s another campground only 4km further south”! Eventually, after more than 60km of walking, I thankfully crashed at the Lake Ruataniwha campground at about 6pm.


By mid-February, I’d reached Lake Hayes and the incredible Breast Hill Track near Wanaka. However, my euphoria was short-lived. Accessing the internet for the first time in four days, I discovered my hometown, Hawkes Bay, had been smashed by Cyclone Gabrielle – a salient reminder of life’s fickleness.



Hideous mud in the Longwood Forest



From Wanaka, I made my way through the beautiful historic towns of Arrowtown, Macetown and Queenstown before reaching Te Anau. One of the toughest parts of Te Araroa lies between Te Anau and the finish line, the dense, bush-clad Longwood Forest; for me, this was a two-day struggle through a quagmire of mud. The relief at reaching Colac Bay for afternoon tea on the second day, and Riverton later that evening, was immense.


My excitement at being so close to the finish line was palpable as I embarked on the 30km beach walk to Invercargill. This ended near Oreti Beach, famous for its part in the legendary Kiwi film, The World’s Fastest Indian. Paula surprised me by joining me as I left Oreti Beach and walked past Invercargill airport on my way to Bluff.


Crossing the finish line


After slightly more than four months, I climbed the famous signpost at Stirling Point, Bluff, on 7 March 2023, 16kg lighter than I was at the start. It was a life-changing experience and the memories and interactions I had with so many amazing people along the way will stay with me forever.



Made it!



Although my fundraising target hasn’t quite been reached (yet! hint, hint), I’m delighted to report we have enough to start building the two-examination-room eye clinic in Tanzania. For any eyecare professional interested in volunteering, I’d love to hear from you. The clinic, in the remote northern regions, close to the famous Serengeti, is the realisation of a dream, but will only make a real difference with the support of my optometry and ophthalmology colleagues. Volunteering changed my life as a student all those years back, and though you’d have to pay your own air fares there, you don’t have to walk Te Araroa to raise funds, unless you want to!


Niall McCormack is an optometrist at Hawkes Bay Hospital and an honorary academic at Auckland University. To support McCormack’s fund-raising efforts, please visit https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/eye-care-for-africa-te-araroa or https://www.facebook.com/eyecareforafrica/. To volunteer to help, email him at niallmccormack@me.com.