It was the trek of a lifetime, albeit with a few disruptions, that ended in the most spiritual of ways for Canberra’s Montana O’Neill.
Montana initially set out to complete New Zealand’s 3000km long Te Araroa trail back in January 2020 in memory of his childhood friend, Jake Apps, who passed away at the age of 25 from cystic fibrosis.
After a global pandemic led to a series of unfortunate events, which saw Montana spend some time on a kiwi farm in Levin, he was eventually forced to abandon his first attempt and return to Australia.
That didn’t slow him down though, and after a couple of months at home while the world returned to what he expected to be normality again, in April 2021 he hit the road again.
He still had around 1500 kilometres of the hike left to complete, which took him 75 days and included a number of detours as well as some rest days while he waited for family to join him.
For Montana, the second half of the hike was even more special than he could have imagined, and “there really aren’t words to describe it.”
He was joined by his dad Daniel O’Neill, who also knew Jake and his family well, at the end of the hike which takes walkers through Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga).
“For the Maori, this is an area that is very spiritual and it’s where the spirits of people who have passed away go out or move on,” he said.
The last day of the hike was particularly dramatic – there was a storm, lashings of rain and huge waves. But Montana believes this was the right way to end such an emotional journey.
“It was just amazing,” he said.
Montana had initially been concerned about getting back onto the trail after being stuck at home for a little bit, but says he needn’t have worried.
“Once I got back out there roughing it again, it was like my mind never left. My body, however, was telling me otherwise,” he laughed.
Unlike the South Island, the North Island is more densely populated, so there are more roads and towns to walk through.
“The South Island you get the ruggedness with more mountains and open areas whereas with the North Island, with more roads, it’s much more jarring and can hurt your feet a bit.
“It also rains more often in the North Island, there were also a lot of boggy forests to walk through which was a bit tough,” he said.
But he did get to see some incredibly varied scenery along the way, too – be it towns, farms, rainforests or beaches.
Another highlight was the Whanganui River journey which has to be completed in a canoe.
After finishing his hike, Montana initially planned to return to Canberra in early August, but as the situation on Australia’s east coast worsened, decided to wait out lockdown where he was.Fn
Now stuck in Queenstown as New Zealand also finds itself in lockdown, Montana is staying positive and hopes to find work over there for a few months once restrictions lift.
Montana succeeded in raising more than $25, 000 for research into cystic fibrosis and his fundraising page remains open. He’s now considering becoming an ambassador for Cure4 Cystic Fibrosis in the future to continue his mission.