News and media
Q&A with trail angels Rob Firmin and George Mills
Up and down Te Araroa trail, there are amazing people making an untold difference in the lives of walkers.
Among them are Rob Firmin and George Mills – a couple from Whanganui who have become legends among the Te Araroa community for their generosity, friendship and willingness to provide a roof over the heads of passing walkers looking for a place to stay.
We caught up with Rob to find out why they do it, what they love most about the trail, and whether hosting walkers has been different over the past year with international travel restricted.
Q1. How long have you been hosting walkers, and how many do you think you have hosted over the years?
This is our ninth year. Our meeting of our first Te Araroa walker was on 23 December 2013. She was walking the Whanganui river road. We stopped and chatted to her, and invited her to our place, and she arrived on 26 December.
We’ve hosted about 230 people. We started keeping a register in 2019/20 and now we record every Te Araroa walker who comes to stay. In the beginning we were not on any Te Araroa sites, so contact was word of mouth and walkers came to us that way, with a few random others through Couchsurfing. Numbers only really picked up two years ago when we made ourselves more available through Te Araroa sites.
Q2. What do you provide for Te Araroa walkers passing through?
We have two bedrooms available in the house and a hut (Henry’s Hut) on our land that can accommodate four people –but 2 is most comfortable. We also have five tent sites. We provide all meals throughout walkers’ stays with us, accommodating all needs – vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, flexitarian, whatever. We also provide assistance with local and regional knowledge, guided tours of Whanganui and the local environs, and transportation if needed. There’s a laundry at the house, or laundromat in town, along with WiFi, showers, and toilets etc. Te Araroa walkers can charge their phones with us too.
No cost. No koha expected. Free! Friendship is the best asset.
Q3. Where are you based, and how do walkers get in touch with you if they want to take you up on your generous offer?
We are located close to trail in Whanganui city, and handy to supermarkets, laundromats, outdoors supplies, and the CBD for all sorts of repairs and replacements. We’re also close to transport links.
Walkers can get in contact with us through the various Te Araroa sites. We are on TA Trail Angels (although we prefer to call ourselves Kaitiaki/Guardians). Some also reach us through Couchsurfing, or sometimes through word of mouth and our contact details are passed on.
We take requests all hours of day. Because our area is confined by communication restrictions because of the mountains or the river, and no reception, it makes it difficult for the walkers to maintain a continuous contact with us. Often walkers who know of us will contact us from as far as Taumarunui (sobo) or Palmerston North (nobo). We’ve had walkers contact us from Cape Reinga, and from the bottom of the South Island.
Q4. Why do you and George do it?
Because we love hosting these people, the friendships we make, and meeting so many wonderful people. Being in the position of helping the walkers to achieve whatever their personal goal may be is great. Our place is a safe haven for those from overseas far from home, hopefully providing a home away from home. Manaaki – looking after the visitor, no matter where they come from.
Q5. What kind of work do you and George do, outside of your time being a trail angel?
George is retired (former lawyer, publican and CEO). I am still working as a registered nurse at the hospital. Our other interests are gardening and landscaping, walking, movies, travel, and art.
Q6. Has it been different hosting people this year, with many of the walkers passing through being Kiwis?
It’s not really so different this year. It was strange at the beginning because we weren’t sure who would come or how many would come through and from what countries, but it’s worked out that we’ve had enough people from other countries to give us the feel that we are still experiencing the world in our home.
So far this season, we have had roughly two thirds who have been Kiwi, whereas last year 7% of the people who stayed with us by seasons end were Kiwi. This year we have had people from 10 other countries come through so far, whereas last year we had people from 17 other countries at seasons end. It’s an absolute pleasure hosting Te Araroa walkers.
Q7. Are people thankful? What is the most unexpected or surprising thank you you’ve experienced?
Yes! Absolutely everybody is thankful, and appreciative. With so many different countries, there are so many varied customs which have been wonderful to experience and be a part of. Many express their thanks by cooking a meal of their homeland, singing a song in their own language. Over the years we have become accustomed to so many cultures that nothing seems unusual. Rather, it is exciting and a privilege.
Two things come to mind. One was a German walker who returned after his completion of Te Araroa and spent a whole day in our kitchen preparing and cooking a full German meal for us, and leaving enough for the next three days because, in his words, “you guys need a break from looking after us, so here’s enough to feed everyone for three days”. That was so humbling and lovely. Another Te Araroa walker from Switzerland who did the trail in2016 returned to us in 2018, with three rocks from his mountains (Swiss Alps) and placed them in our garden waterfall. Our garden is full of many stories of Te Araroa walkers and ourselves. He knew the story of the waterfall – ’mountain to the sea’. That was special.
Q8. What do you love most about Te Araroa? Have you walked much of it yourself?
The people and their experiences, and stories. The friendships gained. Helping these people achieve their goal. Uplift their spirit. We have both walked small sections of Te Araroa over the years.
Q9. How long will you keep hosting people? Should more New Zealanders consider doing it?
As long as we both are healthy and able to, we will be available to Te Araroa and the walkers. Our priority is the people walking the trail, so it is about walkers first and foremost.
We give to all our Te Araroa walkers a code word for them to notify us in times of need, or difficulty, or when they've 'hit the wall'. Only they are given it. We introduced that three years ago and it has been used two times. We responded immediately.
We've also been known to offer recovery space, and that has led us to collect three walkers over the years to bring them back to our place. For all three of them I organised hospital examinations. One stayed with us for five days, another for seven days, and another for five weeks. They were all foreign citizens, and all went on to trails end once they recovered. We support all our Te Araroa walkers until their completion of what their goal is. To the end. And now we have friends all around the world, 10 times over.
It is wonderful this year, seeing so many Kiwis doing it, but the added flavour of the foreign walkers enables our country to be promoted outside our borders. It provides for priceless storytelling and promotion of the trail, the people and our land.
Thank you for the opportunity of telling a little bit of our story of our involvement with Te Araroa. It has been a wonderful few years. All the best! Noho haumaru (Stay safe).