Ah, the stars last night! Twinkling diamonds on black velvet, the milky way a gentle twist. The morning opens with low mist in my hollow and a few chirpers. I eat the last of my noodles for breakfast.
I had a strange dream that I was making a kind of greeting card booklet that tells my story, my truth. Who would receive something like this is shrouded in mystery but my work was judged wanting, lacking sparkle and pizzazz. I feel sad with low energy this morning with a nagging feeling I can’t see this through.
But as Russell would tell me, it all starts with one step – and that step takes me eventually to a town and a place to organize, wash and eat well.
Tom and I sit outside our single tents, and the single little dry, matted down rectangle of grass that is the only evidence we slept here. I pack up and set off first because the young fast one will catch me in no time.
Have I mentioned how much I love these real trails? Like the American long trails, they are discernible and walkable, though I feel slightly guilty striding so fast along them, barely glancing down at my feet because I have been walking in New Zealand over three months and I know what to expect – and have become a bit smug that I have been able to negotiate the sidling, unformed track and bushwalk that makes up the Te Araroa.
At least so far.
And not without tears.
But none of that this morning, even if it’s cold and foggy. There may not be a view, but the sunlight slips through holes in the cloud, shining on the distant hills and illuminating the deep turquoise of the lake.
The trail heads out and down over scrubby grassland and I’m surprised Tom doesn’t catch me until we reach the road where a sign indicates no pooping and no petting of goats. He’s tired and his legs hurt. He’ll try to catch the first car that comes by on this long dusty road to town.
I am somewhat surprised he’s tired. Not like we didn’t go hard, especially the day we went to Mt. Sunday and crossed the Rangitata – after walking about 20 miles the day before. I had my mini breakdown in the heat and tussock, but I’m old and arthritic. I guess we all get tired walking day after day and somehow seeing Tom struggle makes me feel more normal.
He gets a ride after only a few kilometers and I keep walking, enjoying long strides for a change.
It’s about as far to Tekapo as it is on my regular walks up Summit Avenue, and I look out on the dry, humpy landscape, waves crashing on the shore from a stiff breeze. Will I remember this moment when I’m home striding on the sidewalk?
The road turns as it follows the lake and I come upon two merino sheep farmers with about twelve working dogs – little heading dogs and the larger huntaways. Some are on the vehicle and must have been commanded to stay as they look longingly on the others running over to this obvious dog lover.
I get some fur therapy and chat a few moments with these lovely men who know all about us hikers and the trail and show pride in sharing their backyard with us foreign visitors. I feel warm walking away as a truck with a license plate reading ‘skulpt’ comes past and the driver waves, leaving me wondering if he’s a body builder or an artist or both.
Several NOBO’s pass me and ask for beta on camping spots and I’m happy to send then to my hollow, showing them last night’s sunset on my phone. I call a backpackers to see if I might reserve a bed and am told it’s Chinese New Year and the place is packed – except one bed left for me, which I take.
I’m not entirely clear why this day affects Tekapo but ahead is a large camper van stopped on the road and I ask the man at the wheel if he might have something to drink.
“No English!” says the Chinese driver. So I make a drinking gesture and his wife disappears in back only to reappear with a quart of milk. When I look surprised, she disappears again and returns with a glass.
He fills it up and I guzzle it down, to which he fills it again – and again. I tell them I have visited Shanghai, Beijing, Xian and Luoyang much to their delight. In the back seat is a little girl – Phyllis, age 7 – who speaks to me in English. The parents beam.
Before town is a regional park with disc golf and unusual tea pads. I walk along the shore, past a statue of a dog dedicated “to those who appreciate the collie dog,” and the little stone church currently closed for renovation.
The backpackers is a delightful spot with animals and hammocks, but I head back to town to get online and take Tom out to dinner as promised after he helped me get through this last hard part.
Bit first I meet up with Annie who gets me set up with a bicycle – a Trek, made in Wisconsin. The Te Araroa is a very strange trail in that sections are paddled and cycled. It’s not required, but for 83 kilometers, the trail is on a long, flat canal with no shade and it just makes sense to ride it.
Annie is very efficient, asking me to be honest if I can change a flat – no – and ensuring I take plenty of water, snacks and a jacket for rain. The plan is to ride to Twizel, then see about hitching to Mount Cook National Park, though things feel a bit vague at the moment.
But for some reason, I’m not anxious. Maybe a bit of unknown is becoming less worrisome because everything has worked out just fine thus far.
At least I have some plan as Tom and I head to The Tin Plate and get local brew and lamb for him a monster burger for me.
We talk about Dvorak and the Czech education system, his plans to walk the north island next and how good real food tastes. I am very lucky to have had such a companion. I don’t think I would have crossed the Rangitata on my own or climbed Beuzenberg Peak or visited the Lord of the Rings site. We made some very long days and some easier – though still relatively tough – and his easy-going nature kept me grounded and strong. I ran into Tina at the store and she tells me Tom said he needed to watch out for me because I get lost easily. I laugh because it’s mostly true. I give him a big hug before he goes and maybe he’ll be in Prague at his sister’s when I go in June, who knows. I do know the trail was better with that tall kid lurking nearby and I’ll miss him as I keep heading south.
I buy all sorts of fresh food at the Four Square for tomorrow’s bike ride – along with a six-pack of local beer to share with Tina who’s walking – standing in line with dozens of Chinese tourists. Next, it’s laundry, then sleep in a room full of Chinese tourists.
At the end of a long section of shoes-never-dry river crossings, tussocky non-trail, rocky spillway forever and ascent/descent on repeat I feel accomplished and satisfied, deeply blessed and humbled – and maybe most important – ready for what’s next.