Walking straight uphill this early morning onto a flower-covered hillside above the ocean. I can hear the waves crashing below. My pants are already soaked because the deep grass is drenched from last night’s torrential rain.
Just as I left the beach and wandered back to the alicoop, a woman about my age wandered by, smiled and said hello. I followed her and asked if she might sell me a beer. She looked dumbfounded, “You need one?” Yes, I do after all those hot kilometers.
Turns out she doesn’t like beer and would rather I share sparkling wine.
The next thing I knew I was included with husband, dad and cousin for cocktail hour. Tracy is a midwife, Ben, a carpenter. We nattered for hours, and I learned better Maori pronunciation – wh is a ‘f’ sound – and that their community on the beach is a bach, said ‘batch.’
Soon dinner was served, lamb chop from their farm and vegetables from their garden. They offered me a ‘bied’ but I finally stumbled back to the alicoop, full of nutrition and good feelings.
I wouldn’t have missed that wild storm for anything. Whipped up wind and rain on this thin strip of land. Up early and packed and headed off on a ridge with light mist, again, just as I like it.
I’ve come off the trail on a little spur. I had so many demands for my brunch spot – out of the wind, shade, a view, something to lean on, no mud. I passed so many spectacular views in the small stretch of cow pasture, where the biting wind made me feel grateful for choosing a merino top, and along the narrow ridge track deep in the bush with just two of my feet width.
Where I am now with soup, meat, cheese and almonds is in the dappled light and birdsong filled kauri forest, giants reaching to the blue sky above, gently swaying in the breeze. Suddenly, almost two weeks in, I know why I’m here; for moments in the fragrant forest alone, humping what I need on my back.
Little mud here, no river, no blowing sand, but some of the hardest hiking up and down steep terrain. I start out with Leonhardt, keeping his runner’s pace for a few k. I burst out laughing when I tell him about the kayaking debacle and he says, “That’s such a guy thing!” in his thick Austrian accent. Leo quit his job and is traveling until the money runs out. He refuses to walk roads so I’ll likely lose him after today.
I come to a cleaning station, but as all the others, it’s empty. I try to scrape off the mud, but I’m probably carrying bad stuff everywhere I go.
The first days I felt like I couldn’t connect to anyone. I think I wanted someone to walk with. Maybe I was nervous, unsure. But these last days, as I figure it out and find my pace. I love my solitude. Especially high on this open ridge with vast views and sheep grazing.
I turn back into bush on the Morepork Track towards Whananaki, which I learn from Tracy is pronounced ‘fahnahnahkee.’ Mud confronts me immediately and I think of the Raetea forest. A solo hiker was rescued from there already this season. I wonder if she took the wrong turn the same place we did, and almost lost our way.
This cleaning station is tended and I disinfect my shoes, scraping them on the plastic brushes. I follow a stream that gets noisy as it hit rocks feeding into a deep green pool partially hidden by ferns.
Stopped at a grassy spot as the track changes to Onekainga and takes some crazy steep up and down. I’m starved all the time now, but eating a lot. Don’t notice any weight loss yet, I usually completely lose my appetite. If I get down before 5:30, take-away awaits.
I come to a magic camp spot in ferns and kauri at a bend of a babbling brook. It’s too early to stop. I look at it longingly.
After the stream is a killer, heart attack of straight up and over. Why build switchbacks when you can just hurl yourself forward. I come out on forest track and happy buzzing manuka honey bees.
The trail winds through farmland, one squishy fen bit with a few electric fences to negotiate, and then I’m spit out onto the estuary, mangroves and their knees pushing through the muck, birds fluting as the view eventually widens to take in a vast sandy expanse, houses tucked in and the longest footbridge in the Southern Hemisphere.
I get the biggest burger on the menu, bacon and egg, cheese, veggies and a side of squid rings, stock up on camp food and chill under the canopy while Cathy charges my battery. Hopefully a grassy spot awaits the alicoop at the free camping. Score! Four camper vans, a live band playing Reggae across the street, spectacular grass and sunshine a view of the estuary and Bram catches up with me. I present him with a bag of gummies and he pulled out of his bag a 750 ml bottle of Steinlager. Life is good and especially so after having to reset the alicoop three times to avoid the big wind. She seems calm enough now.
Til tomorrow friends when I cross the longest footbridge in the Southern Hemisphere.