A clear, windy night gave way to a rainy, windy night. Even with piles of rocks, one stake slips out and the alicoop caves in until I emerge into the blustery night in my undies and reattach her.
I am warm and cozy inside, but at around 5 the rain let up and I saw a chance to make my escape. First I let the air out of the mattress, then hustle into my clothes before stuffing the sleeping bag. This morning, I put on all the rain gear so when I pack the tent, I won’t get soaked.
I am super organized with my gear. It’s getting pretty ratty at this point, but I use every item – and know where everything is. I can just about pack in the dark and only turn on my headlamp to double check my work.
The last thing I do is put on my wet socks and shoes – par for the course in New Zealand – and just then, the almost full moon peaks out from behind fast moving clouds. Diamonds of light shimmer on the lake and my little nest in the beech trees. I say goodbye and walk off along a beach of small, smooth stones.
At the end of the lake is the campsite inhabited by a good number of camper vans, everyone still nestled in. One man tends a fire, but I’m a bit too far away and walk on. The Kiwi gal who passed yesterday told me how beautiful the forest walk is, so I cross a swingbridge and take a track first in meadow and soon next to the south lake.
I’m cold and my shoes are wet all the way through, my attitude wilting as I enter yet another forest, feeling a bit sick of it all and wondering if that particular Kiwi girl doesn’t get out much.
But as I walk along the lake, the sun begins to do its magic in the clouds, reflecting in the lake, and the shafts gently reach through the branches and turn the forest golden. A bird sings in the purest voice – octave, third, tonic, fifth – and I think of my friend Debby and how she would love walking here, the fresh smell, the bright green of the moss.
I left early just to get away while the rain stopped and here I’ve been given a gift of sparkling beauty. Mist rises on the silent lake, a paradise duck honks. I reach a second swing bridge and cross it to sit on a mossy stump for breakfast with a view, giggling now at how cranky I was at the start of my walk.
The next section follows the river, aqua green and so still, ducks float as if on a surface of jade. Hobbits live in this mossy wonderland of forest and stream. The Germans last night gave me an early congratulations for my achievement of walking the Te Araroa. I accept their kindness, but think of what my friend Lonnie Dupre says about his ‘achievements’ that it is less about breaking records than about exploring. I feel that now, I am not walking for bragging rights or to tick a box, but to see things that engender wonder. This forest is subtle and quiet, but I am awestruck by it.
I reach a stream to cross, milky and rushing. It’s no problem but a caution that the larger river is high – and dangerous.
When I come to the third swing bridge I need to make a decision. For a few kilometers, I’ll have a decent trail that leads to a spur that then leads to another hut. After that, the trail is an unmarked sidle of a flooded river with orange poles hidden under high grass. Everyone I’ve talked to avoids this unformed 18 kilometer path that DOC says takes over 12 hours to walk – and leads to another 13 k on road.
I am not a hitcher or skipper, but this section has so many things against it, number one being the river is flooded and I would put myself in danger trying to find my way.
I head to the road which runs right alongside the river and begin walking, knowing any cars I see today will all be headed in not out. It’s cool, though sunny as I begin marching down the road, making my peace with having to walk and looking out for any possible camp spots.
I think about Bernd telling me how hard it will be going home after the TA and re-entering our lives. I feel like I’m preparing myself now by planning future projects and allowing the experiences I’ve had shape the person I will take with me back home. I also know I’ll try to find a way to do another big hike some day. Maybe two.
A farmer comes my way and doesn’t even wave as I smile and hold out my thumb. The sun is getting warmer and I put more sunscreen on my nose. Cars do indeed come in to the lakes, but I am alone heading out.
I’m a bit buried in my thoughts when I realize an SUV is coming up behind me – and slowing down! A woman wearing a name tag and holding a two-way radio asks me where I’m headed and I say Te Anau. “We’re not going there, but can get you to tarmac, but you’ll have to ride with another car in the convoy.”
That’s when I realize why she has a radio – to communicate with those following. One of those, my chariot – a car of four old men also wearing name-tags. Hamish, John, Tony, and Campbell are my parents’ age and a quartet of flirts delighted to pick me up, my wedding ring hidden underneath my sun gloves for the moment. They’re North Island farmers on a tour of some of the big farms on the South Island and terribly impressed by my hiking alone. They ask about my family – as in what year they came to America. These men know their family history to the minute, and cherish it, correcting me when I say Mount Taranaki. “You mean, Mount Egmont.”
They’ve known each other since prep school and share a few tales. It’s a joyous ride of laughter and storytelling until they drop me in Mossburn because I tell them I need food. Tony directs me to a cafe with free wifi.
When we wave goodbye, I look behind us and realize the convoy is a dozen cars long with thirty people on this tour, thirty who waited for me as I was delivered further along the trail.
The cafe is good. I get chunks of brie in a big garden salad and venison pie, call home and post my diary. But when I go to find a store for food, I discover there is no store in town. The men must have thought I needed only a meal, when what I need is groceries.
I begin to cry on the street not even sure where I am and that’s when Ian shows up, a Kojak -ookalike towing a trailer. There’s supposed to be a store in the next town, in the exact opposite direction. He says I’m about 40 kilometers from the trail. But then says, “Get in and we’ll get your groceries, I’ll make my delivery and pick you up and take you back to the trail”
Why are Kiwis so nice? I’m just amazed, floored really. We chat about his work selling farming solutions, I dash into the Four Square for one last pile of noodles, tuna, bars and lollies and we head back. Ian makes me laugh the whole way, a bit cynical but obviously good at sales with a smart directness. Next week he tells me, he and his brother will go see The Eagles. “A rugby team?” I ask, like an idiot. No THE Eagles, like ‘Hotel California.’ I’m impressed.
He lives in Invercargill, my destination one day before the end of the trail and hands me his card “in case I get in any trouble.” His parting words are that the company he works for is disorganized and horrible with money but they do provide decent taxi service.
Just like that, I’m on a gravel road surrounded by fields polka dotted with sheep. Rain is hitting the mountains I was just walking in – and seems to want to work its way here. Two brown steers watch me walk by, a big black bull squints for a better look.
The hut is close and empty. Old, but with funny filagree on the bunks and real chairs at the table. I do a few chores – purifying water, drying my tent, charging my GPS – before Tony from San Antonio pulls up on a bike.
I wanted the place to myself, but we sit in those kitchen chairs for an hour regaling each other with travel stories. His southern accent is light, but comforting, and he makes me laugh out loud imitating Kiwis he’s met and some jams he’s found himself in.
The air is chilled, so he builds a fire as four young hunters show up but decide to camp closer to the deer. We share chips and lollies, make dinner, then crawl in our bunks as rain softly falls and the fire turns to embers. It was a day of opening myself to the experience, to the possible and allowing it to to unfold, expecting nothing much, but being astounded by the heaps of gifts and surprises today.