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 last evening 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, in fact I do after all those hot kilometers.
Turns out she doesn’t like beer at all. And and would much rather I share sparkling wine.
The next thing I know, I am included with husband, dad and cousin for cocktail hour. Tracy is a midwife, Ben, a carpenter. We natter for hours, and I learn much better Maori pronunciation – like wh is a ‘f’ sound, and that their home on the beach is called a bach, pronounced “batch.”
Soon dinner is served, lamb chop from their farm and vegetables from their garden. They offer me a bed, pronounced “beed,” but I thank them and finally stumble back to the alicoop, full of nutrition and good feelings.
And wow, what a wild night! Whipped up wind and pounding rain pinging off my dynamee tarp. But I’m up early, packed and headed off up a ridge with light mist, again, just as I like it.
The views are magnificent down to the little community of baches and steep cliffs trailing off into the ocean. I come off the trail on a little spur for a late breakfast. I make so many demands for the perfect spot – out of the wind, shade, a view, something to lean on, no mud.
I pass so many spectacular spots for a rest in a small stretch of cow pasture, where the biting wind makes me feel grateful for choosing a merino top, followed by a 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 remember why I’m here; for moments in the fragrant forest alone, humping what I need on my back.
There’s very little mud here, no river, no blowing sand, but some of the hardest hiking up and down steep terrain I’ve yet encountered. A fit Austrian named Leonhardt – or Leo – catches up to me and I follow his runner’s pace for a few k.
I tell him about the kayak debacle and how upset I was, and he exclaims in his thick accented English, “Oh my gawd, that’s totally a guy thing!” which causes me to forget feeling sorry for myself and instead burst out laughing.
Leo quit his job and is traveling until the money runs out. He refuses to walk any roads whatsoever, so I’ll likely lose him after today. Too bad, because I really like him already.
Leo talks as fast as he walks and rushes on ahead when I need to move more slowly. I watch him disappear behind ferns as the trail dives down into the forest. I wonder when he’ll notice I’m not behind him anymore?
I come to a cleaning station, but as all the others I’ve passed, it’s empty. I try to scrape off the mud, but it’s a fool’s errand. I’m sure to be carrying bad stuff everywhere I walk.
The first days I felt like I couldn’t connect to anyone. I think I wanted someone to walk with. I was nervous and unsure of how much I’d taken on. But these last days, as I figure it out and find my pace, I absolutely love my solitude, especially high on this open ridge with vast views with sheep safely grazing.
I turn back into deep bush on the Morepork Track towards Whananaki, which I learn from Tracy is pronounced ‘fah-nah-nah-kee.’ Mud confronts me immediately and I think of the Raetea forest. A solo hiker was rescued already this season. I wonder if she took the wrong turn the same place we did, almost losing 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.
I stop at a grassy spot as the track name changes to Onekainga and follow some crazy steep up and down sections. I’m starved all the time now, but eating a lot. No weight loss so far, though I usually completely lose my appetite backpacking. All I can think about in this tough section is if I get down this track 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, sunshine and a view of the estuary as Bram catches up with me. I present him with a bag of gummies and he pulls 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.