Day 1. Nov 6th.12kms walked.
Four acts of kindness got me to Cape Reinga, the starting point of the Te Araroa. I wandered to the edge of town with trepidation. This was it. I stuck my thumb out half hoping nobody would stop and I could spend one more day in bed binging Fleabag. Alas, within minutes a man in his late 60’s pulled up. Rob told me the country is changing, "you be careful which cars you get into Louise, New Zealand isn’t what it used to be", he said as I jumped out on the side of the road 40kms closer to my goal. Remembering the man who had sat next to me on the bus from Auckland who twitched with an obvious drug habit and asked if he could borrow my bank card, add a painful addiction of my own, true crime podcasts, and I was suitably on edge. The next car that stopped luckily was only Sue, a social worker who was checking out a property up here. Her elderly client had been attacked in her home and hospitalised and she was checking out the damage to the house. She got me another 30kms and dropped me beside a dairy, with the same warning, be careful. A beekeeper helped me strap my big red backpack in beside boxes of bees in the back of his Ute and finally a French couple picked me up in their van and I sat between them on the front seat as we chatted about travel and photography and NOT about home invasions and how dangerous hitchhiking can be.
We arrive and I hoist my heavy bag onto my shoulders, take out my brand new walking poles and wander down to the lighthouse that marks the start of the 3006km hike I was embarking on. Glad to be getting away from that changing world Rob mentioned and return to the roots of humanity. Becoming a nomad, with everything I need on my back AND no reception.
It only took 12kms to get to my first campsite, but 12kms was still enough to make my feet hurt from the extra weight of my backpack. My hips itch where my bag rubs and the pain in my shoulders is starting. I know it’s going to get worse, but I tell myself this pain is bearable. It’s fleeting. I am human,i made for this, to focus on the physical discomfort of living, rather than the mental anguish of existence.
Day 38. Dec 1222kms walked.
A storm cloud follows us all morning. It makes the sheep nervous, which makes me nervous. We aim to reach the town of Waitomo, but first we have to cross a river that is prone to flash flooding.
“Should we try and get across the river before the storm?”
The trail buddies being an inclusive and magnanimous group, listen to every option put forth. The conversation ends when the storm catches up to us.
We run towards a metal shed sitting on top of the hill. My lungs struggle as I push myself uphill with my big red backpack and that kilogram of peanut butter I stupidly packed. It isn’t even good peanut butter, I think as my calf muscles burn. Marco reaches the shed, but he can’t get the roller door open. Lightening flashes and the thunder cracks instantly. The storm is right on top of us and we’re out in the open. Panic rises. We push together and the door budges enough for us to climb in. The thunder rattles the walls of our new home. I giggle with relief. Though I wonder if we should be sitting in a metal structure in a storm. I try not to touch the walls just in case. The shed is empty, but everything is covered in a strange white chalk. We cook dinner and put on dry clothes and fail to keep the questionable dust out of our rehydrated mashed potatoes.
The storm came so suddenly and passes just as quick. A bird trills outside. Soggy sheep meander back into view. Only the sky remembers. And our hearts. Set on fire by the setting sun. I feel too full with love for this trail and the people I’m walking it with. It hurts if I try and keep it in, so it tumbles out in uncontrollable laughter. Everything feels touched by the electricity of the passing storm.
We climb outside with our cameras. A mare and her foal watch us warily from atop the hill. They come to investigate and then gallop away. It stops feeling like I’m on a holiday. It feels like real life. Like everything i lived before was a shadow. And it can never go back to the way it was.
We set up our sleeping pads outside under the stars. We whisper words of love in the moonlight before falling asleep and the most beautiful day becomes a memory.
I should say "reaching Bluff changed me", that’s what movie Louise (played by Maisie Williams) would say. Reality is so much less concise than Hollywood though. I didn’t change, I percolated. In the mud, with greasy hair, in clothes that never stopped smelling, I matured, like a blue cheese. A very smelly blue cheese.
I did finally get my movie moment though. We spent 8 hours walking in a storm by the side of the highway as trucks sped by, spraying us with filthy road water. Yet as we neared the southern terminus, the rain stopped. It was the end point of the 3006km hike we’d lived and breathed (and ate) for the last 7.5 months. The sharp pain in my knees and shoulders faded, dulled by the excitement taking over my senses and making my eyes a little watery. We turned the corner and saw the sign post. That sign from countless photos of people who’d been finishing the hike these past few months. Three unexpected friends, Claire, Leah and Mathias, ran up to us with party poppers and champagne. I had prepared for the anticlimactic end of hitting a massive milestone and not knowing how to celebrate in a way that would make it feel ‘done’. My body shook as I hugged them. I dropped that heavy backpack I’d lugged the length of this beautiful country. "We are the Champions" started playing from their playlist as we popped our champagne. Followed by "Cold as Ice", "I’m still standing" and "Singing in the rain". A crowd of onlookers cheered as Marco helped me climb to the top of the signpost. It felt complete. Our friends made the moment sparkle, this was no ordinary hiking day. This was the day we finished. If it were a movie, there would have been a freeze frame, followed by the words "Louise went on to become a world famous writer and photographer. This remains her proudest moment."
In reality, the rain started up and I started shivering again. We piled wet backpacks and muddy shoes into the car. It took twenty minutes to drive the 31kms we’d walked that day. At dinner we told our waiter our achievement and he said "yes, i can smell you, can you please move your jackets so as not to disturb the other patrons".