Pre-departure nerves got the best of Rose and me the evening before our leave taking. We went to bed late and slept fitfully only to oversleep the following morning. Somehow, I had misplaced my shoes the night before. In a mounting frenzy, I searched the house before finding them behind the bedroom door, lurking beneath one of Rose’s handbags.
“Typical!” I snarled. I can be a complete jerk under pressure.
We had a tense trip from the North Shore into the City where I had a Naked Bus to catch to Kerikeri, five hours’ drive north to the Bay of Islands. Public transport ended there so I planned to hitchhike a further two hundred kilometres to the start of the Te Araroa trail head at North Cape (or Cape Reinga/Te Rerenga Wairua to give its official name).
In a strained dither, we crawled forward in Auckland’s rush hour logjam over the Harbour Bridge toward skyscrapers shrouded in early morning mist.
“This concrete jungle is insane!” I commented. Rose’s lips tightened and I felt a pang, remembering that I was leaving her in it. The tension mounted when we reached our destination but saw no sign of a bus stop or coach.
“I hope we haven’t missed it!” I moaned.
I hauled my rucksack out of the car. Rose’s arms tightened around me and she thrust a salad sandwich into my pocket. “Just in case you get hungry,” she said. I kissed her awkwardly and lurched away. Around the corner, I saw the coach with the driver holding a checklist. He eyed my backpack with distaste. “Just in time, mate,” he said and put a line through my name.
Thank goodness for Kiwi timekeeping, I thought. With a grunt, I slid my rucksack into the cargo well and walked up the steps into the coach, wiping the perspiration from my face and doing my best to look like a seasoned long-distance walker.
I found a seat and took my place between a listless dreadlocked backpacker and a harassed-looking man with four young sons. The mother, a jaded woman with streaked hair and aviator sunglasses, sat as far from them as she could while still maintaining some contact with her family. The father sighed and we exchanged a silent glance of solidarity. I guessed his morning had been as fraught as mine.
The journey northwards passed in a daze. I dozed, gazed out of the window, checked our progress on a large-scale map and thought about how I would be retracing this route in the weeks to come.
We arrived in Kerikeri at midday. With a hiss of air brakes, we parked in a side street outside a seedy Chinese restaurant. The driver leaned into the cargo well and gave my rucksack an experimental pull.
“That’s a heavy pack, mate!” he exclaimed after he dragged it onto the pavement. We contemplated the inert mass with misgivings while he rubbed his lower back.
“It’s got two weeks’ food in it,” I explained.
I tottered off into a park opposite the bus stop to regroup. Brilliant sunshine pouring from a cloudless sky turned the grass a vivid green. Under the shade of a tree, I brewed a cup of tea and tucked into my supply of chorizo sausage, oat biscuits and an energy bar. Replenished, I strode towards a stationery shop for a notebook, pen and mobile phone recharge voucher. I tried to look purposeful, as if a middle-aged bespectacled gentleman carrying an extraordinarily large blue canvas rucksack was the most common sight in the world.
I failed miserably. Ice-cream eating day-trippers gawked, small children clutched their mothers and across the street a police woman eyed me narrowly. In the stationery shop, I asked a school-age assistant for directions out of town and to Cape Reinga. She offered surprisingly clear ones as she eyed my rucksack. “Can I feel how heavy it is?” she asked. She managed to lift it about an inch off the floor. “Wow!” she exclaimed, “That’s heavy! How far are you going?”
The manager and a couple of assistants wandered over and eavesdropped.
“All the way from Cape Reinga to Bluff on the South Island. Three thousand kilometres,” I said nonchalantly.
The audience collectively sucked their breath. “That’s crazy,” a shop assistant giggled. “Yeah,” I agreed cheerfully, “I must be nuts.”
I set off along the road out of town to the roundabout at State Highway 10. The ninety minute walk under blazing sun left me drained and dehydrated. I tried to thumb a lift but no cars stopped. My straining heart sank ever lower toward my throbbing feet. At a vegetable stand by the roundabout, a friendly Maori shopkeeper graciously refilled my water bottles. I staggered over to the roadside and shed the pack. Feeling momentarily weightless and more than a little foolish, I stuck out my thumb and awaited developments.
Ten minutes later, a camper van pulled over. I hefted my pack and at once the van took off, spurting gravel from its rear wheels. An alarmed face gazed at me in the rear view mirror. Fifteen minutes after that unpromising start, a sporty little Suzuki hatchback pulled in and my luck changed. The rucksack filled the rear seat. I swung into the passenger seat next to the driver. Ben, an elderly business man, was on a mission to check a faulty burglar alarm in his holiday home. We had a jolly journey of seventy kilometres, swapping stories while he chain-smoked. He called his wife. “I’ve got a hitchhiker,” he said proudly, “He’s walking the length of New Zealand!” The voice on the intercom sounded querulous. “That’s nice. Don’t forget to water the plants and lock the door when you leave.” Downcast, he lit another cigarette.
Ben dropped me near his house and invited me to spend the night if I got stuck. However, less than a minute later another mature man pulled up. “I can take you a few kilometres into town,” he wheezed. “Any good to you?” “Sure, anything that keeps me moving in the right direction,” I confirmed. As we crawled into town, he explained, “The wife needs a capsicum for the stir fry. I’ve just had a heart op. The doctor told me I need to walk but the wife said she needs it and she needs it now.” We exchanged a glance of mutual commiseration.
He dropped me outside a tavern and his eyes glistened. “The doctor said I’m not to drink. Otherwise, I’d shout you a beer.” “Thanks,” I said, “I’d have enjoyed that but you get better find that capsicum. ‘Happy wife, happy life.’” He sighed again. “Yup. You got that right, mate.”
After a short wait, a tattooed Maori delivery driver in a small truck drew in. With some difficulty, we positioned my pack between us in the cab. “Name’s Chas, bro,” he grinned and thrust out a hand the size of a ham. It enveloped mine. This guy was big. His shaven head brushed the cab roof and his hips overflowed the seat. We shared stories, getting to know each other. When he heard that I’d worked for the Queen in Buckingham Palace, he punched his mobile phone with a meaty finger. “Darl! You won’t believe this! I’ve picked up a fella who knows The Queen!” I heard squeals of surprise through the speaker. “Now he’s walkin’ all the way down New Zealand,” Chas said. His eyebrows lifted as he delivered the punchline. His wife digested the information before her voice crackled on the speakerphone. “He must be crazy! You nearly home? I need ya before tea!” He grimaced and ended the call.
Five minutes after Chas dropped me off with a handshake that left my fingers limp, a maroon passenger bus emblazoned with the slogan “The Geriatric Gypsies” hissed to a stop. It was now about 4.30 PM and still baking hot. I climbed into air-conditioned comfort to meet Murray, a retired defence force engineer. What with a shared military bond and a love of traveling, we sat side by side on well-sprung seats and chatted in manly fashion, like two old troopers reminiscing at a regimental reunion. Thirty minutes later, he stopped at a roadside butchery and general store where he bought me an ice lolly. With a chirpy toot of the air horn, the bus clattered away and I sat back in the shade of the store, sucking iced chocolate and pondering my next move.
Cape Reinga still lay about eighty kilometres to the north. Murray had said I’d be lucky to get a lift there at this time of day but it did not bother me. I was self-sufficient and the quick succession of lifts and general sense of moving forward had boosted my confidence. When a small four-wheel drive with a grey-haired couple pulled into the carpark, I approached the female passenger and asked for a lift. “We’re only going about sixteen kilometres to the caravan park,” she said looking me up and down with doubt in her eyes. I remembered how I had not had time to shave. Her husband cut in. “We’ll take you, sonny,” he said. “You can always stay in the caravan park tonight. It’s a great little place.”
Once on the road, the woman thawed and chatted gaily about children and grandchildren. She unbent enough to cluck her tongue when I told her about my plans. “What does your wife think about your walk?” she asked. “She told me to get lost,” I explained with a smile. The man guffawed. “I’ve heard that before!” he exclaimed and his wife jabbed him in the ribs. They invited me down to the caravan park but I excused myself. “I’ll give it half an hour,” I reassured her. “If I don’t have a lift by then, I’ll walk down and book in for the night.” The man’s eyes twinkled. “Make sure you stop by. You’ll find a cold bottle waiting for you,” he said. His wife jabbed him again.
I never got to drink it because less than a minute later, a hire car stopped in a spray of gravel. “Going to Cape Reinga?” I asked hopefully. “Yes! YES! All ze way to ze Cape!” the middle-aged driver exclaimed. He leaped out of the car, pumped my hand and swept an assortment of gear from the passenger seat.
Derek from Belgium and his younger sidekick George from Germany had met in “ze most wonderful hostel in ze world!” in Whangerei, far to the south. On a whim, they had pooled their resources and hired a car to watch the sunset from the Cape. Derek whooped, “Ooh! La! La! Look at zat!” at every fresh vista unfolding beyond the mirrors. George absorbed the scenery in silence.
We reached the Cape car park at about 7.00 PM. While Derek bounced off to the restroom. I stretched, hardly able to believe that twelve hours before I had raced for a coach in Auckland.
“I’ve packed more into today and met more new people than I’ve done in the last month,” I thought. “This is living.” The underlying anxiety, the drive that had kept me going all day, temporarily fluttered off, and left a pleasant sense of completion. I reflected on the people I had met, the conversations I had had, the many kindnesses offered to a stranger by ordinary people who had made it their business to help someone who wanted to do something different. They might call me crazy but they still offered a hand.
While George and I waited for Derek, I commented, “Hitchhiking is good for the soul.”
“Ja,” he replied gravely, looking around the enclosed car park and then towards the covered gateway that led to the Cape proper. “And I zink zis place will be good for ze soul also.”
Cape Reinga (Te Rerenga Wairu) is a place of deep cultural and spiritual significance to the Maori. It is here that the Tasman Sea (the male sea Te Moana Tapokopoko a Tawhaki) and Pacific Ocean (the female sea TeTai o Whiterela) clash and mingle. At their meeting place, a frothing line of whirlpools stretches out like the wake behind a canoe (waka). This represents the union of male and female and thus, the creation of life.
However, Te Rerenga Wairu also represents the dissolution of life. Kupe, the earliest known Maori voyager, named this place. The Maori believe that after death, their spirits depart from here to their ancestral home of Hawaiki somewhere in the eastern Pacific.
These themes are tastefully and succinctly explained in a series of carved signs. We soon discovered that the earthen-walled car park, decorated with Maori motifs, gives no hint of what awaits on the far side. After Derek rejoined us, we stepped through a shadowed ten metre tunnel and caught our breaths after crossing the threshold. Even the loquacious Belgian lost his voice. It is like stepping into a tomb but rather than moving into deeper darkness, you emerge, blinking into light and breathtaking beauty.
A path leads the eye around a wind-blown hillside over which the spirits of dead Maori are reputed to pass on their way to an eight hundred year old non-flowering pohutakawa tree, or kahini clinging to a prominent rock far below. In Maori belief, the spirits of the dead travel down its stepped roots into the underworld. After a time there, they pass under the sea to the Trinity Islands just visible to the north. From there, they voyage to Hawaiki, the fabled ancestral source.
We meandered down the path towards the small white lighthouse, talking in hushed tones. I passed the green wooden sign marking the start of my trail and we paused to look along the two beaches and headland at the far end leading to 90 Mile Beach and my first test.
Derek recovered his zest and suggested that perhaps he and George could camp with me on my first night. The idea came to me in a flash. “I’ll be walking all night,” I said.
Well, I was here for adventure. Whether it was the influence of this wonderful place or the pent-up tension accrued from days of preparation and traveling, I felt suddenly impatient to be alone and to make a start. Like the spirits, I wanted to go home, into nature.
At the lighthouse, we took a few photographs. A German mother and daughter wandered down and joined us. Mother had come to rescue daughter from the charms of New Zealand and bring her home. She wanted to be a grandmother and had no intention of being a distant one. The daughter seemed perfectly cheerful about her fate and laughed good-naturedly about the intervention.
We wound our way back up the path and turned to climb the grass-covered hill. At the summit, we found a tipsy Canadian newlywed, sipping wine from a bottle and waiting for her husband to return from the car park with a blanket as protection against the chilly breeze that had sprung up.
George shivered and we walked back to the entrance where we sat in the shelter of a grassy bank to watch the sun dip below the horizon. Away to the east, the horned moon, crowned with a spray of stars, glowed in the darkening sky.
A perfect night for walking, I thought, but first I needed sustenance. I fetched my pack and boiled some water. The process enthralled Derek. I unpacked the contents and sat back while he pawed through my gear.
“How I wish we were coming with you!” he cried. “Eh, George? Ah, such adventures ve have on ze trail with Richard!”
George looked doubtful but tactfully said nothing.
Darkness fell. I made them mugs of strong tea flavoured with condensed milk. For Derek, this was a new gastronomic treat. “Deleecious! Just deleecious!” he exclaimed, sipping with Gallic appreciation.
I repacked carefully, filled my water bottles, adjusted shoes and clothing, put my headlamp on my head and checked my travel clock. The iPhone battery had long since expired. It was almost 10.00 PM. Time to go.
They clapped me on the back and wished me good luck. Derek said, “Ah! How I envy you!”
They watched as I reentered the tunnel. On its far side, I tried to think of a suitable intent for this journey. The grass rustled and I thought of spirits traveling past me on the way to their homeland.
“Let me come home alive,” I prayed silently. “Help me become a better man.”
The grass fluttered in the falling sea breeze. Orion the Hunter, the constellation I most identified with, shone brightly towards the east.
I whooped. The cry thinned and the breeze gathered it into the night. I followed the call and stepped into the unknown.