The snort jolted me awake.
At first, I thought I’d snored myself into consciousness but a second snort made me blink shortsightedly into the predawn gloom. A black shape loomed against the sand. I leaped to my feet, tried to flap my arms, found them imprisoned inside my quilted “onesie” suit and yelled “Brrrr! Gedoudofit!”
Squeals of alarm and drumming hooves marked the flight of the beast. A wild boar, I guessed. My heart pounded. What little I knew of them revolved around razor sharp tusks aimed unerringly at a hapless hunter’s crotch. I would be no earthbound Orion chasing his boar this morning. I laid a protective hand over my shrunken codpiece, sank weakly back onto the sleeping mat and fumbled for my glasses, comforted by the thought that beyond the odd wild pig, feral chicken or rogue rugby player, New Zealand presents few natural dangers.
Overhead, the cold stars blazed brightly and the distant lighthouse flashed in counterpoint but toward the east telltale red and gold streaks heralded dawn. I guessed it was about 4.30 AM and time for this ex-soldier to pack up his camp, such as it was.
I ate breakfast while the world sharpened from broad charcoal strokes to warm ochre hues. The first rays of sunlight illuminated a reassuring bright orange triangle nailed to a pole. I hefted my pack, settled into harness and set off, feet sliding and squeaking over loose sand, to follow the markers out of the shrub-covered sand hills and down onto Twilight Beach, the overture to the full symphony of 90 Mile Beach beyond.
I would love to tell you that my mind and heart sparkled into pyrotechnics of pleasure at entering a prolonged spell in nature. Had I not, a mere eleven days ago, expressed my soul’s yearning and acted on it afterwards? I should have been deliriously happy and miraculously energized but the harsh reality of this undertaking proved to be the opposite.
The sad truth is that a mere hour of walking left me bored and in pain. The sun’s rays blinded my stinging eyes, the ceaseless wash of surf grated like tinnitus and the barren dunes to the left blocked any view of the hinterland. Each footfall on the concrete-hard sand jarred feet and knees. After a time, I began to lift the pack from underneath in a vain effort to relieve its crushing pressure on my hips and shoulders. The sun rose higher. Drops of sweat dripped steadily from nose and chin. The clouds of salt spray fogged the lenses of my glasses. “If stepping into the unknown involves wiping my glasses every few minutes, then you can keep it,” I muttered.
Halfway down the beach, a dark outline on the sand drew my attention. I hoped a half-buried log would make a suitable resting place but the driftwood mutated into a shape that lit up a primal fear template stored deep in my brain. Shark! I dropped my pack and approached with ludicrous caution until black circular eyes gazed lifelessly up at me.
Even though death had deflated it, the thick body and grim mouth exuded menace. Bright red blood leaked from a puncture wound in the flank and coagulated on the damp sand. I guessed this animal had been speared by an offshore fishing crew and thrown overboard as profitless. Already, flies and other scavengers swarmed around the wound. I dared to stroke the skin and marveled at how tightly the rough cartilage fitted together. Consumed with a morbid curiosity, I lifted the snout with wary fingers. The jaw hinged forward to expose rows of serrated teeth. A shiny coal-black beetle scuttled suddenly from the throat and tracked swiftly away across the sand. It shocked and disgusted me. A line from Blake’s poem, ‘The Tiger’ sprang to mind, “Did He who made the lamb make thee?”
My tired brain struggled to make connections. I let the jaws close gently and glanced at the receding surf line. There would be zero chance of taking a refreshing but potentially lethal dip in these remote waters. I am human and therefore I am both prey and predator. I also felt saddened. I had not expected this walk to show me the impact of people on the planet so soon or so graphically.
Over the next three days, I would walk past another half-dozen beached sharks. On one occasion, I found two stranded a few feet apart. A shark corpse every fifteen kilometers or so is not headline-worthy. But there would be a national outcry if each was a human cadaver.