I picked myself up and staggered down to the beach to face another blindingly hot day. Within an hour, I overheated and halted to rig a sun-shelter until the sun had passed the zenith. I made a wretched fly camp with bits of driftwood set against a dune. Only a dirty little stream oozing from hinterland redeemed the spot. I dozed fitfully under the spare tarpaulin (the only time I used it), swatted flies and boiled water.
The sound of a burbling engine woke me from the stupor. Crawling out from under the shelter, I found that a rusty salt-stained four-wheel drive pickup truck had hemmed me in against the dune. A stocky bull terrier stood chained to the truck bed and a bare-chested, dreadlocked driver sat in the cab. A pair of cold grey eyes flicked over the camp before sliding over mine. Chapped lips parted to reveal methamphetamine-rotted teeth. I went from a stupefied daze to a full bore flight, fight, freeze stress response in a nanosecond. The situation felt wrong and I needed to handle it.
I walked to the window, rested my arms on the sill and leaned in close until my head and shoulders dominated his space. “Are you good, bro?” I asked in a level tone. We locked eyes for what seemed an eternity but lasted only seconds. “Yeah, I’m good. Just checkin’,” he replied. “Thanks,” I said. He broke eye contact and his fingers tightened on the steering wheel. I stood upright. Interview over. The gears ground and the pickup wheeled away, sand spurting from under the tires. I breathed out and my heart suddenly pounded. I shivered. It had been years since I had stared down an outlaw. Back then, I had been trained, armed and reassured by the presence of back up. Now, I was alone in bandit country.
I packed up and moved out in a hurry. The beach looked safer than my squalid camp and walking onward, the wiser option. There are more sharks in the world than those that swim in the sea.
The sting had gone from the lowering sun and the rest had done me good. When I found a wide freshwater course, I followed it inland to where two trampers had set up their tents on a patch of grass by the stream. I made camp up on higher ground and wandered over to introduce myself.
Mike, in his mid-30s, was American and worked as a field biologist between long-distance walking trips. Becky came from Germany and was on a teaching sabbatical. They, too, were at the start of the Te Araroa trail.
At sunset, we walked down to the beach and stood in silence as the sun dipped below the horizon. Wave after wave of colour flooded the motionless clouds above, reflected on the moving waters below. The world grew so still that even the birds seemed to fall silent. The fires deepened and deepened until only a glow remained. If ever God moved on the waters, it was here, now. Profoundly moved and humbled, I strolled back to my camp to lighten the next day’s load by a packet of instant noodles, a few rows of chocolate and a tea bag.
I rolled into the hammock, stretched and relaxed. I thought of Rose and sent her silent messages of love and hope. A frog’s booming call from the marsh below interrupted my tender reverie. A second call answered it and then a third. Within a minute, a froggy choir sang away in full-throated bliss. Clearly, I had camped above frog heaven. The whining of mosquitoes outside the net joined the basses, trebles and tenors chorusing below.
Despite nature’s symphony, oblivion stole over me. At some point during the night, the frog song must have turned into a mosquito banquet because when I awoke shortly before dawn, the marsh lay silent in a post-orgiastic slumber.
Once again, the beach stretched before me just as it had done the day before and the day before that. Only the wavering line of footprints stretching behind me marked the blank canvas. The torture began when the sun lifted a hand’s width above the belt of trees inland. I watched my shadow shorten while the rays rose higher. A cooling breeze sprang up but soon strengthened into hot humid blasts, forcing me to lean into it. Grainy tendrils scurried past my feet like ghostly white ribbons against the dark margin between sea and shore. The exfoliation of my shins was nothing compared to the irritation my darkening thoughts inflicted.
Mistakes crowded in from the past. Haunted by regrets, I craved distraction from the weight I carried. I tried to divert my thoughts by counting steps, minutes, and breaths or by snapping myself into awareness of the sights and sounds around me.
Nothing worked. I drifted into prolonged fantasies about fast food, sugary drinks, sex, drugs, alcohol, computer screens, anything that could lift me up and away from the endless waves of self directed anger, recrimination and boredom. I hungered for a stimulant to bring me up and a tranquilliser to lull me down. Could it be that humanity’s long walk out of Africa continues to be driven by nothing more than an endless search for the next hit of pleasure and distraction? Put something mood-enhancing in front of me, and the chances are I would take it. I was a geriatric junkie in need of a fix.
If the sun was frying my brain from the outside, then I was frying it from the inside. Perhaps all those people who had told me I was crazy to do this were right. The thought scared me. If people are social animals, and I am a person, then what is my motivation to walk solo? Anthropologists had told me that modern day hunter-gatherers rarely venture into nature alone. Some tribes even consider solitude to be a sign of insanity. To be cast out was to die. Certainly, companionship gave protection against physical hazards and wild animals but perhaps the real reason was to safeguard against mental illness. Are we only sane in the presence of another person? Is that the true gift of therapy?
In the heartless and impersonal crucible of the beach, I halted and looked around me. Somewhere behind me, Mike and Becky followed but I saw no sign of them. They had each other. Back behind the dunes and low trees, there might be another haven like Pete’s place but I could see no trace of human life. Before me, there was nothing but windblown sand and spray. I looked up and the sky wheeled around me.
I dropped my gaze down to the ocean. It would be so easy to walk into the waves and let them wash my troubles away. I had come here on a hunch, an impulse and a hope that in nature I would find peace. Instead, I had found only pain, torment and sorrow. One or two minutes of breathless struggle under the waves would be a small price to pay for oblivion. Then at last, Spirit could be at one with the wind, the waves and the stars. The thought both terrified and enticed me.
I dropped my pack, curled up in a foetal position and muttered, “I’m screwed.”
Sometime afterwards, a voice called out, “Hey! Buddy! Are you OK?” I rolled upright and blearily rubbed the caked sand from my face. A man looked down from the open window of his four-wheel drive. His troubled face loosened with relief when he saw me move.
I said, “Yeah… Yes, I’m just resting,” I mumbled. My tongue felt thick. “I thought you were dead!” he said. Concern shone from his eyes. “You want a lift?” I shook my head. “No. Thanks. I’m good.” Why do I refuse help?
He was still worried. “OK. You’ll find Waipapakauri fifteen kilometres down the beach. You got enough water?” I nodded. The window slid up and he drove off.
Like an automaton, I went through the motions of eating and drinking. With robotic steps, I plodded down the beach, wincing with each step until the soles of my feet passed into blessed numbness.
There is this to be said about beating yourself into exhaustion. It takes you out of yourself. Part of the mind seemed to detach from my body for much of the afternoon. Sometimes, it kept pace from above and sometimes it floated beside or behind. It watched me walk, rest, drink and walk again. It observed the occasional car and the daily tourist bus pass by. All the time, the subconscious part took charge of the countless automatic processes that sustained momentum and life. If only it did not hurt so much to reach this dreamlike state, I remember thinking.
Some part of my attention noticed the wind drop to a balmy breeze shortly before I reached the small settlement of Waipapakauri, tucked behind a girdle of dunes. I laboured up an incline through loose sand rutted with tire tracks to the public toilets. There, I washed my gritty face and poured water over my head. It felt strange to see beach houses and holidaymakers. Apart from the feral hippy and the concerned man, I had spoken with no-one since dawn. A sign pointing to a holiday park down the street tempted me with the promise of a hot shower, a beer and company. But Rose had imposed a strict budget. I had come this far and reasoned I could go a little further. A promising pine plantation arose just beyond the settlement.
An hour later, I sat in the shelter of stately trees, with my hammock stretched neat and tight between two trunks. No sand! I stretched my legs and wriggled my toes on a carpet of pine needles. I brewed another cup of tea with condensed milk, then fiddled with the dead iPhone and solar charger until a beep signalled that this vexatious and unpredictable piece of technology worked, for the time being at least.
My overtired body and mind refused to sleep after rolling into the dark green cocoon of the hammock. They seemed to rock to the echo of an internal rhythm of footsteps and pulsing surf.
I diverted my mind by performing feats of mental mathematics. Eventually, I concluded that I had walked about 42,000 steps today. No wonder this tired mind and body still marched to that beat. Barring misfortune, tomorrow would be the last day on this damned beach. My immediate destination, the small coastal town of Ahipara, was only about three hours’ walk southward and I could telephone Rose from there. The thought comforted me as I slipped down into sleep at last.