But on this sweltering morning, the only outcry came from my hips and shoulders when I lifted the pack and adjusted the straps.
Soon after, I entered the “micro-camp” at the end of Twilight Beach. Set on a large patch of mown grass at the top of a long flight of steps and shaded by flowering pohutukawa trees, it comprised a roofed cooking area, “long drop” toilet and freshwater tank. I entered this oasis with gratitude and found two trampers at breakfast. I asked if I could join them.
“Sure!” the woman exclaimed with a pleasant American twang.
Wayne and Margie hailed from a small town in California’s Sierra Mountains. Wayne in particular had been a serious hiker. He modestly reeled off a long list of treks around the USA that made my head spin. He had walked from the Brooks Range in Alaska to the Florida Everglades. Not that he had spent all his time in the wilderness. One year, he and Margie had gone to Disneyland.
“I couldn’t believe it!” she marvelled. “Wayne in Disneyland!”
“Well, I wanted to see that part of life,” he said. “It was kind of interesting.”
He confessed that his long-distance walking days were over. “I’m 71 and I just don’t have the fire anymore,” he mourned.
I nodded in sympathy. Time also yapped at my heels. In not too many years, a rocking chair would seem a safer and saner option than an outdoor quest. We chatted while I made a second breakfast.
They pretended not to look at my equipment. Walkers are incredible gear snobs. Fashionistas in Milan, LA or NY are mere village gossips compared to a tramping meet up. Margie stole glances at my battered alcohol cook set. Wayne folded up a gleaming miniature gas stove, slid it neatly into its container and tucked it into a side pocket on his pack. Our conversation turned to the obesity epidemic in Western nations. Although we three sported commendable lean figures (given our combined age of about one hundred and ninety years), my pack’s weight issue intrigued Margie. It bulged in all the wrong places by comparison with their rucksacks’ enviably slim profiles.
“Gee!” Margie exclaimed doubtfully, “Yours does look kind of big!”
No doubt she meant well but I felt as embarrassed and defensive as the parent of a chubby child on the first day of school in a new town.
“Well, I am carrying two weeks’ worth of food,” I said lamely.
“Hmm,” said Margie, sliding open her expensive titanium trekking poles, the school nurse with a set of scales at the start of term.
I tried another tack. “I want to show ordinary people that they don’t need to spend a fortune getting into the outdoors. For instance, I outfitted myself in charity shops.”
They exchanged a horrified glance. After an embarrassed pause, Margie said, “Well, we better be pushin’ on, Wayne.” Clearly, the sooner they left this eccentric and possibly dangerous Englishman in the dust, the better. They set off, their trekking poles clicking in counterpoint to their feet.
As they passed from view, Wayne called out, “Hey! Margie! Slow down, hon!” I did not hear her reply. She had probably broken into a canter by then. I could deny it no longer. My legs, back and shoulders had protested with mounting cries and now the Californians had confirmed it. My pack was fat and everything in it was fat. We had a weight issue and I could blame nobody but myself. I shouldered my obese child, laboured with it over the next headland and stopped short.
The vantage point offered my first view of where I had walked from, and the immensity of the task ahead of me. 90 Mile Beach curved away in a brilliantly lit, unblemished arc to a distant dark blue pimple on the horizon. It marked The Bluff, where I hoped to camp that night.
Any tourist would salivate over the view but to me, it looked like sunbaked hell. My resolve wavered. In my hubris back in Auckland, I had scanned the maps and foolishly believed that I could knock off a five-day walk in three days. By God! Nobody would walk the Te Araroa like a Major from the Coldstream Guards. I would show those doubters and nay-sayers how it’s done! However, daydreaming over a map is one thing. Seeing the terrain spring into reality is another. The sun was only halfway to noon and already I sensed how close I was to reaching my limits for the first day. I swallowed a sip of lukewarm water and reluctantly stowed the bottle. Water sources between this point and The Bluff were notoriously scarce, fickle and impure. It would be prudent to start rationing.