Helene and Andrew, who I worked for as a chef at Il Forno, offered their daughter’s spare mattress for my sleeping purposes for the time between the end of my au pair contract, on the 21st of December, and when my parents would rock into the Auckland airport on January 3rd.
Thus I spent my Christmas in a kiwi fashion, with barbecued pizzas, snowflake decorations, and 23 degree sunny skies. The company was lively and wore shorts and I couldn’t have asked for a better game of Monopoly, whereupon I dominated and had at least five hotels on green and yellow properties.
As well as a hotel on Park Avenue.
And a couple scattered here and there who’s counting really. All I remember was the gratification of hearing cries of relief when the thimble landed on “go to jail.”
The Mead family had finished packing for a five day holiday to Christchurch, to fly out on Boxing Day morning. Walking out the door, Helene called, “thanks for agreeing to drop the dog off at the kennel on the 27th, and pick her up on the 31st!” and Andrew chucked me the keys to his red Mitsubishi. “She’s not 4WD, so don’t go crazy.”
After taking Wolf to the vet instead of the kennel (got my addresses mixed up a bit there)—her, molting like a banshee, howling to the wind—I rectified the mistake and launched myself off to the Coromandel peninsula.
I had been to Thames before, a little seaside town, the gateway to the Kauaeranga Valley which had an array of excellent multi-day tramps. I had never been up the peninsula, however, which I was assured was worth my time.
For Christmas I had given myself a mono-tent from Kathmandu, and I celebrated a release from all work contracts by camping at Stony Bay at the tip of the peninsula. I found a spot to set up my little coffin near the stream that wound its way throughout the camp. Indeed Joan of Arc, as she came to be called, was an excellent gift, and we had a superior time together over the next few days. We would wake with the sunrise to boil water on my camping stove for a cuppa french pressed coffee, my little merino mittens huddled around a tin mug. The birds and creek hums kept company.
I spent the first day walking from Stony Bay campsite to Fletcher Point via the coastal walkway that hugged the cliffs and trees far above the swooshing water.
At a steep part of the walkway, I nearly ran smack into someone. She introduced herself as Margot, originally from England but currently in Wellington. Neither of us had seen anyone on the track before now, so our conversation was eager and fell over itself in rushes.
She asked how I enjoyed Auckland, what hiking I had done out in the Waitakere ranges in the west where I had lived, and what I did with my free time. I asked her much the same, and learned that earlier in the year she had through-hiked the Te Araroa.
When I heard that, I almost fell to my knees in a reverent bow.
I had heard much about the Te Araroa, a 3000km trail that wove from the tip of the North Island to the end of the South Island, finished in just 2011. But in all my hearings, I imagined a trail hosting the occasional fit Frenchman with a long, well-kept curly beard and tight calves. If I were to run into said Frenchman and to ask if the trail was hard, he would reply: “Oh, not so hard as zee Alps.” Or perhaps, “I do not ‘ave to fight zee bears on dis one.”
Margot looked quite normal.
I asked if she had to do much orienteering or hardcore tramping. She replied that she was rubbish with maps and only got lost once. I wanted to ask more, to unleash my full zeal, but it was high time both of us continue to our respective destinations.
I drove back to Auckland on the 30th in time to clean my gear, repack, and pick up Wolf from the kennel. On the 31st, I was back on the road, this time headed towards Raglan to spend the New Year’s transitional day going to bed early with Joan.
I rocked up to the $10 camping field to find a huge sign screaming, “NO VACANCY!”. Not even for a mono-tent like Joan, I asked? Not even.
But I live for these moments, when plans go array, and one must summon instinct and spontaneity to find a place to sleep for the night.
I drove back into town to perch outside of the Raglan Public Library, poaching the wifi with my Auckland public library account information. I found a free DOC camping spot in a place called “Pirongia National Park” and thought: they can’t kick me out if it’s free!
I drove thirty minutes and arrived in the Pirongia National carpark at a quarter to four.
I set out to find this free campsite and, along the way, ran into a pair of South Africans who were wearing Altra shoes—which immediately began a lifelong friendship—and joined in with them.
Four hours and 600 meters vertical later, we came to a lightly cleared clearing, with a DOC sign saying “water” pointing to a stream as the only proof that this was an official campsite. The sun set as we set up shop, me in Joan and the Van Der Bayls in a $12 K-Mart tent.
I had another full day and night before I planned to drive back to Auckland, so the next morning I decided to take the Bell Track up to the official summit and spend the night at the Pirongia Hut, which the South Africans assured me was there. They had summited before, but from the other side, so they couldn’t offer much information in terms of the type of terrain I would face. It was light enough going up to the campsite, a well laid track, and I always try to wake up optimistic.
For their part, they were quite hungry for eggs and bacon. Thus we bid adieu.
The next five hours, I’m sorry to say, was hell incarnate. Thick, knotty unfriendly forest with vines that reached out and bit at my ankles. The path itself was just one long impassable bog, and soon I had sank to my knees in smelly mud. Flies the size and sound of hungry kittens nibbled at my muddy skin and slurped at the sweat that poured down my face.
At one point I was climbing at a 16% grade. The path was thin and surrounded on either side by long, grasses that wholly obstructed my view of the path. The path was, again, just a mud pit, but this time a steep mud pit that I couldn’t see. I felt like Sandra Bullock in The Bird Box kayaking down the river blindfolded.
I arrived at the hut having seen not a soul since the South Africans. It was 4:00pm at this point, and I was faced with a decision: do I stay the night at this hut, descend completely the following morning in my mud and smell and drive back then? Or do I just make today suck as much as it can, descend completely today—it should be another five hours to the carpark—get home late, get cleaned up, and then have a really pleasant post-suffering day tomorrow?
I chose the latter as I assured myself that the descent can’t suck worse than the past five hours.
So I resumed leaping over mud pits for about an hour before the track became halfway manageable.
And then, much like with Margot, I ran into a person. By the gasps of air, it was clear both of us had given up the hope that other humans still existed. The meeting was made all the more dramatic by an arc in the trail, whereupon both of us suddenly appeared to the other at the end of the bend.
“Hello?” I said.
“Whoa!” he replied. He was mid-60s, with a thick grey beard and hair hidden under an embodied cap, the sort one might find in Peru. His arms were knotted with thick veins and he was tan as the Oklahoman soil. It seemed very appropriate that he was clothed in a red t-shirt with the silhouette of Che Guevara, with one hand rested on the end of a broom handle, around which was tied an All Blacks bandana.
“I’m Pete!” he said.
“How’s it going?” I asked, hoping for light going on the path ahead. He smiled big, all teeth, and launched into a full account, lending to:
“Are you doing the Te Araroa, too?”
Here in less than a week I had met two normal individuals affiliated with the Te Araroa. Pete told me he was at 800 kilometers and gifted me with some stories from the track thus far. Spending nights on pub lawns, dodging the thick swarms of mozzies along the roadside ditches in Northland, getting to be as nomadic as possible, the freedom of movement.
It was another moment, much like meeting Kenneth back in Emporia, where Hesse’s paths of affinity met and the whole world felt like home for a time.
I felt that Pete and I spoke the same core language, all the strange neurotic-feeling captivations with not wanting to stay anywhere too long, the desire to go about lightly and constantly.
We talked for three quarters of an hour before recalling that we were both somewhat racing the sun. Thus, we said our farewells and I ran down the track in my happiness at meeting a kindred spirit.
As my pack bounced along my sweaty back, I found myself thinking: I would like to meet more people like Pete.
I feel, at my core, that my favorite way of living is to live constantly. To throw myself into spontaneous decisions as often as possible, to not stay anywhere past it’s due, to feel that the world around me is constantly fresh and asking for me to adapt.
I made it to the carpark half past eight, and drove back to Auckland in golden dusk.
My parents came a day later, and we spent most of our two weeks hiking. I felt a wild joy in each moment, dashing around rocks exposed to the wind, feeling untamed by responsibility. It was a wildness, an animalistic wildness, but a wildness that rendered me more than human.
I found, suddenly, that I didn’t want to go east. When my parents leave mid-January, I don’t want to volunteer at an organic orchard in Hastings with Alastair and his family, who I had found on help-x and who had agreed to host me for two months. I don’t want to run an ultramarathon in the Hawkes Bay in March. I don’t want to work on a farm for three months so that I can apply for a three month working holiday visa extension. I don’t want to just settle down again somewhere. I’ve been settled for seven months; that’s long enough.
Instead, I want to meet everybody. Pieter and Vicki, Margot and Pete. I want to explore with my toes outstretched, to travel slowly, to travel mindfully. To use my body as transport. To use all of the money that I’ve saved. What is the good of money except for what you can exchange it?
I sat my parents down and announced that, in a week, when they fly back to Kansas, I shall fly to Wellington to take the ferry through the Cook Strait and begin the Te Araroa. I’ll walk the south island first, southbound, while the weather is an optimal summer-early fall. Then, once I reach Bluff, I’ll fly back to Wellington and hike the North Island northbound, ending at Cape Reinga.
They weren’t surprised. This is a trend, really. The 100-mile race I had signed up for was canceled, and I barely even thought about the consequences before I just launched into running the route anyways. I rocked up to Indonesia for a teaching internship, and when contacted by a family for an au pair gig in Auckland, I did zero research on other families or places to go in New Zealand and went for it. I enjoy the blank slate you bring to places where you don’t know the other options.
Or perhaps it isn’t that conscious at all, perhaps it’s just me at base personality.
I don’t consider all aspects of a situation before launching into it—such as, I have maps for the Te Araroa and all the gear I think I need with me now, but I have no idea what alpine climbing in the Richmond National Park will be like—but I go forth at 100% until completed anyways. I trust myself to acclimate to whatever comes.
Helene agreed to let me store my extra things with her in Auckland, and I emailed Alastair to apologize for bailing, but that I had to follow my nose, damnit. He understood.
Margot and Pete were the catalysts, to take the trail out of the hands of the fit Frenchman and put it back in plebeian paws. It was all perception anyways.
So I shall spend the remaining four and a half months of my working holiday visa exploring as much of New Zealand as almost possible. To go lightly and constantly.
I’m excited for all of the mistakes I shall make. For all the many ways I am inefficient and shall be guided otherwise. Like when Michele politely showed me you didn’t have to roll up a sleeping bag, but just shove the thing in.
I am eager to know the trail only so far as the next few days will take me. To greet each day with fresh, blank slate ignorance of the road ahead. To meet people, exchange stories and advice, avoid and feel self-ostracized, continue to learn when to be alone and when to not.
Get quiet, get real quiet.
Peace and blessings,