16 November, 2019 | Day 13-16 | Km 246-327
Fresh off a rest day in the coastal town of Paihia, Mayan, Kirby, Hunter and I and a few others met on the beach. Our plan was to kayak to Waikare. Some would choose to walk around an extra few kilometers, but kayaking sounded different and fun and we had a large enough group of 8 to reduce the cost. Dan, from Bay Beach Rentals, suited us up with gear, took our packs, and sent us off into the bay for a 15 km paddle. This was an unguided excursion and he warned us there wouldn’t be phone service so GPS was mandatory. He would meet us at the other side to collect his equipment and return our backpacks. Hunter, my kayak partner, started off with the beer at 7:30am so I was in good hands.
The day was sunny and hot, the start of a heat wave that would last for weeks, but for now, we nearly coasted on an incoming tide straight into the mangroves. Halfway, we took a rest on the tiny Marriott Island with no more than a seashell-laden beach. Nearing Waikare, there was some debate as to the direction of the dock. On the sea, all inlets look the same. Towards the end, I was feeling a twinge in my wrist. I don’t have time for an injury, though, so I will do what any good warrior would do. I ignore it.
At the boat ramp in Waikare, absolutely drenched in sea water, my clothes started to stiffen from the salt. We took lunch curled up on Kirby’s tarp before walking upstream another river that seemed to take ages. Just past the forest boundary, a few rural homes dotted the countryside. Kirby was about 20 meters ahead of me; we were both complacent, listening to music, when a pit bull came charging from the driveway. He was nipping at Kirby’s heels as she swung her trekking poles out in a defensive posture. Two more less menacing dogs ran from the opposite direction, all while the pit bull lunged for and took a bite out of her backpack. That’s when he came at me and Kirby dodged away. He growled at me, baring his teeth and I stood perfectly still, completely blocked in on the right and the left by trees. All three dogs barked and pretended to lunge for me. I feebly yelled HELP, not certain if the owner would hear me. Suddenly, they all backed off and I slipped through as quickly as I could. Kirby was investigating the damage to her pack and said that she saw the owner watching the whole ordeal from his kitchen window, amused by our fear.
We had decided to walk to “Sue’s place.” We had heard of a trail angel, Sue, in Punaruku. A trail angel is someone who might open up their home or garden to take care of bedraggled trampers, offering us a shower, a place to camp, maybe a place to charge devices, and a place to cook food. Sue’s place was like a dream, cheap beer, fresh eggs, free soap, and their Labradoodle, Midgee. She encouraged us all to sleep in their barn since it was going to be empty otherwise. The barn was furnished with several beds, a sitting area, pool table, and full kitchen. We were invited to take whatever we needed from the pantry and the bathroom was furnished with lotion and face mask and fluffy towels. The little luxuries that make a weary tramper more comfortable are so underrated. Sue and her husband had lived in the area for only 3 years, moved up from Auckland. When they learned of trekkers that were willfully walking the length of the country, they couldn’t help but get involved. She genuinely wanted to take care of our every need so when she offered to drive us 12km up ahead through a dangerous bit of road, we gratefully accepted the gesture.
Kirby, Mayan, and I started up the forest corridor in Helena Bay and it was a real doozy. Pleasant at first, but straight uphill as most TA trails are wont to do. Early in the day, Kirby fell behind, still struggling with knee pain. Mayan and I tried to tempt some cows by feeding them grass from the other side of the fence. They weren’t having it. Finding a nice spot with a view, we took a nap in the field as honeybees buzzed around our heads. When we set off after lunch, the remaining track of Morepork said it should take 2-3 hours to complete. Four hours later, Mayan and I, each moving separately but nearby, had gone up to a summit only to descend to a valley and up another summit and another valley. It was the forest that would never end. It rained a bit, but it was too warm to put on my rain jacket so I pushed through it, hoping the tree canopy would protect me from the storm. Soon I was damp and chilled. On and on it went, until just like the last, we burst free with little warning. I’m detecting a pattern here.
At Whananaki Camp, I was greeted with a bear hug from Paris and an ice cold soft drink from the proprietress. Somehow Paris and Alastair had turned up yet again, telling tales of hitchhiking and making pot brownies with a trail angel at her farm. Kirby sent us a message that she wasn’t going to make it off the mountain before dark. She had pitched her tent in a quiet clearing a few kilometers from the road. She sounded defeated, but we were glad to know she was safe and completely understood this day had been a real fister.
It was a bit strange the next day to set off without her, walking over the longest footbridge in the Southern Hemisphere and around a coastal walkway revealing stunning views of the Pacific. We took lunch in Matapouri and topped it off with ice cream. Kirby got a lift to skip the last bit so she could meet us in Ngunguru at day’s end. The days were becoming easier if not less exhausting. More than two weeks had passed and our hiker legs were gaining momentum. It was becoming routine. This is my life now. This is what I do.
When James from Nikau Bay collected us across the estuary in his little motor boat, he ferried us to his camp where all of our friends, old and new, were waiting. It was late and just beginning to rain but everyone gathered around a campfire with their warm titanium pots gripped between chilly fingers. This is what I love about the trail – how a bunch of hiker trash turns into family, eating mediocre food in mediocre weather, and wanting to be nowhere else on earth than right where we are.