“How are you going to celebrate moving to Alert Level 3?” Jason asked. As if anything was different for me. The message from the government was still stay home, save lives. I haven’t been into the real, outside world in weeks. I don’t know what it’s like, so the safest assumption I can make; it must be bad. Easier to assume the worst than find out for sure. The real difference for me was that I could travel a little bit further from the front door for my daily exercise. This meant I could reach the hills. The hills have trails. Maybe I would go on a hike to celebrate, or start, my gradual return to normal. Whatever that means.
From the piles of books and vague Google searches, I’d established the Hemi Matenga reserve as my first destination. I thought I would be able to walk from the front door to the start of the Parata Track, complete the route and return within 6 hours. Then I decided to think some more about it. Finding reasons not to go, coming up with a list of excuses were anyone to ask why not? It might be too far. The track might be closed. Some one might see me and send me home. When the time to leave arrived, I didn’t. The day got older, the window of opportunity smaller. I thought myself out of going. By now I was frustrated with myself, I had no reason to avoid leaving the house. Six weeks ago I was ready to christen the portable toilet in the back of a van too small for a portable toilet. There was no choice. I knew I had to get comfortable with my new life. If anything I needed to leave the house, to go further than I had gone before. To have an adventure. The hills would still be there tomorrow. And the next day. And so would I. There is still time, so much time. Enough of the day to walk down the beach instead.
Walking the beach is easy. There’s no steep drop from sand to sea. Between the dunes and the waves the surface is almost flat. The shallow waves break for miles. A constant rumble or water being poured out into itself. The tide line littered with driftwood. Seagulls perch on red plastic straw legs. Closer to the water, the sand is pocked with pebbles and shells. Between the two lines of debris, a patchwork of footprints. The beach seems busy. I’m used to only seeing the same five people so it might be quiet. There are cars parked up. Old men with fishing lines and camping chairs. Children splash into the waves. I envy their fearlessness. A couple sit in the front of their car, eating sandwiches, staring out to sea. How very British. People point to something out in the channel. A huge seal swims the length of the beach. I assume it’s swimming, it might be dead. One flipper raised out of the water like a shark’s dorsal fin. It floats one way, then back the other. I don’t think it’s dead. On the way back I’m faced with the hills I was supposed to be walking. It wouldn’t be that hard. They’re not even that far away. What was I worried about?
I had to try again. I set the alarm. The easy bit. The real challenge was getting up with the siren blasting. Dragging myself into life, pushing always pushing. Eat, dress, pack, step outside the front door. The hard work is done. I’ve come this far, I might as well go all the way. The ominous invitation of grey clouds over green hills. Come and see how tall I am. Walking the river, beyond my usual route. Past the silver bridge. On into Waikanae. Out the back of town, into the bush. I’ve been climbing since I joined the river. The gradient more obvious now. Calves taking the strain. A family with their dog come down. Up away from the houses, the roads, the children playing in the garden. Up here it’s just the birds, the wind in the trees and the distant roar of what I have to assume is the waves breaking. It can’t be traffic, can it? Someone comes up from behind, moving much quicker than me. They pass back down as I reach the lookout. I could do the same, head straight back down.
There’s another track, Te Au, traversing the ridge before dropping back into Waikanae. I feel alright. I’ve made good time. The track is narrower. Less used. Orange arrows nailed into tree trunks guide me. The canopy is so thick it feels like night. A couple approach from the other direction. I step as far out of the way as I can. We stop, talk. My first conversation with a stranger in weeks. They’re as pleased as I am to be on the trail. They continue on, I start to descend. My knees burn. Pinky toes, is that what we call them? Is that really their name? They hurt. On both feet. Too much nail or not enough boot. Maybe both. By the time I reach the bank of the river I’m ready to stop. I can’t. I’ve got at least an hour before I’m home. I keep moving. Marking off the known targets. The silver bridge, the express way, the Otaihanga domain, the front gate. I unlace my boots, feet thrilled to be free. Push open the door, drop onto the sofa. Relax. I can feel the spark in my eyes. The smile on my face. It feels good to be out.
Simple isn’t it? Go again. I turned off the river, moving away from the place I’ve come to know best. The track follows the expressway into Paraparumu, a long straight stretch. In a likely mistake, I take a few turns, ending up on the edge of the old State Highway. The footpath ended unexpectedly. There is a bike lane. Facing the fortunately low levels of oncoming traffic, I stick with it. I don’t die on the road to the Nikau Reserve. I’m surprised to find multiple cars in the carpark. Relieved to find people out doing the things I want to be doing. The track to the summit is laid with steps. The climb is easier, faster than at Hemi Matenga. There’s a couple on the trail ahead of me, I’m moving faster. I know I’ll catch them. Then what? They turn around to face me. Changing their mind. There’s definitely not two meters of space on the trail. “Are we being safe?” the man asks, as he passes within regulation distance. “Don’t worry,” I say, “I’ll hold my breath.”
Blue sky appears in growing gaps in the canopy. My skin sticky with sweat. I must be close to the top. I’m here first for the climb, then the view. I pop out of the trees into a small clearing. The path continues up. A family of three have sat on the only bench. I pass them by. The path continues up. A huge house appears. What a place to live! Uninterrupted views across the coastal plain, Kapiti Island, and the South Island sounds floating on the haze. Another path runs in front of the house. Another ridge to follow. I don’t hesitate. Finding myself on the Bright Ridge Skyline Track, I cruised along the rises and falls. My face was warm from hours in the sun and the wind. It’s beautiful day to be tramping. A firm reminder of what I thought I’d be doing when I arrived in New Zealand. A reminder of what I want to be doing here. If things keep moving in the same direction, it won’t be long before I’m allowed to return to the van, return to the road, and return to my total lack of a plan.