The morning is sunny. Gloriously warm. That’s it, I’m outta here. On the road, heading to the hills. There’s waterfalls, and forests, and birds to be seen. The handy guide I was given in Napier, would you believe it, guides me. In under half an hour I’m at Tangoio Falls Scenic reserve with plenty of options, two waterfalls and an eight kilometre round trip to White Pine Bush Scenic Reserve further up the valley. In my head I’m thinking there’s been a lot of rain, those waterfalls are going to be in full flow. What I’m not thinking is there’s been a lot of rain, those trails are going to be juicy. In my trainers I slip-slide across the track, feet plunging ankle deep into cold, claggy mud. Another lesson learned. The bush is dense, as it seems to be everywhere. Something rustles in the undergrowth. Bigger than a bird. A goat maybe? It’s gone before I catch real sight of it. Water drips through walls of moss thicker than a decent carpet. The beauty of New Zealand’s native forest is still amazing me. The light levels shift from night to day depending on the thickness of the canopy. I move from old world to new, a pine plantation. Wooden obelisks rise in lines to distant tree tops. As I enter White Pine Scenic Reserve, the world shifts back again. This is one of the last strongholds of coastal forest on the East Coast. Somehow it’s survived fire, farming and storms. Some of the trees here are colossal. Close to 60 meters tall, with huge trunks. I spend most of the time walking through looking straight up. As is the way with many of New Zealand’s trails I have to retrace my steps, which is fine only I now have to face the slippery mud path downhill. I’m pleased to say I stayed on my feet. I returned to the van with nothing worse than damp, muddy trainers and socks.
My journey continued only a little further. Just off State Highway 2 is Lake Tutira, a small lake that I’d never heard of. Driving in, it had the feel of a country park. There are a variety of trees deliberately spaced around the shore, many showing the last of their autumn colours. Yellows and browns sat beneath a blue sky littered with fluffy white clouds. At the campground there’s a single tent and three caravans. Perfect I think to myself, stepping out of the van directly into a pile of sheep droppings. It wouldn’t have mattered where I stepped out of the van. There was poo everywhere. Realising that watching my step only meant deciding which particular essence of animal I’m treading in, I give up. I walk down to the picnic shelter on the lake’s edge. The lake is so clear you can see the sandy bottom right the way out until it’s too blue. Dunes have formed in the waves, they almost look like footprints. Not long after I’ve been there, a woman comes down with a radio and a folder. I assume she’s the ranger coming to collect my payment. She isn’t. She’s Barbara, one of the caravaners, they come here every year. There’s good trout fishing in the lake. They’ve got three boats out there now hoping to bring in a catch. We sit, chatting until the light fades. The boats stay out for several more hours. I head up to my van, removing my shit covered shoes before I get in, and switch the lights on. I remain amazed at how much of a difference they’ve made. It’s beginning to feel like home.
I wake up in the cold. The ceiling is damp. The blanket is damp. Every available surface is now home to condensation. I peer out of the curtains to see nothing. Colours emerge. The only sign of life were the ducks. Thick mist, a stripe of blue above reflected below. There was no telling how far the lake stretched. First the closest shores, then the distant hills. The curtains have been opened on the day. I stop to talk with Mr. Switzerland. He’s the owner of the tent. That’s doing things on hard mode. He admires the van. We’re all aspiring upwards. A little upgrade, something to make life a little easier. Rather than focusing on what I don’t have, what I don’t like, better to remember those who have less and be grateful for the comforts I do have. I don’t worry about whether the ground is wet. It doesn’t matter what time I arrive at my place of rest for the night, I’m already set up. If it’s wet in the night, I don’t have to wait for anything to dry. This hashtag van life thing, it’s not so bad. I leave Mr. Switzerland to wait for his tent to dry and head towards the hiking trail that start from the lake shore.
I begin in farmland, skirting fields of sheep, a flock of turkeys. The now familiar squeak of fantails follows me. People used to think they were friendly, coming to say hello. What they’re actually doing is picking off the bugs I disturb as I walk. I’m still going to think of them as friends, escorting me as far as the pine plantation. The trees here are dead straight, planted in rows, growing quickly to a distant canopy. Pine cones and orange needles line the trail. I follow a stream, noticing as tree ferns begin to appear amongst the pines. Soon the forest has changed, familiar trees I don’t yet know the names of. A pocket of native bush, another remnant somehow surviving the farms, the forestry. I leave the trees at a false summit, a couple of farmer’s fields on the flat top of a hill. I’m going up. Higher I climb, almost straight up a dirt track that crumbles beneath my feet. The weather has cleared. I can see all the way back to Cape Kidnappers on one side, on the other, hills, maybe mountains. A range I’ve not familiarised myself with.
The route down feels more direct. A farm track, the mud looks like it was washed clean in the days of rain. The smooth surface gives me nothing to hold on to. I slide halfway down, stumbling the rest of the way as I try to maintain something that resembles balance. I hear the cows before I see them. I see them before they see me. They don’t like what they see, running away down the track. They stop, look back to find I’m still coming. I try to tell them I’m not interested in them but they don’t listen. Eventually they manage to break into the surrounding bush and I pass by. The river of mud I realise is also a river of cow pats. There is so much poo. Poo everywhere, on everything. I exit the farmland onto the road that leads to the campsite.
I arrive back, committed to staying for another night. If it goes wrong in the morning I’m sure one of the trout fishermen will be able to give me a jump start. I notice down by the toilet a Volkswagen Transporter. Rare enough in these parts but it also has a London registration. “That van has come a long way,” I say to its owners, Declan and Rachel. This is the first time I realise I’ve shaken a stranger’s hand since March. I stop and chat for a while, interested in the history of their van. It was cargo shipped to Miami, covered the States, Canada, deep down into South America. It boarded another boat in Chilé and now it’s here. I leave them to their dinner and head off to make my own.
The morning comes, I’m ready for it. Keys in the ignition. Here we go. It takes maybe a second longer than normal but the engine bursts into life. I bang the steering wheel in celebration. I drive off into those hills I could see from yesterday’s summit. Gravel roads are getting easier. It helps still that there’s so little traffic. I wonder if this is normal, my busy and New Zealand busy might be a very different number of things. I go up a mountain road, quickly surpassing the heights I reached on foot yesterday and arrive at Boundary Stream Island Reserve. There are plenty of tracks for me here. I head straight to the furthest one away, Bell Rock. This was marked with blue text in the walks guide as being impressive” I start in thick native bush. Wind rolls through the low canopy like waves. This is meant to be a bird paradise but the trees are quiet. There are people ahead of me so maybe they’ve scared them deeper into the forest. I emerge from the gloom of the trees into bright sunshine in fields of long grass. The route continues on to the ridge. The wind hits me like a train. Every time I think I’ve experienced the worst wind I’ll ever feel, something like this happens. Last time it was in Patagonia, blasting out of the mountains. This wind is crossing the mountains. Coming straight over the top. The closer I got to Bell Rock, the harder it got to get closer. The wind stole my hat. It didn’t throw it very far but it snatched it clean off my head. Without being able to move forward, I decided it was probably wise to turn back. I met a few local students up near the rock. They were planning on a picnic until they too got hit by the wind. We had a nice chat about what to do in the area. The locals really do seem to be intolerably friendly. They enjoyed their picnic in the carpark.
I completed a quick loop in another part of the reserve, hoping to see a kōkako in the wild. Not my day. One final stop before it gets dark, Shine Falls, the highest (or is it tallest?) waterfall in Hawkes Bay. After a quick walk through a limestone canyon I let an audible “oh wow” slide out of my mouth. Nobody was around to appreciate it. Time to start considering the qualities that define a good waterfall and then come up with a top 5 list. Shine Falls is unlikely to make the global pedestal but it’s my favourite so far on this trip. The internet suggested it was possible to overnight in the falls carpark, while I’m sure it would have been fine I decided to roll back to Lake Tutira. Three nights in the same spot feels like slowing down. Like doing things the way I expected to do them. Like this adventure is finally coming together.