I’d spent the night in Kaiaua. Almost in the exact same spot I’d been in when the lockdown was announced. I’ve completed my first circuit but I’m nowhere close to being finished. I leave in the morning, continuing my journey north. Closing another circle. The road gets wider. Two lanes, then three. Cars, trucks, vans begin to fill the space. The sky is lined with electric cables disappearing into the haze. Warehouses, garages, shops start to appear. They don’t disappear. More vehicles are on the roads. More roads join the road. I can understand why people mistake Auckland for the capital of New Zealand. I haven’t been in to Wellington properly yet so this may be misguided but Auckland is the first city, perhaps the only city in New Zealand that feels like a city as I know them. I pull into the carpark I’ve been given the address for and phone Matt. I’m staying with him for at least the night, which is handy considering he lives on the edge of the CBD. In the time it takes me to drop my bags, he’s made a plan. Or someone has made plans for him. We’re off out somewhere. We leave the van on a street where I can park for free and head to Matt’s car. It’s nice not to have to decide what to do, where to go. Even better, he’s driving. I don’t have to do anything.
We’re heading somewhere, I’m not paying enough attention. Coffee, friends. Seabreeze, a cafe? I don’t know. Without needing to pay attention to the roads I quickly lose track of where we are, where the city is. We drop into a couple of chairs across a table from Alice and Dan, making quick introductions, having quicker conversations before they disappear to view a house. Matt thinks we should do a little walk along the coast. I’m keen for it. We follow the road down to the harbour, walking on a marked track that eventually disappears into the muddy sand. Matt assures me we do walk around the headland when the tide is out. I tell him I trust him, which is my first mistake. My second mistakes comes when I step on to a wet slab of rock. For reasons known only to the rock and my shoe, my foot doesn’t stay on the rock. I find myself in the horizontal position, having seconds ago been vertical. I bounce, fortunately, on the muddy sand and pull myself up. I’d put my civilian clothes on today to blend in. They were clean. Now they are anything but. Shouldn’t have bothered. We get back to Matt’s car and he hands me a wad of napkins which I attempt to use to wipe the still damp mud off my coat, off my jeans.
Unfazed by my fall we headed to Devonport, where Matt lived when he first moved to New Zealand. He does an exemplary job of tour guide. Taking me first out to North Head, one of the many harbour defences built in World War Two over fears of a Japanese attack. Like all good forts there are tunnels, old munition stores, and a mega-bigtime cannon. Also included in the whirlwind tour of the north side of the harbour is a plaque which states that on a particular day, of a particular year, nothing happened. We stop in at a pub for a pint and some incredibly late lunch. Dan joins another swift one before Matt invites us all back to Dan’s for a cup of tea. Dan seems to be ok with this plan. We don’t stop for long. Back in Matt’s apartment I’m afforded the luxury of my own room, access to hot water, to the internet, to an electric kettle. I’ve always been pretty comfortable roughing it in other people’s homes. Now I think I’m better able to appreciate a lot more of the things often described as ordinary. Milk in the fridge. Countertops at standing height. We drink a beer, play some video games. I am humbled 9-0 during a round of Fifa and probably owe somebody’s Mum an apology.
I find it strange to be back in the largely normal world, with all the normal goings on. People meeting each other, live sport happening on the television. 10 weeks have passed since I was last involved in normal life. I’ve missed it and I haven’t. The city itself I find more of a challenge. The concrete cliffs of tower blocks. Asphalt rivers filled with traffic. A variety of mostly unnatural, yet appealing smells. There are a host of different languages being spoken. There are more people here than I think I’ve seen in the entire time I’ve been on the road. The people are closer, but more distant too. Eyes focused on the floor ahead of them, or beyond in the middle distance. There is no eye contact, no hellos. Everybody rushing, somewhere to be, something that can’t wait. The city appears as though you could roll the whole thing up, lifting the streets, the buildings, the people, all so you could put it down again somewhere else. For a place that looks as though it should give an aura of permanence, I’m only seeing something temporary. I don’t know what this means. I retreat to the relative safety of Matt’s flat for another night.
I call in on old mate Ranj while I’m in her neighbourhood, loosely defined. We’ve been talking about doing the Cape Brett track since the first time I called in. Now we’ve got a plan. I use the time in the sun to catch up on my chores, to clean my boots, to wash all my bedding. To drink more cups of tea. I cut my hair. I go for a run. I sit on the grass in the garden and read my book. Ranj drives us out to Piha on the West Coast to watch the sunset. We sit on the road barrier on a tight corner with a beer in hand and watch the sky burn orange. A man walks out of the house below us. “Did ya see that?” he asks, gesturing to the sky. “Yeah we did, it was a good one tonight!” He’s a celebrity apparently. I didn’t recognise him. On the drive back our conversation flows as it does to adventure, to freedom. I realise we’re all of us looking at each other, spotting the greener grass. Oh to have this, if only I had that. You have so much of this, all I need is that. What, I wonder is the one thing that will take this from level one to level two? A high roof, or a secondary power supply, or an engine that starts in the cold? Comparison with others comes as a reminder to focus on what I do have. The great outdoors, on my doorstep. Every day. I wake up in the morning and I’m outside. I have a bed. Shelter from the rain. The freedom to go (almost) anywhere I want, anytime I want. I am a man without plans. Until I agree to fill a space on one of Matt’s upcoming hiking trips and finally make the booking for the hut at Cape Brett.
In my head I was planning on spending another couple of weeks exploring Northland. I’ve now got to be back in Auckland twice in that time. I found myself struggling with the idea of having fixed plans. Having to be somewhere at a set time. What am I going to do until then? It isn’t convenient to me! This isn’t the way I’d imagined it. I worry too, about the future. The window of time between now and when I have to be in the Abel Tasman National Park grows smaller each day. What if there isn’t enough time to do all of the things? I talked myself around. Firstly, accept that there simply isn’t enough time to do all of the things. Some trails will go unwalked. Next, how often am I going to get to spend time with friends? My nearest and dearest are 18,000km away. Matt and Ranj are significantly closer right now. Once my journey South begins, it won’t be so easy to join in, nor will it be so easy to come back. The least I can do is use the time wisely, with my friends. I’ve got at least another 6 months in which I can be alone again with nothing but time. So what am I going to do until I need to be back in Auckland once, twice again? The same thing I was always going to do, spending a bit more time exploring the Far North.