I left Auckland wondering how hard I was going to find readjusting to hashtag van life after a few days of living indoors. Four nights it turns out, was not enough for me to forget how to live from the back of a van. I made my way to Tāwharanui Regional Park to remind myself what walking is like. I was planning on doing a walk and then driving up to Waipu Caves for the night. By the time I actually arrived at Tāwharanui I decided if I was going to make the most of my time I would spend the night. This involved making a booking with Auckland Council and waiting for an email to come through with a code for the padlock for access to the camping area. Freedom camping doesn’t exist within the district’s limits, which is a shame really because it means I won’t be sticking around. I made a full loop of the peninsula, passing through beach, pasture, and regenerating forest. I made my way to the camping area to find I’d at least paid for access to drinkable water.
I drove out to Mangawhai. The sign on entering the town refers to itself as ‘magical’ Mangawhai. I don’t believe I experienced any magic while I was there. I stopped in a car park on the coast and struggled to find the trail head. I have realised signposting in New Zealand isn’t really a thing. I’m sure in the UK you get signs counting you down, or at least well in advance. Out here they’re often at the junction, so small you have to slow to a stop to read them. If they exist at all. Eventually I found the sign that pointed me to the trail head, a 45 minute walk along the beach. Why not just start here at the car park where everyone arrives? Pike and Kelly had advised me to do the beach section of the loop first at low tide. The tide wasn’t low but it was on the way out, I was confident. I clambered over boulders veined with spiderwebs. I walked or at least tried to walk through the sand. The shore stained pink with the crushed shells of discarded life. Scallop, snail, and conch. All the generic shapes you think of when someone says seashell. I thought about taking my boots off but with the shards of broken shells, I decided I was more comfortable on thick rubber soles.
The thundering green waves capped with pure white surf remind of toothpaste adverts. I crossed one of the exposed bays to find the tide hasn’t gone out far enough. An upthrust of stone columns blocks the way. I watch the waves, breaking over the rocks, swilling around the cliff. If I time it right, I might make it round. I continued watching as if I am somehow capable of reading patterns in the waves. When the next high wave rolls back out, that’s my window. I don’t make it. I don’t even make it half way. I get on top of one rock which is quickly submerged under the next wave. The wave after that comes up to my knees. I am sure when I checked the tide was definitely supposed to be going out. With wet feet I care less, walking around the cliff to find I could have easily climbed up the stone columns on to the ledge of the next cove. There’s a couple on the rocks ahead of me, putting shoes back on. They waited an hour for the tide to go out to get through a tunnel in the cliffs. I hope I look confident, striding out into the waves in my already waterlogged boots. I’m off the beach and climbing up the staircase to the cliff tops. I cruise along the formed path back towards the car park. Grey clouds move out to sea. Rain starts to fall, hanging round for long enough for me to pull out my waterproof and cover my backpack. At least I’m driving on after this, time to dry out. Heavier rain is forecast for overnight.
I arrive at Waipu Caves and take a quick look at the entrance to the cavern. A young child is running around barefoot and slips in the mud. They don’t cry, which I’m thankful for as I can’t see an owner anywhere. I decide I’ll save the caves for the morning. I’ve done enough walking for the day. When I wake up, rain is falling again. Not a problem. If I’m underground it doesn’t matter what the weather is doing. I went barefoot knowing this won’t improve my grip but at least my boots will stay dry. I hobbled over the sharp stones of the car park, I squelched through the grass, I slipped all over the chewed up mud at the foot of the cave. A stream runs into the cave. Outside the water is milky with silt. Inside the water runs clear. Rocks in the water mark crossings, or at least I assume they do. There’s no information board at Waipu Caves, just a hollowed out hillside to walk into. In the cave opening are the first stalactites and stalagmites. As the cave reaches deeper into the hillside, these get taller and longer. At the second stream crossing my torch flashes on movement. An eel. Not big enough to take a chunk out of my calf but an eel all the same. I was hoping not to walk into the jaws of a big one. I make the third crossing a little faster.
As I walked deeper I was switching my headlamp on and off, looking for the signs of life I’d come for. Glowworms. One and then two stars appeared in the ceiling. More lights appeared. Twinkling constellations. This is one of those almost impossible to believe your own eyes remarkable wonders of nature. Blue-white lights shining in the dark where light had no right to be. I tried to capture some of what I was seeing with my phone. Not really being sure what the phone lent on the boulder was aiming at. Tinkering with the settings, flashing my torch on and off. Some things are perhaps best seen with your own eyes but I had a great time playing around. I wasn’t sure if it was the distraction of trying to catch the light of the glowworms, or the ever present gurgle of the stream but for the first time I realised I wasn’t having a panic underground. I guess it could even be exposure therapy. Then I remembered I had to cross the eel infested stream a few times before I was safely back outside and decided it was time to get out of there. I didn’t see another eel.
I continued on past Whangarei Heads, to the imaginatively named Ocean Beach. Here I’m pleased to find there is an information board. The Te Whara Track is on my to-do list. As a long hike with plenty of climbs and falls along the ridgeline it is precisely the thing I should be doing more of. Naturally I decide not to do it. Not all of it anyway. The track is 7.5km long and the notice board suggests 5-6 hours are required to complete it. From what I can see of the ridge, I’m willing to believe the sign. And this is New Zealand, so of course the track is point to point. I’d have to come back the same way too. 10-12 hours might be ok in the summer when the days are longer but not right now. A shorter loop can be formed by coming out at another trail head which I decide to do instead. Then I can drive to the other end, do another loop and still feel reasonably accomplished.
The first hour is all up. Nothing but struggle. I want to stop already. It’s too much. And then it gets easier, my body adjusts, accepts the challenge. It might be worth doing all bad things for a little longer, just in case you’re not ready for it yet. My eyes are down on the trail. Listening to the wind in the canopy. No longer missing the views that weren’t there to begin with. Too busy concentrating on the roots, the mud, the rocks. Putting every foot as close to the right place as possible. I make the first summit, matching the expected timings. I start coming down Peach Cove Track and I’m feeling good. Speeding over the gravel, running down the stairs. I look up when I hear kawkaw from the trees. I don’t know who that belongs to. A flash of metallic greys and coppper reds as a Kaka flies away from me. My first sighting in the wild! Yes! I reach the road and follow it back to the van. Alright, maybe I could have gone the whole way. I’ll never know. I drive down to the other end of the ridge, walking out to Busby Head where I start to feel tired. Fatigue swimming in my legs. Push, push, push. When I’m out doing the Great Walks it’s going to be a lot tougher than this and I won’t have the freedom to choose an easier trail. I look down on Smuggler’s Bay. The deep green of the forest covering the steeps cliffs reach all the way down to the turquoise blue ocean. The curve of white sand flicks out from where they meet. New Zealand does a pretty good impression of a Pacific Island, which it should considering it is one (or two).
I make my return to the Bay of Islands. I’ve been on these roads before albeit in the passenger seat. I don’t really feel like I’ve been here. I wake up to one of those weird mornings where the light only seems to get in around the edges of a cloud blanket in a soft pink glow. I start walking the Bay of Islands Coastal Track. I glide through the first section, following the rocky shoreline from Paihia to Opua where I caught the ferry for a single dollar. An absolute bargain in this economy. 5 minutes later I was in Okiato, New Zealand’s first capital. A claim also made by the final town on my loop, Russell. The capital was moved to Auckland where it was presumably safer. The Okiato administration centre was destroyed in a fire, making it easier for Russell to stake a claim to a piece of history. Boardwalks through a mangrove swamp provides a new environment for my eyes to drink up. Tui whistles pop across the inlet. A waxeye steals a quick feed from a purple flower. Kingfishers see me coming and disappear into the net of branches. Grey herons fish in the shallows, cautiously eyeing me as I pass them by.
The track leaves the coast to cut through native bush. Dense, thick, damp and full of birds. I realise I’m struggling mentally. Ups and downs, nothing overly challenging but relentless. I was trying not to rush but I still might have been moving too fast. Trying to do too much, thinking about what next instead of what right now. With my head down, pushing on up I stop at tracks in the mud. I can’t believe it and actually maybe it isn’t, but I’m sure I’m stood over two kiwi prints. I never expected to see a kiwi in the wild, and while this isn’t the real thing even tracks are closer than I imagined getting. My spirits lift and I carry on marching towards Russell. I arrive to find I’ve just missed the $7 extortion-boat back to Paihia. The way the man behind the ticket office says tells me this suggests it’s the last one. “When’s the next one?” I enquire. “Oh in about an hour,” he said. Good. I grab a scoop of chips from the nearest take away, drown them in vinegar, and politely refuse to share them with the entourage of seagulls I’ve suddenly gained. The ferry takes 15 minutes. All that’s left is to return to the van and decide what my next move is.