New Zealand: Cape Brett

Things start to go wrong with another severe weather warning. The plan was to hit Spirits Bay. The road in is supposedly treacherous at the best of times, but especially so during and after heavy rain. No point in going if I can’t get there, or worse can’t get back. The last thing I want is to get stuck. I’m supposed to be back in Auckland in a few days. I look for somewhere to camp with hard ground and decide to take a day off. Whananaki appears to be the place until I arrive and read the review stating “we got stuck here for three days because of a slip on the road after heavy rain.” Too late now, I’m here. The storm hits at around 4am or I wake up at 4am to the wind and the rain. I wake up to something that may become worse too, a string of water droplets down one of the interior panels near to the tailgate. A problem for another day. I drift in and out of sleep until I accept I need to eat, I need to drink, I need to go to the bathroom. The wind is still blowing, I battle against the gale to get in and out of the public toilet. I stick to using my butane stove when I’m inside the van, it’s smaller and requires significantly less effort to set up. The day slowly disappears. In the afternoon I get restless and walk down to the longest footbridge in the southern hemisphere. I walk across the longest footbridge in the southern hemisphere. I wonder where the bridge stands on the list of longest footbridges in the world. For some reason Wikipedia doesn’t have a list. I don’t bother to update my own top 5 bridges of all time but I appreciate the effort. I commit to a second night. The sign says a maximum of one night but there’s nobody else around, I haven’t seen anyone who looks like they work for a council. I’ll be fine.

The following morning I’m awake at 4am again. I hope this isn’t going to become a habit. For some reason I’m unable to fall back to sleep. I check my phone. I have several messages telling me about the rising alert levels around the country. Auckland is going into lockdown for three days. I am supposed to be in Auckland tomorrow. I am on my way to Auckland today. Not anymore. I’d just turned around, would I have to turn back again? Immediate change of plans. First up, food shop and buy some masks to be safe. Then, figure out where to wait out the next couple of days to see what happens. I go back to the Bay of Islands. I check in to a campground for two nights in the hope the government make an early announcement. I wander into Paihia, think about visiting the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, get some culture, learn a thing. They wanted $50 because I wasn’t lucky enough to be born on the particular piece of land on which the treaty was signed. I’d rather eat well for another week and read the Wikipedia page. Despite everyone seeming to know exactly what the government are going to announce, they wait until as late as possible on Friday. All being well I would need to be in Thames to go hiking with Matt and some of his friends in the Coromandel. All was not well. The lockdown was extended to encompass a full two weeks. I had at least avoided a 5 hour drive, but now had to figure out what next? My trip to Cape Brett with Ranj was also cancelled, but that doesn’t mean I can’t go. Seeing as I’m stuck in Northland, I might as well make the most of it.

I drove out to Rawhiti where I had intended on packing my bags ready for an early start. It rained, obviously, so I didn’t. The skies cleared overnight, the temperature dropped. For the first time in weeks I woke up in the night reaching for my hat. Once my head was snug, I slept a little better. I got up, packed my bag. Doing what I thought might have been the best job so far. I felt like I had everything I’d need for an overnighter. Something to eat, something to sleep in, something to clean my teeth with, a beer to celebrate with. I pulled the weight on and started walking. I had to follow the road to the trail head for the first kilometre but that’s ok. Roads are smooth, mostly flat. The trail begins up a flight of stairs to the first stunning view of Oke Bay. I’ve spent almost a week in the Bay of Islands. Everyone says it’s beautiful. I hadn’t really noticed until now. The sun was out, the sea shimmering. A good day to be outside. A great day to be on the trail.

The Cape Brett track begins with a climb up Pukehuia. Motivational messages are written on the DoC arrows. “Keep on keeping on,” says one. I reckon the start of the trail isn’t the best place for these. “This is the story…” begins another. Will it launch into the theme of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air,or the lyrics to Nine Days’s Absolutely (Story of a Girl)? Telling you something about my own internal monologue. No, this is a story about a kiwi who wants to learn to fly but can’t because kiwis can’t fly. The distractions don’t last long. I imagine whoever was writing these messages was starting to feel the strain of the ever rising trail. There are distance markers too. White posts with a number, counting me up on the way in. Counting down on the way out. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Is it helpful to know how far I’ve come, how fast I’m moving? Maybe. Do I want to know how much further I’ve got left? Definitely not. I like to assume the finish is over the next hill, around the next corner. It never is. At Pukehuia summit I find I’m at the corner of the Polynesian Triangle. Presumably only like the Bermuda Triangle in that it forms a shape, the corners stretch from New Zealand, to Hawaii, and Easter Island. My ignorance stretches out before me like the Pacific Ocean.

The forest, like the coast, is always changing. Every so often the tree screened views of the headlands and bays of the jigsaw puzzle coast open up and I’m left with sprawling panoramas of the Bay of Islands and the East Coast. I know I’ve complained about the rain a lot, but the weather makes the world of difference. Under blue skies and sunshine it might as well be a different country. Sweat pools. Joints pop. My calves strain to the point I’m sure they’re going to explode. I’m going up again when I pass the first couple coming the other way. They don’t look half as bad as I feel, maybe the trail gets easier. There’s rustling in the bush. At first I assume it’s other people further up the track. Then I realise they noise is definitely not on the track. The sounds seem too big for birds. A black mass bursts from the ferns. I jump as the feral pig plunges in to the understory on the other side of the trail. Still shaken by the unexpected explosion of life, I jump again as a second pig follows suit a few meters on. I pass a second couple soon after. “Pigs on the trail,” I say, instead of hello. They don’t think I’m crazy. “We saw their tracks, did you see them?” the woman asks.

I reach the junction for Deep Water Cove. I don’t want to go down. If I go down I have to come back up again. I could always do it tomorrow, but I know I won’t. Tomorrow I will be more tired, more keen to make my way back to the van. This is always one of my struggles when carrying a pack. Any extra distance requires more energy, more time. I know I am unlikely to ever walk this trail again. What if it turns out to be the highlight of the route and I miss it? In the end I accept I have to go down. I drop my pack at a sign, continuing down to the shore. Ripples move the wrong way. Something is disrupting the natural order of the surface of the water. Sharks with wings. A pair of rays patrol the shallows. You don’t get that at home. The descent justified. When I return to the junction I’m about ready to stop for the day. I still have another 5km to go. A distance I could walk in an hour were it flat, had I not already walked 11km, were I not carrying the additional weight of a small child. One foot in front of the other is easy. One foot in front and slightly above the other, less so. The trail keeps rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling. Come on. At every peak I hope to see the lighthouse, the hut. Nothing. Another hill ahead, a telegraph pole at the top. There’s no way I can go up again. The trail has to go around. It can’t go up. I keep plodding along, rising up to the telegraph pole. I don’t know how I’ve kept going, aside from the fact that I don’t actually have a choice. Finally the lighthouse is in sight. No more ups. A final down to the hut which seems to be a lot further away than I’d like.

I plug the key code in to the door. I am the only one here. I expect to have the place to myself. I have the luxury of choice. Any of the 23 bunks is mine. I’ve got time to make and eat dinner before sunset. I step outside as the show begins. A 40 minute made for TV movie about the colour of sundown. The screen is as big as the sky. I have the front row seats all to myself. Kiani came tramping down the hill towards the end of the performance. “I see you’ve come to ruin my isolation,” I said. “I wasn’t expecting there to be anyone else here either,” she replied. We spent a few hours of the evening talking to one another about hiking, plans, the effects of another lockdown on those plans. In the end I was glad of some company. I don’t know why but being completely alone is occasionally accompanied by paranoia. The wind rattles the doors, shakes the windows. Somebody is out there, trying to get in. Only they aren’t. They’re already inside your head. Knowing another real person I definitely haven’t imagined is around to hear me scream somehow makes falling asleep a little easier.

In the morning Kiani was up and on the trail while I was still faffing. “See you later,” she said. I was less confident. Another 20 minutes later I was finally on my way. The strenuous final 5km became a challenging opener. I reached the Deep Water Cove junction in good spirits. Down the hill I could see the bright pink of Kiani’s hiking gear. We joined up as she stepped off the trail to investigate a plant. “Eat this,” she said. “It’s bush lettuce.” She told me a mnemonic to remember the name and I’ve already forgotten. Small, green leaves that taste sort of like spinach in that they don’t really taste of anything at all. She points out Kawakawa, a plant I already know by sight and now know by name. The heart shaped leaves full of holes are used in medicine. They’re good for an upset stomach. I’m shown lancewood, which grows as though Moa still roam the forests. Defensive until the leaves are too tall to be eaten. This was great, I was getting an education. Learning more about the forest I’m walking in. Seeing new things. She handed me the new growth on the end of a vine. “This is supplejack, try it, it tastes like green beans.” I’d seen the vines everywhere but never the juicy end. Clearly everyone and everything was snacking on these.

The custard yellow head of a gannet distinguishes it from the gulls. My first of the season, first of the trip. Spring is coming. We walk out the rest of the trail together. I notice we both slow down to go down hill. Knees. Different problems with the same consequence. A little bit of fear, a little bit of caution. The top layer of mud wants to become the bottom layer of my boots. The next layer of mud tries to help as I slide down the trail. We reach the top of one hill and Kiani turns to me and says “I think I left the lights on in my van.” I assume at first this is a joke. The van dwellers equivalent of leaving the oven on. She assures me it isn’t. “Doesn’t the van scream at you when you open the door?” “Yes,” she replied, “but I tune it out.” Having locked my keys in my van I’m in no position to judge but that doesn’t stop me. I’ve at least got into the habit of checking the lever, of opening the door when I stop the van before I check my phone. When we return, I wait for her to start the engine. Nothing. I’ve been here before. I head down the road, grab my van and we try a jump start. Absolutely nothing. “Are you with the AA?” She calls her insurers who send someone out who can get her moving. I head back to Paihia for a well earned hot shower. Time to find somewhere else to go, something else to do while I wait until I can start my journey South.

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