There were still more days to get through. Auckland would be moving to Alert Level 2 on Sunday night. Come Monday I would be able to blast through. Able, at last, to commit to the journey South. I made my way back to Whangarei Heads where I knew I would find good hiking and good freedom camping. The kind of things I need to get through the weekend. I took a minor detour, casting out to Matapouri, and then Tutukaka. Surf beaches lined with car parks. Car parks filled with men and women half in, half out of wet suits. I rode over Mount Tiger, heading to Mount Mania. I’d seen on the Department of Conservation website the trail was due to be closed for maintenance. I wanted to get up before that happened. A steady, constant climb close to the 400 meter mark had me sweating, breathing heavily. I emerged from the bush on to the rocky summit in to a strong wind. I stayed only long enough to take a couple of pictures of the view. I then returned to Ocean Beach. I was determined to walk the entire length of Te Whara Track. I recognise the incoming waves of anxiety. What if I can’t do it? What if I can’t make it back? What if the world catches on fire and we can’t put it out? Having completed the Cape Brett track I know I have the ability to walk this ridge line. All I need to do is stop thinking and start walking.
In the morning i’m still nervous. I tell myself what I know to be true. I have walked harder, further trails than this. I have walked them carrying substantially more weight on my back. I know what to expect. The initial hard graft across the sand at the back of the beach. The climb through the red pine needles on the dirt track. Out of the trees there is nothing but up, until I reach the trees again. The barren hillside is exposed to wind and sun, at least there is no rain. Sweat starts to pool between my shoulders, in the gap between my rucksack and my back. I’m glad to enter the bush at the old radar station. The plants offering some shelter from the weather. The temperature cooler. I’ve come this far before. I know what comes next. The track becomes feral, a tangle of slippery roots, wet mud, loose rocks. Huge grey boulders burst out of the earth. I drop beneath them, then rise up the other side. From the canopy I hear the jurassic screech of a kaka but I don’t see one this time. I start moving downhill, towards the Peach Cove Carpark turn off. The track becomes more civilised, paid for presumably by the fees of those using the facilities at Peach Cove Hut. Smooth silver gravel disappears quickly beneath my feet. After the hut junction the trail returns to a more natural state. I pass a couple of people moving the other way, DoC workers, the first I’ve seen, setting bait on the trap lines. “Where are you off to then?” one of them asks me. “Urquhart’s Bay,” I reply. “Good on ya,” he tells me. I realise only too late I’ve lied. Too late now. I’ve still got to come back.
I reach another stone summit, I stop to take in the view. Seeing where I’ve come from, where I will still have to return to. Ahead I can see the glistening, paradise turquoise waters of Smuggler’s Cove. I’m getting closer. The track continues much the same. A narrow strip of brown, beaten down dirt. The only sign of civilisation amongst the green plants fighting for light. Another break in the trees reveals the white sand beach of Smuggler’s Cove. Still getting closer, but I was expecting to be closer than this by now. I top out the final summit, Mount Lion. There is no view from here, only the beginning of an infinite staircase to the pastures around Bream Head. The finish line. The end of the track, where a decision will need to be made. The steps run down the ridgeline, making the descent significantly easier than the initial climb. The sweaty faces coming up the other way suggest it’s no easier coming up from this end. I break out of the trees on to the grass. I want to feel like I’m finished but I know I’m not. The van is 7.5km back the other way. I have options. I could go back over the ridge. I’m way ahead of the suggested 5 hours, so I have time. Do I have the energy? Maybe I do, but I’m not sure. The lack of certainty, the option of an easier route leads me to the road. Now I’ll have to deal with the next round of doubt. Could I have made it back along the ridge as well?
Walking down the exposed road, wind in my face, sun on my head, traffic passing I think maybe the ridge might have been the better option. Too late now. I climb the one hill, reach Peach Cove Car Park and know I’m almost back. I’ve done it. Done it with enough day left to pick somewhere else to camp and relax into the evening. I hesitate, only for a moment. There is a cold shower at Ocean Beach. Washing the sweat of might be a good idea. Washing the sweat off would definitely be a good idea, but I don’t. The thought of getting undressed, of getting cold. I don’t like it. I can wait I tell myself. I’m hungry for more hills. I have achieved something I thought might be beyond me. I’m reminded of an installation I’ve seen. “Everything We Do Today Will Look Heroic In The Future.” There’s a point at which you realise something is no longer hard, something is finished. Something is behind you. You then have to start looking forward again. Tomorrow I will have to do more. Another big route, more climbing, harder hiking. I’m out on the edge of my comfort zone, I have to keep pushing. I map out a route, starting with a short walk to Mount Mania, to go up and down again, on the return I’ll detour over the top of Mount Aubrey. Big climbs, decent distance. Multiple days on my feet.
I set off early, passing through residential Whangarei Heads. Mums with pushchairs jog past. I reach the car park of Mount Mania and find the track is already closed. I wasn’t expecting this to happen until tomorrow, I thought I still had time. I don’t dwell on the inconvenience, moving on to Mount Aubrey. I go up, the stickiness increasing under my arms, behind my knees. The trail flattens out across the ridge line. I begin to pick up speed. Things go smoothly but they’re over to quickly. I half run down the stairs. I haven’t done enough, haven’t worked as hard as I had hoped. I’m back at the van with most of the day left. I move on, deciding to make use of the good weather. The sheets come off, aired out over the doors. The matteresses are turned, sitting out of position for a while. A steady breeze ventilates the van. I don’t remember the last time I was able to both get out and hike, and get jobs done in a day of sunshine. I scrub the ceiling, ponder other solutions to my on-going ‘how best to keep the fairy lights attached to the ceiling’ problem. The bed goes back together. The sheets not clean, but feeling a little fresher. I make dinner outside, unable to remember how many days have passed since I last needed shelter to cook. Things are looking up. Tomorrow I’ll be on my way across Auckland. The West coast of the North Island becoming my back garden for the next couple of weeks.
The morning comes. I’m in no hurry. I don’t know if there will be a rush now the city is open again. I enjoy a leisurely breakfast and head into town to do a quick get me through the next couple of days shop. I head out of Whangarei, driving down State Highway 1. I stop at Waipu to walk a stretch of the coastal walkway. To do something other than just drive. On the horizon the silhouette of Whangarei Heads sits as a dark grey rip out of a light grey sky. From this distance I can see Te Whara, Mount Mania, and Mount Aubrey. All of which I’ve walked. My sense of accomplishment grows, dragging my confidence with it. I get swept up in the excitement of a good mood, thinking about how much more I can do, thinking about what plans I can make for the next couple of weeks to ensure I keep moving forward, keep pushing my boundaries. I want to hike more. I need longer, taller trails. I know I will find this in the Waikato. I return to the van, return to the highway. I enter Auckland. Nothing happens. There’s no remnants of a road block, nobody asking questions. I pass through the city. The city falls away, I ride through the empty, open farmlands. I stop in the car park of a rugby club that appears larger than the village it represents. Again I am presented with a cold shower, god knows I need one. I count back, three maybe four days. If I cross my legs they peel apart like sellotape. I shouldn’t be thinking about it. I should just be doing it. In the end, the day gets too old. Coming out of a cold shower into the cold air doesn’t increase the appeal. Tomorrow, I promise myself. I’ll go to a holiday park. There’s no need to suffer the cold. I’ve earned a hot shower.