The temporary permanence of Kentishman Hops gave me the illusion of stability. Things were normal. Same faces, every day. I knew my way to the supermarket, which aisle the baked beans lived in. I knew how much laundry cost and how long a wash and dry cycle would take. Routine living is easy, which is probably why so many people stick at it for so long. Leaving those simple comforts was hard. I said goodbye to Kat and Tim three times in two days. After our final parting, I watched their red Mitsubishi L300 pull out of the car park at Motueka Beach Reserve. I jumped in to the front seat of my van, put the keys in the ignition and turned. A flash of lights on the dashboard then nothing. Seriously? I try again. Not even the flash. Why? How? The alarm starts going, the buttons on the key fob aren’t working. Maybe the battery needs replacing. A year has passed since I last changed them. That doesn’t explain the van, and doesn’t solve the problem. I get out, wait for the 30 seconds to pass and the alarm to stop. I lean against a fence post, staring at the van. My easiest jump start just left. The woman in the bay next to me asks if I’m ok, and I am. I need to think about what to do. I open the passenger door, I lift the seats and open the battery cover. The battery still looks like a battery. The engine still looks like an engine. I touch the terminals and the alarm beeps. Interesting. I get back in the driver’s seat and try again. Lights and action. None the wiser, I close the lids on everything and hope nothing else goes wrong. I moved on towards Picton, to the North Island and all the uncertainty the future holds.
“What next?” my Gran asks. I don’t know. Visit Iain, catch up with Jason, Andrea and the boys. Complete the Tongariro Northern Circuit, and then what? Then where? The road carried me across the Richmond Range. I saw my first beech tree in over a month. Compared to the agricultural flatlands I’d become accustomed to, these small mountains were impressive. Trees top every peak. I have to find the motivation to go again, to travel with purpose. To hike with meaning over multiple days, to plan for The Big One so that 6 months from now I am ready. Should I start small and build or dive right in? I might be able to get out with Iain for something short. That would be perfect. Then the Tongariro Northern Circuit, in two days, which might be too ambitious after a long time off the trail. And then around Ruapehu? Plans simmer. Winter will hold me back. The need to work will slow me down. I can’t think too far ahead but I do. The Whirinaki, Waikaremoana, Taranaki again. Where else? I think too of the changing seasons. I can’t stay in the mountains for long. The cold will become unbearable, fast. Whatever happened with the battery could happen again. Forest parks are dotted across the North where hiking opportunities hide. What about the coast? What about work? I don’t remember having this problem in the South Island, in the summer. There seemed to always be a plan. Somewhere to aim for. I remember this problem from last winter though. Those words I know I’ll come to regret. “How am I going to fill all this time?” A job or three will help for sure. The South Island has been good, the best. Hard to imagine anything else looking as good as Paradise. Things will be different. Things are always different. The ferry crossing tomorrow marks both the end and the start. The uncertainty is uncomfortable. I do my best to embrace the feeling.
The ferry crossing passes without incident. The boat exits Queen Charlotte Sound. Behind me the South Island disappears. Another goodbye. Ahead lies the North Island and a winter of opportunity. I arrive, disembark, drive 10 minutes out of town to the suburb of Karori. I dump the van at the side of the road, walk up a drive way and knock the brass handle. Iain opens the door. I haven’t come home, I’m not coming home for a long time yet but his familiar, repeating face feels pretty close. The first evening is quiet, relaxed. I sit at the kitchen table with Iain and Charlotte and catch them up on where I’ve been, what I’ve seen since we last met back in January. Then comes a quick tour, to settle in. Here’s the kitchen, the coffee maker, the kettle. Here’s your bedroom, here’s a Lego Technic Heavy Duty Excavator to build, here’s your ensuite bathroom. There are few luxuries comparable to being able to walk to the toilet first thing in the morning without first having to get dressed and put your shoes on.
The next day we take the two Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Mopty and Nara out for a blast across one of the nearby hills. The dogs bound effortlessly over park benches. They meet other dogs with glee. Two lots of big dog travelling at speed. I respect those other dogs that stand their ground. I’m not sure I would. I take pleasure instead in moving one foot in front of the other again. After so much time off, even the shortest of walks feels good. Mopty and Nara are taken home for a nap. We drop in at Garage Project. A visit I’ve delayed and put off for over 7 years. Mostly due to the brewery and tap room being on the other side of the world for most of that time. A tasting paddle counts for a tick on the to do list. Iain and I compare tasting notes. “I think,” he says, “I am a simple man, I want my beer to comprise of four things. Hops, malt, water and yeast.” “You are a purist,” I tell him. I like simple, but I also like being punched in the face with big hops, big fruit and occasionally something quite ridiculous. The pickle juice sour is good, but it isn’t quite a mango milkshake IPA.
Iain is insistent on ticking more Wellington institutions off my to-do list. I am thankful for someone else taking charge, leading the way, coming up with a plan. We go out to the Weta Cave, look around the hand painted miniatures, the over-priced replica swords. There’s a short video on the impressive work that goes in to making special effects for big budget movies. Afterwards, Charlotte suggests we go to Maranui Cafe above the Surf Life Saving Club in Lyall Bay for late brunch. I order the Houghton Bay Bowl, containing grilled broccolini, a poached egg on top of sautéed chorizo, roasted potatoes and other delights. I eat too much, or maybe it’s the Snickers milkshake I ordered on the side. With bellies full we go home and collapse in front of the Fellowship Of the Ring. Over the course of my stay we watch all three extended editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The sprawling views of the South Island scenery a fitting tribute to a most excellent adventure.
Iain and I geek out over ultra lightweight hiking gear. I move a new sleeping bag liner from want to need. An upgrade to silk will save me 200 grams. Enough for a packet of ginger nut biscuits. Sleeping pads are increasingly expensive but will that make them any more durable? My shorts are falling apart but we’re in autumn now. Will shops still stock shorts? Will any shop, ever, have my size? I take a cup of tea outside. I watch the dark shadow of a Monarch butterfly on the patio. I hear the whistle of a Kaka behind the predator proof fence of Zealandia. The rolling green Tuscan hills unfold across the horizon. White suburban houses nestle among the trees. I don’t know how I ended up here but I’m happy about it. I wake up in the morning on my 32nd birthday. Another overseas, another on holiday. I catch up with Mum and Dad. I get dressed and go downstairs. On the table is a wrapped package, topped with an envelope with addressed to me. They really shouldn’t have, but they did. Beneath the paper is an Air New Zealand pouch, inside this is a Malaysian Airlines travel bag, the final round of packaging reveals a silk sleeping bag liner. Thrilled, and if that wasn’t enough Iain then tells me “and we’ve got some birthday cheese for lunch.” In the evening I head in to the city to meet old mate Dave for a beer and then to Counter Culture, one of the cities board game cafes to introduce others to my favourite co-op; Forbidden Island, and be introduced to a so called classic; Citadels. The most reluctant attendee, Charlotte, begins to sneak in to the lead and I wonder if it was a front all along. A double bluff to trick us into thinking she doesn’t care when really she’s in it to win. She assures me this isn’t the case. Having spent last year in lockdown, a normal birthday in still abnormal conditions feels surreal. I am lucky to have friends here who can make somewhere that isn’t my home feel a little bit more like one.
In the end I have to leave, again. The journey must go on. I do my washing, repack the van and hit the road. I don’t get far. I stop in Paraparumu where the roads are familiar. I visit Jason and my mate Sid who sits at my feet, demanding pets by dragging his paws over my knees. Jason resupplies me with honey, jam and his world famous in New Zealand zucchini pickle. Then I’m off into the night. My mirrors are black voids, swallowing red lights, spitting out white. I arrive in Mangaweka long after dark. The camp reception is unlocked but there’s nobody home. I call the number on my mobile. No answer. I call the number from the phone on the reception desk. Can I come back I the morning? Of course. And just like that, I’m on the road again.