When Iain gets up I’m still trying to commit to a plan. Do I get up and start walking or do I take a day, replace my hat, buy a block of cheese? By the time he comes back to the room I’ve decided. I don’t have to rush. I do have to buy a hat. Cheese optional. When I booked everything for the Whanganui River Journey, I had this idea I could walk in to town with Iain, put him on the bus, and wave him home to Wellington and set off. I hadn’t thought Iain might bring three bags and a canoe paddle. It made a lot more sense for him to get a taxi. We enjoy an early cooked breakfast while Wham’s Last Christmas played on the radio. I’m wearing shorts. The forecast is for fine warm weather. It doesn’t quite make sense. I’ve not given Christmas a thought. Iain moves his bags to the porch. I check in to the hostel for a night. Iain’s taxi arrives and he’s gone.
I walk around Whanganui looking for a hat. I eventually find one at the Warehouse. Bigger, floppier, and more importantly with a chin strap. Fingers crossed the first serious wind doesn’t steal this one. I float around town for a while, taking in the series of large murals on many of the exposed brick walls. Whanganui has some kind of wall based festival each year when there isn’t a pandemic and new murals are going up all of the time. I drift back up river and lounge around the hostel. I have the dorm room to myself. There’s a woman floating around. A few of the cabins even further out back are occupied. I go to the Yellow House Cafe up the road for lunch. I buy a block of cheese, and some sour gummy worms. Then I start to wait again.
I do what I can to be organised the night before. This is much easier when I’m not tenting. The tent is dry and packed, as is the sleeping system. The hostel kitchen is fully equipped. All I really need to do keep out is food for breakfast; a packet of mixed berry oats, a banana, milk powder and peanut butter. After that it’s bed time. I fall asleep almost immediately. I’ve the four bunk dorm room to myself. Little chance of disruption. When I wake up, I get up. Today is the first of many big days. Officially breaking trail on foot, or the first while day on foot. Or something. For whatever reason today feels like the start. Maybe because Iain’s gone. My destiny entirely in my own hands. Breakfast comes together quickly. The hostel brand instant coffee is tolerable. Would it still be without the milk powder and a teaspoon of sugar? At 7:45am I walk down the drive way. Retrace a few steps and cross the Dublin Street Bridge.
The river side park has flat concrete paths. A nicer introduction than 90 Mile Beach would have been. I follow the Whanganui River around to the City Bridge and turn away for the final time. My first hill is fast approaching and I have every intention of avoiding it. A tunnel bores below Durie Hill. At the end is an elevator. It’s listed in the trail notes as an option so definitely isn’t cheating. A man comes down the tunnel on a bike. “Morning,” he greets me as he passes. The elevator doors are open. I step in and discover I can’t operate this thing. A bike bell rings out in the tunnel. I step back out to find the man is coming back. “Sorry for the delay,” he says. Elevator operator can you help me please. I pay $2 for the privilege of a 55 second ride to the top and I’d do it again. I’m informed, if I’d like I can add another 42 steps to the roof of the elevator shaft. Being a sensible man, I put down my pack and climb the stairs. Whanganui looks delightful, I’ve already decided I like it. Better still, rising beyond the horizon is a pyramid of snow. Mount Taranaki
I turn from the tower and start making my way towards the No. 2 Line. A 14 kilometre walk down an almost straight stretch of road will have Hatch Warren Lane after a night out resemble paradise. Plastic bottles and dead birds litter the gutter I half walk in. Clouds of pollen fill the air, and my nose. The sun is hot. There’s a cool breeze keeping me regulated. The air is quiet. The drone of the wind. The rise and fall of a car as it comes and goes. I start out waving thanks to the drivers who give me a wide berth. Eventually I start waving to everyone. If they haven’t run me over they’ve done me a favour. The occasional doom whistle of an Australasian Magpie. A highlight of this stretch; the white smear of Ruapehu beyond the pastures. A fine day indeed.
After many hours I turn off, taking Warrengate Road towards State Highway 3. The highway is less agreeable. I wave to nobody but the tractor driver moving slow enough to see me. There’s a rest area across the other side. I think about lunch. I should have stopped. The shade there was the last I saw. I’m relieved at the bridge over the Wangaehu and turn off the highway. Wangaehu Beach Road provides new struggles. The only shade is at the end of driveways, beneath garden trees and it’s fast disappearing. I’d still be outside the perimeter fence but I don’t like how close I’d be to private property. In the end I accept I have to stop. I’m closing in on 6 hours. I need water, food, to reapply sunscreen Some shade better than none. A car comes down the drive way. The man, obviously surprised to see me, says “you ok there mate?” And I am, “all good cheers.” “You can jump on the back if you like, I’m heading down.” “I can’t,” I say. He’s done this before. “Cheating huh? We’ll enjoy!” He gives me an enthusiastic wave as we pass further down the road.
The road becomes a track. The track carries me out West to the beach. Swirls of silver and grey sweep through the black sand. The bleached white bones of a forest lie above the last tide line. A woman appears from the dunes. “Where have you hikes from then?” “Whanganui,” I tell her. “Good on ya, camping here are you?” I didn’t know I could. It’s only another 5km down the beach to the Koitiata Campground and the promise of a shower. “I’m pushing on, plenty of day left.” The beach is a change again. I try to find harder sand that doesn’t slope into the breaking waves. I.m running out of water. I’m getting tired. I turn around and walk backwards. A long way around the coast Taranaki looks like a doom fortress, clouds beginning to spiral the summit. When I face my direction of travel I realise I’m looking all the way around. The Tararuas typically tucked up in a blanket of cloud. Even on a day as clear as this. I stop to check my notes, I know I’ve got cross the Turakina River. “At the markers” is as good as the instructions get. I do find the orange triangles and pause. Boots or no? The bottom is likely sand. I put sandals on to be sure. I empty my pockets, lengthen a pole and wade in. Fish flash in the shallows. Please don’t eat me. I’m thigh deep when the floor starts to climb again. I find my way to the Koitiata Campground.
I pay my fees, pitch my tent, take a shower and realise I’ve lost my Buff. It’s been on one of my wrists all day. It’s bright red. I’ve no recollection of putting it down. Maybe it’ll turn up in the morning. I make every effort to stay vertical at the camp ground. If I lie down I’m done for. I manage to hold out until sunset. I catch the last rays of light from a platform behind the beach. I couldn’t bring myself to walk down to the sand. I’ve already spent several hours on it today. I crawl in to my tent. I’ve made it. Day one, but actually 7, complete. Close to 35km. I don’t feel too bad now. I’ve got more to come tomorrow, and the day after that. And the day after that.
I start out on a muddy track, mostly submerged. Already I’m wondering if there’s any point in paying for waterproof boots when they’re wet all the time anyway. I peel back towards the open sand and breaking waves. Human made hollows run alongside tiny trident tracks in the sand. Driftwood shrines and shelters line the dunes.
Behind me, Mount Taranaki no more than a thumbnail of snow surrounded by sky. Up ahead barely visible is something white. I assume it’s the fire tower mentioned in the trail notes. Visible the entire way, if you get that far you’ve gone too far. The sand shimmers. The air ripples. There’s a man sat among the driftwood. Camouflaged in the whites and browns. Definitely not a mirage. “Nice day for it,” he greets me as I pass. There are more people along the beach. A sign of access. The overzised orange triangle points me off the sand.
I was hoping Santoft Forest was still going to be a forest and the pine trees would give me shade for some of the afternoon. The blocks are overgrown slash. A few gents in fluro yellow pop out near a Ute. “Are you guys regen pulling?” I ask. They look as happy about it as I did. ” How far are you walking today?” one asks. “Bulls,” I reply. They’ll probably overtake me when they call it a day. I get out of the forest and into the farms, where shelter from the sun is even harder to find. Any tree, any shadow will do. I break out lunch and snacks. Applying sunscreen after. Then I return to the endless length, unbearable heat of Raumai Road. One farm house I pass comes with the roar of tiny engines. A pack of kids circle the front fields on dirt bikes. All of them wave. I’m grateful for the passing stock trucks that stir up the air. The snatches of cool air the only respite. I wonder if this section would have been harder in the other kind of bad weather, rain.
By the time I reach the Rangitieki Golf Course I’m ready to call it a day. I’ve had enough of roads. I’ve had enough of being able to see where I’m going, hours ahead of me. I’ve had enough of being hot, sticky. Some 7 kilometers remain. Just keep walking. Walking is ok. Stopping is ok too. Transitioning between the two brings me an acute awareness of my sore feet, my strained legs. The pep talk is two sentences. “You’re nearly there.” and “Keep moving forward.” At least now I’m off Raumai Road. The traffic is heavier. Fewer people wave. I’m pretty sure someone gives me the finger. That’s all the motivation I need. Fuck me? No buddy, fuck you. I finally submit to the truth. I need to get the poles out. I might be feeling better by now if I’d used them all the way. I’ve never been happier to see a No Engine Breaking sign. I’m closing in. Houses rise up along the road. The speed limit drops. There’s a bin, a sign for ice-cream. I stop in the The Bull Dairy and stare at the drinks in the cold fridges. I want something but I don’t know what. I’m dehydrated. I didn’t carry enough water. A Powerade? No. I want a Sprite. I stand outside in the shade and soak in the cold, sweet nectar. A Sprite I’ll remember longer than any other. The camp ground is on the other side of town. I commit to going all the way there. I can come back for dinner and supplies once I’m settled in. The further I head out of town the more I begin to regret the decision. I get there eventually. “Anywhere good in town to eat?” I ask the woman on reception. She starts listing off the various fast food chains established around one of the service stations. My heart drops. “The truckies like the Rangitieki Hotel, they do a good feed in there.” Perfect. I pitch up, clean up and walk back up the hill to Bulls. There are Bulls everywhere. Big statues in various colours. Every store has a bull themed pun. The Rangitieki Hotel doesn’t live up to the hype. I place an order and get a table number. The food takes ages. A girl comes over and tells me my food is on the side. What was the table number for? I get maybe 7 chips and a slice of chicken. I’d have been better off with a Maccas. Worde still other people were in there. Surely locals. I skip desert. On the way out my feet scream. The sand from the beach has rubbed a blister out of my heel. I think it just popped. I get back to my tent, crawl in, lie down, and give up.
When I wake the inside of the tent looks dry. It isn’t but it’s better than it has been. Can only mean one thing; a cloudy start. The run of fine weather coming to an end. Getting up was easier than I had anticipated. My feet are a long way from rested but my legs feel ok. I’m going to be alright to keep moving. Sorry feet, the next rest day is still two days ahead. Today at least is shorter. Only 20km instead of 30 plus. The first challenge is crossing State Highway 1. I’m pretty sure if you crossed a motorway in the UK on foot you’d make the regional news before being arrested. The two aren’t really comparable. This is more like crossing an A road. I wait for a gap and walk over. As the car drives, Palmerston North is only 26km from Bulls. It’s going to take me two days to do twice the distance. I cross the Rangitieki River on the pedestrian bridge. Then I have to wait for another gap in the traffic and return across the highway. Then it’s more of the same. Quiet, straight roads broken by rare corners. One passing car gives me a trumpeting of horn blasts. I make my way through forestry blocks and farmland, each step carrying me closer to Feilding
This is day three of walking. I used to believe if you can do something for three days, you can do it for ever. Once today is done, I’m into Te Araroa for good. The kids at Mt Briggs School are on smoko, they give me a wave. Some of them say hello. One offers me a doughnut. I decline. Cars come and go. Some give me a wide berth. I try to step further on to the verge, not quite the ditch. Marching through the grass kicks up a lot of whatever is it is I’m allergic to. I endure a personal best run of sneezes. Much easier to manage as a pedestrian than a driver. The trail follows the lowest traffic roads. Ranfurly Road is another seemingly pointless detour which I assume keeps me out of heavy traffic. I stop at a bench facing some corrugated iron cows. If the sign is to be believed they’re making me think twice about art and old iron. I’m just thinking about how long this bottle of sunscreen will last. I roll around two edges of town and call it a day.
At the Feilding Holiday Park the receptionist checks me in. “We do have a problem at the moment and you’re not going to like it,” she says. Don’t say the showers are out of order. Don’t say the showers are out of order. “There’s a lot of pollen from the trees.” “Oh that’s fine, I’ve been sneezing the whole way here.” What she didn’t say was how much a lot is. The pollen is falling in flurries, drifts building like snow. A lot indeed. I remember a take away at the end of the road. I put a phone order in and walk down to collect it. The sheer volume of chips is enough to rank it higher than the Rangitieki Hotel. Quantity can sometimes overcome quality.
I set out from Feilding on the final stretch to Palmerston North. I follow a single set of shoe prints in the dirt. Deeper impressions than I’m making. The tedious straight roads will soon end. I come off briefly. A style leads into an overgrown mess of grass and blackberry and all sorts of other things. I have to step acorss a stream. A pack of lawn mowers are cutting the other side. I return to the road and take a pause in Bunnythrorpe. With rashes on my arms and legs I start to think about making the antihistamines a little more accessible. Out of Bunnythrorpe I’m off the roads again. Walking a strip of not quite farmland. I pass a woman walking her dogs. In one field I tell the curious cautious bulls I’ll leave them alone if they leave me alone. The next field, I warn the mother cow I’m coming in to the field. She gets up and turns around, keeping a distance. The sheep at least do a runner as soon as they hear me. I’m pushed back on to the road again. From now until whenever this day ends I’m on footpaths. I reach the 50 sign on the edge of town. Walking ever towards the ink black sky, just my luck. Wind turbines spin on low ridges of my next destination. Along the suburbs I find people are less friendly. No more waving, no more hellos. I break again on the edge of Terrace End Cemetery. Broken headstones reveal names of people who died before the first world war. And they say there’s no history here. I walk the length of Palmerston North until I hit the Manuwatu River.
Orange arrows guide me off the trail into deeper suburbia. I reach the sign for Whio Whio Hut. The country’s most urban backcountry hut. I walk up the drive, still following arrows. There’s a man in the garden, hands in a kill trap. “Hello,” I say, hoping not to surprise anybody. “Oh hello,” Ant says. “You must be, umm, Chris?” He checks. “I am indeed.” “Come in,” he says, “let me show you the hut.” Ant walks down the garden, camera in hand. “You don’t mind if I take your photo do you?” He asks. There aren’t going to be many of me. “We like to catch you as you arrive, fresh off the trail.” Makes sense. There’s a visual record of hut users. “Make yourself at home,” he says as he opens the door of the bright orange hut. First in so I’ve a choice of three bunks. I drop my stuff while Ant puts the kettle on. Is there a single act that makes a person any more immediately likeable? We sit in the garden for a while. His three year old grandson, Archer, wandering about, chattering away to himself. “Have you ever seen inside one of these before?” He asks, hands in the trap again. “Nope.” Ant explains the work he and his partner Fiona do in Whio conservation. Currently he’s trying to realign a trap with a tool so the two triggers don’t sympathetically trigger. “Do you want to trigger it?” Archer puts his fingers in his ears. I push a twig on to the plate. Only one of the traps slams shut. “Exclernt! It works!” Ant declares. Fiona comes home from work and we head out on a milk run to the farm. “Sorry about this,” Fiona says. “We’re going half way back to Fielding.” The roads I’d walked down disappear in minutes rather than hours. Inside the tiny farm shop there is no person. Two milk vending machines and a cheese vending machine. Ant feeds coins in and his bottles begin to fill. “We do this to save on plastic, but we do have to drive out here so I’m not sure the benefit is real,” he explains. Once we’re milked it’s across town to Pascha’s for a kebab. Pascha knows Any and Fiona’s order better than they do. “Two of the usuals?” he asks. Plus one not usual for me. Well fed we turn in for the night. Another leg complete. Already I’ve covered over 100km on foot. I can’t wait to get started on what comes next.