I wake up to the smell of lemon muffins rising in the oven. Andrea already getting on with some baking. A note on the side informs me to help myself. I start pottering, getting things done. Putting washing on. Hanging wet gear out to dry. I find a mug bigger than my head in the cupboard and drink tea by the pint. There was a small part of my that said I don’t need to stop. I can keep going all the way to Wellington. The rest of me was exhausted. A day off was necessary. The trail isn’t going anywhere. The weather is only improving by degrees of less rain falling and river levels dropping. The national news claims the flooding here has been the worst in 15 years. Jason tells me it happens more frequently than that. People forget. I get enough work done. I could do more. There’s a rattling outside. Luke comes home from college and parks up his bike. “Do you want to play X-Box?” is his equivalent of hello. “Absolutely, I do.” Instead of doing anything else constructive I play It Takes Two with Luke for almost three hours. This could be my last time doing this. I have no real plans to return. When I talk about never coming back with Jason and Andrea I decide there’s no reason not to come back. I’ll have to go to Wellington anyway. I could come by one last time before I finally go home. Every time I have come through, my lockdown bubble have taken good care of me. It has been a good place. I wish I could move it along the trail, some safe haven to stop any time I need. I can’t carry it on my back, so it stays where it is.
The next day I’m gone. I’d already committed to getting to Wellington in two days. Today is going to be close to 40km. There’s a risk I end up walking a literal marathon. The Waikanae River has dropped further. Flattened grass shows the extent of its flood. Kapiti Island, the highlight of this section, is a black strip between grey sky and grey sea. I feel lucky to have seen rising humps so many times before. At least it isn’t raining. I stop in at Sunday Cantina in Raumati for a second breakfast, I pick up a bagel for lunch. Only going for two days, always passing through sizeable hubs of civilisation I’ve decided not to carry any food. I can buy what I need along the way. Through Queen Elizabeth Park a woman stops to check I’m not lost. I’m not, I’d just stopped to take a photo. She’d seen me fumbling with my phone. This stretch of Te Araroa is about as close as it gets to the South West Coast Path. Keep the sea on your right and you’ll be fine. Up ahead the Paekakariki Escarpment sinks straight up into the sky. An imposing cliff that somewhere hides a high track which will carry me to Pukerua, by which point I’ll be half way through my day. On a good day, I imagine the views are stunning. I pass without event. The potential menace of the wind nags only on the two swing bridges. I’ve seen the South Island from along the highway here before. Today, the world is grey. As it has been for what feels like a week now already.
From Pukerua I stay more or less roadside until Porirua. The inconsistent trail markings are the only consistent feature. I find I’m struggling with navigation. There are too many roads, too many potential footpaths. I’m checking the map all the time. Doubting myself, doubting the trail. The trail comes off a footpath along the road into a playing field. There’s a stream through the middle. Water is everywhere and ankle deep. I had hopes of keeping my boots dry for at least a day. I get my poles stuck in the spacing between concrete slabs. I pull up a drain cover. The breeze block of Mana Island sits out to sea. I must have known it was there but I’ve no memory of seeing it before. I hit the Arā Harakeke, keeping me off the highway but on the asphalt. I’m still chewing through the distance. Every step closer to Porirua. Every step one I never have to make again. I skip part of the trail that goes through something called the Adrenalin Forest. I can literally see where the trail comes back out again on to the road. Today is already long enough. I come in to Porirua around dinner time. Porirua shopping centre is Hell. All glass and chrome and Christmas crowds. But, Hell has a Mad Mex so I can get a dirty burrito. I start to feel like I’ve not seen anything, not noted anything along the way. This is a distance day, not a destination day. I pull up at Camp Elsdon, which doesn’t look like much but I’m going to be here for less than 12 hours. The showers are clean and hot. There’s drinking water in the tap. The ground is flat. In the shower I check the soles of my feet. They look like naked mole rats. Pink and wrinkled. After a 40km day I imagine they’d prefer to be naked mole rats too. On my way to bed I spot a tent I know. Paula’s in hiding. She still hasn’t taken a break.
The best thing about Porirua is the Family Bakery. I enjoy a mega big time breakfast of bacon, sausage and eggs. I get a good coffee. I pick up two bagels for the road. I’m still on the trail again before 8am. The climb up to Colonial Knob is through deep bush along a stream. Bulbs of green light flicker in the dark. I can’t decide if I’m sweating because it’s hard or sweating because I just ate a mountain of food. It doesn’t matter. Just keep moving. At the summit I see nothing. The grey of cloud swallowing the world. Again. The weather has to change soon, doesn’t it? Route finding is harder than it should be. Trail markers have been pulled out or fallen over. I’m following my nose. Can I distinguish between a human desire line and a sheep’s? More or less. I make it out of the pasture and in to the pine plantation and follow a slalom track down to the next section of road. I thought I might have gotten a head start on Paula but there she is, striding along the road. She’s seen me and waves. I do eventually catch up. For a while we leapfrog each other at points we stop to break. Then we stop together on a bench and I decide I’m in no rush. We may as well walk in to Wellington together. Fat infrequent spits of rain bounce of my backpack, my shoulders. The view from Kaukau is as elsewhere. A white out. Count your blessings. One, it isn’t properly raining (yet). Two, the wind is calm. Three, only three hours to go.
We come off the hillside in to the city. Here already, here at last. I miss a turn and Paula calls me back. We cut a corner and head down in to Trelissick Park. There’s a small section of track which is closed. A bridge is missing. It’s easier to cross the stream than it is to follow the detour. I start to get annoyed at how stupid the track is. How badly marked it is. Paula knows what’s up before I do. I haven’t eaten in several hours. There’s a break on the edge of the urban stream. Right now, this could be anywhere in the New Zealand bush. We are only a few kilometres away from the central business district of the capital city. We punch straight up Weld Street to the base of Te Ahumairangi Park. I’ve done the ridge line many times with Iain, Charlotte and the dogs. The Northern Walkway seems to stretch the park out forever. I’m done. I’m ready for today to be over. My feet are sore. My body is tired. Again, already. I leave Paula at the Botanical Gardens. Unlikely now we’ll cross paths again. I storm up the hill to the Kerr residence where I can half rest, half finish my plans for the South island.
Am I happy to eat the same thing for 5 weeks in a row? Probably. The city on a Saturday is my version of Hell during an apocalypse. People everywhere. At least Iain has the good sense to begin with food. Burgers at Ekim. I clean Bivouac Outdoor of their plant based Radix dinners. I pick up electrolyte tabs from a cycling store. We go to one, two, three supermarkets and I still don’t have everything I want. We pass the post office, already closed. The second post office only has three boxes and I need four. My enthusiasm wasn’t particularly high to begin with. We go home. I pack food into boxes and worry I don’t have enough. Then I worry I have too much. I don’t bother to weigh anything. Only at the Post Office when the boxes are weighed do I find that my resupply for the Richmond Ranges is 8kg. Almost doubling my pack weight. It is what it is. I need some new gear also. The waterproof trousers I was reluctant to buy have split at the crotch after a handful of uses, I’m hoping to return them. I take a calculated risk with my down jacket. After three or maybe more years of abuse, it is disgusting. Maybe the dirt is the only thing holding it together, keeping me warm. I put it in the washing machine. It goes in the tumble dryer with two tennis balls as per the instructions. The down clumps in the shoulders. Now I need a new one. I’ve wanted to replace Iain’s poles for a long time. Now’s the time. It is almost Christmas after all.
The other task I have to complete while in Wellington is the end of Te Araroa. Iain finds the walk out to the southern terminus of the North Island ridiculous. “Why doesn’t it go that way?” Why indeed. He comes along anyway. Te Araroa is the scenic route. The trail never bulldozes a straight line through. We set off through the Botanical Gardens in the rain. We may as well be the only people out on a wet Sunday morning. We reach the cable car and go back down the hill. There’s a rose garden, a cemetery. Then we’re in the city proper. Lampton Quay lined with outdoor stores, and stores that sell other less necessary things. On the water front I start to feel cold. A southerly breeze cuts through the damp. I warm up again as we climb Mount Victoria. Passing through the city’s green belt. Heading closer, closer to the South coast. Before we reach the sea we pass the zoo. Overlooking an enclosure Iain and I stop to watch lemurs spring loaded leaps across ropes and over each other. Then comes the smell, of salt, of seaweed. I’m strangely excited. This doesn’t mean anything to me. I’ve still got 100 more kilometres to walk in the North Island than the whole of the South Island. I walk out on the small jetty. The waves coming up over the concrete. Boots are never dry. The North Island is finished, but barely begun.