The team finish in stages. Bryan and Luke walked to Bluff the day Jack and I arrived. I commit to a zero, preparing for what comes next. Jack goes alone. Paula comes in that evening, in the morning she and I set out to complete the South Island section of Te Araroa. That night those of us in Invercargill go out for our last supper. Luke and Jack heading home. Bryan flying North to finish what he started. Paula and I heading deeper South. Phil taking a break to let his foot heal. Paula’s gone while I’m still faffing around with breakfast. I know I’ll catch her somewhere down the trail. I pass a Northbounder first, he’s excited, enthusiastic. Just starting day two. The estuary reserve gives way to sewage works. The smell no worse than anything Bryan, or Marty, or Phil have ever released. There’s Paula, for the last time on the South Island. The florescent green shell of the turtle pack. Slowly crunching through the final 34kms. I speed past. The heavy grey bellies of distant clouds sink to the horizon. I began the South Island in the rain, it would be fitting to finish the same. Across the Southland plains the sun reigns supreme. The day could go either way, and often. Rain obliterates distant detail. Oil painting clouds spill overhead. Water arrives as teeth in the wind.
The shower arrives. I pause to pull out my rain jacket and the same for my pack. A cyclist stops to chat about my journey. “Nearly finished?” “Not exactly.” I don’t know how many times now I’ve had to explain. I couldn’t start from Cape Reinga because of the last round of lockdowns. I couldn’t start any further North than Taumarunui. Even that didn’t go to plan, the flooded river bumped me down to Whakahoro. There’s still 1200km to go to complete Te Araroa. I have nearly finished the South Island. I have walked close to 1300km across the last 60 days. Numbers that sound impossible but were completely achievable. I start smiling, thinking back on those early days, the hard terrain of the Richmond Ranges. The slow growth of our trail family. Me and Quentin, picking up Lisa in the Nelson Lakes. Paula joining in Boyle. Bryan in Bealey. The rest of our in-out cast of Jack, Kris, and Luke. So many people along the way.
Every step draws me closer to the end. The wave of joy I’m riding is because I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m not finished. The journey continues. Adventure awaits. Luckier still, there’s so much behind me. Memories of mountains, mountains of memories. Friends who will live forever as names in the book. People I may never see again and never forget. Through all the traffic one car toots away. A first pumping in celebration. All I can do is smile and wave. Not everyone gets it. Not everyone knows about it. Those who do, really do. I find that the sternum strap of my pack creates a neck pocket in my waterproof. I can tuck my phone in there, I switch on some indie disco. The party has arrived. My hood amplifies the sound of Passion Pit’s Little Secrets. I smile for miles, the music keeping my mood high.
Tim kills my vibe, simply by being a person that exists. I pause the music. “Just started?” I ask him. “Finishing today,” he tells me. I have heard of him. He’s walked with Paula for a few days. He’s one of Izzy’s old trail family. I fall in step with him, as I have with countless others. We walk together for a while. The conversation the same. Are you going the whole way? When did you start? Any thoughts on what next? Tim keeps walking while I stop to apply sunscreen. The clouds have blown through. I’ve been walking beneath a window of blue for a while now. Chancing a little sun, still working on those lines. I watch as Tim shrinks with distance before disappearing around a corner. He’s admitted he’ll be cutting another, following State Highway 1 into town. I’ll be swinging around the back of the peninsula, following the trail. I stop at the welded, rusted steel letters that spell out Bluff. 7km to go.
Paula isn’t far behind. We’ve come this far, sometimes together, sometimes apart. All the way from Palmerston North. Sometimes I’ve sent Northbounders to her with a message, “hurry up!” She lets me know most of them delivered it. We take a few photos of each other at the Bluff sign. The trail comes off road and into private farm land. Cows stand and watch us approach. Not until we’re almost within touching distance do they opt to get out of the way. There’s a small section through the bush. The track becomes a footpath, then wide enough to drive a truck down. There are more people present. Some stop to ask where we’ve come from. Paula, from the Timber Trail. Me, from Whanganui. A few other tourists await at the yellow AA sign post. The unofficial end of the trail. (The official plaque is understated, below the knee, past the car park). We take another couple of photos. Paula and I celebrate our completion of the South Island by eating all of the carbs and none of the fish at Oyster Cove. Then we walk another 3km to the Bluff Lodge to plan a little holiday from this here walking thing by doing another walk on Stewart Island.