Te Araroa: Ninety Mile Beach

I’m the first one through Queenstown Airport in the morning. Dawn hasn’t touched the sky. The long, logistic nightmare to the North finally begins. I’m briefly washed with a regret of not going Nobo. I could have avoided all this trouble by doing it three months ago. A flight was only meant to come at the end. The start of the journey home. The sunrise departure distracts me from the whirrings of my mind. The plane climbs above the mountains I’ve walked through. Valleys reduce to ploughed furrows. The ceiling of cloud becomes a carpet. Only the highest peaks floating like islands. The sky swallows the rest of the South Island. The North Island appears around Mount Taranki. The perfect dark green circle of protected land rising to form a volcanic cone. A country disappears in minutes and hours, rather than months and weeks.

My total lack of plan for getting to Cape Reinga once I’d arrived in Kerikeri came back at me with fearsome angst. None of the accomodation providers in Kerikeri had a vacancy. Only the campground with a closed sign outside near the airport could take me in for the night. Then transport operators to the Cape weren’t running until Wednesday, and only from Kaitaia. No problem I thought, I can get the bus on Tuesday. Only the bus doesn’t run on Tuesday, which means I have to hitch, which means I’m no longer in control of getting to where I need to be on time. I tell myself I’ll have all day. It’ll be fine. It’ll be fine. Walking down the road from the airport someone already offered me a lift without me asking. Everything will be ok once I’m back on trail and moving. It’s this big fuck around in the middle. The first ride takes half an hour, which I accept is quick. Several cars go by, a few people give apologetic waves. A Ssanyong pulls over Infront of me. “I can only take you 10km,” is his offer. “That’s closer than I am now.” In the car he tells me there’s a shortage of cat food. He had to go to both supermarkets to get his cat’s preferred choice. “It’s your lucky day,” he tells me. I hope so. “I’ll take you all the way to the highway.” He drops me off at Okaihau. 15 minutes later with my thumb out someone else stops. “Where are you headed?” I ask him. “Kaitaia,” he says. “Sweet,” and I head round to put my pack in the boot. A weird coincidence to find he’s got several tins of cat food in the back. It really is in short supply. I’m in Kaitaia before midday. I drop in at the iSite. The trail notes say I’m supposed to register here. Flicking back a page I note nobody else has. The woman looks at my sandals and says “you’re not planning on walking in those are you?” I am but I decide I don’t need to discuss it today. I wander down the high street and check in at the Beachcomber Backpacker. The air is hot, the sky cloudy. Sticky. Every thing is sticky. All continuing well, I’ll be picked up by a chap called Alex in the morning and finally start from the beginning.

The group that have pretty much facilitated my ride to Cape Reinga are members of the same Auckland tramping group that took Paula and I down to the swimming hole at Greenstone Hut. Nobody looks familiar behind a throwaway mask. Alex has heard my story a couple of times recently. He tells me about a tall fella who walked out of Hamilton. That’ll be Bryan then. He remembers Paula by name. Both in front of me by either a week or two. The Aucklanders are walking the Te Paki coastal track, starting at the dunes and going around the Cape. We’ll see each other again on trail or overnight. I’d tossed and turned about trying to knock out 40km but as it’s close to midday by the time I’m able to get going I settle for 12km and the Twilight Beach campsite. There are a handful of cars in the carpark at Cape Reinga, enough people for me to get a photo at the signpost. I don’t stop for long, the third passing. Ocean currents collide swell. The ocean doesn’t seem to mind people having drawn some lines on and declared it two. I walk the first cliffs and drop on to sand. The compact tidal flats are swept with soft powder where Southerly gusts blow. A few fisherman pass the other way. I wonder if I will see any familiar North Bound faces. They might still be a few weeks down the trail yet.

The walking is easy. Of course it is. I’ve only had three days off. Not counting the additional four of walking with Iain. I haven’t forgotten what I’m about yet. Dune grasses cover sandy hills like a net. I climb up the dunes and receive a sandblasting for my efforts. Invisible grains hitting my face like hail. I’d been more interested in when the tide would be on my side than the detail of the weather. There are tyre tracks in the sand which leads to firmer ground. I follow the ridge of solid sand and plug away. 12km isn’t a lot. Easing back in before three of 30km in a row. I’m keen to get moving, to put distance behind me. Counting down now. I race across the second beach, coming in to Twilight Beach in under three hours. There’s a temptation to keep going. Camp somewhere in the dunes further along but I don’t gain anything. I settle on settling in. The Aucklanders come through not long after, seeking out flat and sheltered ground. Apparently too much to ask for a campsite. Gusts ripple through the tent, the worst I’ve endured in a long time. I’ve already found signs of wear. To be fair I think I’ve had more use our of this one than any other I’ve owned. A bigger issue is the slow release of air from my sleeping pad. After two hours I’m touching the floor. I’m in a pickle there. I’m pretty sure it’s the valve leaking and not a puncture. It’s kind of essential kit for the next 50 nights of mostly camping.

Grey clouds burn with a magnesium white glow. The sun rises beyond the narrow width of the country. A prospecting possum visits several of the Aucklanders in the night. “Did you have any disturbances?” One of them asks. I know they don’t mean waking up because I’m touching the hard ground. How would they know? “No, maybe a bit of rain?” Apples have been nibbled, half a peanut butter sandwich has vanished. Having other people around is often extremely beneficial. The wind stayed up through the night, if nothing else it means the tent can go down dry. I take early evasive manoeuvres at the first signs of rain. A theatre curtain of grey drops and spreads out over the land. The downside to being wrapped in plastic is so far, it isn’t cold. I get just as wet within as I do without. I hit 90 Mile Beach at the turn of high tide. I decided this was ideal as it would give me increasingly firmer terrain as the day goes on. I’m going to need all the help I can get as the wind has started driving straight up the beach, into my face. The tideline is awash with the empty silver cases of fish, the black shells of oysters, tangles of seaweed. Gulls, terns and oyster catchers parade the sands. The wind drives changes in the weather. Rain, sun, rain, sun, sandblast, sun. The remains of a juvenile shark, tangled in seaweed is pecked over by a red beaked gull. I almost walk in to the only car I see on the beach this morning. Wandering as I am across the sands, searching for an ultimate line that definitely doesn’t exist. The second car pulls across to offer me water. I’ve got plenty but the kindness is appreciated. The third stops to ask if I’m sick of Walking in the wind yet. I’m still beating it today. Give me another two and I’ll be well over it. And I’ll be off this beach. The traffic increases through the day. Cars come straight at me, a degree of curiousity perhaps? Before pealing away and waving as they pass. I hit Maunganui Bluff campsite after 6 hours on my feet. To my horror there is a hoard of tents in the back corner. There shouldn’t be anyone here. The cars that have passed a huge family group on a fishing holiday. The rest of the campsite is yes flat but super exposed. The wind yet to relent. I tell myself it’ll be ok. And it will, so long as the wind only blows in one direction at any given time and not particularly hard. The first gust that flattens my poles has me on edge. I’ve already decided I’ll have to replace my sleeping pad when I get back to Kaitaia. I’m in no position to also be replacing my tent. There is no where else to go. The family group come back and warn me they’re a big group, which I take to mean a loud, late night. “I’ve got earplugs,” I say, in the hope that this will be enough. If the wind keeps up, their noise won’t matter much. Camping on the beach sounds romantic. I’m a few hundred meters away and it isn’t far enough. The mesh of my tent’s inner will keep the flies out no trouble. Every gust of wind carries a wave of sand up under the tent, through the net and over me. The beach comes inside. I tell myself the oldest of lies. It’s just one night.

Showers continue to roll in and out through the night. The two or three hour intervals between waking up to reinflate my sleeping pad must be enough. I get up to hear the whinnying of a horse, the trotting of four feet across the ground. A small herd grazes on the edge of the campsite. I follow their tracks through the sand. I’ve got two hours until the tide forces me in to the dunes. If yesterday is anything to go on I should be a third of the way through my day by then. The weaving waterline disappears into the horizon. The wet sand sprinkled with shore birds. There is nothing now until Ahipara to break up the beach, another day distant yet. Waves drag higher up the sand. Headlights appear in the distance. The first car of the day flies by, releasing a cloud of terns into the sky. I see horses again on the dune edge. They stop grazing to watch me pass. I don’t hear the second car until it cuts inside. The flash of red makes me jump and then it’s gone. The sea never forces me in to the dunes. Never reaching as high as I’d anticipated. Though there’s still a chance I’ve got the times wrong, again.

On the horizon a different shade of blue rises above the waves. Hills. The Tauroa Peninsula still 45km away. Something else to focus on. The end of 90 Mile Beach literally in sight. Ghost white shells of crabs mingle with the remains of other shellfish. I pass the remains of a second shark. Empty sockets staring blindly. The sands spread once more. The wet surface reflecting fluffs of white cloud and blue for now sky. Traffic increases. I start to take note of where it peels off the beach. My exit for the day. The straps ony sandals have cut tiny holes in my toes. I rinse the blood and sand off in the sea, only for it to return as I cross the sand and head to the gravel road. Tomorrow I’ll go barefoot if I can, the rest of the way to Ahipara. There’s a little magic to be found at Hukatere Camp Ground. Gabi, the owner, grabs me a Coke Zero and a couple of tiny bananas. A man in a campervan offers me a piece of fish for my dinner. I’m honest with him “I’d have no idea how to cook it,” he shrugs his shoulders at me. I pitch my went tent and walk away, taking shelter in the shade near the kitchen. Another couple on site hear what I’m about and ask the big question. “What’s your motivation for doing it?” I actually don’t know the answer anymore. I’ve started to I’ll finish. Then I get another, more interesting question. “What have you learned?” One to take away but Jane’s advice remains. “Do the thing, whatever it is.” The magic remains strong here, they bring me an unripe avocado and a can of Parrotdog’s Bitterbitch. I have been spoiled this day.

I get up in the night to pee. I stumble in the dark like a new born deer. Legs failing to do their one job. The stars are magnificent. The orange glow of Ahipara lies South. I crawl back in to my tent, reinflate my mattress and fall back asleep. The morning rain shower is a disappointing start to the day. Now I’ve got pack away and carry a wet tent. When I hit the dunes I slip out of my sandals. I don’t buy into many hippy theories but barefoot walking might be one I do. At least on sand anyway. The crabs I pass on the beach this morning are alive, crawling towards the incoming waves. The traffic is heavy. My left heel develops a hot spot which interests me because my right foot is usually the disaster area. I wash the sand off in the sea. Instead of a blister, the skin has cracked. I’ll have to keep an eye on that. The wind is kinder too me today, gusts at a minimum. As I approach Waipapakauri, light glints off the roof of parked cars. Black bodies bob in the dental fresh waves. One surfer tells me I’m almost there. Almost off this beach at least. Things start to fall apart after my second break. The balls of my feet have been tenderized by pounding on the compact sand. My right knee is squeaking, a sure sign of the almost imperceptible gradient I’ve been walking on for four days. Hot spots begin to tingle everywhere. Was this such a good idea? I stop again with maybe an hour to go until Ahipara. Plenty of day left. I don’t need to rush in. Nothing exciting awaits me there. The soft sand above the tide line I’ve been avoiding for four days feels like silk. My feet sink deep into the soft, warm ground. At the driveway to the Ahipara Holiday Park I have no choice to put my sandals on. The other option actually available to me is to walk barefoot on the gravel. Hard pass. The sandals go on easily enough. The soles of my feet surprisingly comfortable. The only pain is where the straps have already rubbed. I’ve not far to go.

I get given a spot to pitch my tent close to the facilities. A small kindness from the holiday park owner, I don’t have to walk far. I stop to chat with a couple of guys. “You were walking down the beach today?” One of them asks. “We were riding out bikes, you were the only person who waved at us.” They ask me to enjoy a beer with them. They’re Bill and Scott from the Gravel Rash Gang; explorers of new Zealand’s back roads by motorcycle. There’s about 65 of them all up, based out of New Plymouth. Scott tells me on his current bike he’s done 40,000km. Cape Reinga to Bluff and a lot in between. “You should get a bike,” he suggests. When darkness falls I head to bed. In the morning I pack away early and get moving. When I put my trail runners on I find my feet feel good. No blistersz no hot spots, no worries. I’ve a short walk on the road in to Kaitaia where I can take the rest of the day off. The road shoulder is like a rolling trash pile. Plastic bottles, a surprising number of pants, the occasional possum pancake. I get back in the habit of waving my thanks at most cars that pass. Thanks for not running me over. A lot wave back. The only time I’m bothered about being on the road is when a couple of cars going the other way overtake. They’re obviously in some hurry to be in the next accident. I get a serenade of bike horns when Bill and Scott pass, continuing on their every day adventure. Kaitaia comes before midday.

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