The folding of my tent poles is loud in the still quiet of the morning. The Paihia Top 10 holiday park isn’t exactly busy but all the guests have been condensed into the waterfront area. I set off feeling tired, disillusioned. Two days at least of road walking lay ahead. Hardly inspiring. The UK bank declined credit card transactions yesterday, preventing me from ordering new shoes and a new sleeping pad. They’ve never actually saved me from fraud, only from spending my own money. This, I decide is what I get for not being organised. I start moving money around before remembering I left one of my cards at Iain’s, so that’s out. I decide to worry about it in a couple of days, when my own attitude might have improved somewhat. The first section of trail out of the campground is closed so I have to walk even more road. My timing for the Opua-Okiato ferry falls from a knife edge to on the nose. I stride on moments before departure. The road starts here and doesn’t stop. I get tired of waving at the people who don’t move over, who don’t slow down a little bit. There’s a thought of jumping over the road and throwing my thumb out. If I do that, the driver that picks me up had better take me all the way to Wellington because I’m finished. I am going to walk the length of New Zealand. I am not going to quit now. I get a lift at the petrol station in the form of a strawberry milkshake. An enthusiastic wave from a driver keeps me moving in the right direction. Wasn’t I just saying how I wanted 30km days? Now I’ve got one, I’ve got to do the work. The monotonous, tedious work of walking and dodging traffic. At least the environment has changed a little. The scent of salted mud on mangrove swamp fills the air. By the time I rejoin the official trail, which is still on the road, I’m halfway there.
As I’m slumped on the ground taking a break a car actually stops. The driver leans out “you all good mate?” I give him a thumbs up. He returns it and carries on. I pick myself up and start again. The switch to gravel road changes everything. I start to climb at that just right gradient. The Kauri forest grows on either side, greens of Rimu, of Nikau, of fern blend together. The strip of silver I walk rounds corners, continues to rise. I keep on going. This really is all I can do. Grey clouds ripple above the canopy. The road plateaus. Tiny views appear between leaf and branch. The green of tree, the green of field. The hard work is done. My mindset somewhat restored. The way onward is down hill. At the end, a place to stay for the night. The cyclist who passed me on the way up returns. “You’re keen aren’t you?” I ask. “You’re doing well,’ he says in reply, “keep it up.” I decide that I will. Downhill I can hear the buzz of motorbikes. I keep waiting for them to come round the corner but they never appear. They never sound that far away either. I wonder if they’re dirt bikes doing laps of someone’s property. I hit the tar seal of a real road again. The first motorbike revs past. The second threatens to kill me. The owner overtaking a car as it passes me. I feel the air rush out of the way. The hot metal and rubber inches away and then it’s gone. Thoughts of violence rush up. If only I’d swung out a pole, thrown one after them. Pushed them off somehow. The engine roar disappears over hills. I’m fine. They missed on purpose. I settle down, slowly reaching the haphazard signing for the campsite at The Farm.
Across the road, waving enthusiastically is Anton. We’ve never met before but I reckon this is the first time I’ve been genuinely excited to run into a Noboer. He was maybe 10 days ahead of me on the South Island. He’s flip flopped too but changed direction. We stand on either side of the road and share stories and tips for the upcoming trail we each have. He’s aiming all the way to Russell. I wonder if I’ve gone soft with all these short days. We wave each other off and pull apart in opposite directions. Not long after a man pulls over and asks me where I’m headed. “Helena Bay,” I say. He looks confused. “Just down the road,” I try. “Want a ride?” He asks. “Thanks but I gotta walk.” Not that it’s far. I arrive in to Helena Bay way too early. The thought rises again to push out a big one. Whananaki “only” another 24km away. I could be there before dark. I don’t have to. I can sit on the grass above the beach. The turquoise sea browned by rolling surf. The endless Pacific out beyond. The Easterly wind blowing in off that big blue keeps me from overheating. The sun cooking away at the exposed skin of my arms and shins. After a couple of hours I give Dave a call. Alex and Dave are Trail Angels, people who are unofficially able to help with accomodation, sometimes a ride, or helpful info. On this occasion I’m looking for a place to stay. Alex and Dave have got a reputation too, Bryan and Phil both recommended stopping in. I make myself at home in the caravan, have a shower. Alex brings me the first of several beers. I join them for dinner of crumbed fish and fresh from the garden salad. I have a pet of their dogs Toto and Kowhai. It all feels a bit normal, a bit not like the trail. A break from the normal routine. I learn I’ve been mispronouncing Helena Bay, which explains why people have looked weirdly at me when I’ve told them where I’m going. In the morning, Dave drops me back at the beach and my line continues unbroken.
The message I recieve from local trail expert, James, shifts what little plan I had. No longer can I stay at Whananaki but further I must go. The tide timing to cross the next river means I’ve got to be in Ngunguru earlier than I hoped. Those big days are building. Helena Ridge Track is a refreshing change from the road. The track is uphill, graded for walkers. I’m sweating early from the workout. The trail gives a little underfoot. The soil softer. I add my own prints to the track. The bush releases me on to farmland across the ridge top. A few views of the coast, ocean mirror bright below the sun, are my reward. I face a moral dilemma at the turn off the Morepork Track. Officially it’s closed thanks to new land owners deciding they don’t want people walking through a stretch of bush. Paula told me she walked it anyway. Anton suggested walking it anyway. I know I want to, it saves me an 18km detour on the road. I tell myself if there are obvious signs that the route has been changed I have to follow them. I’m a good boy and I don’t like getting in to trouble. One arrow has been taped over, new signs have been put up. Bummer. Any act of rebellion against private land owners will have to wait. A local passes by, pulling over to offer a lift which I politely decline, he’s got something else for me though. “There is a shortcut up ahead.” He tells me I’ll get to a yellow post box, I’ll see a green water tank on the left. If I head straight for it, I’ll see the sealed road. “Might save you a couple of k,” he says. He’s probably right but looking at that green water tank there’s no direct route, no track and it’s all farm land. He didn’t seem to be the owner of all, or any of it. I’ve got no idea what’s in the fields on the other side. Much as I’m sick of the road, at least I know where it goes. I’m cranking out a good pace, I stick with the road.
A school bus driver offers me a ride the final 1km into Whananaki. I’ve still got the strength to decline. The takeaway is closed by the time I arrive. Too late for lunch, too early for dinner. Early enough to keep going. I consider slowing down but fat black clouds sitting low beneath the blue sky convince me otherwise. Along the Whananaki Walkway I’m hardly surprised to find that the people who live along the beach have managed to make the sand inaccessible to the public. I can’t say I blame them, it’s a beautiful spot. I do hope their lovely houses are the first to go when Greenland finally melts. Big drops of rain fall and I will it to continue. The heat is disgusting. The rain still doesn’t amount to anything. When I arrive at Sandy Bay a local chap kindly informs me I don’t have to sleep in the sand, as per the sign. “People are always pitching up in the grass, much better for you eh?” I agree and put my tent up over thick grass in the hope it compensates for my useless mattress. I didn’t think I’d have anywhere to wash this evening but I’ve almost got the best of everything. The pounding salt surf takes the dirt off. The ocean still warm. The tidal stream pool at the back of the beach takes the salt off. If only there were an easy way to get the sand off. The crash of waves joins the chorus of cicada. The night is loud, although I’m grateful the sounds are natural and not human being this close to town. I slide in my earplugs and drift off. I wake in the dark and lie on the floor listening to the endless noise. I get up to another beautiful day in Northland, and another tedious road detour. The change of route here seems to be for all of the possible reasons; the other road is more dangerous, the Kauri trees need protecting, a private land owner has forgotten land ownership is a privilege and not a right, someone, somewhere, complained about something. There’s nothing I can do about any of it beyond follow the new signs, try not to get runover, and complain on the internet
While cranking up the hill between me and Ngunguru I’m passed by two school busses, one with a trailer loaded with surf boards. My phone pings shortly thereafter. Old mate Joel off of Blackwater Rafting was driving one of them. He says hello. There is still some room on the road for unexpected moments. I’m nearly bowled over by a dog outrunning a quad on a later corner. “He used to be a racing dog,” the owner tells me. From the hilltop I see the ridge line of Whangarei Heads clearly for the first time. The next major landmark in my mind. Somewhere I might actually be tomorrow evening. I’m way early into Ngunguru, I play what if maybe about having chosen not to stop in Whananaki. It’s done now, I’m here where I make a hash of my resupply and forget to change my $50 note for useable cash. I do get gas though! I also manage to finally order a new sleeping pad and new trail shoes. They should get to Auckland before me.
James picks me up earlier than planned in his little metal dinghy and we race across the Ngunguru River. He doesn’t mind that I don’t have the right change. I pay for the ride and for access across the next stretch of land. There’s a huge map of the river estuaries coming up in his kitchen. He talks me through the Horahora River crossing. Everything sounds simple enough, I’m basically going to get wet. I won’t make the Taiharuru River or other in time so will have to road walk in to Tidesong B&B. At the Horahora River I bump into Anton’s pal, Dani. She’s started again from Taumarunui heading north. “It felt like such an anticlimax, I had to finish at one end of the country.” We share that brief bond we all have with the trail and each other. A bit of info shared about what’s coming. The crossing is deeper than I’d expected but there’s no flow at all. The mangrove mud smells like a geothermal spring without the warmth. Gross. I cruise down the remaining road. Today has gone well. I’m enjoying myself again, even the shit bits. Ros and Hugh take me in at Tidesong and make me a cup of tea. They’re going to make breakfast for me in the morning and get me across the estuary. I go up to the cabin on the hill. I’m the only one here. I’ve got a shower, a toilet, a pinic bench. Do I need anything else?
Dawn glows orange out East. The substantial breakfast truly is. Muesli and fresh fruit, followed by two poached eggs, bacon, mushrooms, potatoes. I could stay here forever, only I can’t. Ros rows me across the estuary, my timings for the tides being abysmal, and I’m on my way again. First up Kauri Mountain, which sounds like a Disneyland ride. It’s not a mountain, there are a few young Kauri trees. From the summit I get the view of what next. A day I’ve been waiting for, looking forward to since realising I’d be coming back this way. The white curve of Ocean Beach, the high rugged ridge of Bream Head. I’m mesmerised by the waves on the imaginatively named Ocean Beach. Translucent turquoise breaks into opaque white. Light dances in the water. I long to go in but I know today is a seriously big one. Distance, and that series of climbs at the far end of the sand. Te Whara Track is as I remember. A tough climb to the top. Anton described it as “South Island scenic and South Island steep.” Accurate. Once on the ridge the trail becomes a little more gentle. The infinite staircase down the far side shudders through my knees. I’ve still 7km to go so they really need to still be working once I get down. The roads of Whangarei Heads have this weird strip of concrete raised above and beside the tar seal. I think in some countries they’re called pavements, others; footpaths. New Zealand it turns out, has them to.
I wind along the coastal road, thinking this might be paradise, if you can make peace with the endless hum of the Marsden Point oil refinery across the harbour. The jagged volcanic ridges and columns coated in lush greens. White sandy bays. A calm, clear sea lapping gently on the shores. Houses with huge windows over looking it all. Whangarei Heads is one to remember. This is my third time through here and I’m surprised again at how much I like it. I turn a corner and go over a final hill, walking the last stretch of the day. I emerge into the carpark at Reotahi. I’ve been here before too. The freedom camp has a sign up saying no tents but online the suggestion is for one night only, Te Araroa walkers can stay here. There’s a little flat ground, picnic benches and toilets. It ain’t a lot, but it’ll do.