The light outside the toilet of the Reotahi freedom camp stays on all night. Every time I wake up I panic I’ve overslept only to find I’ve been dozing for half an hour. I appear to have returned to an early trail sleep cycle of one good night in every 5. The toilet light would be useful in the morning, if I needed an early start. My ride across Whangarei Harbour isn’t until 9am. My third boat ride in three days. The grey clouds over the volcanic ridge deliver a long promised shower. My tent, thankfully, already packed. I make a mad dash to squeeze everything else into my pack. The rain doesn’t amount to much but there’s the distinct threat of more to come. A man called Peter supposedly does the harbour run for free. Unfortunately for both of us he’s been in hospital for the day so isn’t fit for boating. I have to pay another man, called Blair, $40 instead. It is, as the saying goes, what it is. He gives me the long overdue, and highly predictable news. “Rains coming, should be here this afternoon and sticking around for a few days.” Can I outwalk it? The tide being high I’m going to be forced in land on to the road. The offer of walking on soft sand isn’t tempting so I go earlier than I have to. The Ruakaka Pipeline Track behind the beach destroys my dreams of speed. Soft sand remains underfoot. The hills of yesterday are engulfed in grey. The wind carries early warnings. You are going to get wet. The black and heavy sky gets ahead of me. I am surrounded. Closing in on Ruakaka, the track firms up and I start stretching the pace. I don’t stop in town, heading straight out to Ureti Beach. A smattering of rain hits the sand. I chase the window of blue sky ahead. Always getting smaller, always beyond my reach.
The beach walking ends and I return to the road. The drivers leaving Waipu seem completely unaware that they are in fact allowed to cross the broken white line to avoid me. Especially when there isn’t oncoming traffic. I have by now accepted expecting them to slow down is asking for too much. A footpath eventually appears and I am most relieved. Coming out of Waipu is a different story. A community project has almost completed a shared walk and cycleway between Waipu and Waipu Cove. I am off the road, which is about as exciting as it gets. My excitement lasts about as long as the footpath. It ends abruptly on a straight stretch of road where I at least find the quality of driver has somewhat improved. There’s still the occasional dickhead, overtaking where I am rather than waiting the at most 3 more seconds for me to be an object in their rearview mirror. I look on the bright side, I haven’t been rained on in about an hour. The footpath returns for the final stretch into Waipu Cove. I wince at the sign on the campground reception door which claims a casual rate of $40 a night. I fall immediately in love with the girl working on reception when she tells me it’s only $19 because I’m walking Te Araroa. Now that’s service. I get my tent up in the dry, I have time even to relax. Not that there’s anywhere to do this, a strict Covid policy means the TV lounge is closed. Rain creeps in again, fat drops that take forever to fall before bursting across the pavement. In response, the earth throws up fresh wafts of petrichor. The thick cover of cloud drags the dark of night in sooner. I crawl into my tent, thankful that for today at least my gear is still dry. A full moon sinks on a dawn blue sky. Out East a mountain range of cloud rises over the seam the summits backlit by the coming sun. The heavy rain has come and gone for now. The weather wizards suggest I haven’t seen the last of it.
I retrace a handful of steps. I’m stopped by a man who asks “didn’t I see you yesterday?” More than likely. I was walking then as I am now. Aren’t I always? This man carries on talking to me. He did a cycle trip once across the Nullarbor Plain of Australia. “I bet people offer you a ride all the time,” he says. “That’s why I cycled. Not many people can fit a bike too.” Bruce gives me a lesson in roadside spirituality. He has a relationship with the wind. “It was all around me, it was my companion.” He goes on. “This is one of the oldest relationships,” he says. “Look for it as you walk.” He points at the grass gently flexing. That’s not all. “Look out at the world, look at that fencepost.” I do look at the fence post. “Now do you feel it looking back at you?” I can’t say I do but I like his madness. He’s not human centric, he’s got an appreciation of our insignificance. Before I set of again he tells me “Life is a miracle. Be thankful, you are magnificent.” Thanks, Bruce. As I wind up the road to pass above Langs Beach I become enraptured by the mass of moisture in the sky over the sea. Huge walls of vapour bubble and climb. Is that what’s gone or is that what’s coming? Through cleared lands, waiting for buyers, waiting for plans and homes a dog comes a barking at me. The owner swiftly follows, thankfully she isn’t barking. She talks me through the trail ahead. It’s her land, see. She apologises that they’ve not finished it yet, they want to get a shelter and some toilets in during the next few years. That’s how private landowners go about getting respect, by giving a little, or in this case a lot. I can’t help but wonder if people spent a bit of money on making the trail near to them a little more accommodating, people would be a lot happier sticking to it.
The Langsview Track disappears into the bush. The thread of soil as climbs into the canopy. Te Araroa impersonating itself with undulating peaks, convoluted corners. I emerge under one of those collosal grey bellied clouds as it gently disembowels. A kiss of rain. I see more kingfishers in 30 minutes of Northland farm than I have in 30 years of living in the UK. I pause to watch two harriers drift on rising thermals. I can hear quail jabbering in the nearby shrubs. The Far North has been a long way from the highlights reel but it sure has its moments. I do my own evangelising to a lad from Bristol. His Dad is hoping to walk the South Island next season, he’s talking about joining for a few sections. “Nah,” I tell him, “quit your job, do it all.” There’s plenty of time for work. You can always get another job once you’ve done the thing. Under a blue sky, the sea beyond the Mangawhai Cliffs shifts from turquoise to navy. White surf rolling across the rocks. I pass a lot of people. Mangawhai Beach is swarming with people. Literally tens of people. A Saturday, a nice day, an hour’s drive from Auckland. A couple stop me as I pass to ask if I’m doing the trail. One of them claims to have finished in January. “Oh wow,” I say “when did you start?” “Oh about 5 years ago.” Everyone walks their own journey. I’m glad to have made this attempt of all in one. I stride into town, finished for the day. The Coastal Cow Backpackers is perfect for a day off. Heavy rain is forecast for tomorrow. I need to gain a day somewhere to have any chance of hitting the last estuary during daylight hours. The dorm room is empty, the washing machine is free.
Two bros come in at bed time and then leave, then come back again. One stays in bed all day. I get up make breakfast, set down a plan for the remaining distance. He’s still in bed. I go out for lunch and come back. He’s still in bed. I go out for dinner and come back, he is finally risen. I go to bed again expecting another interrupted night. The light goes on at midnight. Coughing ensues throughout the morning. That had better not be covid. The storm warning I’ve been watching delivers. Thunder shakes the building, light illuminates the dark. The rain holds off until the morning when it hits with cyclonic rage. I decide to wait another day, until it clears. Then I decide it’s only 20 or so kilometres down the beach to Pakiri. Why not go? So I get ready to go. I lose my hat and spend ages searching. I pull everything out of my pack, and everything out of its own bag. I have to check with the woman who checked me in. “Was I wearing a hat when I arrived? She tells me I’d left it outside on a chair. Between the wind and the rain I find it hanging from a branch in the garden. Lucky me. I cross the Mangawhai Estuary. The waters are builder tea brown, swirling like they’ve been stirred with a spoon. There are stream crossings ahead. I wonder if I’ll be able to pass. The day warms out, dries up. Beyond the lingering puddles there’s little evidence a storm has passed through. On the way out of town I cross the Northland border and enter the Auckland region. Another section complete. The finish line drawing a little nearer.
I hit Te Ari beach after high tide which is a blessing. A stream that often doesn exist is pumping into the waves. A family have stopped and I hope I don’t have to do the same. Sure it’s fast, sure it’s discoloured. It’s no more than knee deep and I make it past the first obstacle. Setting out at all was a risk. There’s another stream further down and the Pakiri River at the end of the day. I won’t know what my chances are until I get there. I take some convincing the human shape moving along the beach is both human and moving. Not a walker as I’d expected, an old man investigating the storm’s bounty in the high water line. The second stream looks worse than it is. High pressure waves ripple across the flow. The water tugs at my ankles but it’s fine. I’m fine. One more to go. Close to the end Rosie, Nico and their excited to see me dog say hello. She tells me I’ll be fine for the crossing. Cauliflower heads of cloud blossom over the land. More rain is forecast, further storms possible. Oystercatchers forage beak deep in the damp sand. The only threat at the Pakiri River is underfoot. I choose a spot where the flow split between three channels. The water rarely climbing more than halfway up my calf. In the middle channel I sink just as deep again in to the soft sands of the river estuary. Nothing stops me. I stroll in to Pakiri Beach Holiday park with no intention of putting my tent up. I swallow the $60 offer for a cabin. The man asks if that’s ok and I say yes but I wonder if I’d have got it cheaper if I’d said no. Paula managed to stay here for $35. I don’t know if I’ve been hit with a male tax or a covid levy but I accept it. I get my good night’s sleep, making the stay worth every cent. I’m on trail by 7:30 heading inland again towards cloud covered hills. Glasses steaming, sweat pouring early I know it’s going to be a tougher day.
I wander through a dark and green tunnel of fern and palm fronds. The Tamuhanha Track a welcome break from roads and beaches. A little reminder of what tramping in New Zealand is really like. Rooted tracks, slick with mud. Then it’s over. With the sun over my shoulder I walk along a gravel road towards an increasingly black sky. This road isn’t so bad, joining two bush walks. The ghastly wailing isn’t anything spiritual, only the wind in overhead wires. The slow going through the bush, along the stream wears me down. When I come out on the logging road my way is blocked by orange bunting. Metal arms swing, claws filled with logs of pine. Arcade machines that win every time. It doesn’t look like my trail is closed but another tree has fallen, blocking the way. I’m glad I can continue. I disturb a handful of little pigs chewing up the track. I don’t see the big mama pig somewhere deeper in the bush, grunting warnings, calling in her brood. Clouds ahead rumble with thunder. The high, dense canopy offers shelter from the showers of rain, for a while. Not long before the weather packs it in I walk in to Loki. Another flip-flopper coming back up from Taumaranui. We share notes. He reckons there’s a 2km section just outside of Waitomo which is The Worst. I ask him “did you walk the Marora River track?” He claims he did. We both talk about the softcore hitchers, so I’m inclined to believe he’s done every step. I tell he’s got it pretty good up to Tidesong, and to stop and Tidesong. After that it’s roads all the way to Kerikeri. “Fast ks at least.” We split up as the sky falls. By the time I arrive at the Dome Cafe I’m soaked through. I’d heard mixed things about the cafe, you can stay here but it’s also closed. It looks pretty closed. A man comes out of the house up the drive and shouts down to me “Are you walking the trail?” “Yeah,” I shout back. “Where are you staying tonight?” He asks. “Somewhere near here I hope.” “Come up.” Ono introduces himself, his son, Nico, who is celebrating his first birthday. He has no idea of this. Ono shows me where I can put my stuff and pitch my tent. “You look soaked mate, come in and have a hot shower.” On my way down the hill, in the rain, thinking about putting my tent up in the wet I was dreaming of a hut at the end of the day. Somewhere to stand up in the dry and get changed. Well this is even better. I imagine the shower is a long way from the peak but in this moment it felt like The Best shower on trail. By the time I come out the rain has stopped. I get my tent up in the dry! Yes! I put my split peas, because I couldn’t get lentils, on to soak and then I’m done for another day.
I put off putting on my still damp from yesterday hiking clothes. How long has it been? Months. As I crossed an ankle deep stream yesterday I wondered then how long had it been since I started a day with wet feet. A while. The forecast remains dodgy. The first obstacle of the day is State Highway 1. Closer to Auckland the traffic is heavy, even early in the morning. I dart across and start my walk for the day. The forestry roads are boring but better than being on the highway. They go around the houses, the farms, the pine trees and everything else. The sky closes in. Light fades. I wait for the rain. I don’t have to wait long. It comes with total obscurity. Hills behind me fade to white. I tuck under some pines to put my waterproof on. The hills ahead of me disappear. This one lasts for a while. I get several more come and go. I take my waterproof off and it starts to rain again. By the time I’ve put it back on the rain has stopped. Thunder claps behind me as I close in on Puhoi. Generally speaking, you can’t outrun the sky but I manage to squeeze into the Puhoi Pub seconds before the next downpour. There’s barely space on any of the walls. Old school pictures of dogs playing card, metal advertising signs for Coca-Cola, foreign currency and what appears to be either student, or fake IDs. I order a pint and a BLAT with fries. I’m staring out the window at the still falling rain when the barman asks “how much further to walk today?” “About 8km I tell him, I’m just hoping this blows over first.” “Good luck,” he says. I set out again once the worst appears to be over. Another short road walk until the main road walk. State Highway 1 is now more like an actual highway. Marginally terrifying. I hug the very edge of the shoulder. The 4WD track down the side I take a punt on ends at a gate. Not locked but not ideal so I head up the escarpment back to the highway’s side. The grass that looked like a playing field is anywhere from waist to knee deep. A good time to be reminded I’m allergic to grass. I collide with walls of gorse. I end up going under a pine tree and over a wire fence before I make it back to the road. A late reminder to stay on the trail, even if it is the main road in to Auckland from the North. I arrive at the Schischka Campground in Wenderholm Regional Park in full sun. I am absolutely winning. The tent goes up in the dry. Again. Result.
I pack away in the not much but enough light of the half moon. I’m dry even if the tent isn’t. I set out in the dark hoping to clear the small section of the Twin Coast Discovery Highway without too much traffic. There’s enough of a trail beside the road that it doesn’t matter so much. I pass through the still sleeping town of Waiwera before first light. I hit the beach bang on low tide. The predawn glow in the sky is better than the sunrise. A black curtain still hanging along the horizon. I hop across boulders as the rock shelf jutting out to sea slowly disappears beneath it. The tide turns with a little roar of waves and then the ocean is silent. The water beginning to creep in. I skip around two headlands. The third looking like it might be out of reach, which is fortunate because the trail steps off the beach there. I bump over that last hill and drop on to Orewa Beach. The sand is busy with people, joggers, walkers with dogs, walkers with pushchairs. Orewa being the final outpost before the metropolitan sprawl of Auckland begins. All I’ve seen so far of the mega city is the cone peak of Rangitoto Island, lying in the harbour. Already I’m uncomfortable with the number of people around. I walk around the estuary, past a mall, and into Pak ‘N’ Save. Not a resupply but I do need sunscreen, batteries, and something for breakfast in the morning. Then I walk down a road for the rest of the afternoon. There’s one comment on Far Out that so far summarises the trail North of Auckland City better than I can. “The road was stupid, just like all the other stupid roads.” Other comments suggest Duck Creek Road is dangerous, impossible and should not be attempted. My main concern is that wind. I can’t hear the cars, so I have less time to step off the road. The tight corners prevent any dickheads attempting to overtake. A little sketchy yes, but no worse than anything else I’ve already walked down. The bigger issue with these urban areas is finding somewhere to take a leak that isn’t someone’s driveway. When I reach Stillwater Campground I’m not charged and given freedom of the TV Room that even has a mattress. The woman letting me in also informs me there’s an active Covid case on site but they’re in isolation. This is as close as I’ve knowingly been to the virus. If I’m gonna get it, I’d expect it to happen in the next few days as I pass through the city itself. I try to hang my tent on the line to dry but the wind only assists in wrapping the fabric around the lines. I drape it over a couple of chairs inside and hope for the best. I suspect it won’t matter. In the morning I’ll be crossing the Okura River Estuary. Half the people I know who’ve crossed it had to use their pack as a raft and swim. My pack isn’t waterproof. My pack liner is a plastic bag full of holes. As I unpack and repack I notice one of my dry bags has a hole in as well. The signs are promising
I’ve checked the tide times. I’ve made a note of first light and sunrise. I know how far I have to walk before I enter the water. I’ve checked the weather, in as far as is it going to rain? How’s the wind? Atmospheric pressure might make some difference too. I don’t check my horoscope, only because it might say something ominous about being swept off my feet. Something I might easily interpret as being washed out to sea. I walk in the dark to begin, torch light makig ghosts from trees. I head out along the sand bar a long way from the shore. I am nervous at the crossing. More than anything I’m worried about my pack getting wet. I think about taking it off and carrying it above my head but that also sounds like a sure way to fall over. A little bit of panic enters my breathing when the water rises above my belly button. The base of my pack submerges. A few steps later and I’m rising out of the river. I get to the far bank and I’m feeling bulletproof. Another successful crossing. Looking back it’s hard to imagine someone doing that for the first time but I’m glad to have followed their footsteps. I follow the coast for a while. Avoiding the unnecessary undulations over cliff tops and the illogical street routes. The tide is on the way in. The sea is something I don’t want to mess with. When I start wading around rock points it’s time to find an exit.
The suburban sprawl smells of detergent, perfume, and moisturiser. Clean, but distinctly unnatural. The shield cone of Rangitoto grows larger with every bay. Skyscrapers and the Sky Tower finally visible through the haze of distant showers. Even now people stop me to ask “are you doing the trail?” I bounce another couple of cliff climbs by relying on other people walking the shoreline. Never the best strategy when you find yourself mid-thigh in the waves. A natural looking stone footpath takes me around another avoidable climb. The footpath keeps going, and of course it does. It isn’t natural. Under all that concrete is a pipeline. I keep moving along the shore until a staircase leads me up. On the beach, a man is throwing boulders. On the stairs, a pair of women go up and down. Once is enough for me. Suburbia passes without incident. The full force of the wind catches me at North Head. I’m in familiar territory now. Around the corner is New Zealand’s first and final city; Auckland. I grab some food and a ticket in the ferry terminal. I’m thrilled to be arriving, which takes me by surprise. Auckland feels like another milestone along the way. The 1200km I had left to do on the North Island is halved. I’m amongst it. The towering walls of glass and chrome.and concrete. Setting out from the city is going to feel like starting the last leg, the home straight. Even if it will still take me another three weeks. I rise up to Mt Eden, the kind of platform people will tell you you can see ruapehu from here on a clear day. It ain’t that clear. I come down the back of the dead volcano and walk off trail in to find old mates Matt and Luc.