Matt hands me a beer. He gets my gifts, purchases I’ve made for myself more out of necessity than anything else. A new sleeping pad, a pair of Hoka Speedgoats to see me through to the end of Te Araroa. Luc offers me a t-shirt and a pair of shorts, and a cotton towel. They don’t have a bed but if given the choice I’d pick a real towel every time. We kick back on the sofa and talk like old friends do. After so long in the wild, so long alone it’s a wonderful feeling to be with people again. To have conversation that runs a little deeper than where have you come from, where are you going? Even if we do end up discussing the merits of turning the sofa around to freshen up the living space. We get take away, drink beers, and I’m up way past my bedtime. Fortunately, I don’t have to go far in the morning. To a library to print some documents, to a post office to return my old sleeping pad, then a little further into the city itself. I’m awake first in the morning, by several hours. I pop down the road to the supermarket. The Victorian storefronts of the old village centres remind me of Melbourne. All square edges and street art down laneways. I buy the goods for a full English. There’s a little thrill here, in having access to pots and pans, of being able to treat myself and others. This is something I miss.
Matt and Luc have plans of their own for the day and we all set off on our own adventures. I find a library, prints my forms, complete my forms. Then I make my way down the road to the post office where I pop my forms in a little bag along with my Thermarest in the hope I get it repaired and returned. I walk back through the city to the marina. Jack and Quentin are already outside Swashbuckler, having a smoke. The sun’s out, half empty pint glasses sit on the table. Lisa arrives. Everyone looks so clean, so fresh. We sit and share the stories we missed. Lisa tells us about the flight out of the Canterbury High Country and her on-going recovery from a broken ankle. Jack fills us in on the slow evolution of his romantic interest from the trail. Quentin talks about upcoming work projects. All of us tell stories we all know, reliving moments. Where we first met, how long we walked together, what we each have missed. People remember things differently. The beers keep flowing. I know I’m in trouble when Jack goes for another round and I say one more. We’ve been through this before. Quentin makes things worse when he comes back with round after round. I’m glad when he comes out with a bottle of wine and I have an excuse to stop.
Jack departs first. Quentin, Lisa and I go on for dinner. I remember it being 5pm and then it was 9pm and now I’m really ready for bed. Quentin puts me in an Uber and I’m back at Matt’s before him. Matt and Luc come home from a session of their own. I was already asleep on their living room floor. “Do you mind if we have another beer and watch you?” He asks, half joking. Of course I don’t. I stay lying down and the three of us chat a little longer in to the night. I try to convince Matt to quit his job and walk Te Araroa, even if it’s only the South Island. Luc needs no convincing, he’s walked it before. I sleep in longer than planned, a consequence of having too much fun with friends I might not see for a long long time. There’s 40 or 50km ahead of me today, depending on who’s measuring. I set off before sunrise. Amber glow above the townhouses. The trail winds through the city parks, all of which centre around hills. Hills with craters. The remains of the some 50 volcanoes the city of Auckland is built on and around. Sounds perfectly sane. The parks are filled with joggers and dog walkers. I ignore the trail in places, unnecessary corners turn through parks to come out again 200 meters down the same road. Road cyclists race by on the South side of the Manukau Harbour. The footpath along Kiwi Esplanade some of the nicer walking the city has to offer. I crunch through the gravel of the Watercare Walkway. The nearby sewage plant another scenic spot on route. On my way towards the airport, a silver BMW pulls over, a woman leans out and asks if she can give me a ride to somewhere. Thanks, but no thanks. The airport marks about half way of this attempt at one of my biggest days. I stop in a cafe for a slap up all day breakfast that pales in comparison to what I’d put together only yesterday. The inside of my heels have started to warm up. Trying to do 50km in brand new shoes isn’t one of my best ideas. The lingering hangover, scorched throat from second hand smoke, the aftertaste of saki don’t help either. Passing Orrs Road on the way out of the airport marks another highlight of the coming days.
Ranj and Josh offer to pick me up from the Botanical Gardens but if they do that I’ll have to go further in the morning. While my legs are fine, my feet are struggling. If I don’t stop, keep the momentum, maintain the pace everything is ok. I walk the Puhinui Stream banks, pass behind the gardens and return to suburbia. I find the end of Porchester Road. I know I’m close now. I turn off and tell Josh that if he turns up now in his car I won’t object. I’m no longer on trail. He does come and get me and I’m saved a further kilometer of road walking. Between work, lockdowns, and me walking Te Araroa I can hardly believe it’s been a year since the three of us walked the North West Circuit together. I’m swallowing time whole. Josh shows me my room, introduces me to their new pest kitten Comet. In the kitchen Ranj gives me a squeeze. Over a big glass of water we begin to catch each other up on what’s been going on over the last year. “You know what I’ve been up to,” I tell them. “Walking.” They’ve a new house, a new cat, lives proceeding. Rank’s nieces are.in the house. When we sit down to dinner Ranj tells me they have a question for me. I assume it’ll be why, or at least something trail related. Instead I get “are you Chris Hemsworth?” I think they knew, when I arrived. Not being Australian, and coming in at about the size of one of Chris Hemsworth’s arms; I’m not. Obviously they’re disappointed. The big day on my feet catches up with me. The trail awaits in the morning. I drift off to sleep in a room of my own. The best night of sleep I’ve had in a long time.
By morning I’m full of good intentions of getting up and getting gone. For reasons known only to myself I decide to check I’ve got everything before I leave. Why I didn’t do this before I left Matt and Luc’s I don’t know. Or the Stillwater Campground. I don’t have my tent poles. How? How do you lose a set of tent poles? Why am I like this? My quiet mind errupts. A mental crisis burns through me. I phone Matt first. “I haven’t left my tent poles with you have I?” He laughs, but checks anyway. They’re not there. There’s two options. I left them in the hall at Stillwater. I took off in the dark, kind of in a rush, trying to make the tide times. That would make sense. The other, less helpful is I left them by the side of the Okura River when I emptied my pack to drain the water. Didn’t I do an idiot check? I remember looking back, I don’t remember seeing anything. I call Stillwater next. I wait for the receptionist to call me back, hoping a person has them in their possession. Of course there’s a third option, I left them further behind at Wenderholm. I’m sure I had them, but I’ve been sure of things before. It’s like I’m despery to sabotage my tent, and my trip.
I go out and do my resupply in an attempt to take my mind off my own self-implosion. Maxine at Stillwater gets back to me. “No sorry no poles.” Josh lends me his car once I’ve calmed down and I drive out to Long Bay Regional Park. I don’t want to be in a car. I don’t want to be on the roads but I guess I’m lucky I can do this. Lucky I didn’t take off in the morning without checking. An hours drive took me two days. I’ve a 3km walk from the carpark to the Okura River Estuary. I begin to panic when they’re not there on the floor where I unpacked my bag. As I turn to go, there it is. The olive green bag hanging from the a nail in the sign for the park itself. I pause to explain my stupidity and excitement to the two bemused cyclists. They turn out to be more interested in my experience crossing the estuary than my idiocy. I make my excuses and trot back to the car, hoping to make it back across the city before rush hours. The roads are definitely busier, school traffic maybe but within two and a half hours I’ve completed a 100km round trip to save myself from myself. All its cost me is a day on the trail. Having an extra night with Ranj and Josh is wonderful, full of fun and literal games. I play Mario Kart with Josh, where we split the wins. Later we all play Catan, and Monopoly Deal where I come out on top. Then Ranj and Josh take a victory each in a game called Sequence that really has the making of me. I crash out again, another comfortable night knowing I’m going to need a really good excuse not to leave in the morning. I set off through suburbia with another heavy pack. Over breakfast I counted out the remaining days. The end still distant but also not far away either. My time on Te Araroa coming to a close. My final goodbyes said to my friends in Auckland. 600km to go.