On my day off I do nothing. A perfect rest day. I get up for breakfast and go back to bed. I get up for lunch and go back to bed. I’m more disturbed by the meaty spider crawling across the ceiling than the mouse skittering across the floor. Temporary problems that, for me, will be gone in the morning. Luke brings me teabags from work on his extremely short lunch break. Then I go back to bed. Eventually I decide I should do some tasks, like trim my moustache out of my mouth, cut my nails. Think about getting ready to walk again. 145km to go. Only 5 days remain on trail if all goes to plan. And it should. Nothing in the forecast sees me stopping again. It’s all about whether my body can keep on going. I believe it can, it must. Luke comes home from work and makes nachos for dinner. We sit at the table, reminiscing over the trail, the adventure, the journey. I realise here the better question to be asked is not “what was your favourite bit?” but “what parts are the most memorable?” In this way we discuss the good and the bad. The fun and the tough. Housemate Phil joins us for a while, then his friend Sarah. Conversation moves to the village of Raurimu. The Raurimu Spiral might be what puts Raurimu on the map. A feat of incredible engineering. Where else are they? Don’t other countries simply go around or through hills? Luke checks. The second biggest in the world is Romania. Made out of Lego.
I wake up at an almost reasonable hour for a normal person. Luke returns me to Owhango and serenades me with his car horn as I start marching on. I didn’t realise at the time but I’ve been here before. There’s a freedom camping spot on the bank of the Whakapapaiti River. I can’t tell at this distance if the duck stood on a rock downstream of the bridge is a Whio or a Mallard so we’ll call it a Whio. There’s traffic on the 42nd Traverse. Two 4WD trucks pass early. I’ve no idea where they’ve come from. Maybe the car park I pass further up the trail. It’s easy walking. Like the Timber Trail without the maintenance budget. I don’t remember where I last saw my hat. Did I put it away before I got in Luke’s car or have I left it on the spare bedroom floor? When I stop to change from warm to cool I find it’s sat in the top of my pack. Like my tent, I seem desperate to get rid of this hat which I still need. Whistle of Keruru and chop of Tui wings cut through the bush. Browned leaves catch my interest. The New Zealand bush is mostly evergreen. Blackened trunks and scorched earth reveal a fire. In the more open ground a small herd of deer are more easily seen. The forest still belows with the roar of stags. I step out on to the side of a steep gorge and drop an unexpected oh wow. How long has that been? The forest stretches as far as I can see. A thread of the Whanganui River flows through the valley. Around another corner, a little higher I’m taken back by the sight of Ngaruhoe and Ruapehu. They’re so close, so large. Dwarfing everything I’ve been through on the North Island.
Three hunters are surprised to see me on the Waione Cokers track. I’m well late in the season now for a Southbounder. Half a stag and its head are strapped to the leading quad. A successful trip. I’m thankful the storm I stopped for didn’t get up to much. The trail is dry, there’s no serious windfall. There’s not much in the way of big trees either to be fair. I find one of my old nemeses. The horrendous golden clay that never seems to offer any traction. I do a little dance on the slick surface before deciding it’s not the way. The last thing I need is an avoidable injury this close to the end. The track cuts and splits around particularly boggy sections. The Mangatepopo Stream might be my last major unbridged water crossing. That’s the territory I’m in now. Last gas cannister. Last bag of lentils. Last pair of socks. I encounter a few misleading markers. Pointing between junctions or up a road instead of down a track. I’m keen not to go too far out of my way and start checking the map, the GPS. Show me on the trail. Show me in the right place. I cross over Te Poutere Redoubt. I don’t have much interest in the history here, but the view of all three volcanoes makes the narrow climb on to the viewing platform worth the trip. I crunch down the gravel road to the highway. I can see the Tongariro Holiday Park. I get there and check in to a cabin. While the chap behind the desk enters my details I spot a green and yellow can in the fridge behind him. “Would you add that Sprite on as well please?” An extra three dollars doesn’t matter when you’ve had a $10 discount on your room. He tells me I’ve picked a good day to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. I’ll see a few people but not as many as if I went tomorrow. He claims, and I have no idea how he can know this, 2000 people are expected to cross on the Saturday. Good Friday is bad enough for me, there will be people there. I am fairly certain I’m the only person in the campground. No permanent residents. There’s nothing nearby. Nowhere to go but over the tops.
My alarm chimes at 4:30am. I’m pretty sure I could have got up an hour ago. I’ve been awake on and off for a while now. I know I can get to the trail head in an just over an hour. Even though it’s 7km away. I get ready as quick as I can. Even now I still seem to find ways to drag out the morning. I’m out the gate before first light. Pinprick of starlight overhead. Static sparkle of forming frost under torchlight. I walk through the fog of my own breath. Moisture gathers in my beard. The freezing start helps to keep the pace up. The faster I move the closer I get to being warm. The rising light of dawn snuffs out the stars. Cars and busses start to roar past. One of the shuttle bus drivers slows down as he passes. “Walking every step?” He asks. “Yeah I am mate,” “Good on ya,” and keeps going. I congratulate myself on being a faster than average walker when I hit the Ketetahi car park. The DOC signs all tell me I’m going the wrong way. There’s more climbing from this side. It’s harder. Oh no. What it means is I’ll have some of the track to myself this morning before I hit the tide coming the right way. The bellows of a stag are silenced by a rifle shot. I climb, climb, climb. I stop to take off my jacket my hat. Still cold but sweat coming. The first runner cones past before I’m even halfway up to the spot where Ketetahi Hut used to live. I realise I’m walking in pain. My socks have split around the back of my ankle. The Hokas rub away at the skin. They’ve definitely been the most durable but they don’t score high on comfort.
The ground underfoot is frozen. Ice threads like hair topped with mud, disintegrating underfoot. The vanguard come as I enter the main crater. Those that left early, ahead of the rush coming behind. Under a blue dome, the sun behind me the peaks and craters of Tongariro get me wowing. This really is the gem in the quiet crown of the North Island. I hit the flood of people at the base of the Red Crater. I stop on the shore of the Emerald Lakes. One crowd has a speaker blasting. Which came first, the mullet or the dickhead? I can hear people mumbling as I approach “I wouldn’t want to go up that.” Neither do I, but the closer I get the easier it looks. Memories flood in of everything I’ve done until now. The trail looks smaller, it snakes around. It’ll be over quickly. The biggest problem is probably going to be passing the downhill tide. Up turns out fine, aside from all the Dad’s telling me I’m going the wrong way. Down is worse because the crowd coming up is harder to navigate. They’re stopping for breathers, not looking where they’re going. Nobody expects someone to be coming the other way. “Are you doing it backwards?” several people ask. It’s easier to say yes than to stop and explain the outdoors doesn’t have a direction of travel. Someone further down has the imagination to ask if I’ve turned back. I laugh and tell him I’ve come from the other side. Among the day walkers there are other backpacks. Nobody stops to share Te Araroa stories but up here how would they know? Owen asks if I’m on day three. “More like 150.” I tell him. He’s impressed. So am I. “Is that a 150 day beard?” he asks. We joke about how beards are like relationships. First you want one, you put a bunch of work in. Then you get a bit sick of it and want it gone. Then there’s regret. I’m closing in on the get it gone stage. “It looks good,” Owen says. I laugh. “I look like I’m homeless.” We have an awkward he goes for a fistbump I go for a handshake parting.
There’s barking up ahead, which is odd. Dogs aren’t allowed in national parks. The man with them is on a mountain bike, which also isn’t allowed. I don’t usually care about what other people decide to do but his dogs aren’t under control. They come screaming over, barking away. Then they’re annoyed, or scared, or just a dog somewhere they shouldn’t be. Eventually their owner comes down without apology and I would like to forward the motion that we terminate the owner not the dog. It’s not their fault. They don’t know they’re not supposed to be here. I tape up my heels and sock at Mangatepopo Hut. Something is better than nothing, surely? It isn’t ideal but neither is paying National Park prices for a pair of socks for two or three days. I end up getting stopped by most people I pass on the way out. “Just finishing?” is the assumption. “You don’t know the half of it.” Now they’ve all got backpacks on but as one points on they’re not in my league. They’re doing three to four days. But that’s good I say. Being out at all is good. Especially as they’re not playing music from their phones. When I get to the Whakapapa Holiday Park I get Te Araroa discount, not only on the tent site for the night but on the burger and fries I really can’t justify. I’d told myself the food truck would be closed when I got there. It wasn’t. The place is heaving, although not with tents. Not a surprise. Sat at over 1000 meters, the temperature is expected to be as low as two degrees overnight. Imagine my shock when I wake up to find the tenting area has filled. I also find I’m suffering from the worst hiker’s hobble I’ve had in the North Island. That might slow me down a bit.
I go back to bed. When I wake the tents have gone. My tent is dry. The tree cover has prevented the condensation. The groups of old ladies in the kitchen shower me with attention and questions. Where does the trail go? Where did you start? When did you start? What has it been like? The one I struggle with is what next. Where do I go from here? Home first. What comes after? I have no idea. Hopefully a job I don’t hate so I can pay for these last few weeks. I set off late. I’m not really going anywhere today. 20km to National Park Village. My mind whirrs. I allow my emotions to spin. Unfiltered joy. This adventure has been exceptional. Excitement. This journey isn’t over yet. Sadness. It will be soon. Fear. I have no idea what comes next. I pause. This is some of the end. Last of the bush. I run my hands over trunks. Last of the tussock. Fingers play over the grass. Last of the stream crossings. I wade shin deep in the Mangahuia Stream, not because I have to but because I want to feel the ice cold, crystal clear water fill my shoes. Last slip on a tree root. at least I hope so anyway. Last 6km on the shoulder of a fucking highway. The hoons in their dust covered 4x4s that play half chicken with me don’t get me down. I am *this* far from walking the length of a country. I cruise into National Park Village. I take a bed in a hostel. I make a dinner reservation. This is not the end but it is so close. I don’t realise quite how bad I and everything I own smell until we’re in a sealed room together for five minutes. One of the others sharing the dorm asks if she can open the windows. Please. Please open the windows. I can take a shower to help with me but there’s nothing I’m going to do about my socks, my shoes. I don’t think there’s anything I can do about my pack. I walk down to the Station Cafe for dinner. I figured it being Easter weekend and all it might be busy. It isn’t. I’m in a celebratory mood. A beer, a venison borguignon. Probably a desert too. Thanks, Gran! Happy belated birthday to me.