I endure a troubled night. Knowing what’s to come or that my alarm might wake up four others? I set off under a handful of stars. The moon burns white to gold, reflecting the rising sun. A pastel spectrum washing the horizon. Mist fills the unfolding valleys of Whanganui National Park. The distant, formidable peak of Taranaki rises above the clouds. A magnesium flash over my shoulder spreads morning across the forest lined ridges ahead of me. A family camping on the roadside wish me a happy Easter. “How far are you going?” I tell someone out loud for the first time. “Whakahoro, if my legs hold.” I’d mentioned it to Luke, doing the final 52km in a day but it was still only a consideration then. Now it was more like why not? I’ve got nothing to lose.
Fisher Track carries me off the Central Plateau, dumping me on the side of the Whangairehe Stream. Cold lingers in the deep corners of the valley. A gravel road leads me to another waterway, the banks of the Retaruke River. This one will be my trail mate until the end. A couple of cyclists catch me at the Kaiteke Monument. “On a big walk are you?” He asks. “Yeah, just about to finish The Big One.” “Congratulations,” she says, “that’s awesome.” It is, isn’t it? Then she ruins it by asking what next. I throw it back. “What should I do next?” They don’t know either. I might buy a lottery ticket. Either I win big and my ridiculous run of luck goes on, or I lose and nothing changes. On my way again, two people walk back the other way. They’re carrying nothing. “Far to go?” He asks. “25km,” I reply. “Good luck,” he says. “I hope the weather stays good for you,” she says. They’ve no idea. There are three different kilometer markers on Oio Road. None of them are helpful. I am counting down. Every step, as it’s always been, I never have to do again. Although give me half a chance and I would. If I had the money I’d get in a canoe tomorrow and paddle down to Whanganui. Back when I thought I’d still have time and money at the end, I’d considered one more shot at the Southern Crossing of the Tararuas. I’ll come back one day, if I can, and walk the length of the South Island again. Only this time Northbound. I’ve got 12km to go and the desire to finish has left me. Or maybe it’s just the desire to get back up and start moving again that’s gone. The same cyclist passes me twice. Going downhill both times. He must have really enjoyed riding this gravel road. “Only about 5k to go,” he yells. When he comes back in the car he gives me an almighty wave. I give him three fingers. Overtake me again, you coward. When he realises I’m not swearing at him I see his face erupt with laughter. He’s not coming back.
There’s a crowd at Whakahoro but nobody waiting for me. None of these people know what I’ve just done. What I’ve been doing for the last 5 months. There’s no mobile reception either, so I can’t talk to anyone who does. I get my tent up and move in to a cooking shelter were a woman is frying some rice. She talks a lot and says nothing but she offers me some chorizo and rice and I’m not going to turn down free food, even now. Another couple of people join us and we have a perfectly normal where have you come from where are you going chat. I manage to slip in that I’ve just finished Te Araroa and get two congratulations. Really it feels like any other night, meeting new people, asking the same questions, telling the same stories. Perhaps that’s the best ending I could hope for. No heroes return. No welcome party. Just another night on the trail. Too late I learn I could have had a shower up at the Blue Duck Café. It’s too late, too cold now. One more scuzzy night on the trail. The sleep of exhaustion takes me through until morning. There’s condescension but no frost. While the walking is over, it’s not over until I’m out. I chat with some of the paddlers over a cup of tea. I’m waiting for the Blue Duck Café to open for breakfast. A proper coffee, scrambled eggs on toast with a side of bacon. I have to get out of here today. I know I have to take the attitude I will get a ride. Hitching requires the fortitude to remain on the side of the road, still smiling as people pass you by. I also know I have to consider the possibility I’ll need to walk. First back to the Kaiteke Monument, and then out. I watch a van rumble down the road to the river. That might be my first chance for a ride. When I see it return I trot down to the gravel and throw my thumb out. “Jump in the bus,” the driver says. I chat with the driver for a bit on the beauty of walking, travelling slow. How’s business? Busy over the holidays but he says I’m lucky they’re in at all today. I tell him I’ve been lucky for two years now.
Standing on the edge of the highway as it passes through Owhango. Back on the ground, thumb out. It really is that easy. I don’t have to wait long either. I never expect the trucks to stop, they’re on a job but this one does. I climb up in to the front and I’m on my way. The driver asks me 1000 questions, sometimes repeating the same ones again and again. He’s going all the way to Palmerston North and I consider going all the way with him. I dont. I figured getting out of National Park Village would be easy. It’s not like it’s hard, just less convenient than I’d hoped. I could always stand on the side of the road, continuing to push my luck. I book a bus as far as Palmerston North the next day. Frustrated that’s as far as I can go and not until the afternoon. I sit around the backpackers, drinking my way through the remains of my teabags, instant coffee and milk powder. The bus comes. We ride over the aggressive creases and folds of the Whanganui basin. Light catches the bus and paints it’s shadow across a pastured hillside. The long ride home has begun.