Wednesday 1 August
Mangawhai Surf Club to a farmer’s verge in Black Swamp Road (11 km)
We started in the car park, and to keep the wind off, wore our rain jackets for the first time. They are viciously orange. We are walking for awareness, but this level of visibility is a little startling. Hannah prefers wearing unrelieved black, so the jacket has a purgatorial element for her.
Determined not to get lost again, we had a trail map with additional details filled in, a GPS and the printed trail notes. I had practised eye-rolling, so as not to miss any of the trail markers. These preparations were not enough. Either that, or we are peculiarly stupid. We reached what we thought was the Findlay Street walkway from the beach, through which we would access Molesworth Drive, but we did not arrive in Findlay Street. We also didn’t know what street we were in, because the GPS wouldn’t load properly and we couldn’t find the street sign. Then I had a brilliant idea. “If we open someone’s postbox and look at the address on the mail, we’ll know what street we’re in,” I said. “That’s a plan,” Hannah conceded. We both started looking furtive. Neither of us wanted to be caught rifling through a postbox, but if push came to shove, Hannah might just be ASBO enough.
Then we saw an estate agent’s office. Salvation. Here, we were informed that we were now in Wood Street, with Molesworth Drive immediately ahead. The lady agent kindly gave us two identical maps of Mangawhai. She perceived that we were folk for whom one map could not suffice. With gloomy triumph, we noted that the trail marker was at the intersection of Molesworth and Wood Street, instead of at Molesworth and Findlay.
The rest of the day was uneventful as we walked through Mangawhai, resisting entering The Smashed Pipi Gallery (my favourite shop), passing mangroves at high tide and turning into Black Swamp Road. Farmland with cattle predominated. Cattle are naturally curious. A herd of bullocks followed us for about 100 metres, capering heavily along their roadside fence. I blamed Hannah. Her udder is clearly an attraction.
With the weather deteriorating, we looked for a place to camp and decided on slightly raised but flat ground on the verge near some post boxes. We erected Samson (the tent now has a name). He is amazingly strong and we are clearly Philistines. When I was in primary school in the early 1970s, the little brother of a friend had a hamster called Samson. The hamster was renamed Samantha after defiantly giving birth. Nowadays he would not have to be renamed; transsexuals are accepted in civilised societies. But I digress…
The problem with camping on a verge is that people stop their cars and talk to you until you unzip the tent flap and talk back. You have to unzip or you appear rude, but you don’t always want to unzip because you’re either partly dressed or in your pyjamas. However, you can do an Alice in Wonderland Cheshire Cat impression, and stick your head out of a mere slit. This solves the modesty problem, but you still look really silly. Also, your unseen tramping partner behind you in the tent has the opportunity to pinch your bottom while you try to talk normally to the friendly passer-by and reveal that you’re walking to promote mental health recovery awareness. An apparently out-of-context shriek introduced into such a conversation with a stranger is not felicitous.
On the Black Swamp verge, a lady told us that in 25 years of living there, she’d never had someone camping outside her property. She kindly offered us food. Ten minutes later, a gentleman said he would make us tea in the morning if we cared to drop in. There are some very nice people in rural New Zealand.
Thursday 2 August
Black Swamp Rd to a dune near Pakiri River Estuary (15 km)
We awoke to a thrashing wind, so discovered how even inanimate objects can yearn for a career change. Yes, Samson wants to be a hang glider and we almost achieved an unplanned dual lift-off. “Sit inside the tent while I take it down,” shouted Hannah. Luckily, no cars passed while we completed this clumsy but effective manoeuvre. It was impossible to roll the tent up neatly, but we managed to crush it into its bag.
We turned into Pacific Road (a logging track) and tramped through the forestry block to the beach, where we turned south. At this point, the weather deteriorated and continued to be spiteful for the rest of the leg. An aggressive headwind blasted us with sand and horizontal rain. It was very heavy going and we had to lean into the wind and press on regardless. We were relieved to reach the Te Arai Point campsite, where we rested for about 20 minutes.
“Are we nearly there yet?” asked Hannah. (Does anyone know when children stop asking this question? Apparently, 15 years is not old enough.) I unrolled the map. “Oh Shitty MacShitty-pants!” was her anguished cry, when she saw that the Pakiri Beach campsite was still 12 km of beach tramp away. I laughed a lot, so she punished me by recording my tramper glamour in this photo. Then her mood changed. “I can hear bells”, she said. What can one do to help and reassure someone who has hallucinations? I don’t know. But this time things worked out OK, because I could hear a muted tinkling too. Then we saw the source of the sound; it really cheered us up. Someone had made a lovely wind chime out of shells, and had hung it on a tree. That was the highlight of our day. Whoever you are: thank you for this work of art and for leaving it there for us to find.
We noticed a Te Araroa sign at the top of the beach steps, but no direction markers. We set off. Returning to the beach steps 10 minutes later, we then went uphill and on reaching the cliff top discovered the path split into three, again without an orange direction marker. After descending a very steep and muddy path, which brought us only to a dead-end lookout point, we were both seriously annoyed. Retracing our steps, we found a track that turned out to be the right one and eventually worked our way back to the beach. Here we had a smiley moment: seeing four wet and joyful dogs on an outing with a besotted owner. No other soul in a right state of mind would choose to be on the beach on a day like this. Is there a category in the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual for people who are insane about their canines? If so, we could probably tick that block for ourselves, too.
The rain and poor visibility prevented us from taking any more photographs on this leg. We battled down the beach, occasionally taking turns to sleepwalk. One of us would close eyes and slip into zombie mode while the other held her hand and kept her moving straight.
By 1.30 pm we were exhausted. We had no idea how far we were from the Pakiri River estuary, but the tide was getting uncomfortably high. There was intermittent cell phone reception, but the GPS told us we were one kilometre inland. To be thus electronically informed while the tide laps at our feet is not reassuring. Too bad.
We found a spot behind a dune where it was OK to camp. It was reasonably sheltered from the wind and there was some grass to provide traction for tent pegs. We erected Samson; I cooked a meal of Uncle Ben’s rice and Hannah read 40 pages of Adrian Mole aloud. Lying in our sleeping bags, hearing the rain crackling on the tent, I longed for Rimsky Korsakov, Etienne’s fat and evil cat. I wanted his suffocating weight on my chest; his pricking, kneading forepaws and cheerful purr. By 3.00 pm we were asleep.
Friday 3 August
A dune near Pakiri River Estuary to Omaha Valley Rd, Matakana (14 km)
How does one take down a tent in the rain without getting the inner capsule so wet that it can’t be used again with comfort? We’ll have to find out, because pestering rain is inescapable in New Zealand.
Back on the beach, we tried stopping for breakfast, but gave up. The airborne sand skims in a punishing knee-high mist, so sitting down to eat is impossible. The sand hits you in the face and pours over your food. We held hands as we walked. It felt friendlier that way.
We saw a seagull that kept flying upwards and dropping something long and thin onto the sand, then picking it up and repeating the process. Years ago in Africa, I saw a Lammergeier drop bones from a height onto rocks to access bone marrow, but wondered what this gull was achieving. If the weather had been kinder, we would have stayed to find out.
We saw a dead tern and two interesting-looking dead fish, which were too big to be puffers, but had backwards-pointing spines all over their bodies. We also counted 10 (yes, ten!) tennis balls along the tide line. There must be a doggie, living somewhere along this coast, that is a serious underachiever with playing “fetch”, but has an owner who suffers from eternal hope. Aw, bless!
The first two kilometres of the day closed the gap between our camp and what was meant to be our destination the afternoon before. When we reached the estuary, we were glad that we had not attempted this section the previous afternoon, because we could see how difficult and even dangerous it might be to cross at high tide while carrying heavy backpacks. Even now, at low tide, the river was knee deep where it joined the sea and its current had considerable tug. Seagulls flew in a screaming halo above us. I told Hannah that they were waiting for us to die. If we started crawling, they would land next to us and start picking out our eyes. It is amazing what dregs of comfort one can find to share with a tramping partner.
This was the hardest day yet on the trail. We walked for six and-a-half hours but covered only about 14 km. The trail notes speak of a path “through steep farm pasture for 2.5 km” and mention an “occasionally slippery track” in native bush. No kidding. It is steep and slippery; the cow manure is bountiful and near the summit the gorse flourishes. It is also not a trail section for a soul with bovinophobia. This time there was no fence between us and the bullocks. At one point, though, there was tape. Suddenly a burning tremor jolted my arm upwards. Duh! The tape was electrified. Of course it was! The tape was a little too high for us to step over without being certain of avoiding an unwanted and semi-pornographic jolt in the pants. So we leopard-crawled under it. Face down in the sopping grass, Hannah indicated in four-letter words that her enjoyment level was hovering on empty. Then I had a brilliant idea. “You could do some DIY electro-convulsive shock therapy with this,” I told Hannah. “Yip, Mom. That’d fix me,” was the response.
The primary difficulty was the weather. The rain did not cease and we had never experienced such a wind before. It thrust from the side as we climbed through the pastures and repeatedly sent us staggering. Half way up, we turned to look at the view. It would have been truly fabulous on a clear day, but already the valley was faint beyond a veil of rain. Within a short time, visibility was reduced to about 50 metres.
In the native bush section, the path itself was often obscured, when it wasn’t an impromptu watercourse, but the orange trail markers were very helpfully frequent. On the descent, our legs were trembling and I found my fingers too thick to retie my shoelaces. “Rather than do this section again,” I said to Hannah, “I would prefer to give birth to an elephant. With tusks.”
There are moments of laughter and beauty on the Te Araroa trail, but we’re not doing it for the jollies or the pretties; we’re doing it for the sake of physical endurance, to show solidarity with the psychological endurance of others. It’s all about “the thing”. So from that perspective, this was our best day so far.