290,026 Steps (221 km)

Some people are so poor all they have is money. These are the words carefully lettered onto the back of what I am calling the Whangarei Hilton. Let me explain.

On November 5th I departed Apihara in the early morning to begin my four day trek through “the forests” across the island to the town of Kerikeri. There were many reports that this leg of the journey was treacherous and muddy so I was prepared for something extra challenging. Walking up the road for a few kilometres was beautiful – a sunny morning down country roads gently up hill towards the mountains and forest beyond. Entering the Herikeno forest I was immediately deluged with rain for a short spell, and then a world of hate that lasted for two full days. The beach storm of the previous days proved to be a cakewalk in comparison.

This two day trek was the worst thing I have done in my life. Also, it was the best thing. Thick jungle (they insist on calling it “forest” here) and mud-soaked, steep, slippery and dark trails through nothingness. The thick brush and forest blocked out the horizon, the sky, and any semblance of a vista. It was a dark, wet, slippery purgatory that devastated my body with cuts, scrapes and cold.

About a third of the way through on this same day, while taking a lunch stop and inspecting a broken walking stick (BTW, thanks Black Diamond!), I was met by Rory. Rory is a tremendously happy and congenial 20-something New Zealander who made great conversation and a welcome sounding board to commiserate with about the state of this section of trail. He also helped me gain understanding of a few birds and proved himself a great navigator to keep track of the trail markers. We struggled physically for the day and managed to descend through a steep mud-soaked descent out of the Herekino forest before camping for the night. Another 11 hour hike (27 km) behind us.

The next morning, November 6th, after a night of rainfall, Rory and I continued on towards the Raetea forest. On a sunny morning we walked through some forest lands, some small farms in an idyllic valley before coming across Rob and Joss, two hikers from England on the same trek. We continued to cross paths with them throughout the day. This was the day of, and in, hell. The worst, most dangerous, exhausting day of my life. It made the Herekino hike the day before look like a Sunday stroll. It had more of everything: more mud, more pointy sticks, more steep endless ascents, more roots, more puddles, more barbed wire, more cuts, more of everything unholy in this world. And it went on forever. It was almost 14 hours before Rory and I got to our end destination, State Highway 1. That is where and when, alas, we came upon the Whangarei Hilton.

Rory’s uncle is Jimi. Jimi is a busker, a free spirit, an honest talker and a generous, warm soul. Jimmy lives in Whangarei in a “housetruck”, which amounts to a large customized home on wheels. Jimmy and the housetruck were waiting for us at State Highway 1 –  at a roadside pullout next to the river. After two long days of distress in the forest, we dragged ourselves under moonlight to this Hilton on wheels. Within an hour I had a hot shower, a warm bed a hot meal and a cold beer and the charming company of the host, Jimi. He shared his home, his food, his spirit and his outlook on life and happiness and what matters – and I loved every minute of it. Thank you Jimi. You are amazing.

The morning of November 7th was about drying out and resting achy muscles, with the aid of a hot breakfast in the company of another traveller (Moritz, from Germany) complete with bacon, eggs, toast, spaghetti and hot coffee, before I set upon my next adventure: hitch-hiking! I have never done this before in my life and had more than a little anxiety around the matter. It all worked out, though. I caught four rides to get between the Hilton and Kaitai, where I picked up some food for dinner, some missing provisions, and some wine. Some interesting conversations throughout and two invitations to stay at people’s homes if I ever needed. The welcoming and trusting attitude of so many of the New Zealanders I have come across is remarkable. I am hoping that more than a little of that rubs off and sticks to me when I return home to Canada. Later that night we were joined once again by Jorg, who made his way successfully through the Raetea Forest a day behind us.

Rested up and well fed from dinner the night before, on the morning of November 8th Rory and I set off again into the remaining two forests of this leg of the journey to Kerikeri. After meeting up with Mac, a hard-core minimalist NZ hiker who just finished the Pacific Crest Trail in the USA, we made our way down farm roads, blue skies, and “friendly” gravel tracks in the Omahuta forest. In late afternoon I enjoyed a peaceful, independent walk though the Mangapukahukahu stream for several kilometres and then Rory and I marched along the bank of the Mangapa River and an overnight camp site. Here we met up again with Rob and Joss and together we enjoyed some light conversation, shared our frustrations around the Raetea forest and warmed ourselves around a fire. This was a long (10 hrs, 30 km) but stress-less day that did much for my outlook on the rest of this journey.

Waking up to a chorus of birds the next morning,  on November 9th we broke camp early to tackle the Puketi Forest – the last hurdle before Kerikeri. This was a cakewalk! It was sunny, the trail was relatively dry and fast and shortly after noon we were out of the woods (figuratively and literally). After a very brief lunch break, Rory and I headed separate ways as he headed to stay overnight with a family friend and I aimed to log a 40 km day all the way into Kerikeri. This was a beautiful and scenic walk through pastures full of sheep and cows and vistas overlooking the Bay of Islands and the Pacific Ocean below. A sunny and scenic afternoon of postcard moments that reminded me of the softer appeal of this country. Heartening and calming.

Coming into Kerikeri I met up again with Moritz and we walked together for a while along the Puketotara Stream and the Rainbow Falls on the Kerikeri river. While Moritz  took some time to rest at the falls, I marched for another hour into town, 40 km and 11 hrs, to crash and rest at the Kerikeri Holiday Park along with Jorg who has been held up here with an ankle injury for a couple of days after having to exit the forest by hitch. Today (November 10th) I am resting, organizing my bounce box and provisions, and will head out again tomorrow for a lesirely 25km walk to Paihai on the coast and beyond. Marylene, Rob and Joss are also here this evening – good to see everyone making their way forward and out of the forest!

My takeaway from this leg of the journey? Many of the hikers are at a point in life where they are coming to terms with what is next for them. Seeking some insight into who they are – really – and what direction that might take them in life beyond the journey itself. What I think is interesting, and affirming, is that Jimi is the one who recognizes that all of life is that journey – and he has found a path to happiness and contentment that he is following in his house truck while the rest of us march in the mud with our eyes to the ground instead of looking into ourselves.

Should check in again in 4-5 days time.

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