514,436 Steps (393 km)

I am down with whatever. Taking it as it comes and being rewarded every day summarizes the experiences of the past week. It appears that the best way to manage expectations is to simply not have any.

In contrast to prior days of this trek – which were all beach or all forest – the past six days have been a diverse variety pack of discovery. Each day a little present that unwrapped itself without prejudice. I appreciate each for what it is, and only for what it is. These have been full and physically challenging days, but positive and pleasant. Very different from the stress of the beach and forests before.

After a rest day in Kerikeri November 10, I headed out to Paihia on November 11, strolling along the river path, a charming country road, and onward into the Waitanga forest. It was a lovely 23 km walk along a well developed forest road that spat me out onto a golf course, the Pacific Ocean, and a leisurely stroll into Paihia and its many touristy cruise and helicopter adventure offerings. This walk was calm and scenic and set me in a very positive frame of mind for the days ahead. I bunked down in a tiny hostel cottage with a group of 20-something Germans who made some brief conversation before heading out for the night – just as I was heading to sleep.

There is absolutely no need for an alarm clock here. The birds start chirping at 5:10 – an hour before sunrise – and given their volume (audibly and numerically) I awake each day just as early. November 12th I strolled along to Opua and a waiting water taxi that took me through the Waikare inlet and an afternoon wading in the middle of Papakauri Stream. I really enjoy walking in the streams. It requires focus and attention and makes no demands on the pace of the walk. Reminds me of the escape you get on a challenging alpine ski run – when the worries of life have no space to thrive because your attention is demanded by the immediate physical challenge. At the end of the day (24 km, plus 10 km in boat) I stopped on a piece of cleared land to tent for the night. Setting up my tent I was greeted by a peaceful and easygoing Maori gentleman who indicated the forest I was camping in was his family’s land. Apologizing for my trespassing, he cut me off, said I was more than welcome, offered me a night in his house and offered his own apology for his barking dogs. I declined the friendly offer – since my tent was already assembled – before falling asleep to the barks of his excited dogs as he approached his home on the hill above me.

I continue to be be struck by the welcoming nature of New Zealanders. For someone who struggles, and feels immense stress to make conversation with people I do not know, I find myself engaged several times each day in stress-free chats with complete strangers. I think this is born of acceptance and a sense of safety that I feel in this transparent and supportive society. I think this is healthy for me especially. And, I appear to be “wearing” my new outlook; curiously and unconsciously somehow inviting dialogue. One thing that has happened to me in the last several days is that during sections of road walking I continue to get unsolicited offers of a ride. Speaking with others I have hiked with, this is unprecedented. While none of them report any such offers, two or three times each day a car or truck will pull to a stop on the opposite side of the road from me, offer me a lift and engage in a chat about where I am headed, what they are up to, where they live, where I am from etc. I now look forward to these conversation and they feel natural and intuitive in a way I have never felt when encountering strangers. Rory figures I am putting out a welcoming vibe. Maybe after 46 years I have found it in myself to do that. It feels comfortable and healthy and I like it. I will take it as it comes like the rest of this journey.

The morning of November 13, I continued on a 32 km walk that had a little bit of everything: road, farm pasture, forest, coastline and ocean vistas. I eventually made my way to Whananaki and the friendly hosts Tracy and Mathew at the Whananaki Holiday Park. They were delightful and gracious hosts and put me up in a private cabin where I was able to get some quality sleep. I also met Martin. Martin is doing the Te Araroa also, he is retired, lives in Reno, and is an experienced long haul hiker who has completed both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail since retiring. He shared his frustrations with the challenges of the earlier forests, which was affirming to hear from such an experienced hiker.

November 14 was another delightful solo walk through forest paths and pastures, ocean views and eventually a road walk into Ngunguru where I had no idea where I might sleep that night. At the store in town, after chatting with Bob (the store owner) I was directed to a campground in Tutukaka, 5 km up the road. Exhausted, I started the march down the coastal road before coming across Bellmain House B+B. Faced with a choice between more walking and setting up a tent or a warm bed and hot shower I opted for the bed and shower and the delightful company of Marion and Graham.

I had barely I unstrapped my backpack when my phone pinged with a message from Rory, who was with Moritz and Jimi at the other end of town staying at the Whangarei Hilton. I joined them for dinner, caught up, had a tasty dessert, and headed back later to my bed at the Bellmain. Once again, Jimi proved himself a comforting and gracious host.

The next morning, November 15, I started out late but well-fed (Marion prepared a hot breakfast!), trailing behind Rory and Moritz before catching up with them at lunch midway towards Patua. This day was mostly forest and road walks, but long (32 km). In Patua Jimi was waiting for us next to the estuary where we set up our tents next to the Hilton and enjoyed a hot meal and a movie before retiring to sleep in a windy overnight rainstorm.

The morning of November 16th was delightful. The wind and rain was replaced by blue sky, bird songs (at 5:10 am) and the promise of an early start. I headed out on my own, ahead of Rory and Moritz, figuring my pace would be slower as my ankle had become swollen in recent days. Some 30 minutes in to the walk I met up with Martin once again. He and I turned back from the path through the estuary after a local gentlemen explain it would be waist deep water ahead of us to cross – even at low tide – so we opted for a longer (but drier) road bypass to reconnect with the trail later. I sent Rory a heads up, but am still unsure how he and Moritz made out. Anxious to hear as I have yet to hear from them over a day later. The rest of that day was country road, forest road, a welcome beach walk (this time along the clear waters of the South Pacific), a peak to peak, up and down scramble over Bream Head, a leg-numbing descent to Urquharts Bay and finally a brief road walk to Reotahi. The views of the ocean and surrounding valley from the peaks of Bream Head were absolutely spectacular. At Teotahi, Martin and I said goodbye as he headed onward to Parua to camp the night while I opted to take a rest day (after 28 km) and rent an apartment in Reotani to nurse my ankle and wait out a heavy rain forecast for the next day.

I am sitting now in this beautifully appointed, warm and spacious apartment (November 17), listening to the thunder and rain pummel the roof and windows of my amazing apartment above the garage of today’s hosts, Lil and Ron. I am showered and clean. My ankle is starting to take a normal shape thanks to an ice pack prepared by Lil last evening. Later today, Lil is going to drive me up the road to do my grocery shopping and banking. My clothes are in the laundry and I am feeling really good about a lot of different things. Happy with the diversity in recent days walks, the friendly and comfortable interaction with strangers I continue to meet, the courtesy of my hosts each day, and the many good things that can happen when you start each day as a tabula rasa: a blank slate. Happy to be down with whatever each day presents to me. Especially when it is an icepack for a swollen ankle.

Next post will probably wait until Auckland, where I am planning my next rest day. Expect that will be in 7 or 8 days time.

Lots of photos of amazing scenery accompany this post. Check them out in the gallery. Also check out the Instagram account.