4,000,000 Steps (3,000 km)

Colac Bay to Stirling Point

Bluff seemed like as good a place as any to stop. The last few days to the finish are full of sun, sand, surf, lousy maps and tying up some loose ends.

With beach walks and roads ahead of me for the next few days, I once again had my earphones and some podcasts to keep me grooving in the absence of a forest soundtrack as I headed out late, around 8:30 am on December 20th, and made good pace on some road and flat and firm beach for the first hour. After that, however, the pace slowed quite a bit as the trail diverted through pastures, dove up, down and around rocky cliffs, and the trail markers became tough to spot. And the pain.

My foot was tender as I marched away from the Colac Bay Tavern towards the beach. Whatever damage I had done two days before by tightening my laces as much as I did was not getting better all that fast. I could feel a lot of pain and weakness anytime my right foot was on a downslope.

Even when there wasn’t pain, there was discomfort, and it slowed me down. I resorted to frequent rest stops in order to regain some strength and comfort. I massaged the foot and lathered it with Voltaren to keep myself going as I reached a remarkably scenic approach through the Mores Reserve, ascending (for the last time on this journey) 100 or so metres up from the sea, before descending along city streets into the heart of Aparima and Riverton. As painful as this particular approach was, it was an iconic and beautiful scene, an encapsulation of this gorgeous country: marching up a grassy paddock under a blue sky with skittish sheep on one side of me and rocky cliffs and an emerald sea below me on the other.

Stumbling into Riverton’s main street just after noon, I was more than a little dehydrated and hungry (and sore) so I dropped into the Postmasters Bakery, grabbed a bacon wrap, a long black coffee and a bottle of iced tea. Chilling in the warm sun and cool breeze, I aired out my feet for an hour in the sun on the restaurant’s patio.

Feeling recharged, I set out again just before 2 pm, following the shoreline east of Riverton through some treed lands before spilling out onto the beginning of the 22 km-long Oreti Beach.

Shortly into the beach walk I saw a familiar shape in the distance. Another walker.

It is an interesting exercise when two walkers meet one another from opposite directions on a beach. We continue to make our way in our respective directions, but when we start to recognize a peer there is a magnetism that pulls us laterally towards one another. The paths come together.  As we get closer, the earbuds come off. Arms are raised. Sunglasses are pulled up.

Only when the two are within five feet of the other does the inquisition begin:

“Where you headed?” 

This is a probing question. The true through-hiker will answer with that day’s destination. Nothing more. For now.

“How about you?” 

The same guarded response.

“And where are you coming from?” 

This is the invitation to reveal one’s true through-hike status.

A typical response is along the lines of:

“I came out of (LAST TOWN) but started in (CAPE REINGA/BLUFF).”

“Cool. So… you’re doing the TA.”

A common bond is established in that question-and-answer. Comradeship that invites discussion, query, care and concern.

I had exactly this sort of conversation with Kristoff on Oreti beach. I was genuinely excited for him. He was two days into his northbound version of the same journey I was finishing. I gave him some pointers and told him to keep and eye out for Nicky, who was just two days ahead of him.

Within 10 minutes, both of us, sensing we had to keep moving, shook hands and resumed our walking. I had not planned to walk the whole length of Oreti Beach in a single day. Because I had some support at this stage, I was aiming for a “takeout” somewhere mid-way along the beach, where Linda could meet me with her rental car and return me the next morning. Trouble was, at this time of day, owing to my slow pace and developing foot pain, I was unlikely to make my way to the most obvious takeout point – about 18 km down the beach – without risking some further injury and stress on my foot.

There was absolutely no way I was risking any further injury at this stage of the journey. So, instead, after scanning my map, I aimed for a promising spot about 12 km ahead, where there looked to be a farm track not far from the beach that, in turn, would lead to a rural road. I asked Linda to meet me at a point on that road, with her car, around 4 pm.

The map proved to be garbage. What looked to be narrow row of dunes between the farm track and the beach was, in fact, an up-and-down obstacle course of slippery sand and hidden gorges obscured by tussock that went on for close to 500 metres. This caused incredible strain on my foot and slowed my pace to a crawl as I struggled to navigate and manoeuvre my way toward the farm track.

The farm track? That didn’t really exist. Instead, the former (?) route was intersected by a series of fenced paddocks separated by barbed-wire fencing and a number of steep-banked irrigation ditches. Scanning the scene, I could see in the distance a farmer busy harvesting hay two fields over. Between me and the promised rural road lay a paddock with about 100 cattle, amongst which were at least two bulls and some other paddocks I could not yet distinguish.

I circled the fence line of the bull-ridden first paddock for about 1 km as the cattle gingerly followed me, herding themselves into a tight package at the far corner of the paddock. Thankfully, the farmer seemed too preoccupied to notice that all his cows were then huddled in one small corner of the field, or he was just disinterested in my trespassing.

I hopped another fence.

Walked the length of another field.

Crossed a ditch.

Walked back again on the other side of the ditch.

Hopped another fence.

Entered and exited two sheep paddocks through a series of gates.

Then, finally, I hopped one more fence and found myself on the rural road. An hour late and 200 metres in front of Linda and her rental car. Thank God that she had a book to read.

After a quick beer in town, we headed to the Riverton Holiday Park for the night. On the way, we passed Kristoff making his way up the hill. We pulled over, said hello and offered him a ride. I was so very happy to hear him say, “Thanks, but no.” He needed to walk. He was a true hiker.

The gong show that was the end of the day’s walk left me with a dilemma as to how to restart my journey the next morning. Picking up exactly where I left off meant stumbling through those same paddocks, fences, ditches, grasses and dunes in reverse. That was exhausting and sounded like an awful way to start any day. Instead, I figured I would rejoin the trail before that somewhere. Talking it through that night, it seemed better to walk an extra 6 or 8 km, stress-free, than to stumble through that mess again. Linda agreed to drop me off on the road where Riverton met the beach. From there, I figured, I would retrace 7 km of beach and continue my walk where I had left it the day before.

Here is where the map let us down a second time.

Thing is, in New Zealand, it is common for vehicles to drive along the beach. So common, in fact, that maps routinely indicate roads on what are, in truth, stretches of sandy beach and nothing more.

I forgot all of this when we headed out in the car bright and early at 7 am the morning of December 21st. It was a glorious day. The sky was clear. It was breezy and warm. My foot was perking up after a good night’s rest. Sitting in the car, I sipped the last of my coffee as we followed the GPS directions toward the road-end. Instead, however, we found ourselves stopped suddenly on the beach beside a stream to our left, staring at the ocean in front of us. The map and GPS told us to turn.

I told Linda, “I’ll just walk from here. It’ll just add an hour or so.”

“No. We can do this.”

“No. It’s okay. There’s a stream there.” I said, pointing at the water flowing out towards the sea.

Instead, Linda put the car in gear and drove ahead towards the ocean for 20 or so metres, then took a sharp left just as the stream fanned out to meet the sea.

Then she found second gear. We hummed down the beach at 30 km per hour, slowing only to manoeuvre between dunes of soft sand on the left and an incoming tide on the right, gingerly seeking out the “sweet spot” of hard-packed sand at the water’s very edge.

We continued on this “road” for another 3 km before I finally called it.

“I am… I am not comfortable with this. The tide… I am good from here.” I pleaded.

“You sure?” Linda asked, as she navigated us around another patch of soft sand.

“Yes. Here. This is good,” I said anxiously, pointing between my legs at floor of the car and the ground below it. My gaze was focused on the incoming tide to our right. The waves lapping ever closer.

She pulled the car to a stop. Thank god.

I hopped out, grabbed my gear and waved her an urgent goodbye.

She started a three-point-turn to head back.

I waved again as I got ready and pulled my pack over my shoulders.

Whirr.

Whirr.

Whirr.

The front right tire was four inches into the sand. The car was stuck in place.

The incoming surf was lapping the rear of the car as it sat perpendicular to the beach.

Whirr.

$1500. Pretty certain it was $1500. At this stage I was digging into my memory to recall the deductible for the car insurance offered by my credit card.

“Can I have a go?” I asked, as I unbuckled and dropped my pack as I approached the driver’s side door.

“Sure.”

I approached the task just as I would a car in the snow. Rocking. Playing the gas pedal like a violin. Linda leaned into the hood as we rocked in time.

Out it came, reversing into the water.

I braked, jumped out, and waved Linda into the driver’s seat.

“Okay, go! Go! Go! Call me!”

Another tight turn and both Linda and the car dashed safely back down the beach “road”. I watched as they weaved again between the surf and soft sand. Eventually, her course straightened, so I figured she was good.

I organized myself and turned to walk in the other direction. The first hour was familiar – I had walked the same beach the afternoon before – and so were the next two hours, frankly. The challenge of beach walking is the lack of diversity. Nothing changes: dunes on one side, sea on the other.

This was briefly broken up by a larger river crossing mid-morning. When the tide is low, this sort of crossing is easier, as you can walk towards the sea and cross in shallower water where the river fans out. At high tide, it is more challenging. I spent a good 30 minutes scoping the bank of the river, aiming to find a point shallow enough to wade. Eventually, I committed to a route and managed a thigh-high crossing.

I walked off the beach around midday. Stepping out of the sea breeze, I was suddenly aware of the sun and heat. It was sunny and 27 degrees, and suddenly felt like it once I was out of the wind. Within the hour I stopped and perched myself on my pack in the shade of the entranceway of the Four Square supermarket in Otatara. Shoes and socks airing in the sun. Barefooted, sunburned and covered in sweat. Chewing on a chocolate bar between sips of Powerade. Unsure exactly where or when I had misplaced my dignity….

My hobo lunch consumed, I laced up (gently) and continued the road walk in the direction of Invercargill. Crossing the estuary near the airport, the wind gusts were extreme. With each blast of the wind, I could just barely keep myself from falling off the narrow sidewalk into incoming traffic.

Beyond the estuary, the trail skirted the Invercargill centre and followed a nature path squeezed between the estuary and an industrial park on the city’s southwest fringe. The pathway threaded itself between a patchwork of sewage ponds, the industrial park, wetlands and farm pasture before pushing out onto the main highway south the city. The last road of the journey.

By 4 pm, exhausted from the heat of the day under a clear sky and unfiltered sun, and short of water, I walked for another hour before meeting Linda at a designated spot on the highway – just 20 km left to the trail’s end. We returned to a hostel in Invercargill where I quickly fell asleep, likely a result of dehydration and the 38 km of walking I had put in over that day.

Owing not only to excitement but also the early bedtime the night before, I was up promptly on December 22nd and walking the highway by 7:30 am. I was cold. The sky was overcast, there was a touch of light rain, and a very strong headwind. All of this was amplified each time a transport truck approached and passed. That occurred every 40 seconds or so.

I did not enjoy these first two-and-a-half hours of road walk skirting the eastern shore of the Bluff peninsula whatsoever. The shoulder of the road was narrow. The trucks kept coming. Intermittently, I was forced to stop and step off the road in order for trucks travelling in opposite directions to pass one another.

Just as the road entered Bluff, however, the trail arched off to the right. Past the welcome sign skirted with oyster shells, the trail darted up hill and across to the western shore of the peninsula. Crossing paddocks, then climbing up over pasture lands, it finally spilled down towards the sea. The headwind was powering the surf, which crashed into the rocks nestled between the sea and the green pastures. It was stunningly beautiful.

It was here that I felt the urge to stop. To take in the moment. To savour the flow.

Flow is the precious moment when time slows. When sounds are most vivid. When colours glow. When smells harbour memories of another day.

Walkers know the flow. So do alpine skiers. And mountain bikers. And kayakers. And trail runners. And skydivers. And water skiers. Flow is the feeling of bliss that you gain when an experience is so immersive that nothing else exists. Only that moment. The mind becomes focused and you are carried away.

That’s what I experienced – again, but for the last time in this journey – perched on the pasture on Bluff hill, looking down at the bubbling sea, and up to the blue sky. Bliss.

I think the particular beauty of walking is that these moments of flow are more sustained and varied than in other pursuits. Time slows down in these minutes spent staring at the surf, cooling one’s feet at the foot of an alpine waterfall, watching a sunset from atop a mountain ridge, dodging the waves of an incoming tide, huddling in a tent waiting for the rain to stop, glimpsing into the night sky to see a blanket of stars staring back.

This walking, it is a very rich cake to be savoured slowly.

My moment of bliss passed and I continued past Lookout Point where the trail connected to an engineered pathway for the final 3 km to Stirling Point, the southern terminus of the Te Araroa. The end of the journey.

This was a fast path, and popular with families strolling around the short, stroller-friendly  coastal pathway. Within 20 minutes I could see the glass shelter and the signpost at Stirling Point. Just a few hundred metres to go.

Linda was waiting there, but kept her distance. I was left alone to walk the last steps to the finish. I smiled. Pictures were taken. Champagne was opened. A cigarette was smoked. The journey was complete. That was it.

And then it started to rain.

The weather doesn’t acknowledge any sanctity in these moments. Perhaps, neither should we.

The “finish” of this walk is a measure of a task completed. It’s a period marking the end of a sentence of a chapter of a book. It’s not the end of the story. It’s also not a marker for a return to some imagined “real world”. That construct is a lie. This walk was every bit the real world. The real world being the one we choose to curate for ourselves.

On this note, I was grateful for all the positive change in my life over the course of the journey. Save the one loose end. One nut I had not yet cracked. The smoking.

Huddled in the car, parked in the adjacent parking lot, we waited out the rain for 10 minutes, finishing off the champagne. With a clouded head I stared through the foggy car window towards the butt bin, mounted on a post at the Stirling Point lookout. There, moments earlier, I’d tossed away the bitter remnants of my very last cigarette.

The rain stopped after 10 minutes and the sky broke clear. We jumped out of the car to organize things before heading on our way to find a place for lunch. Just then, from the far end of the parking lot, someone familiar approached, arm raised.

My eyes focused. My mind registered. It was Fay.

She was in town for the day to drive John to a meeting and had stopped by on the off chance that I would finish that day and at that time. This was all very fortunate, because the last time she and I had talked, my plan was to finish the following day.

Once the hugs were done, the three of us retreated to the cars and met for lunch in Invercargill.

Linda and Fay each made healthy choices from the pub menu. Having already made my healthy choice for that day, I ordered beer, bacon and eggs.

They were fabulous.

This is the final post. There are photos accompanying this post in the gallery.

Here, you will also find some pictures I have added around related happenings during my hiatus from the trail. This includes my recovery, a visit to Bavaria, some conditioning hikes in the Canadian Rockies, a fantastic two weeks on the Pacific Crest Trail with Rory, and some meeting up with TA hikers in both Canada and New Zealand.