1,039,947 Steps (794 km)

At 5:30 the room went dark. The music stopped. Conversations halted. Everyone stood, turned in my direction and put their hands to their sides. And then it began:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

These words, recited slowly in a deep tone – a calm pause between each word – came from a loudspeaker behind me that I could not see.

I stood, turned and did as the others, stared up towards a statue of a soldier. Once this ode was read, the crowd responded, in unison, with the same tone and same calm cadence: “We will remember them.”

“‘The Last Post” then played. Still in the darkness. All of us quiet. All of us standing at attention. I halted my breath and could feel my eyes well in that moment. A wholly unexpected and unguarded moment.

Then the lights flashed back on, the music restarted, and we all got back to enjoying our beers.

This was my first visit to a Razza – The Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association (RSA) hall – in this particular case the Ngaruawahia RSA, across the street from my hotel.

In Canada we call this the Legion. In Ngaruawahia, I called it convenient. And it looked to be the best choice for a cool beer on a hot day. It was December 3 and I had just completed a shorter walk, in sunny weather, from across the Hakarimata Track from Huntly: a familiar mix of country road, riverside walk, forest (jungle) ascents and descents and a couple of great ridgetop vistas. A short day, just 19 km.

The ode above is part of a poem written by Laurence Binyon in 1914 in the earliest stages of WWI. The Ngaruawahia RSA follows a daily Remembrance ceremony at 5:30 pm, though I understand that 9 pm is a more common custom in other parts of the Commonwealth. The words and the ceremony around them resonated strongly in that moment.

In the past 4 days I have not travelled far: just 81 km. I left Mercer on December 2 and walked long and hard (41 km) over 11 hrs on a flat course alongside the Waikato River to Huntly. There, I checked into the Huntly camping grounds, where Dave and Carol made me feel immensely welcome, running me to the supermarket, sharing the stories of recent Te Walkers, and providing a warm private cabin for just $10. So generous and kind. They were just adorable and kind people.

December 3 was the walk to Ngaruahia I described above. December 4th was another easy day, more riverside walking along the Waikato for 21 km into the centre of the city of Hamilton.

There was very little challenge to the walking in these past days, and the look of the river was pretty but the same for most of it. It was boring after a while.

I think this is part of why my time at the Razza stands out. The Razza is a happening place. A centre point for the community with a steady schedule of trivia nights, a diverse mix of young and old, leaders and followers, male and female. I enjoyed a pint of special RSA Forces ale and chatted with a couple of people. Mostly, though, I just observed: the honours to locals who fought a hundred years ago, the cooler doors next to the bar where you were expected to grab your own frosted glass and present it to the bar to be filled, the cheers and smiles when someone won a modest door prize, the profound sense of a happy and supportive community paired with the sombre remembrance of war and lost soldiers.

There’s tons of this in Canada at Legions, community halls, curling rinks and golf clubs, for sure. Especially in smaller communities. But experiencing something familiar played out in a slightly unfamiliar style can allow its true essence to present itself more clearly. The fact remains, this isn’t woven into the fabric of the life that I have been living. My life can be so much richer with more community connections. This is something else for me to remember.

Today is December 5, and I am resting up and organizing provisions and hut passes in Hamilton ahead of another long walk planned for tomorrow. I am looking forward to a change of scenery as I will be in the backcountry and some bigger mountains for several 3-5 day periods in the coming weeks.

I am still walking alone at this stage. MaryLene and Jorg are 1.5 days behind and Rory is headed off in an alternate route he has devised between Manakau and Wellington, so I won’t see him til South Island. I have calculated that in order to get back to Auckland for my Xmas visit to Canada I have to walk steadily for the next 15 days without a break and get to National Park, which means I can’t stop and wait for MaryLene and Jorg. We will regroup probably in January I suspect.

I will aim to check in again in 4-5 days time.

There are, as always, some photos accompanying this post in the gallery as well as on Instagram.