933,857 Steps (713 km)

933,857 Steps (713 km)

Auckland to Mercer

I flew a plane today.

Not for long, and not well. But I did fly a plane. Today (December 1) was, like most recent days, an unplanned experience. Well, it was planned as something otherwise and then turned into skimming the surf 300 ft above the Tasman Sea, yards from the cliffs north of Raglan.

I strayed off course and could not be better for it. My plan when I awoke was a casual 25 km walk to Rangiriri and a hotel stay. But that hotel went out of business, I slept in, was tired, and Jim had a better idea.

Jim took me flying in his Aeroprakt 22 LS “Foxbat”. Many years ago he developed and opened the Mercer Airport, moving most of the historic Mercer hotel to its current locale at the airport where it houses a backpackers (think hostel) and setting up a flying school and skydiving operation. After 30 years flying jumbo jets across the Pacific for Air New Zealand, today he greets guests, teaches flying, and every now and then offers a guest the chance to go up for a birds eye view of the New Zealand countryside.

I arrived at the Mercer late last night after 4 days and 120 km hiking south from Auckland.

On November 27 I had a leisurely morning, swimming in the pool at the Pullman, giving my ankle some love in the hot tub, preparing and mailing my bounce box, and enjoying a lovely breakfast with Jorg and Marylene who arrived with Rory in Auckland the afternoon before. It was lovely to catch up with them and reminded me that, regrettably, it has been weeks since we have walked together. That afternoon I headed south on a 20 km walk away from Auckland in the direction of the Auckland airport, ending the afternoon in the charming Ambury Park surrounded by paddocks of sheep and goats. Here I set camp next to two American women, WeeBee (Alaska) and Mary (Georgia), who are keeping a solid pace on the Te Araroa having started the day after me.

The next morning (November 28) we all rose early, packed up tents and loaded up our packs minutes before a heavy rainstorm appeared. Mary and WeeBee headed out in the rain while I huddled in the public bathroom and nursed a second cup of coffee and hoped the rain would pass. It didn’t. So, after an hour lingering next to a urinal, I found my dignity and started a long, wet walk through some marsh, sewage ponds and gravel roads for 26 km towards Manakau, another Auckland suburb. These last two days were pretty uninspiring walks except they exposed me to more modest neighbourhoods than I had seen in the suburbs north of Auckland: small houses, lacking views, gardens unmaintained, people getting by with what they have in the shadow of the city.

Before 6:30 am on November 29, I exited the suburbs and entered the countryside, still walking alone, towards forests. It was a lovely day of walking down country roads, up steep pastures and well maintained trails. The sheep were ubiquitous and the cows were inquisitive, watching my every step. I drank a lot of water this day and, still feeling dehydrated, stopped in Clevendon for an extended rest and the chance to rest my feet with a cool drink in my hand before marching onward towards a 35 km, 12 hour day to finally camp under a Kauri tree on a quiet ridge above Cosseys Gorge. Too tired to cook, and short of water, I opted for a chocolate bar for dinner and fell asleep shortly after my tent was pitched.

With rain in the forecast I woke up at 3:30 yesterday (November 30) and figured it would be best to get ahead of the rain (and the 5:10 am bird calls) and head out early for a 39 km hike to Mercer. This was an epic day highlighted by some beautiful views overlooking water reservoirs serving the region. My earliest start, my longest distance and a mixed bag of a trail that had long patches of muddy steep bush, foot-pounding asphalt, capped by an evening walk through windblown grasses atop a  riverside dike. After 14 hours I finally arrived at Mercer, exhausted and dehydrated. Within an hour Jim had me settled in a room with a cold beer and a warm bed. I fell asleep immediately after working out my plan for today’s walk.

That walk didn’t happen. Instead I took the opportunity to fly. After Jim produced a map, together we sat down to figure out our flight path before hopping into the plane where I helped do a pre-flight check, flipping switches, turning levers and nodding a lot.

Flying at a low elevation, in a plane that is one big window, over the same terrain I have walked the past month provided yet another perspective on this journey: a reminder that every situation in life can be viewed another way. There are multiple truths to consider and every plan can be improved by circumstance as much as by design.

Stop yourself. Literally and figuratively. That’s how you get to fly.

I loved this day.