There is nothing quite like dreading an early morning alarm and the mounting desperation as hours tick by without the blessing of sleep. As the night waned, I lay pleading with my brain to shut the fuck up and go to sleep. It defied my body’s exhaustion, my gritty eyes, and my hopeless attempts to breathe deeply- inhale, pause, exhale- soften my tense muscles, and slow the train wreck of racing thoughts. I feel most at home on a trail. Present. Embodied. Happy? Calm. Centered. Grounded. Or, at least, that is often my experience. But there are still the nights when I lay tensely curled in my sleeping bag, heart pounding, with a vague, brooding sense of doom attempting to suffocate me.
“Wherever you go, there you are.”
I don’t know who first said that, but one of my sisters often sagely quotes it. I think there is always a small hope that I can hike away from all the numbness, inexplicable sadness, and weird little panicked side of myself. I imagine I can bundle it all up and stick it in a hiker box or better yet, the rubbish bin, along with any other unwanted items weighing my backpack down. And although I am deeply grateful anytime I’m on a trail, swirling in the awe and wonder, and quieted by Nature’s healing welcome, the darker side always eventually shows up. I’m learning how to make peace with all the parts of myself, even the strange and uncomfortable ones. To welcome even the shameful bits, the ones that awkwardly stumble and say all the wrong things and attempt to cut their own bangs and really just want to be reassured they are worthy of love. Don’t we all? We long to know we are known and still deemed worthy of connection. We hope we will press our mark in this universe and when gone, leave a space.
Okay, back to hiking.
My alarm finally signaled it was time to start hiking, and we set off with our headlamps glowing into the soft darkness of early morning. The first crossing came three miles later, and the low tide made the Horahora river barely lap at our calves. The second was spanned by a bridge and we entered the estuary by 10am. I was delighted to see a stingray and a couple small schools of fish swimming past in the clear water. Taiharuru River proved more formidable, and I had to hoist my backpack further up, since the water threatened to pass my hips. On the far side of the bank the trail meandered through mangroves and mud. Mud. Such a small, inadequate word. It was thick, it was deep, and its black tar-like substance was dreadfully difficult to properly scrub off.
Perhaps it was the lack of sleep the night before, but this day stands out in my memory as one of the worst on the trail up to that point. My personal journal contains two whole pages of complaining about it. In retrospect, the section was lovely, albeit difficult, but not worthy of the amount of griping my journal would have you believe. However, just because misery more fun when shared, here is a list of my grievances:
- The mud was horrible. Think thick, gooey, tar-like black muck that smelt of petrol and cow shit and I had to traipse ½ mile through it in my bare feet. Vile. Disgusting. Almost impossible to wash off.
- The cow field of potential precarious doom. It had been lavishly trampled and there was not one secure foothold. A. twisted his ankle. I almost did.
- Another fucking long road walk, this time winding up a never-ending hill. A steep track through the woods immediately followed and I collapsed on the bench at the top. The clouds had rolled in and there wasn’t even a view.
- I still had 5.8 miles to go and it started raining. It rained the rest of the slog, the sky miserably dripping its sodding nose onto my head and down my back. And it was a cold drizzle, making my fingers numb.
- The trek down to the beach was steep and slow and painful and then emptied me on to the worst beach walks of my life. The tide was in, so the only strip of sand to walk on was soft and soggy and gravelly. It got into my socks and no matter how often I fiercely shook them out, more would quickly replace it.
There. I will admit it was not my finest few hours, I mumbled and cursed my way down the beach and even glared and savagely kicked a piece of driftwood that did not have any fault other than being unnoticed until I tripped over it. When I reached the small koha (donation) based campground, my evening started steadily improving. It is amazing what a hot shower, large dinner, warm cup of tea, and cozy conversation can boost morale. Even so, it stands out as a spectacularly bad day, one of the ones people tell you not to quit on.
The next few days were considerably better, even though they also contained their fair share of road and beach walks, rain and mud. Lovely little highlights include the scramble over Bream Head, which provided fine views of gorgeous waves breaking against the cliff face and one of the first sections that felt like Middle Earth. A former thru-hiker gave us the hour-long ride around the bay in his campervan, and I got to perch on the bed in the back and doze to the sound of Noah Kahan playing through the speakers. It made me miss Vermont and the familiar green mountains and my friends. I was lucky to have enough cell reception the next morning to phone a couple of them. The campsite near the trig station was unexpectedly fantastic, and I had a lovely morning yoga practice on the spacious deck overlooking the ocean far below. In Mangawhai Heads, I bumped into a traveler I had met in the first hostel I had stayed in and she joined our little rag tag group at the Tavern and we inadvertently stumbled into Trivia night. We failed spectacularly, but were adopted by the sweet locals and given a rousing cheer as we waved goodnight to the pub. Eventually, the trail curved away from the beach and back towards fields and the forest. We would certainly return to the coastline again. But for a time, we would leave its salty breeze and breaking surf, the seagulls cry fading as we set off for the hills.
Breakdown of miles:
Day 14: Nikau Bay Eco Camp- Ocean Beach Camp 19mi
Day 15: Ocean Park Trail Angel- Holiday Park 17mi
Day 16: Holiday Park- Campground by Trig Station- 16mi
Day 17: Trig Station Campground- Trail Angel’s House- 11 mi
Day 18: Trail Angel’s- Pakiri on the Ridge- 18 mi
The Ring is.. Somewhere between Weathertop and Rivendell
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