1168-1289km: National Park Village to Pipiriki, including the Whanganui River
From one great walk to the next, I resumed my hike south by hiking west to meet the Whanganui River. As I left, I knew I would return to the Tongariro Crossing before a) finishing this hike or b) if the weather continued to not pan out in my favor, I’d return to mountain before returning to America. I left from National Park Village, after staying the night at a backpacker/hotel which was kind enough to offer me a thru-hiker discount as it wasn’t cheap. As I did, I left clearing skies and the shape of the mountains coming into view. But I had to keep going at that point as I had arranged to pick up a kayak a few days later when I’d begin the 80+ kilometer paddle down the Whanganui, which is actually part of the thru-hike. As I left the views, however, a wave of emotion snuck up on me. I felt downright depressed, and a heavy lump settling in my throat while my eyes glossed over. I didn’t cry though, but I did feel as if I was mourning the loss of something very special, or something that could have been incredibly special. That damn summit atop Tongariro… the what-ifs…the should-haves…the could-haves. And as I walked beneath beautiful skies I could only feel anger toward the mountain and anger toward myself for the poor timing and decisions I’d made. And I was angry at this trail and the trail foundation for claiming it was a trail when in fact the north island is not a complete trail, it’s a series of routes pieced together with an overwhelming amount of road connections. I was struggling, to say the least.
But as the miles accumulated that day, I found hope and a new-found sense of self. Tongariro taught me to let go of control. To let go of micro-management. It taught me to accept that of which I could control and that of which I can’t. I CAN’T control the weather or private property or daylight. I CAN control diet(which has a huge impact), route, pace, luxury. It also taught me to stay strong, but not by compromising the compassion I have for myself and those around. Most importantly, it taught me to be decisive and to stand by those decisions. I could-have done many things differently with the Tongariro Crossing, but I didn’t. I chose the route and timing that I did.
It would still be days before I truly embraced this, but in the meantime I enjoyed myself. I took a very pleasant trail, the Fisher Track toward a backcountry gravel road into the small settlement of Whakahoro. There, I stopped in at the Blue Duck, where a small cafe and incredibly kind folks awaited. Dan, the owner of the Blue Duck Homestead, loves hikers and shouted me a cold soda. We talked about the hike, the upcoming river, his homestead. I told him that there have been some great highlights to the hike, but there has been alot of road-walking that has overshadowed it. “But your enjoying it, right?” he asked. “Yeah, sure.” Just barely.
I took the rest of the afternoon sitting out the heat—upwards of 30 degrees celcius, 85F. In the morning Dan cooked me up a couple of fried eggs and toast with a fresh pot of coffee. For those who know me, I’ve never drank coffee despite my years of working as a barista. But after twenty-nine years, I’ve now embraced it. Bring it on! I’ll drink it any way, hot cold with cream without. I LOVE IT!
As I ate, a very friendly man in his sixties with the most jolly personalities came up. “Cracker of a day” he said sitting down to talk to me. He volunteered his time at the farm setting traps for the invasive critters like stoats, possums and rats. We spent an hour talking and by the end of our conversation, I felt in better spirits. His positivity and optimism was contagious.
After, I met Blazing Paddles at the river. There, I picked up a touring kayak, and loaded my stuff into drybags and secured them inside the boat. I also packed away a few treats—fresh corn, plums and snacks that the friendly outfitter gave me. So thoughtful they were to a thru-hiker on foot. I then let my feet have a rest and paddled my way down the river. It was a rejuvenating 2 days. Beauty surrounded me as mirror images of the river bank reflected into the still waters. It’s a gentle river, a river referred to as sacred. Loads of birds chirped from the shore, while goats grazed on the steep banks. But you do have to paddle, and therefore it wasn’t as much of “zero” days as I thought they would be. It took several hours a day of paddling, easy enough though. I wished I had my friend Candi at my side, I wished for Heatha and Marco and Kristen and Ted and all my paddling buddies. I wished for a bag of wine or a case of cold Hop Valley. It would have complemented the occasion perfectly.
Besides the beautiful gorge and the mirrored reflection, the highlight of the trip was hanging out with Brent. I met him initially when I walked up scouting out a place to camp at my pre-arranged/pre-paid DOC site. He was introduced by a river guide as the Kaitiaki (hut warden) of the Tieke Marae campsite and hut. After brief introductions, I asked him if the lodge across the river sold wine. Indeed it did, but better than that, he had “half a jug of white wine” he’d be more than happy to share. That “jug” was a bag of wine. I had a great time sitting at a table, just Brent and I, talking about all ways of life and especially as to how the Tieke Marae came to be. It’s an unusual and special place as it is on Maori land, yet the Dept of Conservation plays a part too. They reclaimed it when they didn’t approve of how the DOC ran it, as it is located on sacred land….perhaps even a burial ground if I remember correctly. Brent, a man about three times the size of me, has been with the Marae (place of residency) for 22+ years. He’s a spiritual man, a man who likes his drink and who is kind and welcoming and easy to be around. He told me the history of the Maori and stories of the native animals and the connections those animals have with the spirits of the deceased. There’s much reason as to why I feel a chill on the back of my neck when I walk through these forests. There’s much more than the eye can see. It’s all connected.
Besides Brent, I met other travelers, some from Belguim, Germany and Switzerland. They all speak English so well and I am envious and eager to learn a second language sooner than later. I also met some Kiwis out for a few days of paddling. Always the conversation drifted to where I was from and what I was doing. The same set of questions made me feel like I was a broken record and one that was broken as my spirit was still not quite itself. (Though after meeting Brent on the last night is was beginning to soar again). As I was talking to one couple, a light bulb went off in my mind and in the next post I will reveal what that lightbulb is. That I will type away later tonight as I’m currently in the town of Whanganui taking a zero, maybe two, and I’d like to go explore the town for a few hours. What I will say for now, is that the river, as it always is, was a source of rejuvenation for me. It was a source of meditation, therapy and insight.