Hitchhiking is Good for the Soul

I'd originally planned to hitchhike from Auckland to Cape Reinga where the Te Araroa trail starts. However, that was a step too much for Rosa who booked me on a Naked Bus to Kerikeri, the gateway town to Northland. From there, I hoped to hitchhike the remaining 200 plus kilometres to Cape Reinga. We arrived in Kerikeri at about midday and with a hiss of air brakes parked outside a seedy little Chinese restaurant in a side street. The driver kindly leaned into the cargo well and gave my rucksack an experimental tug and then a stronger heave.

"That's a heavy pack, mate!" he exclaimed after he'd dragged it onto the pavement. I was to hear variations of this observation many times in the next ten days. We contemplated the inert mass with misgivings while he rubbed his lower back.

"It's got two weeks' food in it," I said by way of excuse.

I heaved it onto my back and tottered off into the park opposite the bus stop to orientate myself. I hauled out the orange bag containing my first week of food, brewed a cup of tea and munched on chorizo sausage, oat biscuits and an energy bar. Replenished, I strode towards a stationery shop for a notebook, pen and mobile phone recharge voucher. I tried to look purposeful, as if a middle-aged gent carrying an extraordinarily large blue canvas rucksack was the most common sight in the world. I failed miserably. Ice-cream eating tourists gawked, small children clutched their mothers, a police-woman eyed me narrowly from across the street. Someone even asked me to pose for a snapshot.

In the stationery shop, I asked the school-age assistant for directions out of town and to Cape Reinga. She gave surprisingly good ones and eyed my rucksack. "Can I feel how heavy it is?" she asked. She tried, I'll give her that much, and managed to lift it about an inch off the floor. "Wow!" she exclaimed, "That's heavy! How far are you going?"

By now, the manager and a couple of other assistants had wandered over, clearly fascinated.

"All the way from Cape Reinga to Bluff on the South Island. 3,000 kilometres," I said nonchalantly.

The audience rolled their eyes and collectively sucked their breath. "That's crazy," someone commented. "Yeah," I agreed cheerily, "I must be nuts."

It was a long hot 90 minute walk to the roundabout at State Highway 10. I tried to thumb a lift but no-one stopped. At a vegetable stand by the roundabout, a friendly Maori lady refilled my water bottles. I staggered over to the roadside and gratefully took off my pack, stuck out my thumb and awaited developments as my sticky shirt dried in the sunshine.

Ten minutes later, a camper van pulled over. I lifted my pack and at once the van took off, spurting gravel from its rear wheels.

About 15 minutes after that unpromising start, a sporty little Suzuki hatchback pulled in and  my luck changed. I slid my rucksack onto the rear seat and swung into the passenger seat next to the driver, an elderly businessman by the name of Ben heading up to Coopers Beach to check a faulty burglar alarm in his holiday home. We had a jolly journey of 70 kilometres, swapping stories while he chain-smoked. Halfway through, he called his wife. "I've got a hitchhiker," he said proudly, "He's walking the length of New Zealand!" The wife's voice on the intercom sounded querulous. "That's nice. Don't forget to water the plants and lock the door when you leave.” He looked a little downcast as he lit another cigarette.

Ben dropped me off with an invitation to spend the night if I got stuck. However, less than a minute later another elderly man stopped. "I can take you a few kilometres into town," he wheezed. "Any good to you?" "Sure, anything that keeps me moving in the right direction," I smiled. As we crawled into town, he explained, "The wife needs a capsicum. I've just had a heart op and the doctor told me I need to walk but the wife said she needs it and she needs it now." We exchanged a glance of mutual commiseration.

He dropped me outside the tavern and looked longingly at it. "The doctor said I'm not to drink," he sighed, "Otherwise, I'd shout you a beer." "Thanks," I said, "I'd have enjoyed that but you get better get that capsicum. Happy wife, happy life." He sighed again. "Yup. You got that right."

A few minutes later, I got another lift from a chap with an alarmingly cheerful disposition. Whatever I said, he responded with an enthusiastic "Awesome!". He pumped my hand after dropping me off.

I had absolutely no idea where I was but I was on a roll.

A Maori delivery driver, Chas, stopped a few minutes later in a small truck. With some difficulty, we positioned my pack between us. He extended a hand as large as a ham. Mine disappeared inside it. This guy was big. We shared more stories, getting to know each other. When he heard that I'd worked for The Queen in Buckingham Palace, he punched his telephone with a meaty finger. "Darl! You won't believe this! I've picked up a fella who knows the Queen!" I heard squeals of surprise through the speaker. "And he's walking all the way down New Zealand," Chas said proudly. There was a pause as his wife digested the information. "He must be crazy!" she said.

Five minutes after Chas dropped me off with a cheerful farewell and a handshake that left my fingers limp, a maroon passenger bus emblazoned with the slogan "The Geriatric Gypsies" hissed to a stop. It was now about 4.30 PM and still baking hot. I climbed into air-conditioned comfort to meet Murray, a retired former defence force Electrical Mechanical Engineer. What with a shared military bond and a love of travelling, we sat side by side on well-sprung seats and chatted in a manly fashion, like two old troopers reminiscing at a regimental reunion. 30 minutes later, he stopped at a roadside butchery and general store where he bought me an ice lolly. With a chirpy toot of his air horn, he clattered away and I sat back in the shade of the store to ponder my next move.

Cape Reinga was still about 80 kilometres to the north and Murray had said I'd be lucky to get a lift there at this time of day but I didn't mind. I was self-sufficient and the quick succession of lifts and general sense of moving forward had boosted my confidence. When a small four-wheel drive with an elderly couple pulled in, I approached the lady and politely asked for a lift north. "We're only going about sixteen kilometres to the caravan park" she said doubtfully. Her husband cut in. "We'll take you," he said. "You can always stay in the park tonight. It's great."

Once on the road, the ice melted and the woman chatted gaily about children and grandchildren. She mothered me a little. "What does your wife think about your walk?" she asked. "She told me to get lost," I explained with a smile. The man guffawed. "I've heard that before!" he exclaimed and his wife shot him a look. They invited me down to the caravan park but I excused myself. "I'll give it half an hour," I reassured her. "If I don't have a lift by then, I'll walk down."

In fact, less than a minute later a hire car stopped with a middle-aged driver and younger male passenger. "Cape Reinga?" I asked hopefully. "Yes! YES! All ze way to ze Cape!" the driver exclaimed, leaping out of the car, pumping my hand and sweeping an assortment of gear from the passenger seat.

And so I met Belgian Derek, 46 and his side-kick German George, 24. They'd met in "Ze most wonderful hostel in ze world!" in Whangerei where on a whim, they'd decided to pool their resources, hire a car and drive up to the Cape for the sunset. Derek was talkative. He whooped, "Ooh! La! La! Look at zat!" at every fresh vista, pulling over every few kilometres to take photographs of a perfectly ordinary beach, a sandy hill, a lone pine tree.

George was quiet; an artistic, intellectual Teuton who liked Herman Hesse. I sensed he was a little road-weary after a long afternoon with Derek. During one of our stops, he pulled out a sketchbook and pencil, while Derek gambolled up to a viewpoint with his camera.  He sighed wistfully, "Maybe we have time to draw."  He flipped through his sketches. They were very good and I said so. "Danke," he said quietly. "I like to make ze art but today sere is no time."

We reached the car park at Cape at about 7.00 PM. While Derek bounded off to the restroom, I stretched, scarcely able to believe that just under twelve hours ago, I had been in Auckland.

"I've packed more into today and met more people than I've done in the last month," I thought. "This is living." The underlying anxiety, the drive that had kept me going all day, temporarily fluttered off, leaving a pleasant sense of completion. With renewed confidence, I thought of the people I had met, the conversations I had had, the many kindnesses shown to a stranger by ordinary people who for a few minutes or an hour had made it their business to help someone out, to do something different.

While George and I waited for Derek, I commented, "Hitch-hiking is good for the soul."

"Ja," he replied quietly, looking around the enclosed car park and then towards the covered gateway that led to the Cape proper. "And I zink zis place will be good for ze soul also."

How right he was, as I was soon to discover.

"Promise Me You'll Come Back with a Book"

Since time immemorial, men have left their caves, igloos, grass huts or whatever with their women's parting counsel ringing in their ears. "Make sure you keep your feet dry, dear!", "Don't come home until you've found me a nice big fat woolly mammoth!" or, "There, that buckskin pouch I made looks just lovely against your bark loincloth!"

And no doubt as these men left their residences, stooped under the burden of married responsibilities, their shoulders straightened only when they passed from the keen-eyed scrutiny of their women.

It really wasn't that different for me, I reflected as I took my seat on the Naked Bus heading north from Auckland to KeriKeri in the Bay of Islands.

Rosa and I had had a somewhat tense trip from the North Shore into the City. I had been so busy sending last-minute missives to friends around the world that I'd lost all track of time. And then somehow I'd misplaced my $5.00 op shop trail running shoes. In a mounting frenzy, I roamed the flat and found them at last behind the bedroom door, hiding beneath one of Rosa's handbags.

"Typical!" I snarled.

So, we were already in a bit of a dither as we crawled forward in Auckland's usual rush hour log-jam towards the Harbour Bridge and the City's skyscrapers shrouded in early morning mist.

The tension increased when we reached our destination by the harbour and could see no sign of a Naked Bus.

"I hope we haven't missed it yet!" I moaned.

Rosa looked even tenser. "Well, that'll be $41.00 down the drain!" she snapped. "You'd better run around the corner and see if it's there."

She thrust an avocado and feta cheese sandwich into my jacket pocket. "Just in case you get hungry," she said.

I heaved my rucksack out of the car and took off at a kind of hunch-backed lurch, burdened by what I came to call "The Beast". Jogging, let alone running, was out of the question. It felt most undignified. I'm quite certain I heard several commuters snigger into their cups of cappuccinos as they made way for this grey-haired, panting Quasimodo.

Turning the corner, I saw a bus with the driver holding a check list. "Keri Keri?" I panted, beads of sweat popping out on my forehead and upper lip. The driver eyed me and my backpack with distaste. "Yep. Just in time, mate."

Thank goodness for New Zealand time-keeping, I thought. With a grunting heave, I slid my rucksack into the cargo well and walked up the steps into the coach, wiping the perspiration from my face, trying in vain to look like a seasoned long-distance walker.

I found a seat towards the rear, sandwiched between a listless and no doubt hungover backpacker and a harassed-looking man with four sons aged 7 to 14. The mum, a tired woman with blonde-streaked hair and aviator sunglasses sat as far from them as she could while still maintaining some contact with her family, arms folded. The man sighed and we exchanged a silent glance of mute solidarity. He must have had as fraught a morning as me, I thought.

My iPhone chirped. "I made it, darling!" I said.

"That's wonderful!" she said and then, "I'm sorry we didn't have a chance to say 'goodbye' properly."

I felt suddenly bereft, for both of us.

"I'm sorry too. I love you very much and I'll call from Kerikeri."

"Whatever you do, Richard, just promise me you'll come back with a book!" she said with vigour.

"Of course," I replied meekly.

And so this modern cavemen left his cave, iPhone in hand, sandwich in pocket and synapses tingling with his mate's final words.

My shoulders sagged.

The engine started and the bus pulled away, heading north.

I lifted my chin and smiled, for the first time in days.


It's Time to Fly

People have been asking, "When are you off, Richard?" "When I'm ready," I reply.

Now I'm ready. It's a new moon, New Zealand's unpredictable weather has settled down (for the moment) and there's a 'Village Gathering' party tonight in Grey Lynn when I can say, "See you on the trail, mon brave" to those I want to.

Monday morning is "I'm Off Day". At this stage, I'm hitch-hiking the six or so hours' drive north to Cape Reinga but whenever I mention it, Rosa gets that look in her eyes which tells me, "Over my dead body!"

Still, she humours me as we drive to the hall where the Village Gathering is being held.

These events happen four times a year. Two good friends and occasional walking companions of mine, Roger Monkton and Johnnie Coombs, organise them. I've only been to one before and I'm looking forward to it because for me, it's pure theatre. 100 or so radicals, alternatives, activists, artists, bohemians and unalloyed eccentrics get together to share food, listen to music and poetry, watch fireworks and generally let their hair down on and off the dance floor. There's a lot of hair and it's had a lot of time to grow. The average age of "gatherers" is about sixty so we're talking serious commitment to the cause.

The evening got off to a wonderful start when Rosa was invited to open the Gathering party by blessing the food. We stood in a big circle around tables laden with nut loaves, veggie "glop" of various hues and the odd forlorn wheel of cheese (no doubt brought by those too anxious or rushed to cook).

I kept a close eye on the cheese wheels (I had no intention of starting my travels with a thunderous series of vegetable-induced gases) as we held hands and connected.

Rosa gave a beautiful blessing: "On the eve of my husband's departure, I'd like us to wish him a safe journey as he walks from the top of NZ to the bottom over the next three months."

Silence. I don't know that many people here but hey, come on, a little "Bravo!" would be nice.

Rosa carried on briskly. "Now to bless the food. Mother Nature, who comes to our table as food, endlessly bountiful benefactor of all, we ask that this food is blessed and filled with peace and harmony."

Her lovely voice was as clear as a bell. Silence descended on the room for a sweet moment. Then the circle broke around the tables, like small waves around rocks. "Ladies first, please!" Johnny called. Abashed, hungry men-folk fell back.

Paper plate in hand at last, it was time to look for someone I didn't know.

I found a lonely figure standing shyly by a doorway: tall, thin, bowed, a mop of white curly hair floating like a downy nimbus around his face and shoulders. I introduced myself with my customary polish. He answered so quietly I had to strain to hear his name.

"What do you do?" I asked next.

He offered a shy smile. "I love birds," he said.

"Feathered ones?" I asked. You never can tell at a Village Gathering party.

"Yes, All feathered birds. I love them."

I collected my thoughts while I nibbled the rind off some supermarket Edam. Decision time: do I stay and talk or do I ever-so-politely brush off this avian-obsessed stranger and find someone else to get to know?

The gentleness of his voice helped me decide to stay. I'm glad I did.

He told me about badminton, which he plays once a week.

"What do you like about it?" I asked.

He closed his eyes for a long pause, then opened them again.

"It opens a doorway into parts of me that are dark and usually closed," he said. "And I bring along my birds in six or seven cages and put them along the court. They like to watch the shuttlecock. It teaches them new ways to fly."

"Wow!" I said. "The other players must love you!"

"They call me 'Bird Man,' he said with a sweet smile.

I could have listened to Bird Man all evening. He was a true poet. Is this what St Francis saw in birds?

"I keep my eyes down when I walk," he explained. "I'm looking for wounded birds. I try to heal them myself but when I can't, I take them to the sanctuary. If they die, it puts a hole in my heart which can only be filled by one that lives."

Yes, the time is right to leave the nest.

And there's a hole in my heart and in Rosa's heart. And we'll fill it with stories and experiences along the trail.

We're ready to walk (or maybe hop). Thank you, Bird Man.

I'm off tomorrow. See you on the trail, mon brave.

"Bye, Mum"

Where would we be without our mums? I don't know about yours but mine is a down-to-earth woman of Finnish descent.

She doesn't talk much. If a conversation goes on for too long, she has a habit of sliding silently out of the room. One moment she's there, the next moment she's not. In our family, we call her "The Grey Ghost."

But when she speaks, you better listen. She can put more punch into a sentence than most. I and many others value her opinion.

I put in my weekly call yesterday on Skype and broke the news.

"Hi, mum. How are you?"

"Oh, fine!" she said, wheezing lightly as she inhaled on a cigarette. She'd given me a smack last year when I suggested she stop smoking.

I told her my plan to walk 3000 kilometres.

She was silent as she puffed again.

"Well," she said thoughtfully. "It could be worse."

I didn't ask how.

"Get Lost"

Running along the beach at Milford on Auckland's North Shore every morning, I see a few older men walking very small dogs. Some of those pooches sport pink collars and some of those collars are studded with diamantine beads. Milford is that type of suburb. Have you noticed how the more "bling" the dog wears, the more stooped, grumpy and hopeless the old chap on the other end of the leash looks? I can't help but imagine that each of those unfortunate (and presumably once powerful) men still has the words, "Get lost!", reverberating through his neural synapses.

You can almost hear the conversation.´

She: "What are you doing today, dear?"

He (grumpy): "Dunno."

She: (lips pursed): "Well, I've got the girls coming round for coffee. Why don't you take Jewel out for a walk on the beach? Do take your time, dear. You know what the doctor said about how good exercise is for your heart."

What's the wife really saying?  "Get lost, dear."

And that's basically what my wife Rosa is saying to me.

The irony is not lost on me. I want to get lost. I like getting lost. Great things can happen when you cast loose the usual moorings of your wretched little existence and try something so off-the-wall it makes you curl your toes in the shower and go, "Aaarrgh! What am I doing!"

However, just because I want to get lost, doesn't mean Rosa should want it as well.

Unfortunately, she does.

And I know why. We've spent far too long on our last audio project, "Step Into Nature's Therapy Room". We're very satisfied with the result but now we need some space.

I heard her talking to her sister on the telephone. "Oh, he'll be fine," she says. "And between you and me, I'm thrilled. I can get on with what I want to do."

Today, she came home from the Takapuna Sunday Markets with a huge bunch of white roses she had bought for herself.

"Because I wanted to," she said.

And, she's painted her toenails.

"Because they look nice," she told me.

I called the shade, 'Get Lost Pink'.

She laughed, "Don't be silly! Let's call it, 'Keep It Fresh!'"

I love this woman and always will. However, it's time for me to get lost and take a long refreshing walk.