90 Mile Beach

First Steps

Once I stepped onto the trail at the sign, there was no turning back. I switched on my head torch. It's about ten years' old and the elastic headband has grown a little limp, like its owner. "Things just aren't as taut as they used to be," I thought. Still, I stepped with a certain jaunty bounce down the path to the first beach and onto firm sand. I turned off my head torch there and wondered if George and Derek above me had been gauging my progress.

I love walking at night. It has a dream-like quality in which time and space take on different forms to those in daylight. We did endless night operations in the Army and I've always enjoyed the sense of moving unseen while the rest of the world sleeps.

More by chance than design, I had started at around the turn of a low tide so I had more than enough time to walk the six kilometres or so to the next headland where the track crossed over to 90 Mile Beach.

It felt good to move and good to be on my way. I whistled the "Victory March" from Verdi's opera Aida under my breath as I strode along at a fine military clip. When my shoulders began to ache, I stopped for a breather, a gulp of water and a time check. 11.00 PM: all is well.

After about thirty minutes, I came across a stream pouring out of a salt water lake, rushing down to meet the incoming tide which was now beginning to lick around a forbidding line of blacks extending from a small headland. I took my shoes off and walked around the rocks. Hungry waves tugged at my calves and it was with relief that I found the next small beach and accessible high ground. I suddenly realised just how alone I felt on this remote stretch of coast.

I wasn't sure about the trail now. I took off my pack to reconnoitre a little way up the hillside. My torch revealed footprints, comforting in the darkness, so I returned for my pack and followed them up and over the first of several ridges, tufted with grass tussocks and shrubs.

To my right, the headland's mass loomed, all rock. Behind me, the lighthouse still flashed its warning light. To my left, the moonlight revealed lines of sand dunes stretching to the south, the hollows between in deep shadow. As I climbed, breathing hard, the sound of surf died away. Then came the sound of surf to my front, dim, distant and unmistakeable. 90 Mile Beach!

But how to get to it? The line of footprints had petered out and I cast about for the trail, growing tired and a little flustered, trying one way, and then another, each time retracing my steps. I sensed that the track would be higher up the flank of the headland but increasingly lacked the willpower and strength to find it.

A nippy little wind from the north-west had arisen and I was growing cold, a little disheartened. I'd had more than enough for one day. I fell to my knees, rolled out of my shoulder straps and lay panting on the sand.

After a while I stirred, rummaged in my rucksack and brought out water, stove and the food bag. "Tea!" I muttered to myself. "I need tea!"

While my Trangia stove flared and hissed in the gusty breeze, I scooped out a hollow in the sand behind my pack. Into this I put my thin mattress and then slid into the warmth of my "onesie". An excellent piece of kit, I thought. Having one's arms free in a sleeping bag made a real difference.

By moonlight and touch, I made a cup of tea, drank it, repacked my rucksack and lay down in the sheltering hollow.

Nearly 23 years before, my platoon and I had made a camp exactly like this in the Saudi Arabian desert on our second night after deploying on Operation Desert Storm. Then, it had been bitterly cold and an improbable shower of mixed sleet and rain had soaked us through and through in minutes. I had tucked a poncho around my wet sleeping bag and let the flapping cloth over my face lull me into a fitful sleep.  

Now, a few mosquitos whined half-heartedly around my exposed face but I didn't care. My eyelids drooped. Above me, Orion paced the skies, keeping watch. I thought of Rosa, far to the south.

I slept, cradled between earth and sky.

Stepping Into the Unknown

Reinga Lighthouse

[gallery type="square" columns="4" ids="614,613,616,611,615,612,617,610"] Cape Reinga simply blew me away.

From the earthen-walled car park, you have little idea of what awaits on the far side of the shadowed ten-metre or so tunnel leading to the Cape itself.

Cape Reinga (Te Rerenga Wairu) is a place of deep cultural and spiritual significance to the Maori. It is here that the Tasman Sea (the male sea Te Moana Tapokopoko a Tawhaki) and Pacific Ocean (the female sea TeTai o Whiterela) clash and mingle. At their meeting place, a frothing line of whirlpools stretches out like the wake behind a canoe (waka). This represents the union of male and female and thus, the creation of life.

However, Te Rerenga Wairu also represents the dissolution of life. Kupe, the earliest known Maori voyager, named this place. The Maori believe that after death, their spirits depart from here to their ancestral home of Hawaiki somewhere in the eastern Pacific.

These themes are tastefully and succinctly explained in a series of carved signs so it is with a sense of heightened expectation that you enter the threshold through a tunnel. It is like stepping into a tomb but instead of moving into deeper darkness, you emerge, hushing and blinking, into light and breathtaking natural beauty.

A path curves away around a wind-blown hillside along which the spirits are reputed to move and above a prominent rock on which stands an ancient and twisted non-flowering pohutakawa tree, or kahini. The spirits travel down steps formed by the roots into the underworld and after a time, pass under the sea to the Trinity Islands just visible to the north. From there, they pass on to Hawaiki.

It simply took our breath away. Even Derek was lost for words. Some things just have to be experienced to be understood.

So, we meandered down the path towards the small white lighthouse, talking in hushed tones. I passed the green wooden sign marking the start of my trail and we paused to look along the two beaches and headland at the far end leading to 90 Mile Beach.

Derek recovered his zest and suggested that perhaps he and George could camp down there with me on my first night. The idea came to me in a flash. "I'll be walking all night," I said.

Well, I was here for adventure. Whether it was the influence of this wonderful place or the pent-up tension from a day of travelling, I felt an impatience to be alone and to make a start. Like the spirits, I wanted to go home, in this case into nature. I was ready, in fact more than ready, to start my hero's journey southwards.

At the lighthouse, we took a few photographs. A German mother and daughter wandered down. Mum had come to rescue her daughter from the charms of New Zealand and bring her home. She wanted to be a grandmother and had no intention of being a distant one. The daughter seemed perfectly cheerful about her fate and laughed good-naturedly about the intervention.

We wound our way back up the path and turned to climb the grass-covered hill. At the summit, we found a half-sozzled and very happy young Canadian woman, sipping wine in a deck chair and waiting for her husband to return from the car park with a blanket, protection against the chilly breeze that had sprung up.

George shivered and we walked back to the entrance where we sat in the shelter of a bank to watch the sun dip below the horizon. To the east, a half-moon rose and the first stars appeared.

A perfect night for walking, I thought happily, but first I must eat. The three of us sat by the rest rooms while I boiled water for the first of many pot noodles. Derek was fascinated by my gear. I unpacked it all, enjoying his interest as he pawed through it, uttering brief cries of admiration.

"How I wish we were coming with you!" he cried. "Eh, George? Ah, such adventures we have on ze trail with Richard!"

George looked doubtful but tactfully said nothing.

It was now fully dark. I had made them strong tea with condensed milk (a new treat for Derek: "Deleecious! Just deleecious! he exclaimed, sipping with Gallic appreciation.)

I repacked carefully, filled my water bottles, adjusted shoes and clothing, put my headlamp on my head, ready if I needed it, checked my travel clock. It was almost 10.00 PM. Time to go.

They each gave me a hug and wished me good luck. Derek said, "How I envy you!"

They watched as I re-entered the tunnel.

I tried to think of a suitable intent for this journey. The grass rustled and I thought of spirits travelling with me.

"Let me come home alive," I whispered to myself.

The grass fluttered in the dying evening breeze. Orion the Hunter, my constellation, twinkled brightly towards the east.

I gave a thin whoop and felt it blow back into my face. And so I stepped into the unknown.