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.