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.