James scratched his head and snorted with amusement when he saw me reading with my head comfortably propped against the logs lining a garage wall. He looked a little embarrassed and mumbled something about wishing he'd given me a better place to sleep.
"Hey! It's fine!" I said. "I eat desiccated possums and use logs for a pillow!"
After a hearty fry-up of eggs, toast, tomatoes and coffee while serenaded by snoring teenagers and children, James whizzed me across Whangarei harbour to Marsden Point in his tinny, stopping briefly at a buoy to cast a fishing line overboard. Apparently, everyone else catches fish but him. His partner Izzy laughs about it, his daughter laughs about it and now we laugh about it while he reels the line in, fish-less.
He dropped me on the beach just south of the oil refinery roaring behind the dunes. I splashed ashore, hefted my pack onto my shoulders and turned southwards. As the sound of the outboard motor fading, I realised with a little pang that I had left my walking stick in the boat. "Never mind," I comforted myself. "Bridget admired it and I'm sure she'll use it."
Ten minutes later, James roared ashore again, waving my stick. "Thought you might need it to spear another possum!" he laughed.So, we had two farewells. I like James. I like his partner, I like his daughter and I like his wider family.They're kind. They get nature. They do things their way. I hope to see more of them.
People's kindness and thoughtfulness didn't stop there. Halfway down this long, curving, twenty-kilometre beach, I waded across a small but deep river and entered Ruakaka minutes before a driving rain squall obliterated its streets and even the resigned postal lady shrouded in a bright red jacket. An Indian shopkeeper gave me sanctuary for an hour. To return the favour I bought a loaf of bread, cheese and an onion and made a soggy picnic lunch on the shop steps.
When the rain eased to a cold spatter, I walked on. The swollen clouds lumbered eastward, brooding over Bream Head and obscuring the islands. An occasional stab of lightning flickered down toward some hapless fisherman caught on the bay. The wakes of their boats stood out stark white against the steel grey sea and sky as they ran for shelter.
A lengthy road diversion led me through Whaipu to avoid its deep, swift and dangerous river towards Whaipu Cove. I had a peaceful if breezy sunset supper by the water. Fortified, I decided to tackle the next forested range and get as close to Mangawhai Heads as I could.
Rosa was due to meet me there the next day and I felt impatient to see her. I had promises to keep.
At 9.30 PM, I took a breather after the long climb upward, first on tarmac and then on a four-wheel drive track. Lying in a soft meadow and watching the stars appear in the clear sky that followed the earlier storm front, I all but fell asleep.
Walking on by torchlight, I reached the entrance to the Brynderwyn Track leading to Mangawhai Heads. At around 11.00 PM, I reached a trig point with a bewildering proliferation of signs, markers and half-concealed tracks. I picked one, found several reassuringly large orange poles and followed them through thick pasture-land.
Alas, to no avail. The track and the poles ended at a large "No Trespassing" sign and a gate garlanded with savage barbed wire. I retraced my steps, checked my compass and prowled around the perimeters of the moonlit meadow in an increasingly bad temper. Below me, the orange street lamps of Mangawhai beckoned, tantalisingly close. Above me, Orion the Hunter laughed at my difficulties.
"There's nothing you haven't seen," I thought.
By midnight, I'd had enought. "Sod it," I muttered, "Sod this stupid trail and sod he stupid people who built it!"
I picked a bush with reasonably level ground beneath it, cleared away some sticks and made a nest with my sleeping pad and bag. Bushes make terrific little rooms. You don't need much foliage to deflect dew or light rain showers. In New Zealand, you don't need to think about all sorts of nasty and potentially dangerous creepy-crawlies choosing to make a nest with you. You simply get under cover, draw your sleeping bag up around your ears and go to sleep.
It really is that easy.