“I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
It is my last day on Stewart Island's Northern Circuit trail, where the Tasman Sea, South Pacific and Antarctic oceans meet. The cold wind and lashing rain speak of frozen wastes lying beyond the southern horizon.
It is also my last day of the te ararao, long pathway, which I've followed from the balmy headland of Cape Reinga to here. In four days, I will meet my wife Rosa again after two months' apart. I will see friends, talk with family and live in a city.
The tangled trail matches my feelings on this final day which started well before dawn. After eleven days of walking, I'm weary, my food bag is near-empty and I have a long day before me if I am to reach Oban before the supermarket closes. The weather presses closely on me as if Stewart Island, having laid out all her charms, has now turned nasty.
Gusts of wind tearing through the tree branches overhead disguise the sound of my footsteps enough for me to walk into a small herd of deer and trip over foraging kiwi birds. My head-torch struggles to light the path ahead until a grey dawn illuminates knotted roots, muddy pools and slippery rocks.
At around midday, as the weather eases and the island releases her grip, the rough back-country trail merges with a smooth track that soon leads me to North Arm Hut, a Great Walk hut.
I stop there for my last meal of this long journey: dehydrated mince, mashed potato and vegetables with dried mushroom soup thrown in for taste. Recklessly, I squirt the last dollop of carefully hoarded condensed milk into a mug of coffee. The hut is barren and cold although the wood-fired stove still retains a whisper of warmth. After eating, I wander about taking photographs, thinking about clients I would love to bring here and pondering the return home.
I have mapped out the next few days: playing tourist in Oban, busing to Dunedin and flying to Auckland. I am moving into the unknown again but I have been doing that for months, every day. Returning to a fast-paced city life holds no fears for me if I can keep what I have found in places like Stewart Island.
Back on the trail, moving swiftly over an excellent track and with the fickle sun breaking through swiftly passing clouds, I expect with relish a hot shower, cotton sheets and a feather pillow (after a pub meal washed down with a bottle of wine!) Mentally, I am already leaving Stewart Island behind and gazing forward to new horizons.
Having faced southward for so long it is time to look northward where Auckland sparkles like the principal gem in a diadem gleaming with islands, bays and 53 dormant volcanoes. Deservedly, pollsters rate it as one of the world's most livable urban centres. Walking trails and bike paths lace the suburbs. If you have to live and work in a city, this is a nature lover's dream. It offers the best of both worlds and will make a wonderful launching pad for the walks I want to take people on.
Soon I will emerge from this solitary way of life. It has changed me in ways that are hard to express in words. Does living so close to the natural world transform a person at a cellular level? We are not separate from the web of life but a part of it. Is that invisible molecular connection the reason we feel so good out here?
It is not just about gaining a sense of connection with the world out there. It is also about connecting with yourself.
When you walk through wild places, you become your own best friend. You have to. There is no escape from "you". You rely on yourself, advise yourself, encourage yourself, argue with yourself, beat yourself up, blame yourself and, on a good day, laugh at yourself.
After a few days, you gain the uncanny sense that "you" is observing "you". If you have sat on a lengthy meditation course, you will know what I am talking about.
Through movement, breath and solitude, you harmonise your inner world and become friends with it.
Thoreau got it right. Solitude is the most companionable of companions and the great banisher of loneliness.
Home isn't out there. It's in here.