The Dutch teen was in a hurry to get a feed, but that didn’t stop him making his old camper’s brakes squeak when he spotted my upraised thumb.
His smile was a little apologetic as he explained that, having come here to the far side of the world, he was not going to Kerikeri to eat the famous oranges nor the fresh snapper; he was going for Macca’s.
He also apologised for his battered, rented van.
“Any ride’s a good ride,” I said.
He was my first, on my way from Paihia in the Bay of Islands up to the tail of the fish, Cape Reinga.
It was January, 2017.
Having left my car in Paihia, the plan was to walk back to it, over a couple of weeks, down the Te Araroa trail from the Cape.
Ride no. 1 dropped me beside the main road at the Kerikeri turnoff, still smiling apologetically.
Fire, water and time
A roughed-up hatchback soon stopped.
The middle-aged driver stuck out his hand as I got in. “I’m Mike. What do you do?”
When I said I was a firefighter, he came back with: “Cool, well I’m a floor sander. Which…”
There was a pause. I waited to see what being a floor sander meant to Mike. “Which has the same number of syllables,” he finished.
He admired my work, he said. “I couldn’t do it; hate fire. I’m always very cautious about turning things off, checking the smoke alarms, escape routes and that… might be because my star sign is associated with fire. Do you know yours?”
I didn’t. “You should look into it – I’d be interested to know how many firefighters are fire. Or water,” he said, thoughtful.
I told him where I was going, and he said I still had a long way to go. “Yeah, I probably won’t get there today. But if not, I will tomorrow.”
“That’s exactly it, mate,” he said. “Everyone’s in such a fucking hurry. Where do they all think they’re going? We’re all going the same place.”
Dropping me off a few kilometres later, he wished me well. “We’ll probably see each other again. That’s how it works, eh.”
The most beautiful harbour
Next was Terry, who, it turned out, was the brother of a guy I used to interview sometimes when I was a journo.
He lived on the Whangaroa harbour, north of Kaeo, and when I said I didn’t know it he said: “No, most people don’t. Yet it’s regarded as one of the most beautiful harbours in New Zealand. Or the world, actually.”
He ran a small B&B and planned to buy a boat and take tourists around his beautiful harbour. Kaeo, he informed me as we passed through it, would soon become the café and art capital of the north, if he had anything to do with it.
“People say I’m mad – I’m always scheming about something,” he said, zipping around corners in his well-travelled little car.
He dropped me at the turn-off to Whangaroa, just before a one-lane bridge, which pointed north; on the other side, I’d be bound to get a ride towards the Cape, he said.
I crossed, feeling as if I was making my way northward with very small steps.
The beach of thirst
A gentle-voiced immigrant from South Africa soon stopped in his white, hard-working ute. “I got out of the corporate world when I met a new partner and we realised we would hardly see each other,” he said, after we’d talked a while.
“Now I’ve got a lawn-mowing business, but I’m essentially retired. It keeps me fit.”
He asked me about family, and I said I had no kids.
He said not to be in too much of a rush; kids were not all they were cracked up to be.
“Like my daughter, she’s grown up now and she doesn’t want a bar of me.”
The move to NZ was partly to blame for the split with her mother, he said. “It doesn’t help when the rand plummets just after you arrive.”
I should take a lot of water with me on Ninety Mile Beach. “I’ve been really thirsty on that beach.”
He took me around the same distance as the other lifts so far, no more than 15 minutes. Inching north, I stood outside the Cooper’s Beach 4 Square with my thumb up.
Leo was a big, dreadlocked roading contractor, who filled most of the cab of a huckery ute.
He was on his way to Whatuwhiwhi, one of many Northland places with extremely resonant names, which I was hearing for the first time. Whatuwhiwhi: like the sound of a small wave, breaking over a clump of shining kelp.
It was beautiful, he said, and still cheap. “You can get a section for 80k.” He had bought a bach a few years ago, and spent most of his free time driving from Whangarei to fix it up. “The kids moan though – no Sky, no WiFi. But I make them come.”
He told me the biggest drawback of roading was getting tested for marijuana use. Contractors had to pass one kind of test, which showed if you were impaired by use in the last eight hours; Leo said that was fair enough. But the big firms made you do another kind, which showed if you’d smoked in the last three weeks; if you had, you got the sack.
Leo said that was against human rights. “We should be allowed to take whatever we want, as long as it doesn’t impair us. Like, I don’t drink, but I could get hammered the night before work, and be useless and unsafe the next day, and no test would show it. But if I smoked weed three weeks ago, and got tested now, I’d be totally straight; but they’d still find a trace, and sack me.”
He went right out of his way to take me to Awanui, just north of Kaitaia, stopping outside the village’s only fish and chip shop. “Have you eaten?”
He insisted on paying for my dinner. When I ordered a piece of hoki, he said: “Have some hapuka too – it’s way better.” And: “What flavour thick-shake you want?”
He checked with the woman behind the counter about the quality of the shakes. “Are they real thick shakes? Do you do them properly?”
As we ate he told me he liked to read. History, mainly, and particularly about an ancient civilisation that used to inhabit what’s now Iraq. “That’s why America wanted to invade,” he said. “Because they have so many secrets about life, technology, civilisation. They had to get control of that secret knowledge.”
But no-one knew. “They only report what they want us to know.”
He read a lot while stoned, he said. “And I have all these insights. Sometimes, so I don’t forget them, I put them up on Facebook. And in the morning I’m like, what does that mean?”
But his Facebook friends had grown to like his late-night wisdom. “I say, bro, I wrote that when I was stoned. You must have been smoking up too, if you got it.”
He left me just outside Awanui, and roared off toward his bach.
I’m not sure where I live
A tired-faced farmer with clear, innocent blue eyes took me a bit further in his beaten-up ute.
Semi-retired, he filled his days labouring for others. Today he had been digging drains. “Otherwise, what would you do with all your spare time?” he asked, shrugging.
He was intrigued about how I came to be hitching around Northland at the age of 42. It seemed strange to him, but there was something about it he liked.
As he dropped me off, at a crossroads called Waiharara in the middle of rolling, empty farmland, he pointed out a house across a nearby paddock.
“That’s me. Well, it’s actually my daughter’s house,” he said.
“My missus and I, we’ve just sort of split up. So I’m not sure where I’m living at the moment.”
I got out, I wished him well and thanked him for the ride. “Nah nah, you too,” he said. “You’re a nice guy.”
Bridie was kind and motherly in her clean, compact green car. She wasn’t sure what to make of my late-evening hitching.
She took me another few minutes north, to Pukenui. It was getting late, she said, and I should think about camping at the campground there.
“If you try hitching a bit further, and someone offers to take you only as far as Te Kao, say no – they’re not very friendly up there.” She pressed her lips together.
Te Kao: Even the name sounded forbidding to me. But I took her counsel with a bit of salt; Bridie seemed to have a bit of history with Te Kao.
I bought some whisky and water in Pukenui, at the last store heading north, then thumbed a ride with Jo, a school teacher. She was only going to the next settlement, Ngataki, in her crumpled white sedan, but it was better than standing around in the gathering dusk.
She was relaxed, capable and cheerful; she loved the north, she loved her job. “Come and stay with us if you get stuck. We’re just down this road.”
She dropped me at the gravelled corner.
The day’s last dog
There were hardly any cars now; I was tossing up between looking for Jo’s house, or curling up in my bivvie bag under a tree, when an expensive-looking black ute slammed to a stop.
A mill worker, who didn’t tell me his name, said it was the bank’s, really.
“My last one got stolen. It was better. But now my payments are smaller.”
He was going to Te Kao. But not only did he belie the shadow of unfriendliness Bridie had cast over his home, he felt sure I’d get a ride from there for the last half hour or so up to the Cape.
He’d spotted a rental car go by as I was getting in, and sped to pass it and get far enough ahead so that I’d have time to thumb it down after he dropped me off.
The mill was good. “Hard work and the pay’s shit, but it’s better than being on the roads.”
He drove hard, fast and well, and dropped me off just beyond Te Kao. “Good luck. Those tourists’ll take you.”
A few minutes after he’d roared off, I saw the bright green rental coming; I raised my thumb. But the tourists just gazed at me and swept by in the gathering gloom, the pale ovals of their faces cool, serene, impassive.
The same went for the next half-dozen cars.
A decrepit dog with the hint of a crazed glint in his eye slunk sideways toward me, balls dangling.
He’d obviously had a tough life, and I wanted to be friendly. But he did look slightly demented. And I didn’t want potential rides thinking I came with a canine.
I chased the lonely dog away.
It was all but dark, and there was no moon yet, and I gave up. I wasn’t getting to the Cape tonight. I knocked on one of Te Kao’s few front doors to ask if I could camp in a paddock.
A tall, muscular man with long hair, movie star looks and wearing only a towel eventually came to the door. He listened with a neutral expression to my situation. “Camp about a ‘k’ down the road – that’s the place that’s been set aside for trampers. You won’t miss it, it’s by the river.”
I tramped along, finding my rhythm on the tar seal. But before I got to the river my last ride arrived.
The last house in New Zealand
Phyllis, a young mum in a tidy four wheel drive, told me she’d take me to the last settlement before the Cape, Waitiki, where there was a campground. “You’ll easily get a ride from there in the morning.”
But first, she said, I’d have to come with her while she picked up some mower blades from her mum – if she could find her. “She’s not home, and not answering her phone.”
The first place we looked was a three-walled shed with a bar, fridges, arm chairs and an outdoor barbecue area. It turned out to be a kind of elaborate person-cave for shepherds from Te Paki station.
“Lucy! Stop being hoha!” bawled one of them at a huge dog, which barked mightily at me when I got out for a look.
“Kia ora bro,” said another shepherd. “Just touring around eh?”
Phyllis’s mum was at a nearby house. She handed over the blades and we were off to Waitiki.
On the way, Phyllis said that in the morning, I’d pass her and her husband’s home, just north of there.
“It’s the first or last house in New Zealand, depending how you look at it.”
She often picked up hitchhikers heading to or from the Cape. “My mum says, when are you going to stop picking up tourists? But I think, if it was me in another country, I’d want to get picked up.
“People think it might be dangerous, with being a woman and that.
“But I don’t think anyone would do anything, not up here.”
There did seem to be something different in the air up here, with the low, scrubby, ocean-hemmed hills rolling by.
She told me the names of each of the iwi-owned stations as we barrelled past their boundaries, invisible in the dark. “That’s the end of Te Paki… this is Paua station…”
The farms had gradually been returned to the five Far North iwi since they negotiated a Treaty settlement, she said.
“It’s all back in our hands now… it wasn’t perfect, but if we didn’t accept the settlement we might have had to wait another hundred years.”
There was one station still owned by a Pākehā family, who had had it since colonial times. They had refused to sell, she said. “Their land goes right down to Ninety Mile Beach and they have a bach there. They like it here too, they want to stay… we get on OK with them.”
It was good having the land back, and with it not just jobs and income, but also mana.
“But some of us still go away for work – my family goes out on oil rigs.” An uncle was on a rig off Singapore. “He likes it – the money’s good.”
She said she liked the idea of the walk, and thought it was good that people came to see the special place where she lived. “But they don’t always respect it. There are caves up there, by the Cape, where people were buried a long time ago. We tell them not to go in there, but we know they do. And we think OK, that’s your problem – if you want to mess around with tapu…”
She dropped me off at the Waitiki campground, and we exchanged names as we shook hands in farewell.
“That was my Gran’s name,” I said. “And you’re the only other Phyllis I’ve ever met.” She smiled, composed and gentle.
I lay down in my bivvy bag under a tree and slept like the journeying dead.
The end, or the beginning
Soon after sun-up a retired Pentecostal pastor who’d stayed nearby in a caravan with his wife came to say hello as I brewed coffee. “We’re going up to the Cape after breakfast,” he said. “We can take you.”
The landscapes rolling by in the early morning sunlight seemed spooky to me: low hills jumbled together at strange angles, covered in crouching, dark scrub.
The tar-seal road wended its way through them like a sophisticated intruder.
Finally, I was there: the start of the trail, the end of the country.
It’s a moving place. It’s sacred for Māori: legend says here is where the spirits of the dead move from this world to the next.
It had been a tricky, long, tiring and piecemeal journey. On the way, standing in hot sun on desolate roadsides while sporadic traffic hammered by and travellers gazed at me with disdain or indifference, I sometimes wished I’d taken a simpler option.
I could have driven to Kaitaia and paid $35 for a seat on a tour bus. I would have been at the lighthouse by yesterday afternoon.
But this way felt right somehow – as if finally reaching the top of your country after 42 years should not be a straightforward task.
As if pre-packaging such a journey, complete with lunch and a worn-out commentary over a bus’s sound system, would not do it justice.
As if you should have to struggle for it, get there bit by bit, by chance.
As if you should pass through the hospitable hands of many drivers, like so many gatekeepers, sharing with them the reasons for your trip over and over, gaining new angles, hearing their stories too, learning what you had in common and what you didn’t.
Also, with the Cape being the beginning of Te Araroa – a 3000-kilometre trek through the length of my country, which might take me a decade – it felt right that it should cost some work and patience to get there, and be contingent on the generosity of strangers. All of those things would be needed to get me to the other end.
When you walk through the gateway between the parking area and the path down to the very tip of the Cape, you break some kind of beam, activating a recording of haunting Māori flutes and chants of welcome, of blessing perhaps, of warning even of the specialness of this place to its custodians.
It moved me to stand just beyond that gate and see, for the first time the furrowed seam where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet. I’d made it to the ends, or beginnings, of my piece of earth.