We left the hotel together at 8 in the morning. It was drizzly and windy outside. While we walked from the city center to the start of the track a big rainbow appeared over the Invercargill estuary.The sun started peeping through as the clouds passed. What better weather to have for the finish than the forecast that has followed us all the way down here: fine, with showers. It was beautiful.
We could all feel the big day that passed between RIverton and Invercargill. Feet, knees, legs, backs, each had their respective body parts playing tricks on this final morning. Even though we tried to forget that it was the last day, the body knew. The end is coming. Time to break down.
We made our way along the estuary, now in the sun, now in the rain. After an hour or two we took a break and it was obvious that everyone was tired. It was fairly quiet among the troops. As Marylene and I got up we joked to each other that in 60 years from now, we’d be walking in exactly the same way. Stumble stumble hobble hobble. I encouraged my feet. They had made it 3042km so far, those remaining 23 should work out as well. To the Bluff!
After 11 kilometers of estuary walk the trail came down to the highway. It will be taken off in due time, but not yet in our time. We had 15 kilometers of State Highway One left before the turnoff to the Foveaux Walkway. So from walking besides each other, talking about the trail and things to do in New Zealand in times to come, we now went single file along the margins of the road. I plugged in some music and listened to tunes that have helped me along the road. One tune particularly made me sink deep into my own thoughts: Not With Haste by Mumford and Sons.
It’s been my trail tune ever since the Mangaokewa River Walk around Te Kuiti on the north island, where after being caught in yet another day-long endless downpour we had to find shelter in a shed, soaked and cold to the bone. I got sick and I broke down. I’d had it, I’d had enough. I said I would quit. Serina, Pj and I talked it through for a while. We decided to hitch into the Pureora forest, avoiding 40km of roadwalk, and racing ahead of a major storm that was coming through. And then I would see what I would do. I wanted to get 2 days of sunshine. I wanted to get a view from the Pureora peak. I wanted to find shelter in a hut. I did. As we walked in the morning sun from our shed to the highway, warming our frozen bones, I listened to the song.
“So as we walked through fields of green, was the fairest sun I’d ever seen. And I was broke, I was on my knees. And you said yes as I said please. This ain’t no sham. I am what I am. I leave no time for a cynic’s mind. We will run and scream. You will dance with me. We’ll fulfill our dreams and we’ll be free”
It fitted so well. It turned my head around. I kept going. And now here I was, walking the final 20 kilometer down to Bluff, down to the finish line. It was one of the few occasions on which we hitched, which were all on the north island and due to weather, the post office closing, or getting offered a ride for a few kilometers skipping the walk by a busy highway. Under 80km it was. We haven’t hitched a meter on the south island. As I thought these things through, and thought about the many times we were suffering and nothing but our own pride kept us from sticking our thumbs out, I felt great. An iron will, a great sense of pride for being a TA walker, and leg muscles to the like of a horse had brought us here.
There was a lot of smiles and pads on backs. Good job guys, a bit more! Most of the people driving by stared at us as if we were from some otherwordly human race. Who are those people there, with their backpacks on their backs, walking on their own two feet? One guy honked from a few hundred meters away and gave us a big thumbs up. A few others waved and put their thumbs up. We smiled at each other. They knew what we were doing.
One women driving from Bluff to Invercargill turned her car around and was ready to drive us all out of her way to Bluff. I told her our story, how we walked down from the Cape. We had a good chat, right there on the margin in the highway. “Good on ya! You enjoy the last of your walk!” Oh how I’ll miss those random and spontaneous encounters with Kiwi’s and how I wish I could tell them all that on many a day, they made my day.
Nevertheless, the highway was exhausting. I felt my energy go up and down in boosts parallel to my excitement for the finish. Finally we came to the town of Bluff. PJ and I shouted its name: BLUUUUFFFFFFFF!!!! BLLLUUUUUUUUFFFFFF!!! Sticks waved around in the air. Little dances of joy were made. And by the final DOC sign indicating the start of the Foveaux Walkway to Stirling Point, there was a small photoshoot.
A great wave of energy went through the group as we started walking on the track around the peninsula. A fierce wind was up, and great waves relentlessly crashed onto the rocky shore. It was a fantastic sight, overwhelming. On the viewpoint Patrick and Marylene were leaning into the wind, which was howling at over 100km/h. A few drops fell here and there. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the feel of the elements on my body. Slowly but steady I could see PJ’s emotions welling up too. I was happy to see that after all the trail had touched him too – even though in the last weeks, he simply wanted to get to the end. But now that he was there it didn’t seem so straightforward anymore.
During the final four kilometers I was anxious and nervous. I expected the sign to turn up behind every bend. PJ suggested to go slow, but I couldn’t, the rush going through me was too great. It appeared the same for the others. Suddenly we could see it. An awkward moment followed where we all started reading some informative signs, and talked about whales and penguins. In the end Patrick proclaimed that we had to do it. So we went forward.
As we approached I didn’t know how to give myself an attitude. Happy? Sad? Which one to pick? We walked on to the concrete. We stood in front of the sign, on Stirling Point. We did it.
PJ and Johannes gave a great shout. Patrick came on in silence. Marylène rested her head on the pole. I stood there staring at it. I couldn’t believe my own eyes, couldn’t believe that simple sign pole was there. I stretched out my arm and touched it. I cried. Tears of pure happiness, and of grief, that this journey was over. Pj gave me a hug. Marylène joined in. Patrick joined in. Silently hugging each other we stood there for a while, tears welling up in the group.
Johannes mostly seemed happy, so he let us be emotional about it for a bit and then we all hugged him too. We sat down, looking at the sign. Everyone kept repeating: “We did it. We are here. We did it!” just to keep our heads convinced that we actually did. When we got over the first shock victory pictures around the signpost followed. Most of the time we stood there alone. When we were all done and back with our feet on the ground a bus full of Japanese tourists swept over the place. Beat the tourists and the polar weather coming in. I don’t know how we keep having such splendid timing.
As we were sitting there a woman approached us to congratulate us. “Oh and is that your venison meat?” she asked, pointing at our little picknick. We felt bewildered. Huh? How do you know about that? It turned out she followed our blog, saw us walk into Invercargill the day before and was coincidentally there at the same time. Her friends gave us a ride back into the city after a victory beer in the cafe. Truly, the surprises of the people never end.
After we got back PJ and I both didn’t know what to feel or think next. A few more tears rolled. A great emptiness loomed. And suddenly I thought hey, we’re still going to Stewart Island! At least something to prepare and look forward to. Thank god for the bonus round. Another 10 days of time to come to grasp with the fact that we did it, that this incredible journey has come to its end.
What a way it has been. What an experience it has been. Priceless, undescribable. It has been tough, emotionally and physically, but it has been worth every drop of sweat, every minute of frustration, every painful step. I still can’t believe it is over.
Thank you, Te Araroa, for all you have taught me. Thank you for the things I have seen. You were the first, and you will not, in any case, be the last. May the Wanderlust run wild and free again soon.