At death, Maori say that a person’s wairua (spirit) comes to Cape Reinga (Te Rerenga Wairua) to cast itself off to the Underworld, to Hawaiki, the Other World, the place of origin. The spirits climb down to a pohutukawa tree that clings to the side of a singular outcrop and slip the bonds of this mortal coil. As they fly north, they turn at the Three Kings Islands for one last look back to Aotearoa, to their former lives.
Despite my irreligious nature, my emotions are close to the surface here – these spirits are passing by, over and through me as I walk down toward this Edge of the World. It means that while perhaps not everyone has been here physically, we all pass by here eventually; we are connected always with each other and those who are now leaving us from this place.
It’s also a meeting place, a clash of two oceans – the Pacific and the Tasman Sea – there before us. The savage currents and the divergent colouration of each make manifest an unending battle across their border. The blue of the ocean and the sky encompasses all. This is a place that makes mythologies necessary.
Coming down off the Cape means crossing from the East Coast to the West, and there is a border here to be passed also. A fluorescent orange cap descends the track, that I will be following all day. The landscape has changed – almost immediately – from bush clad hills intersected with small bays and sharp climbs in the East; to long beaches, tumultuous oceans crashing upon them in the West. Sea birds swing about in the air currents above me, and the sun’s heat bounces off the sand. I head along Te Werahi Beach to Cape Maria Van Diemen. The ocean is tall and dangerous, devastating in its power and beauty. I can see the footprints of others, but despite this intersecting I am alone. Others are ahead; Others behind, but it’s not yet the time to connect. We’re out here on our own.
At the end of the beach the landscape changes once more, as beautifully magnificent sand-dunes rise out of the heat mirage. I cross a stream and wash my thermos in it, then tackle the first of the dunes. The going is tough, sweat-inducing and the landscape changes around each corner. The orange-tipped track beacons lead into a landscape that is alternately Arizona and the Sahara. More than once, a turn down a sand-walled corridor leads to a dead-end. In an area that looks like a multi-coloured explosive science experiment, I lose the beacon trail and head down the other side of the sand dunes. Blundering about in the under-growth for the next hour, I can see the discovery of my body – a dry, skeletal, sun-bleached husk. Finally, the realisation that I am walking along a coastal track, so all I need do is find the coast again. Back on-track, I vow not to move from one beacon until the next is visible.
I find my way out onto the final beach of this stretch, drop my pack and walk into the ocean. Just stand in it. Refreshed, I carry along the beach and about half-way along can see the fluorescent orange hat, unmoving at the end. Nearly there. I am at the point of exhaustion but can see no campsite. It nearly breaks me to find that I have another set of steep steps to climb, but once those have been summited, I stand in the superbly named Twilight campsite, situated above the eponymous beach.
This is New Year’s Eve 2018:
Heat, and a chill as the sun goes down. Drying and putting up my tent. Talking with a couple who have 18 more days of hiking before them. Hydrating a dehydrated dinner. An older man taking his new girlfriend on their first adventure together. Playing cards in the dark with a group of Army medics; an Englishman with a green pack and an Australian woman, a new friend. Avoiding bugs. A large group of friends keeping to themselves but making music that drifts over all of us. The stars a pin-pricked dome above us, unaffected by light pollution. Having the way to my tent lighted for me. In bed by 10pm. Sleep, shrouded in silence. Waking at 00:43 hours, the only sound the ocean. Sleep.
And then wakefulness. The sound outside is muffled with the morning dew. The distant crash and rumble of the ocean. The first zip is opened – a sound to love in this campsite perched above a beach, on this new day, in this new year.
Breakfast, pack down. Some have already left the campsite. Into my new world, a downward step on to a new beach. At the top I look to see if I can see any of my confreres ahead of me, but they’ve disappeared into the mist of the morning.
The horizon is variably made of sand and sky, or ocean and sky, or bush and sky. I’m the only one on this beach – that’s not true, but I truly feel it. The only one. The world is at my back, I remember it. Feel it cradling me, pushing me, holding me in its hands. We hold each other in a hug, it feels more equitable that way.
Directly behind, a black and green bush covered cliff face, the Jacob’s ladder staircase. This stands between me and yesterday, between me and this morning. It pains me that this may be my one time here, that everything passed through or passed by is left along a path that disappears behind me. I try to imbibe it, to suck it up into my lungs, to let it course through my system. I want its traces in me, to be inhabited by it.
A couple sit in a car that blocks my way – they make no move to clear a space for me and avoid my eye.
The seabirds are also wary, but I am walking the waterline that they are trying to occupy and they keep shuffling ahead of me, maintaining their distance. They defend the line, but my forces are rolling up their flank with very little effort. It’s a rout, about to turn into a skedaddle. Little bugs scramble out of the way, my footsteps imminent disaster for them.
I’ve been walking 4 days now, clinging to this edge of the country, the very top edge. Edge becomes a stranger when you stare at it too long. I’ve put my feet on it, my claws into it, scrambled up it, over it. It’s under my nails, in my mouth, ears, hair, in my pores. I hear it now and smell it, taste the earth and understand its moods. At the end of the day l take off my boots and pour out the parts of it that have been carried to this new place. Mixing the elements, changing the DNA.
My presence in any place – any moment – is fleeting, impermanent. What kind of bow wave do I create, what kind of wake do l leave behind? I would like to track the people met over these few days, track them forever. I should have done it before I met them, a transponder attached to each to track them like aircraft as we approach our short destiny together. Watch as we maintain a fleeting orbit around each other, trace them as we are projected outward, out of each other’s lives.
It’s enough that we had this short moment together. Some people enter our stage-play as minor supporting actors and compellingly enhance the story. I’m unlikely to see any of them again. I think of every person, every bush, boulder and bug passed, every shell and jellyfish looked at, each river and road crossed. All of it, all of us leaving our trail as we move through the world, as we move through time. Leaving a trail but projecting ourselves on to the next point of intersection. Our wairua cross, make contact, connect. Each of us stamped with an impression of the other.