The South of the North
We were almost there. Or to be exact we were almost somewhat more than halfway there (Bluff), but despite its rather irrelevant kilometer marking (1702.0) reaching the southern terminus of the North Island had a certain finality to it and that finality gave our actions as we reached it a ceremonious air.
After descending the last slopes of the Tararuas, our last true tramping section of the North Island, we enjoyed a jumble of days, roads, and tracks as we neared the South of the North. We walked beaches, beach towns, suburbs, and ridgelines. We checked our fear of heights on the escarpment track (new this year for the TA), discovered the best vegetarian pie, battled knock-you-down winds and stand-you-sideways winds, catalogued the mushroom varieties of New Zealand, and were gifted cucumber and cheese sandwiches (complete with hearts) for a Valentine's Day breakfast we had both forgotten about.
We entered Wellington (New Zealand's capital city set at the southern tip of the North Island) through its beautiful botanical gardens, but as soon as we exited these we were tossed out onto The Terrace and into Wellington's business district in the midst of the 5pm surge for home. A startling shift in perspective for two (somewhat stinky) hikers to be pushed and pulled by crowds of business-suited professionals. But despite our shock at being suddenly so out of place, Wellington had a warm welcome for us. As we walked the sidewalk we discovered that beneath our feet were the occasional bronze plaque, proclaiming this sidewalk a part of our trail, Te Araroa. If this wasn't a friendly enough welcome, almost as soon as we entered the crowd, a speedy bicyclist heading home skidded to a halt beside us.
"You aren't TA walkers are you?" he asked, eyeing our packs and poles. We nodded. He smiled. "Well then! Welcome to Wellington!!" he declared before speeding off on his bike. That was all it took to make us feel at home, and we wandered off to enjoy the sights of Wellington - or more specifically it's special interests (and ours) - good coffee and even better beer.
The North Island taught us quite a few things, some of which were trail lessons, and some of which stretch beyond trail life and into ideas worth taking home. One thing we've learned for certain was how wonderful a thing a trail family can be, and although we knew that due to a variety of circumstances our North Island trail family would soon be splitting up, we all made the effort to walk our last day of the North Island together. On the 15th of February (yes, we are very behind on our blogging) we met with our four favorite tramping companions to log the last kilometers of the North Island - Simon (our Dutch co-conspirator since Christmas), Markus (our favorite German), and Ben and Laura (our American counterparts from Iowa). Together we walked along the Quay, through parks and suburbs, and down to the coast on the southern side of the city.
As we walked we discussed the things we thought we had learned from the North Island, and remembered the best days and the muddiest. Some of these lessons were good for life in general - learning to say "yes" to people and experiences, and to not stick too rigidly to your plan when the happenings on the trail pushed you into a new direction. Others may only be applied to the rest of life in a somewhat more symbolic way than their very visceral meaning while on the trail. Always eat a pie when one is to be had. And the lesson that had been the hardest for Alexa to learn, but that had eventually sunk in - there's always more mud, so just take the straight path and walk right through it.
As we neared the Southern Terminus we started checking our gps's and scanning the road ahead, looking for some obvious sign in the gently curving coastline that we had reached the bottom. Nothing appeared. We walked with eyes to our phones following the little red line that had led us crisscrossing down the North Island and found ourselves standing in a park on the coast, full of children and mothers enjoying the sunny day. We confusedly circled the park, until eventually discovering in its far corner, facing the view onto the Cook Strait, a stone and plaque marking the Southern Terminus. We had made it! Markus, Ben and Laura hurried off for last minute errands and to catch their ferries to the South Island, soon they would be far ahead, but we sat with Simon and like the hiker trash we have all become, enjoyed a cheap bottle of champagne in the sunshine in the middle of a children's park.
As our friends continued their journey South, we enjoyed a few more relaxing days in Wellington, where eventually Alexa's sister, Leslie, joined us. We ate, drank, walked (just a little), went to museums, and finally got to go to see a movie (we've been missing this!). Eventually, once we felt full of culture and non-trail food, we wished the North Island goodbye and got on the ferry to head across Cook Strait to the town of Picton in the South. Leslie was joining us for the first section of our South Island journey and then Alexa's parents would also be meeting us for even more r&r before we continued our hike. We left the North Island on a cloudy, rainy day, just how we knew it best, and looked forward to the challenges and excitement of the more remote South. Still, some people seem to think that the North Island of the TA isn't worth doing - and it's true that it isn't so much a trail in the way we think of one in the U.S. - instead it's a pathway through an island filled with amazing, interesting, generous people, crossing an astounding variety of terrain both beautiful, difficult, and diverse. Minus a few boring or busy road sections, we had enjoyed the North Island immensely and knew it would be missed.
Now...to the South!!