Day 40: Her plane was late to arrive. I sat by the wall with my guitar, playing quietly to myself, sipping a cup of coffee, checking my watch constantly, and watching a large maori family perform a haka for someone’s return from abroad, but time was moving at a glacial pace… When I finally saw her she was wearing the same black hiker dress she wore when I first met her at the Chinese buffet in Virginia, and this time had mismatched socks in a pair of pink new balances. Her pack was small and had a curled up hula hoop tied to the webbing on the side. I saw her before she saw me and smiled involuntarily, a smile that would stay fixed there for hours. I tried to hide it, but it was futile. She looked around for me over the crowd, and when she finally spotted me, she lit up and started briskly walking right towards me. My heart was beating quickly and my tongue was dry. It’s happening. Right now. She’s actually here, thousands of miles away from anywhere either of us had ever been, to embark on an adventure together. We approached each other and stopped briefly to do the awkward sort of hug that 2 people wearing multi-day backpacks do, then made our way out to the bus stop to head back into Auckland to an AirBnB that we had arranged. Right away, I gave her her late christmas gift- a melodica so that we could jam, and as a way to exchange music theory lessons for spanish lessons. Inside the case was a short note I had written saying “for the thousand songs we may sing, just like the Tui”, the endemic NZ bird famous in part for its many complex calls, a bird I had talked about at length with her. She accepted it with great excitement and handed me a gift in return, a journal, wrapped in red patterned cloth, embroidered and festooned with these tiny, mica colored rings of plastic that overlapped like fish scales along the embroidery, the whole thing wound shut with a matching length of thin cordage. As I unwound the line and opened it up, a small stack of pages loosely held together with white twine nearly fell out of the book. The stack contained pages and excerpts cut from other books, authors like Bukowski, Naruda, Borges, and Salinger, annotated in her left-handed cursive, and the sweetest letter I’ve ever received from anyone, which explained the gift (and the tearing out of pages from her favorite books) as a way for her to give me a “small corner of the worlds that (she’s) frequented through the works of others”. Flying halfway around the world, exposing her vulnerability, and giving me the things most precious to her as a gift. I looked back at her in astonishment and began flipping through the rest of the pages: the first letter I sent her, a page from her journal on the AT from when we hiked together, a transcript of her favorite argument from her time in college debate, a list of places she wants to travel next and a few open pages for us to continue that list together, a pop-up card she got in Bangkok, poems from William Carlos Williams and pages from Henry Miller, a list of Do’s and Dont’s from the beginning of her AT journal that she wrote upon the recommendation of some hikers just about to finish and a few blank pages for us to create our own list for this adventure, and a bunch of blank pages in the back for us to document the rest as it happens. I looked back to her again and she smiled nervously. I sighed through my smile, my heart overflowing, picked her up at the waist and spun her round and round and round and she laughed and beamed and we kissed long and held each other close. We got on the bus and walked all the way to the back, sitting in the middle seats with our packs by each window, holding hands and time whizzing right on by. This is real. It’s actually happening. I talked about the savory pies at the gas stations, the different trees and birds we saw as we motored along, about “sweet as”, about the expensive gas and the currency exchange rate, as if I could catch her up on everything I had learned about this place in one breath, but really saying nothing and being intermittently interrupted with smiles that turn into simultaneous and uncontrollable laughter from the purest joy. We arrived at the last bus stop on the route outside the city and the driver asked us where we are going, a nice way of saying that we should have, or should now be getting off the bus. While we were greatly distracted by each other’s company, this was actually our stop and we only walked a couple blocks to get to our AirBnb at the very end of Weymouth. The key lockbox let us in to the sliding glass door of a small single bedroom and bathroom that occupied one half of a new looking corrugated metal garage, a small yard with soft grass and gardens separating it from the owner’s house, the front leading right up to the Patterson Inlet, an arm of Manukau Harbour. Elephant ear, palms, and purple/blue flowers grew in the gardens, house sparrows sang in the trees, and the sun was shining through light clouds. We moved our things into the bedroom with tie dye sheets on the bed, fake wood floors, a small sink built into the counter, dishes in the cabinets, cutlery in the drawers, tea and coffee in a small dish, a walk in shower and small window high up on the wall in the bathroom, and settled right in. We did acroyoga in the yard, an exercise of balance and trust we established when she came to visit me in Moab just before I left, and also the most interesting way I’ve ever met someone, as Barnaby, the owner came out to introduce himself as Xena was balanced sideways on the bottoms of my feet. He was cordial and welcoming and told us about the hotplate in the cabinet we could use to make some dinner. The thought of food had us both rushing to put our shoes on and walk over to the grocery store. Pasta and veggie sauce for dinner tonight- she’s vegetarian and since we’ll be splitting dinners I am too now. We talked about all the things we could do tomorrow in the city, settled on figuring it out in the morning, and we went to bed, still wearing the smiles we had on all day.
Day 41: We slept for a long time, both having had little sleep the night before, and with no where else we needed to be, took advantage of the comfy bed. When we did get up, we took our sweet time getting out, drank tea with breakfast, and caught a train then a bus into downtown Auckland. Our first stop was at the library so she could knock out some work she agreed to do for her boss while travelling, and I spent time on Duolingo practicing my Spanish, as we have agreed to make cenas en español part of our daily ritual. We made another ritual while searching for a place to have lunch: only eat at the ethnic restaurant with the most basic and nondescript name, so we went to Duck BBQ. On the way, Mario, the Italian dude that looked like Prince, stopped on the street to say hey and I almost didn’t notice him because my attention was so focused on being with and listening to her. We talked about being vegetarian and all the reasons it makes a whole lot of sense, how she hadn’t eaten meat since she was a young girl, and that segwayed nicely into learning about her sisters, who are also vegetarian. We talked about family some more on our circuitous walk to the museum, getting lost once or twice along the way. We spent most of our time walking through the museum separately, setting a respectful pace and tone for the trip, that even though we were travelling together, we were each still independent adults and reserved the right to make our own decisions. It also meant that we could spend more time looking at the things that interested us most, and meet up at the end and tell each other all about them, learning more than either of us could have alone. I walked up and down the ornately carved waka (war canoe), and into the giant marae (community center building), saw all the clubs and sharpened paddles and spears the maori used for war, kiwi feather coats, mats and baskets woven with flax, jade necklaces, spent a few minutes looking at maps and reading about the migration paths of the peoples of the Pacific Islands from Polynesia, and even more learning about Waitangi and the history of colonization. The most time I spent in one area was unsurprisingly in the Natural History section, looking at taxidermied birds of every kind, peering into a number of glass topped drawers with dozens and dozens of moths, insects, arachnids, mosses, lichen, and fungi, all labeled and classified, glass cases with shrubs and ferns, fake sharks and fish hanging from the ceiling, and even the elusive Tuatara and Wetas too. There was a 12 ft tall fake Moa, the massive ancient emu-like bird that went extinct in the 1300’s from overhunting, and fake ostriches, emus, and cassowaries next to it for comparison, plus a great bowling ball sized fake egg of the extinct elephant bird of Madagascar. I was impressed with the display about the rock cycle and its many, mostly Jurassic era fossils of ammonites (one of which was 5 feet in diameter), shells, nautilus, and other invertebrates. Xena and I met up again in the Volcano section, where we ooed and ahhed at the amazing transformation of the landscape depicted by a looping video of volcanic eruptions over the last few million years, and laughed at the many ironic, punny, and funny quotes from various volcanologists. As we were being ushered out of the museum, we swung through the Maori Natural History section and briefly read about the lineage of the trees/gods. In the remaining hours of sunlight, we did some acroyoga in the flower garden across the lawn, got some Indian food at the Jewel of Bombay without any other customers in the place, and walked a wide circle to get back to downtown, where we took pictures by the harbor in the moonlight before catching the train and the bus back to Weymouth. We learned so much about each other and about NZ today. Spirits are high and life is good.
Day 42: Fruit and muesli for breakfast, and some looking at maps to find the best spot to hitch out from. By the time we packed up and walked to the exit ramp, it took us less than 5 minutes to get picked up by 2 maori dudes who talked to us about work, weed, kids, and race, admittedly a little hard to understand with their thick accent, but the conversation went on easily. They dropped us off at a BP station along the highway, where we found a perfect spot at the edge of the parking lot where every car that left the gas station had to stop and see us before pulling onto the ramp. We jammed on melodica and guitar and within minutes a lovely woman named Lynn-Marie picked us up, arguably the best hitch we would receive on our entire trip. She works at a University teaching Art and Sustainability, especially with natural materials like natural dyes, paints, fabrics, etc and we talked about all kinds of awesome hippie mumbo jumbo like the world religions conference she has attended in the US and how everyone was so kind to her. She paid it forward to us, offering to take us back to her place for the night, which we graciously accepted. While driving through town, she struck up a conversation with one of her friends through their car windows and gave her friend some money when she realized she had forgotten her wallet at home, despite the friends complaint that she already owes Lynn Marie money, to which Lynn-Marie said “just owe me more!” with a hearty laugh. The small hamlet of Waipu Beach is beautiful, and we got out of the car to see the view of Whangarei Heads and the islands in the distance from the beach, black and red billed gulls flying all around us, kids playing in the sand, and Lynn Marie talking to yet some more friends she saw there. The public restroom had an intricate mural painted on the side of surfers, sailors, maori symbols, and the ultra rare Fairy Tern which nests on the beach here, and Xena and I commented on how we hoped we would get to see it. We drove up to Lynn Marie’s house through gorgeous coastal forest, moss covered tree branches overhanging the road and purple flowers everywhere, talking about how she had studied yoga and meditation in India, done humanitarian work in Papua New Guinea, about how Xena and I met on the Appalachian Trail, and if could see ourselves ever settling down and what that might look like. Arriving at Lynn Marie’s house was like arriving at the perfect melding of both of our answers- something small and easily manageable with a low environmental impact, a decent chunk of mostly unworked land, a half open garage building bigger than the house, but comfortable, homey, accommodating, a place for social gatherings, and breathtaking views. It was a tiny one room shack, a short porch on 2 sides, clotheslines hanging all around it, a small outside kitchen with a gravity fed sink and dish-drying rack in front of a bamboo wall that decoratively concealed the pipes leading up to the spigot, a covered but open toilet and shower, storage container during construction, solar power on the roof for a water boiler and a couple outlets, slightly raised mattress beside a full bookshelf, dishes for 5-6 and food storage under the bed, guitars in the corner, incense and a wood flute on a short wooden table under pictures of friends and family, propane stove and pots and pans in another corner, a couple chairs and a set of outdoor cushions made into a couch. The yard had a massive, recently finished garden along the hill below and above the driveway, with herbs, veggies, and flowers for aesthetics too. The garage was half built with wood scraps and cinder blocks with long windows on 2 of the walls, the other half was a shipping container, a tarped over car parked inside it- the dude doing construction for Lynn Marie has been living here while he’s working, but is out on a long surfing trip right now. We set up by the windows, using the outdoor cushions as a mattress on top of some wood pallets. Down the hill a ways was the composting toilet, dug into a big grassy slope that stretched across most of the 5 or 6 acre property, built so none of the people from the handful of much bigger houses around would have to make eye contact with anyone midpoop. Inside the 3 walled privy was a small metal bucket of crayons and many drawings, poems, initials, and dates on the walls, so I added a whale and “Kia Ora” sometime later when the time was right. Lynn Marie told us that she would be going to a meditation/chant in Waipu town, and when we expressed our interest, she said with a warm smile and a laugh that we must go right then, and we did. I admire Lynn Marie for that, I thought in the car. She’s positive and present, intelligent, an excellent communicator, and works as a professor, and yet her greatest attributes are warmth and kindness. She was motherly and wise, youthful and full of vitality at the same time, and she is older than my parents. We took off our shoes inside the yoga studio, and walked past kids playing in the lobby toward the faint music coming from the back, a room of 12 people including 3 musicians on djembe, classical guitar, and harmonium. We took our seats quietly to the sound of a dude with a long grey ponytail playing harmonics and parallel 5ths on guitar, followed by the sound of the pregnant leader with an eye scar playing diatonic chords on the harmonium, and held down by the gentle sound of a middle aged woman playing djembe with no fills, the same I-vi-IV-V 50’s progression over and over. The pregnant leader with the eye scar chanting sometimes complicated and hard to follow but slow and pretty sounding melodies in Sanskrit, encouraged us to sing along, which I did in the bass harmony, “I am the light of my soul. I am bountiful and beautiful and bliss. I am, I am” and I chose to sit on the floor over the bumpy yoga ball disc seats. At one point we laid on yoga mats with our eyes closed and listened to an improvised melody over E minor chord inversions on solo guitar. At the end, community announcements were made: guitar player talks about a yoga/spiritual nature retreat in Kauaeranga Gorge, outside Thames, the same canyon where I got stung by all those bees, max group size of 50 people, pregnant leader with the eye scar talks about a full moon party, and answers a joke about how someone will only go if there’s a bonfire by looking up the facebook event on her phone, reading the whole page aloud, and realizing that it doesn’t mention a bonfire anywhere but maybe there will be a fireplace inside the house lol, and one woman from the group is looking for a roommate. The stars were beautiful after dinner as we fell asleep.
Day 43: Slow, easy, morning waking up with the sun, muesli for breakfast and hello to Lynn Marie, who is taking her bike to the beach, and we soon followed on foot down the hill, across the lagoon and over the dunes. The water was perfectly cool and calm and we tried standing on each others shoulders, laughing mirthful laughs and splashing around in the waves. Dotterels, red and black billed and black backed gulls, oystercatchers, and even a Fairy Tern and its chicks were all to be seen on the sand. We collected shells and studied them, dug big holes in the sand and watched the water swiftly carve out and fill back in little canyons around it, and talked about how we wanted to scuba dive soon. We walked down the beach into Waipu Beach and stopped at the dairy for ice cream and fried mussels. We saw Lynn Marie twice- sunbathing on the edge of the dunes as we first got to the beach, then again at the cafe across from the dairy. I was dehydrated and brained drained until stopping for some food, and Xena took note to always keep me well watered and fed from then on. We walked back to Lynn Marie’s house on the road, energized from the pit stop, and talked about the people who have had the biggest influence in our lives and how they have helped us when we were at our most desperate. When we got back, we all went to the store to get some ingredients for a communal dinner that Xena and I offered to cook. Lynn Marie went to go visit another friend in town, and we had sweet corn, avocados, tomatoes, onion, garlic, crackers, and salad about ready to serve when she came back. We had a great talk during dinner about indigenous peoples’ rights, about the Maori and what was going on in Standing Rock, and established another ritual of naming all the things we are grateful for each night during dinner or before bed. That evening, she let us borrow her car to drive back to Waipu Beach so that we could hike the coastal trail, which wrapped around the shoreline between the great old trees with branches as thick as the trunks of lesser trees growing on steep banks, and the big grey rocks that lay in, along, and above the splashing moonlit water, tall wild grass and flax growing wherever leftover sunlight could be had. Xena played with her light up hula hoop on a flat grassy hilltop before we went back and crashed hard by the window, catching a few shooting stars before we dozed off.
Day 44: Leftover fruits and veggies, and some acroyoga for breakfast, ice cream and resupply in town then Lynn Marie dropped us off at the Waipu Caves for some spelunking, picking up another French hitchhiker along the way. Goodbyes, hugs and many thanks at the entrance of the caves, we hid our backpacks in a pile of boulders, turned our headlights on, zipped up our extra layers and went into the cave, moving slowly along the wet rocks on the edge of the subterranean stream. We turned a corner into the first fully dark opening in the cave and turned off our headlights. Millions upon millions of glowworms lit up the ceiling like a galaxy full of stars, distinct blue-green glows emanating from the bioluminescent glands of these larvae of the fungus gnat fly, attracting other small flying insects into the mucus droplet covered silken lines hung from the ceiling, drawing them back in when prey has been captured, sucking out the juices and spitting out the hard parts. We waded through waist deep water, ducked under 4 foot ceilings for a hundred yards, climbed up waterfalls, and army crawled through tight cracks, exploring the far reaches of the system. Brilliant stalactites and stalagmites were being formed before our eyes, albeit very slowly, and I was blown away in seeing a few tiny flecks of sediment in a drop of water that came from a stalactite dripping once every 3 minutes, falling onto a stalagmite that was at least 4 feet high. Do the math. Or don’t, it’s an incredible amount of time no matter how much it is. The caverns were much larger for the most part here than at Abbey Caves and we were able to get 1-2 km into a system said to be 7 km long. At the furthest point we reached, Xena took out her light up hula hoop and put on a one of a kind light show. We camped outside the cave that night, doing some more acroyoga and jamming/music theory. Curry for dinner, conversación en español, a loose cow wandering around in the field, and a stunning full moon that we watched as it rose over the hill.